Exciting Adventures in the English Language and Culture

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Al fresco: a useful summertime word

British summers can be very disappointing, as it has been this year, but when it’s warm enough, sunny and dry, we just love eating and drinking al fresco, that is in the fresh air, be it in a pavement café, a beer garden at a local pub or the privacy of your own back garden or patio.

I had an al fresco lunch with my colleagues in Hyde Park.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

The phrase was adopted from Italian in mid-eighteenth century and has been in use ever since.

Funny enough, in its original Italian al fresco is a slang term meaning ‘in prison’, like the English phrase ‘in the cooler’. So if one day you find yourself in Italy in need of a table outside, to avoid confusion ask for one all’aperto. Unless you speak Italian, of course.

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Bag & Baggage

Image by Toocapic from Pixabay

Bag and baggage means ‘with all one’s possessions’.

Originally a military phrase, it was used to refer to the entire property of an army, including the personal belongings of its soldiers.

And one of the sure signs of a successful military campaign is an army returning from war without any in of its property having fallen into enemy hands.

As time passed, the phrase became useful in describing a much wider variety of departures, though all typically associated with a failure or misfortune of some sort.

When Sally caught her boyfriend using her business bank account to pay his gambling debts, she threw him out bag and baggage.

Now you know!

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Freelancer: from a warrior to a nomadic employee

Image by Dorota Kudyba from Pixabay

What springs to your mind when you hear the word freelance? The usual suspects are likely to be ‘work’ and ‘self-employed’. Quite rightly so, as to freelance means being your own boss when it comes to choosing who to work for and for how long. In other words, unlike others who stick to their jobs for years and years, freelancers move from employer to employer selling their expertise to those who offer the best pay.

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Bully: from sweetheart to tyrant

No doubt, bullying is shameful and bullies are nasty. However, they haven’t always been so. When the word bully made its first appearance in English in the 1530s it meant ‘sweetheart’, ‘lover’.

Image by rebeccadevitt0 from Pixabay

Then, at some point it took on an additional meaning of ‘protector of a prostitute’ and its fate was decided. Over time, the original meaning was forgotten leaving us with the current ‘harasser of the weak’.

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Schmooze

It’s amazing how much meaning can be carried in just one short word. Take schmooze. Deriving from the Yiddish word for ‘to chat’, in English it’s got an extra layer of meaning. Schmoozing often implies not just a friendly chat but one that’s done to gain some advantage for the person who does it and is common at networking events.

An aspiring actress, she spent the entire evening schmoozing with TV producers and film directors.

Someone who’s good at this sort of chatting and practises it a lot can be called a schmoozer.

If you want to make it big in show business, you’ve got to be a schmoozer and a real charmer.

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Beautiful English Words: Part 2

Image by Florian Kurz from Pixabay

Mellifluous is another adjective I love a lot. It’s of Latin origin and literally means ‘flowing with (or as if with) honey’. We use it to talk of voices and music that have a pleasant and flowing sound.

Here’s a couple of examples:

The mother’s mellifluous voice lulled the baby to sleep.

(A tip for novice dog carers) If all else fails, try soothing a stressed dog with the mellifluous sounds of classical music.

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Enfant terrible: more than just an ill-mannered child

Last weekend my husband and I went to the supermarket to do our weekly shopping and witnessed yet another unasked for and very unwelcome performance by a badly-mannered child, whose typical reaction to not getting what he/she wants is to throw tantrums.

Image by gfergu1 from Pixabay

You could call a kid that embarrasses his elders a terrible child, or you could use the French expression enfant terrible /ˌɒnfɒn teˈriːblə/ instead.

When the term first arrived in English in the mid-19th century, it was used to refer to unpredictable children who blurted out outrageous remarks that embarrassed their elders. By the 1930s, an enfant terrible could be anyone – regardless of their age – whose unconventional or shocking behaviour scandalised mainstream society.

Since his debut in the 1970s, he’s been the enfant terrible of British pop music.

These days the phrase is also often applied to young, successful newcomers who shock or scare old-timers with their new approaches, easy successes, or disregard for tradition.

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On the grapevine

On 24 May 1844 Samuel Morse presented his new invention – telegraph – to congressmen. To demonstrate its ability to speedily transmit information over great distances he sent a message from Washington to Baltimore.

The new means of communication met with great enthusiasm and soon telegraph lines criss-crossed the country.

Image by Conny Griebel from Pixabay

Rumour and gossip have been around for much longer than telegraph and like Morse’s invention have an almost magical capacity to spread information briskly, even if not in a straight line and often distorting the truth beyond recognition along the way. So, shortly after the historic demo, the phrase grapevine telegraph was coined. Over time, the word telegraph was dropped, but the grapevine has remained in the language, just like the social phenomenon it describes.

How do you know Sarah’s expecting a baby? – I heard it on the grapevine (i.e. someone, who heard it from someone else, told me).

Interestingly, the Russian equivalent of this phrase also features a 19th-century invention – the radio – as well as the country’s traditional pinafore dress sarafanсарафанное радио.

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Ad lib: two tiny words with a lot of meaning

Ad lib is one of my favourite borrowings, as it says in just two tiny words what English needs a whole sentence to express.

Ad lib (also ad-lib) derives from the Latin ad libitum, meaning ‘to (one’s) pleasure, as much as one likes’, and was originally used to indicate the points within a piece of sheet music or theatrical script where performers could exercise unrestrained freedom of self-expression.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Now we use this phrase as a synonym of the verb improvise, that is to mean ‘to speak or perform in public without preparation’.

I had to ad-lib as I’d forgotten my lines.

He ad-libbed his way through the entire speech.

Ad lib can also act as

  • an adjective: Ann had always been much better at writing than speaking, so when asked to give an ad-lib speech she was completely paralysed with fear.
  • an adverb: He spoke ad lib.
  • and a noun: I’m sorry to say this but your ad-libs sounded anything but spontaneous.
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Pyjamas

What do you wear in bed? Do you sleep in your birthday suit (=naked) or do you prefer to have something on like a nightie (informal word for nightdress), a onesie (an all-in-one item of clothing that covers your body, arms and legs) or pyjamas?

Image by Наталья Данильченко from Pixabay

The word pyjamas derives from the Persian paijama. The original paijama are loose, lightweight trousers with draw-string waistbands worn in Asia by both men and women. In the UK, pyjamas are made up of two pieces – a pair of trousers and a top – and are worn in bed.

For British children, there are lots of pet abbreviations, among them ‘jamas’, ‘p-jays’, ‘jimmy jams’ and ‘jimmies’. They differ between families and whatever word you’re brought up with is correct and the other terms are weird.

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