Exclamations, or Less is more

I’m a strong advocate of the idea that less is more. It’s true for so many things in life including language. Never use two words where you can do with one – that’s an approach I wholeheartedly support. And nowhere else does it find its expression so fully as in exclamations!

An exclamation is a sound, word or short sentence that is charged with emotion. For this reason we use them whenever we need to communicate our feelings in a quick and expressive way.

Exclamations have to be short as emotions often catch us completely unawares and our first reaction is usually immediate and spontaneous.

Image from Pixabay

Let’s have a look at some of such expressions which Britons use a lot in their daily conversation.

Surprise, surprise!

You might have heard this one before as it’s found its way – both translated and untranslated – into Russian.

We use it in two ways:

1) with a great deal of irony or even sarcasm depending on the situation, to say that you expected something to happen or to be true (the actual meaning in this case is ‘unsurprisingly’)

As the number of covid cases surged, the government went back on its word and surprise, surprise reintroduced the restrictions.

2) when suddenly appearing in front of someone who wasn’t expecting to see you

Surprise, surprise! I’m back!

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Vocabulary: How Many Words Do You Need to Know?

In this post I’d like to look at the vocabulary aspect of language learning.

If we liken speech to a house, then words are the bricks and grammar is the binding agent that joins them together. Both are important. However, it is possible – at least in theory – to build a house with bricks only, though it won’t be safe to live in, whereas cement on its own is good for nothing (though here I may not be quite right as I’m not a builder, but you got the idea).

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Now, how many words do you need to know to be able to effectively communicate in a language? Well, let’s first make a distinction between active and passive vocabulary. Passive vocabulary includes those lexical items (words, idioms, collocations etc.) you recognise and understand when you come across them in text or speech. Active vocabulary as you might have already guessed is what you can actually use in your speaking and writing. No prizes for guessing which one is bigger.

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British Christmas: how we celebrate it and vocabulary we use to talk about it

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Christmas is round the corner (=very near in place or time), so let’s see how twenty-first-century Britons celebrate it.

These days the festive season (=the period around Christmas) starts ridiculously early. Christmas-themed shop-window displays make their appearance at the beginning of November, as soon as Halloween is over, or even earlier. Naturally, they go hand in hand (=together) with the arrival of Christmas decorations and posters promoting the idea that it’s time to shop for the main holiday of the year.

Christmas shop-window display at Selfridges in London in 2016
(C) Anastassia Sakharova

Christmas office parties start early too. I remember a few years ago my husband’s employer arranged one in November when it’s cheaper to rent a venue (=place) for the occasion (=event). At my husband’s work Christmas lunch (we’ll talk about it later) is traditionally served in the canteen in the run-up to (=before) the holiday to get the employees in the festive spirit I guess.

Another thing that makes for the Christmas atmosphere is Christmas cards. Despite the advent (=coming) of electronic ones, Britons still send lots and lots of paper ones keeping The Royal Mail (=the British organization which is responsible for collecting and delivering letters and parcels)busy and prosperous. It’s customary to put them on display on the mantelpiece (=a wooden or stone shelf which is the top part of a frame surrounding a fireplace) and other horizontal surfaces or on a piece of string like bunting (=small flags on strings, used to decorate buildings and streets on special occasions).

A Christmas card display

In the UK, Christmas, often shortened to Xmas, has now lost most of its original religious meaning and like other public holidays has been massively commercialized. Christmas Mass (=an important church ceremony)which is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve (24th December) is often attended by those who otherwise don’t go to church as a sort of entertainment rather than in reverence (=great respect and admiration)for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is though much more common to spend Christmas Eve making the last preparations for the day ahead.

Christmas Day (25th December) is not only the most joyous day of the year in the UK, it’s also the quietest as public transport is not running and pretty much everything is shut (though some pubs and restaurants remain open to serve Christmas lunch as well as some small shops whose owners either don’t celebrate Christmas or don’t want to miss the opportunity to make some extra money while all other stores are closed).

Christmas is a family holiday and in my husband’s family it gets really busy when all his siblings (=brothers and sisters)with their spouses (=husbands and wives) and kids get together. It also means an awful lot of cooking for the hostess, though these days you can order your Christmas food online and have it delivered to your door. Starters and puddings usually come ready to eat, mains require (=need) a little bit more work on your side – you need to pop them in the oven before serving.

Typical Christmas lunch (roast meat and veg, sprouts, balls of stuffing and gravy). Image by Lesley Negus from Pixabay

Britons are amazingly conservative when it comes to Christmas lunch. They don’t mind having the same things year after year – beats me (=I can’t understand or explain it)! There’s some variety in starters, but the mains are pretty much invariably the same – roast meat (more often than not turkey, but beef, lamb, pork, venison (=deer meat), and goose are popular alternatives too), vegetables (roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, sprouts (=a small green vegetable like a very small cabbage), peas), stuffing (=the stuff you normally put inside the turkey but often served on the side) and gravy (=a sauce made from the juice that comes from meat as it cooks, mixed with flour and water). You put a bit of everything on your plate but somehow always end up absolutely stuffed (=so full that you can’t eat any more) so the pudding (the most popular one is probably trifle – a cold British sweet dish made of layers of cake, fruit, jelly, custard, and cream) is often left untouched.

Trifle, a popular Christmas pudding

At 3pm on Christmas Day the Queen’s speech is broadcast but having lived in the UK for ten years I haven’t seen anyone watch it once, which I think is a shame.

Christmas stockings waiting to be emptied

26th December is Boxing Day. Originally it was the day when the rich gave gifts (=presents) to the poor. The gifts were packed in boxes, hence the name. These days people still exchange presents (or, informally, pressies) at Christmas, though no one can be bothered to wait till Boxing Day. In my husband’s family the presents are done after Christmas lunch. The kids, however, start ahead of everyone else with their Christmas stockings filled with sweets and little things. Sadly, they are often inundated (=get too many) with presents and don’t seem to have much appreciation (=a feeling of being grateful)for what they get. Adults often choose not to waste money of Christmas presents for several reasons: firstly, these days in the West most people have everything they need and even more and therefore see no practical reason to stick with (=continue) the tradition; secondly, more often than not Christmas presents turn out to be a disappointment rather than a delight and end up either in the bin or a charity shop more or less right away; and last but not least, some people, in accordance with the true spirit of Christmas, prefer to give the money they could otherwise spend on presents to charitable (=relating to giving help to those in need)causes instead.

This is what British Xmas is like in this day and age. Hope you’ve learnt something new from this post. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a joyful and prosperous New Year.

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.

Conscience Vs Consciousness

The words conscience and consciousness can cause a good deal of confusion, due in some measure to the similarities in their spelling and pronunciation, so let’s have a proper look at them.

Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

Conscience /ˈkɒnʃəns/ can mean one of the two things:

the part of your mind that tells you whether what you are doing is morally right or wrong; i.e. we can call it our inner moral compass.

I knew I’d done nothing wrong and so I told him the truth with a clear conscience.

If you’ve done something you shouldn’t and know it, you probably have a guilty or troubled conscience.

Steve’s guilty/troubled conscience made him tell Anna he’d been cheating on her.

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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!

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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Small but Mighty

It’s sometimes said that less is more. That’s definitely the case with interjectionsshort words and phrases that are used to express strong feelings; for this reason David Crystal in his book Making Sense of Grammar calls them emotional noises. And I’d compare them to verbal emoticons.

Image by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay

Let’s have a look at some common interjections that you’ll often hear in conversation and see how they can be as expressive as sentences. And when it comes to situations where an immediate emotional response is required, they become indispensable.

Wow!

as in Wow! Your hair looks gorgeous!

As an expression of surprise and/or admiration, wow has crossed many borders sometimes even pushing their equivalents in local languages out of use as in my native Russia where the good old ух ты! seems to have completely become a thing of the past.

Oh!

This two-letter word has lots of uses:

it comes handy as an expression of, I’d say, mild surprise as in

Jenny and Rob have split up. – Oh, I didn’t realise that.

You can also use it to make a more profound emotional impact as in

Oh, no! My mobile’s been stolen!

The company Jack’s been working for has gone bust and he’s lost his job. – Oh, how awful!

We also use it to fill in short pauses and when answering questions to sound less abrupt.

Can you get some milk, bread… oh, and some eggs too?

Do you know that guy? – Oh, yes, we met at the local gym a couple of months ago.

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Beautiful English Words Part 1

There are certain words in English, as well as the other languages I speak with varying degrees of fluency, that I find absolutely irresistible.

Be it the sound or the meaning, I fall in love with them and, even if it’s not a very commonly used word and I don’t often get a chance to use it myself, my inner linguist rejoices every time I encounter one of my favourites in conversation or writing.

So I thought I’d like to share these beloved lexical gems of mine with you.

Image by Rocapurpura from Pixabay

And the word I’d like to start with is gobsmacked. It’s pronounced /ˈɡɒbsmækt/ and means so surprised or shocked that you can’t speak.

This UK slang word is made up of gob, meaning mouth, and the past participle of the verb smack, meaning hit.

Here’s an example of how it’s used:

I was absolutely gobsmacked when a distant relative I’d never met had left me a fortune.

Hope you like this word as much as I do. And even if you don’t, try to memorise and use it in conversation – that’ll make you sound more native-like.

A murder of crows and other collective nouns for animals

You certainly know that a group of dogs or wolves is called a pack, sheep as well as birds gather in flocks, and when camels get together they form a caravan.

Unlike, for example, my native Russian, the English language has a unique collective noun for an impressive variety of living things (not all of them are commonly used though).

A conspiracy of lemurs. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

You are likely to find many of them surprising, weird or downright hilarious – clearly, vivid imagination was not in shortage in mediaeval times these lexical gems are said to date back to.

And notice how precise some of them are as to highlight the main trait of the animal in question.

Here are my favourite twenty:

  • a sloth or sleuth of bears
  • a gang or obstinacy of buffaloes
  • a murder of crows
  • a parade of elephants
  • a business of ferrets
  • an army of frogs
  • a tower of giraffes
  • a band of gorillas
  • a troop or mob of kangaroos
  • a conspiracy of lemurs
  • a leap of leopards
  • a pride of lions
  • a labor of moles
  • a family of otters
  • a parliament of owls
  • a pandemonium of parrots
  • a prickle of porcupines
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a crash of rhinoceroses
  • a stench of skunks

Aren’t they beautiful?!