Saturday, November 14, 2009

Words and Their Stories: "I Feel Very Blue." From Voice of America.

"Man With Guitar" by Pablo Picasso during his "Blue Period"



Now, the VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories.

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Every people has its own way of saying things, its own special expressions. Many everyday American expressions are based on colors.

Red is a hot color. Americans often use it to express heat. They may say they are red hot about something unfair. When they are red hot they are very angry about something. The small hot tasting peppers found in many Mexican foods are called red hots for their color and their fiery taste. Fast loud music is popular with many people. They may say the music is red hot, especially the kind called Dixieland jazz.

Pink is a lighter kind of red. People sometimes say they are in the pink when they are in good health. The expression was first used in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. It probably comes from the fact that many babies are born with a nice pink color that shows that they are in good health.

Blue is a cool color. The traditional blues music in the United States is the opposite of red hot music. Blues is slow, sad and soulful. Duke Ellington and his orchestra recorded a famous song – Mood Indigo – about the deep blue color, indigo. In the words of the song: “You ain’t been blue till you’ve had that Mood Indigo.” Someone who is blue is very sad.

The color green is natural for trees and grass. But it is an unnatural color for humans. A person who has a sick feeling stomach may say she feels a little green. A passenger on a boat who is feeling very sick from high waves may look very green.

Sometimes a person may be upset because he does not have something as nice as a friend has, like a fast new car. That person may say he is green with envy. Some people are green with envy because a friend has more dollars or greenbacks. Dollars are called greenbacks because that is the color of the back side of the paper money.

The color black is used often in expressions. People describe a day in which everything goes wrong as a black day. The date of a major tragedy is remembered as a black day. A blacklist is illegal now. But at one time, some businesses refused to employ people who were on a blacklist for belonging to unpopular organizations.

In some cases, colors describe a situation. A brown out is an expression for a reduction in electric power. Brown outs happen when there is too much demand for electricity. The electric system is unable to offer all the power needed in an area. Black outs were common during World War Two. Officials would order all lights in a city turned off to make it difficult for enemy planes to find a target in the dark of night.

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I’m Warren Scheer. Listen again next week for another Words and Their Stories program in Special English on the Voice of America.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Words and Their Stories: "Nuts and Bolts"




Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

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Every machine is held together by its nuts and bolts. Without them, the machine would fall apart. That is also true of an organization. Its nuts and bolts are its basic, necessary elements. They are the parts that make the organization work.

In government, industry, diplomacy -- in most anything -- those who understand the nuts and bolts are the most important. Success depends more on them than on almost anyone else.

In government, the president or prime minister may plan and shape programs and policies. But, it takes much more work to get them approved and to make them successful.

There is a mass of detailed work to be done. The nuts and bolts. This is often put into the hands of specialists. The top leaders are always well-known, but not those who work with the nuts and bolts.

This is equally true in the day-to-day operation of Congress. The majority leader of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, together with the chairmen of committees, keep the business of Congress moving.

Behind every Senator and Congressman, however, are assistants. These people do all the detailed work to prepare congressmen to vote wisely on each issue.

In diplomacy, the chief ministers are unquestionably important in negotiations. But there are lesser officials who do the basic work and preparations on the different issues to be negotiated.

A recent book tells of a British prime minister who decided to send an ambassador to Washington to learn if details could be worked out for joint action on an issue. The talks in Washington, the minister said, would be "of nut and bolts." He meant, of course, the talks would concern all the necessary elements to make joint action successful.

In a military operation, strategy decisions are important. But much more time is spent on the nuts and bolts -- generally called logistics -- of how to transport and supply an army. It has been said that Napoleon was successful because he knew the field position of every one of his guns. He gave careful attention to the nuts and bolts of his operations.

The extreme importance of nuts and bolts was expressed by the Elizabethan poet, George Herbert. He wrote:

For want of a nail, the shoe is lost

For want of a shoe, the horse is lost

For want of a horse, the rider is lost.

Benjamin Franklin carried these lines even further. He wrote:

For want of a rider, the battle was lost

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

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This VOA Special English program, WORDS AND THEIR STORIES, was written by Marilyn Christiano. The narrator was Maurice Joyce. I'm Warren Scheer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insect Expressions: "I don't mean to bug you."




Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

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There are many American expressions about insects -- like bees, for example. Bees are known as very hard workers. They always appear to be busy, moving around their homes, or hives. So you might say you were as busy as a bee if you spent your weekend cleaning your house. In fact, you might say your house was a beehive of activity if your whole family was helping you clean. You also might say you made a beeline for something if you went there right away. When we go to see a movie, my friend always makes a beeline for the place where they sell popcorn.

Here is an expression about bees that is not used much any more, but we like it anyway. We think it was first used in the nineteen twenties. If something was the best of its kind, you might say it was the bee's knees. Now, we admit that we do not know how this expression developed. If fact, we do not even know if bees have knees!

If your friend cannot stop talking about something because she thinks it is important, you might say she has a bee in her bonnet. If someone asks you a personal question, you might say "that is none of your beeswax." This means none of your business.

Speaking of personal questions, there is an expression people sometimes use when their children ask, "where do babies come from?" Parents who discuss sex and reproduction say this is talking about the birds and the bees.

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Hornets are bee-like insects that sometimes attack people. It you are really angry, you might say you are mad as a hornet. And if you stir up a hornet's nest, you create trouble or problems.

Butterflies are beautiful insects, but you would not want to have butterflies in your stomach. That means to be nervous about having to do something, like speaking in front of a crowd. You would also not want to have ants in your pants. That is, to be restless and unable to sit still.

Here are some expressions about plain old bugs, another word for insects. If a friend keeps asking you to do something you do not want to do, you might ask him to leave you alone or "stop bugging me." A friend also might tell you again and again to do something. If so, you might say he put a bug in your ear.

If you were reading a book in your warm bed on a cold winter's day, you might say you were snug as a bug in a rug. And, if you wish someone good night, you might say, "sleep tight -- don't let the bed bugs bite."

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This VOA Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust. I'm Barbara Klein. You can find more WORDS AND THEIR STORIES at voaspecialenglish.com.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reduced Forms of Speech, "Wanna", "Gonna", "Gotta"

"Water Lilies" Claude Monet, 1914



AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: reduced forms in spoken American English.

RS: We're talking about forms like whaddaya -- meaning "what do you," as in "whaddaya say?" "Whaddaya Say?" is also the title of a popular teaching book on reduced forms by Nina Weinstein.

AA: She did extensive research on the subject as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and as a teaching fellow at Harvard.

NINA WEINSTEIN: "There were a lot of assumptions. People felt that maybe it was a sort of uneducated kind of speech or maybe it was caused by informality or things like this. So my master's thesis is actually on what causes reduced forms.

"And what I found was speed of speech was statistically significant as a cause for reduced forms, not informality. Though in informal speech we tend to speak more quickly, and so we think it's the informality, but actually it's the speed of speech."

RS: "What do you find? Do you find certain patterns of reductions? Is there a way in which you can almost predict, if you are a speaker of English as a foreign language, that you can almost predict when or how it's going to happen?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Yes, yes -- in fact, you can learn the reduced forms before. There are fifty to seventy common reduced forms that everyone should know from a listening point of view. Sometimes, I think, teachers feel that students will just pick this up. And they do pick up some, but they don't pick up all of them."

AA: "Can you give us a few of the most common reduced forms?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "The three most common reduced forms are wanna, which is the spoken form of 'want to'; gonna, which is the spoken form of 'going to' plus a verb; and hafta, which is the spoken form of 'have to.' And one of these forms will occur about every two minutes."

AA: "On average in a conversation?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Yes, in unscripted spoken English."

AA: "That's amazing. And we're talking about common, everyday speech. And yet I could see maybe some students who are learning English who want to maybe apply for a job or meet with an employer or someone, a professor, and maybe they're afraid that they're going to sound uneducated or that they're too informal. What do you say about that?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Informality -- informality actually is a very, very large part of American English. And as I tell my students, the majority of English is informal, though we do have situations that call for formality. I don't think that students should worry about their own use of the reduced forms because non-native speakers generally don't reach the speed of speech to have reductions. And so their speech will not reduce naturally.

"I don't advise students unnaturally adapting these forms because, as I said, they're a natural flow of spoken English. But what I do suggest that they do is, if they want to sound more natural, regardless of whether it's an interview situation or just in everyday speech, they could adopt the three most common reduced forms in their speech because these are almost like vocabulary items. They're that common.

"As far as the job interview goes, as I said, I don't think students should adopt the fifty to seventy common reduced forms in their own speech. But they need to understand the interviewer, who will be using reduced forms."

RS: "Now beyond these top three, is there a top ten?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "I wouldn't say there's a top ten. If I were to just give you some really common ones, one of the more common question forms would be 'what do you/what are you' changing to whaddaya. You can put that together with want to -- 'what do you want to' would be naturally pronounced as whaddaya wanna: 'Whaddaya wanna do?' 'Whaddaya wanna have?' Of course, we talked about gonna, which is 'going to' plus verb.

"We've got gotta, which is 'have got to': 'I've got to do this.' 'I've got to go there.' I think those are common, but I think the ones that are represented in 'Whaddya Say?' are really the most common. And I can't cut it off at ten, because actually in my research I found three hundred and five reduced forms."

A: Nina Weinstein, the author of "Whaddaya Say? Guided Practice in Relaxed Speech," speaking with us from VOA's Los Angeles bureau.

RS: And we gotta go. That's Wordmaster for this week. To learn more about American English, visit our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster.

AA: And our e-mail address is word@voanews.com. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Pulling a Fast One" from VOA


Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

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Today I will tell about expressions using numbers. Let us start with the number one. Numbers can be tricky. On the one hand, they are simply numbers. On the other hand, they have meanings. I for one use these expressions a lot.

Many people consider themselves number one, the most important person. They are always looking out for number one and taking care of number one. It is as if they are the one and only person on Earth. Some people however, are not so self-centered. My brother is such a person. It is true – no joke. I am not trying to pull a fast one on you.

First, you have to understand that my brother is one in a million. He is such a nice person. All his friends like him. They consider him one of the boys. Recently, my brother had a bad day at the office. It was just one of those days. Nothing went right. So he stopped at a local bar -- a drinking place -- after leaving work. My brother planned to have a glass of beer with his friends -- a quick one – before he went home. But a quick one turned into one or two, and soon those became one too many.

As my brother was leaving, he ordered a last drink -- one for the road. His friends became concerned. One by one, they asked him if he was able to drive home safely.

Now my brother is a wise and calm person. He is at one with himself. He recognizes when he has had too much alcohol to drink. So he accepted an offer for a ride home from a female friend.

At one time in the past, my brother had been in love with this woman. She is a great person -- kind, thoughtful and intelligent -- all good qualities rolled up into one. But sadly their relationship did not work. He always used to say "One of these days, I am going to marry this girl." But that never happened.

For one thing, she did not love him as much as he loved her. It was just one of those things. The situation was regrettable and my brother had to accept it. But even now, he considers her the one that got away.

However, they are still friends. And because my brother had been kind to her, she felt that one good turn deserves another. He was good to her and she wanted to help him in return. So she drove him home.

If my brother had driven home from the bar that night, his number would have been up. Something bad would have happened. Thankfully he made it home safely. And, he and the woman are back to square one. They are back to where they started – being friends.

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This VOA Special English program, WORDS AND THEIR STORIES, was written by Jill Moss. I’m Faith Lapidus.

State Nicknames, Part One


Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

A nickname is a shortened form of a person's name. A nickname can also be a descriptive name for a person, place or thing.

America's fifty states have some of the most historically interesting nicknames.

Alabama is known as the Heart of Dixie because it is in the very middle of a group of states in the Deep South. Dixie itself is a nickname for the American South. It started when Louisiana printed notes with the French word for "ten" on them. "Deece," or D-I-X, led to "Dixie."

Way up north, Alaska is called the Last Frontier for understandable reasons. Near the Arctic Circle, it was the final part of the nation to be explored and settled.

Arizona is the Grand Canyon State because of the famous winding canyon carved by the Colorado River. The southern state of Arkansas is the Land of Opportunity. The state legislature chose this nickname. Arkansas is rich in natural resources and has become a favorite place for older people to retire.

In a popular Spanish book, a fictional island called "California" was filled with gold. Sure enough, plenty of it was discovered in the real California, in eighteen forty-eight. This started a gold rush unlike any other in American history in the Golden State.

You would think Colorado would be known as the Rocky Mountain State. But its nickname is the Centennial State. That is because it became a state in eighteen seventy-six, exactly one hundred years after the nation declared its independence.

Connecticut is called the Nutmeg State after a spice. Connecticut Yankees, as people in this northeast state are called, are known to be smart in business. So smart that it was said they could sell wooden, meaning false, nutmegs to strangers.

Little Delaware is called the First State because it was the first state -- the first to approve the new United States Constitution.

The southern state of Florida likes to tell about its sunny days and fine beaches. So Florida is the Sunshine State. Florida's neighbor to the north grows some of the sweetest fruit in America. So Georgia is the Peach State.

Hawaii, far out in the Pacific Ocean, is the Aloha State. That is the friendly greeting that means both "hello" and "goodbye" in the native Hawaiian language. So, aloha for now. Next week we will tell you about the nicknames of more American states.

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This VOA Special English program was written by Ted Landphair. I'm Barbara Klein. You can find more WORDS AND THEIR STORIES at voaspecialenglish.com.

State Nicknames, Part Two

Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

As we told you last week, every American state has a nickname. Here are some more of them.

Idaho is known as the Gem State. This is not because it has diamonds but because it believes it is the jewel of the western Rocky Mountains. Illinois is the Land of Lincoln. It is named for Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president who led the nation through the Civil War in the eighteen sixties. The Midwestern state of Indiana is called the Hoosier State, but nobody is quite sure why.

One story is that the word was used to mean poor farmers or uneducated people. No wonder the state legislature instead calls Indiana the Crossroads of America. Iowa's nickname, the Hawkeye State, is in honor of Black Hawk, an Indian chief who spent most of his life in neighboring Illinois!

Kansas also has a "hawkish" nickname: the Jayhawk State. Jayhawkers were free-state guerrilla fighters opposed to the pro-slavery fighters in the years before the Civil War.

Kentucky is the Bluegrass State. Bluegrass is really bright green but looks bluish from a distance. Louisiana is the Bayou State. A bayou is a slow-moving stream. Hundreds of them flow through this southern state, and many are full of alligators!

Maine, in the nation's northeast, is the Pine Tree State because it is covered in evergreen woods. And directly across the country, on the Pacific Coast, is the state of Washington. It also has lots of evergreen trees so, not surprisingly, it is the Evergreen State.

The eastern state of Massachusetts is the Bay State. This body of water separates most of the state from famous Cape Cod.

Six state nicknames are taken from native animals. Michigan is the Wolverine State. A wolverine is a small, fierce mammal. The badger is a similar and equally fierce creature and Wisconsin is the Badger State.

Neighboring Minnesota, the Gopher State, is named for a much nicer animal that builds hills and tunnels. However, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes is written on Minnesota's vehicle license plates.

North Dakota gets its nickname, the Flickertail State not from some bird, but from a little squirrel. South Dakota takes its nickname, the Coyote State, from an animal that thinks flickertails are good to eat!

And Oregon, the Beaver State, borrows its nickname from the large, flat-tailed rodent that uses trees to build dams.

Next week, we will tell you about more state nicknames, including one that is about people's feet!

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This VOA Special English program was written by Ted Landphair. I'm Barbara Klein. You can find more WORDS AND THEIR STORIES at voaspecialenglish.com.