Tag Archives: English language

Smashing Thoughts

It is clear from her blog, DutchCorner, that Marja is a brave and passionate woman, especially in her concern for children welfare in general and for those with learning difficulties specifically. She is also a very good promoter of the blogging community, so do go visit and learn about what is happening in her corner. Just to confuse matters, her corner of the world is actually New Zealand. Intrigued? Confused? Drop in on her blog and all will be clear.

Recently, Marja celebrated her 10,000th visitor and she was also given the “Brilliant Weblog Premio 2008” Award. All the denizens of this Realm send their congratulations to Marja on her twin achievements.

On that special occasion, in typically generous fashion, she celebrated by giving out some awards of her own, which is how the Lone Grey Squirrel came to get his grubby paws on the “Smashing Blog” Award. Many thanks, Marja.

This squirrel was mesmerised by the pretty award for most of the day. You might be familiar with this look…….it is the same when a squirrel’s eyes are caught in a car’s headlights. When I was finally able to stop staring at the bright light, I did what comes naturally to inquisitive squirrels; I asked, “What does ‘Smashing’ mean?”

According to the Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary, smashing can either mean 1. crushing (as in, smashing defeat) or 2. extraordinarily impressive (as in, smashing performance). Squirrels are more familiar with the first meaning as in the case of “smashing nuts” to get to the goodies inside but I am hoping that the award refers to the second meaning. Here it is again, this schizophrenic nature of the English language where either the same word can mean completely different things or different and opposite words can mean the same thing.

So we find that when something is good, it is “cool” but it could also be “hot”. It is cool to be driving a hot car but the hot chick can still give you the cold shoulder which just isn’t cool, dude.

I heard this recently and I thought it also illustrates this point well; “How can you tell that you have grown old? You tell you best friend that you are having an affair and he asks who is the caterer.”

Then there is the use of the same or similar word twice to reverse the meaning. Actually this is apparently true of many languages, where a double negative gives a positive. For example, “He would not disagree.” means “He agreed”. A professor of English is said to have given a class on this very topic recently and he said that many languages have this “double negative equals positive rule” but though some languages also have the reverse which is that “double positive equals negative”, that is not the case in the English language. There was silence initially as his students scribbled down their notes but then a voice from the back of the lecture hall said, “Yeah, right!”

Ah, English…….she is always evolving. Isn’t it simply smashing? (and I mean both meanings of the word).

My English Teacher – My Role in Her Breakdown

I am sure we all have our favorite teachers; they are the ones who somehow filled us with wonder and inspiration about learning and help develop our zeal to excel. Well, my English teacher for Form 1 to Form 3, Mrs. K, was not one of those teachers. (Form1 to Form 3 corresponds to ages 12 to 14).

Instead, I felt that she understood teaching and English in a very narrow context and did not at all encourage her students to wander far from what she perceived as the official playing field. This was particularly the case when it came to creative composition or essay writing. For me and two others, which she would refer to as the Brat Pack, creative composition was an opportunity to be, well, “creative”. This was, to Mrs. K, out of bounds.

My two other Brat Pack members were James and Charles. James was a quiet individual, what the girls might call the dark and brooding type. He liked to play the misunderstood teenager but he also had a sharp wit that sometimes came across well in his writing. Charles was an anarchist at heart and loved roughing it up with authority figures like Mrs. K. I completed the trio. At that time, I was reading books and novels somewhat ahead of most of my classmates and my mind was roiling with new ideas and concepts that I did not learn from school. In retrospect, I know now that I was still a dumb kid but at that time, I thought I was smart. Also by this time, my Hippie tendencies were already manifesting and I tended to spiritualise things and to make everything into a search for inner peace.

Well, to Mrs. K, we were pretty much the unholy Trio. Creative composition would be the weapon of choice and our classroom was to be the battlefield. She just did not like the style of our writings. I was always too metaphysical for her taste. James was always too dark and Charles just too weird. She would often single the three of us out and we would be made to stand in front of the class. She would tell everyone that we had submitted the worst compositions from the previous assignments and we would be forced to read our compositions to the class. It was her way of teaching the class what was unacceptable composition and was meant to be a form of punishment by embarrassment to us.

In this aspect though, it was a complete failure. I was quite shameless and did not at all mind reading in front of the class. Charles reveled in the opportunity to demonstrate his defiance of authority openly. James just became darker.

I remember one composition assignment was to write an essay about “The Building”. Mrs. K instructed us to describe the building, its building materials and its function. It was to be a descriptive composition.

I decided to write about a young boy who liked to slip up to the roof of his apartment building to catch the sun-rise and at the same time feel at ease with the sounds and smells of the market stalls setting up in the street below. As you can see, very much in line with my “seeking the inner peace” phase. I did describe the building and its surroundings but only in the context of how it affected the emotions of the boy. (Mrs. K’s Verdict : Out of context. Essay was supposed to be about the building and not about a boy or the nearby market and what’s with all this touchy-feel-y stuff. Do you need to see a counselor?).

James wrote about an incident in the building, a suicide attempt, and how the occupants of the building reacted while the ambulance staff prepared to take the victim away. (Mrs. K’s verdict: Out of context. It should be about the building, not about its occupants. And why a suicide attempt? Why are you so dark? I am making an appointment for you to see the counselor.)

Charles wrote about how the building’s location near the path of a political rally was ideal for the local traid gang to use as a base to try to carry out the assassination of a local politician. However, the police found out and sent in some special police commandos but their presence was accidentally revealed and that resulted in a running gun battle between the crooks who were trying to escape and the police. As the fight raged along the stairwell, numerous building residents and a number of sub-plots get caught in the crossfire. (Mrs. K’s Verdict: What?!?!?! I am not even going to bother with the counselor. You watch too much TV and are beyond hope!)

At the end of Form 3, we had to sit for a major national school examination. In those days it was called the LCE or Lower Cambridge Exam. There were two English papers that we were required to take. Mrs. K boldly predicted that none of the Brat Pack would score a distinction(highest category) in either English paper. In fact she predicted that we would barely pass. Something even possessed her to say in front of the whole class that she would eat her own shoes if any of us scored a distinction in English.

As it turned out, the three of us were the only students in that class to score distinctions in both the English papers. Ecstasy! Vindication! Jubilation! None of us ever really went up to her and challenged her about eating her shoes and she never raised that subject. In fact, she positively avoided us the rest of our days in that school.

And that is my story about my English Teacher and my role in her Breakdown.

We Da Men

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” so goes that famous saying. I often warn my wife to beware of taking advice from some obscure website with regards to health issues as often these websites take a little kernel of knowledge and turn it into a big bag of pop-corn emptiness.

My mother-in-law once had a severe headache but the only medication she could find was a time-release medicine capsule. She understood that the capsule consists of tiny little spheres which dissolve at different rates so that the medication is released gradually over 24 hours. However she wanted quick relief and so she rather “cleverly” crushed the capsule into fine powder and then mixed it in water to drink. Of course, she virtually over-dosed but luckily she woke up 12 hours later groggy but fine. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Or it might be darn embarrassing.

Before I continue, I must introduce you to my partner in shame. His name is Magdy and we were both bright, smart, whipper-snappers at University together. Our combined “little knowledge” would get us into some pretty dumb situations.

Well, perhaps one of the most memorable caper was when we were traveling in Germany and we needed to go to find a latrine at a train station. Our problem was that we did not speak much German at the time. The latrines were labeled “Herren” and “Damen” but which was for males and which for females?

I wonder, dear readers, which would you have chosen for men and which for women and why. As for Magdy and I, we put on our thinking caps and came up with this folly;

1. Assumption: most European languages were derived from and based on ancient Latin.
2. Assumption: we should be able to recognise the root word in either English or German. Just as “rat” is “ratte” and cat is “katze” and “Monday” is “Montag”.
3. Therefore,we applied this logic and came up with Herren is for females as it has the root word “Her
4. While “Damen” was obviously for men as it is clearly derived from “Da Men“.

Hence this embarrassing story in which my intellectual dignity was only rescued by the presence of mind to ask Magdy to test out our theory first!

My apologies to mago and any German reader for the mess we made with your language. Who are we? We da men.

Barter Trade

PhotoCredit:- Kate by LGS

The train journey out of Yugoslavia was interesting in its own right even though it lacked the drama of my train journey into that country just a few days earlier. As I boarded the train at the Zagreb station at eleven at night, I had used up almost all my local currency earlier. I was quite hungry as I had not eaten since morning but with the last of my local currency I bought a bottle of water as I decided thirst was even harder to ignore than hunger pangs.

When finally the train pulled out of the station on its way to Austria, I found myself alone with an attractive Aussie backpacker in the train compartment. Strange as it may seem, I was however, more distracted by the sight and smell of the doner kebab that she was eating. We exchanged pleasantries and I learned that her name was Kate. After a short conversation during which she had made no offer of sharing the doner kebab with me, I decided to excuse myself and to try to put the gnawing hunger out of my mind by catching some shut-eye. Not an easy task as visions of food danced before me.

Not long after, a uniformed soldier with a rifle came into the compartment and sat next to me. As I did not have a pleasant experience with soldiers on my way into Yugoslavia, you will forgive me if I was a little alarmed at his presence. However, he seemed friendly enough, flashing a smile at both Kate and I. He had stored his kit bag away so it seemed he would be our companion for the journey.

He said something to Kate in what must have been Serbian. Kate just shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she didn’t understand and went back to her book that she was reading. The soldier tried a few times but got nowhere with Kate.

The compartment settled down to some quiet with only the sound of the train on the tracks and the passing wind to be heard. I was actually about to nod off when suddenly I felt the soldier prodding me. I open my eyes to see a smiling face but I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.

He said something to me in Serbian. I shrugged. He pointed at my backpack. I followed his gaze and realised that he was pointing at a little white book that I had in my backpack’s side pocket. It was in fact a small travelers’ phase book for the Balkans which had English, Serbian and Italian phrases alongside one another.

I took it out of the pocket and showed it to him. He was delighted. His eyes lit up as he opened the book. He scrutinised it for awhile and then he pointed to the book.
I looked and his finger was showing me the phrase, “Hello. My name is…” and then he said “Josef”. Okay, I got the idea and so using the phrase book, we had the rudimentary tool for communication, although we were stuck with phrases like “where are you going?”, “where did you come from?” and such. We seemed to have made a connection.

This went on until, he found the phrase “this is home-made”. He took out a bottle from his kit bag opened it and offered it to me. “Slivovitz”, he pointed out in the book which in the English translation read, “plum brandy”. At his insistence, I took a swig from the bottle. How should I describe it? Liquid fire comes close. It did have a kick and I felt instantly warmed from the inside.

He then produced an apple and gave it to me. I was overwhelmed by his friendliness and generosity. As I bit into the apple, he reached over and took the phrase book. He looked something up and then he went over and sat next to Kate and showed her some phrase. Kate nodded in response. Then they both got up and made their way out of the compartment. As she walked past, she winked at me and mischievously said, “He’s invited me out for a smoke. Don’t wait up for us though.”

Then, suddenly I was alone in the compartment. As I finished off my apple, I suddenly realised that the soldier was a real smooth operator and that he had been after the phrase book all the time so that he could make a move on Kate. I felt used. Still, I reasoned, I was hungry now I am fed and besides, I had a bottle of liquid fire to dull the sense of humiliation. I wouldn’t see either of them again for at least a couple of hours and when I did, they were both positively giggly. I did get my phrase book back eventually but it had become dog-eared from recent use.

Post-script:- After we ditched the soldier at the border, Kate and I got to know each other better and we were to spend the next few days as traveling companions in Vienna, Austria.

A "Cloak and Dapper" Tale

I had to sit for an English proficiency exam before going to the UK to study. This was way back when I could still do something dumb and get away with saying, “So what did you expect! I’m just an irresponsible teenager!” Ah, the good old days with a built in excuse! Oh, how I miss them. Ah, but I digress as usual.

My command of English was fairly good so I was not very worried about this exam but as I sat through the preliminary briefing I was feeling a little intimidated that the examiner kept making the point that we would be tested on our ability to listen to and comprehend a native English-speaker. As he mentioned it for the umpteenth time, I could feel a knot in my stomach and my stomach is never wrong. Nevertheless, the initial section of essays and questions went well.

Finally we got to section B. In this section, the exam candidates had to listen to a 15 minute recording of a lecture and then answer questions about what we had heard. At first it sounded like gibberish. Perhaps it was the wrong tape or the tape player was going at the wrong speed. It seemed unintelligible. Then the horrific truth began to dawn. The native English speaker we were listening to had an incredibly broad and rich Scottish accent. Whatever it was, it was not the Queen’s English. I got through but I learnt then that there were many forms of English.

Eventually I ended up at the University of London in Chelsea College. It was a good place to study ….. friendly and very accommodating to foreign students; we really felt quite at home, one of the lads. I learnt a lot during my time there.

One thing I learnt was that the English had many euphemisms for the toilet. When I first arrived, I found that airports and other transportation hubs preferred to call it the WC which is short for water closet. The common folk may refer to it as the loo, the lav, the john (some say it was named in honor of the not-so-popular King John from the legends of Robin Hood) or the privy (presumably a place of privacy to do the deed). As you rise in society, you may encounter the “throne room” which implies a certain level of decorum that really doesn’t exist. Polite society may call it the “gents” or the restroom. I became familiar with all of these but there was one more term that I would become exposed to, only in my final year at University.

It began with the students given the responsibility to plan the Christmas dinner and dance for the Department. Everyone was given different responsibilities and I ended up being in the group in charge of physical arrangements. We were having the party at the cafeteria of one of the smaller buildings. My team had to clean the place and put up the decorations. We spent a good part of the day doing it.

At about 4 in the afternoon, our faculty Dean came by to wish us luck with our preparations. He enthused as we showed him around our decorations and arrangements for the hall. He complimented our work and he stressed that the evening was very important as he had invited the Dean of the prestigious college X (name is changed to protect me from hate mail) and his wife for the party and he wanted to make a good impression. We assured him that we would be on our best behaviour to make him proud. He was about to leave when suddenly, he asked us “Where is the room for the coats and cloaks?” As it happened, all six of us on physical detail were all foreign students and had totally overlooked the fact that it being winter, the guests would arrive with coats and cloaks and would need to deposit said items in a secure location before joining the party.

The Dean repeated, “You’ll have to have a room to put the coats and cloaks.” We considered the dilemma for a moment. The truth was there were no rooms available for that use. After some discussion, we told the Dean that the best thing we could do was to get a couple of large tables, place them in a small enclosed alcove near the entrance. The coats and cloaks could be placed neatly there and we would place the registration table in front of that basically securing the area. As the registration table would be manned at all times, the coats and cloaks would be safe. Satisfied with this arrangement, the Dean bid us good fortune and left us to our final preparations.

The party was supposed to start at 7.30 pm. By 7.OO everything looked wonderful and the food which was being brought in by our colleagues on the food and beverage committee smelt delicious. At this point, the place was still fairly empty as it was still early. As fortune would have it, the first two selected by ballot to man the registration table was myself and my good friend Hardeep Singh, both of us non-native English speakers!

Around 7.15 pm, a handful of people had started to drift in. After registering with us, we took their coats and cloaks, placed those on the table behind us and they were free to enter the hall for music and food. Hardeep and I were in a jolly mood as we had already imbibed on some of the good beer available.

Through the glass doors, we could see our Dean with his VIP guests. They were walking about at the front of the building. He was probably taking them around for a little tour. Before long though, the visiting Dean’s wife left her husband and our Dean, who were talking animatedly about some plaque on the wall, and started through the glass doors, right towards our table.

I was intimidated by the sight of her and I think so was Hardeep. She walked with a certain posture and grace which coupled with her elegant evening gown alerted us both that we were about to be in the presence of breeding and aristocracy; something neither of us had any experience of before this. We both stood up in anticipation.

She glided across the floor to our table and in the very purest of blue-blood accents asked, “Do you have a cloakroom?” We were probably standing there with our mouths gaping, blinded by her glittering diamonds and awestruck by the her fur coat draped around her shoulders. She repeated, “Can you show me to the ladies cloakroom?”

Hardeep, bless him, recovered first and managed to blurt out, “I’m sorry madam but we have no ladies cloakroom.”

At that, she seemed to recoil physically but she persisted, “No. You don’t understand. You must have a ladies cloakroom.”

Hardeep was on a roll. “No, madam. You don’t understand. We forgot all about a ladies cloakroom. But do not worry. Please just deposit it on this table and I guarantee that my partner and I will watch over it …..all night!”

At this stage, my ladyship’s face had turned from red to green and finally pale. I had listened to this exchange in silence but now my brain had finally caught up with real life time. Without a word, I gently took the almost catatonic woman by the elbow and led her down the corridor to the “ladies” and slowly and deliberately said, “The Ladies’ Cloakroom, madam.”

She entered the room in silence but with relief written all over her face. I was grinning from ear to ear as I sauntered back to Hardeep who looked at me inquisitively as he still was unclear about what had just happened.

“Hardeep,” I said, “She needed to go to the ladies and you asked her to deposit it on the table.”

“And we’d watch over it all night” he continued. Then we both burst out laughing and we laughed until we cried tears.

Moral of the story:- Don’t trust your VIP guests to non-native English speakers.