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Opening a can of worms
05-06-2017

Worms are those little animals with no legs or arms, which I remember using as bait when my father took me fishing. I would not touch them, of course! They look disgusting! When we want to talk about a situation that brings out many other problems, we say it’s like opening a can of worms. […]

Opening a can of worms

by Barbara Duarte

Worms are those little animals with no legs or arms, which I remember using as bait when my father took me fishing. I would not touch them, of course! They look disgusting!

When we want to talk about a situation that brings out many other problems, we say it’s like opening a can of worms. Everything is fine and contained in that can, but when you open it, the worms get out and it’s very hard to put them back inside.

However, there are some positive ways to talk about worms. Bookworms can be those small insects which eat the pages of books, or, someone who reads them voraciously! As a book lover myself, I think the word is not an insult, but if you don’t like reading… You may think it is.

In fact, calling someone a “worm” is considering an insult; it’s a synonym for a person who is widely disliked. “Worm” is also what we call a computer program that invades computers or networks and causes a lot of headache. And finally, there’s the earworm, that catchy song that stays in your head for a long time and it’s impossible to stop thinking about!

So, even though worms are not bad creatures, we seem to relate them to very negative thoughts. It’s funny how we use things which makes us disgusted to talk about things which makes us uncomfortable!

Tags: idioms /


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When furniture becomes verb
24-05-2017

You probably have been through a situation where you had to “put the cards on the table”, or, “come clean about a situation”. A table is a good place to have a meeting and discuss serious issues, too. But did you know you can use “table” as a verb? Americans say you can “table” a proposal when […]

When furniture becomes verb

by Barbara Duarte

You probably have been through a situation where you had to “put the cards on the table”, or, “come clean about a situation”. A table is a good place to have a meeting and discuss serious issues, too. But did you know you can use “table” as a verb? Americans say you can “table” a proposal when you want to discuss it later, and postpone a decision. This may cause a lot of confusion if the negotiations involve British people, because, for them, “to table” a proposal means “to present it for negotiation at a meeting”!

There are also other pieces of furniture that can be used as verbs. You can chair a meeting, or, in other words, to preside it. You can also bench a player, or, in other words, send them to sit on a bench and not play the match.

You might try your luck when you look up names of pieces of furniture in the dictionary. You’ll be surprised with how many of them have become verbs!

Tags: vocabulary /


About Barbara Duarte


When in Rome (part 2)
04-08-2016

Latin is widely used in legal jargon all over the world. It’s not different in the USA. Some of the expressions have gone into mainstream culture. Latin expressions can be used to refer to academic life — when talking about former students, or Alumni; or the University you went to, your Alma Mater. It is […]

When in Rome (part 2)

by Barbara Duarte

Latin is widely used in legal jargon all over the world. It’s not different in the USA. Some of the expressions have gone into mainstream culture.

Latin expressions can be used to refer to academic life — when talking about former students, or Alumni; or the University you went to, your Alma Mater. It is very common for Lawyers to do some work “pro bono”, as in, to defend a cause with no expectation of pay. In popular culture, it is used to say you would do something for free. The US Navy’s famous motto, which is tattooed on many US Marines around the world, “Semper fi” comes from the Latin “Semper fidelis”, or “always faithful”.  If you have good faith, you can be called a “bonafide” person, even if you choose to use an “alias” (a name different from your official one).

As you can see, Latin has a big place in American society. Some expressions have become so widely used, people may even forget they came from Ancient Rome. See more of them here.

 

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The die is cast
01-08-2016

Suetonious warned Julius Caesar after he crossed the Rubicon, “The die is cast!” (alea iacta est!). The word “die” in this case means dice. These powerful events gave way to many expressions about dramatic decisions and facts that cannot be changed. There are other ways to say that, and some are very funny, like “The cat’s […]

The die is cast

by Barbara Duarte

Suetonious warned Julius Caesar after he crossed the Rubicon, “The die is cast!” (alea iacta est!). The word “die” in this case means dice. These powerful events gave way to many expressions about dramatic decisions and facts that cannot be changed.

There are other ways to say that, and some are very funny, like “The cat’s out of the bag“, or, to reveal secrets, and “You can’t unring the bell“, meaning it is difficult to forget some information once you know it, specifically regarding members of the jury in trials. When the situation gets out of control, on the other hand, you can say you’ve “opened a can of worms“. When it is uncertain, but possibly is going to turn out badly, it’s “touch-and-go“. And finally, when we say “can’t put the genie back in the bottle“, we mean that we can’t try to revert a situation when it has been made public.

When you hear these expressions in movies or TV shows, particularly the ones about politics and crime, you’ll know what they mean!

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When in Rome (part 1)
28-07-2016

America loves Ancient Rome. You can see them in their country symbols — the eagle — and in the architecture of the nation’s capital. But there are other examples of the connections between Rome and the USA. One of my favorite examples comes from the expression “to cross the Delaware”. By Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 […]

When in Rome (part 1)

by Barbara Duarte

America loves Ancient Rome. You can see them in their country symbols — the eagle — and in the architecture of the nation’s capital. But there are other examples of the connections between Rome and the USA. One of my favorite examples comes from the expression “to cross the Delaware”.

Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) - Washington Crossing the Delaware - Google Art Project.jpg
By Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) – Washington Crossing the Delaware – Google Art Project

 

 

In this painting, you can see General Washington during the War of Independence crossing the frozen waters of the Delaware river. Even though it doesn’t show a victory in battle, it has become a very strong portrait of a national hero. Why was this scene chosen and not a battlefield? The crossing of the river was only the start of a military campaign that meant to surprise the Hessians in New Jersey, after the Americans had been defeated there. It was a gamble, and even though they were victorious, it wasn’t a significant achievement. However, there is something about “crossing a river” that means a lot to the imagination of the military.

The expression “to cross the Delaware” comes up now and again in political campaigns, but a more famous river crossing is probably “to cross the Rubicon”. Julius Caesar did it in 49 BC, and it was the first step to the regime change in Rome. In fact, “to cross the Rubicon” nowadays refers to drastic, deliberate, irrevocable decisions that show commitment to a course of action. Crossing the Rubicon was an act of defiance that changed the world, and we can see why the American Revolution took a page from Julius Caesar’s book.

 

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Has the cat got your tongue?
23-05-2016

After writing about “dog days”, I started thinking, are there “cat days”? Well, there aren’t, but there are many expressions involving “cats”. We have some which are similar to the ones we have in Portuguese, for example: “all cats are gray by night”, or “has the cat got your tongue?”. Others are just a little […]

Has the cat got your tongue?

by Barbara Duarte

After writing about “dog days”, I started thinking, are there “cat days”? Well, there aren’t, but there are many expressions involving “cats”.

We have some which are similar to the ones we have in Portuguese, for example: “all cats are gray by night”, or “has the cat got your tongue?”. Others are just a little bit different: in English, cats have nine lives!

To say something is great, you can say it’s “the cat’s meow” or “the cat’s pajamas” – although these are probably a little out of fashion. Still, “a cat” can be another word for “dude, guy”, and it usually describes someone “cool”. Moreover, someone ostentatiously rich can be called  “fat cat”.

Some classic ones are “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” – when the authority figure is away, people will act as they please; “look what the cat dragged in” to show surprise at someone who has arrived.

Are you curious about the number of expressions related to “cat”? Be careful, “curiosity killed the cat!”

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A grain of salt
21-04-2016

Nowadays, salt has been made a villain by health specialists. Indeed, too much salt can be bad for your health, but the word has been part of our lives for millennia. For example, the origin of the word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt”. Roman soldiers were paid the equivalent of a certain […]

A grain of salt

by Barbara Duarte

Nowadays, salt has been made a villain by health specialists. Indeed, too much salt can be bad for your health, but the word has been part of our lives for millennia.

For example, the origin of the word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt”. Roman soldiers were paid the equivalent of a certain portion of salt, a very valuable commodity in Ancient times. A good soldier is “worth his salt,” or the investment. This expression is still used today to talk about people who are effective and efficient – or not!

There is also another expression that uses this word: “salt of the earth.” This one may be easier to get, because it exists in Portuguese too, in reference to a passage in the bible. In English, the expression refers to someone who is humble and unpretentious.

On the other hand, you “take something with a grain of salt” when you should accept something, but maintain a certain degree of caution. This is because a little bit of salt can make something that is “hard to swallow” a little easier to taste. The expression is derived from Roman texts, and can be translated as “wit” instead of literally “salt”.

So, as you can see, “salt” is a word with many uses. Even though it is advisable to cut down on the salt for now, I am working on being worth my salt, on becoming more salt of the earth, and on taking some advice with a grain of salt!

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The dog days are over
14-04-2016

The other day I was listening to  Florence + The Machine’s catchy “The Dog Days are over” again. It’s such a great song to listen to when trying to get my mood up! It’s a real energy boost. But what does it mean? As an English learner, it’s usual to get curious about the meaning […]

The dog days are over

by Barbara Duarte

The other day I was listening to  Florence + The Machine’s catchy “The Dog Days are over” again. It’s such a great song to listen to when trying to get my mood up! It’s a real energy boost. But what does it mean? As an English learner, it’s usual to get curious about the meaning of the lyrics in a song we start to like.

As it turns out, the title of this song can take us really far in the past, to Ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks and the Romans would look to the sky and start naming the stars and constellations. There is a star in the Mediterranean sky that shines very bright in the warmest days of Summer. This star was named  “Sirius”, and it is located in the constellation “Canis Major” – you guessed it, it’s the “dog” constellation. From July to August, the Dog Star aligns with the sun, and these have become known as “the dog days”. In popular culture, this expression refers to the hottest days in Summer, whether the stars are aligned or not.

For us, the “dog days” would probably not fall in the same period of the year, but we do say “tá quente pra cachorro”, don’t we? Maybe the expressions came from the same origin…

 

 

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Make your own verbs by “conjugating” any word
23-09-2015

When I teach my students a new noun, they often have trouble pronouncing them. It’s hard to know where the strongest sound is – is it at the beginning or at the end of a word? Do you say “REcord” or “reCORD”? Well, in this case, you can say it both ways, but you will […]

Make your own verbs by “conjugating” any word

by Barbara Duarte

When I teach my students a new noun, they often have trouble pronouncing them. It’s hard to know where the strongest sound is – is it at the beginning or at the end of a word? Do you say “REcord” or “reCORD”? Well, in this case, you can say it both ways, but you will be saying different words!

In English, the strongest sound (the stress) of a noun is usually at the beginning of the word: for example, “His REcord was written into the Guinness book”. On the other hand, when you use the same word as a verb, you say “I can reCORD the film for you.”

There are, of course, some exceptions. And you can’t always change a noun into a verb just by changing the stress, but there are many verbs that come from nouns. This process is called “denominalization”.

There are several examples for this, and they usually are a way for people to save time by cutting some words from their speech. You can use this technique to say that the action means “to put (something) in or on (something)”, like, “to bottle milk” (to put milk into a bottle). You can also say, “to use (something) for its purpose”, like “to google a word”, “to Skype with a friend”… There are many other examples.

These types of new words are becoming very popular with the rise of social media. Have you ever “friended” anyone on Facebook? Have you ever “tweeted” or “instagrammed” something? Did you hear about the latest viral movie that is “trending” on youtube?

The English language is always evolving, and it can be a fun exercise to try to come up with new meanings for words.

Tags: new words / Pronunciation Tips / vocabulary tips /


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Make your own word using prefixes – “over-“
02-09-2015

When I first think of the word “over”, I remember Brazilian fashion experts talking about an outfit that is a little too extravagant. An American teenager might use the word to say that they are “done” with something, that they can’t take it anymore – “I’m so over high school!” But the most interesting thing about […]

Make your own word using prefixes – “over-“

by Barbara Duarte

When I first think of the word “over”, I remember Brazilian fashion experts talking about an outfit that is a little too extravagant. An American teenager might use the word to say that they are “done” with something, that they can’t take it anymore – “I’m so over high school!” But the most interesting thing about the word “over”, for me, is how it can be used as a prefix. The fact that you can communicate with other people by creating a new word on the spot fascinates me.

I just read an article on The Guardian about the rise of the word “over-” as a prefix. People seem to be “oversensitive”, “overanxious” nowadays. There is something about putting an “over-” before a word that charges conversations with passive agressiveness and veiled criticism! That is because, instead of saying you think a person is “too anxious”, “too sensitive”, which would be too direct and confrontational, you could say that they are just a little over the line considered to be a normal limit for anxiousness… “overanxious”!
Personally, some of these new words are a pet peeve of mine. But you could also find words like “overjoyed”, which means something like being more filled with joy than it would be expected. The possibilities are endless! And you could add this prefix to virtually any word and get your message across.
In fact, Stevie Wonder once wrote a beautiful song with that name that explores all the possibilities of “over”, as a preposition, as a prefix and as an adverb. It’s one of the examples that show that grammar nerds can make beautiful poetry!

Tags: grammar / prefixes / vocabulary /


About Barbara Duarte