The BLC Blog

A forum and learning place for British Language Centre students

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Kleenex and friends

In English, as in Spanish, the names of some brands have become the generic word for that object. The most common example is probably Kleenex. I bet you say, "Have you got a kleenex?" far more often than you would say, "Have you got a tissue?"

Other examples include Rollerblade, Jacuzzi, Frisbee, Band-aid (AmEng for 'plaster'), Linoleum, Scotch tape (AmEng) / Sellotape (BrEng), Q-tips (generally AmEng for 'cotton buds'), Thermos, Escalator and Coke. Sometimes these words even become verbs, such as with Xerox (to photocopy) and Hoover (used in British English to mean 'to vacuum').


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The longest word?

The longest word in the English language has long been held to be ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM (although it has apparently been superseded by floccinaucinihilipilification). Yes, that's two prefixes and three suffixes, ladies and gentlemen. Try to say it ten times quickly!


Monday, November 27, 2006

Six of one, half dozen of the other

This is one of my favorite expressions. "It's six of one, half dozen of the other" simply means that two things are the same, that it doesn't matter which you choose, because there's no difference between them.

Here are some examples of it used:

"Isn't it Just Six of One, Half Dozen of Another? No way to deny it, picking the best strategy for search marketing can be a real headache."

High-level disinfection vs. sterilization: six of one, half dozen of the other?"

Not very interesting examples, I know!


Transport prepositions

IN and ON are generally confusing for Spanish speakers. Not surprising, given that they're the same word in Spanish.

Here's a quick look at the difference when talking about modes of transport.

We use ON for forms of public transport that you can walk ON: bus, train, ferry, plane, coach.

We use ON for forms of transport you sit ON: bike/bicycle, scooter, motorbike/motorcycle, horse, donkey, elephant, camel. We also use ON for roller skates and skateboards.

We use IN for forms of transport which you sit IN, but can't really walk IN. This in practice means cars and taxis, and small boats, for example, canoe, row boat, raft, punt. We also use IN for rickshaws.

These prepositions (and their opposites) stay the same when used with the verb GET. This means you GET IN and GET OUT OFF a car or taxi, but you GET ON and GET OFF a plane, train or bus.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Thanksgiving is a legal holiday in the U.S. It was first celebrated in early colonial times in New England, although its origins probably lie in traditional harvest festivals. After the first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists in 1621, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. In New England it gradually became a custom to celebrate thanksgiving after the harvest.

In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving, and it has been celebrated since then, generally on the fourth Thursday of November as a holiday.

Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Canada, but it falls on the second Monday in October.

Text adapted from

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Brave Gelert

Here is a version of the story Brave Gelert written by one of our students:

Once upon a time in the Middle Ages, in an unexplored part of North Wales, there was a gorgeous valley surrounded by enormous mountains. The mountains protected the valley against the cold winds from the north. Thus, the climate was warm for most of the year. This fact, together with the frequent rains, led the soil to yield sensational harvests.

The inhabitants of the valley were happy people who worked the land, from which they got sufficient money, so they lived comfortably. Part of the money they earned by selling their produce in the city at the end of the valley was sent to their much-admired prince Llewellyn. Llewellyn lived in a luxurious castle with his baby son Peter and his dog Gelert. Gelert had been Llewellyn's main support since the death of his wife, Alice, when she gave birth to Peter. If it hadn't been for Gelert, Llewellyn wouldn't have succeeded in coming to terms with his wife's death.

One sunny day it happened that the three of them went to spend the day in the southern part of the valley, in a small cottage of theirs. After having lunch, Llewellyn went hunting, leaving Gelert in charge of little Peter. While Llewellyn was enjoying himself, two wolves smelled the little baby and went to him: that day they were going to have a great feast. But when the wolves were approaching the cottage, Gelert heard them. Like a loyal friend, he hid the baby in some bushes
behind the cottage. Afterwards, he faced the wolves fiercely, without thinkin of his own life. He managed to kill both of them. However, that was at the cost of a serious wound to his neck, which oozed blood continuously. Tired, he lay down to sleep.

In the meantime, Llewellyn had been hunting and having fun. In such happiness, he couldn't imagine what danger his companion Gelert had been in. Despite the fact that he was having a good time, he decided to come back when it started to rain.

When he reached the cottage, he could see Gelert covered in blood. Just an instand afterwards, he could see that his son's cot was empty. The logical conclusion sprang to his mind immediately, so he took up his sword to take revenge. After having killed his sleeping dog, he heart his son's cries, which led Llewellyn to him. Just behind the cottage he found the two dead wolves, which made him understand everything.

Deeply sad and wanting to die, he couldn't regret his rash and unfair attitude more. Close to tears, he carried the dog to the top of the hill and buried him. Then he collected a pile of heavy stones to mark the grave. He couldn't be the same again. His soul was dead forever and the fertile valley turned into a desert. The grave is still there.

-- Beautifully written, Ana!

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

The end

What do you see on the screen at the end of a film/movie?

So it it's "the end", why then do we talk about a happy ending, a tragic ending, a Hollywood ending?

Basically, we say "the end" when we are talking about the final point in time or space. "The ending" refers to the story and what happens in it. This is why we use adjectives like happy, sad, strange, confusing, etc. with "ending".

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Monday, November 13, 2006

It's not rocket science

This is one of my favorite (BrEng favourite), and often used, English expressions. When you want to say that something is not as difficult or complicated as people might think, or that someone is acting like something is difficult or complicated, you can say "It's not rocket science." The idea is that rocket science is indeed difficult, and that what you're talking about is simple in comparison.

This is a very common expression in English (304,000+ hits on Google), for example:

Developing Your Project Doesn't Have to Be Rocket Science

Financial management is not rocket science

It's Not Rocket Science is Captain Everything's third full length album


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day in various Commonwealth countries. It is celebrated as Veterans' Day in the United States. The day is observed on the anniversary of the signing of the armistice which brought World War I (also called the First World War) to an end.

The BBC History Web site has lots on the war, including audio files of some soldiers' stories. Why not do a little listening practice?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Expressions with "cat"

Anybody who knows me knows I love cats, so I thought I'd put in a few expressions using the word "cat".

Cat got your tongue? - Used when someone is uncharacteristically or unexpectedly silent.

S/he thinks s/he's the cat’s whiskers/meow/pajamas - S/he thinks s/he is great, fantasic, the bee's knees.

Look what the cat’s brought/dragged in! - Used when somebody appears unexpectedly, not necessarily looking their best.

There’s no/not enough room to swing a cat. - The place is very crowded/full.

They fight like cat and dog. - They have a terrible relationship and argue a lot.

grin like a Cheshire cat - smile a very big smile (The Cheshire cat is a character in Alice in Wonderland.)

let the cat out of the bag - give away a secret (usually unintentionally)
The cat's out of the bag. - the secret is out/has been discovered

It's raining cats and dogs! - It's raining very hard.

Curiosity killed the cat. - "Be careful! Don't go looking where you don't belong!"

When the cat's away (the mice will play). - When an authority figure (boss, parent, etc.) is absent, the employees/children, etc. will do whatever they want to.

Catstuff has lots more expressions.


Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Election Day

Today's election day in the United States. Here's a little key election vocabulary in context.

This year's elections are known as mid-term elections, because they come in the middle of a president's four-year term of office. Mid-term elections are important in the United States because the entire House of Representatives is up for election, along with one third of the Senate. (One third of the Senate, which totals 100 senators, is up for election every two years, and the entire House every two years.) In off-years (that is, odd numbered years), there is lower voter turn-out, because no federal offices are on the ballot.

People are already talking about the next presidential elections. Some are expecting Hillary Clinton to run for president, and if she gets the nomination, she'll be the first woman presidential candidate from one of the two major parties (the Democrats and the Republicans, also known as the G.O.P., or Grand Old Party). Politicians will probably start to announce their candidacies some time next year. Then it's the long process of campaigning to be their party's nominee until the caucuses and primaries. Different states choose their presidential candidates (and their running mates) in different ways, some through meetings known as caucuses to choose their delegates to the national conventions, others use primaries, preliminary elections).

After the conventions, it's back to the campaign trail. There will be televised debates between the presidential, and sometimes the vice presidential, candidates. There will be ad campaigns, with the parties trying to lay out their platform for the voters to understand. There will also be lots of mud-slinging, a type of negative campaigning focusing on the (real or imagined) negative aspects of the opponent. There will be spin, as the candidates' staffs try to manipulate events and opinion in favor [BrEng favour] of their candidate, especially in communications with the media. The challenger attacks the incumbent saying its time for a change, and the incumbent talks about how much experience and committment he or she will bring to their new term of office.

And most of all, there will be polls, endless polls. With pollsters asking prospective voters the same questions time and time again: "Are you going to vote?", "What issues are more important for you?", "Who are you planning to vote for", and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

As an expatriate, fortunately I get to miss most of the election madness. The best part is that I can still vote. The board of records and elections sends me an absentee ballot and I just have to return it by election day. I like to put it in the mail on election day so that I can feel part of the process.


Sunday, November 5, 2006

Bonfire Night

Please to remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Today is Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night. Have you got a penny for the guy?

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Friday, November 3, 2006

So and such

These two words are often confused, because they have a similar meaning, but different grammar.

- so + adjective: That dinner was so good! [used for emphasis]
- so + adjective + (that) + clause: It was so cold that I put on another sweater. [to express cause and result]

Variations on these are so much and so many
- so many + plural countable noun: I've never seen so many people in one place in all my life.
- so much + uncountable noun: I spent so much money on holiday [AmEng vacation] that I had to borrow some from my parents.

- such + noun: I had such fun in Venice! [emphasis]
- such + a/an + noun: I'm such a fool! [emphasis]
- such + (a/an) + adjective + noun: Paul's such a good cook! / We've had such rainy weather this month. [emphasis]

As with so (many/much), these can be followed by a result clause starting with (that): It was such an interest film (that) I recommended it to all my friends.

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