Tag Archives: language learning

That’s a different kettle of fish

fish kettle

Photo credit: rosekentishkitchen.blogspot.com

Monday was a bank holiday in the UK and we benefited from some more time to spend together as a family. This also meant that we didn’t have to cram all the things into just two days and could do our grocery shopping on Monday. I went online to check opening hours of a local Waitrose (disclaimer: we don’t always shop in Waitrose, it’s more of a treat really) and while I was looking at a general information about the branch I noticed that you can borrow champagne flutes and… a fish kettle there! Now that was exciting. I googled “fish kettle” and realised it was an oval pan.

However, whenever I’ve heard an idiom “that’s a different kettle of fish” I always imagined a regular kettle (OK, perhaps not an electric one), and wondered how you were supposed to squeeze a fish in there and whether the tea would stink of fish afterwards. I should have known better!

The idiom means ‘to be completely different from something or someone else that has been talked about’ (Cambridge Dictionary). However, its origin – as is usually the case with idioms – is far from clear. You can check Michael Quinion’s website for more information.

Here are some examples of its usagethough:

  • Matthew Kneale had a well-deserved critical and commercial hit in 2000 with his Whitbread prize-winning novel “English Passengers”, about 19th-century Tasmania. His new collection of short stories is a completely different kettle of fish. It is resolutely up to the minute, with its quaint Italian villagers shopping at IKEA—and, with one or two exceptions, also middle-class and metropolitan (The Economist).
  • I do not really get inflamed at the thought of some busybody checking out my books, or looking at which clothes I have packed, although, in a straw poll of the office, it seems I am alone in this. But trying to log on to a computer or tablet is a very different kettle of fish (The Economist).
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To wrap someone in cotton wool

to wrap somebody in cotton wool

Photo credit: uk.lifestyle.yahoo.com

I know my posts are becoming more and more spaced out, but I’m not giving up on this blog! So here’s a quick post on a new phrase that I heard on the radio. I teach on Saturday mornings and on my way there and back I like to listen to BBC Radio 4, so last week I caught Desert Island Disks with Warwick Davis. He talked about his rare genetic disorder, but said that despite his ill health his parents never wrapped him in cotton wool. This means to be overprotective towards someone (usually a child, I would assume).

Here are some more examples:

  • Wrapping your children in cotton wool and living every day as if a multitude of dangers were each crowding out the other to get their fangs into them still seems to me an unhealthy message to broadcast. If your parents allow you to climb trees, sometimes you will fall off them. If you’re allowed to go wandering alone in a wood, sometimes you’re going to get lost (The Guardian).
  • Constantly wrapping children in cotton wool can leave them ill equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life… Cotton-wool parenting is taxing for the parent; wearing for the child. And it’s unnecessary (Bikehub.co.uk)

I wonder if I am a cotton-wool parent? At times I think I am rather irresponsible, but not unreasonably so.

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To come off

Last Saturday I watched Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which wasn’t really on my top-10 list of films to watch, but it seemed like a good choice for a relaxing Saturday night. I thought it was a bit syrupy, but the actors were good, so on balance I think it’s watchable. More importantly, I learnt a few new words and phrases (my husband constantly makes fun of how I rush to write something down as soon as I hear it, but I just can’t help it!).

One of them was ‘to come off‘ – as you might have guessed even if you haven’t watched the film,it was about introducing salmon to a man-made river in Yemen and initially most people were skeptical about the success of this venture (and rightly so!), but eventually the main character, an expert on salmon if ever there was one, said that ‘it might just come off‘, meaning, in this context, ‘it might succeed’ or ‘we might just pull it off’.

More examples:

– The warm reception that he received refuted those who wondered whether the summit would come off, or if it could accomplish anything (Oxford Dictionary).

– Actively seeking risk makes sense for venture capitalists. Many of their gambles do not come off, but some of those that make it deliver huge rewards (The Economist).

Another meaning of ‘to come off‘ – I’ve found about 5 in total – is ‘to achieve a particular result in an activity, especially a competition or fight’ (Macmillan Dictionary):

– When banks go wrong, the biggest come off worst (The Economist).

– Even above the Brits, many touring Americans come off as culturally insensitive and arrogant among other things (The Economist).

P.S. In the US ‘to come off‘ is also used as a synonym of ‘to come across as‘, which is more popular in the UK.

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Dice: singular or plural

dice die singular plural

Photo credit: r o s e n d a h l (Flickr)

These days I rarely make discoveries about the English language – it’s not that I’m super-fluent or fully proficient, it’s probably that I haven’t been reading or speaking it enough. At home we speak Russian, when I teach I have to use as much Russian as my students can stomach, at the moment I’m also studying for a French exam and the rest of the time I spend on my computer, translating, and only rarely do I feel like talking to it.

And I learnt this extremely exciting thing about the singular and plural of ‘dice‘ at a… Spanish class, where we were playing a game with dice!

Amazingly, it turns out that ‘dice‘ used to be the plural of ‘die‘, but these days you use ‘dice‘ for both singular and plural.

P.S. The other day I noticed this amazing coin in my purse – issued on the 250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, one of the most famous dictionaries in history. I think I’ve mostly been using ‘penny’ and ‘pence’ correctly, but I realized I wasn’t fully aware of ‘pence‘ being the plural of ‘penny‘.

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David Mitchell, ‘Black Swan Green’

Black Swan Green David Mitchell quotes

Photo credit: literaryvice.ca

I’ve recently read two books by David Mitchell and I would say he has jumped from the list of the authors-I’ve-been-meaning-to read to the top 5 of my favourite authors. I am a sucker for wordplay and his books have loads. I also find that he has some very subtle observations and, most importantly, the two books that I’ve read are a lot of fun to read!

This is what James Wood said about Mitchell in The New Yorker: ‘David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince. “Black Swan Green” (2006) is a funny and sweet-natured semi-autobiographical novel, conventionally told, about a boy growing up in a stifling Worcestershire village’.

Here are some quotes that I particularly liked:

*

‘If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, ‘When you are ready’.

* (This is a bit of a lengthy quote, but simply priceless!)

‘But you have read Madame Bovary?’

(I’d never heard of her books.) ‘No.’

‘Not even,’ she looked ratty now, ‘Hermann Hesse?’

‘No.’ Unwisely I tried to dampen Madame Crommelynck’s disgust. ‘We don’t really do Europeans at school…’

‘“Europeans”? England is now drifted to the Caribbean? Are you African? Antarctican? You are European, you illiterate monkey of puberty! Thomas Mann, Rilke, Gogol! Proust, Bulgakov, Victor Hugo! This is your culture, your inheritance, your skeleton! You are ignorant even of Kafka?’

I flinched. ‘I’ve heard of him.’

‘This?’ She held up Le Grand Meaulnes.

‘No, but you were reading it last week.’

‘Is one of my bibles. I read it every year. So!’ She frisbeed the hardback book at me, hard. It hurt. ‘Alain-Fournier is your first true master. He is nostalgic and tragic and enchantible and he aches and you will ache too and, best of everything, he is true.’

As I opened it up a cloud of foreign words blew out. Il arriva chez nous un dimanche de novembre 189…‘It’s in French.’

‘Translations are incourteous between Europeans.’ She detected the guilt in my silence. ‘Oho? English schoolboys in our enlightened 1980s cannot read a book in a foreign language?’

‘We do do French at school…’ (Madame Crommelynck made me go on.) ‘…but we’ve only got up to Youpla boum! Book 2.’

‘Pfffffffffffft! When I was thirteen I spoke French and Dutch fluently! I could converse in German, in English, in Italian! Ackkk, for your schoolmasters, for your minister of education, execution is too good! Is not even arrogance! It is a baby who is too primitive to know its nappy is stinking and bursting! You English, you deserve the government of Monster Thatcher! I curse you with twenty years of Thatchers! Maybe then you comprehend, speaking one language only is prison! You have a French dictionary and a grammar, anyhow?’

*

‘Michael Fish said the area of low pressure moving over the British Isles is coming from the Urals. The Urals’re the USSR’s Colorado Rockies. Intercontinental missile silos and fall-out shelters’re sunk deep in the roots of the montains. There’re research cities so secret they’ve got no names and don’t appear on maps. Strange to think of a Red Army sentry on a barbed-wire watchtower shivering in this very same icy wind. Oxygen he’d breathed out might be oxygen I breathed in’. (This caught my attention because I grew up in the Urals, and, specifically, in one of the research towns, which – true enough – until recently wasn’t on the map!)

PS. Oh, and check out the book’s official website with some more excellent quotes.

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Linguistic Spy nominated by MacMillan Love English Awards 2014

Macmillan Love English Awards 2014 blog

Dear readers,

First of all, Happy New Year to everyone who has been reading / following / sharing this blog. It means the world to me!

Second… I never thought I’d make it, but surprisingly my blog was chosen as one of 35 nominees by MacMillan Love English Awards 2014 and the voting is now open! I am particularly flattered by being together with The Economist’s wonderful Prospero blog – perhaps I’ll vote for them!

You can vote for the Linguistic Spy on this page (just scroll down until you see the list).

Many thanks in advance and have a great year!

DSC_0496

P.S. I am now back from my snowy motherland and I am looking forward to updating this blog as often as I can with lots of quirky words and phrases!

 

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Macmillan Love English Awards 2014

english learning blogs awards

Photo credit: MacMillan

Dear readers,

If you have been enjoying my blog, you can nominate it for Love English Awards 2014, organised by Macmillan Dictionary.

 

Thanks for your support,

Linguistic Spy

 

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Russian up… and some other phrasal verbs you never knew existed

russian out up

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

The other day I had another class with my Russian beginner group and one of my students had just returned from a trip to Russia. We all asked how it went and he was really enthusiastic about it, though he admitted he was ‘a bit russioned out‘ by the end of it (= a bit tired from hearing Russian all the time). Wow! Once again I was surprised by the creativity of English!

However, this reminded me of how I went to visit my friend and her baby daughter, and when her English husband was in another room we obviously switched from English to Russian, so he shouted ‘Stop russioning her [the baby] up!’

Ah, the ever-so-flexible English language, even when it comes to Russian!

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