Tag Archives: myths about English

How long is too long?

waiting time perception in uk

Photo credit: Banksy, untappedcities.com

Today I had what might almost be called a ‘business meeting’  in London. The person I was meeting mentioned that he was negotiating with a certain company for so long that its managing director died. At this point my eyes nearly popped out.

I immediately remembered all the things that seem to take a disproportionately long in this country compared to Russia, where I come from. To paraphrase the words of King George VI from King’s Speech, waiting for a BT engineer to come one can wait a rather long wait. I also remember how I came to the university library to get a library card (which only gets a few minutes to print and issue) and was asked whether I could pick it up in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t. On another occasion I amazed a whole bunch of people by completing a task, which they thought would take a couple of weeks, in under one hour – and I swear it was no rocket science.

I’m still trying to figure out why these things take such a long time. Can it be that tea-drinking gets in the way?

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Boxing day: what’s in a box?

boxing day origin

Photo credit: gardenofeaden.blogspot.co.uk

The other day my husband asked me whether I knew why Boxing day was called Boxing day and I had to admit that I didn’t. Somehow I never asked myself this question. So I went on a googling mission and found an article in Time that was quite helpful.

In fact, the origin of Boxing day is somewhat murky. One possible explanation is that around Christmas people were encouraged to donate money to the poor, putting them in alms boxes.  According to another popular version, the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to their servants, who ‘returned home, opened their boxes and had a second Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.’

It’s impossible to say which one (if any) is correct and in any case, these days Boxing day is mostly known as the Day When the Sales Start.

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Barking mad

barking mad phrase origin and usage

Photo credit: curiousexpeditions.org

Not long ago I embarked upon reading Peter Ackroyd’s huge book London. The Autobiography and despite its somewhat lofty language it’s proving to be a good read. At some point I was even rewarded with a linguistic revelation about the origin of the phrase ”barking mad‘, which is now used informally to say that someone is totally crazy. 

According to Ackroyd (almost a pun!), it originates from ‘a refuge for the insane at Barking’, which presumably existed in this area of London in medieval times.

Not so fast…

Actually, Ackroyd’s suggestion is almost universally dismissed. For instance, Michael Quinion, the author of Port Out, Starboard Home: The Fascinating Stories We Tell About the words We Use writes that ‘the problem with Mr Ackroyd’s idea is that the evidence strongly suggests the term is nothing like so old as that’. He argues that the earliest reference dates back to 1965, not the middle ages.

Quinion thinks that ‘the idea behind the saying is most likely that the person referred to is so deranged that he or she barks like a dog, or resembles a mad dog, or one that howls at the full moon’.

This lack of agreement on the etymology doesn’t surprise me at all and it shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying some nice examples of how the phrase is used:

– But it is quite consistent with Santander in Britain being in rude health for it also to be little short of barking mad for Santander as group to be acquiring yet more assets and liabilities anywhere – including the UK – at a moment when Spain as an economy is an evolving and dangerous crisis (BBC).

– Kevin Geoghegan, who has been reporting from Cannes for the BBC News website, was among those impressed by Holy Motors. The film, he wrote in his reporter’s diary, is “utterly, barking, slap-me-on-the-face-with-a-wet-fish, mad” (BBC).

– Mr Wilders’s anti-immigrant party has nine seats in parliament, too few to affect the government’s fairly tolerant policy towards the country’s Muslim minority. But he has jabbed his finger into several sore spots. He has publicly questioned the loyalty of two cabinet members with dual nationality (ie, Turkish and Moroccan as well as Dutch). He called a third minister “barking mad” because of her liberal integration policies. And he has demanded a ban on immigration from Muslim countries (The Economist).

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Half…

half expression with time

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How would you say 12-30 or 3-30 in English? At school and at the university I was told to say ‘half past twelve’ or ‘half past three’. This was either completely false in the first place or the English people became lazier over the years and by the time I actually came here everyone was saying ‘half twelve’ and ‘half three’ instead.

Initially I was thinking that if ‘half past three’ means 3-30 than ‘half three’ should mean 2-30 and on one occasion I actually arrived an hour earlier!

Learn from my mistakes!

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