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quite; sufficiently; fairly
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Newsletter October 17 - 2008FREE email English course
On arrival on the shores of the United Kingdom you'll find it won't be long before you start hearing one word, which has four different letters. How shall I best describe it? — perhaps a sort of four separate letter word. Now. don't panic. I'm not going to embarrass you by using what people frequently call a real four letter word. That wouldn't do at all although I can't guarantee that your ears won't be assailed by one of them, either. But I'll come straight to the point and tell you that the word I'm on about starts with an 's' and ends in a 'y'. Got it?

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Yes, it's sorry. You could be recklessly steering your trolley in the supermarket too fast round one of the aisles and colliding with another reckless driver, you could possibly be standing in a queue and accidentally back into someone behind you, you could even bump into someone in a crowd, you could also knock someone on the head with an umbrella — assuming of course it's raining. In all those instances (separately I would hope) all you have to say to your 'victim' is: sorry and you'll immediately be forgiven. One word of warning — don't expect an acknowledgement from the person you've just assaulted.

Forget what they tell you in the phrase books. People don't tell you that it's all right, it doesn't matter, not to mention it or even forget it. The English are primarily a taciturn lot. They like to get their full value out of a good 'sorry' but they're quite happy to leave it there. And you'll actually see the word written up on a notice as you drive along the highway. The Department of Transport, obviously well brought up, will quite happily announce in huge letters at the side of the road after you've stopped and started your way along miles of road works: Sorry for the delay. Somehow that's supposed to make you feel better as if you're meant to call out through your car window: Oh, that's all right. Don't worry about it. We quite understand. If you're British of course, you'll feel a warm glow inside you at the very thought that someone (some unsung hero) in that huge government department has actually taken the trouble to be concerned about you. I say that but though I'm not by nature a nitpicker, I have worried about the use of that expression 'sorry for' and have had in mind to write to the unsung hero questioning whether that's what was actually intended. To me you can be sorry for someone or sorry about something. So I would say: I'm sorry for you because you have to drive a long way to work each morning but I would say: I'm sorry about the mess I left my room in yesterday. But then, perhaps I'll let things rest. It would be a bit churlish to raise the matter, wouldn't it?

The posher version of 'sorry', the upmarket version if you like, or 'sorry' in its best clothes is 'apology'. .And of course 'sorry' can't turn itself into a verb or become plural. Whereas 'apology' can become 'apologise' and also 'apologies'. People offer their apologies for not attending a meeting, they express their apologies for some mistake they have made. But all this is very formal and is usually written in a letter. It's not the sort of thing you say in situations like the collision of the supermarket trolleys. I mean if shortly after the moment of impact, you turn to your fellow shopper and say; I really must apologise for the careless way I knocked into your trolley, you'd certainly get some very funny looks. If it is said, it's usually delivered in a dramatic and flamboyant way: Please accept a thousand apologies dear Sir for what I've just said, is something you'd say, if you are that sort of person, when you've hinted at the possibility that the gentleman in question was about to break into your car.

Mind you, you won't find people like prime ministers or presidents and certainly not dictators offering to express regret, indicate they're sorry or deliver apologies. Life's not like that, is it? And one of the preconditions of actually doing this is a requirement to swallow your words or even eat your words, which can, to develop the metaphor, leave a nasty taste in your mouth. Another way of expressing this is eating humble pie. And thereby hangs a tale, which I will now tell. In the interests of transatlantic harmony — something I always strive for — I should first just add that since the middle of the nineteenth century in American English such a practice (admitting in a humiliating way that you've got it wrong) is referred as eating crow or even boiled crow, which certainly wouldn't rank among the top dishes on the menu. But back to humble pie. Numbles, the word used to describe the innards of an animal as opposed to the actual flesh of an animal, was a word used in the fifteenth century. Then the word lost its 'n' and became 'umbles'. Samuel Pepys, famous as a diarist of the seventeenth century, who loved jotting down the smallest details of life of that period, entered in his diary dated; 8th July 1663:' Mrs Turner came in and did bring us an Umble-pie hot out of her oven, extraordinarily good.'

This process of letters crossing over from one word to another, they tell me, is called metanalysis. So what happened was that 'a numble pie' became 'an umble pie'. The same thing took place with these two words — apron (something worn over a dress to protect it) and 'newt' (small lizard). These two words started life as 'a napron' and 'an ewt'. But I am wandering from my story and you must forgive me for the diversion — sorry about the digression, I should really say. .Now the adjective 'humble' came into existence through Latin and has the meaning of very modest and lowly. You will often read in the biography of a famous person who has gone on to reach prominence in one field or another that they came from humble beginnings. This means they were not born in a wealthy household. Since language is man made and often does things that can't be explained logically, it's not surprising that the two words 'humble' and 'umble' got muddled up and ended up as the word 'humble'. There is however a reasonable explanation for this since the people who couldn't afford to buy expensive meat but had to put up with what you might call the spare parts of an animal were themselves poor and so in a sense 'humble' and so we come full circle to the idiomatic expression 'eat humble pie'.

If you do that, you are humiliated and show to the world that you got something wrong and are admitting that you regret it or are sorry about it. There is in fact another sort of pie, which, to mix up my metaphors, is another kettle of fish altogether (an entirely different situation) and this is called pie in the sky. This is something really good and promising but unfortunately never likely to happen. Dreaming that you are going to choose the right lottery ticket and win millions is a good example of pie in the sky for most of us. And talking of fat cats as we call those who manage to make huge sums of money on the stock exchange, they're having a bad time at the moment, aren't they? as the whole world currently undergoes financial difficulties. What do you think they're going to eat as they settle down to one of their famous business lunches? Are they hoping to lose weight by eating big chunks of pie in the sky? I don't think so. More than likely there will only be one special dish listed on the menu — humble pie. So let's all raise our glasses (full of water of course) and drink to their health: Cheers!

Alan Townend

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Hush hushEnglish goes to America
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Looking aheadMore haste, less speed
I didn't mean to do that, honestlyA bit of a laugh
Come fly with me 
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