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Keep in touch with us and learn new English words and idioms through our newsletter. Every month Alan Townend will send you a short essay on a particular topic such as advertising or money. The texts contain a lot of expressions and idioms related to the theme in question. With our newsletter you can both learn and smile as Alan writes his texts in a unique and humorous style. Explore the English language in a very amusing but informative manner and see just what fun learning can be. If you are concerned about the privacy of your email address, you can browse through the back issues of our newsletter before you sign up for it. Still got questions? Contact us on our forum. See you soon.
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Newsletter May 04 - 2009FREE email English course
Dear Friend,

I expect you're wondering what on earth I'm talking about by using this title for the newsletter. Well, I'm not at all surprised but you'll have to bear with me for a bit because I'll explain what it means later. And I should also add that it's rather unpleasant, distasteful and nasty when you find out where the expression has its origins.

Entertaining English Usage EssaysPrintable, photocopiable and clearly structured format
Designed for teachers and individual learners
For use in a classroom, at home, on your PC or anywhere

What has actually prompted me to write this letter was the very month of April. Apart from being the time of year that heralds the beginning of Spring when the first green shoots start to appear and in my garden unfortunately among these green objects you'll also find some unwelcome intruders known as weeds, it's also associated with tricks and jokes and hoaxes (all of which are devices that are used to make someone believe what isn't true). Traditionally these tricks are supposed to take place on April 1st. And if you actually believe (or as we sometimes say fall for it) something you've been told on that day, which thinking about later is really ridiculously impossible, then you become an April Fool.

As you can appreciate, this sort of practice is very popular among schoolchildren. But that doesn't stop the adults from having a go. In 1967 BBC television broadcast a news item in one of their highly respected programmes telling everyone about the bumper (extra large) spaghetti harvest there had been that year in Switzerland thanks to the elimination of the so called spaghetti weevil (insect). Swiss farmers were seen collecting spaghetti from the trees and putting it into baskets. Many people believed it to be a true story and telephoned the BBC to find out where they could buy this spaghetti tree. We call someone who believes absolutely everything, 'gullible' or 'credulous'. Nine years later the BBC had another go. Again a highly respected and very popular astronomer told radio listeners that because of the special alignment of certain planets at 9.47 precisely that morning, anyone who jumped up in the air would have the sensation of floating. And listeners too phoned up the BBC and said the astronomer was perfectly right because they had experienced exactly what he said.

Frightening, isn't it? Then again people are apparently equally gullible in the USA. In 1998 on April 1st Burger King, the producer of the famous beef burgers announced that they had come up with a new recipe for their Whopper (the extra large beef burger) and it would be called The Left handed Whopper, especially created for those members of the public who were left handed. And yes, people actually came to the restaurants and said they would like a right handed or a left handed burger. In all these stories people were being conned, tricked, duped, led up the garden path, having the wool pulled over their eyes, being taken for a ride and in short having their leg pulled. All these expressions mean very much the same and they describe the process by which one person deceives another. Now it's time to return to what I said at the beginning about the unpleasant origin of the expression 'pull someone's leg.'

You have to go back to the time when in the UK punishment by hanging was practised and the wretched individual was left hanging in the open air. Passers by who were desperately poor would pull the man's leg in the hope that coins would fall out of his pockets. I expect you can see the link between the origin and the meaning today since originally you were 'tricking' a dead man by stealing his money. When you've carried out your little April 1st joke and your victim has swallowed it completely (believed what you've told them), then with a joyous shout you call out: 'April Fool'. Of course not everyone finds it that hilarious..

Mind you, you don't have to wait until April 1st to carry out a trick or what we would call a hoax. A hoax, you see is a more elaborate procedure. You have to plan this in advance and make elaborate preparations so that when you eventually go public, people will believe what you are telling them. The great American actor, Orson Welles, decided to adapt the novel by H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds for radio and in 1938 broadcast the story as if it was a real news event. In the story Martians invade the world and you can imagine how a number of gullible listeners panicked as they believed it was actually happening,

There is a lake in Scotland which is called Loch Ness in the far north of Scotland. The legend is that there is a monster hiding in the deep waters of this lake. No one of course has actually seen it and the pictures taken by people who claim to have seen it are always very blurred and indistinct or they say they have seen it but have no proof. Suffice it to say, there has developed over the years a flourishing tourist trade around the area. You can be taken by boat on the lake to see where it might be, you can buy models of the monster, you can eat in restaurants and tea rooms bearing the name of the monster. Of course no-one really takes it very seriously and the monster is so well loved, it has its own special name - Nessie. In 1934 a doctor took a photograph of the 'monster' known as the Surgeon's Photo, which was shown all over the world and it wasn't until 60 years later that it was revealed to be a hoax. But in Nessie's part of Scotland nobody really cares because tourists still flock to see if they can get a sighting of this creature.

You may have heard of the creator of one of fiction's greatest detectives, Sherlock Holmes, called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You would think that Sir Arthur would not easily be hoodwinked (tricked) but even he failed to spot a hoax. Two young girls who were cousins took some photographs in 1919 of each other sitting behind what they claimed were fairies, which were in fact cut out of some of their picture books.. Despite comments from very distinguished figures claiming that this was simply a prank (trick) played by two schoolgirls, Sir Arthur supported them. These two ladies kept up their pretence for some 60 years but they too eventually confessed.

And talking of confessions I now have to reveal a hoax that I once perpetrated together with a fellow student a long time ago when I was at Cambridge. My friend and I had attended a history lecture and had been spurred into action by the lecturer scornfully suggesting that students nowadays never went in for hoaxes. It was a pretty harmless affair but at the time we thought we'd show this lecturer how wrong he was. We decided that we would choose another lecturer to assist us unknowingly in our plan. We borrowed a typewriter (oh how old fashioned that must now sound!) and typed a message for this lecturer and left it on her desk early one morning for her to read out at the end of the session. Several times throughout her lecture she glanced nervously at this piece of typed material.

We were willing her to read it. She finished her lecture, hesitated for a second and picked up the notice and bless her she read it out: 'All students are to report to (she gave the name of a famous cricket ground in Cambridge) at 11 am for a group photograph'. With that she hurriedly left the room. There was a mixed reaction to the notice but my friend and I generally encouraged everyone to go along because after all it was official, we said. So we all trouped off to the cricket ground and of course no photographer turned up and everyone looked confused. We longed to tell them all it was just a hoax but of course we couldn't. We had however achieved our objective and felt very pleased with ourselves. I arrived late of course for the next seminar and was surprised to find everyone present. The distinguished white haired professor paused as I entered, laughed and said: 'Ah, I see you've been delayed by the hoax. Never mind we all get caught out sometimes!'

Alan Townend

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please
post your answers on the forum here.
Many thanks.

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