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Newsletter August 31 - 2006FREE email English course

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Usage of the word chip or "Potatoes"

Let''s start with a little puzzle - a not very difficult one. Which four-letter word starts with a "c" and ends in a "p" and has a salutation in the middle? Allow a little time for reflection although it''s not really needed. And the answer is "chip". It''s only small but it''s a clever little word. We can use it to describe a small piece missing from a piece of china or ceramics because someone has knocked it. The expression just like a chip off the old block describes a child who has the same characteristics as one of their parents. The old block is presumably Mama or Papa. Then again it also appears as a small slice of potato, which comes in different thicknesses.

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The really posh ones are very slender and restaurants that don''t really like the word chips on their menu, refer to them as French fries. There is even a British Potato Council - just imagine. I bet they have French fries at their lunches. The humble potato arrived in England from Virginia in 1584 and was sent there by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 - 1682) who also introduced tobacco to England. He was a great favourite of the Queen and just to show what a splendid chap he was he threw his cloak down once over a puddle in the ground so that the Queen wouldn''t get her royal toes wet. Unfortunately when the King (James 1st) came to the throne, he fell out of favour and had his head cut off. Seems a bit tough but then potatoes do make you fat and cigarettes as they keep telling us, can seriously damage your health! In fact we have an expression for someone who sits around all day watching the TV and doing nothing but eat and drink and that''s a couch potato. In 1962 the playwright, Arnold Wesker (born 1932) wrote a play describing his experience based on his military service called Chips with Everything, which has come into the language as describing a passion people have for insisting that every meal has to be accompanied by the sliced up potato.

But let''s leave the potato for the moment and come back to other uses of the word chip. It can also describe those small tokens used to represent money in a casino. If someone cashes in their chips, that means they have died - it''s all over. If you''ve had your chips, that doesn''t mean you''ve just polished off a plate of French fries but that you''ve failed in your task and have now no chance of success. When the chips are down again is back to the gambling table when you''ve piled all the tokens on the table, this is the moment of truth and you have reached a critical stage in your life or in a business situation. Now the chip I really like is the chip on the shoulder - not the one you''re thinking with someone standing there with a tomato stained chip perched on their shoulder - this refers to having a feeling of inferiority. In this country we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about one particular sport - tennis because we haven''t had a male champion tennis player since goodness knows how long. He went by the name of Fred Perry and he become one in 1936, a good year that! But this chip on the shoulder is made of wood. Apparently it comes from a former American custom. A young man who was desperate to have a fight with anyone would place a chip - a wooden one this time - on his shoulder and challenge anyone to knock it off his shoulder. This clever little word can also enter the lists of the phrasal verb community. If you chip in with a comment, you interrupt a conversation and make your remark. If you chip away at a problem, you keep on trying to find a solution to the difficulty. This is what some of our members do, I''m glad to say, on our site when they log on and go to one of the forums to ask us a question about grammar, vocabulary or idiom. I hope you''ll do the same. One more phrasal verb - chip in - that''s what people do when they make a financial contribution to show their appreciation for the coach driver when they''ve come to the end of a tour.

But then we mustn''t forget THE chip. That''s the one that enables me to write to you and for you to read what I''ve written - the electronic chip inside our computers and I quote courtesy of St Google:

Improvements in electronic chip manufacturing techniques have seen the number of components per electronic chip double on average every two years for the past thirty years. This has meant that the computing power of chips has grown enormously, and has been principally responsible for the huge improvements we have been enjoying in consumer items such as computers, game boxes, mobile phones and TVs, and also services such as Internet and telephone.

Well, I started with a puzzle and now I''ll end with a pun and an apology: What do you say to the shop that has sold you a piece of furniture which when it''s been delivered to your home and you''ve unpacked it, you discover has been badly chipped down one side? Now look here, you say, "you know I''m on a diet and I don''t take chips with anything!"

Yours, Alan Townend

Three letters for you?Too many words
In touchEverything in the garden is lovely
A funny thing happened...Briefly
Whose English is it, anyhow?Potatoes
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