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Newsletter February 27 - 2006FREE email English course
Dear Friend,

In the play AMADEUS written over 30 years ago by Peter Shaffer based on the life and death of Mozart, one of the characters, the Emperor Joseph, turns to the composer having listened to one of his pieces and says: «Too many notes, Mozart. Too many notes.» Poor Mozart is «distraught» (very upset) at such a remark about his inspirational composition.

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I have a strange feeling that this worthy Emperor might well make a similar comment after having struggled to learn English: Too many words. And of course he would be right. English is such a «hotchpotch» (mixed bag) of words. It has put into a sort of virtual «melting pot» (a container where metals are melted) different words from different languages and «there's the rub» (that's the problem) the words Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Hamlet in the famous speech starting: «To be or not to be.»

As we see daily on the English Forums from our subscribers' questions, people want to know when given a choice of four possible answers why their choice is the wrong one. One of the most common is to do with what linguists call: «troublesome lexical pairs» (irritating words that come in twos). Take for example say and tell: «I don't believe what you are saying because I don't think you are telling the truth.» Again «do» and «make»: «What are you doing?» «I'm making a cake». Another pair: «hear» and «listen»: «I'm sorry I really didn't hear what you were saying because I'm afraid I wasn't listening». Why do we «begin» a journey but «start» our car? Why do we «finish» our meal but «end» a relationship? Why do we «shut» the door but «close» a letter to someone? And what answers do we, the experts give to these reasonable questions? Well, in most cases we have to say in effect that this is a set expression or that's the way it is because no one really knows why words take on these special uses. Then again you have also to bear in mind that words change. An expression that has now crossed «the pond» (a popular word for the ocean between the USA and the UK) is: «Have a nice day!» Now «nice» used to mean — and I'm talking 16th century, foolish or stupid and then it came to mean precise or exact some years later. We still have a flavour of that meaning in the noun «nicety», meaning a fine point as in language. Today of course it doesn't mean very much except perhaps pleasant. And just to add further confusion there's a new institute that's been set up in the UK to look at standards of medical care that's ended up as an acronym NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence). Another group of adjectives that have seen better days are: terrible, horrible and awful. They can just mean when applied to food for example not nice. But in their «heyday» (time of their greatest prosperity) they meant full of terror — full of horror and full of awe respectively. Incidentally «awe» is a feeling of deep respect and wonder.

Just in case you thought there were enough original words, let me tell you about those words made out of people's names. Dr Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) thought there were parts of Shakespeare's plays not suitable for children and so he removed certain passages and published what he called a family Shakespeare. From him we now have the verb «bowdlerise» meaning remove parts considered indelicate from a book. Then again there is the reverend William Spooner (1844 -1930) who's responsible for the «spoonerism» whereby you confuse the first parts of two words. The best example known was said by this gentleman when he dismissed a young student from his Oxford college for being lazy: «You have deliberately tasted two worms» (wasted two terms) «and you must now leave Oxford by the town drain» (the down train — the train going down to London). Then don't forget that universal word «sandwich». The Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) spent many hours playing cards for money and his wife worried about his health and thought he wasn't eating properly so she provided him with a number of slices of bread and meat. He would then take two slices of bread and put meat between them. And that's how the humble sandwich was born. Believe me!

Back to our friend the Emperor Joseph. How would he be feeling after all this information? I sense he would want me to go. How should I leave? Should I say: «Good-bye» or «Farewell» or «Adieu» or «I must take my leave» or «cheerio» or «pip pip» or «see you» oh for goodness' sake «BYE».

Alan Townend

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