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ESL Story: The language of surprise

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Apart from OH, AH, HEY, OOH-ER and other Anglo-Saxon noises that indicate surprise, English can also provide you with a variety of expressions that describe your amazement depending on whom or what you are confronted with.

Most obviously you are surprised when someone appears in front of you unexpectedly. To explain the involuntary twitch or shake of the head that follows it's useful to have a few phrases at the ready. So if on opening the front door, you should suddenly come across the milkman standing on the threshold, one of the following spoken in a jovial manner would seem appropriate: My word you frightened the living daylights out of me, Goodness me you almost made me jump out of my skin, How you startled me, or You know, you gave me quite a turn.

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Should you need a little more time for recovery and providing of course the milkman is not in too much of a hurry, you can go on in this strain: If you go round creeping about like that any more, you'll frighten someone to death. News of an astounding nature also calls for comment. If you're not really concerned one way or the other but your messenger looks at you as if he wants you to share in the unusualness of his information, you can always rely on some of these briefer old favourites: Good heavens, Good gracious, Good grief (that one's usually reserved for something quite shocking or serious) Golly or briefest of all but at the same time proving that you've been listening: No or Never. But supposing you've just been told that Albert, who incidentally hasn't got a penny to his name, has got married to the local Bank Manager's daughter, then this calls for something different rather along these lines: Well, I never. You don't mean to say that he's settled down at last. Again, you might get a letter from the local store saying that they've agreed to reduce your bill because of the inconvenience you've suffered. A colourful reaction to this would be: Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs. Frequently of course you don't believe the news you've been given and a touch of sarcasm could creep in with: you must be joking or more biting: you will have your little joke, won't you? Similar signs of disbelief are expressed thus: You're pulling my leg, aren't you? You're having me on or No, seriously though.

Another source of amazement is when you see someone doing something entirely out of character. The sight of a relative, who normally without fail falls asleep by the fire after a meal at your house, actually lending a hand with the washing up could call forth this comment: I must be dreaming. Pinch me somebody. Such comments are naturally best delivered in a subdued tone especially if you're using the best china. A Prime Minister on television, admitting that he has made a mistake – yes, I suppose that's just about possible – this should deserve: Wonders will never cease. Two less dramatic but very common expressions for unusual situations are: Well I'm darned and Well I'm blowed. Sometimes the circumstances are such that you cannot find any suitable words at the time of an event. You tend therefore to describe your surprise afterwards. When the boss of his own accord offers you a rise you accept but are in fact speechless. Later when you recollect the occasion you say: You could have knocked me down with a feather. Recalling the day you passed your driving test: I went all weak at the knees; the day you won the football pools: I didn't know whether to laugh or cry and the day your car had disappeared from the place where you'd parked it: My stomach turned right over.

Sometimes we wish to warn others of the approach of a third person whose presence is not welcome. You have got over the shock but you want to prepare the others. Least innocuous is: Guess who's coming up the garden path right now? When the visitor has already arrived and it so happens that you have just been talking about him, you can say in his hearing in a light-hearted way: Talk of the devil. But if you resent the intrusion very much you can employ the spiteful: Look what the wind's just blown in. And on that breath of fresh air I'll conclude and hope that I haven't shocked you too much.

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Author: Alan Townend

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