‘What’s up?’ ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been there.’ You can use a witty answer to the question ‘What’s up?’ like this too, but the young in the US mostly use colloquial expressions such as ‘Not much’, ‘Not bad’, ‘Cool’, ‘Kicking’, or ‘Chilling’.
When I was starting my teaching career, I greeted a class with the phrase ‘Hi guys!’ and the pupils looked at me in a strange way. They giggled at the word guy [gai] which sounds similar to that of gay [gei], i.e. homosexual. They were also amazed that I had called them guys, though there were some girls in the classroom as well. Their objection was not so illogical since guy originally referred to men only. It has gradually been used to address mixed groups of people, and nowadays it is not unusual to hear somebody saying ‘She’s a nice guy.’ By the way, originally, gay only meant happy and full of fun. So when you read ‘He felt gay’ in a historical novel, it may have nothing in common with a person’s sexual orientation.
In the previous issue you could read about funny situations caused by confusion over similar words (beard/bird, lie/lay). Here are some more pairs of words that are often mixed up.
A student practising making arrangements said, ‘Shall we go to the coffee?’ She surely wanted to say, ‘Shall we go to the cafe?’ Coffee is a hot caffeine drink, and a cafe (which can also be spelt with é - café, as it comes from French) is a place where you go to have a cup of coffee (and possibly a simple meal). So, remember the correct spellings and pronunciations of the two words: coffee [‘kofi], cafe/café [‘kæfei]. Some cafes are called a caff, coffee bar, coffee house, or coffee shop.
Another student practising a dialogue in a restaurant said, ‘Would you like a desert?’ Well, it would be quite difficult to eat a desert in a restaurant, since it is a large dry area of land mostly covered by sand, e.g. the Sahara Desert. The student intended to say, ‘Would you like a dessert?’, i.e. sweet food eaten at the end of a meal, e.g. ice cream, chocolate cake, pancakes, etc. Check the pronunciations of the two words: desert [‘dezәt], dessert [di’zә:t]. The British also call dessert a sweet, pudding, pud, or afters.
Some words have different meanings in British English and American English (e.g. chips, first floor – do you remember?).
If you ask for a vest in a clothes shop, in Britain you will buy what Americans call an undershirt (tielko), but in the USA a shop assisstant will give you what the British call a waistcoat (vesta).
If some students tell you that they study at a public school, in Britain, especially in England, they study at a private school paid for by their parents. In the USA, however, they study at a free school paid for by the government. In England a school providing free education is called a state school. In the USA a school in which the education of the students is paid for by their parents is indeed called a private school.
Slovak students sometimes say or write, ‘I study at a gymnasium.’ Well, this is quite a tricky situation because a gymnasium or gym for short is a room for doing physical exercise. In Britain a school similar to our gymnázium is a grammar school – a school for students between the ages of 11 and 18 who are good at academic subjects (not only at grammar!). However, the number of grammar schools in Britain has decreased dramatically in the past few decades. So probably the safest way is simply to say or write, ‘I study at gymnázium.’
A student once wrote in his essay, ‘My brother is at high school.’ His brother was actually studying at university. A high school is a school in the USA and some other countries for students between the ages of 14 and 18. In Britain it is often used in the names of schools for students between the ages of 11 and 18, e.g. Oxford High School. Generally, such a school is called a secondary school in Britain.
If you regularly read my articles, you certainly know what an idiom is (e.g. ‘to give somebody a blank cheque’ – see the previous issue). Similes are a special group of idioms that describe one thing by comparing it to another. Remember that a word-for-word translation of a simile is not always the best one. Here is an example from a dubbed film: ‘Čo máme na večeru? Som hladný ako poľovník.’ In the original: ‘What’s for dinner? I’m as hungry as a hunter.’ Well, ‘hladný ako vlk' would probably sound more natural in the Slovak version.
Here are some more examples of English similes compared to Slovak ones (in brackets there are unnatural word-for-word translations): chudý ako trieska/chrt = as thin as a rake (≠ chudý ako hrable) pokojný ako Angličan = as cool as a cucumber (≠ pokojný ako uhorka) mokrý ako myš = as wet as a drowned rat (≠ mokrý ako utopený potkan).
I’m afraid that’s all for this month’s issue. Remember that you can drink coffee and go to the café, but not vice versa!