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Dress to Impress


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impress

This peacock knows how to dress to impress. Photo by El_Sol/flickr

I think I told you in an earlier podcast that my daughter, who is 16 years old, attends a secondary school for girls. She has now completed Year 11, and has finished her GCSE exams. In September she will start at a sixth form college. Most of the other girls in her year at school are in the same position. Naturally, they all want to celebrate the end of their time at secondary school.

So, one day last week was “Dress to Impress Day”. All the girls dressed up in party dresses, high heels and too much make-up. First they went to school for a leaving ceremony and to say goodbye to their teachers. Then they left in cars, taxis or (in some cases) pink stretch limos, to go to parties or restaurants. I am sure that they all had a good time, and that many of them found it difficult to get out of bed the next morning.

“Dress to Impress Day” has given me the idea for this podcast – the word “impress” – what does it mean and how do we use it? If you want to impress somebody, it means that you want that person to think good things about you. When you sit an exam, you want to impress the examiners. You want them to think that you are a good student with an excellent understanding. If you go for a job interview, you want to impress the people who are interviewing you. You want them to think that you are exactly the right person for the job. And if you go on a date, you want to impress the boy or girl you are with.

Kevin has a friend called James. For years, Kevin and his friends have been trying to find James a girlfriend. The trouble is that James is not very good at impressing girls. He has recently been on a date with Sarah. This is what happened. He arrived late. He had been watching football on the television, and the match went to extra time. He forgot to have a shower or to change his clothes. He talked to Sarah all evening about his hobby – computer games. And, when they went to a restaurant, he ordered spaghetti. That was a big mistake. No-one looks good when they are eating spaghetti.

James tells Kevin about his date with Sarah. Kevin sighs. “So, she wasn’t impressed, then,” he says. “Well, she must have been a bit impressed,” says James. “She is coming with me to the computer games exhibition on Saturday. She is a great fan of Manic Street Racer 2. And she likes spaghetti.” Kevin is amazed. Women can be very strange sometimes.

So James, surprisingly, has impressed Sarah. She has never before met a man who shares her passion for Manic Street Racer 2 and spaghetti. She thinks good things about James, even though he was late and forgot to have a shower. James has made a good impression on her. If the date had been a disaster, we could say that James had made a bad impression on Sarah.

You will sometimes hear the expression “to have the impression that …” For instance, you might say “I have the impression that James is keen on football”. Why do I have this impression? Why do I think this? Because James stayed to watch the football on TV instead of meeting Sarah.

Or I could say, “I have the impression that Sarah likes men who play computer games and eat spaghetti”. This means, simply, that “I think that Sarah likes men of this sort. I am not completely sure. There are a lot of things about Sarah that I do not know. But, from what I have seen so far, I think that she likes men like James.”

There is an adjective impressive as well. If something is impressive, it is big, or beautiful, or clever – it impresses you. For example, the Eiffel Tower in Paris is very impressive – it is over 300 meters high. The Tate Gallery in London has a very impressive collection of 20th century art. And Sarah’s top score in Manic Street Racer 2 is 436,117, and that really is impressive!

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Unearthing bones!


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unearth

Roman gladiators fighting in the arena.

Do you know the English word “unearth”? If you “unearth” something, you dig it out of the ground. Perhaps you remember the podcast about the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of gold and precious stones which had been discovered in a field. The man who found the hoard dug the gold and precious stones out of the field – he “unearthed” them. Or perhaps you remember the podcast about my hens. The hens scratch the ground. They hope to “unearth” a worm, or something else which is nice to eat. Nice if you are a hen, I mean.

We can use the word “unearth” in a figurative way. Imagine that you are a newspaper journalist. You are writing an article about a well-known politician. You talk to people, and you ask questions, and you discover, or “unearth”, some interesting things, for example that the politician has taken bribes from a big chemicals company. You have “unearthed” a scandal.

Today, we are going to unearth some bones, and we will learn something about the very bloodthirsty people – the Romans, the Saxons and the Vikings – who lived in England or visited this country over 1000 years ago.

For several years, archaeologists have been digging in the gardens of a group of houses in York, in the north of England. They have unearthed lots of bones, old bones, human bones. The bones date from the time, about 2000 years ago, when England was part of the Roman Empire, and York was an important Roman city. The bones are of strong, healthy young men. Many of them show signs of serious injuries. Many had been beheaded. Others had been killed by hammer blows to the head. Scientific tests show that the men came from many different parts of the Roman Empire.

The archaeologists think that the young men were professional fighters, called gladiators. The Romans, when there was nothing good on television, loved to watch gladiator fights. These fights often ended with the death of one of the gladiators. Sometimes, instead of fighting each other, gladiators fought with wild animals like lions or tigers, which the Romans brought at great expense from places like north Africa. And one of the skeletons found at York has the marks of the teeth of a large animal!

Some of the gladiators at York were buried with goods for them to use in the afterlife and there is evidence that great feasts were held at gladiator funerals. Gladiators were popular heroes in Roman times, like professional footballers are today. Professional footballers have short footballing lives – sometimes they have to retire after a few years because of injury. Gladiators had short lives too, because they often had their heads cut off during fights!

We have found some other interesting bones recently. In the south of England, near Weymouth, men who were building a new road found a large collection of bones from over 50 people. Like the bones at York, they were all young men and they had all been beheaded. These bones are later than the bones in York. They come from the time of the Saxons. The Saxons were the people who came to England when the Roman Empire collapsed. Their language is the ancestor of modern English. However, the bones are not Saxon bones. Scientists analysed the chemical composition of the bones and concluded that the men came from Scandinavia. In Saxon times, people from Scandinavia called the Vikings frequently raided England, to kill and steal, and Vikings settled permanently in some parts of the country. The Saxons tried paying the Vikings money to go away and leave them alone, but that simply made the Vikings more greedy.

So what happened to the young Vikings at Weymouth? Probably the Saxons captured a group of Viking raiders, stripped them naked and then executed them. However, if you come from Norway or Denmark, do not worry. We give tourists a much warmer welcome nowdays!

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Coal to Newcastle


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coal

Coals to Newcastle. A coal train crosses the river Tyne at Newcastle in 1962.

Have you come across the English expression “carrying coals to Newcastle”? This is what it means. For several hundred years, from the 16th century until about 50 years ago, the North-east of England was a major coal-producing area. There were literally hundreds of small coal mines in the area. Until the railways were built, most of the coal was taken to the city of Newcastle, which is on the river Tyne, close to the sea. From Newcastle, the coal went by ship to London and many other places in Britain and abroad.

Now, imagine that you are a coal merchant in, say, London. You have some coal to sell. Where might you take the coal to sell it? Where would you not take the coal to sell it? I think that you would not take it to Newcastle, because there is lots of coal there already.

So, if you say that something is like “carrying coals to Newcastle”, you mean that it is useless, it has no purpose, it is a complete waste of time and money. I am sure that there are equivalent sayings in other languages – “carrying owls to Athens” is an old Greek saying that means the same. You could even invent some of your own – “taking fridges to the North Pole”, for example. Or, “taking wine to Bordeaux”.

You may be wondering, why do we talk about “coals to Newcastle” and not “coal to Newcastle”? Surely, “coal” is a collective noun, like “water” or “sugar”. Well, in modern English we would indeed say “coal to Newcastle”, but the expression dates back to the 16th century, and at that time people talked about “coals” instead of “coal”.

And let us have a little pronunciation lesson too. If you want to sound like a native English speaker, you need to know how to pronounce the names of places in England correctly. We do not make this easy for you, and lots of English place names are spelled quite differently from the way they are pronounced. Now, you will hear many English people pronounce the name of the city in the north-east of England “NEWcastle”. But the people who live there say NewCAStle. My mother was born and brought up in Newcastle, and she made sure that her children knew how to pronounce the name properly!

I am telling you about “coals to Newcastle” because I read an interesting article in the newspaper this morning. As you know, a lot of English people have gone to live in France in the past 20 years or so. They like the climate, they like the wine, they like the food, they like the low prices for houses in rural areas of France. Some of them even learn to speak French! However, the British pound has fallen in value against the Euro, and this has caused problems for many of them. They have found that it is cheaper to buy food and groceries in England than in France. So they order groceries online from one of the big British supermarket companies. The supermarket delivers the groceries to a specialist delivery company, and five times a week the delivery company sends a van full of groceries to English people in south-west France. Most of the things they order are awful English foods that no respectable Frenchman would eat, such as tinned chicken curry. But among the items which they order are French products like wine and croissants. From England to France! Coals to Newcastle!

Finally, I should tell you that someone did once send coals to Newcastle. In the eighteenth century, there was an American businessman called Timothy Dexter. His competitors, who wanted to ruin him, told him that it would be an excellent idea to send a ship full of coal to Newcastle. So he did. His ship arrived in Newcastle in the middle of a miners’ strike. There was a shortage of coal, and prices were very high, and he sold his coal at a great profit. Sometimes sending coals to Newcastle can be a good idea!

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