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The launch

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Launch of the liner Kenya Castle at Harland and Wolff, Belfast, in 1951.

Last weekend I visited Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland. When I was a child, I lived in Belfast for several years, and the reason for my visit was a re-union of the pupils who – many years ago – were in the same class at school as I was. They all looked so old – but not me of course.

You probably know about the problems in Northern Ireland between the Catholic and Protestant communities, but if you get an opportunity to visit, you should definitely go. It is a very attractive place, and the people are very welcoming. Belfast is an old industrial city, with some fine buildings and a beautiful position beside the sea. It has a long history of shipbuilding. At one time, the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast was the largest shipyard in the world. The most famous Belfast-built ship was Titanic, a huge liner which hit an iceberg and sank during its first voyage across the Atlantic in 1912.

Today’s podcast, inspired by the Belfast shipyards, is about the word “launch”. “Launch” means to send something from the land into the sea. The traditional way of building a ship was to build it on dry land close to the sea. When the hull of the ship was finished, the ship was “launched” – that is, the ship slipped or was pulled from the land into the sea for the first time. There is a picture on the website of a ship being launched in Belfast in the early 1950s. It was normal to have a special celebration when a new ship was launched. The owners of the new ship would invite a Very Important Person to perform the launch ceremony. The Very Important Person would say something like “I name this ship ‘Podcast’. God bless her and all that sail in her”. He, or she, would then break a bottle of champagne on the bow (that is, the front) of the ship; and the ship would slide gracefully into the water. The Very Important Person and the owners of the shipyard and of the new ship would then go and have a nice lunch. If the management of the shipyard was feeling kind, there would be beer for the shipyard workers too.

There are a few things to note in what I have just said. First, in English we have two special ways of talking about things which happened many times in the past, like the launching of a ship. First, we can say “used to..”, and I made a podcast about “used to..” in May 2006. But instead we can use the word “would”, like I did when I was talking about launching a ship. “The owners of the ship would invite a Very Important Person.. The Very Important Person would break a bottle of champagne over the bows of the ship… The ship would slip into the water..” and so on.

Second, I am sure that you noticed that the Very Important Person who was launching the ship said, “God bless her and all who sail in her.” Ships are “she/her” in English, not “it”. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know.

And finally, I know that some of you – particularly if French is your first language – find it difficult to hear the difference between a long “ee” sound and a short “i” sound in English. So the word “slipping” sounds the same as “sleeping”. Here are a few examples of long “ee” and short “i” for you to practice:

“heat” – “hit”
“seat” – “sit”
“feet” – “fit”
“reach” – “rich”
“sheep” – “ship”

Now lets get back to the word “launch”. Ships are not the only things that you can launch. You can launch a rocket or a space ship, for example. And we can use “launch” figuratively as well.

For example, one of the clients of the company where Kevin works has produced a new sort of washing powder. It is in fact the same as the old washing powder, but it smells different, and it has a new name and new packaging. The company wants everyone to know about their wonderful new washing powder, so it buys lots of advertising time on television and has a special “buy-one-get-one-free” offer for the first two months. We can talk about the company “launching” the new washing powder, and about its “launch offer”.

Sarah has just written a novel. It has taken her about 10 years. Her friends are pleased that the book is now finished, because they were very bored of Sarah telling them about it all the time. Sarah’s publishers want to get some good publicity for the book, so they organise a “launch party” to launch the book. They invite journalists, and other authors, and people who write book reviews, and a few minor celebrities who are always happy to go anywhere where there are free drinks. Sarah talks to the guests about her new book, and the guests all say how wonderful it is. Unfortunately, it is not a very successful book launch – the book shops have sold only 153 copies of Sarah’s book, and you can now buy it for half price!

And a final example. Joanne is angry because the local authority want to close the public library near her home. She decides to launch a campaign to make them change their mind. She contacts other people who use the library; she writes letters to the newspapers and she organises a public meeting.

And that it all about “launch”. In the next podcast, I will tell you how to make a nice cup of tea. Until then, goodbye.


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