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Spotting Tigers


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spotted

nutmeg66/flickr spotted these spotted ladybirds. She calls the photo “Spot the difference!” (ie “Look and try to see the difference!”)

In today’s podcast, we are going to talk about spots and spotting!

If you look up the word “spot” in a dictionary, you will see that it has two meanings – two completely different meanings. First, a “spot” can be a mark, normally a small mark, roughly circular in shape. Look at the picture at the top of the webpage or on your iPod screen. It is a picture of some insects which in English we call ladybirds. There are three ladybirds, and they all have spots on them. But they are different colours, and they each have a different number of spots, which makes the photo so unusual and interesting.

Here are some more spots. A leopard has spots, and a handkerchief can have spots. In detective thrillers on the television, a spot of blood is sometimes the clue which helps the detective to catch the killer. And we can use “spot” to mean a place – a “beauty spot” is a beautiful place, perhaps with trees and a stream and a view towards the mountains; and thousands of people then come to visit the “beauty spot” and ruin it!

But “spot” can be a verb as well. To spot something means to see something, normally to see something which is difficult to see, something which most people would not see. For example, the person who took the photograph of the ladybirds “spotted” the ladybirds – most people would not have seen the twig with three different sorts of ladybird, but she did. If you like playing with words, you could say that she spotted the spotted ladybirds. (A play on words is called a “pun” in English, and because there are so many words in English that sound the same or nearly the same, puns are an important part of English humour. It is one of the reasons why foreigners find us so puzzling!)

When I was about 12 – many years ago – I used to take a notebook and a pencil and stand on the platform of a railway station in the middle of Manchester to watch the trains. I carefully wrote down the number of every railway engine that came past, with information about when I had seen it, and which engine shed it came from. I was a train spotter. By the time I was 14, I stopped being a train spotter. I had spotted girls, and they were much more interesting than trains. You can still see train spotters on the platforms of stations today. They are generally men in anoraks and trainers who still live at home with their mothers.

If you don’t want to be a train spotter, you can be a bird spotter instead. You can go out into the country with a pair of binoculars, and a packet of sandwiches for lunch, to try to spot some really interesting or unusual birds. Or you can be an insect spotter. The woman who took the photo of the ladybirds is an insect spotter – there are some wonderful photographs of insects in her flickr photo stream. Or you can be a plane spotter, and take photographs of planes taking off and landing at airports. If you plane spot near military airfields, however, the police will start to be very interested in you, so be careful!

Here are some more things you can spot. You are standing in a crowded street. You are waiting for your friend. You look anxiously at all the people who are hurrying past to see if you can see him. Then you spot your friend in a crowd of people on the other side of the road. Or maybe you are in an exam. One of the exam questions is really hard. You sit and chew the end of your pencil. Then suddenly you spot the answer, and happily you write it down. Most of your friends fail to spot the answer, but you get full marks in the exam.

I spotted this story in the newspaper recently. A man in Hampshire in the south of England spotted a tiger. It was lying down in the grass so that you could hardly see it. No, it was not a spotted tiger – tigers have stripes, not spots. It is quite unusual to see a tiger in Hampshire because, well, there are no tigers in England. So the man did what English people always do when something strange or alarming happens – he phoned the police. And the police thought “Well, we had better look into this. It might be a tiger which has escaped from a zoo. And tigers are dangerous, and we the Hampshire police force need to protect the public from dangerous things like tigers.”

So the police sent a helicopter to look for the tiger. They also made preparations to close a nearby motorway and to evacuate people from their homes. Then a message came from the helicopter pilot. He had spotted the tiger. It was sitting still in some long grass, just like the man had said. The helicopter pilot decided to get closer to the tiger to see what it was doing. And as he did so, the down draught from the helicopter made the tiger fall over. This was really strange, because a real tiger would not do that. It would get up and walk away. It was not a tiger at all, of course. It was a toy tiger – a life-sized stuffed toy tiger. The police have asked the owner to come to the police station to claim it. I wonder if anyone has done so.

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