bric-a-brac english

Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page


In VOCABULARY on November 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm

This is a short introduction to the language of crises [krai-seez] plural of crisis [krai-sis]. Crisis is a Greek word (krisis). The same Greek root has given a number of words to English: A critic  is someone who writes reviews and expresses opinions (positive or negative) about the quality of films, books, restaurants, etc. Α critic’s work is called criticism, especially when it’s about works of art. But, more generally, criticism also means expressing a negative judgment or opinion about something. When you do that, you criticise [krit-i-saiz]. A criterion [krai-teer-ee-uhn] is a standard you use to judge or make a decision about something (What are the criteria for selecting the winner?). If a situation is critical, it is very serious or dangerous.

The crisis everybody is concerned about these days is the eurozone crisis (the eurozone is the group of countries that use the Euro). This is a (sovereign) debt crisis, which means that certain countries owe so much money that they find it very difficult to pay it back. When a country cannot repay its debts, we say it defaults on its obligations [di-fawlt, also noun].

  • sovereign (adj.) [sov-(e)rin] = belonging to a state/government
  • owe (pronounced like the letter “o”) = when you have to pay back money someone has given you
  • debt [det] (silent b here) = the money you owe others

A sovereign debt crisis starts with large (budget) deficits [buhj-it def-i-sit]. A country runs a budget deficit when it spends more money than it receives. Then, it needs to borrow [bor-oh] (this is what you do when you ask your bank to give you some money which you then pay back over a period of time; the bank lends you the money). Countries often borrow by issuing bonds (a bond is an official paper which promises that the government will pay you a certain amount of money on a certain future date). Bonds carry interest (the money you will receive is more than the money you paid to buy them). The interest rate is a percentage (2%, 3%, etc.) that tells you exactly how much more money you will receive. In some cases, such as bank loans, interest rates can be variable (the interest rate can increase or decrease while you’re repaying the loan) or fixed.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) is an organisation that gives loans (lends money) to countries with debt problems. It usually gives this money in tranches [tranche, rhymes with “branch”] (portions or parts of the total amount).

Budget deficits and sovereign debt are measured in relation to a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – the total of goods and services produced by a nation during one year (a simplified definition). So, if a country has a GDP of 100 billion and a deficit of 1 billion, it’s running a 1% deficit. If its debt (the total amount of money it owes) is 120 billion, its debt is 120% (of GDP).



In Uncategorized, VOCABULARY on November 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Bees buzz. If a bee has ever flown near you, you know what buzz means. (The word is a verb and a noun). We also use this word to describe the sound other insects make when they fly, and we use it to talk about any low, continuous, humming sound (e.g. machines, an aeroplane, people talking).

hum = the sound you make when you “sing” without opening your mouth; also a verb.

If you’re a basketball fun, you know that characteristic sound that marks the end of a game. That’s a buzzer. If a player scores a basket a few milliseconds (millisecond = 1/1000 of a second) before the buzzer goes off, that shot is a buzzer-beater. In some TV quiz shows, contestants have to quickly press a button when they think they know the right answer; that’s a buzzer too.

Because bees are such active and energetic little creatures, buzz as a verb also means to be busy, full of activity, excitement, energy. (The place was buzzing with excitement.) Charles Dickens first used the adjective abuzz to describe a place that is full of activity and noise. And if all this activity and excitement is inside your head, because it’s full of thoughts or ideas, you can say that your head/mind is buzzing. Mine is, right now.  And I must add that writing this post gives me a buzz – I’m excited about it! Completely buzzed-up (but only in the sense I’ve just explained, not because I’ve drunk too much or taken drugs).

If you say you’re going to buzz off, you’re ready to leave. And if you tell someone to buzz off, you want them to leave you alone – but don’t use this expression if you don’t want to sound rude. If you do tell someone to buzz off and then you regret it, you might want to give that person a buzz (a phone call) and apologise.

Finally, if – as I hope – a lot of people read this post and start using it all the time, buzz might become the next buzzword.


In LITERATURE on November 25, 2012 at 12:30 am

Originally, the haiku was a short section of a longer poem composed by several poets who wrote segments [=parts] in response to one another in a long, cumulative [=adding one after another] poetic exercise or game. Traditionally, the Japanese haiku was an unrhymed* poem consisting of seventeen sounds–or, rather, characters representing seventeen sounds–and distributed over three lines in a five, seven, five pattern–that is, five distinctive sounds in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

*unrhymed = they didn’t rhyme; words that rhyme have the same last sound (‘balloon’ and ‘saloon’).

CHIYOJO (1703–1775)

Whether astringent
I do not know. This is my first
Persimmon picking.

astringent = sour, sharp or bitter in taste
persimmon → see In Season

HASHIN (1864–?)

No sky and no earth
At all. Only the snowflakes
Fall incessantly.

incessantly = without interruption; constantly.

(Translations by Daniel C. Buchanan)

BASHO (1644–1694)

Another year gone—
hat in my hand,
sandals on my feet.

BUSON (1716–1783)

Listening to the moon,
gazing at the croaking of frogs
in a field of ripe rice.

gaze = to look for a long time at someone or something, with all your attention.

ISSA (1763–1827)

The moon and the flowers,
forty-nine years,
walking around, wasting time.

The snail gets up
and goes to bed
with very little fuss.

fuss = when you get excited about something, especially something unimportant.

Insects on a bough,
floating downriver,
still singing.

bough [baʊ] = a large branch of a tree

(Translations by Robert Hass)


The next one is a haiku by BASHO in three different English translations:

Old pond–frogs jumped in–sound of water.
(Lafcadio Hearn, 1898)

pond = small area of water, smaller than a lake (e.g. in a park)

There is the old pond!
Lo, into it jumps a frog:
hark, water’s music!
(John Thomas Bryan, 1929)

lo = (old use) look!
= (old use) listen!

The old pond.
A frog jumps in—
(R. H. Blyth, 1949)


And, finally, this one is mine (but you’re welcome to have the last word):

She’s wearing black
She’s selling brownies
Sunday she’ll get on a plane


[Source: Jerome Beaty & J. Paul Hunter, The Norton Introduction to Literature.]

Coccinellidae (ladybird, ladybug)

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2012 at 8:31 pm

The Coccinellidae are a family of beetles, known variously as ladybirds (UK, Ireland, Australia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, India and Malta) or ladybugs (originating in North America, spread through media to many other parts of the world). When they need to use a common name, entomologists widely prefer the names ladybird beetles or lady beetles as these insects are not true bugs. Lesser-used names include God’s cow, ladyclock, lady cow, and lady fly. Coccinellids are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches), and are commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers, with black legs, head and antennae. Coccinelid is derived from the Latin word coccineus meaning scarlet. The name ladybird originated in Britain where the insects became known as Our Ladys bird or the Lady beetle. Mary (Our Lady) was often depicted wearing a red cloak in early paintings and the spots of the seven spot ladybird (the most common in Europe) were said to symbolise her seven joys and seven sorrows. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Greek, the ladybird is called paschalitsa (related to Pascha, Easter; you could translate it “Easter bug”).

Here’s a nursery rhyme about our little dotted lady:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

A warming pan or bed warmer. On cold winter nights, you’d fill it with hot coals and put it under your bed covers.

King Lear

In LITERATURE on November 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm

The BBC have a fantastic podcasts site where you can listen to and download oodles and noodles of programmes on just about anything: world news, business reports, drama, poetry, comedy, music, sports, you name it!

Here’s one from the series My Own Shakespeare, where “public figures from all walks of life talk about the piece of Shakespeare that inspires them most. The pieces are read by well known actors.” They are 2-3 minutes long.

This one is from King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3 (BBC podcast).

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces and one of the greatest pieces of literature of all times. Harold Bloom, the celebrated American professor and critic, says that “[Hamlet and King Lear] show an apparent infinitude that perhaps transcends the limits of literature … [They] announce the beginning and the end of human nature and destiny”(!) What, still thinking about it? Go get your copy (or look it up on YouTube).

The play is about a King that is driven to madness by the consequences of his own arrogance, but is ultimately saved by coming to terms with human nature and destiny and by the loyalty of those who truly love him. Towards the end of the play (where the passage in the podcast is drawn from) he is captured by his enemies (among whom are two of his three daughters) along with his third daughter, Cordelia, banished by him early in the play but reconciled to him now. As they are taken away together, Lear addresses Cordelia:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out –
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow* by the moon.

And here’s a modern English version, from No Fear Shakespeare

No, no, no, no! Come on, let’s go to prison.
The two of us together will sing like birds in a cage.
When you [thou] ask for my blessing, I’ll get down on my knees
and ask you [thee] to forgive me. That’s how we’ll live—
we’ll pray, we’ll sing, we’ll tell old stories, we’ll laugh
at pretentious courtiers
we’ll listen to nasty court gossip,
we’ll find out who’s losing and who’s winning, who’s in and who’s out.
We’ll think about the mysteries of the universe
as if we were God’s spies. In prison we’ll outlast
hordes of rulers
that will come and go as their fortunes change.

*ebb and flow is an expression to do with tides (the periodic rising and falling of the level of the sea, caused by the attraction of the moon and sun). The ebb is the flow of the sea away from the land (water level falls), when the tide goes out, and we still use this word today. The flow is the opposite movement of the waters (level rises).

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

In LEARNING STRATEGIES & TOOLS on November 22, 2012 at 8:58 pm

One of the most useful tools for language learners is a good dictionary. There are a lot of excellent free online dictionaries nowadays and they can greatly support your study if you get acquainted with them and learn how to use their features. Here is one of the finest (click the link below to open in a new window/tab):

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

Six dictionaries on the same page! You can choose from the drop-down menu on the top left-hand corner the one that best suits your needs:

  • British English, American English, Business English  (for advanced learners)
  • Learner’s (intermediate)
  • Essential British English, Essential American English (elementary)

Type the word you want to look up in the field right next to the menu and press enter. You can hear the word pronounced with a British (UK) or an American (US) accent (click on the appropriate “loudspeaker” icon).

In the column on the right, you will often see a section titled More results for (the word you looked up). In the tabs below, you can find phrasal verbs and idioms that contain the word. Further down, there may be a SMART Thesaurus box with synonyms and related words. If you click on any of the words in that box, you’ll go to its own dictionary page. You can also click on the topic heading below the box to go to the thesaurus page with all the related results. This is very useful when you’re looking for words with similar meanings or words related to a particular topic (for example, when you have to write an essay about education).

At the bottom of the page, usually, there’s a section titled Browse the Thesaurus. You’ll see a list of topics: Business, Clothes, Education, Finance, Light and colour, Personal care. By clicking on any of them, you’ll be taken to the relevant thesaurus page with the familiar word box and a list of related topics on the right.

Finally, check out the menu below the search field, near the top of the page. Hover your mouse over the headings (Tools, Resources, Topic Areas, etc.) to see a menu. You can find practice activities, a blog “about words”, widgets for your browser and all sorts of other cool stuff.


In season

In VOCABULARY on November 21, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Fruits and vegetables of late autumn/early winter:

cauliflower [KAW-li-flou-er], broccoli [BROK-uh-lee]

lettuce [LET-is]

cabbage [KAB-ij]

pomegranate [POM-i-gran-it]

persimmon [per-SIM-uhn]



quince [kwins]


In VOCABULARY on November 21, 2012 at 6:27 pm

“Perhaps the greatest challenge business leaders face today is how to stay competitive amid constant turbulence and disruption.” – John P. Kotter, “Accelerate!”, Harvard Business Review, November 2012.

An article from the November issue of the Harvard Business Review focuses on how companies can accelerate (pick up speed, move faster) in order to stay ahead of the competition in a faster-changing world. Kotter is an expert on organizational change and proposes a dual operating system, where the traditional hierarchy is coupled by a network-like structure.

The article contains interesting vocabulary related to quick movement (like accelerate, above):

  • agility [uh-jil-i-tee] (ability to move quickly and easily); adj: agile [aj-ail]
    mental agility ♦ agile fingers ♦ cats are flexible and agile
  • nimble [nim-bl]/nimbler (=agile); adv: nimbly
    nimble fingers/feet ♦ She hopped nimbly over the fence
  • rapid (very fast)
  • fast-moving
  • swift (rapid, quick, speedy); adv: swiftly

In the quote at the top of the post you can also see:

  • turbulence [tur-byuh-luhns] (confusion and disorder); adj: turbulent (probably from Greek τύρβη, tyrbe = disorder). Compare turbine.
    political and cultural turbulence ♦ turbulent feelings   turbulent years
  • disruption [dis-ruhp-shuhn] < disrupt (interrupt the progress of something; cause disorder); adj: disruptive. Compare rupture (break).
    social disruption ♦ The snowfall has disrupted the city’s transport system.

You may have to register in order to read the article as well as a free excerpt from Leading Change, a book by Kotter. You can also register to receive free newsletters with updates and links to new content on the site.


In VOCABULARY on November 21, 2012 at 11:58 am

Since bric-a-brac is what this blog is about, I thought I’d start with this lovely word.

Pronunciation: brik-uh-brak

It’s also spelt bricabrac and bric-à-brac (which betrays its French origin). It means, various objects, usually of no great value, like the ones sold in the shop in the photo. They could be interesting or attractive little things, and people might have collections of them.

Here’s how Oscar Wilde used the word:
“The mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-à-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.”

Oh, and it’s uncountable, so don’t use it in the plural (a shop that sells antiques and bric-a-brac). And, oh, don’t forget the final ‘c’, because then it would seem like a collection of lingerie.

If you want to talk about various little things of different types, you can also call them odds and ends, bits and pieces, this and that.