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My advanced English students, many with high-level positions and graduate degrees, have lately been stumped by a one syllable word: woke. It appears not only on social media, but often in news stories and opinion pieces.
Try as they might to use logic and context clues to decipher its meaning, they are lost. The word I am referring to is “woke.” Here are three recent related examples
“Beyond that, however, unions appear to be an important source of political information for their members, potentially helping voters to focus on real policy issues as opposed to, say, the existential threat posed by woke Disney.” — Paul Krugman, New York Times 4/4/22
In all three cases “woke” is being used derisively though this might not be clear to a non-native speaker who is unaware of the cultural nuance.
Here is a brief explanation: The word “woke” is the past tense of the verb “wake.” “Woke” has been used as an adjective within the African American community at least since the 1930s to mean to be awake or alert to racial prejudice and its impact and dangers. It could also mean to be alert/aware of other things as well. (Here’s a link to a Wikipedia entry about this usage.)
“Woke” was not often used by people outside of the African American community. Social media changed that. Several years ago, as groups such as Black Lives Matters gained more allies in other communities, the usage of the word spread — especially on social media sites. The word took on a more general appeal and could be used to describe being “woke” to many different types of injustice.
Below is a photo of Secretary Marcia Fudge, from 2018 when she was a congressional representative:
Within a very short period of time, right-wing media and opinion-makers glommed onto the word and began to use it to mock people — especially high-profile white Hollywood types — who were using it. It became a signifier for right-wing pundits, similar to the term “politically correct” which they could use to brand people with whom they disagreed and shut down debate.
It is now used almost exclusively derisively by right-wing media and politicians in the United States. It is lumped in with other “buzz words” of the culture wars. Right-wing activists, such as Tesla billionaire Elon Musk have called “wokeness” (the noun form of woke) an existential threat to civilization. Conservative school boards in Texas have banned some books written by African Americans because they feel knowledge of historical discrimination will hurt white students’ feelings and are part of what they call “woke culture.” However nobody on the left identifies as being part of “woke culture” except ironically.
All three of the above articles use “woke” ironically. The writers are not making fun of anyone for being “woke.” They are mocking the use of the word by the right-wing to scare the right-wing base into believing that there is a “woke mob” on the attack. All three examples of “woke” used in the beginning of this post refer to a recent law passed in Florida, popularly known as the “don’t say gay” bill. This legislation bans the use of certain words and discussion of some topics in elementary schools. There is concern that this legislation could be used to fire teachers and to isolate kids with gay parents. The Disney company, a major employer in Florida, has opposed the legislation.
In the first quote, with his ironic mention of “woke Disney,” Krugman is mocking Florida politicians who make speeches against Disney instead of helping the people they are elected to serve. The second quote from twitter, makes a similar point. If your political agenda is to rail against “woke culture” you aren’t doing your job. The third piece is from a satirical news article making fun of Florida’s decision to ban many math textbooks that they found too “woke.” That is a based on a true story. Florida really has banned a great number of math textbooks recently.
Why is it important that people learning English know what “woke” means? The word “woke” may be used humorously in conversation in an ironic way. It may be used by people on the right to express disdain for people with whom they disagree on some cultural issues. It may be used by people on the left to make fun of people on the right making fun of them! It is used a lot in news stories and opinion pieces, and it can be difficult to understand these stories if you don’t understand the word.
(Comments on this post will be open for two weeks and will appear after moderation. If you are interested in taking English lessons with Marion, contact her here.)
Sometimes, teaching advanced students can be more challenging than teaching beginners, so it’s always fun for me when I come across a commonly used word that I think might stump my advanced English language learners.
Today’s word is spiel. Spiel can be pronounced with either an “sp” as in “spot” or an “shp” which is a little unusual in English. (You can hear it here.) The word’s origin is German and Yiddish. It’s a borrowed word, and the way we use it is a little different than how it is used in those languages.
I ran across it in a recent article in The New Yorker. The distributor of plant-based sandwiches is explaining his approach to selling these products to bodega owners in New York City:
“In the beginning, we were doing a lot of explaining,” he said. “We used to give people a whole spiel about why you should eat these products. And we realized that just wasn’t the right approach…”
Can you guess the meaning from the context?
A “spiel” is a long elaborate story. It is often used to persuade someone. The meaning in German is game or play, but that’s not how we use it in English.
Here are two more examples:
The salesman gave me some spiel about how I really didn’t want the car I came in there to buy, and how this other more expensive car would make so much more sense for me.
His mother sent the priest to talk to him about changing his ways. The priest gave him a long spiel about how he was heading for hell, but of course it made no difference.
Notice in both these examples the “spiel” is used for persuasion. Hence, a spiel can also be used to describe a long “pitch.” It is not a “bad” word, but “pitch” sounds more neutral and professional. “Spiel” sounds like someone is trying to sell you something. In the above excerpt from the article, the use of “pitch” wouldn’t convey how much effort went into the story that the distributor was making and how detailed the pitch was. We understand from the phrase “a whole spiel” that this was an elaborate, long pitch and he probably lost the bodega owner’s attention at some point, which is why he needed to change his approach.
Here are some quick definitions and explanations for some other words used in this post:
To stump (someone): To ask someone a question that they don’t know the answer to. This is an informal but common usage. We also use this often as an adjective, to be stumped by something means to have no answer or explanation. Here are some examples:
The contestant knew all the answers during the main part of the game, but the final question stumped him. He left his answer card blank and lost everything.
The teacher asked me the question, but I had no idea how to answer. I was stumped. I was silent until he moved on to another student. It was so embarrassing.
To run across something or someone: to find something or someone incidentally. We also use “come across” in the same idiomatic way. Here are some examples:
I had given up on ever finding the right birthday gift for my brother, but then I was cleaning the house, and ran across some old childhood photos, and I decided to make a collage for him.
I know you have an interest in gardening. I ran across this interesting article I think you should read.
Bodega: Bodega is borrowed from Spanish. Like many borrowed words, the meaning is a little different in English. It was probably brought to New York by people who came from Puerto Rico. It was used in Puerto Rican neighborhoods to describe small grocery stores that sold a variety of goods. Eventually, all New Yorkers started to use the term to describe small grocery stores. It is now used in other parts of the United States as well. We also use it as an adjective to describe the things you find or buy in a bodega. For example: a bodega sandwich. There are Instagram feeds devoted to the cats that live in bodegas and are known as “bodega cats. Here’s a picture of one:
(If you found this post interesting, check back for more content! If you are interested in taking English lessons with me, please drop me a line.)
Are you tired of being cooped up? Has lockdown put you into a funk? Do you feel like you are under house arrest? If so, maybe it’s time for a little English vocabulary lesson focusing on the words funk and funky. If you are having trouble with any other words in this post, don’t worry! There’s a short glossary at the bottom of the page!
The noun funk is commonly used to describe a bad mood, or a sad feeling, even a slight depression. Often we use it when that mood is the result of following the same boring routine day after day. That is why it may be the perfect expression for how many of us are feeling during this endless quarantine! You might hear this a lot!
Here are some examples in sentences:
I wouldn’t go into Bob’s office this morning. He got some bad news, and he’s in a bit of a funk.
I am okay, really. I’m just in a funk. It’s so tiring doing the same thing every day!
Sarah has been in a funk for a while. I’m starting to get worried.
Notice in the above examples, funk is used almost as though it were a location. A person is “in a funk” in the same way one might be “in a closet.”
Funk also has some other completely different meanings. It is used to describe a type of music that is anything but depressing. Here is the definition of funk from Wikipedia:
“Funk is a music genre that originated in African-American communities in the mid-1960s when musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B).”
Funk can be used as an adjective to describe this genre of music. For example:
James Brown is one of the best known practitioners of funk music though clearly funk influenced the music of other well-known performers such as Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone.
Notice in the above example, funk is used as both an adjective to describe the genre: funk music, and a noun — the name of the genre.
Now let’s move on to the adjective funky. Here is where things might get a little confusing. Remember how we use “funk” as a noun to describe a depressed mood? The confusing part is that we don’t usually use “funky” as an adjective to mean depressed!. We might be in a funk, but we would describe our feeling as sad. For example:
I’ve been in a funk for days. I feel so terribly sad and I don’t have the energy to do anything that would help me feel better.
The adjective funky does NOT describe being in a funk.The adjective funky usually means off-beat or eccentric (in a good way) but it can also mean weird, strange, or peculiar — not in a good way. Funky can be used in either a positive or negative way.
You can be in a “funky mood” but this indicates a “strange mood” not necessarily a “depressed mood.” Someone can have a “funky sense of style,” which indicates a distinct, probably original sense of style. However, a “funky odor” is almost always peculiar or weird and NOT in a good way. Our use of funky is idiomatic, and you have to pay attention to context.
Here are various examples of funky. In each case, funky has a slightly different meaning. I’ll give you some context clues. Can you think of replacement words for funky in each sentence?
My sister likes wearing lots of bright colors and different patterns. She has a funky sense of style.
I’ve got to clean out my refrigerator. Something in there smells funky!
Let’s not make a plan to do anything outdoors tomorrow. The weather has been really funky, and I don’t want to have to cancel.
Jenna loves wearing funky costume jewelry. The bigger and shinier the better!
I’ve been in a funky mood lately. I don’t know what I want to do later, but I wouldn’t mind doing something a little different, maybe even a little dangerous.
Let’s take a deep dive into those sentences. Shall we?
My sister likes wearing lots of bright colors and different patterns. She has a funky sense of style. An easy replacement for funky here off-beat or eccentric. Other possibilities that might require more context include: unique, brilliant, interesting, etc.
I’ve got to clean out my refrigerator. Something in there smells funky! Here funky means peculiar in a bad way! You could also use “spoiled” or “rotten.”
Let’s not make a plan to do anything outdoors tomorrow. The weather has been really funky, and I don’t want to have to cancel. We don’t have a lot of context here, but we can guess that the weather has either been bad or frequently changing so that it might be bad and therefore planning an outdoor activity would not be wise. “Strange” can substitute for funky.
Jenna loves wearing funky costume jewelry. The bigger and shinier the better! Strange would be an easy substitute here. Based on context we could use other adjectives: gauche, loud, gaudy, etc.
I’ve been in a funky mood lately. I don’t know what I want to do later, but I wouldn’t mind doing something a little different, maybe even a little dangerous. Good replacement choices include: strange, peculiar, weird.
Funky can also refer to funk music. There is a difference between using “funk” and “funky” as adjectives to describe this type of music. When we use “funk” as an adjective we are describing the genre of music. For example:
James Brown practically invented funk music.
Stevie Wonder’s music shows both funk and jazz influences.
“Funky music” can simply mean “cool” music, though this usage is a little out of date . It can also describe music that has some funk elements but isn’t pure funk. It’s more about describing a funk-like attribute or quality of the music rather than the genre. For example:
The band that played at Ella’s wedding had a good funky beat that made it fun to dance.
Some people might argue that the song Play that Funky Music is not an authentic example of funk music, but more a funky rock and roll song.
I hope that clears up how to use both funk and funky in conversation or when talking about a type of music. If you have any questions or comments, you are welcome to post a comment! If you are interested in taking private one to one lessons, please contact me! Here is the glossary with some other words and phrases that might be new to you:
Cooped up: a coop is a pen or “house” for domesticated birds such as chickens. To feel “cooped up” is to feel as though you are stuck in a cage. Example: After being cooped up in the house for two weeks, due to the quarantine, Bob was thrilled to go outside for a walk.
Lockdown: To be “under lockdown” or “in lockdown” means you are under orders not to leave your facility or home either as a punishment or because of dangers inside or outside of the facility. Nobody can get in or out of a facility while it is under lockdown. Examples: (1) The elementary school was placed under lockdown after the prisoners in the nearby jail escaped. The authorities thought that the children would be in danger if they left the building. (2) The prisoners were in lockdown because someone had stolen some supplies and the guards wanted to check each cell.
Under house arrest: To be “under house arrest” is when you have been accused or convicted of a crime, but instead of being in jail or prison, you are able to reside in your home under restrictions. Example: Because of his illness, John was able to leave prison and serve his sentence under house arrest.
Deep dive: This is an expression using the verb or noun dive. It means to explore something deeply.
Anything but: The phrase “anything but” means “not at all.” Example: His business was anything but successful and closed within months of opening.
Out of date: In its most literal sense, “out of date” can mean expired in the sense of something no longer being valid. For example: My passport is out of date. I need to get it renewed before I can leave the country. We also use “out of date” in general to mean something old-fashioned. For example: I understand our customs might seem out of date to you, but we don’t use that kind of vulgar language in my house.
English has tons of idioms and phrasal verbs which are difficult for non-native speakers to master. Phrasal verbs are especially tough because they often have more than one meeting, or the meaning is idiomatic and difficult to explain. I love to teach the difficult ones! One of my favorites is “set off.” “Set off” seems to mean the opposite of what we think it should mean.
Take a look at the examples below. Can you guess the meaning from the context clues provided?
My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door. The sound was very loud and woke the neighbors, who called the police.
Adding the new chemical to the formula set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion. Fortunately, no one in the lab was injured.
The terrorist tried to set off a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord. Many people would have been killed or injured, but fortunately the bomb’s fuse didn’t ignite, and no one was hurt.
Something must have set Bill off. When he came in this morning he seemed normal, but later that day he suddenly became upset and yelled at his assistant. Then he announced he left the office abruptly. Did he get some bad news or something?
I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard. Fireworks are loud and dangerous, not to mention illegal.
Try this: If you think you understand the meaning of “set off” in the above examples, substitute another word or phrase for set off:
My house guests accidentally ________________________ the burglar alarm.
Adding the new chemical to the formula ________________ a chain reaction that led to an explosion.
The terrorist tried to ________________ a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord.
Something must have ____________ Bill.
I wish my neighbors wouldn’t ____________fireworks in their backyard.
Okay, now that you’ve tried it, I’ll give you an explanation with some possible substitutions
My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door.
The burglar alarm STARTED when they entered..
Adding the new chemical set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion.
The new chemical STARTED or CAUSED a chain reaction.
The terrorist tried to set off a bomb
The terrorist tried to START the process to make the bomb explode. He tried to IGNITE the bomb.
Something must have set Bill off.
Something must have CAUSED Bill TO BECOME ANGRY or upset. Something must have STARTED or IGNITED his anger.
I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard.
I wish my neighbors wouldn’t IGNITE fireworks. I wish my neighbors wouldn’t CAUSE fireworks TO EXPLODE.
In all of the above examples to “set off” means to “start” something in the sense of “ignite” or “spark.”
This can seem counterintuitive because we think of the word “off” as stopping a reaction, not starting one. For example: We turn off the light. We shut off the oven. We complete a journey and get off the bus. However, “off” is a word that can be used in many ways and with different meanings. Context is everything in English.
In all of the examples above “set off” has a similar “explosive” meaning. However, sometimes we use “set off” in a less explosive way. We can use it simply in the sense of starting a journey or trip. Here are some examples:
We set off early in the morning because we wanted to arrive with enough time to enjoy the day.
I’m setting off for Mexico later in the week. The ship sails on Thursday.
When I set off for work that day, I had no idea that everything in my life was about to change.
In the examples above, the phrasal verb “head off” could be substituted, as that also means to start a journey. However, we cannot use “head off” in the previous examples where “set off” means to start in the sense of ignite or spark. “Head off” also has a second meaning. We use “head off” to mean to avoid something by going in a different direction. Let’s look at an example of both of these phrases in the same paragraph:
Bob and John seemed to set each other off. Their personalities were just very different and they didn’t get along with each other or work well together. In order to head off problems, their supervisor placed them on different teams so they never worked directly with each other.
In the above example “set off” is used in the negative sense of igniting some kind of friction. The men didn’t get along. Therefore, the supervisor wanted to “head off” or “avoid” problems, and kept the men separated. The words cannot be used interchangeably.
There is also a third common use of “set off.” We use “set off” to describe the way one element brings attention to or shows a contrast with another element. We use it in descriptions of people, decorations, designs, etc. Here are two examples:
Jenna looks great in that blue shirt. The light blue color sets off the deep blue of her eyes. It’s a fantastic color for her. You really notice her eyes when she wears it!
There are several lamps in the painting. The light from the lamps is set off against the otherwise bleak scene of war and destruction.The light symbolizes hope and contrasts with the chaos surrounding it.
You are likely to encounter “set off” in everyday speech, as well as in books, movies, and television shows.
I hope you found this lesson on “set off” useful. Feel free to leave comments or questions. If you are interested in taking English lessons with me, please get in touch!
(This article is for intermediate and advanced English language students. The words in boldface have definitions attached or added in parenthesis. Please pay attention to the use of “get” and “run” throughout the post.)
Most of my students live in the New York metropolitan area. Many of them have to take the subway to get around. My students are a sophisticated bunch. Most speak several languages, and have lived in big cities with subway systems before. However, they find New York’s system particularly mysterious and difficult to maneuver. They will ask for directions in a way that may seem perfectly logical given their experience with other subway systems, but will leave New Yorkers completely flummoxed, confused, befuddled, and bewildered!
Our subway system is one of the world’s oldest, and one of the largest. It grew from several private companies, and remnants of that history still exist. We have our own vocabulary for understanding our system and our own way of asking others for help. In this post, I’ll help you learn how to ask a New Yorker for directions on the subway, and how we think about and navigate the system.
My tips are less comprehensive, and based more on the feedback, questions, and occasional arguments, I’ve had with students. These tips are meant to help people who aren’t from New York, and whose first language isn’t English. These tips are helpful whether you are here for a short stay (as a tourist) or for the long haul. (more…)
It’s no secret that languages borrow from other languages. The French, despite their reputation as linguistic puritans, are known for enjoying “le weekend.” Any English-speaking fan of telenovelas has probably heard the word “look” being used to describe one’s personal physical appearance and style.
English has always had its fair share of borrowed phrases. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they stole native words as well as land.
Americans have adopted many foreign words and expressions that were brought to our shores by people who came here from all over the world. New York City, which continues to draw immigrants, visitors, dreamers, and doers from every corner of the planet, has a particularly rich history of taking words of foreign origin and adding them to our unique regional lexicon.
Below is a list of 12 foreign words and phrases that one is likely to hear in New York. I’ve excluded words used only to describe foods such as pizza, tacos, and so on. They’re too easy! Most of these words have been brought to me by my English-language students who heard them at work, in social settings, or on television.
Most of my students want PRIVATE lessons. They are self-conscious about their English, and don’t want an audience on the world wide web! However, last week I was asked to teach a lesson on somebody’s livestream. I wasn’t sure, how it would work. We were supposed to meet indoors for a regular lesson, but we wound up meeting outside. It was cold and windy. I didn’t write anything down, which is unusual for me. The student was interrupted by his audience, who had many questions and comments! It was very distracting!
Here is a link to the livestream. My lesson starts at about 1:20:
Let’s try something different. I’ve created an audio file, so you can listen to this lesson as you follow the transcript below. Words in boldface are explained in a short glossary beneath the text.
“Bait and switch” is a commonly used expression. It comes up in conversation, and it’s mentioned sometimes in newspaper and magazine articles. In fact, if you google it, you’ll find plenty of references!
“Why isn’t there a direct subway line to the airport?”
“Why is it so expensive to get to Kennedy?”
“I always take Uber, but how do you New Yorkers get to the airport?
I get these questions a lot. Many of my English language students are here on work transfers, or they are the spouses of someone with an L-1 visa. They love to explore U.S. destinations, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles . They enjoy going back home for the holidays. Some of them have a “revolving door” of visitors crashing on their couch. They often lament the high cost of getting to the airport, and are surprised that a major city like New York, doesn’t offer better options. Usually, they take Uber.
Today I’m going to give you some other options for getting to JFK. I will follow up with posts on getting to Newark Airport and LaGuardia.
(Quick Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer and this blog post does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about your visa or ability to work in the United States, consult an immigration attorney!)
Congratulations! Your spouse works for a multinational company or organization and just got a job transfer to New York or maybe Los Angeles, or another major American city. You are excited about the prospect of spending a year or maybe more in a foreign country.
However, there’s one little problem….
While this is a great career opportunity for your better-half, it might not be so great for your career. Maybe, if you are very lucky, your company will allow you to stay on and work remotely, but with the time difference between the US and Europe, that might not work out so well. Chances are you are going to have to take a long leave or quit your job.
But there’s some good news: You can work legally in the United States!