Words in the News: Woke

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, American politics, American words used in media, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL Current Events, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Tutoring

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.)

 

Word of The Day: Spiel

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Online English lessons

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.

 

12 Foreign Words and Phrases New Yorkers Love to Use

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, Online English lessons

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. 

The classic and much imitated Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty La Fea centered on the transformation of Betty’s “look.”

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.

Wabanaki (Native American) Canoe. The word “canoe” came from the Arawaken language. Can you canoe?

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.

Click here to read the complete list. (more…)

Getting to JFK: Here Are Your Options

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture

“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.

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Welcome to New York! Now learn English and find a job!

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Tutoring

(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!

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The Way We Speak (English) Now: Hooking Up

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture

“Hooking up” is a phrasal verb – which means (as all my ESL students know) it is an expression containing a verb and a preposition.

Once upon a time is a phrase we use to start fairy tales. It was also used in the very first Star Wars film, in the opening captions where we learn that the story takes place “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes we use “once upon a time” ironically to mean “a not so long time ago in the past,” as in the following:

Once upon a time “hooking up” was an innocuous expression used in the following way:

John: My flight was delayed, so I won’t be able to meet you at the breakfast. I should get to the conference by noon.

Kevin: That’s fine. There’s a lunch break at noon. We’ll hook up then.

John: Great! I’m looking forward to it.

In this context, “hook up” is very similar to “meet up.” Here’s another example, just to make the point:

Sarah: So did you have a chance to talk to John at the conference?

Kevin: No, his flight was delayed, and then he got stuck in traffic, and I was on the panel in the afternoon. We never managed to hook up.

However, in recent years the expression “hook up” or “hooking up” has taken on another meaning, which has just about supplanted the previous meaning. Here is an example of how you are likely to hear it used:

John: I really like Sarah, but I think she’s dating Kevin isn’t she?

Beth: Dating? I don’t know about that. They may have hooked up a couple of times back in college, but I think now they’re just friends.

John: Friends with benefits?

Beth: Maybe once upon a time. I doubt it in the present. Kevin lives with his girlfriend, and I hear she keeps him on a pretty tight leash. Honestly, I doubt that Sarah and Kevin are more than co-workers.

John: Wow. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable with that history if I was Kevin’s girlfriend!

Beth: Oh c’mon! What happens in college stays in college.

(more…)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Cloisters_from_Garden.jpg

5 Easy Labor Day Weekend New York Getaway Day Trips

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, New York Culture, Tutoring

 

Most of my students are newcomers to New York. Some already understand that New Yorkers love to get away from the city, especially on long weekends during the summer, but if you didn’t make plans, it’s not too late to have a fun three-day weekend. There a lots of interesting places to explore within the five boroughs of New York City, and there are plenty of easy day trips outside of the city that don’t require finding a “last minute”  car rental.

Here are five ideas for outdoor excersions that will feel like mini-vacations.

  1. Explore Manhattan’s Northern Tip

You can start by catching the A train to 207th Street. From there you can visit Fort Tryon Park. The park offers beautiful Hudson River views on winding paths. This is also where you can find visit The Cloisters. You can then walk to Inwood Hill Park, which offers hiking trails with old growth trees. There is also a Nature Center there where you can learn more about the local ecology. Sometimes there are additional activities sponsored by the Parks Department, such as kayaking. (more…)

Got or Gotten? How to Speak North American

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Tutoring

Someone should write a book on all the uses of “get” in the English language. This post is for a select audience of grammar-nerds and advanced English language learners already familiar with “get” in everyday speech. Sorry, but this is not where you are going to learn 500 new idiomatic phrases with “get.” I’m going to attempt to focus on when to use “got” and when to use “gotten.”

Got it?

Okay, let’s go!

Here’s the lowdown:

Most of those handy PDFs that list commonly used irregular verbs have two past participles listed for the verb “get.” Those past participles are “got” and “gotten.” Which one is correct?

Some lists break it down by classifying “got” as British English and “gotten” as American English, but that’s not helpful. In North America(US and Canada) we use both “got” and “gotten” and we use them for different things. (more…)

Handy Phrases: With Hands (Part I)

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips

handsAll languages have phrases and saying involving parts of the body. English has a lot of them! I’m only going to write about a few of the more common uses of the word “hand” here. If you would like more, please let me know in the comment section below.

Let’s start with the use of  hand as a verb. Hand is a regular verb. (It takes “ed” in the past and perfect tenses.) In its simplest form it means to pass or give something to someone. (more…)

How Americans Elect a President (An Explanation for English Language Learners)

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips

(I have had conversations with all of my students – even the beginners – about the coming election. Here is a post explaining as simply as I can how the United States elects a president.)

hillary-and-donaldEvery four years the United States holds an election for president. The major parties (Democratic and Republican) each choose a candidate. Both parties have a series of primary elections. These are contests between candidates in the same political party who are trying to get the nomination of that party. How primaries work varies from state to state. Not all states have primaries. Primaries do not take place on the same day, but happen over a period of months. The first one is usually in February. The final primary might not be until June. This is why our campaigns seem to go on forever. The voters choose between candidates when they are in the voting booth, but they are not actually voting directly for their choice. In reality, the candidate with the most votes wins delegates  to send to his or her party’s convention. The delegates all go to their party’s convention where they nominate their choice. The conventions take place during the summer.

Months before candidates start running (campaigning) in the primaries, they announce that they will run. This is because they need to start fundraising for their campaigns. This is another reason the process feels so long! (more…)