Don’t Louse This Up! Using Lousy in Everyday Speech

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, American words used in media, English lessons in New York, Online English lessons, Phrasal Verbs
Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lousy is a simple two syllable word that almost all native-English speaking Americans use. It’s not an “SAT word “ or a word you’re likely to encounter on the TOEFL. It probably won’t appear on your medical licensing test if you’re a doctor or a nurse, but it’s a word that your patients are likely to use. If you want to sound more natural and more like a native speaker, this is one to add to your everyday English.

You can go to google to hear the word. Here is a breakdown for easy pronunciation:

First syllable spelled “lou” rhymes with “cow.”

Second syllable: “sy” sounds like the way we say the letter “Z.” 

Here are a few examples:

“I’m happy with my new car, but I think I got a lousy deal. My cousin paid $2000 less for the same make and model.”

Doctor: Are you in pain?  Patient: Not exactly. I’m just tired and I feel lousy all the time.

“The painters did a lousy job.  They left paint on the windows, and you can see old stains.”

“The weather has been lousy all week. Even on the days when it hasn’t rained, it’s been too windy and cold to enjoy being outside.”

“My son had a lousy time on the school trip. He got car sick on the bus, another kid stole his lunch, and the teacher yelled at him because she thought he was trying to start a fight.”

“I feel lousy about what I said last week. I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Can you guess the meaning of lousy?

Lousy means bad, but in context it implies many things: incompetent, disappointing, unwell, not enjoyable, and more. The parameters of lousy are a bit vague, and may vary depending on context and the speaker.  For instance, a parent telling a child, “You are a lousy son,” sounds devastating, but “lousy” can also be used when you call in sick to work because you still haven’t recovered completely from your flu: “I don’t have fever today, but I’m still feeling lousy.” You can feel “lousy” as in physically not well, or you can feel “lousy” (bad) about something that happened because it was your fault. You could substitute other words such as guilty, terrible, bad, etc.

We can use the comparative: lousier or the superlative lousiest. Lousier would mean not as a good as someone who is probably already not very good at something:  Sally is a lousy bowler, but I’m even lousier at it than she is.

Lousiest, the superlative form, is sometimes used similarly to “worst.”  Here’s an example:

“I’ve seen a lot of lousy movies. But that was the lousiest movie I’ve seen in years!”

Where does “lousy” come from?

More than one of my students thought “lousy” was related to “lazy” because they sound somewhat similar.  It is not! 

“Lousy” literally means “to be infested with lice.”  Lice are the tiny insects that sometimes lay eggs in hair.  Those lice are called “head lice.” There are other kinds of lice as well that are even more disgusting. Usually an infestation involves hundreds of lice, so we generally use the plural form “lice.”  However, the singular form is “louse.” If you find one louse, you probably have an infestation of lice. 

Having head lice is a lousy experience! 

Sometimes we use the noun  “louse” as a pejorative to describe a person who behaves badly. Louse is usually used to describe someone with inconsiderate and/or unethical behavior.  Here are two examples:

“My boss is such a louse. He seems to take real pleasure in firing people and insulting the people who work for him.”

“I can’t believe Doris is back with Charley! He constantly cheats on her. What a louse!”

We would NOT use “louse” to describe a person who had done a lousy or incompetent job. For instance, you might fire someone for doing a lousy or incompetent job, but it doesn’t mean the person is a louse. Louse as an insult retains the quality of being a parasite.

We use the verb “delouse” to describe the action of getting rid of  lice:

“The adults  spent Thanksgiving weekend delousing the kids. Jane had picked up head lice at school, and gave it to all her cousins. Lousiest Thanksgiving ever, uh literally!” 

We don’t use “delouse” very much as a metaphor. It’s usually used literally.

We don’t use “louse” alone as a verb. However, we do use the phrasal verb “louse up” in a similar way to “mess up.”  “Louse up” sounds stronger than “mess up” and more serious. Here are some examples:

“This is our biggest client. We can’t afford to do anything that would louse up this deal.”

“Joe apologized for lousing up, but Meredith told him that he was a louse for cheating on her, and she would never forgive him.”

“I’m very proud you got the job. Now don’t do anything to louse this up!”

Can you think of a sentence using lousy, louse,  or louse up?  Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.  If you’re looking for English lessons, check this out.

 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/75th_St-Elderts_Ln_45b_-_FK_Lane_HS.jpg

It’s Elementary: How we talk about school in the United States.

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

Some of my students are immigrants who’ve started families in the United States or brought their children here. Others might be here for a few years for work. If they have children, they are going to have to navigate the educational system, so here’s a primer for parents with some basic information.  (I’ll do this as a blog series with more to come.)

In the United States, school is compulsory with some exceptions until age 16. This means that children need to be enrolled in some kind of school. Children start kindergarten at age 5, then continue to first grade the following year. There are 12 grades, so most children graduate high school the year they turn 18. 

Schools by grade levels:

Preschool is the term for educational programs for toddlers and very young children — usually up to age 5. We sometimes use the words “pre kindergarten” or “nursery school,” but in recent years, “preschool” has come to dominate. Preschool is not compulsory. There are some public preschool programs, but most preschools are private or independent, and charge fees.

Elementary School (Also known as primary school or grammar school)  Elementary school usually goes from kindergarten to the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade.  Years ago, “elementary school” almost always meant kindergarten through sixth grade, but now most elementary schools only go through the fourth or fifth grade. Sometimes we use the words “primary school” to describe this type of school. Primary school is used in many other parts of the English speaking world, but in the U.S. you are more likely to hear elementary school. You will also sometimes hear people refer to this type of school as “grammar school.”

Middle school goes from the fourth through eighth grades, but this varies in some school districts and cities. In New York City, for example, many public middle schools only have sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as most public elementary schools go through fifth grade. Middle school replaced an older model of “junior high school” which started in the seventh grade and went through the ninth grade. 

High school grades are ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. We refer to these years as freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Some high schools in the United States offer students advanced placement or other opportunities to gain college credits while in high school. Some schools offer accelerated programs so that students can skip their senior year and go straight to college, while others may offer an additional year for technical skill training — especially for those students that aren’t going on to college.  Many high schools were built as large institutions. In New York City many of the large public high schools were divided into different schools operating on the same campus and sharing some facilities as seen in the photo above this post. 

Types of schools: Public, Private, Religious, Charter

In the United States the vast majority of children go to public schools. We use the term “public school” differently than in England. In England a “public school” is an expensive boarding school supported by tuition and alumni donations. In the United States we use the term “public school” to describe tuition-free schools paid for by tax dollars.  Public schools receive most of their money from local taxes and are controlled by local school boards, so the quality of public schools varies greatly depending on many factors. Many people with “the means” (the money) choose to live in communities with high quality public schools. Most public schools have restrictions based on zoning. If you live outside a community, you might not be able to send your child to that school. Some communities have higher home prices because they are in “good” school districts. (If you are shopping for a home in the United States, you will usually see information about the school district included in the information.)  In the United States, it is not uncommon for even wealthy families to send their children to local public schools. While tuition is free at public schools, some public schools, especially in wealthier districts encourage parents to contribute money to school activities funds. 

You might have heard the term “magnet school.”  Generally a “magnet school” is a public school offering special programs that will attract more students. 

You might also hear terms like “specialized schools.”  In New York City for example there are some high schools with special programs in a specific area such as art, theater, science, technology, etc. It is the aim of these schools to train students for careers in specialized fields. For example, LaGuardia High School in New York City is known for its theater and dance programs. Children are accepted based on auditions. It boasts many famous alumni. Other specialized high schools in New York City include Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These schools offer excellent science and math programs. Students have to get high scores on a test in order to gain admission.

While the word “specialized” denotes specific programs, the phrase  “special ed” or “special education” has a different meaning. In the United States “special education” refers to programs for students with learning disabilities who might need “special” help in order to learn. Sometimes students with special educational needs — whether due to a physical disability or a learning disability — are referred to as “special-needs children.”  There is no charge for these services in public schools. Non-religious private schools do not receive funding for these services, but may by law be required to offer them. Some religious schools are able to receive funding for services to special ed students. If you have a special needs child, you should ask about the programs offered before registering your child at a school.

Generally a school that charges tuition and does not rely on public funding, is called a “private school.” There are also “private schools” that may have a religious affiliation. Some religious schools receive funding from religious organizations and may be lower-cost than non-religious private schools. Private schools often refer to themselves as “independent schools.” This may be because the term “private” sounds elitist, or could confuse the public. Most independent schools offer some scholarships or fee reductions to qualified students who cannot pay the full tuition. Private schools that allow students to live on a campus are also referred to as “boarding schools.”

One movement that has become popular in recent years and that has grown a lot in New York is the “charter school” movement. Charter schools are “independent” schools that receive money from local governments to operate and offer services. Parents don’t pay tuition.  These schools are popular with parents who often think their children will get a better education at a charter school than at a public school. In New York City, charter schools generally offer elementary through middle school grades. Admission is often by lottery, but may also depend on family interviews. 

Because of the separation between church and state in the United States, public schools and charter schools do not offer any religious education, and do not favor any religion. 

(I hope you found this information helpful. Feel free to comment on this post.  If you are interested in English lessons, please get in touch.)

 

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…)

Welcome to the Perfect English NYC Blog

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

This is the blog of the Perfect English NYC website. If you are looking for private 1:1 ESL/English lessons/tutoring, please go to the HOME page to get started. If you are looking for FREE resources to help you learn English, please check out the links to your right. Posts below may contain short lessons, ideas for self-study, and/or stories about American culture, holidays, traditions, etc — and especially about life in New York City for newcomers!