Orchid English Blog

Swearving: How to Swear Politely

Posted on November 8, 2012

When life’s irritations or levels of pain get too much for us in an instant, we need some kind of release. As someone in a client-facing job and who often looks after young children, it simply doesn’t do to be effing and blinding willy nilly. I noticed the other day that I had incorporated “gosh” and “my goodness me!” into my vocabulary even at home.

In my classroom in Japan I once tripped on the lead of the CD player and brought it crashing down on my foot. “Fffff” I started, before trailing off. Unfortunately I didn’t get away with it because it was a relatively advanced class, and one student in particular was delighted that he had almost heard an English swear word in action, albeit a quarter of one. “Did you say a bad word?” he asked gleefully. “No!” I answered, three-quarters truthfully.

So sometimes it’s really too late to avoid saying anything at all, and one needs to “swearve” /swɛːv/. I invented this word today and I’m quite pleased with it. It’s for those times when you are driving down the high street of life and something inexcusably vexing jumps in your way. It’s OK as long as you don’t hit it.

When I was little, my mother would exclaim “fiddlesticks”, rather elegantly in hindsight, when her exasperation levels peaked. Similarly there is “fudge” and “flip”. Of course there is always “sugar”, and, immortalised by Jennifer Saunders, the rather pretty “sugar crumbs”. To avoid blaspheming just use “gosh”, “Gordon Bennett” or my personal favourite, “God Bless America!” I quite enjoy swearves from across the pond too such as “darn”, “dang” or “dagnabbit”. You would have to be very lucky to hear the latter because according to Urban Dictionary its usage is limited to only a few select groups, including “cantankerous old farmers”.

If you have any good swearves, share them on the Facebook page:


Geddit? Jokes in English

Posted on June 29, 2012

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t translate? People of course have different definitions of what they find funny within and across cultures. In France for example, people often appreciate the value of punning more than in the UK. I find Beavis and Butthead’s Cornholio sketch hilarious, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. When conducting an English  lesson in Japan on the theme of jokes I found that I had to establish a code with the students. If you’re not laughing is it because you don’t get it or because you don’t find it funny?  Some jokes work perfectly across languages while some are just lost in linguistic or cultural translation.

Jokes that Work Across Languages

Jokes that rely on irony or funny situations can often work cross linguistically. A couple of years ago readers of The Telegraph voted for the best ever joke.  Tommy Cooper featured heavily in the top 100 and won with this one:

  • A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Did Cooper deserve the award? How about this one:

  • I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn’t find any.

One all the way from Japan:

  • “What’s the best way to use a “sensu” or fan while keeping it from wearing out? You move your head in front of the fan”

Here is my absolute favourite of the cross-linguistic ones:

  • A police officer stops at a ranch in Texas, and tells the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for drugs.” The rancher says, “Okay, but do not go in that field over there,” and points out the location. The police officer explodes saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me.” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removes his badge and proudly displays it to the rancher. “See this badge? This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish, on any land, no questions asked. Have I made myself clear? ” The rancher nods politely, apologizes, and goes about his chores.  A short time later, the old rancher hears loud screams and sees the police officer running for his life chased by the rancher’s enormous Santa Gertrudis bull!  With every step the bull is gaining ground on the officer, and it seems likely that he’ll get gored before he reaches safety. The officer is clearly terrified. The rancher throws down his tools, runs to the fence and yells at the top of his lungs: “Your badge… Show him your badge!!”

English-Specific Jokes

Not all jokes however can be translated into other languages easily, if at all. The first is my favourite from this category:

  • As Alexander the Great led his troops into Persia, his soothsayers urged him to cease from conquest and reign content as king of all Greece. The divine Alexander, in his pride, was wont to brush these warnings aside, until one day, lightning struck from a clear sky and completely destroyed his royal bivouac.  “A portent!” cried the priests. “Whaddya want,” said Alexander, “we get them at cost.”
  • A mushroom walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign? It says ‘No mushrooms!'” The mushroom replies, “C’mon man, I’m a fungi!”

Here the word sounds exactly like another set of words and makes sense either way.

Having recently finished my linguistics degree I was delighted to see a festival t-shirt in Bristol with the slogan: “Camping is in Tents”. This is an example of elision: if three consonants occur in sequence one will often be elided for ease of pronunciation. In this case the plosive /t/ sound is elided, making it homophonous with the word “intense”.

  • A man walks into a restaurant and sits down at a table. The waiter walks up to take the order and asks the man, “Would you like a soup or salad?” The man replies, “What’s a super salad?”

Grammatical function words like “or” often don’t carry a great deal of sentence stress, the stress occurs on the words that are being contrasted. In the sentence “Did you buy a book or a DVD?”  the word “or” holds almost no sentence stress and could sound like a schwa, the weak “ar” in “popular” the “er” sound in “finger” or, in this case, “super”.

  • What did the mamma tomato say to the baby tomato? “Catch up!!!

  • A man said to his friend, “Want to hear a joke about butter?” His friend said, “Sure.” The man said, “Nah, I’d butter not tell you. You might spread it.”

These are both quite the eye-roller, playing on similar sounding words. The second rather economically uses a second pun, exploiting the fact that the word “spread” can be figurative or physical.

  • There are two fish in a tank, and one says to the other; “How do you drive this thing?”

I find this one funnier, we are tricked into thinking we know what “tank” it is but we don’t. Here are some accent-specific jokes, from a Christmas cracker near you:

  • Knock knock! Who’s there? Luke. Luke who? Look through the keyhole and see.
  • In which US state can you find small Pepsis? Minnesota.

If you thought some of the above were bad, it’s time to really brace yourself for these British golden oldies…

  • A man walks into a bar with a roll of tarmac under his arm and says: “Pint please, and one for the road.”
  • I met a Dutch girl with inflatable shoes last week, phoned her up to arrange a date but unfortunately she’d popped her clogs.

Here you need a knowledge of English idioms to get the double meaning.

Well I hope that at least some of the jokes I chose made you laugh rather than groan. I have included a key for those you may not have “got” – after all not everyone is familiar with the Liverpool accent!


Didn’t get ‘em all?

“Portent” sounds the same as “poor tent”.

“Fungi” sounds the same as “fun guy”.

“Catch up” sounds like “ketchup”.

“Better” sounds like “butter”.

“Tank” can be a container for pet fish, or an army vehicle.

“Look” and “Luke” are pronounced the same in some accents eg Liverpool.

“Minnesota” sounds like “mini soda” in an American accent.

“One for the road” refers to the custom of having a drink to relax before driving home. Before the days of drink-driving regulations.

“To pop one’s clogs” is a casual idiom for dying.

False Friends in English

Posted on June 17, 2012

When I lived in Paris a colleague called me on my mobile, beginning in a polite tone of voice; “j’espère que je ne te dérange pas” I understood the first part; “I hope that I’m not” and, somewhat confused, reassured her that she wasn’t. I spent the rest of the conversation thinking that surely she couldn’t be wondering whether she was making me “deranged”! On looking up the word later it made sense, “déranger” in French means “disturb” in English.

I also had several strange conversations with French students of English, telling me they had just “passed” an exam. “Congratulations!” I’d reply. “Oh no, I haven’t got the result yet”, they’d reply. Confusingly, “passer un examen” means “take an exam” rather than “pass” it.

In France it is perfectly acceptable to “demande” something, it just means to “ask” and doesn’t necessarily have such a forceful nuance as English “demand”.

When English words are imported into other languages, they may take on a meaning subtly or spectacularly different from the original meaning. A French woman once told me that she had gone to the hairdresser for a “brushing”. I wondered why on Earth she couldn’t just brush her hair herself, and then noticed that lots of hairdressers in France advertise “brushing” in the window. It means “styling”, something her hairdresser probably was better at.

In Japan, at the end of the season, you might go to a “baagen” (sale) hoping to pick up something that in English is a “bargain”. But don’t be tempted to buy that ill-fitting neon tracksuit just because it’s cheap! Avoiding this common pitfall may lead you to be described as “sensu ga aru”. This doesn’t mean that you have good “sense” but rather that you have good taste. In English if you said that someone has “good sense” it would sound more like they always locked up their house properly, ate sensibly and so on.

While I was researching this I was delighted to find that the Japanese have invented the word “dokutāsutoppu”, meaning  when a doctor tells a patient to stop doing something. I don’t believe that there is a specific word for this in English. We should start using it though;

“I really love red meat but when I went to the clinic this week I got a doctorstop on it.”

“Oh bad luck”

I also found that in German “Oldtimer” means an old car, rather than a flippant way to describe an elderly person. While I do love this, I’m not sure we could absorb this seamlessly into English:

“I can’t get my car out, some oldtimer’s in the way.”

“Great trade-in prices on oldtimers!”

There are also some interesting false friends among different varieties of English.

Visiting my cousin’s house in Australia, my cousin’s daughter who was then a toddler announced to me that she wanted her “stroller”. Intrigued, I responded “That’s OK, go and get it” because I didn’t know what she was talking about. When the little girl came back pushing it, I understood. I mentioned to my cousin that in the UK we call that a “buggy” and she laughed and said it sounded like something horrible you find in your nose.

“A moot point” in the US means something unworthy of discussion, whereas in the UK it’s the opposite, something controversial or undecided. In punctuation, “hash” to me means “#” and “pound” means “£”. I discovered through using American automated phone systems that in American English “pound” means “#”. British speakers increasingly use American English words due to the influence of the media, which can create ambiguities. Does “you look smart” mean that you are dressed formally, or that you look clever?

So if English isn’t your first language take heart, there is no one “correct” version, and even native speakers get confused by other native speakers.

Rhythms in Music and Language

Posted on May 15, 2012

I recently attended a very enjoyable dance show of Nihon Buyo, traditional Japanese dance. The dancers were so graceful and the kimono were distinct and beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the dancers could tell a complex story using a sequence of movements and facial expressions; a geisha waiting for her lover or a dance of the springtime.

To me the rhythm sounded quite exotic, sometimes punctuated by stamps of the feet or pauses. This “exoticness” to my ears may perhaps in part be accounted for by the fact that English is a stress-timed language whereas Japanese is a syllable-timed language. Syllables or phonemes which hold little stress in English can be got through more quickly, whereas in Japanese the syllables hold equal weight regardless of importance to the meaning of the sentence.

You may have noticed that words are pronounced differently in different contexts in English, and this can be quite difficult for those learning English as a foreign language. Take the sentence “Does Benny want to get a curry?” Can you tell intuitively where the stress placement is? It’s on “Benny” and “curry”, the subject and the object.

This leaves “want to get a” running together fast and several of the sounds that would occur in isolation omitted. It can sound something like “wanageta”. One reason for this is that it is a little awkward to pronounce two “t”s sequentially in “want to”.

A general rule for stress placement in a sentence is that the most important words for the meaning of the sentence are usually stressed. Word stress can seem quite irregular but there are some rules and it gets more and more intuitive.

One important rule is that affixes can control the stress placement, like -tion. Any word ending in -tion will have the stress directly before the -tion syllable. Test it! NAtion, disambiguAtion, proTECtion, FACtion, conSUMPtion. You can read more about sentence stress here:


If you can spare some time to read about stress and learn the rules it will help make your English sound much more natural.

Below is a photo from after the Nihon Buyo performance. Thank you very much to everyone who made it such a memorable afternoon.

Favourite Words

Posted on May 4, 2012

When I was little sometimes I used to read the dictionary. I found my favourite word this way; “sesquipedalianism”. Doesn’t it sound elegant? Wouldn’t you be impressed if you head that? I haven’t ever had cause to use it until now but it still gives me pleasure. It means, wonderfully appropriately: “given to using long words”.

I came across a website dedicated to people’s favourite words and was pleasantly surprised to find that “sesquipedalian” is admired by other people too. I have never actually heard anyone use this word or seen it in natural use so I wonder how the others know it. Surely there can’t be many dictionary-readers out there.

My flatmate asserted without hesitation that his favourite word was “conundrum”. When pressed for a reason, he explained that he liked the way it was said. And then that the fact he liked it without knowing quite why it sounded so good was itself a conundrum.

I once asked a Japanese student of English what her favourite word was, and she replied “Rainbow”. That’s a nice one, I think. My favourite Japanese word is “Yappari” meaning “I knew it!” I think it’s mostly the sound that I like; strong and dynamic.

According to various studies Britain’s favourite words in seem to be either “serendipity” or “nincompoop”. I really hope it’s the former. Nincompoop? I can’t stand it! It sounds like something disgusting although actually it’s a playground insult.

Well I hope you solve the conundrum of your favourite word in the lexical rainbow of the English language. Just don’t be a nincompoop and choose nincompoop!