The Challenges of the English Language Can Help Keep Life Exciting …

Written by Larry Usoff on July 16, 2018

Whenever I hear that someone is “waxing nostalgic” I get a mental picture of them polishing the word that’s on a plaque of some sort. Of course that’s not the meaning and to make sure of it, I looked it up. What it means is that you’re remembering something from the past…and it doesn’t have to be your past, and it doesn’t have to be good either. We all have had thoughts about things that happened in the past…perhaps to us, or perhaps not. One may also wax philosophically, in which case you may be expounding upon some long-ago theory. It’s one of those phrases in our English language that make it a somewhat difficult language for foreigners to learn.

Being brought up on the language it’s not a problem for me, but it might be confusing for people who might even have the same language, but use different terms. In England, as an example, a “lift” is what we call an elevator. What we call a “hood” on a car they call a “bonnet”, and our “trunk” is their “boot”. We call a car that can retract the roof a “convertible” and they call it a “drophead”. What we might term a “sedan” to the Brits is a “saloon”. You can imagine the confusion if you invited someone from the UK to have a drink in a saloon and they look around for an automobile! If you were to hear “bangers and mash” being ordered in an English restaurant you might be confused, but don’t be…it’s sausages and mashed potatoes. Speaking of potatoes, we call them “chips” but in England they are “crisps” so if you order fish and chips you’ll get the fish with potato crisps…better order fish and fries and then you’ll get the real fish and chips.

Oh you, why don’t you “act your age”? One might hear that a lot if the person is a clownish type, or just is too slow-moving for a young person. The latter might be called a “couch potato”, but, really, has anyone ever seen a potato on a couch? Have you ever visited someone in their “neck of the woods”? Early American settlers used the word “neck” to describe a narrow stretch of wood, pasture, meadows, and so on, and it’s just come down to us as where someone might live. If you are called upon to write or speak or somehow communicate your ideas to a group, you may get “cold feet”…but not really. To “go up in flames” is the same as “go down in flames” even though they sound somewhat alike.

“Variety is the spice of life”, right? One doesn’t want to eat the same food day in and day out, so we have different meals from time to time. An old joke about variety goes like this…a wife is berating her husband for being out with another woman. He tells her that he can explain it, if she will just answer his questions. She says she will, so he starts…” We know the plural of louse, is lice, right?” She answers yes. He says, “We know the plural of mouse is mice, right?” She answers in the affirmative. Then he says, “So, then the plural of spouse must be spice, right?” That’s when she hit him with the frying pan. It’s been my experience over a long period of being married, that you simply do not try to outwit a woman on her “home turf”.

Years ago when my wife was ill, I tried my hand at baking. To be sure, cooking a meal now and then wasn’t a new experience, but this was different…this was a pie and it was to be a surprise for her. Being a male, directions/instructions are things to be ignored and we plunge ahead willy-nilly doing things as we think they should be done. Here’s where my train of thought begins to get derailed. When the recipe calls for something my immediate thought is, “Well, if two are good, three would be even better!” and that’s simply not so. Perhaps professional chefs or bakers can make substitutions and it works out…but I’m not one of them. The “pie”, if you want to still call it that, came out of the oven looking like someone had been walking on it! When you hear someone say, “Oh, that’s easy as pie”, you give them “the look” because, in all probability, they’ve never baked a pie in their lives! It’s not easy at all, trust me on this one.

To give you another tidbit to think about…how is it that “fat chance” and “slim chance” can mean the same thing? Have you ever seen two male deer fighting for a female’s approval, or just to make sure that one of them emerges as the “alpha male”? In some instances, as they charge one another and butt heads, their horns lock and so we get the expression “to lock horns” with someone is to disagree strongly.

Parting shot: I have a grandson living in Colombia, South America. He teaches English to Colombians and I’m very proud of him…but I wouldn’t want his job, ever! It’s difficult enough trying to explain an idiom to a small American child, but to one that speaks a language different from your own…it must take nerves of steel.

Image: CCO Creative Commons; Excerpted from:

Larry Usoff
Larry Usoff, US Navy Retired. Articulate. Opinionated. Patriotic. Conservative. Cultured enough so that I can be taken almost anywhere. Makes no excuses for what I say or do, but takes responsibility for them. Duty. Honor. Country. E-mail me at: