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Archives for English Vocabulary

English Vocabulary from News Programs: LEGISLATION

News coverage on laws often includes the term legislation.

Legislation is a law passed by a legislative body like the U.S. Congress.

English Vocabulary From News Programs: MAINSTREAM

News programs that refer to popular culture often use the term mainstream.

Thoughts, beliefs and choices accepted by the largest amount of people are commonly referred to as “mainstream.”

English Vocabulary From News Programs: STARTUP

Here’s a word you’re likely to hear often in business or economics news programs.

Startup means to set something in motion. This news word is often used in business story to describe a new company.

English Vocabulary From News Programs: REGIME

When you watch or listen to political news programs you may hear this word: REGIME.

Regime is another word for government. It usually has a negative meaning

English Vocabulary From News Programs: SECTARIAN

Here’s a word that you often hear on news programs on radio or television:

Sectarian means having something to do with groups or sects. Sectarian violence is the term commonly used to describe fighting among groups or sects.

English Vocabulary: The Golden Rule

Everyone knows what gold is, what it looks like, and how financially rewarding it would be to have a lot of gold among one’s possessions. Yet, what does “The Golden Rule” mean? How can a rule be made of gold? Or, should we say, how can a rule be similar to the meaning behind gold?
Here’s a helpful program from our friends at Voice of America to help you better understand the background of this phrase and how to use it best in modern English conversations:

Have You Heard of the Golden Rule?

Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Throughout history, gold has been a sign of purity, beauty and power. Calling something “golden” means it has great quality and value.

For example, the “golden rule” is possibly the world’s most widespread moral rule. It says people should treat others the way they themselves would like to be treated. Every major religion has its own version of this idea.

The “golden ratio” is found in art, architecture and nature. It describes a rectangle with a length about one and one-half times its width. Objects using this ratio in their design seem to please the eye more than others.

Philosophers have their own golden idea. The “golden mean” says moderation in all things is the best way to live one’s life. It is an idea linked to the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Similar thoughts exist in Buddhism and Confucianism.

Ancient Greek myths told of a time long ago when people lived in peace and happiness. Poets called it “The Golden Age.” A golden age now describes a historical period of great artistic, scientific or economic progress. It can even recall a time of success and popularity for an industry. For example, the 1930s and 40s were called “The Golden Age of Radio.”

You may have heard the proverb “silence is golden.” This means silence is of great value — it is sometimes better to say nothing than to speak.

You might say your child was “good as gold” when he behaved well at school. British writer Charles Dickens used this expression in 1843. He was describing the child Tiny Tim in the book “A Christmas Carol.”

In 1937, American playwright Clifford Odets wrote a play called “The Golden Boy.” This expression describes a young man who has many good qualities and a bright future.

You might tell someone “you are golden” when that person does something very well.

“Gold-digger” is another description. But this does not say something nice about a person. A “gold-digger” is someone who seeks to marry a rich person because he or she is only interested in that person’s money.

Maybe you like old songs from the 1950s or 60s that are still well known and popular today. These are called “golden oldies.”

In the 1980s and 90s, an American television comedy series told about four older women living in Miami, Florida. “The Golden Girls” often dealt with social issues in a funny way.

Today, most older people look forward to reaching their “golden years.” This is when hard-working people can retire to a life of ease and fulfillment.

This program was written by Mario Ritter.

I’m Faith Lapidus.

You can find more Words and Their Stories at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com


English Vocabulary: Heard it through the grapevine

What does it mean to “hear” or learn something “through the grapevine?” What is “the grapevine” in the first place. Surely we can’t hear or learn through grape vines, can we? Phrases like this are hard to comprehend and use when English learners resort only to a basic English dictionary or translator. Here’s a program that helps clarify the meanings behind the above phrase:

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Some of the most exciting information comes by way of the grapevine.

That is so because reports received through the grapevine are supposed to be secret. The information is all hush hush. It is whispered into your ear with the understanding that you will not pass it on to others.

You feel honored and excited. You are one of the special few to get this information.
You cannot wait. You must quickly find other ears to pour the information into. And so, the information – secret as it is – begins to spread. Nobody knows how far.

The expression by the grapevine is more than 100 years old.

The American inventor, Samuel F. Morse, is largely responsible for the birth of the expression. Among others, he experimented with the idea of telegraphy – sending messages over a wire by electricity. When Morse finally completed his telegraphic instrument, he went before Congress to show that it worked. He sent a message over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. The message was: “What hath God wrought?” This was on May 24th, 1844.

Quickly, companies began to build telegraph lines from one place to another. Men everywhere seemed to be putting up poles with strings of wire for carrying telegraphic messages. The workmanship was poor. And the wires were not put up straight.

Some of the results looked strange. People said they looked like a grapevine. A large number of the telegraph lines were going in all directions, as crooked as the vines that grapes grow on. So was born the expression, by the grapevine. Some writers believe that the phrase would soon have disappeared were it not for the American Civil War.

Soon after the war began in 1861, military commanders started to send battlefield reports by telegraph. People began hearing the phrase by the grapevine to describe false as well as true reports from the battlefield. It was like a game. Was it true? Who says so?

Now, as in those far-off Civil War days, getting information by the grapevine remains something of a game. A friend brings you a bit of strange news. “No,” you say, “it just can’t be true! Who told you?” Comes the answer, “I got it by the grapevine.”

You really cannot know how much – if any – of the information that comes to you by the grapevine is true or false. Still, in the words of an old American saying, the person who keeps pulling the grapevine shakes down at least a few grapes.

You have been listening to the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

I’m Christopher Cruise


English Vocabulary: Are you a couch potato? Do you suffer from cabin fever?

Are you a couch potato? Do you suffer from cabin fever? If you are having trouble understanding the previous questions, the program that follows should help you comprehend and use the terms “couch potato” and “cabin fever” on an ongoing basis.

From Couch Potato to Cabin Fever

Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Some unusual words describe how a person spends his or her time. For example, someone who likes to spend a lot of time sitting or lying down while watching television is sometimes called a couch potato. A couch is a piece of furniture that people sit on while watching television.

Robert Armstrong, an artist from California, developed the term couch potato in nineteen seventy-six. Several years later, he listed the term as a trademark with the United States government. Mister Armstrong also helped write a funny book about life as a full-time television watcher. It is called the “Official Couch Potato Handbook.”

Couch potatoes enjoy watching television just as mouse potatoes enjoy working on computers. A computer mouse is the device that moves the pointer, or cursor, on a computer screen. The description of mouse potato became popular in nineteen ninety-three. American writer Alice Kahn is said to have invented the term to describe young people who spend a lot of time using computers.

Too much time inside the house using a computer or watching television can cause someone to get cabin fever. A cabin is a simple house usually built far away from the city. People go to a cabin to relax and enjoy quiet time.

Cabin fever is not really a disease. However, people can experience boredom and restlessness if they spend too much time inside their homes. This is especially true during the winter when it is too cold or snowy to do things outside. Often children get cabin fever if they cannot go outside to play. So do their parents. This happens when there is so much snow that schools and even offices and stores are closed.

Some people enjoy spending a lot of time in their homes to make them nice places to live. This is called nesting or cocooning. Birds build nests out of sticks to hold their eggs and baby birds. Some insects build cocoons around themselves for protection while they grow and change. Nests and cocoons provide security for wildlife. So people like the idea of nests and cocoons, too.

The terms cocooning and nesting became popular more than twenty years ago. They describe people buying their first homes and filling them with many things. These people then had children.

Now these children are grown and have left the nest. They are in college. Or they are married and starting families of their own far away. Now these parents are living alone without children in their empty nest. They have become empty nesters.


This VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Jill Moss. I’m Faith Lapidus.


English Vocabulary: Ace in the Hole

If you enjoy playing cards or watching card games on television, you’re likely to have heard the phrase “Ace in the Hole”. The following program from our friends at VOA Special English explains the meaning and background of this phrase in the English language. Do you play cards? Do you use this term a lot? Let us know by adding your constructive comments at the bottom of this page.

Ace in the Hole

Now, Words and Their Stories, a program in Special English by the Voice of America.

It is surprising how many expressions that Americans use every day came from the card game of poker. For example, you hear the expression “ace in the hole” used by many people who would never think of going near a poker table. An “ace in the hole” is any argument, plan or thing kept hidden until needed. It is used especially when it can turn failure into success.

In poker and most card games, the ace is the highest and most valuable card. It is often a winning card. In one kind of poker game, the first card to each player is given face down. A player does not show this card to the other players. The other cards are dealt face up. The players bet money each time they receive another card.

No one knows until the end of the game whose hidden card is the winner. Often, the “ace in the hole” wins the game.

Smart card players — especially those who play for large amounts of money — closely watch the person who deals the cards. They are watching to make sure he is dealing honestly. They want to be sure that he is not dealing off the bottom of the stack of cards. A dealer who is doing that has “stacked the deck.” He has fixed the cards so that he will get higher cards. He will win and you will lose.

The expression “dealing off the bottom” now means cheating in business, as well as in cards. And when someone tells you that “the cards are stacked against you,” he is saying you do not have a chance to succeed.

In a poker game you do not want to let your opponents know if your cards are good or bad. So having a “poker face” is important. A “poker face” never shows any emotion, never expresses either good or bad feelings. No one can learn by looking at your face if your cards are good or bad.

People now use “poker face” in everyday speech to describe someone who shows no emotion.

Someone who has a “poker face” usually is good at bluffing. Bluffing is trying to trick a person into believing something about you that is not true.

In poker, you “bluff” when you bet heavily on a poor hand. The idea is to make the other players believe you have strong cards and are sure to win. If they believe you, they are likely to drop out of the game. This means you win the money they have bet.

You can do a better job of bluffing if you “hold your cards close to your vest.” You hold your cards close to you so no one can see what you have. In everyday speech, “holding your cards close to your vest” means not letting others know what you are doing or thinking. You are keeping your plans secret.

We are not bluffing when we say we hope you have enjoyed today’s program.

This Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano.

This is Bob Doughty.

English Vocabulary: GI Joe

Many associate the term GI Joe with an action-packed movie or toy soldiers many children still play with. But what does the term “GI Joe” mean and where does it come from? Here’s a news program from our friends at VOA Special English. You’re welcome to share your constructive notes and summary via our comments section below as well.

What’s a GI Joe?

This is Phil Murray with Words and Their Stories, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.

We tell about some common expressions in American English.

A “leatherneck” or a “grunt” do not sound like nice names to call someone. Yet men and women who serve in the United States armed forces are proud of those names. And if you think they sound strange, consider “doughboy” and “GI Joe.”

After the American Civil War in the 1860s, a writer in a publication called Beadle’s Monthly used the word “doughboy” to describe Civil War soldiers. But word expert Charles Funk says that early writer could not explain where the name started.

About twenty years later, someone did explain. She was the wife of the famous American general George Custer. Elizabeth Custer wrote that a “doughboy” was a sweet food served to Navy men on ships. She also said the name was given to the large buttons on the clothes of soldiers. Elizabeth Custer believed the name changed over time to mean the soldiers themselves.

​​Now, we probably most often think of “doughboys” as the soldiers who fought for the Allies in World War I. By World War II, soldiers were called other names. The one most often heard was “GI,” or “GI Joe.” Most people say the letters GI were a short way to say “general issue” or “government issue.” The name came to mean several things: It could mean the soldier himself. It could mean things given to soldiers when they joined the military such as weapons, equipment or clothes. And, for some reason, it could mean to organize, or clean.

Soldiers often say, “We GI’d the place.” And when an area looks good, soldiers may say the area is “GI.” Strangely, though, “GI” can also mean poor work, a job badly done.

Some students of military words have another explanation of “GI.” They say that instead of “government issue” or “general issue,” “GI” came from the words “galvanized iron.” The American soldier was said to be like galvanized iron — a material produced for special strength. The Dictionary of Soldier Talk says “GI” was used for the words “galvanized iron” in a publication about the vehicles of the early 20th century.

Today, a doughboy or GI may be called a “grunt.” Nobody is sure of the exact beginning of the word. But the best idea probably is that the name comes from the sound that troops make when ordered to march long distances carrying heavy equipment.

​​A member of the United States Marines also has a strange name: “leatherneck.” It is thought to have started in the 1800s. Some say the name comes from the thick collars of leather early Marines wore around their necks to protect them from cuts during battles. Others say the sun burned the Marines’ necks until their skin looked like leather.

This Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Jeri Watson.

I’m Phil Murray.

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