Like a Bear with a Sore Head

In one of our last blogs, I mentioned our students’ genuine interest in idiomatic expressions and similes. What I find really intriguing though, is that the very same students don’t really use many idioms when speaking their first language. I guess that in many cases it’s the image of the expression that we make in our minds that we may find  truly fascinating, and not the fact that we could actually one day use the expression. A bear with a sore head  might look something like this:

Resultat d'imatges de a bear with a soar headResultat d'imatges de a bear with a soar head

But the history behind many an expression is not as funny as its visualisation may be.

In Collins’s ” Dictionary of Curious Phrases” I found the following entry for Like a Bear with a Sore Head:

Groses’s Classical Dictionary of Vulgar tongue, which appeared in 1785, illustrates the word ‘grumble’ with the sentence:’ He grumbled like a bear with a sore ear.’ Bears with sore ears would certainly have been found in bear gardens, where bear-baiting took place. This was a popular spectator sport in England between the 14th and 17th centuries. A bear was chained to a stake and had to defend itself against the dogs who were set on it.

Resultat d'imatges de a bear baiting

The riotous atmosphere at such events led to ‘bear garden’ becoming a  term to describe a place where confusion reigns….Eating People is wrong, by Malcolm Bradbury, has:

‘”It’s a mad,crazy world we live in.” Jenkins nodded sagely.”It’s a bear-garden”.’

Frederick Marryat  seems to have been the first writer to amend Grose’s ‘bear with a sore ear.’ In The King’s Own he uses the expression ‘ as savage as a bear with a sore head.’ Ten years later, in a work called Poor Jack, Marryat changed the simile to ‘ as sulky as a bear with a sore head’. Marryat’s stories were immensely popular in the 19th century, and his words would have been widely noted. He was probably responsible for making most of us think automatically, when someone is behaving with a mixture of savagery and sulkiness, of bears with sore heads.

So, next time when you find a certain simile or expression interesting, look it up and find out where it comes from, and how and where  it was used first.  You might be (un)pleasantly surprised!


Building your vocabulary skyscraper

21st Century Guide to Building Your Vocabulary by

In 1995, I bought a book called ” “21st century guide to building your vocabulary”.It has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages and I thought it’s worth reminding the world of its existence. Here’s the download:

The idea of its authors was that we will need excellent communication skills in order to prosper in the following, 21st century. This idea still seems to be valid, just think about the US president who is, by all means, a true example of a  perfect orator.

However, what happens in classrooms is quite different.Students of all ages tend to be reading less and less and teachers are much more preoccupied by having fun classes, which should miraculously lead to effective learning, than by their students really understanding the contents being presented. The issue becomes even more serious when it comes to remembering vocabulary of a foreign language. Mind  you, this is just a personal opinion based on  years of experience  and there are always resplendent exceptions to the rule.

Many secondary school students, and even college students, doing our language courses have a limited vocabulary range of their own mother tongue. Many times they just don’t know the simplest of nominal  words, not to mention abstract nouns explaining more complex ideas.

As a solution, I  usually tell them to make lists with a definition in English, and example sentence and then the translations, in this case into Catalan and/or Spanish if the word is completely new to them followed by a Catalan/Spanish definition and example sentence.

You can imagine how many student actually do this! The most they would do is write a Spanish/Catalan translation, which makes no sense, of course , as they don’t know the word in the first place.

Needless to say, my suggestion of having their own glossary, which they could consult before doing any language exam, is not fun. So we start on a vicious circle of vocabulary games, vocabulary exercises and so on just to avoid the easiest way of expanding vocab, which is READING and taking out some of the words and expressions you find important or you might want to use in the future or for t writing  tasks and presentations.

I am aware of the fact that the grammar translation method has been dead and buried for decades. However, in the times when a great deal of teaching is done by using new technologies, I think students might be double challenged by aiming  to improve their overall  language skills using one of the oldest teaching materials – a book.

Ice and Fire

Fire and Ice  by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.











Nature’s greatest masterpiece

You might have noticed that we like TED talks and TED-Ed. The other day I received another TED-Ed  video, which I would like to share with you. It’s about  elephants and memory. In a recent blog we talked about repetition and memory, so today’s focus is on elephants.

In the video, the following John Donne’s quote is mentioned:

” Nature’s greatest masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing”

I found the explanation about why elephants attack villages fascinating. They actually remember the people who have hurt them. Therefore the expression: to  have a memory like an elephant.

As I myself am a great elephant lover, I stubbornly watch every documentary on elephants that’s on, even though the information often repeats. If you feel like finding out more about elephants as well as practicing your listening comprehension here’s an excellent documentary from BBC :

Elephants have formed a part of our childhood. Many of us cried  and felt sorry for poor Dumbo. Do you  remember the scene with pink elephants? You might not know that it relates to an idiom: to see pink elephants, which means to be intoxicated; recovering from a drinking bout; having the delirium tremens.

e.g. When I got to the point of seeing pink elephants, I knew that something had to be done.The old one who’s shakinghe’s probably seeing snakes. (N.B. You can also see snakes and spiders.)

Here they are: pink elephants on parade.  Just be patient and wait for the  lyrics to start.

There are some more idioms and expressions mentioning elephants. I came across this blog, which explains them very well:

I can go on and on about elephants, from serious to silly and back. And I will:

Serious: The Elephant man.

I remember watching this film when I was really young. The whole atmosphere was so oppressive and gloomy that I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I was thinking about the cruelty this person had been treated with and how little kindness he had received, just for the fact of being ugly and different. Here is the story of the real elephant man;

and  a documentary about the studies of his remains, which may eventually help us find a cure for cancer.

To finish off lightly, I ‘ll quote Dr. Seuss: ” I meant what I said and said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.”  (from “Horton hatches an egg”)

When we teach children English we start off with colours and shapes and family members, often forgetting the beautiful rhymes  from our childhood. If you started learning English late and never had an opportunity to read or hear any children’s books, give this story a go.  You will surely enjoy it!



Learning English with podcasts

Podcast: a radio programme that is stored in a digital form that you can download from the Internet and play on a computer or on an MP3 player. ( Cambridge Online Dictionary)

Why do I start with a definition? I was surprised to realise that people who actually have the time and will to learn English on a regular basis (the retired) are not familiar with podcasts. Just the other day in class, I was asked what they were.

Today I’ve decided to try to help you incorporate podcast listening into your study routine.However, it isn’t all that simple. Looking up the explanation on Wikipedia, along with the more precise definition, I came upon the history of podcasts as well as their many subcategories. Quite an interesting read!

How to use podcasts to enhance your English

Listening comprehension is the basis of face to face communication. Sadly, most students of a foreign language find it most difficult to master. The equation is simple : the more you listen to the language the better you will understand it. Not so long ago students were limited to listening to the radio or TV. Luckily, now with the Internet there are countless listening comprehension possibilities as  podcasts blend a vast range of different recordings: books,interviews, radio dramas,instruction manuals, music and a long etc.

What you should do first is make lists and put them into categories. The  best would be to categorise them by length. For example:

1. A list of 5  to 10 minute long podcasts to listen to while you commute to/ from work/school.

2. A list of longer podcasts, up to around 20 minutes for a long car journey, e. g. interviews or reviews of TV series and films.

3. Podcasts of books and short stories for all of you who like being read.

Then, the subcategories could be arranged by topic:

1. English learning podcasts on certain topics such as grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation.

2. A list or lists made according to the topics you are most interested in; travel, cooking  arts or business.

Where to start

1. English learning podcasts:

2. Books and Culture












All the world’s a stage

There is a reason why  23 April is The International Book Day.

April 23,1654. Shakespeare’s birthday. He makes us laugh and cry and think. Let’s homage his birthday in a slightly less serious fashion starting with  “As you like it” Act II,scene 7 in – plasticine!

Then, Blackadder bumps into Shakespeare  and “revenges” in the name of  all future school boys and girls. Hilarious!

How about trimming Hamlet and making it snappy? Listen to this curious agreement.

23 April, 1616. Miguel  de Cervantes died. Surely, Blackadder would have punched him in the face as well! I managed to find a cartoon  about Don Quixote in English, as most of the video clips are in Spanish.

And for the lovers of musicals, the great Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren,  Man of La Mancha, 1972.

Unfortunately, this month we also witnessed the passing away of another great author and great man, Gabriel Garcia Marques. We cannot finish this post without paying our modest tribute to this great writer.

From The Guardian blog, readers explain how his work, namely One hundred years of Solitude, influenced them.

Rest in peace, dear Gabo. We hope you have found the eighth stage of man.




“Can’t repeat the past?….”

Wouldn’t you just love to meet your literary or other heroes in person? Woody Allen made this dream come true in his movie “Midnight in Paris”. One of the writers “poor” Gill meets is F Scott Fitzgerald, which leaves him quite flabbergasted, as you may imagine!

So, let’s be reminded of one of America’s beloved writers.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an American writer of novels and short stories, whose works have been seen as evocative of the Jazz Age, a term he himself allegedly coined. He is regarded as one of the greatest twentieth century writers. Fitzgerald was of the self-styled “Lost Generation,” Americans born in the 1890s who came of age during World War I. He finished four novels, left a fifth unfinished, and wrote dozens of short stories that treat themes of youth, despair, and age. He was married to Zelda Fitzgerald.

By far his most popular novel is “The Great Gatsby”. When this novel got its new film version last, I just had to see it.  However,constantly comparing Leonardo DiCaprio with Robert Redford  while watching was painstaking! I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as:

“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

And the new version of the same scene:

“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Sorry about starting from the end.Now, let’s just check out how it all begins.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

…and goes on:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If you’ve got hooked, as many have before you, you might want to find out a bit more about the man behind the book. Here is a link to an article in The Esquire written by Andrew O’Hagan: