Tag: vocabulary

Trump and King Lear

Trump and King Lear

It has become something of a cliché to compare President Donald Trump with Shakespeare’s fictional King Lear. Over the last year half a dozen newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic have made the comparison. In fact, there is nothing new about comparing Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s old tyrant. Elizabeth Bailey did so as far back as[1] January 2005 in The New York Sun. Back then[2] the similarities were limited: Trump was a capricious despot of a business empire whose unequal treatment of[3] his grown-up[4] children was already patent. However, it is since the property magnate became President of the USA that the comparisons have supposedly accumulated to the point at which ‘the leader of the free world’ seems to be openly parodying Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is an old widower[5] who has three daughters. His youngest, Cordelia, is possibly from a second marriage. She is certainly his favourite. Some critics even suggest that the father feels a repressed sexual desire towards her. In any case the king decides to delegate the responsibilities of rule[6] while maintaining the privileges of monarchy. To favour his youngest daughter he decides to divide the kingdom between his three daughters (rather than[7] pass the realm[8] intact to his eldest daughter and her husband). To do this, he offers portions of the kingdom to each daughter in exchange for expressions of love towards him. The eldest daughters play along[9] and flatter[10] their father competitively saying that they love him more than life itself. However, the youngest daughter refuses to[11] play the game because it will mean benefiting materially from her genuine filial love. She is banished[12] and the elder daughters, now in charge, marginalize and humiliate Lear until he goes mad. Cordelia comes to his rescue with an army from France but is defeated[13] and, in the end, the entire family is destroyed.

Clearly, at a formal level, there is little in common between the story of Lear and the story of Donald Trump to date[14]. There are, nevertheless, points of contact. As an old, possibly demented, self-involved[15], approval-obsessed autocrat, Lear does remind one of[16] Trump (or vice-versa). The most famous scene from the play is Lear ranting against[17] the storm[18] at night. The temptation to compare this to Trump’s nocturnal Twitter storms[19] is irresistible.

Before the election the Trump campaign let slip that the plan was for son-in-law Jared Kushner to run[20] the country. When asked what Trump would be doing, the vacuous answer was, “Oh, he’ll be making America great again”. It seems that after a long life of wheeling and dealing[21] in business, Donald Trump thought that the Presidency would be a sort of retirement in which he would receive honours and praise[22] while others worked on the nitty-gritty[23].

Last year the Administration allowed[24] the TV cameras into a cabinet meeting and what was revealed was horrifying. One by one each of the members of Trump’s Government expressed what a privilege it was to work for the President, a public display[25] of competitive flattery[26] that instantly reminded[27] those of us who knew King Lear of the elder daughters’ insincere adulation. Indeed[28], Trump’s foreign visits confirm again and again that he is an easy victim of flatterers. Meanwhile, truth-tellers, from James Comey to Jeff Sessions, are routinely victimized, insulted and vilified by the President for not telling him what he wants to hear (but rather[29] doing their jobs).

Other comparisons can also be made. Trump’s favouritism towards his daughter Ivanka, who he has occasionally sexualized in shockingly[30] inappropriate ways, echo the Lear-Cordelia bond[31]. Lear’s supporters[32] conspire with a foreign power to undermine[33] the independence and sovereignty of Albion[34] – possible similarities with the collusion[35] with the Russians? Lear promises to take care of the poor who have been forgotten and ignored by the elite in the past (but in the end does nothing for them). Likewise[36], Trump has promised much to the ‘forgotten Americans’ but so far[37] has delivered little.

The end of the play bears little resemblance to[38] the Trump Administration so far. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Trump has been in power for only 14 months. If he is eventually[39] ousted from power[40] through impeachment[41] or simply in response to the incompetence and chaos of the Administration, he may still morph into the self-pitying[42] demented Lear of Acts III, IV and V. At least in his own mind and that of his supporters he may by then have achieved[43] the status of tragic hero “most sinned against than sinning[44].

For the present, most of us consider the current US Administration a rather[45] grotesque comedy. There is even a stage act[46] called Trump Lear, a one-man show in which comedian David Carl impersonates[47] and lampoons[48] the President. However, we would do well to[49] remember that the legend of King Lear was always considered a comedy until Shakespeare got hold of[50] it. Its early audiences expected a happy ending and were startled[51] and horrified when everything went pear-shaped[52] in the final scene. The world may be laughing at President Trump but beware[53]; this may well all end in tears[54].

At the end of 2016, Shakespeare scholar[55] Harold Bloom commented, “Incessantly I re-read King Lear, and find what takes my apprehension to its limits. Nature dwindles[56] to nothing. Familial love turns destructive. Intergenerational strife[57] becomes murderous. […] I echo Lear: ‘We cry[58] that we are come unto[59] this great stage of fools[60].”

[1] as far back as – as early as, as long ago as

[2] back then – (in this case) in January 2005

[3] unequal treatment offavouritism towards some of

[4] grown-upadult

[5] widowerman whose wife has died

[6] rule – (in this case) government

[7] rather than – as opposed to, instead of (+ -ing)

[8] realm /relm/ – kingdom

[9] to play along – participate in a charade/farce

[10] to flatter – express insincere admiration for

[11] refuses to – is not willing to, will not

[12] to banish – expel, exile

[13] to be defeatedlose a battle

[14] to dateso far, up until now

[15] self-involved – obsessed about oneself

[16] to remind sb. ofcause sb. to remember, seem similar to

[17] to rant againstrave against, shout at

[18] stormtempest

[19] Twitter stormsequence of furious Tweets

[20] to run sth. (run-ran-run) – govern sth., administer sth., manage sth.

[21] wheeling and dealing – unscrupulous activities

[22] praise – adulation, expressions of admiration

[23] nitty-grittypractical details

[24] to allow – permit

[25] display – exhibition

[26] flattery – insincere expressions of admiration

[27] to remind sb.cause sb. to remember

[28] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[29] but rather – instead of, as opposed to

[30] shockinglyscandalously

[31] bond – relationship, connection

[32] supportersfollowers, fans

[33] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[34] Albion – prehistoric Britain

[35] collusion – conspiracy, complicity, connivance

[36] likewisesimilarly

[37] so farup until now

[38] to bear little resemblance to (bear-bore-borne) – not be like, not be similar to

[39] eventually – (false friend) finally, in the end

[40] to oust from power – dethrone, impeach, depose, evict from power

[41] impeachment

[42] selfpitying

[43] to achieve – get, attain

[44] more sinned against than sinning – (from King Lear III.ii) more of a victim than a victimizer

[45] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[46] stage act – theatrical performance

[47] to impersonateimitate

[48] to lampoonridicule, caricature

[49] would do well to – should, ought to

[50] to get hold of (get-got-got) – (in this case) adapt

[51] to startle – surprise

[52] to go pear-shaped (go-went-gone) – go wrong, become a disaster

[53] beware – (interjection) be careful, be vigilant

[54] to end in tears – have a catastrophic result in the end

[55] scholarexpert

[56] to dwindle – decline

[57] strifeconflict

[58] to cry – (in this case) lament

[59] that we are come unto – (archaic) because we live in, because we find ourselves in

[60] this great stage of fools – this pantomime, this farcical situation

The Crisis in Efl: We Need to Talk

The Crisis in Efl: We Need to Talk

photo by Angélica Martínez

Over the last year I have done a series of MOOCs[1] including “English as a Medium for Instruction for Academics”, “Teaching for Success: the Classroom and the World”, and “Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching” to get myself up to speed[2] as to the state of play[3] in the Tefl[4] sector. The big idea in the three courses I have mentioned is that English no longer belongs to[5] Anglos; as a world language it is now a lingua franca. Overwhelming[6] statistics are bandied about[7]: “430 million people in China now speak English as a second language”.

The implication of all this, we are told, is that the Anglo standard (i.e. Trans-Atlantic English) is no longer the world standard. The important thing is that people can communicate effectively what they mean.

Meanwhile, nevertheless[8], all the internationally recognized examining bodies – IETS, TOEFL, TOEIC, etc. – continue to test for nuance[9] (the correct usage of prepositions, particles, tenses and articles). Does the student know her phrasal verbs? Does the examinee have a good grasp[10] of English idioms?

The two positions are clearly contradictory and leave English teachers exposed[11] and confused. Should we correct every prepositional error or should we encourage[12] fluency, confident[13] that an erroneous function word or two is not going to affect anyone’s ability to understand what the learner is saying (even if it may make an intolerant Anglo wince[14])?

Personally, I have some sympathy[15] for the idea that English is now the property of everyone who uses it and that Anglo standards are too strict, too pedantic and often too anal[16]. But the big problem is that there are no other standards. Nobody has set the bar lower[17] for second-language speakers; so it’s the Anglo bar or no bar. In other words if the learner of English as a second/foreign language has nothing to measure[18] whether[19] his or her usage is acceptable, then s/he’s going to be completely at sea[20]. Moreover, once a new non-Anglo standard for ELF (English as a lingua franca) has been established, then we are going to have to retrain[21] the quarter of a million Anglos and non-Anglos who work as Efl teachers. Ultimately[22], there’s no telling[23] which will win out[24]: ELF or today’s Efl since[25] it will be up to learners to decide[26] between an easier ‘pidgin[27] English for international communication and learning Anglo English for prestige and being in the in-group[28] of Anglo decision-makers in major multinationals. Remember the children of the elite from the People’s Republic to India to Brazil are already learning in Anglo-style schools and universities (if not directly in the schools and colleges of the Anglosphere[29]). Unfortunately, we may be heading for[30] a world in which most people speak English as a lingua franca but those ELF-speakers find there is a glass ceiling[31] excluding them from the really well-paid jobs of the 1%. Don’t say I didn’t warn[32] you.

[1] MOOCmassive-access open online course

[2] up to speedfully informed, up to date

[3] the state of play – the current situation

[4] Teflteaching English as a foreign language

[5] to belong to – be the property of

[6] overwhelming – formidable, irresistible, mindblowing

[7] to bandy aboutmention

[8] nevertheless – however, nonetheless

[9] nuancesubtle differences

[10] grasp – (in this case) understanding

[11] exposedhelpless, vulnerable

[12] to encouragefoster, promote, be in favour of

[13] confident – (in this case) tranquil, convinced, satisfied

[14] to wincegrimace, display a facial expression of pain

[15] sympathy – (false friend/in this case) approval, goodwill

[16] anal (retentive) – excessively punctilious, too perfectionist

[17] to set the bar lower (set-set-set) – offer a lower standard

[18] to measure – evaluate

[19] whether – (in this case) if

[20] to be at sea – be confused, be disoriented

[21] to retraintrain again, re-educate

[22] ultimately – (false friend) in the final analysis

[23] there’s no telling – it is impossible to know

[24] to win out (win-won-won) – be dominant in the end

[25] since – (in this case) given that, as

[26] to be up to sb. to decide – it will be sb’s decision

[27] pidginsimplified

[28] in-groupinner circle, exclusive clique

[29] AnglosphereEnglish-speaking countries

[30] to be heading for (UK English) – be headed for (US English), be moving inevitably towards

[31] glass ceiling – invisible barrier

[32] to warn – alert

Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Fathers & the Spanish

Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Fathers & the Spanish

Did you know that there would be no Thanksgiving if it weren’t for[1] Spaniards[2]?

Most people think that the Pilgrim Fathers[3] went to Massachusetts directly from England. In fact, they settled in[4] the Netherlands[5] for a decade first. Specifically, they lived in Leiden. However, by 1618 there was a threat[6] of a Spanish invasion of the Netherlands to restore Catholicism[7], so the Pilgrim Fathers decided to look for[8] religious freedom in the New World.

However, the Spanish were not only indirectly responsible for the first permanent English colony in North America but they were also responsible for the most quintessentially American holiday.

The First Thanksgiving was a harvest festival[9] to celebrate with the local Wampanoag Indians the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest[10] in 1621 (after half of the Pilgrims had died in the previous months). But where did the settlers[11] get the idea for a celebratory banquet? Well, every year on 3rd October the people of Leiden celebrated – and still celebrate – a special feast to thank God for the defeat of[12] the Spanish in the siege[13] of 1574. The Pilgrim Fathers adopted the idea of a thanksgiving feast to celebrate deliverance[14] from adversity and turned it to their own purposes[15]; thus[16] was born Thanksgiving.

[1] if it weren’t for – without the intervention of

[2] SpaniardsSpanish people

[3] Pilgrim Fathers – a group of 102 Puritan pioneers from England who went to Massachusetts and founded the first permanent English-speaking colony in North America in 1620

[4] to settle ingo to live in

[5] the NetherlandsHolland

[6] threatdanger

[7] because of Dutch interference in Bohemia

[8] to look fortry to find

[9] harvest festival – celebration of the annual harvest

[10] harvest – collection of crops (= agricultural produce)

[11] settlercolonist

[12] defeat oftriumph against, victory over

[13] siege – encirclement, situation in which a town is surrounded and attacked

[14] deliverancesalvation

[15] to turn sth. to one’s own purposesuse sth. in a different way

[16] thus – in this way

Are We Nearly There Yet?[1]

Are We Nearly There Yet?[1]


photo by Max Alexander

In the not too distant future I will be able to say that I have been teaching English in Spain for 30 years. There is nothing particularly[2] special about that; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Anglos in exactly the same situation. However, it does give me an excuse to take stock[3]: how much impact have people like me had on the level of English in this country? From one point of view, a lot. When I came here in the late 1980s most people spoke no English and the majority of those who did[4] spoke very broken English[5]; most were even ashamed[6] to try to speak English outside the classroom. It was a decade before I met my first Spaniard who could speak my language at a level similar to an Anglo.

Now the linguistic landscape[7] is very different. Most people – at least in larger[8] towns and cities – have a smattering of[9] English and many young people use English to a level we could only have dreamed of a generation ago. I regularly hear young Spanish people chatting to[10] foreign acquaintances[11] in English on the streets! Moreover, English is more ‘popular’ than ever. There are half a dozen English academies within a few hundred metres of my home in Madrid. And it’s not just[12] the capital; I recently visited Mairena del Aljarafe, a middle-class suburb of Seville, and there were – or at least there seemed to be – more English schools than bars! CLIL[13] programmes mean that English is present in schoolchildren’s lives as never before in Spain.

Nevertheless, there is one area in which the progress has been painfully slow – what one might call ‘official English’. I took the AVE high-speed train to Mairena (and may I just say that no trains in the UK are as clean, as efficient, as fast as the AVE). However, I was annoyed[14] the entire round-trip[15]. Why? Well, the LED[16] sign stated[17] every 20 seconds “Train with destination Seville” on the way there, and “Train with destination Madrid” on the way back. This is what I call the Spanish habit of half-translating – finding the English equivalent for each word and repeating them in the same order as in Spanish. No doubt the LED16 sign has been saying that for 20 years; who cares if it sounds completely unnatural?[18] I do. You make a tremendous effort to get everything about the on-board service[19] right, and then you spoil[20] it with lower-intermediate English!

I tried to look away from the LED16 sign but that only brought the label[21] on the window to my notice[22]. For example:

“Action for opening the emergency window” (it should be “How to open the window as an emergency exit”),

“Breaking with the hammer[23] the first and second glasses[24] of the window” (it should be “smash[25] both panes of glass[26] using the hammer provided”),

Remove[27] the broken glasses with the crossbar” (it should be “Use the crossbar to dislodge[28] any remaining shards[29]”), though I’m still not sure what they are referring to as a ‘crossbar’.

You may already know that one of my bugbears[30] is the deplorable English on the websites of many Spanish universities. Their stated aim[31] is to attract more foreign students but this simply isn’t going to happen[32] if they say so in woefully[33] deficient English.

The same is true for many official texts in English. Ironically, they are not strictly necessary; Spanish is a tall-building language[34] spoken by 400 million people. However, if you are going to translate, do it properly[35]. The problem is that when Anglos see something written in English, the quality of the English affects their perception of the quality of the goods[36] or services on offer. If you can’t see it yet, imagine translating “Are we nearly there yet?” verbatim[37]. It would sound awful compared to the correct idiomatic translation (¿Falta mucho?).

In answer to the question “Are we nearly there yet?” I will quote a British Rail advertisement from the 1980s which used to say, “We’re getting there” (= Hemos hecho progresos pero aun falta).

[1] are we nearly there yet? – (typical question asked by a bored child on a long trip) will we arrive soon?

[2] particularly – especially, very

[3] to tale stock (take-took-taken) – evaluate the progress that has been made

[4] who did – (in this case) who did speak English

[5] broken Englishpidgin English, pre-intermediate English

[6] ashamed – embarrassed, reluctant, uncomfortable

[7] linguistic landscape – panorama as regards language

[8] largerbigger, more significant

[9] a smattering of – a little

[10] to chat totalk in a relaxed way to

[11] acquaintance – sb. one knows

[12] just – (in this case) only

[13] CLILcontent and language integrated learning

[14] annoyedirritated

[15] the entire tripall the way there and all the way back

[16] LEDlight-emitting display

[17] to state – declare

[18] it should be “train to Seville”, “train to Madrid”

[19] the on-board service – (in this case) the service on the train

[20] to spoil sth.ruin sth.

[21] labelsticker, sign

[22] to my notice – to my attention

[23] hammer – utensil for hitting things

[24] glassesspectacles, eyeglasses

[25] to smashbreak forcefully

[26] pane of glass – the sheet of glass that forms a window

[27] to remove – (false friend) take out, eliminate

[28] to dislodge – displace, remove28

[29] any remaining shardsany pieces of broken glass that are left

[30] bugbear – pet peeve, cause of obsessive irritation

[31] stated aim – explicit objective

[32] to happen – occur

[33] woefullyvery, depressingly

[34] tallbuilding language – one of a few global languages that eclipse smaller languages

[35] properly – appropriately, correctly

[36] goodsproducts

[37] verbatimword for word

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

If today we examine the mediaeval worldview[1] – and we rarely do – we find it utterly[2] alien[3]. Church and society were coterminous[4] and the social structure was ordained by God. The place into which each individual was born within[5] the hierarchy was his or her rightful[6] place and the best thing to do was to submit[7] and conform to one’s preordained role in society. The aristocracy[8] were better people than the rest of the population; nobility meant being aristocratic and being a (noble (= good) person. Fortunately, the nobles practised gentilesse[9]; they knew their role was to protect those who were weaker than them. Meanwhile[10], members of the clergy prayed[11] for everyone and the majority – the peasants[12] – worked for everyone. It was a coherent system in which everybody contributed to society and everyone knew his or her place.

Within this rigid system private hopes and fears were insignificant, the individual was only important as part of society as a whole. In any case the individual didn’t control who he or she was. Character was determined by a complex interplay of class, horoscopy, physiognomy and humours[13]. One’s social role was God-given; nuances[14] were added to the individual as a result of when he or she was born. Moreover, physical deformities were a consequence of spiritual deformities. Finally, imbalances in the basic fluids that ran through[15] the body explained other personal idiosyncrasies. You – your essential being – were predetermined, not self-determined.

The Modern View

Now compare that to the modern Western worldview. The individual is centre-stage today. According to modern individualism, we are each responsible for our own success[16]. We teach children that anyone can do anything with sufficient effort and intelligence and luck. Nobody believes (I hope!) that aristocrats are better people than everybody else.

Yet[17] this worldview is as hollow[18] and nonsensical[19] as the mediaeval one. Society values fame, wealth[20] and status. But the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become a millionaire, a surgeon[21] or a political leader is myth in its purest form. We don’t believe that aristocrats inherit[22] noblesse[23] from their ancestors but we know that the rich, the famous and the socially advantaged inherit unassailable[24] privileges from their parents.

Today we tend to express our individualism by obsessing about a highly[25] specific aspect of life: a sports team, a sport, a hobby. We fuel[26] our individualism by focusing on this one pastime as a way of ignoring the meaninglessness[27] of our existence.

Today we don’t follow a rigid dogma as they did in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the nearest we have to a societal value system is an arbitrary series of trite[28] internet memes – hardly[29] an all-encompassing[30] philosophical framework[31].

At least we no longer believe in physiognomy, right? Except that being considered physically attractive is probably more important today than at any time in history. Being tall for men and being beautiful for women are more important that qualifications in determining success.

But what is success? Ironically given our ‘individualism’, on a day-to-day basis, most of us value ourselves in terms of society’s appraisal[32]. In our day-to-day lives being ‘liked’ on social media is our primary form of self-validation.[33] In the longer term for most people success is working in jobs of increasingly high status and accumulating capital. However, we measure success in terms of consumption[34]. We are considered successful because of the car we drive or where we holiday.

We are complacent in our patronizing[35] attitude to the mediaeval worldview. However, does a society driven by ‘likes’, one that values people because they have bought the very latest iPad, really have a right to feel superior? Moreover, given social trends[36], our model will become untenable[37] soon. Self-fulfilment cannot come through one’s career[38] in a society in which work is increasingly scarce[39]. For instance[40], we are told that we will all have to work till at least 70 – in a labour market in which job opportunities begin to decrease rapidly after 50. When the majority have slid back[41] into mere subsistence because of lack of[42] opportunities, will we submit[43] to a permanent state of depression because we have failed according to all modern society’s values? Will our sports team’s occasional victory be enough to give meaning to our lives?


[1] worldview – philosophy of life

[2] utterly – completely, totally

[3] alien (adj.) – unfamiliar, bizarre

[4] coterminousone and the same

[5] within – in

[6] rightful – appropriate, legitimate

[7] to submit – capitulate

[8] aristocracy – (literally) rule of the best

[9] gentilesse – magnanimity

[10] meanwhile – at the same time, simultaneously

[11] to pray – intercede with God

[12] peasantsrural workers in a feudal system

[13] humours – (in this case) bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile that supposedly made people sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric, respectively

[14] nuancessubtle differences

[15] to run through (run-ran-run) – flow through, flow around

[16] successtriumph, prosperity

[17] yet – however, nevertheless

[18] hollowempty

[19] nonsensical – ridiculous, meaningless

[20] wealthaffluence, financial prosperity

[21] surgeonmedical specialist who performs operations

[22] to inherit – acquire genetically

[23] noblesse – nobility, magnanimity

[24] unassailable – impregnable, absolute

[25] highlyvery

[26] to fuel – assert, stimulate, confirm

[27] meaninglessness – futility, purposelessness, triviality

[28] trite – banal, vapid, clichéd

[29] hardlynot really, not exactly

[30] all-encompassing – universal, comprehensive

[31] frameworkstructure, system

[32] appraisal – evaluation, judgement

[33] studies suggest that most people check their phones over 80 times a day and touch their phones over 2,600 times a day. If that’s not fetishism…

[34] consumptionwhat we consume/buy

[35] patronizing – disdainful, superior

[36] trendstendencies

[37] untenable – unsustainable

[38] career – (false friend) professional trajectory

[39] scarce – insufficient, (opposite of ‘abundant’)

[40] for instance – for example

[41] to slide back (slide-slid-slid) – descend, decline

[42] lack ofabsence of, deficient

[43] to submit – acquiesce, accept, tolerate

The Godless Canon

The Godless Canon

Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?

The most startling[1] aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to[2] us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than[3] seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash[4] of pagan monsters, Wyrd[5] and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off[6] in His approach[7] to humanity.

The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen[8] believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined[9] in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly[10] confirmed by being placed[11] in a fairy-tale[12] context.


The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast[13] made up of[14] a crusader knight[15], a prioress[16], a monk[17], a friar[18], a pardoner[19] and a summoner[20] (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits[21], which thoroughly[22] question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously[23] antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor[24]; the lecherous[25] monk dedicates his time to hunting[26], and so on[27].


The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on[28], authors could not count on there being[29] a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared[30]. Indeed[31], with a spectrum of beliefs ranging[32] from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of[33] 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present[34] religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence[35]), hypocritical (Angelo[36]), ignorant (Oliver Martext[37]) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely[38]). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed[39] as a witch[40]: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled[41] by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.


The exception to the rule should be the towering[42] work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly[43]. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far[44] the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.

The Rise of the Novel

The 18th Century saw the rise[45] of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear[46] they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).

By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.

An Alternative Canon

What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged[47] from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead[48] a god-fearing[49] life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins[50] survives within[51] the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.

I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather[52] to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than[53] objective merit.

Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.


[1] startling – surprising, shocking

[2] to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by

[3] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

[4] mishmashmixture

[5] Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny

[6] hands-offnon-interventionist

[7] approach – (in this case) attitude

[8] keen – enthusiastic

[9] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[10] hardlynot really

[11] to place – put

[12] fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical

[13] cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists

[14] to be made up of – consist of

[15] knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback

[16] prioresswoman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)

[17] monk – religious man who lives in a monastery

[18] friarmember of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan

[19] pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences

[20] summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court

[21] portrait – (in this case) description

[22] thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively

[23] viciouslyfiercely

[24] the poorpoor people

[25] lecherous – lascivious

[26] huntingchasing and killing animals for pleasure

[27] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[28] from then onafter that

[29] count on there being – assume that there was

[30] to sharehave in common

[31] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[32] to range – stretch, span, vary

[33] out of – from a total of

[34] does present – (emphatic) presents, creates

[35] in Romeo and Juliet

[36] in Measure for Measure

[37] in As You Like It

[38] in Henry V

[39] to portray – present, depict

[40] witchwoman who practises black magic

[41] to rulegovern, control

[42] towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme

[43] albeit unwittinglyeven though this is not intentional

[44] by far – unquestionably, easily

[45] rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance

[46] do appear – (emphatic) appear

[47] to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate

[48] to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live

[49] godfearing – devoutly religious

[50] an English Jesuit

[51] within – in

[52] but rather – (in this case) I comment on it

[53] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

Company Names

Company Names

I spent the early part of the summer writing 400-word summaries[1] about several hundred leading companies operating in the UK. Surprisingly, the job was fascinating first because I realized[2] quite how much the economy of my country of birth has been transformed in the last couple of decades. A number of large[3] banks and companies that were household names[4] have simply disappeared, while insurance brokers, payday lenders[5] and internet betting shops[6] now form a major part of the economy (the long-term implications of which I won’t go into[7] here). Just one example: Stoke-on-Trent is a city of a quarter-of-a-million people. It used to be famous for its pottery[8], coal[9] and steel[10] industries. Now the largest[11] employer is the online gambling company[12] Bet365.

Anyway, along with new companies come new names and it is these that are the subject of this rambling[13] article. Specifically, I want to consider some of them in the context of Alexandra Watkins’ book Hello, My Name is Awesome (2015). Most of the new names continue the traditions of using euphony[14], acronyms and wordplay.

Effective Names

A good example is the name of Mitie /’maiti:/, the outsourcing[15] company, which is a felicitous acronym for “Management Incentive Through Investment Equity” with a pun[16] on ‘mighty[17]. Another successful brand name[18] is that of the discount website ‘Groupon’, a clever portmanteau word[19]. It comes from ‘group’ fused with ‘coupon’. A final example of an effective name is Npower[20], which stands for[21] “national power”. However, the name has echoes of ‘empower[22] as it is often mispronounced (“enpower”).

Brain[23] Fodder[24]

HungryHouse[25] is also a pretty[26] successful company name. It connects with the moment in which potential customers are likely to[27] purchase[28] takeaway food[29] – when they are hungry – and offers alliteration for memorability[30]. Finally, there are echoes of the simile “as hungry as a horse[31]. However, the rhyme in GrubHub[32] makes that name even more inspired: ‘grub’ is a colloquial word for food and ‘hub’ means ‘centre’. Both names are better than Deliveroo[33], though. Kangaroo’s transport their young[34], not food – Hamster would have been more appropriate!

GoSkippy[35] seems a singularly stupid name for an insurance company. First, why refer to a TV character who disappeared back in 1970? – only a small part of your potential customer base – those over 55 who grew up in Britain or Australia – are going to relate to[36] it. Moreover, what do kangaroos have to do with[37] insurance? Maybe I just[38] don’t like kangaroos!

A better animal allusion is found in the name of Music Magpie[39]. Not only is there alliteration but magpies collect valuable objects, just like the ‘recommerce[40] company does.


Some names are less successful because, though they are highly[41] ingenious, ordinary English-speakers need them to be explained. For instance[42], the logic behind the name of ‘Airbnb’ becomes evident with a little explanation. The idea behind the company is that anyone can turn[43] their apartment into a bed and breakfast[44] (b’n’b) by putting an inflatable mattress[45] in their sitting room (the ‘air’ in the name).

The name of the online supermarket, Ocado, is also obscure without an explanation. It is “a made-up[46] word, intended to[47] evoke fresh fruit” (i.e. Avocado), according to CEO Jez Frampton.

Bad Names

The name of the classified ads[48] website, Gumtree[49], betrays[50] its origins. It was set up[51] by expatriate Antipodians in London to help other expatriate Antipodians with accommodation, employment and so on[52]. The name comes from the New Zealand expression ‘to be up a gum tree’ (= be in a predicament[53]).

Personally, I find ‘ipostparcels[54] extremely irritating. I’m no fan of starting a name with a lowercase[55] letter or running three words together[56], so to me it looks like the efforts of a small child who is just[57] learning to write.

However, for me at least an example of crass[58] company name is ‘Missguided[59]. Yes, OK, it includes the ‘miss[60] suggesting that it is oriented towards young women, though it is telling[61] that they never use ‘miss’ on their website, only ‘babe[62]. But the pun[63] is on the word ‘misguided’, which means ‘ill-advised[64] or ‘foolish’ – what sort of a connotation is that? In fact, ‘Missguided’ commits three of Alexandra Watkins’s[65] seven deadly sins[66] of brand names[67]: it looks like a typo[68], it’s annoying[69] and it’s uninspired.

The Limits of Clever

The name ‘Quickquid[70] sounds like an effective use of allitero-assonance with the allusion that they will lend you money rapidly and nothing more. However, it might just also be an allusion to the Latin word Quicquid (= whatever[71]) – but I doubt it! Sometimes a name is just[72] a name and you shouldn’t over-interpret[73].

[1] summary – synopsis

[2] to realize – (false friend) become conscious

[3] large – (false friend) big, important

[4] to be a household name – be wellknown, be recognized by practically everyone

[5] payday lender – a company that lends customers small sums of money at high interest rates, on the agreement that the loan will be repaid when the borrower receives his/her next salary payment

[6] internet betting shoptype of online casino

[7] to go into sth. (go-went-gone) – examine, investigate

[8] pottery – ceramics

[9] coalpieces of carbon used as fuel

[10] steeltype of extra-strong ferrous metal

[11] largestbiggest, most important

[12] online gambling companytype of internet-based casino

[13] rambling – digressive, discursive

[14] euphonysound parallelisms (e.g. alliteration, assonance, etc.)

[15] outsourcing – contracting out, paying another company to do part of one’s production process

[16] punpiece of homophonic wordplay

[17] mightypowerful

[18] brand nametrademark, commercial name

[19] portmanteau wordterm formed by fusing together parts of two existing words

[20] a gas and electricity company

[21] to stand for (stand-stood-stood) – represent

[22] to empower – emancipate, give sb. control over his/her life

[23] brain (adj.) – mental

[24] fodderfood for animals

[25] an online platform for takeaway food

[26] pretty (adv.) – reasonably

[27] are likely to – will probably

[28] to purchase – buy

[29] takeaway foodfood that is prepared at a restaurant but is brought home by customers or delivered to their homes by the restaurant

[30] memorability – being memorable, being easy to remember

[31] as hungry as a horsevery hungry, famished

[32] an online and mobile food-ordering company that connects customers with local restaurants, a rival of HungryHouse

[33] an online food-delivery company; a competitor to HungryHouse and GrubHub. The name is a portmanteau word19 based on ‘delivery’ + ‘kangaroo’

[34] their young [U] – their babies

[35] an insurance company. The name refers to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, an Australian TV series (1968-1970)

[36] to relate to sth. – identify with sth. , feel a connection with sth.

[37] what do kangaroos have to do with…?how are kangaroos related to…?

[38] just – (in this case) simply

[39] an online marketplace for buying and selling second-hand CDs, DVDs, etc. A magpie is a species of black and white bird (Pica pica) related to crows (Corvidae) that is known for taking bright objects

[40] recommercebuying and selling of second-hand products online

[41] highlyvery

[42] for instance – for example

[43] to turn – (in this case) convert

[44] bed and breakfastsmall private hotel

[45] mattress – the soft part of a bed

[46] made-up – invented

[47] intended to – designed to

[48] adadvert (UK English), advertisement

[49] an online company for people to buy and sell things within their local communities. A gum tree is literally a eucalyptus tree or similar

[50] to betray – (in this case) reveal

[51] to set sth. up (set-set-set) – create sth., establish sth.

[52] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[53] to be in a predicament – be in a difficult or embarrassing situation

[54] a package-delivery company

[55] lowercaseminuscule

[56] to run together (run-ran-run) – fuse, combine

[57] just – (in this case) in the process of

[58] crassstupid, showing no intelligence

[59] a clothes store for women aged 16 to 35

[60] miss – an unmarried woman

[61] telling – revealing, significant

[62] babe – (potentially sexist) young woman who is considered sexually attractive. The term, of course, infantilizes women.

[63] punpiece of homophonic wordplay

[64] ill-advised – imprudent

[65] Hello, My Name is Awesome (2015)

[66] deadly sins – (in this case) cardinal mistakes

[67] brand namename of a product or service

[68] typospelling mistake

[69] annoyingirritating

[70] a payday lender. Literally, a ‘quid’ is, colloquially, a pound (sterling).

[71] whatever – a. under any circumstances; b. anything; c. (an exclamation expressing total indifference) I don’t care!

[72] just – (in this case) only

[73] to over-interpretfind camouflaged significance where none was intended