Animals: idioms, phrases and interesting facts A – D

3rd April 2022

Albatross:

An albatross around your neck

Meaning: A burden or something unpleasant that stays with you

“He wrote that tweet when he was angry, and everybody saw it. It’s like an albatross around his neck now.”

The phrase comes from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where a sailor shoots an albatross, a symbol of good luck, and is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck.

Ants:

To have ants in your pants

Meaning: Always moving around, not sitting still

“Keep still ! Do you have ants in your pants ?”

In Greek, ants are myrmex. The soldiers who followed the hero Achilles were referred to as Myrmidons. One origin myth is that ants survived a plague, and the god Zeus turned these into people. Even today, ants have been found to be extremely resistant to nuclear radiation.

Achilles addresses his myrmidons

Bears:

Bear with me

Meaning: Please wait a very short time

“Let me check for you. Bear with me a minute.”

In some Native American cultures, the bear is a symbol of a teacher

Birds

Birds of a feather flock together

Meaning: People tend to stay with or befriend people with similar interests or habits

“The naughty students all sit together. Birds of a feather !”

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Meaning: It is better to have something definite than something better but uncertain

“Should I buy these now or wait until next week when they may be cheaper ?” “Buy now. A bird in the hand.”

The European bird Robin Redbreast actually has an orange chest, but the word ‘orange’ didn’t exist in English until the 16th Century, by which time the bird was already known as ‘redbreast’.

Cats:

To let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: to tell a secret

“John told me. He let the cat out of the bag.”

No room to swing a cat

Meaning: Very limited space. However, the ‘cat’ here is a whip used by the navy, a cat o’ nine tails.

Cats were sacred to the Egyptian god Bast (or Bastet), so killing one was extremely unlucky. Cats helped kill rodents, who would eat the grain, and were therefore treated with the highest respect.

Chicken

Don’t be chicken

Meaning: Do not be afraid

“Come on, let’s watch this horror film. Don’t be a chicken !”

Chicken Little

Meaning: A person who is alarmist, who always predicts that bad things will happen

“Jane says we should cancel the picnic because it may rain, but she’s such a Chicken Little.”

Chickens, who originate from southeast Asia, have remarkable memories. They have been found to identify over 100 other chickens just by their faces.

Dog

The tail wagging the dog

Meaning: The person or people in control are actually being forced to do something they don’t want.

“Your students tell you what they are going to do ? That’s the tail wagging the dog.”

1997 film which takes its title from an expression

Donkey

Talking the hind legs off a donkey

Meaning: Someone who can talk and talk, extremely loquacious

“He could talk the hind legs off a donkey.”

Donkeys are mentioned over 140 times in the NIV of The Bible. They are seen as symbols of peace and servitude. An ass is a wild donkey. A donkey is the ‘star’ of Robert Bresson’s 1966 film ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’.

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Greek Myths: The hubris of Oedipus

16th September 2021

Oedipus | Story, Summary, & Facts | Britannica
Oedipus and the Sphinx. Representation on a cup circa 470 BCE, now in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

Oedipus, along with Sisyphus, Achilles and Odysseus, is a figure from Greek myth who is part of our modern psyche. His story, whose key points are widely known, belongs to our collective cultural history; he lends his name to a psychological complex. In philosophy, Oedipus can be discussed as a case of free will versus determinism.

Oedipus was certainly no hero in the Theseus or Perseus mold. An argument could be made that he was no hero at all, but a tragic figure. However, he was strong enough to overcome four royal guards single-handedly, and intelligent enough to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, thereby freeing the people of Thebes.

A warrior (like Achilles), an strategist (like Odysseus), a character doomed for unimaginable punishment (like Sisyphus) ? We see what a complex character Oedipus is, and why he still holds our interest and awe.

The Complex Case of Romanian Folklore in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex | The Attic
Oedipus Rex by Pier Paolo Pasolini 1967

So, the key points, what the ‘average person’ knows about Oedipus:

He killed his father and slept with his mother

He solved the Riddle of the Sphinx

Some background is necessary. Some clarification is absolutely necessary.

Firstly, he unwittingly killed his father (King Laius; I shall elucidate later). Secondly, as a reward for freeing Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, Oedipus was given Queen Jocasta, Laius’ widow, to wed. The patricide and insest were commited freely. Or were they ? Oedipus had been told that he would kill his father and marry his mother, which is exactly what happened, despite his determination to prove the prophecy false.

Therefore, it is my contention that Oedipus was punished for having the hubris to believe that he could defy fate. Yet, the question remains: why was Oedipus fated for such a punishment ? For that, we have to go back a generation and learn about his father, King Laius of Thebes.

Oedipus: Map of Thebes and Corinth

Laius was from the House of Thebes and, as a young man, left his home town and stayed in Elis with King Pelops, a grandson of Zeus and son of Tantalus (but that is another story). Laius was a guest, and became tutor to Pelops’ son Chrysippus. Laius committed the unpardonable sins of abducting and raping the boy. For this he was cursed. Should he ever have a son, that child would murder him, then marry the widow. Despite Laius forcing himself to decline the pleasure of his wife, nature, to employ a phrase, took its course. A son was born, a son that Laius demanded be left alone on a mountain, his feet pinned together.

Salvator Rosa Beach Towel featuring the painting The Abandoned Oedipus by Salvator Rosa
Oedipus abandoned, a print on a beach towel. A perfect illustration of how the myth permeates our culture.

The shepherd charged with this duty gave the baby to a friend from Corinth, where the baby was adopted by the childless King Polybus and Queen Meriope. The child was named Oedipus, meaning swollen foot (and from which we get the medical term oedema, swelling in the feet and ankles) [1]. Oedipus loved and was loved by his parents, and all was well in Corinth. Until, that is, a drunken man told Oedipus the truth, that he was not the natural child. Polybus and Meriope denied this, but Oedipus (in perhaps his first mistake, not believing his parents) travelled to the Oracle at Delphi to learn the truth. His origin was confirmed, and his fate, to kill his father and marry his mother, was proclaimed.

Delphi, home of the famous oracle

In an attempt to avoid this prophecy, Oedipus travelled instead to Thebes. On this journey, he met a carriage coming towards him. Either the driver grazed him, struck him, or demanded that he yield and give way. This infuriated Oedipus, and a fight ensued. In the carriage was an old man; King Laius. The King and all his guards, all but one of the retinue, were slain by Oedipus for their disrespectful treatment of a king’s son.

The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Joseph Blanc 1867

Whether he was brave to refuse this slight, or flawed by an uncontrollable albeit understandable anger, Oedipus had unwittingly fulfilled the first part of the prophecy.

Continuing on to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx and solved the riddle (which I’m sure you are all familiar with). Defeated, the Sphinx killed herself and, as mentioned earlier, Oedipus was given the widowed Queen Jocasta. The had four children and all was well. For a time. A plague decimated Thebes, and it would not abate until the murderer of Laius was found and punished. Eventually, it was revealed that Oedipus was the killer. Jocasta hanged herself, Oedipus blinded himself and went into self-imposed exile, wandering the countryside and dying just outside Athens.

Oedipus Rex Fimonoi Athens
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Performed by the Fimonoi Theatre Group in Athens, Greece

The Greek myths, unlike theological texts such as the Talmud, Bible and Koran, are incredibly flexible and varied, altering from city to city, as well as over time. Just how much people believed or accepted them will never be known, but many people would have been aware of the more famous myths.

Many myths that involve retribution, such as are found in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ are read as cautionary tales. Someone, a mortal, displayed a weakness that was so offensive they were punished. Some punishments were extremely harsh, but the reason could be clearly discerned. But how to understand Oedipus ? What, in fact was his digression ?

His fate was stated before he had done anything wrong. Maybe he didn’t accept his parent’s explanation, but that seems more contrary to Confucianism and filial piety. Greek myths are full of family in-fighting. He refused to yield to the carriage of King Laius and that pride led to fighting and murder, yet that could be attributed to self defense. Oedipus’ only fault seems to have been simply existing. Laius angered the gods. Why punish the son ?

I have read that some contemporary Greeks apparently thought the same, and began questioning the veracity of gods, myths and society. Such a harsh punishment for a young man who had rid a city of a curse made little if any sense. The psychological trauma would be unimaginable, which may explain the need to self mutilate, physical pain to numb the mental anguish.

To conclude, I am left to assert that Oedipus’ only crime was to try to defeat fate, to have the hubris to feel that a mere mortal, a king’s son notwithstanding, had the power to change the will of the gods. He honoured his father and mother but at the expense of the Immortals. Oedipus refused to accept his fate, for that he was doomed.

What else could Oedipus have done ? Should he have ignored the prophecy, or resign himself to the outcome ? The debate continues.

Stravinsky rehearsing his Oedipus Rex opera, first performed in 1927
Product - Wheelers for Schools

[1] Some scholars question this etymolgy.

Sources

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Oedipus-Greek-mythology

https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/862997/pages/the-story-of-oedipus?module_item_id=4891933

https://www2.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/tragedy/index.php?page=thebes

https://www.softschools.com/examples/literary_terms/hamartia_examples/257/

Adult Mechanics: Olympics – going for gold.

10th February 2019

This is a lesson plan for an adult class I teach comprised mainly of professional engineers and mechanics. The level is mixed, as is natural with all classes, but I would place most students at Intermediate level. In order to boost them to the next stage, I will introduce more expressions, higher vocabulary and more student talking time.

I’ll be trying to implement a CELTA-style plan: ‘Present, Practice, Produce’ (PPP) which basically means I demonstrate some new language, allow the students to practice and then use the language on their own, checking for pronunciation, intonation and context. The key word is PRACTICE; whatever your field, whatever natural talent you may possess, you have to be disciplined and work, train … which brings us (neatly, I thought) to our subject – the Olympics.

Aside – the themes aren’t really that important, they are merely a starting point for learning. Having said that, they have to hold some measure of interest for the student. Allow me to quote the C15th monk John Lydgate, “You can’t please all the people, all of the time.” Even if some of the students aren’t big sports fans, they will at least be aware of the Games, and should find the videos interesting and beneficial.

I’ll begin with a video about the Olympics. It’s aimed at young native speakers, which is helpful for English – learners as the language will be easier to follow. Additionally, it will introduce some European history to my Vietnamese learners, and afford them the chance to listen to native speakers at a natural pace. And now, without further ado, the video:

Video: Listening practice

Try to watch before the lesson, and make a note of any new vocabulary.

listen for: gather together/ for the length of the games/ common ground/ truce

in honour of/ originally/ ancient/ off and on/ alternating / interlocking/ myth/

Questions – Ask each other Speaking practice

When were the first Games ? When were the final (ancient) games held ?

Who was Zeus ?

How many events were there at first ? What events were later added ?

What were winners given ? 

Where and when were the first modern games staged ?

What are the Paralympics ?

What are gold medals made of ?

Why were the five colours of the rings chosen ?

What is the goal of the Olympics ?

“The most important thing is not to win but to take part.” Do you agree ?

Video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsDY1Ha83M8

What do you think of the video ? Give positive and negative reactions.

Try to use some of the following expressions:

spectacular / impressive / co-ordinated / visually stunning / well-organised / you get what you pay for

a waste of money / a drain on natural resources / spectacle but no substance

Team work speaking practice

The Olympics are going to be held in Vietnam. Is this good or bad ?

Divide the class into two teams, one ‘for’, the other ‘against’.

Points to consider:

The cost – how will it be financed ?

How can it generate revenue for Vietnam ?

Impact on the environment 

Does Vietnam have the infrastructure to cope ?

Is south-east Asia a good choice in terms of climate ?

Is Vietnam a good choice ? 

Does it have big cities ? 

Does it have space for an Olympic village ?

What about crime and petty theft ? 

Are the police able to deal with the influx of crowds ?

Do the Vietnamese people care enough about sports ?

Is Vietnam enthusiastic about sports ?

Politics – people from all different countries and political beliefs will arrive. Could that be an issue ?

The legacy – what will happen after the Games are over ?

Raising awareness of Vietnam on the world stage. 

What do people think when they hear ‘Vietnam’ ?

Encourage overseas investors

Is the cost worth it ?https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/oct/23/london-2012-olympics-cost-total

This is from a ‘high-brow’ newspaper and quotes a figure of £8.921 billion. Can Vietnam afford this kind of money ? In China, a lot of money went on infrastructure such as improving airports, subways and roads, and it has been claimed that a profit of $146 was generated. However, Montreal took over 30 years to pay off debts incurred by hosting the Olympics.

Part of the London Olympic complex with the athletes village and, in the distance, the Olympic Stadium, now home to West Ham football club.
Sir Paul McCartney at the Olympic opening ceremony in London 2012

What could Vietnam organise for an opening ceremony ?

Make a plan for the next lesson. Think about celebrating the country’s traditions, nature, economy, history, beauty. What would attract people to Vietnam ?

Welcome to Vietnam – the image
Welcome to Vietnam – the reality