Category Archives: vocabulary


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WEIRD AL: TACKY music video (I’m sorry — I can’t put the video in my post. Please click to go watch it.)

You’ve seen Pharrell’s video “Happy,” right?

This video is a parody video. In other words, it’s almost the same song, but it has funny new words. The musician is “Weird Al” Yankovic. He was very popular with people my age when we were young. He’s still making funny songs, so I’m still a fan.

In this video, Weird Al and several comedians dance and sing. It sounds like “Happy,” but it’s about being “tacky.”

Adjective: tacky

Noun: tackiness

The Longman Dictionary of English says

if something is tacky, it looks cheap or badly made, and shows poor taste:

tacky ornaments

especially American English showing that you do not have good judgment about what is socially acceptable:

It’s kind of tacky to give her a present that someone else gave you.
It’s a little hard to define “tacky,” because it’s based on social rules. Those rules are different for different people. Here are some things that people I know think are tacky:
– Ed Hardy brand clothes
– Anything that Paris Hilton does
– Wearing a lot of brand logos, like Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc.
– Asking directly for money as a wedding gift
– Telling everyone your big salary at your new job
– Many things that are for sale in souvenir shops (warning: some images might be “adult” — don’t look at work!)
– Bringing fast food to a potluck dinner party
– Taking a selfie at a funeral
I think that “tacky” is connected to being inappropriate, showing off, and being self-centered. Still, it’s really hard to define, and people often don’t agree on what is tacky. (For example, giving money for a wedding gift is normal in many groups. Potluck dinner parties are common in the US, but asking guests to bring food is very rude in some other countries.)
Similar words: crass, crude, tasteless, over the top, kitschy, inappropriate.

Good Words: Stress Relief Phrases

Here are some phrasal verbs/idioms that are often used when we’re talking about relieving (reducing) stress.

  • “I’m going to treat myself to a piece of chocolate.”
  • “Tonight, I’m treating myself to a hot bath and a novel. I haven’t had time to read in two weeks!”
  • To “treat yourself (herself/etc.) to something” is to do something that you don’t usually do. Maybe you don’t usually do it for time, money, or health reasons.

  • “I’m taking a break from the news. I think I’ll go to the gym or take a walk in the park.”
  • “My friend’s coming over so I can take a break from watching my daughter.”
  • “Playing with my dog lets me take a break from worrying about what is happening.”
  • To “take a break from something” or “take a break from doing something” means to stop doing it for a while.

  • “My son decided to play video games for a while to take his mind off the bad news.”
  • “I’m going to bake some cookies to take my mind off things. Do you want to come over and help?”
  • “I got my mind off everything by going to the gym yesterday. It was good.”
  • To “take [your/my/etc.] mind off something” means to make yourself think about something else by doing another activity.

    Get [your/my/etc.] mind off something” is basically the same. Sometimes “of” is used (“take your mind off of something”/”get your mind off of something”).

  • “My boss decided to give everyone a break by letting us work from home We still have to work, but we don’t have to go to the office.”
  • Give yourself a break and don’t worry about what other people think right now.”
  • I’m giving myself a break by cooking easy things for dinner.”
  • There are two patterns here: 1) “give someone a break by doing something” 2) “give someone a break and do something

    Both basically mean the same thing: to make life a little easier by doing something (working from home, not worrying about what other people thing, cooking easy things for dinner).

    “Give yourself a break and” may actually mean “both relax a little and do this thing” or “first relax a little, and then immediately do this thing to continue relaxing.” All three ways of understanding the meaning of this phrase are so close that it doesn’t really matter.

  • “She’s relaxing with a cup of tea and a book now. Don’t bother her!”
  • “I’m so stressed out–I’m going to go relax with some music.”
  • “You’ve been working on that for hours. Why don’t you go relax with a video game for a while?”
  • To relax with something is to relax while you are using/drinking/reading/etc. that thing.

    If you’d like to use a verb, use “relax and” instead: “I’m going to relax and watch a DVD.

If you’re stressed out right now, but not in an emergency situation, I hope you can give yourself a break from the stress.

Any questions about how to use these phrases? Just leave a comment!

Hats and Shoes

We’ve been talking about hats on Twitter. I noticed a little confusion about the relationship between “hats” and “caps.” Let’s talk about it here. (This is a pretty advanced vocabulary point, so don’t worry about it if you are a beginner.)

The basic word for something that covers your head is “hat.” It is the top-level category. A “category” is a group of things or people that are the same type.

Other category words include “animal” (cat, dog, mouse, etc.), “vehicle” (car, bus, truck, etc.), “dessert” (cake, chocolate mousse, ice cream, etc.), “cake” (chocolate cake, Black Forest cake, birthday cake, etc.). Most of these category words are generic–they just describe a group; they’re general. They are not specific (animal, vehicle, etc.).

But a few category words are different.
“Hat” can be general or specific. When it’s general, “HAT” is a first-level category word that means most kinds of things you wear on your head, including baseball caps, berets, cowboy hats, knit winter hats, fedoras, pirate hats, and so on. Let’s call that HAT for now to make it easier.

“Hat” is also a specific second-level word inside the main category. We’ll call this “hat.” A hat is a kind of HAT that has a brim (an edge) all the way around the edge. It is different from a cap. Therefore, some people may say they like caps, but they don’t like hats–and what they mean is hats.

Top hat by Black Country Museums - click for original Flickr page Green cap by Black Country Museums - click for original Flickr page
Two hats — or, one hat (left) and one cap (right)

Generally, though, if someone asks “Do you like hats?” you can guess that they mean HAT — it’s probably a top-level category question.

(ADDITION: I think we tend to use “hat” more often, unless we need to use “cap” for a reason. English learners may have been taught that the difference is very important. However, that’s really not how most English speakers that I know use the words. We just say “hat” much more often! Take a look at Flickr: 1, 2. As you can see, many of these are caps, but they’re labeled “hat.”)

“Shoes” is another word that’s the same way. SHOES means all kinds of footwear (boots, sandals, high heels, etc.)–the general category. But it also means basic shoes, specifically (let’s say shoes)–not sandals or boots, which are special kinds of shoes.

My husband and I once had an argument when we were packing for a trip, because I said “Can you give me my shoes?”
He gave me my sandals, because they were close to him.
I said “If I had wanted my sandals, I would have asked for them. I asked for my shoes!” (Regular, closed-toe, not open shoes!)
But he said “Sandals are shoes too!”
Well, I was thinking “shoes” and he was thinking “SHOES” … we were both right. I guess I should have been more specific by saying “My black walking shoes” or something.

But again, if someone asks “Do you have a lot of shoes?” and you own a lot of boots and sandals, you should definitely say “Yes!” Their question is clearly general (SHOES).

Thanksgiving 2010

Pumpkin pie slice by cgbug_steven_garcia from

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. A few days ago, my brother-in-law flew up from San Diego to join us. On Wednesday, my brother-in-law and I baked two pies and made cranberry sauce. On Thanksgiving, my husband, brother-in-law, and I cooked everything else: sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, broccoli, stuffing, and turkey. We bought the rolls (bread) and gravy. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was fun.

Here’s an important Thanksgiving word: leftovers (group noun–the adjective is leftover). After you eat a meal, you may have extra food. If the food can be kept to eat later, then you have leftovers. At Thanksgiving, there’s almost always way too much food. People usually expect (and even hope for) leftovers. We’ll be eating turkey for several days!

Here are some of the recipes that we used:

  • Cranberry Orange Sauce (I doubled the recipe because we wanted leftovers. I added two cinnamon sticks and some ginger. You need to remove the cinnamon sticks before you serve the sauce. Ground cinnamon is OK too. You can use candied ginger or powdered ginger.)
  • Roasted Broccoli with Garlic and Red Pepper (We baked this in the toaster oven because the main oven was full.)
  • Garlic Mashed Potatoes (We added two entire heads of garlic, and also fried shallots)
  • Coconut Spiced Sweet Potatoes (I didn’t use coriander because I didn’t think it would taste good. I used a larger amount cardamom instead. This is an unusual recipe and really good!)
  • Mahogany Turkey Breast and Mahogany Roast Turkey (I combined these two recipes; however, it takes much longer than 1 1/2 hours for a whole turkey–even a small one!)

Unfortunately, we’re not very good at the timing of doing so much cooking. So by the time we were done, we were really hungry. I don’t have any photos! Sorry…You can see other people’s photos at Flickr.

Pitfalls: Air Conditioner

In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s about time for the weather to become cooler. That’s why I thought about this vocabulary pitfall today…

In standard American English, the word “air conditioneronly means “a machine that makes the air cooler and drier.” It’s very surprising to us to see someone say “I turned on the air conditioner because I was cold.” However, in Japanese and some other Asian languages, the phrase means “a machine that changes the air’s temperature and humidity.”

In American English, we would probably say “I turned on the heater because I was cold.” Most houses have central heating (warm air is pushed to all parts of a house or apartment). It may use electricity or gas. That’s still just called “the heater,” though. Some people have wall heaters, portable electric heaters, or other kinds of heaters. “Heater” is a general word that can be used for many different things.

Small heaters that you can carry are called portable heaters, etc., not “stoves.” The word “stove” almost always means the thing in the kitchen that you cook on. Only very old houses use a special kind of wood stove for heating. These stoves are big, heavy, and made of metal. (A few modern houses have a heat stove as an old-fashioned extra thing.) Of course, a long time ago, the cooking stove and the heating stove were the same thing!

You may have a (Japanese, etc.) “air conditioner” on your wall or ceiling that both heats and cools. In this case, I recommend saying “the heater” when you’re talking about using its heating function. If you say “air conditioner” when you’re talking about heating, it will cause most English-speaking listeners to be confused.

My heater and air conditioner are controlled by the same controller on my wall, called a thermostat. But I still say “Honey, can you turn on the heater?” or “Oh, why is the air conditioner on? Turn it off and open the windows!”

Anyway, basically: “air conditioner” means cooling (only) and “heater” means “heating.” It’s true for apartments, houses, businesses, schools, and cars!

(Read about other pitfalls: words that can cause problems when you use them!)


You probably know about Spam, the meat product. Do you know about the connection between Spam and the English verb/noun “spam”?

The noncountable noun/verb “spam” means “e-mail and other internet messages that you don’t want.” Usually, these messages are advertising something (“BUY SOFTWARE CHEAP NOW”). People also use this word to mean “posting too often” or “posting a message over and over again.” Imagine that your Twitter account has a problem. It accidentally posts your Tweet 5 times. You might apologize by writing “Sorry for spamming everyone. It was an accident!”

You can get advertising spam on your blog, in your e-mail, on Twitter, etc. Recently, someone spammed Readable Blog on Facebook! That’s why I started thinking about the word “spam.”

Spam (the meat product) is not very common or popular in the US. However, we don’t usually use it as an insult. So how did it become the word for internet messages that you don’t want?

Monty Python is the name of a British comedy group. They were most active during the 1970s, but they are still popular today. In the US, they are especially popular with geeky people. Below is one of their famous sketches (comedy performances). The “Spam” sketch starts around 0:32 and ends around 2:41–sort of. Two people are in a cafe trying to order breakfast. The server or shop owner is telling them what she can serve them. (Yes, all of the main performers are men.) Warning: There are a couple of body-part words in here. Don’t watch it at work, and don’t watch it if you are under age 16 without your parents’ permission.

It might be hard to understand all of it (Monty Python’s comedy is very strange). But I think you’ll get the main idea. You can watch a higher-resolution official video with no subtitles here.

When the internet was still new, there were online games and message boards. People who used these games and message boards sometimes typed the words of the “Spam” sketch or just “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam.” After a while, people started to call this kind of annoying activity “spam.” Later, people also started to post messages to message boards trying to sell things or get others to join money-making plans.

In 1998, the New Oxford English Dictionary added this definition to “Spam”: “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.” (There’s a long explanation about all this on Wikipedia.)

And now we get spam all the time. It’s everywhere, just like the Spam in the comedy sketch.


When are Phrase Guides OK?

I understand why people want to use phrase guides, follow phrase-posting Twitter accounts, etc. Here are some reasons I thought of.

  1. You want to memorize correct language and use it exactly the way you learned it with no mistakes.
  2. You know it’s easier to remember language in “chunks” (larger pieces) instead of single words
  3. You want to see lots of examples of correct language use.
  4. You know that some kinds of words usually go with other words, and you want to learn about it.
  5. You are curious about the language.
  6. You don’t have time to really learn a language, but you need to use it.
  7. You need to know about a certain kind of language for a certain kind of purpose/You need to “fill in a hole” in your speaking/writing abilities.

I really understand these reasons. I’ve bought phrase books and subscribed to Japanese-teaching mailing lists, too! Let’s look at these reasons for a minute and see if they are good reasons or bad reasons, and whether phrase guides are useful in each case.

#1 is probably the most common reason. Most of us want to sound correct. However, this is a bad reason, since we are not computers. You can’t just use memorized phrases all the time. Language is creative, and you have to learn to create your own sentences in order to communicate. In addition, as we discussed last time, many phrase books and guides are full of errors, and it’s not easy to memorize that way, anyway.

#2 is true: it’s easier to remember things in “chunks” rather than one at a time. For example, if you’re trying to learn phrasal verbs, it’s much better to learn them inside of sentences. However, phrase guides won’t really help with this. It’s better to either get these chunks by reading (such as in fiction), or by writing your own examples that are easy to remember (use people from your life, favorite characters, etc.). So learning things in chunks is a good idea, but not a good reason to use phrase guides.

#3 is another good idea, but it doesn’t work well with phrase guides. It’s true that getting lots of “input” is great, but phrase guides are not a good source. It’s better to read and listen to lots of correct, natural English! Before, we talked about how phrase guides are often full of mistakes. Even if they are well-written, the phrases aren’t connected, so they are hard to remember. Unlike fiction, the phrases aren’t repeated (fiction writers often use favorite words and phrases several times).

#4 refers to something called “collocations,” which is the way some words are often found with other words. For example, “hot” goes with “coffee,” but “warm” goes with “blanket.” For some simple things, such as pairs (where the order may be different from your language, such as “men and women,” “mother and father,” “you and I,” and “black and white,”) it might be useful to look at a list. The list of collocations is so big, however, that you could look at phrase lists forever and not learn them all! To learn collocations, it’s definitely better to pick them up by reading, not by looking at phrase guides.

#5 is actually a good reason! If you are just curious about the language and you have a found a phrase guide that you can trust, then phrase guides can be fun to read! You might learn something new, correct a mistake you had been making, etc. I don’t think you will learn lots and lots of phrases, because this is not an effective way to learn lots of things quickly. But you may learn some things that are interesting or useful. This is one reason why I enjoy some of the Kodansha Japanese phrase books that I have. However, don’t spend too much time doing this.

#6 is also a good reason. If you don’t have time to learn another language, a phrase guide can be very useful. When I went to Japan for my honeymoon, I really didn’t speak any Japanese, so I memorized some phrases like “May I take your picture?” The biggest problem with English travel phrase books is that some of them contain really awful, old-fashioned English that’s not understandable, so you still have to be careful. Also, some of the ones made in Japan and Korea give pronunciation in katakana and hangul. That’s pretty bad, because we usually can’t understand that–it doesn’t sound like English at all.

#7 is probably the best reason. Whether you are studying nursing or learning to use Twitter, there are times when you need to learn about special vocabulary. I think that the more limited a phrase guide is, the more useful it is. So “English phrases for daily life”? Not very useful for memorization. “English phrases for the telephone”? Maybe… “Casual English telephone greetings?” “Common Twitter abbreviations?” Okay, those might be helpful to look at–if the lists are correct and natural.

Related to #7: You might also want to use a guide if you realize that there are “holes” in your vocabulary. I’ve been using a couple of books on “frequently used English phrases” with some students who learned English in Japanese schools. They didn’t know many common conversational English phrases like “Guess what?” I chose the books after looking at about 20 different books in Kinokuniya. We looked at about 5-10 phrases per week. We spent a lot of time discussing each phrase. The books didn’t include enough information on whether a phrase was casual, rude, etc. (Dangerous!) They didn’t include enough examples, either. If you tried to learn from these books without a teacher or very fluent friend, you would need to combine it with a lot of TV- and movie-watching practice to learn how to use the phrases. Sometimes, phrase guides just “heighten your awareness” (increases your knowledge that a certain kind of thing exists). However, that’s still useful, I think. You’ll start to be aware of it and notice it, and gradually learn how to use it.

Overall, I think it’s best to focus on reading and listening to books and other material at your level. This way, you know the language is natural, and it has context, etc. However, phrase guides are useful for some purposes. Check out the PhraseMix blog and Twitter account for an example of a good phrase guide with correct English.

If I missed (forgot to include) some reasons, let me know! The discussion on the other post was really great. Thank you!

P. S. I’m sorry this post is so long! I’ll try to write a short, interesting post soon.

A rant!

I am going to take a minute to do something different. I’m going to write a “rant.” A rant is when people write or talk about something in an angry way. Usually, they talk about something that bothers them personally. They don’t just yell and scream. They explain why they are upset.

Here is something that really bothers me: Books, websites, and Twitter accounts that teach totally useless or incorrect English.

It’s OK if it’s funny, and the learner knows it’s funny. But when it’s mixed in with normal English, how can you tell?

Here are some phrases that I have seen on “English-teaching” Twitter accounts recently:

  • It just eats up electricity and frosts up really quickly. (I guess it’s about a refrigerator. When would you need to say this, though?)
  • I could make a glitter ball out of tinfoil. (Why?!)
  • I dreamt you chucked me. (What? I’m not even sure what this means.)
  • He was in the true sense of the word culture. (This is just wrong. The correct sentence would be very formal, anyway.)
  • I had my wife die. (Not impossible, but extremely strange and rarely used.)
  • I don’t know both of them. (We don’t say this. It sounds very, very strange. I contacted the account that posted this and asked them about it. They didn’t answer me.)

I guess some of these accounts are using lists of phrases that come from very old books or dictionaries. Some of these sentences might have been OK 100 years ago. They’re not OK now. Other phrases have mistakes in them. I think somebody who’s really fluent in English should check the phrases to make sure they’re correct. It should be someone who has really used English a lot. It shouldn’t be someone who’s just learned English from a book. If you’ve just learned English from books (or Japanese from anime, etc.), then you can’t judge what is OK, realistic, old-fashioned, etc. EDIT: Idiom guides are particularly bad, even ones written in the US or UK. Many of them teach idioms that are almost never used in modern English. Why waste your time trying to memorize them?

I’m not upset about just a couple of mistakes or strange phrases. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I’ve probably made mistakes somewhere in this post. I also don’t mean mistakes in #twinglish users’ accounts or English-learners’ accounts or blogs. I am talking about blogs, Twitter accounts, and books are supposed to help you learn English, but that have lots of serious errors or strange phrases that no modern English-speaker would say or write.

I have a travel phrase book from JAL that is full of strange phrases. When I look at English books at Kinokuniya, I see lots of mistakes and strange phrases, too. Some of my Japanese and Taiwanese friends have dozens of books that are totally useless! They must have spent a lot of money on those books. (And yes, that’s true for books about Japanese and so on in America, too! One popular book on Japanese slang is full of words from the 80s!)

This sort of thing drives me crazy (makes me annoyed/angry) because learners often can’t tell what’s useful and what is completely strange or wrong. These writers, bloggers, and tweeters are supposed to be helping you. However, they are actually giving you useless information that wastes your time. These people are taking your time or money, but giving you something bad in return. It’s like they’re selling you rotten food, but you can’t smell it or see it.

Don’t just go to the bookstore or use things you find online. If you can, get a fluent friend to check it out first. Read reviews very carefully. (Reviews that just say “It’s great!” are not helpful. Look for details.) If you have fluent or native-speaker friends online, ask them to look at books/blogs/Twitter accounts and tell you what they think.

Anyway, just memorizing phrases with no context is not very helpful. It’s better to learn them from a novel–even an easy kids’ book–than to just try to memorize them one at a time. If you read them in a story, they’re probably going to be correct. You will also get more information about who says that kind of thing, why, when, if it’s polite or casual or rude, etc. (especially as you read more and see phrases over and over again).

Still, there are some good Twitter accounts, blogs, and phrase books out there. You just have to be careful.

Okay…my rant is over! Phew. :)

If you have any questions or comments, or if you’ve had bad experiences with this kind of thing, please tell me!


A small part of WonderCon
A small part of WonderCon (click for bigger photos)

On Saturday, my husband, my friend, and I went to San Francisco. We went to a convention called WonderCon. This convention is for fans of comic books, animation, movies, TV shows, and so on. Last year, about 32,000 people went to the convention–women, men, kids, older people, etc. It’s not the biggest convention like this, but it’s pretty big.

More of WonderCon (sorry about the glass)
More of WonderCon (sorry about the glass)

Every year, there are a lot of things to do at the convention. In the Exhibition Hall, you can buy all kinds of comics. Often, you can buy the comics from the artist or writer and talk to him or her. You can buy paintings and drawings from artists. You can buy books about comics, history, and computer graphics. You can talk to publishers and ask them questions. You can meet actors and other famous people from TV shows and movies. (You usually have to pay to get their autographs.)

On the left, a friend who's an artist. On the right, another friend and two more members of Legion Fantastique.
On the left, a friend who's an artist. On the right, another friend and two more members of Legion Fantastique.

Look at the photo above. The three people wearing costumes are looking at the original comic book art that is for sale by an artist. (They are members of a group called Legion Fantastique. If you’re in California, you can see them at the Great Pan-Kinetic Exposition in August.) Lots of people wear costumes and walk around the convention. You can usually take their photos if you ask them.

Some people work hard on their costumes
Some people work hard on their costumes

Another reason that people go to WonderCon is because you can go to presentations and panels (group presentations). At these, people talk about topics like how to make costumes, how to teach reading using comic books, religion in fantasy movies, and so on. Actors, writers, and other people are also on panels. Sometimes new movies or TV shows are shown for the first time.

Who's on the escalator?
Who's on the escalator?

We had a lot of fun, and we’ll probably go next year. There’s “something for everyone!”

Have you ever gone to a convention? What kind of convention would you like to go to? You can answer in the comments!


“Convention” (n.): A big meeting of people on one topic. It might be for people who work in one kind of business, like web designers. Other conventions are for fans of something, like Japanese animation, trains, growing roses, or comic books. People often travel a long way to go to the convention. Conventions are usually held in convention centers or hotels. “Convention” comes from the verb “convene,” which means “come together.” “Conferences” (n.) are almost the same, except that word is usually used for academic (teaching and researching) conferences–teachers, scientists, historians, etc. “Conference” comes from the verb “confer,” which means “talk” or “discuss.”

A “publisher” (n.) or publishing company is a person or a company that makes books, comic books, etc. A publisher isn’t a printer or a bookstore. A writer sends her book to a publisher and hopes that the publisher will accept it. The publisher agrees to buy it and pays the writer. The publisher pays a printing company to print the book. The publisher sends the book to bookstores. The bookstores sell the books. The publisher, bookstores, and writer share the money from selling the book. (The author doesn’t get very much…)

“Autograph” (n./v.): If a famous person writes his or her name on something, their written name (signature) is an autograph. When you write your name on a check, letter, etc., it’s just a signature (n.). If a famous person signs something, it’s an autograph.

If I didn’t explain something, please ask in the comments!