School Blog

Madame le chairperson

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, insists upon being referred to as Madame la maire, instead of the grammatically correct Madame le maire. The debate rages between the modernisers who want to abolish gender identification in the way that job titles are written, and the purists, who favour the elegance of the language over political correctness.

In English we have neither of these problems. We have never seen the need to separate our nouns into masculine and feminine, and we have no equivalent of the Academie Française , the quasi-fascist institution that makes it illegal to use words like le computer, (you must now say ordinateur) le disk jockey (animateur) and le brainstorming (remue - meninges).

The Oxford English Dictionary is seen as the highest authority on the English language, but it reflects rather than directs the language. And no one actually speaks the Queen’s English.

The Germans, it seems, also have a lot less controversy in this respect. The addition of the feminine -in ending to nouns is not considered ungainly or overly fussy, and is widely used, without debate, in order to show gender inclusion. 

Interestingly, in the English-speaking world, the same sentiments have produced the opposite result: Those who feel strongly about the inclusiveness of language assert that the feminine forms of words, where they ever existed, should be abolished. Nicole Kidman refers to herself as an actor, not an actress as she might have twenty years ago. Air hostess? Policewoman? Headmistress? Even now, these sound terribly out of date, having been replaced by the gender-neutral cabin crew, police officer, headteacher.

All very well, all very easy, but what about “chairman”? If the chairman of the company retires and a replacement must be found, is it acceptable to advertise for a new chairman ?

Some say “Of course!”

Others say “Oh please!”

What are our alternatives?

“Chairman/woman”? Clumsy.

“Chair”? That’s something you sit on.

“Chairperson”? This seems to be the most popular solution to the problem, but there are plenty of people who scoff at such an inelegant word.

No doubt the debate will continue. How is it in your language? As students of language, as well as languages, it is interesting to observe from a distance and offer an opinion when asked.

What do you think?

1. If you (as a woman) worked for the police in England, would you rather be referred to as a policewoman or a police officer?

2. If you (as a woman) were in charge of a school would you call yourself the headmistress, head teacher, or just the head?

3. Or if you (as a woman) were the mayor of Paris, would you insist on being called Madame la maire ?

Painting the town red

Sunday, 05 November 2017

Let’s paint the town red

Are you the kind of person who sees things in black and white? Do phrasal verbs make you feel blue? Do you feel green with envy when your classmate gets a better result in the exam?

One way to sound more like a native speaker is to learn a few idioms, and why not start with some expressions about colours?

But be careful of using colourful language! That can be another way of saying bad language!

So where shall we start?

There are hundreds of different colour idioms, so let’s narrow it down and just go through the rainbow:


Have you ever done something you shouldn’t and been caught red-handed ? If so you might have been red-faced . Red is nature’s colour of danger – that is not unique to English – but it is also the colour of bureaucracy: too much red tape , and of debt. You don’t want to be in the red but in the black.

So, are all red phrases negative? No! To paint the town red means to go out and have a good time partying.


There is not a great number of orange-based idioms that spring to mind, so let’s just mention the title of the TV drama series, “Orange is the new black”. An interesting phrase: if a colour is described as the new black it means that it has recently become popular – in the way that black has always been popular.

Also, while we’re here: it’s a little known fact that when the word “orange” entered our language (and by the way, the fruit came first, not the colour), it was closer to the original Arabic: “a norange” rather than “an orange”. True story.


The colour of cowardice in English speaking cultures. You may have seen old cowboy films where someone – usually the baddie – is referred to as “yellow-bellied”. He is being accused of being a chicken .


If you are described as “ green ”, it is not a great compliment. It means you lack experience. But if the boss is impressed, then s/he may give you the green light to go for a promotion. That might make your colleagues green with envy !

A more positive green phrase is to be green-fingered . This means you are a good gardener – good at making plants grow.


A great line from The Simpsons: “Playing the blues is not about making yourself feel better, but making everyone else feel as bad as you.” To feel blue is used in American English to mean sad. More common on this side of the Atlantic: to have blue blood, which means to come from a royal family. And if something happens out of the blue , then it happens suddenly or unexpectedly.

Indigo and violet

Erm... Maybe going through the rainbow wasn’t such a good idea as there are very few idioms related to these last two colours. A shrinking violet is someone who is very shy, but that refers to the flower rather than the colour. To hit a purple patch means to be enjoying a period of good fortune, but that’s about it.

Black and white

× To wave a white flag is an internationally recognised way of surrendering. More particular usage of this colour might be: to be as white as a ghost , meaning to turn very pale upon hearing some shocking or frightful news.

Most cultures agree that it is preferable to tell the truth than to lie, but what about those little lies that don’t really hurt anyone, in fact might even make someone feel better.

“Yes Grandma, this tuna and broccoli ice cream is delicious!” A classic white lie .

What is the opposite of a white lie? A black lie? People don’t tend to say this. In fact in modern, politically-correct Britain, people have become careful about using “black” as a metaphorical adjective at all. Some people think twice about referring to the black economy , the black market , even the black sheep of the family due to the possible racist undertones.

Some nursery schools have banned the use of the song “Baa baa black sheep” as it supposedly refers to black slavery in the United States.

Less controversial, but just as painful, if someone punches you in the face you might get a black eye ... and everyone wants their bank balance to be in the black .

So that’s a start. We’ve looked at some of the most common colour idioms in the English language.

We would love to hear from you if you think we have missed any obvious ones, or maybe there are some colourful phrases in your language that would be interesting to share. Please do...

Until next time,

Andrew, Kate and the TELC team

Theresa May or she may not

Thursday, 05 October 2017

Theresa May... or she may not

Some helpful words:

A coughing fit (noun)
/ə ˈkɒfɪŋ fɪt /
An extended period of coughing

A prankster (noun)   
/ə præŋkstə /
A person who likes playing pranks, practical jokes

Tories (noun) 
Plural of Tory, which is the nickname for a member of the Conservative party

To bedevil (verb)   
/biˈdevəl /
to plague, afflict, to possess as if with a devil

To be on the back foot (idiom) 
to be at a disadvantage, to be in a position of weakness

P45 (noun) 
document provided by the employer to the employee at the end of his/her term of employment

As leader of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister Teresa May gave a speech at their conference this week. She was already on the back foot after a recent general election which was much more narrowly won than many Tories had expected. So, this was an opportunity to reassert her authority and bring the party together. However, her speech was bedevilled by a series of unfortunate mishaps.

First, a prankster managed to evade security and walk onto the stage. He handed Mrs May a piece of paper, with “P45” clearly visible. He turned out to be the comedian Lee Nelson.

The set designers will face questions after there were problems with the lettering on the banner behind the podium. The magnets holding the letters in place were too weak, and some of them fell off. Luckily, no rude words remained, but even so, the damage was done. Many opponents saw this as a metaphor for her political career falling apart!

Throughout the speech, she was tormented by a tickly cough that prevented her from completing her speech fluently, and which almost forced her to abandon it completely. She soldiered on however, and received the usual standing ovation at the end. It was clear on this occasion that the warmth of the applause was more a sign of sympathy than the genuine confirmation of support that she so desperately wanted from the party members.

For comprehension:

1. What was the occasion of Theresa May’s speech?

2. Why was it so important for her to make it a good one?

3. What was the point of handing a “P45” to the Prime Minister?

4. How much of her speech did Mrs May manage to complete?

5. How well was the speech received by the delegates in the hall?

For discussion:

1. What is the best prank you have ever played, or witnessed?

2. Have you ever been in a situation where you had to “soldier on”? When and where? How did you manage?

3. “The style of presentation is just as important as the content of a speech – or a piece of writing.” Do you agree?

4. “ ‘Bad luck always comes in threes’, and to suffer such bad luck must surely signal the end of Mrs May’s political career.” How far do you agree with this statement?

Answers to comprehension questions:

1. The Conservative Party conference

2. Because she had to convince the party that she is the best leader, after a disappointing election result

3. To imply that she had already lost her job

4. All of it

5. They stood up and clapped, but we don’t know whether their support was genuine