English for gourmets

Fine dining has become a hobby for many people, so it makes sense to acquire the necessary vocabulary. Because the English-speaking countries were for a long time not exactly known for their exquisite food, many of the expressions are in fact of French origin.

An amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule (listen here) (known as Gruß aus der Küche in German) is an appetizer served for free to get the customer in the mood for food.

Confusingly, an entrée (listen here) can either be the main dish of a meal (in American English, Hauptspeise in German) or a dish before the main dish (in British English, Vorspeise in German). Remember that when you are looking at a menu (not card, for my German-speaking readers) in the US trying to find the main courses!

Finally, the dessert (Nachtisch or Nachspeise) is pronounced as [dɪˈzɜː(r)t] (listen here), in contrast to those really dry regions  called deserts and pronounced [ˈdezə(r)t] (listen here).

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The many faces of John

John is not only a very common English name, but actually an English word and part of English expressions. Let me tell you about some of the very interesting meanings of John.

First, we have the noun john, which is used (although not in formal English) both for the clients of a prostitute (the British equivalent is punter) and for the toilet (for example, to sit on the john). Then, of course, there is John Doe, a name used to either refer to a male that is supposed to remain anonymous or to an average man (the corresponding name for females is Jane Doe), see here. Finally, I have recently learned that a Dear John letter is a letter written from a woman to her geographically separated partner to inform him about the end of their relationship. The expression has its origin in letters written by women to oversea soldiers, see here.

Expressions worth speaking about: spoken for and bespoke

Today I’m writing about two interesting expressions derived from the verb to speak that you may not have encountered before.

First, spoken for is an adjective that means “already claimed or being kept for somebody” according to the OED. In particular, spoken for is an old-fashioned but still used synonym for married, although the times when married woman were literally spoken for by their husbands are fortunately long gone in most parts of our world. For other meanings and examples see here.

Second, bespoke is a synonym for tailor-made or custom-made, referring to a product or service designed according to the specific needs or wishes of the customer in mind. A good example is a bespoke suit, which is a suit made to fit a particular person by a bespoke tailor. The expression most certainly derives from the fact that the two parties speak about the product requirements beforehand. Further examples can be found here. For the differences between bespoke and made-to-measure, see here.

 

How to pronounce Python

A python is not just a rather dangerous looking animal. It also gave the name to a very powerful and popular programming language — Python. Having heard different people pronounce Python in different ways, I decided to look up its pronunciation. This is what I found.

In British English, Python is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθən], whereas in American English it is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθɑːn]. Clearly, the o is pronounced very differently, and explains what I had been hearing. You can listen to both variants here.

If English is not your native language, make sure you pronounce the th correctly (at least when speaking English), as explained previously.

How to pronounce refugee

Given the recent political developments in Europe, the word refugee is now used much more often by non-native speakers. Because most of them are not aware of the correct pronunciation, let me mention it here.

The most obvious mistake is to stress the word on the first syllable. Instead, refugee is stressed on the last syllable, as apparent from the phonetic spelling (‘ indicates stress)

[ˌrefjuˈdʒiː]

You can also clearly hear the stress on the last syllable here. (In the case of German speakers, putting the stress on the first syllable may be a classified as a pronunciation false friend related to the German word Flüchtling.)

Minor but also quite common mistakes are the pronunciation of the letter g as [] instead of [dʃ] (compare China and John), and the short pronunciation of the -ee ending (the : in i: indicates a long pronunciation).

At best is not so good

German (and very likely other)  speakers sometimes use the phrase “at best” incorrectly, and have no idea how big a blunder that is. The problem is that “at best” has the meaning of the best thing in a bad situation, and therefore has to be used with care. For example,

I’m at best qualified for the job.

suggests that you are not sure you are suitable for the job, that you think that you may be suitable, and that there are certainly people who are better qualified than you are. If you want to express that you are the best person for the job, you should say, e.g.,

I’m the best candidate for job.

or

I’m the best qualified candidate for the job.

The origin of the incorrect use of “at best” by German speakers is very likely the German expression “am besten”, which expresses that somebody or something is the best in a certain situation or context.

Kreislaufstörung

While reading an article about BMW’s Harald Krũger, who apparently fainted on stage at the Frankfurt Auto show but is OK, I noticed that BMW cited “circulation problems” as the cause. The term is a translation of the German expression Kreislaufprobleme. However, circulation problems in English refer to a serious and often lethal condition caused by blood clots. In contrast, Kreislaufprobleme is a German expression for various forms of not feeling well. According to the discussion here, it may be thought of as the German version of the British “back problems”, often invoked in order to have a reason not to attend an unpleasant activity (work, family affairs). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans has this to say (the quote is also mentioned in the hilarious discussion here):

[…] the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness that doesn’t exist, the notorious Kreislaufstörung. While the rest of us go to meet our maker once our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. […]