Thursday, 10 June 2021




Dear Comrades,

During 1980 & 1990s, the Hindu newspaper published in its Tuesday supplementary called Open Page the Know Your English written by Sri Upendra. It was really interesting and I used to cut the relevant portion and pasted them in sheets and still I am preserving them. It contains more than 1000 episodes. I want to share the collections of Dr Upendra who is still doing the yeomen service through private channel. Thanks to him. Readers are requested not to repost the matter in any group since I don’t know whether the author got any copyright. I am sharing this with closed circulation in my website for the postal fraternity just for reading and enjoy. The following is the collection published in one month on three Tuesdays . Hope you will enjoy.


1.   What is the meaning and origin of ‘clean bill of health'?

When you visit the doctor and he gives you a clean bill of health, you should be happy because it is an assurance that there is nothing wrong with you physically. The doctor is informing you that you are in the pink of health! When used with things, the idiom means that the object is in good condition.

*Of the 20 buildings inspected, only four were given a clean bill of health.

The ‘bill' in the idiom has nothing to do with the amount of money you have to pay the doctor. Such bills seldom bring happiness! In the old days, the captain of a ship was handed over a document by the port authority which certified that there was no infection or epidemic at the port from which the vessel set sail. This document was called the Bill of Health and unless it was presented at the next port, the ship was refused entry.

2.   Who or what is a ‘fax potato'?

We have several different types of potatoes these days. A ‘couch potato' is someone who sits in a chair or a sofa and watches TV all day; he eats and drinks sitting in front of the tube. A ‘mouse potato' is someone who spends his time sitting in front of a computer, surfing the web. A ‘fax potato', another addition to the growing list of human potatoes, is someone who specialises in sending faxes to people: the receiver may be less than a hundred feet away, but instead of getting out of his chair and talking to the person concerned, he sends him/her a fax. Like the couch potato, the fax potato is rather lazy and remains glued to his seat.

3.   Why is the abbreviated form of ‘will not' ‘won't' and not ‘willn't'?

There was a time when it was ‘willn't'. In Old English there were two forms of ‘will': these were ‘will' and ‘wyll'. With the passage of time ‘wyll' became ‘woll'. When the negative ‘not' was added to the two existing forms, they became ‘willnot' and ‘wollnot'. The latter, over a period of time, changed to ‘wonnot'. When ‘willnot' and ‘wonnot' were contracted, they became ‘willn't' and ‘wo'not'. Later, ‘wo'not' became ‘won't'. For some time, both ‘willn't' and ‘won't' were used. It was only in the 18 {+t} {+h} century that ‘won't' became the preferred contracted form of ‘will not'. In the battle of wills, ‘will' won the first round, while ‘woll' took the second. ‘Will' muscled out ‘woll', while ‘won't' knocked out ‘willn't'.

4.   Is it okay to say, ‘I described him what I had seen'?

No, it isn't. You usually describe something to someone or you describe to someone something. In the sentence you have given, you need to include the word ‘to' before ‘him'.

*I described to him what I had seen.

5. Do you ‘part from' or ‘part with' someone?

It is possible to use both. When you ‘part from someone', you take leave of the individual.

*I think the time has come for you to part from him.

When you ‘part with' someone or something, you let go of them.

*Ram's new landlord didn't allow pets. Since he wasn't willing to part with the dog, Ram moved to another place.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.”  Saki

6. What is the meaning and origin of ‘wing it'?

The expression is mostly used in informal contexts. When you get up on stage and ‘wing it', you give an impromptu speech. You have had no time to prepare, and therefore end up speaking extemporaneously. The expression has more or less the same meaning as ‘off the cuff'.

*Shanthi left her notes in the taxi. In class, she had to wing it.

The expression comes from the world of theatre. The sides of a stage which cannot be seen by the members of the audience are called ‘wings'. Actors often wait here before they make their entry. Sometimes, actors go on stage without really knowing their lines. In such circumstances, they depend on the prompters hiding in the wings to whisper the lines to them. If they cannot hear the prompter, they make up their lines. They wing it!

7. What is the difference between ‘momentary' and ‘momentous'?

Something that is ‘momentary' lasts for a very short period of time. The word is pronounced ‘MO-men-tri' with the stress on the first syllable.

*There was a momentary pause before the child started screaming again.

The word can also be used to mean ‘constant' or ‘present at every moment'.

*Revathi lived in momentary fear of being found out.

‘Momentous', on the other hand, means very important. When you make a momentous decision, you make one which has serious consequences.

*The signing of the treaty was a momentous occasion for both countries.

The word is pronounced ‘me-MEN-tes' with the stress on the second syllable.

8. How is the word ‘quixotic' pronounced?

There seem to be different ways of pronouncing this word. One way is to pronounce the first syllable like the word ‘quick', and the final syllable like the word ‘tick'. The ‘o' is pronounced like the ‘o' in ‘pot', ‘got', and ‘hot'. The word is pronounced ‘kwik-SO-tik' with the stress on the second syllable. The word comes from the title of a satirical novel that Miguel de Cervantes wrote: ‘Don Quixote'. The main character, Quixote, is a slightly eccentric individual who decides to become a knight in shining armour and save the world. He has romantic notions of performing chivalrous deeds. Unfortunately for the ageing hero, the goals he has set for himself are so lofty that they are practically impossible to achieve. Every time he attempts to perform a chivalrous deed, it ends in disaster. After several misadventures, the hero returns to his village a dejected man. When you refer to someone's ideas or plans as being quixotic, you mean they are not practical.

*The members of the secret society lived by a quixotic code of honour.

9. Is it okay to say, ‘His condition got deteriorated on Saturday'?

Careful users of the language would avoid using ‘got' with ‘deteriorate'. If you are keen on using the word ‘got', you can say, ‘His condition got worse on Saturday'.

*The ageing star's condition suddenly deteriorated on Sunday.

“Balancing the budget is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to do it, but nobody wants to do what you have to do to get there.”  Phil Gramm

10. What is the meaning and origin of ‘turncoat'?

In India, when a politician is denied a ‘ticket' to contest in an election, he usually quits the party, and joins another. People who switch allegiances or change their opinion radically whenever they find it convenient to do so are called ‘turncoats'. The word is mostly used to show disapproval.

*Why would you want that political turncoat to preside?

In the old days in Europe, people used to wear reversible coats. When one side of the coat became dirty, the owner turned the coat inside out and wore it. According to one story, it was the Duke of Saxony who made the word ‘turncoat' popular. This individual lived very close to the French border, and therefore made it a point to keep both the Saxons and the French in good humour. The Duke's reversible coat was blue on one side, and white on the other. Traditionally, blue was the colour of the Saxons. Whenever a Frenchman visited his place, the Duke was seen wearing a white coat. When he wanted to please the Saxons, the Duke turned the coat inside out, and wore the blue side.

11. What is the difference between ‘nervous' and ‘edgy'?

A person who is nervous or edgy is tense or worried about something. Of the two, ‘nervous' is the more general term. Someone who is nervous need not necessarily show that he is worried about something. He may be outwardly very calm, but on the inside, he may be extremely agitated. A person who is ‘edgy' shows he is worried; the tension is there for all to see. He is anxious and is therefore very irritable. Small things set him off; he may argue or fight with those around him.

*Gayathri said she was nervous, but she certainly didn't look it during the presentation.

*The soldiers were edgy as they waited for their orders from the Captain.

12. Is it okay to say, ‘She was terminated by her publisher'?

In terms of grammar, there is nothing wrong with the sentence. It suggests that this person was killed by her publisher! Of course, given the times we are living in, authors getting bumped off by their publisher wouldn't be considered unusual. If you want to say that the publisher didn't kill, but merely fired the individual, then the sentence should be written in the following manner: ‘Her services were terminated by her publisher.' Not all publishers are like Arnold Schwarzenegger; they are not ‘Terminator(s)'.

A collection from the Open Page Supplement of The Hindu Newspaper

Courtesy: Sri Upendra, the writer of the above


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