“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

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Twin Peaks

You might be aware that the classic early 90s TV programme Twin Peaks is returning tonight. In an era of so many different viewing choices, in terms of both content and medium, it’s hard to imagine how much it was talked about when it first aired. Even though I was only six at the time, I still remember everybody talking about it, and have never forgotten the image of a bloody and battered Ronette Pulaski walking along the train tracks.

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Film or Movie?

Do you want to catch a movie? Or maybe you’d prefer to watch a nice film? Of course they’re the same thing, objectively, but they’re not really the same, are they?

Strictly both movie and film are synonyms, but in reality, the word film has a much greater sense of sophistication than movie. Why is that? Continue reading

A Monster Calls

I went to see A Monster Calls on Friday night, and really enjoyed it. Without spoiling much, it was a tougher watch than I expected, but still quite beautiful and touching at the same time.

I’ve been ruminating on the word monster since then. While the meaning hasn’t changed greatly in the many years its been in use, I’ve been interested in its complexity and layers of meaning since learning something of its etymology a few years ago. It comes from the old Latin monstrum, meaning divine omen or portent. The appearance of hideous figures was believed to indicate the arrival of some great event. Monstrum is derived from the verb monere, which means both to warn and instruct. From this root also came the verb monstrare, meaning to show or point out. This word gained the prefix de-, with demonstrare meaning to demonstrate, with the prefix meaning entirely.

So while the words demonstrate and monster might seem quite different on the surface, there are some basic similarities in their individual meanings. The appearance of a monster was believed to demonstrate that something momentous was going to happen, and throughout all the time we’ve been telling stories, monsters have been used to demonstrate one thing or another, and instruct us in some important life lessons. Continue reading

Exploitation

Lately, I’ve been watching the Marvel TV programme Luke Cage on Netflix, when I can find a spare moment. One thing that’s quite apparent early on is that it’s heavily indebted to, and deliberately homages, the blaxploitation genre of movies. In the 1970s, these films were cheaply-made, stylised (and stylish) films featuring African-American protagonists, usually fighting back against oppression from The Man, and looking quite cool while they did it.

This genre was a sub-genre of the exploitation film. In a way the exploitation film had been around since the birth of cinema: cheaply-made films with risque topics aimed at teenagers. What we now recognise as the archetypal exploitation film (cheap production values, questionable acting, sexy young people, violence, more sexy young people) came to prominence in the 70s. Continue reading