“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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Sic Burn!

If you’ve read enough, you’ve probably come across sic. And you probably also have a good idea of how it’s used. If you’re not familiar with it, or you’ve seen it used but aren’t sure what it means, no worries. It’s not something that’s taught much in schools, and it’s not something most of us ever need to use in our lives. It might be mentioned in a style guide at university, especially on a course with a strong focus on writing, such as journalism. But generally, it’s not talked about much. Which is a bit of a pity, as it can be quite a powerful weapon. Continue reading

Meh…

Meh…

Is there a better word to sum up the malaise of modern youth, jaded and overexposed to such a variety of media, and unable to express their apathy towards the world with anything more articulate than a simple three-letter utterance!?

To be honest, I think that’s a little unfair on this generation. While it might seem like an obviously modern word, meh might have a fairly long history. It seems that the word might be Yiddish in origin, as there are records of an exclamation mnyeh meaning either “be it as it may” or “so so,” going back at least to the late 19th century. Continue reading