Why showing up a show-off leads to a show-down

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The Independent Culture
TODAY WE bring you another lesson in our popular "Learning English as a Second Language" series. If English is your first language, or even your only language, keep reading anyway - we are sure you will find much food for thought in today's lesson.

Excuse me, sir.

Yes ?

Can you explain the meaning of the word "to cork"?

It means, to put a cork in a bottle. Why?

Because I heard someone yesterday say he had had a corking idea. So this was an idea for putting a cork in a bottle?

No. "Corking" was an old-fashioned term that we don't use any more. It took on for a while, but now it's gone out.

Took on? So, "to take on" is to become fashionable?

That's right.

So when I was taken on at the University of English as a Second Language, I became fashionable?

Not at all. You were just enrolled.

Oh. But when people say to me, "don't take on so!", does that mean "Don't become fashionable"?

No. It means "Don't make a fuss".

"Take on" has all these meanings?

Yes. "Take on" can take on many meanings. English clarity is not all it is cracked up to be!

"Crack up"? That means "to repute"? A thing is cracked up to be very good?

Well, I think we don't use it in the positive, only in the negative. It's not idiomatic to say a thing is cracked up to be something, only that it isn't everything it's cracked up to be. "Crack up" in the positive usually means "to have a nervous breakdown".

So, "crack down" presumably means the opposite, to recover from a nervous breakdown?

I am afraid not. To "crack down" usually means to repress harshly, as in "crack down on drug abuse".

What is the difference between "drug use" and "drug abuse"?


So opposite words can mean the same thing in English?

Oh, yes. For instance "thaw" and "unthaw" sound like opposites. In fact, they mean exactly the same thing. But don't let that put you off!

Put me off? You mean, postpone me to another day?

What? Oh, yes, "putting off" can mean to postpone, but in this case it means "to discourage".

In English, you use the same phrase for "postponing" and "discouraging"?

Yes. I can see your point. It's a bit off, really.

A bit off what?

Ah... No, you don't understand. "Off" can be used as an adjective meaning "unfortunate" or even "bad-mannered". So I was just saying that something was a bit off, meaning "unfortunate".

I see. But when a thing is "off", before it becomes off, must it first go off?

No. That's different. When something goes off, it becomes bad and smelly.

Oh. So, when someone says they have "gone off" somebody, which one of them is smelly?

No, that's something else. "Go off" can mean "become smelly" or "become bored with".

Anything else?

Or go bang.


If a firework explodes, we say it "goes off", with a big bang.

So an astronomer who goes off with a big bang theory, explodes?

I think you're just showing off!

Show off? I am a show-off?

If you try to show up your teacher, you are a show-off. You shouldn't have a show-down with a teacher.

Please, my head is spinning with all these expressions... May I ask you one more question?

Carry on.

Carry on? I thought to "carry on" was to have sexual relations?

That's "carry on with". Just to "carry on" is to "continue".

Right. Well, my question is to do with the word "domestic".

That's an easy one. Domestic means humdrum, peaceful...

But yesterday I heard someone saying he had his wife had had "a domestic", and from the context it was obvious they'd been fighting!

Yes. That is true. A "domestic" can also mean a family fight. And a family servant, of course.

I fear that English is too hard for me to learn. I'll never manage it.

Nonsense! Keep at it! It's all down to you!

Or up to me?

Yes. Down to you. Up to you. It's all the same.

Even though they're opposites?


Would you like to learn English as a second language? Has it ever occurred to you that Chinese might be easier...?