Learning English as she is spoke

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The Independent Online
Excuse me, I am a student of English as a second language here in Britain, and I was wondering if you could explain this election to me.

Which election?

The one in which John Major wants to be leader of the Tory Party (which he already is), so he is resigning the post he already has in order to stand for election to the post he already has.

Oh, yes, that one. What do you find puzzling about it?

Well, it was when Mr Major said to his opponents that they should "put up or shut up". I am not sure exactly what he was intending to say by this.

Well, I am not surprised, because these are colloquial expressions which you won't find in the posh classroom.

So what do they mean?

"Put up" means "to tolerate". When you put up with someone, it means that you can stick him.

Stick him in the back? With a knife?

No - that is another meaning of stick. When you stick someone like that, it is because you hate him. When you say you can stick someone, it is because you like him.

English is a most confusing language.

Only if you are not English.

So, Mr Major is saying to people that they must put up with him.


Or, if they don't, to shut him up.


What does to "shut him up" mean?

It means to lock him away in an asylum or prison.

So Mr Major is saying, if you don't like me, you can put me away.


Or, if you can't stick me, you can stick me up.

No. Sticking someone up means something else.

I see.

Basically, Mr Major is telling the Tory Party to stand up and be counted.

Why? Does he not know how many there are in the party?

Oh, yes. But he does not know how many are behind him.

So he wants the people behind him to stand up and be counted?


So he will have to turn round and have a look to see how many there are?

I expect so.

And to see if anyone is sticking him in the back?


Like the man with the foreign name?

Mr Portillo?

No. Monsieur Lamont. The one who kept talking about little green shoots.

Ah, yes. Before he died, he babbled about green shoots.


Sorry. Reference to Sir John Falstaff. Shakespeare character. Before he died, he thought he saw the green fields of England.

And did he?

No. He was hallucinating. His mind was going.

And did Mr Lamont see little green shoots?

No. He thought he did, but he didn't.

And was his mind going?


And did Mr Lamont say, "Put up with me or lock me away", like Mr Major said? Was he off his trolley, like Mr Tebbit?

Mr Tebbit was not off his trolley. He was on his bike. It is a vehicular image. He was off to fresh woods and pastures new.

Ah - fresh woods! Is this the same as red woods?

What red woods?

I read in my newspaper about the "redwood bandwagon". Is this another vehicular image? I know about bikes and trolleys, but a redwood bandwagon is a vehicle which I do not recognise.

Well, I suppose you might say that a redwood bandwagon is a vehicle on which the backwoods MPs can hitch a ride.


Perhaps we can adjourn this to some other time.

First, there is something else I do not understand. You have explained about green shoots and redwood bandwagons. What is the "clear blue water" which people also talk about?

That is the part of the sea where the Tory Party would like everyone to dump their disused oil rigs, such as Brent Spar.

I see. And one other thing. A friend said it was an old saying in this country that "he who pays the piper calls the tune". What does this mean in English?

That depends. Was your friend English?

No. He was from Australia.

In Australia the word "paper" is pronounced as "piper", so what your friend was saying is that he who pays the paper calls the tune. It was a reference to Rupert Murdoch.

Does that mean Mr Murdoch's papers will have some influence on the choice of the new leader?

Stranger things have happened at sea.

What does that mean? Is it another reference to Brent Spar?

Can we take a rest now?

Yes, please. English is a difficult language, is it not?

Only if you try to work out what it means.