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279 Topics: Famous Authors: Harriet Beecher Stowe; Death Valley National Park; idiom versus slang; a chunk of rural wilderness; the rest of (something)

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 279.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 279. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at eslpod.com. Download this episode’s Learning Guide; it will help you improve your English even faster. Even faster than what? Even faster than drinking beer!

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous authors – famous writers, American writers – focusing on a writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote a very famous book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We’re also going to talk about one our National Parks, Death Valley National Park. As always, we’ll also answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café begins with a continuation of our series on famous authors. Today we’re going to talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born in the state of Connecticut in 1811. Connecticut is in the northeast part of the United States, right next to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist. An “abolitionist” (abolitionist) is someone who wants to “abolish” (abolish), or end – get rid of slavery. “Slavery” is the practice of forcing other people to work without paying them. Many people, as you know, were brought from Africa to North America as slaves during this time; this was long before the United States became a country of course, but it continued after the United States began formally – officially as its own country. These slaves were forced to work typically in large farms called “plantations,” and they also worked in the homes of wealthy, rich people.

Over time, many Americans began to think that slavery was wrong – morally wrong, ethically wrong. They began to argue that slavery should be ended; the word they used was “abolished.” Other people, especially those who owned large plantations particularly in the southern part of the United States – the southeastern part, we would call it now – they, of course, wanted slavery to continue; they, and their livelihood, depended on it. Your “livelihood” is your ability to continue making money, and these plantations thought they needed the slaves in order to be profitable – in order to make money. These people, of course, hated the abolitionists and the idea of ending slavery. And, as you also probably know, this was a large part of what led the United States to its bloody Civil War, where people from the northern and southern states fought against each other.

In 1850 – this is now 11 years before the beginning of the Civil War – the U.S. Congress, the part of our government that makes laws, with representatives and senators, created something called the Fugitive Slave Law. A “fugitive” (fugitive) is a person who is running away from the police, usually because they have done something wrong; they have broken the law we would say. There was a movie with Harrison Ford called The Fugitive. Harrison Ford was the actor, you may remember, from the Indiana Jones movies of the 1980s. Anyway, his movie was based on a television show. But in the movie he was innocent, and yet the police thought he was guilty – thought he had done something wrong. What does this have to do with Harriet Beecher Stowe? Absolutely nothing!

Many blacks or African Americans in this time tried to escape slavery, running away from the plantations and their owners. When they did this, they were breaking the law and they became fugitives. The Fugitive Slave Law made it a crime for people to help the fugitives. It would be a crime to help a fugitive now, but they made it specifically a crime to help slaves who were fugitives. This was aimed at, or this was directed at the abolitionists who were trying to help the slaves escape, especially from the southern states to the northern states where slavery was, for the most part, illegal.

When this law passed in 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe was 40 years old and the mother of seven children, but she believed that the law was wrong. It prompted her to write a novel. “To prompt” someone to do something means to make someone want to do something, or to inspire someone to do something. The creation of the Fugitive Slave Law prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote it as a “serial” (serial), or a story where short sections are published in the newspaper. This was quite common back in the 19th century. Charles Dickens, the famous British writer, wrote many of his books as serials; they were published in the newspapers, so you could buy the newspaper every week or every month and you would find the next chapter of the novel – the next part of the novel. This serial novel was later published in 1852 as a complete book.

The novel is called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A “cabin” (cabin) is a small house, typically made of wood, usually in the forest or in the mountains; it could be next to a lake, but far away from the city. Back in Minnesota there are many people who own cabins on one of our 15,000 plus lakes that are in the state of Minnesota. Cabins usually are not as nice as a house, but people go there because they want to get away from the city; they want to spend time in nature. Perhaps they don’t have a lot of money to go to a nice hotel; many reasons why people go to cabins. And by many people, I mean other people – not me!

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the main character is a slave named Tom. He’s been sold and separated from his wife and children. So the person who bought him takes him away from his wife and children. The book tells the story of his life and how he was sold to different owners several times, how he was mistreated and “beaten,” or hit violently. The book also tells us how he is a Christian man whose “faith” or belief in God helps him through these difficult times as a slave.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an extremely popular book; in fact it was the second-best-selling book of the 19th century. More copies of this book were sold than any other book in the United States except the Bible. That was for the entire century of 1800s – 1800 to 1899. That’s an amazing thing, and yet my guess is many people have never even heard of this novel now in the 21st century.

Many people say and believe that when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little lady (the small woman) who started this great war,” referring to the Civil War. Well, most historians think that story is probably false, but it is meant, in the popular imagination, to show the importance of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel in ending slavery. We think about great social movements as being caused by organization and leadership and thousands or millions of people. But here, we have the mother of seven children writing a book that becomes so popular and helps the abolitionists get their message out – that is, popularize their message of abolition, ending slavery.

Despite the popularity and the importance of this book, many people more recently consider this book in a very different light – that is, they consider it very differently than it was considered in the 19th century. Today, many people criticize this book. They say it created and “popularized,” or made popular – made common a lot of stereotypes about black people. A “stereotype” is something that people believe is true for all of the members of a particular group. For example, a stereotype might be that all Irish Americans like to drink whiskey; that would be a stereotype.

Some people who read Uncle Tom’s Cabin nowadays believe it promotes stereotypes of African American or black men as being lazy and “carefree,” or not worrying about anything. They also point out there are many other stereotypes in the book about African Americans. In fact today, the term Uncle Tom is very much of a criticism. If someone calls a black person an Uncle Tom, it means that he’s always trying to make white people happy, or please white people. Of course, this is a very rude phrase to call an African American or black person, and you should never call anyone that term, but it’s good to know what it means and that it refers originally to this book, which again, was considered a very positive book 150 years ago.

Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896, when she was 85 years old, but she certainly has not been forgotten in the United States. Many Americans have read her novel in school as students. In the year 2007, the United States Postal Service, the federal organization that takes care of and delivers our mail – usually, they introduced a special stamp in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her work and her importance in American culture and history.

Have I ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Well, actually I have to say I haven’t. But now, after learning more about the book, I think I might pick it up and read it.

Now let’s turn to our next topic for today’s English Café, which is Death Valley National Park. National Parks are large areas of land that the U.S. – or federal; national – government has set aside for conservation. “To set (something) aside” means to separate something away from the other things, so that it can be used for a particular purpose. You might set aside some money to buy a new car, meaning you have your money, you take some of it, you put it over here, and you save it. It’s separated – it’s set aside from the other money that you have. You can set aside food to eat later, and so forth. Well, the National Parks are set aside by the U.S. government for “conservation,” meaning they want to preserve or conserve the beautiful natural environment that is found there. It is not legal to go in and build in these National Parks. The National Parks are what we call protected, so that people in the future will be able to enjoy their beauty just as we can.

Death Valley National Park is just east of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada (or the Sierra Nevada) is a mountain “range,” a group of mountains in California and Nevada. The area, which is about 5,300 square miles – that would be about 13,600 square kilometers for the rest of you – this area was protected first in 1933 as what was called a National Monument, but was later “designated” or named a National Park in 1994. What’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Well briefly, a National Monument is usually established because of some sort of cultural or scientific reason that the government wants to keep it – wants to preserve it so that it doesn’t get damaged. A National Park is established so that the American people can enjoy this beautiful area. Typically, they have to be fairly large to be considered National Parks; National Monuments can be of any size. All of these, or most of these I should say, are operated or run by a government agency or organization called the National Park Service.

We’re talking about Death Valley National Park. A “valley” is a low area between two mountains, usually there’s a river that goes through the valley. Many people think of a valley as being perhaps cool and moist, with plants. But, as you can probably guess from the name, Death Valley is very different.

Of all the U.S. National Parks, Death Valley is the hottest and driest one. It is what we would call very “arid” (arid), which means it’s an area with very hot temperatures and very little rain, basically like a desert. How hot is it? Well, the highest recorded temperature was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s 56.7 degrees Celsius, which was recorded back in 1913. It’s often up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in a typical summer, that would be a 49 degrees Celsius. In either system, it’s very hot!

You may ask how did this park get its name, Death Valley? Well, back in 1849 many Americans who were not familiar with the area tried to go through the area as a shortcut to get to California. Remember, gold was discovered in California, and many people were coming here to get rich by finding gold. This was called the Gold Rush. Well, many people rushed or went quickly to California without really understanding the geography here, and when they went through this area now known as Death Valley, of course they died because it was so hot and because they weren’t prepared for that kind of heat and dryness.

Even though it is a very “harsh,” or severe, strong, unpleasant environment, many animals and plants do live in Death Valley, including many “coyotes,” which are animals a bit like wolves, and sheep.

Almost 800,000 people go to visit Death Valley each year. Many of them go to see this wildlife that lives in the desert – the plants and the animals. Other people want to see some interesting “geological formations” that are in the park. These include the interesting shape of the rocks that make up the sides and the floor of the valley. Other people go to see some historic sites related to the mining activities that used to take place there, when they would dig to find things like gold.

Sometimes you hear people compare things to Death Valley to talk about how hot something is. It is sort of proverbial – that is, it’s a common way of referring to something very hot. “It feels like we’re in Death Valley right now,” you mean it’s very hot. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, since the temperatures in the rest of the Untied States rarely get as hot as they do in Death Valley – although when my wife gets mad at me, the room feels like Death Valley! I’m not sure why.

Now let’s answer a few of your questions.

Our first question comes from Akbar (Akbar) from an unknown country; we’ll call it Akbarland! Akbar wants to know the difference between the term “idiom” (idiom) and “slang” (slang). Good question Akbar, wherever you may be.

An “idiom” is a traditional or common way of saying something where the words don’t mean exactly what they say. It’s not what we would call a literal sense of the word. For example: “John is now going to take the floor.” Well, “take the floor” means to stand up and to give a talk – to give a speech. If you took the words “take the floor” it doesn’t make any sense, so you can’t translate that, for example, to another language. Idioms are those expressions that don’t translate because they mean something different from what the individual words mean; together they mean something different.

“Slang” is a general term for informal language, usually specific words and phrases that are used by one group of people, not necessarily the whole population. Idioms are not slang; idioms can be used in formal and informal situations both. “Slang” is a word or words that is always informal, although some slang words are used so much that they become part of the regular language, if you will; everyone starts to use them. Teenagers, those young people between the ages of 13 and 20, are very popular creators of slang. They have a lot of language that they use just among themselves. For example, the adjective “sick” usually means, to the average person, someone who is ill, someone who has some sort of disease. Now, for whatever reason, it’s also a slang term among younger people to mean fantastic, great, awesome, wonderful. “That performance was sick” means that performance – the singing or the dancing, whatever it was – was fantastic, it was great.

Slang tends to or usually changes faster than the rest of the language, faster than idioms. Slang may be popular one year and the next year it’s not being used at all. So, a word like “groovy” (groovy), which was popular in the 1960s as a slang word, was later changed to expressions such as “cool”: “Boy, that’s cool.” “Cool” has lasted a lot longer than “groovy.” If you say “groovy” people will kind of laugh, unless you are making a joke referring to the 1960s or trying to sound like you’re from the 1960s. I don’t need to sound like I’m from the 1960s because I was born in the 1960s!

Murai (Murai) in Japan wants to know the meaning of an expression, “a chunk of rural wilderness.” Well, there are three terms there: “chunk,” “rural,” and “wilderness.” Let’s start with “chunk.”

“Chunk” is usually a large amount of something: “Would you cut me a chunk of that cake?” It’s a kind of informal word. “Chunk” is a little…I guess you could think of it as being a little crude, something that isn’t necessarily measured and cut very carefully, or a piece of something.

“Rural” (rural) means not in the city, away from the city, usually referring to farmland or large areas where there are no buildings and very few people. The rural community are those people who live in small cities – small towns really, and out in the countryside, in farms and so forth.

“Wilderness” is an area of nature such as a forest or a desert, where there are very few people living. The word “wilderness” has this idea of wild, uncontrollable, something that you can’t control very easily; it’s too big, it’s too wild.

So, the expression “a chunk of rural wilderness” would mean an area away from the city that was a little, we might say, untamed, that is a little wild, an area that doesn’t have very many people.

I have to say that the word “chunk” here is a little unusual in this context. It’s possible to say that, it’s not that common however.

Finally, Lê Hoàng (Lê Hoàng) from Vietnam wants to know the meaning of the phrase “the rest of (something).” “The rest of” means others that have not been used, that we haven’t talked about, things that haven’t been completed. We might also say “the remainder” of something. For example: “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon. What are we going to do for the rest of the day?” meaning for the time that is remaining – that is left in this day. Or, “Where are the rest of the cookies. I had 10 cookies here and now there are only 5.” Someone ate the other five, where are the rest of them?

Another common way of saying “the rest of” is “the remainder,” as I mentioned just now. However, “remainder” is probably a little more formal than “rest” in terms of expressing that idea of what is left. The word “remainder” is also used in mathematical contexts.

If you have a question that is not mathematical, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. We won’t have the opportunity to answer all of your questions, but we’ll do the best we can.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse, copyright 2011 by the Center for Educational Development.

abolitionist – a person who wants to end slavery; a person who acts to try to end slavery

* In the early 1800s, abolitionists began speaking out in public against slavery.

slavery – the practice of owning another person and forcing them to work without paying them

* Large farms in the southern United States relied on slavery for labor.

livelihood – the means to earn money to live; the way that one earns money to pay for one’s living expenses

* This town’s livelihood depends mainly on fishing.

fugitive – a person who is running away from the police, usually because he or she has broken a law

* After killing his boss, the fugitive stole a car, drove to Canada, and disappeared.

to prompt – to make or cause someone to want to do something; to inspire someone to do something

* The high number of injuries in this factory has prompted a review of safety conditions.

cabin – a small house made of wood, usually in the forest or in the mountains, far away from a city

* We go to our cabin by the lake each weekend to go boating and swimming.

stereotype – something that people believe is true about all the people in a particular group

* Nicole is tired of the stereotype that blonds are dumb.

to set aside – to separate something so it can be used for a particular purpose

* If you can’t leave work in time for the party, I’ll set aside some birthday cake for you.

valley – the low area between two mountains; an area of land that is lower than the area around it

* Air quality is usually worse in the valleys than in the mountains.

arid – with very hot temperatures and very little rainfall

* Most of Arizona is arid and not a good place to spend the summer months.

harsh – a severe, strong, and unpleasant environment

* Living at the North Pole is difficult because of the harsh weather conditions.

geological formation – the shapes formed by rocks and other natural features of the land

* The scientists were excited to find new geological formations on the surface of the moon.

idiom – a way of saying something with words that may make no literal (exact) sense and cannot easily be translated to another language

* One of my favorite idioms is “a horse of a different color,” which is used to talk about an issue that is entirely different from the one that was discussed earlier.

slang – informal language that sometimes consists of words or phrases used by one group of people but not most others

* Video games players often speak to each other in slang that people who don’t play video games aren’t able to understand.

chunk – a thick piece; a large amount

* I tried to melt the cheese in the large saucepan, but there’s still a large chunk that is not melted at the bottom.

rural – having to do with nature or farmland, or with people who live away from the city

* This play takes place in a rural setting – a small town with only a few farmhouses.

wilderness – an area of nature, such as forest or desert, with few or no people living in it; a real or imagined area that seems wild or uncontrollable

* My parents taught me skills I can use to survive in the wilderness.

the rest of (something) – the ones left over after something has been completed, used, or dealt with; the remainder of something

* Do you want the rest of the pasta in the refrigerator, or can I eat it for dinner?

What Insiders Know
The Hottest and Coldest Recorded Temperatures in the U.S.

In this English Cafe, we talked about one of the hottest places in the United States: Death Valley. While Death Valley has the highest “recorded” (documented; written down) temperature, it is “by no means” (definitely not; not at all) the only area in the U.S. with “extreme” (highest or nearly the highest; unusual; exceptional) temperatures.

Other states that have recorded extreme high temperatures include Arizona, Nevada, and Kansas.

Highest Recorded Temperatures in the United States

State (Place) Temperature Date
Arizona (Lake Havasu City) 128°F / 53°C July 5, 2007
Nevada (Laughlin) 125°F / 52°C June 29, 1994
Kansas (Alton) 21°F / 49°C July 24, 1936
The large size of the U.S. also means that there are “great” (large; very much) “variations” (differences) of temperatures between the “northernmost” (located the farthest north) and the “southernmost” (located the farthest south) cities and states. Not surprisingly, you’ll find the lowest recorded temperature in the state of Alaska. Other states with extreme low temperatures are Montana and Utah.

Lowest Recorded Temperatures in the United States

State (Place) Temperature Date
Alaska (Prospect Creek) -80°F / -62°C January 23, 1971
Montana (Rogers Pass) -70°F / -57°C January 20, 1954
Utah (Peter Sinks) -69°F / -56°C February 1, 1985