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287 Topics: Famous Authors: Edgar Allen Poe; women’s colleges; business versus commerce versus trade; thank goodness; to be keen on

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 287.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café number 287. 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, an 8- to 10-page guide we provide for all of our current episodes that gives you some additional help in improving your English. You can also take a look at our ESL Podcast Store and our ESL Podcast Blog.

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous authors – famous writers in the United States, focusing on Edgar Allen Poe. We’re also going to talk about women’s colleges in the United States – and when I say we, I actually mean Lucy will talk about that one. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café begins with a continuation of our series on famous authors. We’re going to talk about Edgar Allen Poe, who was a very famous American writer and poet.

Edgar Allen Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809. Massachusetts is on the eastern coast of the United States in what we would call the northeast part of this country. Boston is its capital and largest city. Poe was born there in 1809, and he died when he was just 40 years old, so a little older than me. He died in Maryland, which is a state in the central eastern coast of the U.S., near Washington, D.C. Although Poe didn’t live very long, he made important contributions to American culture and had a big impact – a big influence on American literature in the 19th century.

If you ask somebody about Edgar Allen Poe, they’ll usually think of a man dressed in black, very depressing perhaps, very dark, and it’s true that Poe was a very dark poet. When I say that, I’m not talking about his skin color, and it doesn’t mean he wrote about nighttime, although sometimes he did. Here, when we say “dark” we mean he had very serious, sometimes scary or frightening poems and stories. In other words, he isn’t remembered for writing happy stories; people don’t say, “Oh, Edgar Allen Poe, yeah! That’ll cheer me up; that’ll make me happy!” No, it won’t.

Something that is “macabre” (macabre) is very unusual but also very unpleasant; it’s often related to people who are injured or hurt very badly, perhaps even dying. Someone who often tells jokes about death could be described as having a macabre sense of humor. Well, the poems and stories that Edgar Allen Poe is best known for are definitely macabre. They might not be as scary or as disturbing as some modern horror stories, the sort of thing you might read in Stephen King for example, but for his time they were certainly considered dark.

The most famous poem, the one than most Americans read in high school in their studies, is called The Raven. A “raven” is a type of bird; it’s a black bird, really a crow (crow) that eats other animals’ meat, other animals’ what we would call “flesh.” So already you have this dark image for the poem. In the poem, a young man is lamenting the loss of his lover, Lenore. “To lament” means to express great sadness about something, especially when someone dies or when something terrible happens. For example, some people lament the day they decided not to finish their education; they are sad that they did that. In this poem, the “narrator,” the person who’s telling the story, is lamenting the loss of Lenore.

Then he hears a knock on the door. A “knock” is the sound you make when you take your hand and you hit it against something hard, especially when your hand is tight in a fist, we would say, where all the fingers are together. So a knock would be [knocking sound], that’s a knock; I’m knocking on the door. Notice it’s also a verb. So, this young man hears a knock at the door, or a knock on the door, and then at the window. When he gets up to see what is making this noise, a raven, the bird, flies in through the window. The man is surprised, of course, and not expecting the bird to talk asks the bird what its name is. The bird, however, is a talking bird; it replies, or answers “Nevermore.”

“Nevermore” (one word) is not a common word in English. It’s probably not used in conversation very much, but it means simply never again. Well, the man is, of course, surprised that the bird can talk, but he continues to think about Lenore, and as he’s thinking and talking out loud, the bird continues to say to that same word, “nevermore.” At one point in the poem, the narrator asks whether he will be with Lenore in heaven, and the Raven says, “Nevermore,” which makes him very angry – very mad. The entire poem, which was written very carefully by Poe to contain references or images – ideas from other great pieces of literature, is about a man’s descent into madness; that is, it is about a man who’s going crazy, who’s losing his mind, who’s no longer able to think rationally. And, this bird, the Raven, is almost like someone who’s encouraging or pushing him into this descent into madness. “Descent” means to go down into something. The opposite is “ascent.” The poem, which has the most famous line “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” “Quoth” is an old version or form of the word “quote,” and here it means simply “said.” The poem was published in 1845. Remember, Poe was born in 1809 and died at the age of 40, which would be 1849. This is before the American Civil War, in the early part of our country’s history. So this poem was published four years before Poe died.

The most famous short story that Poe wrote, also something that most Americans read in school – in high school, is something called The Tell-Tale Heart. The Tell-Tale Heart was published in 1843, so two years before the publication of the poem The Raven. Poe wrote several short stories and poems, but The Tell-Tale Heart is certainly one of most famous of his works.

In the story, the narrator, the person telling the story, describes how he murdered, or killed an old man he lives with because he hated the way the man’s eye looked. So already, you start with a very dark idea of this man being murdered because someone didn’t like the way his eye looked. It is a “calculated” murder; in other words, he planned the murder very carefully. He goes into very great detail – he describes the way in which he took the body after he murdered it, and he put it underneath the floorboards of his house. So he cut the body up and he put it underneath the floor, where you walk. He’s convinced he did such a good job, the murderer is, that no one will ever guess that he is the murderer. Of course, the body is going to begin to smell in a few days. He hasn’t really calculated that well – he hasn’t planned that well I guess, but the murder is reported to the police. The police come to investigate to see what happened to this man, since there’s no body, and this man, the murderer, the one who is also telling the story, starts talking to the police. In fact, the police sit on chairs on the floor right above where the body is.

As the police and the man start talking, the man thinks that he hears a noise, a sound that gets louder and louder. And he thinks, perhaps because he’s a little mad – a little crazy – that the heart of the man is still beating – it’s still pumping – and the sound he hears is the sound of the heart. Remember, the story is called The Tell-Tale Heart. “Tell-tale” can mean something that reveals information, that tells you or indicates something to you; it can also be used to describe a certain instrument – a certain machine that measures something, especially a clock or a time clock, something that measures time.

Well, that’s exactly what’s happening here. The man thinks that he hears a heart beating; he thinks that the police can hear it also, but of course they can’t. Eventually, although the police did not suspect him – did not think he murdered the man – the man actually confesses. He tells the police that he was the murder and he lifts up the floorboards to show the police what he did with body. Well, of course, we think that what was really happened is the man was hearing a watch – maybe his own watch, maybe the policeman’s watch, and because he was crazy he thought that it was the sound of the dead man’s heart.

This story – which as you can see is pretty happy! – this story is quite famous in American literature. As I say, every educated American would know this story, even if they don’t remember it very well they probably read it in school.

So these two pieces of literature, The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart give you a good understanding of the kind of macabre work that Edgar Allen Poe is best known for. His poems and short stories are so famous that they’ve often been parodied; that is, people have made fun of them, people have created poems and stories like it but that are funny. Even the television show The Simpsons has parodied some of Edgar Allen Poe’s work.

Poe wrote other things as well, but most people remember him for what we might call his dark romanticism, an artistic movement popular in the early 19th century. Poe also wrote detective stories and even some science fiction, but he’s best remembered for his dark stories such as The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart.

The Raven, I should say, is not easy English to read; it’s actually quite difficult in places. But it’s still a great poem, and if you want to try to read some of Poe you can start with that, or perhaps his story The Tell-Tale Heart.

Now let’s turn to our next topic, which is women’s college, and for this we’re going to ask our own Dr. Lucy Tse to tell us about it. Lucy.

Hello everybody. I’m very happy to be here once again with you Jeff, and with all of our friends here on the English Café.

Our next topic is women’s colleges. A women’s college is a college or university where all of the students are women; no men are allowed to study there. For some people, a women’s college is heaven, and for other people it’s something else.

The first women’s colleges appeared in the early 19th century, or 1800s, as teaching seminaries. The word “seminary” (seminary) is normally used to talk about schools or colleges that train people to be priests and other religious leaders, but at that time the word “seminary” was used to talk about schools or colleges to train teachers, perhaps because that was really the only career path or the career open to women at that time. All other “professions” (professions) or jobs were for men. In the mid- and late-19th century, women began demanding more opportunities for higher education, or more opportunities to go to colleges and universities. Several important women’s colleges were founded in the 1830s, such as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which is now called Mount Holyoke College, and Wheaton Female Seminary, which is now called Wheaton College.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary became a model for many other women’s colleges in the United States. To be a “model” (model) means that other things are created to be like that, because it is something that other people want to be like. A country might look at other countries’ educational systems to identify which ones should be used as a model for improving its own schools.

By the mid-1800s, there were a few co-educational colleges where men and women could study together, but most colleges and universities were only for men. So many women’s colleges continued to be created during the late 1800s.

Over time, as it became more common for women to be well-educated and to work outside of the home, more academic institutions, or more colleges and universities, became co-educational. This is especially true in the 1970s, when many people wanted to get rid of single-sex schools, or schools that only allowed men or only allowed women. But some colleges continue to have only female, or women, students even today.

In 2009, Forbes magazine printed a list of the best women’s colleges in the United States. The top five were Barnard College in New York, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, Mills College in California, and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

These and other women’s colleges have produced some famous graduates, or produced people who graduated from their programs. Many of these people are well-known authors and poets, such as Sylvia Plath; Alice Walker, who wrote the famous book The Color Purple; and Emily Dickinson, the famous poet whom we talked about in English Café 274. Others graduates are scientists such as Rachel Carson and Margaret Mead, whom I talked about in English Café 283. There are also famous politicians who graduated from women’s colleges, including Secretary of State and former First Lady Hillary Clinton; former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; and the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto.

Some people question the “relevancy” (relevancy) or importance of women’s colleges today, saying or arguing that there’s no need to have separate colleges and universities just for women. But the women who attend those schools and the faculty, the professors and the staff who work there say that women’s colleges provide a wonderful environment for educating young women and that the support they provide is necessary to help women get the education they need and find satisfying careers.

I have never gone to a all-women’s college or an all-women’s school. All of my education have been in co-educational institutions or schools, so I can’t say. But I have spoken to other people – other women who have gone to single-sex schools and they’ve had very good experiences. But of course, I’ve also heard very good things from people who went to co-educational colleges and schools. So, take that for what it’s worth.

Let me now turn it back over to Jeff, who will answer a few of your questions.

Our first question comes from Kuong (Koung) in Vietnam. Kuong wants to know the meaning of three similar words: “business,” “commerce,” and “trade.” Let’s start with “business.” Although all three words have similar meanings there are some differences.

“Business” can mean the kind of work a person does or what a company does. You could be a company that makes cars. That’s your business; you’re in the business of making cars. It can refer to the company itself; you could buy a business, for example; you could buy a company. Finally, “business” sometimes refers to the amount of selling or buying that happens at a company. For example: “Business increases before Christmas at most toy stores.” It’s when they do a lot of business, we might say.

“Commerce” means buying and selling, usually when we’re talking about a large amount between two countries for example. We might talk about the commerce between the United States and Europe or the United States and China. Here in the United States we have a Department of Commerce, which is responsible for things like international treaties and agreements for businesses.

“Trade” (trade) has a couple of different meanings. It can mean simply buying and selling. Again, this is often used when we’re talking about international business. We can talk about trade between the United States and South America or between the U.S. and Africa, how much buying and selling is going on. “Trade” can also mean to give someone one thing and they give you something else. Normally when you sell something, the person gives you money, but you could also trade them for something. You give me a book and I’ll give you an iPad, for example. Not a good trade probably, unless it’s a really expensive book! “Trade” can also refer, in some cases, to certain kinds of jobs – certain kinds of occupations, what people do – especially those that are related to physical labor – physical work or work that doesn’t require a college degree but does require some special training. A plumber, a mechanic, an electrician; these are all trades. These are all jobs that require special training but don’t require, necessarily, a high level of university education. Sometimes “trade” also means the same as “business.” “What trade are you in?” “What kind of business are you in?” That’s also possible.

Well, of these three words, “business” is by far the most common. Both “business” and “trade” can refer to the kind of work you do, but “business” is more common. “Business” and “trade” can refer to buying and selling, but again, “business” is more common. “Trade” and “commerce” can be used to talk about buying and selling. Of these two, “commerce” is the more formal word, the one that you would see in the newspaper perhaps. It often refers, as I said, to buying and selling between countries.

Jucelino (Jucelino) in Brazil wants to know the meaning of the expression “thank goodness.” “Thank goodness” is an expression used to express gratitude; you are thankful for something. It can also be used when you are expressing the emotion of relief, when you think something bad is going to happen or might happen but it doesn’t, something good happens. You might say, “Thank goodness it did not rain on my wedding day.” Or, “Thank goodness that my neighbor decided to take a vacation and isn’t here to bother me.”

You will still hear and read this expression. It has been replaced, by many people, with the expression “thank God,” but it’s still common enough especially among older Americans. We also talked about this expression in our ESL Podcast number 292 and in episode 45.

Our final question is also from Brazil, from Josué (Josué). The question has to do with the expression “to be keen on (something),” or “to be keen on (someone). “To be keen on (someone or something)” means to be enthusiastic about someone, to be excited, to like this thing or this person. “My brother is keen on going to the movie at eight o’clock.” He’s very much looking forward to it; he wants it; he is excited by it. Or you could say, “I’m not keen on broccoli,” a kind of green vegetable. I’m just not keen on it; I don’t like it very well. “I’m not keen on tofu,” which is true, I…I’m really not keen on tofu, I’m sorry!

You can also be keen on someone, although that’s not a very common use in American English, perhaps a little more popular in British English. “I’m really keen on the girl sitting next to me in my class.” I was keen on a girl sitting next to me in my class once, but now that I’m married I’m keen on my wife and my wife only. Let’s just get that clear!

“Keen,” as an individual word, can also mean very sensitive or highly developed skill of some sort. We often use it in talking about, for example, someone’s ability to hear music or to hear sound. “I have a keen sense of hearing,” you might say. Or you could talk about someone’s keen intelligence, his highly developed intelligence – although no one would use that word to describe me, I’m sure!

We’re in the business of the answering your questions. We’re keen on helping you improve your English, so please email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. We don’t have time to answer everyone’s questions, but we’ll do our best.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again here 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 Educati

tale – story, often told to children

* This is a tale of a selfish girl, who chooses money over family.

macabre – very unpleasant and unusual, often related to people who are injured or hurt very badly, or even dying

* At Halloween, the librarian tells the children macabre stories about ghosts and monsters.

to lament – to express great sadness about something, perhaps about someone’s actions

* For sixty years, Mike lamented quitting school and never finishing his degree.

narrator – the person who is telling the story; the person from whose point of view a story is told

* Do you like to read stories in which the narrator seems to know the thoughts of every character?

knock – the sound made when one hits a door with one’s hand, usually to try to get the attention of the person inside so that he or she will open the door and allow one to enter

* Did you hear the knock on the front door? Can you go see who it is?

raven – a large, black bird with shiny feathers

* We saw several ravens flying over the field looking for food.

nevermore – an old-fashioned word meaning never again; not ever again

* The sad story ended with the princess saying, “Nevermore will I see my prince.”

descent into madness – the process of becoming crazy; the process of no longer being able to think rationally

* We saw a movie about a crazy scientist’s descent into madness.

calculated – planned in great detail and with a lot of thought; intending for something to have a specific result or effect

* Sam’s unexpected arrival at the party was calculated to capture the attention of everyone in the room.

model – something to be used as an example for other things; something used to be followed or for other things to be made in a similar way

* The success of our program to keep top employees will serve as a model for programs at other organizations.

co-educational – with male and female students studying together; for a school to have both male and female students learning in the same classroom

* The military school was open only to boys until five years ago when it became co-educational.

to question the relevancy – to ask whether something is important or appropriate for a particular situation or setting

* Today, some Americans question the relevancy of a woman changing her last name to her husband’s after getting married.

business – the type of work a person or group does; what workers or companies do; a place where work gets done; a place where buying and selling is done

* Our company is in the business of making electronic parts for computers.

commerce – buying and selling, used especially to talk about large amounts bought or sold between countries

* In the 1900s, the establishment of train service between states increased commerce in the United States enormously.

trade – buying or selling; giving one thing for another; a job

* Our country stopped participating in the ivory trade over 50 years ago.

thank goodness – an expression used to express gratitude or relief; meaning “I’m am very glad!”

* Thank goodness you’re home! I expected you three hours ago.

to be keen on (something or someone) – to be enthusiastic about something/

someone; to be eager about something/someone; to like something/someone

* Most children are not too keen on eating vegetables, but vegetables are an important part of their diet.

What Insiders Know
The Poe Toaster

Every year on January 19th, Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, a “mysterious” (being secret or strange) person visits his “grave” (place in the ground where a dead person is buried). This person is dressed in black with a “wide-brimmed hat” (a hat with a large piece attached to the bottom, usually used to keep the sun from one’s face) and white “scarf” (a piece of fabric worn around the neck or the head). The person brings three roses and a bottle of French “cognac” (a type of liquor; a high-quality brandy) and leaves it at the grave. Then, the person disappears. This has been happening since 1949. Even though a lot of people who are fans of Edgar Allen Poe gather at his grave on his birthday, few people have ever seen this person. He or she comes at night and disappears quickly. This person has come to be known as the “Poe Toaster.”

To “toast” someone is to raise a filled glass, usually with liquor, with the person holding the glass saying some words to honor or give good wishes to someone else. Others in the room raise their glass to join and “drink to” the person being honored or given the good wishes.

The Poe Toaster continued this tradition every year, and in 2007, a man named Sam Porpora claimed to be the original Poe Toaster. Porpora is a “historian” (someone whose job is to study and/or write about history) in Baltimore, Maryland, where the grave is located. However, many people don’t believe him, and in fact, the tradition began before the 1960s, when Porpora said he thought of the idea.

In the past few years, in addition to the roses and the cognac, notes have been left at the grave. Those notes say that the original Poe Toaster visited between 1949 and 1998. After that time, “a son” took over the tradition. The tradition ended, or at least took a break, in 2010. For the first time since 1949, the Poe Toaster did not leave his or her usual gifts.