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288 Topics: Prohibition; Famous Americans: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; I’m sorry versus I apologize; green thumb; elbow grease; to be screwed

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 288.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café number 288. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Our website is eslpod.com. You probably know that already, because you’re smart and handsome or beautiful. That’s why you’re listening to this podcast!

On this Café, we’re going to talk about Prohibition, a period of time when it was illegal to make or sell alcohol in the United States, one of the more interesting parts of the early 20th century. We’re also going to continue our series on famous Americans, focusing on a man named Oliver Wendell Holmes – actually Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served on the U.S. Supreme Court. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café begins with a discussion about Prohibition. To “prohibit” (prohibit) means not to allow something; it means to forbid something. For example, you might be prohibited from smoking at your work; it’s not allowed, you can’t do it. “Prohibition” is the noun that comes from the verb “to prohibit.” “Prohibition” is usually capitalized when we’re talking about American history, because it was a period of time in American history, a period of time when it was illegal to make or sell alcohol, such as beer, wine, and so forth.

Prohibition “arose” or came out of the temperance movement of the 19th century. “Temperance” (temperance) originally or traditionally meant moderation, doing things in a small amount. The old Greek saying about “everything in moderation.” There’s an old English saying: “Too much of a good thing is not good for you.” The temperance movement in American history, however, eventually decided that instead of a little bit of alcohol being okay, they wanted people to give up drinking completely. They favored something called “abstinence” (abstinence). “Abstinence” is when you don’t do something at all. You may practice abstinence about meat on certain holy days for example. You don’t eat that or do that at all. You can “abstain,” which is the verb from which “abstinence” comes, from many different things. The temperance movement wanted people to stop drinking alcohol.

The temperance movement was very powerful in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most important group in this movement, this attempt to try to change society and its laws, was called the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. These were a group of Christian women who were very strong supporters of prohibiting the production – the making – and the sale of alcohol in the United States. People who don’t drink are sometimes called “dry,” and the people in the temperance movement were known as “dries” (plural) because they didn’t drink alcohol. There were people who didn’t want Prohibition – who opposed Prohibition and wanted alcohol sales to remain legal; those people were known as “wets.” Of course, the opposite of “dry” is “wet.”

We could talk a lot about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and its influence on American politics in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. However, the most important point is that eventually they were successful. They were successful in getting the government to stop the sale and production of alcohol in the U.S.

In late 1917, that is towards the end of the year, the U.S. Senate proposed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which is the most important legal document in the United States. An “amendment” is an addition. We have several amendments to our Constitution. The 18th Amendment was approved by enough states and became the official law of the U.S. in 1919, although there were some states that already were banning alcohol. “To ban” (ban) is the same as to prohibit, to not allow.

Of course, the fact that manufacturing and selling alcohol was illegal didn’t make people stop drinking alcohol. The 18th Amendment basically pushed alcohol production and sales “underground,” meaning it made it illegal but it was still happening. We sometimes talk about the underground economy: people buying and selling things that are illegal but they’re still doing it. Many people began what was called “bootlegging” (bootlegging). “Bootlegging” is the transportation or movement of alcohol from one place to another when transporting and selling it is illegal. There was a lot of money to be made in bootlegging, in transporting alcohol and giving it to people – selling it to people. Many criminal groups got involved, including the so-called mafia. The organized criminals – the organized group of criminals became quite powerful during the time of Prohibition. In fact, many people think that if we did not have Prohibition we would not have had such powerful mafia groups in the U.S.

During Prohibition, some people started to make their own alcohol; this is called “moonshine” (moonshine – one word). This is very strong alcohol that you make at home; it was often made in people’s bathtubs. The practice of making moonshine became so common that a kind of grape juice, where most of the water has been removed, was sold in containers – in small cans or buckets – that had labels telling people what they should not do in order to have the grape eventually “ferment” or change chemically and become wine. So you understand what’s happening here. I’m selling you some grape what was called “concentrate,” which is grape juice without most of the water, and I tell you, “Well, here are that things you should not do if you want to make wine from these grapes.” Of course, what you’re doing is telling them how to do it, knowing that that’s exactly what people will do. But, you couldn’t do something that was illegal, so I couldn’t tell you how to do it. I could tell you what you shouldn’t do, which of course was the same thing. Grape juice became very popular during the Prohibition period, and the amount of land here in California to grow grapes increased dramatically, something like 700 percent during the first five years of Prohibition. This gives you some idea of just how many people were making alcohol at home when they couldn’t buy it in a store.

Another consequence of Prohibition was the creation of illegal bars; these were called “speakeasies.” A “speakeasy” (speakeasy – one word) is a bar that sells alcohol where it is Illegal to do so. Many people went to speakeasies to drink alcohol. I known my father told me once that my grandfather worked at a speakeasy in St. Paul, at least for a short time. One has to remember that the majority of Americans were Protestant, and the temperance movement was much more popular in the Protestant religions and communities than it was in the Catholic ones, which was the tradition of my ancestors – my grandparents.

One of the other consequences of Prohibition was that the government was no longer collecting taxes on the sale of alcohol. So, the government started losing money. That money, instead, was being made by the mafia and other organized criminal groups that ran the speakeasies and the production of alcohol.

Prohibition continued throughout the entire decade, or 10-year period of the 1920s. This is somewhat ironic – somewhat odd, because the 1920s are also known as the “Jazz Age,” when jazz became a popular form of music, when writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and others were writing about the economically prosperous or good times that were going on in the 1920s in the U.S.; it was a time when many people continue to drink alcohol, they just did it illegally.

Prohibition eventually became unpopular, so unpopular that in 1933, just 14 years after the 18th Amendment was passed, a new amendment, the 21st Amendment was approved. It “repealed” or undid the 18th Amendment – it canceled it – making it legal again to make, transport, and sell alcohol. However, it was still possible for individual states to ban alcohol if they wanted to. That’s why there were some towns, cities, and other areas in the U.S. where you could still not buy or sell alcohol; we would call those places “dry.”

Prohibition had a very important impact on American culture and the way that Americans viewed alcohol, and also the way they viewed the temperance movement, which eventually disappeared after Prohibition became so unpopular.

Many people today refer to Prohibition in talking about the “decriminalize” of drugs, that is making it legal for people to buy and sell drugs that are now illegal. They say that the current laws, which make it illegal to buy and sell drugs like marijuana or cocaine, simply push those drugs underground just like what happened during Prohibition. People are still buying and selling these drugs, but now they’re doing it illegally, and it’s being done by criminal groups. We now call them “gangs,” basically another kind of mafia. These people believe that if the government made it legal they could control it, and of course also tax it, meaning they could collect money when people sold them. Other people argue that it’s not that simple, that legalizing drugs would create a whole new set or group of problems.

Now let’s turn to our next topic, also a historical one; we’re going to talk about a famous American. Today we’re going to focus on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was not the Chief Justice, but he was one of the judges of the Supreme Court, our highest, most powerful court. “Justice” is just another word for “judge.” He was on the court for 30 years, so for a very long time.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States, in 1841. His father was a well-known writer of the same name, and his mother was a famous “abolitionist,” a person who believed that slavery, owning human beings as property, was wrong and wanted to make slavery illegal. Of course eventually, we had the Civil War in the United States, which the North won, and that helped end slavery in the U.S. Oliver Wendell Holmes supported the abolitionist movement himself, and fought in the Civil War for the North, what we call the Union.

When the war ended, Holmes went to Harvard University, one of our best universities then and now, to study law. He practiced law; that is, he worked in a law office in Boston for about 15 years. He also wrote many legal articles and became editor of a famous legal magazine, the American Law Review. He served on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state of Massachusetts, from 1882 to 1902, for 20 years.

Then in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Holmes to the U.S. Supreme Court. Many historians have commented that he was one of the few Supreme Court Justices to have been appointed for his contributions to law, rather than political reasons. Even though the Justices should be wonderful lawyers, many times people are put on the Supreme Court not because they’re great lawyers – great legal minds – but for political reasons, they happen to be friends of the president. It’s the president who selects the Justices for the Supreme Court.

During Holmes’ time on the Supreme Court – and remember he was appointed in 1902, which meant that he was 61 years old – he became well-known and well-respected for his beliefs in a particular theory of law called “legal realism.” This was the recognition that laws are made by humans and therefore they are not perfect; that is, they are imperfect. In the past, many people tried to interpret law, in particular the U.S. Constitution, through a purely logical method. Holmes believed that you also had to look at the experience of people. To understand how to apply laws, he believed you had to look back and see how the law had developed, perhaps changed over time and how that change fit, or was appropriate to modern, current society. Not everyone accepted this theory, and in fact nowadays there are many Justices who disagree with that way of interpreting the Constitution and the laws.

Holmes, however, deferred to the elected representatives of the people, in particular the legislatures, as we call them. The “legislatures” are the groups of men and women who represent the people. In addition to the president and governor and mayor, those are what we call “executive positions,” but I won’t go into that now. When I say “deferred to elected legislatures,” I mean that Holmes was going to follow their opinion, use their decision as a guide to how the law should be interpreted – how the Constitution should be interpreted.

Holmes was also a strong defender of freedom of expression, the ability to say whatever you wanted and not be punished for it. However, he recognized – he knew that there were limits to that freedom, especially if it was going to hurt other people, especially physically hurt other people. For example, if you’re in a movie theater, and you stand up and you shout “Fire,” meaning there’s a fire, everyone is going to start running and some people could get hurt. So, there’s a limit to freedom of expression.

Holmes was not afraid of giving his own opinion; he was not afraid of “dissenting” or disagreeing with the opinions of the other Justices. In fact, he wrote so many dissenting opinions that he became known as “The Great Dissenter.” A “dissenter” is someone who “dissents,” who disagrees. His written legal opinions are still quoted today; he was an excellent writer. He had a very pithy writing style. “Pithy” (pithy) means writing in a very brief but intelligent way, using as few words as necessary to communicate your idea.

In 1932, Holmes was 90 years old, making him the oldest person to serve on the Supreme Court. The other Justices said maybe it was time for him to step down. “To step down” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to retire. He, in fact, did retire and died three years later, in 1935.

Now let’s answer some of the questions that you have sent us.

Our first question comes from Aleksandr (Aleksandr) in Ukraine. Aleksandr wants to know when we use the phrases “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” “To be sorry for (something)” means to feel sad that something happened. For example: “I’m sorry your father died.” “I’m sorry you didn’t get your job,” the job you wanted. Sometimes we say “sorry” for things that we did wrong. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings by telling you that you were not a very good person.” “I’m sorry I’m late. I know you’ve been waiting for three hours.”

“To apologize” is to say or write that you did something wrong in order to show that you feel unhappy about it. It is often used in the same way as “I’m sorry.” “I apologize for hurting your feelings.” “I apologize for making you wait so long.”

“Apologize,” as a verb means that act of saying “I’m sorry,” but it often is used to say “I’m sorry” as well. You might say to your son or daughter, “Apologize to the neighbor for kicking their cat.” You should apologize for that because, you see, kicking cats is wrong! Now, an “apology” as a noun is the statement that you use to say you did something wrong. You might say, “I accept your apology.” There, “apology” is a noun.

So, “I’m sorry” can be used both when something bad has happened to someone else and you are not responsible – you didn’t do it, and if something bad happens to someone else that you are responsible for – that you did do. “I apologize” is only for something that you did. So, “I’m sorry” can be used in more cases than “I apologize” or “my apologies.”

Jorge (Jorge), originally from Peru but now living in the United States, wants to know the meaning of two expressions that are related to the human body. One is “green thumb” and the other is “elbow grease.” Your “thumbs,” of course, are on your hand. You have one thumb, it’s the shortest digit, we could say, on your hand. A “green thumb” describes a person who is very good with plants and gardening; someone who knows how to make flowers grow and vegetables, someone who is very good at making things grow out of the ground.

The color green is often used to symbolize or represent the environment, especially efforts to try to save the environment from damage. Businesses often talk about “being green,” meaning they’re trying to help the environment so that it isn’t damaged any more than it is right now. But “green thumb” refers to someone who’s good at plants and gardening.

Your “elbow” is the joint or the area where your two bones come together in your arm, the front part of your arm called the “forearm” and the upper arm. That joint – that hinge is called an “elbow.” “Grease” is an oily or fatty substance – it might be liquid like water, it might be cream – that’s used on machines to make the parts move more easily, more smoothly. The expression “elbow grease” means hard, physical work, using a lot of energy to get something done. “I’m going to clean my house, but some parts are so dirty I’m going to need a lot of elbow grease.” I’m going to have to work very hard. Perhaps scrubbing, trying to clean with my hands, getting down on the floor and cleaning it, that’s elbow grease. Or, I need to fix my car or take the tire off my car; I need to use some elbow grease, I need to use my physical strength to do that.

Finally, Molly (Molly) in China wants to know the meaning of a somewhat vulgar, informal expression, which is “to be screwed.” Now, this verb “to screw” can mean to use a tool – an instrument in order to put a small piece of metal that is thin and sharp on one end into, say, a piece of wood to connect two pieces of wood together.

An additional, somewhat vulgar meaning for “to screw” is to have sexual intercourse. It’s not quite as strong of a word as the word that begins with “f” – you know what I’m saying. But it was definitely used, especially I remember when I was growing up, as a vulgar term, meaning a bad word, something you wouldn’t say.

It’s become, however, more and more popular, and “to be screwed” is now a more informal way of saying to be in a lot of trouble, to be in a very difficult situation. “My flight to San Francisco was canceled and I cannot get home until tomorrow, so I’m screwed.” Now, this is a very informal term. I would not suggest using this expression. It’s not polite, and although you will hear it, especially among younger people, it can be said by anyone of any age, I don’t personally like the expression, maybe because I still associate it with it’s more vulgar meaning. Um, but will see it, hear it…uh, read it no doubt, and that is the meaning: to be in a tough situation. Again, it’s somewhat strong, not something you would say in polite company.

Another similar term is “to screw up.” That’s a two-word phrasal verb which means to do something wrong. “I screwed up my homework and the teacher gave me an F, said I didn’t pass; I need to do it again.” “To screw up” is completely acceptable. Still somewhat informal but for some reason doesn’t have the same sense of being a vulgar or dirty or bad word.

If you have a question or comment – not about a bad word, please – you can email us at eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. I have a cold today, so my voice sounds a little weird. In any case, I 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.

Prohibition – the period of time in the United States when it was illegal to make, transport, or sell alcohol

* Some people stopped drinking alcohol during the Prohibition, but many didn’t.

temperance – not drinking alcoholic drinks; moderation; the action of doing or having only a small amount of something

* Many church ministers and officials supported the temperance movement.

to ban – to not allow; to prevent something through the creation of a law or rule

* Do you think it is fair to ban smoking in outdoor areas?

underground – illegally; without permission; done with secrecy or in hiding

* My country’s rulers didn’t allow privately owned newspapers, so we published our newspaper underground.

to bootleg – for something to be made, distributed, or sold illegally, especially alcohol, computer software, and recordings

* Even before the movie reached theaters, criminals were bootlegging it.

moonshine – very strong alcohol made at home, often in a bathtub

* Uncle Ned made moonshine in his backyard and sold it to his neighbors.

speakeasy – a bar that sells alcohol where it is Illegal to do so

* This restaurant used to be a speakeasy and has an interesting history.

legal realism – the recognition that laws are made by humans, and as a result, are not perfect

* Do you think politicians today really understanding legal realism?

to defer – to follow someone else's decision or opinion, usually because one believes that person has more experience or knowledge about the situation

* I was going to put more salt into this pot, but I’ll defer to you, since you’re a much better cook than I am.

to dissent – to disagree, especially with one’s colleagues' opinions and decisions

* Two of the judges dissented on the court’s decision.

pithy – speech or writing that is very strong and intelligent, but uses as few words as possible

* The American writer Ernest Hemingway has a pithy style.

to step down – to stop serving in an important position or office; to resign from an important job

* After 40 years, the chairman stepped down to allow the new chairwoman to serve.

to be sorry – to feel sad because of something that has happened; to feel unhappy about something one did; to want forgiveness

* I’m sorry that I forgot your birthday. Will you let me take you out to dinner tomorrow night instead?

to apologize – to state that one did something wrong, in order to show that one feels unhappy about having done it

* If my cousin doesn’t apologize for crashing my car, I’ll never speak to him again!

green thumb – a person who is good with plants and gardening; someone with a natural talent for making plants grow well

* Look at this beautiful garden! Jan must have a green thumb or a very good gardener.

elbow grease – difficult physical work; hard work that requires the use of one’s body and energy

* This old house needs a lot of elbow grease to make it livable, but I’m willing to do the work if you are.

to be screwed – an informal phrase meaning that one is in a lot of trouble or in a very difficult situation

* When I went to Greece, I lost my passport and all of my money. I was screwed.

What Insiders Know
Famous Teetotaler President Robert B. Hayes

If you don’t drink any alcohol at all, you may be called a “teetotaler.” There are many reasons people are teetotalers, including religious, health, or “philosophical” (set of beliefs) ones. When teetotalers find themselves in places where alcohol is served, they simply drink tea, coffee, water, soft drinks, or “mocktails,” drinks made to resemble alcoholic drinks, but that don’t include any alcohol.

There have been many famous teetotalers in American history. One of the most famous is President Rutherford B. Hayes, who was the 19th American president, and who served from 1877 to 1881. He “banned” (made illegal or against the rules) alcohol from the “White House,” the official home of the president and his or her family.

Actually, at the first “reception” (formal party) that President Hayes had in the White House, wine was served to the guests. However, he was so “dismayed” (upset) at the behavior of the important government officials who became “drunk” (having had too much alcohol), alcohol was never served again while he was “in office” (serving as president). His wife, Lucy, was “nicknamed” (given the informal or funny name) “Lemonade Lucy” because she never served alcohol at any of their social “functions” (events).

Some people criticized President Hayes for his alcohol ban, saying he was simply too “frugal” (cheap; unwilling to spend money) to serve alcohol. But in fact, Hayes told his staff that the money saved from not buying alcohol could be used to provide guests with more “lavish” (elaborate and luxurious) entertainment. President Hayes’ policy also gave him a political advantage, making him very popular among “ministers” (church leaders) across the country.