Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

330 Topics: American Authors: Toni Morrison; Homeboy/Homegirl Industries and Father Greg Boyle; screw versus bolt versus nut; to kidnap versus to abduct; to sharpen (one’s) axe

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 330.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 330. 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. Go there today and support this podcast, help keep us on the Internet by becoming a member. When you do that you not only feel good about yourself, you improve your English.

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous American writers – authors, focusing on Toni Morrison. We’re also going to talk about something called Homeboy/Homegirl Industries and Father Greg Boyle, right here in Los Angeles. 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 American authors. Today we’re going to talk about a modern author by the name of Toni (Toni) Morrison. Toni Morrison is not her real name; it’s what we would call her “pen name,” (pen) name. Her real name is Chloe Anthony Wofford. She was born in 1931 in the State of Ohio, which is in the Midwestern United States. As a child Toni Morrison loved to read. She eventually studied English at Howard University. Howard University is what we would call a “historically black college,” a college where most of the students are African American. She also studied at Cornell University in New York, and she began teaching English as a professor at universities here in the U.S.

Morrison is herself an African American, or a black woman. She writes about the African American experience here in the United States. The word “experience” can refer to almost anything we do, either professionally or personally, so you might hear people talk about their work experience, their travel experience, and so forth. But when we talk about the African American experience, or the Hispanic or Latino experience, or something similar, we’re talking about how a group of people experience life in a particular culture, especially based on their ethnicity, what country they’re from, or their race, the color of their skin. Morrison’s novels are mostly about the African American experience. The characters, the people in her novels, are often black women who face challenges and often discrimination.

Morrison’s first novel was called The Bluest Eye; it was published in 1970. It’s about a black girl who longs to have blue eyes. “To long” (long), as a verb, means to have a strong desire for something. “I long for the ocean. I long to see the ocean,” I want to see the ocean very much; I have a strong desire for it. Blue eyes, of course, are associated with white people more than they are African Americans, and this novel, in a sense, is about a black girl who wants to be white. Well, in The Bluest Eye, as I say, the young black girl wants to look beautiful, because people tell that she’s ugly, and in her eyes to be beautiful means to have white skin and blue eyes.

Morrison’s second novel called Sula (Sula) is about a young woman who “defies” (defies) or doesn’t follow the social conventions of the black community she grew up in. When we talk about “conventions,” especially “social conventions,” we’re talking about the expectations about how you should act, how you should behave in certain situations. It could be very little things like whether your children should be yelling in a restaurant, or whether you should be talking at your cell phone loudly at the Starbucks Café where I’m studying or reading and you’re talking so loudly that you’re interrupting me. That would be a social convention, or in this case a lack of a social convention since people do that anyway.

Getting back to Toni Morrison, her second novel, then, was about a young woman who defies the social conventions of her community. Her third novel, Song of Solomon, follows the life of an African American man and is really the novel that made Morrison famous in the United States. Her fourth novel, called Tar Baby, is about a romantic relationship between two African Americans of very different backgrounds.

Her fifth novel is her best-known or most famous novel; it’s called Beloved. Beloved is a story about a woman who escaped slavery back in the 19th century; she was able to get away from her slave masters. But then, as she was about to be recaptured, as they were about to find her and put her back where she was, she tried to kill her own children to prevent them from becoming slaves. She killed one of her children and that daughter, known only as Beloved, comes back as a ghost. I won’t tell you the rest of the novel. Some people think it was a great novel; the New York Times said it was the best novel – American novel in the past 25 years.

Morrison has won many awards for her work. She won the highest award – the most famous award for literature in the United States, the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved. In 1993, she received the most famous prize in the world for literature, the Nobel Prize, and in 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal here in the U.S. I haven’t read Morrison’s novels, but people tell me they’re wonderful. They can be difficult to read, however, especially if your language skills are not close to being advanced in English. A lot of her dialogue is written in “dialect,” meaning words are spelled differently because the novelist is trying to give you the sense of how people talk in English that isn’t what we would call “standard English,” what you normally hear. But, if you have an opportunity you certainly should take a look at her novels, and perhaps you will enjoy them.

Our next topic is about a man and an organization here in Los Angeles; it’s an organization called Homeboy and Homegirl Industries. Let’s start with that word, “homeboy.” “Homeboy” (one word) is an informal word for a male friend; usually it’s used to refer to your male friend who is perhaps involved in some sort of gang. We talked about gangs on ESL Podcast 293 and 309, so I won’t talk a lot about that here, but basically a “gang” is a group of young people who are often involved in illegal activities, often selling and using drugs. Being in a gang, of course, can be very dangerous and many gang members, as they grow up, leave the gang – stop participating in it. But it can often be difficult to leave that particular way of living, what we would say that “lifestyle.” Now, “homeboys,” which is sometimes abbreviated as “homie” (homie), can also be used informally among young people just to refer to a friend, not someone in a gang, but its original meaning comes from the gang association. A “homegirl,” of course, would be a girl in a gang, in a similar situation.

Here in Los Angeles, as you probably know, as in many big cities, we have a problem with gangs fighting each other, selling drugs, and doing other illegal activities. There’s one man who’s tried to help stop the gang activity and change the young men and women who are involved in these activities into more responsible young adults. His name his Father Greg Boyle. Father Greg Boyle, his full name is Gregory Joseph Boyle, is a priest here in the Catholic Church. He’s a Jesuit priest; he is a member of a special organization within the Roman Catholic Church called the Society of Jesus, more popularly known as Jesuits.

Father Greg, as he’s more popularly known, became aware of the gang problem, especially in one part of Los Angeles where he was working called East Los Angeles, after¬ burying many young people who had died as a result of gang activity. Father Boyle started a program to help these gang members, who left the gang, to find jobs; he started this in 1988. The program became very successful; I remember hearing about it in the early 1990s when I first moved to Los Angeles. In 2001 it became what we would call a “nonprofit organization,” an organization that doesn’t try to make money but tries to help people. The name of the organization is Homeboy Industries.

Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the entire United States. An “intervention” is something you do to stop something bad from continuing to happen. If you’re drinking too much alcohol, an intervention would be a meeting where you and your family members try to help you recognize your problem and stop it. Well, a “gang intervention program” is a program that tries to help young people get out of gangs, or never to get in gangs in the first place.

Specifically, Homeboy Industries tries to find jobs for these former gang members. Many of them have not completed school; a lot of them don’t have a lot of skills, a lot of education. The organization has a saying, which is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” That is, a “bullet,” a small piece of metal that comes out of a gun to hurt or kill someone, can be stopped when these young men – mostly, but both men and women – have a job. They won’t be shooting bullets if they have a job, that’s why the expression “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries gives these young men and women a job; they try to work with local businesses to get them hired, but they also have their own businesses to give jobs to these former gang members. Homeboy Bakery teaches young people how to make and sell baked goods: cakes, tortillas, bread. There’s also the Homegirl Café, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Farmers Markets, and another restaurant called the Homeboy Diner. The Homeboy Bakery is right next to the Homegirl Café, near downtown Los Angeles. In fact, it’s very close to Chinatown and Union Station. I’ve been there a couple of times; they have very good traditional Mexican food. Homeboy Bakeries sell things not only at their bakery in downtown Los Angeles but also in the regular grocery stores. I always buy Homeboy tortilla chips, which I think are the best tortilla chips. “Tortilla chips” are basically fried pieces of thin bread – of tortillas – that usually have salt on them; they’re very good. The Homeboy organization also sells bread down at the local farmers market in my neighborhood. A “farmers market” is when a group of people selling food, usually from farms in the local area, get all together on a single street and sell their food there, usually for five or six hours during one day of the week.

Many of the young men and women who participate in the Homeboy and Homegirl Industries, the businesses, were once part of rival gangs. When we say they were “rival” (rival), we mean they used to fight against each other. Now, they’re working with each other in these jobs.

The young people who work in these companies receive a lot of training, not only on how to do their jobs, but also how to work with others, how to “budget” their money, how to make plans for how they’re going to spend their money. They also work on managing their anger, not letting their emotions get in the way of their work. Homeboy Industries provides many other services, too, including legal advice and counseling. “Counseling” usually involves meeting with a professional, a psychologist or a trained counselor, to help you with some personal problem you might be having. Homeboy Industries also helps prepare young people improve their “parenting skills,” how to raise a young boy or a young girl. They also work against “domestic violence,” where people who live together in a home are hurting each other.

Homeboy Industries also has a popular tattoo removal program. A “tattoo” (tattoo) is a drawing or image, sometimes with words, that are permanently drawn on the person’s skin using special needles and ink. Many gang members have tattoos, and it makes it more difficult for them sometimes to get a job when they have these tattoos all over their body. Many of the tattoos identify them as members of a specific gang, so it helps to get rid of these. Tattoo removal is very expensive, but Homeboy Industries provides a free service to the people who are part of that organization.

Right now, there are more than 200 former gang members working in Homeboy Industries. Other people also use their services. There are probably somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 community members who use the organization’s services during the year, so its importance is much greater than just the 200 or so young men and women that it helps. Father Greg Boyle has gotten a lot of publicity about his work, and it’s wonderful work. If you ever have a chance to visit Los Angeles, you might want to stop by and have lunch at Homegirl Café, and then pick up some nice sweets – some baked goods at the Homeboy Bakery.

Now let’s answer a few of your questions.

Our first question comes from Tiago (Tiago) in Brazil. The question has to do with three different nouns: “screw,” “bolt,” and “nut.”

A “screw,” as a noun, is a long object, it’s long and round, made of metal or wood, that holds two things together. Usually, you use something called a “screwdriver” to put a screw into wood or sometimes into metal that holds the two things together.

A “bolt” (bolt) can also be like a screw, except the very end of the bolt is not sharp, and there is another little, small piece that goes on the bolt. It’s a small, little circle with a hole in it, and the bolt goes into the circle. That small piece is a “nut” (nut).

So, a bolt, at least one meaning of the word, goes into a nut to hold two things together. A screw doesn’t have a nut at the end; it just has a sharp point that goes into two pieces of metal or wood.

A bolt can also be what you use to lock a door; usually it’s a bar made of metal that goes into a big hole. On my front door, for example, I have a bolt. It’s a little piece of metal that goes into a hole in the wall so that the door cannot be opened. In other words, it’s a kind of lock; that also can be a bolt.

So we have a nut and a bolt, which go together, and we have a screw. All of these words can have additional meanings, however. Some of them we can’t talk about on the English Café! But there are other meanings of them, but in this case, talking about things that are related to building something, those are the correct definitions.

We have an expression, “the nuts and bolts of (something),” which means the basics of some subject – the basic ideas of some subject. We can talk about the nuts and bolts of making movies: how you write a script, how you get the actors, how you film – how they use the camera to make the movie, and so forth.

Shig (Shig) in Japan wants to know the difference between the words “kidnap” and “abduction.”

“To kidnap” (kidnap) means usually to steal a person, to capture them usually with a plan to ask for money for his return. “To abduct” (abduct) can also mean to steal a person, but often not with the intention – not with the plan of asking for money. Someone could be abducted by their parent, if the two parents are divorced and they’re fighting. Someone could be abducted by a political group that wants to get information. The money that you pay to get someone released, someone who has been kidnapped, is called “ransom” (ransom).

Finally, Yaghoubi (Yaghoubi) – I don’t know where he or she is from – wants to know the meaning of the expression “sharpen your axe” (axe). An “axe” is a long, sharp tool that is used to cut down a tree. The verb we use would be “to chop” (chop), “to chop down a tree.” You do that with an axe. It’s a long piece of wood that has metal at the end that is sharp. When I say the metal is “sharp” (sharp) I mean if you were to put your finger on it, it would cut your finger, for example. So a knife can be sharp; it can have a very fine edge that cuts things. An axe is like a knife, it’s like a big knife that you use to cut down a tree, and it also is sharp. The verb “to sharpen” means to make the axe sharp.

There’s a related expression, which is “to have an axe to grind” (grind). “To grind” here is another word for “to sharpen.” “To have an axe to grind” means that you are angry, or you want to do something to treat someone else badly, to get revenge, to make someone else suffer who has perhaps made you suffer. This is usually someone who has very severe anger or a very strong sense of purpose, someone who wants other people to believe what they believe in; it can be used in a couple of different ways.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

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 2012 by the Center for Educational Development.

African American experience – how African Americans experience life in a particular culture, especially based on their ethnicity or race

* We watched a film in school about the African American experience before the Civil War.

to long – to have a strong desire for something; to want something very much

* Sam likes spending the weekends with his father, but longs for his mother when he’s away from her.

social convention – the expectations of how people should behave; how someone is expected to act in social situations and toward other people

* According to social convention, if people give you wedding presents, you should send them a thank-you note.

homeboy – an informal word for a male friend, especially for a male friend who is in the same gang

* Hey, where’s my homeboy Danny?

gang – a group of young people who are involved in illegal activities, often selling and using drugs and fighting against other gangs in the same area

* When George was a teenager, everyone in his neighborhood belonged to a gang.

priest – a leader in the Catholic Church who leads others in prayer and worship, and who performs church ceremonies

* The priest from our family’s church performed the wedding for Lee and Shawn.

gang intervention – something done to stop the activities of gangs or someone’s participation in gangs (groups of young people who are involved in illegal activities)

* The mayor of our city believes programs for gang intervention will significantly lower the crime rate in many areas of town.

rival – competitor; someone competing with one to get something or for superiority in a field of work, play, or study

* Ian has no rivals for the job, since he is the best salesperson in this company.

budget – a plan for how money should be spent; a plan showing the limit of how much money should be spent on what items or activities

* Our family budget includes money each month for entertainment and gifts.

counseling – meetings with a counselor or psychologist to understand one’s own behaviors and thoughts, so that one can solve personal, psychological, or social problems

* Monroe had a difficult time recovering from his wife’s death and decided to get counseling.

domestic violence – where people who live together in a home hurt each other physically

* Was there alcohol involved in this case of domestic violence?

tattoo – images or words permanently drawn on a person’s skin by using special needles and ink

* When the Mahoney brothers joined the army, each of them got a tattoo with the name of their hometown.

screw – a long and round metal or wooden object used for holding things together, with a spiral along its side, requiring one to turn it in one direction to fit it into a hole

* We need two more screws to attach the tall bookcase to the wall so that it won’t tip over.

bolt – a long and round metal or wooden object used for holding two things together, usually by inserting it through holes that already exist

* Jeremy can’t fix his bicycle until he finds the missing bolt that holds the tire to the frame.

nut – a little piece of metal or wood with a hole in the center, used for securing a bolt (long, round metal piece)

* This nut is so small that only this bolt will fit into it.

to kidnap – to steal a person, often with a plan to demand money for his or her return

* Sara’s dog was kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded $500 to return it.

to abduct – to steal a person

* Do you think that the child’s father abducted her or do you think it was a stranger?

to sharpen (one’s) axe – to prepare oneself before doing something important or difficult, such as by improving one’s skills or becoming knowledgeable

* You’d better sharpen your axe before going into that meeting of very unhappy employees.

What Insiders Know
Gang Hand Signs

Belonging to a group sometimes means “adopting” (taking on; accepting) certain types of “identifying” (showing who one is and where one belongs) things. You may dress a certain way, talk a certain way, or behave in a certain way to show that you belong.

For gangs, common identifying things include tattoos and “graffiti,” which are painted words or pictures in public places that mark or show a gang’s “territory” (area that they control).

Another way gang members identify each other and members of other gangs is through the use of hand signs. Using one or both hands, a gang member will form a symbol or letter. This allows members and non-members to identify each other, but hand signs can also be used to “convey” (give) a message to others. For example, a gang member may “flash” or show a gang sign to tell others that he or she is in an area to do business, and is not just “passing through” (traveling through an area while on the way to another place). Another use of gang signs is to “distinguish” (show the difference between) smaller groups within a larger gang. The use of hand signs is particularly useful because it can be “displayed” or shown only when the gang members want to, and it has little or no meaning to anyone unfamiliar with the signs.

Finally, hand signs may be “incorporated into” (included in) “handshakes” (the brief holding of another person’s hand in greeting) that are specific to a gang. This special handshake is another way that members identify each other and show “camaraderie” (friendship and a sense of belonging).