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339 Topics: American Presidents - Herbert Hoover; knock-knock jokes; awful versus terrible versus terrific; initials in nicknames; that ship has sailed

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 339.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 339. 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. Download this episode’s Learning Guide, an 8- to 10-page guide that contains all of the vocabulary, definitions, sample sentences, additional definitions, comprehension questions, cultural notes, and a complete transcript of everything we say.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about another American president, this time our 31st president, Herbert Hoover. We’re also going to talk about a very popular kind of joke, called a “knock-knock joke.” 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 presidents. Today we’re going to talk the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, who was in office, or who worked as president, for just four years, from 1929 to 1933.

Herbert Hoover was born in 1874, in the state of Iowa. Iowa is in the Midwest, or central middle part of the United States, just south of Minnesota. As a young man, Hoover studied “geology,” rocks and the way the earth is formed, at Stanford University, up in Northern California near San Francisco. Then, he worked as a mining engineer in Australia and in China. “Mining” (mining) is when you dig up rocks and earth to try to collect what are called “precious metals,” things like gold, silver, and copper. Hoover later became a mining consultant; he would work for other companies helping them, and he traveled around the world doing this.

When World War I began in Europe in 1914, Hoover began to help Americans who wanted to leave Europe to return home to the United States. Then, he organized the delivery of food to people who were affected by the war, who needed food. In fact, he became an international hero for meeting with some of the German officials and getting them to agree to allow food to be distributed – to allow the volunteers to go in and give food to people who needed it.

The United States began fighting in World War I, as you probably know, late in the war, in 1917, and Hoover became the leader or the head of the U.S. Food Administration, the part of the U.S. government that was responsible for coordinating issues related to food and food production. He encouraged Americans to avoid eating certain kinds of foods so that the soldiers fighting in Europe would have enough food for themselves. After the end of World War I, he continued to work in distributing food inside Germany and Russia. He was criticized by some American politicians for doing this. However, many people realized that he was doing was important, and recognized him as an international hero, who saved many people from starvation. “Starvation” (starvation) is when you die from not having enough food.

In 1921, Hoover became the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. That’s the head of the government organization that is involved in things related to business and trade, especially between states. He was U.S. Secretary of Commerce for seven years under both Presidents Harding and Coolidge during the 1920s. He worked on encouraging partnerships between the U.S. government and businesses.

In 1928, Hoover was elected President of the United States, defeating Al Smith of New York. Hoover became the 31st president in March of 1929. But Hoover had some bad luck. Six months after he became president, the Great Depression began. I talked about the Great Depression in English Café 327, not too long ago. But basically it was a period where there was little economic growth and very high unemployment; a lot of people lost their jobs because the economy was bad.

Hoover tried to improve the economy in many different ways, unfortunately some of those ways backfired. “To backfire” (backfire) means to have the opposite effect of what people were hoping for. For example, Hoover raised tariffs on imports, meaning he raised the taxes that had to be paid to buy things coming to the United States from other countries. Unfortunately, raising tariffs, like raising taxes on any sort of goods that are sold – any sort of things that are sold – makes them more expensive. Now, Hoover thought this would make people buy more American products, and that would be good for the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make very good economic sense. I won’t discuss all of the reasons why that’s bad economic thinking, but it also was a political disaster. Other countries then raised their tariffs – their taxes – on American products – on American goods that Americans were trying to sell to other countries. This hurt everyone, and the economy got worse.

To be fair, the biggest problem with tariffs, these taxes on imports and exports, was caused a few years before Hoover took office – a few years before he became president. There was a tariff act that increased tariffs on many different products coming into the U.S. Some people think this, in fact, was one of the causes of the Great Depression.

Well, as the Depression got worse, more people lost their jobs. Hoover tried to get churches and other volunteer organizations to help people – to help the poor, but the problem was simply too big; there were too many people to help. He then began to create more government programs. He had a program for giving loans to people to build houses, but that didn’t have a very strong impact on the economy. He also increased taxes on rich people – on wealthy people. That was unpopular, and did not actually produce much new money for the government. In other words, Hoover did many of the things that his critics wanted him to do, but none of them worked.

When Hoover ran for president in 1932, he was defeated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who we now simply call FDR, and was unpopular for many years. The name Hoover was associated with the Great Depression. But, Franklin Roosevelt did not do any better at helping the economy in the U.S. He did do things that helped people who were poor and needed food and places to live. But the economy really didn’t improve during the next 10 years or so, until World War II began.

Hoover, after he had left the presidency, once again became involved in helping other people who needed food in what we might call “relief efforts.” This time, his relief efforts included giving money, food, and clothing to people who need help. The word “relief” (relief) is when you help someone who needs help, when you give them something: it could be food; it could be money. Since Hoover had a lot of experience during World War I in helping people with food distribution, he was also asked to do the same in World War II.

He also spent a lot of time writing, Hoover did. In 1947, he was made head of the Hoover Commission, a group of people trying to make government more efficient. Hoover was a politician who had a lot of experience in different areas. In fact, he wrote 16 books about many of these topics that he was experienced in.

He lived until 1964; he was 90 years old. He died one year after I was born. He has been memorialized in many different places. “To memorialize” (memorialize) someone means to do something that will help other people remember that person. For example, you could name a building after that person, or a park, or a street. Well, many things were named after Herbert Hoover, including the Hoover Dam, which is in between the states of Arizona and Nevada. A “dam” (dam) is a large structure used to hold water in a river, usually to provide protection from floods and to generate electricity. The Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression as an effort to create more jobs and it was, and is now, named after President Hoover. Like most modern presidents, there is also a presidential library and museum for Herbert Hoover; it’s located in Iowa, where he was born. Most famously, there’s a Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where Hoover graduated from. The Hoover Institution is known as a politically conservative think tank. The word “think tank” (tank) refers to an organization, usually a private organization or part of a university that is dedicated to bringing in intellectuals, professors, and so forth to think about certain problems, often political issues, and the Hoover Institution is one of those.

Now let’s change our topic, and talk about something a little more lighthearted. When we say something is “lighthearted” (lighthearted), we mean it’s not very serious; it’s not very important. I want to talk about knock-knock jokes. A “knock” (knock) is the sound that is made when you hit a door to let someone know that you’re there; it would sound something like [knocking sound]; that’s a knock.

There’s a kind of a joke called a “knock-knock joke,” and it requires two people to tell the joke. One person says, “Knock-knock,” as if you were knocking on the door. The person who starts the joke is the one who is telling the joke; the other person always answers the same thing. So I say, “Knock-knock,” you will always say, “Who’s there?” This means who is there. When someone knocks on your door and you can’t see outside you may ask, “Who’s there?” Who are you? Who is knocking on my door? So, I would say, “Knock-knock,” and you would say, “Who’s there?” Then I would say something, usually a name or a funny word. So, I would say a name, and you would say, “(name), who?” So, you add the word “who” after whatever word or name that I say. Then I respond with the punch line. A “punch (punch) line” is the part of a joke that’s funny, not just in a knock-knock joke, in any kind of joke.

Knock-knock jokes are based on puns (puns). A “pun” is a type of joke where you have a word that sounds like another word, so it has two possible meanings. For example, sometimes people will say, “Give peas a chance.” “Peas” sounds like “peace.” “Give peace a chance,” of course, was the famous lines from the song by John Lennon. “Give peas (peas) a chance” would mean that you should try to eat peas; peas are small green vegetables. Well, they say that if you have to explain a joke it isn’t very funny, and you probably didn’t think that one was very funny.

Let me give you some examples. I would say, “Knock-knock,” and you say, “Who’s there?” and I would say, “Boo (boo),” and you would say, “Boo who?” Remember, you always say “who” after the name. “Boo who?” And I would say, “You don’t need to cry. It’s just a knock-knock joke.” To understand that joke, you have to know that “boo-hoo” is an old-fashioned way of someone saying that they’re crying. Usually it’s said as a joke: “Oh, boo-hoo,” meaning I’m crying, but of course I’m not really crying. See what I mean? Hard to, uh, explain the joke and keep it funny. Let’s try another one. I know these aren’t really that funny, but bear with me. When I say “bear (bear) with me,” I’m saying be patient, give me a little more time. Here’s another joke:

Who’s there?
Cash who?
No thanks. Do you have a peanut instead?

“Cash” refers to money, but “cashew” is a type of nut. It kind of looks like a moon, it’s curved. So when the second person says “Cash who?” it sounds like “cashew,” and that’s why the punch line is “No, I don’t want a cashew, I would like a peanut.” Once again, this is a pun, what we might call “a play on words,” where I’m taking two words that sound the same, or words that you put them together and they sound like another word and making a joke out of it.

One more try with our knock-knock joke:

Who’s there?
Doris who?
Doris locked. That’s why I’m knocking!

Okay, so “Doris” is a woman’s name, but it also sounds like “door is,” like “the door is.” So, when I say, “Knock-knock,” and you say, “Who’s there?” I say “Doris,” you say, “Doris who?” I answer “Doris locked,” meaning “door is locked.” “The door is locked,” we would say. “That’s why I’m knocking.” I’m knocking on the door because it’s locked. Okay, are you laughing there? No?

Nobody knows exactly when knock-knock jokes started. They are, however, found in many different countries, including Britain, France, Australia, the Philippines, and in South Africa, perhaps in your country. It’s maybe a good idea to learn some of these popular joke forms. You may hear them on television or read them in a book. Or you may hear me telling them, and not find them very funny!

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

Our first question comes from Saheb (Saheb) in Iran. The question has to do with the difference between the words “awful,” “terrible,” and terrific.” Let’s start with “awful” (awful) and “terrible” (terrible). Both “awful” and “terrible” are similar in meaning, they mean very bad. “I had an awful headache last night.” “I had a terrible headache.” It was very painful; it was very bad. “Awful” can also mean dangerous or extreme. When used as an adverb it often means the same as very. “That’s terribly stupid,” or “that’s terribly clever.” “That’s awfully funny.” There it means very, it’s not a bad thing. “Awful” can also mean something that causes fear or dread. So again, this is a negative type of meaning for these words. “That’s an awful story.” It doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, it means it’s a sad story. “I have some terrible news for you,” I have some very sad news for you. That’s “awful” and “terrible.”

“Terrific” means something completely different; in a way, it means the opposite. You might think that “terrific” means the same as “terrible,” but it doesn’t. “Terrific” means great, wonderful, something that is well done. “You did a terrific job on that report.” That means you did a wonderful job; you did a great job. “Terrific” can also mean extreme in some way, and here it has a similar meaning with “terrible” and “awful.” We could say, “I have a terrific headache.” That doesn’t mean I have a great headache; it means I have a very bad headache, but the idea is more that it’s extreme. You can say, “He’s walking at a terrific pace,” or, “a terrific speed,” meaning very fast.

“Awful” (awful) comes from the word “awe” (awe), which means fear or wonder. Both “terrible” and “terrific” come from the same root word related to “terror,” but neither word now means “terror,” “terror” has a very different meaning.

Tomáš (Tomáš) in the Czech Republic wants to know if you can use nicknames from initials, and how common that is. “Initials” are the first letters of a word, or in this case a name. So my initials would be J.M., for Jeff McQuillan. I could say J.L.M., my middle name is Lawrence, so my initials are J.L.M. Or if I used my confirmation name, Edward, it would be J.L.E.M., but I never do that.

Sometimes people use their initials as their first name. For example, if you watched the television series many years ago called Dallas, the main character – the main person on the show in the story was named J.R., capital “J” capital “R.” Those were his initials, which he used as his first name; that’s what people called him.

Using your initials as your name is what we would say a “nickname.” You’re using your initials as a nick (nick) name (one word). A nickname is any name that is not your real name that people call you. So when I was growing up in school, a lot of people who had Irish names like mine – McQuillan – were called “Mac,” and the principal of our school would always say, “Hey, Mac,” referring to me, McQuillan. Of course, there were lots of Irish last names at the school where I was studying, but that happened to be a nickname.

Nicknames can be really anything, and many people decide to use nicknames perhaps because they don’t like their real name, or simply because it became common in their family or in their group of friends to call people by those names. Sometimes people have nicknames with their family members that they don’t use in other places. Family members may call you by a certain name, but you don’t use that name outside of your family.

Finally, Amaury (Amaury) from Columbia wants to know the meaning of an expression: “that ship has sailed.” The expression “that ship has sailed” (sailed) means that opportunity has already passed and is no longer available; you can no longer do that. It might also mean to show that something has already happened and you can no longer change it. But more commonly, it means that you no longer have that opportunity. For example you say to your friend, “Hey, there’s a beautiful new secretary in the office. I’m going to be the first one to ask her out on a date,” and your friend says, “Sorry, that ship has sailed. She and I went out to dinner last night.” “That ship has sailed” means there is no more opportunity to do that, your opportunity is gone, you can’t be the first one to ask her out, because I already did.

If you have a question or a comment, that ship has not sailed. You can still 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.

starvation – dying from not having enough food to eat; dying from hunger

* The fire killed most of the plants in this area and some of the animals that lived here died from starvation.

Great Depression – a period with little economic growth and very high unemployment, beginning in 1929 and lasting until the late 1930s

* Some people compare our current economic troubles to the Great Depression, but the Great Depression was much worse.

to backfire – to have the opposite effect of what people were hoping for, planned for, or expected

* My plan to get the children to eat more healthy foods backfired when I served them only vegetables. They want hot dogs and pizza even more now.

tariff – a tax that must be paid for products coming into a country from other countries

* Do you think it’s a good idea to raise tariffs on foreign cars to try to help U.S. carmakers?

relief effort – an organized action to help people in need, such as by giving money, food, clothing, or medical care

* After the big storm, Jun organized a relief effort for those families whose homes had been destroyed.

to memorialize – to do something so that other people will remember a particular person or event

* Many people admired President John F. Kennedy and he has been memorialized in many ways across the U.S.

dam – a large structure used to hold back the water in a river, usually to provide protection from floods or to generate electricity

* If this dam fails, this entire area would be flooded and many people killed.

lighthearted – cheerful and not very serious; happy and carefree

* Cassandra has always been a very positive person and still feels lighthearted after experiencing a difficult year.

knock – the sound that is made when one hits a door with one’s hand to let someone know that one is there and that one would like to enter

* Someone is knocking at the door. Could you please see who’s there?

punch line – the part of a joke that is funny and is intended to make people laugh, usually appearing at the end of a joke

* Khalid got interrupted before he could tell us the punch line, so we don’t know how the joke ends.

pun – a type of joke based on a word or sound that has two different meanings

* Can you think of a pun for the words “sun” and “son”?

to bear with (someone) – a phrase used to ask someone to be patient or to not give up on one

* I know you’ve all waited a long time for the singer to appear and to start the concert, but please bear with us. He’ll be here in 10 minutes.

awful – very bad; extreme in some way, usually used to talk about difficulty or danger; causing fear, dread, or a similar feeling

* The loud music gave me an awful headache and I left the party earlier than expected.

terrible – very bad; extreme in some way, usually used to talk about difficulty or danger; causing fear, dread, or a similar feeling

* The terrible accident involved a small airplane and a school bus.

terrific – great; wonderful; well done; extreme in some way, usually used to talk about excitement, but sometimes used to talk about extremes of fear or pain

* We had a terrific week camping and hiking in Yellowstone National Park and hope to do it again next year.

that ship has sailed – an opportunity has already passed and is no longer available to one; something you believed would happen in the future has already occurred

* If you had hoped to be the first one to ask Sarah to the school dance, then that that ship has sailed. Leon asked her last week.

What Insiders Know
The Hoover Vacuum Company

A few American companies produce products that have become “synonymous” (very closely associated with) with the name of the company that made it. For example, in the U.S., the small soft pieces of thin paper we use to blow our noses when we have a cold and for many other purposes are called “facial tissue.” However, most people use the term “Kleenex,” the name that one of the largest companies that makes facial tissue calls its product, for this type of “household” (used in the home) item, not “facial tissue,” which would sound too formal or strange to the “average” (common) American.

The same is true for “vacuum cleaners,” the machines made to pick up dirt from rugs and carpet. For many people, especially in the early and “mid-20th century” (middle years of the 1900s) the vacuum cleaner was called a “hoover.” Even today, especially in the UK and Australia, many people still call a vacuum cleaner a hoover.

The Hoover Company “started out” (began) as a company that made cleaning products for floors. By the mid-1900s, it “dominated” (was the most important or had the biggest influence over) the vacuum cleaner “market” (the buying and selling of a product).

However, there is no connection between The Hoover Company and President Herbert Hoover or J. Edgar Hoover, the “head” or leader of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigated major crimes in the U.S. In 2011, Leonardo DiCaprio starred in a “biopic” (movie based on the life of a real person) called J. Edgar about him.