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341 Topics: Ask an American - Historic court case on gender equal rights; incident versus accident; to throw good money after bad; adding shm- before another word

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You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 341.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 341. 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. Go there, support this podcast, become a member, and download a Learning Guide for this episode.

On this episode, we’re going to have another one of our Ask an American segments, where we listen to other native speakers talking at a normal speed – a normal rate of speech. We’ll listen and then explain what they are talking about. Today we’re going to talk about a very important, what we might call historic court case on the rights of men and women in the United States. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Our topic on this Café’s Ask an American segment is a historic court case on what has been called “gender equal rights.” “Gender” refers to whether you’re a man or a woman, what your sex is. “Equal rights” refers to having the same rights as other people, like you.

The historic legal case was called Reed versus Reed [Reed v. Reed]. Now, in the United States, we name these court cases with the people who are on each side of the case. In this case, Reed was the last name of a woman and a man who had been married. Before they got separated and divorced they had a son. But the son died, unfortunately, before the parents did. Now when this happens – in fact, when anyone dies – someone has to take care of all of the legal paperwork, all of the things that have to be done in terms of the property and the things that that person owned. Now when a son or a daughter dies, and the parents are still living, often it’s the parents or one of the parents who takes care of, what we would say, “the estate.” The technical word we would use here would be to “administer” the estate. The “estate” refers to all of their property and money and other things that have to be done with what they owned. “To administer” means to take care of.

Well the Reeds – Sally and Cecil Reed – lived in the State of Idaho, which is in the western United States, the northwestern part of the U.S. And, in the State of Idaho the law was that if there was both a wife and husband or a mother and a father who could administer the estate, the man was the one who should be chosen. So, if you have a man and a woman – a mother and a father, the father would always be the one to administer the estate.

Well the mother – who, remember, was I believe separated or divorced from the husband – didn’t like this, didn’t think this was fair just because she was a woman. She decided to go to the courts to have a legal case to try to show that this was wrong, that this was, in fact, what we would say, “unconstitutional.” That is, it was against the basic laws of the United States. Her lawyer was a woman by the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now, this is back in 1971. Ginsburg was a young law professor. However, later Ginsburg became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the time of the recording of this episode is still a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the highest legal court in the United States.

We’re going to listen to Justice Ginsburg talk about this case. Let’s listen to her first quote, and then we’ll go back and explain what it means.

[recording]

Sally Reed thought that this law was not just, and, this is the most remarkable thing, she had faith in the legal system of the United States to right the wrong that she thought had been done to her.

[end of recording]

It’s a little difficult to understand her; she speaks somewhat softly. But let’s go back and explain what Ginsburg said.

She begins by saying that Sally Reed – that was the woman who was trying to challenge the law against women – “Sally Reed thought that this law was not just.” The word “just” (just) here means fair. “Just” comes from the word “justice.” So when you say is something is “not just,” we mean it’s not fair. She thought it was unfair that women were discriminated against in terms of who would administer the estate of their dead son.

Ginsburg says, “and, this is the most remarkable thing, she had faith in the legal system of the United States.” When we say something is “remarkable,” we mean it is interesting, it is exceptional, or unusual. What was unusual, according to Ginsburg, is that Sally Reed had faith in the legal system of the U.S. The phrase “to have faith in (something)”usually means to believe in something, often to believe that someone or something will do the right thing. People who are religious have faith in God. But we can talk about having faith in a system. You can say, “I have faith in the school that I send my children to.” I believe they will do a good job.

Ginsburg said that Reed had faith in the legal system of the United States to right the wrong that she thought had been done to her. The phrase “to right (right) the wrong (wrong)” means to correct something bad that has happened in the past. If it isn’t possible to correct it, it might mean to pay the person who has been hurt in some way. A “wrong” is something against you or that has been done against you that has hurt you or damaged you in some way. “To right a wrong” means to fix the problem, to make things right again or to correct the problem.

Let’s listen to Ginsburg one more time.

[recording]

Sally Reed thought that this law was not just, and, this is the most remarkable thing, she had faith in the legal system of the United States to right the wrong that she thought had been done to her.

[end of recording]

Next we’re going to hear Ginsburg describe the history of this case, what happened, and how people started to think about it back in the early 1970s when it was taking place. Let’s listen:

[recording]

So when this case was going to the trial court, the appeals court, the Supreme Court in the State of Idaho, people were noticing it, and thinking, “This is the case that will enable the Supreme Court to understand the pernicious effects of making laws on the assumption that women are this way and men are that way.” And that prediction proved correct.

[end of recording]

Ginsburg begins by explaining a little bit about that what happens when you have a court case like this, when someone wants to challenge a law, saying that it is wrong, that it is unconstitutional. Usually you begin in what is called a “trial court,” that’s the lowest court, the lowest level judge that hears the case, that decides whether what you are saying is true or not. Then, what typically happens is the person who loses appeals to a higher court, and that court is called the “appeals (appeals) court.” The verb “to appeal” means to go to someone higher, someone with more authority. So if your boss says, “No,” you might appeal to your boss’ boss and say, “Well, I’m going to talk to Mrs. Johnson, your boss, and see what she says.” You’re appealing to a higher authority. So, you start at the lowest level, the trial court, then you go to the appeals court.

This was a state law, not a national or federal law. It was a state law in Idaho, so the next level after the appeals court is the Supreme Court in the State of Idaho. Every state has its own Supreme Court, and then there’s the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., which is the highest court of any of the courts in the country.

“So,” as Ginsburg says, “when this case was going to the trial court, the appeals court, the Supreme Court in the State of Idaho, people were noticing it.” People were paying attention to it. They were saying, “This is the case (this is the particular situation) that will enable the Supreme Court to understand the pernicious effects of making laws on the assumption that women are this way and men are that way.” So, what people were saying is this is going to be an important case because it would allow the Supreme Court of the United States – the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. – to understand the pernicious effects of making laws. “Pernicious” (pernicious) means possibly dangerous, something that is harmful, usually in a small way. You don’t really notice it, but over time it becomes greater and greater, more dangerous. Ginsburg is talking about the pernicious effects of making laws on the assumption, or on the basis of thinking, that women are one way and men are a different way. What she means here is that men and women are different in ways that are important when it comes to things like taking care of, or administering, an estate. She was saying that this court case would allow the Supreme Court to say, “No, that isn’t true.”

At the end, she says, “that prediction proved correct.” A “prediction” is a statement, what you say will happen in the future. When we say something was “proved correct” we mean that we later found out it was true. And this court case did, in fact, enable, or allow, the Supreme Court to change the laws in the United States based upon the understanding that we could not assume men and women are different when it comes to these sorts of issues. Let’s listen one more time to Justice Ginsburg.

[recording]

So when this case was going to the trial court, the appeals court, the Supreme Court in the State of Idaho, people were noticing it, and thinking, “This is the case that will enable the Supreme Court to understand the pernicious effects of making laws on the assumption that women are this way and men are that way.” And that prediction proved correct.

[end of recording]

You’ll notice I call Ginsburg “Justice Ginsburg.” If you are a judge on a Supreme Court, then instead of saying “Judge Ginsburg,” we use the word “Justice.” That’s only used for judges who are on a Supreme Court in a state or in the United States, in Washington, D.C.

In this final quote, Ginsburg will talk about the effect of this Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court agreed with Sally Reed, and said that the Idaho law was unconstitutional, that you couldn’t just pick a man to be the administrator of the estate just because he was a man.

Let’s listen to Ginsburg one more time, and then we’ll explain what she says.

[recording]

In the wake of Reed, hundreds of laws, state and federal, were changed. Congress went through all the provisions of the U.S. code and changed almost all that had overt gender classifications.

[end of recording]

Ginsburg begins with a phrase, “in the wake of.” A “wake” (wake) here means a line of water that is moving away from a boat. When a boat goes through a lake or on a river, you’ll see water moving away from it as the boat is causing the water to move. Well, if you draw a line on that water as it’s moving away, we would call that the “wake.” People who fish in a river don’t like boats, because the wake from the boat disturbs the fish and makes them difficult to catch. Well, here, the phrase is being used to describe the result of something. So when we say, “in the wake of (something),” we mean as a result, because of something.

Ginsburg says, “In the wake of Reed (the Reed versus Reed decision), hundreds of laws, state and federal (or national), were changed.” So that was one of the results of this Reed versus Reed decision in 1971. She says, “Congress went through all the provisions of the U.S. code and changed almost all that had overt gender classifications.” What is she talking about here? Well, we begin with “Congress,” that’s the group of the elected representatives: the House of Representatives and the Senate, a total of 535 people. They make decisions about laws. They went through and they looked at all the provisions. The “provisions” are the parts of the law, the individual sections of each law. The “code” (code) just refers to the laws in the United States. You have a federal code; you have a state code. “Code” just means laws.

So, Congress went through and it changed all the different parts of the U.S. laws that had overt gender classifications. Something that is “overt” (overt) is something that is obvious, something that is very easy for you to see. The opposite of “overt” is “covert,” you add a “c” to the beginning. Well, overt gender classifications would be laws that talk about men and women, and treat them differently – say, well, men get this sort of treatment and women get a different sort of treatment. The court case, Reed versus Reed, eliminated most of these obvious overt gender differences in many of the federal laws.

Let’s listen one more time to Ginsburg explaining the consequences, or results, of Reed versus Reed.

[recording]

In the wake of Reed, hundreds of laws, state and federal, were changed. Congress went through all the provisions of the U.S. code and changed almost all that had overt gender classifications.

[end of recording]

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

Our first question comes from Weikai (Weikai) from China. The question has to do with the difference between the word “incident” (incident) and “accident” (accident). Let’s start with “incident.”

“Incident” can be a noun describing an event, something that happened, usually something that caused a problem. We say, “There was an incident between the boys,” it means something happened – something bad happened between the boys. “Accident” is something that happens because someone made a mistake. An “accident” is specifically a negative, bad thing that happens, but it happens because someone made a mistake. An “incident” is a bad thing that might have happened, but not necessarily because someone made a mistake. An “accident” can also be anything that happens by chance – by luck, something that you didn’t expect. For example, “I was at the grocery store, and just by accident I saw an old friend of mine.” We weren’t planning on it, it was just luck – just by chance. So, “incident” and “accident” are slightly different in meaning.

There are a couple of other words related: one of them is “incidental,” and the other one is “accidental,” where you add an “al” to the end of each word. When you say something is “incidental,” you’re using it as an adjective to say that something happened as a result of or because of something else. It’s often used to describe expenses; for example if you’re a businessperson and you’re going on a trip, “incidental expenses” would be things that you have to pay for because you are away from home. You have to buy food; you might have to buy some medicine. These would be considered “incidental,” less important and not really part of the main purpose of your travel. “Accidental” means happening by chance or because of a mistake. “Our meeting was accidental.” We weren’t planning on it, it just happened by chance. So, “accidental” and “incidental” are the adjectives that come from “accident” and “incident.”

Marina (Marina) from Ukraine wants to know the meaning of a phrase she read or heard: “to throw good money after bad.” “To throw good money after bad” means to spend money in a way that is not very smart or that doesn’t have very good results. And then, knowing that you have wasted your money – that you have not spent your money very well, spend even more money on the same thing or doing the same thing. So you buy a car, and the car breaks – it breaks down. You have to fix it – you have to repair it. So, you spend a thousand dollars repairing the car, then two weeks later it breaks down again; it stops working. You have to decide whether you’re going to spend more money on it. Your friend might say, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” In other words, it won’t help spending more money. It will only make things worse or, if not worse, it will be a waste of money. Better to just sell the car and get a different one. That would be an example of using the expression “good money after bad.”

It’s often the case that people think that because they’ve already spent a lot of money on something that they can’t stop and walk away. They have the idea that they’ve already invested money. The expression that’s used sometimes is “sunk costs” – “sunk” (sunk). It refers to money that you can’t get back, you’ve already spent it, and you feel that because you’ve spent that money you should spend even more money on the same bad idea. Of course, that doesn’t make any sense logically – rationally – but people don’t often make decisions based on logic and reason.

Finally, Nani (Nani) from an unknown country – a mystery country, a country to be named later – was reading something in English, and she came across the expression “cute-shmute,” and she wants to know what “shmute” means, because she couldn’t find it in a dictionary.

Well, Nani, you will never find that word in a dictionary because it’s not a real word in English. However, it is somewhat common to hear people create these new words, or make up these words using “shm” at the beginning of a word. The “shm” sound is added to a word to make fun of it, and to show that you don’t really care about that particular thing. So, you say, “Oh, that cat is so cute, so good looking.” Then I say something like, “Oh, cute-shmute! He is constantly causing problems.” That’s the way cats are, right? So, the “shm” sound means I don’t care about that. Usually what you do is you say the word – the real word, and then you make up this funny word to show that you don’t care about it. So, your friend says to you, “Where is your girlfriend Mary?” And you say, “Oh, Mary-shmary. I don’t care about her anymore. We broke up last week.” Or, your friend says, “I thought you were sick,” and you say, “Oh, sick-shmick. I’m just fine.” I don’t care about being sick; it’s not important. Sometimes it also means that it’s not actually true. “I hear you had a wedding in Las Vegas,” and you say, “Oh, wedding-shmedding. We didn’t have a wedding, we just had a big party and I told her that I would marry her someday.”

The use of this “shm” sound actually comes from Yiddish, a language that is used still by some Jewish Americans and Jews in other countries, especially, uh, German-speaking countries. The “shm” sound in a Yiddish word is often used to make fun of people, so English speakers have sort of taken that and adapted it to using it in English.

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.

Glossary
just – fair; treating people in an equal, fair way

* It isn’t just for the teacher to give one student good grades just because he is her favorite.

to have faith in – to believe in someone or something, especially to believe that someone or something will do the right thing

* We have to have faith in the doctors. There’s nothing else we can do.

to right the wrong – to make amends; to correct something bad or wrong that has been done in the past, or to pay money to the person who was hurt by the bad thing that was done in the past

* Dennis cheated on his girlfriend, and now he thinks he can right the wrong by giving her flowers?! She’ll never forgive him.

trial court – the first court that hears a legal case

* A lot of minor, unimportant cases are tried in the trial courts, especially for traffic violations.

appeals court – the second-highest court where a case is investigated and decided upon again when people have disagreed with the first court’s decision

* If you don’t agree with the judge, you can try to find a reason to take your case to the appeals court.

Supreme Court – the most powerful and most important court in the United States

* The Supreme Court hears only a small percentage of the court cases that people try to appeal at the federal level.

pernicious – having a harmful effect that might be dangerous, but usually in a small, almost unnoticeable way over time

* Her pernicious lies are starting to affect her friendships and her marriage.

prediction – a statement about what one believes will happen in the future

* Why weren’t more economists able to make accurate predictions about the housing crisis?

in the wake of – near the line of water that is disturbed and in movement after a boat goes by; related to the consequences of something, or affected by something

* Many stores are going out of business in the wake of the recession.

provision – clause; a numbered part of a legal document, like a law or a contract

* According to this provision, we have to send notice in writing, not by telephone.

code – a group of laws that have been passed by some government

* How long would it take to read the entire U.S. code?

overt – obvious, apparent, and very easy to see; not hidden

* Everyone was surprised by the manager’s overt hostility toward the new employee.

gender – either male or female; one’s sex

* Do you think it’s important to have gender-specific restrooms in public buildings?

incident – something that happens, usually something that causes a problem or a pause in another action; happening because of something else

* The company hired a public relations firm to help it respond to the incident.

accident – something that happens because of a mistake; something that happens by chance or without being expected

* I’m so sorry I left the gate open and your dog ran away! It was an accident.

to throw good money after bad – to waste more money after wasting some already

* Buying that house was a huge mistake, and now they’re throwing good money after bad, spending a lot on repairs and renovations.

shm- – a sound added before a word to make fun of it or to show that the speaker does not care about it

* Studying-shmudying, who cares whether I get a good grade on the next test? It’s only worth 5 percent of our grade.

What Insiders Know
Gender-Bending Roles in Movies

A “gender bender” is someone who “defies” (confronts; does the opposite of what is expected) “gender roles,” or expectations of how men and women should behave and what they should do. In recent years, many movies have challenged gender roles by using characters that are gender benders.

A new movie that was just released in February 2012, called Albert Nobbs, is about an Englishwoman in the 19th century who “disguises” (dresses as someone else) herself as a man so that she can be more successful in Irish society at a time when men had more power and freedom.

One funny movie with a gender-bending role was Mrs. Doubtfire, which was released 1993. In that movie, comedian Robin Williams disguises himself as an older woman and works as a “nanny” (babysitter) so that he can spend time with his own children after he and his wife are separated.

Robin Williams was in another comedy movie with Nathan Lane, who plays a gender-bending role. The Birdcage, which was released in 1996, is, in part, about Lane’s character “cross-dressing” (the act of dressing as the opposite sex) and performing in a nightclub “drag revue” (stage entertainment in which men dance and sing dressed as women).

A romantic comedy, Shakespeare in Love, starred Gwyneth Paltrow as a woman who dressed as a man so that she could act in Shakespeare’s plays at a time when only men were allowed to be on the stage.

Finally, an older comedy called Tootsie from 1982 starred Dustin Hoffman as an actor who needed a job, so he disguised himself as a woman to be able to “find work” (get a job; be hired).