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490 Topics: Famous Americans – Muhammad Ali; The Golden Gate Bridge; valuable versus invaluable; north/south versus northern/southern; common ground and universal experience

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Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 490.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 490. 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. Take a look at our ESL Podcast Special Courses in Business and Daily English. I think you will enjoy them. And why not like us on Facebook? Go to facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of the most famous boxers of all time, at least in the United States: a man by the name of Muhammad Ali. We’re also going to talk about one of the most famous structures in California, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Muhammad Ali was born in 1942 in the state of Kentucky. Kentucky is in the eastern half of the United States in the middle of the country, just below the state of Illinois. The man we know now as Muhammad Ali was not born with that name, however. His original name, the name given to him by his parents, was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Those first two names, “Cassius Marcellus,” sound very Roman, but that was the name of his father, and that’s why he was Cassius Clay Jr. The “Jr.” indicating, of course, that the father has the same names.

My father was named Patrick, and my one of my older brothers is also named Patrick – Patrick Jr. – and his son is also named Patrick, and he’s Patrick III. And his son is also named Patrick, but he has a different middle name, so he’s not Patrick IV, but he is another Patrick. So, we have four Patricks in our family. But let’s get back to Cassius Clay Jr.

Cassius Clay grew up in the American South during the period of segregation in this country, or at least in that area. “Segregation” (segregation) was a period in the history of the United States when there were laws in some places saying that African Americans could not go to the same areas as white people. They couldn’t go to the same schools, or even work in the same places as whites worked. It was also a time when African Americans were not given very much protection by police. Some people would say that situation hasn’t changed much, but it was certainly much worse in the time when Cassius Clay was growing up.

When Clay was 12 years old, he took up boxing. The phrasal verb “to take up” means to start doing a certain activity, especially a certain hobby or a sport. You could say, “I’m going to take up the violin,” meaning I’m going to start or begin playing the violin. I did that a few years ago. I took up the violin. It lasted about six months when my wife said she couldn’t stand the horrible noise coming from my room.

Cassius Clay didn’t make any horrible noise. He took up boxing. He practiced and became one of the best boxers in the United States. In fact, in 1960, he won the gold medal (or one of the gold medals) in boxing at the Olympic Games in Rome. When he returned to the United States after winning that gold medal in Rome, Cassius Clay began boxing professionally. When we say someone does something “professionally,” we mean he or she is getting paid to do that activity. I am a professional podcaster. I get paid to do this. It’s crazy, I know. I get paid to sit in front of a microphone and talk.

Cassius Clay got paid to hit people, and that of course is what boxing is – when you try to hit someone with your fists or your hand that is closed. Now, of course, in modern boxing, people wear gloves. Nevertheless, it still can be quite painful. I did a little boxing myself, you know, when I was in school. It lasted about as long as my violin playing.

Clay loved being the center of attention. He loved people paying attention to him, and one of the things he would like to do is to make up phrases, almost like poetry, which he would use to talk about his fighting. His most famous line about his own boxing style was that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

A “butterfly” is a small animal that flies through the air. The verb “to float” (float) means to be up in the air moving, but not moving very fast. Think about a hot air balloon that goes up into the air. We say the balloon “floats.” It’s not moving very fast, but it is up in the air. Well, a butterfly floats. A butterfly moves through the air, not very quickly, but very slowly. Muhammad Ali said he was like a butterfly. He “floats like a butterfly.” He’s up in the air because of course in boxing, one of the things you do is jump up and down frequently.

But he also “stings like a bee.” A “bee” (bee) is a small insect, that often has yellow and black lines or stripes around its body, that can hurt you. A bee can hurt you by stinging you. “To sting” (sting) means to take a small, needlelike object and put it into your skin. That’s what a bee does. Well of course Cassius Clay didn’t sting people, but he did hit them. He says he “stings like a bee.” He’s comparing himself to a bee, the way a bee hurts you. Now of course a butterfly is a beautiful little animal that everyone loves, and a bee is an insect that, well, at least I don’t love.

Cassius Clay was using those images then to describe himself as a boxer. He saw himself as a very agile boxer. The word “agile” (agile) is used to describe the ability to move quickly and easily. The noun would be “agility.” Well, these characteristics of Cassius Clay made him somewhat unpopular with people who liked a more traditional way of boxing. They said, in fact, that Cassius Clay wasn’t a very good boxer, but he kept winning his competitions. He kept winning his fights.

In February of 1964, Cassius Clay decided to challenge the reigning heavyweight champion, a man by the name of Sonny Liston. When I say he was the “reigning champion,” I mean, he was the current champion. The verb “to reign” (reign) is usually used with kings and queens. It is a verb describing their period of ruling or being in charge. We talk about the Queen of England “reigning” in England.

Boxing, as you may know, has different categories depending on how much you weigh. Of course – you don’t want someone who weighs 110 pounds boxing against someone who weighs 210 pounds. That wouldn’t be a fair or equal match. Cassius Clay’s weight class was the “heavyweight class.” A “heavyweight boxer” is a boxer who weighs more than 200 pounds. That would be in about 91 kilos.

Most people didn’t think Cassius Clay could win the fight against Sonny Liston, but he did win, and by winning, he became the heavyweight champion of the boxing world, at least the boxing world in the United States. In February of 1964, something else interesting happened to Cassius Clay. He decided to become a Muslim. He joined a group called the Nation of Islam, which was an African-American organization that was interested in Islamic religious teachings. It combined those teachings with some ideas about black nationalism.

A “nationalist” (nationalist) is a person who feels strong pride for his group. In fact, the whole idea that countries should be divided up by ethnic group or religious groups is the very idea of nationalism. It’s the original idea of nationalism that, if you had a country, everyone in the country should be of the same ethnic group or the same racial group or the same religious group.

This became a very dangerous idea in many cases, but in the case of the Nation of Islam, the group, it described a feeling that African Americans or blacks needed to defend their own interests and that they needed to fight for their own interests. Remember, this was a time when segregation was still very strong in many parts of the American South, and so you can understand that these African Americans wanted to defend themselves.

By becoming a Muslim, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali continued boxing and continued winning over the next three years or so. He also became what we might describe as a “social activist.” An “activist” is a person who tries to go out and change the community or the politics of a community. A “social activist” would be someone who would fight for changes in political policy about things that were important to members of the community.

In the case of Muhammad Ali, he became a social and political activist during the 1960s. He fought against the war in Vietnam. In fact, he refused to go to Vietnam when the government told him that he had to. During the 1960s, the U.S. government had what was called a “draft” (draft). A draft is when the government tells certain members of the population – traditionally men, but in some countries both men and women – that they have to go into the army or into the navy, or into one of the military forces of the country. The noun form for this is “conscription” (conscription).

If you are drafted, you are told by the government that you must join the military and, often, fight in a war. The United States has had drafts a couple of different times in the past 100 years. During World War II, for example, my father was drafted into the army. There was a draft during the Korean War, and there was a draft during the Vietnam conflict. Well, Muhammad Ali didn’t want to go into the army, and so he said that he wanted to be exempted. “To be exempted” means that you can ask the government not to apply a certain law to you.

He did this by saying that he was a “conscientious objector.” If you “object” to something, you are against it. So, if you are an “objector” (objector), you are a person who is objecting to something. The word “conscientious” comes from the noun “conscience” (conscience). Your conscience is what tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s your moral or ethical guide. So, a conscientious objector is someone who is against war – who doesn’t want to fight because their personal religious beliefs are against fighting in a war.

Ali asked to be exempted from the draft because it was against his religious beliefs. But the U.S. government said no. It attempted to draft Ali three separate times, and each time when Ali asked for an exemption, he was denied. Finally the government got angry with Ali and decided to indict him. If you refuse to go to the army, you can be arrested and sent to jail. “To indict” (indict) means to accuse someone of committing a crime.

In 1967, Ali was indicted and found guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. When we say someone was “sentenced to prison,” we mean the government said, “This is your punishment.” However, Ali never went to prison. Instead, he got his lawyers to appeal the ruling. “To appeal” (appeal) a court decision is to ask a higher-level court to review the decision and to change the decision.

Now, while all this was all going on, the organization that was responsible for the professional boxing competitions decided to take Muhammad Ali’s title of heavyweight champion away from him. They said, “Well, if you’re not going to obey the law and go into the army, you can’t be the heavyweight champion of the world anymore.” Well, of course, one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but that’s what the organization decided.

Eventually Muhammad Ali’s court case went to the very highest court in the United States, the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that in two of the three times that Ali asked for an exemption, it should have been given to him – in other words, that the government made a mistake. One of the three times, however, the court said Ali did not qualify, or did not meet the requirements for an exemption, but the government ruled that the original court case was not decided incorrectly by the jury – the group of people who made the decision – and so Ali did not go to jail.

So, in 1970 Ali began boxing professionally again, and in 1973 he once again tried to become the heavyweight champion of the world. This time he lost – to another famous boxer by the name of Joe Frazier. Frazier himself lost the title of heavyweight champion to another boxer by the name of George Foreman. So, Ali in 1974 decided to challenge George Foreman. He did this not here in the United States, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.

Now remember, Ali is famous for his poetic descriptions of things, and he called this fight (or the people who were advertising the fight) called it the “Rumble in the Jungle.” A “rumble” (rumble) is an old word for a fight, a slang word for a fight. The “jungle” refers here, of course, to this area of Africa.

Ali won the fight, and the next year, he had another fight for the championship, this time with Joe Frazier again. This fight took place in the Philippines, and it was called the “Thrilla in Manila.” “Thrilla” is just another informal way of saying “thriller” (thriller). A “thriller” is an exciting thing, but because Muhammad Ali wanted to be poetic, he called it the “Thrilla in Manila” – Manila, of course, being the capital of the Philippines. Once again, Ali won the fight.

Ali retired from boxing. He quit boxing a couple of times. The last time was in 1981. After his retirement, Ali continued to study Islam, and he became a spokesperson for other minority groups. Muhammad Ali continued to be a public figure for many years in the United States, but more recently he has been unable to give public performances because he suffers from Parkinson’s syndrome, a disease that makes it difficult for someone to speak, as well as to move.

Now let’s turn to our second topic briefly – the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A “bridge” is a road that goes over water usually, although it could go over dry land, I suppose. The Golden Gate Bridge is a bridge that goes over something called the Golden Gate Strait. A “strait” (strait) is a narrow passage or a narrow band of water that connects to larger bodies of water. The Golden Gate Strait connects the San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean.

Construction of the bridge began during the 1930s and was completed in 1937 after about five years. One of the main problems when they were building the bridge was the terrible weather that San Francisco often has. San Francisco has a lot of fog many times during the year. “Fog” (fog) is basically a low cloud that makes it difficult to see. This is especially dangerous for men who are working on something like a bridge. San Francisco is also famous for being cold and rainy. That’s why I live in Los Angeles – beautiful, sunny Los Angeles – and not San Francisco.

The people building the bridge took many safety precautions because of the bad weather and dangerous conditions. A “precaution” (precaution) is something you do to make sure that no one gets hurt, that everyone is safe. The men put special creams on their skin so that it would be protected against the wind. They even ate special food that was supposed to protect them from dizziness.

“Dizziness” (dizziness) is a feeling that your head is spinning and that you are about to fall down. You are about to, we would say, “lose your balance.” Of course, you don’t want to lose your balance when you’re working on a bridge very high up in the air. Unhappily, 11 men did die during the construction of the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge, when it opened, was the longest suspension bridge in the world. However, that title of the longest suspension bridge was broken in 1964 by a bridge in New York City. A “suspension bridge” is a bridge where the weight of the roadway – the place where the cars or the trains travel – is held up by strong, what are called, “cables” – basically strong wires. These wires are connected to towers at either end of the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge is 4,200 feet long (that would be about 1,300 meters) and is located about 265 feet above the water – or, for the rest of the world, 81 meters. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Golden Gate Bridge is the color of the bridge. The bridge is painted something called “international orange.” One of the architects – one of the designers of the bridge – chose this color because he thought it would help the bridge blend in with the hills around San Francisco. “To blend (blend) in” means to look as though it were part of that area.

I’m not quite sure that’s true. It certainly does, however, contrast with the ocean and the city of San Francisco. If you go to San Francisco, you absolutely have to go and see the Golden Gate Bridge, and if possible, drive across the bridge. You can’t go to San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s certainly one of the most famous bridges in the United States and one that is almost always associated with people’s image of San Francisco.

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

Our first question comes from Mohamed – not Muhammad Ali, but Mohamed (Mohamed) in Algeria. Mohamed wants to know the difference between “valuable” (valuable) and “invaluable” (invaluable). Let’s start with “valuable.”

“Valuable” has a couple of different meanings. It can mean, and most commonly means, something worth a lot of money. “My computer is very valuable.” It’s worth a lot of money. That’s “valuable” used as an adjective. You can also use” valuable” in the plural form as a noun. People talk about their “valuables.” They’re talking about things that are worth a lot of money – things such as jewelry, perhaps, or pictures or other works of art could be part of your “valuables.” But as an adjective it means something that is worth a lot of money.

The adjective “valuable” can also mean something simply that is very useful or very helpful. We might talk about a blog as being very valuable to you, or a book as very valuable to you. It’s very useful to you. It helps you a lot. Now, “invaluable” is an interesting word, because normally in English, the prefix “in-” placed before a word means “not” or “the opposite of.” However, “invaluable” does not mean “not valuable.” “Invaluable” means really valuable – extremely valuable or extremely useful.

Now, there is a difference between “valuable” and “invaluable.” It’s somewhat subtle – it’s somewhat small – but normally when we use the word “invaluable,” we’re talking about something that you can’t put a price on, you can’t put a monetary value on. For example, friendship or family. Your friendship with a certain person could be described as “invaluable” to you. It’s not worth three hundred dollars, or five thousand dollars. You can’t put a price on it. It’s invaluable, literally; you can’t value it, so there is some logic with the “in,” but it doesn’t mean not valuable. It means something you can’t put a specific price on because it’s worth so much to you.

You could talk about someone’s help as being invaluable to you. You can’t put a price on it. “Valuable” could also be used to describe something that is useful to you. However, it can be used to describe something that does have a price. So, a gold watch, for example, is valuable, because you can put a price on a gold watch. It might be a thousand dollars or ten thousand dollars, but you can actually say it’s worth this amount of money.

So, that’s “valuable” and “invaluable.” By the way, the opposite of “valuable” would be something like “cheap” or “inexpensive,” referring to the price or the worth of something.

Our next question comes from Yuri (Yuri) in Ukraine. Yuri’s question has to do with the difference between words such as “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west,” and “northern,” “southern,” “eastern,” and “western.”

“North,” “south,” “east,” and “west” are what are called “directions” in English. They can be used as nouns when referring to a specific place. For example, Los Angeles is to the north of Mexico. That’s the place where it’s located. You could also talk about the north of a country – the “north of Spain” would be a region or area of Spain.

“North” is also used as an adverb to talk about the direction in which you are going or traveling. “I’m going to drive north to San Francisco.” The direction in which I’m going to drive is north. “North,” “south,” “east,” and “west” can also be used as adjectives. “I live in West Los Angeles.” I don’t live in East Los Angeles. I live in West Los Angeles. I live in North America, not South America.

Now, when you add “-ern” at the end of these words (“western,” “southern,” “northern,” and “eastern”), they become adjectives – only adjectives. “North,” “south,” “east,” and “west” can be nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, but if you added an “-ern” at the end, then they are adjectives – referring to something that might be typical of, say, the north. So, we could talk about a “northern wind” – a wind that is characteristic of or relates to the north. You could talk about “Southern Europe” and “Northern Europe.” There, they are used as adjectives.

Now, it’s confusing because when we talk about adjectives with “north” versus “northern,” it depends on the context. When referring to large regions or continents, for some reason we use “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” as adjectives – in the cases of, say, “North America,” “South America,” “East Asia,” “South Asia.”

But when we’re talking about regions where it might not be quite as exact or quite as defined, you might hear people talk about “Northern California” versus “Southern California” or “northern Europe” versus “Southern Europe.” In both cases – North America, Southern California – the words are used as adjectives. The difference is that “eastern,” “western,” “northern,” and “southern” can only be used as adjectives.

Yuri also asked about the difference between “gold” and “golden” (golden). “Gold” gold is a yellow metal, atomic number 79 for the chemists out there. It’s very valuable, of course, and is used in jewelry and coins sometimes. “Golden” is an adjective used to describe something that has a gold color.

However, “golden” can also be used to describe the best part of, or a very great period of, something. We talk about the “golden age of comedy” – the period of time when the best comedies were written – or the “golden age of Greek literature,” during the time of Pericles, say. So “golden” can also be used to mean “most successful” or “of the highest quality.”

Finally, we have a question from Levan (Levan) in Vietnam. The question has to do with an expression: “common ground.” “Common ground” refers to things that we have in common – opinions or ideas or interests that two people or even two countries might have in common. Levan asked about a quote: “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” The person here is saying that food is something that everyone has in common. We all eat. It’s a “universal experience,” meaning everyone experiences it, everyone takes part in it.

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 right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
to take up – to start doing a certain activity; to become involved in a new hobby

* Kekoa was feeling very stressed and tense so his sister recommended he take up yoga to help him relax.

professionally – to do something as a job and get paid to do it

* Heng had always loved writing, and after a few years of being unhappy at her banking job, she quit and tried writing professionally.

agile – the ability to move quickly and easily

* The cat was extremely agile and was able to jump up on the windowsill and walk along it without falling off.

to reign – to rule or be in charge; in sports or in competition, to be recognized as currently the best

* Queen Elizabeth II has reigned in England for over 60 years.

nationalist – a person who feels strong support for and pride in one’s own country

* International competitions often bring out people’s nationalist feelings.

social activist – a person who talks about and promotes change to his or her community or country, especially political change

* Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist, minister, and leader who spoke about equality for all people.

to be drafted – to be required by the government to join the military

* Some men left the country to avoid being drafted by the government and having to fight in a war they didn’t believe in.

to indict – to officially accuse someone of committing a crime

* After the accident, Carlos was indicted on one count of reckless driving and one count of endangering a minor since his child was in the car at the time.

bridge – a road that is build over water or another difficult area to cross so that one can get from one side to the other safely

* Walking on that old bridge is dangerous. You could fall through into the river.

strait – a narrow passage of water connecting two larger bodies of water

* The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

fog – a cloud that is close to the ground and that makes it difficult to see

* The morning fog was so thick that Amit couldn’t see his hand in front of his face when he walked down the street.

precaution – something one does before an event to ensure safety

* Before letting her son play football, Diala took every precaution, including buying him a special helmet to protect his head.

dizziness – the feeling that one is spinning and losing one’s balance even though one is standing still

* Heidi had been suffering from dizziness and has actually fallen over a few times after standing up too quickly.

valuable – worth a lot of money; very useful or helpful

* The watch Gino left his son is not only old, but very valuable.

invaluable – extremely valuable or useful

* Your advice on applying to jobs in the finance field is invaluable.

north / south – to, toward, or in the north/south

* If you travel north from California, you’ll arrive in the state of Oregon. If you travel south, you’ll be in Mexico.

northern / southern – of, relating to, or characteristic of a region normally called North/South

* Northern California and Southern California may be in the same state, but the lifestyle in each region is very different from the other.

common ground – opinions or interests shared by each of two or more people or groups

* Is there any common ground in the worker-management dispute?

universal – done or experienced by everyone

* The U.S. is not a country with universal healthcare.

What Insiders Know
Bridge to Nowhere

The term “bridge to nowhere” is used to refer to building projects that are incomplete or has not been finished. While this expression can be used for any government projects that are never completed, many of them are actually bridges.

The “primary” (main) reasons for “abandoning” (leaving; no longer used or taking care of something) government building projects are budget limitations and property rights. “Budget limitations” refer to not having enough money “set aside” (put aside for use later) for the project or if there are budget “overruns” (spending beyond what is planned). Budget “overuns” refers to spending beyond what is allowed or planned. The money “runs out” (not having enough for use) in either case and the project is “left hanging” (with no completion or conclusion).

“Property rights” can be a problem when the project is planned on or crosses a property that doesn’t belong to the government. That “private party” (a person or group not associated with the government) may take “legal action” (go to court) to stop the project or to make changes to it that makes the project “untenable” (not able to be maintained).

An example of a bridge to nowhere is the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky. It was built in 1895. It is a 770-meter “railroad” (train) bridge that was abandoned in 1968. The bridge remains and was opened in 2013 on one end to allow “pedestrian” (walkers) and “bicyclists” (people who ride bicycles) to pass.