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525 Topics: Famous Americans – W.C. Fields; The Video Game Pong; trim, quarter- round, and carpenter; to condemn and conscious; transliteration

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 525.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 525. 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. Become a member of ESL Podcast. When you do, you can download a Learning Guide for this episode. Take a look at our ESL Podcast Store as well, where we have additional courses in Business and Daily English. And you can follow us on Twitter at @eslpod, of course.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous American comedian of the twentieth century, someone I grew up watching on television: W. C. Fields. We’re also going to talk about a video game – once again from the twentieth century, oh-so-long ago – called “Pong.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions from the twenty-first century. Let’s get started.

If you grew up in the mid part of the twentieth century, you probably know who W. C. Fields was. W. C. Fields was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. His name at birth was not W. C. Fields; it was William Claude Dunkenfield. Well, he didn’t really like the last name “Dunkenfield,” and so W. C. Fields took the stage name of “Fields” when he began performing as a juggler.

A “stage name” is a name that an actor or entertainer takes that isn’t his or her real name. It’s a name that he or she takes while they are performing. You may not know this, but Jeff McQuillan is not my real name. No, that’s my stage name. My real name, of course, is Chewbacca.

W. C. Fields started in the entertainment business as a “juggler” (juggler). A “juggler” is someone who throws things up in the air and keeps them up in the air, usually three or more things. He traveled the world juggling, and in 1915 joined something called the Ziegfeld Follies. The Ziegfeld Follies was a group of performers in New York City who sang songs and danced and had other forms of entertainment that were popular at that time, including juggling.

Fields stayed with the Follies until 1921, and at that time, he became popular enough to try a solo career. A “solo (solo) career” is one you do by yourself – anything you do by yourself can be described as doing it “solo.” In 1923, Fields was in a very popular Broadway play by the name of Poppy, in which he played a man who boasted about everything. “To boast” (boast) means to talk about yourself and your actions in a way that makes people think you’re better than everyone else.

This character that Fields played in the play became what we might call one of Fields’ “signature characters.” A “signature” (signature) is something that you are known for doing and doing very well. So, a signature part of ESL Podcast is the opening where I say “beautiful Los Angeles, California.” That’s sort of a signature thing that I do. It’s something specific to me and the way I do something. Usually, “signature” is used to describe some sort of performance or a part of one’s performance. W. C. Fields’ signature character was one who was very proud, one who liked to boast.

In 1924, W. C. Fields played in another play on Broadway in New York City called The Comic Supplement. And in it, he played a character who was a husband who had a very demanding wife. “Demanding” (demanding) describes a person who makes other people work very hard, a person who makes other people do what that person wants. This was another trait, another signature characteristic, of W. C. Fields’ performances. He played not only a boastful character, but a character that often had a demanding wife.

Fields began to earn a lot of money during the 1920s with his performances. He made the equivalent of $60,000 a week performing in these plays, making him the highest-paid performer at that time doing plays in New York City. It wasn’t until 1932 that Fields, in addition to his popularity on Broadway performing in plays, became a successful film star as well. Fields made some movies during the 1920s, but as you may remember – or remember reading about – the movies during the 1920s were all what we would call “silent movies,” or at least until the late 1920s.

Silent movies are movies in which the characters don’t speak. There’s no sound to the movie, or at least you can’t hear the people up on the screen talking. This changed, and when it did, Fields became a much bigger film star. That’s because his particular kind of humor depended a lot on his voice and the way he used his voice. Fields had a very distinct, a very unusual way of talking that was, I guess you could say “dismissive” of other people. He was very good at insulting people, especially people that bothered him, who got in his way. He was famously not very nice to young children, either. He had a very particular way of talking.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with a lot of money.” That’s one of his famous lines. “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with a lot of money.” It’s supposed to be funny. A line I remember growing up, from his movies – which were often shown in black and white on television during the ’60s and ’70s, at least in my house – the famous line he had was “my little chickadee.” “Chickadee” was just a word he would use to describe a girl or a woman.

In fact, he made a movie, one of his most famous movies, in 1940 called My Little Chickadee, with another very famous American actress, Mae West. I was saying that W. C. Fields became popular in the movies as a comedy actor, a comedic actor. So popular that the movie studio, the movie company that was making his early films, gave him a contract, a legal agreement, to make even more movies. Over the next few years, he had several more movies, all throughout the 1930s.

Unfortunately, like many popular movie stars and other performers, Fields had a problem with drugs – in particular, with alcohol. He drank an enormous amount of alcohol, a lot of alcohol. Some people said he would drink up to two bottles of alcohol a day. Well, he became very sick from all of this drinking and almost died. The movie company, Paramount Pictures, cancelled his contract and Fields stopped working for a few years.

Although he never stopped drinking, he did drink less, enough so that he was able to return to making movies in the late 1930s. He also had a radio show in 1937 that was very successful and showed people that he could still work. He could still be funny. He continued making movies.

As I mentioned, in 1940 he made one of his more famous movies, My Little Chickadee, but the amount of drinking that he was doing caused his health to suffer, and in 1946 he died of liver failure. It sometimes happens that people who drink too much alcohol have problems with their liver, and this is exactly what happened to W. C. Fields at the age of 66.

When he was alive, Fields was considered one of the funniest people in the country. I remember, as I say, growing up watching his movies and still thinking them funny. Another characteristic thing that W. C. Fields would do would be to mutter to himself. “To mutter” (mutter) means to talk to yourself quietly about what’s going on, the situation around you. Often the funniest lines in the W. C. Fields movies are his mutterings, his commentary about the people around him – often, as I say, insulting.

One of W. C. Fields’ most famous quotes – things that he said – was not actually said in a movie. The quote was “Never work with animals or children.” He was referring to those who act for a living, professional actors. He was saying that they should never be in a film or a movie with children or with animals, because they’re difficult to work with. On-screen, if you watch his movies, he seems to be someone who doesn’t like children, although in real life it is said that he did, in fact, like children. I’m not so sure about animals.

We turn now to a very different topic – one of the first video games in the United States. A “video game,” if you don’t know already, is an electronic game played on a computer, a television, or some other screen. One of the first video games to become popular in the U.S. was called “Pong” (Pong). Pong comes from the term “Ping-Pong,” which is another word for table tennis.

It’s a game where two people stand on opposite ends of a long table, holding small round boards in their hands called “paddles” (paddles). You use the paddles to hit the small white ball back and forth. Pong was based on the game of table tennis. Basically, if you’ve never seen Pong, on the screen there was a white line down the middle of it just as there would be on a ping pong table. There’s a, what’s called a “net” (net) on a regular ping pong table. Well, there was a white line down the middle of the screen that represented the net.

And then on either end of the screen, there were two short white bars that represented the paddles. And the ball was a square little block, if you will, that went back and forth and you had to move your paddle up and down in order to hit the ball back and forth. That was it. That was the entire game. Like a lot of later video games, Pong used what’s called a “hand controller,” which was a small device you held in your hand so that you could move the paddle up and down on the screen.

The game was actually created by Nolan Bushnell, who was the founder of a company called “Atari.” Bushnell got the idea for the game when he went to another company who had developed a very similar game. The other company was called Magnavox Odyssey. Well, he went home and decided to make his own game. However, it was not the home game of Pong that became popular later; rather, it was what is called an “arcade game.”

An “arcade (arcade) game” is a large machine that is usually placed in a public area such as a bar, or what is called, well, an “arcade” – a place where kids can go and play these games. Arcade games were popular long before video games such as Pong. An example of a popular arcade game for many years is pinball. “Pinball” is a kind of arcade game. Bushnell’s first version of Pong was an arcade game, and that alone became very successful. Bushnell and other people at Atari continued working on it and decided that they wanted to create a game that you could play at home.

In 1975, Atari made an agreement with a large department store in the United States by the name of Sears. This was a store that sold all sorts of things to people, and still does – furniture, tools, things for your kitchen, and so forth. Sears began selling the home video game Pong in 1975 during the Christmas season. This was by far the most popular Christmas present, or at least the Christmas present that everyone wanted in 1975. Thousands of Pong games were sold that year – and indeed, every year until the 1980s when video games such as Pong became less popular.

I was only 12 years old in 1975, but I certainly remember hearing about Pong. And it was only a year or two later that one of my older brothers, who was then in college and working part time, bought Pong for our family and gave it to us one Christmas, and I can tell you, that was amazingly popular in our household. I used to love playing Pong when I was, I don’t know, 13, 14 years old – whenever it was that my brother gave it to us, In fact, I have to say, it’s probably the last video game I ever played. Certainly the only video game I played at home.

Although Pong became very successful, there was a problem. Atari had, in fact, stolen the idea for this game from another company. And that company sued Atari for a violation of its patent. A “patent” (patent) is permission that the government gives to a single person or company to use or sell a product for a certain amount of time. Magnavox Odyssey sued Atari for stealing its patent.

Interestingly, Bushnell admitted that Pong had in fact been based on the game he saw at Magnavox Odyssey’s offices, but he said it was so much better that it wasn’t really the same game. When I say it was “based on,” I mean he used the game at the other company as an idea to begin with, but he made something more of the game.

Even though Bushnell and his lawyer thought they could win this lawsuit, they agreed to pay Magnavox Odyssey money so that they wouldn’t have to worry about it. They realized that the cost of paying for the lawyers would be about a million and a half dollars. So they just gave Magnavox Odyssey $700,000, and they said, “Okay, fine. We’ll take that.” Atari then continued selling the game and making no doubt millions of dollars doing it. Atari went on, as many of you know, to make other popular video games, much more complicated video games.

In fact, if you look at video games nowadays, they’re so complicated and so sophisticated that you might laugh that anything as simple as Pong would have been entertaining to someone as recently as 30 or 40 years ago, but I can assure you, I can tell you that, in fact, I found Pong to be one of the most entertaining video games I’ve ever played. Although, to be honest, I haven’t really played video games since the early 1980s, so perhaps I’m not the best person to listen to when it comes to video game recommendations.

You can still play Pong, by the way. I understand there are several apps for your phone or tablet that recreate the original Pong. I don’t know. I still miss the old hand controllers and watching the game on our television set.

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

Our first question comes from Liu (Liu), living in the United States. The question has to do with “trim” and “carpenter.” What does it mean to say that someone had “trim” put in his house by a “carpenter?” Let’s start with “carpenter” (carpenter). A carpenter is a person who makes or fixes things made of wood. Carpenters can make tables. They can make chairs. But they also might help put in something called “trim” in your house.

What is “trim” (trim)? As a noun, “trim” is usually a wood or sometimes plastic material that covers up the place where your wall and your floor come together. It could also be put where the wall and the ceiling come together. Trim is what we would call a “decorative item” – that is, it doesn’t serve any real function other than making things look a little prettier. In my room here, we have trim on the bottom of the wall, where the wall meets the floor. That is trim. It covers up the gap or space, if you will, that might be formed between the wall and the floor.

Our next question – our next question comes from Shadi (Shadi) in Israel. The question has to do with two words, “to condemn” and “conscious.” “To condemn” (condemn) can mean a couple of different things. One meaning is to say something in a very strong way that someone is bad or wrong. “I condemn the violence on the streets.” “I condemn the murders that have taken place.” “To condemn” means to say to someone, “This is wrong,” and to say it in a very strong way, a very definite way.

“To condemn” can also be used in a legal sense when, for example, a judge condemns a person to death. In some states in the United States, if you commit a very serious crime, you might get what’s called a “death penalty.” They might kill you. The government basically kills you as your punishment to make sure you don’t do it again. That is a “death penalty,” and often we use the verb “to condemn” when we talk about someone getting the death penalty, although it could be used in other circumstances. You could condemn someone to 25 years in prison for killing someone.

The second part of this question doesn’t have much to do with the first. The word is “conscious” (conscious). “To be conscious” means to be awake and able to understand what is going on around you. The opposite of “conscious” is, of course, “unconscious.” You can be unconscious when you’re sleeping. Someone could hit you on the head and make you unconscious. “Conscious” is to be aware of what is going on, to be awake.

“Conscious” is also used with the preposition “of” to mean aware of a specific thing. “I am conscious of your pain.” I understand it. I’m aware of it. “I am conscious of the fact that it is very dry here in California so we shouldn’t use a lot of water.” I am conscious of that fact.

Our third question comes from Hungary, from someone named White Bird, or at least that’s the name that I have in front of me. It might be an actual bird. We’ve never had a question from a bird here on ESL Podcast, so that’s pretty cool actually. Anyway, White Bird wants to know the meaning of the word “transliteration.” “Transliteration” (transliteration) – it takes a while to spell that – means writing a letter or a word using the most similar letters or characters from a different system of writing.

Here’s a easier way of explaining that. There are languages, such as Chinese and Japanese and Arabic and Korean and Russian and many other languages, that don’t use the same writing system as we use in, say, English, Spanish, Italian, and French, or a few other languages. There are many other languages, actually. The alphabet system we use is sometimes called the “Roman script.”

Well, if you are trying to take the words from, say, Arabic and make them so that someone who doesn’t read Arabic can understand what the word is, how it’s pronounced, you can use “transliteration.” You can sort of change the sounds and make them into letters that someone in English could understand – at least, that’s the general idea.

Sometimes when you do this – say, from Chinese into a writing system someone who reads English can understand – it’s called “Romanization.” But the general term is “transliteration,” when you’re taking words from one language and you’re trying to write them in another language that has a different writing system. So, Chinese and English or Arabic and English would be examples of that.

Sometimes when people are trying to learn a language that has a different writing system, teachers or textbooks will use transliteration as a way of helping them, especially when they’re just starting out, when they’re just beginning.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us – in English, please. 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 is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and
Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational

stage name – a name that entertainers create for themselves that is different from their birth name to use when they perform

* The singer and musician Reginald Kenneth Dwight uses the stage name Elton John.

solo – by oneself; doing or working alone, without partners or as part of a group

* John Lennon and Paul McCartney started their careers as members of The Beatles, but both also had successful solo careers.

to boast – to talk about oneself and one’s actions and possessions in a very positive and prideful way

* Johann boasted that he owned three homes: one in New York, one in London, and one in Tokyo.

signature – something a person is known for doing often and very well

* Giovanni’s mother has a signature dish, chicken with lemon sauce served over pasta, which she makes on special occasions.

demanding – describing someone who makes other people work very hard, doing what he or she wants

* My boss is very demanding and insists that I finish all my projects before I go home on Friday nights.

humor – the quality of being funny; being humorous

* Joanne has a great sense of humor and is able to find something funny or amusing about nearly any situation.

contract – a written legal agreement between two or more people, businesses, or organizations

* When she joined the company, Masha signed a one-year contract.

to mutter – to speak quietly to oneself so that others cannot hear clearly

* Were you talking to me or were you just muttering to yourself?

video game – an electronic game played on a computer, television, or other display screen

* Jan likes playing video games on her smartphone while commuting to school.

hand controller – a device that one holds in the hand with parts that can be pushed or moved to cause things to happen on a display screen or with an object

* Simone used the hand controller to fly the toy airplane.

patent – permission from the government to be the only person or company to make, use, and/or sell a specific product for a certain period of time

* Yuko applied for a patent for a machine that combines the functions of a refrigerator and a dishwasher.

to be based on – to use something as the starting idea to make something similar, but with changes and/or additions

* The story was based on the life of the author’s brother, but the author made some changes to make the story more dramatic.

trim – material such as wood or plastic shaped for use to give additional detail or to cover up gaps (space between two things)

* After we put in wood floors, we installed trim around the edge where the wall met the floor.

carpenter – a person whose job is to make or fix wooden objects or wooden parts of buildings

* The front door no longer closes property, so we’ll need to hire a carpenter to fix it.

to condemn – to say in a strong and definite way that someone or something is bad or wrong; to give someone a unusually harsh or severe punishment

* The environmental activists condemned the cutting down of old forest trees.

conscious – awake and able to understand what is happening around one; knowing that something exists or is happening; aware of something, such as a fact or feeling

* Was Zia conscious after she fell and hit her head on the ground?

transliteration – writing a letter or word using similar letters or characters of a different alphabet or language

* Transliteration of American names into Chinese sometimes sound strange to Chinese speakers.

What Insiders Know
Video Games as Successful Films

In recent years, several popular video games have been made into movies. Many of these “adaptations” (something in one form used as the main idea for something in another) have been very successful.

Mortal Kombat was a video game developed by Midway Games and was released in 1992. In the game, players choose from a selection of fighters from different “martial arts” (a set of self-defense or fighting skills, such as kung-fu, judo, or karate) backgrounds. Once fighters have been selected, the players can fight each other until one of the fighters is “defeated” (beaten).

In 1995, a movie adaptation was produced by New Line Cinema. On its “opening day” (first day a film or performance is shown or given in front of an audience), it earned $23.2 million. “Worldwide” (around the world), it earned $122 million. “To this day” (from that time to the present), the film Mortal Kombat is “ranked” (has the position) as the fourth highest-earning video game adaptation ever “released” (shown for a paying audience).

Another successful video game movie was Tomb Raider, released in 1996. It featured the character Lara Croft, an athletic, intelligent, and beautiful British “archaeologist” (scientist who studies human history by digging up human “remains” (bodies) and “artifacts” (items used by people in the past) . Lara Croft goes into “ancient” (far, far back in history; belonging to the very distant past) “tombs” (buildings or rooms where a dead body is placed) and “ruins” (the remains of something destroyed) around the world.

In 2001, an “action film” (film with a lot of chases, fights, and other exciting elements) based on the video game series was released. The film “starred” (had as the main actor/actress) Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Even though the film received negative “reviews” (comments) from “critics” (people whose job is to give opinions about films, books, art, and more), it was a “financial” (related to money) success, earning $336 million worldwide.