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535 Topics: American Movies – American Graffiti; American Presidents – Franklin Pierce; magazine versus journal; straw man argument and cognitive dissonance; several and actually

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 535.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 535. 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 to become a member of ESL Podcast. Why not? When you do, you can download the Learning Guide for this episode. And why not like us on Facebook? Go to facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous American movie from the 1970s called American Graffiti. We’re also going to talk about the 14th president of the United States, Franklin Pierce. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

One of the most popular summer movies of the year 1973 in the U.S. was a film called American Graffiti. “Graffiti” (graffiti) is what we might call a “loan word” from Italian. It refers to words, pictures, or other things that a person draws on a wall of a public area without permission – at least, that’s what it means in English. Graffiti can be words. It can be pictures. It can be symbols. Anything that is drawn on a wall of any public building or a building that faces, say, a street or a parking lot can be considered “graffiti” when it is done without the permission of the owners.

The movie tells the story of four boys in a town here in California, in central California, called Modesto. Modesto is about a hundred miles southeast of the city of San Francisco. These four boys have just graduated from high school in the year 1962. “To graduate” (graduate) means to complete all of your required classes and receive what we call a “degree,” which is official recognition that you have finished your studies at a school.

The entire movie takes place in just one night during the summertime, between the time the boys graduate from high school and they either go to college or they get a job. In those days, as it is true today, when you finish high school, you either go on and get more schooling – go on to college – or you go out and get a job, or a third option would be to stay home and watch television at your parents’ house, but your parents might not be so happy about that.

These four high school graduates, then, deal with problems that are typical of teenagers – their relationships with girls, their attempt to buy alcohol, and drag racing. “Drag (drag) racing” is when people drive cars at very high speeds for a short distance, usually or often illegally, in public streets. This is popular among some high school students. Two cars will be next to each other and then they will race. They will try to see who can reach a certain point before the other.

This is called “drag racing.” It happens in lots of small towns and in big cities. I’m not sure if it is as popular as it was back in the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s one of the main themes – one of the main events, I should say – in the movie. One of the interesting things about this movie is that the stars of the movie, the actors in the movie, were not very well known at that time, but later became quite famous. This includes Harrison Ford, who of course later became famous for the Star Wars movies as well as the Indiana Jones movies.

Other stars included Richard Dreyfus, Suzanne Somers, and Ron Howard, who actually had been an actor as a child but wasn’t really known as an actor as an adult. Each of these actors would go on to have very successful careers here in Hollywood – and in the case of Ron Howard, a very successful career as a producer of movies. American Graffiti, then, was the movie that sort of gave these big, what are now big, actors a start.

The director of the film was also someone who was fairly new: a man by the name of George Lucas. Lucas, of course, would later be the director of the incredibly successful Star Wars movies, among others. Lucas was also one of the writers of the American Graffiti film, and in a way it tells the story of George Lucas’s own childhood growing up in this small California town of Modesto.

Most of the characters are based on either his own life or the life of his friends when he was a teenager. When I say they were “based (based) on,” I mean they were taken from some real-life events and real-life characteristics of these people. Perhaps because the story was based on real life and not just based on the imagination of the screenwriter, many people consider it a good representation of what life was like in a small town in the United States in 1962, which was one year before I was even born.

The tagline for the film was, “Where were you in ’62?” which is a great, a great sentence. A “tagline” (tagline) is a phrase or a sentence that is often used in advertising a certain movie or a book or really any kind of product that’s being sold. “Where were you in ’62?”means what were you doing, basically, in 1962, which was a little over ten years before the movie itself was released.

American Graffiti was filmed in only 28 days, which is fairly short for a Hollywood movie. It cost, at the time, $700,000 to make. Nowadays it would be impossible to make a successful Hollywood movie for anything less than, well, maybe 10 or 20 times that amount. The movie, although it only cost under a million dollars to make, made over 50 million dollars since it was released. So, you could say it was a very “profitable” movie. “Profitable” (profitable) means it makes a lot of money.

The film, interestingly enough, was also nominated for five Academy Awards in 1974. It wasn’t just that the movie was successful, however – the soundtrack to the film also became very popular with audiences. The “soundtrack” (soundtrack) refers to the collection of music that you can hear in the movie. Soundtracks have become very important for both singers and movies over the past 40 years, and American Graffiti was one of the first movies perhaps in which the soundtrack became as important culturally, if you will, as the movie itself.

The soundtrack included lots of music that was popular during the time period of the movie. So, music from Buddy Holly and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys – all of those songs in a way became popular again with the release of the soundtrack for this movie. In fact, I remember, when I started high school, ’50s music, as we called it. Music that was popular in the 1950s was becoming popular again. People loved to listen to that music even though it was 20 years old. People in my high school even liked some of that music even though it was considered oldies music for us.

I was at the café the other day and I heard one of the younger employees – she was probably 18 or 19 – say to one of the other employees, “Oh, I love the ’80s. I love ’80s music” – that old, old music from the 1980s, which of course was the music that I grew up with and listened to in college. It made me feel a little old. Well, that’s what 1950s music was in the 1970s. It was the kind of music that some people loved to go back and listen to even though it was no longer new music.

No one expected this little movie American Graffiti – starring actors that no one had ever heard of, with songs that were more than 10 years old – to be successful. And yet, it was one of the most successful movies of the year. Today, American Graffiti can still be watched as, well, something of an inside look at American life during the 1960s, at least the life of teenagers during that period.

I won’t say it was one of the greatest movies ever made, but it certainly has a very American feel to it, and if you want to understand a little bit about American culture during the middle part of the twentieth century, American Graffiti is a pretty good place to start.

Now let’s turn to our second topic, which is the 14th president of the United States. Franklin Pierce was born in November of 1804 in the state of New Hampshire, which is located in the northeastern part of the United States, an area that we usually call “New England.” After Franklin Pierce graduated from college, he studied law and became a lawyer in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1827. Just two years later, in 1829, Pierce was elected to the state legislature of New Hampshire. The state “legislature” (legislature) is the part of the state’s government that creates the laws for a state.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that Franklin Pierce got involved in politics. His father, Benjamin Pierce, was governor of New Hampshire during this period, from 1827 to 1828, and again from 1829 to 1830. After being, or serving, in the state legislature for four years, in 1833 Pierce was elected to the United States House of Representatives, which is basically our national legislature, or part of our national legislature which we call Congress.

Like a lot of politicians, Pierce decided he liked getting his paycheck from the government. “Paycheck” refers to the money you get for your job. Pierce liked working so much as a representative that he decided to run for, or try to get elected to, the United States Senate – the other half of our Congress. He did that in 1837. After five years in the Senate, Pierce did something quite unusual in politics: he resigned his position. “To resign” (resign) means to quit your job. A U.S. senator is elected for six years. So it’s somewhat unusual that Pierce served five of his years and then resigned.

Why did he resign? Well, we’re not exactly sure. He just said it was for personal reasons. Some people believe that his wife, Jane, whom he married in 1834, hated living in Washington, D.C. I can understand that. Others believe that maybe Franklin liked a little bit too much wine, a little bit too much alcohol, and that he had a “drinking problem.” People say that he was a heavy drinker. A “heavy drinker” is not someone who weighs too much or is overweight. It’s a person who drinks too much or drinks a lot. This apparently was a problem that got worse as Pierce got older.

In any case, Pierce resigned his job, but he wasn’t done with government service. In what is known in the U.S. as the Mexican-American war, Pierce served in the military from 1846 to 1848. He was an officer in the military. After the war, he returned to New Hampshire and in 1852, to everyone’s surprise, his political party, the Democratic Party, nominated him as their candidate for the presidency of the United States. “To nominate” (nominate) someone is to choose someone to run for public office – that is, to try to get elected to public office.

The major – or most important, or largest – political groups or parties nominate someone to be their representative in the election, if you will. The Democratic Party nominated Franklin Pierce not because Pierce was trying to get the nomination, but because the party had reached what we would call a “deadlock.” A “deadlock” (deadlock) is a situation in which no agreement can be reached, a situation in which neither side wants to agree to something. When you have two or more people, or two or more groups, and they can’t seem to reach an agreement, we might call that a “deadlock.”

Well, in the election of 1852, the Democratic Party had three candidates – three people who wanted the nomination for presidency. But they couldn’t agree on which person they wanted to select. So, in the end they chose a fourth person, and that person was Franklin Pierce. Again, in a great surprise, Franklin Pierce actually won the election of 1852 and became president.

Pierce hadn’t really done much in terms of policy or politics during his career. He didn’t really accomplish much before he became president. He was considered a handsome, good-looking guy, a very charming person, someone with a good personality who made a lot of friends. But he hadn’t really done anything in terms of accomplishments as a politician, and yet now, in 1853, he took over as president of the United States. At the time, he was the youngest man to be elected as president of the U.S. He was only 47 years old.

If you’re familiar with U.S. history during this period, you’ll know that “slavery” – the owning of another human being – was the major political issue of this period and Pierce, like other presidents, tried to keep the peace. He tried not to make the Southern states, who wanted to keep slavery, angry and so he basically didn’t want to deal with the issue. He sort of pushed it aside to try to talk about and do other things. This ultimately was not a successful strategy because, of course, in 1861 the U.S. began its Civil War in part over this issue.

Pierce did try to do other things. He tried, for example, to buy the island of Cuba from Spain. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in that. He was successful, however, in something called the Gadsden Purchase. This was a deal and agreement with the country of Mexico in which the U.S. purchased, or bought, a certain part of Mexican territory for 10 million dollars. This was after, of course, the United States had defeated Mexico and taken a large part of its territory. The Gadsden purchase was for an area of land in what is now southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.

But despite these accomplishments Pierce, again, is most well known for having been unable to do anything about the situation and the political instability caused by the issue of slavery. In 1854, he signed something called the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This was a law that opened up two new territories of the United States. The law said that the question of slavery – whether these territories would allow slavery or not – would be left to the people of the territories. They would vote and decide if they wanted slavery or not.

Well, this was a law that made a lot of people angry, including a lot of Democrats, many of whom left the party – left the Democratic Party – and helped form a new political party called the Republican Party. This also effectively ended the Whig Party in the United States. Pierce, in other words, wasn’t very successful at trying to find a good compromise on this issue, perhaps because there really was no good compromise.

In any case, in 1856 the Democratic Party denied Pierce the nomination for the presidency. Normally, if you are the president, your political party nominates you again for the next election. This was the first and only time in U.S. history that the president was denied the nomination by his own political party for the next election. This was mostly because Pierce was such a failure when it came to dealing with the issue of slavery.

To be fair, the Democratic Party selected Pierce not because of his brilliance or perhaps because of his political genius, but rather for other reasons, and it was not a very good decision in the long run for the nation or for the Democratic Party. After Pierce left office, he traveled a bit and then returned to New Hampshire, where he continued to drink and died in 1869. Most people had forgotten about him.

As I say, he was what we might call a “failed president.” He was a president who was unable to do what he was supposed to do. Historians don’t judge Franklin Pierce very positively. His presidency did, however, lead to the formation of the Republican Party, which was to be led by a man named Abraham Lincoln, who was eventually to settle the question of slavery through our bloody Civil War.

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

Our first question comes from Sohail (Sohail) in Canada. The question is about the difference between “magazine” and “journal.” A “magazine” (magazine) is a collection of news articles and stories about a similar topic, usually. Magazines typically have several different, what are called, “articles,” which are written pieces of information. We usually think of magazines as being “non-fiction” – that is, being about something that is real and not imaginary, although there are plenty of magazines that have only stories in them or only poetry in them.

Magazines are different from newspapers in a couple of different ways. First, magazines are usually not published as often as a newspaper. Many newspapers are published every day or every week. Magazines are published usually no more often than once a week, often only once a month or every two weeks, sometimes every two or three months. It depends on the magazine.

Magazines also have a different physical format. A magazine looks more like a book. Usually magazines, if they are long magazines, if they have a lot of pages, are stapled together – the pages are stapled in the middle – and you open it up and read it like a book. A newspaper is typically bigger and made out of a cheaper paper, a less expensive paper.

Nowadays, with the Internet and tablets and smartphones, the differences between newspapers and magazines is more the content that you will find in a newspaper and a magazine, as well as the frequency of publication. Newspapers will still publish usually daily or more frequently than a magazine will publish. But those differences are becoming fewer and fewer as people begin to publish things digitally now.

A “journal” (journal), when we’re talking about a publication, is very similar to a magazine. Normally we use the term “journal” nowadays to refer to a magazine that is more technical, that is more perhaps for a professional audience. Journals often have scientific articles in them. “Scientific journals” are magazines that contain research articles. If it’s a regular scientific publication, it will probably be called a “journal.”

There are, however, somewhat confusingly, still some magazines that use the word “journal” in their titles. And because the word “journal” originally comes from a word meaning “day” or “daily,” there are even newspapers that use “journal” in their title, including one of the most famous newspapers in the United States, The Wall Street Journal. So, it is a bit confusing. I understand. And just to make things even more confusing, there are other meanings of both the words “magazine” and “journal.”

A common meaning of the word “journal” is a book in which you write down all of your personal thoughts. This is sometimes also called a “diary,” although a diary I suppose technically would be a book in which you wrote down thoughts about your life and the events of your life more on a daily basis, every day. But a journal can also be a small book – basically a bunch of empty pages on which you write things that are important to you, or thoughts that you are thinking.

The word “magazine” also has another meaning, although less common. It’s used to describe a place where you would keep certain things needed for guns and other kinds of what we would call “ammunition” – things you would use in a gun, such as bullets. It’s a “military storehouse,” we might call it.

Our second question comes from Dan (Dan) in Italy. Dan wants to know the meaning of two expressions. The first is a “straw man argument.” The second is “cognitive dissonance.” Let’s start with “straw (straw) man argument.”

A “straw man argument,” or simply a “straw man,” is when you have a disagreement with someone and during your discussion or argument, you criticize something about the other person’s position that the other person doesn’t even believe. You pick a reason that you say the other person has for believing what he believes, when the other person doesn’t even believe that. In other words, you misrepresent the other person’s position by, in effect, substituting another position that may sound similar, but isn’t actually what the other person believes.

So, you are going after and criticizing an argument that the other person doesn’t believe but sounds similar. So someone listening to you argue with this other person might think that you’ve somehow beat the other person, but in fact, you’ve criticized a position that the other person doesn’t even have or doesn’t even, we would say, “hold.” We use the verb “hold” (hold) when we are talking about an opinion or a position, a view that someone has.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I wanted to pass a law that made it illegal for you to own a cat. You could not own a cat if I were successful in getting my law passed. And you say, “Well, come on, Jeff – making cats illegal? That’s crazy. We won’t be able next to have any animals. You are against all animals.” That’s a straw man argument. I’m not saying I’m against all animals; I’m saying I’m just against cats.

A straw man argument often either exaggerates or distorts in some way what the other person is saying, or gives some sort of reason why you shouldn’t accept the other person’s position, that will immediately be appealing to the people listening to you. Straw man arguments often have an emotional appeal. If you say, for example, “I don’t think people who steal less than $100 should be sent to prison,” another person may say, “What, you don’t believe in punishing criminals? You believe that people should just be able to do whatever they want?”

Well, of course that’s not your position. That’s a straw man argument. But it’s also an argument that people will find appealing. They’ll go, “Oh, yeah! You’re against punishing criminals?” You see, even though it wasn’t your original position, it has an emotional appeal, often. And it will be used to criticize your argument even though it had nothing to do with your argument. That’s a “straw man” or a “straw man argument.”

Dan also wanted to know about the term “cognitive (cognitive) dissonance (dissonance).” The word “cognitive” refers to thinking – your ideas. “Dissonance” is a term usually associated with music, where you have two different notes or you have a certain sound that somehow doesn’t go together it. It creates a certain tension. It’s hard to describe musical dissonance – if you’ve ever listened to anything by, say, Stravinsky or any number of modern composers, there’s a lot of dissonance in their music.

“Cognitive dissonance,” however, refers not to two different notes or melodies going against each other and not being very “harmonious,” we might say, together, but rather two different ideas that clash or disagree with each other. It’s often used when you believe one thing and then you discover that what you believe isn’t true or there is some fact, some piece of evidence, that doesn’t agree with your belief. This creates “cognitive dissonance.”

On the one hand you believe or have always believed that this is true, and now suddenly you have evidence or you are in a situation where that doesn’t seem correct, that your belief seems wrong. Sometimes people change their belief when this happens, but other times they simply try to make the two things fit together even though they don’t – the belief and the facts.

Finally, David (David) in Colombia wants to know the meaning of two words that are not really related. The first one is “several” (several). “Several” is a word that we use to describe the quantity of something – how many of something there are. If there are two things, you would say there are a “couple” of things or a “pair” of things. If there are three things, you might say there are “several” things (or four things, or five things). So, “several” is more than two.

However – and here is where it gets a little confusing – we wouldn’t use it to mean a million or even perhaps a thousand. So, “several” is somewhere between very few and a lot. It’s a weird word in English because I can’t give you an exact number of what “several” is. It depends on the circumstances. It’s always more than two, but it’s less than what you would describe as “a lot” or “many.”

If you said, for example, “There are several people who are interested in this job” – who want to apply for this job – I would think, “Well, there are more than two people; probably there are seven, eight, maybe twelve or fifteen people,” but I wouldn’t think, “Oh, a thousand people.” If there were a thousand people, you wouldn’t say there are “several” people. You might say there are “a lot” of people or “many” people. So, “several” means more than two but less than what you might describe as “many.”

The second word David wants to know about is “actually” (actually). Well, “actually” has many different possible uses in English, but the most common one would mean something that is true, something that is real, something that is actually in existence or is a fact. If you say, “Elvis is actually here in my house,” that means that I could go to your house and see Elvis Presley, the famous singer. He would be there in your house. He’s actually there. Of course, I doubt that Elvis Presley is actually there in your house, but if he is, send me an email.

If you have a question about English, you can also send me an email. 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 Development.

graffiti – words written or pictures drawn on a wall of a public area without permission

* It was impossible to wash the graffiti off of the side of the building, so the owners had to paint it.

to graduate – to complete the required courses and receive a degree from a school or college

* After studying for four years at the university, Damien was ready to graduate and find a job where he could put his knowledge to work.

drag race – a race where people drive cars at very high speeds for a very short distance, often illegally on public streets

* The two drivers started their engines and then pressed their gas pedals to the floor to go as fast as they could in the drag race down the empty street.

to be based on – to have origins or beginnings in something

* Oftentimes, movies are based on books, but the story is changed in order to fit the entire book into a two-hour film.

tagline – a phrase or sentences that is related to a person, movie, or product that is very easy to remember, usually used for advertising or promotion

* Advertisers like to use taglines to help customers remember their products.

profitable – earning more money than was spent making or creating something

* Adrianne had a very profitable business making hats and selling them online to customers around the world.

soundtrack – the collection of music heard in or is connected to a movie or television show

* Sometimes songs from movie soundtracks become so successful apart from the movie that they are played on the radio.

to resign – to formally quit a job or position

* After the scandal, the president of the company resigned and took full responsibility for the missing money.

to nominate – to choose someone to run in an election for public office

* In 2008, Barack Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for the office of President of the United States.

deadlock – a situation where a decision or agreement cannot be reached

* With two votes for going out to dinner and two votes for staying home, the family had reached a deadlock about what do that evening.

to fail – to stop working properly; to break

* When the car’s engine failed, the car simply turned off and stopped moving.

magazine – a type of thin book with a paper cover that contains stories, essays, pictures, and more, and that is usually published every week or month

* Pablo likes to read sports magazines with articles about his favorite teams.

journal – a magazine that reports on things of special interest to a particular group of people, usually in professional or research fields; a book in which one writes down one’s personal experiences and thoughts

* Did you see the latest issue of the Journal of Psychology with the interesting articles about the differences in child and teenage memory?

straw man – a weak or imaginary argument or opponent created to be easily defeated

* No one opposed the new jobs law, but the mayor created a straw man to appear as though she had fought hard to get it passed.

cognitive dissonance – having thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes that do not match or are inconsistent, especially relating to how one thinks and behaves

* Seeing a man with beard and a tutu dancing as part of a line of young ballerinas created a cognitive dissonance in the audience.

several – more than two but not very many; a few

* Don’t let Gia have another drink. She already had several before dinner.

actually – used to refer to what is true or real; used as emphasis about the truth or reality of something

* Jim actually told us the truth about what happened, but we didn’t believe him.

What Insiders Know
Hobos and Hobo Signs

A “hobo” is an informal, old-fashioned, and often “derogatory” (showing disrespect) term for someone who is “homeless” (does not have a place to live) and moves from place to place, looking for work. A more respectful term for a hobo is a “migratory worker.” The typical “image” (what someone thinks of when hearing a particular word) of a hobo is of a man with a “bindle,” which is a cloth or blanket tied around items at the end of a stick, so that the stick can rest on one’s shoulder to carry the items.

There were many hobos during the “height” (when something was very popular and important) of the American railroads. Now there are fewer hobos, but one researcher determined in 1984 that there might be 20,000 of them in North America. Today, hobos meet in national conventions, the most “prominent” (most notable and well-known) of which is in Britt, Iowa.

Hobos formed a loose “brotherhood” (a group of people who consider themselves family and help each other) and created a system of hobo “signs” (symbols or codes) to communicate with each other. They put these signs on pieces of paper or walls to give useful information to other hobos who are traveling in the same area. Here are some common hobo signs:

A “cross” (U) indicated that food would be given to hobos after a “sermon” (a speech given by a religious leader).
A cross with a “smiley face” (a simple picture of a smiling face) meant that there was a doctor who would “treat” (provide medical care for) hobos without “demanding payment” (asking for money).
A circle with two parallel lines meant that the hobo should leave immediately because the area was not safe.
Two “shovels” (tools used for digging) meant that work was available.