Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

541 Topics: Famous Americans – Mae West; Harvey Washington Wiley and The Poison Squad; real versus actual versus true; lunch versus a lunch; to put (one’s) shoulder to the wheel

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 541.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 541. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

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On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous American actress of the twentieth century, Mae West. We’re also going to talk about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his Poison Squad – sounds mysterious. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Mae West was born in August of 1893 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City. New York City, you mayknow, is divided up into five major sections. They’re called “boroughs.” She was born in the borough of Brooklyn. Mae West’s mother had wanted to be an actress but her parents didn’t allow her to. They didn’t give her permission to do that. So instead, Mae West’s mother began making clothing.

Mae West’s father was a boxer. A “boxer” (boxer) is a professional fighter who uses his hands to hit the other fighter. In modern boxing, boxers wear gloves. They don’t hit the other person with their hands, although there are some forms of boxing that do that, where the boxers don’t wear any gloves. Of course, that’s how people fight out in the street or in a bar. If you do that, the police will arrest you. But if you put on gloves and go inside of a special area called a “ring” (ring), well, people will pay to see you do that.

In any case, it was clear from the time Mae West was a small child that she had a talent as an actress, and her mother supported her dreams because, as sometimes happens, parents will support the dreams of their children, especially when they are dreams that they themselves had once wanted to accomplish or carry out.

In 1901, when West was only eight years old, she began acting, and a few years later joined a national vaudeville show. “Vaudeville” (vaudeville) was a very popular kind of show in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. It had lots of different actors and actresses who would perform songs and dances and do other kinds of entertainment for people. This was before the days of television and movies, of course, and a long time before Facebook.

West toured the country with this vaudeville show until 1911, when she made her debut in a Broadway show in New York City as a singer and dancer. A “debut” (debut) is when an actor, a musician, or other performer goes out and does something for the first time in public. So, if a movie actress is starring in her first movie, we might say that she made her “debut” in the movies in this particular film. Mae West made her first performance or had her first performance in a show in New York City in 1911. It was her “debut” in a Broadway show.

“Broadway” is a street in New York City where there are lots of famous theaters. Mae West continued to be a performer in New York City –“on Broadway,” we would say – for about 15 years until finally she wrote her own show. Now, this was extremely controversial, as you will guess from the title of that show, which was simply the word Sex.

Mae West also produced the show. “To produce” (produce) can mean a couple of different things. It can mean simply to make, but when we’re talking about a play or a movie or a television show, “to produce” means that you get the money to have the show made. Here in Los Angeles, there are lots of people who are producers. They go around and they get the money and they organize a particular production of something, a particular making of a film or of a television show. To be a producer, you either have to have money or you have to know how to get money from other people.

Well, Mae West produced as well as wrote her first show, called Sex. It would be the first of many in which Mae West would talk about the topic of sex. We have to remember, this was in 1926, when most entertainment was not focused, as it is today, on this particular topic, and so there was a lot of controversy about it. In fact, when West began performing the show, the people who wrote about the show in the newspaper – the critics – didn’t like the show. It wasn’t a very good show. However, because of the topic, it sold a lot of tickets.

Eventually, the police decided to come in and arrest Mae West and some of the other people involved in the show because this sort of play and this sort of topic was not considered legal to perform at this time. She was arrested and brought to jail, and eventually she was convicted of a crime. “To be convicted” (convicted) means for a court of law – a judge and a jury, typically – to say that you are guilty of committing a crime. In this case, the crime involved “corrupting the morals of youth.”

“To corrupt” (corrupt) means to change someone or to influence someone in such a way as to make them worse off morally or ethically. “To corrupt” someone means to take someone who is otherwise innocent, otherwise good, and make them bad. “Morals” (morals) refers to our ideas or beliefs about what is right or wrong – what the right way is for people to behave. Well, Mae West was convicted of corrupting the morals of youth – of young people – by these ideas that she was talking about openly in her play.

Now, she actually didn’t go to jail for very long. She only spent eight days in jail, but she got a lot of publicity, a lot of newspaper articles written about her. Everyone was talking about her, and of course that made her even more famous and allowed her to become even more popular. This is often the case, even today – someone who isn’t a very good writer or director or even actor does something that everyone talks about and suddenly this person becomes famous even though they don’t really have all that much talent.

Well, Mae West did have talent as an actress, and she continued to produce plays and write scripts. By the late 1920s, early 1930s, it was obvious to people in the entertainment industry that the future of entertainment was going to be not in New York and Broadway, but in Hollywood, making movies. And so, Mae West moved to Los Angeles, my fair city, and began acting in movies.

From 1932 until 1936 she was in several movies, including Night after Night, She Done Him Wrong, andI’m No Angel. These movies were very successful, and West became an international acting star. She also became somewhat of what we may describe as a “national sex symbol.” A “sex symbol” (symbol) is a famous person who’s known for being beautiful and for being very attractive. Sex symbols nowadays are usually Hollywood actresses or models.

Well, Mae West was a Hollywood actress and considered a very beautiful and attractive woman. In fact, in the movies, she usually played characters who were considered attractive and who were very “sexy,” we might say nowadays. Mae West was very popular during the 1930s. She was in her 30s, but as so often happens with beautiful and attractive actresses here in Hollywood, as they grow older, they become less popular and their place is taken. They are “replaced,” if you will, by younger actresses who then become the popular stars of the day.

That’s sort of what happened to Mae West, although she continued to act in movies up until the 1970s, but she was never as popular as she was back in the 1930s when she was younger and considered a sex symbol. Nevertheless, Mae West is still remembered by Americans as being a sexy actressand also one who became famous for some of the things she said in the movies. She would often use jokes that were based on some sort of sexual theme.She would say something but it would have two meanings,and that double meaning would often be a sexual one.

Part of the reason, no doubt, that Mae West became so popular is that it was rather unusual during this period to have such open displays of sexuality and discussions of topics that were not normally considered appropriate for the movies and public entertainment. Now it’s impossible to watch a movie or a television show without those sorts of topics becoming the center of everything. But in Mae West’s day, that wasn’t the case,and that’s probably one of the reasons why she became one of the first national sex symbols.

Mae West died in 1980at the age of 87. If you’re a Beatles fan, you might be interested in knowing that her image appears on the albumSergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you’re a fan of art,you may know that the surrealist artist Salvador Dali made a sofa that was based on MaeWest’s lips. So, she has some other importance in popular culture besides her acting career.

The second topic of our Café today is not one that most Americans know very much about. I certainly didn’t before looking into the topic. It’s the story of a man by the name of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his Poison Squad.“Poison” (poison) is something that either exists naturallyor is created that can cause people or animals to die or become very sick if you eat it or if it gets into your body. The word “squad” (squad) refers to a small group of people who are put together to do a specific job or task.

Nowadays, you’ll mostly hear the word either in sports to refer to a group of athletes,or when describing a kind of police car, what we call a “squad car,”which is the normal kind of police car that you see that has lights on top of it and has the word “police” on the side. That would be a “squad car.” Here in Los Angeles, I don’t know if it’s still the case, but the squad cars are always black and white,and that’s true in many American cities. People sometimes refer to police cars as “black and whites”because those are the colors the car is painted.

Well, herewe’re not talking about police or athletes.We’re talking about a group of people who had a very specific job at the Department of Agriculture. “Agriculture” (agriculture) refers to the science of farming and of growing food and raising animals.The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the laws and regulations about farming and raising cattle and animals in the United States.Our Dr. Wiley worked for the Department of Agriculture way back in the late nineteenthcentury,

in1882,Wiley became interested in the chemicals called “additives” that were being used in foodto either change the taste or appearance of the food, or more often to preserve the food so that it would last longer in the store – so that it wouldn’t go bad. It wouldn’t spoil, for example. “To spoil” (spoil), when referring to food,means that the food changes in such a way that you can no longer eat it.

If you take a piece of meat and you leave it out on your counter, out on your tablein your kitchen for several hours,well,the meat could spoil.It could go bad so that if you eat it, you would get sick. Many times,companies that make food will put things into the food that will allow it to last longer so that you can keep it longer. Sometimes, however, these additives cause problems, and Dr. Wiley was concerned that some of these additives, these chemicals that were added to food, were actually going to be dangerous to people.

For the first 20 years he worked at the Department of Agriculture,he tried to get Congress – the part of our government that creates or makes laws – to have a law that would regulate additives that were used in American food. “To regulate” (regulate)means to make rules or laws that control something. The food industry, the people who made food, however, were not interested in these new laws and regulations and they had a very strong “lobby.”

A “lobby” (lobby) is a group of people or organizations or businesses that work together to try to affect the laws that the government creates, or in some casesto stop certain laws from being created. Lobbies are very powerful forces in American politics. There are many millions of dollars that are spent by different groups – business groups,political groups,consumer groups – all of which try to influence the laws that are made by the national government or by state governments.

The food industry, the businesses that made food,had a very strong lobby in Washington, D.C. – a group that tried to convince Congress not to regulate their particular business. In 1902,however, Wiley was given $5,000by the government to do experiments about food that related to these additives. An “experiment” is a scientific test to see whether something is true or not. Wiley created a team of 12 young men to help him with his experiments.

These men were all selected because they were honest, or so they thought, and had good morals. They would give an honest opinion of things. These 12 men agreed to work with Wiley on his experiments for one year. During that time,the men would eat every meal togetherand the meal, the food, would be cooked by a special cook, a special chef who would add different amounts of these food additives to the meal.

Well, you can see now where we get the term “poison squad.” In this case,the squad was this group of young men who were eating this food as part of the experiment to see what additives, what things that were added to the food, might be poisonous, might actually make people sick. It’s not the kind of squad I would want to join, but these 12 young men did it,and every weekthey were tested to see if they were healthy or were becoming sick from the food they were eating.

Sometimes the amount of additives in the food would be increased and that would make people sick. Sometimes they would change the additives and see if that had any effect on the men’s health. At first, Wiley wrote reports, sent them to the government,but the government just ignored him. They didn’t do anything about it. The food companies with their lobby prevented any changes. Eventually,however, some newspapers got interested in Dr. Wiley and his Poison Squad and they began to write articles about it.

Of course, it was the newspapers that gave this group of men the name “Poison Squad.” No one would want to sign up for a group called the “Poison Squad.” Dr. Wiley certainly didn’t come up with that name, but the newspapers wanted an interesting name that would get people’s attention, and it certainly did. Newspapers began to talk about these experiments and people began to get interested in them. Finally, in 1906, Wiley was successful in getting some laws created about these food additives.

The government created something called the “Meat Inspection Act”and the “Pure Food and Drug Act.” An “act” is just another name for a law. Both of these laws meant that people who made food would need to follow certain regulations about food safety and about the sorts of additives that you could put into the food. This eventually led to what we now have in the United States: the Food and Drug Administration.

The experiments of the Poison Squad ended in 1907. Wiley left the government in 1912 and took a job with a very popular magazine called Good Housekeeping Magazine. He died in 1930 and was pretty much forgotten,but it was his experiments that led to some of the first laws in the U.S. to try to protect people from dangerous additives in their food. And that’s the story of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his Poison Squad.

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

Our first question comes from Federico (Federico)in Italy,of course. Federico wants to know the meanings of three words – “real,”“actual,” and “true.” All three of these words have multiple meanings, so we won’t be able to go through all of the definitions, but I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with “real” (real).“Real” refers to something that is actually existing or actually happening. The opposite of “real” in this sense would be “imagined” – something that is made up, something that you invented. Sometimes a movie is based on, or comes from,“real events” – things that actually happened. Sometimes the story is “imaginary” – someone just invented the story,“dreamed up the story,” we might say.

“Real” can also be used to mean the opposite of “artificial” or “fake.” You can buy a belt or a purse that is made of “real leather.” You could also buy a belt or a purse that’s made from “artificial” or “fake” (fake)leather. It looks like leather but it isn’t real. Some actresses in Hollywood have parts of their body that are real, and others have parts of their body that are not real, that are artificial – that were put there,but were not part of the body that they were born with,shall we say.

“Real” can also mean “important,”or something that we should take very seriously. Someone may say,“We have a real problem here.” That person means “We have a serious problem here” – a problem that we have to pay attention to.The word“actual” (actual)can also mean real. It can also be the opposite of “imagined.”

How do you know when to say “real” and how do you know when to say “actual”? Well,many timesyou could use either word to mean the same thing. The difference in use is probably related more to the context, to the situation. If you expect something to be “imaginary,”if you expect something to be not real,you might use the word “actual” to emphasize to someone that contrary to their expectation,this is something that really happened or actually happened.

For example, if you were watching the television showThe Simpsons,which is a cartoon program, basically, and you said to someone,“You know the people on this show aren’t just imaginary.They’re based on actual people.”There you would expect that the people in the cartoon would be just imaginary characters that the author invented and then you find out that they’re based on actual people. The expectation is that they would not be real or based on real people,but in fact they are.

So,the differences there are kind of subtle,kind of small.It depends on the context of when you would more likely say “real” or when you would say “actual.”In most instances, either word would be acceptable.

The word “true” usually means the opposite of “false.” Something that is “true” is something that matches the facts,that is in agreement with reality. “It is true that Sacramento is the capital of the state of California.”“It is true that two plus two equals four.”“It is false that Los Angeles is the capital of California.” The most common use of “true,” then, is the opposite of “false.”

There are some cases, however, when we use “true”to mean the same as “real” or “actual.” The most common case of the use of “true” in this sense would be with the word “story.”“This is a true story.”This is an actual story.This story really happened.It is based on something that is real. You may see an advertisement for a movie“based on a true story.” That means that this story is actually something that happened. It’s something that took place in,we may say,“real life.”

One other use of the word “true”would be as an adjective to describe something or some person who has all of the expected or necessary qualities of this particular thing. For example,“He is a true artist.” That means he has all the qualities or does all the things that you would expect a good artist to do.

Our next question comes from Reiko (Reiko) in Japan. It regards the meaning of the word “lunch” (lunch).“Lunch,”you probably know, refers to the meal that we eat in the middle of the day. We talk about “breakfast,”which is what you eat in the morning after you get up. “Lunch,” which in the United States is eaten usually around noon – 12p.m. And dinner, or supper,which is eaten –depending on where you live and the family you’re in – somewhere between five and eight o’clock in the evening.

There’s a related noun to the word “lunch” which is “luncheon” (luncheon).A“luncheon” usually refers to a meeting or a group of people who get together and have lunch together as part of a celebration or perhaps as part of some sort of organization’s meeting or business meeting.

The word“lunch”normally doesn’t have an article in front of it, at least an indefinite article. We don’t use the word “a”in front of “lunch,”typically.We say,“I’m going to have lunch with my brother,”or “I’m going to have lunch at McDonald’s,” or “I will have lunch at 11:30 in the morning.” We wouldn’t say,“I’m going to have a lunch.”We would not say,“I’m going to have a lunch with my brother.”

However, sometimes the word “lunch” is associated with a meeting or an event,what we would also call a “luncheon.”With the word “luncheon,” we do usually use the word“a” –“I’m going to a luncheon” –because the word “luncheon” refers to this specific event. “I’m going to a luncheon for my company,”or “I’m going to an alumni luncheon”– a meal that will have other members of my college class there. We may also refer to that sort of luncheon simply as “a lunch.”“I’m going to an alumni lunch.”“I’m going to a business lunch.”

In that case,someone may refer to a “lunch” without the word “business” or “alumni” or whatever particular kind of the event it is. And so, you may hear “a lunch” in some sentences, in some cases,when it’s referring to a “luncheon” – a more formal event,a meeting of a group of people. However, in most cases the word “lunch,” just like the word “breakfast”or the word “dinner,” is not used with the indefinite article“a.”

Finally, Guillermo (Guillermo)in Spain wants to know the meaning of the expression “to put your shoulder to the wheel.” Your “shoulder” (shoulder)is the part of your body where your arm connects to the rest of your body. A “wheel” (wheel) is, of course,a round object,a circle, that moves and allows cars and other vehicles to move.

However,“to put your shoulder to the wheel”means to put a lot of effort into something, to put a lot of hard work into something in order to finish a task or a job. “We have to get this project finished by five o’clock tonight. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel.”Let’s really work hard so we can do that. The phrase comes from the days when you didn’t have cars, or trains even,but rather what we would refer to as a “wagon” (wagon) or a “cart” (cart).

These would be vehicles that were pulled by some sort of animals such as a horse. And if you were going down a certain area and there was mud on the road, or there wasn’t a road and you were in mudand you couldn’t go forward, you might have to get out and put your body against the wheel – put your shoulder to the wheel, grab the wheel, and try to push the cart or the wagon,the vehicle,forward so that you could get out of the mud. That would require a lot of work.

There is actually a reference to this expression, I believe, going back as far as Aesop’s Fables,back in the days of the ancient Greeks. That’s the concept behind the phrase, but it’s used to mean to put a lot of effort into something or to work very hard at something.

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 is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

debut – the first time an actor, musician, or athlete performs or competes in public

* Many actors make their debuts as minor or unimportant characters in films or on TV shows.

to produce – to manage and to organize the money needed for a show, movie, or television show

* George wrote the screenplay for the movie and produced it as well.

to convict – for a court of law to state that someone is guilty of committing a crime

* The evidence against the man included a video recording of him robbing the store, so the jury convicted him of the crime.

to corrupt – to change or influence someone or something so that it is less innocent and pure

* Many parents worry that their children will be corrupted by bad friends who introduce them to alcohol, smoking, or drugs.

morals – one’s ideas or beliefs about what is right or wrong, and the correct way for people to behave

* The leader of our church group needs to have good morals, excellent organizational skills, and a lot of patience.

sex symbol – a famous person known for being beautiful and sexually attractive

* Some of the most famous sex symbols of all time include Sophia Loren, Bridget Bardot, and Marilyn Monroe.

poison – something existing in nature or created by science that causes people or animals to die or become very ill if it is eaten or enters the body in another way

* A popular way to kill someone in murder mysteries is to use poison.

squad – a small group of people who are placed together to do a specific job or task

* The police department created a new squad of officers who are responsible for finding and arresting the leaders of local gangs.

agriculture – the science of farming and raising animals

* The main industry in this part of the U.S. is agriculture since the land is good for growing many crops such as corn and potatoes.

additive – a substance used in food, usually to help it grow faster and/or last longer

* Additives are put in food to give it a better appearance or to make it taste better.

to regulate – to make rules or laws to control what and how things are done

* There are many laws in place that regulate restaurants, ensuring that the food they serve is clean and safe to eat

lobby – a group of people or businesses that work together to influence the laws the government makes related to their cause or business

* The gun lobby in the United States is one of the most powerful groups in the country, making it difficult for the country to pass stricter gun laws.

real – actually existing or happening and not imagined; not fake, false, or artificial; important and deserving to be viewed or treated in a serious way

* The threat of violence is real when you live in a high-crime neighborhood.

actual – real and not only possible or imagined; in existence; known to be correct and not false

* Do you really think you saw an actual ghost and not an imagined one?

true – agreeing with or matching the facts and not false; having all of the expected or necessary qualities of a specific type of person or thing

* After some investigating, we discovered that Josephina’s account of the incident is true, even thought the circumstances seemed so strange.

a lunch – a lunch meeting; a meeting at which lunch is served

* Let’s schedule a lunch with our clients to discuss next year’s contract.

to put (one’s) shoulder to the wheel – to work hard; to use a lot of effort on a task

* Opal needs to put her shoulder to the wheel to finish her project by tomorrow.

What Insiders Know
Poison Control Centers

In 1953, the United States established the first poison information center in Chicago. During this time, there was a “rapid” (very quick; very much) increase in the production of new drugs and chemicals in the “marketplace” (the business of buying and selling). This led to a large increase in “suicides” (people killing themselves) and childhood poisonings. About half of the childhood poisonings resulted in death. The “medical community” (people involved in the health and medical fields) was “alarmed” (frightened; disturbed) by these “statistics” (numbers representing information) and started to develop “response centers” (places where people can get help in an emergency) relating to these incidents.

By 1957, there were 17 poison control centers in the United States and the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPC) was “founded” (created). The AAPC was created to establish cooperation between poison centers across different cities to help “standardize” (make the same) the services across all centers. The AAPC added poison “prevention” (keeping something bad from occurring) and education programs not just for doctors but also for the general public.

Many more poison control centers opened in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1978, there were 661 centers in the U.S. During the 80’s and 90s, however, most of these centers either “merged” (combine into one) with another or closed down. Today, there are only 55 “certified” (with official permission) poison control centers operating in the United States.

The AAPC has a 24-hour “hotline” (phone number that can be called in emergencies for help). The calls are “handled by” (answered by) medical professionals, including those with special training. Calls are automatically “routed” (sent; transferred) to the poison control center that covers or is responsible for the area from which the call is placed.