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546 Topics: Paul Bunyan; American Songs – “You’re the Top”; big versus huge versus massive; at all and show off; to be beside (oneself)

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 546.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast English Café episode 546. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California. (My version of a-ha from the 1980s. Yeah. It needs a little work, I know.)

But you can go to our website while I’m working on that. Go to ESLPod.com and become a member of ESL Podcast. You can’t download any 1980s songs, but you can download a Learning Guide for this episode that contains a complete transcript of everything we say. Why not follow us on Twitter at @eslpod and like us on Facebook at facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite stories growing up that we used to hear in school, the story of Paul Bunyan. We’re also going to talk about a famous song from the 1930s, “You’re the Top.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

The legend of Paul Bunyan began in the late nineteenth century in the United States. A “legend” (legend) is a story about something that happened many years ago, and that is repeated but may not necessarily be true. Usually it’s a story about amazing things that a person did or an amazing event. Oftentimes the details of the story are false or exaggerated, and many times the entire story is untrue. But people like to tell legends, especially ones that teach us certain lessons – moral, ethical, or otherwise.

The legend of Paul Bunyan says that once upon a time, many years ago, there was a very large, strong man who carried an axe. An “axe” (axe) is a tool used to cut a tree down and to “chop” (chop) wood. “To chop wood” means to break the wood into smaller pieces so that you can use it for other things. According to this legend, this large man had an axe so big it was the size of a tree. I mean it was a huge axe.

The man’s name was Paul Bunyan, and Bunyan carried this axe because his job was a lumberjack. A “lumberjack” (lumberjack) is a person whose job is to cut down trees, that are then cut apart and used for building things. The legend is that Paul Bunyan traveled around the country, the United States, cutting down trees that were so large that often after he cut them down, he would end up creating spaces in the ground big enough for a lake or river. The story says, for example, that Paul Bunyan created the Grand Canyon in Arizona and an area known as the Black Hills in South Dakota.

A “canyon” (canyon) is a deep valley or a very low place between mountains, usually with what we would call “steep sides.” In other words, the sides go up and down, almost like a wall. The Grand Canyon is located in the southwestern part of the United States. The Black Hills is a series of large hills or small mountains in South Dakota and Wyoming, in the central part of the United States. These are two famous places in the U.S., and the legend of Paul Bunyan tells us how they were created.

Well, we know right away that that’s probably not correct, but once again, the legend isn’t necessarily meant to be truthful. Sometimes legends explain why certain things are the way they are in the world, and the legend of Paul Bunyan explains in part the creation of the Grand Canyon and the Black Hills. The story of Paul Bunyan also says that he created the Great Lakes so that his companion, a giant ox by the name of Babe (Babe), would have water to drink from. An “ox” (ox) is a bull – a male cow – that, well, can no longer have children. Let’s put it that way.

Now, the Great Lakes, you may also know, are a series of five lakes in North America: Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, and Lake Erie. The legend explains why we have the Great Lakes – because Paul Bunyan needed water for his ox, and so by creating the lakes, his ox had water to drink. Makes sense to me.

The first stories about the legendary Paul Bunyan the lumberjack were told, you can guess, mostly among other lumberjacks. Now, working as a lumberjack was a very dangerous job for a man at this time during the late nineteenth century, but of course it wasn’t dangerous for Paul Bunyan. If a tree fell on a normal man, it could kill him, but if a tree fell on Paul Bunyan, he would just pick it up with his hands and move it. In other words, Paul Bunyan was sort of a hero to lumberjacks – a person who is admired for his actions.

In the early part of the twentieth century, James MacGillivray wrote down some of these lumberjack legends about Paul Bunyan. He wrote a story called “The Round River Drive,” which first appeared in the Detroit News Tribune newspaper. Readers of the paper enjoyed the story of this legendary giant lumberjack, and soon lumber companies, which sold wood, started using Paul Bunyan as part of their advertising.

“Lumber” (lumber) is what we call “wood” after you cut the tree down. Round pieces of wood from the tree are called “logs” (logs). You cut the logs in half or in different sections and then you get longer pieces of wood, usually that are square or rectangular, and we call these pieces of wood “lumber.” That’s where we get the term “lumberjack.” One lumber company in particular, the Red River Lumber Company in my home state of Minnesota, started using Paul Bunyan in its advertisements.

Why Minnesota? Well, there was a lot of lumber coming from Minnesota – Minnesota has lots of trees – and also because in one of the legends of Paul Bunyan, it is said that he was from originally Minnesota. Now, there’s another story about Paul Bunyan that says he’s from the state of Maine, which is located in the northeast corner of the United States, but that story, I can tell you, is completely false. The real Paul Bunyan – the real legendary Paul Bunyan – of course he comes from my state, Minnesota.

In the mid-1920s, the legend of Paul Bunyan appeared in writing once again, but this time for a larger number of readers. Two writers, Esther Shepard and James Steven, each wrote their own version of the Paul Bunyan legend and how big he was and the incredible things that he was able to do. The story soon became popular with “mainstream audiences” – that is, people who in this case were not lumberjacks or even from the state of Minnesota. Paul Bunyan began to appear in children’s books and was even the topic of a short opera.

In 1974, a popular American poet by the name of Shel Silverstein wrote a poem called “Paul Bunyan,” which he included in a collection of children’s poems called “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” The poem begins by describing what Paul Bunyan looks like.

“He rode through the woods on a big blue ox,
He had fists as big as choppin’ blocks,
Five hundred pounds and nine feet tall . . . that’s Paul”

The poem says, “He rode through the woods on a big blue ox.” Babe, his ox, was blue, which is sort of an unusual color for an ox. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find any blue oxen in the world now, but back at the time, apparently, Paul Bunyan had a blue ox, and he rode on the ox “through the woods” – that is, through the trees.

“He had fists as big as chopping blocks” according to the poem. Your “fist” is your hand in a ball – when you take your thumb and fingers and put it into the shape of a ball. That’s your “fist.” A “chopping block” is what you use to chop wood with. You put smaller pieces of wood onto a large round piece of wood, and you take an axe and you split the wood on the chopping block. The poem said he was “Five hundred pounds and nine feet tall . . . that’s Paul.” I actually think he was taller than nine feet, but we won’t argue about that here.

There are a couple of different places where people have built statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, including in my home state – the home of Paul Bunyan, after all – Brainerd, Minnesota. If you go to Brainerd, Minnesota, you can see a statue of Paul Bunyan and the blue ox. Paul Bunyan is one of many different legends that developed in the United States during the nineteenth and the twentieth century of men who did heroic things – legends that often explained the way things were in the world, especially the geography of the country.

This is a very common theme in different local and national literatures throughout history. The Greek myths, at least some of them, were also used to explain the way certain things were in the world – to explain physical geography, among other things. Unless of course the legend of Paul Bunyan is true, in which case what can we say? That’s history.

We turn now to a famous song in American history, a famous song of the 1930s called “You’re the Top.” “You’re the Top” was written by one of the most popular songwriters of the twentieth century, Cole Porter. Cole Porter was not a rock-and-roll songwriter. He was a popular songwriter, however, before the era of rock and roll. He was born in 1891 and began writing songs when he was only ten years old.

By the time he was in college, he was writing “musicals” – plays with song and dance – and by his early thirties, he was probably one of the most well-known musicians in the United States. His songs could be heard in Hollywood movies as well as in Broadway musicals. Porter wrote the song “You’re the Top” for a musical in 1934 called Anything Goes. A musical is basically a play with music in it. The phrase “Anything goes,” which was the title of the musical, means everything is possible, or everything is allowed.

This particular musical was a comedy, and it was set in an ocean liner in the 1930s. When I say it was “set in,” I mean that’s where the action of the musical takes place. An “ocean liner” is a very large ship that is used to transport people from typically one side of an ocean to another. If you are going, say, from Europe to the United States, you would probably go by ship in an ocean liner.

The song “You’re the Top” is a duet in the musical. A “duet” (duet) is a song performed by two singers. In the musical, two of the characters, Reno Sweeney and Billy Crocker, are friends. But Reno is also in love with Billy. Billy, however, is in love with another woman by the name of Hope, who’s a very rich and smart woman. Billy is worried that Hope could never love a man like him. Reno tries to make Billy believe that Hope could love him because he’s such a wonderful person, and to do this she begins to sing this song, “You’re the Top.”

“You’re the top” means you’re the greatest. You’re the best. Billy joins her in singing, telling Reno that she is also a wonderful person. Now to explain just how wonderful they think each other is, they use examples of places, people, and things that are considered the best examples of whatever it is they do. So, if you are thinking of the best museum, you might say “You’re the Louvre” – the famous museum in Paris. So the whole song is an example of these things, with the phrase “You’re the top” in between each one of these examples.

“You’re the top!
You’re the Coliseum.
You’re the top!
You’re the Louvre Museum.”

First he compares her to the Coliseum, the large building in Rome. Next he compares her to Louvre Museum in Paris. So, all throughout the song you hear examples of things that are considered wonderful or great, and the song is saying that the other person is as great as those things.

Later in the song he compares her to something called a “Bendel bonnet” (bonnet). A “bonnet” is an old kind of women’s hat, and “Bendel” was a very expensive women’s store in New York City. He also compares her to a “Shakespeare sonnet” (sonnet). A “sonnet” is a kind of poem. Shakespeare wrote, famously, a whole set of sonnets. There are also popular cultural references in the song, such as Mickey Mouse. “You’re Mickey Mouse.” That’s considered a great thing.

Part of the charm or fun of the song is that the two singers try to outdo each other. “To outdo” (outdo) someone is to try to do better than the other person, to try to say something even greater than what the other person has said, and by the end of the song there are 37 different places, people, and things that have been mentioned. If you go back and look at the words to the song – at least, the official words to the song – nowadays, you’ll see a lot of terms and a lot of people mentioned that are no longer familiar even to most Americans.

For example, one of the lyrics says something about an “arrow collar.” An “arrow collar” (collar) is a part of a shirt that is attached to the top of the shirt. We don’t use arrow collars in men’s shirts anymore, but they were popular back in the ’20s and ’30s. There are several other people and places that are mentioned in the song that were popular in the early ’30s and were used by Cole Porter even though most people don’t know who or what they are today.

However, there was one verse that was included in the original song that was removed within about a year or so of the song being released. In fact, you can hardly find these words in the official Cole Porter books that have his songs in them anymore. That verse was, “You’re the Top, you’re the Great Houdini” – Houdini was a great magician during the early twentieth century – “You’re the top, you’re Mussolini.”

Mussolini, of course, was the fascist leader of Italy in the 1920s, Thirties, and early Forties. Now, “fascism” was quite popular among many Americans, especially American intellectuals and entertainers, in the early and mid 1930s. However, in 1934 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and this caused many Americans to have a negative opinion of him.

However, when the song was first written, Mussolini was considered to be something of a compliment in the song, just like Houdini was considered someone who was “the top.” After World War II, all memories of support for fascism among American intellectuals and entertainers was sort of, well, forgotten about. We didn’t talk about it anymore.

Although many references in the song are not familiar today to American listeners, the song has sort of a catchy tune and it’s still popular. It’s still performed. “Catchy” (catchy) means that it’s likable and it’s easy to remember. It was also a song recorded by many other artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and more recently, Barbara Streisand. During his long career, Cole Porter wrote more than 1,200 songs. Many people consider this song “You’re the Top” to be his top song.

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

Our first question comes from Adel – not that Adele – (Adel) from Saudi Arabia. This question has to do with three words: “big,” “huge,” and “massive.” All three words mean roughly the same thing. “Big” (big) means very large. Something might be large physically – that is, you might have a large house or a large building. It might be large in quantity or number. It might be a big salary – a lot of money that you get from your company. You might describe your daughter’s boyfriend as a “big disappointment” – that is, a large disappointment.

“Huge” (huge) means the same as large. I guess we would usually use it to mean “very large” – larger than big, let’s say. “It was a huge house.” Not just a big house, but something larger than a big house – a “huge” house. “Massive” (massive) is similar to huge. It once again means very large. We might use “massive” also, however, when we’re talking about something that is very heavy as well. “It was a massive car” means it was a very large car, but perhaps also a very heavy car – one that weighed a lot.

We also use “massive” now sometimes when we mean very severe. “It was a massive storm.” That would mean it was not only a large storm, but perhaps a very violent one or one that caused a lot of damage – a very severe storm. All three of these words, “big,” “huge,” and “massive,” could be used to describe news – some information that you have that you think is very important.

The word “massive” is also used sometimes in the medical world to describe a very serious medical event such as a heart attack or a stroke. If you say someone had a “massive heart attack,” you mean the person had a very large, serious heart attack, one that may have killed him.

Our second question comes from Saeed (Saeed) in Iraq. The question has to do with two expressions, “at all” and “show off.” The two terms are not related. “At all” means in any way or to any extent or any degree. It’s a phrase we often use to make a statement more forceful, especially a negative statement. It’s used, in other words, for emphasis.

“I don’t like chocolate cake. I don’t like chocolate cake at all.” The “at all” at the end of the sentence is meant to give it more emphasis – to say I really, really don’t like chocolate cake. Actually, I do like chocolate cake. That’s just an example. Someone may ask you, “Do you like to drive?” You may say, “No, I don’t like to drive at all,” meaning I really don’t like to drive or I don’t like to drive even a little bit.

“Show off” can mean a couple of different things. As a noun, a show-off is a person who tries to impress other people with his abilities or the things that he owns. It’s a negative way of describing a person who tries to get other people to think he’s great or to think he’s wonderful because of what he can do or because, more typically, of what he owns, what he has.

If you get a new watch, let’s say a Rolex watch, and you go to all your friends and you say, “Hey, look at my new Rolex watch” (Rolex is a very expensive kind of watch), your friends might say, “You’re a show-off” – that is, you’re trying to impress them, make them think that you are rich by showing them your watch. “To show off” as a verb can mean the same thing. It can mean to show other people your possessions or to talk about your abilities.

It doesn’t always have to be used in a bad way, as a negative way of describing someone’s behavior. You could say, for example, that “the actor really shows off her talent in this movie.” You really see it. It’s really demonstrated, it’s easy to see. The phrasal verb “to show off,” then, can also mean simply to make something noticeable or easy to identify.

Finally, Emika (Emika) in Nigeria wants to know the meaning of the expression “to be beside yourself.” “To be beside (beside) yourself” is to be in a very extreme emotional state, often because you are angry or upset about something, although it could be used for a strong positive emotion, when you’re really happy about something. “After he lost his job, he was beside himself.” He was angry. He was upset. Or you could say, “After he got a raise at his job, he was so happy he was beside himself.” He was very emotional.

“To be beside yourself,” then, means to feel a very strong emotion. Note that “to be beside another person” means to be next to another person. “Who’s that sitting beside your brother?” Who is that sitting next to your brother? That’s the meaning of “beside” in that context. But “to be beside yourself” means to be very emotional about something, either in anger or in happiness.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. We don’t mind answering your questions at all, if we have time.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. A massive “thank you” for listening to us today. 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 2016 by the Center for

legend – a story from the past that many people know and repeat but that may not be true, usually of an amazing person or event

* There is a legend about a ship carrying millions of gold coins which sank in the Caribbean Ocean over two hundred years ago.

axe – a tool with a wooden handle and a heavy metal blade that is used for chopping wood

* The firefighter swung his axe to chop down the door of the burning building to save the trapped people inside.

lumberjack – a person whose job is to cut down trees that are used in building

* The lumberjacks worked in teams in the woods to fell trees.

canyon – a deep valley (low area between mountains) with steep and rocky sides, often with a river at the bottom

* It would take a hiker several days to hike to the bottom of this canyon.

hero – a person who is admired for his or her bravery or important actions

* In our community, we are surrounded by real-life heroes who risk their own lives for other people, but who are unrecognized.

mainstream – ideas, views, and activities that are considered normal or shared by most people

* Names like Ethel and Bertha used to be considered mainstream in the U.S. but are not popular today.

chopping block – a hard, usually round, piece of wood on which things such as meat, vegetables, or wood are cut

* The chef put the large piece of meat on the chopping block and carefully cut it into thin steaks.

duet – a song or piece of music that is performed by two singers or musicians at the same time

* Misha and Diane sang a beautiful duet about two people in love.

bonnet – an old-fashioned hat with a wide brim that goes around the head and two pieces of fabric that ties under the chin to keep it in place

* The baby had a white bonnet with flowers on it covering her head.

to outdo – to try to do something better than another person

* Marcus always tries to outdo his brother, so when his brother received a 95% on his test, Marcus tried to get a 100%.

collar – the part of a shirt that is attached to the top and goes around a person’s neck, usually covering part of the neck

* Raul’s collar felt too tight and he realized that he must have gained weight.

catchy – a song or phrase that is easy to remember

* Ming heard the catchy song on the way to work and sang it all day long.

big – large in size, extent, degree, or intensity

* These pants are too big for my 4-year-old son. They would fit an older child.

huge – very large in size; great in size, amount, or degree

* What would you do if you got a huge raise at work? Would you save it or buy yourself a new car?

massive – extremely large and/or heavy; very severe

* A massive tree fell on their house, crushing the entire roof.

at all – in any way; to any extent or degree

* After eating a lot at lunch, I’m not hungry for dinner at all.

show-off – a person who tries to impress other people with his or her abilities or possessions

* Monica doesn’t like show-offs who expect others to admire their expensive cars or fancy clothes.

to be beside oneself – to be in an extreme state of emotion, often anger or excitement

* Nick was beside himself when he found out that his younger brother borrowed his car without permission and had a traffic accident while driving it.

What Insiders Know
Fearsome Critters

Lumberjacks work to “fell” (cut down trees so that they fall over) trees and “transport” (moving) them to “sawmills” (places where logs are cut into boards). The term is mostly used to refer to men who did this work with “hand tools” (tools operated by human hands, not with gas or electricity) before 1945. Their work was dangerous, but they developed a strong culture, which included “oral” (with spoken words) “storytelling” (the art of sharing stories with others).

As the lumberjacks traveled between “camps” (places where the lumberjacks lived while working in the forests), they shared stories, many of which involved “fearsome critters,” or “imaginary” (not real) “beasts” (animals, especially large and scary ones). The stories were often told as a “gag” (joke) to trick “newcomers” (people who were visiting or had only recently arrived). Usually two or more storytellers worked together, “corroborating” (confirming; indicating that something is true) each other’s comments to convince the listeners.

Usually, but not always, the fearsome critters were more “comical” (funny) than “frightening” (scary), but sometimes they were used to explain mysterious things that happened to lumberjacks who didn’t return to the camps. Some of the fearsome creatures included a “fur-bearing trout” (a fish that had thick “fur” (hair that grows on an animal’s body)), a “skunk ape” (a walking, human-like form in Florida), the “hidebehind,” which would “capture” (catch) and eat lumberjacks, and the “snallygaster,” a dragon-like beast in Maryland. Probably the best-known fearsome critter is the “jackalope,” which is said to be a rabbit with the “antlers” (horns that grow on the head) of an “antelope” (a deer-like animal).