Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

557 Topics: American Authors – Sylvia Plath; Famous Songs – “Hush, Little Baby”; consciousness versus awareness; distinct versus distinctive; classy dress

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 557.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 557. 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, and when you do, you’ll be able to download the Learning Guide for this episode, which gives you a complete transcript of everything we say. If you’re on Facebook, why not like us? We’re also on Facebook. Go to facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about the always happy topic of Sylvia Plath, an American poet. We’ll also talk about a children’s song – “Hush, Little Baby” – that you, if you have children, might want to teach to your little boy or girl. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Sylvia Plath was born in October of 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Massachusetts is located, as you may know, on the eastern coast of the United States in a region we call New England. Plath experienced tragedy early on in her life. “Tragedy” is when something very sad, something very bad, happens to a person or a group of people. In this case, the tragedy was that her father died when she was only eight years old.

Otto Plath, her father, died of poor health. He wasn’t very healthy. Otto Plath himself was sort of an odd man. He was a professor of biology and German at Boston University. That’s why they were living in Boston. But he refused to go see a doctor, and eventually this cost him his life. He died from the complications of diabetes.

Plath became angry at her father – not because he died, but in part because he didn’t take care of himself. He didn’t pay attention to his health. Plath was also sad at the fact that her father had died so young. And this event, the death of her father, would affect her throughout the rest of her life.

There’s no question that Sylvia Plath was a brilliant young girl. When she was only eight years old, that same year her father died, she published her first poem in a Boston newspaper. Plath continued to publish poetry and stories. She sold a poem to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper when she was still in high school. She won many poetry and writing contests and sold a story to a national magazine, all before she finished her high school studies.

Even though she was successful at an early age, Plath was never confident in herself and her ability to write. She didn’t feel as though she was going to be successful at writing. A large part of Sylvia Plath’s problem was that she suffered from depression. “Depression” (depression) is a serious medical condition we now recognize that can make people very sad, feel very hopeless.

Nevertheless, Plath was very successful as a writer and a student at a young age. She went to Smith College, one of the best colleges for women in the United States. It’s a women’s-only college still to this day. She entered Smith in 1951 and was immediately a success, not just academically but socially. She was well-liked by the other students. She did very well in her classes and she continued to write.

But even though she was successful at school, she still lacked, or did not have, confidence in herself. In fact, she began to think about committing suicide. “Suicide” (suicide) is the act of killing yourself. Remember that Plath was suffering from depression during most of her life. On August 24th, 1953, when Plath was only 20 years old, she did in fact try to commit suicide. Notice we use the verb “to commit” (commit) with the word “suicide” – someone “commits suicide.”

Fortunately, Plath was not successful, but her mother and doctors immediately sent her to a special hospital – a psychiatric hospital – to help her cure her depression. “Psychiatric” (psychiatric) refers to things dealing with your mental or emotional state – in particular, with mental or emotional diseases or illnesses. Plath stayed in a psychiatric hospital for six months before she returned to Smith College as a student.

Plath continued writing poems and graduated from Smith in 1955. She then won one of the most well-known scholarships in the U.S. – a Fulbright scholarship. This particular scholarship gave her money to go to England to study. She went to Cambridge University to study. Cambridge, of course, is one of the two best universities in England, in addition to Oxford.

She met a young poet there, a young English poet by the name of Ted Hughes, and in 1956, just a year after she had graduated from Smith, she married Ted Hughes. She seemed happy in her marriage and the two of them came to the United States the following year, in 1957. Plath was given a job teaching at Smith College, the same college she had just graduated from a few years earlier. She taught English at Smith for two years. Ted Hughes, meanwhile, continued writing his own poetry and published his own book of poems in 1957.

Everything seemed to be going well for these two young, brilliant poets. In 1960, the couple returned to England to live in the town of Devon, which is about 300 or so kilometers southwest of London. That same year, Plath published her first collection of poems, called The Colossus. A “colossus” (colossus) is someone or something that is incredibly large or perhaps incredibly important. The Colossus was the only book of poetry that Plath published during her lifetime.

After publishing The Colossus, Plath continued to write. She began working on a novel called The Bell Jar. A “bell (bell) jar (jar)” is a piece of glass that is shaped like a bell and is used to cover something, often something that is very delicate, something very fragile, something that could be hurt very easily. Bell jars are sometimes used in scientific laboratories for specimens or small animals that are being studied. They’re put into the bell jar.

Now, remember that Plath’s father, Otto, was himself a biologist, a scientist. His particular area of study was bees. I’m not sure if this is where Plath got the idea for the concept of a bell jar, but in the novel The Bell Jar, the main character, the main person in the novel, is fragile. It’s a young woman who suffers from depression and tries to kill herself. Of course, we can see that Plath perhaps in part is basing the novel, is taking the ideas for the novel from her own life.

Hughes and Plath had a child in 1960, a daughter by the name of Frieda. But the young couple soon had problems in their marriage. They had a second child, a son by the name of Nicholas, in 1962. Soon after Nicholas was born, Plath and Hughes separated. They decided to live in separate places – to no longer live as a married couple. They did not divorce, however. They continued to be married legally, but they lived apart.

Plath of course now had to take care of two young children without her husband there to help her. Plath didn’t stay in Devon. She took the two children and moved to London where she continued writing. In 1962, she wrote a large number of poems that talked about her own worries, her lack of confidence, and yes, her anger toward her father. Remember, we talked about her anger toward her father and how important that was in her life. She wrote a poem about her father called Daddy.

In January of 1963, she published the novel The Bell Jar, but not using her own name. She used what is called a “pseudonym.” A “pseudonym” (pseudonym) is a fictional name that writers use instead of their own names. Many famous writers that we know today have used pseudonyms. Mark Twain, one of the most famous American writers of the nineteenth century, is a pseudonym of a man born Samuel Clemens. Plath used a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, when she published her novel The Bell Jar.

Sadly, the depression that Plath suffered from finally got the best of her. In February of 1963, she committed suicide at the age of 31. Even though Plath had died, her work continued to be published. In 1965, a collection of her poems called Ariel was published. This became very popular and many people became interested in Plath’s other writing.

In 1966, The Bell Jar was published again, this time with Plath’s name listed as the author rather than the pseudonym. In 1971, 1977, and 1981, three more collections of Plath’s poems were published. Many of these collections were edited by her husband, Ted Hughes, who continued to become a well-known poet – in fact, one of the best known English poets of his generation.

I remember growing up and hearing about Sylvia Plath’s poetry, which was just then becoming popular, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Her poems became so popular, in fact, that in 1982 she was given one of the highest prizes for writers in the U.S., a Pulitzer Prize. This was the first time a Pulitzer Prize had been given to someone after the person had died. The term we use here is “posthumously.” “Posthumously” (posthumously) mean simply after someone has died.

In the years after her death, Plath joined many poets and artists who became more famous dead than alive. Despite her short life, Plath wrote a great deal of poetry – poetry that continues to influence American writers and poets today.

Let’s turn now to a little happier topic, a children’s lullaby. A “lullaby” (lullaby) is a song that you sing to a young child to help the child fall asleep. One of the most well-known lullabies in English is “Hush, Little Baby.”

“To hush” (hush) means to be quiet, to stop talking. “Hush” is often used as a command – a way of telling someone to be quiet. “Hush” means “Be quiet.” Nowadays most people don’t say “hush.” They say “Be quiet.” But everyone still knows the meaning of this verb, in part because it appears in this lullaby, “Hush, Little Baby.”

Like a lot of traditional songs, we’re not exactly sure of the origin of this song – that is, where it came from. The song is clearly written, however, for a baby who is crying. The person singing it, probably the mother, is telling the baby all the things the baby’s father, or “papa,” will bring the baby if the baby just stops crying. This, of course, is a technique every parent uses on his or her child at some point, I’m guessing: “If you just stop doing this, I will do this for you.”

The song begins:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word,
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

“Gonna” means “going to.” The song is saying to the little baby, “If you stop crying, your father will buy you a mockingbird.” A “mockingbird” is a kind of bird that lives mostly in the southeastern part of the United States. It’s a bird that likes to sing and copy the sounds that it hears. You might recognize that word from a famous novel in twentieth-century American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee.

The song continues to tell the baby that if something is wrong with the mockingbird, the father will buy a different present – a diamond ring:

And if that mockingbird won’t sing,
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

So, if the mockingbird doesn’t sing, and therefore please the young child, the father will buy the child a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass.

Well, of course it would be unlikely the diamond ring would turn to “brass” (brass). “Brass” is a yellow metal made of copper and zinc. But if, for some reason, the diamond ring isn’t what it’s supposed to be, “your father will buy you a looking glass.” A “looking glass” is another word for a mirror.

And if that looking glass gets broke,
Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat.

Well, a “billy goat” is an animal. Once again, we see the parent – the mother, probably – trying to promise the baby all of these different gifts if the baby will just fall asleep. The song continues, then, offering the baby different gifts and saying, well, if that gift for some reason isn’t what it is supposed to be or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, then the father will give the child another gift.

At the end of the song, the mother says, well, even if none of these gifts work out, “You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town,” meaning your father will still love you even if none of these gifts will make you happy or none of these gifts are what they should be or do what they should do. The first few verses of the song goes something like this.

Hush little baby, don’t say a word,
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird won’t sing,
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass.

And if that looking glass gets broke,
Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat.

And so on and so forth till the end of the song, by which we hope the little baby is asleep. Many singers, including Carly Simon, James Taylor, and the great Bo Diddley, have recorded versions of “Hush, Little Baby.” The song continues to be popular because parents continue to try to get their young children to fall asleep.

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

Our first question comes from Luigi (Luigi) in Italy. Luigi wants to know the difference between “awareness” and “consciousness.” “Awareness” (awareness) comes from the expression “to be aware of” something. “To be aware of” something means to know about a certain problem or situation, to have knowledge of a certain fact. “I am aware of the problem.” That means I know about the problem. I have knowledge of the problem. I know the problem exists. “Awareness,” then, is the situation of having knowledge about a certain problem or circumstance.

You might say, “There is an awareness of this problem in our company.” That means “We know about this problem in our company.” “Awareness” is often related to a problem or a situation that needs solving. Some people may talk about “environmental awareness.” This would be knowledge that our environment needs protecting, and therefore there are certain things you should do or should not do in order to protect the world around us, the natural world around us.

“Consciousness” (consciousness) has both a scientific or technical meaning, as well as a more general one. In medicine or psychology, “consciousness” refers to being awake and being able to understand what is happening around you. When we describe someone as being “conscious,” we’re saying this person is awake. This person is aware of what is going on around him. This person is able to perhaps answer questions or observe what is happening around him.

The opposite would be “unconscious.” When you are sleeping, for example, you are unconscious. If someone comes up and hits you on the head, you may fall down on the ground and become unconscious – you’re not awake, you can’t answer questions. “Consciousness,” then, is the condition of being conscious.

“Consciousness” is also used sometimes to refer to knowledge that is shared by a group of people about something related to an issue or a problem. Sometimes, then, “consciousness” can mean something very similar to “awareness.” We might speak about “public consciousness of the environment” – what people know about the environment and the problems with the environment. In this sense, then, “consciousness” really means the same as “awareness” in the sense that you are knowledgeable about some problem or situation.

Our next question comes from Ly (Ly) in China. The question has to do with two words that are related – “distinct” and “distinctive.” “Distinct” (distinct) means different in a way that you can see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. Something that is “distinct” is something that is different in a way that you can specify. You can say, “Oh, yes, this is different from that. This is distinct from that.” So “distinct” means, basically, different from something else.

“Distinct” is also used sometimes to refer to something that is very easy to hear or see – something that is not only different but easy to recognize. You might say that a person has a “distinct accent.” You can tell as soon as the person starts talking that he’s from Minnesota, or he’s from the South. Their accent is very “distinct.” Not only is it different from everyone else, but it is easy to recognize.

“Distinct” is also used sometimes in front of certain words to mean “strong” or “definite.” “There is a distinct possibility that we will not win this game.” That means it is likely or there’s a strong possibility we will lose. Someone may also say, “I have the distinct impression that he doesn’t like me.” That means I have a very strong impression. I feel it very deeply.

The word “distinctive” (distinctive) is obviously closely related to “distinct” and sometimes can be used in the same situation. However, “distinctive” means having a quality or characteristic that makes something different from others. I would say we most often use “distinctive” in the same way that we may use the word “typical” or “characteristic” of a certain person or group of people, or of a certain class or category.

You might say something like, “Using ginger is very distinctive of Chinese cooking,” or “Using tortillas is very distinctive of food that is made in Mexico or in Central America.” “Distinctive” there means “characteristic of,” “typical of” – something that has the quality of a certain person or group of people.

People can often recognize the style of music of a composer or the way a certain painter paints by his “distinctive style,” his “distinctive way of doing things.” You recognize that is a piece of music by Bach even though you’ve never heard it before, or you can look at a painting and say, “Yes, that is a Picasso.” Even if you’ve never seen it before, you recognize the “distinctive qualities” – those common characteristics that you will often find in, say, a painting by Picasso.

Notice that for something to be “distinctive,” first it must be “distinct” – that is, easy to recognize. Something can be “distinct,” however, without being “distinctive.” Let’s say you never drink alcohol and one day you decide to have a glass of wine. Your wife may say to you, “There is a distinct smell of alcohol on your breath today.” That is, she can tell that you have been drinking because the smell of alcohol is distinct. It’s easy to recognize from other smells.

However, if you don’t typically drink, we wouldn’t say that that smell is “distinctive” of you, because it’s not typical or characteristic since you don’t normally drink. Or maybe you do, I don’t know. That’s just an example. Something can be “distinct” without being “distinctive.” But it cannot be “distinctive” without being “distinct.”

Finally, Sergey (Sergey) from an unknown country – I’m going to guess Russia – wants to know the meaning of the expression “classy dress.” “Dress” (dress) can refer to something that a woman wears, but it may also refer generally to the kinds of clothing that a person wears. I think that’s what it means in this expression. “Classy” (classy) means having a very sophisticated style – something that looks good, something that is very impressive looking, or something that perhaps looks like it cost a lot of money.

If then, as was the case with Sergey, you receive an invitation to a party that says “classy dress,” that would mean you should dress in nice clothing – formally, perhaps. Now, this is not an expression that I have seen a lot on invitations. Maybe I don’t get invited to the right kind of parties. I don’t know. But it isn’t something a native speaker in American English I think would say on an invitation. They might say “formal dress” or “suit and tie.”

I think in some ways “classy” is one of those adjectives that is no longer used in the original sense of being something that is considered of good taste or expensive. In some ways, it is often used now almost sarcastically. A man who invites a woman out on a date and then makes the woman pay for dinner might be referred to jokingly, sarcastically, as being “a classy guy.” We mean of course that he isn’t – that he doesn’t do what you would expect someone of good character or someone who has good taste to do.

If you have a question, classy or not, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks 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 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

to be confident – to have a belief in oneself that one will succeed; to be certain that one will be successful

* Giselle had practiced her speech five times so she was confident about giving it in front of an audience.

depression – a serious medical condition with one feeling very sad, hopeless, and unimportant for a long period of time, preventing one from living a normal life

* When Thomas experiences depression, he locks himself in his apartment for days and stays in bed not answering the phone.

suicide – the act of killing oneself because one no longer wants to live

* In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet commits suicide when she thinks that Romeo is dead because she doesn’t want to continue living without him.

psychiatric – related to mental or emotional disorders or illnesses

* Many psychiatric disorders are now treated with a combination of medication and therapy.

colossus – someone or something that is very important or large

* In the late 1800s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a colossus in European politics because of its size and power.

bell jar – a piece of glass shaped like a bell that is used to cover something very delicate and fragile, often used in a laboratory

* The scientist carefully placed a bell jar over the dead butterfly that he was studying to be sure that it would be safe overnight.

pseudonym – a false or fictional name that authors use instead of a real name

* Gem writes novels under her real name and comic books under a pseudonym.

posthumously – after one’s death; after one has died

* The soldier was given the award for bravery posthumously for giving his life saving other soldiers.

lullaby – a quiet, gentle song sung to help children fall asleep

* Lucinda sang a lullaby and rocked her baby back and forth to help her sleep.

to hush – to be quiet; to stop talking

* Would you please hush? I can’t hear what the speaker is saying!

origin – the point or place where something begins or came from

* My family’s origins are in France but my great-grandfather came to the U.S. over 100 years ago.

brass – a yellow metal made of copper and zinc and often used on furniture and door handles

* The desk has shiny brass handles that look nice next to the dark wood.

consciousness – the condition of being awake and able to understand what is happening around one; one’s mind and thoughts

* When the witness regains consciousness, the police will question her about the accident.

awareness – knowing that something exists, such as a situation or problem; feeling, experiencing, or noticing something, such as sound or emotion

* The school principal thinks the school needs to do more to increase student awareness of the dangers of drugs.

distinct – different in a way that one can see, hear, smell, feel, and more; noticeably different; clear and definite

* There are two distinct groups of workers in this factory: hard workers and lazy workers.

distinctive – having a quality or characteristic that makes someone or something different from others; different in a way that is easy to notice

* Mona wears a distinctive perfume and you always know when she enters a room.

classy – having qualities that make someone or something stylish and sophisticated (liked by people who have wide and worldly experience)

* The furniture we select for our fine dining restaurant should be modern and classy.

What Insiders Know

Hushpuppies are a “savory” (salty; not sweet) food that is common in the Southern United States, but were originally eaten by Native Americans. They are small balls of “cornmeal” (the flour made by grinding corn into very small pieces), specifically a “batter” (a wet mixture that must be baked) made of cornmeal, eggs, salt, “buttermilk” (slightly sour milk), baking powder, and sometimes garlic or onions. The batter is “deep-fried” (cooked in a lot of hot oil) until the outer part is golden brown and “crispy” (crunchy).

Hushpuppies are often served with “seafood” (fish and other animals from the sea) or “barbeque” (meat that is cooked slowly over an open flame with a flavorful sauce) and are typically eaten as a “finger food” (eaten with one’s hands, without using a fork, spoon, or knife). Hushpuppies, which are sometimes called cornbread balls or corn dodgers, may have be considered a food for poor people who did not have other things to eat, but today, they are “quite” (very) common in restaurants that serve deep-fried fish. Some people eat them with a “dipping sauce” (a thick liquid that something is quickly put into before being placed in the mouth), but most people eat them “plain” (without sauces or anything else).

The name may have come from the way in which hunters and fishermen shared the food with their dogs in order to “hush” (make someone quiet) them during “cook-outs” (events involving the outdoor cooking of a lot of food). Some people say that the name comes from the Civil War, when soldiers would feed them to dogs to keep them quiet so that they could hide from “enemy” (fighting against oneself; part of the other army) soldiers.