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573 Topics: American Authors – Kurt Vonnegut; Famous Songs – “When You Wish Upon a Star”; to knock up versus to knock down versus to knock over versus to knock off; new versus brand new; give and take

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Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 573.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s episode 573. 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 one of the most well-known American authors of the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut. We’ll also talk about the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in November of 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana is located in the Midwest part of the United States. It’s next to the state of Illinois, where the city of Chicago is located. Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana, about 260 kilometers southwest of Chicago. Vonnegut began writing when he was in high school. He wrote for his school newspaper. Interestingly, I too wrote for my school newspaper when I was in high school. in fact, I became editor – the head of my school newspaper – when I was in high school. Unfortunately, I didn’t write as well as Kurt Vonnegut.

After high school, Vonnegut went to Cornell University, a very good private university located in New York State. He didn’t study literature or creative writing at Cornell. Instead, he was interested in the sciences. He studied biochemistry, a branch or area of science that deals with chemical processes within living things. In 1943, like a lot of young men, Kurt Vonnegut left college and joined the U.S. Army. This was during the middle of World War II, of course.

He was stationed in Europe during the war. “To be stationed” (stationed) means that you are sent to live and work in a particular area. Usually we refer to someone being “stationed” when they are part of the military. So, if you are in the army and you are sent to another country, we would say that you are stationed in that country. You can also be stationed here in the United States, of course. There are people who work for the military who are stationed in different cities throughout the United States.

Well, Vonnegut was stationed, like many Americans in the U.S. Army during this period, in Europe since, well, that’s where part of the war was, after all. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the war. “To be captured” (captured) means you are taken against your own will and put under someone else’s control. This happens in any war. Soldiers, the people who are fighting the war, are captured by the other side and held as prisoners.

During the war, Vonnegut also survived the bombing of a German city, the city of Dresden, in 1945. As some of you may know, the allies bombed the city of Dresden in February of 1945. The bombing was controversial after the war. Some people said that it was unnecessary that hundreds of thousands of people died in the attack. The Allies defended their choice saying that the actual number killed was probably closer to 20 to 25 thousand. Vonnegut witnessed the attack. He saw the attack and was deeply affected by it.

When he returned to the United States, he began working as a journalist, as a reporter, while taking some classes at the University of Chicago. A “journalist” (journalist) is someone who writes for newspapers or magazines, or works for radio or television stations. Later Vonnegut worked in “public relations,” which is basically a writer who works for a company or a business and helps try to present a positive message about what the organization does.

Vonnegut didn’t really like either working as a journalist or in public relations, and in the 1950s he began writing short stories. Vonnegut’s short stories tended to or typically focused on technology. “Technology” is using science for practical purposes or using scientific principles to create machines and other instruments. Remember, Vonnegut studied science when he was in college so it was natural that he was interested in technology.

Some people called Vonnegut’s writing “science fiction.” “Science fiction” refers to stories about how people and societies are affected, usually in the future, by some scientific developments. You can think of movies such as Star Trek and Star Wars as part of the science fiction kind of story, or science fiction genre. But Vonnegut didn’t see his writing as science fiction. Instead, he saw his writing as commenting on or discussing the way science influenced society, influenced the way people lived, including in his own day – in his own time period.

His first book was called Player Piano, and it was published in 1952. It told the story of a world controlled by machines, by robots. His second novel was called Sirens of Titan, and it was published in 1959. The word “siren” and the word “titan” both come from Greek mythology, ancient Greek mythology. The “sirens” were beautiful women who sang with such lovely wonderful voices that the sailors would stop paying attention to what they should be doing. This, of course, would cause problems for the sailors.

You can see, of course, there’s sort of a underlying theme here, a notion that the beautiful woman would distract you and bring you to ruin, bring harm to you, because you were distracted by her beauty – in this case, her beautiful voice. The siren song was so beautiful that it was irresistible. The sailors couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop from responding to it.

The “titans” (titans) were also from Greek mythology. They were gods themselves, powerful gods. In fact, they were the gods that came before the Greek pantheon that we typically associate with Greek mythology – of Zeus and Hera and Athena and so forth. In everyday English, the word “titan” refers to someone who is very powerful in his or her own area or field. We might talk about the “titans of business.” These would be the most powerful men and women in the world of business.

Vonnegut’s novel, however, wasn’t about Greek mythology, even though he used those terms. It was about how everything that happened to the people on Earth was because of an alien, because of someone who had come from another planet. Vonnegut’s books were popular with readers, especially younger readers. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that he began to write the books for which he later became famous.

In 1963 he wrote a book called Cat’s Cradle. A “cat” (cat), you probably know, is a small, sometimes very attractive-looking animal that people have in their house. They’re quite dangerous, however. A “cradle” (cradle) is what you put a baby in to sleep. It’s a small bed for a baby. “Cat’s Cradle” is actually the name of a game that children play with a small piece of string that is tied around their fingers.

The novel Cat’s Cradle was about people living on an island in the Caribbean who find a new kind of material and eventually destroy the world because of it. The next novel that Vonnegut wrote was called God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in 1965. It included a character by the name of Kilgore Trout. Trout was a character that Vonnegut created based on or taken from mostly his own experiences. It was based on himself. He included this character Kilgore Trout in other novels as well.

In 1969, Vonnegut wrote his most famous novel – the novel that made him famous – and that was Slaughterhouse-Five. We use the verb “to slaughter” (slaughter) to mean to kill either animals or a large number of people. Usually “to slaughter people” means to kill people who are unable to defend themselves, just as animals are unable to defend themselves when they’re being killed for the most part.

Slaughterhouse-Five was about that experience that Vonnegut had back in World War II, witnessing or having seen the bombing of Dresden, Germany. It was immediately called a “modern-day classic” – that is, a great book that people would read and remember for a long time. In 1972 it was made into a movie which never became very popular, at least not as popular as the novel itself.

Vonnegut’s next book was published in 1973, and it was called Breakfast of Champions. Breakfast of Champions was a story of a writer who becomes famous and how he’s able to handle or deal with the fame. We can guess that this novel too is probably taken in part from Vonnegut’s own experiences, since he became quite famous after the publication of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

The term “breakfast of champions,” however, doesn’t come originally from Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination. In fact, if you grew up in the United States, you probably know where this term comes from. It is a phrase that is used on a popular breakfast cereal called “Wheaties.” Wheaties is a cereal made by a Minnesota company called General Mills. It became famous in the 1920s and ’30s because it used, in part, this slogan, this phrase “breakfast of champions.”

Wheaties is famous for having photographs of famous athletes on the cover of the box, and these change as new athletes become famous. I grew up eating Wheaties every day, not because it was the breakfast of champions, but because I like the taste of Wheaties. Well, Vonnegut took that phrase “breakfast of champions” and used it for his own novel, which isn’t really related to eating breakfast at all.

Vonnegut continued writing plays, novels, and stories, but the amount of writing he did after the 1970s was much less than what he did during the early part of his career. The reason was that he suffered from “depression” (depression), a mental illness or problem that causes people to feel very sad and hopeless. His depression got so bad that in 1984, he even tried to commit “suicide” (suicide). “To commit suicide” means to kill yourself. He was not successful. He continued living and writing throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He died in 2007 of a injury that he suffered by falling.

Some of Vonnegut’s novels continue to be popular, especially his best novel – or what is considered by many to be his best novel – Slaughterhouse-Five. Most Americans are familiar with the book even if they haven’t read it.

We turn now to our second topic, a song that also is familiar to most Americans, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” “When You Wish upon a Star” was written in 1940 by Ned Washington and Leigh Harline for a movie that was made by the Walt Disney Company. The Disney movie was called Pinocchio, and it was an animated movie, as many Disney movies were and are.

“Animated” (animated) means basically a cartoon. An “animated film” is a film in which you don’t see actual people – everything is drawn and made to look real. The images move quickly as though they were, in fact, people. Disney is famous for its animated films, and in 1940 they released a version of the classic Italian story Pinocchio. In the movie, Pinocchio is, as he is in the original novel, a wooden doll, although the movie changes the story in significant ways.

In any case, in the movie Pinocchio dreams of becoming a real boy. However, he’s not a real person. He is a puppet – a doll that has strings attached to different parts of its body so that it can be moved to look like it’s a living person. Now, in the movie there is a small animal, what we would call a “cricket” (cricket), named Jiminy. His name is, logically, Jiminy Cricket. “Cricket” also, for those of you who may be familiar or live in countries formally owned by the British Empire, know that “cricket” is a game that is quite popular in many countries – not in the United States, however.

Anyway, Jiminy Cricket is one of Pinocchio’s friends, and he also is the person who tells the story of the movie. He is what we call the “narrator” of the movie. A “narrator” (narrator) is a person who describes the events in a story, whether in a book or in a movie. The actor Cliff Edwards is the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, and he sings one of the movie’s most famous songs, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

The idea of wishing upon a star is an old tradition – that if you see a star, you can make a wish. You can express your desire for something to happen in the future. That’s the meaning of “making a wish.” You are hoping that something will happen. Some people have the tradition of throwing a small coin, a piece of money, into a pond or what we would call a “fountain,” and when they throw the coin, they “make a wish” – they express a desire for something to happen in the future. The song is all about wishing “upon (upon) a star,” which means seeing a star and then expressing your desire.

There is something of course magical that is supposed to happen when you do these particular actions such as wishing upon a star. The song talks about how important it is to have this hope and to wish for what you want. “To wish for” is a two-word phrasal verb that we use to describe this idea of desiring something strongly. I wish for a World Series victory for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I hope the Los Angeles Dodgers will win the national baseball championship this year. They probably won’t, but I wish for that. I hope for that.

The song says that “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.” The song shortens up the sentence “It makes no difference” to “Makes no difference,” meaning it doesn’t matter who you are. “Anything your heart desires,” the song says, “will come to you.” That means anything that you really, really want – that you really, really desire – will come true. You will get it. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s certainly nice to think that.

The song was very popular when it was released, when it was made public, in the movie in 1940. People continued to record the song. In fact, the song became so popular that it became in many ways Disney’s theme song. It’s the song that the Walt Disney Company uses in many of its advertisements for Disneyland and Disney World – its amusement parks, places where you can go and experience Disney characters and go on Disney rides.

Here in Southern California, of course, we have the first, the original, Disneyland located in Anaheim, California, about an hour or so from where I live. I’ve lived in Southern California for more than 25 years and I’ve never been to Disneyland, at least as a Californian, as an adult. I did go to Disneyland when I was nine years old but I have not gone back.

The song took on a different life after it was first part of the movie. Many jazz musicians play the song, including some very famous jazz musicians who have recorded it. The song also became popular in other countries, including Japan as well as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. Interestingly, in those countries the song became associated with Christmas, and the star was associated with the Star of Bethlehem – the story that there were certain wise men who followed a star that led them to Bethlehem where the young Jesus was born.

That is not the original meaning of the song, and no American associates “When You Wish Upon a Star” with Christmas. It’s a meaning to the song that was given in other countries but not here in the United States.

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

Our first question comes from Pooria (Pooria) in Iran. Pooria’s question is all about phrasal verbs with “knock” (knock). The question has to do with “knock up,” “knock down,” “knock over,” and “knock off.” This is a good question because all of these phrasal verbs, even though they use the word “knock,” mean something quite different.

Let’s start with the verb “to knock” not as a phrasal verb, but just as a single-word verb. “To knock” is typically used to describe the action of hitting one thing against the other. In particular, we use “knock” when you take your hand and hit it against a door to get someone to open the door or to let someone know that you are there.

You can also “knock against” something accidentally. If you are walking and looking at your phone trying to, I don’t know, collect some sort of Pokémon thing – I don’t understand that game anyway, but if you are doing that, as I’ve seen people do that, you could accidentally – not on purpose – knock against, say, a table or someone else in the street because you’re not paying attention.

“Knock” also is included in several phrasal verbs. The first one we’ll start with is “to knock up.” This is an informal phrasal verb, one that is not used in polite conversation. It basically means to make someone pregnant – for a man to get a woman pregnant and therefore produce a baby.

It’s a very insulting term to talk about a woman being “knocked up,” or a girl being “knocked up.” The implication is often that it happened by accident and/or that it happened outside of a marriage and would be considered therefore something of a shameful thing – well, used to be considered something of a shameful thing.

“To knock down” (down) is not related to knock up at all. You would think maybe it was somehow the opposite. But it isn’t. It has nothing to do with pregnancy or having sexual relations. “To knock down” is a very common phrasal verb meaning simply to cause someone or something to fall to the ground because you have hit it. If someone “knocks you down,” someone hits you so hard that you fall onto the ground or onto the floor.

Interestingly, we also use this phrasal verb to talk about reducing the price of something. “I want to buy a new television, and I told the person who was selling her old television that if she would knock down the price by $50, I would buy it.” “To knock down” a price means to reduce the price, to make it lower. But “to knock down” a thing or a person is to cause that thing or person to fall onto the ground.

“To knock over” (over) is related to “to knock down,” but it refers simply to take something that was once standing, that was once vertical, and make it horizontal. You could accidentally, by mistake, “knock over” a glass of water on a table, causing the water to go onto the table and the floor.

We usually use “knock over” I think for smaller objects, although it could be used for larger objects or even for people, but typically if we are hitting another person and causing the person to fall on the ground, we would say “knock down.” If you are hitting a small object such as a glass or a cup, we would probably use the phrasal verb “to knock over.”

“To knock off” (off) is not related to any of the previous phrasal verbs using the verb “to knock.” “To knock off” can mean at least two things. First, it can mean to stop doing something, such as working. “I’m going to knock off at five o’clock today.” That means I’m going to stop working at five o’clock.

We also use, in a related sense, “knock off” to tell someone else to stop doing something you don’t like. In that case it’s used as a command form, usually by someone in authority, such as a mother talking to her son. If your mother says, “I want you to knock off all of that noise coming from your bedroom,” she means she wants you to stop making noise, to end what you are doing.

We sometimes also use this with the word “it,” as in “I want you to knock it off.” “To knock it off” means to stop doing something, and it is said often in anger, often when you’re mad at someone, to show or indicate that you want him to stop doing what he was doing.

Another use of “knock off,” completely unrelated to the meaning I just gave, is to make a cheaper copy of something and sell it as though it were real, or at least to sell it because it is similar to another object. This is commonly done, for example, with clothing and sometimes with technology. The iPhone is a popular phone in many parts of the world. Some companies have made “knockoffs.” Notice there I’m using it as a noun. It can be used as a noun – “a knockoff” – or it can be used as a verb – “to knock off.” In both cases, it refers to a copy of something else that isn’t the real thing.

In almost any major city in the world, you can go to some part of town, to some part of the city, and find someone selling “knockoff watches” or “knockoff handbags” for women. These are objects that are made to look like the real thing but aren’t. Rolex watches, for example, are very expensive but you can buy a fake, a false, a knockoff Rolex down in the downtown area of Los Angeles for a very low price. That’s of course because it isn’t real.

Our next question comes from German (German) in Mexico. German wants to know the difference between “new” and “brand (brand) new.” You’ll sometimes hear Americans talk about buying a “brand new car” or a “brand new television.” How is that different from a “new car” or a “new television?” Well, as an adjective, “new” is the opposite of “old.” So anything that is “new” is something that is created recently or perhaps is simply something that you bought recently.

You can get a “new computer” that isn’t actually new in the sense that it was just created by a company. It could be a computer that was made 10 years ago, but it’s new to you. So, you might describe it as your “new computer.” However, a “brand new computer” would be a computer that was just made recently and that you purchased or bought. So, things can be “new” to you because you’ve never owned them before, or they could be “brand new,” meaning that the company that makes that object recently made it and you bought it before anyone else owned it.

For example, let’s say I want to buy a car and my neighbor has a car that he bought five years ago that he wants to sell. So we could call that an “old car,” or we would probably use the term a “used (used) car.” I buy it and I say to my friend, “I have a new car. I bought a new car.” Well, it’s not a new car in the sense that it was just made. It didn’t come directly from the car manufacturer or the company that makes the car, but it’s new to me.

If I say, however, “I’m going to buy a brand new car,” I mean I’m going to go to a place that sells cars and buy a car that was made this year or in the last few months and that no one else has owned before I buy it. That’s a “brand new car.”

Finally, Bruno (Bruno) from Brazil wants to know the meaning of the expression “give and take.” “Give and take” is an expression that is used to describe the process that people go through in order to reach an agreement, in order to come to an agreement when the two sides disagree about many different things. “Give and take” means I’m going to not ask for some of the things I want. I’m going to give the other person some of the things that he wants, but I’m also going to take from the other person some of the things that he is giving me that I want.

“Give and take,” then, is a negotiation. It’s when two groups or two people try to come to an agreement, try to agree on something, and each side has to give up something, has to say, “Okay, I won’t ask for that, but I do want this.” In any successful marriage, there’s always a lot of give and take. One person wants one thing, the other person wants something else, and so you have to, we would use the verb, “compromise” (compromise). “To compromise” means that each side gives up something. That’s “give and take.”

If you have any questions or comments, 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.

Glossary
to capture – to be taken against one’s will and to be kept under another’s control

* Instead of killing the mouse, Damon captured it in a box and later released it in the woods.

to bomb – to attack using explosive devices that are designed to blow apart when they hit something or when they are lit on fire

* If bombs are used in war, many children could be unintentionally killed.

journalist – a person whose job is to write and/or give news reports; news reporter

* The journalist researched the story for over a year before it was published in the newspaper.

technology – the use of science for practical uses, such as to create machines and equipment

* Computers, mobile phones, and tablets are all examples of technology.

science fiction – stories about how people and societies are affected by imaginary scientific developments in the future

* In Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a scientist and a computer named Hal fight for control.

society – a group of people living together in a community with its own rules and systems

* Will our society accept the use of nuclear weapons against its enemies?

classic – something that is thought to be of the highest quality or to be an outstanding example of its kind

* William’s favorite movie is the 1942 classic Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

depression – a mental illness that causes one to feel alone, sad, and hopeless

* When she is experiencing depression, Sue does not leave her house for weeks.

animated – images or movies created by showing a series of drawings or pictures quickly one after the other to make them appear to be moving

* Mickey Mouse was one of Disney’s first animated characters.

narrator – a person who describes the events in a story within a book or movie

* The narrator in the novel is one of the minor characters in the book.

to hope – to have an expectation and wish that certain good things will happen in the future

* She hopes that her new play will be a success.

to wish – to express a strong desire for something that is difficult to have or get

* He wished for a new computer, but knew that his parents didn’t have enough money to buy one.

to knock up – to make someone pregnant; for a man to cause a woman to be pregnant

* Richard is really angry that his daughter’s out of work boyfriend knocked her up.

to knock down – to cause someone or something to fall to the ground

* The enthusiastic shoppers knocked each other down trying to get to the sale items.

to knock over – to cause someone or something to fall from its standing position and/or to the ground; to greatly surprise or shock someone

* Benny knocked over his glass of orange juice and it spilled all over the table.

to knock off – to stop doing something, such as work; a command used to tell someone to stop doing something immediately; to make a cheaper copy of something, often representing it as real

* Let’s knock off early. It’s Friday and we’re all anxious for the weekend to start.

new – not old; recently born; recently built, created, or bought

* We’ll need to buy some new luggage to replace our broken suitcases before the trip.

brand new – completely new; never used and still its original packaging

* In this box is my brand new smartphone!

give and take – the process people use to reach an agreement with each other by giving up something one wants and agreeing to some of the things wanted by the other person; the exchanging of ideas, suggestions, or comments

* It took weeks, but with some give and take, we negotiated a contract that both sides are happy with.

What Insiders Know
The Union Stock Yards

The Union Stock Yards in Chicago, Illinois, were an important “meatpacking” (where meat was processed for sale) “district” (area) for more than 100 years. A “stock yard” or “stockyard” is a large “pen” (cage without a roof) where large animals are kept until they are “slaughtered” (killed).

The area used to be “swampland” (very wet, muddy land), but it was “acquired” (bought) by a group of railroad companies that began using it for meatpacking. As the railroads “expanded” (became bigger and more extensive), it made sense to place the stockyards near railway lines so that the meat could be transported quickly, easily, and inexpensively.

From the late 1800s through 1924, Chicago processed more meat than any other place in the world. The Union Stock Yards became known as the “hog” (pig) “butcher” (a person who cuts up meat to sell) for the world. At their “peak” (highest point; when something was most active, popular, or important), the Union Stock Yards were filled with 2,300 pens for 75,000 hogs, 21,000 “cattle” (cows), and 22,000 sheep. Thousands of people worked there, and approximately 400 million animals were slaughtered there between 1865 and 1900.

A 1906 novel, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, described the “poor working conditions” (unsafe and uncomfortable environment for workers) and “unsanitary” (unclean and unhealthy) meatpacking practices, which led to many changes in the Union Stock Yards. As transportation systems changed and people relied less on railroads for the transportation of meat and other goods, the Union Stock Yards began to “decline” (become less important or influential). The area was “designated” (named) a National Historic Landmark in 1981.