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598 Topics: Popular Idioms – “Mexican Standoff” and “Young Turks”; paranormal versus abnormal; tough, tuff, and tough guy; even

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 598.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 598. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about some idioms, some expressions in American English that are related to the countries of Mexico and Turkey. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

In every language, there are “idioms” or “idiomatic expressions” that are used for a variety of purposes. Some of these idioms come from the particular practices or beliefs of a given group of speakers of that language. In American English, we have a couple of idioms that are related to different countries, or at least to the people of different countries.

We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, but some of these expressions are related not so much to what the immigrants from those countries have done here, but certain, shall we say, accidents of history – things that have happened that have caused expressions to enter into our language. These expressions don’t necessarily have any logic. There’s no good reason why certain expressions become idioms and others do not. That’s just the way language works.

We’re going to start by talking about a few words and expressions related to the country of Mexico. Of course, you know that Mexico is just south of what is called the “continental United States,” those 48 states that are on the North American continent – or at least, those that are between Canada and Mexico. Alaska is also on the North American continent.

Obviously, Mexico and the U.S. have always had a somewhat difficult relationship over the history of the two countries. One expression that we’ll begin with, then, is something called “the Mexican,” or “a Mexican standoff.” A “standoff” (standoff) is any situation where you have two people who both want the same thing or disagree about something, and both have the same ability and resources so that no one person or no one group is able to win. There’s no progress, in other words, in a standoff because neither side can beat the other and neither side is willing to surrender.

“To surrender” (surrender) means to give up fighting or to stop resisting and do what the other side wants you to do. For example, if you have a gun and are in a house and the police want to come and get you, but they don’t want to get shot themselves and you don’t want to get shot, you may have what we would call a “standoff.” Neither side wants to surrender – or neither side is going to say, “Okay, you win” – but neither side is able to beat the other, at least temporarily. Usually the police will win in a situation like that if they have to.

A “Mexican standoff” is a term we used to describe a similar situation, but what makes it different from, I guess, a regular standoff is the emphasis or focus on how even these two sides are. We would say they are “evenly matched” or “equally matched.” If you are “evenly” or “equally matched,” you are exactly the same in terms of your ability, your skill, or your strength with someone else with whom you are competing.

In a regular standoff, as I mentioned earlier, one side will eventually surrender, or they’ll both come to an agreement of some kind even if they don’t want to. In a “Mexican standoff,” neither side moves or surrenders, because if one of them does, the other side is going to be harmed in some way. So the standoff will continue until there is what we would refer to as a “third party” which will somehow change the situation.

A “third party” (party) is another group or another person outside of these two people or two groups involved in the original standoff. You may ask yourself, “Why do we call that particular kind of standoff a Mexican standoff?” As usual, the origin or the places where these phrases come from is not always clear. Some people believe it comes from the Mexican-American War, which took place between Mexico and America from 1846 to 1848.

In that war, the United States and Mexico fought each other over the ownership of parts of what were then northern Mexico. The United States won the war and a large part of what was then the northern section of Mexico. That territory, or land, included the place I’m living in right now, California, as well as the states or parts of the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Perhaps some of the battles or fights were difficult to win and that’s why they were called, at times, “Mexican standoffs.”

Other people say no, that’s not where the term comes from. Instead, it comes from Mexican bandits who operated during this period of the nineteenth century. “Bandits” (bandits) are basically thieves, robbers who belong to a gang or a group of criminals. They usually try to steal valuable things from people who are traveling through a place where there aren’t a lot of other people living.

During the nineteenth century, of course, large parts of the United States, especially in the west, had very few people living there. So if you were traveling from, say, New Orleans or St. Louis in the central part of the U.S. to Los Angeles, or more likely San Francisco, you would have to travel through many different “isolated areas” – areas without a lot of people. One of the risks or dangers of doing that was that you could have your things stolen or even be killed by bandits.

Of course, not all the bandits were Mexican. Many, perhaps even more of them, were other Americans living during this period. It’s possible then that “Mexican standoff” came from that situation. Although in most cases, the bandits would win. I don’t think it would be much of a Mexican standoff unless you had a lot of guns.

In politics, the term “Mexican standoff” has been used to refer to many difficult or dangerous international situations. One might refer to the so-called “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the United States during the late ’40s up through the early ’90s, with the threat of nuclear war, as being a case of a Mexican standoff. Though to be honest, I don’t remember hearing that phrase all that often, at least when I was growing up.

In the movies, however, Mexican standoffs are quite common. One classic or very well-known example is from the 1966 Western movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A “Western” is a type of film, T.V. show, or novel about people who lived in the western United States, especially during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In one important scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there are three characters, three people in the story, who face each other, who are looking at each other, and they each have guns pointing at the other person. Well, no one is willing to move. No one is willing to break, if you will, the standoff, so they just stand there for a long time. That would be a classic example of a Mexican standoff, because if you try to shoot someone else, you could get shot by two other people. It’s an interesting example of a three-way, we might say, Mexican standoff.

When you think about the fact that Mexico and the U.S. have been neighbors for so many years and will continue to be, there aren’t that many expressions in American English related to Mexico or Mexicans. We have far more expressions about the Dutch people from the Netherlands than we do about Mexico.

Another expression that we’ll talk about now deals not with Mexico, but with the country of Turkey. The phrase that you will sometimes hear in American politics or in other areas is “young Turk.” “Turks” are people from, of course, the country of Turkey, but the phrase “young Turk” refers to someone with a lot of ideas about how to do things differently than the way they have been done in the past and someone who is impatient for change, someone who wants to change things now, to do things in a different way. “To be impatient” means you don’t want to wait.

This phrase was first introduced into American politics in the late 1920s, and it referred to a group of about 20 new Republican senators who were elected in 1928. “Republican” refers to someone belonging to one of the two major political parties, which you probably know are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The Republican Party was in power at that time – that is to say, they controlled most of the federal government, the national government, including the newly elected Herbert Hoover who was president during this period.

The national government has two different kinds of representatives that are elected from different states. The senators are representative of the whole state. There are two senators elected from each state. The House of Representatives includes those elected from smaller, what we would call, “districts” typically within a state. Most states have several districts. The more people who live in the state, the more districts there are. There are total of 100 U.S. senators – two from each of the 50 states, logically. There are 435 representatives.

Even though the population changes over time, the number of representatives is always kept the same. Every 10 years, the population of the U.S. is counted, and because of that population change, the number of representatives in a given state may change. Some states now have more representatives than they did, say, 30 or 40 years ago and some states have fewer representatives. It depends on how the population changes within the country.

In any case, the expression “young Turks” described a group of Republican senators who wanted to change things, being new to Washington D.C. The phrase was also used famously by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill back in 1953. Back in ’53, Churchill was at a conference in Bermuda, an island in the Caribbean. At this conference was also in attendance the American president who at that time was Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself newly elected to that office in 1952.

The Americans, especially after World War II, were clearly the most dominant of the Western powers, having become much more powerful by this time than Great Britain, and the president of the United States, Eisenhower, himself of course a famous general during that war, had strong opinions about what the U.S.’s role should be in the world and what Britain’s role should be. When I say “role” (role), I mean what their position should be, what things they should do and not do.

Eisenhower believed that many of the countries that Great Britain had ruled as part of its empire should no longer be governed by Great Britain. Churchill had the opposite opinion. He didn’t think these countries could be able to rule themselves, that they should instead remain under British rule. Churchill said to Eisenhower, “You’re just like the young Turks in my government,” meaning you’re just like the other young members of the Conservative Party in Great Britain who disagreed with Churchill.

Also, you may be wondering, “Well, why do we say ‘young Turks?’” What does Turkey have to do with any of this, since there were very few Turks in the United States in 1929 and certainly there were no Turks in the British government in 1953. We have to go back in history to understand this expression and where it comes from. During the Ottoman Empire, the leader (or one of the leaders), a sultan by the name of Selim III, ruled the Empire between 1789 and 1807.

An “empire” (empire) is a government that rules over many other lands, many other new territories, makes them part of its own governing system. The British had an empire; the Ottomans had an empire. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, when it was most powerful, it included parts of the Middle East, the Baltics, southeastern Europe, and Northern Africa. A “sultan” (sultan) is a Muslim ruler, or at least that was the name of the ruler of the empire, the Turkish or Ottoman Empire.

Now, the Ottoman Empire ruled a very, very long time – between 1299 and 1923. It was during the rule of Selim III in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century that some attempts were made to modernize the army, to change the Ottoman army to be more like European armies in order to make the empire stronger. “To modernize” (modernize) means to make changes so that it is more appropriate for today’s times. That term is often used when describing something that is perhaps old or too old to be useful nowadays, in the current period.

Within the Ottoman army there were a group, a powerful group, of young soldiers who supported these efforts. They in fact wanted the whole country to modernize and to change the way things were done traditionally. Many newspapers wrote about these young followers and supporters, calling them “young Turks,” because of course they were younger and wanted these changes.

Other young leaders came along later, including two or three that helped start a revolution in 1908. These young Turks were given the same name, and that’s probably the origin of this expression “young Turks” – a group of people, often young in age, who want to change things quickly and dramatically. Those then are a couple of idiomatic expressions that have connections, strange connections, to Mexico and to Turkey.

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

Our first question comes from Machael (Machael). Machael wants to know the difference between “paranormal” and “abnormal.”

“Paranormal” (paranormal) refers to phenomena, or things that happen, that don’t seem to have a natural or normal explanation. The word tends to get used in English to describe certain kinds of powers or phenomena such as the ability, according to some, to read someone else’s mind or to move things just by thinking about it. These sort of supposed phenomena that appear in movies like X-Men are called “paranormal,” for those who think such things are real. I’m not so sure.

The term “abnormal” (abnormal) is a more general term to refer to anything that is unusual, but in a way that causes problems. It’s a term that, at least for many years, was used in psychology to talk about people who had certain problems – problems that interfered or cause difficulties in their life or the way that they wanted to live their life. “Abnormal” is not normal or away from the normal. “Normal,” of course, means usual, common, expected.

Our next question comes from Khalil (Khalil) in the United Arab Emirates. The question Khalil has is about, really, the spelling of the word “tough.” The normal spelling of “tough” is (tough). For example, we might talk about a “tough guy” or a “tough boy.” “Tough” there refers to someone who is physically strong or perhaps emotionally or psychologically strong. Sometimes “tough guy” refers to a man who likes to get into fights or who thinks he’s very strong and perhaps tries to cause problems for other people who are weaker than he is.

The word “tough” can also mean simply very difficult – something that causes you problems. You may say see someone spell “tough” (tuff), though to be honest I’ve never actually seen anyone spell it that way. If they did, they would be using a very informal spelling – perhaps this is something that comes from Twitter or text messaging. I’m not sure. But the normal way to spell it is the way I spelled it earlier, and the meanings are the ones we just discussed.

Our final question then comes from Manoel (Manoel) in Brazil. The question has to do with the uses of the word “even” (even). “Even” is a quite common word in English. It has meanings as an adjective, as an adverb, and as a verb.

Let’s start with the verb “even.” “To even” means to make two quantities or amounts equal. It may also be used in the phrasal verb “to even out” (out) – to make something, a surface, flat or smooth. If you put a piece of linen or fabric over your table, what we call a “tablecloth,” you might “even it out” or flatten it out with your hand so that it was smooth on the top. That’s “to even out.” We may also say “to make things even.” There, “even” isn’t a verb, but it has the same idea of making things of equal quantities or equal amounts.

“Even” is also used in other senses. We can talk about “even” as an adverb to show emphasis or to stress that something is surprising or unlikely. “When I asked Bob to come to the party with me, he said no. He didn’t even let me use his car to go by myself.” “Even” there has the meaning of emphasizing how surprising something is, how unlikely it seemed to be, and yet it happened.

“Even” is sometimes used before words like “more” or “better” to stress the difference between two things being compared. “He is a good runner, but his sister is an even better runner.” She’s a better runner. But the word “even” implies that we’re comparing her to someone else, although you might say, “Well, ‘better’ is a comparative in and of itself, so you don’t really need the ‘even,’” but it’s used for emphasis to stress the difference here. “London as a city is even more expensive than Paris.” They’re both expensive cities, but London is even more, or even more expensive.

“Even” sometimes means equal when we’re talking about an amount such as a score in a game. If you are watching an American baseball game and the score is 1–1, we might say, “Well, the score is even” or “The teams are even.” They have the same score, an equal score.

Numbers themselves are described as being either “even,” meaning you can divide the number by two and get zero as a remainder, or “odd.” Two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four – I could go on, well, for a long time listing all of the even numbers. They’re all divisible by two. When you divide them by two, there’s nothing left over. There’s no “remainder,” we would say. Odd numbers are numbers such as one, three, five, seven, nine, eleven, and so on, and so on, and so on.

That’s all we have time for today. If you would like me to read all of the even and odd numbers, send us an email. 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 2017 by the Center for Educational Development.

to surrender – to give up a fight; to stop resisting doing what another person or group demands

* The police told the criminal to surrender, but he ran away and led the police on a chase.

Mexican standoff – a conflict in which two or more opponents have equal skill, strength, and/or resources and no side can take action without all being harmed

* The lawmakers are in a Mexican standoff, with both sides willing to wait out the other and neither willing to give up because they would look weak to voters.

evenly matched – in a comparison, being equal or very similar in ability, skill, or strength

* Aaron and Khalid are evenly matched, so this should be a great tennis match.

third party – someone or some group other than the two main people or groups directly involved in a situation

* When Luis and Kelly fight, no one wants to be the third party in the same room.

bandit – a robber who belongs to a group of criminals and steals valuable things from people living or traveling through places where few people live

* Bandits live in those hills and travelers are in danger of being robbed and seriously hurt.

isolated – far from other people, buildings, or cities

* Our farm is isolated, with no one living within 20 miles.

young turk – a person with many new ideas and is impatient for change

* Our company is full of young turks who want to introduce new products, but we should do so cautiously and gradually.

impatient – wanting things right now; being unwilling to wait

* Julia is very impatient and isn’t willing to stand in long lines.

Republican – a person belonging to one of two major political parties in the United States known for conservative or traditional beliefs and policies and wanting few government social programs

* That group of Republicans is discussing ways to end free education programs for the poor.

Ottoman Empire – a large group of nations governed by one ruler between 1299 and 1923, and included present-day Turkey, parts of the Middle East, the Baltics, southeastern Europe, and northern Africa

* The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I in the 13th century.

sultan – a Muslim ruler; the ruler of Turkey

* The most powerful rulers were at the meeting, including the sultan of Turkey.

to modernize – to make something more appropriate and useful for modern times and needs

* Will we be able to modernize our factories this year and still give raises to our workers?

paranormal – very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world, such as mind-reading and being able to move things with one’s mind

* People who have lived in that old house claim they’ve experienced paranormal activity.

abnormal – different from the normal; unusual, especially in a way that causes problems

* The doctor called Belinda to explain her abnormal blood test results and what they could mean.

tough guy – a man who is physically strong; a man who can deal with violent or dangerous situations

* You think you’re a tough guy? Let’s see if you can move that piano by yourself.

even – with a flat, smooth, or level surface; located next to someone or something else; not changing and staying the same; of a number, able to be divided by two into two equal whole numbers; used to say that something is as likely to happen as to not happen; used to stress something that is surprising or unlikely

* Jamal’s wheelchair can easily travel over even surfaces, but has trouble on rocky or uneven paths.

What Insiders Know
Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.

“Cinco de Mayo,” which is a Spanish phrase that simply means “May 5th,” is an “unofficial” (not recognized by the federal government) but very popular holiday in the United States. For most Americans, Cinco de Mayo is good “excuse” (a reason to do something) to enjoy Mexican food at a Mexican restaurant, wear large, colorful hats known as “sombreros,” and have some “cerveza” (beer) or “margaritas” (alcoholic drinks made with tequila and fruit juices). But few Americans know why they are celebrating.

Some Americans think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, but that isn’t correct. The date actually “commemorates” (remembers and honors) May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army won a battle against Napoleon’s French “forces” (army; fighters) at Puebla, Mexico. In Mexico, the “victory” (a win in a battle or war) is mostly remembered through ceremonies or military “parades” (with many people walking in the street in an organized celebration), but in the United States, it is a reason to “celebrate” (have a party) and have fun with family and friends.

Although the holiday is not celebrated much in Mexico, Mexican Americans living in the United States have “embraced it” (welcomed it with enthusiasm) as an opportunity to celebrate their “culture” (ways of living) and “heritage” (information about where one comes from and who one’s ancestors were). Many schools and local governments recognize Cinco de Mayo with special ceremonies or performances involving Mexican singing and dancing.

Cinco de Mayo is also a marketing “ploy” (a situation used for one’s advantage) for many restaurants and bars. They use the holiday to encourage people to “dine out” (eat at restaurants) and enjoy Mexican food each May 5th.