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600 Topics: Questions Answered: The song “Cat’s and the Cradle”; hardly versus rarely; you’re reaching and that’s a stretch; to fix on versus to fixate on; hilarious versus ridiculous, pronouncing death and deaf

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 600.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 600. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

This is going to be an all question-and-answer episode, where we answer some of the more difficult questions that you have sent us – or at least some of the more interesting ones. Let’s get started.

Our first question on this all question-and-answer episode is from Toshiaki (Toshiaki) in Japan. The question has to do with two common adverbs, “hardly” (hardly) and “rarely” (rarely). Let’s start with “hardly.” “Hardly” has a couple of different uses. One use is to mean that something is almost impossible or something that almost didn’t happen, perhaps because it was so difficult.

For example, “I could hardly see last night because it was so dark.” That doesn’t mean I could not see. In fact, I’m saying that I could see a little bit, but I could “hardly see,” meaning it was almost impossible for me to see because it was so dark. You might also say, “I could hardly hear what he was saying.” I could hear what he was saying a little bit, but he was talking so softly. He wasn’t talking very loud, so I could “hardly” hear him. It was very, very difficult, but not impossible. That’s one use of the word “hardly.”

We can also use “hardly” with the word “any” to mean very few. For example, “There are hardly any nuts in this can.” I bought a can of nuts from the store (macadamia nuts are my favorite, in case anyone is looking for a Christmas present for me), and when I opened the can, there were hardly any nuts in there. That means there were a few, but not very many. There were “hardly any.” If you go to a concert, a music concert, like I did a few days ago, and you see that there are very few people there, you might say, “There are hardly any people here.” There are hardly any listeners for this concert.

Another, somewhat less frequent use of “hardly” means certainly not, as in the expression, “It is hardly surprising that the girl said no to his proposal of marriage.” “Hardly” in this case means it is not, it is not very. “It is hardly surprising she said no.” That means it is not very surprising that she said no. He wanted to marry her, and she said no because he was already married. Well, you can understand why she said no. It is “hardly surprising.”

Another example of using “hardly” to mean not or certainly not would be in the sentence “Well, he’s hardly a baseball player” to describe someone who is not a baseball player. In fact, someone who doesn’t even like baseball might be described as being “hardly a baseball player.” This would be used perhaps when someone has claimed that a person is a certain thing or has a certain characteristic. If someone says, “Well, my friend is a wonderful speaker,” you might say, “Well, he’s hardly a speaker. He can’t even put two words together without making a mistake.” Once again, in that case “hardly” means certainly not, or in no such way is that person or does that person have a certain characteristic.

The next word we’ll discuss here is “rarely” (rarely). “Rarely” is a little easier to define. “Rarely” means not very often, or seldom. “She rarely talks about her work.” That means she will talk about her work, but not very often. “Rarely” and “hardly” can sometimes then be used to mean the same thing. I could also say, “She hardly talks about her work.” That means the same as “She rarely talks about her work.” She talks about it sometimes, but not very often. So “rarely” and “hardly” can mean the same thing, although as we’ve explained, “hardly” also has other uses in addition to meaning not very often.

Another word for “rarely” or not very often is “seldom” (seldom). Something that “seldom” happens doesn’t happen very often. It does happen, but rarely, not very often. There are also some common expressions for this idea of something g happening very rarely or very seldom. The one I’m thinking of now is “once in a blue (blue) moon.” A “blue moon” is when there are two full moons in a single calendar month. That doesn’t happen very often, and that’s why we have the expression “once in a blue moon” to mean very seldom, or rarely. The word “blue” here, by the way, apparently doesn’t have anything to do with the color blue. It’s actually a form of an Old English word meaning “to betray.”

Our next question comes from Mohammed (Mohammed). Mohammed doesn’t say where he’s from, but I know he’s from somewhere because, well, everyone is from somewhere, right? Mohammed’s question has to do with two expressions. The first one is “You’re reaching,” and the second one, related, is “That is a stretch.” This is a good question because both of these are common expressions in American English, in conversational English. Let’s start with “You’re,” or “You are,” “reaching.”

“Reaching” comes, of course, from the verb “to reach” (reach). “To reach” has a couple of different meanings. The one referred to here in this expression “You’re reaching” is to be able to touch or pick up something with your hand by moving or extending your body so that you are going out as far as you can with your arm or your hand. For example, if you are in a library, where they have lots of books and some of the books are very high up on a shelf above your head, you may need to “reach up” with your arm in order to get them off of the shelf. That’s “to reach.”

The expression “You’re reaching” doesn’t refer to you physically trying to touch something or get something with your hand. It refers more generally to the idea that you are saying something or presenting an argument that doesn’t really work or that is perhaps exaggerating something in order to provide evidence for your position. For example, let’s say you’re complaining to a friend of yours about your boss and what a terrible person he is. Your friend might say, “Oh, I understand. Yes, he’s terrible.”

But then you start to describe your boss and say that maybe he is working for the government and that he’s trying to kill you. You start taking some normal or perhaps expected behaviors and you try to make them seem more than what they really are. Your friend might say at this point, “You’re reaching now.” In other words, you’re taking this evidence, this situation, and trying to make it prove something that isn’t really true. You’re trying to do too much with too little information or evidence or proof of your point.

It might also be used more generally to say that you’ve gone too far, that you’re asking too much, or perhaps that you’re exaggerating too much and you should stop – that you are no longer telling the truth or that you are perhaps trying to make more of something than it really is, or even to ask for more than you should ask.

The second expression Mohammed wants to know about is “That is a stretch” (stretch). The verb “to stretch,” when referring to your body, can mean to move your body and the muscles in your body in such a way that they are extended. Sometimes when people exercise – let’s say they’re going to go for a long run – they may stretch their muscles. They may stretch their leg muscles by holding their legs out with one hand or doing other kinds of exercises that put stress on or extend the muscles slightly. That’s one meaning of the verb “to stretch.”

“To stretch” can also be used in connection with the previous verb we talked about, “to reach.” If you are reaching for a book high on the library shelf, you will need to stretch your arm out to the maximum extent possible. So “stretch” can also mean to make something as long or as wide as possible.

If you are wearing a shirt, let’s say a T-shirt made out of cotton, and the shirt is too small for you – maybe it’s your younger brother’s shirt – well, if you put it on, you will probably stretch the material or the fabric of the shirt in such a way that after you take it off, it will be bigger than when you first put it on, so that your younger brother will no longer be able to wear it because it now will be too big. That’s another meaning of the verb “to stretch” – to make something longer or wider.

In the expression, “That’s a stretch,” however, we mean that it is not true or that it is very far from the truth. A “stretch,” then, is something that is mostly false or mostly wrong – perhaps there is some truth to it, but you’ve once again exaggerated it or changed it in such a way that now it seems mostly wrong.

There’s also an expression “to stretch the truth.” “To stretch the truth” means to start telling lies or things that are not true based on something that perhaps originally was true. This happens a lot, for example, if you go out fishing. You may say that the fish you caught, the fish that you were able to get, was, I don’t know, two feet long, but then the next time you tell the story you start stretching the truth. You say, “Well, actually it was two and a half feet long,” or “It was three feet long,” or “It was five feet long.” You’re stretching the truth (as well as stretching the length of the fish, of course).

If someone says to you, “That’s a stretch,” he’s saying that’s probably not true because you are exaggerating or you are saying things that maybe are partially true but are also partially false. Sometimes we use “That’s a stretch” when we are in a situation where we don’t have enough money for something, and if we tried to buy it or tried to get it, it would be very difficult for us to find the money for it.

For example, if you want to rent an apartment here in Los Angeles, it might cost you, I don’t know, $2,000, $3,000 to rent an apartment in an okay part of town. If someone said, “Well, in certain parts of Santa Monica, you may have to pay $5,000 a month,” you might respond, “Well, for me that would be a stretch,” meaning it would be very difficult for me to get enough money to pay that amount for rent. It would be a real stretch for you.

A final meaning of the word “stretch” is the final part of a race course. For example, if you go to, here in Southern California, the Santa Anita Race Track, the horses go around this long oval. It’s a circular shape, but it’s not a circle. As they come around to the final part of the race course, that’s called “the final stretch,” the final section of the race. “Stretch,” then, means a portion or a section of, in this case, a race course – the distance that you have to go in a certain race. This could be true also for humans racing of course, say, in the Olympics. The “final stretch” is the last part of the race.

Okay, let’s move on now to a question from Yang (Yang) in China. Yang wants to know the meanings of the words and expressions “fixate,” “fix on,” “fixate on,” and “to have a fixation with.” Let’s begin with the first verb, “to fixate” (fixate). “To fixate” means to look at, focus on, or think about something with all your possible attention, all your energy.

Usually the verb “to fixate” is followed by the preposition “on” (on). We “fixate on” something. “I am fixated on my work.” I am focused and concentrated on my work all the time. Sometimes to be fixated on something is a bad thing. Someone may say, “You’re fixating on the wrong thing.” “You’re fixating on the problems instead of paying attention to” – or looking at, or focusing on – “the good things that are happening.”

Related to this is the expression “to have a fixation” (fixation) with something or someone or on something or someone. “He has a fixation with horror movies.” Every time there’s a new horror movie, he has to go and see it. “He is fixated on those movies.” “He has a fixation with those movies,” we could say.

Once again, this is often used in the negative sense of someone who is focusing too much on something. A beautiful new woman starts working in your office and you develop a fixation with this woman. You can’t think of anything else. That’s usually a very dangerous thing to do, especially if you have a girlfriend or she has a husband – very bad idea.

Finally, there is the verb “to fix on” or “to fix upon” something. This is a phrasal verb that is similar to “fixate on.” It means to direct your attention, to look at something and to continue looking at it, to continue staring at it, perhaps. “To stare” (stare) at something is to look at something and not move your eyes away.

We consider it rude or impolite or not nice to stare at a person. “To stare at a person” means to look at a person and not move your eyes away, usually in a way that suggests perhaps that you are too interested in that person or that you are looking at this person in a way that the person might not like.

Our next question comes from Darwin (Darwin), just like the famous scientist except Darwin is not from England but from Canada. Darwin wants to know the difference between “hilarious” and “ridiculous.”

“Hilarious” (hilarious) means very funny, very amusing, something that really makes you laugh. “I think that movie is hilarious. I laughed more than I’ve laughed in many years.” It’s a very funny movie. Or you might say, “I think this book is hilarious.” It has a lot of very funny characters and scenes in it. Usually things that we describe as “hilarious” are meant to be funny. They’re supposed to be funny. More recently, people have started using “hilarious” when things are not supposed to be funny but perhaps are to you, maybe because they’re so strange or weird. The person didn’t intend them or plan them to be funny but they are.

You may also hear this word use sarcastically when someone says something that he thinks is funny and you don’t. In fact, you may even find it insulting. You may respond by saying, “Oh, that’s hilarious,” or simply “Hilarious,” meaning it’s not very funny. It depends on how you say the word, of course, whether you’re being sarcastic or not. “To be sarcastic” means to use words in a different way from which which they’re normally used in order to be funny. So, in a weird sort of way, you’re being funny by using the word “hilarious” to say that the other person is not being funny.

The next word Darwin wanted to know about is “ridiculous” (ridiculous). Something that is “ridiculous” could be something that you laugh at. It may be used to describe the way someone is dressed, or even a certain situation in a play or a movie. “Ridiculous,” however, although it may be something you laugh at, is usually something that causes other people to make fun of it. It’s extremely silly. It may be meant to be silly or not meant to be silly.

“Ridiculous” more recently has been used to mean an idea that is unreasonable or perhaps even impossible, so much so that you think it’s a silly idea. It’s not worth taking seriously. If you’re selling your house for a million dollars and someone called you up and says that he’ll give you $100 for it, you would say, “Well that’s ridiculous,” or “That’s a ridiculous offer.” It’s not worth taking seriously. It’s something that I would laugh at because it’s so unreasonable, so crazy.

“Ridiculous” is often used to describe a situation that you think is very unjust or has made you angry for some reason because of the poor management or poor organization of a company or of another person. “I went to the store today and I had to talk to five people in order to get a refund on my coat. It was ridiculous.” It was crazy. It was something that shouldn’t happen. “Ridiculous” then, in that case, is definitely meant as a criticism of the organization, or of the store in this case, and the way that the store was organized, or at least the way the people behaved or acted.

As with any word, it depends on the situation and the context, to know the exact meaning. Someone may, for example, say to you, “Can you tell me where the nearest grocery store is?” And you tell the person, “Well, it’s two blocks that way,” and the person thanks you and says, “Here, let me give you 10 dollars for answering my question.” You might say, “No, don’t be ridiculous.” “Don’t be ridiculous” means you’re being crazy. You’re being silly. That’s not necessary. You don’t mean it as a criticism of the person, necessarily. You’re describing the situation – his giving you 10 dollars as being something that is unreasonable or not necessary.

I was once in a restaurant and the waiter at the end of the meal said to my wife and me, “It’s been a ridiculous pleasure serving you tonight.” “Serving us” means taking care of us, bringing us our food and so forth. Now, why did he say it was a “ridiculous pleasure?” He meant it was very, very pleasurable, or he enjoyed it very much. He was using “ridiculous” there really as an adverb to emphasize how much he enjoyed bringing us our food.

I guess that’s a little strange but it shows that, depending on the context, words can mean lots of different things, and that’s how he decided to use the word “ridiculous,” which I kind of thought was a little ridiculous, a little weird, a little strange and silly.

The next question comes from Douglas (Douglas) from Brazil. Douglas has a fairly simple question. He wants to know how we pronounce two different words. The first one is spelled (death), and it refers to the end of life – when life ends. We call that “death.” “Death.” The next word – similar, but different in pronunciation – is (deaf). That’s when someone is unable to hear, when they can’t hear sounds. That person is called “deaf.” So we have “death” – when you die, when life ends – and “deaf,” when you’re unable to hear.

There’s another expression I should mention with “deaf,” which is “deaf to” something. If someone says, “He’s deaf to his daughter’s suggestions,” he means the person won’t listen to his daughter. So, being deaf to something means not willing to listen or to consider something. If you say, “Death to,” say, “America,” you are saying that you want this country or perhaps a certain person to die. So, “Death to America” and “deaf to America” mean slightly different things.

Finally, Claudio (Claudio), also from Brazil, wants to know the meaning of some expressions that appear in a famous song from Harry Chapin, a singer from the 1970s. The song is called “Cat’s in the Cradle” (cradle). A “cradle” is normally a place where you put a young baby to sleep. “Cats” are, of course, the world’s worst animals that are found often in houses and on the streets.

There is actually a children’s game called Cat’s in the Cradle, or simply Cat’s Cradle, which is played using a ball of “string” (string). String is long, thin material that is often used to tie things such as a package so that it stays closed. I’ve never played Cat’s in the cradle or Cat’s Cradle myself so I can’t tell you too much about the game, but it’s a game that children would play, and that’s really the connection to Harry Chapin’s famous song “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little Boy Blue and the man on the moon

When you coming home, son I don’t know when

But we’ll get together then

You’ll know we’ll have a good time then.

Remember that song? No? Well, my singing probably doesn’t help. Claudio basically wants an explanation of that particular refrain or chorus from the song that’s the part of the song that repeats several times. I’ve explained “cats in the cradle,” a children’s game. The “silver spoon” refers to a spoon that would be given to a young child, often when the child is christened or baptized into the Christian church, that was sometimes given as a gift, traditionally.

Of course, silver is an expensive metal, so there’s also the expression “to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth.” That means to be born with a lot of money, to be rich, to never have been poor. Here, however, in Chapin’s song, I think it refers simply to a traditional gift given upon the birth of a child or the christening or baptism of a child.

What the song is talking about is childhood, a young child growing up, and some of the things that a young child growing up might do is read stories or have stories read to him about certain fantastical or made-up topics. One of those would be a man on the moon. There are poems and stories about the man on the moon, an expression that comes from the supposed image of a face that some people see when they look at a full moon.

“Little Boy Blue” refers to a popular poem, we would call it a “nursery rhyme,” for children that has the expression “little boy blue” – a little boy dressed in blue clothing. Like the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, these are evoking or giving you the image of childhood, so that you know this song is about a young child.

Now in the song, the young child asks his father “When you coming home?” meaning when are you going to be coming back home, because the father is leaving, probably on a business trip, and the father says, “Son, I don’t know when,” meaning I don’t know when I’m coming home. “We’ll get together then,” meaning we’ll talk and play when I come back. “You know we’ll have a good time then,” meaning we’ll enjoy ourselves when I get back from my, say, business trip.

Now the song, if you know it, is a sad one because it’s really about the child growing up and the father never being there for his son. The child grows up really without his father because the father is so busy with his work, and then when the father is old and he wants to spend time with his son, his son is now married and his son is too busy to spend time with him. That’s the sad part of the song, of course.

The good part is that we don’t have to live our lives like the song. We can spend time with our children and/or with our parents when we have the opportunity to do so. So thank you, Claudio, for that question.

Thank you for all your questions.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening as well. 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.

cat’s in the cradle / cat’s cradle – a game played by two or more people using a string with the ends tied together to create a series of string figures or shapes

* The children had to be quiet while their mother slept, so they played a game of cat’s cradle.

silver spoon – traditionally a spoon made of silver given as a gift for the birth of a child, now associated with being born into wealth and privilege

* The baby’s grandparents gave her a silver spoon with her name engraved on it.

Little Boy Blue – a popular nursery rhyme (poem for children) about a young boy who should be watching the sheep but falls asleep instead

* The boy’s favorite nursery rhyme is “Little Boy Blue” and asks his mother to read it to him every night at bedtime.

man on the moon – a shape that looks like a human face on the surface of the Moon, commonly used in children’s stories and songs

* Look! The moon is full tonight. Can you see the man on the moon?

hardly – barely; scarcely; almost not possible or almost did not happen

* June and Liam hardly know each other, but they’ve decided to move in together.

rarely – seldom; not very often

* We’ve rarely seen a sunset as beautiful as this one.

(one) is reaching – one is trying to make an argument or point based on very little evidence; one is taking something too far

* Philippe likes to drive sports cars and knows a little about them, but to call himself an expert is really reaching.

a stretch – something that is far from the truth, not possible, or inaccurate

* The actor is very handsome, but to say he’s the handsomest man alive is a stretch.

to fixate (on) – to look at or think about something constantly and with one’s full attention

* Omar is fixated on getting top grades in all of his classes and thinks of nothing else.

to fix on/upon (something) – to direct one’s attention or thoughts toward something; to focus on something; to make a decision about or choose something

* He’s fixed on having Julie as his girlfriend, even though we’ve all told him that she’s dating someone else already.

hilarious – very funny; very amusing

* I think it’s hilarious when he does his celebrity impressions.

ridiculous – extremely silly; causing others to make fun of it or to laugh at it

* Look at this photo of Grandpa dressed as a cowboy. He looks ridiculous!

death – no longer living; the end of life; the time when someone or something dies

* As you get older, do you fear death more and more?

deaf – without the ability to hear; not able to hear

* Our old dog and nearly deaf and can’t hear when people call his name.

What Insiders Know
Famous TV and Film Cats

Most TV and film “stars” (the most important actors) are human, but “felines” (cats) in movies and TV capture Americans’ hearts, too, especially in “cartoons” (short shows and movies made through animation “drawings”). In 2002, the popular television magazine TV Guide published a list of the “Top 50 cartoon characters of all time” – and five of them were cats!

“Coming in at” (ranked at) #18, Top Cat was a cartoon series that “ran” (was shown on TV) for just 30 episodes between 1961 and 1962. The main character is Top Cat, also known as T.C., and he leads a “gang” (a group of people who spend time together in a city) of “alley cats” (cats that do not have owners but live in a city).

The next cat on the list is from Felix the Cat at #28. Created in 1919, Felix the Cat is a simple black-and-white drawing of a cat with a “giant” (very big) smile that stands on its two back feet. The cartoon was originally drawn for “silent films” (films made before film actors’ voices were heard).

Sylvester James Pussycat, also known as Sylvester or Puddy Cat, is #33 on the list. The cat is an important character in the Looney Tunes cartoon series, where he always chases Tweety, a small yellow bird.

Cartoon character #34 is Bill the Cat. Bill the Cat doesn’t appear on TV, but “rather” (instead) in a “comic strip” (a series of drawings printed in a newspaper). The character is “repulsive” (disgusting; gross) and most often says “Ack!” (an exclamation of surprise) or “Thppt!” (a sound without meaning).

The last cartoon character on the list, #50, is Thomas “Tom” Cat from the Tom and Jerry cartoon. He rarely speaks, but the episodes show his “rivalries” (fights; competitions) with Jerry, a mouse.