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602 Topics: Questions Answered: To head-butt a curb, to thin the herd, and to sound like a blue chip; to mock versus to jeer versus to taunt versus to deride; background versus backdrop; to turn out to be; to be on fire; pronouncing “Is he?” and “Is

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 602.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast episode 602. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

This is another one of our all question-and-answer Cafés. Yes, that’s right. We’ll be answering lots of your questions on this episode, so let’s get started.

Our first question comes from Jessy (Jessy) from the wonderful neighbor to the south of our United States, Mexico – the United States of Mexico, in fact. Jessy wants to know about a couple of different phrases, none of which are really related to each other, although all of them apparently come from one book that he was reading.

Let’s start with the first expression, which is “to head butt a curb.” I’ll start by saying that this is not a common expression in English, but I will explain it and once you understand the different parts of the expression, you’ll be able to understand what the whole expression means. The individual words in this expression – the verb “to head butt” and a “curb” – are not unusual. Let’s start with the verb “to head butt.”

Well, there are actually two words in this verb “to head butt” (head butt). The first word in this compound verb, we would call it, is “head.” “Head,” of course, refers to what your brain is located in – or at least most of you have your brain in your head. Some of you may have your brain in your “butt” (butt), which is the second part of this verb. I’m just joking, of course. I hope you don’t have your brain in your butt, which means of course you’re not very smart.

“Butt,” in addition to being a noun referring to your rear, or that part of your body that you use to sit down on, is also a verb, “to butt.” “To butt” means to hit something; we might say to strike something. It’s a verb that usually refers to when an animal hits another animal or perhaps a person with his head. So, “head butt” and “butt” could really be said to mean the same thing. It means to hit someone with your head.

There’s a sport that most of the world calls “football,” but that we call “soccer” here in the United States, that has the action of the “head butt” with a ball. You hit a ball with your head. Of course, it would also be possible for a human being to head butt another human being in his head or chest or some other part of the body.

A “curb” (curb) is the edge of the street. In most American cities, the streets are not made just of dirt, but have what we call “pavement” on them, and at the edge of the street on both sides there is typically a “curb” which is somewhat rounded, although it could be square edged. The curb is usually made of a hard substance such as cement. So if you “head butt a curb,” you’re hitting your head against something which is very hard, and you will of course probably hurt yourself.

Now what does this expression “to head butt a curb” mean? Well, Jessy says the original sentence was describing some activity that would be “about as fun as head butting a curb.” Well, if you head butt a curb, or any hard object such as a rock or a wall, you would of course not have very much fun, but you would hurt yourself. So the sentence is saying that whatever this activity is would not be very fun, and that’s what the entire expression means.

The next expression Jessy wants to know about is a little more common. It is “to thin (thin) the herd (herd).” Let me start with the word “herd.” “Herd” refers to a large group of animals that are typically kept together or live together, such as on a farm. You have a “herd of animals.” You have a large group of animals. “To thin” means, in this case, to get rid of some of those animals, to reduce the number of animals in the herd.

Often farmers will thin their herds for good economic reasons – sometimes it’s necessary to get rid of some of the animals in a herd. I believe in the book that Jessy was reading, “to thin the herd” referred to getting rid of certain people. It might be getting rid of employees. It might even be getting rid of certain customers who are causing a lot of problems.

The final expression from Jessy is “to sound like a blue chip.” The key phrase in this expression is “blue chip.” “Blue” (blue) is, of course, a color. “Chip” (chip) is a little more difficult to explain.

If you go to a place that does a lot of gambling, what we would call a “casino,” in cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada, or Atlantic City, New Jersey, instead of putting money on a table when you are betting on a game such as poker, you instead put little round, often plastic pieces that are called “chips.” And the color of the chip indicates how much money you are betting. That chip we would say is “worth” a certain amount of money.

Traditionally the chips that are of the color blue are worth the most money. Now, how does this relate to our expression? Well, at some point the term “blue chip” got associated with big companies that were very stable, companies that made a lot of money, and if you invested in them, would probably be a safe investment because they were very big companies. We would call these “blue chip companies.”

These are established corporations or companies that would probably be profitable – that is, make money regardless of whether the economy was good or bad at a certain period of time. A “blue chip company,” then, is considered a reliable company, a large company that is safe to invest in. In reality, no company is completely safe to invest in, of course.

Our next question comes from Alexandre (Alexandre) from Brazil. Alexandre wants to know the meanings of four verbs: “to mock,” “to jeer,” “to taunt,” and “to deride.” He says that he knows they’re all related, but he wants to know how we would use each of these verbs – what particular circumstances we would use them. It’s a good question, Alexandre.

Let’s start with the first verb, “to mock” (mock). “To mock” someone is to do exactly or closely what another person is doing, but to do it in a way that makes fun of that person, in a way that will make people laugh at that person. You are criticizing that person, basically, by doing something the way he would do it but in a way that makes fun of him – that’s supposed to be funny, and therefore critical of that person. It’s often done when people copy or imitate the way a person talks or what a person does.

So for example, if you speak another language but not in a perfect accent – you have a little accent, it’s not the same as the way a native speaker might use the language – someone could mock your accent, could talk like you but in a way that is making fun of you. That’s the meaning of “to mock” someone.

A less common use of the verb “to mock” is simply to criticize something or some situation as being bad or useless or unimportant. “The group mocked the government’s program for helping the elderly” – those who are old. They made fun of it, but they really criticized it. That’s a less common use of the verb “to mock.”

“Mock” can also be used as an adjective meaning not real. For example, sometimes in American high schools, the social studies classes – those that study government and civics – will have what’s called a “mock trial” (trial). A “trial” is when you have a courtroom with a judge and a jury about some case, some dispute or crime. The students will then pretend that they are lawyers or judges or jury members and have this mock trial. The purpose, of course, is to learn more about the American criminal or American justice system, about our courts. “Mock” then, in that case, means not real.

As a verb, however, “mock” is commonly used to mean to make fun of someone by copying or acting like he is acting or speaking.

The second verb Alexander wants to have explained is “to jeer” (jeer). “To jeer” is to yell or shout insulting words at someone, or to laugh or criticize them in a very loud and often angry way. Usually we use this verb only when we’re talking about a large group of people who are yelling and making fun of a public figure or someone who is in a large crowd or in front of a large crowd.

If a politician, for example, is giving a talk, giving a speech, there may be some people there listening that don’t like the politician and so they’ll start yelling at him. They’ll start shouting insulting things at him. “You are an idiot!” “You stupid person, get off of the stage.” That would be “jeering” the person, when you are yelling or shouting insulting things at someone, often in a public place and usually with more than one person shouting with you.

The next verb is “to taunt” (taunt). “To taunt” means to say insulting things to someone, usually to get that person angry, usually to, we would say, “provoke” (provoke) the person. You’re trying to get the person angry so that the person either yells back at you or perhaps starts a fight with you.

Now, why would you want to taunt someone? Well, perhaps you want that person to get angry so that you can make even more fun of that person or you can say even meaner things to that person because now that person has gotten angry with you. In any case, “taunting” can be something that is done between two people. It doesn’t have to be done like jeering typically is, in a large crowd or in a public place.

You can taunt someone in order to get them mad for a variety of different reasons, I suppose. Normally, I would associate this verb with what happens among, say, schoolchildren, especially boys in school who would taunt each other in order to get the other person mad, the other boy mad, and perhaps start a fight, though of course it isn’t limited just to boys or to school-age children. Though I think that’s the context in which we would use that verb most often.

The final verb is “to deride” (deride). “To deride” is to say or possibly to write something about someone or something that is very critical and perhaps insulting – to say that someone isn’t very smart or that a certain government policy is stupid. That would be “to deride” that person or that policy. To say something insulting or critical or to write something insulting or critical is “to deride” another person or another thing.

I would say “deride” is less common than the other three verbs we’ve talked about, and something that you would probably see more in a formal context. In the newspaper, for example, there may be someone who is deriding the government’s policy. He’s criticizing it. He’s saying bad things about it. You can “deride” someone who isn’t there, who isn’t in front of you. “To jeer” and “to taunt” usually are only done when the person is there present – near you or close to you or in the same area that you are.

“To mock” could be done whether the person you are mocking is there in the same room as you or not. So, you can mock someone without the person being present, but you can usually only taunt or jeer someone if he or she is there with you. “To deride,” like “to mock,” can be done whether the person is present or not. You can also deride a policy or a program, a plan to do something, as well as a person.

Our next question comes from Effy (Effy), originally from China, now living in Australia. Effy wants to know the difference between “background” (background) and “backdrop” (backdrop). I’m going to start with the second word, “backdrop,” since it’s a little easier to explain and has fewer meanings than the first word, “background.” A “backdrop” is usually something that you will see in, say, a play at a theater. It’s a painted cloth or a large curtain that is placed, we would say “is hung,” at the back of the stage.

When you go to a theater, the stage is the place where the actors and actresses are standing. At the back of the stage in most theatres there’s a “backdrop,” a large curtain. A “curtain” (curtain) is something you also find in a house, in front of a window, to block the light. It’s usually made of cloth and it is hung on a large bar or large round tube that is on the top of the window. Well, a “backdrop” is a big curtain in the back of the stage in a theater.

However, we use the word “backdrop” also to mean simply the situation during which something is taking place or in front of which something is taking place. You could go out into the desert to take photographs. You could describe the desert, the sand around you, as being the “backdrop” for your photograph. It’s something that is behind you that you can see.

The word “backdrop” is also used more generally to describe what we would also use the term “setting” (setting) for in a novel or in a play. “The backdrop for the play Macbeth is Scotland and the royal house,” the royal castle in Scotland. That’s the “backdrop” for the play. That’s the setting. That’s where it takes place, where it happens. In Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan, the borough or section of New York City called Manhattan is the backdrop. It’s the place in which the story takes place, the story happens.

We at times use the word “background” to mean something similar, especially if we are talking about a photograph, painting, or a movie. Going back to our example of taking photographs out in the desert, say here in Southern California where we have lots of deserts. If you take a photograph in front of a large plant – a cactus, say – we could say that you are in the photograph and the cactus behind you is in the “background.” Similar to “backdrop,” it’s what’s behind you. It’s not the main focus of the photograph or perhaps of a painting. So that’s one use of the word “background.”

However, “background” has other uses as well. “Background” can also be used more generally to refer to someone’s history, or what happened before the person got to this point in time. It may also refer simply to someone’s experience. For example, my background is that I was a student in Minnesota and I got my college degree, and then I worked as a teacher, and then I moved to Los Angeles, and then I got my Ph.D., and so on and so forth. That’s my background. That’s my history. That’s my experience – things that I have done in the past.

Some people have done things that perhaps they are not proud of, that they don’t want people to find out about. That would also be part of your “background.” That’s why when you are hired or are being considered for a job at a company, the company will often do what’s called a “background check” (check). A “background check” is when the company investigates your background, finds out if you’ve committed any crimes, tries to find out more about your work history. That’s a “background check” – looking at your history.

“Background” can also be used to describe anything that isn’t the main focus of what you’re watching or what you’re listening to. I could be recording an episode, recording an English lesson, and you might hear something in the background – not my voice, but perhaps something going on outside of where I am recording. We would say there are “sounds in the background.” It’s not the main focus of the recording. It’s something perhaps that wasn’t even intended, wasn’t planned as part of the recording.

There, the meaning of “background” is similar to the first definition I gave about something being behind you, something that isn’t in the foreground of the photograph or painting. I’ve introduced a new word now, the opposite of background, which is “foreground” (foreground). In daily English, you may hear the word “background” used in your business, for example, or at your work to mean something closer to history of or details about a certain project.

I’m working on a new project at work and I’m asking someone for help. That person may then ask me, “Well, give me a background on this situation.” Give me the history – why you are asking, what happened before – in terms of this project so I can help you better. “Background,” then, is used in a lot more situations. It’s much more common than the word “backdrop.” In education and in language acquisition, we talk about “background knowledge” – things that people have learned in the past that help them understand things they are trying to learn now.

Our next question comes from Jose (Jose) in Colombia. Jose wants to know the meaning of two different phrasal verbs. The first one is “to turn (turn) out,” and “turns out to be” or “it turns out that.” In some ways, these two phrasal verbs aren’t really separate. They’re really one phrasal verb that has a couple of different meanings and uses.

One meaning of the phrasal verb “to turn out” means to happen or to develop in a particular way. You’re reading a novel, let’s say, and you want to find out what happens at the end. You want to find how it “turns out” – how it ends, how it develops and finally concludes. Someone may ask you, “Well, how did that movie turn out?” meaning “How did it end?” What was the final scene, or what happened to the characters?

You can also use the phrasal verb “to turn out” in this sense when we’re talking about a project or any activity that you do. “How did your project turn out?” meaning “How did it develop and end?” or “Was it successful, was it a failure?” That’s also another sense of this phrasal verb “to turn out.” Did it succeed? Did it do what you wanted it to do?

A slightly different but related meaning of this phrasal verb comes in expressions such as “it turns out that” or “it turns out to be.” The expression “it turns out that” is used in a situation where there’s some mystery or some perhaps confusion about a situation that eventually, later in time, is clarified or that you later find the truth about.

For example, “There was a lot of noise outside of my house last night when I was trying to fall asleep. I woke up this morning and saw a whole bunch of beer bottles out on the street. It turns out that there were a bunch of people outside of my house having a party.” I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but later I found out. That’s why I would use the expression “it turns out that,” meaning the truth was eventually found out or the mystery was solved and I was able “to get to the bottom of” – that is, find the reason for – the noise.

“My friend wanted to get her driver’s license in California and she thought that she had to take several different examinations or tests, but it turns out that it wasn’t necessary because she had a driver’s license from another state and it was okay for her to drive here without getting a new one or without taking a lot of extra tests.” “It turns out that” indicates that we got to the truth or we discovered the truth of the situation that might have been confusing before we found out.

Similarly, the phrase “it turned out to be” or “it turns out to be” is used when we think one thing is true but later we find out something else is true, or later we find out the source of the mystery. It means really the same as “it turned out that” or “it turns out that.” “I thought my car was having problems but it turned out to be a very small issue with my engine that didn’t cost very much money to fix.”

There’s one additional meaning of this phrasal verb “to turn out” that’s unrelated to the previous meanings we’ve just discussed, and it relates to elections. “To turn out” means to go and vote in an election. The phrase is also used as a noun to describe the number of people or the percentage of people who voted in an election. “The turnout was high this year.” That means that lots of people voted in the election. Or we could say, “There was a low turnout in the state election.” Very few people voted in the election.

Two more quick questions, one from Mohammed (Mohammed) in the mystery country – or as we say, the country to be named later. Mohammed wants to know the meaning of the phrase “to be on fire” (fire). Well, one meaning of “to be on fire” is that you are burning or that your clothes are in flames. They are so hot that they are starting to burn or you are starting to burn, which would be very painful and I don’t recommend it.

However, the more common meaning of this expression is to be very successful at what you are doing, especially at this particular time. It’s an idiomatic expression that means that you have a lot of success right now in what you are doing. Maybe you’re not normally successful, but right now you’re really successful. You’re “on fire.” We would say this, for example, about a baseball player or a football player who seems to be successful at everything he does. We would say, “Wow, that player is on fire.” He’s scoring a lot of goals or he’s hitting a lot of home runs, if it were baseball.

It can be used outside of the world of sports. Most famously, there’s a song by the American singer Alicia Keys, “Girl on Fire.” You may have heard it. “This girl is on fire” – something like that. It has a similar meaning in that context.

Our last question comes from Phuoc (Phuoc), right here in United States of America. It’s a quick pronunciation question about the expression “is (is) he (he).” “Is he married?” The question is really about what we sometimes call, in English as a second language classes, “compressed speech.”

Often in English, in conversational English, when we are speaking quickly, some words will be combined as if they are one word when we pronounce them. The pronunciation then links one word to another in such a way that it makes it difficult to hear the individual words. This is a common problem for people who are trying to understand us. “Is he” – “is he” – but I pronounce it in normal conversation “is he.” “Is he busy,” meaning “is” “he” “busy?” “Is he married” – that is, does he have a wife?

The pronunciation in normal conversational English would tend to have those two words “is” and “he” linked up together so that it sounds as if it were a single word: “is he.” In more careful, perhaps more formal English, or when we are speaking more slowly, we would make sure those two words sound as though they are separate, as indeed they are: “is” “he.” But no one usually talks that way. It’s much more common to hear words such as “is” and “he” combined as a single pronunciation “unit,” we could call it – “is he.”

That’s all we have time for. 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 head-butt a curb – to do something difficult or unwise that will bring pain or put one at a disadvantage

* You’re end up head-butting a curb if try to cheat on the next chemistry test by looking at another student’s answers.

to thin the herd – to reduce the number of a group of something, such as people or animals

* New medical students take courses in the first semester that are intended to thin the herd, leaving only those who are most likely to survive medical school.

to sound like a blue chip – to appear to others like a respected and reliable organization or company

* This new expensive commercial will make our small company sound like a blue chip.

to mock – to laugh at or make fun of someone or something, especially by copying an action or a way of behaving or speaking; to criticize and laugh at someone or something for being bad, useless, or unimportant

* If the school principal catches you mocking any of the teachers, you’ll be in big trouble.

to jeer – to say loudly or shout insulting words at someone; to laugh at or criticize someone in a loud and angry way

* The crowd jeered the politician as he tried to explain his strange behavior and unpopular actions.

to taunt – to say insulting things to someone in order to make that person angry

* Jim gets angry when the big kids at school taunt his little brother because he’s so short.

to deride – to talk or write about someone or something in a very critical or insulting way; to say that someone or something is stupid or worthless

* The critics derided the proposed law, saying it only benefits the wealthiest citizens.

background – the part of a scene that is behind a main figure or object in a painting, photograph, or other image

* Stand near the water’s edge so I can get some of the waves in the background of these photos.

backdrop – a painted cloth that is hung across the back of a stage; the setting or conditions within which something happens

* For the school play, the parents painted a backdrop to make it look like a 1950’s diner.

to turn out to be – used to say that something or someone eventually becomes something or is found to have a particular quality or ability

* We thought it would rain today, but it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day.

to be on fire – to be very successful; to be feeling a very strong positive emotion, such as enthusiasm or love; to be in the process of burning

* Kara is on fire! This is the fourth new client she’s signed in two weeks.

What Insiders Know
Beavis and Butt-Head

Beavis and Butt-Head was an animated television show that “aired” (was shown) on MTV, the music television cable television station, between 1993 and 1997.

The show’s two main characters, Beavis and Butt-Head, are high school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are “dim-witted” (dumb) “delinquents” (young people who commit minor crimes). They enjoy doing things to get other people upset or angry. They love “heavy metal” (a type of loud rock music) music and spend a lot of their time watching music videos on TV.

These two characters are the “opposite” (not at all) of what most parents would want their teenage children to be like and that’s the “point” (purpose). Beavis and Butt-Head are “anti-social” (do not deal well with other people) and they are “anti-establishment” (against authority; against the people with power).

As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with this show. Beavis and Butt-Head are “obsessed with” (think about all the time) dangerous behavior. In the early shows, they enjoy playing with fire and doing dangerous things with fire. Unfortunately, in 1993, the show was blamed for the death of a two-year-old girl. The girl’s five-year-old brother, who had just finished watching one of the shows, set fire to their “mobile home” (a large home on wheels), killing the girl. After this, the show made some changes to try to prevent this kind of “tragedy” (terrible event).

The show was very popular and in 1996, the creators of the show released a movie called Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, which included the voices of some very famous actors, including Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. The show also “spawned” (inspired; was the reason for creating) “comic books” (books with a story told through drawings,” video games, and books.