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603 Topics: Questions Answered: Folk beliefs versus omens versus signs; crook, to lurk, prey, and gullible; corrupt and corrupted; to walk (someone) through (something); rough ride; is all

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 603.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 603. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

This episode is a special all question-and-answer episode where I’ll try to answer some of your questions. Let’s get started.

Our first question comes from Dmytro (Dmytro) in Ukraine. The question has to do with three words or terms: “folk beliefs,” “omens,” and “signs.” Let’s start with “folk (folk) beliefs (beliefs).” The word “folk,” derived I’m guessing from the German “volk” for people, means people of a certain country or region.

When it’s used as an adjective in front of a word like “dance” or “music” – “folk music,” “folk dances” – it refers often to traditional cultural productions that were from a certain region or country, often in rural areas outside of the main cities or traditions: traditional music, traditional dance that has been “passed down,” we might say, from generation to generation – dances and music that may have been created many hundreds of years ago. That’s really the meaning in this expression “folk beliefs.”

A “belief” is something that you think is true. “Folk beliefs,” then, would be things that the average person would believe or has believed perhaps in the past. Often folk beliefs are not based on scientific evidence, or at least weren’t created as part of a process of science or any systematic investigation – rather, they were things that people have believed for many years. Often these are beliefs about medicine or about the way the world was created or about traditions and customs in a given area. All of these might be part of folk beliefs.

Many folk beliefs, as I say, are related to medical practice. Some of them are related to religious practice. Some of these may also be “superstitions.” “Superstitions” (superstitions) are beliefs about the world that are related to what we would call “supernatural forces” – things beyond human power. Some people believe that the number 13 is unlucky. The whole concept of luck and fate are related to the idea of there being some power above that which we have as humans, some supernatural power.

But “superstitions” more specifically relate to doing or not doing certain things. If you do a certain thing, you will have good luck or you will have bad luck. That’s different, for example, than most organized religions and their concept of prayer, which doesn’t have that, you might say, mechanical “do this and this will happen automatically.”
“Superstitions,” then, may be one kind of folk belief, but not all folk beliefs have a superstitious element to them. Some of the beliefs may be related, for example, to what you should drink if you have a cold, or what you shouldn’t eat if you have a flu.

Sometimes these folk beliefs are eventually verified by science – that is, we may study certain folk beliefs as related to medicine and discover that there is some truth to those beliefs. That would not be the case with superstitions, however. Every region and country has its own folk beliefs. Many of the folk beliefs in the United States are in fact folk beliefs from other countries. When immigrants came here, they brought those folk beliefs with them.

The word “folks” with an “s” at the end is also used in American English to refer either to a group of people or specifically to your parents. Where I’m from, at least in the Midwest, we often refer to our parents as our “folks.” “My folks are coming to visit me this weekend.”

“Folks” can also mean the same as what may more commonly nowadays be expressed by the term “guys” (guys) or people. If you are talking to a group of people, you may say, “Okay, folks, everyone listen up. We’re going to start our meeting,” or whatever it is. So, “folks” can be a word that refers to a group of people or specifically, at least in some parts of the United States, to your parents. In both cases, the word is plural – “folks” with an “s” on the end.

Getting back to Dmytro’s question, then, we have “folk beliefs” and we have “omens” (omens). An “omen” is something that is believed to be a sign of what will happen in the future – an indication, a supernatural indication of what will happen soon. Often it will be bad things that happen. There was a movie famously several years ago called The Omen. You could have good omens as well as bad omens, but we often think of an “omen” as being some sort of sign that something bad will happen in the future, an indication that something bad will happen in the future.

“Omens” are something that, again, are not part of our scientific, rational world. An “omen” is connected to some supernatural belief about what will happen in the future. Some ancient religions, for example, believed in omens. Certainly the Romans, the ancient Romans, had this belief in omens where they would look at an animal or some other naturally occurring event or some creature and try to figure out what the future was going to be.

There’s a related adjective, “ominous” (ominous). “Ominous” means something bad has been indicated or something bad will happen in the future because of what is happening now, or we see signs of bad things happening. You may look up into the sky and see dark clouds coming toward you. You may say, “Those are ominous.” Those indicate that something bad will happen in the future. Now, there might be a folk belief about certain things that are thought to be omens. So it could be part of a larger system of folk beliefs, certainly.

Finally, we have the word “sign” (sign) which I’ve already used a couple of times in explaining “omens.” A “sign” is an indication, an event, or an action about something else. It points to something else. For example, if you walk into your kitchen and you see a lot of dirty dishes – cups and glasses and plates – these things that you see could be a sign that someone was in your kitchen cooking and eating while you were gone. It could also be a sign that your husband or wife is lazy and doesn’t want to clean his or her own dishes, which would be a problem. “Signs,” then, are anything – any action, event, or thing – that indicates or points to something else.

We also use the word “sign” for a piece of paper or metal or wood that has words or objects on it that indicate or give you certain information. For example, in most cities in the United States, as you enter into the town or city, there will be a sign with the name of the city, and below it, the population of the city – how many people live there. In all towns and cities in the U.S. of any great size, anyway, there are stop signs – red signs that tell you you must stop at the intersection of a street, where two streets come together.

Finally, “sign” can also be a verb with a couple of different meanings, one of which is to put your name in or on a document. We use the word “signature” (signature) to describe your name as you write it on the bottom of a legal document or on the bottom of a letter. You sign your name. You put your signature on the piece of paper. That’s one meaning of the verb “to sign.”

Another meaning of the verb “to sign” is to communicate with someone else using only your body, specifically your hands and arms. People who cannot hear, who are “deaf” (deaf), use a special language called “sign language,” and if you are using sign language, we say that you are “signing” with your hands and your arms and so forth.

My father, for example, knew sign language because he worked his entire career, his entire life as a teacher, with what we call now “special education students,” including those who were unable to hear. My sister-in-law also knows how to sign because a couple of her own sisters are deaf. So those are a couple of different meanings of the word “sign,” both as a noun and as a verb.

Let’s move on to Allen (Allen) in Turkey. Allen has four words he wants us to help him with, and we’re always happy to help. His four terms are “crook,” “lurk,” “prey,” and “gullible.”

Let’s start with the word “crook” (crook). The most common definition of the word “crook” is someone who is a thief, someone who steals things from other people. There was famously one of our U.S. presidents from the twentieth century, Richard Nixon, who said, “I am not a crook.” He was saying that he hadn’t stolen anything or done anything illegal. A “crook” can be someone who steals something or simply anyone who is a criminal.

We might use the word “crook” to refer to anyone who breaks the law, although I think more commonly we think of a crook as someone who steals something – money or other objects that do not belong to him. A “crook” could also be simply a dishonest person, someone who lies. “All politicians are crooks.” I’m just giving that as an example. I’m not saying that’s true, even if it is.

The word “crook” has a couple of other meanings not related to crime or honesty. A “crook” can also simply be a place in the body that bends, such as your arm or leg. We may talk about something being on the “crook of your arm.” That would be in the part of your arm that bends – your elbow, that is to say. You could also have a crook in a tree. That would be a curved or bent part of, say, the branch of the tree.

A tree has different parts. The main part that goes down into the ground are the “roots.” The part that comes up from the ground is called the “trunk.” And then the pieces of wood that come out of the trunk are called the “branches.” Well, you could have a branch that is curved or crooked, and thus have a bend in it. I’ve used another term there related to “crook,” which is “crooked.” “Crooked” means bent, not straight. You could draw a “crooked line” on a piece of paper. It’s not straight. That’s related to our word here that we’re talking about as a noun, “crook.”

Allen’s next word is “lurk.” “Lurk” is a verb which means to be in a place hiding from someone. You are in somewhere that no one can see so that you are hidden. You don’t want anyone to find you. A related and more common meaning of the verb “to lurk” means to wait in a place when you are going to be doing something wrong, something perhaps even illegal. “He was lurking in the shadows” – that is, he was behind the building where the sun was not hitting him and he could not be seen. He was waiting perhaps to steal something or to do something else that was against the law.

More recently, the verb “to lurk” has been used to refer to people on the internet who like to read messages from other people but don’t actually post or write any messages themselves – say, on a blog or on some sort of internet newsgroup or chat room. I don’t use chat rooms or newsgroups but that’s, I understand, one meaning now of this verb “to lurk.”

The next word Allen asks about is “prey” (prey). There are actually two common words in English that sound the same but are spelled differently. “Prey” with an “e” refers usually to an animal that is hunted or killed by another animal who then eats the animal that is killed. You don’t want to be anyone’s “prey.”

“Prey” could also refer to a person who is exploited or to whom something bad happens because that person may be weak or not knowledgeable of a situation in which another person is trying to harm him. We talk about people who are “prey to crooks” – people trying to steal their money. If you are “prey” to someone, you are vulnerable, we would say. You don’t have a strong defense against those people who are trying to hurt you.

There is also a phrasal verb “to prey on” someone. “To prey on” someone means to take advantage of someone, to harm someone in some way so that you get a benefit from that situation, from that person. Someone who, for example, goes to another person and steals that person’s money because the person isn’t smart enough or doesn’t realize what is happening. We would say that that crook, that criminal, is “preying on” an innocent person – a person who perhaps is too weak or doesn’t realize what is happening.

I said there are two words in English with the same pronunciation – “prey” but a different spelling. The other word is (pray). “Pray” with an “a” means to ask God or ask some higher power, some supernatural being, to help you in some way. It could also be simply to thank God for something. Same pronunciation, different spelling. We call those in English “homophones” (homophones). A “homophone” is a word that sounds just like another word but has a different spelling from that word. “Homo” (homo) means the same. Sometimes we pronounce that word “homophone,” but it’s the same idea.

Finally, Allen wants to know about the word “gullible” (gullible). Someone who is “gullible” is someone who is easily fooled and therefore also easily cheated. Someone who perhaps isn’t very smart or simply isn’t very aware of what is going on around him might be “gullible.” A person who believes everything he reads in the newspaper or everything that anyone tells him on Facebook would be “gullible” – someone who is easily fooled.

Now, if you’re “gullible,” you may also end up being “preyed upon by a crook.” You see how these words are starting to come together? A “crook” – someone trying to steal your money, say, will look for a “gullible person,” someone who will believe whatever is told him. The crook will then “prey upon” that person, will take advantage of that person by stealing his money. So you don’t want to be “gullible.”

Okay, let’s move on to Eric (Eric) in Taiwan. Eric wants to know the meaning of the word “corrupt” (corrupt) and how that is different from “corrupted” (corrupted). As an adjective, “corrupt” can mean dishonest, especially when someone is taking money in order to do certain things when he shouldn’t be. We sometimes refer to government officials, people who work for the government, who illegally accept money from people who want them to do certain things – these people are often referred to as being “corrupt officials.”

“Corruption” is the noun that comes from “corrupt” and often refers precisely to this exchange of money for government favors. “Corrupt” more generally could also refer simply to anyone who does things that are illegal, evil, or even immoral. The verb “to corrupt” can be used in this same sense of giving money or doing something to someone in order to make that person “corrupt” – dishonest or evil.

“Corrupt” can also be used in a moral sense when we talk about, for example, an adult corrupting the young people who are with him. Providing a bad example or getting someone to do something that you know is wrong would be a case of “corrupting” another person, especially a person who is perhaps innocent otherwise, or too young to know the difference between right and wrong.

People sometimes use this verb “to corrupt” when referring to changes in, say, a language that make it different than the way it was before these changes were introduced, different in a way that the person thinks is a bad thing, making it worse. Some people think that text messaging and Twitter and the internet in general is corrupting certain languages, introducing words that didn’t exist before and changing things for the worse. Language, of course, is always changing. Some people think it’s changing for the better, some people think it’s changing for the worse.

“To corrupt” also has a very specific meaning nowadays in technology to refer to the change in an electronic file that makes it no longer usable, or at least no longer usable in the way that it was supposed to be. If you have a Microsoft Word document that is “corrupt,” usually that means you can’t open it. Something bad has happened to the code inside of that electronic file or document that makes it no longer usable.

Eric also asks about “corrupted” with the “ed” at the end. The meaning of “corrupted” is no different than “corrupt” in the cases I’ve just gone over. “Corrupted” is the past tense of the verb “to corrupt” as well as a past participle, and it can be used in that sense as an adjective, so we can talk about a “corrupted file.” A “corrupted file” is a file that has been corrupted. There are no special meanings, that I know of anyway, of “corrupted.” It’s the same as any other sort of past participle or past tense verb.

Let’s move on to Kris (Kris) in Poland. Kris wants to know the meaning of a phrase that is quite common in conversational English, “to walk someone through” something. “To walk someone through” something is to help someone understand a certain idea or process that the person needs to understand.

It is used I think now more and more in the business world to mean simply “explain that to me slowly and clearly so I can understand it.” You are working on a new project that is somewhat complicated and your boss doesn’t understand it. Your boss may say to you, “Well, walk me through how this works exactly.” Show me or explain to me each step of the process.

We may also use this expression when someone is telling a story about something that happened. “Walk me through what happened when you arrived at her house. Did she agree to go to dinner with you? Did she slam the door in your face?” “To slam” (slam) means to close a door with great force – to shut it and make a very loud noise when you do. “To walk someone through” something mean simply to explain it to them in a clear way. I try to walk you through the difficult parts of the English language by explaining them slowly and, I hope, clearly.

The next question comes from Steven (Steven) in China. Steven wants to know the meanings of the expressions “smooth ride” and “rough ride.” “Smooth” (smooth) and “rough” (rough) are often “antonyms” – words that have opposite meanings. To understand precisely what their definitions are, however, it’s important to know what noun they come in front of. “Rough” and “smooth” are adjectives. In front of the noun “ride” (ride), they refer to how comfortable a trip is in a car or a plane or any other sort of mode of transportation.

If you have a small car, it might not have a very smooth ride. You might have a “rough ride.” That’s because a small car doesn’t weigh a lot, and so every time you hit a bump in the road or every time you go on a street that is not perfectly even, you might feel the car go up and down. That would be a “rough ride.” A “smooth ride” is when you are in a car and it feels as though you are sitting in a chair in your living room. It’s very comfortable. You don’t move up and down.

So, “smooth” and “rough,” when they are connected to the word “ride,” refer to how comfortable your time is in a car or other vehicle. You could be in a plane that is flying many thousands of miles over the earth and suddenly the plane starts to move up and down – you would be having a “rough ride.” If the plane is level and doesn’t seem to move up and down, that would be a “smooth ride.” Once again, the word “ride” refers to the period of time in some vehicle, such as a car or a plane, or I suppose a motorcycle or a bus, and so forth.

Now these expressions, “smooth ride” or “rough ride,” may refer more metaphorically to how easy or difficult your time is in a company or during a certain situation. If you, for example, start working at a new company and you have problems every day and things don’t seem to be going very well for you during your first month, there you might say, “Wow, I’ve had a rough ride at this company” – or if you go somewhere and everything is great and you seem to fit in perfectly and love the company and have no problems, we might say, “Well you’ve had a real smooth ride in your new job.”

Finally, we have a question from Piotr (Piotr) in Poland. Piotr wants to know the meaning of the expression “is all.” For example, “They give us some information, is all.” “Is all” is really a short way of saying “that is all” or “that is the only thing.” It’s often used to say that something is only what you have described and no more. It may also be used to say that something is finished, something is completed, or something is enough. I think in American conversational English, it’s probably not a very common expression.

“That is all” is more common than “is all,” although there are cases where you could hear it and use it. For example, let’s say you’re talking about a movie and you don’t like the movie. Someone asks you, “Well, why? Why don’t you like the movie? I mean it was a really good movie. What was wrong with it?” You might say, “Well, it was just so violent, is all.” That means the only reason you didn’t like it is that it was so violent. So, “is all” or “that is all” means that that’s the only thing, but it was important enough for you, in this case, to cause you not to like the movie.

“That is all” is also the expression I’ll end this English Café with.

From Los Angeles California, I’m Jeff McQuillan – that is all.

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.

folk beliefs – superstitions (beliefs in supernatural forces or beings); non-traditional religious and medical practices

* The folk beliefs among the fisherman in this area explain changes in weather conditions and tides.

omen – something that is believed to be a sign or warning of something that will happen in the future

* This black cat appearing at your front door is an omen that bad things may happen soon.

sign – something, such as an action or event, which shows that something else exists, is true, or will happen

* The drop in temperature in the past two weeks is a sign that winter will be here early than usual this year.

corrupt – dishonest, evil, or immoral

* The corrupt government officials took bribes and use their positions to help family members.

corrupted – for a book or computer file to be changed from the correct or original form so that it is no longer pure, reliable, or useful

* This file is corrupted and can’t be opened. It must have been a computer virus that damaged it.

crook – a dishonest person; a criminal

* When Daniel couldn’t find a job, he began associating with a few crooks who convinced him to help them commit robberies.

to lurk – to wait in a secret or hidden place, especially do something wrong or harmful

* When you’re walking home from the subway station, watch out for people lurking in the shadows.

prey – an animal that is hunted or killed by people or another animal for food; someone who is easily harmed or affected in a bad way by someone or something

* Insects are a spider’s natural prey. Spiders don’t normally eat plants.

gullible – easily fooled; easily cheated

* No one is gullible enough to believe you’re a Vietnam War veteran when you’re only 26 years old!

to walk (someone) through (something) – to help someone do something by going through its steps slowly; to give step-by-step instructions on how to do something

* Let me walk you through the security procedures we take when we close up the building and leave for the night.

rough ride – a travel experience with violent and sudden movements or bumps; a travel experience in which things did not go as planned

* The pilot told passengers that they would be traveling through a bad storm and to prepare for a rough ride.

is all – that is all; an expression used to say that something is only what is stated and is no more; an expression used to say that something is finished, completed, or enough

* The only reason we aren’t going to the art gallery opening is that we don’t have the energy. We’re tired, is all.

What Insiders Know
How to Avoid Phone Scams

Thieves have many ways to steal your money. Among the easiest ways “to cheat” (to trick) people out of their money is by using a “phone scam” (fraud committed using the telephone). Here are three things the U.S. government suggests you do to avoid being scammed.

First, hang up on robocalls. A “robocall” is a telephone call made by a machine that plays a recorded message. If you pick up the phone and hear a recorded “sales pitch” (presentation to encourage you to buy), “hang up” (end the call) immediately. These calls are “illegal” (not allowed by law). You may be told to press 1, 2, or any number to be removed from their call list or to speak to an “agent” (service worker). Don’t do this. It will only result in you getting even more phone calls.

Second, don’t trust your “caller ID” (a function or device that shows the phone number of an incoming phone call). Scammers can make caller ID look like anyone is calling, such as a government office or even your own phone number. If the caller tells you to pay money for any reason, or ask for your financial account numbers, hang up. If you think the caller might be “legitimate” (real; what they claim to be), call back to a number you know is genuine, not the number the caller gave you.

Finally, don’t rush to make a decision. Scammers want you to make decisions in a hurry before you’ve had time to think about it or to find more about information about it. No matter how good a “deal” (discount) the caller may be offering, first talk to someone you trust. People who talk to someone they trust before making a financial decision are much less likely “to fall for” (to be deceived by) a scam.