Saturday, March 25, 2017

Watch Your Step! Watch Your Head! Watch out!


One of the most poignant stories that a student has shared with me was an experience of getting off a bus in San Diego. My Korean student was an intrepid learner and always brought me interesting expressions that he had heard during his week outside of school. One day Kim (not his real name) came for his after-school tutoring session and looked very downhearted.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I had so very embarrassed experience," he said.

Then he proceeded to describe the situation. He was standing at the front of the bus waiting to get off. The bus driver stopped and opened the door, and as he was about to step down, the female driver said, "Watch your step…." Kim hesitated, and people standing on the sidewalk waiting to board were looking at him and wondering why he didn't get off. He stood motionless and looked at the steps. The driver repeated the phrase, but Kim stood frozen, not knowing what to do next. Yet a third time, the driver repeated herself.  This time Kim looked back at her, saying, "I AM watching the step." At that point, the driver shook her head in disgust and gestured for him to get off the bus. It was at that point that it suddenly dawned on him what the meaning of the expression was.

Why had no one mentioned this important expression to him?

My husband was also witness to a more dangerous problem. While boarding a commuter flight from the tarmac, walking up a portable staircase, one passenger after another was reminded by the rlight attendant to "Watch your head."  Each passenger looked up and lowered his or her head when going through the door. However, a very tall non-native speaker (by his accent) who thanked the attendant but never lowered his head smacked his forehead right into the low door entrance. He was clearly physically stunned, and the attendant helped him recover from his embarrassment and bump to his head. It left an impression on my husband, and he wondered whether I teach this idiom. It could be very important.  

The British have a different expression from Americans and say, "Mind your step" or "Mind your head." I doubt that either idiom is comprehensible to a non-native speaker of English without a clear context and someone explaining how we use these expressions and their meanings.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Poison Oak



With summer only about a month away, many native plants around San Diego are thriving.  Because they are adapted to dry conditions, they come to life with just a little water. This includes the colorful poison oak (Wikipedia description).  

The sign above is one of the best that I've seen at explaining the danger of poison oak. The photos are to show you what it looks like at two different times of the year (spring photos are above and below and fall is in the middle) and to give you some useful descriptive language.

As the sign says, sometimes the plant looks dead or woody, but it's still toxic to humans. You can get a rash (**Warning: graphic photos) from the oil urushiol in the leaves or stems of this plant. Although your dog may not be as susceptible to rash, if it runs through poison oak, you, as the pet owner, may get exposed to the toxic oil by touching your dog's fur.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cramp Wheels to the Curb

Photo by Sarah Tillinghast Jenson
Have you ever seen this sign? Where did you see it? You can get a ticket for not obeying this parking rule, but what does it mean?

The directions are to "PARK PARALLEL" and in bold and larger font, the sign states, "CRAMP WHEELS TO CURB." Finally, at the bottom, it says to "SET BRAKES."

If you got your license to drive, you certainly know the words "park," "wheels," "brakes," and probably "curb."  What does parallel mean here?  Did you have to parallel park when you took the driving test? These days cars are pretty smart and have sensors on the sides and rear to help you squeeze your car into an empty space on the street.

If you live in a hilly part of San Francisco (is there any place that doesn't have hills in SFO?), you must know how to follow these directions. There are two directions that your wheels can face, depending on whether you are facing downhill or facing uphill. If you are facing downhill, your front tires need to be turned toward the curb. If you are facing uphill, your front tires need to be turned facing outward so that if the car's break failed, the car's front wheels would hit the curb. Otherwise, the car could roll into the center of the street.

Did you know that even without this sign, "Wheel cramping is required on all grades over 3% (hills) with or without the presence of signs. Block your wheels diagonally against the curb by turning your wheels into the curb when facing downhill and out to the street when facing uphill." For more advice, see City of San Diego's Official Website.

P.S. There are other meanings, of course, of cramp. I often get leg cramps, and ladies will also be familiar with another kind of monthly cramps. Thanks to Sarah for capturing this sign!