Alle Beiträge von Richard Mowrer

idiom 122 – to draw a blank

„Hey Walter, I’m trying to find the number for the lady who called in and left a message requesting an offer. What was her name again?“

„It was… wait a minute. Sorry Elizabeth, I’m totally drawing a blank here.“

„Did you write it down?“

„I must have, but I can’t find it anywhere!“

Sometimes, we just can’t remember some specific bit of information. It happens to everyone. In this case, English native speakers use the idiom „to draw a blank“ to describe the gap (Lücke) in our memory.

The origins of this idiom date back to Elizabethan England, when the first national lotteries were introduced in order to raise funds for the expansion of the royal fleet. Participants‘ tickets were drawn (gezogen) from one pot, and prize tickets were drawn from another. However, sometimes the „winner“ was drawn with a blank prize ticket, meaning that the winner’s prize was „nothing.“

It took nearly three hundred years until this term first appeared in written and idiomatic form, when in 1824, US-American writer Washington Irving (famous for the Halloween classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote the following line, describing the feeling of taking unfair credit for someone else’s work:

„It is like being congratulated on the high prize when one has drawn a blank.“

Nowadays, when we draw a blank, we’re not only describing that memory gap, but also an unsuccessful attempt to do something, much like the German idiom „eine Niete ziehen,“ which also has it’s linguistic origins in Renaissance-era lottery systems – the blank ticket was called a „Niete“ in the Dutch lottery system.

idiom 121- the „gut feeling“/ „my gut tells me“

Two colleagues are looking for some important paperwork in their boss’s office:

„Karen, can you remember where Mrs. Simson left that contract I asked you about?“

„I thought she left it on her windowsill…but I’ve got a gut feeling (Bauchgefühl) that she just took it with her by accident.“

Karen could have also said, „…but my gut tells me that she just took…“

The word gut means Bauch or Wampe in German. When we’ve got a gut feeling, we mean that we have a strong but irrational feeling that something is the way it is. We can’t logically explain why (using our head) or how we feel about it (using our hearts)- but the feeling is undeniable (unverkennbar), just like when you’re hungry and your gut is telling you to eat!

Often in English class, my learners won’t be able to explain why they used a certain grammar form or vocab term, but they have answered correctly thanks to their gut feeling. Research has even shown that making decisions based on what your gut tells you will often lead to more desirable outcomes!

Also important: when you’re describing your Bauchgefühl in English, be careful to only use the singular form. The plural form of the word, guts, has a much bloodier meaning: we use this slang term to mean Darm, Innereien, or Eingeweide. So watch out!

Should I stay or should I go?

So, 51,9% of British citizens have voted NOT to remain a member state of the European Union. You were probably faced with this bit of news this morning when you awoke, or maybe a colleague told you once you arrived at your workplace, or maybe you’re reading this for the first time and are shocked about it!

If you are shocked, you’re not alone.

Conversations here at the school with trainers and other staff members all have taken a tone of surprise, but also one of bafflement (Verblüffung). Many European stock markets such as the DAX or London Stock Exchange have posted major losses so far today; the British pound has hit a 30 year exchange rate low and David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has resigned.

But what comes now? Should we, the citizens or residents of the European Union, fear for the future? I’ve spent some time in the office this morning looking for helpful, not scary information about the future of the UK and the EU. A Reuters article posted at 6 AM this morning has done a very good job of answering a few of my most burning questions. I’ll summarize a few things for you to keep in mind while discussing the BREXIT (in English) with your friends, family, co-workers or even other passengers on the S-Bahn while heading home from work!

1.„The EU is in shock and entering uncharted territory. No member state has ever left and Article 50 of the EU treaty, which sets out how a state can exit the bloc, offers little detail.“ Anyone who claims (behaupten) to know what is going on is either a very, very high level EU policymaker- or they’re just lying to you! This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to discuss what could happen- just remember that the BREXIT is a unique situation and that there is no exact plan for how a member state leaves the EU.

Article 50, the tricky bit of the Lisbon Treaty that regulates withdrawal (Rücktritt) from the EU, only has the following excerpts to explain what exactly will happen:

„A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention … The Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.“ So far, so good. Nobody in the EU wants to burn bridges with the UK, which will hopefully remain a trading partner with the EU for a long time.

„It shall be concluded … by the Council, acting by a qualified majority.“ A qualified majority does not constitute the usual 51% majority- in some cases, 55% is necessary and in others, 72% of country votes or 65% of the represented EU population are necessary.

„The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification … unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.“ So, two years after the withdrawal agreement has been submitted (which hasn’t officially happened yet), the UK will stop being a member. Unless they are given more time, or decide to leave even earlier.

2.  What is the EU’s immediate response?

„There has been a mantra of Three Rs from EU leaders speaking on Friday: Regret (Bedauern) – at losing nearly a fifth of the EU economy and more of its military and global clout; Respect – for the will of the British people; and Resolve (Entschlossenheit)to keep the rest of the Union together. „

Which of these do you feel the most? Are you upset at the idea of a European Union without the United Kingdom? Or are you surprised and amazed that a majority of Britons have decided to take a very difficult path? I feel a mixture of these two- as a non-EU citizen, I don’t have much say about the resolve of the EU to remain strong!

3. Where does the EU go from here?

„The Union needs quickly to fill a 7-billion-euro hole in its 145-billion-euro annual budget, which is currently fixed out to 2020, as it loses Britain’s contributions while saving on what Britons receive from EU accounts.“ These contributions have been, admittedly (zugegebenermaßen), higher than their paybacks, which you can see from this graphic:

UK payments to EU budget since 1973

„EU leaders may push for a quick show of unity on holding the bloc together in the face of eurosceptics inspired by the result in Britain — including National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who leads polls for next April’s French presidential election.“ The last thing  in  EU leadership needs is further unrest or mistrust of the currents political situation.

4. What really happens now?

„In principle, nothing changes immediately. Britons remain EU citizens and business continues as before. In practice, many believe trade, investment and political decisions will quickly anticipate British departure from the bloc. The EU could also face a Britain breaking apart if europhile Scots make another push for independence and seek to join the EU on their own.“ This is not the end of the story, this is only the interesting plot twist that gets you interested and keeps you engaged!



What are your thoughts on the matter? Are you able to understand why the majority (Mehrheit) of UK citizens voted the way they did? Do you think there will be similar referendums in other EU member states in the future? Is it a historic moment?

I’ll be sure to revisit this topic in the coming weeks as the EU/UK divorce (Scheidung) continues to unfold!

idiom 120- the metaphorical „ballpark“ (PART 1)

Overheard in conversation between a car mechanic and a customer:


Customer: So, how much will it cost to repair the brakes?


Mechanic: I can’t tell you exactly until after a thorough inspection.

But I could say a ballpark figure (Pi mal Daumen), maybe $750?

Likewise, the car mechanic could have also said:

But I’d say somewhere in the ballpark of (grob geschätzt) $750.

This is a baseball stadium, also known as a ballpark– specifically, this is Citizens‘ Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Speakers of American English love to use the „ballpark“ as a metaphor when talking about estimated, inaccurate amounts. This started roughly in the 1960s when the ballpark was first used by scientists as a metaphor for an acceptable range of data results.

I’ll be continuing to explore the use of the baseball park, playing field, and the diamond (Raute) itself in the next few blog entries as I’ve just recently realized how many different metaphors American English speakers talk from place where this game is played.

Stay tuned!

Idiom 119- take a rain check

A conversation among colleagues at lunch:

Dave, are you coming with us to the new gallery after work today?

Oh no! I forgot about that, Abby. I’ll have to take a rain check.

Could we go next week instead?

Well, today’s the opening, so Tom and I will go anyway. But we’ll tell you if it’s worth it!

In this context, to take a rain check means so much as „etwas auf ein andermal verschieben“, it’s just a much more idiomatic  way of explaining it than the German equivalent!

This is a rain check:


It used to be sold to spectators at a baseball game when rain or other bad weather stopped play completely, and allowed them to return on another night and watch another game. You might be surprised that the whole game was stopped because of a little rain, because soccer players and other athletes play in some pretty extreme weather.

However, in baseball, the condition of the sandy diamond is very important for play. If it becomes too wet, players running could slip and injure themselves. Therefore, the risk of stopped play becomes very high when the weather is bad. Rain checks became popular in the beginning of the 20th century, mostly because they prevented stadium operators from losing  income generated by ticket and food or drink sales during extended periods of bad weather.

Nowadays, we use the phrase to take a rain check to postpone any plans that we’ve made but can’t attend.

Also, don’t be surprised if you see more posts about idioms that have their roots in baseball over the next several weeks. April is the traditional beginning of the baseball season and the sport has given speakers of American English many idioms that are often used in a business setting.


Idiom 118- caught red-handed

Today’s idiom is best used when gossipping (plaudern) with colleagues, as in:

„Did you hear about the  Creative Director? He came into the office late today, smelling of alcohol. About three hours later, his secretary went into his office and and caught him red-handed (kalt erwischt) taking a nap! He had been sleeping the whole morning!“


This idiom has its roots in Scotland from the 1400s and most likely refers to killers, either murderers or poachers (Wilderer) who were found with the blood of their victims on their hands. Today, the idiom has become far less gruesome and we use it to mean being caught in the act of doing something wrong, even if it’s something „harmless“ like sneaking the last piece of chocolate that your wife wanted to eat…

Idiom 117- jump on the bandwagon

I’ve had a beard for the last ten years or so. But in the last three or four years, beards have become very stylish and it seems that everybody is trying to grow a beard. They’re all just jumping on the bandwagon (Trittbrettfahrer), I tell you!


This massive vehicle pictured above is a bandwagon. These things became popular in the late 1800s during parades- the bandwagon usually went at the head of a section of a parade, and allowed the band to play louder than they would have if they’d had to march.

Naturally, because the bandwagon was so big and and the front of the parade, it attracted a lot of attention. Politicians liked to ride on the bandwagon because they were more visible to the public, and eventually, many people tried to get a spot on the bandwagon because riding with a politician or other important person made them feel important, too!

Now we just use the phrase „to jump on the bandwagon“ when we talk about people who are part of the crowd or just like to „go with the flow.“



What Makes a Confident Speaker? (Part 2: Listen Actively)

For the last few weeks of 2015 and the first few weeks of 2016, I’ll be writing a few posts about confidently speaking a foreign language. Having learned German and gone pretty far with it myself, I often answer questions from my students about speaking more confidently. We’ll focus on one piece of advice per post, and you are invited to join the discussion and add your thoughts in the comments section below!

# 2: Listen Actively, Not JUST Passively

Imagine yourself having a conversation with a native speaker of your target language. You’re exchanging ideas quickly and easily; speaking fluently and getting your point across, but you’re also listening „fluently“ and taking what you’ve just heard and turning it into your next thought.

Listening and speaking are very closely related- you need one to have the other.

When I talk with my students about listening, they will often mention passive listening practice. They listen to BBC radio on their drive home from work or tune into CNN on their TVs while preparing dinner. Doing this, they think, will surround them with spoken English, and they will improve. Yet after a few months, they ask me why all of this extra listening doesn’t seem to help.

I tell them to imagine the same commute home from work or the same dinner prep time; this time spent listening to RBB or watching the evening news on ARD. Can they remember the news a few hours later? Probably not specific details, maybe not even the general content of the stories. This doesn’t mean that they can’t understand German; my students are almost all German native speakers.

What it does mean is that they weren’t listening actively. Active listening is listening to understand- it means we think about what or who we’re listening to and we take it apart by asking questions (if we are listening to a person), or listening to the same bit over an over again (in the case of the news) until we understand what we have heard. It might also mean applying what we have just listened to to a real-life action.

When we listen to the news while doing something else, we probably aren’t actively listening. It’s okay! It’s no problem- you probably shouldn’t be actively listening while driving home; it’s slippery outside and you should be paying attention to the traffic!


(This is not the best place to learn English!)

So this week, I’d like to make a suggestion: if you want to listen to English-language news, try doing it actively. Not in the car. Not in the kitchen. It might take you fifteen or so minutes. Let me show you what I mean.

I get most of my English-language news from NPR, the US network of public radio broadcasters. There’s a radio station in Berlin (104.1) and a wonderful website that provides lots of opportunity to listen to interesting news stories. Because NPR is mainly a radio-based news service, many of their stories are available both for reading and listening.

One short bit, called „First Mention,“ is a semi-regular series that takes a look at the first time a catchword or phrase was ever mentioned on air by NPR. The most recent one was about Wikipedia, and is  not so challenging to listen to. It clocks in at just under two minutes long, contains a few phrasal verbs that we might not be familiar with. However, the context is pretty clear- the story is about the first time the word „Wikipedia“ was mentioned on NPR. Take a look at the story here.

As you can see, there’s a transcript of the story included on the link. Try reading the transcript aloud before you listen to the story. While reading, focus on the sounds the words make, not on the meaning of the words. Read through the transcript aloud again, this time noticing which words or phrases you might not know. Phrasal verbs like „pop up,“ „dip into,“ or „float around“ might be a challenge- these are the words that you should look up. I like to use Linguee to look up phrasal verbs- try it out.

Now that you’ve read through the transcript a few times and looked up the words and phrases that were new or challenging for you, listen to the story. Listen to it again and again; feel free to pause it and repeat those words  or phrases that were new for you.

After you’ve finished listening to the story and closed the tab on your browser, take a moment to think about it again. What was it about? Who were the people you heard talking? Maybe you look up „NPR“ or „Ira Flatow“ on Wikipedia- the more you do to use the story you’ve just listened to, the better it will stay in your memory.

This might seem to take a long time, and this certainly isn’t the shortest post- but active listening is important because it allows you to „own“ the language you are trying to learn. It is a chance for you to decide what to learn, and how.

Have fun, and keep listening!


Idiom 116 – sell like hotcakes

We’re standing in a German discount supermarket on the 31st of December. The store is full; the people have that special panicked look on their faces that you only see before a public holiday. Young men and boys are gathered under a large sign advertising fireworks and filling their bags to the brim with consumer explosives. The fireworks are selling like hotcakes (wie warme Semmel gehen). The metal bin underneath the fireworks sign is soon empty.

This idiom has its roots in American English (AE) from the second half of the 19th century, when it was more commonplace to buy bake goods from a church bake sale than today. A hotcake is an older AE term for a pancake, and who doesn’t love a good stack of pancakes, especially when they are hot?  The idiom also makes it clear that the seller doesn’t have to do much of anything to get rid of the goods once they are on sale- everyone wants to buy hotcakes while they are still hot.

Also- for those of you who have only ever eaten the flat, European-style pancakes- here’s an easy recipe I like to use for fluffy,  American-style „hotcakes.“ I substitute the baking powder for baking soda (Natron) in equal amounts. It would be perfect for one of those post- Christmas mornings when your whole family is at home for breakfast and very hungry. Enjoy, and happy holidays!

What Makes a Confident Speaker? (Part 1: Focus on Communication)

For the last few weeks of 2015 and the first few weeks of 2016, I’ll be writing a few posts about confidently speaking a foreign language. Having learned German and gone pretty far with it myself, I often answer questions from my students about speaking more confidently. We’ll focus on one piece of advice per post, and you are invited to join the discussion and add your thoughts in the comments section below!

# 1: Focus on Communication, not Accuracy (or Fluency!)

The first tip is more of a mindset than a tip, really. You have to keep reminding yourself of it, regularly. A very good English teacher will do this for you, too!

We all want to speak both accurately AND fluently. But, sometimes we focus too much on NOT making mistakes that we make mistakes. And other times we have a clear and fluent thought in our heads, but CAN’T seem to speak it

When this happens, it’s helpful to take a quick „mental break“ and refocus. Don’t panic! Ask yourself the following:  What do I want to say? How can I say it most clearly?

Focusing on clearly explaining your idea will often take away the nervous and unsure feelings we have when speaking in a foreign language.

What have you experienced? Are you more confident when you just focus on communication?