Problems, difficulties, dilemmas, enigmas, paradoxes and predicaments

(Level B1 and above: vocabulary around the word “problem” and different kinds of problems)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House in Geneva


Do you have a problem? Yes, we all do at one time or another.

A problem to solve (résoudre), a problem to unravel, a problem that is annoying, or maybe a problem that is driving you mad. If you believe the popular interpretation of Murphy’s Law which says, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” then you’re ready to handle (s’occuper de) the inevitable problems coming your way.

But what kind of problem do you have, exactly? Is it a difficulty, an obstacle, a complication, a muddle, a mix-up, a snag, a hitch, a stumbling block, or a hurdle? There are so many different words for different kinds of problems, that naming them can be problematic.

  • Muddle: a confused situation
  • Mix-up: a mistake due to confusion
  • Hitch: a problem that is not very serious
  • Stumbling block: a difficulty that prevents progress
  • Hurdle: one of several problems that you must solve before you can do something successfully

Problems can be pressing, insurmountable, tricky, troublesome, knotty, thorny, delicate, worrying and of course embarrassing, and we’ve all had a few of those…

  • Pressing: urgent
  • Insurmountable: impossible to deal with
  • Tricky: difficult
  • Troublesome: annoying
  • Knotty: difficult to solve or understand
  • Thorny: difficult to deal with
  • Delicate: that needs to be dealt with carefully
  • Worrying: causing anxiety
  • Embarrassing: making you feel nervous, ashamed, or stupid


What do you do with a problem?

Our job is to solve, talk them over, think them through, sort them out but mostly importantly deal with (s’occuper de) them. What do you do when you run into a problem?

  • Solve: to find a solution
  • Talk something over: discuss something thoroughly and honestly
  • Think something through: consider the facts in an organised way
  • Sort something out: do what is necessary to deal with a problem
  • Deal with: to take action to do something, especially to solve a problem
  • Run into: to start to have trouble​/​difficulty​/​problems, etc.


Different kinds of problems:

Let’s take the paradox, for example. A paradox is a person, thing, or situation that is strange because they have qualities that do not normally exist together. For example, there’s the famous Liar’s paradox. The statement, “this statement is a lie”, is a paradox because if that statement is indeed a lie, then it would be saying the truth. And vice versa. This statement contradicts itself and indicates that it is both true and false.

Then there’s the dilemma. A dilemma is a situation offering a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives. You can also call it a predicament.  For example, the US is facing a dilemma: the country wants to send more weapons to Ukraine but Russia says that if the Americans do so, the Russians will take more aggressive action. What to do? The country is in a quandary (not certain what decision to take).

You can also call a dilemma a Catch-22 situation, a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. For example, how can you get any work experience if you cannot find a job that gives you work experience? The expression comes from the title of a 1962 novel by Joseph Heller, about a group of people in the US air force who find themselves in a number of funny situations caused by silly military rules.



Catch-22 – Film Trailer


Then there is the enigma. An enigma is mysterious and difficult to understand. A famous enigma is dark matter; astronomers say it exists because it interacts with what we can see, yet we cannot see it. Then there’s Jack the Ripper, a late 19th c. serial killer in London who was never identified. And the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing in March 2014 while crossing the Indian Ocean. It just vanished. What a mystery!


Enigma – film trailer


The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – film trailer


There is the conundrum, that is, a difficult problem, or a puzzle, that is difficult or impossible to solve. For example, there is this theological conundrum of the existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a good God. Or the famous moral conundrum of the “Trolley problem.” The word conundrum covers different types of situations, from moral dilemmas to riddles. A riddle is a puzzle. For example, “There is a house. One enters it blind (aveugle) and comes out seeing. What is it?” (Answer: A school.)


The Trolley Problem explained – with subtitles:


You also have the so-called wicked problem (contribution from David), which is a social problem with no single solution, and resistance to the resolution. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets (mentalités) and behaviour, like global climate change, is likely to be a wicked problem.


Wicked problems explained


When faced with (en face de) a problem, you could always call on Occam’s razor, an old problem-solving principle that says the simpler explanation is to be preferred.


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  • unimportant/slight/significant/serious/massive/insurmountable problem
  • She has a lot of health (santé) problems
  • financial/social/technical problems
  • Let me know if you have a problem / any problems
  • The government must address (try to deal with) the problem of child poverty
  • We cannot tackle (deal with) this problem on our own
  • Money isn’t going to solve (resolve) the problem
  • (especially North American English) to fix (settle, resolve) a problem
  • If you have problems at home, it’s bound to affect your work (it will certainly happen)
  • To pose/create a problem
  • The problem first arose (happened, started) in 2018.
  • problem with something: There is a problem with this argument.
  • problem of something: the problem of drug abuse
  • problem of doing something: Most students face the problem of funding themselves while they are studying
  • problem for somebody: Unemployment is a very real problem for graduates now
  • It’s a nice table! The only problem is (that) it’s too big for our room
  • Part of the problem is the shape of the room
  • Stop worrying about their marriage—it is not your problem
  • There’s no history of heart problems (disease connected with the heart) in our family.
  • The magazine’s problem page (containing letters about readers’ problems and advice about how to solve them)
  • First World problem – a problem that is actually very minor, especially when compared with the serious problems faced by people who live in countries where there is extreme poverty – Can’t decide which smartphone to buy? What a horrible First World problem to have!

Australia votes for hope and change and an end to toxic politics

If you follow the news, it’s quite easy to feel that we (humans) are sliding down the slippery slope. Conflict, war, disease, lies and propaganda dominate the feed. Children are not safe at school.

However, there is some positive news from one country, which you probably associate more with venomous spiders and snakes, sharks, forest fires and floods, adventure, surfing and AC/DC.

Last month, democracy called on Australia, as this wonderful, but delicate creature does every three years.

The result was resounding. Australians voted to end a decade of toxic politics. Enough was enough.

It was a vote for climate action, gender equality, integrity and accountability, the environment, indigenous Australians and better governance.

Phew! Goodbye to the conservative Liberal/National Party coalition. Goodbye and good riddance to the Pentecostal bully, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Welcome back Australia. Bloody brilliant mate!


It was hello to empowered grass root movements and a call for self-distancing from a tired binary and very male political culture


The 2022 election has altered the political landscape. The historic grip on power enjoyed by the two main political parties; the centre/left Labor Party (now the majority governing party) and the defeated conservative/right Liberal/National Party coalition can no longer be taken for granted.

It was hello to empowered grass root movements and a call for self-distancing from a tired binary and very male political culture.

It was also a vote against the Murdoch media conglomerate, which has poisoned civil debate around the world with its incessant stream of the lies, distortions and fearmongering.

This election saw a rise in women independents and minor parties, including the Greens. The two main parties historically poll more than 80 per cent of the vote. A few crumbs fall to the independents and minor parties.  Last weekend the two main parties polled just 68% of the vote.


What began as kitchen table chats in affluent suburbs in the larger cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth morphed into an enthusiastic movement of thousands, mostly women, who door-knocked thousands of homes


Where did votes go?  The winners were the Greens who polled 12 per cent across the nation and secured at least four seats in the Lower House. More telling was a new grass roots political movement that mobilised tens of thousands of volunteers in wealthy inner suburban electorates across the country. It was fuelled by anger and disillusionment, some of which related to misogyny and violence against women, a constant denial of climate change and the  catastrophes it has wrought on the country and  the terrible treatment of refugees.

What began as kitchen table chats in affluent suburbs in the larger cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth morphed into an enthusiastic movement of thousands, mostly women, who door-knocked thousands of homes.

The seat of Kooyong in Melbourne has always been a safe seat for the Liberal Party, the party of the establishment. The seat was held by the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, a moderate member of the Liberal party and a widely-tipped potential future leader.

These so-called moderates like Frydenberg were locked into a pro-fossil fuel and coal industry policy which was either opposed to climate action and alternative energy or played reluctant lip service.

Independent, Dr Monique Ryan, a neurologist, achieved the unthinkable, deposing one of Australia’s most prominent politicians.



She was one of 23 independents backed by grassroot volunteers and the Climate 200 group. This group, led by a wealthy businessmen, funded and resourced independent candidates who made climate action, political integrity and gender equality the main planks of their campaign. In the end, six independent women candidates won their contests. In all the Liberal Party lost 18 seats and the Labor Party gained 8. Counting continues in a few close seats but, as of yesterday,  the Labor Party will have majority of at least two.

The new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is no Trump or Berlusconi. He was raised by his single mother on a disability pension in public housing. He was the first in his family to finish school and the first to graduate from university. He’s humble and hard-working.


New PM Anthony Albanese

The first words in his victory speech were for indigenous Australians. “Albo” affirmed the Government would go ahead with the Uluru Statement from the Heart which will give Aboriginal Australians a voice in Parliament.

Albanese’s victory speech:



Albanese is the first Australian PM with a non-Anglo name. His Italian father died in a car accident shortly after he married his mother. He was 14 when his mother revealed his father was, in fact, still alive. You can read the extraordinary account here.

Among the Labor party winners was a former Malaysian monk and dolphin trainer, Sam Lim who grew up in poverty before migrating to Australia.

Another winner are refugees who have been held in detention for upwards of eight years. One refugee family, known as “the Biloela family”,  will finally taste freedom. Both their children were born in Australia and lived their lives in detention.



More reading:

Sick and shameful culture in the highest office in the land

In Australia you can’t see climate change. There’s too much smoke.

Djokovic is not the victim in the hotel of the persecuted in Australia














O is for orange and P is for pirate

(Level C1 and above, history of pirates)

PIRACY is one of our most enduring activities.

First came the boat and piracy quickly followed.  It spread across the seven seas and into airspace (aircraft hijacking) and cyberspace where even you, dear reader, have probably indulged in a little piracy.

Pirate was one of the first professions we learnt off the alphabet chart on our bedroom wall.  A was for Apple (not accountant), B was for Ball (certainly not banker), but P was for Pirate, the profession of parrots, penguins and pearls. And why not? No set bath times or no baths at all, non-stop adventure on the high seas, rubies and emeralds, cutlasses and daggers, eye patches and gold earrings, skull and bones, a bevy of mermaids and everyone was my hearties, and booty, was loot or plunder, not a part of the female anatomy be jiggled and shaken.

Johnny Depp as the swashbuckling dandy, Captain Sparrow, partly-modelled on the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (“if you’re going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet”) made these old salty sea-dogs even more likeable.


Where there is a sea there are pirates – Greek Proverb


Apart from filling Hollywood treasure chests with gold pieces, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did for piracy and pirates what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs and fossils. Skull and cross bones T-shirts and plastic cutlasses clutter children’s wardrobes around the world.

History, however, paints a darker story.

The Captain Sparrows of the 18th century created a massive global financial crisis. Between 1718 and 1722, they captured and plundered more than 2,500 vessels on Atlantic trade routes. The most successful pirate of this time, Welshman Bartholomew Roberts, known as Black Bart, captured and plundered more than 450 vessels.

He was killed by the British Royal Navy off the coast of Gabon in West Central Africa in 1722. His crew members were said to be too drunk to defend the ship. A total of 52 members of his crew were then hanged in the largest pirate trial ever held.


Blackbeard’s head


Blackbeard was probably the best known pirate. His huge beard “came up to his eyes,” and while in action, he carried “three brace of pistols, hanging in holsters like Bandoliers; and stuck lighted matches and firecrackers under his hat,” in order to cloud himself in a haze of smoke, according to a 1724 account. His theatrical branding was successful and many ships and their crews surrendered, trembling in fear, without firing a cannon.


Anne Bonny and Mary Read


There were several notable women pirates. Ching Shih became known as the Pirate Queen when she established a confederation of pirates. At the height of her power, Shih, controlled a fleet of 400 junks (Chinese sailing ships) crewed by about 40,000 pirates. They targeted British (East Indian Company), Portuguese as well as Chinese vessels.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read disguised themselves as men on and off during their piracy careers. They were both illegitimate children and for several years joined forces as co-captains. Unlike their crew, they escaped the hangman because they were both pregnant.

Let’s jump on board, and cut them to pieces – Blackbeard


According to leading American public figure of the day, Cotton Mather, “all Nations agree to treat [pirates] as the Common Enemies of Mankind, and to extirpate (destroy completely) them out of the world”.

Today, there is a similar anti-pirate rant, or at least from some corporations. Film and music piracy allegedly costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion per year (including, of course, illegal downloads of Pirates of Caribbean and Captain Phillips and other films) and is responsible for the loss of thousands of American jobs.


In the late 17th century there existed a pirate and adventurer that had more feathers in his cap than 100 Captain Sparrows.

William Dampier (below) was an Englishman, adventurer, cartographer, best-selling writer, explorer, linguist, naturalist and pirate. Where to start with this remarkable and curious man?

Dampier wrote his first and best-selling travel book, A Voyage Round the World, in 1697. His books inspired what is widely acknowledged as the first novel, Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe 20 years later. Jonathan Swift used Dampier’s writing to construct Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver refers affectionately to his Cousin Dampier.



Almost 150 years after Dampier’s death, Charles Darwin boarded The Beagle with a chest full of Dampier’s books which included detailed descriptions of the Galapagos Islands.

Dampier was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times and documented the winds and currents of the world’s oceans and the exotic animals and peoples he encountered. He was the first Englishman to discover New Holland (Australia). He did this 80 years before Captain James Cook who most Australians are told “discovered” their country. Cook set sail using Dampier’s brilliant charts.


Damper’s map of East Indies 1697


His writing was equally fascinating. In one breath Dampier describes a flock of flamingos:

“like a brick wall, their feathers being the colour of new red brick;”

and in the next breath, the delicacy of eating flamingo tongue:

“there is a large knob of fat at the root which is an excellent bit, a dish of flamingos’ tongues being fit for a prince’s table.”

He wrote the first account in English about the effects of a medicinal herb called ganga or bang, today known as marijuana, which “could stupefy the brains of any person that drinks thereof.” He notes its effects varied according to the constitution of the person. It made “some people sleepy, some cheerful, putting them into a laughing fit, but others are made mad.”

Dampier introduced more than 1000 words into the English language including chopsticks, barbecue, breadfruit, cashew, avocado, sub-species, sea lion and sea breeze. He is cited more than 80 times in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Dampier’s achievements received little recognition. In the eyes of establishment, he was a man stained for life; a pirate-ruffian that should have been hung.

But in the eyes of navigators and explorers, scientists, naturalists and writers; Dampier was a man of exquisite mind.

Recommended reading:

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind (The Life of William Dampier) Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer written by Diana and Michael Preston.

Famous pirate quotes:

“Merchant and pirate were for a long period, one and the same person. Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy” – Steve Jobs during Apple’s early days

Pardon my French, I am going to be rude

My mother was a most polite woman. Her language was always temperate. She rarely lost her temper. However, if someone or something did make her blood boil (made her very angry) she was likely to exclaim:

Pardon my French, but I think he’s a damn idiot!


Pardon my French, but that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard for a long time!

It is important to note here that despite apologising for her use of the Gallic language (pardon my French), my mother did not speak French, apart from a few muddied phrases from her school days. You might also notice that neither of the above phrases contain any French language. Weird, isn’t it?

What’s clear is that the French language (and its people) were closely linked with some uncouth (rude), wicked and immoral language and behaviour. French was the language of swearing and dirty dancing and should be prefaced with an apology.


French prints were early porn and French kissing was delicious but dangerous and could lead to the French disease


This was reinforced by antiquated English expressions such as to take French leave (to leave a party without saying goodbye or thanking the host) and the French letter (condom) which couldn’t have been much good because there was the French disease (syphilis). French prints were early porn and French kissing was delicious but dangerous and could lead to the French disease.

Only the loose-tongued French could equate “being lucky” with “having an arse lined with noodles” (avoir le cul bordé de nouilles) and “living in luxury” with “farting in silk” (péter dans la soie) … Pardon my French.

When they weren’t fighting, the French and English were occasionally trading (mostly insults).


“I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”


The 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail gave us an over-the-top glimpse.

“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”



Today much of France has been colonised by older wealthy Brits. At worst it’s a polite food fight over the English Channel (La Manche): The frogs versus les rosbifs.

Before you get on your high horse and defend the French, please note that these historic insults were all very tit-for-tat.

The expression to take French leave also exists in French with one small, but important change – filer à l’anglaise.

Likewise, a French letter is a capote anglaise and the French disease was also known as la maladie anglaise. (The Arabs called it the Christian disease and depending where your invaders came from, it was also known as the Italian, Spanish, German and Polish disease ) .

The Simpsons cartoon series came up with a new and vivid crudity for the French in 1995: “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (singes capitulards bouffeurs de fromage). Pardon my French.



The phrase pardon my French can be traced back to educated classes in the 1800s.

Bless me, how fat you have grown! Absolutely as round as a ball: – you will soon be as enbon-point, excuse my French, as your poor dear father, the major – The Lady’s Magazine, 1830

Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried his l’épée à la main ; excuse my French – Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, 1833 .

Some linguists claim that pardon my French had little to do with insults. They argue that educated English people liked to drop French expressions into a conversation. They would use the phrase to modestly apologise for these Gallic references, as many of their listeners were unfamiliar with the language.


“…and thirdly, you must hate a Frenchman, as you do the devil”


However, this theory is unlikely. In the early 19th century Napoleon was on the warpath and all things French were considered bad taste and should be apologised for in the same breath.

The French revolution of 1789 scared the living daylights out of the British ruling class. Then came the Napoleonic wars.


Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson : An arm lost to the Spanish and little love lost for the French

Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was quite clear when giving advice to to his naval crews:

There are three things, young gentlemen, which you are constantly to bear in mind. Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders . . . Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly, you must hate a Frenchman, as you do the devil.

All things French were considered bad taste and should be apologised for in the same breath.

From there it evolved into a more general apology, please forgive me for my rude language as Jim Carey demonstrates so eloquently in the film I Love you Phillip Morris (2009). Please pardon his obscene French. Not for those with fragile ears.

When discussing how badly he’s going to beat his handsome opponent, Tony Janiro, Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro) in the film Raging Bull claims:

“I’m gonna open his hole like this. Please excuse my French. I’m gonna make him suffer. I’m gonna make his mother wish she never had him . . . ”

In the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the main character describes his best friend Cameron:

“Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.”

I’ll stop there. Please pardon my English.


The above article is a modified version of an article published on the Bilan magazine website in 2014.

Gaslighting: The manipulation of reality

(Level B2 and above: origins and meaning of the term “gaslight”)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House in Geneva


Gaslighting is denying (démentir) reality, with the intention to make another person doubt themselves. It is a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships.

Putin is good at “gaslighting”. Despite evidence to the contrary, he claimed the deployment of troops around the Ukrainian borders was just for defence, he was being provoked, he had begun withdrawing some troops, there was a genocide in Donbas, he would not invade Ukraine, he would hold a ceasefire, the West were talking complete nonsense, Russia is the only country telling the truth, there is no such thing as disinformation or cyber warfare…

This journalist concurs: “For months, the threat of an “imminent” Russian invasion has hovered over Ukraine. Throughout this time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated the strategy he’s most skilled at: gaslighting the world.”


What gaslighting means

‘Gaslighting’ (manipulation psychologique) means psychological abuse, where the victim is led to doubt their own judgement and sense of reality through the abuser’s repeated denials, deflections (évitement) and lies.

The term is often treated as a modern buzzword, although it has appeared in decades of psychoanalytical studies.

It is easy to find reading material about it in the press. Especially since the term has just been used in a high court for the first time, in relation to a case of domestic abuse whereby a woman was repeatedly raped and accused of being “bipolar” afterward by her partner.

Oxford Dictionaries named gaslighting one of its most popular words of the year in 2018. The term has steadily grown in popular use, but is not always used in the correct context.



The term “gaslight” is derived from the title of a 1938 British stage play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light (lueur d’une lampe à gaz) . It is the story of a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane (folle).

The play was subsequently produced as a film, Gaslight, in the UK in 1940 (full version here) and the  U.S. in 1944 (trailer here) with Ingrid Bergman.

Those dramas depicted some of the basic elements of the technique of gaslighting: the husband drives his wife to near insanity by convincing her that she has only imagined the sounds in the attic and the dimming (assombrissement) of the gaslights in their house, which were actually the result of his searching for some missing jewels.


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The story

The play is set in London in 1880, at the upper-middle-class home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella.

Bella is clearly on edge (nerveuse), and the reproaches of her overbearing (dominateur) husband (who flirts with the servants in front of his wife) make it worse. Bella is perturbed by Jack’s unexplained disappearances from the house: he will not tell her where he is going, and this increases her anxiety. Jack tries to convince Bella that she is going insane by telling her she is imagining that the gas light in the house is dimming.

A police detective called Rough helps Bella realise that Jack is responsible for her torment. Rough explains that the apartment above was once occupied by one Alice Barlow, a wealthy woman who was murdered for her jewels. The murderer was never found.

Jack goes to the flat each night to search for the jewels, and lighting the apartment’s gas lights causes the lights to dim in the rest of the building. Bella believes she is “hearing things” when she hears his footsteps in the empty apartment.

Rough convinces Bella to assist him in exposing Jack as the murderer, which she does, but not before she takes revenge on Jack by pretending to help him escape. At the last minute she reminds him that, having gone insane, she is not responsible for her actions. At the end of the play, Jack is taken by the police.


Other cultural examples

The story is an example of psychological abuse and coercive control. There are many other movies in which gaslighting is described, for example: What Lies Beneath (2000), Sleeping With the Enemy (1991), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980), Memento (2000), and more.

Examples of gaslighting can be seen in some TV series too: HBO’s Big Little Lies, where the apparently glamorous marriage of Celeste and Perry conceals brutally ugly truths, with far-reaching consequences. The Netflix miniseries Unbelievable reflects how victims of abuse face gaslighting from the justice system itself. The long-running British soap opera Coronation Street handles an ongoing coercive-control storyline with sensitivity.

As is often the case, culture shines a light on problems and brings about positive social changes – such as women shelters, protective procedures, and public awareness (conscience).


Not gaslighting

But if for example, people in Hong Kong conclude, from evidence, there will be a China-style hard Covid lockdown soon and start stockpiling, and the government, at first, denies there would be a lockdown, that is not gaslighting. It is just defensive lying to avoid general panic.

And if people suffering from Long Covid – when they cannot recover from the illness – are told it is not true, this is not gaslighting either. The doctors are not trying to confuse their patients; they simply don’t believe their patients. However, people suffering from Long Covid might well feel like they are being gaslighted.

“One of the central things about Long Covid is that people are disbelieved,” science writer Ed Yong said. “They are told that their symptoms are in their heads, or that they’re just suffering from anxiety, that they’re going through psychosomatic stuff. It’s all the same attitude that people with ME/CFS and other similar illnesses have had to deal with for a long time.”

“Gaslight” is a noun and a verb. As a new verb, it is regular (past: gaslighted). The same goes for another new verb, “greenlight,” which means to give approval or permission for something.



Is this the greatest song ever?

1967 was a good year for office equipment and a wonderful year for music.

The first electronic handheld calculator went on sale and the Beatles released the album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It was also the year that one of most played songs in the history of pop and rock was released. The man who sang and co-wrote the music, inspired by Johann Sebastien Bach, died last month.

His name, Gary Brooker. In April 1967, Brooker, a struggling, but determined songwriter, formed a new band with a few of his musician mates. That same month they went into a London studio. They had to borrow a jazz drummer. One of songs they recorded was called A White Shade of Pale. The band called themselves Procol Harum, named after a friend’s pedigree cat, and within a few weeks the song was number one and that’s where it stayed for four months. It is one of only 30 singles that have sold more than 10 million copies.



According to the BBC radio, it is the most-played song of the last 75 years. Its whirling organ riff and out-there, psychedelic lyrics are melancholic, beautiful, sad and uplifting. It’s baroque and modern. Music for the soul.

Even the Beatles were gob-smacked. At the time, so the story goes, Paul McCartney interrupted his first date with his future wife Linda in order to rush to the DJ booth at Soho’s Bag O’Nails club, demanding to know what the hell he was playing (“God, what an incredible record,” he subsequently enthused)


“That dope song – you hear it when you take some acid and wooooh!” – John Lennon


John Lennon told a journalist friend that all current pop music was “crap” except for “that dope song, A Whiter Shade of Pale – you hear it when you take some acid and wooooh!” Lennon used to play it repeatedly on the record player fitted in his psychedelic Rolls Royce.

This was no run-of-the-mill rock song. It borrowed from/was inspired by Bach’s Air on G-String, Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman and the lyrics reference The Miller’s Tale , the second of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century.



A lot to digest in one simple song. The band’s name Procol Harum is Latin, and means “beyond these things”. In reality, the name was taken from the name of a pedigree blue Burmese cat that belonged to a friend of the musicians. It was misspelled. The cat’s name was Procol Harun.

The extraordinary lyrics, which open with the immortal two lines below, were written by Keith Reid who wrote the words for every song recorded by the group.

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor



Reid was an official member of the group, despite not playing an instrument.

He also wrote the lyrics for two English language songs by the French singer Michel Polnareff in 1966 , You’ll Be On My Mind and Time Will Tell, and was co-writer for the John Farnham hit You’re the Voice.



So what’s the song about? The general consensus is that it’s a description of a drunken sexual adventure that has gone wrong.

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
The crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said “there is no reason”
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
Would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well have been closed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

And so it was that later


There have been hundreds of cover versions. Undoubtedly the greatest was recorded by King Curtis. Sublime.



  • A Whiter Shade of Pale:  released as a single by Procol Harum on 12 May 1967, composed by Gary Brooker and Mathhew Fisher. Lyrics by Keith Reid.

RIP: Gary Brooker.

Au revoir Boris the Johnson

(Level C1 and above: The fall of Boris Johnson)


“We’re all used to being lied to, but everybody hates being treated as a fool”


Goodbye, Boris. It was short and not sweet. It was tumultuous and riddled with lies and hypocrisy, which was what we expected from you. You were Boris. True to nature.

Sure, the barn door has not yet been slammed shut on your nose, but it’s probably just a matter of time. Weeks, days, hours or minutes.

“Operation Save Big Dog” (yes, that’s what the Tory brain trust calls the campaign to save your skin) has lost its bark, its bone and its teeth. “Big Dog”, has outstayed his welcome. He chews the slippers and leaves stinky piles wherever he goes. He cannot be house-trained.



If you place your ear to the walls of the Euro Tunnel in Calais, you can hear the knives being sharpened in Westminster. Resignation to the inevitable fin de régime is growing, as are the number of letters of resignation. Boris’ head of policy resigned in controlled fury, then his chief of staff, his principal private secretary and his director of communication fell honourably on their sharpened fountain pens. That was yesterday.  Today, his special adviser on women and equalities handed in her letter. A growing number of Tory parliamentarians are in favour of a vote of no confidence. One has even defected to the Labour party.


Dissent has shifted gears from displeasure to desperation to outright ire


There is momentum. Dissent has shifted gears from displeasure to desperation to outright ire. The media, even the Tabloids of Untruth, which love to forgive and caress him, are now baring their teeth. The polls are shining a positive light on the Labour Party, and its leader Keir Starmer, an occurrence, almost as rare as a blue moon. In the Tory wings, the sartorial and filthy rich Chancellor Rishi Sunak is carefully preening himself.

Much of the public have turned. The entertainment factor, the “Oh, that’s our Boris” (and wave your hands in the air, with a shrug of the shoulders) has gone.

The public now understand that they were hood-winked, led up the garden path and then taken for a ride. They followed the stern pronouncements of the government: “Stay Home, Save Lives”.

How naïve! Boris and his Conservative party-goers made the rules for the common people and then kept pouring drinks. They enjoyed party after party while the general population was paralysed by restrictions.



Let’s see: there was, allegedly, a “bring your own booze” party in Downing Street (DS) on 20 May 2020, a leaving party in the Cabinet office on 18 June, Boris’ birthday party on 19 June in DS with about 30 people, a leaving party for Dominic Cummings on 13 November, Christmas gatherings on 17 and 18 December – later leaked in a press conference video, a leaving party in DS on 14 January 2021 and another on 16 April.

Apology followed apology from the Prime Minister who has the perfect coupe de cheveux for a sheepish look. But you can’t govern by apology and Boris has never done a convincing contrite.


The Prime Minister’s greatest liability is that he treated the public as though “they were stupid enough to follow the rules”


In an interview with The New Yorker this week, the political scientist David Runciman says the Prime Minister’s greatest liability is that he treated the public as though “they were stupid enough to follow the rules.”

He says: “The most toxic and resonant charge against Johnson—and this has been all over the British press—is that he treated the public as though, in a sense, they were stupid enough to follow the rules.

“And that seems to be the aspect of hypocrisy that is just so damaging for politicians and hard to recover from, because we’re all used to being lied to, but everybody hates being treated as a fool.”

Boris has the gift of the gab, like an old Music Hall entertainer. He can regale the masses with stories, and a nudge and a wink; that the crazy EU wanted to outlaw the curve in bananas, that Brexit would allow hundreds of millions of pounds to be invested into National Health Service, that the hordes of immigrants were coming to takes your jobs, lives and wives, that the war cry of the old empire, the waving of flags and the chorus of Rule Britannia were jolly more important that UK’s place in Europe. He distracted with puns and obliterated opponents with alliteration.

His verbal gymnastics, and sly smiles, enabled him to describe black people as “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” with their “watermelon smiles”, gay men as “tank-topped bumboys”, or Muslim women wearing niqabs as “letterboxes”.

One former colleague described him as “Machiavelli, disguised as Bertie Wooster”, the fictional character in the comedic Jeeves stories.


“He is a congenital liar, serially disloyal, untrustworthy, irresponsible and hopelessly chaotic”.


The public were warned well in advance by a former foreign editor of the Times, Martin Fletcher. He wrote in May 2019:

“Johnson is also spectacularly lacking in the moral qualifications required to lead the country. He is a congenital liar, serially disloyal, untrustworthy, irresponsible and hopelessly chaotic.

“He may be a gifted and humorous wordsmith, but he deploys that talent to dupe, dissemble and deflect…

“He has no core principles beyond the advancement of one B Johnson, and the idea that he is motivated by a desire to help others is laughable. It is hard to recall a single act of Johnsonian selflessness.”

Boris, the Johnson. Will he survive? We’ll see. And who’s next?



Wordle is addictive. You can take our Wordle for it.

By David Creber Senior Trainer at The Language House

(Wordle: word game B2+)


It’s time to get out your old Scrabble board from the back of the wardrobe.

Now, throw it away. In fact, you can burn it, because there’s a new word game in town.

It’s the infectious phenomenon called Wordle, a web-based game developed by Josh Wardle. Wordle by Wardle. Twitter has identified it as the first major viral trend of 2022.

Wordle is unlike most modern-day website games. It makes you think. A fresh word challenge is released daily and there are no adverts, in-game purchases or levels to unlock. It’s plain and simple and very addictive. Unlike Scrabble, you won’t lose an hour or two.  Five minutes with Wordle is enough to awaken the language endorphins. In fact, it is so popular that it has already spawned several copycat games, including the anti-Wordle known as Absurdle and the profanity-laden Sweardle. There’s even Primel, which uses numbers rather than letters.

Wardle, a British artist/engineer living in New York, invented the game for his partner – a gift of words and a gift of love. His goal was to make something fun, simple and addictive. He definitely achieved his goals. It’s fast, easy to understand, and possible to play on your telephone on the bus to work. And even if English isn’t your mother tongue, it’s a great way to enrich your word power.


And even if English isn’t your mother tongue, it’s a great way to enrich your word power


If you have a B2 level or higher you can probably get the word within the limit of six guesses. At The Language House in Geneva, we’ve often got the word in three guesses. One of our team managed to find the word in just two guesses but our average is four. Our mornings often start with a coffee and a quick Wordle analysis.

So, over to you. Whether you have caught the Wordle bug yet or not, let’s see if you can get today’s word in four guesses or less. Share your results with your friends to show how brainy you are, and why not post your results in the comments below as well? 

Here is how it works

The objective is to identify a five-letter word within a minimum number of guesses. After each guess, the game uses green, yellow and grey squares to tell you which letters are wrong, right, or right but in the wrong place.



Here’s an example of a finished Worldle:



In Wordle there’s no more need for seven-letter ‘bingos’, triple-word scores or weird two-letter words of which we have never known the exact meaning. You just need to be able to think of lots of five letter words.

Wordle uses a list of 2,315 common words. Nothing too obscure. You can find them in this list. In fact, these words are probably very important for any English speaker to know and be able to use. So start wordling now…

It is addictive. You can take my Wordle for it.

A de facto guide to Latin words in English 

(Level B2 and above: Latin words commonly used in the English language)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, The Language House.

The English language has West Germanic origins, but still, about 60% of English words have roots in Latin and Greek.

A Latin root such as “ann” (yearly) gives you annual, “aqu” (water, sea) gives you aquatic, “bene” (good) gives you beneficial, “bi” (two) gives you biceps, “circum” (around) gives you circumvent (getting around a problem); “clar” (clear) gives you clarity. And so on.

Many Latin words are used in their original form in many languages, including English. Here are some that are used quite commonly in the English language – and very often in legal English:

  1. Bona fide (adj/adv): genuine, real. She was a bona fide expert.
  2. Modus operandi (noun): the way something operates or works. Also known as M.O. Every killer has his own special modus operandi.
  3. Ad hoc (adj): done when needed for a specific purpose. hoc committees to examine specific problems.
  4. Ad nauseam (adv.): if you do or say something ad nauseam, you repeat it so many times that it annoys other people. We discussed it ad nauseam.
  5. Caveat (noun): a warning of the limits of a particular agreement or statement. I’ve given it to them, but with the caveat that it didn’t work. Caveat emptor: “buyer beware” – when you buy something you are responsible for checking its quality.
  6. Circa (prep): used before a date or number for showing that it is not exact. Circa is usually written simply as c. A story set in France circa 1660.
  7. Compos mentis (adj): able to think clearly, sane.
  8. De facto (adj/adv): actual, even though not official. English is the de facto language of the computer industry.
  9. Ergo (adv): Therefore. Neither side would have an incentive to start a war. Ergo, peace would reign.
  10. Erratum (noun): a mistake in a book that is discovered after it was printed and is then corrected in an added list. Plural: errata.
  11. Per (prep): used for stating the rate or cost for each unit of time, quantity, distance etc. He is paid £10 per hour for the job. (per annum: for each year / per capita: for each person / per se: in itself – It is not the money per se that makes them unhappy…)
  12. Post-mortem (noun): autopsy. The post-mortem revealed that she had been murdered. (post: after – a post-impressionist painting).
  13. Pro rata (adj/adv): calculated according to the individual situation. Holiday entitlement for part-time staff is calculated pro rata (=according to the number of hours worked).
  14. Quid pro quo: something that you offer or give to someone in return for something that they have offered or given you. They share a great deal of information on a quid pro quo basis.
  15. Sine qua non (noun): a condition that must exist before something can happen. Successful agricultural reform is also a sine qua non of Mexico’s modernisation.
  16. Status quo (noun): The state of affairs that exists at a particular time. The federation voted to maintain the status quo. (Status: the legal position of a person, country, etc. Manuel applied for legal immigrant status after living here for two years.)
  17. Terra firma (noun): land, especially as compared with water or air.
  18. Verbatim (adj/adv): repeating the exact words that were used. The article repeated our press release almost verbatim.
  19. Versus ( vs. / v.) (prep): compared to. The US dollar fell versus other key currencies on Friday.
  20. Vice versa (adv): the opposite of what has been said. Should I come to your house or vice versa?
  21. Persona non grata (noun): someone that people do not like or welcome. He was declared persona non grata by the team.
  22. id est (better known as “i.e.”): that is. Senior officers – i.e. anyone with the rank of colonel or above – get their own administrative staff.



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Latin email

Here is an email a businessman sends to his colleague after negotiating a partnership deal with another company. As you will see, he really likes his Latin words.

So I’m flying back home at the moment, but once I am on terra firma, I’ll make sure to send you a post-mortem of the failed negotiations. We could not reach an agreement on a quid pro quo basis, and that is a sine qua non of any commercial partnership agreement. We could not even agree on pro rata payment terms per annum. It was very much our company versus theirs. The status quo remains. They didn’t cooperate and vice versa.

While I was there, I really tried to remain compos mentis while we were discussing the same commercial terms ad nauseam. We kept on quoting our proposed contracts verbatim. It was really hard. I think we should think of them as a de facto uncompliant company. Their M.O. is to refute all suggestions, whether they be ad hoc or not. They’re bona fide reactionaries.

We could try again, though with a different negotiator as I may now be persona non grata, with the caveat that it won’t work, again. Neither side wants to give in, ergo restarting the negotiations would be futile. It is not partnering with another company per se that they are opposed to, it is partnering with our company.


Erratum: we forgot to include et cetera (etc.) and exempli gratia (e.g.) in the list of Latin words, though they do not need an introduction.


Djokovic is not the victim in the hotel of the persecuted in Australia

A man from Serbia, who hits balls with a racquet made of cow gut better than almost everyone on the planet, has been declared the new messiah, a villain, a dick and a hero.

Novax Djokovic is playing for his reputation in the grand pandemic slam, in “detention” in a nondescript hotel in Melbourne, Australia while squads of lawyers decide if his pandemic papers are valid for him to play in the Australia Open. In or out? It’s deuce – 40 all.

Djokovic is on the cusp of history. If he wins this grand slam, his 21st, he will be the male tennis GOAT – Greatest of all Time – at least statistically. But it is unlikely he will ever feel the love that caresses the Alpine brand, RF.

It’s a perfect media storm. It will go five sets. Everyone has an opinion on vaccinations, blanket government decrees and Roger, Novak and Rafael, which means an endless supply of talking and highly opinionated heads on screens.

Djokovic’s parents are running non-stop rallies and press conferences in the homeland capital Belgrade. His father has likened his son to Jesus.

“Jesus was crucified and endured many things but is still alive among us… Novak is also crucified… the best sportsman and man in the world. He will endure,” his father insisted.

His mother believes there is an evil cabal of racqueteers, perhaps financed by the flagitious Federerists and the nasty Nadalistos, that are behind this “clear political attack” to make sure her son doesn’t win and become the greatest of all time.

It’s just not cricket.

The Serbian foreign ministry has this cracker of a perspective; the world tennis No 1 had been “lured to Australia … to be humiliated”. Yes, well, but… I think most of us would love to be lured, hook, line and wristband, to Australia in the middle of summer to the world’s most livable city Melbourne. (Lure me now. I can take a little humiliation).


Many of the guests on adjoining floors have been in detention for about nine years (468 weeks)


The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who wears a permanent scowl and frown, is playing the headmaster and says rules are for everyone. But it appears the line calls between the layers of government in Australia have not been very clear.

The most disturbing aspect of this story is that Djokovic shares his immigration detention hotel, with real victims, who really have been crucified by populism, the Australian Government, and especially Prime Minister Morrison, who as Immigration Minister introduced draconian refugee policies such as the off-shore refugee processing centres, where no processing was, or is ever done.

The world’s number one has been in hotel detention for a less than a week. Shock, horror! Many of the guests on adjoining floors have been in detention, for about nine years (468 weeks).

They are refugees who fled from war, violence and persecution; families who risked their lives to dream of a life with a future. They survived perilous sea journeys (hundreds didn’t) and were then held in detention on far flung, hidden away islands such as Nauru in the Pacific and Manus island in Papua New Guinea. Some have been evacuated to Australia and to the hotel for medical reasons. Yes, medical reasons, such as depression, suicide, aggression, sexual abuse and self-harm. That’s what happens when you are held in lockdown for nine years because you are a refugee, and refugees who arrive by boat according to the Australian Government must be punished to ensure no other refugees have similar ambitious dreams.

Medhi Ali and his cousin Adnan were teenagers when their families urged them to flee Iran, where they faced systemic oppression as members of the Ahwazi Arab minority.


They have been beaten and abused. Adnan sewed his lips together in protest at his treatment


Their claim for refugee protection was formally recognised. They had a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country, and could not legally be returned there. Australia is legally obliged to protect them. It made no difference to their situation. They were shunted between island detention centres for eight years, before being sent to this infamous Melbourne hotel where they have spent almost a year. They have watched friends burn themselves to death and known the despair that has led them to attempt suicide themselves. They have been beaten and abused, jailed without reason. Adnan sewed his lips together in protest at his treatment.

They have grown from boys into men. They were 15 and 16 years of age when they arrived in Australia seeking sanctuary. They are now 23 and remain in permanent lockdown. Their youth has been stolen from them.

Perhaps the massive media glare attracted by Djokovic might shine a little light through the window of their hotel room and the many other adjoining rooms. Stories like these.