Black Friday 1869: The collapse of the gold market in the US.

(Level B2 and above: the origin of Black Friday)


Black Friday, the ominous name for one of the biggest shopping days on planet Earth, is fast approaching.

You may choose to run or boycott. If you do go, in person, to a Black Friday sale, wear a suit of armour, and carry a shield and truncheon. If you’re a rugby player, you should be okay.

Black Friday has now become a global phenomenon. The Day of Deals. Bargains galore (à gogo) for the brave.

But, why black?

There are a few historical references. The most recent can be traced back to Philadelphia police in 1960s who called it a black day, feared and dreaded by law enforcement, public transport employees and taxi drivers; a day the streets and department stores were noir de monde, swarming with people aggressively hunting for their deals.


“… the streets and department stores were noir de monde”


Another popular, but unproven theory about the origin of the name is that manufacturers and stores operate in the red (debt) all the financial year up until Black Friday when they finally go in the black (profit).

The original Black Friday dates to September 24, 1869. It refers to an elaborate gold scam (escroquerie) that implicated the family of US President Ulysses S. Grant and senior government officials. It led to a collapse of the US gold market and an economic crash.



Scoundrels: Jim Fisk (left) and Jay Gould.

Two get-rich-quick scoundrels (scélérats) , Jay Gould, the Gordon Gecko of his day, and Jim Fisk, together set up an elaborate plan to control the US gold market. They recruited a high-profile financier named Abel Rathbone Corbin who was married to the President’s sister. His job was to get the ear of the President and Treasury and collect secret inside information about government gold trading (today we might call it “insider trading”). The plan was to gradually control the gold market until the price was high enough and then sell-off at enormous profit.


“… he realised he was surrounded by traitors”


Gould also bribed (a soudoyé) the Government’s assistant Treasurer in New York, Daniel Butterfield, who was in charge of gold sales. Gould paid Butterfield $10,000 (his annual salary was $8,000), which Butterfield later claimed in court was an interest-free loan.

Over time, the President became suspicious of Corbin’s sudden interest in the gold market. When he discovered a letter from his sister to his wife discussing the matter, he realised he was surrounded by traitors (traîtres). The furious President swiftly reacted and ordered the sale of $4 million in government gold. The price of gold and then Wall Street plummeted on Black Friday. Tens of thousands lost their investments and livelihoods.

This was the scene (at the top of the page) at the Gold Reserve on Black Friday.

Gould, known as the “Mephistopheles of Wall Street,” not only managed to sell his considerable gold reserves before the crash, but also evade conviction. Five years later, he controlled the Union Pacific Railroad, the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Manhattan Elevated Railroad. There is no moral lesson to this story.




Far be it from us to use the subjunctive

(Level B2 and above: On the subjunctive, with examples, phrases and video)

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


Brian: How was your meeting with management?

Andrew: It went well. My advice was that the company invest in new equipment and make savings elsewhere.

B: Did you recommend that they streamline the staff on the shop floor?

A: Well, I suggested that the team there be better paid and that no new hire be made.

B: Heaven forbid. Asking that they be better paid? How will the company afford it?

A: I think it is essential that the company show the team how valuable they are.

B: Be that as it may, it is also important that we pay the gas bill too!

A: About that, I also insisted that savings be made elsewhere.

B: Where?

A: You’re fired.

B: I should have seen that coming. So be it.


The subjunctive is a special kind of present tense, also called a mood, used in the formal style. It has no -s in the third person singular – the verb (in blue) is in its bare form.

It is used to express wishes and possibilities (I wish I were rich) and in that-clauses (I suggest that you stay here) after words which express the idea that something is important or desirable (in red above). For example; suggest, recommend, ask, insist, vital, essential, important, desirable, advice, best

In fact, you use the subjunctive in French in very similar expressions:  Que tout le monde soit heureux ! (wish) Il faut que tu apprennes ta leçon (necessity).

The verb be, as usual, is treated differently. It is be in the present/future form: It is important that Helen be present when we sign the papers. And were in the present/past form; I wish it were Saturday.

Other titbits: The subjunctive uses the same form in both present and past sentences (except with be). And we don’t use do not/don’t: We considered it desirable that he not leave school now.


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We can see the subjunctive in some common fixed phrases (known as formulaic subjunctive):

  1. Far be it from me to criticize, but aren’t you being a little unreasonable? (I don’t want to criticise but I am doing it anyway.)
  2. Heaven help us if there’s a fire (I hope this will not happen). Also: Heaven forbid.
  3. God save the Queen (UK’s national anthem)
  4. God bless America / God bless you (I care about you)
  5. Long live the bride and groom / Long live the king (wishing them a long life)
  6. He’s a sort of adopted uncle, as it were (in a way)
  7. Be that as it may, I still think Mr Livingstone is the best man for the job (whether this is true or not)
  8. If you’ve really decided to quit the music business, then so be it (we can’t do anything about it)


In the 20th century, British English tried to avoid using the subjunctive, seeing it as old and pedantic, and promoted the use of “should” instead. But according to The Economist, thanks to American English which kept the subjunctive alive and well, the use of “should” has declined on the islands as the subjunctive has returned.

In short, in the UK, you will still hear:

  • It is important that every child should have the same educational opportunities


  • It is important that every child has the same educational opportunities

But as the old subjunctive is coming back into fashion, you will also hear:

  • It is important that every child have the same educational opportunities




Hunting for the subjunctive





  1. Streamline: to improve a business, organization, process, etc by making it more modern or simple
  2. Bare: (in this context) basic, with nothing extra: Readers want more than just the bare facts.
  3. Pedantic: giving too much importance to details and formal rules, especially of grammar
  4. Decline: to become less or worse: The number of people buying their own homes has declined.
  5. Still: (in this context) used for saying that a situation continues to exist: Her hair was still damp from her walk in the rain.
  6. Titbit: a piece of interesting information: titbits of gossip.

Trump is the albatross around the neck of the Republican Party

(Level B2 and above. Expression: An albatross around one’s neck)


After the US mid-term elections, Donald Trump, who once boasted “we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning”, has earned a new title, “the albatross around the neck of the Republican Party“.

This expression can be traced back to an acclaimed (and extremely long) poem – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and first published 1798.

What does it mean and why has it been used to describe the former president?

In this poem a sailor tells the story of his ship’s cursed and terrible voyage after he kills an albatross.



In the era of sailing ships, the albatross was generally a sign of luck.  This magnificent creature carried the souls of dead mariners.  An albatross flying overhead was considered good luck as sailors believed that the bird could protect them from harm or bring needed winds for the ship’s sails. The killing of an albatross was inviting a curse on the ships and its crew.

The crew blamed the sailor who killed the bird for the terrible voyage.

The sailor was forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck. It’s the burden he must suffer.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.



The cursed mariner who tells the story is the sole survivor.  He lives the rest of his life in great pain and his only relief is by sharing his tale.

The expression, an albatross around one’s neck, refers to the heavy burden or curse you must carry that will prevent you from achieving success or happiness or peace. For many political observers, Trump has become the albatross around the neck of the Republican party.

Fleetwood MacAlbatross (1968)






In this dog-eat-dog world, I work like a dog and I’m always dog-tired

(Level B1 and above. Idioms and expressions involving dogs and cats)

Dogs and cats. Don’t we just love them? These lucky mammals, elevated to non-edible companion status, are in our hearts, and also embedded in our language.

There are dozens of expressions or idioms that involves cats and dogs.

There’s even one expression that includes both cats and dogs. Do you know it? We use this expression when talking about the weather, especially very wet weather.  In French, the equivalent would be pleuvoir des cordes.

(Check the answer at the bottom of the article).

Here is a list of some of our favorite dog and cat expressions with definitions and examples of how to use them.


When a situation is dog-eat-dog, it’s very competitive in a cruel and selfish way.

Banking can be a dog-eat-dog industry.

Trump has a dog-eat-dog philosophy.

The music industry is dog-eat-dog; one day you’re on top and the next, everyone has forgotten you


Very tired, exhausted.

He was dog-tired after working in garden from morning to night.

Nursing is a tough job, especially during a pandemic. Most nurses are dog-tired by the end of their shift.

His/her bark is worse than his/her bite

Someone who acts more aggressively than they really are. They make a lot of noise, but they not so threatening or dangerous.

Yes, the boss gets a little loud and excited but don’t worry. His bark is worse than his bite.


Snoop Dogg: Doggy Dogg World


Work like a dog

To work very hard.

She worked like a dog for two days straight to finish the presentation.

My weekend? Relaxed? No way! I worked like a dog all weekend putting up a garden shed.

Barking up the wrong tree

Going after the wrong person or target.

If the detectives think my friend took part in the robbery, they are barking up the wrong tree.

He was on holidays when the mistake happened. You are barking up the wrong tree.


Patti Page: (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?



Let sleeping dogs lie

You let sleeping dogs lie when you choose to not to talk about a situation or topic which has caused problems in the past.

She never talks about her former husband. We never ask. It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Can we just let sleeping dogs lie? We tried everything and each time it ends up with everyone angry and no resolution!


Determined and tenacious.

The defenders put up a dogged defence against Haaland, but he still kicked two goals.




Description of a well-read book, where the corners of many of the pages are turned down

Here, you can have my dog-eared copy. I’ve read it three times.

Cat burglar

An agile thief who climbs up the outside of a building in order to enter and steal something

Trailer of the film Entrappment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones as two devilishly-talented cat burglars.



Let the cat out of the bag

to reveal a secret carelessly or by mistake

I wanted it to be a surprise, but my sister let the cat out of the bag.

I told you it was confidential. Now you’ve let the cat of the bag!

The cat that got the cream

To be extremely happy or satisfied.

You look like the cat that got the cream. Did you get the job? Congratulations!


Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut


Cat got your tongue?

Said to somebody, especially a child, who stays silent when expected to speak, for example after being asked a question.

Did you do your homework? (no reply) What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? 


(adjective) saying unkind things about other people; gossipy, bitchy.

Susan made a catty comment about the way you dress in the café this morning. I think she is jealous.


A walkway used by models to walk along and show off their clothes in a fashion show.

It’s easy just follow the catwalk to the end, do a bit of pirouette, and then come back.


Al Stewart -Year of the Cat


Verbs associated with cats and dogs:

Dogs bark (aboyer) , howl (hurler), and growl (grogner); cats purr (ronronner) and hiss (siffler).

Finally, in French a cat miaous and in English it meows and a dog goes ouah! ouah! in French and woof! woof! in English.


The expression we use to describe heavy rain: It’s raining cats and dogs.

First, there was tennis, then there was Roger

Roger transcended tennis. Over the years, we all drained global supplies of superlatives to describe the phenomenon that will always be Roger Federer on a tennis court.

Here are some accolades from sport writers, incredulous adversaries, gob-smacked fans and legends of the game. It’s an homage to the Swiss athlete whose artistry with a racquet gave immeasurable pleasure to a large part of the planet.


The writers

Federer as a Religious Experience

Perhaps, the most famous profile of the Swiss tennis player appeared in the New York Times in 2006, written by the late, acclaimed US writer David Foster Wallace. It was almost 7000 words. A large chunk was devoted to one exchange between Federer and Andre Agassi. The writer coined the term Federer Moments when the Swiss tennis-man seemingly rose above certain physical laws.

The article was titled Federer as a Religious Experience and it began like this:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

Here’s a longer excerpt from the same profile:

“The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.

This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will — there’s real metaphysical truth here. And in the following anecdote. After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.”



The Federmones rush

The Guardian’s sportswriter Barney Ronay spoke of beauty, grace and sensuality, as well as Bach’s cantatas and the finest Iberian ham.

“He was that rare thing: not just the best player in the world but also the most beautiful, the most pleasing to watch, the grace note as well as the triumphant ending. This was not just a function of that strangely sensual presence, the way just walking out on to centre court could draw a kind of hormonal groan, a Federmones rush, a man who seemed to move more easily through the air.”

Ronay went on to say:

“His backhand was frankly ridiculous, overblown, hilariously good. This, one thought, watching that thing – the flex of the knee, the flourish of the wrist – is a kind of artefact, a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham, the kind of backhand a power-crazed Bond super villain might try to steal from its laser-guarded case.”

And this, about the man holding the racquet:

“Another remarkable Federer thing is just how unremarkable he is, a normal guy from a normal village who just happens to have this talent and this extraordinary sporting charisma; qualities that have existed only within those white lines and which will remain just as vivid.”


The fans

“Definitely the best I’ve seen in 50 years of watching tennis. The MGOAT! Most Graceful Of All Time. Moved like a panther on the court. Smooth, effortless, flowing, artistic game. I am going to miss him.”

“No matter the time, he was the only player that I would set the alarm, and watch.”

“The most naturally gifted human to ever pick up a racquet. That’s all really. All the best Fed.”

“I’ve been around since 1417 when I was bitten by a bat. During this long period Federer is the greatest tennis player I have ever seen.”

“Federer’s tennis should be reviewed on the culture pages, not the sports section. Enough said.”

“Federer at his best was like a fusion of ballet dancer and matador with a streak of ninja assassin thrown in. Classical grace, nerveless poise and ruthless killer instinct. How can something as physically and technically demanding as professional tennis look so damned easy. A phenomenal player.”


The players

“I can cry like Roger, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him.” – Andy Murray, after losing to Federer in the Australian Open 2010’s final.

“What do you want me to do?” – Andy Murray shouted to his coaching team, after running out of ideas against Federer at Wimbledon 2015

“If somebody says I am better than Roger Federer, I think that person doesn’t know anything about tennis.” – Rafael Nadal

“Today I was playing my best tennis, trying lots of different things, but nothing worked. When you’re playing like that and he still comes up with all those great shots you really have to wonder if he’s even from the same planet.” – Novak Djokovic

“I don’t think, that you can always – you can ever – get your game to perfection, you know. Only if you’re Federer.” – Novak Djokovic

“If you poll the top 500 tennis guys in the world, about 499 are going to say Roger. The only o-ne who won’t is Roger himself because he’s too nice about it.” – James Blake

Interviewer: Last time, at Wimbledon, you said “Next time I may have to punch him.” Do you have a plan B?
Andy Roddick: Hit his face with a racket.

Interviewer: Do you feel like Federer is the guy everyone is chasing?
Roddick: Yeah basically nobody stands a chance against him.. maybe we should all join together, you know like Power Rangers or something.

But there’s probably — I don’t think there’s anyone that hits the ball like that. Sure, if you take Roddick’s serve and Agassi’s returns and my volleys and Hewitt’s speed and tenacity, then you’ve probably got a good chance against Federer (laughter). That’s a lot of people involved in, you know, one player.” – Tim Henman


The legends of tennis

“I love everything about Roger Federer. He’s perfect. I love the way he serves. I love the way he thinks. I love the way he moves. I love that his body is dynamic and smooth. He’s so versatile and knows how to develop a point. He really plays old-time tennis with modern power. So people in my generation go, ‘Oh my God, we love him’ ” Billie Jean King

“He’s the most gifted player that I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve seen a lot of people play. I’ve seen the (Rod) Lavers, I played against some of the great players – the Samprases, Beckers, Connors’, Borgs, you name it. This guy could be the greatest of all time. That, to me, says it all.” – John McEnroe, winner of 7 Grand Slams.

“[In the modern game], you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist … or you’re Roger Federer.” – Jimmy Connors, winner of 8 Grand Slams.

“He moves like a whisper and executes like a wrecking ball. It is simply impossible to explain how he does what he does. He is a class of his own.” – tennis coach Nick Bollettier

“Roger can produce tennis shots that should be declared illegal.” – Tracy Austin

“It’s amazing what sort of shots he can come up with from impossible positions. Yes, man he’s the greatest player in history.” – Rod Laver, the only player in the modern era to have claimed all four grand slam titles in a calendar year.

“For me Roger is the greatest player ever who played the tennis game. We are going to see so much more of Federer in the future, he is going to win more grand slam tournaments.” – Bjorn Borg, 11-time grand slam winner.

“It’s a combination of how many grand slams have you won, how many tournaments have you won, how many years you were number one and he’s got all those combinations.” — Martina Navratilova, nine-time Wimbledon women’s singles champion.

“The guy is the greatest male athlete of all time.” – Serena Williams

“I’d like to be in his shoes for one day to know what it feels like to play that way.”Mats Wilander, winner of 6 Grand Slams.


In his own words – Roger on Roger

“A man who wins, is a man who thinks he can.”

“There is no way around the hard work. Embrace it.”

“I fear no one, but respect everyone.”

“Once you find that peace, that place of peace and quiet, harmony and confidence, that’s when you start playing your best.”

“The more I lose, the more they believe they can beat me. But believing is not enough, you still have to beat me.”

And finally:

“When I was 12 years old, I was just horrible. My parents were ashamed to watch my matches. I would play on a court at the local club and they would watch from the balcony. They would scream, ‘Be quiet’ to me and I would scream back, ‘Go and have a drink. Leave me alone.’ Then we would drive home in a very quiet car. No one speaking to each other.”



Good luck Liz Truss. You’ll need it.

(Level B2 and above: On Liz Truss and British politics, with vocabulary and phrases, video)

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


The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as UK Prime Minister on September 6 was almost immediately eclipsed by the death of Queen Elisabeth two days later.

The Queen’s reign of 70 years is in sharp contrast to the revolving door (porte tournante) of Prime Ministers (PMs). Truss is the fourth prime minister in just over six years.

The Conservative party (the Tories) returned to power in 2010 with David Cameron, who was re-elected in 2015 (PMs are elected for a  five-year term); but following the results of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, he resigned.

Theresa May took over, was later re-elected in a general election, and served a total of three years. She tried her best to finalise the Brexit negotiations. After versions of her draft withdrawal agreement were rejected by Parliament three times, she resigned and was succeeded by Boris Johnson in 2019, who also served for three turbulent years.


See our vocabulary list below for the words in bold.


Johnson almost finalised the Brexit withdrawal agreement with great difficulty as nobody could agree on the Irish position and other details. During the Covid pandemic crisis, he went to staff parties while the country was in lockdown and then lied about it. Voters and politicians grew tired of him, several ministers resigned, and so he was forced to resign too.


Related blog: Au revoir Boris the Johnson


The Tory party chose Liz Truss to succeed him as the fourth Tory Prime Minister since Cameron. (The next general elections should be held in early 2025 – unless one is called earlier.)

I’ll spare you the details of her political life, but suffice to say, all the mistakes the incumbent PM has ever made – as well as her tendency to change views and parties – were in print the day after she was elected, thanks to the diligence of British tabloids. The French press called her the Iron Weathercock (girouette), in contrast to her political idol former PM Margaret Thatcher who was called the Iron Lady.

Incidentally, “truss” in the English dictionary means: a wooden or metal frame that supports a structure (such as a roof or bridge), or, a medical belt worn by someone with a hernia. Is it a coincidence that the Tories chose someone whose name that has those connotations? Did they subconsciously vote to “support” the party, or to curb the weakness or illness of the country?


Badly run country

As the prime ministers quit and succeed each other rapidly, the government seems less serious, less moral, and more like a soap opera. Meanwhile, the country is not being run properly.

The voters are growing frustrated and dissatisfied. And they are suffering economically.

For example, the price of food and energy is rising drastically. Regulators have said that the average energy bill will reach £3,550 (CHF3,850) in October this year, compared with £1,400 a year ago. And in January 2023, it’s expected to go up again to £4,260. Furthermore, from 2008 to 2021, the number of food banks (banques alimentaires) users increased every year, from just under 26,000 to 2.5 million. Food banks are currently running out of food and turning people away.


A country needs some degree of stability to function properly. Leaders should be examples dignity, professionalism, devotion to service, pragmatism, authenticity – in other words, leadership. But since 2010, (or since 2007 with Gordon Brown), there has been nothing but resignations, bickering, the hyping of false facts (the Brexit campaign), self-interest and confusion.

The people will revolt. This has already started with the numerous strikes going on and campaigns like Don’t Pay UK.


What people think of Truss

So Liz Truss comes at a time when every single voter seems to be sick of politics. A quick poll (sondage) among my British friends revealed a lot of unpleasant comments. This is what they said:

  • “Ugh, awful, things are going from bad to worse in the UK.”
  • “I loathe her. As foreign secretary, she was a relief after Boris (who was a loose cannon). As a PM, she is wooden and irritates me with her right-wing comments… We are in a very big mess here.”
  • “Boris’ protégé. Puppet (The country has been) led by self-interested, self-promoting, delusional megalomaniacs… Plus she had an extra-marital affair with another member of parliament. (That’s) hardly setting a good example.”
  • “Another crap cabinet of her supporters. Which further limits the talent available to even more minor non-entities.”
  • Shapeshifter. Only cares about power. Surrounded by similar lowlife The UK is turning into a third-world country. (The country has been) led by poor leaders starting with Cameron. They are unserious, utterly corrupt (corrompus).”
  • “My biggest fear is that she will be a useful idiot to foreign powers. She’s out of her depth. And a total flip-flopper. U-turns every five minutes…. Can’t see things improving long term.”
  • “Can’t see much changing with the new PM. We’ve been virtually leaderless over the past two months while the Tory party went through this shambles. The Tories today are more the Brexit party. They have gone very far to the right and they are populist. All the more serious politicians in their ranks have been more or less ousted.”

And a quick look at Twitter will reveal most people on that platform have become doomsayers.

Some somewhat more positive thoughts:

  • In a sense, it is very exciting because the UK is arguably mostly influenced by global trends and so is likely to be at the vanguard (avant-garde) of how to adapt to the (world’s) changes, said an investor.
  • The good thing for Truss is that expectation is so low that there is a risk she could become likeable or, dare I say, popular if she gets a few things right.

Good luck, Liz Truss. I hope you will prove your mettle.

For an overview of the state of the UK, watch this video (with sub-titles):


Jonathan Pie: Welcome to Britain. Everything is Terribe (NYT Opinion)



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  1. Resign: (verb) to state formally that you are leaving a job permanently. It now seems clear that she will resign her directorship immediately.
  2. Draft: (noun) (in this context) something such as a plan, letter, or drawing that may have changes made to it before it is finished. I showed David a draft of the letter and he suggested a few changes.
  3. Withdrawal: (noun) (in this context) the act of no longer being involved in something. Illness led to her withdrawal from the contest.
  4. Suffice to say: (phrase) used for saying that the statement that you are making contains your main idea, although you could say more about it. Suffice it to say that working with Kelvin was not a very pleasant experience.
  5. Incumbent: (noun) someone who has an official position. the campaign to re-elect the incumbent.
  6. Connotation: (noun) an additional idea or emotion that a word suggests to you, in addition to its literal or main meaning. The term ‘cult’ has heavily negative connotations.
  7. Curb: (verb) to control or limit something that is harmful. Increased interest rates should curb inflation.
  8. Run: (verb) (in this context) to control and organize something such as a business, organization, or event. Sue’s been running a mail-order business for ten years.
  9. Hype: (uncount. noun) the use of a lot of advertisements and other publicity to influence or interest people.
  10. Strike: (noun) a period of time during which people refuse to work, as a protest about pay or conditions of work. A strike by transport workers was launched on August 12th.
  11. Lack: (uncount. noun) a situation in which you do not have any, or enough, of something that you need or want. The match was cancelled because of lack of support.
  12. Bicker: (verb) to argue about things that are not important. Children bickering with each other over whose turn is next.
  13. Loathe: (verb) to dislike someone or something very much.
  14. Loose cannon: (noun) someone who tends to do unexpected things that could cause problems for the other team members. She was widely regarded as something of a political loose cannon.
  15. Wooden: (adj.) (in this context) an actor who is wooden does not express enough emotion in their performance. his wooden delivery of the lines.
  16. Right-wing: (adj.) considered to be conservative in your political views.
  17. Mess: (noun) (in this context) a difficult situation with a lot of problems, especially because people have made mistakes. The company was in a complete mess when she took over.
  18. Puppet: (noun) (in this context) a person or government that a more powerful person or government supports and controls. The country was regarded as a US puppet.
  19. Crap: (noun / adj. – impolite) nonsense / bad in quality.
  20. Shapeshifter: (noun) (in mythology and folklore) a person who is able to turn into another creature. He was a shapeshifter who looked like a human being during the day.
  21. Lowlife: (noun informal) a bad person, esp. a criminal.
  22. Out of your depth: (phrase) in a situation that you cannot deal with because it is too difficult or dangerous. Her boss seemed to be out of his depth.
  23. Flip-flop: (American – informal) someone changing their opinion completely in a way that annoys other people.
  24. U-turn: (noun) a sudden and complete change of policy by a government or by someone in authority. The government was today accused of doing a U-turn after its decision not to raise petrol prices after all.
  25. Shambles: (noun – sing.) something that is very badly organized and that does not operate effectively. Government corruption has left the economy in a shambles.
  26. Ranks: (noun, plural) (in this context) all the people within a group, organization etc. This reversal of policy touched off a violent dispute within the party ranks.
  27. Oust: (verb) to remove someone from a position of power, especially in order to take that position. The president was ousted in a coup last year.
  28. Doomsayer: (noun – informal) someone who always says that bad things will happen.
  29. Dare I say: (phrase) used when you are saying something that others many not like: This famous novel is a little, dare I say it, dull.
  30. Mettle: (uncount. noun) the determination and ability to deal with problems and difficult situations. She has the opportunity to prove her mettle as a manager.


Vocabulary definitions from

King Richard III is smiling now

(Level C1 and above. Rewriting history: The incredible story of King Richard III)


Poor King Richard III of England.

Shakespeare hated him. He showered him with invective. Shakespeare’s Richard III was a jealous, crippled, manipulative murderer. His quill (plume) had no mercy:

thou lump of foul deformity (espèce de gros morceau de difformité)

poisonous hunch-backed toad (crapaud bossu venimeux)

thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb (vous calomniez le lourd ventre de votre mère)

thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins (vous êtes le fruit répugnant des reins de ton père).

Poor King Richard III. Dead at the age of 32 in 1485 with a halberd (hallebarde) thrust through the back of his head and buried without ceremony.


Richard III

History is written by the victors, in this case, the new Tudor dynasty. Richard’s death was end of the Plantagenet dynasty. In 1593 Shakespeare delivered a second hatchet job on Richard III relegating him to the dungeon of history’s bad boys.

That was until some 400 years later when a disparate group of UK historians revisited the parchments of the era and discovered that Richard was perhaps not such an evil overlord or no worse than his medieval contemporaries. His reputation was on the mend. Remarkably, his bones were then unearthed from under a city car park. Full redemption is now on its way with the release of the film, The Lost King with Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan, and also starring none other than King Richard III himself.



The skeleton of the lost king was unearthed from a car park outside the Social Security building in Leicester in 2013. It took just one day of digging to find him thanks to an obsessed amateur historian Philippa Langley (played by Sally Hawkins). It was easy to identify Richard as he was physically deformed as Shakespeare so cruelly highlighted (poisonous hunch-backed toad). It is believed he suffered scoliosis.  This (below) was the skeleton unearthed under the car park:



Richard was then reburied with regal honours in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. Part of the ceremony was read by Benedict Cumberbatch, a member of modern royalty, and said be Richard’s second cousin 16 times removed.

But if you are a true believer in Merlin and magic and swords in the stone, then the Richard revival did not stop there.

King Richard was thankful. Clearly, he wanted to share his joy with his subjects. How could he thank them? He discovered they were suffering terribly, but not from plagues and pox or dragons and dank dungeons, but from a terrible modern malaise known as the under-performing football club.

Leicester City Football Club has spent much of its history playing in the second tier Football Championship League with some advances into the first tier Premiership League. In 2013, the year Richard’s skeleton was found, Leicester City finished in sixth place in the second tier league. In 2014 they finished first and were promoted to the premiership league going shoulder-to-shoulder with Manchester United and other football royalty.

The year after Richard was re-interned with regal honor, Leicester City won the 2015/2016 premiership, comfortably ahead of teams such as Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

It was a sporting miracle that beggared belief.  A squad of ‘second rate’ players, many of whom had plied their trade in the second and third division became a well-oiled machine that played the sharpest football in the land.

The city was abuzz with joy and received the sporting crown, which for many football-mad Brits today is the holiest relic in the land.

If you’re still not a believer, you just need to have a look at the club’s main sponsor KING POWER emblazoned on their blue football shirts.



The much-maligned King Richard III offered his people and football followers a truly grand spectacle of David slaying the modern football Goliaths. Rest in peace Good King Richard. Well played.


Humans walked on the moon. It’s true, isn’t it?

(Level B2 and above: Conspiracy theories: examples and explanations – with related vocabulary and videos)

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


The fall of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones

In 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in the U.S. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother. After the school shooting, he shot himself in the head and died.

The incident is reportedly the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history, and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting overall.

Alex Jones, an aggressive far-right American radio show host and infamous conspiracy theorist (he does not believe in the moon landing), has since spread conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He said it was a false flag operation by gun control advocates. He stated “no one died” in Sandy Hook, and the incident was “staged“, “synthetic”, “manufactured”, “a giant hoax” and “completely fake with actors.”

In 2018, several families of the victims and an FBI agent filed a defamation suit against Jones.


Alex Jones

Last week, after many legal battles, a jury in Texas ruled the radio host must pay $45.2m in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1m in compensatory damages they awarded a day earlier.

  1. Spread: if information spreads, it becomes known by more people than before. News of the attack has already spread to the islands.
  2. Landing: the process of moving a plane down onto the ground at the end of a journey. Keep your seat-belt fastened during take-off and landing.
  3. Mass: a large quantity or number.
  4. Overall: considering something as a whole, not in detail. The senior police officer with overall responsibility for the case.
  5. False flag (or false colours): an assumed or misleading name or guise
  6. Advocate: someone who strongly and publicly supports someone or something. An advocate for women’s sports
  7. Stage: to organise an event. The protest was a well-planned and carefully staged affair.
  8. Hoax: a trick in which someone deliberately tells people that something bad is going to happen or that something is true when it is not
  9. Rule: to make and announce a decision, usually about a legal matter. Romania’s Supreme Court ruled that the strike was illegal.


What are conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories reject the standard explanation for an event.  Instead, they explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful and sinister conspirators.

Conspiracy theories are good material to poke fun at – unless you are serious about them. Serious conspiracy theorists see a hidden agenda behind everything; and that’s no fun. No, sir. An evil elite is running the world, and carrying a gun at all time is the answer.

Apparently, conspiracy theories are on the rise because of social media. Let’s have a look at a few famous theories.

  1. Poke fun at (or make fun of): to make jokes about someone or something in an unkind way. The other children made fun of her because she was always so serious.
  2. Hidden agenda: a secret reason for doing something, because you will get an advantage from it.
  3. Evil: an evil person does very bad or cruel things. A dangerous and evil dictator.
  4. On the rise: increasing.


Some famous conspiracy theories


The true conspiracy behind the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 came from the Saudi terrorists who organised them. However, conspiracy theorists think this explanation is too simple. Some believe President Bush and his entourage knew about it in advance, or that the attacks were orchestrated by Israel, or that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition from bombs.


The death of Princess Diana

Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were killed on August 31, 1997, in a car accident in Paris because they were pursued by paparazzi and their own driver was drunk and was driving too fast. But this did not fit in with the way royalty should die. This has led to theories such as an assassination by MI5 at the request of the Royal Family, or that Diana faked her own death and is having a great time on a tropical island.

  1. Lead to (v.): to begin a process that causes something to happen. There is no doubt that stress can lead to physical illness.
  2. Fake: made to look like something real in order to trick people. A fake passport.


Subliminal messages

Many have claimed that subliminal (subconscious) messages are widespread, for example on TV or in the movies or in music, and that they are influencing people. This has however been debunked as subliminal messages, if they are indeed used, do not have the power they are given by conspiracy theorists. Seeing an image for a split-second does not make you want to buy a car or commit suicide.

  1. Widespread: happening or existing in many places, or affecting many people. The widespread use of antibiotics
  2. Debunk: to prove that something such as an idea or belief is false and silly



Moon landing

NASA landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. Many claim that this never happened. There has been plenty of debunking of the various moon hoax claims by many scientists involved in the operation, and some very angry astronauts and then there are the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.

  1. Claim: to say that something is true, even though there is no definite proof. He claims he is innocent.



Covid… and G5

There are many theories about the origin of the virus, governments’ reactions, doctors lying about COVID-related deaths, and vaccines changing human DNA. There’s even a theory that mixes fears of 5G wireless technology with fears of the virus, saying that electromagnetic frequencies from cell phone towers damage the immune system, making people sick with Covid. Another claims that the vaccines contain tracking chips that connect to 5G networks so that the government or Bill Gates can surveil everyone’s movements.

  1. Wireless: wireless technology, systems, or equipment such as mobile phones does not use wires, but communicates using electronic signals
  2. Tracking chip: a chip (puce) used to follow or find someone or something
  3. Network: connection between computers, systems or people. A mobile phone network.

Read about other conspiracy theories on here.


QAnon – the mother of conspiracies

You can also find many theories from QAnon, an American political conspiracy theory and pro-Trump political movement that recently became mainstream. In 2020, QAnon supporters flooded social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election, and recruited legions of new believers. A December 20 poll by NPR and Ipsos found that 17% of Americans believed that the central falsehood of QAnon — that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” — was true. Several QAnon supporters won seats in Congress late last year.

  1. Mainstream: considered ordinary or normal and accepted or used by most people. The show wanted to attract a mainstream audience.
  2. Flood (v.): arrive there in large numbers. The TV station was flooded with complaints.
  3. Protest (n.): a meeting or public statement by people who strongly disagree with a policy, law etc. Peaceful protests against the war.
  4. Recruit: to get someone to work in a company or join an organization. We won’t be recruiting again until next year.
  5. Poll: an occasion when a lot of people are asked what they feel about something. A recent poll indicated that most people opposed the changes.
  6. Falsehood: a statement that is not true.
  7. Worship: the activity of showing respect and love for a god, for example by singing or praying.


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Video: UNESCO: #ThinkBeforeSharing – Stop the spread of conspiracy theories (1’36”)



So why do we create conspiracy theories?

Karen Douglas, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK, defines conspiracy theories as a proposed plot carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal. She believes such theories have always been around, especially in times of crisis, because we don’t want to trust everybody. It is difficult to prove that conspiracy theories are increasing but people’s attitudes have become stronger as a result of interacting and sharing and consuming this information on social media and on the internet generally.

  1. Plot: (in this context) a secret plan to do something bad, made by two or more people. An assassination plot.
  2. Carry out: to do a particular piece of work, etc. The building work was carried out by a local contractor.


People are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy three important psychological motives, she explains:

  • Epistemic motives: the need for knowledge and certainty. Some people might not look for information in the right places.
  • Existential motives: the need to be or to feel safe and secure in the world that we live in, and to feel that we have some kind of power or autonomy over the things that happen. It especially affects people who feel powerless and disillusioned. Sometimes people may have deep-seated, valid reasons to distrust authority.
  • Social motives: Need for high self-esteem, a sense of superiority over others. One way of doing that is to feel that you have access to information that other people don’t necessarily have.
  1. Drawn to: attracted to
  2. Safe: protected from being hurt, damaged, lost, stolen etc. Will my car be safe if I park it in the street?
  3. Powerless: not able to control or prevent something. She was powerless to stop him.
  4. Deep-seated: A deep-seated problem, feeling, or belief is difficult to change because its causes have been there for a long time. The country is still suffering from deep-seated economic problems.
  5. Self-esteem: the feeling that you are as important as other people and that you deserve to be treated well. Patients suffering from depression and low self-esteem.


In her research, she has found that older people believe in conspiracy theories less than younger people do; that if people believe in one conspiracy theory, then they’re likely to believe in other theories, even when the theories contradict each other.

In many cases, it is very difficult to effectively debunk theories with actual facts because people hold on to them obstinately. A good solution is to warn people in advance they might be exposed to misinformation. You can listen to (or read) the interview here.

  1. Actual: used for emphasizing what is really true or exact compared with a general idea. We don’t know her actual date of birth.
  2. Pattern: a series of actions or events that together show how things normally happen or are done. We examined patterns of behaviour in young children.


Vocabulary: and


Some conspiracy theories might also come from noticing patterns. This TED video describes the Ramsey theory, which says that given enough elements in a set or structure, some interesting pattern is guaranteed to appear.


Ted video: The origin of countless conspiracy theories (4’21”)


Related blogs from The Language House

Lessons in narcissism with the stable genius Donald

Animals and fake news



The language of heatwaves

 (Level B1 and above: article and vocabulary connected to heatwaves, climate change and glass buildings)

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


This summer, the sun is beating down on the Northern Hemisphere.

In southern Europe, the nights are not cool enough to offset the days’ sweltering heat. The heatwaves and droughts have sparked wildfires. People are dying of heatstroke. The organisers of the Tour de France watered the roads to stop them from melting. Veterinarians are asking people not to shave (raser) their pets (the fur helps to keep them cool). In the UK, some temperatures that were thought to be impossible came to pass, affecting schools, hospitals, railways and runways. Parts of America are going through one of their hottest summers. In parts of eastern and central China, the mercury has risen above 40 degrees; factories are cranking up the air conditioning (AC), but because AC units use too much energy, electricity is being rationed.

  1. Offset: to balance the effect of something. Donations to charities can be offset against tax.
  2. Beat down: if the sun beats down, it shines very brightly making the weather very hot.
  3. Sweltering: extremely hot and unpleasant
  4. Heatwave: a period of very hot weather
  5. Heatstroke: a serious medical condition caused by doing too much physical activity in hot weather
  6. Runway: a long road used by planes when they land and take off
  7. Blaze: a large fire that causes a lot of damage. Firefighters were called to a blaze at a warehouse yesterday.
  8. Wildfire: a fire that starts in an area of countryside and spreads very quickly
  9. Drought: a long period of time when there is little or no rain and crops die. The region is experiencing a severe drought.
  10. Spark: to make something happen / to start a fire or explosion. A faulty electric blanket sparked a fire in one of the bedrooms.
  11. Melt: to change a solid substance into a liquid. Melt the butter in a small saucepan.
  12. Crank up: to increase the level or degree. We’ll have to crank up the air conditioning tonight.
  13. Air conditioning (AC): a system that makes the air inside a building, room, or vehicle colder

Scientists agree that global warming increases the chances of heatwaves happening – but at the same time, too little is being done to achieve net-zero emissions. The world is already on average 1.1-1.3°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times and as we continue to use fossil fuel, it is set to get warmer yet. We have a wicked problem on our hands.

  1. Achieve: to succeed in doing something. We have achieved what we set out to do.
  2. Net-zero emissions: refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
  3. Fossil fuel: a fuel such as coal or oil.

See our recent blogs: Problems, difficulties, dilemmas, enigmas, paradoxes and predicaments



Greenhouses in global warming

Now the last place you want to hide during the scorching heat is a glass building – even if it offers great views. They act like a greenhouse. Using AC to cool down is not the solution because AC consumes a lot of energy and ends up contributing to more greenhouse gas emissions (émissions de gaz à effet de serre), and therefore global warming. And it heats the city streets even more.

One absurd example of street heating is the Walkie-Talkie building, a glass skyscraper with curved exterior walls in the City of London. In the summer of 2013, its south side, covered in concave reflective glass, mirrored the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass (loupe) and burnt a part of a street and everything in it.

Despite all that and against common sense,  glass buildings and skyscrapers are being built everywhere – when they should become obsolete.


  1. Scorching: extremely hot
  2. Common sense: the ability to use good judgment and make sensible decisions. Let’s use a little common sense here.
  3. Skyscraper: a very tall building containing offices or flats
  4. Obsolete: no longer used because of being replaced by something newer and more effective. Most computer hardware rapidly becomes obsolete.
  5. Greenhouse: a building made of glass that is used for growing plants that need protection from the weather
  6. End up: o be in a particular place or state after doing something or because of doing it. Somehow they all ended up at my house.
  7. Ray: a line of light that you can see coming from the sun or a lamp
  8. Despite: something happens even though something else might have prevented it. Three more nuclear power stations were built despite widespread opposition.

Politicians and associations have  called for bans on all-glass buildings in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. But with little progress.

Furthermore, many buildings – glass or not – in Northern Europe are not equipped for heatwaves.

“The UK’s buildings and offices aren’t designed for temperatures in the high 30Cs, let alone the 40Cs,” said Chris Bennett, co-founder of sustainability services company Evora Global, recently.


“A stiflingly hot office is not a pleasant or productive place to be. Extreme heat will render some workplaces unusable, or barely usable. Some will be practically deserted as working from home re-emerges. …. If heatwaves become a permanent fixture, cooling our buildings could cost more and more and create more emissions. Those emissions contribute to climate change, so it could lock us into a vicious cycle…”

  1. Ban: an official statement ordering people not to do, sell, or use something. There is a total ban on smoking anywhere in the college.
  2. Let alone: used for saying that something is even less likely to happen than another unlikely thing. I hardly have time to think these days, let alone relax.
  3. Stifling: so hot that it is difficult for you to breathe
  4. Barely: used for saying that something is almost not possible. He was so dizzy he could barely stand.
  5. Usable: available or suitable to be used for a particular purpose. The system can convert waste chemicals into usable energy.
  6. Fixture: something that is fixed, that is always there. Their display could become a fixture of the show.
  7. Vicious cycle (or vicious circle): when a problem causes other problems, and this makes the original problem worse. the vicious circle of unemployment and homelessness
  8. Release: (in this context) to let something spread into an area. Oxygen from the water is released into the atmosphere.
  9. Shade: a screen or cover that protects something from the sun
  10. Suitable: right for a particular purpose, person or situation. This film is not suitable for young children.
  11. Renewable energy: forms of energy for providing electricity, for example from the sun or wind.

However, there is progress on the architectural front: some newer glass buildings use special types of glass that can become more opaque to block sunshine in hot weather, or even generate electricity themselves, such as the Edge building in Amsterdam.


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The best buildings for climate change

With global warming in mind, here are some suitable building material and ways to cool a building:

  1. Horizontal shading (overhangs and louvres (persiennes)) outside your windows, or external shutters (volets),
  2. Roofs (toits) painted with special pigments designed to reflect solar radiation, and solar glazing (vitrage) on windows,
  3. Buildings made of stone or bricks have better thermal mass – the ability to absorb and release heat slowly,
  4. Concrete (béton) also has a high thermal mass but it takes a lot of energy to produce it, so hybrid systems (timber (bois) mixed with concrete for example) can counterbalance this problem,
  5. There is a new material called phase change material (PCM), which has even greater thermal mass than stone or concrete,
  6. Cooling systems made of water evaporation and natural ventilation,
  7. Or simply power the AC with renewable energy.

Source: Science Alert


Hot expressions

  • “I’m roasting.” (feeling so hot that you are uncomfortable, from the verb “roast”, which means cooking in an oven).
  • I’m sweating like a pig.” (sweat: transpirer)
  • “What a scorcher!” (an extremely hot day)
  • “It’s so hot, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” (sidewalk: the pavement by the side of the road)
  • “It’s like an oven out there.”
  • “It’s really muggy today.” (hot and humid)

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!