Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: English Usage

Visitors will not be laundered or cooked in their rooms

As an English instructor in Asia for the past 21 years, one of the things that I have done a lot in the classroom is correct language mistakes—in most cases, incorrect translations or incorrect verb or other vocabulary usage. Sometimes it is like being a “language mechanic”—fixing some of these common mistakes and language that gets lost in translation.

Of course, not of all these mistakes get fixed, especially when someone thinks they know English well enough not to consult with a native speaker or even someone with better English proficiency to check their English when writing a menu, directions on how to do something, or even the name of a restaurant or other establishment.

For example, back when I lived in Seoul there was this chicken place called Kenturkey Chicken. Obviously, the owner was keen on some name recognition—Kentucky Fried Chicken—to attract more customers; just didn’t see the humor in the misspelling of Kentucky I guess.

I know it’s not in the acme of good taste to laugh when you come across an incorrect translation or misuse of English—especially when you are an English teacher and should be sensitive and compassionate to those who make such mistakes—but darn it, sometimes this stuff is just too darn funny.

Take this list of rules and regulations for a hotel that I stayed at in Savannakhet. My favorite one is in Part II Number 2: “Visitors will not be laundered, cooked in the room, smoked cigarettes on the bed and made a noise to another visitor.”

The irony is that even though we know the English usage is appalling, we still understand what they are trying to say. Not everything gets lost in translation.

Shanghai’d in Shanghai

No, I am not talking about that rockin’ Nazareth tune (hear below) but what I am referring to is the meaning of the verb “shanghai” or “shanghaiing.”

The word came up in class the other day; actually, I brought it up when I was explaining—after I learned that one of the students lived in Shanghai, China—how the term was once used in English to refer to the practice of conscripting men as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. (I also explained that a related term, “press gang” referred to the impressment practices of Great Britain’s Royal Navy.)

What I didn’t know was that those involved in shanghaiing were called “crimps” and that they were predominantly found in port cities like San Francisco, Portland and Astoria in Oregon and Seattle and Port Townsend in Washington. The role of crimps and shanghaiing resulted “from a combination of laws, economic conditions, and practical considerations in the mid 1800’s.

Back then, “once a sailor signed onboard a vessel for a voyage, it was illegal for him to leave before the voyage’s end.” The penalty was imprisonment (the result of federal legislation enacted in 1790); however, later acts such as the Maguire Act of 1895 prevented this from happening and sailors could leave causing shortages.

Another reason for shanghaiing was the shortage of labor, in particular when many crews abandoned ships during California’s Gold Rush. No doubt, any able bodied seamen who stayed onboard a ship was literally “worth his weight in gold.”

Finally, shanghaiing came into its own when boarding masters had to find crews for ships. They were paid “by the body” and had a strong incentive to find as many seamen as they could. The pay they received was called “blood money” and in order to place as many seamen on a ship as possible no doubt set the stage for crimps who used “trickery, intimidation, or violence to put a sailor on a ship.”

Some of these crimps were some pretty smooth operators (and were well positioned politically to protect their lucrative trade) and according to one source, the most infamous examples of crimps included Jim “Shanghai” Kelly and Johnny “Shanghai Chicken” Devine of San Francisco and Joseph “Bunco” Kelly of Portland. In one classic story, “Bunco” Kelly “passed off a wooden Cigar Store Indian as a much-needed crewman to a desperate ship’s captain.” That would have been something to see. Wonder what happened when there was muster or roll call on board that ship. That Cigar Store Indian must have had a lot of explaining to do.

From what I learned, the most widely accepted theory of the how the word originated was that it came from Shanghai a common destination of the ships with abducted crews.

Today, the term means to be “induced to do something by means of fraud.”

Okay, got all that?

Now, here’s Nazareth’s “Shanghaied in Shanghai.”


I’m going to see a man about a horse

Have you ever stopped to think about some of the English colloquialisms we use and their origin, not to mention why we even use them in the first place?

We use these colorful colloquialisms all the time and they are a rich part of our language and for someone who has made a living out of teaching our language, I am sometimes curious as to the origins and usage of some of these expressions.

To see a man, to see a man about a dog, or to see a man about a horse according to Wikipedia, “is an English language colloquialism, usually used as a smiling apology for one’s departure or absence-generally as a bland euphemism to conceal one’s true purpose.”

The phrase has several meanings but all refer to taking one’s leave for some urgent purpose, especially to go to the bathroom or going to buy a drink. On the other hand, “the original non-facetious meaning was probably to place or settle a bet on a race, thus dogs or horses.”

During Prohibition in the United States the expression took on a different meaning when going “to see a man about a dog” often meant to go meet one’s bootlegger.

The earliest confirmed publication is the 1866 Dion Boucicault play Flying Scud, in which a character knowingly breezes past a difficult situation saying, “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog.” During a 1939 revival on the NBC Radio program America’s Lost Plays, TIME magazine observed that the phrase is the play’s “claim to fame”.

What’s most interesting is how we often take our language usage for granted; I mean we know when and how to use these expressions but we might not know the origins of these expressions.

So now, the next time you hear someone say they are going to see a man about a horse, you’ll know a little bit of how this expression originated.

The Race is On (with apologies to George Jones)

It’s 10:45am and I’ve got my class of ten beginning language learners doing a speaking activity in pairs. It’s a dialogue between two people asking what they like to do in their free time; the students, once they’ve read through the dialogue are supposed to substitute various “free time” activities like “listening to music” “reading books” and “watching TV” in the appropriate place in the dialogue. In ESL terms, it’s commonly known as a “substitution” drill.

For my students though, it is a race to finish all the substitutions.

One pair gets through all the substitutions in near record time and announces, “finish.”

Another pair, not far behind the first with their substitution mastery finishes next.


And another pair, feeling the heat and wanting to come in third is next.


(Many Korean language learners have a problem pronouncing the final “sh” sound on words like “finish,” “wash,” and “Bush.” In Korean, or Hangu-mal there is no final “sh” sound; however, there is a final “shi” sound. So, many beginning language students will say “finish-ee,” “wash-ee,” and “Bush-ee.” Now, I know teachers are not supposed to laugh when a student mispronounces a word, but when some students say, “Your President Bush-ee” I am sorry, that is just funny.)

I have been teaching English in Korea for 17 years now and one of the things (and believe me there are many) that has never ceased to amaze me is this notion of having to “finish” first in English class. Here are these students in an conversation class, learning a new language (or attempting to learn a new language) and what matters most to some students is not the fact that you are in a class-and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) one at that-where practicing as much as you can is everything (or at least should be everything), but that what is most important is finishing an activity first.

And announcing to the teacher and everyone in the class, “fin-ee-shee.”

I think a lot has to do with this “ppalli-ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mindset in Korea that is just as prevalent in society now as it was when I first came here. It’s hurry this and hurry that. It’s the way some people will dart across the street running between cars because they don’t want to wait a few minutes at the pedestrian crosswalk, the way some people will slurp down a bowl of ramen in record time, the way some people will walk out of a restaurant still putting on their shoes or the way students will race through an exercise to finish first.

Sometimes I just want to tell my students to slow down. There is plenty of English to learn; you don’t have to learn it all in class today.

Then again, maybe they are “finished” for the day-which sort of reminds me of this Gary Larson Far Side cartoon where a pudgy, bespectacled boy sitting in a class raises his hand and asks the teacher if he can be excused because “his brain is full.”

Hey you guys, it’s “hump day”

Some things just don’t translate well at first. 

Take for example the expression “hump day,” which is sometimes used when greeting people—such as in “have a happy hump day’—on Wednesdays back in the States (or anywhere else people have a five-day work week). A few years ago that expression would be hard to explain to a class of English-language learners in Korea when most people were working a six-day work week and students were also going to school six days a week. I wonder if that will change now with more and more people working five days a week?

It’s always been interesting for me, at least as an English teacher in Korea how certain English expressions and aphorisms have evolved here. Take for example the expression “hey you guys, how’s it going?’’—which has become quite popular (at least the “hey you guys” part) with younger, hip Koreans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the popularity of expressions like this one were in part due to the popularity of sitcoms like Friends. I started using this expression years ago and it wasn’t too long after that I started to hear many of my students using it in class and outside of class. Another example is “What’s up?” That one has become very popular with younger Koreans. 

Now, if we can only get people to stop the blatant misuse of English in expressions like “let’s” in ads such as “Let’s KT.”

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