MonthJanuary 2015

English Idioms

Hello everybody!

January is almost over! This month has been unseasonably warm in Vienna, but the clouds, the lack of Christmas markets, and a healthy dose of culture shock after the holidays means that I am glad that it’s almost over.

On in 2015, the end of the month means one thing. No, it’s not that I’m another few weeks closer to being able to take a holiday. The last Friday of each month is English Idioms Day.

I really like learning idioms in German, and I love to hear my students using them too. What is an idiom? It’s a fixed expression – a short phrase always using the same words.   This sounds easy enough, but with idioms the phrase means something different to what the words suggest. Idioms are always descriptive, often humorous, and should not be taken literally.

Each month I’ll present a set of idioms about a theme. The weather, cats, food, business, school – if you can think of it, there will be an English figure of speech to explore!  I’ll be explaining their meaning of each idiom, showing you how to use them in context, and giving lots of examples of other fixed expressions which are related to the same topic.

Without further ado, let’s look at our first set!

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Happy Burns Night

It’s Burns Night!

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Burns Night?

Back in November I wrote about St Andrew’s Day – Scotland’s national holiday. I talked about our traditions and shared some of my favourite Scottish words. However, winter in Scotland is long and dark, and we have an important celebration in January as well.

Robert Burns is Scotland’s national poet. He is to Scotland what Shakespeare is to England. Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, a small town in the south west of Scotland.   He was only 37 when he died, but he had written over 550 poems. January 25th is his birthday, and each year we celebrate with a special Burns Supper

A Burns Supper consists of a traditional meal, poetry, toasts and entertainment.   We traditionally eat haggis, neeps and tatties, the most famous Scottish dish. At the beginning of the meal, the haggis is carried into the room, often behind someone playing the bagpipes. Burns’ poem To a Haggis is read, and at the climax of the poem, the haggis is cut open before the meal begins. A traditional Scottish dessert is Cranachan, which is made with whipped cream, raspberries, toasted oats, honey and whisky.

There are also traditional toasts during a burns supper. Most commonly, one of the gentlemen at the table gives a toast to the lassies (women) and one of the ladies answers with a toast to the laddies (men). These toasts are funny, often rude, but also warm hearted. Naturally, we toast with plenty of good Scottish whisky.

If you still have energy after all the food, toasts and whisky, many Burns suppers today end with a traditional ceilidh dance.

Burns’ most famous poem is undoubtedly Auld Lang Syne. It is still sung around the world on New Year’s Eve. You might also have heard of Tam o’ Shanter , a long poem about a drunken man escaping from witches. There’s also To A Mouse, where the poet feels empathy for a fieldmouse he upsets while he is harvesting.   My personal favourite is the love poem A Red Red Rose.

If you’re interested in hearing some of Burns’ poems read aloud, I recommend this section of the BBC website.   Here you can read the full text for all of Burns’ most famous poems and listen to recordings by some of Scotland’s most famous actors, artists and politicians.

In celebration of St Andrews Day, I shared some of my most favourite Scottish words. In the same tradition, you can find 10 more below! They might even help you to understand the poems you hear at your first Burns’ supper.

Haggis, neeps and tatties (n.)

Haggis, neeps and tatties is out national dish. Neeps are turnips. Tatties are potatoes. Haggis is delicious. Incidentally, Tattiebogler, is the Scottish word for a scarecrow.

Mince (adj.)

Of course, mince in Scotland is ground beef or lamb just as in the rest of the UK. However, the Scots also use it as an adjective. If something is mince it’s rubbish or disappointing.

Example: The weather’s a bit mince today.

Foosty (adj.)

Something foosty is stale, perhaps mouldy. Foosty air is not fresh.

Example: While we were away the fruit all went foosty.

Braw (adj.)

In contrast to the words above, if something is braw, it’s excellent! Applies especially to food and the weather.

Example: That soup was right braw.

Clarted (adj.)

Clartet means dirty or covered in mud (clart (n.)).   This happened to me a lot as a child.

Example: The kids were playing in the puddles and they’ve come back absolutely clarted.

Gubbed: (adj.) (Gubbing (n.), Gub (vb.)

To lose or be beaten, especially at Sport.

Example:   5:1? My team got fair gubbed on Saturday.

Schoogle (vb.) Schoogly (adj.)

Wobbly or unstable. The Glasgow Subway train (the oldest in the UK!) is so wobbly that riding it is known as going for a schoogle

Example: Don’t lean to hard on the schoogly table.

Sleekit (adj.)

You might recognise sleek in this word – an English adjective for quiet, smooth or elegant – sleek as a fox is a common simile.   Sleekit in Scots carries much the same meaning.

Example: ‘Wee sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie’ is the first line of Burn’s poem To a Mouse.  He is using the word to describe the frightened fieldmouse he has uncovered.

Shoofty (n.)

A shoofty is a quick, and often surreptitious glance at something

Example: Take a quick shoofty through the curtains and you’ll see their new car.

GordonDour (adj.)

BosieA word to describe some Scotsmen – severe, stern, serious or gloomy.

Example: See Gordon Brown, right.

 Bosie (n.)

Bosie is a great Scottish word for a great big hug!

Example: I haven’t seen you in months! Come here and give us a bosie.


I hope you’ll get the chance to celebrate Burns night in some way. Remember that as well knowing Scots, I am a native English speaker and experienced language teacher working in Vienna. If you’re interested in private tutoring to improve your standard English, I’d love to hear from you.

Lang may yer lum reek!



Mairi : )

My CELTA Experience

I’m doing something a little different today and looking back at my teacher training.  

As a lot of you already know, I took a Cambridge English CELTA course in preparation for moving to Vienna last year. CELTA stands for Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults.  The qualification is available for beginner and professional teachers at different institutions around the world, but my particular CELTA course was run through British Study Centres in Oxford.

My CELTA was a four week intensive course, but a part time option is also available.  During the course I taught students at 2 different levels for a total of 6 hours. The lessons were observed and graded by our course tutors.  There were also compulsory observations of experienced teachers and 4 written assignments about teaching theory, learner assessment, and our reflection on the course experience.   All of this took up only half of the course time.  Each morning we took part in seminar style teaching workshops Continue reading

Mairi Learning German: Progress Update

Here’s the year’s first update on my German progress.

How is your German learning going?

I would say that my German is going steadily.

Christmas was challenging.   It was strange to be back in the UK for 2 weeks. I could order coffee without having to think of what to say beforehand! All the signs were written in English! Hearing people with British accents in the street was ordinary! When I hear someone with a British accent in Vienna I want to run over and make a new friend.

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Writing Formal Letters

Today I’ll talk about how to write a formal letter. If you’re doing any sort of business in English, this is a really important skill. We use letters when following up with a company, sending out catalogues, confirmations, or price lists, submitting formal complaints, and especially when applying for jobs. Outside of the business world, writing a formal letter is also a part of English exams at intermediate level and higher.

We write far fewer letters these days, but if anything this means that letter writing is a more important skill! If more and more people are losing the ability to properly structure a formal letter, imagine the advantage it could give you when you send in a job application.

Writing a formal letter can be a daunting task, and I confess that it’s not something that I enjoy doing at all. Thankfully, though, there are plenty of rules you can follow to make your letters stand out.

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