Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

Another heavy topic • Words and sayings for global conflict • US vs. UK English hand signals could get you into trouble

Hello, everyone! Remember - there is extra content that’s not included in the video at the bottom of the newsletter. Enjoy!



Last week I covered a heavy topic - covid-19 - with words and phrases for when you get sick. I know I promised to cover happier topics, but I felt like I had to cover yet another heavy topic - words and phrases for times when countries are fighting with one another.

Many people who watch international events are talking about the escalating tensions between the United States and China. How bad things will become will depend on whether the two countries see one another as competitors, adversaries, or enemies. Each country has hawks and doves in its leadership. Personally, I hope the doves will win out.


“Escalating tensions” is a phrase you’ll often hear or read when people are talking about the relationship between two countries. News reports use it all the time. It’s a bit of a euphemism. A “euphemism” is a word or phrase that sounds nicer and gentler than the thing it’s referring to. For example, “escalating tensions” is a euphemism for two countries getting more and more angry with one another. Maybe even some troops are even fighting one another. Diplomats and politicians often use euphemisms.

In international relations, whether two countries are competitors, adversaries, or enemies is very important. “Competitors” are trying to win, but at least they are peacefully playing by a set of rules. For example, businesses in different countries compete with one another for customers.

“Adversaries” have disagreements that are hard to overcome. Usually countries that are adversaries have different ideologies. An “ideology” is a set of ideas that all work together to form a point of view. For example, capitalism and socialism are often seen as ideological adversaries. Countries that are adversaries are usually committed to their ideology and don’t get along well with countries that have a different ideology.

Finally, “enemies” are people you are prepared to go to war with. Enemies often end up fighting one another.

In any country, there are always people who are more interested in going to war and others who are more interested in preserving peace. It’s very common to use the words “hawks” and “doves” to describe these two groups. Hawks want to fight, while doves want to be friends.

These animal labels get used in other parts of life, too. For example, in economics, people who are very concerned about growing inflation are called hawks, while people who don’t worry as much about inflation are called doves. Inflation hawks want to go to war with inflation and stop any amount of it, while inflation doves are more relaxed and are okay with some inflation.


As you likely know, American English and British English (and other forms of English) are not exactly the same. For example, British English uses the letter “u” to spell many words, while American English does not (colour vs. color, flavour vs. flavor, and honour vs. honor).

But there are other parts of the culture that are different, too - like hand gestures! Look at the “V” sign below. It’s probably familiar to you.

That gesture can mean many things. It can be a sign for “peace be with you”. It can mean “victory” - as in, “I’ve won!” Or it can simply mean that you have counted to the number two.

However, in the United Kingdom, if you do this gesture the wrong way it can be very offensive! Note how, in the picture, the palm of the hand is facing toward you. That’s okay. But if the hand was facing the other way, with the back of the hand facing toward you, you are being insulted. In fact, it’s like saying, “F*ck you!”

So, when you are in the UK, be careful when you start counting with your hands. Or maybe even if you are on a Zoom call! I was chatting with some friends the other week and started counting with my hand. A British friend gently corrected me instead of being insulted! 😅


Check out last week’s Winning English newsletter for more cross-cultural differences in “language”. I talked about about how tally marks are different in different parts of the world.


Thanks for being part of Winning English! Remember, if you like it, please share it with friends and family whom you think would enjoy it, too. Also, I always love to hear from you, so please feel free to comment. Talk soon!

Bill