Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

A heavy topic • Words and sayings for when you are sick • The many languages of tally marks

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Today I thought I’d cover a heavy topic: words for when you are sick with a virus. Given the impact of covid-19, it’s kind of important, unfortunately. But I promise - I’ll try to make most of my newsletters happier. 😄

When we describe a topic as “heavy”, we mean it is serious and not very fun. When a topic is “light”, it is less serious and more fun.

How are you feeling today?

First, let’s talk about the common cold. A “cold” is that annoying, but not very dangerous, virus we all get from time to time. We call it “common” because so many people get it, year after year.

Every disease, including the common cold, has symptoms. Symptoms are those things we feel that just aren’t normal. They’re how we know we are sick.

Common symptoms are a headache, a sore throat, a fever, fatigue, and what we call a stuffed-up nose or a stuffy nose. Notice that we say “sore throat” instead of painful throat or something like that, even though when you are sore, you are feeling pain. And “fatigue” is just a fancy word for “feeling tired.”

Now, if your nose is “stuffed-up” or “stuffy”, it is filled with that gross, sticky material called mucus. A slang word for mucus is snot. Sometimes, instead of saying “stuffed-up” or “stuffy”, people will say they have a snotty nose. Note that the words “snot” and “snotty” are very informal and kind of impolite. By the way, when mucus creates a lump or ball in your nose, that’s called a booger. “Booger” is kind of impolite, too, so be careful with that word.

Sometimes with a cold, the mucus (or snot) flows like water. When water flows, we can also say it “runs”. Running water is flowing water. So, when mucus flows or runs out of our nose, we call that a runny nose.

Sometimes with diseases we also feel pain in our muscles or joints. A common way to say that is that you are feeling aches and pains. When something “aches”, that means it hurts.

So, with a cold - or any virus, really - you might have a headache, a fever, a stuffy or runny nose, and aches and pains. It’s not fun, but at least you know some formal and slang vocabulary to describe it now.

How to answer, “How did the virus treat you?”

Hopefully you won’t get sick any time soon, but if you do, you’ll likely end up telling people how you felt. Often when we are sick, we often are very uncomfortable; we just want to sleep; and we don’t have the energy to do much of anything. Here are two sayings you can use to describe how you felt while you were sick.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. - The “it” in this sentence is the virus, and this saying is probably easy to understand. If a giant pile of bricks - a ton of them - landed on you, you wouldn’t feel very good.

It knocked the wind out of my sails. - This saying might be easy to understand, as well. It comes from the world of sailboats. Sailboats move when wind fills their sails. So, if the wind is knocked out of their sails, they stop. If you “have the wind knocked out of your sails”, you come to a stop, too.

Note that this saying is used in many situations, not just when you are sick. For example, someone could say, “I was really excited about this business project, but when the vice president criticized it after my presentation, it really knocked the wind out of my sails.”

Language is not always words

We like to think of learning a language as learning sounds, words, and grammar. But it’s also about learning culture and everything that goes along with culture.

I was fascinated to find out recently that even something as simple as tally marks depends on where you are from. “Tally marks” are those little lines people draw to keep an accurate count of something. Tally marks make it easy to count in intervals of five. And they are their own kind of language.

Look at this image created “Bdesham” for the Wikipedia entry on tally marks:

The image on the left is how people in North America, English-speaking countries, some parts of Europe, and elsewhere count up to five. The middle image is how people in China count to five. And the image on the right is how people in France, Spain, and other parts of the world do so. There is always something new to learn!

By the way, I first heard about this from a feed I follow on Instagram called “maps.n.more”.

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