The origin of the expression “red tape”

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Graduate holding their official cerificate

    I currently live in Spain, an incredibly diverse country with a great quality of life. But one of the downfalls of living here is the amount of red tape you need to deal with at times. What does this mean? Dealing with red tape means going through a lot of (often perceived as unnecessary and finicky) bureaucracy. Everyone who lives in Spain knows how much time you can spend in a government office with regards to a bureaucratic procedure, such as applying for residency, or completing a tax return, or ……the list is long.

Why do we call it red tape? Well, if you think about historical films that depict, say, the Middle Ages, important official documents are either sealed with red wax, or yes, you guessed it, tied with a red ribbon or tape. And from this idea, administrative paperwork in the 21st century has come to be known as red tape. We still sometimes use the tradition of red tape when handing out certificates ( see photo above.).

For me, the benefits of living in Spain definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but that frustrating red tape is definitely part of the price you need to pay.


Does formal English matter anymore?

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Formal English –  do we still need it ?

Different registers in language

When we  communicate,   we use different registers of language, which, to simplify matters, in the English teaching world, we class into formal, neutral and informal.  Most English words are, in fact, neutral.But if we are writing or speaking to people we know well, we are most likely using contractions, slang and informal expressions as well. Formal English is for more serious communication, such as a writing a letter of application. In these cases, we generally use longer sentences and ((hopefully) correct grammar. A lot of our communication may not fit perfectly into these formal/informal pigeonholes, but we do have an idea of the register when we look at how the writing is formulated.

Formal versus informal

For non-native speakers of English, the difference between these two registers can be sometimes difficult to understand. Students have often asked me the past if a word is “formal” or “informal” when it is a neutral word that belongs in neither category.  Generally it is the words and expressions around these neutral words that lend your correspondence a formal or informal style. A good English language teacher will always tell you if vocabulary is very formal, and therefore probably old-fashioned and/or used in very specific situations, or on the other hand, very informal, and therefore has no place in formal writing. Besides,  a formal register uses grammatically correct sentences, and therefore tends to have longer sentences, and unlike an informal email, has no contractions, no text language like “C u l8ter”, and definitely no emoticons.

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Emoticons – save them for your private messages

Latin influence

  In English, a lot of the words that originated from Latin tend to be classed as more formal, which is useful for English language students whose first language is of Roman origin, as the word they need in English is frequently  similar to the word they use in their own language, for example, ” I received your email.”  and not ” I  got your email “. When words began to be documented, the official language used was Latin, and its influence is still present today, even if we have anglicised the word.

The business world

The process of business writing has changed immensely since we started using email and the Internet for correspondence in the workplace. Whereas in previous centuries, formality was highly regarded, today the crucial issue is having the skills in order to express ideas clearly in a comprehensible way. Time is of the essence.  But few people would disagree that a well-written business proposal looks much more trustworthy than one with grammatical mistakes. In the workplace, your emails and other written documents are an advertisement of your professional image. .  This is key with clients and people you do not know well. In the business world, no-one is expecting you to be Charles Dickens or write an academic essay – in fact, this is not what they   want at all. They need concise and easy to understand information. 

Which register should I use ?

And if you are in doubt how to respond to an email, follow the style of the person  who wrote to you. . If they say “speak to ya later ” then it is certain they are using an informal tone. This register is  generally much easier to recognise and reproduce because it’s similar to the way we speak.  If the writer says ” I look forward to seeing you at the meeting”, this should point you towards a more formal reply. If you are unsure about formal writing, there are tons of examples of formal letter writing on the net. Emails haven’t been around long enough to have the same amount of etiquette attached as letter writing, but on the whole, professional business emails should be written in a neutral tone, and grammar and spelling mistakes should be avoided. Save the emoticons and textspeak for your private messages.

Relevance today

So is formal writing still relevant ?  Well,  I would say that if you are thinking about old-fashioned expressions, such as ” I remain yours faithfully”, well, it is exactly that, an old-fashioned expression which is nowadays out of touch with the modern world. But there are certain circumstances when you may need to write very politely to someone in a superior position and/or you want to make the best impression. Formal writing, by which I mean, accurate grammar and spelling and the correct tone and format, is always going to create a positive impression. 

English history

Great British traditions – a cup of tea

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A short history of the British love for tea

How did the British fall in love with tea?

According to historians, tea first came to Europe in the 16th century, via Dutch and Portuguese traders. The habit of tea drinking gradually spread throughout Europe and the first person to sell tea in Britain was Thomas Garway in London in 1657. Around fifty years later, in 1701, Thomas Twining opened London’s first teashop.

At first tea drinking was an expensive habit that only the rich could afford. Tea was classed as a luxury item with high taxes, and at one point tea tax was at the ridiculous amount of 119%. This gave rise to tea smuggling, which often involved tea adulterated with herbs, other leaves and even previously used tea leaves. Tea smuggling was generally halted in 1784 when the tax on tea dropped to 12.5%.

The East India Company was given a monopoly for selling tea in Britain in 1832. They soon began to use “clippers” – sailing ships prized for their speed. The tea market was highly competitive and the faster the ship, the more the owner could charge for the mission. The Cutty Sark is a British tea clipper built in those times, and can still be visited today in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.

Tea in Britain was originally drunk on its own, but the additions of milk and sugar increased its popularity. Sugar was becoming widely available to due to the boom in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Originally considered as a drink only for the rich and the aristocracy, during the 19th century tea gradually became more available to the middle classes and tea shops soared in popularity. Drinking tea became the norm in middle class households.

By the 19th century, the working classes were also fans of tea drinking. It was seen as a warm, energy giving drink which was extremely useful in Britain’s cold and damp climate. The working classes probably began drinking tea as a source of energy at work before it became a ritual at home.

Although there has been a slight decline in “normal” tea drinkers in recent years, and fruit and herbal teas are becoming more widespread, tea is still very much a longstanding and essential part of British culture. Twinings is thought to be the world’s oldest commercial logo which is still in use today. Not only is tea still incredibly popular in Britain, it is estimated that the Brits drink around 60 billion cups of tea per year.

Anyone for a cuppa?


Order of adjectives in English

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Adjectives follow a specific order

Have you ever wondered why we say “a lucky black cat ” and not a “black lucky cat” ? Or why it sounds wrong to say a “green square big” object ?

If you are a native English speaker, this is something you have probably never studied, but you automatically know which order adjectives should be placed in, because they sound really strange if not, right ?.For non-native speakers of English, there is a grammatical rule which you can learn to make sure you always have your adjectives under control.

What you need to know

1) Opinion e.g. attractive, fascinating, silly, disgusting, foolish, beautiful

2) Size e.g. massive, huge, tall, tiny, minuscule

3) Dimension e.g. heavy, weighty, round, rectangular, lengthy, tall

4) Age e.g. old, ancient, antique

5) Colour e.g. pink, black, greenish, pearly white

6) Pattern e.g. striped, spotty, flowery, splotchy

7) Origin e.g.African, Irish, Mediterranean, Roman

8) Material: e.g.wooden, linen, metal, silicone

And then we add the noun – the object/person/situation we are describing.

It is unlikely we are ever going to use 8 adjectives in a sentence. The amazing, tiny, weightless, ancient, grey, spotty, French paper doll doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But we often use two, and sometimes three……beautiful, blue sky, or big, round, yellow, spotted ball. And the words in any other order are going to sound extremely weird. So welcome to this incredible, new, red-hot working week !


Origins of the expressions “flying colours” and “show true colours”

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Ship flying colourful flags

To pass with flying colours

We usually use “to pass with flying colours” in conjunction with some type of test or exam to express the idea that the candidate has achieved high marks.  

“ My son passed his exam with flying colours”. “ Oh really, that’s wonderful!”

But where does this phrase come from? Like other expressions still in common use today, this has its origins in nautical history and refers to the colourful flags flying from a masthead of a ship. In the past, before the use of the widespread communication channels of today, a ship’s appearance was the key to how they had fared on their voyage.  If a ship had been defeated in battle, flags were not flown. But when a ship returned to port victorious from a mission, all their flags would be on display to show their achievement and to communicate this from afar, before the ship docked.


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A ship destroyed by pirates

To show your true colours

In a similar way, “to show your true colours” also has its roots in naval history. Sometimes pirate ships would use the tactic of a friendly flag in order to deceive their prey and gain proximity. Once they had secured access to the ship, the pirate flag would be shown and they would attack in search of treasure. Of course, nowadays we use this expression to denote that someone has shown their real (usually unpleasant) feelings or personality after a period of initial friendliness.


Origins of the word “geek”

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Where does the word geek come from ?

A word with a story

 This word originates from the German word “geck” and was used in the 16th century to describe someone who participated in the activities offered at funfairs or carnivals, knowing full well they would lose their money – in other words, a fool. But somehow by the 16th century it had become the word to describe the people who played a part in the carnival itself. This process of gradual change in meaning is known as semantic drift.  A 16th century funfair was pretty off-putting by today’s standards, as many of these geeks entertained people by biting the heads off dead animals…. pretty disgusting and definitely not today’s standards of fun. But by the early 20th century, a “geek” was also the definition of someone who played a dangerous role in the funfair – for example, the strongman or the fire eater, but it was still used as a word to describe people who performed freaky and sensational circus acts.

Modern geeks

In the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of computers and new technologies, the word “geek” semantically drifted again.  Society needed a word to describe people who were devoted to and often obsessed with technology, and along with their passion for technical wizardry, were often socially awkward.  During the 1980’s these people began to be known as “geeks”. It was and still is, sometimes, used as a derogatory term, but geeks are finally beginning to have the last laugh. The increasingly significant role of technology in today’s world means that people with geeky skills are more and more in demand. In addition, if you call yourself a geek, it is generally in order to validate your knowledge and passion for technology, and not in the least offensive. An interesting journey then, for the word “geek”, which over time has changed its meaning from fool to expert.

English exams

What exactly is IELTS?

IELTS – the exam

IELTS is an acronym for International English Language Testing System. There are two types of IELTS exam, general or academic. These differ in the reading and writing sections. Listening and speaking are the same in both. General IELTS is geared towards students who would like to emigrate to an English-speaking country and are therefore required to show they gave a level of English in order to cope with issues they could encounter as a resident. Academic IELTS is generally for non-native speakers of English who wish to study a university course or master´s degree in English and their desired place of study will normally advise them on the mark they need in order to gain access to the course.

What’s in the exam ?

There are 4 sections – Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking. There is no Use of English but obviously a good grasp of grammar is necessary to score a higher mark. Candidates score from 0 to 9 based on their performance in the aforementioned sections. An overall mark of 6.5 or 7 is around a high B2 level of English.


This listening section consists of 40 questions which become progressively more difficult. The first section is a telephone conversation between two speakers and you will need to fill in the missing information. It’s a good idea to clearly understand numbers in English and the English alphabet for this exam. The answers in Section 2 and 3 are very much vocabulary based. Vocabulary is extremely important in IELTS, and understanding and using synonyms is an essential part of overall exam, not just in the listening paper. The last section will be a monologue on an academic or scientific subject. Don’t worry about the subject of the monologue itself, it’s not necessary to be an expert on say, ancient Greek archeology, to pinpoint the answers to the questions.


Unlike the Cambridge exams, the IELTS speaking exam is for an individual exam candidate with one speaking examiner only. The test consists of 3 parts – firstly, a Q and A session, secondly, a 1 to 2 minute monologue from the student on a given subject, and finally, opinion related questions. What the examiner wants to hear is that the candidate has fluid English and can express opinions clearly in a logical way using a range of suitable vocabulary.


General IELTS – 40 questions on 3 texts related to documents or topics you find in real life e.g. instructions from a manual or rules for a competition. There are a variety of different question types and it is crucial to understand and practice all the different question possibilities e.g. one or two word gap fills, matching ideas to paragraphs, multiple choice, matching headings, and more.

Academic IELTS – 40 questions which vary in type on 3 texts relating to academic/ scientific articles. There are usually some very specific words relating to the topic in question which most people (including teachers) would not understand unless they happen to have some expert knowledge on this subject themselves. However, these academic or scientific words will either be explained in the text, or you will not need to know the specific meaning of the word if it is used in a question.


General IELTS – Task 1 consists of writing a letter (minimum 150 words) which can be informal, semi-formal or formal, for example writing to your landlord, or bank manager, about a particular situation that will be outlined in the question. Task 2 is an essay, minimum 250 words.

Academic IELTS – Task 1 consists of comparing and contrasting data which can be in the form of line graphs, pie charts, bar charts, tables, flow charts, maps or diagrams. The minimum 150 word also applies here. Task 2 is an essay, also minimum 250 words.

Unlike other exams, there is no choice of writing tasks in either General or Academic IELTS. There will be one writing task 1 and one writing task 2 per exam. If you do not reach the minimum amount of words in both writing tasks, there is a penalty which will lower your score. This applies to both General and Academic IELTS.

An overview of the IELTS exam

My advice to new IELTS students

In particular, if you are not very technical or scientifically-minded, Academic IELTS can look scary at first glance– it has a different approach from the Cambridge exams, it has questions on diagrams and flow charts which are often unfamiliar territory, and a lot of the material is highly scientific or academic. But like any other English Language exam, it’s just a question of having the necessary level of English plus practising with exam questions until it is clear there is a high possibility of achieving the score you need.  With regards to the speaking and writing sections, the examiner’s criteria for these parts of the IELTS exam are easily accessible on Internet, and understanding what the examiner wants you to do will help you get the score you are aiming for.

For a look at IELTS in more detail, go to


Origin of the word “freelance”

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  Maybe some of you are who reading this post are freelancers, like me. But have you ever thought about where this term originated? It actually began life as two words – free lance, then was hyphenated as free-lance and today is spelt as one word.

Well, it seems to have come into usage in the 19th century and was used by Sir Walter Scott in 1819, in his book Ivanhoe, to describe what we would call today a mercenary, i.e. a soldier with his own equipment, that is, his lance, who would accept payment for the use of his weapon and his fighting abilities. Does this sound like an analogy for a modern day freelancer?  Obviously, we do not go around killing people with lances ….but for example, freelance writers have our own equipment such as writing skills and a computer with Internet access for a start, and we sell our services to who we wish, rather than being a salaried member of an organization. And in keeping with the military tone, we often have our own, less bloody, battles to fight.

In addition, freelancers are often perceived as being happier as not only do they work independently from a boss, they are generally following their passion in life be it writing, painting, computer technology, you name it…………there’s bound to be a freelancer who offers this service.


English is Alive !

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Words are like flames in a fire – they live, twist and turn, die out or revive.

  Yes, English is most definitely alive and kicking. It might sound strange to you that a language can be considered to be a living thing, but the English language is constantly evolving and has done so ever since the Anglo Saxon language developed into what we now call Middle English, which in turn became Early Modern English, leading the way to how we speak English today.

How changes happen

Of course, these changes do not happen overnight. They are shaped by society’s attitude to events, by circumstance, by the new inventions of the age – just think how many new words have been invented due to technological advances in the twentieth century, let alone the swirl of technology that surrounds us now.  Here are just six examples of common words or expressions that would bewilder our forefathers – Wi-Fi, broadband (technology), greenhouse gas, carbon footprint (circumstance), or transgender, manspreading (social change).

And of course, any language evolves due to the same type of events in its society and this is why there are many different types of English we can find throughout the world. Why do Americans say “sidewalk” when the British say “pavement”? Well, because before globalization, the English language developed one way in the U.S. and another in the U.K. Nowadays with the Internet, Hollywood films and globalisation, a great many British people are familiar with American terms, and even though they may never use the word themselves, they clearly recognise it and know its meaning.   Nevertheless, in the world of the Mayflower and the pilgrims, the English language was developing due to social change and circumstances in Britain, which were not the same as in the United States, so therefore language evolution was different in North America. 

Other Languages

And what is more, exactly the same process happened with Spanish in the Latin American countries after the first Spanish settlers arrived . Often, in the same way as American English, the emigrants retained the same word from the original language – for example, “carro” in Mexican Spanish, which originally meant “cart”, is now used to signify a car.  In Spain however, a new word for car was invented, “coche”.  Words like “trash” or “stove” – still used widely in North America – evolved into “rubbish” and “cooker” in Britain. Some people claim that American English or British English is better than the other – It seems to me that they are really just expressing a preference for the vocabulary used in their territory.

So what do you think? Do you believe one strain of English is better than another?


My blog

So, welcome to my all-inclusive, non-judgmental blog. If you enjoy reading about the English language for whatever reason, join me. I’ll be posting advice for exam students for the First, Advanced and IELTS exams along with musings on the idiosyncrasies of the English language for anyone who is interested. I look forward to blogging with you again soon.