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The Best of the Blog

Febbraio 2014
The Speak Up blog answers any questions or queries you may have either about the English language or our articles. Write to us (preferably in English) at: http://blog.speakuponline.it. The most interesting questions will be published on this page. A word of warning, though: our blog is not a translation or homework service!

My question is simple: what’s the meaning of the word “ain’t”?

Ain’t is primarily a colloquial abbreviation of the present tense of the verb to be (I ain’t, you ain’t, it ain’t etc.), although it can also substitute (in spoken, not written English) the present tense of the verb to have. Today it is associated with Afro-American street slang and rock music but, as linguists observe, it was also used by “respectable people” in the (19th century) novels of Charles Dickens.

My question is not a grammatical one, but I really would like to know why British people drive on the left side of the road (even though I know they say it is the rest of the world that drives on the wrong side!) Many thanks,

We love this question! In medieval times everyone passed on the left when walking along the road (this was because they carried their swords on their left. Most people were right-handed and they drew their swords with their right hand). This principle also applied to people riding on horses: they travelled on the left-hand side of the road. Horse traffic increased in England in the 18th century and a special law was passed, saying that horses and carriages had to keep to the left. French aristocrats also travelled on the left: the poor peasants travelled on the right (for their own safety!) But when the French Revolution broke out most aristocrats were killed and everybody started travelling on the right. Britain never had a revolution and so British horse traffic stayed on the left. Traffic naturally stayed on the left in British colonies, with the exception of America, which also had a revolution at that time.  When the motor car came along, most of the world followed France and America (although some Asian countries followed Britain).

Does “He’s really smart”  mean “He’s really intelligent” or “He’s really elegant?”

That’s a smart question! Probably “He’s really intelligent.” When we talk about elegance we say “a smart shirt, a smart pair of shoes etc.” but when we talk about an elegant person we tend to say “S/he” looks really smart.”

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