From VOA Learning English, welcome to Words and Their Stories.
On this program, we explore the origin of common expressions in American English. And we teach you how to use them.
Today, we talk about a famous character from a classic Disney fairy tale -- Cinderella. In American English, Cinderella’s story gives us several expressions.
Little girls all over the United States love Cinderella. But she is not an American creation – far from it. Cultures all over the world have their own version of this story. In Europe alone, scholars have found more than 500 versions of the Cinderella story. Many of them are much older than Disney’s Cinderella which comes from a 1690s French story.
So, what is so special about Cinderella? Why has this character been around for so long and in so many different places?
Well, Cinderella is good, kind and very beautiful. But she must overcome a bad situation. See, she has a really terrible family.
In case you don’t know the story, Cinderella lives with her evil stepmother and two awful stepsisters. They hate Cinderella. They keep her locked away and force her to clean and cook for them.
Then, the handsome prince invites all the women in the kingdom to a ball, or formal dance. He is looking for a woman to marry. The last thing the evil stepmother and stepsisters want is for Cinderella to meet the prince. So, they do everything they can to prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.
However, Cinderella has a protector -- a fairy godmother.
The fairy godmother waves her magic wand. Suddenly, Cinderella is dressed in a beautiful gown. The fairy godmother even arranges transportation to the ball by turning a pumpkin into horse-drawn coach. But here’s the trick -- the magic does not last all night.
Cinderella must leave the ball before midnight. That is when the magic ends and everything turns back to the way it was, including Cinderella.
This is where we get our first expression.
A "magic wand" means something that will solve all problems. But we often use it in the negative. So in conversation, you could say, “There is not a magic wand that can solve all the problems facing society.”
Our next expression is turning into a pumpkin like Cinderella’s horse-drawn coach.
To turn into a pumpkin means you must return home or go to bed due to the late hour of the night. So, if you’re out with friends and it’s late, you can say, “I have to go home before I turn into a pumpkin!”
The story of Cinderella has a few twists and turns, but in the end she marries the prince and they live happily ever after -- thanks to the fairy godmother.
And that brings us to another term from this Disney classic -- “fairy godmother.”
In conversation, a fairy godmother is a generous friend or benefactor. She is someone who looks after you. She even seems to have magical powers to make everything better.
For example, let’s say I am having a really bad week. My kitchen sink is clogged, my car breaks down and I am having trouble at work with a project.
My friend Madeline comes to my apartment, fixes my sink, drives me to and from work and helps me organize my project. I can say to her, “Thanks so much for all your help. You have been my fairy godmother!”
But now, let’s get back to Cinderella.
It’s true that the story is about a young woman finding her prince while wearing a beautiful gown. But now, the expression “Cinderella story” is used mostly for sports!
In sports, a Cinderella story is when the underdog wins the game, usually in a dramatic way. The underdog is a person or team that is not expected to win. It is good to note that the word “underdog” can be used in any situation.
A Cinderella story is also called an “upset.” Usually, the word “upset” means to be troubled. But when used as a noun, an upset is when something happens that no one was expecting.
According to several sports websites, there have been many dramatic Cinderella stories.
Here are just a few:
- In tennis, Boris Becker, a 17-year-old German, wins Wimbledon in 1985.
- In boxing, Muhammad Ali wins back his heavyweight title in 1974 against George Forman in a fight known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
- In cycling, Graeme Obree, known as the Flying Scotsman, broke the sport’s one-hour record in 1993. He broke the record on a self-made bike that contained parts from an old washing machine.
- In cricket, Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup in 1996.
- In soccer, Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup. To this day, many Brazilians still talk about that upset.
These Cinderella stories lead us to another expression: “a fairy tale ending.”
Many fairy tales – including the fairy tale of Cinderella – end happily. At least one character gets what he or she wants after a long period of suffering.
In sports, a “fairy tale ending” happens when someone wins in the most dramatic, lucky or fortunate way imaginable. Anything can have a fairy tale ending. And that’s a good thing. But we also use this term in the negative. To say something didn’t have a fairy tale ending means that nothing ended well.
And that brings us to the end of Words and Their Stories. If you suffered through this program but still learned something, you can call this a fairy tale ending. Otherwise, we’ll just end happily ever after!
I’m Anna Matteo.
What is your favorite Cinderella stories or fairy tale endings in sports? If you’re not a sports fan, share the version of Cinderella from your culture … in the Comments Section!
The song "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" is from Disney's 1950 movie Cinderella.
Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
Words in This Story
formal – adj. requiring proper clothing and manners <a formal dance> : suitable for a proper occasion <formal attire>
fairy godmother – n. in stories : a woman with magic powers who saves a person from trouble
gown – n. a long, formal dress that a woman wears especially during a special event
magic wand – n. a stick that is used to make magic things happen <The magician waved his magic wand and pulled a rabbit out of the hat.> —sometimes used figuratively <The new law is not a magic wand that will solve all our problems.>
pumpkin – n. a usually large round orange fruit of a vine related to the squash and cucumber that is used for food or decoration
horse-drawn – adj. pulled by a horse or by a group of horses <a horse-drawn carriage>
coach – n. a large usually closed four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage having doors in the sides and an elevated seat in front for the driver
magic – n. a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions
benefactor – n. someone who helps another person, group, etc., by giving money
clog – v. to slowly form a block in (something, such as a pipe or street) so that things cannot move through quickly or easily
dramatic – adj. sudden and extreme