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August 7, 2003 - Listener Mail - 2003-08-07

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: August 7, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- time to catch up with some of our mail!

RS: Hammamy in China wants to know the Internet address for that new Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary we told you about a few weeks ago.

AA: You can look up all the details about how to get a paid subscription at merriam-hyphen-webster dot com. That's M-E-R-R-I-A-M hyphen W-E-B-S-T-E-R dot com.

RS: Next, Sampath in Karnataka, India, wants to know the meaning of "Catch-22."

AA: First a little history: "Catch-22" was the title of a book from nineteen-sixty-one. It's a darkly humorous anti-war novel by American author Joseph Heller.

RS: So what does it mean? Just listen to this dialogue between a military flier who doesn't want to fly anymore, and the doctor who has the power to grant his wish.

YOSSARIAN: I'm crazy!

DOCTOR: "Who says so?"

YOSSARIAN: "Ask anybody. Ask Nately, Dobbs -- hey, Orr, Orr, tell him.

ORR: "Tell him what?"

YOSSARIAN: "Am I crazy?"

ORR: "He's crazy, doc. He won't fly with me. I take good care of him, but he won't. He's crazy, all right."

YOSSARIAN: "Is Orr crazy?"

DOCTOR: "Of course he is. He has to be if he keeps flying after all the close calls he's had."

YOSSARIAN: "Then why can't you ground him."

DOCTOR: "I can but first he has to ask me."

YOSSARIAN: "That's all he's got to do to be grounded."

DOCTOR: "That's all."

YOSSARIAN: "Then you can ground him?"

DOCTOR: "No, then I cannot ground him. There's a catch."

YOSSARIAN: "A catch?"

DOCTOR: "Sure, Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground him."

YOSSARIAN: "OK, let me see if I got this straight. In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore and I have to keep flying."

DOCTOR: "You got it -- that's Catch-22."

YOSSARIAN: That's some catch, that Catch-22.

DOCTOR: "The best there is."

RS: We first played this clip from the old movie "Catch-22" back in February when another listener asked the same question. So, a Catch-22 situation is a situation that's not just absurd, but also impossible to deal with.

AA: On now to Azat in Aktau, Kazakhstan. He says he finds our segments with Slangman David Burke entertaining. And he sends us a question.

RS: "I have an expression that I would be glad if you could clarify. I beg your pardon if it is a little dirty. In what situations do you use the expression 'you bet your [we'll say bottom]'? And for what purpose?"

AA: The purpose is for emphasis. Let's say another driver hits your car in a garage. You walk up, and the other driver says: "Is that your car?"

RS: You might be tempted to answer: "You bet your ... bottom it is." You might also use this expression kiddingly with friends. But, as you say, it is a little off color and some people might be offended.

AA: Here's a second question: "I often run into the word 'ain’t,' as in 'it ain't quite time, let's hang back.' I suspect that 'ain’t' is something like 'isn’t.' An American friend told me that it’s not correct, and I never heard him use it himself."

RS: You're right, "ain't" means the same as "isn't," or "is not." But, as your friend pointed out, it's not standard English, but it's used informally. Now, that said, there are times when people who ordinarily wouldn't say "ain't" do say it.

AA: "You ain't seen nothing yet" -- that's a famous expression meaning the best is yet to come. Or this saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That means leave well enough alone.

RS: But, again, "ain't" is not standard English. So, should you be careful using it? You bet your --

AA: Next! Frank in China writes: "I've been learning English for almost 8 years. After all these years of study, I don't think my English level has improved greatly. So I want to ask your expertise how I can improve my English as soon as possible. My way of learning English is to read novels and some newspapers on the Internet, like USA TODAY, and to listen to radio stations like VOA and BBC. I can't find a better way to learn English. Tell me what I should do?"

RS: Actually, what you're doing is what most English teachers would say you should be doing. You're getting lots of practice with English as it's used in real-life communications, not just in textbooks. Finding native speakers to practice with would help too, but of course that's not always possible.

English teacher Anthea Tillyer once told us about an exercise where students practice by imitating an actor in a movie scene on video or DVD. You keep stopping the scene just before the actor speaks -- then YOU read the lines out loud!

AA: Next, Daniel in Madrid responded to our recent interview with Diane Ravitch. In her book "The Language Police" she argues that American schoolbooks and tests are censored for the sake of political correctness.

RS: Daniel writes, "Diane Ravitch can consider the guidelines used by publishers ridiculous or nonsensical. Frankly, I don’t think so. She should notice that these guidelines have been created to avoid offending people."

AA: Next, we'd like to wish good luck to Mann Sok, a student from Cambodia who hopes to become a famous writer. We wish we could give you some advice. But if we knew the secret, we'd be famous writers ourselves!

RS: And, we close with this from an English teacher in Iran named Ali: "I learn a lot from VOA. I would like you to include more programs on slang terms and other language-related topics. And I would like to thank all those who make this show possible."

AA: Well, this show wouldn't be possible if it weren't for our listeners. So, a big thanks to all of you out there!

RS: Send your e-mail to Our postal address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. And, our programs are on the Web at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.