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'Sugarcoat' Pills and Bad News


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'Sugarcoat' Pills and Bad News
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And now Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

Bad news can be hard to hear. It can be even harder to share with someone. So, we may tell someone bad news in a way that is easier for them to hear. In other words, we may try to sugarcoat it.

And that is our expression for today -- “sugarcoat.”

When you sugarcoat something you try to make it more pleasant or acceptable than it really is. You try to make an event or situation seem not so bad. So, you don’t share all the upsetting or otherwise bad details.

It might surprise you to learn that a United States president was criticized for using the term “sugarcoat” in an official message. I will tell you which one later in the program.

But first, let’s talk about the word “coat.”

A coat can be a layer, such as a coat of paint. As a verb, “coat” also means to cover something with a substance. So, you could say the walls were coated with a layer of paint.

Sugar, as you know, is a sweet substance. It makes so many things taste good – things like cakes, cookies, pies, and candy. But sugar can also make things like medicine taste better too and therefore easier to take.

So, medicine makers began adding sweet flavorings to their products to help people, especially children, take the medicine.

Now, pills can taste bitter too. So, pill makers started doing the same. They began coating pills with a hard sugar coating. This made them easier to swallow.

These days we use the term sugarcoat for actual sugar coatings and when we share news and information.

Here is a quick example. Let’s listen to these co-workers talk about their business.

A: Okay, give it to me straight. How much money did we lose last year?

B: Let me start by saying … we’ll make up our losses this year.

A: Stop sugarcoating it! I want numbers. How much did we lose?

B: All of it. We lost all of our profits from last year.

A: Wow. That IS bad. You could have broken the news to me a bit easier.

A: You said not to sugarcoat anything!

Now, back to our earlier question. Which U.S. president was criticized for using this informal term in an official address?

In a message to Congress on July 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote:

“With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government…”

Often on this show we talk about whether a term or expression is formal or informal. Formal language is well suited for professional and official situations, such as a presidential address. Informal is the type of language we use with those close to us.

Well, reportedly, some government officials at the time did not like President Lincoln’s use of the informal term “sugar-coat” in an official message.

Experts at the website History.com explain that the official government printer objected to Lincoln using “sugar-coat,” saying the word was beneath the dignity of the office of the president.

Also, reportedly, Lincoln didn’t care.

History.com experts claim Lincoln said, “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means.”

And he was right. Sugarcoat in all its forms remains commonly used and clear in meaning. Feel free to use it in any situation, even if it is formal. You will be in good company.

And that’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

layer – n. an amount of something that is spread over an area : a covering piece of material or a part that lies over or under another

delightful – adj. highly pleasing

flavoring – n. a substance that is added to a food or drink to give it a desired taste

bitter – adj. having a strong and often unpleasant flavor that is the opposite of sweet

give it to me straight – phrase to tell someone the truth

profit – n. money that is made in a business, through investing, etc., after all the costs and expenses are paid : a financial gain

rebellion – n. an effort by many people to change the government or leader of a country by the use of protest or violence : open opposition toward a person or group in authority

formal – adj. suitable for a proper occasion

informal – adj. marked by the absence of formality or ceremony

dignity – n. the quality or state of being worthy of honor and respect

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