24 years old v 24 years older

Last night my wife pointed to a Youtube video about the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and asked ‘Did you know he married a woman 24 years old?’. I’d read headlines about ‘an older woman’, so ’24 years old’ didn’t sound right, but ’24 years older‘ didn’t sound much righter. Except she is. My wife really did know that Brigette Macron is ‘older’ and really did mean to say ‘older’, but either her pronunciation failed at the last syllable or I wasn’t paying attention.

It is perhaps more likely that a 39-year-old man would marry a woman 24 years old than a woman 24 years older. Thinking about it, I was grateful that she isn’t, for example, 15 years older than him. ‘Did you know he married a woman 15 years old?’ really doesn’t sound right.

Some time ago, she was reading about a host/judge on a cooking competition program here in Australia. She said ‘His wife is 19 years old!’ (he was then in his 40s). This is possible, but I wanted to check. The article said ‘his wife of 19 years’. (I remember, many, many years ago, being confused about this phrasing as well. It that case, it was something like ‘his wife of 13 years’.)

questions and answers

Sometimes one word can change the meaning of a question, and the (possible) answer(s) to it. The students were doing an activity in which they had to create questions from a prompt, then ask their partner. At the end I got pairs to stand up and ask and answer one of their questions. The first was ‘Which city / most like to visit and why?’. The asker of the first pair asked ‘Which city would you most like to visit and why?’ and the answerer answered ‘New York’ and gave her reasons. The asker of another pair asked ‘Which city do you most like to visit and why?’, which is an equally valid but completely different question with probably a different answer, though maybe with the same answer. (I can’t remember what the student’s answer was.) Certainly, the scope of the first question is wider: I would like to visit hundreds of cities, and I like to visit a handful. (Naturally, I might say ‘I like visiting …’, but I’ll ignore that grammatical nicety for the moment.)

Another prompt was ‘Which famous person / you like to look like? Why?’. Another asker asked ‘Which famous person would you like to look like?’ and the answerer (a young Taiwanese man) answered ‘Hermione Granger’. Putting aside the question of whether she is a ‘famous person’, there was the incongruity of a young Taiwanese man wanting to look like Emma Watson (putting aside the question of whether Hermione really looks like Emma). I asked ‘Why?’ and he answered ‘Because she knows all the answers to all the questions’. I asked ‘So you’d like to look like an English girl with long hair?’ and he realised what the question actually was. He answered ‘David Beckham’, because he’s tall, good-looking and good at football. In this activity, it is not possible to ask ‘Which famous person would you like to be like?’, because ‘look’ is given. It is also not probable to ask ‘Which famous person do you like to look like?’, unless you are interviewing a practiced impersonator.

an iron v some iron

The students were practicing uncountable and countable nouns, and the grammar practice page had the sentence: ‘Hello, Reception. Do you have an / some iron I can use?’. One student chose ‘some’. If it was a test, I would have to mark him wrong. In class, though, I can find out why he chose that. I asked ‘What are going to do with some iron?’. He said ‘I’m a scientist. I’m going to make a science experiment.’ All right, then. I said ‘Where are you, that you are calling Reception?’. He said ‘I’m in a big shop. There’s a desk I can ask at.’ I said ‘Is that Reception, or is that the Information Desk?’. He said ‘Oh’. I asked ‘And are you going to buy the iron first, before you use it?’. He said ‘Oh’. ‘Where else has Reception?’. (a moment’s thought) ‘A hotel.’  ‘And what do you want?’. ‘An iron.’ ‘And what are you going to do with it?’. ‘Iron my clothes.’. So without saying that his original answer was ‘wrong’, I was able to get him to the ‘right’ answer.

I quickly searched for ‘image iron’ and Google obligingly produced pictures of chunks of the metal and the household implement. Another student semi-randomly said ‘Iron Man’. I quickly thought, then said ‘Imagine – Tony Stark has just returned to his hotel after battling the bad guys. Part of his suit is missing. He rings Reception and says “Hello, Reception. Do you have some iron I can use?” ’. So maybe, in that specific context, the first student’s first answer could actually be right.

(And please don’t say that Tony Stark wouldn’t be staying in a hotel.)


Just before I woke up this morning, I had a long, vivid, fragmented dream. In the last scene, ‘dream I’ was standing in a licenced club next to a man who was looking at the front cover of a gambling magazine, featuring a photo of an apparent famous professional gambler. The man said ‘I want to study his – mercy’ (obviously not sure about the last word). ‘Dream I’ said ‘The word you want is mertique’, at which point I woke up.

‘Real I’ lay there befuddled, trying to decide whether mertique was a real but very rare word, with the meaning ‘another word for technique, most often used about sales staff and gamblers’ or whether my sub-conscious had simply made it up, and if so, why?

After some time, I came downstairs, searched Dictionary.com (my default resource) and got no result. I did a general Google search and got ‘About 1,460 results’, including user names on various social media, business names (Mertique Spa), ‘sirloin mertique’ and sentences which look like Latin (one of which turns out to be a mis-OCR-ing of ‘mortique’ (morti(s)+que is identifiably Latin)). Setting Google Translate to ‘detect language’ detects Latin, but then translates it as mertique. None of which explains why my sub-conscious brain chose to use it.

Mertique could be an English word – it fits the sounds and syllable patterns. But apparently it’s not.

I feel really groody

Students’ mistakes sometimes surprise me in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. One section of the weekly test was about feelings. The questions had two sentences outlining a scenario then prompting a feeling by providing the first one or two letters of the word (in a sentence such as ‘I [am/feel/am feeling/was/felt] [a bit/very/really] (adjective)’.) The mistakes fall into a continuum of wrongness: from a simple spelling error to the wrong part of speech to a wrong but existing word to a wrong and non-existing word. (I’ll paraphrase the scenarios to disguise the source slightly.)

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