A green tradition

August 4, 2009


(This was originally posted in March during St. Patrick’s Day.)

Did you know that the water fountain in front of the White House was green this St. Patrick’s Day?  Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, requested to dye the water fountains green to reminisce about Chicago, her hometown, which dyes the nearby river green every year!  Perhaps, this will become a tradition.

Here’s a clip from a radio station which talks about the tradition of dyeing the Chicago River green every year for St. Paddy’s Day.  Although it is from last year, the information is not outdated.  I like clips like these as they are short but informative. Besides giving a description of the tradition, the host also interviewed some people on the streets.  The program is put out by a local radio station (WGN Radio) in Chicago, in the state of Illinois, which broadcasts some local happenings through their program CityCam.  (They have other clips on their website which may be of interest to you if you want to learn more about happenings in the city of Chicago. The downside is that they do not provide a transcript of their videos or a written summary.) 

The English used in this particular clip is not very difficult.  Try to listen to it once, without reading the transcript below, and see how much you could understand it.  You may be surprised about how much you could already pick up! 

 Here’s the video.

Okay, let’s take a look at some of the English used in the clip.  (Transcript and vocabulary list are at the end.)

Why they’ve been doing this every year? (0:13)

Normally, this would be “Why have they been doing this every year?”, which reverses the subject and auxiliary verb (sometimes called the operator), typical of ‘Wh’ questions.  Here, the speaker did not reverse these two words, which often happens in informal conversational settings. 


…of all things… (0:29)

This is short for the expression “out of all the possible things (or selections)”.  The “out” is a particle followed by the preposition “of”.  “Of all” is used as an adjective to modify the noun “things”.  It is considered a comment by the speaker, which is optional.  The sentence would make sense even without this phrase.


…to try to track and trace illegal discharges of, of all things, sewage.  (0:25-0:30)

This phrase may seem strange as two of’s are put together.  There are actually two phrases, one embedded in the other.  The prepositional phrase “of sewage” modifies the noun ‘discharges’.  The speaker could have said “…discharges of sewage, of all things” instead.  However, he chooses to put ‘sewage’ at the end as a kind of suspension.  Notice that the speaker stresses the word ‘sewage’. 


Why is the river green?  Why are they dyeing the river (green today)? Why do you suppose they are dyeing the river green today?

Notice that the host asked the same question in different ways.  In English questions, the general rule of thumb is that the longer the question, the more polite it is.  Do you see this here?  Yes, the sentence which starts “Why do you suppose…” sounds more polite.  


Mike: …The only other place we’ve done it is Dublin, Ireland. 

Host: No kidding. (~2:15)

The “no kidding” used here is similar in meaning to “of course”, which the host could have used instead.  Since Ireland is where St. Patrick’s Day is originated, the fact that the tradition of dyeing a river green happens there too is no surprise or ‘no kidding’. 


 It’s just one of those great old traditions that makes Chicago, Chicago (2:35-2:39)

English speakers say something like this a lot, where the ending noun is repeated, and with a pause in the middle and the second noun is said with a stress or exaggeration (e.g. It’s what makes Los Angeles, Los Angeles.  It is what makes me, me!).  For instance, “it is make makes me, me” could me replaced by “that is what makes me who I am”. 



“A top o’ the morning to ya!” (2:43-2:45)

A slang of “A top of the morning to you!”, which is an Irish saying meaning “Best of the morning to you” or “Have a good morning.” 



Ah, a typical day in Chicago, the sky is gray, the sun up there somewhere is yellow, and the river is green, I mean, really green, look!

Why they’ve been doing this every year? Because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, of course, that actually began in the early 1960s when some city workers were using the same vegetable dye that’s beautiful iridescent green to try to track and trace illegal discharges of, of all things, sewage. 

Host: Why are they dyeing the river?  Why is the river green? 

Boy: I don’t know.

Host: You don’t know?


Host: Why is the river green?  You guys are from Holland, do you know? 

Guys from Holland: It’s Queen’s Day.

Host: Queen’s Day?  Queen’s Day? 

Guys: Yeah.

Host: No, it’s St. Patrick’s Day coming up.

Guys: Oh, serious, when? Monday?

Host: Yeah, Monday, as if you guys didn’t know.

Guys: Yeah, we didn’t know.

Host: You didn’t know, alright.


Host: You’re from Latin America.  Why do you suppose they’re dyeing the river green today?

Couple from Latin America: Well, actually, it’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  We don’t do it in Latin America.  It’s actually very interesting.

Host: Kind of makes it seem rather exotic, doesn’t it?

Couple: It is. It is very different.


Host: You’re from Russia?

Woman from Russia: Yes.

Host: Why do you suppose they’re dyeing the river green today? 

Woman: ‘Cause it’s St. Patrick’s Day?

Host: Very good. What’s St. Patrick’s Day?

Woman: Ah…I’m not sure.


Host: Hey, I don’t get it. Why are they dyeing the river green today?

Irish guys: It’s St. Patrick’s Day, of course.

Host: (Italian)


Host: Hey, here’s Mike Butler. He’s been doing this for 33 years of the 46 years they’ve been doing this. Let’s talk to him.  Hey Mike, how unique is this whole thing?  

Mike: Oh, it’s completely unique.  We’re the only city in the country that does it and we get invitations from all over the world.  We got them from as far as away as Australia.  We got them from England, Paris, the Netherlands, you name it, and they want their rivers dyed.  The only other place we’ve done it is Dublin, Ireland. 

Host: No kidding. Hey, there’s your son, Mark, down there in the boat.  Is that the powder?

Mike: Yes, that’s the powder.

Host: What do you mean? It’s green…it’s not green, it’s orange.  Isn’t it supposed to be green?

Mike: Well, it’s magic leprechaun dust.  When it touches the water, it becomes green. 


Host: It’s just one of those great old traditions that makes Chicago, Chicago.  For WGN Radio, I’m Bill Moller and ‘A top o’ the morning to ya!’



Word list

Dublin (n)- capital and largest city of Ireland

dust (n)- dirt in a powder form that collects on surfaces 

dye (n, v)- a liquid that changes the color of something (n); the action of changing the color of something (v)  (Comment: progressive form is ‘dyeing’, different from ‘dying’ which means likely to die soon, although both are pronounced the same)

exotic (adj)- unusual and often exciting; usually describes something from a foreign place

invitation (n)- request

iridescent (adj)- varying in color when seen under different lights or from different angles

Latin America (n)- area consisting of all the countries south of the United States 

reminisce (v)- to remember about pleasurable past events 

sewage (n)- a mixture of solid and liquid waste

The Netherlands (n)- a country located in northwestern Europe bordered by Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and North Sea to the north and west

trace (v)- to find the origin of something

track (v)- to follow

typical (adj)- example, representative

unique (adj)- special; unusual


Related articles-

Why is the order “beautiful iridescent green”?  See my entry on Order of Descriptive Adjectives. 

Want to know about leprechauns or the story behind St. Patrick’s Day? Read my previous entry St. Patrick’s Day.

A tribute to Michael Jackson

July 26, 2009



The passing of Michael Jackson is a heavy loss to the entertainment industry and has brought me a bit of sorrow.  Although I cannot say that I’m a die-hard fan, I truly admire his musical and performing talents.  It is unfortunate that his life was overshadowed by controversy; however, I prefer to remember his contributions to music and nothing else.

Supposedly, Jackson is very selective on the interviews he accepts.  In a rare 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, a famous American media personality and host, Jackson reveals many aspects of his private life to her, including his childhood, and touches upon some of the circulating media gossip at the time.  (Please find the video on youtube.com or other sites and look for parts 4, 5, and 6 or the middle of the interview.) This portion consists of a tour of Neverland Ranch, the amusement park that he once called home, and a music video clip.  In it, Elizabeth Taylor shares her opinion of Jackson.  Oprah also confronts Jackson with the rumor that his famed Moonwalk dance is fake, which Jackson then dispels by performing it live in front of her!  A transcript is not provided.  Try to listen to it a few times if you find it difficult to understand the first time.  (If you’re interested in watching the entire interview, search for it on www.youtube.com.)


Elizabeth Taylor: If he has any eccentricities, it’s that he is larger than life, and some people just can’t accept that or face it or understand it.  

Oprah asks Elizabeth Taylor her opinion about Jackson, and she tells her that his actions may not be understood by others because he is “larger than life”, a positive phrase used to describe someone who is not simply ordinary.  Eccentricity is a noun and similar in meaning to the word weirdness but has a more positive connotation. 


Oprah: …he could crack some jokes

To “crack some jokes” means to tell some jokes.


Jackson: It brings out the child that lives inside everybody.

Here, Jackson says that the amusement rides that he built is enjoyed by both adults and children as adults also love to have fun like children do. 


Oprah: And so now, you are fulfilling all those [childhood] fantasies?

Jackson:  To compensate [for my childhood], yes, it’s very true. 

Oprah: But, do you think you could ever really recapture it [your childhood] though?

Jackson: I would not change the past. 

Look at the way that the two speakers use three different verbs (e.g. fulfill, compensate, and recapture) to talk about Jackson’s childhood and to answer each other, rather than with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  In a way, Jackson’s response to Oprah’s first comment and Oprah’s subsequent comment are rejections to the prior statement, which are a very smart play of words.  


Jackson: I love to do things for children.  I try to imitate Jesus. I’m not saying I am Jesus. I try to imitate Jesus in the fact that he said to be like children, to love children, to be as pure as children, to make yourself as innocent and see the world with eyes of wonderment, the whole magical quality of it all, and I love that.

Some question and wonder about Jackson’s friendliness towards children.  Jackson explains that he likes to be around children because children and simple and honest and he wants to help them, in the spirit of Jesus.  Look at the various ways that Jackson uses to describe this quality in children.


Jackson: We have children that come who are intravenously very sick, they are bedridden, and they can’t sit up.  These beds are hospital beds and they push a button and they move up and they move down.

Many of the children who visit Jackson’s Neverland Ranch are sick, confined to the bed (bed-ridden) and require an IV line (intravenous therapy) to survive. 


Oprah: I believe everything happens in people’s lives for a reason.  Do you think that had you not missed a lot of the life and fun and fantasy of childhood that you would be so in touch with children today?  Would you relate to them if you didn’t?

Jackson: I probably would but not as much that is why I wouldn’t change a thing.

The two questions in italics are grammatically complex and both contain the same meaning but in the opposite order.  ‘To be in touch with + something’ is the same as ‘relate to + something’ while ‘had not missed + something’ is the same as ‘did not miss + something’. 

Both are past conditional questions with an ‘if + would’ and presents an imaginative situation as it did not happen in the past.  Actually, the ‘if’ in the first question is deleted, in which case the subject you must inverted with the auxiliary verb had.   If the ‘if’ is not deleted, the question would be “do you think that if you had not miss a lot…” where the subject and auxiliary verb are not inverted. 

As a childhood star since five years old, Jackson never lived a normal childhood as he had to work everyday either recording songs, rehearsing, or performing. This is the topic of this part of the conversation.


Oprah: Where did the Moonwalk come from actually?

Jackson: Well, the Moonwalk came from these beautiful children, these black kids who live in the ghettos and the inner cities who are brilliant. They just have that natural talent for dancing, any of them- The Running Man – any of these dances.  They come up with the dances.  All I did was enhance the dance. 

Oprah asks Jackson about the origin of his famous Moonwalk dance.  Jackson credits children for giving him this inspiration saying that he only “enhanced” it.  The ghettos or inner cities are the part of a city where minority groups reside.  These residents are usually poor, and the areas may be overpopulated.  Ghetto is slang with a somewhat negative connotation, while inner city does not have such a negative connotation.


Jackson: I could show you a step or two, but I’m a little rusty right now. 

When Oprah asks Jackson to show her some dance moves, Jackson replies that he could show her only a few dance steps because he is “a little rusty right now”. Here, rusty is not used as a verb to describe the chemical change of nail turning brown but used as an adjective to describe being without practice.  Yet, as we can see, Jackson is still quite agile!  What an entertainer! 


Michael Jackson will be missed.