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  Although it is from last year, the information is not outdated.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.