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On tenterhooks   Nightmare scenario
Buff Sell-by date
Buttonhole someone Gobbledegook
Cliffhanger Hotchpotch
Give someone short shrift Humdrum
Heath Robinson Hurly-burly
Hobson's choice Mumbo-jumbo
One for the road Namby-pamby
Sour grapes Pooh-pooh
Steal someone s thunder Riff-raff
Toe the line Slapdash
Underdog Tit for tat
Upset the applecart Topsy-turvy
Bimbo Whodunnit
Buzzword Brouhaha
Culture shock Carte blanche
Flagship Tete-a-tete
Flavor of the month Tear someone off a strip
Ghetto blaster Wind someone up
Headhunt Bete noire
High-flyer Faux pas
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On tenterhooks

Wait anxiously for something


A : I heard that you went to a haunted house and took photos of ghost.

B: Yes, I took them straight to the chemist and was on tenterhooks all week waiting for them to be developed.

A : How exciting ! So now you have proof that ghosts exist.

B : No. Unfortunately the chemist threw them away. He said that every one had a strange white shape on it and so he thought I wouldn't want them.


This expression comes from the traditional method of cloth-making. Part of the process involved drying the cloth by stretching it over a wooden frame and securing it with hooks which were called tenterhooks. The cloth was stretched as much as possible so that it was under very great tension. The expression used today compares the tension of the cloth to the tension felt when one is very anxious.




A person who is devoted to a particular subject and therefore knows a lot about it / a knowledgeable enthusiast


A : My son Fred goes to the cinema every night. He hasn't missed a day for three years.

B : How interesting, I didn't know your son was a film buff.

A : He doesn't know anything at all about films -- he works in the box office selling tickets !


The word originated in the last century in New York City where amateur fire-fighters helped the official firemen to put out blazes. The amateur enthusiasts were called buffs because of their coats which were made out of  buff leather. This was a pale yellow leather made from buffalo hide. Today its meaning has widened so that one can use it to describe people who are interested in may different subjects; you  could meet a wine buff, a music buff, a football buff or a chess buff for example.



Buttonhole someone

Talk to someone who does not want to listen


A : How was the party ?

B : Not very good. A dreadful young man buttonholed me and told me his life story. It took two hours !

A : Never mind, it could have been worse. He could have been an old man and then it would have taken even longer !


This verb was originally to buttonhold and meant to hold on to the buttons of someone' coat. The idea was to sell goods to a reluctant customer by stopping him from walking away ! Over the years the verb has become buttonhole and its meaning has grown to include talking to someone on any subject which the listener does not want to hear.



Catch someone on the hop

Catch someone unprepared/ surprise someone


A : Debble had a baby a week after marrying Derek Dim. Derek didn't even know his wife was pregnant.

B : Yes, the baby caught him on the hop -- he thought Debble was just very fat.


The hop is a flower which is used in the brewing of beer and is traditionally grown in the county of Kent in south-east England. Just after the second World War, hop-picking was a popular holiday for working-class Londoners as it was often the only chance they had to enjoy the countryside. It was a cheap family holiday which lasted the whole summer. Unfortunately, most men worked in jobs which gave only a few days holiday a year, and so they had to invent an excuse in order to go hop-picking. Sometimes the employer discovered the truth and caught a man on the hop, or in other words, caught him picking hops.


It is very common to use this expression in the passive. For example, Make sure everything is ready well in advance otherwise you will be caught on the hop.




A dramatic or frightening moment when one does not know what will happen next


A : The captain announced the ship had hit something and was sinking. There was only one hour to get all the passengers and crew into the lifeboats. No one was sure if it could be done -- it was a real cliffhanger.

B : How terrifying. Who could have expected such a disaster ?

A : Well I must admit I was a little suspicious when I first boarded the ship and found it was called The Titanic.


The American actress Pearl White starred in a TV series called "The Perils of Pauline". Each episode would end with Pauline in a dangerous situation so that the audience would want to watch the next one to see what happened. In one episode Pauline was hanging on the edge of a cliff and this inspired the expression. Cliffhangers and cliffhanger endings are still used in TV drama series today. the expression can also describe situations in real life which are dramatic and uncertain.



Give someone short shrift

Give someone very little of one's time due to impatience or annoyance


A : When Mrs. Tomlin takes her cat to the vet he spends ages with her, but when I go he gives me short shrift.

B : Perhaps he likes Mrs. Tomlin's cat better than yours.

A : But I haven't got a cat, I've got a poisonous snake !


In the Middle Ages a prisoner who had been condemned to death was allowed a short time to confess to a priest before the execution. The Old English word for confession was shrift and so short shrift was the short confession that the prisoner made in order to receive forgiveness from God.



Heath Robinson

Strange-looking/appearing to be homemade or improvised ( used about machinery/vehicles )


A : Bob's father wouldn't buy him a VW for his birthday so Bob built himself a Heath Robinson car out of a bath, a motor bike engine and six bicycle wheels ! He was really pleased with the result.

B : But surely it wasn't as good as a VW car.

A : No it wasn't, but Bob's father was so embarrassed every time his son drove around in it that he agreed to buy him a proper car !


W Heath Robinson was a British artist who lived from 1872 to 1944. He became famous for his incredible cartoon drawings about inventors and their mad inventions. Today his name has entered the English language to describe any machinery or contraption which looks like part of one of his cartoons.



Hobson's choice

A situation in which there appears to be a choice when actually there is none at all


A : Have you been to that chic new restaurant yet ? I've seen the menu and there seems to be lots of delicious food.

B : Take my advice -- don't go. The menu looks very varied but it's always Hobson's choice. They never have anything available but fish and chips !


This expression was inspired by an Englishman called Thomas Hobson who lived in Cambridge during the early 17th century. He earned his living by working as  aliveryman, hiring out horses to many of the university students. To make sure that every horse was used equally Hobson invented a special system. when a customer came to the stables, Hobson insisted that he chose the horse nearest the door. So although there were in theory many horses to choose from, in reality there was only one choice !



One for the road

One last drink, usually alcoholic, before leaving a pub, house etc


A : It's a pity you have to leave the party so soon. If you're not in a hurry how about one for the road ?

B : Yes of course I can stay a little longer.

A : Great. I've just invented a special cocktail. It's warm beer mixed with orange juice, whisky and strawberry jam !

B : Err ... Actually I think I'll go now. I've just realised that I forgot to fed the cat. Goodbye !

In London during the Middle Ages, prisoners who were condemned to death would be taken from the Old Bailey prison ( now law courts ) to Tyburn ( now Marble Arch ). The journey was along the straight road from the City to the West End in a wagon pulled by a horse. Before leaving, it was traditional fro the prisoners to visit the pub opposite the Old Bailey. In the pub, the Magpie and Stump, they could have a large glass of beer or one for the road. The prisoners would arrive at Tyburn drunk and therefore would not worry about the execution to come !



Sour grapes

Bitter comments about something which one wants but cannot have


A : That's a beautiful salmon you've caught. It must weigh over five kilos ! Are you going to have it for dinner ?

B : Well I was, but when I showed it to Mr. Surly he told me it was diseased and that it would be dangerous to eat.

A : Don't listen to him -- it's just sour grapes. He's fished in that river for years and he's never caught anything larger than an old boot !

Aesop, the ancient Greek author wrote one of his many fables about a fox. The fox tries to reach a bunch of delicious grapes which is just out of his reach. After trying for many hours he eventually gives up. As he walks away he says to himself that the grapes are not worth having because they are probably sour. Of course the fox only has this opinion because he cannot have them -- his opinion is just sour grapes. Remember that the expression is never used in the singular ( sour grape ).



Steal someone's thunder

Spoil the effect of someone's actions or words by doing the same or better first


A : In December I decided to wear a big hat with the words HAPPY CHRISTMAS on it. I thought that it would surprise everyone when I walked into the local bank.

B : And did it ?

A : Not at all ! I found that they'd stolen my thunder. The cashiers were in special fancy dress costumes -- even the bank manager was dressed as Charlie Chaplin ! so no one even noticed me !

This expression was first used by an English playwright called John Dennis who lived at the beginning of the 18th century. For one of his plays h invented a way to create the noise of thunder. Although the play itself was a disaster and soon closed, everyone loved the thunder sound effect ! It was used by others so much that Dennis said, 'Damn them ! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder'.



Toe the line

Obey orders/accept the policy or ideas of a group


A : My friends are going on a protest march in Trafalgar Square. They say it's very important and they expect me to come too. The problem is, I don't really want to.

B : Don't worry. You don't have to toe the line. Just tell your friends you're going to do something else. What's the march about anyway ?

A : Human rights !

This expression comes from the House Of Commons, in the British Parliament, where two red lines are painted on the floor separating the members of the government from the opposition. A Member of Parliament who speaks is allowed to stand on the line but not to cross it. Originally the lines were set two sword lengths apart at a time when the MPs were allowed to take weapons into the room. If two MPs from opposing sides drew their swords they wouldn't be able to touch each other without crossing the line and breaking the rules of the House.




Someone who is almost certain to fail / lose a competition / argument / war etc


A : Kevin Klumsy is the British entry at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships this year. He'll be the underdog as usual.

B : Why do you say that ? He might win !

A : Well, for a start he's very shortsighted and has a wooden leg !

An underdog can be a person, animal or country. A common way of using it is in the expression support the underdog. One theory about its origin is that it came from the time when dogfighting was popular. The dog who was strongest was called the top dog ( which can be used of people today ) and the animal who was more likely to lose was called the under dog.



Upset the applecart

Spoil a plan, arrangement or expected course of events


A : Did you go to Veronica Vain's wedding ? I heard it was going to be the most spectacular social event of the year.

B : Yes it was. On the morning of the wedding the groom upset the applecart by saying he couldn't go through with the marriage and wanted it all stopped.

A : Oh no ! What happened to the bride ?

B : Well, Veronica didn't want to disappoint the guests or waste the huge cake, so she married me instead !

In the days when apples were taken to market in a cart along badly-made roads, it was easy for one of the cartwheels to become stuck in a hole. This would cause the cart to tip up or be upset unexpectedly and spill the apples on the ground. It is this image which is captured in the expression which is used today. Inanimate things as well as people can upset applecarts. For example, The discovery upset the applecart. or His opinion upset the applecart. It is also common to use an adjective to make the phrase more informative. For example, upset the financial applecart or upset the domestic applecart.



White elephant

Something which is expensive but useless / something which is costly to keep and has no apparent benefit


A : I don't like my brother so when my uncle died and left him his MG sports car in his will, I was really pleased.

B : That's funny ! Weren't you jealous ?

A : No, not at all. You see the car is a complete white elephant; it uses an enormous amount of petrol and breaks down all the time. It's costing my brother a fortune.

This expression comes from Thailand where a long time ago there was a custom which the king would follow. every time a white elephant was born in the country, the king would claim the rare animal immediately and keep it for himself. However if someone made the king angry or displeased him he would give the white elephant to that person. the reason was that the elephant was very expensive to look after and so would very quickly ruin the person who had annoyed the king.




A young woman who is not very intelligent but is particularly attractive


A : Frank's new wife Marie looks exactly like the film star Marilyn Monroe. She's got blonde hair and always wears sexy clothes.

B : She sounds like a bimbo to me. I thought frank preferred intellectual women. What do they talk about ?

A : Marie is certainly not a bimbo -- she's very brainy and works as a scientist. Most of the time they talk about nuclear physics !

This word was originally used in America in the first part of this century. It was short for the Italian bambino meaning baby. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that the word became popular again and found its new meaning of an attractive but stupid young woman. A variation is himbo which can be sued to describe a man with similar characteristics.




A new word or expression which is fashionable


A : I've just started work in a record company and I can't understand a word anyone there says.

B : Well there are so many buzzwords in the music industry, it takes time to learn them all.

A : No that's not the problem. It's because they play music so loudly, I can't hear anyone speak !

Examples of Sixties buzzwords are cool and groovy ( very good, enjoyable ); examples of Eighties buzzwords are street cred ( in touch with fashion/ideas/opinions of the young people ) and power dressing ( dressing in clothes which indicate authority/power ) and examples of Nineties buzzwords are green ( not harmful to the environment ) and ozone-friendly ( not harmful to the ozone-layer which protects the earth from the sun ). Buzzwords often go out of fashion very quickly.



Culture shock

Feeling uncomfortable in a strange country or place because of the different habits and way of life


A : Bobby is nine years old and has lived in London all his life. When his parents took him to the countryside for the first time it was a complete culture shock.

B : What was he most surprised by ?

A : The cows. He'd thought that milk came from bottles !

This expression refers to any environment which is new and very different from one's own, and is therefore a shock.




Something which represents the best that can be offered


A : The 'beard tax' was the flagship of the last government. They said it was an important contribution to society. I agree with them.

B : But nobody likes new taxes and a tax on men's beards seems very unfair. Why do you agree with them ?

A : Because it was so unpopular they lost the next election !

A flagship is the most important ship in a fleet. The expression can now be used to describe the most important or prestigous item of a series or group. For example, a radio program, department store or publication can be a flagship.



Flavor of the month

Currently popular / famous for a short while


A : Harry used to have no friends but now people phone him all the time to invite him to the pub.

B : Why is he suddenly flavor of the month ?

A : Because he's started paying for everyone's drinks !

This expression is thought to come from American ice-cream parlors which promote a different flavor every month. another variation is flavor of the week which refers to something which is popular or famous for an even shorter time !



Ghetto blaster

A type of portable cassette player which can play music extremely loudly


A : My grandmother moves music but she's getting deaf and couldn't hear her record player very well. She's solved the problem now.

B : What did she do -- buy a hearing aid ?

A : No. A ghetto blaster.

This expression came from America and became popular during the 1980s. Ghetto means a poor, urban area and blast means an explosion -- in this case of noisy music. They are popular with young men, who carry them around in city streets ( often in deprived areas ). The volume is designed to impress other people rather than to entertain.




Fill a vacancy for a job by directly approaching someone who is already working for another company


A : I'm worried about my job. All the people who have held this post before me have been headhunted.

B : Why are you worried ? All people who are good at their job are headhunted.

A : Yes I know. The problem is that I've been working here for five years and not a single headhunter has approached me !

This expression usually refers to the treatment of very highly paid executives, often heads of departments within companies. Someone who looks for candidates for executive jobs is a headhunter.




An exceptionally talented professional person who receives rapid promotion


A : Jamie is a high-flyer who works in an advertising company. Last week he announced that he was going to give it all up and become a farmer.

B : I suppose he realized there are more important things than money. When is he leaving the company ?

A : He's not. His boss was so worried about losing him that he gave him a $30,000 pay rise and Jamie has decided to stay.

This expression always refers to people who have exceptional ability in a particular field and therefore rise very quickly through an organization.



Nightmare scenario

The most awful series of events that can be imagined


A : I'm very worried about nuclear weapons. If every country has them I don't see how we can avoid the nightmare scenario of a world war which destroys the whole Earth. There's only one solution.

B : What's that ?

A : Move to another planet !

This expression was first used during the Gulf War in 1991. The Americans and their allies were using military force against Iraq, which had occupied its neighbor Kuwait. according to the Americans, the nightmare scenario was the possibility of Iraq retreating very quickly from Kuwait without being defeated. This would mean that the Iraqi army would still be powerful and able to attack against the future.



Sell-by date

The point at which something is no longer at its best and is beginning a natural decline


A : Most footballers are past their sell-by date at thirty-five but Bobby is still a brilliant player. In his last match he scored four times -- here was only one problem.

B : What was that ?

A : They were own goals !

This term was first used during the early 1970s to indicate when a food product should be sold. the sell-by date is printed on edible products in shops so that the consumer can check their freshness. Food which is past its sell-by date cannot legally be sold.

Today the expression is also used in a wider, and slightly humorous, way to describe anything which is past its best, or anyone -- as in the example above.




Complicated / obscure / meaningless language ( written or spoken )


A : My solicitor has sent me a letter which says something about $450 ! The problem is that he's used so much jargon I can't understand it. I really hate gobbledegook -- can you help ?

B : Yes of course. I used to be a solicitor myself so I'm sure I can tell you what it means. Let's ..... Yes, he says that you owe him $450.

A : Are you sure ? Oh dear. I don't want to understand goobledegook.

This word was invented by Maury Maverick, an American politician. He was very tired of language which was unnecessarily complicated and hard to understand and so decided to think of a name to describe it. In English the sound a turkey makes is gobble and the image of this stupid bird making a sound no one can understand gave Maverick the idea fro gobbledegook.




A mixture of different things or ideas which do not go together


A : I hate writing reports but my boss says I should do more. What do you think of the latest one I've done ?

B : To be honest it's a hotchpotch of ideas and opinions. I don't think your boss will like it at all.

A : That's wonderful. It means she'll never ask me to write one again !

The origin of the word is hotchpot which comes from the French hochepot which was used to describe a dish made of a mixture of lots of different ingredients. An alternative form of this word is hodgepodge which has an identical meaning.




Boring / ordinary / repetitive


A : Betty Boring leads a really humdrum life. She spends twelve hours a day at the factory, putting chocolates into boxes. At the weekends she stays at home and watches television all day.

B : That sounds very depressing. Why does she look so happy all the time ?

A : Betty says it's because she's a humdrum person.

The origin of this word is a mystery but it is thought to have a connection with hum which can describe a continuous unchanging sound and therefore imply that something is monotonous or uninteresting.




Intense, noisy activity


A : My grandmother goes to Morello Market everyday. She's there when it opens and doesn't leave until it closes.

B : Yes I've heard that it's a very good market. It's very busy with lots of stalls selling everything from food to antiques. does your grandmother go early so that she can buy the best things ?

A : No she doesn't buy anything. she only goes because she enjoys the hurly-burly !

This expression is based on the word hurling ( now meaning throwing with force ) which once described the sound of thunder and strong wind. It was originally rhymed with the nonsense word burling in the phrase hurling and burling before it developed to its present from.




Language, ideas, beliefs which are either too complicated and difficult to understand or nonsensical


A : I met a scientist last week who explained Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity' to me.

B : I've always been interested in that. What's it all about then ?

A : I don't know. He talked a lot of mumbo-jumbo about space and time and I didn't understand a word !

When British merchants visited West Africa in the 18th century, they discovered tribes who worshipped a god called Mama Dyumbo. Because they didn't believe in the god themselves, the merchants thought that the Africans' religion was silly and meaningless. They called it mumbo-jumbo ( their pronunciation of Mama Dyumbo ) and the expression became part of the English language.




Weak sentimental


A : My boyfriend says that he wants me to give up smoking. He says that I must choose between him and cigarettes. Do you think he'd be happy if I just smoked less ?

B : No, I don't think so. You need to be brave and make a clear decision. It's no good being namby-pamby.

A : Yes you're right. I'll tell my boyfriend that I can't see him anymore !

Ambrose Phillips was an 18th century writer and politician who liked to write poetry. Unfortunately he was not very good ! Another writer, called Henry Carey, gave Ambrose the nickname Namby-Pamby after he wrote a very sentimental poem for Lord Carteret's children. Over the years the nickname has become part of the English language and can be sued to describe a person or action which is feeble.




Completely turn down / treat with contempt an idea or suggestion without further consideration or discussion


A : I asked my parents if I could go to Australia with my friends but they pooh-poohed the idea. They said that I wasn't old enough to travel so far on my own.

B : How did you change their mind ?

A : I told them I'd pay for the trip myself !

One of the first known appearances of this word was in Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet' in the form puh ; 'Affection, puh ! You speake like a greene girle.' During the 17th century the word became a double word -- pooh-pooh -- in order to provide greater emphasis.




Undesirable and untrustworthy people who are of a low social class


A : Would you like to go to the Queen's Head pub ?

B : I don't think so. It seems to attract all kinds of riff-raff. Why on earth do you want to go ?

A : I'm meeting my friends there !


This word is normally used to refer to a group of people. Its origin is the Old French expression rif et raf which meant everyone / one and all.




Inefficient / of a low standard


A : I paid two decorators to paint my flat. What do you think ?

B : It looks like a really slapdash job to me -- I think you should ask for your money back. They obviously aren't very experienced.

A : But they must have lots of experience -- they are both over ninety years old !

This word is based on the phrase a slap and a dash. The verbs slap and dash both indicate hurry and communicate the idea of not being careful.



Tit for tat

An unpleasant action given in return for one received


A : Andrew was furious when I got the job which he wanted. He came round to my house with a ladder in the middle of the night to splash red paint over my windows.

B : That's outrageous. If I were you I would go round to his house and pour paint over his car.

A : No, I don't believe in tit for tat. Anyway Andrew fell off the ladder and broke his leg -- so now he's even more angry !

In the 16th century tip and tap both meant a hit or a blow. The expression tip for tap therefore meant a blow in exchange for a blow. Over the time the spelling has altered to the current tit for tat.




Chaotic / upside down; reversed / having changed places


A : When we returned home from holiday last night we found everything was topsy-turvy. Books and furniture had been thrown around, plates and glasses had been smashed -- the flat was a complete mess.

B : Oh my goodness, you must ell the police immediately that you've been burgled.

A : But it wasn't a burglary. Our daughter had thrown a party for her friends while we were away !

This expression comes from two words, top and the Old English verb terve which meant turn or turn over.




A detective novel or play


A : My Aunt Nellie loves to read whodunnits so I send her an Agatha Christle each birthday. She's read about so many murders over the years she must be an expert by now.

B : Yes I'm sure. How is her husband, Uncle George ? Do you send him presents as well ?

A : Now that's strange. You know I haven't heard from him for ages.

This expression is an abbreviation of the question 'Who has done it ?' This of course means' Who did the murder ?' All crime novels and plays contain this puzzle which the reader attempts to solve.




Loud noises due to intense activity or a long and heated argument


A : What's the matter with Harry ? He's in such a bad mood.

B : Oh, there's been a bit of a brouhaha because I left a tube of glue in the bathroom.

A : What's so awful about that ?

B : He mistook it for toothpaste and brushed his teeth with it !

The French word imitates a loud noise : it sounds like the noise it is describing. The use of the sound of  word to imitate what the word refers to is called onomatopieia.



Carte blanche

Freedom to decide everything / anything


A : The new art gallery is certain to look awful. I've heard that the architects, 'Devastating Designs', have been given carte blanche.

B : Some modern architecture is very attractive -- so it might not look as bad as you think. What was their last building like ?

A : A rabbit hutch !

This French expression literally means blank sheet of paper. It originated from the military tradition of giving a blank piece of paper to the leader of a beaten army. The leader had to sign his name on the paper so that the victors could write above it all the conditions which they wanted. Obviously anything could be written so the defeated side were giving the victors carte blanche.




A private / intimate conversation between just two people


A : I don't like Chris -- he has no sense of humor.

B : That's rubbish. I saw you having a tete-a-tete with him last night. You looked really amused.

A : Yes I know. Just before he sat down next to me I noticed there was a great lump of chewing gum on the chair !

This French expression literally means head to head. It describes the tendency for two people to lean their heads near to each other when talking so that others cannot hear.



Tear someone off a strip

Talk to someone angrily


A : The next time I see Charlie I'm going to tear him of a strip. I lent him a book called 'Improve Your Memory' and he hasn't given it back. He's had it for over a year now.

B : Why doesn't he return it ?

A : He says he keeps forgetting.

This is based on the Old English verb tear which meant rage/ be violently angry. As is quite common in the evolution of a word, it has become confused with the more modern version, nowadays tear means pull apart/rip.



Wind someone up

Tease someone


A : My goodness, there's a huge black insect on your head. It's got five pairs of eyes and hairy legs.

B : How horrible ! Please get it off me ! Quickly !

A : No don't worry, I'm winding you up. There's nothing there at all.

The expression comes from the action of winding up a clock in order to make it go. The idea of being in control is carried over to its slang use. One can control or affect the behavior of a person by winding him up.




Bete noire

Something or someone one hates / detests


A : Gardening never stops; every day something has to be done -- weeding, pruning, digging, planting ...

B : Yes, I can see you work really hard; the garden looks beautiful.

A : Actually gardening is my bete noire so I never do any. I pay my gardener, Mr. Rake, to do it all for me !

This expression literally means black beast in French. The plural form in English is bete noires.



Faux pas

Embarrassing social mistake


A : I had a drink with our new neighbor, Mrs. Zambuni. We talked about all sorts of things, even politics. I said that all politicians were liars and should be put in prison !

B : Oh dear you've made a huge faux pas. Her father has been a Member of Parliament for twenty-five years !


Meaning false step, this French expression only describes mistakes which are made in a social situation, for example, at a meeting or party.



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