Set off

When you leave on a long or important journey, you 'set off'

Today's story: Radioactive capsule
Explore more: Lesson #550
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Set off

Today’s expression is “set off.” You might remember we talked about “set off ” in Lesson 515 last October. The context then was to “set off an explosion.” That means to start an explosion.

But “set off” has another meaning, and that means to begin a long or important journey. When we use “set off,” there’s usually a lot of anticipation or excitement. You don’t set off to go get a gallon of milk. You don’t set off to go to the office in the morning. You set off on a long or important journey.

In today’s lesson, you heard that Rio Tinto, a mining firm, lost a radioactive capsule that could harm anyone that came into contact with it. Oops!

They only had to search a 1,400-kilometer road to find it. But luckily, the capsule gives off radiation, so they could use special radiation detection equipment to find it. They were going to drive slowly up and down that road, monitoring the equipment the whole time, looking for spikes in radiation. That was the plan.

On January 30, multiple teams of researchers set off from different points along the road, all driving at between 50 and 70 kilometers per hour. Authorities estimated that the whole process could take up to five days.

On January 30, multiple teams began their long journey. This is an enormous road, so there were multiple search crews working at the same time. Even with multiple teams, it would take five days. So each team had a long journey. And this was important! This was not an ordinary morning commute: it was a long and important journey. So we can use “set off.” They set off on January 30, and they found the capsule the next day.

One of my best experiences was a long road trip. I was 21 years old, I remember, in my last year in college. It was the winter break, so we had about a month off around the holidays. And my friend and I drove from my parents’ house in New Jersey to California and back—we basically went from ocean to ocean.

To make the trip fit in our vacation, we set off on Christmas night, 2002. We drove through the night to our first stop in Ohio. This was a long and important journey. My friend and I spent three weeks on the road, we passed through 21 states. We met a lot of people, we had a lot of great experiences. So it was a big trip, and that’s why we can use “set off.” We set off on Christmas night, 2002. Twenty years ago, that trip was, all of it my little Toyota Corolla, at the time.

It’s common to say, “set off early in the morning,” too, if you leave early. I loved exploring the more rural parts of the U.S., and living in Chicago was good for that—it’s centrally located. But sometimes I’d go for an eight-hour drive or more. And whenever I did that, I tried to set off early in the morning. I wanted to get an early start, so I’d set off early in the morning.

Here’s another way to use it: you can say “set off for” plus a destination. So on Christmas night, my friend and I set off for California. We began our journey to California.

Have you ever seen the movie, “Brooklyn”? I read the book, I watched the movie: both are excellent. But it’s about people who emigrated from Ireland to the United States. And back then, they took oceangoing ships. So they would set off for America on a long boat journey.

Now that I think about it, I think you would not use “set off” if you’re going on a plane. Maybe you can. I just can’t think of an example. But in my personal opinion, “set off” is a word used for car trips, train trips, boat trips…but taking a plane is too much of a shortcut!

Quote of the Week

Now it’s time for a quote of the week. Here’s one from Sylvia Plath: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet and short-story writer. So think about that one: the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

See you next time!

And that brings us to the end of today’s Plain English. You know, I was going to choose a different expression today. I was going to choose “come into contact with.” And I started researching the internet for good examples of “come into contact with” and the number one search result was my very own episode number 245 from March 2020.

I do have my own database of terms we’ve used in the past—I just forgot to look at it this time.

But that gave me a great idea for all of you. If you ever hear an English expression and you want to know what it means, just type “Plain English” and then the expression into your search results and see what you get.

So type “Plain English stop short of” and you’ll see our episode on “stop short of.” Or type “Plain English boil over” and you’ll get our episode on boil over. And on and on…we have now 550 expressions you can do this with.

Speaking of “set off,” speaking of “set off in an oceangoing ship from northern Europe to America,” the movie Titanic is back in theaters. Can you believe that? Twenty-five years later. I’ve already written Thursday’s lesson, but maybe next week, we’ll talk about Titanic.

That’s it for today—thanks for joining us again, we’ll see you right back here on Thursday.

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Story: Radioactive capsule