Season 2 Episode 20


Hello, this is Sean. Welcome to Ethos English, the ultimate podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. In just ten minutes a week you’ll boost your vocabulary and become a more confident English speaker. Want to learn more? Head over to and sign up for my monthly newsletter, which includes a fun Quizlet flashcard set covering all the key vocabulary from each episode. And don’t worry if you miss anything during the show, because at the end of every episode, I provide clear definitions and real-life examples to help you truly understand and apply your new vocabulary. Let’s get started!

In last week’s episode I talked about high-stakes situations like speaking exams, job interviews and first dates. You might remember that a high-stakes situation is one in which the person involved is risking something. If you fail an exam you might not get your degree. If you do poorly in an interview you might miss out on a more interesting, better paid job. Since then it’s occurred to me that there’s a surprisingly high number of expressions in English that contain the word stake and I figured it was worth devoting a whole episode to this.

To begin with, let’s define the meaning of the word stake on its own. According to the etymology dictionary, a stake is “a stick of wood sharpened at one end for driving into the ground, used as part of a fence, as a boundary-mark, as a post to tether an animal to, or as a support for something (a vine, a tent, etc.),”. It has the same root and meaning as the word “estaca” in both Spanish and Portuguese, and is related to the word attach. 

Taking the time to understand the metaphors in everyday expressions requires a level of thinking or what we sometimes call cognitive depth that makes it more likely that you’ll remember them and be able to use them. The brain remembers words and concepts by association, so the more associations you have with a word or chunk, the stickier it is. This is why exploring the metaphors and etymology of common expressions is well worth your time. Both involve stories and the brain loves nothing more than a story.

So, let’s look at some common chunks and idioms that contain stake. If you stake a claim to something, you say publicly that you think you have a right to have or own it. This is often used when talking about disputes between countries over territories and borders. For instance, although Gibraltar is part of the United Kingdom, Spain has staked a claim to Gibraltar, that is Spain claims that it is the rightful owner of this tiny enclave. Imagine what explorers do when they arrive in a new land which they’re claiming as their own. What did American astronauts do when they landed on the moon? Well they planted a flag to stake a claim to it. And what was the flag attached to? A flagpole – in other words, a stake. A stake is a physical way of showing that a property is ours, like the stakes in a fence.

If we say that something is at stake we mean that it is at risk, you might lose it. It’s often used in the world of business and politics. Let’s say a new government comes to power and it decides to do away with environmental protections. This happened under Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, for example. On his watch funding for environmental protection agencies was slashed and deforestation in the Amazon accelerated. So when he was up for reelection earlier this year, environmentalists around the world knew that a lot was at stake, not just for Brazil but for the entire planet. The very health of our planet was at stake. We also often talk about jobs being at stake, meaning they are threatened by new laws, taxes or other changes in circumstances. 

In this case be at stake is a gambling metaphor. At some point in the past people would use a pole or stick, that is a stake, to put their wagers, or bets on. A related expression is have a stake in something. If you have a stake in something, you will get advantages if it is successful and you feel that you have an important connection with it. 

Here’s an example from the Longman online dictionary – my all-time favourite online dictionary.

Young people don’t feel they have a stake in the country’s future.

In this case, the idea is that young people are not committed to or invested in the country’s future because they don’t think they will benefit from things getting better. It’s kind of a depressing example, but whether we like it or not this pessimism is quite typical nowadays. Similarly, nowadays employees may feel like they don’t have a stake in their company’s success and so don’t fully commit themselves to their jobs. 

Having a stake in a company can also refer to having a financial investment in it. For instance, Microsoft has a stake in OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT. This means that OpenAI is partly owned by Microsoft.

Here’s one final bit of vocabulary that’s used all the time in both business and politics. A stakeholder is someone who has invested money into something, or who has some important connection with it, and therefore is affected by its success or failure. Although a stakeholder can be someone who owns a stake in a company, that is shares, it has a broader, more general meaning, because it refers to a person such as an employee, customer or citizen who is involved with an organisation, society, etc. and therefore has responsibilities towards it and an interest in its success.

Here’s an example:

The bill faces opposition from a number of key stakeholders, including the California Chamber of Commerce. (Note that a bill is a proposed law, one that hasn’t been passed yet.)

The concept of stakeholder is also that it’s a group of people whose needs and interests should be listened to and taken into account. Nowadays you’ll often hear people refer to indigenous groups in countries like Canada, the US and Australia as stakeholders because they are groups whose opinion matters when it comes to new laws and policies. 

I’d like to conclude today’s episode with a more philosophical reflection. The Stakeholder Society is a book written by two Yale law professors by the name of Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott. Although it was published back in 1996 I think their ideas are remarkably prescientSomeone who’s prescient is able to imagine or know what will happen in the future. If you want to read a short review of the book by the Foundation for Economic Education there’s a link in the show notes. Anyway, I’ll do my best to sum it up for you. Ackerman and Alstott reached the conclusion that equality of opportunity did not exist in America. To help level the playing field and ensure more opportunities for working class young people, they argued that all adults should receive a lump-sum of $80,000 dollars upon turning 21. This would allow people to get on the property ladder, pay for education or use it as start-up capital for a business. This is very similar to ideas put forward by the incredibly well-known and respected French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the books Capital and Capital and Ideology. On of his ideas is for all young people to inherit 120,000 euros from the government when they turn 25 and he calls it inheritance for all. I’ve linked a CNBC article on it in the show notes. 

Now, let’s look at today’s vocabulary:

stake a claim to something: say publicly that you think you have a right to have or own it

Both Argentina and the UK have staked a claim to the islands known as both las Malvinas and the Falklands.

an enclave: a political unit that is completely surrounded by a foreign territory

Vatican City is an enclave given that it is surrounded by Italy.

be at stake: If something that is valuable is at stake, it is in a situation where it might be lost.

Thousands of lives will be at stake if emergency aid does not arrive in the city soon.

on someone’s watch: during a period when someone is in a position of power, and is therefore considered to be responsible for what happens

Mistakes were made on my watch, and accordingly I believe my decision to retire, while painful, is appropriate.

slash funding/spending: greatly reduce an amount, price, etc. – used especially in newspapers and advertising – synonym: cut

To reduce costs the company has slashed its workforce by 50%.

have a stake in something: If you have a stake in something, it is important to you because you have a personal interest or involvement in it.

Employers have a stake in the training of their staff.

be a stakeholder in something: someone who has invested money into something, or who has some important connection with it, and therefore is affected by its success or failure

Citizens should be stakeholders in the society they live in.

prescient (formal): able to imagine or know what will happen in the future

His warnings about Russian aggression have turned out to be prescient.

level the playing field / create a level playing field If you level the playing field or create a level playing field you encourage a situation in which different people, companies, countries, etc. can all compete fairly because no one has special advantages.

The government should do more to level the playing field by making university education affordable.

a lump-sum an amount of money given in a single payment

Her divorce settlement included a lump sum of $2 million.

get on the property ladder buy your first home

House prices are so high now it is hard for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder.

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