October 25:  History Into Verse Day

On this date in two different years, 1415 and 1854 , a historical battle was immortalized in verse.

Schlacht von Azincourt.jpgThe first was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 in which the outnumbered English army defeated the French in a major battle of the Hundred Years War.  The battle took place on Saint Crispin’s Day, a feast day honoring the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian.  The English were lead by King Henry V who joined his soldier in hand-to-hand combat at Agincourt.

Though history does not record exactly what Henry said that day, William Shakespeare, in his play Henry V (Act IV, Scene iii), imagines what Henry might have said to spur the undermanned English to action.  In a speech of 49 lines, Henry expresses his confidence that they will win and that each year as they near St. Crispin’s Day they will look back and remember their glorious victory and the bond they share with their brothers in arms (1).

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.  

More than 400 years later in 1854, Britain and France joined forces against Russia in the Crimean War.  On October 25, 1854 the British Light Brigade under the command of General James Cardigan rode into history.  Following an ambiguous order to charge into a treeless valley surrounded by Russian field artillery, hundreds of British horsemen were mowed down as they swept across the open ground.  Miraculously some of the horsemen managed to temporarily disable the Russian guns and return under fire across what would become known as “the valley of the shadow of death.” The charge, although courageous, resulted in senseless carnage.  Of the 673 British horsemen who began the charge only 198 survived (2).

The British cavalry’s charge was immortalized in verse by Britain’s poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson.  The poet penned the narrative poem on December 2, 1854 after reading an account of the battle in the British newspapers.  On December 9, 1854 the poem entitled “The Charge of the Light Brigade” appeared in The Examiner.

The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Today’s Challenge:  Make History in Poetry
What historical event would you immortalize in verse?  What makes the event worth remembering?  Brainstorm some events from history that are worthy of being immortalized in verse.  Select the one you like the best, and compose a narrative poem (a la “The Charge of the Light Brigade”) or a speech in verse (a la “The Saint Crispin’s Day speech”). (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55


1-March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  365: Your Date With History. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2004: 526-7.

2- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2007: 342.

October 24: Alternative Titles Day

On this date in 1957 movie executive Sam Frey sent director Alfred Hitchcock a list of suggested alternative titles to the film that Hitchcock was shooting. The director has been in a continual battle with his studio, Paramount, over the movie’s title. Hitchcock was determined to go with the one-word title Vertigo; the studio, however, rejected the director’s choice. The list of 47 alternative titles was the studio’s last attempt to sway Hitchcock. It included the following suggested alternative titles:

Afraid To Love
The Face
The Mask and the Face
Shadow on the Stairs Shock
Two Kinds of Women

Vertigomovie restoration.jpgHitchcock stood firm with his choice, and when the film opened on May 8, 1958, the movie marquee read Vertigo. The film starring James Stewart is based on a French novel entitled D’entre les morts (“from among the dead”). Today it is recognized as one of the greatest psychological thrillers in Hollywood history (1).

Today’s Challenge: What’s the Word?
What would be your one-word alternative title to a classic book or film? Like Vertigo, three of the top grossing films of all time have one-word titles: Avatar, Titanic, and Jaws. The challenge of a one-word title is to evoke the quintessential core element that defines the film. Brainstorm some alternative titles to some classic book titles and film titles. You may not, however, use any of the words in the original title. The Wizard of Oz, for example, might be retitled “Rainbow” but cannot be retitled “Oz” or “Wizard.” Create a Top Ten list of your best alternative titles, and if you’re working with a group, hold an Alternative One-Word Title Contest. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: ‘Vertigo’ was about a murder, a love affair, memory and loss, and a police detective with a work-related injury. The title, however, perfectly captures the queasy, off-balance feeling the film induces in the viewer, as well as the psychological state of the protagonist. -Christopher Johnson

1-Usher, Shaun. Lists of Note: An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015: 242.

October 23: OK Day

Today we celebrate not only the single most recognized Americanism ever, but also the single most recognizable word period.

On this day in 1839, OK was first published in the Boston Morning Post. Oddly, the word sprung from an intentional misspelling of “all correct.”  Following a pre-Civil War fad of misspelling words for comic effect, “all correct” was spelled “oll korrect.”  The word gained widespread usage but with a different meaning during the reelection campaign of President Martin Van Buren in 1840.  Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook” which alluded to his hometown of Kinderhook, New York.  The initials OK became his rallying cry, and even though Van Buren lost the election to William Henry Harrison, OK gained popular usage, becoming an entrenched part of American English.

In the book America in So Many Words, David Barnhart and Allan Metcalf explain how and why OK became such a popular American linguistic export:

OK was quickly recognized as a brief, distinctive, universally understood annotation to indicate approval of a document, and a brief, distinctive, universally understood spoken response to indicate understanding and acceptance of a request or order. (1).

In fact Allan Metcalf, an English professor in Illinois, claims that OK is the single most spoken and typed word in the world.  He should know since he wrote an entire book on the word in 2010 called OK:  The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

Clearly OK, no matter how you spell it — OK, O.K., ok, okay, okey, or ‘key — is here to stay.

Today’s Challenge:  Okie-dokie Proverbs

OK is the most popular word in English, but what do you get when you string together popular words into phrases or clauses?  What you usually get are proverbs:  short, distilled statements of wisdom that are repeated frequently both because they are concise and because they express time-tested insights into human experience, such as “The pen is mightier than the sword” or “Practice makes perfect.”  Whether you call them proverbs, sayings, adages, maxims, motts, or aphorisms, they are recognized, repeated, and recycled from generation to generation.  What would you say is the single most important proverb?  What makes it important, and what do you know about its origin?   Brainstorm a list of proverbs.  Select the one you think is the most influential and important.  Then, make your case by explaining what the proverb means and why it is so important.  Do  a bit of research on its origin and history to provide your audience with some details that go beyond the obvious. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  I think OK should be celebrated with parades and speeches. But for now, whatever you do [to mark the anniversary], it’s OK. -Allan Metcalf

1- Barnhart, David and Allan Metcalf. America in So Many Words:  Words That Have Shaped America.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

October 22: Battle Writer’s Block by Journaling Day

On this date in 1804 and 1837 two famous writers, one British and one American, waged their own personal battles with writer’s block by writing in their journals.

The first was the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).  Writing in his journal the day after his thirty-second birthday, Coleridge expressed his exasperation at being unable to produce the kind of great poetry he had written in his mid-twenties:  “So Completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruites of a month. –O Sorrow and Shame . . . . I have done nothing!”  Although Coleridge was writing in his journal, he never again managed to write anything like his great narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which had been published six years earlier(1).

The second writer was the American Henry David Thoreau.  After graduating from college at Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to his home town of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who encourage the fledgling writer to keep a journal in order to record his thoughts and to develop his craft.  

On this date Henry opened his first journal and began writing.  He started by recording the questions that Emerson had first asked him:

‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.

Thoreau’s journals gave him a place to develop his ideas and to avoid writer’s block.  In the course of 24 years he produced over two million words in 39 notebooks.  As explained by Odell Shepard, editor of Thoreau’s journals, writing this way helped Thoreau in a number of ways:

It sharpened his observation and deepened his thought.  By preserving the memory of his best hours — those that had “a certain individuality and separate existence, aye, personality” –it enabled him to survey long stretches of earlier experience and thus to estimate his development or decline.

No doubt the journaling habit gave Thoreau the kind of confidence in his own ideas that lead to his two great works, the book Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience.”

One interesting note is that the social networking messaging service Twitter used Emerson’s question as its prompt when the online service began in 2006.  Each tweet composed was prompted by the question “What are you doing?” In 2009 Twitter changed its prompt to the more succinct “What’s happening?” (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Six-Sided Solution
What are at least six of your go-to writing ideas when combating writer’s block?  A great way to defeat writer’s block is to turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.  Your task, therefore, is to construct an actual Writer’s Block that, instead of causing writers to stumble, will inspire and motivate them to write.  First, brainstorm as many writing ideas as you can, anything that might spark ideas and inspire someone to write.  Then, organize your ideas into six categories, one for each side of the Writer’s Block.  Finally, construct your block out of paper, wood, or some other material.  Write your categories and ideas on each side of your block, adding artwork, diagrams, graphics, pictures, etc. to make it visually appealing.  In constructing your own Writer’s Block you’ll be doing something that all great writers do, you’ll be transforming an abstract idea into a concrete one.  Use your Writer’s Block to spark ideas as you begin your daily journaling habit. (Common Core Writing 4 – Process)

Quotation of the Day:  A hammer made of deadlines is the surest tool for crushing writer’s block. -Ryan Lilly



2-The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Edited by Odell Shepard).  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.



October 21: Nobel Day

On this date in 1833 Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden. When he was nine years old he moved with his family to St. Petersburg, Russia where his father worked as an engineer manufacturing explosives. In Russia, Nobel studied chemistry and became fluent in English, French, German, Russian. Later the family moved back to Sweden, and Alfred worked for his father in his factory experimenting with explosives. Tragedy struck in 1864 when an explosion in the Nobel factory killed five people, including Alfred’s younger brother Emil. Resolved to invent a safer explosive, Nobel went to work and in 1867 he patented his invention which he called “Nobel’s Safety Powder.” The new explosive was indeed more safe, combining nitroglycerin and an absorbent sand, but it needed a more catchy name. To solve this problem, Nobel turned to a Greek root for “power” and coined the world dynamite. Dynamite did in fact make the work of miners safer; however, its use in warfare also made killing more efficient.

In 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary of Alfred, stating, “The merchant of death is dead.” Although the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, the obituary still caused Alfred to reflect on his legacy. He immediately changed his will, setting aside his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, awarded each year in Sweden for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for contributions towards peace. A prize for economics was added in 1968.

Today’s Challenge: Dynamite Inventions
What would you argue is the greatest single invention of all time? What do you know about its inventor and how it was invented? Brainstorm a list of inventions. Then, select the one that you think is deserving of being recognized for its genius. Write an explanation of why you think the invention is so special. Include some details from research on its inventor and where, when, and how the invention came to be. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. -Thomas Edison


October 20:  Adopt a Literary Character Day

On this day in 1833, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) completed his great dramatic monologue Ulysses.  

The voice of the poem, or persona, is Ulysses, the Latin name of the epic Greek hero Odysseus.  In writing this poem, Tennyson adopts the character Ulysses from Homer, the author of the epic Greek poems The Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Odyssey is the epic narrative that follows Ulysses’ 10-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War.  Once home on Ithaca, Ulysses faces another challenge to out wit the suitors vying to win the hand of his wife Penelope.  Displaying brawn but also brains, Ulysses defeats the suitors in a contest, slaughters them, reunites with his wife, and once again becomes king of Ithaca.

Alfred Lord Tennyson 1869.jpgThe poem Ulysses imagines the hero years after he has returned to the throne.  In the tradition of the dramatic monologue, we hear only the voice of the old king as he reflects on his past, on his relative idleness as King of Ithaca, and on his desire to once again set out on a bold adventure.  The understood audience of the poem is the crew of his ship, the men who will join him on his new journey.

In the poem’s opening lines we hear the voice of a king, weary of his kingly duties on Ithaca and restless to return again to sea:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;

Willing to give up his throne to his son Telemachus and to leave his wife, Ulysses looks forward once more to bold adventures and seeing “a newer world.”  Rather than staying put and rusting, Ulysses wants “to shine in use!”  It is appropriate then that the poem ends with a string of parallel action verbs:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Like much of the verse of William Shakespeare, Ulysses is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Today’s Challenge:  Write a SPAT Monologue
What fictional character from literature or film would you adopt for a dramatic monologue?  Brainstorm some interesting characters from either books or film.  Like Tennyson did for Ulysses, imagine the life of the character after the work you know them for is over.  What would he/she be thinking about and what would he/she be saying — and to whom would he/she be saying it.  Write a dramatic monologue using the mnemonic SPAT:  the Speaker, a Problem (or dramatic situation), the Audience, and the Tone (or attitude).  Try to capture the distinctiveness of your character, impersonating his/her voice so that it can be understood by your reader. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  A monologue presents a single person speaking alone, but a dramatic monologue presents an imaginary or historical character speaking to an imaginary listener or audience . . . . -Edward Hirsch

October 19:  Letter of Advice Day

On this day in 1860 Abraham Lincoln, in the final day of his run for the U.S. presidency, wrote a letter to a 11-year-old girl from Westerfield, New York named Grace Bedell.  Four days earlier, Grace had written to her favorite candidate with the following specific advice:

I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you won’t think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you   you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President.

Lincoln’s response to Grace’s letter was brief, yet its words showed that he had read her letter and was considering her advice regarding facial hair:

October 19, 1860

Springfield, Illinois
Miss. Grace Bedell

My dear little Miss.

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th. is received.

I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family.

As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now? Your very sincere well-wisher.

A. Lincoln (1)

As reflected in Grace’s letter, Lincoln was in fact clean-shaven before he become president.  However, by the time he took the oath as the 16th president, Lincoln had grown the beard that he wore throughout his presidency. In fact, prior to taking the oath on March 4, 1861, he made a stop in Westfield, meeting his young campaign adviser.

Today’s Challenge:  Take My Advice
If you were to write a letter of advice to a public figure, to whom would you write and what kind of advice would you give them?  Brainstorm some possible public figures to whom you might write letters of advice:  politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, etc.  Select one and write an open letter of advice.  An open letter is a letter that is written to an individual but is intended to be published publicaly and to read by a wide audience.  In addition to your specific advice, give detailed explanation that both shows and tells why your advice is worthwhile. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Letters have to pass two tests before they can be classed as good: they must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient. -E. M. Forester





October 18: TLA Day

On this date in 1922 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was formed. In its almost one hundred years as the United Kingdom’s public-service broadcast service on both radio and television, it has been responsible for propagating what is known as Received Pronunciation.

BBC.svgWhat the printing press did for making written English standard, the BBC has done for making spoken British English standard. With a variety of regional dialects of English in the United Kingdom, the BBC created an Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1926 to explore and establish the best forms of pronunciation among competing usages. The influence and popularity of BBC broadcasts, especially during World War II, established the English spoken on air as the “correct” way to speak English. This Received Pronunciation goes by several names: “Standard English,” “the Queen’s English,” “Oxford English,” “Public School English,” or “BBC English.”

“BBC” is an example of a three-letter abbreviation (TLA), the common method in English of condensing language to save time and space. Whether its the name of corporations (IBM), politicians (JFK), computer terms (CPU), agencies (CIA), countries (UAE), or text messaging (LOL), TLAs continue to be ALR (all the rage).

One distinction should be made in regard to two key terms associated with abbreviations: acronyms and initialism.

An abbreviation is the general term for any shortened form of a word or phrase, such as Oct. for October.

An acronym is a specific type of abbreviation in which the first letters of words are combined to form a word, as in RAM (Random Access Memory).

An initialism is another specific type of abbreviation in which the first letter of words are combined as upper case letters with each letter pronounced as an individual letter, as in FBI = “F” – “B” – “I.”

As you examine examples of TLAs you will discover that the vast majority fit in the category of initialisms. Many are familiar. Look at the gaggle of TLAs below to see which ones you recognize, and use a good dictionary to look up the ones you don’t.


TLAs harness the Rule of Three (ROT), a powerful principle in writing that recognizes that there seems to be something special, maybe even magical, about things in three. There’s nothing new about this principle. In Latin it was stated as “Omne trium perfectum,” or “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” Likewise the French motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” demonstrates the brevity, rhythm, and balance of a tried and true trio.

Today’s Challenge: Three-peat After Me
What is a three-word motto that you would use to sum up a principle for success in life, whether at work, at school, at home, or some other aspect of human endeavor? Brainstorm some original mottos and sum them up with a TLA. For example, in the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), the motto for success in selling real estate is ABC = “Always Be Closing.” To prime the pump here are a few other example mottos:

Be the change (BTC)

Dream, believe, achieve (DBA)

Just do it (JDI)

Pain is gain (PIG)

Love conquers all (LCA)

Keep it simple (KIS)

Quitters aren’t winners (QAW) (2)

Once you’ve settled on your TLA motto, write a short motivational message in which you explain what it means using appropriate examples and anecdotes to illustrate why it is a motto worth remembering and how it will help the audience achieve success. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: The world wide web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form [WWW] takes three times longer to say. -Douglas Adams

1-Crystal, David. Evolving English. London: British Library, 2010: 57.


October 17:  Coin a Word Day

On this date in 2005, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert unveiled a new word “truthiness.”  Speaking in the satiric tone familiar to fans of his show The Colbert Report, he introduced the word as follows:

And on this show, your voice will be heard… in the form of my voice. ‘Cause you’re looking at a straight-shooter, America. I tell it like it is. I calls ’em like I sees ’em. I will speak to you in plain simple English.

And that brings us to tonight’s word: truthiness.

Now I’m sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart (1).

On this night’s show the irony was especially thick, however, because as it turned out truthiness was not a new coinage after all.  As pointed out on the language website Language Log, the word dates back to 1824 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2).

Even though Colbert cannot claim credit for coining the work, he can claim to have popularized it.  In fact, he got the last laugh on the “wordanistas” when The American Dialect Society selected truthiness as its Word of the Year in 2005.

New words, also known as neologisms, are popping up more than ever in the age of technology and the internet.  So many newly minted words are appearing, in fact that there are entire websites devoted to tracking neologisms.  One such site is Word Spy, where visitors can witness the genesis and evolution of words before their very eyes.  The words at Word Spy are not in the dictionary; instead, the are mere candidates for the big lexicographical show.  If they catch on and are used by real people, especially in written communication, they may make it from Word Spy to Webster’s.

In the book Microstyle:  The Art of Writing Little, Christopher Johnson traces the various paths that neologisms take from creation to dictionary.  To illustrate the different ways words are formed, Johnson provides the following seven methods of construction:

  1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
  4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
  5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)

One of the oldest sources of new word coinages comes under Johnson’s second category.  It’s a special kind of compound word called a kenning – a figurative compound word construction.  In the Old English poem Beowulf, for example, a “ship” becomes a “sea-steed” or the “sea” becomes the “whale-road” (3).  Although kennings are a very old form they represent one of the most vibrant and playful aspects of our language, an aspect that we see alive in our language today in the following examples:

Hot potato = something no one wants

Rug rat = toddler or crawling baby

Treehugger = an environmentalist

Bookworm = someone who reads a lot

Pig-skin = a football

Gas-guzzler = a car with poor gas milage (4)

Notice that characteristic of a kenning, each example above is made up of two words to form a compound word.  Furthermore, each kenning makes no direct reference to the person or thing it is naming; instead, each relies on a figurative comparison.  Each kenning, therefore, is a beautifully package compact metaphor.

Today’s Challenge: Coin a Kenning
What new two-word figurative combination would you use to rename a noun, such as a pencil, a Post-it Note, a teacher, a bank, or cat?  Play around with words by creating some of your own kennings.  Pick a noun and brainstorm some ideas.  Remember, to qualify as a kenning your compound must by figurative, so avoid directly naming the person or thing you’re renaming.  A pencil for example might be a word-wand, a thought twig, or a sentence stick.  Once you have a few ideas, pick your best one, and begin actually using it in conversation.  This will be the true test of whether or not it resonates and packs a powerful enough punch to be picked up by real people. (Common Core Reading 4 – Interpret Words and Phrases)

Quotation of the Day:  And so people say to me, “How do I know if a word is real?” You know, anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real. -Erin McKean, The Joy of Lexicography TED Talk

1 October 17  Coin a Word Day  word spy – popularize   See TED talk on lexicography  – love –http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/search/label/Word%20origins


3-Christopher Johnson.  Microstyle:  The Art of Writing Little.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2011:  163.

4- http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-kenning.html




October 16:  Dictionary Day

Writing in the Boston Globe in 2009, lexicographer Erin McKean presented the following imaginative and idealistic vision for Dictionary Day, the day that celebrates the birthday of the one man synonymous with the dictionary, Noah Webster (1758-1843):

. . . small children placed their dictionary stands by the hearthstone, hoping that Noah himself would magically come down the chimney and leave them a shiny new dictionary (left open to the word “dictionary,” of course). In some places, Dictionary Day is celebrated with bonfires of the past years’ dictionaries, the baking of the traditional aardvark-shaped cookies, and the singing of etymology carols (1).

Noah Webster was born in Hartford, Connecticut on October 16, 1758. He went on to graduate from Yale and to work as a lawyer. His most noteworthy work, however, came as a school teacher. Unhappy with the curriculum materials he was given to teach, he created his own uniquely American curriculum: A three-part Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It included a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reader.

Webster served in the student militia at Yale during the Revolutionary War. He never saw combat, but while he never fought in the literal battle for independence from Britain, he was a key player in the battle to make American English independent from British English.

His spelling book, known as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” became one of the most popular and influential works in American history. Only the Bible sold more copies.  According Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue, Noah’s spelling book went through at least 300 editions and sold more than sixty million copies. Because of the wide use of his spelling book and his dictionary published in 1828, Webster had a significant impact on the spelling and pronunciation of American English. His dictionary contained more than 70,000 words, and it was the most complete dictionary of its time (2).

Many of the distinctive differences in spelling and pronunciation of British words versus English words can be traced back to Webster. For example:

Change of -our to –or as in colour and color, honour and honor, labour and labor.

Change of –re to er as in centre and center, metre and meter, theatre and theater

Change of –ce to se as in defence and defense, licence and license, offence and offense

The change of the British double-L in travelled and traveller to the American traveled, traveler.

Not all of Webster’s spelling changes stuck, however. David Grambs, in his book Death by Spelling, lists the following as examples of words that were retracted in later editions of Webster’s Dictionary: iz, relm, mashine, yeer, bilt, tung, breth, helth, beleeve, and wimmen (3).

After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to his dictionaries were purchased by Charles and George Merriam. The first volume of their dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was published in 1847.

After purchasing the rights for use of the Webster name, the Merriam brothers lost a legal battle to use the name exclusively. As a result, today other dictionaries use the name Webster even though they have no connection to Webster or his original work. Because of this Merriam-Webster includes the following assurance of quality for its dictionaries:

Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.™

Other publishers may use the name Webster, but only Merriam-Webster products are backed by 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. The Merriam-Webster name is your assurance that a reference work carries the quality and authority of a company that has been publishing since 1831 (4).

The following are examples of other spelling changes made by Webster. They, in a large part, account for the differences in spelling that exist today in British English versus American English:

cheque to check

draught to draft

manoeuvre to maneuver

moustache to mustache

plough to plow

skilful to skillful

mediaeval to medieval

mould to mold (2)

Today’s Challenge: Dictionary Day Decalogue

What is your favorite word in the English language?  What kind of information can you find in a dictionary besides just the correct spellings and definitions of words?  Dictionaries tell us much more than just spelling and definitions. To celebrate Dictionary Day brainstorm a list of your favorite words.  Then, grab a good dictionary, and make a list of at least “Ten Things You Can Find in a Dictionary Besides Spelling and Definitions.”  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quote of the Day:  So we should expand our thinking about dictionaries. Language is power – we understand that words can move us to tears or laughter, inspire us to great deeds or urge us to mob action. Dictionaries are the democratization of that power, and the more words they contain, the more democratic they are. The dictionary is a gigantic armory and toolbox combined, accessible to all. It reflects our preoccupations, collects our cultural knowledge, and gives us adorable pictures of aardvarks, to boot. And it does all this one word at a time. -Erin McKean

1 – http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/10/18/the_word_the_case_for_dictionary_day/

2- Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York: Perennial, 1990.

3 –Reader’s Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. New York: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983.

4 – Grambs, David. Death by Spelling: A Compendium of Tests, Super Tests, and Killer Bees. New York: Harper & Row, 1989: 27.