July 20:  Antithesis Day

Today is the anniversary of what many consider the single greatest human achievement of all time: the successful Moon mission of Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969 at 4:17 p.m. (EDT), Neil A. Armstrong became the first human to stand on the Moon. Armstrong was soon joined by Buzz Aldrin, and the two astronauts spent 21 hours on the Moon collecting 46 pounds of moon rocks before returning to the Lunar Module (1).

Circular insignia: Eagle with wings outstretched holds olive branch on Moon with Earth in background, in blue and gold border.The race to the Moon that began with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957 was over, and the first words from a human being on the Moon were in English:

That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.

To mark mankind’s most remarkable technological achievement, Armstrong needed to craft a message in words worthy of the moment.  To do this he turned to tried and true trick dating back the classical orators of ancient Greece and Rome.

The specific rhetorical device he used is called antithesis. As a word antithesis means “the exact opposite,” as in Love is the antithesis of hate. But as a figure of speech, antithesis juxtaposes two contrasting ideas in a balanced, parallel manner, or — as in Armstrong’s case — a contrast of degrees: small step and giant leap, and man and mankind.

We live in a world of dichotomies:  hot and cold, light and dark, tragedy and comedy, love and hate.  Antithesis is the technique of juxtaposing these opposites.  Notice, for example, how the following quotations play with contrasts and parallelism to make concise, clear, and balanced sentences:

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read anyway. -Groucho Marx

Lives as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi

To err is human, to forgive divine.  -Alexander Pope

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, . . . . -Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

Using antithesis creates contrast but also brings balance, revealing the tone of someone who sees the world in all of its broad contrasts and particular opposites.  When writers use antithesis, the contrasts and opposition create a tension that keeps the reader interested.  When ideas clash, something is at stake, so there’s more reason for the reader to stick around.

Today’s Challenge:  Opposite Day

What are some examples of words that are opposites — antonyms such as ‘speak’ and ‘listen,’ ‘war’ and ‘peace,’ ‘present’ and ‘past’?  Brainstorm a list of opposites, and select one pair from your list or the list below to write about:

above/below

quantity/quality

victory/defeat 

actions/words

before/after

left/right

dark/light

fast/slow

order/chaos

freedom/slavery

good/evil

yesterday/today

Then, write an opening sentence featuring antitheses that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics, such as:

Logic teach us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Then write a short composition of at least 150 words in which you support the claim using contrast, details, examples, and evidence.

Example:

When we read, we travel to a world of imagination; when we write, we imagine a world of our own.  With reading, the words are fixed on the page for us, and although words evoke different pictures in the minds of different readers, we still are limited by the words that were selected for us by the author.  When Robert Frost, for example, describes the snow, he says, “The only sound is the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.”  Whoever reads this imagines falling snow.  When we write, however, we are in control of the words we choose and, therefore, the worlds – and the weather – we create.  We become omniscient and omnipotent.  If we choose, we can defy gravity, we can defy logic, we can defy nature.  If we choose we can create a snowstorm in August, a world where words grow on trees, where trees speak in Latin.  Reading exercises our imagination, opening our eyes to see more; writing challenges our imagination, forcing our minds to be more.

Quotation of the Day:  Hillary [Clinton] has soldiered on, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, like most powerful women, expected to be tough as nails and warm as toast at the same time. – Anna Quindlen (3)

 

1- Apollo 11. The 30th Anniversary

2- “Antithesis.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.

3-Anna Quindlin “Say Goodbye to the Virago.” Newsweek, June 16, 2003

July 19:  Push the Envelope Day

Today is the anniversary of the first true space flight in 1962. Air Force pilot Bob White took the experimental aircraft the X-15 to a record altitude of 314,750 feet, pushing the envelope and breaking the 50 mile boundary separating the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. White’s flight established a world record that still stands for altitude achieved in a winged aircraft. For his feat of daring, Walker became the first pilot to earn astronaut wings (1).

Black rocket aircraft with stubby wings and short vertical stabilizers above and below tail unitThe word astronaut comes from Greek: astron, “star” + nautes, “sailor.” The Russian equivalent is cosmonaut, which is also from Greek: kosmos, “universe” + nautes, “sailor.”

Today we hear the expression push the envelope in a variety of contexts relating to attempts to “exceed the limits of what is normally done”; in other words, attempts to be innovative, as in: The computer company is trying to get its software engineers to push the envelope in developing a new approach to computing. The three-word idiom comes from the field of aviation and was originally used to describe the exploits of pilots like Bob White who attempted, but did not always succeed, in pushing the limits of a plane’s capabilities either in speed or altitude. Within the envelope, the pilot was safe; beyond it, there was uncertainty and risk (2).

Push the envelope is just one of many three-word idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when translated literally) in English that follow the pattern: verb + “the” + noun, as in “bite the bullet.” Here are five more examples, all beginning with the verb “take”:

take the plunge

take the heat

take the Fifth

take the fall

take the rap

Given the first letter of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the three-word idioms below:

  1. w_______ the s_________
  1. r________ the g________
  1. p________ the t________
  1. b________ the h _______
  1. c________ the f _______
  1. c________ the m _______
  1. h________ the c _______
  1. p________ the f _______
  1. s________ the c _______
  1. s________ the f _______

Today’s Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

What are some examples of figurative expressions or familiar idiomatic phrases that follow the pattern Verb + “the” + Noun, as in “take the plunge” or “push the envelope”?  Brainstorm as many as you can; then, select one and use it as the title of short poem or paragraph.  For more examples of three-word phrases see the list below today’s Quotation of the Day.  Play around with your expression’s meaning, both literal and figurative, as well as considering the action as expressed in the verb.  Compose your poem or paragraph, and use your three-word idiom as its title.

Quote of the Day: Before you push the envelope, open it up and see what’s inside.  –L’ Architecte Karp

break the bank, clear the air, cross the Rubicon, draw the line, drink the Kool-Aid, fly the coop, foot the bill, hit the deck, hit the hay, hit the road, hit the jackpot, hit the roof, hit the spot, hold the fort, hold the line, hold the phone, kick the habit, kick the bucket, make the grade, take the Fifth, take the rap, turn the tables

Answers: 1. weather the storm 2. run the gamut or run the gauntlet 3. pass the torch 4. bury the hatchet 5. chew the fat 6. cut the mustard 7. hit the ceiling 8. press the flesh 9. stay the course 10. straddle the fence.

 

1 – Wolverton, Mark. The Airplane That Flew Into Space. American Heritage Summer 2001 Volume 17, Issue 1

2 – Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Miffline Company, 1997.

July 18:  Ladder of Abstraction Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1939). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known works on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.  That same year he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976, and in 1981 he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

SIHayakawa.jpgAfter leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It’s mission, according to its web site, is “preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States” (1).

In his book Language in Thought and Action, Hayakawa popularized an amazing tool for writers.  Not a physical tool that can be bought in a hardware store, but a metaphorical tool to better understand how to use words more effectively.  It’s called the ladder of abstraction (2).

The ladder of abstraction is one way to visualize the range of language from the abstract to the concrete–from the general to the specific. On the top of the ladder are abstract ideas like success, education, or freedom; as we move down each rung of the ladder, the words become more specific and more concrete. When we reach the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction, we should find something concrete that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell.

Rung 6:  Education

Rung 5:  High School

Rung 4:  Math Department

Rung 3:  Algebra

Rung 2:  Algebra 2

Rung 1:  Mr. Johnson’s 4th period Algebra 2 class

Notice, for example, the list above. Imagine that each is a rung of the ladder. On the 6th Rung is the abstract idea “Education.”  As we move down each rung, the words become more specific.  When we reach the bottom rung, we find a tangible and concrete phrase to represent the abstract idea.

Writers should use the ladder of abstraction as a mental model to remind themselves that good writing is grounded with a solid, concrete foundation. We certainly write about abstract ideas like love, education, and success all the time, but the best writing doesn’t just tell by remaining at the top or middle rungs of the ladder; instead, it climbs down to the bottom rung, to show the reader, using specific images, details, and examples (3).

A writer, for example, who is unfamiliar with the ladder of abstraction might write the following telling sentence:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today was a bit odd.

“Odd” is a subjective and abstract idea.  Using the ladder of abstraction allows the writer to craft a more showing description:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today began class by playing a medley of Beatles songs on his accordion, he demanded that we submit any questions we had in writing, and when I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil, he shouted, “I’m sick of your insane and insolent demands!!”  At the end of class, he wouldn’t dismiss us until the entire class sang the “Marine Corps Hymn.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lord of the Rungs
What concrete words come to your mind when you think of the abstract word “success”?  Select one of the abstract nouns listed below and brainstorm specific, showing details and examples of what the idea looks like, sounds like, or feels like in the real world.  Then breath life into the abstract idea by describing a specific scene that illustrates the word using concrete nouns at the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction.  For a real challenge, try to not even use the abstract noun in your paragraph.  If you have done an effective job of showing rather than telling, your reader should be able to identify the abstract idea without being told.

curiosity, kindness, freedom, intelligence, stupidity, success, victory, defeat, bravery, diligence, creativity, education, loyalty

Quotation of the Day:  The ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is “ladder,” a specific tool you can see, hold in your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place you might break your leg.

The second word is “abstraction.” You can’t eat it or smell it or measure it. It is not easy to use as an example. It appeals not to the senses, but to the intellect. It is an idea that cries out for exemplification. -Roy Peter Clark (4)

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Hayakawa, S.I. Language in Thought and Action.

3-Backman, Brian.  Persuasion Points: 82 Strategic Exercises for Writing High-Scoring Persuasive Essays. Maupin House, 2010:  62.

4-Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tool #13 Show and Tell

July 17:  Psychedelic Idioms Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1968 release of the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine. To many filmgoers the psychedelic animation and upbeat music of the film were a welcome respite from the turbulent events of 1968: the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Beatles Yellow Submarine move poster.jpgIronically the Beatles themselves had very little to do with the film; in fact, all the dialogue for John, Paul, George, and Ringo was recorded by actors; thankfully, however, the songs were recorded by the actual Beatles. After seeing the finished version of the film, the Beatles agreed to make a brief non-animated appearance at the end of the film.

When the film was re-released in 1999 on DVD, reviewer Roger Ebert commented that the film had more than just visual appeal:

This is a story that appeals even to young children, but it also has a knowing, funny style that adds an undertow of sophistication . . . . [T]he overall tone is the one struck by John Lennon in his books ‘In His Own Write’ and ‘A Spaniard in the Works.’ Puns, drolleries, whimsies and asides meander through the sentences:

“There’s a cyclops! He’s got two eyes. Must be a bicyclops. It’s a whole bicloplopedia!” (1)

The 1950s was the decade of the missile gap, but the 1960s — especially the late 1960s — was the decade of the generation gap. Flower power and the flower children stood for peace and love. The word psychedelic first appeared in the 1950s to mean, according to the book 20th Century Words: “(A drug) producing an expansion of consciousness through greater awareness of the senses and emotional feelings . . . .” Its meaning later broadened to denote the “vivid colors, often in bold abstract designs or in motion” (2). With the explosion of colors in films like Yellow Submarine, psychedelic became one of the words that characterized the 1960s landscape.

Change also characterized the landscape of the 1960s, and a chronology of words that first appeared in print in that decade provides insight into some of those changes. Here is a list of other words that were children of the ’60s:

global village (1960)

DJ (1961)

lite (1962)

Beatlemania (1963)

BASIC (1964)

hypertext (1965)

body language (1966)

generation gap (1967)

reggae (1968)

orchestrate (1969) (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Colorful Titles
What are some examples of expressions or familiar phrases that refer to colors in a figurative rather than literal manner, such as “black sheep,” “red herring,” or “white elephant”?  Brainstorm a list of these idioms (an expression that doesn’t make sense when translated literally but that is nevertheless almost universally understood), attempting to cover a full spectrum of colors:  red, white, blue, green, black, yellow, purple, etc.  Here are few examples to get you thinking:

blackmail

true blue

green thumb

grey area

blue moon

yellow journalism

caught red handed

rose-colored glasses

golden oldies

red-letter day

a silver lining

Next, look at your list, and use it as a springboard for a story (fiction or non-fiction).  Using your idiom as the title, write your narrative, including characters, dialogue, conflict, and resolution.  Make sure, however, that there’s a clear connection between your story’s plot and your story’s title.

Quotation of the Day: Sky of blue and sea of green, in our yellow submarine. -The Beatles

 

1 – Ebert, Roger. Great Movies. Chicago Sun Times. 9/5/99.

2 – Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.

3 – Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

 

July 16:  Mushroom Cloud Day

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the nuclear age. On July 16, 1945 at 5:29 a.m., a mushroom cloud rose into the sky above the New Mexico desert, the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Trinity Test Fireball 16ms.jpgRobert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, named the test “Trinity” based on John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, whose first four lines read:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

The test, which took place in total secrecy, resulted in a blast equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, more than two times what was predicted by Los Alamos scientists. The blast completely vaporized the 100-foot steel tower the bomb was placed on before the test. The bomb’s mushroom cloud rose seven and a half miles into the sky, and the bomb’s shockwave was felt 100 miles away.

The 260 witnesses to the test were each sworn to secrecy. The official press release attributed the explosion to an ammunitions dump accident. On August 6, 1945, the world learned the truth when the atomic bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people.  Three days later another atomic bomb, called “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki.  The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending World War II.

Before the test J. Robert Oppenheimer used religious imagery to name the Trinity Test, and he turned again to a religious text after the test, quoting a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita:

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Describing the atomic bomb’s explosion as a mushroom cloud is not the first time that English speakers have turned to food items as metaphors.  When it comes to metaphors, you might say that our cup runneth over.  You might even say that the English language features a smorgasbord of tantalizing turns of phrase.  Here are just a few examples for you to chew on:

Adam’s apple

gravy train

peanut gallery

butter fingers

bean counter

cold turkey

cherry picking

drink the Kool-Aid

carrot and stick

in a nutshell

Because many of the metaphors we use are familiar, we forget that they’re metaphors at all.  When a metaphor loses its freshness and enters the language as a staple menu item, we call it an idiom, “an expression that doesn’t make sense when translated literally but that is nevertheless almost universally understood.”  For example, imagine someone learning English as a second language who runs into the phrase “couch potato.”  A direct translation of the two words makes little literal sense in any language; nevertheless, most English speakers know the figurative meaning of the idiom — “a lazy person” — because it’s a stock phrase that they have heard or read before.

This is the magic of language.  Metaphors season our language, enhancing its flavors and making everything more tasty.  Author Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) said it best:

I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish.

There is a miraculous side to metaphors, but as George Orwell reminds us, an old metaphor sometimes become stale.  Instead of trying to resurrect these “dead metaphors” as Orwell calls them, it’s best to let them rest in peace:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves (2).

Returning to the miraculous side of metaphor, writer and linguist Michael Erard served up a banquet of mouth-watering metaphors in his 2013 essay
“A Pledge to My Readers:  A Year in the Artisanal Language Movement.”  Read this excerpt as an appetizer:

I’ve always written high-quality sentences, prepared with the finest grammatical ingredients. In the coming year, I’m raising the bar even higher: I’ll be offering only artisanal words, locally grown, hand-picked, minimally processed, organically prepared, and sustainably packaged.

. . . . For nouns, I’m going to a nearby family-owned farm, where Anglo-Saxon and Latinate varieties are raised free-range, grass-fed, and entirely hormone-free. The farmers will regularly replenish my stocks with deliveries by bicycle, ensuring that these words ripen on the page, not in a cargo hold in the middle of the Pacific.

Getting fresh, organic verbs used to pose a challenge, because of the unusual way they propagate. Yet once I began searching out indigenous varieties of words, I was surprised to find all sorts that aren’t known outside the local area. There’s a small, family-run verb operation that conjugates them in small batches, the old-fashioned way. I also stumbled across a number of hard-to-find heirloom verbs that haven’t been seen in urban markets for 100 years, because their flesh bruises too easily, and because they don’t fit the cosmetic ideal. Let’s face it: An English verb grown in Chile may look perfectly connoted, but its pulpy taste can’t compete with the pungent verve of a local specimen, and who cares if it won’t win beauty contests? (3)

Today’s Challenge:  Food For Thought and Rumination

What are some examples of expressions or familiar phrases used in English that refer to specific foods in a figurative manner rather than a literal manner, such as – “butter fingers,” “smart cookie,” or “peanut gallery”?  Is there one particular one you like?  Why?  Brainstorm a list of food idioms.  Then, select one to write about.  Write as though you are speaking to a student who is learning English as a second language, explaining the figurative meaning of the idiom and providing vivid specific examples of how it might be use.  You might also explore the origin, or etymology, of the idiom.

Quotation of the Day:  Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. -Truman Capote

 

1 – The Manhattan Project, An Interactive History. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of History & Heritage Resources.

2- Orwell, George.  “Politics and the English Language.”

3- Erard, Michael. “A Pledge to My Readers:  A Year in the Artisanal Language Movement.”

July 15: Amazon Day  

Today is the anniversary of the first book sold on Amazon.com in 1995. The title of the book was Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter.

Amazon.com was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, who originally called it “Cadabra.” To rename his mega-online store he searched for an appropriate metaphor and rediscovered the Amazon River. The Amazon is exotic, it’s different, and it starts with an “A,” which puts it at the top of alphabetical lists. The Amazon River is not the world’s longest river (it’s the second longest next to the Nile), but it is by far the world’s largest river when measured by water volume. Thus the name for the world’s most voluminous river also became the name of the world’s most voluminous bookstore.

The word Amazon has its origins in Greek mythology. The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors, so ferocious and bellicose that each warrior would cut off and cauterize her right breast to increase her accuracy with bow and arrow. In two myths featuring Amazons, Achilles killed Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, and Hercules, in one of his twelve labors, stole the girdle of another Amazon queen.

Amazon became the appellation of South America’s great river when explorers noticed a resemblance between the indigenous women of the region and the Amazons of antiquity (1).

In addition to revolutionizing the way books are sold, Amazon.com has also created a whole new world of book reviews.  Reviewers rate books on a five star rating scale, and all kinds of reviews are published — the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Reviewer’s reviews are also rated based on how helpful other customers find their comments.

Eleven years to the day after Amazon appeared online, another online juggernaut made its debut.  Twitter became available to the public on July 15, 2006. What Amazon has done for online sales, Twitter has done for online communication (2).  A free online social networking service, Twitter allows users to send and read short 140-character messages called “tweets.”

Today’s Challenge:  Brevity is the Soul of Tweets
How would you describe or review your favorite book, or the book you’re reading right now, in 140 characters or fewer?  Make every word count by writing a review of your favorite book or the book you’ve read recently in 140 characters or fewer.  Write your first draft without worrying about the length; then, edit carefully to reach the character limit by eliminating any unnecessary words.  Economy in writing is just as valuable as economy in online purchases.

Quote of the Day: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. –Erasmus

 

1 – Ammer, Christine. Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

2-http://www.thewire.com/technology/2012/03/today-twitters-real-birthday-no/50151/

July 14:  Bastille Day

Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris prison fortress of King Louis XVI. In 1789, 13 years after the American colonists had rebelled against the British monarchy, the citizens of France rose up against the despotism of King Louis, releasing prisoners from the Bastille and raiding its arms and ammunition.

Prise de la Bastille.jpgLouis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were arrested at their residence in Versailles, the entire royal family was eventually executed by guillotine, and the Bastille was razed.

Among the climate of chaos and anarchy, the National Assembly established the French Republic. Although true democracy did not result from the French Revolution, the absolute monarchy in France was permanently abolished (1).

Something that may never be abolished is the relationship between the French and the English languages.

This relationship began in 1066 with the Norman Invasion, led by William the Conqueror. With a Norman king of England, French became the language of the government. Though the Anglo-Saxon tongue became a second-class language in England, it still remained alive and well as the language of the common people. In fact, there were fewer French words absorbed into English during the Norman reign (approximately 1,000 words) than after an English king regained the throne. Between 1250 and 1500, more than 9,000 French words were absorbed into English.

English is a Germanic language. Its most frequently used words are Anglo-Saxon — grammar words, such as pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions. However, a higher percentage of English vocabulary words comes from other languages, principally the Romance languages — the descendants of Latin, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Next to Latin, more of these vocabulary words were absorbed from French than any other language. The following words are a small sample of common English words that have French origins:

liberty

revenue

crime

justice

ticket

essay

religion

connoisseur

ridicule

dentist (2)

Today’s Challenge:  A Tour of Your ‘Tour de Force’ Structure
What are examples of man-made structures (such as buildings, bridges, statues, etc.) you would put on your list of most iconic structures ever constructed by human hands?  Which one would you argue is the most iconic of them all?

Although the Bastille no longer stands, it remains in our memory as a historic and iconic man-made structure.  It is the rare structure whose name alone evokes both images and feelings, whether good or bad.  One test of such a structure’s iconic status is whether or not its geographic location is common knowledge.  Peruse the list of iconic structures below to see if you can identify where in the world each is located.  Also consider what pictures and feelings, if any, you associate with each one:

The Colosseum

The Great Wall

Stonehenge

The Statue of Liberty

Fallingwater

The Twin Towers

The Panama Canal

The Space Needle

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Grand Coulee Dam

Saint Peter’s Basilica

The White House

The Taj Mahal

Select the single man-made structure from your list that you think is most iconic.  Make your case by stating your reasons, and do a bit of research to give your audience some impressive details and evidence that go beyond the obvious.

Quotation of the Day: The thing that’s wrong with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur. -George W. Bush

 

1 – Yenne, Bill. 100 Events that Shaped World History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1993.

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

July 13:  I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Day

Today is the birth date in 100 BC of Julius Caesar — Roman general, statesman, and dictator.

In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch tells a story that reveals the unique character of Caesar. It relates to an incident where the young Julius was kidnapped by pirates:

To begin with, then, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty . . . . For eight and thirty days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth (1).

Caesar made good on his threat.  After he was released, he pursued the pirates with his fleet, captured them, and executed them.

Julius’ place in history is probably best attributed to his combined powers as a tactician, a statesman, and an orator.  After leading his Roman army to one particularly decisive victory in 46 BC, he famously wrote the Roman Senate to report:

Veni, vidi, vici

or

I came, I saw, I conquered.

A student of rhetoric and oratory, Caesar knew the power of the tricolon, the use of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses to generate sentences with rhythm, clarity, and  panache.

There is something special, perhaps even magical, about the number three, and when combined with the power of rhythm and repetition, what results is an unforgettable recipe for rhetorical resonance.

We see it in the Declaration of Independence:  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We see it in religion:  “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  We see it in films and television: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”  And we see it advertising:  “The few, the proud, the Marines” (2).

Balance and rhythm with two elements is good.  This is called isocolon, as in “Roses are red, violets are blue.”  And four works too.  It’s called tetracolon, as when Winston Churchill told the British people that he nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”  But you just can’t beat the rule of three; it’s the most ubiquitous, the most memorable, and the most magical of them all.  No wonder newly reelected President Barack Obama used 21 tricolons in his 2008 victory speech (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Tricolon Trailers
What are examples of things that come in threes — familiar phrases, titles, or trios?  Write the text of a voice-over for a movie trailer of your favorite film or book.  Use at least one tricolon to add some rhythm and resonance.  Here’s an example for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Mourning his dead father, berating his clueless mother, and continually contemplating the murder of his remorseless, treacherous, and lecherous uncle, Hamlet is not having a good day!  Something, indeed, is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just the fish from last week’s dinner that’s been festering in the corner of the Castle Elsinore’s Kitchen.

Quotation of the Day: Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. -attributed to Benjamin Franklin

1- Plutarch.  “Life of Caesar”

2- Backman, Brian.  Thinking in Threes:  The Power of Three in Writing. Austin, Texas:  Prufrock Press, 2005.

Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence:  How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.  London:  Icon Books, 2013: 84-88.

3- Zelinsky, Aaron.  “What We Will Remember”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aaron-zelinsky/what-we-will-remember-oba_b_141397.html

 

July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of American writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Clearly Thoreau’s thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and “Civil Disobedience” influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau’s ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Thorough Thinking with Thoreau
One of the prominent themes of Thoreau’s writing is the individual’s role in society.  What would you say is the key to maintaining your individuality and unique character, while at the same time living productively as a member of a society made up of groups – family, friends, and co-workers? Write your own statement on this question; then, reflect on the statements below by Thoreau.  Pick the one you agree with or disagree with the most, and explain how Thoreau’s words align or conflict with your personal philosophy:

  • Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
  • You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.
  • . . . if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours
  • The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
  • If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Quotation of the Day:  It still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. –E. B. White on Walden

1 – Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

 

 

July 11: Bowdlerize Day

Today is the birthday of Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), a man who became infamous for censoring Shakespeare. An Englishman, Bowdler studied medicine at Edinburgh but never practiced; instead, he took his scalpel to the plays of Shakespeare. His mission, according to Nancy Caldwell Sorel in Word People, was “to render Shakespeare fit to be read aloud by a gentleman in the company of ladies.” His first edition of his ten-volume Family Shakespeare was published in 1818 (1).

After he finished with the Bard’s works, Bowdler devoted himself to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Nerd Who Became a Verb

Bowdler’s work became so notorious that his name entered the language as a verb meaning “To expurgate prudishly.” Most eponyms — words derived from a person’s name — begin as proper nouns and evolve into common nouns, such as atlas, cardigan, and guillotine.  The word bowdlerize, however, went from a proper noun to a verb, describing “the process of censoring a work by deleting objectionable words or material.”

For example, Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn’d spot!” became “Out, crimson spot!”

To learn more about eponymous verbs in English, you might explore — or should we say “flesh out” — the etymology of the following verbs.  Each has a real person as its source:

mesmerize
lynch
pasteurize
grangerize
mercerize
boycott
gerrymander
burke
galvanize (1)

Today’s Challenge:  The Flesh Became Word
A good English dictionary will list the names of the best known persons who ever lived; to have your name thus listed means you have achieved virtual universal notoriety.  However, to have your name go from an upper case proper noun to a lower case noun, adjective, or verb is another thing altogether.  Who is a person living today whose life is so distinctive, so influential, or so notorious, that his or her name might enter the dictionary some day as an eponym — a common noun derived from a person’s name? Make your case by writing a mini-biography of the person and by giving specific examples of what he or she has said or done, either good or bad, to merit being immortalized by lexicographers.

Quotation of the Day:  But the truth is, that when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me. –Mark Twain

1 – Sorel, Nancy Caldwell. Word People: Being an Inquiry Into the Lives of Those Person Who Have Lent Their Names to the English Language. New York: American Heritage Press: 1970.