October 23:  OK Day

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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.

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.  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)

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 Day

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On this day 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 hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged 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. (2)

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” (See August 9: Walden Day and July 12: Thoreau Day).

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 your physical 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 5 – Writing Process)

1-A Critic at Large. Blocked. The New Yorker 14 June 2004. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked

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

3-Dybwab, Barb. Twitter Drops “What Are You Doing?” Now Ask “What’s Happening?” Mashable.com 19 Nov. 2009. http://mashable.com/2009/11/19/twitter-whats-happening/

October 21:  Nobel Day

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On this day 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, and 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 safer, combining nitroglycerin and an absorbent sand, but it needed a catchier name.  To solve this problem, Nobel turned to a Greek root for “power” and coined the word 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 (1).

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)

1-Biography.com. Alfred Nobel Biography. http://www.biography.com/people/alfred-nobel-9424195#an-invention-and-a-legacy.