November 12:  Greatest Single Thing Day

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On this day in 1926, Branch Rickey gave a speech entitled “The Greatest Single Thing a Man Can Have” to the Executives Club of Chicago. Rickey is best known as the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Rickey was fired as the manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1925; however, the owner of the team, recognizing Rickey’s talent for player development, offered Rickey a position as an executive for the team.  In this new position, Rickey began to invest in several minor league baseball clubs, using them to develop future talent for the Cardinals.  By doing this Rickey invented what is now a staple of Major League Baseball, the minor-league farm system.

In his speech to the Executives Club, Rickey began with an anecdote from his time as the Cardinals’ manager.  It involved an amazing feat of athleticism, not by one of his players, but by an opposing player for the Detroit Tigers, Ty Cobb.  In the play, Cobb stole two straight bases to score the winning run in extra innings.  In describing the play, Rickey expressed his amazement at Cobb’s audacity; Cobb did not rely on luck to win the game; instead, “he made his own breaks.”

The tenaciousness displayed by Cobb on the base paths — his unwillingness “to alibi his own failures” and his singular desire to be the best — is what Cobb argues is the single greatest thing a ball player or any person can have (1).

Rickey’s speech is made memorable by its inductive organization.  Beginning with a specific incident by a specific person in a specific place, Rickey first shows his point to his audience before he tells it.  As he continues, he broadens the focus from Cobb, to baseball players in general, and finally to people in general.  Rickey’s audience expected him to talk about baseball, but Rickey knew he was talking to a group of business executives.  The genius of his speech is that he was able to combine the details about Cobb with a universally applicable principle of success.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s Your SGT?

What would you argue is the single greatest thing a person can have?  Brainstorm a list of ideas, and try for a variety of ideas that range from general qualities to concrete objects.  Once you have your best idea, write a speech that is organized inductively — that is, one that begins with an example or anecdote to show rather than tell.  After your specific example or anecdote, broaden your point to make it universally applicable to a general audience. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997: 521-523.

November 11:  Words from War Day

Today is the anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I. The “war to end all wars” had begun in Europe in 1914, and it raged on until November 11, 1918, when the fighting ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The official end of the war came seven months later on June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

The first official Armistice Day was proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I, but the day didn’t become a legal holiday in the Unites States until 1938.  After World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a proclamation that changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, making it a day to honor all veterans (1).

The war in Europe popularized a number of words and expressions, many of which we use today without realizing that they emerged from the muddy trenches of Belgium and France.

Today’s Challenge:  Them’s Fighin’ Words!

What are some English words that you think might trace their origin to warfare?  World War I was not the only war to contribute significantly to the English lexicon. In her book Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers, lexicographer Christine Ammer traces a huge number of words and phrases that have their origins in warfare.  The ten words below are just a small sample of the many words and phrases that entered the language from warfare.  Select one of the words, or one of your own, and do a bit of research to trace its etymology.  Write an explanation of the word’s history, including how its origin relates to warfare as well as the modern meaning of the word.

antebellum, brainwashing, Catch-22, deadline, echelon, flak, gung-ho, hawks and doves, incommunicado, Jingoism, khaki, logistics, magazine, no man’s land, old guard, panoply, quisling, rendezvous, sabotage, trophy, underground, vandalism, zealot (2) (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Office of Public Affairs – “History of Veterans Day”

http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp.

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

 

November 10:  From Headlines to Lyrics Day

On this day in 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a bulk freighter, sank in a storm on Lake Superior.  The entire crew of the Fitzgerald, 29 men, were lost.  Approximately two weeks after the tragedy, singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot read a short Newsweek magazine article on the ship’s sinking.  The first lines of the article read:

According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’ (1)

Inspired by the article and the plight of the Fitzgerald and its crew, Lightfoot began writing what was to become one of popular music’s most recognizable ballads, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”  The opening lines of the song’s lyrics, clearly show the influence of the Newsweek article:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Almost one year to the day of the appearance of the article in Newsweek, the song became a number one hit in Lightfoot’s native Canada; the song peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts (2).

Gordon Lightfoot is certainly not the only songwriter to mine newspapers and magazines for ideas:

-The lyrics of 1967 Beatles song “A Day in the Life” were inspired by two separate stories that John Lennon read in London newspapers: One about a fatal car accident and the second about a road survey that revealed 4,000 pot holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire.  The song’s opening line is: “I read the news today, oh boy.”

-Janis Ian’s 1975 song “At Seventeen” was inspired by a New York Times article about a debutante.  The article’s opening line was “I learned the truth at 18”; the opening line of Ian’s song is “I learned the truth at 17.”  She changed the number because 18 didn’t scan.

-Alicia Keys’ 2012 song “Girl on Fire” was inspired by a magazine article that Keys read about herself.  The article’s writer Jeannine Amber used the phrase “girl on fire” to describe the singer.  The phrase had such an impact on Keys that she used it not only for inspiration for a song, but also as the title of her fifth studio album.

-The 1956 Elvis song “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by a newspaper story about a suicide note.  The man who killed himself left a note that said, “I walk a lonely street.”  This inspired the song’s opening lines, written by Tommy Durden: Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.  It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.

-The 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round That Old Oak Tree” was inspired by a 1971 story in the The New York Post about a convict returning from prison.  In the story a white handkerchief was tied around the tree. Songwriters Irwin Levine and Larry Brown made the change to a yellow ribbon because they felt it made for a better song. Interestingly, the song went on to inspire a national movement in the 1980s when yellow ribbons became the symbol of American hostages held in Iran.  Fifty-two hostages were held captive for 444 days. (3)

Today’s Challenge:  I Read the News Today

What recent news story might serve as inspiration for a song or a poem?  Look through a recent newspaper or magazine for stories — local, national, or international — that might serve as inspiration for the lyrics of a song or poem.  Use your poetic license as needed to transform the people, places, and events in the news into your own creative work. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1- Gains, James R. and Jon Lowell.  “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.”  Newsweek magazine 24 Nov. 1975.

2-Gordon Lightfoot.com. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. http://gordonlightfoot.com/wreckoftheedmundfitzgerald.shtml.

3-Songfacts.com. Songs Inspired by Newspaper or Magazine Articles. http://www.songfacts.com/category songs_inspired_by_newspaper_or_magazine_articles.php.

 

November 9:  Cold War Day

On this day in 1989, the East German Communist Party opened the Berlin Wall, allowing citizens of East Berlin to freely cross the border that had separated East and West Berlin since the wall went up in 1961.  That night, crowds swarmed the wall and some, armed with picks and hammers, began to dismantle the wall, which had stood as the most powerful symbol of the Cold War.

In 1989 several eastern European nations of the Soviet Union carried out successful anti-Communist revolutions, winning greater autonomy and the right to hold multiparty elections. By December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War was officially over (1).

The term “Cold War” was coined on April 16, 1947, when Bernard Baruch, advisor to presidents on economic and foreign policy, used the term in an address he gave to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Invited to speak in his home state, Baruch selected the topic of the struggle between the two post-World War II superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union:

Let us not be deceived, we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system.; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves. (2)

Baruch’s term stuck as an apt description of the hostilities between the West and the East that spawned a nuclear arms race but fell short of armed conflict. Below are other words and terms that became a part of the Cold War lexicon, according to the book Twentieth Century Words (3):

Atom Bomb (1945)

fall out (1950)

N.A.T.O. (1950)

deterrent (1954)

conventional weapons (1955)

ICBM (1955)

unilateralism (1955)

Warsaw Pact (1955)

mushroom cloud (1958)

nuke (1959)

Hot and Cold Running Idioms

Below are descriptions of expressions that contain either the word hot or cold. Given the number of words in each expression along with a description, see if you can name the phrase:

  1. Four words: Newly printed; sensational and exciting.
  2. Two words: Immediate, complete withdrawal from something, especially an addictive substance.
  3. Two words: Trouble or difficulty.
  4. Two words: Retreat from an undertaking; lose one’s nerve.
  5. Two words: Deliberate disregard, slight, or snub.
  6. Four words: Extremely angry.
  7. Four words: In a position of extreme stress, as when subjected to harsh criticism.
  8. Five words: To cause one to shiver from fright or horror. (4)

Today’s Challenge:  Hot Potatoes and Cold Turkey

What words, phrases, or titles come to mind when you hear the word “hot” or “cold”?  Brainstorm a list of words, phrases, or titles (songs, movies, or books) that you associate with either “hot” or “cold.” Try to generate at least 20 ideas.  Then, select the one idea that sparks a writing idea, and write a poem, story, or essay on your idea.  Use the word “hot” or “cold” in your title. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)

Answers: 1. Hot off the presses 2. Cold turkey 3. Hot water 4. Cold feet 5. cold shoulder 6. Hot under the collar 7. In the hot seat 8. Make one’s blood run cold.

1-Atomic Archive.com. Cold War: A Brief History 2015. http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/coldwar/page22.shtml.

2-History.com. Bernard Baruch Coins the Term ‘Cold War.’ http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bernard-baruch-coins-the-term-cold-war.

3- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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

 

November 8:  Backronym Day

On this day in 1983, retired Navy commander Meredith G. Williams (1924-2012) won a “create a new word” contest run by the Washington Post.  Williams’ winning neologism was “backronym” which he defined as the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters.”

An example of a backronym is the Apgar score, a rating scale used to evaluate the health of newborn babies.  The test was named for its creator, Virginia Apgar.  Then, years later it became the backronym APGAR, a mnemonic device to help its users remember the test’s key variables:  Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration (APGAR) (1).

So instead of beginning with the letters of already-existing words and phrases and making them into a word, as in the acronym RADAR (“Radio Detection and Ranging”), the creator of a backronym begins with a word and then creates a phrase to match the word’s letters.  For example, the backronym AMBER from the AMBER alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted in Texas in 1996.  The official translation for AMBER was invented to fit the name: “America’s Missing:  Broadcast Emergency Response.”

Another example is the USA PATRIOT Act which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The complete translation of the act is  Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct  Terrorism Act of 2001.

Often backronyms are generated for humorous purposes, such as the Microsoft search engine Bing which some called the backronym “Because It’s Not Google,” or the automobile company Ford, which some claimed stood for “Fix Or Repair Daily.”

In 2010 NASA, an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, created a backronym for the treadmill it uses on the International Space Station.  In honor of comedian Stephen Colbert, the T-2 treadmill became the COLBERT: Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Bring Home the Backronyms

What backronym would you create for a proper noun — the name of a company, a geographic place name, or the last name of a person?  Just as Meredith G. Williams participated in a neologism contest, hold your own backronym contest.  Use existing names of people, places, or companies to create backronyms that are funny or serious. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms:  Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  26.

2-NASA. Colbert Ready for Serious Exercise. 5 May 2009. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/behindscenes/colberttreadmill.html.

November 7:  Meaning in Myth Day

Today is the birthday of the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).  Camus was born in Algeria, a French colony, and was active in the French resistance in World War II, writing for an underground newspaper.  Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for his fiction, specifically his novels:  The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Rebel (1951).

Though he never called himself an existentialist, Camus is often associated with the post-World War II philosophical movement which places the individual struggle for meaning above any other meaning that might be found in religion or society.  The major theme of Camus’ writing was the absurd — or the paradox of the absurd:  the idea that individuals have an innate desire to live a life that has meaning while at the same time realizing that ultimately life has no meaning (1).

To help his readers understand these somewhat abstract ideas, Camus wrote a philosophical essay in 1942 entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where he retells the ancient Greek myth as a way of making meaning of the plight of modern man.

Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a mountain. Once the rock reached the top, it would then roll back down to the bottom, where once again Sisyphus would commence the fruitless and futile task of rolling it back to the top.  Camus calls Sisyphus “the absurd hero” because, although he knows he must forever push his rock up the hill and then watch it roll back down the mountain, he embraces his fate.  By doing this “he is superior to his fate.”  In this way Sisyphus exemplifies the nobility and courage of the individual who even in the face of a hostile universe, strives for his own purpose.  Camus parallels Sisyphus’ labor with that of the modern worker (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Modern Meaning in Myth

What characters from mythology would you say tap most clearly into a universal theme of human existence, such as love, hate, change, evil, or freedom?  How do the characters’ stories relate to the themes, and how do the characters’ stories parallel the plight of modern humans?  Brainstorm some names of characters from mythology.  To get you started, here are a few characters from Greek mythology:

Odysseus

Tantalus

Prometheus

Pandora

Persephone

Oedipus

Narcissus

Select one character from your list, and identify a universal theme which can be extracted from the character’s story. Then, like Camus did with Sisyphus, give meaning to your myth by retelling the character’s story in your own words, explaining the universal theme that is found in the story, and paralleling the character’s experience to the lives of modern humans. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)         

1-Albert Camus – BiographicalNobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Aug 2018. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1957/camus-bio.html.

2-Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus. http://dbanach.com/sisyphus.htm.