November 20:  Significant Object Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 2009, a fascinating five-month anthropological study was completed by two writers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  The hypothesis of the study was that storytelling has the power to raise the value of a physical object.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers acquired 100 objects at garage sales and thrift stores at a cost of no more than two dollars per object.  In phase two of the study, each object was given to a writer who crafted a short, fictional story about the object.  Each object was then auctioned on eBay with the invented story as the item description.  Walker and Glenn carefully identified each item description as a work of fiction. Based on the results of the study, the average price of an object was raised by 2,700 percent.  The total cost of purchasing the 100 objects was $128.74; the total sales on eBay reached a total of $3,612.51.  For example, a duck vase purchased for $1.99 sold for $15.75.  A motel room key purchased for $2.00 sold for $45.01.

Walker and Glenn compiled the results of their study, including a photo of each object along with its accompanying fictional story, in the book Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

To see additional objects and their stories, visit www.significantobjects.com.

Clearly, stories captivate our interest and attention like nothing else. Packaging both ideas and emotion in a narrative makes a powerful combination, and the results of the Significant Objects Study provide us with quantitative evidence of this.  As stated by Walker and Glenn, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Junk Drawer Stories

What inventive story would you write to give value to a seemingly valueless object?  Go to your junk drawer and find a physical object of little value.  Then, craft a short narrative about the background of the object.  If you are working with a group or class of storytellers, have a Significant Object Contest or a Significant Object Slam (SOS) to share your stories. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Walker, Rob and Joshua Glen.  Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.  Seattle, WA:  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

November 19:  Gettysburg Address Day

On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln presented his Gettysburg Address.  The occasion was the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the Union army’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863. Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication; that position was given to the scholar and statesman Edward Everett, the best-known orator of the time. Everett spoke for approximately two hours; Lincoln, who took the podium at the end of the long ceremony, spoke for three minutes.

Lincoln’s address may have been short, but the words were certainly not short on impact.  His 267-word speech has been called “the best-known monument of American prose” and Carl Sandburg, one of America’s great poets, called the Gettysburg Address “the great American poem” (1).

Although Lincoln’s address was a speech, it can be classified as a prose poem, a composition that is a hybrid of prose and poetry. Written in complete sentences, like prose, a prose poem nevertheless relies heavily on a variety of poetic elements that give the prose the sound and emotional impact of poetry.

Reading the speech aloud, you can hear a variety of poetic sound effects:

Consonance:  for those who gave their lives that this nation might live.

Internal Rhyme:  we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate

Alliteration:  will little note nor long remember

But what makes the most impact in the speech is the harmony between Lincoln’s form and his content.  Skillfully employing the rhetorical strategies he had acquired by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible, Lincoln presents themes that are antithetical:  birth and death.  To bring balance and harmony to these opposing themes, he employs parallel structure, principally tricolon and anaphora.

Notice for example the opposites (antithesis) in the following sentence from the middle of the speech:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln was at Gettysburg to honor the dead, but his purpose was also to move the living by reminding them that the war was not just about the victory of the Union, it was rather about the survival of the nation.  This theme of bringing harmony out of the chaos of war is echoed in the parallel syntax of Lincoln’s long final sentence. Notice, for example, the anaphora of the “that” clause and tricolon employing three parallel prepositional phrases:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us

—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion

—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom

—and that government

of the people,

by the people,

for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Voices

How would you break up the words, phrases, and clauses of  “The Gettysburg Address” into a poem for two voices?  Transform Lincoln’s prose poem into a poem for Two Voices.  Paul Fleishman popularized this form in his book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (See September 5:  Two Voices Day). Written to be read aloud by two people, poems for two voices are written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

Play with the contrasts and the rhythms of Lincoln’s short speech to create your own unique version.  As you write, practice with a partner to create the most dramatic possible performance. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (2)

1-Willis, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York:  Simon & Shuster: 2006.

2-Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address. 1863. Public Domain.

 

November 18:  Idioms from History Day

Today marks the anniversary of a tragic event that gave birth to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  People use this idiomatic expression today to negatively characterize someone who they feel is blindly and unthinkingly following a person or ideology.  As with many idiomatic expressions or dead metaphors (expressions that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words), most have forgotten the ghastly historical events that led to the phrase.

On November 18, 1978, 900 members of the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, formerly located in California, committed mass suicide at their Jonestown settlement in Guyana, South America.  Under the direction of their leader Reverend Jim Jones, the congregation, which included 300 children, drank a powdered soft drink laced with cyanide.  This tragic display of blind obedience to a cult leader was sparked by the visit of U.S Congressman Leo Ryan, who was investigating allegations of human rights abuses at Jonestown.  After ordering his gunmen to kill Ryan and a group of journalists who accompanied the congressman on the trip, Jones embarked on his final desperate act, ordering his followers to ingest the poison. Jones, himself, was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (1).

Usually the exploration of the history or etymology of an idiomatic expression does not yield a specific known origin, much less a specific date as in “drink the Kool-Aid.”  Often an idiom’s origin derives from myth, folklore, literature, or legend, and often there are a number of competing stories behind the phrase’s origin.  For example, one idiom “the whole nine yards,” has several possible origins according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

the amount of cloth required to make a complete suit of clothes; the fully set sails of three-masted ship where each mast carries three yards, that is, spars, to support the sails; or the amount of cement (in cubic yards) contained in a cement mixer . . . . (2)

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Story?

What origins of idiomatic expressions have you heard about, or what origins have you wondered about?  The list of expressions below all have their origins in a specific historical time period. select one, and do some research to find the story behind the idiom.  You may not be able to find a specific date, but you should be able to find a general time period from which the expression came.  Based on your research, write the story behind the expression as well as a brief explanation of the expression’s meaning as it is used today.

cross the Rubicon, jump the shark, push the envelope, a Pyrrhic victory, read the riot act, red tape, turn a blind eye, voted off the island (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Higgins, Chris. The 35th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. Mental Floss.com 8 Nov. 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/13015/jonestown-massacre-terrifying-origin-drinking-kool-aid.

2-Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003: 713.

November 17:  Animal Metaphor Day

On this day in 1970, a patent was issued for the first computer mouse.

The invention of the mouse is credited to Douglas Engelbart, who created what he called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1964 while working for the Stanford Research Institute. His invention, a wooden shell with two metal wheels, was called a “mouse” while it was being developed in the lab because its cord resembled a mouse’s tail. In 1970, a decade before personal computers went on the market, there was little application for such a device.  It would be ten more years before someone stepped up to take the mouse to the big time.

In early 1980 Apple co-founder Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where he saw a computer called the Alto. The Alto operated with a graphical user interface that used icons and a handheld input device called a mouse.  The problem, however, was that the Alto’s mouse was primitive and would cost $400 to manufacture.  To solve this problem, Jobs turned to an industrial design firm called Hovey-Kelley Design and challenged them to not only improve the durability and efficiency of the Xerox mouse, but also to reduce the cost from $400 to $35.  Hovey-Kelley took the challenge, and miraculously they succeeded.  In 1983, the Apple Lisa, the first personal computer to offer a graphic user interface, appeared on the market.

At a price of almost $10,000, the Lisa was not a commercial success, but Apple rebounded one year later with the Macintosh 128K. Like the Lisa, the Macintosh had a single-button mouse. The Macintosh and its graphic user interface revolutionized personal computing.

With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s, the mouse became what it is today: ubiquitous (1).

Something else that is ubiquitous is the use of animals as metaphors in our language, terms like “computer mouse” that feature animal names but that have no literal connection to the animal that is named.

Today’s Challenge:  Waiter, There’s a Fly in My Dictionary

Can you name some two-word phrases in English that use animals as metaphors?  Brainstorm a list of ideas, and see if you can add to the list below:

black sheep, white elephant, dog days, cash cow, cold turkey, copycat, crocodile tears, cry wolf, dark horse, eat crow, guinea pig, hornet’s nest, kangaroo court, lame duck, lion’s share, loan shark, monkey business, night owl, paper tiger, play possum, rat race, red herring, road hog, sitting duck, snail mail, spring chicken, stool pigeon, top dog

Select a single two-word metaphor, and write a definition of the phrase, explaining its literal definition as well as the story behind the phrase’s origin.  Imagine you are writing to a reader for whom English is a second language.  Make your explanation clear by using some specific examples to illustrate how and in what contexts the metaphor might be used? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. Mighty Mouse. Stanford Alumni March/April 2002. https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=37694.

November 16:  Proverb Day

On this day in 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1870-1970) published an essay entitled, “On Proverbs.”  For Russell the key characteristic of these proclamations of practical, timeless wisdom is that “they are remarkable for their terseness.”  Proverbs are models of economical writing, short, pithy, and usually anonymous.  As an example, Russell presents “More haste, less speed,” saying that it “could not possibly be said in fewer words.”

While he is impressed with the terseness of proverbs, Russell sees a problem in using them to support an argument since proverbs tend to run in pairs, and these proverb pairs often make opposite arguments. So, for example, when one person proclaims “Actions speak louder than words,” the other person can turn to the counter-proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword” (1).

One other notable aspect of proverbs is stated in a definition by philosopher and poet Moses Ebn Ezra:  “[Proverbs have] three characteristics:  few words, good sense, and a fine image.”

Study the proverbs below, and notice how often they use imagery, usually figurative, to wrap up showing and telling into one tiny, concise package:

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

No man is an island.

Birds of a feather flock together.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

The early bird catches the worm.

A watched pot never boils.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Today’s Challenge:  Proverbial Autobiographical Anecdote

What proverb comes to your mind when you think of wisdom you have gained based on your life experiences so far?  Write an anecdote about an incident from your life that illustrates the truth of a single proverb.  Just as Aesop told short fables followed by terse statements of general truths, follow your anecdote with the proverb that the anecdote illustrates.  Once you have finished, read your anecdote to a friend to see if he/she can guess the proverb before you reveal it. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Russell, Bertrand.  Mortals and Others, 1932:  133-34. http://www.amazon.com/Mortals-Routledge-Classics-Bertrand-Russell/dp/0415473519.