December 22: Laconic Reply Day

On this day in 1944, American soldiers of the 101 Airborne Division at the Belgian town of Bastogne were surrounded by German forces.  In what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the American forces were caught off guard when Hitler launched a surprise counteroffensive.  

At 11:30 on the morning of December 22, German couriers with white flags arrived at the American lines, delivering a letter demanding the surrender of the Americans.  

The acting commander of the 101st, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, read the letter.  After pausing for a moment to reflect and to ask for input from his subordinates, he scribbled the following laconic reply:

To the German commander:

Nuts!

The American commander

The German couriers spoke English, but they were puzzled by the general’s reply.  As U.S. officers escorted them back to the defensive line, they explained to the Germans that “nuts” meant the same thing as “go to hell.”

The soldiers of the 101st continued to hold their ground under the attacks of the Germans for the four days that followed until the siege was finally broken with the arrival of U.S. tank forces of the Third Army, led by Lieutenant General George S. Patton.

The laconic reply has a long military tradition that dates back to the Spartans of ancient Greece, who were known for their blunt statements and dry wit.  In fact, the word “laconic,” meaning “concise, abrupt” is a toponym, originating from a region of Sparta known as Laconia (See July 5: Toponym Day). In Spartan schools, for example, a boy whose reply to a question was too verbose was subject to being punished by having his thumb bitten by his teacher (1).  When Philip II of Macedon – the father of Alexander the Great — invaded Greece in the third century BC, he sent the following threat to the Spartans:   “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartan’s replied:  “If.”  (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Your Best Advice

If you had just three words of advice to someone younger than yourself or three words of advice to give to your younger self, what would those three words be?  Brainstorm some pieces of advice, like the examples below, that are just three words each. Select your best piece of advice and use it as your title; then, write a paragraph explaining why those three words are so important.

Get a job

Always eschew obfuscation

Read good books

Don’t get tattoos

Go to college

Value your education

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Cartledge, Paul.  Spartan Reflections. University of California Press, 2003:  85.

2-Online Etymology Dictionary. Laconic. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=laconic.

December 21: Sports Metaphor Day

On this day in 2002, President George W. Bush was meeting with his closest advisors in the Oval Office to review the evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.  Determining whether or not Iraq had such weapons was crucial in the president’s decision on whether or not to commit U.S. forces to the invasion of Iraq.  At one point in the meeting, President Bush turned to CIA Director George Tenet, asking him how confident he was that Iraq had WMDs. His reply was, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”

In using a basketball metaphor, Tenet was expressing his belief that the presence of WMDs was a sure thing.  History tells us that Tenet might have been better served by selecting a different metaphor considering the fact that the eventual absence of WMDs became a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration after the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Metaphors from sports are such a common element of our language that we forget how often we use them.  As George Tenet demonstrated with slam dunk, a term begins as sports jargon and is then adopted as a metaphor that applies to a situation outside of sports.  The metaphor then becomes an idiom (also known as a dead metaphor) as it is used by more and more people. Below are some examples of the expressions that have become idiomatic – that is they have become so integrated into the language that we forget that they originated and are associated with a specific sport:

Kickoff – football

Keep your eye on the ball – baseball

Down for the count – boxing

An end run – football

Game, set, match – tennis

Face-off – hockey

Throw in the towel – boxing

Putting on a full-court press – basketball

The inside track – horse racing

Hot hand – basketball (1)

Today’s Challenge:  The Game of Life Metaphors

What sport do you think serves as the best metaphor or analogy for life?  What elements of that sport compare best with real life, and what lessons does the sport teach that provide wisdom for success in real life? In addition to expressions from sports that are metaphors, we also often turn to sports as a metaphor for understanding our lives, as the following quotations reveal:

In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is:  hit the line hard. –Theodore Roosevelt

Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it. –Oprah Winfrey

Select the single sport that you think provides the best metaphor or analogy for life, and write a paragraph in which you extend the metaphor by explaining how the elements of the sport and the lessons it teaches parallel real life. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Grothe, Mardy.  I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2008:  274.

December 20: Polysyndeton Day

On this day in 1946, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in New York at the Globe Theatre.  Seventy years after its release, the story of how George Bailey arrived at his joyous epiphany is still one of the most popular holiday films ever made.

The film was based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.”  After unsuccessful attempts to get the story published, Stern mailed 200 copies of the story to friends and family during the holiday season in 1943 as a Christmas card.  After the story came to the attention of executives at RKO Pictures, they bought the rights to the story for $10,000 (1).

One rhetorically interesting aspect of the film is the dialogue of its protagonist George Bailey.  In one of film’s most famous scenes, George pleads with his antagonist, the scheming misanthrope Mr. Potter:

Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?

Notice the intentional overuse of conjunctions here.  This rhetorical device is called polysyndeton.  The added conjunctions slow the list down, emphasizing each individual item.  The repetition of conjunctions gives the reader the feeling that things are piling up and creates a tone that is more formal than a typical list.

The film’s dialogue features polysyndeton at another dramatic point.  It’s Black Tuesday, October 29, 1932, and George is trying to convince the citizens of Bedford Falls to resist the temptation to withdraw all their money from his savings and loan:

No, but you . . . you . . . you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house . . . right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.

The close cousin and opposite of polysyndeton is asyndeton, where instead of adding conjunctions to a list, a writer removes them all.  Comparing the following lists might show us why Julius Caesar chose asyndeton for his most famous proclamation:

Typical List:  I came, I saw, and I conquered.

List with Polysyndeton:  I came and I saw and I conquered.

List with Asyndeton:  I came, I saw, I conquered.

Instead of slowing down the list, as with polysyndeton, asyndeton has the effect of speeding things up.  Asyndeton also has the effect of making the list seem like it is continuing into infinity, as if there is more there than meets the eye.

Today’s Challenge:   A Monologue and a List and a Lot of Conjunctions

What is a hypothetical dramatic situation in which an individual would be unhappy with another individual or group?  Write a dramatic monologue in which a speaker expresses unhappiness with the individual or audience that he/she is addressing.  Before you begin writing, identify a hypothetical dramatic situation in which a speaker would be unhappy and who the speaker would be unhappy with, such as a teacher who is angry with a tardy student or a customer who is unhappy that the Slurpee machine at his local 7/11 is empty. In the monologue include some lists using either polysyndeton or asyndeton for dramatic effect.  Try to capture the emotion in the voice of the character. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Ervin, Kathleen A. It’s a Wonderful Life. Failure Magazine 1 Dec. 2001. http://failuremag.com/feature/article/its_a_wonderful_life/P2/.

December 19: Increase Your Word Power Day

On this day in 1932, the following list appeared in Time magazine under the title “The Ten Most Beautiful Words in the English Language”:

dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, melody

The list was compiled by author and lexicographer Wilfred J. Funk (1883-1965), who was the president of Funk & Wagnalls, the publisher of the Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary.  

Funk was a lifelong proponent of vocabulary acquisition.  From 1945 to 1965, he prepared a monthly feature for Reader’s Digest called It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.  Funk’s Word Power quiz featured a collection of words united by a common theme and was one of the magazine’s most popular features.  When Funk died in 1965, his son Peter continued the feature, which became It Pays to ‘Enrich’ Your Word Power.

In 1942, Funk co-authored the book 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.  The book was a wildly popular bestseller, leading the way for the numerous vocabulary building books and programs published today (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Words to Drop on Your Foot

What are some names of some concrete nouns — words that name tangible things, the kinds of things you can drop on your foot like a baseball, a paper clip, or an apple pie?  Learning a new word opens our eyes and our mind to the world and to the ideas around us.  This is especially true when we learn a new concrete noun.  A concrete noun is a name of a specific, tangible thing.  For example, what do you call the ball at the top of a flagpole?  It’s called a truck.

As writer Natalie Goldberg explains, concrete nouns help us learn the names of the things that surround us and help to better connect us to our world.  Imagine for example, you are out for a walk. Next, imagine you see a tree.  It’s not just a tree though because you know its specific name; it’s a “dogwood.” Knowing the names — the specific, concrete names of things – puts you in better touch with your environment and makes you more alert and awake (2).

Using a good dictionary, find 10 concrete nouns that you don’t know the definitions to.  Make sure that each word is a concrete noun, a tangible, specific thing that is not a proper noun.  For example, if you look up the following words, you’ll discover that each is a concrete noun that names something that is tangible enough to drop on your foot:

appaloosa, arbalest, arame, arrack, balalaika, capuche, demijohn, dromedary, ewer, farthingale

List your 10 concrete nouns in alphabetical order and follow each with its complete definition.  Do not include any (capitalized) proper nouns. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1- Lexicography:  Words That Sizzled. Time 11 June 1965.

2-Goldberg, Natalie.  Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.