January 31: Factoid Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Born in New Jersey, Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1944 and then served in the Philippines during World War II.  After the war, Mailer published a semi-autobiographical novel called The Naked and the Dead.  Based on his experiences in the war, The Naked and the Dead was incredibly successful and brought Mailer fame at just 25 years of age.

Writing in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer coined the word “factoid,” a word that has taken on a number of interesting usages in the past few years.  In his biography of Monroe, Mailer defined factoids as “ . . . facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper . . . .” In its original sense, a factoid was not, as some believe, “a small fact”; rather, a factoid was an untruth that was stated as if it were an actual fact and was repeated so many times that many believed it to be true.  A classic example would be the often-stated belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

It’s appropriate that Mailer would coin the word, considering the fact that his writing often blurred the lines between fiction and journalism.  For example, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his novel The Executioner’s Song, a book that he called a “true life novel,” and which is based on the actual events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah in 1967.

Because so many people have mistakenly mixed up the meaning of the words fact and factoid for so long, factoid has recently taken on another, opposite meaning to Mailer’s original definition.  Today when people use the word, they mean “a trivial or fascinating fact.”  So, we can sum up the interesting history of this word by saying the word that originally meant “a fake fact” has evolved to mean “an interesting fact.”

As a result of the history of the word’s usage, lexicographers would call factoid a contronym — a word that has two opposite definitions, as in the word “dust,” which can mean “to add fine particles” or “to remove fine particles.”  These words are sometimes also called “Janus words,” based on Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gateways, and doorways (See January 1:  Exordium Day). Other examples of contronyms are apology, bolt, finished, handicap, trip, and weather.

Today’s Challenge:  Factlet or Factoid?

To clarify the often confusing and contradictory definitions of factoid, columnist William Safire suggested a new word be added to the English lexicon:  factlet, meaning “a small, arcane fact.”  By adopting factlet, writers would help readers differentiate between the two meanings of factoid.  How do you determine whether something is true or false?  When you’re reading, how do you determine whether something is fact or fiction?  Using a recent newspaper or magazine, gather five interesting factual details based on a variety of different articles; try for factlets – small, arcane facts.  Once you have a list of at least five factlets with citations, use your imagination to create five factoids — details that sound plausible but that are made up.  Finally, select a random item from your list of ten, and read it to a friend to see if they can tell the factlets from the factoids.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. -Mark Twain

1-Marsh, David.  A Factoid is Not a Small Fact. Fact. The Guardian.  17 Jan. 2014.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids.

January 30: Blurb Day

Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*

Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement:  the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.

The story of the blurb begins in 1906.  Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at a trade association dinner.  To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description.  To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb. The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets.  Today, the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.

One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself.  After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.

Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second edition.

Today blurbs have expanded beyond books.  They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.

Today’s Challenge:  Judging a Book by Its Blurb

What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough about to endorse with words of praise?  Brainstorm some titles or products you really love.  Then, select one and write a blurb.  Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.  -Stephen King (3)

*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

1-Dwyer, Colin. Forget the Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story on Blurbs?  NPR 27 Sept. 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs.

2-Letters Of Note. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.  6 Dec. 2010.  http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html.

3-King, Stephen.  Stephen King on the “Art” of the Blurb. Entertainment. 20 Mar. 2008.  http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2.

January 29: Show and Tell Day

Today is the birthday of Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Chekhov began writing as a way to support his family when he was a teenager, selling stories to newspapers.  Although he is today recognized as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, Chekhov’s first love was medicine.  He described his relationship with medicine and writing with an apt metaphor:  “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”  Unfortunately, Chekhov had barely started his career as a doctor when he contracted tuberculosis, which took his life when he was just 44 years old.

Often a prescription for good writing is to “show, don’t tell.” This is great advice, and the three-word maxim is an excellent example of concise writing; however, the irony of “show, don’t tell” is that the statement itself does more telling than showing. For a better, more illustrative version of this advice, we can turn to a quotation that’s often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Here we have an example of the kind of concrete language that creates a picture in the reader’s mind.  Concrete language engages the reader’s senses, allowing the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste vicariously.

Although the “glint of light” quotation is consistently attributed to Chekhov, an investigation by Garson O’Toole has determined that it’s more of a paraphrase than a direct quotation.  At his website www.quoteinvestigator.com, O’Toole reports that the source of the quotation is a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander in May 1886.  As we can see by Chekhov’s advice to his brother, sensory imagery is a must:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball (1).

Too often writers don’t follow Chekhov’s advice.  It’s okay to talk about abstract ideas like love, war, freedom, or failure, but to truly show and to truly evoke images, the writer must use concrete language that engages the reader’s five senses.  This is the type of language that creates a dominant impression in the mind of the reader.  

For example, notice how the two passages below both go far beyond telling the reader that “war is an oppressive struggle”; instead, they both show the drudgery of war in vivid detail.

Passage 1 is an excerpt from a poem about World War I; Passage 2 is an excerpt from a novel about the Vietnam War:

Passage 1:  “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Passage 2:  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.  They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.

Today’s Challenge:  Show Me the Details

How can you support a generalization with strong imagery and sensory details that create a showing picture for your reader? Support a telling generalization with specific showing details that make a dominant impression on the reader.  Select one of the generalizations listed below or generate your own.  Then, use sensory language that engages your reader’s senses, by including details that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and/or smell.

Learning a new skill can be difficult.

Persistence is an essential trait for successful people.

Failure is often a springboard for success.

Procrastination is a major problem for students.

Summer is the best time of the year.

Quotation of the Day:  When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for themselves. Readers like to be trusted.  Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, or think, or feel.  Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them. -Gary Provost

1-Quote Investigator.com Anton Chekov. 30 July 2013. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/.

January 25: Burns Day

Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age.  Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one of the great poets, especially to the people of Scotland who recognize him as their national poet.

Even though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world.  One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is just one of many Americans who recognized Burns’ genius.  On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson commemorated Burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:

He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)

Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard. Ever since, Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers.  More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.

One vital menu item for every Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach.  Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees.  The purpose of this speech is revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.

Today’s Challenge:  Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal

What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper?  What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements?  Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world.  Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored. Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns

1-The Poetry Foundation.  Robert Burns. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/robert-burns.

2-Bartleby.  Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The Complete Works. https://www.bartleby.com/90/1122.html.

January 24: Life Sentence Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937).  Although she lived in a time when women had limited opportunities for publishing their writing, she rose to become one of America’s greatest writers.  In 1921 she became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wharton is remembered mainly for her novels, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, but she wrote in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics, including architecture, interior design, and travel (1).

Wharton embraced life, and although much of her fiction explored its darker, more tragic sides, she was able to examine and capture life’s essence so well that her characters resonate with readers as real people.  In her 1903 novel Sanctuary, Wharton wrote a memorable sentence, capturing an insight about life and the role of experience:

. . . life is the only real counselor, . . . wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues.

Later, writing in her journal on March 23, 1926, Wharton wrote an entry reflecting on life.  This time she juxtaposed two metaphors in an attempt to capture the best definition:

Life is always a tightrope or a featherbed.  Give me the tightrope.

Edith Wharton is obviously not the first to attempt to capture the essence of life in words.   Writers both past and present have attempted their definitions.  Wielding a virtual Swiss Army knife of rhetorical devices, these writers take the one thing that is common to each of us — life — and reframe it, describing it in uncommon terms that allow us to see it in new ways.

Read the examples below, and notice the different ways the writers define life, using images, juxtaposition, antithesis, metaphors, and personification.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast:  it is a predicament. -George Santayana

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. -Soren Kierkegaard

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

-Albert Einstein

Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. -Samuel Butler

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going. -Tennessee Williams

Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. -Jack London

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. -Jean De La Bruyere

Today’s Challenge:  You’ve Been Assigned a Life Sentence

How would you complete the following in one or more sentences: Life is . . . ?  Take your own stab at defining life by beginning with “Life is . . . “  Try to define it in a way that goes beyond the obvious so that your reader can see it in a new way. Brainstorm some ideas using analogies, metaphors, personification, or some other rhetorical technique.  Then go with the one idea that you like the best and that seems the most insightful and original. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. -Michael Crichton

1-The Mount – Edith Wharton’s Home. http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/.

January 22: Knowledge is Power Day

Today is the birthday of English philosopher, statesman, and scientist, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), known for the famous pronouncement, “Knowledge is power.”  In science, Bacon challenged the established deductive method of thinking, which was based on the classical writings of Aristotle and Plato.  Unlike deduction, which is based on the syllogism, Bacon’s inductive method is based on empirical evidence.  In Bacon’s method, the five senses become the basis of how we make sense of our world, by observation, data gathering, analysis, and experimentation.

While Bacon is known today for the development of the scientific method, his devotion to that method might have also led to his own demise.  The story goes that one snowy day in 1626 Bacon was travelling with a friend in his carriage.  The two men began arguing about Bacon’s recent hypothesis that fresh meat could be preserved if frozen.  Seeing an opportunity to do some on-the-spot experimentation, Bacon stopped his carriage and purchased a chicken from a peasant woman. After having the woman gut the chicken, Bacon proceeded to pack snow into the chicken’s carcass. He then put the chicken in a bag, packed more snow around the outside of its body, and buried it.  Unfortunately, in the process of gather his empirical evidence, Bacon caught a severe chill, which lead to his death by pneumonia.

In addition to his important work in science, Bacon is also known today for his writing, principally the English essay. Influence by Montaigne, the French writer who pioneered the essay, Bacon adopted and popularized the form in English as a method for exploring ideas in writing.

Bacon wrote on a wide range of topics, but preceded his essays’ titles with the preposition “of,” as in:  Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Love, Of Boldness, Of Ambition.  His essays are eminently quotable, for Bacon crafted his sentences carefully, making each one a profound package of pithiness — you might go so far as to call them “Bacon bits.”  As Bacon explained in his own words, aphorisms, those concise statements of general truth, were essential to his thinking:

Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Everything is Better with Bacon

Why should an individual devote him or herself to study?  Is time put in toward the pursuit of knowledge worth it?  Read Bacon’s famous essay “Of Studies.”  Then, write a response to his ideas. Do you agree or disagree with Bacon?  What do you think is the purpose of study? (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Of Studies by Francis Bacon

STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt. (2)

Quotation of the Day:  The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. -Francis Bacon

1-Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning. 1605. http://www.philosophy-index.com/bacon/advancement-learning/ii-xvii.php.

2-Bacon, Francis. Of Studies. The Essays of Francis Bacon. Authorama.com. http://www.authorama.com/essays-of-francis-bacon-50.html.

January 19: Poe Toaster Day


Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Born into a family of traveling actors, Poe was orphaned when he was just three years old.  He was taken in and raised by a Virginia family, the Allans.  

Although Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, he constantly struggled financially — a struggle that was no doubt fueled by his habits of drinking and gambling.  Not until after his death, at just forty years of age, was his work recognized for its genius.  His short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have become classics, and his poem “The Raven” is one of the most recognized and recited poems in the English language.  In fact, the poem is so well recognized that when the city of Baltimore, the site of Poe’s death in 1849, acquired its NFL franchise in 1996, they chose the Ravens as their name.  (The team’s three costumed raven mascots are named “Edgar,” “Allen,” and “Poe.”).

Known for the tales of macabre and mystery he wrote during his life, one specific mystery became associated with Poe after his death.

For sixty years, beginning in 1949 (the centennial of his death), an anonymous admirer visited Poe’s cenotaph — a monument erected at the site of Poe’s original grave at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.  To commemorate Poe’s birthday each January 19th, this mysterious individual — known as the “Poe Toaster” — left three roses, a bottle of French cognac, and occasionally a note.  The clandestine visits ended in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Gone but “Nevermore” Forgotten

What object would you leave at the grave of an author or other famous person you admire, and what would you write in a note to that person?  Write an explanation of what you would leave at the grave of a person you admire along with an explanation of the object’s significance.  Also, include the contents of a note you would leave along with the object. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”— Arthur Conan Doyle, at a Poe Centennial Celebration Dinner in 1909

1-Judkis, Maura.  Edgar Allan Poe Toaster Tradition Is No More. Washington Post 19 Jan. 2012.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/edgar-allan-poe-toaster-tradition-is-no-more/2012/01/19/gIQAOQUBBQ_blog.html.

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. -Thomas Henry Huxley

January 18: Thesaurus Day

Print of a portrait of Peter Mark Roget, from Medical Portrait Gallery by Thomas Pettigrew
Peter Mark Roget

On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852.  Roget’s work is a pioneer achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.

In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.

No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English.

Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse.  Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.

Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).

Generations of writers have turned to Roget’s work to assist their writing.  One example is American writer Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That Changed My Life”:

The book was Roget’s International Thesaurus.  It not only changed my life, but also transformed, diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and phraseology of all sorts.  I discovered Roget’s as a callow youth grazing in the reference books.  I opened it, and it became my guru, master, oracle, mahatma, rabbi, mentor, and also my bible, and I clung to it and consulted it constantly, feverishly, ever in search of the precise color and gradation of words.  Its effect on me was to transformed me from a plain little nerd from Minnesota to a raconteur and swashbuckling boulevardier, sporting man, pilgrim, loafer, sometimes a roughneck, sometimes a fire-eating visionary . . . . Thank you, Peter Roget.  Gracias and merci (2).

Not all writers or English teachers are fans of the Thesaurus, however.  Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a student grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in context.  For example, a student once wrote the sentence:

Today I ate a really good donut.  

Searching for a synonym for the word “good” in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:

Today I ate a really benevolent donut.

It’s because of mishaps like this that the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.

Because there are so many synonyms in English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a word and the connotation of a word.  A word’s denotation is the literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a word along with the feelings associated with that word.  Denotations can be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are bit harder to find.  The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.

Notice, for example, how the writer Charles S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit” and “humor” in the following excerpt:

Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning, whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind. Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Is a Rant the Same as a Diatribe?

What are two words that — even though they are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing?  What are the subtle differences in the words’ denotations and connotations?  Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word pairs below:

mob/crowd, laugh/giggle, student/scholar, teen/juvenile, old/ancient, wealthy/rich, gregarious/social, frugal/cheap, watch/gaze, bright/smart, late/tardy, sleep/slumber, transform/change, proud/arrogant, wisdom/intelligence, confident/cocky, jail/prison

As you write, consider both the denotations and especially the connotations of the two words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Today’s Quotation: Words too are known by the company they keep. -Joseph Shipley

1 – Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2- Keillor, Garrison.  “The Book That Changed My Life.”  Best Life. March 2009: 46.

3-Brooks, Charles.  “On the Difference Between Wit and Humor.”

http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/brookswithumor.htm.

January 17: Virtues Day

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Cover of the First Edition of Franklin’s Autobiography (1793)


Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

Franklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”  

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.

Today’s Challenge:  Tale of a Trait

brianbackman

What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance?  The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (1).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits. (Common Core Writing 1/3 – Argument and Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

1-Online Etymology Dictionary.  “Virtue.”

January 16: Eponymous Adjective Day

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Title Page of the First Edition

On this day in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. Cervantes’ novel, originally written in Spanish, remains one of the most influential, most reprinted, and most translated books ever written.

The novel’s plot begins with an ordinary man named Alonso Quijano who voraciously reads romantic tales of chivalry. Alonso becomes so obsessed with the stories of knights errant that he decides to become one himself.  Taking the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his horse Rocinante and joins forces with his sidekick Sancho Panza to battle the forces of evil and to defend the weak.

Deluded and clearly insane, Don Quixote attacks windmills, thinking they are hulking giants.  Ordinary inns to Quixote become castles, and peasant girls become beautiful princesses.

Literary critics call Don Quixote the first modern novel, and the critic Harold Bloom argued that only Shakespeare approached the genius of Cervantes’ writing.   William Faulkner read Don Quixote every year, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaimed Don Quixote his favorite literary character (1).

Often when an idea or a style originates from a specific person, that idea or style takes on new meaning, not just as a noun but as an adjective.  There are many examples of these proper nouns that become eponymous adjectives (sometimes called proper adjectives), such as:  Darwinian, Epicurean, or Kafkaesque.  When proper adjectives spring from literature, it’s usually the author’s name that transforms from noun to adjective (as in Orwellian, Shakespearean, or Byronic), but occasionally a character comes along who is so distinct and so unique that the character’s name takes on a more general adjectival meaning.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a character.  Check any dictionary and you will see that the adjective quixotic refers not just to Cervantes’ famous knight, but also to anyone who is “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, or impractical.”

Today’s Challenge:  Autobiography of an Adjective

What are some examples of adjectives that derive from the name of a specific person, real or imaginary?  Select one of the eponymous adjectives below and research the etymology of the word, including the biography of the person behind the word.  Then, imagine the person behind the word is telling the story of how he or she became so well known that his or her name became an adjective.  Also, have the person explain the meaning of their adjective as it is used today and also what ideas or styles it embodies? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Arthurian, Byronic, Chauvinistic, Darwinian, Dickensian, Epicurean, Faustian, Hippocratic, Jeffersonian, Kafkaesque, Leninist, Lutheran, Marxist, Newtonian, Oedipal, Orwellian, Platonic, Pyrrhic, Reaganesque, Sisyphean, Stentorian, Trepsicordian, Victorian, Wilsonian, Zoroastrian

Quotation of the Day:  It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth. –Miguel de Cervantes

1- Bloom, Harold. The Knight in the MirrorThe Guardian. 12 Dec. 2003.