September 13:  Literary Hoax Day

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On this day in 1956, the novel I, Libertine was published. What makes this novel such a literary oddity is that it made The New York Times bestseller list before a single word of it had been written.

The story begins with the writer Jean Shepherd, best known as the narrator and co-writer of the film A Christmas Story.  In 1956, Shepherd hosted a late-night talk radio show in New York City.  Annoyed that bestseller lists were being influenced not just by book sales but also by the number of requests for a book at bookstores, Shepherd hatched one of the great literary hoaxes in history. Shepherd encourages his radio listeners to visit their local bookstores and request a book that did not exist, a novel whose title and author were totally fabricated:   I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing.

I, Libertine (book cover).jpgThe plot thickened once the nonexistent book hit the bestseller list. With the imaginary book now in demand, publisher Ian Ballantine met with Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon was hired to write the novel based on the rough plot outline provided by Shepherd, and on this date, the fabricated fictional work became fact (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Fabricated First Lines

What would be the opening line of your bestselling novel?  Try your own hand at fabricated fiction.  Grab a novel that you haven’t read.  Look at the title, and then compose a captivating first sentence.  Next, grab a friend.  Read your friend your sentence along with the actual opening sentence (in no particular order) to see if your friend can tell which is the actual opening sentence.  Your goal is to pass your prose off as professional! (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Callan, Mathew. The Man Behind the Brilliant Media Hoax of ‘I Libertine.’ The Awl 14 Feb. 2014.

August 27:  Superlative Day

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On this day in 1955, the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records was published in the United Kingdom.

The idea for the book began on November 10, 1951, when Sir Hugh Beaver, Chairman of the Guinness Brewery, was bird hunting in Ireland.  After missing a shot at a golden plover, Beaver wondered if the plover was the fastest game bird in Europe. Sir Hugh was unable to get his answer, however, because he could not find a reference book that answered his question.

Guinness World Records logo.svgIn 1954, Sir Hugh commissioned twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter to make his idea a reality. Today the Guinness World Records reference book is published annually in 20 different languages in over 100 countries.  In fact, the book holds a world record of its own, being the best-selling copyrighted book of all time (1).

A Superlative Achievement

The Guinness Book of World Records could not have been written without superlative adjectives.  When using adjectives to make comparisons, think of three forms:  positive adjectives, comparative adjectives, and superlative adjectives.

Positive:  I am tall.

Comparative:  Sam is taller than I am.

Superlative:  Bill is the tallest one in the class.

As you can see by the examples above, the superlative form is the highest degree of comparison, as in tallest, greatest, fastest, richest, or highest.

When an adjective is three syllables or more, add the word more to the comparative form and the word most to the superlative form.

Examples:

Comparative:  more beautiful or more memorable

Superlative:  most beautiful or most memorable

Today’s Challenge:  Speaking in Superlatives

What are ten things that you think are worthy of superlatives — things, places, or people that you think are the greatest?  Write a review of something, someplace, or someone you consider to be worthy of superlatives.  Explain what makes your topic the greatest. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Cavendish, Richard. Publication of the Guinness Book of World Records. History Today.com 8 Aug. 2005. http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/publication-guinness-book-world-records.

August 22:  Fahrenheit 451 Day

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Today is the birthday of Ray Bradbury, the American writer best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was born in Illinois in 1920 and later moved to Los Angeles where he graduated high school in 1938. After high school, he furthered his education by spending long hours roaming the stacks in the public library.

He began writing full time in 1943, publishing a number of short stories in various periodicals. His first success came in 1950 when he published The Martian Chronicles, a novel made up of a number of his short stories about the human colonization of Mars (1).

This original cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a fireman's hat made of paper while his left arm is as if wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. The title and author's name appear in large text over the images and there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".On October 19, 1953, he published his most popular and critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, a story about a dark future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, firemen answer calls to burn illegal caches of books. The main character is one of these firemen, Guy Montag. Instead of reading, the general public immerse themselves in pleasure, watching television screens that take up three of the four walls in their homes and listening to seashell radios that fit in their ears. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Guy Montag begins to question his job and the entire status quo of the society in which he lives. He also begins to become curious about the books he’s burning. However, Montag’s curiosity and his books betray him, and the firemen one day arrive to burn his home and his books.

Montag flees the city and comes upon a group of educated but homeless men who each memorize a great work of literature or philosophy. When the time comes to return to the city and rebuild civilization from the ashes of burned books, these men will be ready to play their part. Montag will join them with his book, Ecclesiastes.

Bradbury published over 30 books, almost 600 short stories, as well as a number of poems, essays, and plays. Along with Fahrenheit 451, his most read book, his short stories are published in numerous anthologies and textbooks.

Fahrenheit 451 began as a short story called “The Fireman,” published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1950. Bradbury’s publisher then asked him to expand the story into a novel in 1953. The first draft of the novel was completed in a typing room located in the basement of the University of California Library. The typewriter was on a timer connected to a change slot. For one dime Bradbury got thirty minutes of typing. He spent $9.80 to complete the first draft.

When he wasn’t typing furiously against the clock, Bradbury would go upstairs to explore the library, strolling among that stacks, running his hands across the books, and flipping through the pages of books that captured his curiosity.

Bradbury had more than just a love affair with books. For him, they were the backbone of civilization.  It’s no wonder, then, that one of Bradbury’s most famous quotes is: There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

Today’s Challenge: On Fire for a Book

Near the end of Fahrenheit 451, the main character Montag finds himself among a group of people who each memorize a forbidden book.  Each person becomes the keeper of the book, preserving the book for future generations.  If you found yourself in a society that banned books, what single book would you select to memorize, and what makes that book so special? Brainstorm some titles of important books that should always remain alive in the hearts and minds of readers.  Select a single book that you would commit to memory, and write an explanation of what the book is about and what makes that book important and special? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- About Ray Bradbury. http://www.raybradbury.com/bio.html.

August 18:  CliffNotes Day

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Today is the birthday of Cliff Hillegass, the founder of CliffsNotes. Working for a college bookstore in the 1930s, Hillegass developed contacts with a Toronto bookseller named Jack Cole, who published guides in Canada called “Cole’s Notes.” Years later Cole suggested to Hillegass that an American version of Cole’s Notes might be a good idea for U.S. students.

In August 1958, Hillegass took out a $4,000 loan and began CliffsNotes with his first title: Hamlet. He continued by publishing 15 more guides to Shakespeare’s plays. At the beginning, the guides were simply Cole’s Notes repackaged with a new cover: Cliff’s characteristic, and now famous, yellow and black cover.

In fact, CliffsNotes have become so popular and recognizable that they have become a part of the English language. For example, you might hear someone say, “Just give me the Cliffsnotes version,” meaning: “Give me a short summary instead of all the details.”

Hillegass never intended his guides to just summarize the classics or replace the reading of the classics. Nevertheless, his work has spawned numerous imitators, to the point that test prep and reading guides have become a multi-million dollar industry. Fairtest.org estimates that the amount spent on test prep material for the SAT alone amounts to $100 million dollars annually.

Hillegass sold his business to Hungry Minds, Inc. in 1999 for $14 million dollars. However, CliffsNotes.com still carries the following message from its founder:

Cliff’s Message to Students

A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts. By usingCliffsNotes responsibly, reviewing past criticism of a literary work, and examining fresh points of view, you can establish a unique connection with a work of literature and can take a more active part in a key goal of education: redefining and applying classic wisdom to current and future problems.

—Cliff Hillegass

First Impressions

The editors of CliffsNotes put together a list of the ‘Ten Titles that Every Adult Should Read.’ See if you can match each of the opening lines below with the appropriate title from the list.

  1. This is the story of Achilles’ rage.
  1. Robert Cohn was once the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.
  1. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
  1. 124 was spiteful.
  1. When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor ….
  1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
  1. “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
  1. “Who’s there?”

9.  Call me Ishmael.

10.  Who is John Galt?

A A Tale of Two Cities

B The Sun Also Rises

C War and Peace

D Walden

E The Sound and the Fury

F Moby Dick

G Beloved

H The Iliad

I Atlas Shrugged

J Hamlet

Today’s Challenge: Short Story, Short Version
What is your favorite published short story?  How would you summarize its key characters, plot, and theme in just a few words?  Brainstorm a list of your favorite short stories.  Then, select one, and write a CliffNotes version, summarizing the key characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and theme of the story.  Assume your reader has not read the story, but also try to write such a great summary that your reader will want to read the actual complete version.
(Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day: Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have. -Louis E. Boone

Answers: 1. H, 2. B, 3. E, 4. G, 5. D, 6. A, 7. C, 8. J, 9. F, 10. I

 

August 9:  Walden Day

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Today is the anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Two thousand copies were printed and put on sale for $1 each on August 9, 1854.

It took five years to sell those first thousand copies, but today Walden is one of the all-time best sellers in American literary history. It has also sold well overseas and has been translated into over 20 languages.

In his essay “Five Ways of Looking at Walden,” Professor Walter Harding (1917-1996) talks about the different reasons that Walden has appealed to readers through the years. Below Harding’s five points are summarized.

Walden’s first appeal was as a nature book. In an age of American progress and expansion, Thoreau left the city to live in the woods for two years and commune with nature. In today’s modern age Thoreau reminds us that nature provides us with infinite metaphors for understanding our own existence. He reminds us to watch for signs of the changing of the seasons. In his own famous words from Walden, he explains why returning to nature is so important:

Walden Thoreau.jpgI went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

The second appeal of Walden is its lessons on how to live life more simply. This aspect of Thoreau’s work is especially relevant to the modern reader who is mired in possessions and the fast pace of the consumer culture.

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and refuse other things in proportion.

The third appeal of Walden is its satire. Thoreau doesn’t just observe life in the woods; he reflects on the life he has left in the city, and his biting commentary pokes fun at progress. Here are samples of his views on the transatlantic telegraph cable and French fashion:

We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

The fourth appeal of Walden is simply the pleasure of reading great writing. Thoreau is a master of the abstract and the particular. Think of how many times you have seen Thoreau quoted. The clarity of his sentences and the exactness of his word choice make Thoreau’s prose eminently quotable.

Here is one example from Walden. It’s a 337-word sentence from the “House-Warming” section. It would be considered long even by 19th century standards. With Thoreau at the pen though, even an average reader can follow the sentence’s path from beginning to end:

 

I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head, — useful to keep off rain and snow, where the king and queen posts stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof; where some may live in the fireplace, some in the recess of a window, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; a house which you have got into when you have opened the outside door, and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveler may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for housekeeping; where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg that man should use; at once kitchen, pantry, parlor, chamber, storehouse, and garret; where you can see so necessary a thing as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornament where the washing is not put out. nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trapdoor, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath without stamping.

Certainly not every sentence in Walden is this long, but whether writing a 2-word sentence or a 330-word sentence, Thoreau’s syntax is precise and clear. Thoreau is a master of every tool of the writer’s trade, including sentence variety.

The fifth appeal of Walden, as Professor Harding explains below, is its spiritual content:

It is a major thesis of Walden that the time has come for a spiritual rebirth — a renewal and rededication of our lives to higher things. It is true that we have progressed a long way from the status of the caveman. But our progress has been for the most part material rather than spiritual. We have improved our means, but not our ends. We can unquestionably travel faster than our ancestors, but we continue to waste our time in trivial pursuits when we get there. We have cut down the number hours of labor required to keep ourselves alive, but we have not learned what to do with the time thus saved. We devote the major part of our national energy to devising new ways of blowing up the rest of the world and ignore attempts to make better men of ourselves.

Thoreau is sometimes mislabeled as a misanthrope. Although he does at times lament man’s state, he nevertheless sees man’s potential for better things. At the conclusion of Walden, for example, his words sound like a sermon from a pastor who is full of hope for his congregation:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them (1).

Walden rewards the reader in many ways. One of these rewards is Thoreau’s word choice. Professor Harding says the following about Thoreau’s diction:

Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Thoreau’s word choice is the size of his vocabulary. Walden is guaranteed to send the conscientious student to the dictionary. In a random sampling we find such words as integument, umbrageous, deliquium, aliment, fluviatile, and periplus. Yet Thoreau cannot be termed ostentatious in his word-usage. He simply searches for and uses the best possible word for each situation (1).

Today’s Challenge: Why Henry’s Words Are Worth It

What is it that makes Walden, published in 1854, still relevant today.  What did Thoreau say in the 19th century that has meaning to people living in the 21st century?  Read some excerpts from Walden.  Then, write a brief promo for Walden that provides both a little bit of background on the book and some details on why it is still relevant today.

Quotation of the Day:  I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. -Henry David Thoreau.

1- Harding, Walter. Five Ways of Looking at Walden. Massachusetts Review (Autumn 1962) ca. 1986.

 

January 27: The Book of Qualities Day

On this day in 1984, J. Ruth Gendler published The Book of Qualities. In Gendler’s unique book she writes individual profiles of over 50 human emotions, using personification to bring each to life.  In Gendler’s book we’re reintroduced to familiar emotions, like joy, innocence, and discipline — not just as abstract ideas, but as living, breathing individuals.  

Each of the profiles is an excellent reminder of the power of personification to enliven writing.  In our normal life we don’t have the power to breathe life into inanimate objects.  When we write, however, he can wield this rhetorical superpower by employing personification.  With personification, it’s as if we’re putting arms and legs on an idea, allowing it to walk around the room.  We can even teach it to talk.

In the following examples, Gendler employs personification to introduce us to “Despair,” “Stillness,” and “Confidence.”   Notice how she employs specific action verbs and concrete nouns:

Despair papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain.

Stillness will meet you for tea or a walk by the ocean.

Confidence ignores “No Trespassing” signs.  It is as if he doesn’t see them.  He is an explorer, committed to following his own direction.

Today’s Challenge:  Abstractions in the Flesh

How would you bring an abstract human emotion to life using personification?  Write a profile of at least 60 words on one specific human emotion.  Use your imagination to explore what the emotion would look like, what kinds of things it would be doing, and what it might say if it could talk.  Select one of the qualities below from The Book of Qualities, or come up with one of your own.  

Anger, Beauty, Certainty, Doubt, Excitement, Fear, Guilt, Honesty, Imagination, Jealousy, Loneliness, Perfection, Suffering, Terror

Before you write your profile, read the following example.  It’s on humor; one quality that Gendler doesn’t write about in The Book of Qualities:

Humor is unpredictable.  He hides around corners and jumps out when you least expect him.  He’s optimistic, healthy, and smart. Never depressing or anxious, he thrives on the unsuspected and spontaneous.  He’s a great companion, constantly reminding you to loosen up, look at the bright side, and smile more often.  He loves to break up fights — when he’s around no one has the strength to make a fist.

Quotation of the Day:  There is no armor against fate; death lays his icy hands on kings. -Jane Shirley

1-Gendler, J. Ruth.  The Book of Qualities.  New York:  HarperPerennial, 1984.

January 21: Novel First Lines Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published anonymously.  Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24 year-old Bostonian, came forward to claim authorship.

Although the novel is not remembered today for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of it time.  Reflecting a popular 18th century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its story is told via letters between characters.  The novel involves an illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale.  Some speculate that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.

Although there are certainly examples of long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative, best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.

Today’s Challenge:  Blackjack Sentences

How can you captivate a reader by writing a 21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel?  To celebrate America’s first novel on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly 21 words.  Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.  

Here’s an example:

At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.

There is nothing magical about 21 words, but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention as you revise and edit.  When you write the first draft of your sentence, don’t worry about word count.  Get some ideas and details down on paper first.  Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly 21 (no more, no fewer).

The sentences below are some examples of opening sentences from American novels.  They are not 21 words, but they will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their works:

You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature.  (1789)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.  -Jane Austen

1-McCarthy, Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.

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 16: Eponymous Adjective Day

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.jpg
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.

November 24:  Five Ws and H Day

On this day in 1703, the winds of one of the fiercest storms in British history began to blow.  They would continue blowing for an entire week, resulting in 123 deaths on land and 8,000 drowned at sea. More than 800 houses were destroyed along with over 400 windmills.

Almost as notable as the storm itself was the publication of an account of the storm that was published by Daniel Defoe just a few months after the storm.  At the time, Defoe had not yet published his best known work, the novel Robinson Crusoe (See February 1: From News to Novel Day).  Defoe had just been released from prison after serving several months for seditious libel after publishing a satirical tract on the religious intolerance of the Church of English.  His sentence included being put in the pillory in the center of London for one hour on three successive days.

Desperate for money after his legal troubles, Defoe hatched the idea of writing about the great storm.  He didn’t just write his own account, however. Instead, he placed newspaper ads requesting individuals to send him their stories from the storm.  Although there were newspapers at the time, the type of objective news reporting we associate with journalism today was non-existent.  Defoe’s book The Storm is seen today as a pioneering work of journalism, containing approximately 60 separate first-hand accounts of England’s great tempest (1).

In the excerpt below, Defoe recounts a grim anecdote of a double suicide by a ship’s captain and his surgeon:

One unhappy Accident I cannot omit, and which is brought us from good Hands, and happen’d in a Ship homeward bound from the West-Indies. The Ship was in the utmost Danger of Foundring; and when the Master saw all, as he thought, lost, his Masts gone, the Ship leaky, and expecting her every moment to sink under him, fill’d with Despair, he calls to him the Surgeon of the Ship, and by a fatal Contract, as soon made as hastily executed, they resolv’d to prevent the Death they fear’d by one more certain; and going into the Cabbin, they both shot themselves with their Pistols. It pleas’d God the Ship recover’d the Distress, was driven safe into —— and the Captain just liv’d to see the desperate Course he took might have been spar’d; the Surgeon died immediately. (2)

Defoe’s legacy remains alive today in the form of six basic words that form the essential toolkit for journalism:  Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.  Known commonly as the 5 Ws and H, these six words are excellent reminders of the basic questions we should use to investigate any topic, whether writing a news story or an investigative report:

Who was involved?

What happened?

When did it happen?

Where did it happen?

Why did it happen?

How did it happen?

Today’s Challenge:  Searching for Sense with Six Question

What are some examples of the most important events in world history?  Brainstorm a list of significant events from world history.  Then, select one specific event and begin researching the event by asking and answering the 5 Ws and H. Put together a brief report that includes answers to all six questions.  Write for an audience who knows little about the event.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Miller, John J. “Writing Up a Storm” Wall Street Journal 13 August 2011.

2-Defoe, Daniel. The Storm. Project Gutenberg. Public Domain. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42234/42234-h/42234-h.htm.