March 16:  Simile Day

On this day in 1971, the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song by the American folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, won Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 13th Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, California.*  The song was a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and has been covered by over 50 artists, including Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

Bridge Over Troubled Water single.jpgThe duo, made up of singer-songwriter Paul Simon and vocalist Art Garfunkel, met as children in Queens, New York.  Simon and Garfunkel were the most successful duo in popular music in the 1960s and were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” written by Paul Simon, is a tribute to friendship, employing the simile, “Like a bridge over troubled water” as a vivid image of dedication and devotion.

The song’s opening lyrics are as follows:

When you’re weary, feeling small

When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all

I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

The simile is a rhetorical device that employs figurative language to create vivid imagery.  Unlike a metaphor, which says that one thing “is” another thing (as in “Juliet is the sun”), a simile uses the words “like” or “as” to admit that it’s a comparison.  In the words of author James Geary, “a simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up” (2).

An easy way to remember the key characteristic of similes is to look at its Latin root similis, which is the same root from which we get the word “similar” meaning “like.”  Because similes use “like” or “as” they are more explicitly stated. Metaphors employ subtler comparisons.  In the words of poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield, “Similes make you think; metaphors make you feel.” Both devices share one key characteristic:  they build a bridge between the abstract and the concrete, allowing writers to employ fresh images.

Today’s Challenge:  Similes That Make You Smile

What are some examples of abstract ideas that might be defined by similes?  Generate a list of abstract ideas, such as friendship, success, imagination, power, failure, mistakes, memory, or intelligence. Select one of your topics and research examples of how these ideas have been defined by great writers using similes.  

The following are three examples on the topic of friendship:

Love is a flower like; Friendship is like a sheltering tree. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is lost. -Charles Caleb Colton

Love is like the wild rose-briar; Friendship like the holly-tree. The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms, but which will bloom most constantly? -Emily Bronte

Once you have recorded your three similes, decide which one you like best and explain your decision.  Once you have critiqued your favorite similes on your subject, try your hand at crafting your own original simile by pairing your abstract idea with a vivid image that brings the abstract to life.

For example,

Friendship is like a fire that stays aflame only through constant attention.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Teaching school is like having jumper cables hooked to your brain, draining all the juice out of you. -Stephen King

*Song of the Year is for the writer of the best song. This award goes to the songwriter.  Record of the Year is for the performance/production of the best song. This award goes to the performers as well as the recording engineers.

1-Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407/simon-and-garfunkel-bridge-over-troubled-water-20110525

2-Geary, James. I Is an Other:  The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2011.

February 14:  Metaphors of Love Day

Our modern Valentine’s Day rituals date back to an ancient Roman fertility rite called Lupercalia, celebrated from February 13-15.  Roman myth tells of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus who were abandoned in a cave (Lupercal) of a she-wolf (lupa).  The twins survived and went on to become the founders of Rome thanks to the she-wolf who nursed them.

Wolf head, 1-100 CE, bronze, Roman, Cleveland Museum of Art.JPGTo commemorate the deliverance of Romulus and Remus each year, priests gathered at Palatine Hill above Rome to sacrifice goats and a puppy along with making an offering of grain.  Two young boys were then stripped naked and clothed in the freshly skinned coats of the sacrificed goats. In addition to the goatskins, the boys were also given a narrow strip (or thong) cut from the hide of the goats.  These thongs were called februa, meaning “instruments of purification.”  Running down hill and through the city streets, the two boys slapped everyone they met with the februa in a symbolic act of purification.  Women often came forth to be struck since they believed the ceremony rendered them fertile, as well as ensured an easy delivery in childbirth.

A less violent aspect of Lupercalia festival was a lovers lottery where young men would be coupled with young women by drawing names randomly from a jar.

The modern name of Valentine’s Day also originated with the Romans; however, the day’s name resulted more from martyrdom than from a fertility rite.  In the 3rd century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two men in two different years.  Both men were named Valentine and both men were executed on February 14.  Later, the Catholic Church commemorated the two saints’ martyrdom with the feast of St. Valentine.  In 494, attempting to expel pagan traditions, Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia and replaced it with Valentine’s Day (2).

Today we associate Valentine’s Day more with Venus – the Roman goddess of love – than with Catholic saints.  And the most ubiquitous symbol of the day is Venus’ son Cupid.  It’s his bow and quiver of arrows that represent the capriciousness of romantic love; anyone struck by one of his arrows is instantly filled with uncontrollable desire.

As we can see from the history of Valentine’s Day, it is a tradition filled with symbols that attempt to make the abstract ideas of romantic love and attraction more concrete.  In a similar fashion, lovers have attempted to make the abstract idea of love more concrete through the use of metaphor.  Notice in the following examples, the variety of metaphors used by various writers to define this elusive yet universal emotion:

Love is like war:  easy to begin but very hard to stop. -H.L. Mencken

Love is like a virus.  It can happen to anybody at any time.  -Maya Angelou

Love is an exploding cigar which we willingly smoke. -Lynda Berry

Love is the wildcard of existence. -Rita Mae Brown

Love is friendship set to music.  -E. Joseph Cossman

Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flip over, pinning you underneath.  At night, the ice weasels come. -Matt Groening

Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gates of fear. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties. -Jules Renard

Love is the ultimate outlaw.  It just won’t adhere to any rules.  The most any of us can do is sign on as its accomplice. –Tom Robbins

Love is the only disease that makes you feel better. -Sam Shepard

Today’s Challenge:  Love Is a Metaphor

What is the best thing anyone has ever said about love?  What makes this person’s observations so insightful?  Select a quotation about love, either from the quotations above or from your research.  Your quotation can be lines from a poem, lyrics from a song, or prose from a Valentine’s Day card.  Explain why you find the quotation so insightful and specifically why you agree with it.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar. -Jim Butcher

1-http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lupercalia.html

2-http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day

February 13:  Poetic Definition Day

On this date in 1890, the English writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902) presented a lecture in London entitled “Thought and Language.”  Butler was a novelist, a satirist, and a translator.  In 1898 and 1900 respectively, he translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the original Greek into English prose.  

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpgIn his 1890 lecture, Butler addressed age-old questions about the evolution of human language and whether or not language and reason are exclusive to the human species, as opposed to other animals.  In the course of his discussion of language, he presented a metaphorical definition of the word definition, presenting the reader with a fascinating figurative image:

Definitions . . . are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown onto a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer (2).

Another poetic definition – again of the word definition – is found in Butler’s Note-Books, which were published posthumously in 1912:

A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.

Butler’s poetic definitions remind us of the power of figurative language to help us to understand new ideas based on comparisons to old, familiar things, as well as its power to help us to see old ideas in new ways based on fresh comparisons.  Certainly the literal, textbook definitions of words are helpful, allowing us to grasp new ideas in objective black and white.  But metaphor, simile, analogy, and personification provide such powerful subjective imagery that it is as if a spotlight is shining down, illuminating ideas so that they stand out in vivid color.

Today’s Challenge:  A Lexicographer Walked Into a Bard

What are some aspects of language that might be defined using figurative language, such as words, language, speech, writing, reading, dictionaries, the alphabet, specific parts of speech, grammar, syntax, etc?  Read the poetic definitions below, noticing how each writer uses different types of figurative language to define different aspects of language.  Then, craft your own poetic definition using metaphor, simile, analogy, or personification.

Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. -Richard Chenevix Trench

The etymologists finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture.  Language is fossil poetry. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ideas are enclosed and almost bound in words like precious stones in a ring. -Giacomo Leopardi

Speech is the messenger of the heart. -Hebrew Proverb

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out tunes that can make bears dance, when we would move the stars. -Gustave Flaubert

Geometry is to sculpture what grammar is to the art of the writer. -Guillaume Apollinaire

The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.  -Clifton Fadiman

Dictionaries are like watches:  the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. -Samuel Johnson

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. –William Zinsser (3)

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. -Samuel Butler

1-http://www.victorianweb.org/science/butler.html

2-http://www.authorama.com/essays-on-life-art-and-science-9.html

3- Crystal, David and Hilary Crystal:  Words on Words:  Quotations About Language and Languages.

January 12: Onomatopoeia Day

On this day in 1966, the TV series “Batman” premiered.  The success of the series can be traced to its appeals to a broad audience.  For kids, the show was a must-watch action-adventure, following the exploits of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo from the DC comic books.  For adults, the show was campy comedy.  Airing twice a week, Batman was wildly successful.  The show was also notable as one of the first to cash-in on merchandising.  Fans could buy a Batman lunch pail, a Batman T-shirt, Batman trading cards, and even a Batman board game.  

The show included a nod to the classics.  In Bruce Wayne’s private study, on a desk next to his red Batphone, sat a bust of William Shakespeare.  The bust was a vital prop, for beneath the hinged head of the Bard was a hidden button.  When Wayne pushed the button, a sliding bookcase opened revealing two Batpoles, giving Batman and Robin immediate access to the Batcave.

Batman ran for three seasons, and in each of its 120 episodes, one plot element was inevitable:  Batman and Robin would confront one of their arch villains, along with his or her henchman, and engage in a climactic fistfight.   This is where the rhetoric device called onomatopoeia was employed for effect.  To remind viewers that these were comic book characters, each punch was punctuated by words superimposed in bright colors on the screen.  The words “POW!,” “BAM!,” and “ZONK!” entered pop culture (1).

Onomatopoeia is the use of words to imitate or suggest sound. Imagery in language is largely about how words create vivid images, but we should not forget that we can also create imagery via sound effects like onomatopoeia.  For example, if we were to describe a car accident, we might say, “The two cars hit each other.”  This creates the image of two car coming together; however, notice how the image becomes more vivid when we add a verb that has a sound effect:  “The two cars smashed into each other.”

The results of a psychological study conducted in 1974, shows just how important vivid verbs can be. Subjects in the study were shown a film of a traffic accident and then were asked questions about the accident.  Some of the subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” Others were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”  The subjects who were asked the second question (smashed), gave a higher estimated speed than the subjects who were asked the first question (hit).  

When the subjects were brought back to the lab a week later and shown the film of the accident again, they were asked if they had seen any broken glass.  In reality there was no broken glass in the film, but several of the subjects reported seeing it. Of those who were asked a week earlier how fast the cars were going when they hit each other, 14 percent said they saw glass; of those who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other, 32 percent said they saw glass (2).

This experiment not only shows the fallibility of human memory and perception, it also shows how the right word, especially the right verb, can create a powerful impression on a reader.  That impression can be in the form of a vivid image, but it can also be auditory, as in “smashed” or “crashed.”  The lesson here is to select your verbs carefully, for their sense, but also for their sound — for their visual effect, but also for their volume effect.

The following are some examples of volume verbs:

babble, beat, bellow, blare, blast, bubble, buzz, chatter, chug, cackle, click, crackle, crash, clang, cry, crush, drip, dribble, explode, fizzle, groan, growl, gurgle, hiss, hum, jingle, knock, moan, murmur, plink, plop, pop, purr, rasp, rattle, roar, rumble, rustle, scream screech shriek, shuffle, sing, sizzle, slurp, snap, splash, squawk, squeal, strike, sweep, swish, swoosh, thud, thunder, trumpet, wheeze, whisper, whistle

Today’s Challenge:  Turn Up the Volume

How can you use verbs to add sound effects to the imagery of sentences? Select three of the basic, boring sentences below, and breathe life into them by revising them, adding volume verbs and other vivid, detailed imagery.  As you revise, read them aloud, listening for each sentence’s soundtrack.

For example:

Basic Sentence:  The teacher raised his voice.

Revised Sentence:  The teacher’s voice thundered through the classroom as he barked at the students to sit down.

The car was old.

The children played.

The rain fell heavily.

The new day dawned.

The cat looked friendly.

The children were excited.

The student worked busily.

The restaurant was packed.

The fireworks were displayed.

The student woke to his alarm clock.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Listen to the sound of your language. Read your words out loud.  Pay attention to their rhythm and cadence and flow. Consider the way they reverberate in your head, how they stir your heart. Ask how your reader would respond to ‘farewell’ as opposed to ‘goodbye,’ or to ‘mockingbird’ as opposed to ‘crow.’  -Stephen Wilbers in Mastering the Craft of Writing

1-Hanks, Henry.  Holy Golden Anniversary, ‘Batman’! Classic TV Show Turns 50.  Cnn.com. 12 Jan. 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/12/entertainment/batman-50-anniversary-burt-ward-feat/.

2-McLeod, Saul. Loftus and Palmer. Simplysychology.org. 2010. http://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html.

December 24: Grammar Rules Day

On this day in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg made a grammar error that went down in history. Speaking to the Council of Constance in Latin, the Emperor called for the gathered assembly to eradicate the Papal Schism, a division in the Catholic Church in which three separate men claimed to be the true pope.  Unfortunately for the emperor he mixed up the gender of the Latin word schisma using it as if it were feminine instead of the correct neuter form.  When the error was respectfully pointed out to him by a monk, Sigismund responded angrily say, “I am the Emperor of Rome! Even if the word is neuter, it will be feminine from now on.”  

In response to Sigismund’s decree, a monk stood and proclaimed, “Caesar non supra grammaticos” – or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians.”

Ever since Sigismund’s historic fail, the expression “Caesar non supra grammaticos” has been used to remind us that the rules of English grammar and spelling are not given to us as authoritative decrees from on high; instead, they are based on the conventions of writing that are followed by actual writers. They are also inherently democratic in that they apply to everyone, and no one individual has the power to arbitrarily change them.

Too often we see grammar as a study of the things we can’t do with language. Instead, we should view grammar for what we can do with it — it allows us to craft clear, quality sentences that equip us to share our best thinking with others.  If English is our first language, we have an unconscious understanding of how to put words together so that they make sense.  Written English, however, is different from spoken English.  Studying grammar gives us the specific language we need to diagnose errors and to reason-through how to correct them so that our sentences are clear.  Just as an auto mechanic knows the names of the different parts under the hood of a car, we should know the different parts of a sentence.  The mechanic’s job is to diagnose the problem and fix it so that the car will do its job, which is getting its owner efficiently from point A to point B. Grammar is simply the mechanics of the sentence, and knowing grammar will help you make sure that all the parts work efficiently so that your sentences do their job, which is to clearly and efficiently communicate your ideas to a reader.

Today’s Challenge:  Grammar, not the Emperor, Rules

What’s your grammar pet peeve?  What one grammar rule do you find the most useful in crafting clear writing?  Identify a single grammar rule, and write an explanation of the rule with examples that show both the rule and violations of the rule. Include the clearest possible explanation of the rule along with a rationale of why it is an important rule to know and how knowing the rule will help the writer.  The list of frequent errors below might help you zero in on a specific rule to write about:

Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Dangling participles, Ambiguous pronouns, Lack of subject/verb agreement, Lack of parallelism (Common Core Language 1 and 2 – Conventions of Standard English)

December 23: Parts of Speech Day

Today is the birthday of Leonard B. Stern (1923-2011), American screenwriter, producer, and director.  Stern will probably be best remembered, however, as the co-creator of the game Mad Libs, the classic game where players insert randomly generated words into a passage based on the words’ parts of speech.

Stern’s love of words began with a humiliating experience in seventh grade.  After misspelling the word “hyperbole” in his class spelling bee, he was embarrassed beyond words.  Immediately, he ran home and located his family dictionary.  On that day the young Stern began to study the dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as possible (See February 4: Embarrassing Misspelling Day).

The story of the creation of Mad Libs begins in 1953 with two simple words:  “clumsy” and “naked.”  At the time Stern was working on a television script for Jackie Gleason’s pioneering television show The Honeymooners. One day Stern was sitting at his typewriter, searching his mind for a precise adjective to describe the nose of one of his characters.  When Stern’s best friend and fellow word-lover Roger Price showed up, Stern asked him for help, saying he needed an adjective.  Without waiting for any context, Price responded with two: “Clumsy and naked.”  When Stern began laughing, Price asked what was so funny.  Stern responded by saying that he now had an image in his mind of a  his character with a “clumsy, naked nose.”  At that moment the two friends realized that they had stumbled into something interesting; this bizarre juxtaposition of random parts of speech might just turn into something profitable.

The name of the game and its publication didn’t happen until five years later.  Sitting in a New York restaurant one morning in 1958, Stern and Price overheard a conversation between an actor and his agent.  The actor said he wanted to “ad-lib” an interview; the agent responded, saying that he would be “mad” to do it.  Stern and Price now had a name, Mad Libs, but no publisher.  Unable to find anyone to print their game, they decided to do it themselves, paying to have fourteen thousand copies printed.  To publicize the game, the creators arranged for it to be used for introducing guests on Steve Allen’s Sunday night television show.  Within three days of the game’s appearance on television, stores were sold out.  Soon Stern and Price joined forces with their friend Larry Sloan to form a publishing company called Price Stern Sloan (or PSS!).  Before long Mad Libs became a bestseller, and PSS! became the largest publisher on the West Coast (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Oh What Fun It Is to Eat an Angry Open Bucket

What is your favorite Christmas song or holiday-related story or poem?  To celebrate the holidays and the creation of Mad Libs, select a familiar Christmas carol or holiday story or poem. Take the text of your selected passage, and cross out 15-20 words — adjectives, nouns, and verbs.  As you cross out the words, create a list in order of the part of speech of each word you crossed out.  If a noun is plural, make sure to note that on your list; likewise, note the tense of verbs.  Next, using your list of parts of speech, have a friend generate a random list of words to match the parts of speech on your list.  Finally, insert these words into the text of your original text and read it aloud. Be prepared to laugh.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Price, Roger and Leonard Stern.  The Best of Mad Libs:  50 Years of Mad Libs.  New York:  Price Stern Sloan, 2008.

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.

November 18:  Idioms from History Day

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Story?

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

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

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

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

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003: 713.

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).

Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:

Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader.  Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous.  Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length.  Listen up.  Can you hear the difference?  When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language.  Try it yourself.  Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short.  Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases.  Most importantly, read your sentences out loud.  Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms.  Make your sentences sing.

Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

November 8:  Backronym Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge:  Bring Home the Backronyms

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

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

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