April 26:  ABCs of Poetry Day

April is National Poetry Month, which was first introduced by the Academy American Poets in 1996.  In that year, President Bill Clinton, in his presidential proclamation praised National Poetry Month saying that it “offers us a welcome opportunity to celebrate not only the unsurpassed body of literature produced by our poets in the past, but also the vitality and diversity of voices reflected in the works of today’s American poetry” (1).  

Of course, the association of poetry and the month of April goes back much farther than 1996, and it is certainly more than just an American tradition.  For example, in 1845, while visiting Italy, British poet Robert Browning began his great poem Home Thoughts From Abroad as follows:

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

In addition to springtime, one of the favorite topics of poets is poetry itself.  As you might guess, they don’t give dry dictionary definitions:

Poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers. – Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language. -Peter Porter

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. -Robert Frost

Today’s Challenge:  Quench Your Thirst for Verse

What are 50 words that come time mind that you associate with the word “poetry”?  Brainstorm a long list of words or phrases that come to your mind when you think of the word “poetry.”  Write down anything that comes to mind: poetic terms, memorable poetic lines, great poems, favorite poets, or just words that you think are especially poetic.

 

On this the 26th day of the month we are reminded of the 26 letters of the alphabet — the letters we use to write and to read poetry.  Imagine you were to create a poetry ABC book, featuring your 26 poetry-related words, names, or phrases. The only stipulation is that you must cover all 26 letters of the alphabet, and you must be able to explain how each of the items on your list is poetry-related.

To help prime your poetic pump of ideas, here is a list of poetry-related terms from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary:

alliteration, ballad, couplet, double dactyl, enjambment, found poem, genre, haiku, iambic pentameter, juxtaposition, kenning, lipogram, metonymy, narrative poetry, onomatopoeia, persona, quatrain, rhyme scheme, sonnet, tone, understatement, villanelle, wit, xerox poetry, ya-du, zeugma (2)

(Common Core Writing Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. -Robert Frost

1-http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-did-cruellest-month-come-be-perfect-30-days-celebrate-poetry-180950386/

2-Hirsch, Edward.  A Poet’s Glossary. New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

 

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 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.

Chekhov seated at a deskOften 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 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 druggery 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.  Use sensory language that engage 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-http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/

 

 

January 12: Onomatopoeia Day

On this date 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 become 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 breath 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-http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/12/entertainment/batman-50-anniversary-burt-ward-feat/

2-http://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html

 

 

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. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Speaking of parts of speech, the story of the creation of Mad Libs begins in 1953 with two simple adjectives:  “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, and as Stern explains, the rest is history:

I said, “I need an adjective that –” and before I could further define my need, Roger said, “Clumsy and naked.”  I laughed out loud.  Roger asked, “What’s so funny?”  I told him, thanks for his suggestions, [my character now had] a clumsy nose  — or, if you will, a naked nose.  Roger seldom laughed, but he did that time, confirming we were onto something–but what it was, we didn’t know.  “Clumsy” and “naked” were appropriately inappropriate adjectives that had led us to an incorrect but intriguing, slightly bizarre juxtaposing of words.

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)

Quotation of the Day:  The creation of Mad Libs is directly linked to my inability to spell “hyperbole” in a seventh-grade spelling bee.  Humiliated and embarrassed beyond words, I ran home to take refuge in the family dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as humanly possible.  The dictionary became my constant companion — my roommate. -Leonard Stern

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

 

 

December 19:  It Pays to Increase Your Word Power Day

On this date 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 monthly 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:

When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground.  It takes the blur out of our mind; it connects us to the earth.  If I walk down the street and see “dogwood,” “forsythia,” I feel more friendly toward the environment.  I am noticing what is around me and can name it.  It makes me more 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

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)

Quotation of the Day:  Whenever we learn a new word, it is not just dumped into our “mental dictionary.”  Our brain creates neural connections between the new word and others relevant to our interests.  It develops new perceptions and concepts.  -Peter Funk

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

2-Goldberg, Natalie.  Writing Down the Bones.

 

 

December 7:  Colorless Green Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books.  Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntax relates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined.  Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words.  Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax and semantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence can be constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Today’s Challenge:  Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically

What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing a syntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For an added layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin with the same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Raging red rainbows read raucously.

OR

Soggy superfluous sunflowers swim softly.

Generate a number of sentences until you create one that’s so outrageous that it belongs on a T-shirt. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. –Noam Chomsky

12/7 TAGS:  Chomsky, Noam, colorless green ideas, semantics, syntax

November 8:  Bacronym Day

On this date 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 “bacronym” which he defined as the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters.”

An example of a bacronym 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 bacronym APGAR, a mnemonic device to help its users remember the test’s key variables:  appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration. (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”), bacronyms begin with a word and creates a phrase to match the word’s letters.  For example, the bacronym 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 bacronyms are generated for humorous purposes, such as the Microsoft search engine Bing which some called the bacronym “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 bacronym 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 Bacronyms

What bacronym 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 bacronym contest.  Use existing names of people, places, or companies to create bacronyms that are funny or serious. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  You can’t take over the world without a good acronym.  -C.S. Woolley

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

2-http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/behindscenes/colberttreadmill.html