June 29:  Blend Day

On this day in 1995, Diane White, writing in The Boston Globe, coined the blended word bridezilla (bride + Godzilla) to describe “brides who are particularly difficult and obnoxious” (1).  White’s neologism follows a trend that began in the 20th century by combining two words to form a single new word.  These blended words are also called portmanteau words.

Portmanteau comes to us from the English poet Lewis Carroll who used the portmanteau — a suitcase with two compartments that fold into one — as a metaphor to describe the word-blending that happens in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Examples from the poem are chortle (chuckle + snort) and galumph (gallop + triumph). The popularity of Carroll’s work not only added these new words to the English lexicon, it also seems to have encouraged others to try their hand at word blending (2).

In his book A Bawdy Language, Howard Richler traces the history of various blended words that preceded and followed Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which was published in Through the Looking Glass in 1871.

1823 anecdotage – The tendency for elderly people to tell stories, from anecdote + dotage.

1843 squirl – Handwriting with great flourishes, from squiggle + whirl.

1889 electrocute – Death by electricity, from electricity + execute.

1896 brunch – breakfast + lunch.

1925 motel – motor + hotel (3).

Blended words should not be confused with compound words, another popular method of adapting old words to create new ones. Unlike compound words, the two words that come together don’t just latch onto each other; instead, at least one of the words, and often both, must lose some of themselves in the merger, as in the following more contemporary examples:

Reaganomics – Ronald Reagan + economics

Spanglish – Spanish + English

motorcade – motor + cavalcade

telecast – television + broadcast

tangelo – tangerine + pomelo

moped – motor + pedestrian

hazmat – hazardous + material

agribusiness – agriculture + business

blog – web + log

The Internet and technology are probably the most prolific sources of new word blends these days. One interesting example is the term blook, which combines book with blog. USA Today featured an article on blooks on April 3, 2006, documenting the phenomenon of popular blogs morphing into books.

Today’s Challenge: Grab Your Blender

What two words might you blend to create a new blend?  In the tradition of Lewis Carroll, try your own hand at coining some new blended words. Take two existing words and blend them into something new. Include a definition that makes the logical connection between the two words and explains the word’s meaning and relevance. (Common Core Language – 3)

Quotation of the Day: It seems you can’t open a paper or laptop these days without being ambushed by a new portmanteau word. They cover every walk of life: smirting and gaydar, guesstimate and Chunnel, metrosexual, stagflation, glamping, frappuccino and Buffyverse. . . . We have, I think it’s fair to say, reached peakmanteau. –Andy Bodle

1- Word Spy  http://wordspy.com/index.php?word=bridezilla

2 – Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Way We Talk Now. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

3 – Richler, Howard. A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1999.

JUNE 22:  G.I. Day

Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history. On this day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Service Members’ Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill. Between 1944 and 1956 more than 7.8 million World War II veterans participated in the educational or training program.

Prior to the GI Bill, a college education was primarily an option only for the rich. Likewise, home ownership was out of the financial reach of most Americans. The GI Bill, however, fueled the American dreams of millions of returning GIs. Almost half took advantage of the education and training aspects of the programs, while nearly 2.4 million took out home loans backed by the Veterans Administration.

With the end of World War II in sight, the GI Bill was a proactive step to prevent the problems that occurred in after World War I. Thousands of returning American soldiers at that time were given just $60 and a train ticket home. There was little thought of helping these doughboys with the transition from military to civilian life. During the Great Depression, thousands of veterans marched on Washington, D.C. in 1932 demanding payment of a promised bonus. Instead of money, the veterans received an order to disperse. President Herbert Hoover called up active duty soldiers, led by General Douglas MacArthur, to clear out the Bonus Marchers’ camps using tear gas, bayonets, and rifles.

Soldiers returning from World War II thankfully had the GI Bill to ease them back into civilian life. Instead of unrest at the nation’s capital, an unprecedented post-war boom across the nation resulted after World War II.

In 1984, the GI Bill was revamped under the leadership of Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery. Known as the Montgomery GI Bill, it features VA home loan guarantees as well as education programs just like the original GI Bill (1).

The abbreviation G.I. originates from the U.S. Army designation for galvanized iron, the kind of iron used for heavy garbage cans. The term, through misinterpretation of the initials, came to mean government-issue or general-issue in the 1930s, referring to items issued to soldiers upon induction into the armed forces — items such as uniforms, boots, or soap. The term GI first appeared in print referring to an enlisted man in 1939. In 1942, a comic strip for the Army weekly Yank used the term GI Joe, further popularizing the term (2).

In the armed forces shorthand language, such as abbreviations and acronyms, is used with high frequency, so much so that the Army, for example, has an entire regulation devoted to the subject. It’s called Army Regulation 25-52: Authorized Abbreviations, Brevity Codes, and Acronyms (ABCA).

The three different classes of shortened forms are defined in the regulation as follows:

Abbreviation: An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. For example, appt – appointment, assgd – assigned, or PA – Pennsylvania.

Acronym: An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name or parts of a series of words. For example, ACTS means Army Criteria Tracking System; ARIMS means Army Records Information Management System; and ASAP means as soon as possible.

Brevity Code: A brevity code is the shortened form of a frequently used phrase, sentence, or group of sentences, normally consisting entirely of uppercase letters; for example, COMSEC means communications security, REFRAD means release from active duty, and SIGINT means signals intelligence.

The Army’s ABCs

Below is a list of common U. S. Army abbreviations, brevity codes, and acronyms. See if you can identify what each stands for.

  1. BDU
  2. CONUS
  3. IED
  4. IRR
  5. HMMWV (Humvee)
  6. MRE
  7. NBC
  8. ROTC

9.RPG

10.PT

  1. PX
  2. SOP

Today’s Challenge:  AM, BC, CD, DJ . . .

What are examples of two-letter abbreviations?  Using a good dictionary, find and define at least one two-letter abbreviations for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. (Common Core Language 3)

Quotation of the Day: Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him. -Dwight D. Eisenhower

Answers: 1. Battle Dress Uniform 2. Continental United States 3. Improvised Explosive Device 4. Individual Ready Reserve 5. High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle 6. Meals Ready to Eat 7. Nuclear, Biological, Chemical 8. Reserve Officer Training Corps 9. Rocket Propelled Grenade 10. Physical Training 11. Post Exchange 12. Standard Operating Procedure

1- United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

http://www.gibill.va.gov/GI_Bill_Info/history.htm

2 – Ayto, John. 20th Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

3 – Army Regulation 25-52.

May 29:  Words for Words Day

On this day in 1997, 13 year-old Rebecca Sealfon of Brooklyn, New York won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.   The winning word was euonym, which means “a name well suited to the person, place, or thing named.”  For example, the name Bill Mansion would be a euonym for a realtor.

Scripps National Spelling Bee Logo.svgThe Greek suffix –onym, meaning “name or word” is found in many words that identify categories of words.  In short, these words ending in –onym are “words for words.”

Here are some examples:

Acronym:  Words made up of the initials of other words, such as NASA or SCUBA.

Antonym:  Words with the opposite meaning, such as love and hate.

Capitonym:  Words that change pronunciation and meaning when capitalized, such as august or nice.

Contronym:  Words that are their own antonyms, such as bolt or weather.

Eponym:  Words derived from proper names, such as quixotic, which derived from the literary character Don Quixote.

Heteronym:  Words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciations, such as produce and entrance.

Pseudonym:  A pen name, such as Mark Twain for Samuel Clemens.

Retronym:  An adjective-noun pairing that evolves because of a change in the noun’s meaning, such as acoustic guitar.  The adjective acoustic became necessary with the development of the electric guitar.

Toponym:  Words derived from the names of specific geographic locations, such as the word bikini, which was named after Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Synonym:  Words with the same, or nearly the same, meaning, such as buy and purchase.

Today’s Challenge:  More Words For Words

Besides words that end with the suffix -onym, what are some other words that identify categories of specific words?  Below are some examples of categories of specific words.  Select three of the categories below (or some other word categories you can think of) and research the definitions of each, along with at least four example words for each category.  Make sure to explain what makes each category distinctive.

abstract noun, archaism, blend, collective noun, conjunctive adverb, contraction, count noun, definite article, euphemism, gerund, interjection, interrogative pronoun, loanword, malapropism, palindrome, reduplicative, univocalic word

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one. -Baltasar Gracian

May 27:  Green Day

Today is the birthday of biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, is credited with launching the environmental movement. Carson became concerned with the increased use of pesticides, especially D.D.T., after World War II. Her book brought to light the harmful effects of these chemicals on the chain of life.

SilentSpring.jpgCarson’s book was not without its critics, but it did lead to a heightened public awareness of conservation issues, and it also lead to Congressional hearings into the impact of pesticides on the environment and human health. Within 10 years of the publication of Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded, Earth Day was established, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had become law (1).

The words below are examples of words that emerged in the 20th Century to describe issues related to the environment. For example, Greenpeace, an international organization that campaigns for the protection of the environment, was founded in 1971. Its activities contributed a new definition to the adjective green: “relating to or supporting environmentalism, especially as a political issue.”

conservation (1922)

D.D.T (1943)

eco- (1969)

ecofreak (1970)

green (1972)

environmentalism (1972)

global warming (1977)

eco-terrorist (1988)

eco-friendly (1989) (2)

Today’s Challenge: It’s Easy Being Green

How many words or phrases (expressions, idioms, titles, names, quotations, etc.) can you think of that contain the word “green”?  Brainstorm at least ten words or phrases that contain “green.”  Then, use one of your words or expressions as a title and a launching pad for an original composition of at least 250 words.  

The following are some green words and expression:

The Green Mile, The Green Berets, The Green Door, How Green Was My Valley, Mr. Green Jeans, The Green, Green Grass of Home, Green Eggs and Ham, The grass is always greener, green room, greenback, greenhorn, green about the gills, green-eyed jealous, green with envy, green thumb, green light, Green Eyed Lady, Greensleeves, Greenback Dollar, Bowling Green, The Ballad of the Green Berets,  Little Green Apples, Anne of Green Gables, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Big Green Monster, Soylent Green, Greenpeace, greenbelt

Quotation of the Day: When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you rot. –Ray Kroc

1 – Raftery, Miriam. 100 Books that Shaped World History. San Mateo, California: Bluewood Books, 2002.

 

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