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.

September 29:  The Beatles and the Bard Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1967, the Beatles worked to complete the recording of the song I Am the Walrus.  Known for their innovative work in the studio, the group on this day did something truly unique, blending the conclusion of their new song with a BBC recording Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In addition to the Bard, the Beatles also drew inspiration from two other poetic sources.  One was Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” which inspired the song’s title and its plentiful use of nonsense lyrics.  The second was a playful nursery rhyme that they remembered from their childhood in Liverpool:

Yellow matter custard, green slop pie,

All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye,

Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,

Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick. (1)

HelloGoodbyeUS.jpgThis bit of rather grotesque verse inspired the colorful lyric:  “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”

The Beatles had no name for their process of creative synthesis, and they were so ahead of their time that they really didn’t need one.  Today, however, we have a name for it; it’s called a “mash-up.”

According to Newsweek, the word “mash-up” was coined in 2001 by DJ Freelance Hellraiser who used Christina Aguilera’s vocals from ‘Genie in a Bottle’ and “recorded [them] over the instrumentals from ‘Hard to Explain’” (2).

Mash-ups are certainly not limited to music, however. A mash-up applies to any combination of two or more forms of media: music, film, television, computer program, etc. As seen by the examples below, these creative combos synthesize just about every imaginable form of media:

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters – a book mash-up that combines classic fiction and sea stories.

The Dark Side of Oz – a film/music mash-up pairing Pink Floyd’s classic album The Dark Side of the Moon with the visuals of the film The Wizard of Oz.

Star Wars:  Invasion Los Angeles:  a computer-animated video created by Kaipo Jones that sets the intergalactic battle from the film Star Wars among the familiar and famous sites of Los Angeles.

TwitterMap –  an internet mash-up that combines Twitter and Google Maps to create a visual map of Tweets.

Today’s Challenge: Mother Tongue Lashing

What one word fits between the words ‘Jelly’ and ‘Bag’ to form two separate compound words? Jelly __________ Bag The answer is the word “bean” as in jelly bean and beanbag.  This is a type of lexical mash-up called Mother Tongue Lashing. It takes advantage of the wealth of compound words and expressions in English. For each pair of words below, name a word that can follow the first word and precede the second one to complete a compound word or a familiar two-word phrase.

  1. Life __________ Travel
  2. Punk __________ Candy
  3. Green _________ Space
  4. Rest __________ Work
  5. Word  __________ Book
  6. Rock __________ Dust
  7. Spelling __________ Sting
  8. Night __________ House

Now, create your own list of 8 Mother Tongue Lashings.  Use a dictionary to make sure that you have two-word expressions or compound words, not just two-word combinations. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Answers:  time, rock, back, home, play, star, bee, light

1- The Beatles Bible.com. I Am the Walrus. https://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/i-am-the-walrus/2/.

2- Newsweek. Technology: Time for Your Mashup? 3 May 2006. http://www.newsweek.com/technology-time-your-mashup-106345.

September 9:  State Motto Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

Today is the anniversary of California’s admission as the 31st state of the Union. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused its population to explode, and in 1849 settlers applied for admission to the Union after drafting a state constitution that prohibited slavery. Because making California a state would upset the balance of free and slave states, statehood was delayed until September 9, 1850, when the Compromise of 1850 opened the door for California statehood.

In addition to a state constitution, Californians adopted a state seal in 1849 with the motto “Eureka,” — The Greek word for “I Have Found It” — an appropriate interjection for a state whose reputation was made on gold strikes (1).

California is not the only state with a motto in a tongue other than English.  In fact, ‘English Only’ proponents might be surprised to learn that more than half of the states in the union have mottos in other languages.

Here are the statistics on the polyglot mottos:

Latin: 22

French: 2

Greek: 1

Hawaiian: 1

Spanish: 1

Italian: 1

Native American – Chinook: 1

Six states feature one-word mottos. Only one state, Vermont, has its state’s name in its motto, and Florida is the only state with the same motto as the United States of America: “In God We Trust.”

Today’s Challenge:  Motto Mania

What’s your idea for a new state motto?  Generate some possible new state mottos for your home state or the other 49 states.  Host a state motto contest.  The mottos may be funny or serious, but they should all be memorable; after all, they may someday be emblazoned on a license plate.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Brittanica.com.  California History.

September 7:  Words Chiseled in Granite Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1914, the main post office building in New York City opened its doors.  The building’s main claim to fame is the inscription chiseled in gray granite on its enormous façade, which reads:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Although many will recognize these words as the motto of the United States Postal Service, officials are quick to point out that there is no official U.S.P.S. motto.  Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find another building in the world that more effectively uses the words engraved on its outside walls to capture and to motivate the mission that is fulfilled inside.

The words of the inscription originate from the Greek historian Herodotus and refer to Persian mounted postal couriers who served faithfully in the wars between the Greeks and the Persians (500-449 B.C.).

In 1982, New York’s main post office building was officially designated The James A. Farley Building, in memory of the nation’s 53rd Postmaster General.  The building’s ZIP code designation is 10001 (1).

When you think of mottos, think of “motivation.”  Mottos are intended to prime the populous for positive action.  A motto is a phrase or sentence that sums up the motivation, purpose, or guiding principles of a group, organization, or institution.  Whether a family motto, school motto, state motto, or company motto, they are always clear, concise, and constructive. It’s appropriate to think of a motto as something you might chisel in stone because unlike slogans, which are usually spoken, mottos are written, such as the state mottos (See September 9:  State Motto Day) you see on license plates or a national motto you see on coins or paper money (The official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”).  Because mottos date back to ancient times, you will often see them written in other languages, such as the motto of the United States Marine Corps, the Latin Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”).

Today’s Challenge:  Words Worth Setting in Stone

What words do you think are important enough to chisel in stone? What motto would you etch on the outside of your school or your place of business?  Hold a contest to determine the best motto. Either research a quotation by another person to use as your motto, or write your own using your own original words. Remember that a motto must be pithy and must express a rule to guide the behavior of persons who inhabit the building. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1- United States Postal Service. Postal Service Mission and Motto. Oct. 1999.

August 7:  Syntax Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

Today is the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion.

On this date in 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against a federal tax on liquor by tarring and feathering tax collectors and torching their homes. It was one of the first tests of federal authority for the young United States. In response to the uprising, President George Washington called in more than 12,000 Federal troops. The rebels put up little residence, fleeing to hide in the woods. Twenty were captured, and one man died while in prison. Only two of the rebels were convicted of treason, and both of these men were eventually pardoned by Washington (1).

File:Whiskey Insurrection.JPGThere is a long tradition of sin taxes in America, and it may be a bad pun, but on what other day can you celebrate the syntax of English sentences?

Syntax is simply the way writers put together phrases and clauses to make sentences. Knowledge of syntax helps writers create more varied sentences. For example, variety in sentence openings is an important feature of good writing. Starting with the subject is a natural feature of English sentences, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, if every one of your sentences begins with the subject, your writing will sound monotonous and lifeless.

Three effective methods for adding variety to sentence openings are using prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and absolute phrases. Let’s look at how you can manipulate a sentence’s syntax to open in a variety of ways.

I. Open with a Prepositional Phrase: These phrases begin with a preposition and end with a noun, such as: on the roof, over the rainbow, in the garden, from the city, out the window.

Original Sentence: The students gathered in the cafeteria to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

Revised sentence, opening with a prepositional phrase: In the cafeteria, the students gathered to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

II. Open with a Participial Phrase: These phrases begin with a verb (often in the -ing form) that works like an adjective to modify a noun, such as, eating a sandwich, mailing a letter, or singing a song.

Original Sentence: Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment by reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques.

Revised Sentence, opening with a participial phrase: Reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques, Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment.

III.  Open with an Absolute Phrase:  These phrases begin with a noun or pronoun followed by a participial phrase, such as her arms folded, her voice soaring, or eyes focused.

Original Sentence:  The boxer jumped rope.

Revised Sentence, opening with an absolute phrase:  His feet barely grazing the ground, the boxer jumped rope.

Today’s Challenge: No Sin Syntax Super Sentence
Can you craft a sentence that has at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase?  Look at the example sentences below and see if you can identify the prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and absolute phrase in each.  Then, write the opening sentence of a short story that contains at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase.

Her melodic voice singing out loud and strong, Mary astonished the concert goers in the opera house, bringing the entire audience to tears.

Sitting in the chair, Max, a handsome young man with blond hair, read the book, his mind captivated by the unfolding mystery.

Quote of the Day: Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds. –Dorothy L. Sayers

1 – U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Whiskey Rebellion.”

2 – Backman, Brian. Thinking in Threes: The Power of Three in Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 2005.

 

 

August 1:  Heteronym Day

August First is one of the most august days on the calendar.  The preceding sentence illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of the English language.  Not only does it have more words than any other language, it also has:

  1. Many words that are spelled the same but with different meanings, called homonyms, (such as the word run which has 645 different meanings listed in the Oxford English Dictionary; the word set has over 200).
  1. Many words that are spelled differently but with the same pronunciations, called homophones (to, two, and too or sight, site, and cite).
  1. Many words that are spelled the same but with different pronunciations and meanings, called heteronyms (august, produce, and buffet).

It’s this last class of words, heteronyms, that we honor on this august day — the first day of August.  Heteronyms allow us to enjoy jokes like the following:

Why do we know so little about salivary glands?

Because they are so secretive.

Test yourself by reading the following list of heteronyms; see if you can come up with two pronunciations for each one:

agape, axes, bass, bow

buffet, console, content, converse

coop, deserts, do, does

dove, drawer, entrance, evening

fillet, grave, incense, lead

liver, minute, mobile, moped

more, number, object, present

resent ,route, rugged, sewer

slough, sow, supply, tear

tower, unionized, wind, wound

The month of August is named for the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus Caesar (63 BC – AD 14), whose great-uncle was Julius Caesar. Just as the Roman Senate renamed the month Quintilis, July in honor of Julius Caesar, they renamed Sextillus for Augustus (1).  The etymology of the adjective august dates back to the ancient Roman “augurs,” religious officials who foretold events by interpreting omens.  A person or event that was seen as favorable to the augurs was described in Latin as augustus, “meaning venerable, majestic or noble.”

August also fits into a special subcategory of heteronyms called capitonyms, words that change pronunciation and meaning when capitalized.  Based on the capitonyms below, see if you can pronounce both the capitalized and lowercase forms:

Colon, colon

Herb, herb

Job, job

Muster, muster

Nice, nice

Polish, polish

Rainier, rainier

Reading, reading

Today’s Challenge:  Hypnotic Heteronyms

What are examples of words in English that are spelled the same but that are pronounced in two different ways depending on their different meanings and different parts of speech, as in the word “produce,” which is pronounced differently when it is used as a noun than when it is used as a verb?

Select three heteronyms and write a sentence for each in which you use the word twice with both of its pronunciations and meanings, as in:

  1.  The magician made a grand entrance, and entranced the audience for three solid hours.
  1.  Yesterday’s produce sale, produced pandemonium at the Piggly Wiggly.
  1.  We had a nice two-week vacation in Nice, France.

Below each of your sentences write a brief explanation of what accounts for the different pronunciation.  For example, sentence number one above would be explained as follows:  “The first use of entrance is a noun meaning, “the manner by which a person comes into view”; the second use of entrance(d) is a verb meaning, “to fill with wonder or to put into a trance.”  For bonus credit make a drawing or cartoon to illustrate your sentence, and use your sentence as the caption. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day: The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. -Natalie Babbitt

1- BBC History “Augustus”

2 – Lederer, Richard. The Word Circus. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1998.

3- Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950.

 

July 28: Near Synonym Day

Today is the anniversary of the debut of the first cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. On July 28, 1940, Warner Brothers released the animated short A Wild Hare in technicolor. The cartoon did not identify Bugs by name — that would come later — but it did premiere his catchphrase “What’s up Doc?” and his nemesis Elmer Fudd (1).

Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter, born in London in 1866.

Potter had few playmates as a child, but she did have a menagerie of pets that included a tortoise, a frog, a snake, and a rabbit. A shy, quiet girl, Potter sketched, painted, and kept a journal in which she wrote in a secret code she invented. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902. She published numerous other animal tales, but Peter Rabbit remains the most popular (2).

All this talk about rabbits brings up the question: what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Well, according to Bernice Randall’s book When Is a Pig a Hog?, a hare is larger than a rabbit, with longer ears and legs; another difference is that hares live in the open, among rocks and thickets, while rabbits live in burrows.

Many words in English feature these kinds of fine distinctions, especially since English has more synonyms than any other language. This expansive lexicon is a blessing for writers, but it also demands attention to detail, since there are few truly synonymous words — that is words that can be used interchangeably regardless of context.

For example, the words lectern and podium appear to have no significant difference in meaning, but subtle distinctions in each word’s definition make them near-synonyms rather than true synonyms. A lectern refers to a stand that a speaker might use for holding notes, but it also refers to a slanted-top reading desk in a church from which the scriptures are read. Like lectern, podium is used for a speaker’s stand, but it also refers to a low platform upon which a speaker or conductor might stand.

The Tortoise and the Hare or The Turtle and the Rabbit?

In English, there is a menagerie of near-synonyms. Read the definitions below from When Is a Pig a Hog? See if you can identify which of the two animals listed fits the definition more closely.

  1. This domesticated member of the camel family is prized for its long, silky brown or black wool. Llama or Alpaca?
  1. A domesticated ass. Donkey or Mule?
  1. An immature swine weighing less than 120 pounds. Pig or Hog?
  1. A torpedo-shaped, small-toothed whale with a blunt snout. Dolphin or Porpoise?
  1. A leaping amphibian with smooth and moist skin, able to live on either land or water. Frog or Toad?
  1. A reptile with a soft body and hard shell that lives in the water, especially the sea. Turtle or Tortoise?
  1. A large, flesh-eating lizard-like reptile that is more aggressive than its counterpart; it also has a longer and more pointed snout, and its closed mouth shows teeth. Alligator or Crocodile?
  1. An amphibian, not a reptile, with soft, moist skin and no claws. Lizard or Salamander? (3)

Today’s Challenge:  Find the Fine Distinctions
What are some examples of pairs of words that are used interchangeably, such as “boat” or “ship”? Although the words are used interchangeably, what are the subtle differences between the two words?  Careful readers and writers pay attention to the fine distinctions among similar words.  For example, a boat is smaller than a ship, and a ship, unlike a boat is not powered by oars. Furthermore, a ship carries people or goods across deep water over long distances.

Select two of the words from the list below, or a closely related pair of your own.  Then, research, using a good dictionary, the definitions of both words.  Write an explanatory paragraph that gives the definitions for both words, including a clear explanation of what makes your two words different.  Your goal should be to provide your reader with a clear understanding of the similarities and differences between the two words and how the words might be used in different contexts. (Common Core Writing 2)

homicide and murder

burglary and robbery

slander and libel

abbreviation and acronym

monologue and soliloquy

myth and legend

story and narrative

novel and novella

diary and journal

Quotation of the Day:  What’s the difference between a fanatic and a zealot?  A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. –Winston Churchill

Answers: 1. Alpaca 2. Donkey 3. Pig 4. Porpoise 5. Frog 6. Turtle 7. Crocodile 8. Salamander

 

1 – Hunter, Matthew. “The Old Grey Hare: A History of Bugs Bunny.”

2- www.peterrabbit.com

3 – Randall, Bernice. When Is a Pig a Hog?: A Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words. New York: Galahad Books, 1991.

July 27: SMOG Day

Today is the anniversary of the coinage of the word smog. On July 27, 1905 the London Globe reported: “At a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. Des Voeux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as smog, a compound of smoke and fog” (1). Smog is just one example of a class of English words know as blends (a.k.a. portmanteau words), such as spork (spoon + fork), or brunch (breakfast + lunch).

The London fog of Dickens and Hollywood was certainly less romantic than it appeared. The major culprit of the city’s dark fog was burning coal; it seems appropriate that a physician would be the one to appear on the scene to name the culprit and to try to clear it up.

When it comes to writing, there is another kind of SMOG know as the Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook. This type of SMOG, an acronym, is a test of a text’s readability, based on a formula devised by reading researcher G. Harry McLaughlin. McLaughlin says he designed his formula in 1969 BC [Before Computers], to give educators an easy method of calculating the grade level of a given text.

The readability formula works like this: First, select three, 10-sentence samples from the text. Second, count the words in the text that are 3 or more syllables. Third, estimate the count’s square root, and add 3. The resulting number will correspond to the estimated grade-level of the text.

Today, in the age of computers, you can use the SMOG Formula online by simply cutting and pasting your text. This passage, for example, comes in at 11.02 on the SMOG Index.

The final word in the SMOG acronym, gobbledygook refers to more than just multisyllabic words. It means unintelligible language, especially jargon or bureaucratese.

The word was coined by Texas lawyer and Democratic Congressman Maury Maverick. He created the word in 1944 when referring to the obscure, smoggy language used by his colleagues. To craft his metaphor, Maverick turned to the turkey since the bird is “always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity.”

It should be noted that word origins ran in the Maverick family. Maury’s grandfather was Samuel Maverick, the Texas rancher who became famous and eponymous for his unconventional practice of not branding his cattle. Of course today a maverick is anyone who stands outside the crowd, or herd, defying the status quo (3).

One organization defying SMOG is the Plain English Campaign based in New Mills, Derbyshire, England. Their stated mission is to fight “for crystal-clear language and against jargon, gobbledygook and other confusing language.”

Each year the Plain English Campaign presents The Golden Bull Awards for the year’s worst examples of gobbledygook. Here is one example of a 2004 winner:

British Airways for terms and conditions

CHARGES FOR CHANGES AND CANCELLATIONS NOTE – CANCELLATIONS – BEFORE DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE ONLY THE Y/C/J-CLASS HALF RETURN AMOUNT CAN BE REFUNDED. AFTER DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE REFUND THE DIFFERENCE /IF ANY/BETWEEN THE FARE PAID AND THE APPLICABLE NORMAL BA ONEWAY FARE. CHANGES/UPGRADES- PERMITTED ANYTIME (4).

Below are examples given by the Plain English Campaign of sentences containing gobbledygook. Each of the three sentences is followed by a clear, concise version.  Study each sentence noticing how the three bad versions cloud meaning with gobbledygook:

  1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

-Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

  1. If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

-If you have any questions, please ring.

  1. It is important that you shall read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to its immediate return to the Council by way of the envelope provided.

-Please read the notes opposite before you fill in the form. Then send it back to us as soon as possible in the envelope provided.

Today’s Challenge:  SMOG Alert

Why do some writers write sentences clogged by gobbledygook, and more importantly, what can they do to prevent writing this way?  Write a PSA in clear, simple, forceful language that provides the audience with a clear warning against using gobbledygook as well as some specific tips on how to avoid it. (Common Core Writing 1)

Quotation of the Day: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. -George Orwell

 

1 – Funk, Charles Earle. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. New York: HarperPerennial, 1950.

2 – McLaughlin, G. Harry. SMOG: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook.

3 – Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words.  

4 – http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/index.html

 

 

 

July 25: Retronym Day

Two seemingly unrelated events that happened on this date, 151 years apart, merge to illuminate the endless vitality of the English language.

The first event took place on July 25, 1814 when British engineer George Stephenson demonstrated the first steam locomotive. The second event took place on July 25, 1965 at the Newport, Rhode Island Folk Music Festival. For the first time ever, Bob Dylan performed with an electric guitar.

Besides the date, these two events both deal with inventions that were later improved upon or at least altered in some significant way. The alteration was such that the name also changed. For example, the word guitar was a fairly straight forward term for a stringed instrument, but the invention of the electric guitar required that a new adjective be attached to guitar to distinguish the plugged version from the unplugged version. The new term is acoustic guitar, and it’s an example of a class of words called retronyms. The word locomotive lead to the retronym steam locomotive when electric and diesel locomotives came on the scene.

A retronym, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is: “A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as snail mail in contrast to e-mail.

The word was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, one-time press secretary for Robert F. Kennedy. He used existing Greek roots to create: retro (Greek, backwards) + nym (Greek, name).

Probably the largest collection of retronyms can be found at the website of Barry Stiefel who has cataloged 229 examples. Here are a few examples that show the variety of categories that retronyms can fall under:

politics: absolute monarchy

communications: AM radio

family: biological parent

warfare: conventional weapons

computers: corded mouse

sports: natural turf (1)

Given the name of the new idea or invention, see if you can name the retronym.

Example: Color television. Retronym: black and white television

  1. surrogate mother
  2. online journalism
  3. New Coke
  4. disposable diapers
  5. microwave oven
  6. digital camera
  7. paperback book
  8. nuclear warfare
  9. New Testament
  10. World War II

Today’s Challenge:  What’s in a Retronym?
What is an example of a word that was modified in order to distinguish an old technology or idea (‘snail mail’ or ‘acoustic guitar’) from a new technology or idea (‘email’ or ‘electric guitar’)?  Select a single retronym from the list of examples below, and write a brief explanatory history of the original term and the reasons behind the need for a retronym.  Do a bit of research to find details that go beyond the obvious to provide your audience with interesting details and evidence. (Common Core Writing 2)

absolute monarchy

bar soap

British English

broadcast television

conventional weapons

human computer

land line

Old Testament

silent movie

tap water

Quotation of the Day: This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book – it makes a very poor doorstop.–Alfred Hitchcock

Answers: 1. birth mother 2. print journalism 3. Classic Coke 4. cloth diapers 5. conventional over 6. film camera 7. hardcover book 8. conventional warfare 9. Old Testament 10. World War I

 


 

1 – Stiefel, Barry. Retronym: Aspiring To Be The World’s Largest Collection Of English Language Retronyms (229 And Counting!)