May 18:  Connotations Day

Today is the birthday of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who was born in Wales in 1872. Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell’s writings are eminently quotable. Here are a few examples that demonstrate his genius for language that is both concise and profound:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

One particular quotation by Russell has helped a generation of English teachers to illustrate the subtleties of denotation and connotation in the English language. On a BBC radio program called Brain Trust, Russell said the following:

I am firm.

You are obstinate.

He is a pig-headed fool.

With this one quotation, Russell demonstrated how a writer’s word choice is colored by his or her point of view and how the plethora of synonyms in English is a double-edged sword: it allows for an amazing array of possibilities, choices, and variety, but it also requires the writer to be a discriminating student of not just a word’s meaning, but also its associations and appropriate context.

The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition, but its connotation is its implied meaning – the associations and emotions that are attached to the word. For example, when addressing 15-year old, you have a choice of addressing him as a: young adult, a young person, an adolescent, a teenager, a teen, a teeny-bopper, a juvenile, or even a whipper-snapper. Although each of these words has the same basic denotation, they certainly have a range of different connotations on a scale of positive to neutral to negative.

Writing Russellesque triads is an excellent way to exercise your verbal muscles and learn to discriminate between the subtle differences in the connotations of various synonyms. For example, there is a classic example of a student who was looking for a synonym for “good.” He picked up a thesaurus and looked down the list of synonyms. Making a selection of what he thought was an appropriate synonym, the student wrote the following sentence: “Today I ate a benevolent donut.”

Here are some examples of triads:

I am an erudite scholar.

You are an learned instructor.

He is a didactic pedagogue.

 

I’m a patriot.

You are a flag waver.

He is jingoistic.

 

My smoking is a vice.

Your smoking is a transgression.

His smoking is a sin.

 

My story was a fascinating narration.

Your story was an interesting anecdote.

His story was a strange yarn.

 

I am sagacious.

You are astute.

He is crafty.

 

I am a scholar.

You are a student.

He is a pupil.

 

I am a wordsmith.

You are a writer.

He is a hack.

 

I’m resting.

You’re lounging.

He’s a coach potato.

 

I’m frugal.

You’re cheap.

He’s a tightwad.

Today’s Challenge: Connotative Concoctions

What are some examples of words that come in a variety of connotations?  Celebrate Bertrand Russell’s birthday by doing your own triad of synonyms. Use the following guidelines as you write:

-Arrange your concoction in first, second, and third person points of view: I, You, and He.

-Begin in the first person with the word or phrase that has the most positive connotations. Continue by using words and/or phrases with ever-increasing negative connotations.

Example:

My bathroom has a fragrant aroma.

Your bathroom has an odd odor.

His bathroom has a strange stench.

(Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quote of the Day: The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.-Mark Twain

 

May 17:  Collective Noun Day

Today is the anniversary of a landmark United States Supreme Court decision that changed American Education. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, announced its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision was to end the segregation of public schools and reverse the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that established the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. In the Plessy case, an African American named Homer Plessy was tried for his refusal to sit in a separate railroad car. Plessy v. Ferguson segregated blacks and whites in many areas of common life from water fountains to the school house. The Court’s decision in Brown started the slow march toward desegregation of American schools by stating: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (1).

The word segregation and desegregation share the common Latin root greg which means flock, as in people coming together in a group. Below are other words that relate to people or things coming together or, in the case of egregious, things standing out, outside of the flock.

Aggregate: A sum total or mixing together to constitute a whole (ag-, toward + greg, flock)

Congregate: To gather together into a crowd or group (con-, together + greg, flock)

Egregious: Extremely bad. Flagrant. Standing out from the group (e-, out + greg, flock)

Gregarious: Tending to live in flocks or herds; Sociable (greg, flock)

The word flock is a collective noun, which The American Heritage College Dictionary defines as, “A noun that denotes a collection of persons or things regarded as a unit.”

You run into collective nouns most often when you are talking about groups of animals, as in a pride of lions or a school or shoal of fish. In an earlier age when hunting was more common, the knowledgeable sportsman could correctly identify not only individual species but also the appropriate collective noun. In 1486, Dame Juliana Berners compiled a book of more than one hundred collective nouns called The Book of St Albans (1).

Here are some examples of collective nouns:

An array of hedgehogs, A brood of hens, A cloud of grasshoppers, A dray of squirrels, An exaltation of larks, A fall of woodcocks, A gaggle of geese (in flight: a skein of geese), A herd of deer, A leap of leopards, A mumble of moles, A nye of pheasants, A parliament of owls, A rout of wolves, A shrewdness of apes, A tittering of magpies, An unkindness of ravens, A watch of nightingales

Today’s Challenge:  Create Your Own Colony of Clever Collective Nouns

What are some different types of everyday objects or different types of people that could be labeled with some original collective nouns?  Brainstorm a list of different types of objects and different classifications of people.  Then, generate some of your own collective nouns to cleverly identify the group. Below are some examples:

A stretch of rubber bands, A squabble of siblings, A flush of toilets, A speedo of swimmers, A trip of klutzes, A ton of weightlifters, A chew of gummy worms, A keg of drunkards, A headache of homework, A crash of computers

(Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day: You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of discussion. –Plato

1 – Crutchfield, Roger S. English Vocabulary Quick Reference. Leesburg, VA: LexaDyne Publishers, Inc., 1999.

2 – Manser, Martin. The Guinness Book of Words (2nd Edition). Middlesex: Guinness Publishing Ltd, 1988.

May 4: Variety of English Day

On this day in 1976, Australia adopted “Waltzing Matilda” as its national anthem(1).

Original Waltzing Matilda manuscript.jpgAccording to the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the official national anthem became “Advance Australia Fair” in 1984 and at various times in Australian history the nation adopted the British anthem “God Save the Queen.” However, whether or not it is the official anthem, few would argue that at the very least “Waltzing Matilda” is the unofficial anthem.

The lyrics were written by Banjo Paterson in1895. However, like many folk songs, it’s virtually impossible to document the time or place of the tune’s origin.

The song is a reflection of the unique variety of Australian English that springs from three main sources: borrowed words from the Aborigines, archaic British words, and finally words that have evolved out of the unique geography and history of the Aussies.

The British first established a penal colony at Botany Bay in 1788.  Additional British colonies were established up to 1901, when the colonies voted to unite into a single nation, independent of Britain.  In both World Wars, Australia fought on the British side. Since World War II, Australia and the United States have been strong allies.

Unlike the lyrics to the U.S. national anthem, the words to “Waltzing Matilda” are not exactly clear.  In fact, for someone unfamiliar with Australian English, the lyrics of “Waltzing Matilda” read like “Jabberwocky.” With the glossary of key terms listed below, from the National Library of Australia, you can begin to make sense of the song’s story.

Waltzing Matilda

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled

“Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

And he sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,”

Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Along came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,

Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,

And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag,

“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me”.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag,

“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?”.

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,

Down came the troopers, one, two, three,

“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?”

“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me”.

WALTZING MATILDA: The act of carrying the ‘swag’ (an alternate colloquial term is ‘humping the bluey’).

BILLABONG:  A blind channel or meander leading out from a river.

COOLIBAH:  Sometimes spelled coolabah: a species of gum or eucalyptus tree.

SWAGMAN:  An Australian tramp, so called on account of the ‘swag’, usually a chaff bag, containing his ‘billy’, provisions and blankets.

BILLY:  An open topped tin can, with a wire carrying handle, used as a kettle for boiling water into which tea was thrown.

TUCKER BAG:  A bag for ‘tucker’ or food; part of the ‘swag’.

JUMBUCK:  A sheep. The term is a corruption of ‘jump up’ (Macquarie Dictionary, 3rd rev. ed. Sydney: Macquarie, 2001)

SQUATTER:  A grazier, or station (ranch) owner. Note that the meaning of the word changed later in the twentieth century to mean a person who occupied or resided at a property illegally. (2)

Today’s Challenge: Variety is the Spice of Language

What are some examples of the subcategories or dialects of the English language?  The English language has grown to become the dominant world language through two historical movements.  First, there was the expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century. Second, there was the expansion of the United States as a world economic power in the 20th century.   Although there are more native speakers of the Chinese language than native English speakers (982 million for Chinese versus 375 million for English), there are more total speakers of the English language than any other language (1,500 million).  The next closest for total speakers is Chinese with 1,100 total speakers (2).

David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, identifies eight distinct varieties (or dialects) of World Standard English:

American English

British and Irish English

Canadian English

Australian, New Zealand, and South Pacific English

East Asian English

South Asian English

West, East, and South African English

Caribbean English (3)

Research one of these varieties of English and write a brief report on what makes this variety distinctive from other forms of English.  Include some details on the variety’s historical influence and evolution as an English dialect, as well as some examples of specific words from the dialect. (Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. -Walt Whitman

1 – Frewin, Anthony. The Book of Days. London: Collins, 1979.

2-https://www.statista.com/statistics/266808/the-most-spoken-languages-worldwide/

3-Crystal, David. Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 1995.

 

May 3:  Will Shortz Day

On this day in 2008, Will Shortz, the crossword editor of the The New York Times, delivered the commencement address at Indiana University, his alma mater.

Will Shortz 2006.jpgShortz was born in 1952 in Indiana and attended Indiana University, studying Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. To earn his degree, Shortz had to persuade his professors that puzzles were a legitimate course of study. Once he got the go-ahead, he then designed his own curriculum. Completing his degree in 1974, Shortz is the only person in the world with a degree in the field.

In a 2016 interview with Forbes Magazine, Shortz talked about the importance of truly immersing yourself in the study of whatever career you chose:

The . . . thing is to know your field, whatever it is. I once had a summer research grant from Indiana University to study the history of puzzles at the Library of Congress. That’s where I found ‘The Enigma,’ the magazine of the National Puzzler’s League, and I read all the issues back to 1903. I also read every puzzle book and article there that I could get my hands on. I became a regular contributor to Dell puzzle magazines when I was 16 and never stopped making puzzles thereafter. So I think I understand the history, psychology, and nuts-and-bolts of my field better than anyone else.

Shortz’s studies did not go to waste. He is the former editor of Games magazine and the current director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which he founded in 1978. In addition to his work with The New York Times, Shortz has been heard each week on National Public Radio stations since 1987, where he is known as the Puzzle-Master (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Two Letters, Many Words

How many possible two-word names, phrases, titles, or compound words can you come up using the initials of your first and last name?  Will Shortz’s initials are WS.  See if you can identify the two-word names, phrases, titles, or compound words that also have the initials WS:

  1. Major League Baseball’s Championship
  2. New York financial center
  3. He wrote Hamlet
  4. Famous for playing Captain Kirk
  5. In page layout, it’s the part of the page that’s empty
  6. You measure this for bad storms and hurricanes
  7. The Fresh Prince
  8. Kayaking, windsurfing, and wakeboarding are examples

Using the initials of your own first and last name, create your own version of the Will Shortz word game. (Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day: We try to do a Shakespeare play every year, because I feel that it provides the best tool for actor training. It’s challenging in performance and language, physicality, analytical skills, and this particular one is along the serious lines, which seemed to fit the bill in terms of the kind of genre we wanted to explore. I call this the Sunday Times Crossword Puzzle for actors. –Jack Cirillo

1 – “Will Shortz Biography.” NPR.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=2101852

2-https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicapliska/2016/08/23/turn-your-passion-into-a-career-like-new-york-times-puzzle-editor-will-shortz/2/#39982b5a3ff2

http://www.c-span.org/video/?205168-1/indiana-university-commencement-address