August 22:  Fahrenheit 451 Day

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Today is the birthday of Ray Bradbury, the American writer best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was born in Illinois in 1920 and later moved to Los Angeles where he graduated high school in 1938. After high school, he furthered his education by spending long hours roaming the stacks in the public library.

He began writing full time in 1943, publishing a number of short stories in various periodicals. His first success came in 1950 when he published The Martian Chronicles, a novel made up of a number of his short stories about the human colonization of Mars (1).

This original cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a fireman's hat made of paper while his left arm is as if wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. The title and author's name appear in large text over the images and there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".On October 19, 1953, he published his most popular and critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, a story about a dark future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, firemen answer calls to burn illegal caches of books. The main character is one of these firemen, Guy Montag. Instead of reading, the general public immerse themselves in pleasure, watching television screens that take up three of the four walls in their homes and listening to seashell radios that fit in their ears. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Guy Montag begins to question his job and the entire status quo of the society in which he lives. He also begins to become curious about the books he’s burning. However, Montag’s curiosity and his books betray him, and the firemen one day arrive to burn his home and his books.

Montag flees the city and comes upon a group of educated but homeless men who each memorize a great work of literature or philosophy. When the time comes to return to the city and rebuild civilization from the ashes of burned books, these men will be ready to play their part. Montag will join them with his book, Ecclesiastes.

Bradbury published over 30 books, almost 600 short stories, as well as a number of poems, essays, and plays. Along with Fahrenheit 451, his most read book, his short stories are published in numerous anthologies and textbooks.

Fahrenheit 451 began as a short story called “The Fireman,” published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1950. Bradbury’s publisher then asked him to expand the story into a novel in 1953. The first draft of the novel was completed in a typing room located in the basement of the University of California Library. The typewriter was on a timer connected to a change slot. For one dime Bradbury got thirty minutes of typing. He spent $9.80 to complete the first draft.

When he wasn’t typing furiously against the clock, Bradbury would go upstairs to explore the library, strolling among that stacks, running his hands across the books, and flipping through the pages of books that captured his curiosity.

Bradbury had more than just a love affair with books. For him, they were the backbone of civilization.  It’s no wonder, then, that one of Bradbury’s most famous quotes is: There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

Today’s Challenge: On Fire for a Book

Near the end of Fahrenheit 451, the main character Montag finds himself among a group of people who each memorize a forbidden book.  Each person becomes the keeper of the book, preserving the book for future generations.  If you found yourself in a society that banned books, what single book would you select to memorize, and what makes that book so special? Brainstorm some titles of important books that should always remain alive in the hearts and minds of readers.  Select a single book that you would commit to memory, and write an explanation of what the book is about and what makes that book important and special? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- About Ray Bradbury. http://www.raybradbury.com/bio.html.

August 18:  CliffNotes Day

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Today is the birthday of Cliff Hillegass, the founder of CliffsNotes. Working for a college bookstore in the 1930s, Hillegass developed contacts with a Toronto bookseller named Jack Cole, who published guides in Canada called “Cole’s Notes.” Years later Cole suggested to Hillegass that an American version of Cole’s Notes might be a good idea for U.S. students.

In August 1958, Hillegass took out a $4,000 loan and began CliffsNotes with his first title: Hamlet. He continued by publishing 15 more guides to Shakespeare’s plays. At the beginning, the guides were simply Cole’s Notes repackaged with a new cover: Cliff’s characteristic, and now famous, yellow and black cover.

In fact, CliffsNotes have become so popular and recognizable that they have become a part of the English language. For example, you might hear someone say, “Just give me the Cliffsnotes version,” meaning: “Give me a short summary instead of all the details.”

Hillegass never intended his guides to just summarize the classics or replace the reading of the classics. Nevertheless, his work has spawned numerous imitators, to the point that test prep and reading guides have become a multi-million dollar industry. Fairtest.org estimates that the amount spent on test prep material for the SAT alone amounts to $100 million dollars annually.

Hillegass sold his business to Hungry Minds, Inc. in 1999 for $14 million dollars. However, CliffsNotes.com still carries the following message from its founder:

Cliff’s Message to Students

A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts. By usingCliffsNotes responsibly, reviewing past criticism of a literary work, and examining fresh points of view, you can establish a unique connection with a work of literature and can take a more active part in a key goal of education: redefining and applying classic wisdom to current and future problems.

—Cliff Hillegass

First Impressions

The editors of CliffsNotes put together a list of the ‘Ten Titles that Every Adult Should Read.’ See if you can match each of the opening lines below with the appropriate title from the list.

  1. This is the story of Achilles’ rage.
  1. Robert Cohn was once the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.
  1. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
  1. 124 was spiteful.
  1. When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor ….
  1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
  1. “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
  1. “Who’s there?”

9.  Call me Ishmael.

10.  Who is John Galt?

A A Tale of Two Cities

B The Sun Also Rises

C War and Peace

D Walden

E The Sound and the Fury

F Moby Dick

G Beloved

H The Iliad

I Atlas Shrugged

J Hamlet

Today’s Challenge: Short Story, Short Version
What is your favorite published short story?  How would you summarize its key characters, plot, and theme in just a few words?  Brainstorm a list of your favorite short stories.  Then, select one, and write a CliffNotes version, summarizing the key characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and theme of the story.  Assume your reader has not read the story, but also try to write such a great summary that your reader will want to read the actual complete version.
(Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day: Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have. -Louis E. Boone

Answers: 1. H, 2. B, 3. E, 4. G, 5. D, 6. A, 7. C, 8. J, 9. F, 10. I

 

August 15:  Understatement Day

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On this day in 1945, after two atomic bombs had been dropped on his country, Emperor Hirohito of Japan addressed his nation in a radio broadcast.  The speech was notable not only because it was the first time that a Japanese emperor had addressed the common people, but also because of its understatement of the situation.

Hirohito in dress uniform.jpgIn announcing Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces, Emperor Hirohito attempted to soften the blow of defeat by understating its effect, saying:

the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage . . . .

Understatement is a rhetorical device use by speakers and writers to deliberately make something seem less serious than it actually is.  It may be used to soften serious matters as in the Emperor’s broadcast, or it can be used for humorous effect.  A classic example of this is in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  After confronting King Arthur and having both of his arms cut off, the Black Knight continues to taunt Arthur with the understatement, “It’s just a flesh wound!”

To be precise, Emperor Hirohito’s understatement is categorized as the rhetorical device called litotes, a form of understatement-by-negative (1). The Oxford English Dictionary defines litotes as “an ironical understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary.”  So, for example, imagine Michael Jordan has just hit a 30-foot shot to win the NBA Championship.  You might express your astonishment at the great play.  Or you might use litotes to intentionally understate the play –especially if you’re a fan of the opposing team — by saying, “That Jordan’s not a bad player.”

Today’s Challenge:  The Understatement of the Century
What is an example of a major news story that appeared within the last twenty years that you might intentionally understate?  Generate a list of bad news stories from the past twenty years.  Imagine a spokesperson trying to break the bad news utilizing understatement to soften the blow. (Common Core Writing 2)

Example:  Payton Manning speaking to Denver Bronco fans after losing Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seattle Seahawks by a score of 43-8:  “We got down early and just ran out of time to mount a comeback.  The Seahawks defense was not bad.”

Quotation of the Day:  I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. -Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

 

1-Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence.  London:  Icon Books, 2013:  77.

 

August 13: Americanisms from 1950s Day

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Today is the anniversary of an article published in the show-business magazine Variety that featured a new word. The article published on August 13, 1950 used the term disc jockey for the first time, reporting the phenomenon of New York radio hosts selecting and playing phonograph records for an eager audience of young fans of popular music. The term stuck, sometimes abbreviated as DJ or deejay. DJ is an example of an Americanism, an English word or expression that is born in the U.S.A. and that is used in the writing and speech of Americans.

The book America in So Many Words by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf documents Americanisms from the 1600s to the end of the 20th century. For each year, the authors select a single representative Americanism that was “newly coined or newly prominent.” Looking at the words and the background of each is a reminder that every English word is like a fossil or an archeological artifact that reveals the attitudes and trends of the age in which it was coined.

The below list of Americanisms from 1949 to 1960, for example, gives interesting insights into the characteristics of post-war America; the list also foreshadows several political, cultural, social, and economic trends that would emerge in the second half of the 20th century.

1949 cool

1950 DJ

1951 rock and roll

1952 Ms.

1953 UFO

1954 Fast Food

1955 hotline

1956 brinkmanship

1957 role model

1958 Murphy’s Law

1959 software

1960 sit-in (1)

If English is the global language of the 21st century, then it is certainly American English which is the most influential variety of English. Whereas the English language of the British Empire dominated and propagated English around the world in the first half of the 20th century, American English, since the end of World War II, has exported English even farther than the Brits, via satellite and computer technology.

As early as 1780, John Adams envisioned this linguistic American Revolution:

English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use.

One aspect that characterizes the American variety of English is its brevity. Americanisms are typically single syllable words or at least single syllable compounds. Americanisms include a variety of classifications that produce words that are short and sweet: Americanisms are clipped words (such as fan from fanatic), blends(such as motel from motor + hotel), abbreviations (such as Ms. from mistress), initialisms (such as UFO from Unidentified Flying Object), and acronyms (such as AWOL from absent without leave).

In fact, even the word acronym is an Americanism that emerged from the government and military build-up of World War II to give Americans a way to compress multiple-word expressions into easy-to-communicate small packages. This Americanism uses Greek roots: acro- meaning top, peak, or initial and -nym meaning name. Using the initial letters of words, acronyms condense names, titles, or phrases into single words, such as radar for radio detection and ranging.

Born in the U.S.A.

Given the number of letters and a brief definition, see if you can identify the Americanisms below. None are more than four letters long:

  1. Three-letter word in response to someone stating to obvious.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that emerged from rap music and its performers’ desire for respect.
  1. Two-letter initialism that reflects the American faith in the ability to measure anything, including the quality of a person’s gray matter.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that refers to any liquid, especially a sticky one.
  1. A frequently used two-letter initialism with two different meanings. The first came out of the world of technology; the second meaning came out of the multicultural movement.
  1. A two-letter initialism that refers to American soldiers.
  1. A four-letter acronym that evolved from the Civil War to refer to soldiers who fled the battlefield or their assigned posts.
  1. A three-letter initialism that reflects the American tendency to live life at a fast pace and to get things done in a hurry.

Today’s Challenge:  Yankee Doodle Lexicon
Based on your best guesses, what are some examples of words or expressions that are Americanisms, that is words or expressions that emerged from American English and the culture and history of the Unites States?  Select a single word or phrase, and do some research to verify whether or not it is an Americanism.  Once you have identified one, do some research to determine the etymology of the word or phrase.  Write an extended definition of the word that includes its definition, evolution, and history. (Common Core Writing 2)

The following are some examples:

bottom line

workaholic

Watergate

soundbite

stealth

gridlock

wannabe

yuppie

soccer mom

millennium bug

Quote of the Day: Thus the American, on his linguistic side, likes to make his language as he goes along, and not all the hard work of his grammar teachers can hold the business back. A novelty loses nothing by the fact that it is a novelty; it rather gains something, and particularly if it meets the national fancy for the terse, the vivid, and, above all, the bold and imaginative. —H. L. Mencken

Answers:

  1. duh (1963) 2. dis (1986) 3. IQ (1916) [intelligence quotient] 4. goo (1902) 5. PC (1990) [personal computer; politically correct] 6. GI (1917) [See Word Daze June 22 GI Day 7. AWOL [absent without leave] (1863) 8. P.D.Q [Pretty Darn Quick] (1875)

1- Barnhart, David K. and Alla A. Metcalf. America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

2 – Algeo, John. “Americans are Ruining English.” Language Myth #21. Do You Speek American? PBS.

http://www.pbs.org/speak/words/sezwho/ruining/

 

August 12:  Mythology Day

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Today is the birthday of Edith Hamilton whose writings on ancient civilization and mythology have been read by generations of students.

File:Edith Hamilton.jpgBorn in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. At the age of seven, she began studying Latin and committing biblical passages to memory. She completed her education in classics at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore where she later became headmistress. She gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of Greek tragedies. Encouraged by her friends to write, she published her first book, The Greek Way (1930), in her 60s.

Hamilton continued writing into her 90s, publishing a total of nine books. Although she wrote about ancient Rome and Israel, the civilization she seemed to admire the most was ancient Greece:

The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greek said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.”

Hamilton’s best known and most widely read book is Mythology (1942), which she wrote as an overview of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. This book is known by generations of middle school and high school students who read it as a primer on the myths.

Prior to her death in 1963 at the age of 96, Hamilton received several honorary degrees in the U.S. and was also honored internationally as an official citizen of Athens, Greece in 1957 (1).

Words from the Gods

Many common English words spring from the stories that Hamilton told of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Given the eight clues below, see if you can name the words.

  1. This word for any grain, such as wheat or oats comes from the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
  1. This word for a repeating sound comes from the name of a nymph who loved Narcissus.
  1. This word for maintaining health and preventing disease comes from the name of the Greek goddess of health.
  1. This word for psychically induced sleep comes from the name for the Greek god of sleep.
  1. This word for being full of happiness and playfulness comes from the name of the most powerful Roman god.
  1. This word for being changeable or volatile comes from the name for the Roman messenger of the gods.
  1. This word for sudden fear comes from the name of the Greek god of fields, forests, and wild animals.
  1. This word, used to refer to something that induces sleep, comes from the name of the Roman god of sleep.

In addition to being embedded in the etymology of English words, the characters from mythology and their stories are frequently alluded to by many writers.  The works of Edith Hamilton are one the best ways for students to become familiar with these fascinating stories as well as to become familiar with allusions – indirect or passing references – to these characters that are made throughout our culture, both past and present.

Here is a list of a few prominent figures from Greek Mythology:

Achilles

Ariadne

Hercules

Odysseus

Oedipus

Orpheus

Pandora

Paris

Persephone

Prometheus

Theseus

Today’s Challenge:
What characters and stories from mythology to you think are the most captivating?  Brainstorm a list of characters from mythology that come to mind. Identify which one character you think has the most captivating and fascinating story.  Then, tell the story of that character and explain what makes it such a captivating story. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3)

Today’s Quote: It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton

Answers: 1. cereal 2. echo 3. hygiene 4. hypnosis 5. jovial 6. mercurial 7. panic 8. somniferous

 

1 – Sicherman, Barbara. “Edith Hamilton.” The Reader’s Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, published by Houghton Mifflin Company

 

August 11:  Presidential Gaffe Day

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On this date in 1984, President Ronald Reagan, known as the “great communicator,” made one of the rare gaffes of his political career. While warming up for a radio address, Reagan said:

My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

At the time Reagan was running for re-election against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, and the President’s faux pas resulted in a temporary dip in his poll numbers. However, Reagan won the November election and went on to continue his get-tough policy towards Russia. Ironically one of Reagan defining moments came in later comments about Russia; in 1987 he visited the Berlin Wall where he famously commanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (1).

Some might argue that the most glaring faux pas in presidential history was committed by President William Henry Harrison at his inauguration on March 4, 1841. Ignoring advisers who told him to wrap up against the cold, he proceeded to give the longest ever inaugural address (one hour and forty-five minutes) and died from the resulting chill one month later of pneumonia.

The focus here, however, is on verbal faux pas (French for “false step). Based on this criteria, Harrison’s gaffe doesn’t quite qualify; his speech was long (10,000 words), but today no one quotes any of his slips of the tongue. One gaffe that does qualify, however, was one by President George W. Bush.  When making his successful run for president in 2000, he said:

Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning? (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Foot in Mouth Faux Pas
What is the best way to recover from a verbal gaffe? What advice would you give a public figure or anyone who has said something that they wish they hadn’t?   In an age of social media and online communications everyone, not just presidents or other public figures, is more susceptible than ever to verbal or written gaffes.  Write a brief Public Service Announcement (PSA) that gives clear, concise advice on what should be done in the event of a gaffe. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results. -President Calvin Coolidge

 

1 – This Day In History – Presidential – August 11. The History Channel

 

2 – List of U.S. presidential faux-pas, gaffes, and unfortunate incidents

 

 

August 6:  Interjection Day

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Today is the anniversary of the British release of the Beatles album Help!, the soundtrack of their second film by the same title.

The title song, like most Beatles songs, is credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, but it was primarily a Lennon composition. John Lennon explained that the song was written during the height of Beatlemania and was a literal cry for help.

The Beatles, standing in a row and wearing blue jackets, with their arms positioned as if to spell out a word in flag semaphoreThe covers of both the British and the American albums show the Fab Four standing with their arms outstretched to signal semaphore letters. Strangely the letters do not spell out H – E – L -P; instead, they spell N – V – U – J.

The Beatles second film, a James Bond spoof, was not as well received as their critically acclaimed first film A Hard Day’s Night. The music of the film, however, revealed the Beatles maturing songwriting talent with such songs as “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Yesterday.” The varied tempos of the songs and the lyrics, more sophisticated than those on previous albums, showed that the Beatles were moving beyond “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”

The words help and yeah are both interjections: words or phrases that express emotion but have no grammatical connection to the rest of a sentence. One of the most overlooked and underrated parts of speech, interjections are an important part of the way we communicate.  Interjections are the one part of speech that is definitely a significant part of our everyday speech.  One example is the simple phone greeting hello.  Today we take it for granted, but when phones first appeared there was no standard greeting.  In fact, the phone’s inventor Alexander Graham Bell advocated the nautical Ahoy!  Another famous inventor, Thomas Edison lobbied for hello.  Bell got final credit for inventing the phone, but Edison’s choice of interjection prevailed.

The book ZOUNDS! A Brower’s Dictionary of Interjections is a catalog of over 500 interjections, their definitions and origins. Where else can you learn that there are a total of 109 two-letter words allowable for Scrabble, and that 23 of those two-letter words are interjections:

ah, aw, ay, bo, eh, er, fy, ha, hi, ho, io, lo,

my, oh, oi, ow, sh, st, ta, um, ur, ou, yo

The book, written by Mark Dunn and illustrated by Sergio Aragones, gives fascinating and funny background explanations for each interjection.

Here is a small A-Z sample of some of the interjections featured. You can also watch the unforgettable School House Rock video.

aha

bravo

check

definitely

eureka

far-out

gadzooks

hi

I declare

jeepers

knock-knock

la-di-da

my bad

no soap

O.K.

please

quiet

rats

sorry

thanks

uff-da

very well

way to go

yadda-yadda

zounds (1)

Read each of the famous interjections below and see if you can identify the name of the person or character who made it famous.

  1. “Eureka!”
  1. “Badabing-badaboom”
  1. “Stuff and nonsense!”
  1. “Bah! Humbug!”
  1. “Fiddle-dee-dee !”
  1. Leapin’ lizards!”
  1. “Nanoo, nanoo”
  1. “Dyn-O-Mite!”
  1. “Bully!” (1)

Today’s Challenge: Wow! The Interjection Hall of Fame!
What are your favorite interjections — exclamatory blurt-outs or quips?  Brainstorm a list of interjections you use or ones that have been used by others.  They may be famous (cowabunga!), familiar (yeah, right!), or original to you.  Select the one interjection you like the best, and write an explanation of what it is, how it is used, and what makes it so special. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quote of the Day:  If language were some beautiful, intricately woven rug, interjections might be those end tassels that knot and mat and collect all the cat hair. -Mark Dunn

Answers: 1. Archimedes 2. Tony Soprano 3. Alice, in Alice in Wonderland 4. Scrooge 5. Scarlet O’Hara 6. Little Orphan Anne 7. Mork, from “Mork & Mindy” 8. Jimmy Walker from “Good Times” 9. President Theodore Roosevelt

 

1 – Dunn, Mark and Sergio Aragones. Zounds!: A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.

January 31: Factoid Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Born in New Jersey, Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1944 and then served in the Philippines during World War II.  After the war, Mailer published a semi-autobiographical novel called The Naked and the Dead.  Based on his experiences in the war, The Naked and the Dead was incredibly successful and brought Mailer fame at just 25 years of age.

Writing in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer coined the word “factoid,” a word that has taken on a number of interesting usages in the past few years.  In his biography of Monroe, Mailer defined factoids as “ . . . facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper . . . .” In its original sense, a factoid was not, as some believe, “a small fact”; rather, a factoid was an untruth that was stated as if it were an actual fact and was repeated so many times that many believed it to be true.  A classic example would be the often-stated belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

It’s appropriate that Mailer would coin the word, considering the fact that his writing often blurred the lines between fiction and journalism.  For example, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his novel The Executioner’s Song, a book that he called a “true life novel,” and which is based on the actual events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah in 1967.

Because so many people have mistakenly mixed up the meaning of the words fact and factoid for so long, factoid has recently taken on another, opposite meaning to Mailer’s original definition.  Today when people use the word, they mean “a trivial or fascinating fact.”  So, we can sum up the interesting history of this word by saying the word that originally meant “a fake fact” has evolved to mean “an interesting fact.”

As a result of the history of the word’s usage, lexicographers would call factoid a contronym — a word that has two opposite definitions, as in the word “dust,” which can mean “to add fine particles” or “to remove fine particles.”  These words are sometimes also called “Janus words,” based on Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gateways, and doorways (See January 1:  Exordium Day). Other examples of contronyms are apology, bolt, finished, handicap, trip, and weather.

Today’s Challenge:  Factlet or Factoid?

To clarify the often confusing and contradictory definitions of factoid, columnist William Safire suggested a new word be added to the English lexicon:  factlet, meaning “a small, arcane fact.”  By adopting factlet, writers would help readers differentiate between the two meanings of factoid.  How do you determine whether something is true or false?  When you’re reading, how do you determine whether something is fact or fiction?  Using a recent newspaper or magazine, gather five interesting factual details based on a variety of different articles; try for factlets – small, arcane facts.  Once you have a list of at least five factlets with citations, use your imagination to create five factoids — details that sound plausible but that are made up.  Finally, select a random item from your list of ten, and read it to a friend to see if they can tell the factlets from the factoids.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. -Mark Twain

1-Marsh, David.  A Factoid is Not a Small Fact. Fact. The Guardian.  17 Jan. 2014.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids.

January 30: Blurb Day

Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*

Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement:  the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.

The story of the blurb begins in 1906.  Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at a trade association dinner.  To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description.  To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb. The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets.  Today, the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.

One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself.  After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.

Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second edition.

Today blurbs have expanded beyond books.  They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.

Today’s Challenge:  Judging a Book by Its Blurb

What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough about to endorse with words of praise?  Brainstorm some titles or products you really love.  Then, select one and write a blurb.  Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.  -Stephen King (3)

*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

1-Dwyer, Colin. Forget the Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story on Blurbs?  NPR 27 Sept. 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs.

2-Letters Of Note. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.  6 Dec. 2010.  http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html.

3-King, Stephen.  Stephen King on the “Art” of the Blurb. Entertainment. 20 Mar. 2008.  http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2.

January 26: Isms Day

On this date in 1564, Pope Pius IV signed a letter certifying the decisions made by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent.  This act by the Pope in effect sealed the official split of the Christian Church between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The 16th century was a tumultuous time for Christianity. Beginning with Martin Luther’s nailing of his 99 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 (See October 31:  Thesis Day), individuals began challenging the authority and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.  In 1533, the influential French theologian John Calvin broke from the church, and in that same year, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church, making himself the head of the Church of England.  This act of defiance came about when the Pope refused Henry’s request to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The Council of Trent was, therefore, an attempt by the leadership of the Catholic Church to craft an official response to calls for reform.  The council met 25 times between 1545 and 1563 in the northern Italian town of Trent, discussing issues such as the requirements for salvation, the role of the Latin as the exclusive language for prayer, the celibacy of priests, and the veneration of relics and saints.  The council also authorized the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books forbidden by the church.  Although the Council did create some reforms in church doctrine, it ultimately failed to unify Christianity resulting in the divide that is still present today between Catholicism and Protestantism (1).

When it comes to ideas, the suffix -ism is the go-to word-ending for words that relate to ideas or ideologies, as in philosophies, systems, practices, or movements.  As we see with Catholicism and Protestantism, each -ism has its own unique and distinct history.  These words are also noteworthy in that each one attempts to wrap up a multitude of ideas into a single word.  As a result, each one, whether long (antidisestablishmentarianism) or short (cubism), is packed with dense meaning.

Today’s Challenge:  This-ism and That-ism

What is an -ism that you would be interested in exploring to better understand its meaning and history?  The list below reflects an A to Z sample of -isms from history, politics, philosophy, art, science, economics and religion.  Select one of the -isms from the list or another one that you’re interested in. Research it for both its history and meaning.  Then, write a brief report in which you explain as clearly as possible the ideas and history that are encompassed in the single word.

Aristotelianism, Behaviorism, Capitalism, Dystopianism, Existentialism, Federalism, Goldwynism, Hinduism, Imagism, Jingoism, Keynesianism, Libertarianism, Malapropism, Naturalism, Objectivism, Pragmatism, Quietism, Romanticism, Stoicism, Totalitarianism, Utilitarianism, Victorianism, Wilsonianism, eXpressionism, Yankeeism, Zoroastrianism

Quotation of the Day:  Ev’rybody’s talking about Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism  -John Lennon in the song Give Peace a Chance

1- Marsh W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories From History. Icon Books, 2007.