September 18:  Lexicographer Day

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Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary.  His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755.  Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.

A lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers.  Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works.  Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word.  Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive.  Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean.

JohnsonDictionary.pngIn Johnson’s Dictionary he defines his job as follows:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose: not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Lexicographer for a Day

What are the key elements of writing a definition?  The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed.  Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech.  Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into.  Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.

Here’s an example:

Pencil (Noun):  a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.

Open a dictionary to a random page, and write down the first four words you find.  Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own.  Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-British Library. 1755: Johnson’s Dictionary.  Public Domain.

September Seventeenth:  Univocalic Day

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A univocalic is a piece of writing where the writer uses only a single vowel. Because September Seventeenth contains only the vowel ‘e,’ it’s the perfect day to celebrate this rare but interesting writing form.

One classic example of a univocalic was written by C.C. Bombaugh in 1890.  He used just the vowel ‘O’:

No cool monsoons blow soft on Oxford dons,

Orthodox, jog-trot, book-worm Solomons

The following are some examples of some fairly common words in English that are Univocalic:

Only A:  craftsman, awkward, paragraph, papal, saga, maharajah, bacchanal, Taj Mahal, lasagna

Only E:  sentences, cleverness, eschew, precedents, vehement, resentment, Greece, legends, sleeplessness, cheerlessness

Only I:  writing, criticism, bikini, nihilistic, dimwits, diminish, twilight, intrinsic, Viking, siblings

Only O:  bookshop, proctor, how-to book, rococo, bookworms, protocol, orthodox, Woodstock, voodoo

Only U:  untruth, numbskull, succubus, hummus, murmur, humdrum, humbug, dumbstruck, ruckus, guru

Today’s Challenge: One Vowel Howl

How many words can you list that contain only a single vowel, as in ‘September,’ ‘bookworm,’ or ‘Mississippi’?  Pick a single vowel, and make a list of words that contain only that vowel. Then, use your list of words as ideas for a univocalic composition, such as a haiku, the first sentence of a short story, or a newspaper headline.  Hold a Univocalic Day contest or reading so you can share your creations. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

September 16:  Eponymous Law Day

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Today is the birthday of Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), the author of the book The Peter Principle. Peter was an education professor at the University of Southern California and the University of British Columbia, but he became famous in the field of business when he published The Peter Principle in 1969. The book is full of case histories that illustrate why every organization seems to fall short of reaching maximum productivity and profit. His explanation relates to the corporate mentality that promotes productive workers upward until they achieve positions beyond their ability to perform competently.

Peter’s insights into the organizational structures of businesses were so well-received that The Peter Principle has gone well beyond just the title of a popular book; it has entered the language as an adage, immortalizing its creator. The American Heritage Dictionary records the following definition of the Peter Principle:

The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent (1).

Laurence Peter is not alone in the world of eponymous lawsa principle or general rule that named for a person.  Below are some examples of other eponymous laws or principles:

Ockham’s Razor

Murphy’s Law

The Dilbert Principle

Hofstadter’s Law 

Parkinson’s Law

Amara’s Law

Stigler’s Law of Eponymy .

Today’s Challenge:  Laying Down the Law

What are some general rules or principles that you have noticed based on your experience of living in the real world?  Attach your name to the one that you think is the most original and most insightful.  Then, explain and define your law, and give examples of when and where the law comes into play and how it can assist people in living better lives. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Example:

Backman’s Law of Student Speeches:   The likelihood of a sudden, unexpected, and unexplainable attack of laryngitis increases the closer a student approaches the period or time when he or she is required to give a speech.

This law helps one anticipate the strange phenomenon which renders students incapable of giving their assigned speeches. Debilitated by the sudden onset of speechlessness, a student will hobble into class and approach the teacher.  Pointing to his throat and frowning pathetically, the student will then bravely make an attempt to utter a single sentence.  Risking further throat injury, the student will whisper, “I don’t think I’m going to be able -cough! cough! – to go today.” The student will then turn and limp to his seat.  The bout of laryngitis usually ends at the tolling of the class’s final bell, miraculously disappearing just as suddenly as it appeared sixty minutes earlier. Multiple medical studies by reputable research centers have failed to determine a reasonable cause for this debilitating yet temporary affliction; however, a team of research scientists at John Hopkins is currently conducting a study that promises to produce some breakthrough findings.

1 – American Heritage Dictionary. Peter Principle. 5th Edition 2018. https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=Peter+principle&submit.x=0&submit.y=0.

September 12:  Croissants and Cappuccino Day

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On this day in 1683, a vast Ottoman army of 250,000 troops was defeated in its attempt to take Vienna, Austria.  The Austrian army was assisted by Polish forces, led by King John Sobieski, who came at the request of Pope Alexander VIII. After a battle that lasted fifteen hours, the Turks retreated, leaving behind weapons, stores of food, and thousands of their dead. After his victory, the Polish King sent a dispatch to the Pope that read, “I came, I saw, God conquered” (See July 13:  I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Day).

Battle of Vienna 1683 11.PNGTo celebrate the victory, Vienna’s bakers cooked up a new culinary creation, a crescent-shaped roll that mimicked the crescent moon on the Turkish flag.  Later, in 1770, the new roll was introduced to France when Marie Antoinette, originally of Austria, married the future Louis XVI.  Only then did the roll become the croissant, French for crescent.

A second culinary creation resulted from the large quantities of coffee left behind by the Turkish army as they fled.  Finding the coffee bitter, the Christian soldiers added milk and honey to make it more palatable.  For the name of this new concoction, they turned to a Capuchin monk named Marco d’Aviano, who had been sent by the Pope as emissary to assist the commanders of the Christian army.  The tasty drink was named Cappuccino in honor of friar Marco d’Aviano’s order, Capuchin (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Classic Culinary Combos

What food combination would you argue is most worth celebrating?  Make your case for what makes your menu items so great and so complementary, and include some details from research on the history of the menu items.  Go beyond the obvious to give your reader some details about the food that goes beyond common knowledge.  Instead of baloney, serve up the best caviar to your audience. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Marsh, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  365:  Your Date with History.  Cambridge, UK:  Totem Books, 2004.

 

September 10:  Notorious Eponym Day

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On this day in 1945, Vidkun Quisling was convicted of high treason for his collaboration with the Germans during World War II.  A Norwegian politician, Quisling met with Hitler in April 1940, just prior to the Nazi invasion of Norway, and he was appointed Minister-President during the Nazi occupation of Norway.  After the unconditional surrender of Germany in May 1945, Quisling was arrested and put on trial for his treasonous activities during the war and for his collaboration with the Nazis.  After his conviction, he was executed by firing squad on October 24, 1945.  Since that time his name has been synonymous with anyone who collaborates with the enemy (1).

The word quisling is a classic example of an eponym, a word derived from a real or imaginary person. For example, the word shrapnel evolved from Henry Shrapnel, an English artillery officer who developed an exploding shell that sent out bits of metal. Most often the capitalized proper noun that refers to the specific person becomes lowercase as it is transformed into a general noun, adjective, or verb.

Today’s Challenge:  Name Hall of Shame

Who is a person so notorious that his or her name is synonymous with despicable behavior?  Most eponyms have fairly positive, or at least neutral, connotations, such as sandwich, sideburns, and sequoia.  The list of eponyms below, however, have entered the language with decidedly negative connotations. Select one, and do a bit of etymological research to see if you can discover the person and the story behind the word. Write a brief speech that defines the word and explains why it deserves a spot in the Name Hall of Shame.

bowdlerize, chauvinism, draconian, gerrymander, lynch, narcissism, procrustean  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- History in an Hour.com. Vidkun Quisling, the Norweigian Nazi. 24 Oct. 2010. .

September 6:  Reduplicative Day

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On this day in 1916, Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, opened in Memphis, Tennessee.  The store pioneered several of the features that we take for granted when grocery shopping today, such as individually priced items, checkout stands, and shopping carts.

In addition to its unique in-store features, the store also had a unique name.  The store’s founder, Clarence Saunders (1881-1953) never explained how he came upon the rhyme “Piggly Wiggly,” but there is little doubt that the unusual name contributed to making his store memorable (1).

Many words in English feature this supersonic, sing-song sound effect.  There are so many, in fact, that this class of words has its own name:  reduplicatives.

Piggly Wiggly logoThese words come in three basic varieties:  rhyming reduplicatives, like hocus-pocus, fuddy-duddy, and helter-skelter; vowel shift reduplicatives, like flip-flop, Ping-Pong, and zig zag; and repetitive reduplicatives (also known as tautonyms), like can-can, never-never, and yo-yo (2).

There are over two thousand reduplicatives in English.  Here is an alphabetically arranged list of examples:  

bye-bye, chitchat, dilly-dally, flim-flam, flip-flop, fuddy-duddy, hoity-toity, higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky, hokey-pokey, hob-nob, heebie-jeebiesy, hocus-pocus, hugger-mugger, hurly-burly, hodge-podge, hurdy-gurdy, hubbub, hullabaloo, harumscarum, hurry-scurry, hooley-dooley, Humpty Dumpty, mishmash, nitty-gritty, riffraff, seesaw, shilly-shally, so-so, super-duper, teeny-weeny, willy-nilly, wishy-washy

Today’s Challenge:  Words Heard by Word Nerds

What’s your favorite reduplicative?  Write an extended definition that provides the word’s meaning, examples of how the word is used, and an explanation of how the word’s sound relates to its memorability and uniqueness. (Common Core Writing 1 – Expository)

1- Pigglywiggly.com. About Us.

2- Steinmetz, Sol and Barbara Ann Kipfer.  The Life of Language. New York:  Random House, 2006:  282-290.

September 5:  Two Voices Day

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Today is the birthday of children’s author and poet Paul Fleishman. Born in 1952, Fleishman grew up in Santa Monica, California.  His father, Sid Fleishman, was also an award-winning author of children’s books.

Fleishman graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1977, and before he became a full-time writer, he worked as a bookstore clerk, library shelver, and proofreader.  His work as a proofreader led to the founding of two grammar watchdog groups:  ColonWatch and The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to English (1).

Fleischman in 2014.Fleishman won the most prestigious award in children’s literature in 1989, the Newbery Medal, for his book Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices. In Joyful Noise, Fleishman popularized a new poetic genre, the poem for two voices. Written to be read aloud by two people, each poem is written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

How to Read a Poem for Two Voices

I’m the first reader. I’m reading

only the lines in the left column.      

                                                                                                                                                                                        I’m the second reader.

                                       As you can see, I waited my

                                                             turn to read.

If words appear on the same

Line in both columns,

Both readers read them aloud,       Both readers read them aloud,

Simultaneously.                                   Simultaneously.                                                            

One voice on the left,                            

                                                          Plus another on the right,

Makes two voices.                           Makes two voices.                                                                             

Today’s Challenge:  Compose, Collaborate, and Contrast

Given poetic license, what two people, places, things, or ideas would you like to see hold a conversation?  Write your own poem for two voices.  Begin by brainstorming some contrasting ideas:  people, places, ideas, or things.  You have poetic license to give voices to anyone or anything.  Here are some ideas to get you started:  father and son, dog and cat, protagonist and antagonist, summer and winter, success and failure, noun and verb, football and baseball.  Craft your poem in the two-column format, and when you have a solid draft, work with a partner to bring the poem to life by reading it aloud.  Revise and practice until you have a poem that’s ready to be shared with a larger group. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Paul Fleishchman.net. Biography.

September 3:  Postcard Poem Day

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On this day William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote his sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. Instead of taking a photo or painting a picture, he crafted an image made of words, vividly describing the city of London and the Thames River.  Like a postcard, his poem is permanently postmarked by its title, providing both the time and place it was composed.

The original manuscript of the poem bears a note that provides more details on the circumstances surrounding its composition:  “Composed on the roof of a coach, on my way to France” (1).

Unlike the typical bucolic scenes of his romantic verse, in this poem Wordsworth describes an urban scene:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;  (lines 4-10)

Today’s Challenge:  Vivid Views in Verse

Follow Wordsworth’s model by painting your own picture in words.  What are the most unforgettable scenes that you can remember witnessing?  What made them worth capturing in descriptive words?  Select your single most vivid, memorable scene to immortalize.  Then, craft your description of the scene in a postcard poem. Select from your rhetorical palette the best devices to paint your scene:  metaphors, similes, sensory imagery, and concrete diction.  Strive to show rather than tell. Try to evoke the scene in your reader’s imagination, and postmark it with your title:  the place and time of composition. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-The British Library. Manuscript of ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth. Public Domain.

 

September 1:  Author Perseverance Day

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Today is the birthday of Robert M. Pirsig, who received 121 rejections for his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Pirsig persevered.  The book he wrote in 1968 about a motorcycle trip that he and his son took from Minnesota to San Francisco was finally published in 1974.  Not only was the book published, it achieved cult status, selling more than five million copies.

Zen motorcycle.jpgPirsig is not the only author to experience rejection.  L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, received so many rejection letters that he kept a journal called a “Record of Failure.”  J.K. Rowling received 14 rejections for her first Harry Potter book, and Stephen King received more than 30 rejections for his first novel Carrie.  In fact, King almost gave up on Carrie.  Discouraged with his lack of progress, he threw the manuscript in the garbage.  His wife retrieved it, however, and told him to keep writing.  Sometimes even the best writers need the encouragement of others.

Today’s Challenge:  The Write Stuff

Writing is hard work, and all writers must persevere through rejection before getting their writing published.  What’s your favorite book?  What makes it such a special book?  Write an acceptance letter to the author explaining why you love it so much and thanking the author for all of his/her hard work. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Temple, Emily. The Most Rejected Books of All-Time. Literary Hub. 22 Dec. 2017.  https://lithub.com/the-most-rejected-books-of-all-time/.

 

August 31:  Short Letter Day

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Today is the anniversary of a short letter that became the opening salvo in a chain of events that changed television history. The letter, dated August 31, 1988, was sent to NBC President Brandon Tartikoff by George Shapiro, agent for comedian Jerry Seinfeld. This brief letter of recommendation led to a meeting between Seinfeld and NBC executives, and an eventual pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. That pilot then became one of television’s most successful sitcoms Seinfeld running from 1990 to 1998.

With the popularity and longevity of Seinfeld, you might think that success was assured for Jerry Seinfeld, but few people know that he was dropped from an earlier sitcom Benson in 1980 after appearing in three episodes (1).

Looking back at the text of Shapiro’s letter — only three sentences long — it’s hard to believe it was the spark that set off a powder keg of comedy that dominated American TV ratings from nearly ten years.

When Seinfeld ended in 1998, it was still at the top of the ratings, and Jerry Seinfeld made it into The Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Most Money Refused” when he turned down an offer of $5 million dollars per episode to continue the show. In addition to ratings success, the sitcom also made an impact on American vernacular with catchphrases such as “Yada, Yada, Yada.”

Seinfeld’s Agent George Shapiro, who later became one of the show’s executive producers, had the gift for writing a short but strong letter of recommendation for his client (2).

Unlike an email, a short letter is likely to get the attention of your audience. If you want something done or you want an answer to a question, a short letter is a great way to guarantee a response. However, unlike the sitcom Seinfeld you can’t write a letter about nothing; you need a specific subject and purpose for your letter.

Today’s Challenge:  Short, Simple, Strong, Sincere Snail Mail

What is something that you would recommend right now, something that is overlooked or underappreciated?  Just as George Shapiro wrote a letter of recommendation for Jerry Seinfeld, your job is to write a short letter of recommendation. Your letter, however, should not recommend a person, rather it should recommend an object or an experience.  This idea comes from a weekly feature of The New York Times Magazine called “Letter of Recommendation,” where various writers recommend an object or experience that has been overlooked or underappreciated.  Past topics featured have been:  egg shakers, summer Fridays, The Oxford English Dictionary, Skiing, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and alternative search engines.

Brainstorm a list of ideas.  Then, select the topic you feel most passionately about.  Your purpose is to share your passion with a general audience, telling and showing them why your object or experience is worth holding in higher esteem. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1– Jerry Seinfeld Biography.  Biography.com.

http://www.biography.com/people/jerry-seinfeld-9542107.

2 – Grunwald, Lisa and Stephan J. Adler (Editors). Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.