February 13:  Poetic Definition Day

On this date in 1890, the English writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902) presented a lecture in London entitled “Thought and Language.”  Butler was a novelist, a satirist, and a translator.  In 1898 and 1900 respectively, he translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the original Greek into English prose.  

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpgIn his 1890 lecture, Butler addressed age-old questions about the evolution of human language and whether or not language and reason are exclusive to the human species, as opposed to other animals.  In the course of his discussion of language, he presented a metaphorical definition of the word definition, presenting the reader with a fascinating figurative image:

Definitions . . . are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown onto a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer (2).

Another poetic definition – again of the word definition – is found in Butler’s Note-Books, which were published posthumously in 1912:

A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.

Butler’s poetic definitions remind us of the power of figurative language to help us to understand new ideas based on comparisons to old, familiar things, as well as its power to help us to see old ideas in new ways based on fresh comparisons.  Certainly, the literal, textbook definitions of words are helpful, allowing us to grasp new ideas in objective black and white.  But metaphor, simile, analogy, and personification provide such powerful subjective imagery that it is as if a spotlight is shining down, illuminating ideas so that they stand out in vivid color.

Today’s Challenge:  A Lexicographer Walked Into a Bard

What are some aspects of language that might be defined using figurative language, such as words, language, speech, writing, reading, dictionaries, the alphabet, specific parts of speech, grammar, syntax, etc?  Read the poetic definitions below, noticing how each writer uses different types of figurative language to define different aspects of language.  Then, craft your own poetic definition using metaphor, simile, analogy, or personification.

Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. -Richard Chenevix Trench

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture.  Language is fossil poetry. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ideas are enclosed and almost bound in words like precious stones in a ring. -Giacomo Leopardi

Speech is the messenger of the heart. -Hebrew Proverb

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out tunes that can make bears dance, when we would move the stars. -Gustave Flaubert

Geometry is to sculpture what grammar is to the art of the writer. -Guillaume Apollinaire

The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.  -Clifton Fadiman

Dictionaries are like watches:  the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. -Samuel Johnson

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. –William Zinsser (3)

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. -Samuel Butler

1-http://www.victorianweb.org/science/butler.html

2-http://www.authorama.com/essays-on-life-art-and-science-9.html

3- Crystal, David and Hilary Crystal:  Words on Words:  Quotations About Language and Languages.

February 11:  Gerrymander Day

On this date in 1811, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a bill that readjusted the political map of Massachusetts.  The new map was redrawn to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican Party and weaken the electoral prospects of the Federalist party.

Under normal circumstances Gerry’s action might have become a lost footnote in history; however, due to a brief conversation between a Boston newspaper editor and an artist, a new word was born.

After the bill was passed, Gilbert Stuart, a political cartoonist for the Boston Gazette, was looking at a map of the new Essex County voting district.  Struck by the district’s convoluted contours he took out his pencil and added a few lines, including a head, wings, and claws.  He then turned to Benjamin Russell, the paper’s editor, and said, “There, that will do for a Salamander.” Russell responded with a pun, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”  At that moment a new word and new political epithet was born.  

On March 26, 1812, the word went public when Stuart used “Gerry-mander” as the title for his cartoon drawing of the redrawn boundaries of the voting district.

Ever since Governor Gerry has been the namesake of this notorious political practice by which incumbent politicians and political parties attempt to maintain power.  It should be noted, however, that the historical record of Elbridge Gerry is not entirely tainted.  He was an original signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.  He also became the 5th Vice President of the United States in 1813, serving under President James Madison (1).

Gerrymander is just one example of the deep, layered meaning found in the language of politics.  With political words, it is especially important to remember that to understand words we need to go beyond just their denotations – their dictionary definitions.  Instead, we need to consider their connotations – the feelings, associations, and emotions that words evoke.

The following collection of words is just a small A to Z sample of words that have distinctive meaning when used in political contexts:

activist, bipartisan, carpetbagger, demagogue, entitlement, fascist, grassroots, hegemony, ideology, jingoism, kingmaker, lobby, mainstream, NIMBY, oversight, progressive, quagmire, reform, spin, terrorism, unilateral, veto, whistleblower, extremist, yahoo, zinger

Today’s Challenge: The Words of Political Prose and Politics

What are some English words that you would categorize as distinctly political words – that is words that are associated with government and power?  Brainstorm a list of political words.  Take one word that you find interesting, and research that word’s etymology, its meaning, and some historical examples of how it has been used as well as how it might be used today.  Write a report including all of your findings.  Your mission is to help the reader understand the word’s denotation as well as its connotations.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. -George Orwell in Politics and the English Language

1-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008: 275-6.

February 10:  Plain English Day

On this date in 2009, Representative Bruce Bradley, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Plain Writing Act to the United States House of Representatives.  The stated purpose of the bill was “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (1).

Bradley was not the first politician to attempt to make government language more clear and jargon-free.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also an advocate of plain, clear English.   In 1942, an official wrote the following memo about wartime blackouts:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Roosevelt demanded a revision, saying, “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows” (2).

Also during World War II, in 1944, a Texas congressman named Maury Maverick began a crusade against the unintelligible multisyllabic language of his colleagues.  He coined his own word for this fuzzy English:  gobbledygook

When Maury was asked what inspired his colorful word, he said, “It must have come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook” (3).

Sixty-six years later and approximately one month before Thanksgiving, Bruce Bradley’s bill became law.  It was signed by President Barack Obama on October 13, 2010.  Today, therefore, we can say, “Write in plain, clear English — it’s the law!”

Of course, writing in plain, clear language is not easy.  As writer William Zinsser explains, it is hard work and requires deliberate effort:

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does.

Today’s Challenge:  Leaner Bacon

How can you translate 17th century English into plain, clear 21st century English?  Read Francis Bacon’s essay ‘On Revenge,” and then write a paraphrase of the essay in which you restate Bacon’s ideas in the clearest, most concise language possible.

Of Revenge by Francis Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong, for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man, for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong, merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed, the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards, are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read, that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.

Quotation of the Day:  A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? –George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”

1-https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hr946

2-http://cgiss.boisestate.edu/~billc/Writing/zinsser.html

3-Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gob1.htm

February 9: Weather Words Day

On this date in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress establishing the U.S. Weather Bureau.  Today the official term for the agency is the National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

When originally established, the NWS was a part of the United States Army, specifically the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.  The advent of the telegraph in the mid-19th century was a major advancement in meteorology, allowing the rapid collection and analysis of weather data and observations (1).

Today the NWS is a civilian agency under the auspices of the Department of Commerce.  Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, it has 122 weather forecast offices and over 5,000 employees.  The NWS collects some 76 billion observations and issues approximately 1.5 million forecasts each year. (2).

In addition to talking about the literal weather outside, we also talk a lot about figurative weather, using a flood of weather metaphors and idioms to shoot the breeze.  The following are just a few examples of these figurative weather words:

Cloud nine

Cloud of suspicion

Fair-weather friend

Head in the clouds

Rain check

Shoot the breeze

Snow job

Steal someone’s thunder

Tempest in a teapot

Under the weather

Weather the storm

Today’s Challenge:  Brainstorm of Titles

What are some titles of books, stories, poems, plays, songs, or movies that have weather words in them?  Of all the weather-titled works, which is the single best?  Brainstorm a list of titles that contain at least one weather word, such as breeze, cloud, flood, fog, frozen, gale, hazy, heat, hurricane, ice, lightning, misty, rain, shower, snow, storm, sunny, thunder, or wind.  For example, the following is a list of titles that each contain the word “snow”:

Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow

Let It Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Snowbird

Snow Day

Snow Falling on Cedars

Stopping By Wood on a Snowy Evening

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Once you have a good list, select the one work that you think is the best.  Write a paragraph arguing why this weather-titled work stands out.  Beyond just its title, what makes this work of art outstanding?  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. -John Ruskin

1-http://www.weather.gov/timeline

2-http://www.weather.gov/about

February 7: Oxford English Dictionary Day

Today is the birthday of James A. H. Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Born in Denholm, Scotland in 1837, Murray was a self-educated scholar, especially interested in philology — the study of written language and the evolution of language.  After he published a book on Scottish dialects in 1868 and became an active member of the British Philological Society, he was invited to become part of a monumental project that would consume the rest of his life.

James-Murray.jpgDespite the fact that some English dictionaries existed prior to the 19th-century, no truly comprehensive dictionary of the English language had yet been published.  In an age of imperialism, England was ascending as a world power, and with this ascension, English was becoming a global language.  The British wanted a dictionary that matched its new status as a world power, a dictionary that included a complete inventory of its words, along with complete definitions and a biography of every word, including the date of each word’s birth.

To accomplish this monumental task, Murray needed help.  Gathering quotations from published sources to illustrate each word would require an army of readers.  Long before the internet, Murray used crowdsourcing to get the job done.  To advertise for volunteers, he created a pamphlet called, “An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public in Great Britain, America and the British Colonies to read books and make extracts for the Philological Society’s New English Dictionary.”  Murray distributed his pamphlet to newspapers, bookshops, and libraries.  When volunteers responded to Murray’s call, he provided them with slips of paper upon which to record their quotations along with a standard format for citing each one.  Readers sent their slips to Oxford, specifically to Murray’s office which he called the “Scriptorium.”  There Murray and his charges filed each slip alphabetically, creating an archive from which to research and document each definition.

Murray worked tirelessly as editor from 1879-1915, but unfortunately, he never lived to see the complete OED.  The original plan was to produce a four-volume dictionary in ten years, but the complete project took 44 years.  When completed in 1928, the OED encompassed twelve-volumes, containing 414,825 headwords and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. (1).

Of course, the expansion of the English language never ends.  Today, however, with the help of the internet the process of compiling and updating the OED has become much less labor-intensive.

One reason why a comprehensive dictionary like the OED is so valuable is that it allows writers to correctly employ the words they use. The English lexicon is larger than any other language.  This is a blessing for writers, but sometimes the sheer volume of words leads to confusion between words that are similar.  This sometimes leads to hilarious malapropisms, the error of saying one word when you need another.  The term comes from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop, who appears in his play The Rivals.  The following are a couple of examples of Mrs. Malaprop’s slips of the tongue:

Illiterate [obliterate] him, I say, quite from your memory.

He can tell you the perpendiculars [particulars].

A good dictionary allows writers to check a word’s correct spelling, but also a word’s correct definition.  There are hundreds of homophones in English –words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, such as eight and ate or there and their.  There are also other words that, although they are not homophones, are close enough in spelling, pronunciation, or meaning that they are frequently confused.  A good dictionary is an excellent source for clearing up this confusion.

Today’s Challenge:  Clearing Up the Confusion

What are some English words that so close in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation, that they are often confused?  Select a pair of these words, and research the definitions of the two words.  Write a paragraph that clearly explains the distinction between the two words based on their meanings and on how they are used in writing:

anxious/eager

biography/autobiography

cement/concrete

disinterested/uninterested

entomology/etymology

fortuitous/fortunate

gamut/gauntlet

historic/historical

intricate/integral

languish/luxuriate

mean/median

op-ed/editorial

paramount/tantamount

quote/quotation

rationale/rationalization

sanguine/sanguinary

tragedy/travesty

we/us

Xmas/Christmas

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A word in a dictionary is very much like a car in a mammoth motorshow — full of potential but temporarily inactive. -Anthony Burgess

1-Winchester, Simon.  The Meaning of Everything:  The History of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2003:  234.

January 15: Snowclone Day

Today we celebrate the birth of the word snowclone, which happened precisely at 10:57 pm on this day in 2004.  The creator of the neologism, or new word, was Glen Whitman, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge. Writing in his blog, Whitman was looking for a snappy term to describe the increasingly popular practice, especially in journalism, of adapting or slightly altering a cliché.  For example, folklore tells us that Eskimos have a large number of words for snow.  This oft-repeated factoid spawns spinoff phrases that fit the following formula:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X have Y words for Z.

A quick Google search reveals the following snowclones:

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, fibromyalgics should have them for pain.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, the Nicaraguans have a hundred related to the machete.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, Floridians should have at least as many for rain now.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear.

Glen Whitman exudes pride when talking about his lexicographical invention, the bouncing baby “snowclone”:  “If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I’ll have one neologism to my name!” (1).

The word that was born in a blog is now being cataloged by blogger Erin Stevenson O’Connor at his website snowclones.org.  The following are some of the additional members of the snowclone species which have grown out of a variety of popular culture sources:

In X, no one can hear you Y from the tagline for the movie Alien:  “In Space, no one can hear you scream.”

I’m not an X, but I play one on TV from a 1986 cough syrup commercial:  “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

X is the new Y from the world of fashion:  “Pink is the new black.”

X and Y and Z, oh my! from The Wizard of Oz movie line:  “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

I X therefore I am from philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous quotation:  “I think, therefore I am.”

This is your brain on X from a famous anti-drug public service announcement:  “This is your brain on drugs.”

My kingdom for a(n) X! from a famous line from Shakespeare’s play Richard III:  “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Today’s Challenge:  Send in the Snowclones

What familiar proverbs might you adapt into your own snowclones?  Use the proverbs below along with the Snowclone Formulas to generate your own ideas.  Select your best snowclone, using it as the title of a paragraph.  In your paragraph, explain the wisdom behind your snowclone proverb.

Familiar Proverb                                                              

Snowclone Formula

The bigger they are the harder they fall.                   

-The Xer they are the Yer they Z

Actions speak louder than words.                                

-Xs speak louder than Ys

The pen is mightier than the sword.                           

-The X is mightier than the Y.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.                         

-Don’t count your X before they are Yed.                                                             

Don’t judge a book by its cover.                                    

-Don’t judge a X by its Y.

Necessity is the mother of invention.                         

-X is the mother of Y.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.                                  

-Too many Xs spoil the Y.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Snowclone: “A multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers” -Geoffre Pullman

1-McFedries, Paul.  Snowclone is the New Cliché.  Spectrum.ieee.org. 1 Feb. 2008. http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/snowclone-is-the-new-clich.

January 13: Language Myth Day

Legend has it that on this day in 1795, the U.S. Congress voted on a bill that would have established German as the official language of the United States.  The legend continues by claiming that the bill failed by only a single vote, a vote surprisingly cast by a man of German heritage, the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg.

As is usually the case, the truth behind the legend is much less astonishing.  There was in fact a language bill considered by Congress on January 13, 1795, but instead of giving the German language any official status, it would have merely mandated the printing of federal laws in both German and English.  In the course of debating the bill on January 13th there was a casting of ballots that failed by a single vote, but that was merely a motion to adjourn, and there is no evidence that even that vote was cast by Muhlenberg.  The final vote on the translation of the federal laws was rejected by Congress one month later, and there is no record of the final vote numbers (1).

The whole truth is that the German language never came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the official language of the United States.  Furthermore, although there have been attempts to make English the official language of the United States, the truth is that the United States has never had an official language.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Verdict?

What are some examples of language or writing rules that you have been taught in school?  Are the rules valid, or are they merely myths?  Like the myth of the German Language Bill, various myths have been perpetuated through the years regarding the use of the English language.  Although there may be some kernels of truth in each of these rules, a true investigation will reveal that the rules themselves are fallacious.  Investigate one of the English language rules below, or one you have encountered from your own experience, and research the validity of the rule.  Write up your verdict using evidence and examples that reveal the rule’s validity or falsehood.

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Never use the passive voice.

Never split an infinitive.

Use the article “a” before words that begin with consonants; use the article “an” before words that begin with vowels.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Only words in the dictionary are real words.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. -Joseph Campbell

1-Do You Speak American?  Official American.  English Only.  Pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/#baron.

January 7: Grammar No-No Day


On this day in 1948, the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released. Directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, the film is the story of four American men and their desperate quest for gold in 1920s Mexico.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947 poster).jpg
(Wikipedia)

One particular scene in the film features some famous dialogue between one of the Americans, Dobbs, and bandits posing as police officers:

Bandit: “We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.”

Dobbs: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?”

Bandit: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

The last line of dialogue concerning “Badges?” was chosen as number 36 on the American Film Institute’s list of most memorable movie lines.  In addition to being a famous movie quote, the line “We don’t need no badges!” is an example of one of the most infamous of grammar no-nos:  the double negative. Using two forms of negation in the same sentence is considered non-standard English, primarily because it confuses the reader, as in the following examples (1):

Double Negative                                       Correct Version

I don’t have no time to eat.                       I don’t have any time to eat.

I can’t find my keys nowhere.                 I can’t find my keys anywhere.

I can’t get no satisfaction.                       I can’t get any satisfaction.

We don’t need no education.                  We don’t need any education.

Since keeping sentences lucid and clear for the reader is a priority of every writer, double negatives should be avoided.

Today’s Challenge:  Turning Wrongs into Rights

If you were to teach a lesson in English grammar, what common grammar mistakes would you consider explaining?  Select one specific grammar faux pas to address.  Then, research and write the text of your lesson, including examples of the error and corrections.  The following are examples of some classic no-nos.

Dangling participles, Misplaced modifiers, Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Comma splices, Passive voice, Lack of parallelism, Lack of subject-verb agreement, Apostrophe errors, Incorrect word choice, Vague pronoun reference, Capitalization errors  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.  –Michel de Montaigne

1-American Film Institute.   AFI’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes. http://www.afi.com/100Years/quotes.aspx.

January 3: Latin Phrase Day

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin, memento mori translates, “Remember that you must die.” The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals, however.  After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  (2)

As Steve Jobs reminds us, everyone dies, but their words live on; the same is true of languages, especially the Latin language.

Because of the great influence of the Roman Empire, Latin was the primary language of education in the West from the Middle Ages until the mid-20th Century.  The major works of science, law, history, religion, and philosophy were all written in Latin; therefore, for over a thousand years, proficiency in Latin was a must for any classically educated person.  

Today the English language has replaced Latin as the lingua franca, and many view Latin as just another dead language. Nevertheless, the residue of Latin’s past influence is very much alive in English words with Latin roots as well as many legal, literary, and scientific terms.  For example, common words like dictionary, vocabulary, description, and civilization all derive from Latin.

Today’s Challenge:  Latin’s Not Dead Yet

What Latin phrase, expression, or motto might you use as the central focus of a commencement address?  Research the English translations of the Latin expressions listed below. Select one, and as Steve Jobs did with memento mori, use the expression as a central theme for a brief motivational commencement address.

faber est suae quisque fortunae

astra inclinant, sed non obligant

aut viam inveniam aut faciam

bono malum superate

docendo disco, scribendo cogito

fortes fortuna adiuvat

honor virtutis praemium

magna est vis consuetudinis

nulla tenaci invia est via

omne trium perfectum

praemonitus praemunitus (3)

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.

And were an epitaph to be my story

I’d have a short one ready for my own.

I would have written of me on my stone:

I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

-Robert Frost

1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.

2-Jobs, Steve.  Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.  The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/06/steve-jobs-pancreas-cancer.

3-McKay, Brett and Kate. The Art of Manliness. Latin Words and Phrases Every Man Should Know .  http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/07/25/latin-words-and-phrases-every-man-should-know/.

December 23: Parts of Speech Day

Today is the birthday of Leonard B. Stern (1923-2011), American screenwriter, producer, and director.  Stern will probably be best remembered, however, as the co-creator of the game Mad Libs, the classic game where players insert randomly generated words into a passage based on the words’ parts of speech.

Stern’s love of words began with a humiliating experience in seventh grade.  After misspelling the word “hyperbole” in his class spelling bee, he was embarrassed beyond words.  Immediately, he ran home and located his family dictionary.  On that day the young Stern began to study the dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as possible (See February 4: Embarrassing Misspelling Day).

The story of the creation of Mad Libs begins in 1953 with two simple words:  “clumsy” and “naked.”  At the time Stern was working on a television script for Jackie Gleason’s pioneering television show The Honeymooners. One day Stern was sitting at his typewriter, searching his mind for a precise adjective to describe the nose of one of his characters.  When Stern’s best friend and fellow word-lover Roger Price showed up, Stern asked him for help, saying he needed an adjective.  Without waiting for any context, Price responded with two: “Clumsy and naked.”  When Stern began laughing, Price asked what was so funny.  Stern responded by saying that he now had an image in his mind of a character with a “clumsy, naked nose.”  At that moment the two friends realized that they had stumbled into something interesting; this bizarre juxtaposition of random parts of speech might just turn into something profitable.

The name of the game and its publication didn’t happen until five years later.  Sitting in a New York restaurant one morning in 1958, Stern and Price overheard a conversation between an actor and his agent.  The actor said he wanted to “ad-lib” an interview; the agent responded, saying that he would be “mad” to do it.  Stern and Price now had a name, Mad Libs, but no publisher.  Unable to find anyone to print their game, they decided to do it themselves, paying to have fourteen thousand copies printed.  To publicize the game, the creators arranged for it to be used for introducing guests on Steve Allen’s Sunday night television show.  Within three days of the game’s appearance on television, stores were sold out.  Soon Stern and Price joined forces with their friend Larry Sloan to form a publishing company called Price Stern Sloan (or PSS!).  Before long Mad Libs became a bestseller, and PSS! became the largest publisher on the West Coast (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Oh What Fun It Is to Eat an Angry Open Bucket

What is your favorite Christmas song or holiday-related story or poem?  To celebrate the holidays and the creation of Mad Libs, select a familiar Christmas carol or holiday story or poem. Take the text of your selected passage, and cross out 15-20 words — adjectives, nouns, and verbs.  As you cross out the words, create a list in order of the part of speech of each word you crossed out.  If a noun is plural, make sure to note that on your list; likewise, note the tense of verbs.  Next, using your list of parts of speech, have a friend generate a random list of words to match the parts of speech on your list.  Finally, insert these words into the text of your original text and read it aloud. Be prepared to laugh.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Price, Roger and Leonard Stern.  The Best of Mad Libs:  50 Years of Mad Libs.  New York:  Price Stern Sloan, 2008.