February 27: Irony Day

On this date in 1996, singer songwriter Alanis Morissette released her song “Ironic,” a song from her album Jagged Little Pill.  Although the song was a hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Top 100, the song’s title “Ironic” is a misnomer.  As you can see by the lyrics of  the song’s chorus, for example, the situations described may be unfortunate, but they are not ironic:

A woman in silhouette singing and bending down with the microphone. The silhouette background is filled with red lights and shadows, and the words "Alanis", "Morissette" and "Ironic" are written in white cursive letters at the bottom half of the image.It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought, it figures

To understand the concept of irony, it’s necessary to understand its various forms, forms that relate to spoken language (Verbal Irony), to real life situations (Situational Irony), and to literary situations (Dramatic Irony):

Verbal Irony:  A type of figurative language where someone intentionally says one thing while meaning another thing, usually the exact opposite.  This usually involves the use of overstatement or understatement, as in “I can’t wait to get home and get to work on my 10 hours of homework” or “Yeah, Michael Jordan is pretty good basketball player.”  One specific subclass of verbal irony is sarcasm, which is irony that is used to insult or to cause harm.

Situational Irony:  Irony that involves a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended or when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.  For example, rain on your wedding day is not ironic but a fire station that burns down is.

Dramatic Irony:  This type of irony occurs in fiction and involves events in a story where the audience is aware of something that the characters in the story are not.  For example, in Romeo and Juliet this occurs when Juliet’s father and mother are planning her wedding to Paris.  The audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but the Capulets are clueless.

Based on these definitions we can conclude that the only thing ironic about Morissette’s song is that a song that is entitled “Ironic” contains nothing ironic.

Probably the best thing about Morissette’s song is that it spawned a website devoted entirely to the topic of irony called IsItIronic.com.  Founded by Paul Lowton in 2006, the mission of IsItIronic.com is to provide a writer’s resource for definitions and examples of irony.  At the site, readers can submit their own questions, such as “Is it ironic that there was a hotdog eating contest to raise money for obesity awareness?”  Readers at the website are also invited to calibrate their own sense of true irony by voting on the questions submitted.  

The following are irony questions submitted by readers.  Each is followed by the percentage of readers who answered, “Yes, it is ironic.”:

Is it ironic if you have a phobia of long words you have to tell people that you have hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?  (91%)

Is it ironic that: It takes sadness to know what happiness is.. It takes noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence”? (63%)

Is it ironic that a student spells every word on a spelling test wrong except for the word illiterate? (85%)

Is it ironic that I cut myself on a first aid box? (84%)

Is it ironic that a tree dedicated to George Harrison has been killed by Beetles? (65%)

Today’s Challenge:  A Tale That’s Dripping With Irony

What is a story you have heard or a personal experience you have had that involves real irony?  Tell a story that contains one of the three forms of irony.  It may be a true story based on your experiences, a story you have heard second hand, or a fictional anecdote you create.

Quotation of the Day:  The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. -Robert A. Heinlein

1-http://www.isitironic.com/alanis-morissette.htm

February 25: Bunk Day

On this date in 1820, Felix Walker, a congressman representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, delivered a speech that eventually lead to the creation of a new English word.

The 16th Congress was debating the issue of statehood for the territory of Missouri.  The key conflict in the debate was the issue of slavery and whether or not Missouri should be admitted as a free state or a slave state.  In the midst of the debate, Congressman Walker rose to speak.  However, instead of presenting remarks that were germane to the issue of slavery, Walker instead began to ramble about topics totally unrelated to the issue at hand.  As he continued to drone on with his irrelevant speech, his colleagues attempted stifle him.  Walker resisted, saying that he had been sent to Washington to deliver a speech, and he would, therefore, continue to address the constituents who elected him in North Carolina.  Walker specific words were:  “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe.”

Walker’s speech was not forgotten — not because of its great content, but because it became synonymous with the type of insincere, bombastic nonsense that some politicians are known for.  The Americanism that emerged from the Walker incident took that name of the Congressman’s county Buncombe, spelling it as bunkum.  Today we recognize the clipped form bunk, meaning “empty, pretentious nonsense.”

Later in 1923, novelist and biographer William E. Woodward wrote a novel called Bunk.  In the novel, Woodward introduced the verb debunk, meaning “the act of exposing false claims” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Debunk A Myth

What is a statement made by some people that you think is not true?  How would you go about debunking this myth?  Identify a statement that people sometimes make as if it is absolute truth, such as the examples below of statements that people make about language.  Research the issue, and then write a paragraph explaining why specifically that statement is not true.  Cite your sources.

-A word is only a word if it is in the dictionary.

-Lexicographers make up the words that go in the dictionary.

-English is the official language of the United States.

-The meanings of words always remains the same.

-Slang is ruining the English language.

-There is only one English language.

-You should never end a sentence with a preposition.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. –Arthur M. Schlesinger

1-Chrysti the Wordsmith.  Verbivore’s Feast Second Course.  Helena, Montana, Farcountry Press, 2006: 43.

2- Dickson, Paul  Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  53.

 

February 22:  Homophone Day

Today is a day of triple 2s:  2/22.  It’s a day we might think of those words in English that are pronounced alike but that are spelled differently, such as two, to, and too.  Homophones are a double edged sword.  On one side they add an enormous level of difficulty to English spelling.  For example, even if you have the spelling of a word “write,” you still have to check to make sure you have the “right” homophone.  On the other side, however, they also allot writers a lot of opportunities to create puns.  For example, you might have heard the old joke:

Why did the father who willed his three boys his cattle ranch demand that they name it “Focus”?

Because it was where the “sons raise meat” (sun’s rays meet).

Most homophones come in pairs (as in knew and new), but like to, two, and too, there are several triple homophones.  Here is a sample list:

aisle, I’ll, isle

aye, eye, I

bole, boll, bowl

cent, scent, sent

cite, sight, site

dew, do, due

for, fore, four

gnu, knew, new

idle, idol, idyll

meat, meet, mete

pare, pair, pear

peak, peek, pique

poor, pore, pour

raise, rays, raze

their, there, they’re

vane, vain, vein

way, weigh, whey

write, right, rite

Today’s Challenge:  Triple Word Play

What are some examples of triple homophones that vex writers, and how can you explain the correct usage of each word?  Select a trio of homophones and research the correct usages of each.  Then, write a clear explanation that explains clearly how each different spelling matches up with the correct meaning and usage of each word.  Below is an example that explains the homophones to, too, and two.

To:  To is a preposition, as in “Today I went to the store.”  It is also frequently used before a verb to form the infinitive, as in Today I hope to buy some new shoes.

Too:  Too can be used as a synonym for “also” as in I’m planning to go to college, too.  Too is also used to indicate excessiveness, as in My teacher gave me too much homework last night.

Two:  Two is used to spell out the number 2, as in, We bought two lobsters for dinner last night.

Use each of the three words correctly in a single sentence looks like this:

I wanted to eat two peppers, but I couldn’t because they were too spicy.

Quotation of the Day: I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be. -Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

February 16: Sports Quotations Day

Today is the birthday of tennis great John McEnroe. He was born in 1959 in Germany where his father was serving in the U.S. Army.  McEnroe is remembered not only for his masterful play as a singles champion, but also for his many victories in doubles and mixed doubles. His most memorable matches came at Wimbledon in the 1980s where he battled Bjorn Borg.

Although he won many major tennis titles and spent several years as the number one ranked tennis player in the world, John McEnroe is best remembered for his words and antics on the tennis court. Smashing tennis rackets and challenging umpire decisions, McEnroe became one of the most volatile and boisterous athletes ever.

Perhaps his best known line was one shouted in the direction of an umpire at Wimbledon in 1981: “You cannot be serious!” This line became so often associated with McEnroe, that he used it for the title of his 2002 autobiography (1).

Although McEnroe’s famous line might be one of the most emphatic sports quotations of all time, it certainly is not one of the most profound.  The following sports quotations have much more rhetorical flair.  As you read them, notice the variety of rhetorical devices used, such as alliteration, metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, antithesis, and anaphora

Football is like life — it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority. -Vince Lombardi

Discipline of others isn’t punishment.  You discipline to help, to improve, to correct, to prevent, not to punish, humiliate, or retaliate. -John Wooden

Players don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care. -Frosty Westering

You are either green and growing, or ripe and rotting. -Frosty Westering

The Six W’s:  Work will win when wishing won’t. -Todd Blackledge

Spectacular achievements are always preceded by unspectacular preparation. -Roger Staubach

Don’t tell me how rough the waters are.  Just bring the ship in. -Chuck Knox

Don’t let winning make you soft.  Don’t let losing make you quit.  Don’t let your teammates down in any situation. – Larry Bird

Work like a dog. Eat like a horse. Think like a fox.  And play like a rabbit. -George Allen

Today’s Challenge: The Sports Section

What is the best thing ever said by a sports personality?  Research a quotation by a sports personality that you think shows true insight, either about sports or about life in general.  Write an explanation of what makes the quotation so compelling to you.  Talk not only about what the quotation says, but also how the writer says it — the rhetorical devices use to make the quotation memorable. (Common Core 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there is a man on base. – Dave Barry

1 – The Biography Channel “John McEnroe.”http://www.thebiographychannel.co.uk/biography_story/141:459/1/John_McEnroe.htm

 

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 etymologists 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 the 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/entymology

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 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.

Ritratto di Pio IV.jpgThe 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 for the pope 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 and resulted in the divide that is still present today between Catholicism and Protestantism (1).

When is 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 is 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

(Common Core 2 – Expository)

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, 2007.