December 12: Doublespeak Day

Today is the birthday of linguist William D. Lutz, who was born in Wisconsin in 1940.  Lutz has dedicated his life to combating doublespeak, language that is ambiguous or intentionally obscure or distorted.  

In his 1989 book Doublespeak, Lutz defines four categories of doublespeak, to illustrate how it is “designed to alter our perception of reality and corrupt our thinking.”

The first kind is euphemism, where“an inoffensive or positive word or phrase [is] used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality.” Certainly we use euphemismsappropriately when we are sensitive to the connotations of words and to thesensitivity of others.  For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry yourfather is dead,” we say, “I’m sorry your father passed away.” When euphemisms are used to intentionally mislead, however, they areclassified as doublespeak.  For example, in 1984 the U.S. State Department wanted to avoid any discussion of government-sanctioned “killings” in its annual report on human rights, so it substituted the euphemistic phrase“unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.”

The second kind of doublespeak is jargon,“the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, such as doctors, lawyers [or] engineers . . .“  Jargon is useful and appropriate as a kind of verbal shorthand when used among the members of a profession. However, it is inappropriate when it is “used not to express but impress” or when it is used to hide rather than reveal the truth.  For example, when a National Airlines 727 crashed in 1978, killing three passengers, the airline covered up the tragedy with jargon, calling it an“involuntary conversion of a 727.”

The third kind of doublespeak is gobbledygook or bureaucratese, “piling on words, or overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better.”  One example of this comes from Jesse Moore, a NASA official, who said the following when he was asked to assess the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster in1986:  

I think our performance in terms of the liftoff performance and in terms of the orbital performance, we knew more about the envelope we were operating under, and we have been pretty accurately staying in that.  And so I would say the performance has not by designdrastically improved.  I think we have been able to characterize theperformance more as a function of our launch experience as opposed to itimproving as a function of time. (1)

The fourth kind of doublespeak is inflated language, using words “to make the ordinary seem extraordinary; to make everyday things seem impressive . . . .”  Inflated language is especially prevalent in the language of advertising.  At Starbucks, for example, you can’t buy a small, medium, or large coffee; instead, to make these common categories sound more impressive they are called tall, grande, venti, and trenta. Likewise, car dealerships do not sell “used cars”; instead,these cars are called “certified pre-owned automobiles” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Add Some Air to Your Ad

How do companies use language to inflateclaims about the value of their products?  Sometimes products contain disclaimers, warning consumers about the dangers of using them improperly.  More and more, however, companies are writing “claimers,” using inflated language and hyperbole to tout the amazing ways in which their product will transform the life of the purchaser.  Have some fun with doublespeak by writing an advertisement for a product using exaggerated, inflated language to make the product seem too good to be true. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Means, Howard. What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate. Orlando Sentinel 2Mar. 1986. articles.orlandosentinel.com/1986-03-02/news/0200290268_1_space-shuttle-launch-experience-shuttle-challenger.

2-Lutz, William.  Doublespeak.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1989.

December 7: Colorless Green Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books. Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of the his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntaxrelates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined. Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words. Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax andsemantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence canbe constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Today’s Challenge:  Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically

What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing asyntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For anadded layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin withthe same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Raging red rainbows read raucously.

OR

Soggy superfluous sunflowers swim softly.

Generate a number of sentences until you create one that’s so outrageous that it belongs on a T-shirt. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

October 24:  Alternative Titles Day

On this day in 1957, movie executive Sam Frey sent director Alfred Hitchcock a list of suggested alternative titles to the film that Hitchcock was shooting.  The director had been in a continual battle with his studio, Paramount, over the movie’s title.  Hitchcock was determined to go with the one-word title Vertigo; the studio, however, rejected the director’s choice. The list of 47 alternative titles was the studio’s last attempt to sway Hitchcock.

Hitchcock stood firm with his choice, and when the film opened on May 8, 1958, the movie marquee read Vertigo.  The film, starring James Stewart, is based on a French novel entitled D’entre les morts (“from among the dead”).  Today it is recognized as one of the greatest psychological thrillers in Hollywood history (1).

Today’s Challenge:  What’s The Word?

What would be your one-word alternative title for a classic book or film?  Like Vertigo, three of the top grossing films of all time have one-word titles:  Avatar, Titanic, and Jaws.  The challenge of a one-word title is to evoke the quintessential core element that defines the film.  Brainstorm some alternative titles to some classic book titles and film titles.  You may not, however, use any of the words in the original title.  The Wizard of Oz, for example, might be retitled “Rainbow” but cannot be retitled “Oz” or “Wizard.”  Create a Top Ten list of your best alternative titles, and if you’re working with a group, hold an Alternative One-Word Title Contest. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Usher, Shaun.  Lists of Note:  An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2015: 242.

September 7:  Words Chiseled in Granite Day

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On this day in 1914, the main post office building in New York City opened its doors.  The building’s main claim to fame is the inscription chiseled in gray granite on its enormous façade, which reads:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Although many will recognize these words as the motto of the United States Postal Service, officials are quick to point out that there is no official U.S.P.S. motto.  Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find another building in the world that more effectively uses the words engraved on its outside walls to capture and to motivate the mission that is fulfilled inside.

The words of the inscription originate from the Greek historian Herodotus and refer to Persian mounted postal couriers who served faithfully in the wars between the Greeks and the Persians (500-449 B.C.).

In 1982, New York’s main post office building was officially designated The James A. Farley Building, in memory of the nation’s 53rd Postmaster General.  The building’s ZIP code designation is 10001 (1).

When you think of mottos, think of “motivation.”  Mottos are intended to prime the populous for positive action.  A motto is a phrase or sentence that sums up the motivation, purpose, or guiding principles of a group, organization, or institution.  Whether a family motto, school motto, state motto, or company motto, they are always clear, concise, and constructive. It’s appropriate to think of a motto as something you might chisel in stone because unlike slogans, which are usually spoken, mottos are written, such as the state mottos (See September 9:  State Motto Day) you see on license plates or a national motto you see on coins or paper money (The official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”).  Because mottos date back to ancient times, you will often see them written in other languages, such as the motto of the United States Marine Corps, the Latin Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”).

Today’s Challenge:  Words Worth Setting in Stone

What words do you think are important enough to chisel in stone? What motto would you etch on the outside of your school or your place of business?  Hold a contest to determine the best motto. Either research a quotation by another person to use as your motto, or write your own using your own original words. Remember that a motto must be pithy and must express a rule to guide the behavior of persons who inhabit the building. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1- United States Postal Service. Postal Service Mission and Motto. Oct. 1999.

September 4:  “Brand” New Words Day

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On this day in 1998, two Ph.D. students from Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, formally incorporated their new company Google. Page and Brin’s search engine began as a research project in 1995.  Today, Google is the world’s most popular search engine.

The story of the word Google, however, long pre-dates the internet.  In 1938, while on a walk with his nephew in the New Jersey Palisades, mathematician Edward Kasner challenged the nine-year-old, Milton Sirotta, to come up with a name for a 1 followed by 100 zeroes.  Milton’s ready response was “googol.” Kasner liked the word so much he introduced it to the world in 1940 in his book Mathematics and the Imagination (1).

Each letter of "Google" is colored (from left to right) in blue, red, yellow, blue, green, and red.The change of the word’s spelling from googol to Google happened more than fifty years later.  Page and Brin originally called their search technology “BackRub”; however, in September 1997 they had a meeting to brainstorm ideas for a new name.  The story goes that at that meeting the name googol came up, but when it was typed into a computer to search for available domain names, it was misspelled as google. The name was available and was purchased before the misspelling was discovered, so Google stuck.

Another change happened on June 15, 2006 when the Oxford English Dictionary added the lower-case word “google” as a verb, meaning “To use any search engine.”

Today’s Challenge:  Brand Name Hall of Fame

The paradox of the trademarked names of companies, products, and services is that the most successful ones become generic, losing their distinctiveness as an exclusive brand name.  For example, the words aspirin, band aid, cornflakes, escalator, and zipper were at one time capitalized, legally protected brand names (2).  What currently capitalized trademarked brand name of a company, product, or service would you nominate for the Brand Name Hall of Fame?  Make your case based on the name’s distinctive sound, its clever derivation, its metaphoric meaning, and/or its memorability. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1 – Steinmetz, Sol and Barbara Ann Kipfer.  The Life of Language. New York:  Random House, 2006:  167.

2 – ibid: 174.

August 26:  Abecedarian Day

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On this day in 1873, the first public school kindergarten in the United States was established by the St. Louis, Missouri, board of education. The word kindergarten can be traced back to Germany, where Friedrick Froebel opened a preschool in 1840. Froebel invented the term Kinder-Garten (‘children’s garden’) to describe the experience of cultivating young minds through creativity and play (1).

Some say that we learn everything we need to know in kindergarten, but there is certainly one lesson that is vital to every kindergartner (See October 30: All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Day).  In fact, instead of kindergartners, we might call these children abecedarians. An abecedarian is a ‘student of the alphabet.’ The word comes from the letters A B C D.

After we have mastered the ABCs and learned to read, we take the alphabet for granted. What we don’t realize, however, is how fundamental it is to our literacy. We also sometimes forget that the alphabet, reading, and writing are all human inventions.

We don’t know who the inventor was, but we do know that around 2000 BC the idea of using letters instead of pictures to represent sounds and words began to take root. As a result, communication in writing became much more efficient and easier to learn. Instead of learning hundreds of symbols, the student now needs only learn fewer than thirty letters. Today kindergartners, or abecedarians, who learn the 26 letters of the alphabet have a foundation to begin mastering the language for reading and writing. The word alphabet is from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Beta. The Greeks didn’t invent the alphabet, but they did perfect it; one of their most important adaptations was the addition of vowels.

You’ve probably mastered the alphabet by now, but there are other ways of returning to your abecedarian roots. Below is a list of 26 vocabulary words spanning all 26 letters of the alphabet. How many do you know? How many familiar roots do you recognize? Pick up a good dictionary and look up any unfamiliar words:

antecedent, bellicose, circumscribe, dyslexia, euphemism, factotum, gregarious, hyperbole, infinitesimal, jovial, kudos, lethargic, malediction, neologism, orthography, pandemonium, quintessence, resonance, sophomoric, theocracy, unilateral, verbose, wanderlust, xenophobia, yeoman, zephyr

Today’s Challenge: Advanced Abecedarian

Can you generate a list of 26 challenging and interesting words, one for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet?  Create your own unique abecedarian collection of words.  Use a dictionary as a resource.  Share your list with others, and be prepared to define the words on the list and explain what you find interesting about each one. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1 – Metcalf, Allan. The World in So Many Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

August 21:  Hawaii 5-0 Day

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Today is the anniversary of the date that Hawaii became the fiftieth state of the Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over a White House ceremony welcoming the Aloha State on August 21, 1959. The following is an excerpt from the New York Times story on Hawaii statehood:

Hawaii Becomes the 50th State; New Flag Shown

Washington, Aug. 21, 1959 — Hawaii was officially proclaimed as the fiftieth state of the United States today by President Eisenhower at bipartisan White House ceremonies. (1).

Known as the Aloha State, Hawaii consists of a chain of 122 volcanic islands, but only seven are populated:

Hawaii (the Big Island), Maui (the Valley Isle), Lanai (the Pineapple Isle), Molokai (the Friendly Isle), Kauai (the Garden Isle), Niihau (the Forbidden Island), Oahu (the Gathering Place)

The state capital is Honolulu on the island of Oahu, which is also its largest city (2).

Today’s Challenge:  The Best of Fifty

What single U.S. state, besides the one in which you reside, would you most like to visit?  What makes it attractive as a destination? Brainstorm a list of the states you would like to visit.  Select the one you think is the most attractive destination.  Do a bit of research to find some details about the state that go beyond the obvious.  Then, write at least 50 words in which you persuade the audience that the state you have chosen is the state that everyone must visit. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1 – Fischer, John. Statehood Day:  Hawaii’s Forgotten Holiday. Tripsavvy.com 1 Jul. 2018. https://www.tripsavvy.com/statehood-day-hawaiis-forgotten-holiday-1532961.

2 – The Eight Major Islands. Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau.

http://www.hvcb.org/schoolreport/eightmajorislands.htm.

August 17: Subjunctive Mood Day

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On this date in 1929, James Thurber (1894-1961), the celebrated American cartoonist and short story writer, published an essay entitled “The Subjunctive Mood” in The New Yorker. In the essay Thurber used the context of a marital disagreement to explore the importance of maintaining the proper mood — the proper grammatical mood that is.  The essay begins as follows:

The importance of correct grammar in the home can not be over-estimated. Two young people should make sure that each is rhetorically sound before they get married, because grammatical precision, particularly in mood, is just as important as anything else.

An understanding of mood in English grammar means understanding the different ways we use verbs.  Most of the time we make statements or ask questions; this is the indicative mood:  “The student arrived on time to first period.”  Other times we are a bit more stern or imperious; this is the imperative mood:  “Take your seats so we can begin class.”  And finally, we sometimes we use our imaginations to talk about things that are contrary to fact, such as dreams or fantasies; this is the subjunctive mood: “If I were to take a class, I’d make sure to schedule it after lunch.”

What makes the subjunctive mood tricky, however, is its strange conjugation. When using the verb to be in the subjunctive mood, the verb used is were, even in the first person.  As in the previous example:  If I were to take a class, I’d make sure to schedule it after lunch, or the song from Fiddler on the Roof: If I were a rich man.

Today’s Challenge:  Assume the Position

Write at least 100 words in the subjunctive mood about what you would do if you were in a specific position or occupation, such as “If I were the king of the world I would . . . ” or “If I were the CEO of Microsoft, I would . . ..”

Quotation of the Day:  The thing is, proper use of the subjunctive—once you learn it and get over that difficult-sounding word, subjunctive, which has absolutely nothing to do with pinkeye—is one of the most easily deployed copy editing techniques that will put you in good stead with word nerds. Essentially, you’re altering a verb to reflect what is or is not fact.Jen Doll

August 16:  Mononym Day

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Today is the anniversary of the death of rock and roll icon Elvis Presley, who died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1977. Only 42 years old, Elvis died of a heart attack brought on by his addiction to prescription drugs.

Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. His family was poor, and at 19 he paid four dollars to record some songs for his mother at a Memphis recording studio. The owner of the studio, Sam Phillips, was impressed by Elvis’ singing, and in 1954, he released Elvis’ first single “That’s All Right” on his Sun Records label.

Album cover with photograph of Presley singing—head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth wide open—and about to strike a chord on his acoustic guitar. Another musician is behind him to the right, his instrument obscured. The word "Elvis" in bold pink letters descends from the upper left corner; below, the word "Presley" in bold green letters runs horizontally.From that point on Elvis’ popularity exploded to the point that the single name Elvis became synonymous with rock and roll. Whether you love or hate his music, there is no denying his impact on the music and culture of the 1950s. He brought rock into the mainstream, made it an art form, and showed that it could produce billions of dollars in revenue (1).

In 1958, the same year that Elvis entered the U.S. Army for a two-year stint, a child by the name of Madonna Louise Ciccone was born to a Catholic family in Bay City, Michigan. When Madonna was five years old, her mother died of breast cancer, and her father was left with six children to raise. Encouraged by her father to take piano lessons, Madonna tried music for a few months but eventually persuaded her father to pay for ballet lessons instead.

Her pursuit of a dance career took her to New York in 1977, the same year Elvis died. With only $35 dollars in her pocket, she struggled to earn a living and to perfect her dancing craft. She returned to music in 1979, forming a rock band and performing disco and dance songs in New York dance clubs. It’s at this point that she gained the attention of Sire Records, signing a deal paying her $5,000 per song. With the release of her first album Madonna in 1983, “The Material Girl” achieved the kind of international fame and success that would make her a pop icon and the most successful female artist in history. Some might even argue that what Elvis did for rock and roll in the 1950s, Madonna did for pop music in the 1980s (2).

What’s in a Mononym?

Besides the fact that both Elvis and Madonna dominated the music scene in their respective eras, they also share the rare distinction of being instantly and unambiguously recognized based on the invocation of just their first names. In other words, they have become mononymous, that is being known by a single name or mononym.

The word is from the Greek:  mono = one + nym = word or name.

To achieve such a high degree of first name recognition is rare even among some of history’s most revered icons. Of course, it does help to have a distinctive first name. If you refer to William Shakespeare, for example, as just William, your audience might not know if you are referring to The Bard of Avon — William Shakespeare — or William Shatner.

Certainly, there is a difference between using a one-name moniker and truly achieving the kind of across-the-board name recognition of an Elvis or a Madonna. The names on the following list, for example, are recognizable today by the vast majority of the population. But will they be 10, 50, or 100 years from now?

Plato, Socrates, Twiggy, Shaq, Sting, Oprah, Bono, Cher

Today’s Challenge:  Mononym-mania

What are some examples of people who are known by a single name, a mononym?  Who is your Mount Rushmore or Final Four of mononyms, and which single person would take the championship?  Generate a list of mononyms.  To help, you might use a dictionary; to make it into the dictionary a person must be virtually universally known, and these are the types of people who tend to have mononyms.  Decide on your Mount Rushmore/Final Four mononyms.  Then, write an explanation of who would win each of the three “face-offs” in your four-names bracket. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1 – Elvis Presley Dies: August 16, 1977. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/elvis-presley-dies .

2 – Biography.com. Madonna. https://www.biography.com/people/madonna-9394994.

August 13: Americanisms from 1950s Day

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

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

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

1949 cool

1950 DJ

1951 rock and roll

1952 Ms.

1953 UFO

1954 Fast Food

1955 hotline

1956 brinkmanship

1957 role model

1958 Murphy’s Law

1959 software

1960 sit-in (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Born in the U.S.A.

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

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

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

The following are some examples:

bottom line

workaholic

Watergate

soundbite

stealth

gridlock

wannabe

yuppie

soccer mom

millennium bug

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

Answers:

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

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

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

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