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/

 

August 6:  Interjection Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aha

bravo

check

definitely

eureka

far-out

gadzooks

hi

I declare

jeepers

knock-knock

la-di-da

my bad

no soap

O.K.

please

quiet

rats

sorry

thanks

uff-da

very well

way to go

yadda-yadda

zounds (1)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

August 4:  Top 100 Day

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Today is the anniversary of the introduction of Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. The first number one song on the chart was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.”

Prior to August 4, 1958, Billboard had separate charts for Most Played By Jockeys, Best Sellers in Stores, and Most Played in Juke Boxes. The new Hot 100 list combined the Best Sellers and the Most Played By Jockeys lists into a single chart. Because Jukeboxes were becoming less popular, their numbers were not included (1).

The linguistic equivalent of Billboard’s Hot 100 would have to be Word Spy’s Top 100 Words . Created by technical writer Paul McFedries, Word Spy is a website devoted to neologisms. Neologisms are new words — words that have appeared in print multiple times, but that are not in the dictionary.

Word Spy gives the armchair linguist a peek behind the lexical curtain. Visiting this web site is a little like watching a preseason football practice: you get to see all the players (words) on the field, but you’re not sure which ones will make the final cut. In the case of neologisms, the final cut is making it into the dictionary. The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary do their work behind the scenes, and most neologisms have the life span of the common house fly. In contrast, Word Spy makes lexicography democratic: you get to see all the words, it’s free, and McFedries even accepts reader submissions.

Here are a couple of examples for neologisms from Word Spy:

aireoke (air.ee.OH.kee) n. Playing air guitar and singing to prerecorded music; playing air guitar in a public performance. Also: air-eoke. [Blend of air guitar and karaoke.]

Manilow method n. The discouragement of loitering in public places by broadcasting music that is offensive to young people, particularly the songs of singer Barry Manilow.

In addition to words and definitions, Word Spy also provides pronunciations, citations, and notes on each word. WARNING: Reading this site can become addictive! (2)

Brave New Words

See if you can match up the 8 neologisms from Word Spy with the 8 definitions numbered below.

freegan

buzzword bingo

godcasting

NOPE

Google bombing

Drink the Kool-Aid

fauxhawk

male answer syndrome

  1. n. A person or attitude that opposes all real estate development or other projects that would harm the environment or reduce property values.
  1. n. A hairstyle in which a strip of hair across the top of the head is longer and higher than the hair on the remainder of the head.
  1. n. A person, usually a vegan, who consumes only food that is obtained by foraging, most often in the garbage of restaurants, grocery stores, and other retailers.
  1. v. To become a firm believer in something; to accept an argument or philosophy wholeheartedly or blindly.
  1. n. Setting up a large number of Web pages with links that point to a specific Web site so that the site will appear near the top of a Google search when users enter the link text.
  1. n. The tendency for some men to answer a question even when they don’t know the answer.
  1. n. A word game played during corporate meetings. Players are issued bingo-like cards with lists of buzzwords such as paradigm and proactive. Players check off these words as they come up in the meeting, and the first to fill in a “line” of words is the winner.
  1. pp. Podcasting an audio feed with a religious message (2).

Today’s Challenge:  One Hundred on One
What is your favorite word?  What makes your word so interesting, distinctive, and special?  Brainstorm a list of your favorite words.  Select the single word you would rate as your favorite, and write 100 words on why your word is so special and what specifically makes it your favorite.  Do a bit of research to get some details on the etymology or history of your word so that you can give your reader some details that go beyond just the obvious. (Common Core Writing 1)

Quotation of the Day: The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express. –Alexis de Tocqueville

Answers: 1. NOPE: (Not On Planet Earth) 2. fauxhawk 3. freegan 4. Drink the Kool-Aid 5. Google bombing 6. male answer syndrome 7. buzzword bingo 8. godcasting

 

1 – Hot 100 Billboard

  1. wordspy.com

 

August 3: Idiot Letter Day

On this date in 1993, one of the most hilarious missives in the history of letter writing was sent to an American corporation. Before we look at the letter, let’s look at the history of how it came to be written.

In July of 1993, Paul Rosa received a piece of junk mail that changed his life. It was a brief letter from Pizza Hut’s delivery unit saying that they had not received an order from Rosa’s address in a long time. The letter from the Vice-president of Pizza Hut marketing reminded Rosa of the quality, variety, and value of Pizza Hut pizza. It might have been just another piece of junk mail, but one line in the letter resonated with Rosa. It said: “You see, you’re the kind of customer we’d like to see more often.” Rosa wrote back a letter to Pizza Hut asking “What kind of customer wouldn’t you like to see more often?”

This first letter started a letter-writing campaign that went on for months, covering more than 100 different corporations. Rosa’s mission statement was: Since American corporations are treating their customers like idiots, “while reaching for their wallets,” I am going to get even by writing them letters in which I act like an idiot.

The letters from Rosa’s “kamikaze consumer crusade” were published in his 1995 book Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America.

The following is the letter that Rosa sent to Oil-Dri Corporation of America, the makers of Cat’s Pride Premium Cat Litter on August 3, 1993.

Dear Cat Lovers,

For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box . . . .

This all changed a few months ago when, at wits’ end, we tried Cat’s Pride on the suggestion of a friend (Max). Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse – without hesitation – stepped into the litter box and “unloaded.” After ten years of treating her box like it was filled with glass chips, we finally found something she likes! And her attitude hasn’t changed! Since that day she has ventured to the basement on a daily basis to fulfill her duty. The increased cleaning chores on our part are quite acceptable, considering the time now saved from letting her in and out and in and out and …. I don’t know what’s in that stuff, but it has done the impossible: changed the lifestyle of a ten-year-old cat (70 to you and me)! Yippee!

The only thing I thought was a bit odd was the name “CAT’S PRIDE.” I can understand that your corporation would be proud of this cat litter, but a cat? When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments. In fact, I don’t think cats are proud of anything at all, ever! So, why did you choose this name? It seems wrong to suggest what cats are “feeling” without offering any proof. Isn’t that dishonest?

In conclusion, I am thrilled with your product – it’s a godsend – but must take exception to the misleading name. Would you be so kind as to get back to me on this subject matter? In the meantime, I’d be honored to recommend “Cat’s Pride” to my friends!

Feline Fine,

Paul C. Rosa

To their credit, the makers of Cat’s Pride answered Rosa’s letter and even sent along with some coupons.

Today’s Challenge: Going Postal

Letter writing is a lost art in an age of cellphones and email, but there are few more thoughtful ways to communicate with another person. Paul Rosa wrote to get his questions answered and to offer a suggestion to the company on its name. What question would you like to have answered by a business or corporation, or what suggestion would you like to provide? Look around you, ask questions, and then write a letter to get your answer and/or provide your suggestions. Write an idiot letter like Paul Rosa or a serious letter.

As a reminder, even humorous letters like Rosa’s follow a format. Here are the key parts of a letter:

1. Heading with your name and address

2. Date

3. Inside Address: name and address of the recipient of the letter

4. Salutation (“Dear Mr. Smith”)

5. Body of Letter

6. Complimentary Closing (“Sincerely”)

7. Your Signature

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. -Mark Twain

1 – Rosa, Paul. Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1995

August 2:  Urgent Letter Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter that changed history. The letter, dated August 2, 1939, was written by physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard; it was addressed to the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The letter’s content warned the president of the Nazi’s possible use of uranium for the development of atomic weapons.

The story behind this historic letter that led to the Manhattan Project begins in Germany, which prior to 1933 was a hotbed of scientific inquiry: Germany had been awarded 99 Nobel Prizes in science compared to the United States’ 6 Nobel Prizes. The rise of anti-semitism and of Adolf Hitler, however, caused many Jewish scientists to flee Germany.

The rising mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki "Fat Man" bomb, August 9, 1945One of those who fled was physicist Leo Szilard, who relocated to England. While sitting at a London traffic light in 1933, he had an epiphany: theoretically, the atom could be split, creating a chain reaction of enormous power.

Szilard’s idea moved from theory to fact in 1939 when German scientists successfully split an atom. The fact that German scientists now had the knowledge of the potentially destructive power of the atom in their hands alarmed Szilard.

Traditionally scientists around the world published their breakthroughs for all to see. Szilard was afraid that the German scientists were using this information to develop a bomb. His fears were heightened when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and stopped all exports of uranium ore from the occupied country.

He urged scientists outside of Germany to delay publication of their findings in fission-related areas, and he initiated a meeting with his former teacher Albert Einstein.

Einstein, like Szilard, was a Jew and had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler. By 1939 Einstein’s theory of relativity had made him an international celebrity — just the kind of name recognition that Szilard needed to get his alarm bell heard by world leaders.

Szilard met with Einstein in New York on July 30. Einstein dictated the letter to Szilard in German, and Szilard later translated it into a typed final draft for Einstein’s signature.

The letter’s opening read as follows:

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.  (2)

Even Einstein’s signature, however, did not guarantee that the letter would get the attention it deserved. Einstein and Szilard entrusted the letter to Alexander Sachs, an unofficial advisor to F.D.R., but Roosevelt was preoccupied with the growing war in Europe, and Sachs was unable to get an appointment with him until October 1939.

To persuade Roosevelt, Sachs used a historical analogy. He told Roosevelt about an American inventor who met with the French emperor during the Napoleonic Wars. The inventor offered to build a fleet of steamships that could invade England regardless of the weather. Napoleon was incredulous, unable to think beyond ships with sails. He sent the American away. The shortsightedness, arrogance, and lack of imagination of Napoleon saved England and sealed Napoleon’s fate. It was a powerful analogy, and despite the fact that it took time for the Manhattan Project to get off the ground, it was the letter and Sach’s persuasiveness that led to the development of the atomic bomb that Harry Truman had dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Ironically, near the end of the war, the Allies discovered that the Germans were at least two years away from developing the bomb. Furthermore, both Szilard and Einstein objected to the United States’ use of the bomb. Even though Einstein did not work directly on the Manhattan Project, he called his decision to sign the letter to President Roosevelt the “one great mistake in my life” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Missives With a Mission

What are examples of the most urgent issues in today’s world, either at the local, national, or international levels?  If you were to select one urgent issue, what would it be, and how would you explain your reasoning behind why the issue is so urgent?  Select a single issue and write an open letter to the president or other official who has the power to act (See February 3: Open Letter Day). Explain in your letter what the issue is and why it is specifically an urgent issue that should be addressed immediately.  The purpose of your letter is to persuade the addressee and the general audience that your issue is, in fact, an urgent issue that needs to be addressed immediately. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others. –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1 – Gillon, Steven M. Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

2-http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Begin/Einstein.shtml

December 27: Editorial Day

On this day in 1845, an editorial appeared in the New York Morning News by John L. O’Sullivan (1813 – 1895).  In the editorial, Sullivan, a newspaper editor and proponent of U.S. expansion, argued for the United States’ claim to the Oregon Country, a large region in the West for which England and the U.S. had rival claims.  To Sullivan, expansion of the U.S. across all of North America to the Pacific coast was more than just a hope for the young nation; instead, it was its duty and its fate:

Away, away with all these cobweb issues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, etc.… our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us. (1)

Sullivan’s editorial popularized the motto: manifest destiny, giving proponents of expansion a rally cry.  By the end of 1846, Oregon became a U.S. Territory after negotiations with Britain established the border at the 49th parallel (See June 15: Parallelism Day). At the time of Sullivan’s editorial, the United States had just 27 states.  By the end of the 19th century that number would expand to 45.

Sullivan’s editorial and the motto that it popularized are just one of many examples of how newspaper editorials have influenced American history.  

Each day the editorial boards of American newspapers produce written pieces that reflect the opinions of their newspaper and its publisher.  By definition an editorial is a subjective expression of opinion, distinct from news articles which are objective.  Another term closely associated with editorials is “Op-Ed,” an abbreviation of “opposite the editorial page.”  Like editorials, Op-Ed’s are opinion pieces; however, unlike editorials, they are written by outside contributors or columnists.

The basic structure of editorials and op-eds is similar in that both present arguments supporting a central claim, and each has a fundamental three-part organization:

Introduction:  State what the issue is, along with its history. Explain who is affected by the issue and why it is relevant today.  Clearly state your claim regarding the issue and the reasoning behind your position.

Body:  Support your argument with reasoning, evidence, and counterarguments.  Use specific facts, statistics, examples, and quotations from authorities to support your position.  Provide clear explanations of your proof, along with your vision of what the final outcome related to the issue should be.

Conclusion:  Consider an appeal to pathos, revealing the emotions around the issue or showing your passionate concern for the issue.  End with a call to action or by restating your position.

Today’s Challenge:  Make Your Opinion Manifest

What is a current issue that is relevant today, an issue that you have an opinion about?  Write an editorial expressing and supporting your opinion on a specific relevant issue.  If you’re not sure what to write about, look at the news in today’s newspaper, and respond to what you see there.  Or read editorials or op-eds, and respond to those. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-O’Sullivan, John L. Editorial. New York Morning News 27 Dec. 1845. Public Domain.

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.