April 5:  Veto Day

Today is the anniversary of the first veto in American presidential history. On this day in 1792, President George Washington was presented a bill that would apportion representatives among the states, and he vetoed it. The word veto has its roots in Latin, literally translated I forbid. It dates back to the days of the Roman Senate when the Roman tribunes had the power to unilaterally refuse Senate legislation.

For more than 2,000 years, English has borrowed liberally from Latin, the most important language in European history. Long before English was established as a language of note, let alone a global language, Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and even after the fall of Rome, Latin survived, evolving into what we know today as the Romance Languages: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Romanian. Until the 20th century, Latin was the prestige language of government, religion, and academia. No wonder when a new republic was established in America, it turned to Latin words for its legislative practices and to Latin mottoes for its currency.

As noted by Wilfred Funk in Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, some Latin words were Anglicized as they were adopted into English, a Germanic tongue. Hundreds of other words, however, came into English with little to no changes in spelling, which is one of the reasons English spelling is so idiosyncratic. Here are some examples of Latin words adopted directly into English:  recipe, vim, memorandum, stimulus, vacuum, veto, via, item, exit, minimum, affidavit (1).

Another rich source of English vocabulary is Greek, without which we would not have words like politics, rhetoric, and democracy.

Today’s Challenge:  From Government Argot to Political Zingers

When you think of the word “politics” or “government,” what words come to mind?  Brainstorm a list of at least ten words you would associate with government and/or politics.  

In his Political Dictionary, William Safire explores the meaning and history of over 1800 words and phrases that, like veto, have distinctive meanings in the context of government and politics.  The following is a small A to Z sample:

abolitionist, bandwagon, campaign, deterrent, entitlement, fascist, gerrymander, hegemony, incumbent, jingoism, know-nothings, liberal, mandate, neoconservatism, oversight, platform, quagmire, rhetoric, socialism, terrorism, unilateralism, vox populi, whistleblower, yahoo, zinger (2).

Research one word from Safire’s list or from your own.  Define the word, giving examples of how it is used in government and politics, along with some specific examples.  Also, research the word’s etymology. Does it come from Greek or Latin, like so many other political words do? Or, does it have a different origin? (Common Core Language 4 – Vocabulary Acquisition and Use)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. 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-Wilfred Funk in Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. Grosset & Dunlap, 1950.

2- Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008.

March 9:  Classic Duel Day

On this day in 1862, the Monitor and the Merrimack met at the Battle of Hampton Roads in history’s first duel between ironclad warships.

The Monitor and Merrimac.jpgThe USS Merrimack was sunk by Union forces when the Civil War began in April 1861.  At that time the Merrimack was a 40-gun wooden frigate. The Confederates raised the ship and rebuilt it, covering it with 4-inch iron armor.  The ship was launched in February 1862 and rechristened the CSS Virginia.

The Confederates quickly put the Virginia to work in their effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports, which had been in effect since the beginning of the war. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia sunk two of the Union’s wooden ships and disabled another, proving that wooden ships had little chance against ironclad vessels.  

The Union, however, was ready to answer the Confederate challenge.  One month previously it had commissioned its own ironclad, the USS Monitor.  The Monitor had a much lower profile than the Merrimack (Virginia), rising only 18 inches from the water.  Its flat iron deck featured a 20-foot cylindrical rotating turret with two 11-inch guns.

On the morning of March 9, 1892, the Monitor steamed into Chesapeake Bay, confronting the Merrimack.  The two ships battled for four hours, but since the cannon fire simply bounced off the armor of both ships, the battle ended in a draw.  The dual ushered in a new era in naval warfare, and soon all the world’s naval warships were constructed with iron (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Classic Clash

When you think of classic head to head rivalries, what contestants come to mind?  Brainstorm a list of classic rivalries.  Your list may include people, literary characters, groups, trademarks, franchises, genres, or anything else that might be considered a classic clash of two opposing forces. Select one of your pairs, and write your case for why one deserves to be declared the single winner of the dual, giving specific reasons and evidence to make your case unsinkable.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Here are some examples of classic clashes:

Edison vs. Tesla, Lincoln vs. F.D.R., Lakers vs. Celtics, Drama or Comedy, Poetry or Prose, Star Trek vs. Star Wars, Cats vs Dogs, Apple vs. Microsoft, DC vs. Marvel, Coffee vs. Tea, Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles, Coke vs. Pepsi, Football vs. Baseball

Quotation of the Day:  Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through snow. – Jeff Valdez

1-http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-hampton-roads/print

March 3:  Mount Rushmore Day

On this day in 1925, Congress authorized the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, located in South Dakota on a mountain that was originally called Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux.  The construction of Mount Rushmore began in October 1927 and ended in October 1941.  After Congress authorized the mountain memorial, President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, insisted that in addition to Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed.  

MtRushmore.jpgThe sculptor in charge of the project, Gutzon Borglum, selected Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to join Washington.  In the process of construction, 450,000 tons of rock were blasted off the mountainside.  

Less than one year before the completion of Mt. Rushmore in March 1941, Gutzon Borglum died from an embolism.  Borglum’s son, Lincoln Borglum, continued his father’s work until it was completed on October 31, 1941.

One aspect of Mt. Rushmore that Borglum envisioned was never completed. Borglum wanted an inscription in words to accompany the faces of the American presidents.  Specifically, he wanted 500 words telling the history of the United States written on the front of the mountain.  Borglum wanted these words written not only in English but also in Latin and Sanskrit.  In this way Mt. Rushmore would become a new Rosetta Stone, giving future archaeologists an explanation of the history behind the people depicted there.  

Initially, Borglum asked President Calvin Coolidge to write the 500 words, but Borglum rejected Coolidge’s submission.  A national essay contest was then held in 1934 with more than 100,000 entries. The contest’s winner was a Nebraska student named William Andrew Burkett.  Unfortunately just as he had rejected Coolidge’s entry, Borglum also rejected Burkett’s essay.  As a result, the mountain was left without inscribed words (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Your Rock Stars

Who are the four key individuals within a single field, such as science, philosophy, rock-n-roll, movies, literature, or baseball, who you would enshrine on your Mt. Rushmore?  Mt. Rushmore has become a kind of metaphor for the idea of enshrining four specific individuals as the pillars within a certain field.  Today, for example, most students of American history recognize Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt among the most important United States presidents.  Select a field that you know well, and brainstorm the names of people you consider pillars in their field of expertise.  Once you have selected your four, write a brief rationale for each, explaining what made these individuals’ contributions so significant.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation. -George Washington

1-http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/rushmore-inscribe/

 

 

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 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 12:  Pros and Cons Day

Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the Victorian naturalist known for the theory of evolution.  From 1831-1836 Darwin sailed aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands and the coast of South America.  Based on the observations he made on this five year trip, Darwin published, in 1859, the single most influential book of the nineteenth century, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.  Darwin’s work not only revolutionized science, especially the fields of biology and anthropology, but it also sparked furious philosophical, religious, and ethical debates–debates which continue even today.

Head and shoulders portrait, increasingly bald with rather uneven bushy white eyebrows and beard, his wrinkled forehead suggesting a puzzled frownAfter his five-year voyage, Darwin returned home to an intense internal debate, not about issues of science but issues of matrimony.  Having fallen in love with his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin contemplated whether or not to pop the question.  Being a scientist, he approached the matter in a rational and methodical manner, sitting down and writing out a list of pros and cons.

Under the heading “Marry” some of the notable arguments for having a wife were “Constant companion . . . better than a dog” and “someone to take care of house.”  As for the cons, under the “Not Marry” heading, he listed, “Less money for books” and “cannot read in the evenings.”  Despite the fact the Darwin’s “Not Marry” column included more reasons than his “Marry” column, we know that in the end he decided to marry.  He and Emma were married on January 29, 1839.  They had ten children and remained married until Charles died in 1882 (1).

Of course Darwin was not the first to use the pros and cons method of decision making.  It dates back to Roman times.  Pros and cons is derived from the Latin pro et contra, which translates into English as “for and against.”  Another noted man of science who advocated the pro et contra method was Benjamin Franklin.  He wrote a letter to a friend on September 19, 1772 in which he praised this rational method of putting your thoughts on paper:

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Decisions, Decisions

What are some of life’s majors decisions that require the kind of careful thought and deliberation that require a pros and cons list?  Create your own pros and cons list based on an important life decision that you might make in the future.  Force yourself to go beyond your own biases by trying to create a list that has a balanced proportion of pros and cons.  With Valentine’s Day drawing near, for example, you might consider whether or not to pursue a relationship with a significant other.  Below are some other examples of crucial life decisions:

Marry/Don’t Marry

Go to College/Don’t Go to College

Own a Pet/Don’t Own a Pet

Buy a Home/Rent a Home or Apartment

Buy a New Car/Lease or Buy a Used Car

Have Children/Don’t Have Children

Staycation/Vacation

Work for a Company/Be Self-Employed

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Quick decisions are unsafe decisions. -Sophocles

1-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/a-wife-is-better-than-a-dog-charles-darwins-main-reason-for-marr/

2-http://www.procon.org/view.background-resource.php?resourceID=1474

 

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 2:  Prognostication Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a day when all eyes watch for the emergence of a large furry rodent from its winter den.  According to folklore, if the groundhog sees his shadow when he emerges, he’ll be frightened and retreat back into his den, signaling six more weeks of winter.  If, however, he does not see his shadow, he will end his winter hibernation, singling the arrival of an early spring.

The origin of this strange ritual dates back to ancient Europe when the survival of communities was more closely tied to the changing of the seasons.  Since February 2nd is the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, it was an important time to take stock of winter provisions to determine whether or not there was enough food to make it to spring.  It makes sense, therefore, that it is a time to prognosticate about the arrival of spring.

When looking for signs of spring, it’s logical to watch for mammals ending their winter hibernation.  In France, the traditional animal was the marmot; in England, it was the hedgehog; and in Germany, it was the badger.  The groundhog tradition in the United States began with the Pennsylvania Dutch who came to America from Germany.  Finding no badgers in the eastern U.S., they adopted the groundhog (also known as the whistle pig or the woodchuck).  

The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held each February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where it began in 1887.  Locals gather at Gobbler’s Knob, anxiously awaiting Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication.  Unfortunately an analysis of weather statistics reveals that a flip of a coin would be a better weather prognosticator:  Since 1887, Phil’s accuracy rate is just 39% (1).

Having knowledge about the future is one thing, but being able to impact the future is another thing entirely.  Through writing each individual has the ability to influence future change by communicating his or her ideas to an audience.  Aristotle called this type of rhetoric deliberative.  Unlike arguing about what has happened in the past (forensic rhetoric) or arguing what we value in the present (demonstrative rhetoric), deliberative rhetoric is about making a case for the future, about what decisions will be made or what choices are the best alternatives for a bright future.  Deliberative rhetoric is seen in famous speeches like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, where King was attempting to show his audience his vision of a brighter tomorrow in a world free of racism.

Today’s Challenge:  Prognosticate For Change

If you could make one specific change in order to make the world a better place, what would it be?  Write a speech in which you argue for one specific change that would improve your town, school, state, nation, or world.  Prognosticate how specifically the change you envision, would improve things. Make the case for your change by contrasting the status quo, what is, with the possible future, what could be.  Give your audience a specific vision to show them how bright the future looks with your change.  Use facts and evidence from today to boost the likelihood of your prediction and to show your audience that your change is the best alternative.

The following are a few ideas to spark your thinking:

We should make college tuition free for all students.

We should change the voting age to 16.

We should limit the U.S. president to one term in office.

We should outlaw football.

We should discontinue the Olympics.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. -George Santayana

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/29889/where-did-groundhog-day-come

 

January 20:  Chiasmus Day

On this day in 1961 John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the Unites States’ 34th president.  From the text of his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what has become probably the most famous sentences in political history:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy, who at 42 years of age was the youngest president ever elected, exuded youth, enthusiasm, and idealism as he proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .”  The skillful use of rhythm, repetition, alliteration, antithesis and parallelism make Kennedy’s inaugural address a rhetorical masterpiece.  The speech’s most memorable line, however, features a distinctive rhetorical device called chiasmus.

Chiasmus, which is also known as antimetabole, is the “all for one, one for all” device.  It is a special brand of parallel structure that involves a rhetorical criss-cross or flip-flop.  What makes chiasmus distinctive is that the words are not just repeated, rather they are repeated in reverse order, as in, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

In order to see the power of Kennedy’s chiasmus, contrast what Kennedy might have said with what he actually said:

Without chiasmus:  “Do not be self-centered, thinking only of yourself; instead; think of what you can do to contribute to your country.”

With chiasmus:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Notice how with chiasmus the reversal of the words “you” and “country” causes the reader to reevaluate the relationship between the two ideas.  More than just a rhetorical flourish, this is one of the central themes of Kennedy’s message.

Also notice that not only does chiasmus make the sentence more memorable, but also the sentence’s simple, clear words pack a punch.  Of the sentence’s 17 words, all but two are single syllable words.  The only word of more than a single syllable is the key word “country,” which is repeated twice for emphasis.  Like Lincoln and Churchill before him, Kennedy knew the power of clear, concise language.

Today’s Challenge:  What Chiasmus Can Do For You

As seen in Kennedy’s use of chiasmus, it is an especially useful device for reversing an audience’s attitude or attempting to correct or flip an audience’s thinking.  What are some general beliefs or attitudes held by many people that you think should be changed?  How might you employ chiasmus to state the change in belief or attitude that you want to see?

Create a sentence using chiasmus that states a change in a belief or attitude that you would like to see.  For example:   

“You don’t own your cellphone, your cellphone owns you.”

Then write a short speech using that sentence as your title.  In your speech explain specifically the change you would like to see and why you think this change would be an improvement.

If you can’t think of an original sentence, create a spin-off chiasmus using Kennedy’s sentence or some of the other examples below:

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.

Do things right, and do the right things.

One should work to live, not live to work.

Example spin-off:  Don’t ask what your English teacher can do for you, ask what you can do for your English teacher.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. –Thomas Henry Huxley

 

 

January 17: Virtues Day

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

BenFranklinDuplessis.jpgFranklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight with England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” 

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week.  Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.

Today’s Challenge:  Tale of a Trait

What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait  that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance?  The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (1).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

1-Online Etymology – “Virtue”