THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 25

Subject:  Romanticism – Burns’ Night 

Event:  Birthday of Robert Burns, 1759

I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns

Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age.  Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one of the great poets, especially to the people of Scotland who recognize him as their national poet.

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787 (Wikipedia)

Even though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world.  One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).

Although he is typically viewed more as a poet than a philosopher, Burns’ life and work embodied all the elements of the philosophical tradition known as romanticism.   His humble beginnings and desire to preserve the oral tradition of the Scottish people are consistent with the romantic tradition of celebrating the individual and, especially, the common man. Furthermore, his poetic imagination captured both the wonder of nature and the power of human emotions.

It’s no wonder then that another poet/philosopher, the American Ralph Waldo Emerson, would recognize Burns’ genius. On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson commemorated Burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:

He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)

Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard. Ever since, Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers.  More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.

One vital menu item for every Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach.  Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees.  The purpose of this speech is to revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is romanticism, and how did the work of Robert Burns exemplify it?

Challenge – Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal:  What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper?  What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements?  Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world.  Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored. Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities. 

Sources: 

1-The Poetry Foundation.  Robert Burns.

2-Bartleby.  Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The Complete Works.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 24

Subject:  Framing – Frederick the Great and the Potato

Event:  Birthday of Frederick the Great, 1712

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic.  We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.  –Dale Carnegie

The gravestone of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a man who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia for 46 years in the 1700s, is covered with potatoes.   It’s not at all surprising to see flowers on a grave, but potatoes?  Why potatoes?  And what on earth does this have to do with rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion?

Grave of Frederick (Wikipedia)

Being the forward-thinking monarch that he was, Frederick the Great hatched a plan to introduce the potato to his subjects as a hedge against potential famine.  The potato would provide an alternative to bread and would make food prices less volatile.  Based on this reasoning, Frederick issued a decree requiring the cultivation of potatoes.  There was a problem, however.  Frederick’s subjects had never eaten potatoes and were wary of this subterranean, dirty, and tasteless plant, a plant which not even dogs would eat and which was not mentioned in the Bible.

Having failed to persuade his subjects with reason and authority, Frederick went back to the drawing board.  This time he employed imagination and psychology to transform the worthless, unwanted potato into a valuable and prized commodity.

Plan B required cunning and a more subtle approach.  Frederick declared the potato the royal vegetable, exclusive to the table of the royal household.  To consume the prized potato, an individual would either need to be royalty or be given royal permission.  Next, Frederick established a royal potato patch on the palace grounds.  Before posting guards, however, he instructed his potato police to be less than diligent in guarding the royal crop.  In this way, curious Prussians were able to gain access to the potato garden and steal some of the tantalizing tubers.  By manufactured scarcity and exclusivity, Frederick rebranded the potato.  Stolen vegetables from the royal potato patch were now eagerly consumed and cultivated, and today the potato is a staple of the European diet (1).

Long before modern advances in psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, Frederick — who was born on this day in 1712 — understood that persuasion requires more than just appealing to reason.  Instead, persuasion requires appealing to an audience’s psychology, its emotion, and its imagination.  Rhetoric is the art of using words to persuade and of recognizing and using the right tool in the right context. It’s not that reason isn’t an important part of persuasion, but relying exclusively on reason is a bit like having a tool chest full of nothing but hammers.  Another 18th-century thinker who knew this was the philosopher Davie Hume (1711-1776), who said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Just as Frederick reframed the potato, rhetoric is the art of using words to reframe your ideas, employing the strategic use of reason, psychology, emotion, and imagination.  As Frederick demonstrated, how you say something can often be just as important as what you say.

Frederick taught us that people are influenced by the way a message is framed.  In other words, people draft different conclusions from the same information, depending on how the information is presented.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is psychological framing, and how can it be illustrated using a potato?

Challenge – Reframe Game:  What is one thing that almost universally hated?   It could be a highly disparaged menu item — like Brussel sprouts — or a more abstract concept — like homework.  Write an elevator pitch of at least 100 words in which you attempt to reframe the thing, using the alchemy of language to transform your audience’s perception of the thing from disdain to appreciation.  Make the audience see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

Sources:  

1-Sutherland, Rory.  The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 23

Subject:  Action Bias – Soccer Goalie Study

Event:  Birthday of Michael Bar-Eli, 1953

In his classic essay “Shooting An Elephant,” English writer George Orwell tells the story of an experience he had while serving as a police officer in Burma in the 1930s, a region under colonial rule by the British Empire at the time. When a rogue elephant gets loose, Orwell is confronted with a dilemma concerning whether or not to shoot the elephant.  Feeling pressure from the gathered crowd to act rather than appear indecisive or cowardly, he shoots and kills the elephant.  In the story’s final line, he honestly reflects on what he did and why he did it:  “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

The work of psychologist Michael Bar-Eli, who was born on this day in 1953, examines this distinctly human fear of being shamed by inaction.  To examine what Bar-Eli calls the action bias, he studied the strategy of soccer goalies when facing a penalty kick.  There are basically three potential targets for a player taking a penalty kick:  the left side of the goal, the right, or the middle.  Even though each target is equally likely, you rarely see a goalie remain in the middle of the goal; instead, they dive either to the left or the right side. Despite the fact that a statistical analysis by Bar-Eli reveals that the optimal strategy for goalies is to stay in the center, the pull of the action bias is too strong.  Rather than risk the appearance of being indecisive or facing the embarrassment of not following the normal course of action, the goalies prefer diving, even when it results in a dive in the wrong direction.  

The action bias makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms.  Our ancestors survived by reacting quickly when facing potential danger; a human who spent too much time in contemplation became easy prey for a predator.  If we’re aware of the action bias, we know that our automatic, default response to situations is to act swiftly.  However, as with Orwell and the elephant or a goalie preparing to stop a penalty kick, sometimes it makes sense to develop a strategy or rationale, looking before you leap. 

Today our instincts still drive us to favor quick, decisive action, but the truth is our strength as a species is our ability to ruminate and reflect before we act.  Society still favors decisiveness and quick responses.  Looking busy trumps looking foolishly inactive.  Understanding the action bias, however, gives us the insight to follow reason rather than our feelings.  Even though taking time to reflect and ruminate might feel awkward, it often pays off by offering a prudent plan rather than a rash action.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the action bias, and how can watching penalty kicks in a soccer game teach us about life?

Challenge – Proverbs/Converbs:  Although proverbs are meant to convey concise wisdom to live by, many contradict each other.  For example, one proverb cautions us against the action bias saying, “Look before you leap.”  Another snippet of proverbial wisdom, however, rebuts with, “He who hesitates is lost.”  Research a pair of contradictory proverbs.  Quote them both; then, make your argument for which one of the two is the wiser advice. 

Sources:

Dobelli, Rolf, The Art of Thinking Clearly. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

THINKER’ ALMANAC – January 22

Subject:  Induction – Knowledge is Power

Event: Birthday of Francis Bacon, 1561

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. -Francis Bacon

Today is the birthday of English philosopher, statesman, and scientist, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), known for the famous pronouncement, “Knowledge is power.”  In science, Bacon challenged the established deductive method of thinking, which was based on the classical writings of Aristotle and Plato.  Unlike deduction, which is based on the syllogism, Bacon’s inductive method is based on empirical evidence.  In Bacon’s method, the five senses become the basis of how we make sense of our world, by observation, data gathering, analysis, and experimentation.

In 1620, Bacon published The New Instrument (Novum Organum Scientiarum), where he made his famous claim “knowledge is power.”  As historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book Sapiens, Bacon’s genius was his pioneering work in connecting science with technology.  Today we take this connection for granted, but in the 17th century, there was a divide between scientific theory and technology.  Bacon argued that the true test of knowledge wasn’t just whether or not it was true; instead, the true test was its utility.  Bacon envisioned a future where science and technology would be forged to empower humankind (1).

While Bacon is known today for the development of the scientific method, his devotion to that method might have also led to his own demise.  The story goes that one snowy day in 1626 Bacon was traveling with a friend in his carriage.  The two men began arguing about Bacon’s recent hypothesis that fresh meat could be preserved if frozen.  Seeing an opportunity to do some on-the-spot experimentation, Bacon stopped his carriage and purchased a chicken from a peasant woman. After having the woman gut the chicken, Bacon proceeded to pack snow into the chicken’s carcass. He then put the chicken in a bag, packed more snow around the outside of its body, and buried it.  Unfortunately, in the process of gathering his empirical evidence, Bacon caught a severe chill, which led to his death by pneumonia on April 9, 1626.

In addition to his important work in science, Bacon is also known today for his writing, principally the English essay. Influenced by Montaigne, the French writer who pioneered the essay, Bacon adopted and popularized the form in English as a method for exploring ideas in writing.

Bacon wrote on a wide range of topics, but preceded his essays’ titles with the preposition “of,” as in Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Love, Of Boldness, Of Ambition.  His essays are eminently quotable, for Bacon crafted his sentences carefully, making each one a profound package of pithiness — you might go so far as to call them “Bacon bits.”  As Bacon explained in his own words, aphorisms, those concise statements of general truth, were essential to his thinking:

Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What were Bacon’s contributions to both the world of science and of writing?

Challenge – Everything is Better with Bacon:  Just one of Bacon’s aphorisms is like an essay in itself.  For example, here’s what he said about rhetoric:  “The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.”  Research some of Bacon’s aphorisms.  Select one that you find interesting.  Quote it, and write an explanation of why it intrigues you.

1-Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.2-Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning. 1605.

2-Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning. 1605.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 21

Subject:  Sunk Cost — The Concorde Program 

Event:  Concorde’s first flight, 1976

No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back.  -Turkish Proverb

On January 21, 1976, the Concorde made its first commercial flight.  This supersonic aircraft that could fly from London to New York in just three and half hours was a joint project by England and France.  Even before the first flight, British and French taxpayers contributed over a billion and a half dollars to the program.  The state of the art appearance and speed of the aircraft were impressive, but the reality was that the plane never turned a profit.  Despite the fact that both England and France were losing large sums of money financing the Concorde program, they continued to operate it at a loss, unwilling to admit that continuing to finance the plane was not financially viable.  Despite the fact the Concorde was a fast aircraft, flying at twice the speed of sound, its financiers were slow to see that it was just too expensive to operate.  They did, however, finally throw in the towel.  The Concorde made its final flight on October 24, 2003, 27 years after its inaugural flight.

British Airways Concorde G-BOAC 03.jpg
British Airways Concorde in 1986 (Wikipedia)

Economists call this the “Concorde effect,” also known as the sunk cost fallacy, the human tendency to resist cutting our losses when we have invested money or time into something.  Nations, companies, and individuals are all susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.  America’s involvement in Vietnam, for example, continued much longer than it should have.  Instead of ending the futile campaign, government and military leaders used the sacrifice and the loss of blood and treasure as a rationale to continue the fight.

The key to avoiding the sunk cost fallacy is to focus not on past losses but instead on future costs and benefits.  The time, money, or energy you have invested in the past is gone and should be forgotten.  The only reasonable course is to make an honest, realistic look at the likelihood of future gains.  So, for example, if you are having trouble in a relationship with a significant other, focus on the future, not the past.  The length of time that you two have been together, whether it is two weeks or two years, is no reason to stay in the relationship.  Instead, focus on the future; is there a real likelihood that this person is someone who will enrich your life tomorrow and into the long term future?  

For a first-hand example of the sunk cost fallacy, try this thought experiment:  Imagine that you have booked a ski vacation in Michigan for a cost of $100.  You then discover a better ski trip at a cost of just $50 in Wisconsin, so you buy a ticket for that trip too.  You then realize that both trips are booked for the exact same weekend.  Neither trip is refundable, so you must decide which one to go on.  Which one would it be?

When researchers conducted this experiment in 1985, they demonstrated the true effect of the sunk cost fallacy.  Over half of the people chose the more expensive trip.  Even though the $100 trip did not promise as much fun as the $50 trip, the potential loss of a greater amount made it harder to give up.  Of course, this makes no sense since the amount spent is $150 regardless of which trip is selected.  This is why the sunk cost error is a “fallacy”: a belief or feeling that masquerades as a reasonable conclusion but that is in reality logically unsound and invalid (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How does the Concorde program illustrate the dangers of the sunk cost fallacy, and how can people avoid making this error in their own lives?

Challenge – Why We Fear Losses:  What is Loss Aversion? A key factor that contributes to the persistence of the sunk cost fallacy, is a related cognitive bias called “loss aversion.”  Do some research on this concept.  What is it, and why should people be warned about it?

Sources:

1-McRaney, David. You Are Now Less Dumb. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 20

Subject:  Sanity — McNaughton Rule   

Event:  Murder of Edward Drummond by Daniel McNaughton, 1843

On January 20, 1843, a woodturner named Daniel McNaughton approached another man from behind walking on the sidewalk near Charing Cross in London.  McNaughton then took a pistol from his coat pocket and shot the man in the back at point-blank range.  A nearby policeman heard the shot and immediately tackled McNaughton, wrestled his gun from him, and placed him under arrest.   The man who was shot was Edward Drummond, the private secretary to English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.  Five days later this case became a murder case when Drummond died of his gunshot wound.

When questioned, McNaughton admitted that his murder of Drummond was a case of mistaken identity:  his actual target was the prime minister, who resembled Drummond.  The motive for the crime was paranoid delusion:  McNaughton claimed that he was being followed and harrassed by government spies.

At his trial McNaughton was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was committed to a criminal lunatic asylum.  The general public’s reaction to the verdict was outrage, which resulted in the House of Lords meeting to establish a more clear definition of “insanity” for the courts. The result of this meeting was the McNaughton Rules, which for the first time gave courts clear guidelines for dealing with the insane in legal proceedings.

The McNaughton Rules established that jury members should be instructed to presume that any accused person is sane.  Only when evidence is presented to the contrary should the jury consider grounds for insanity.  If this evidence is presented, it must clearly prove that the mind of the accused was diseased to the degree that he or she did not know that the crime was wrong.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, the murder of Polonius echoes the McNaughton case.  Soon after arriving in his mother’s bedroom, Hamlet sees a rustling behind a curtain.  Thinking it is his Uncle Claudius, the king who killed his father, Hamlet begins stabbing wildly at the curtain.  He soon discovers that instead of killing his Uncle Claudius, he has murdered Polonius, Claudius’ trusted counselor and co-conspirator.

Is Hamlet’s murder of Polonius the act of a madman?  Testifying to what she eye-witnessed, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, seems to argue for a verdict of insanity under the McNaughton Rules:

Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend

Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,

Behind the arras hearing something stir,

Whips out his rapier, cries, ‘A rat, a rat!’

And, in this brainish apprehension, kills

The unseen good old man.

You might think a mother would be a reliable authority on her son’s mental state.  Generations of Shakespeare fans, however, have seen it differently, concluding that Hamlet just might be the only sane person in the entire play.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the McNaughton rule, and how would might it impact your decision if you were a part of a jury for a murder trial?

Challenge:  Aristotle said, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”  Do a search on quotations that deal with the fine line between genius and madness.  Select the one you like the best, and explain why you like it.

Sources:  

Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex.  Tarcher, 1990.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 19

Subject:  Memory – Herman Ebbinghaus

Event: Birthday of John Medina, author of Brain Rules, 1956.

Today is the birthday of John Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine.  In 2008, Medina published a book called Brain Rules where he summarized research on the human brain in twelve categories, including exercise, sleep, stress, attention, and memory.  In the book, Medina endeavored to focus on what is known about the brain based on research rather than to speculate on specific prescriptions or recommendations.  His standard was that supporting research for his brain rules must be supported by published, peer-reviewed, and replicated research.  

Ebbinghaus2.jpg
Hermann Ebbinghaus (Wikipedia)

In his chapter on memory, Medina presents a simple rule:  “Repeat to remember.”  To explain important insights on how the human brain transfers knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory, Medina profiles a man we might call the ‘father of memory,’ the 19th-century German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus. 

Ebbinghaus spent years memorizing three-letter nonsense words, such as TAZ, LEF, REN, and ZUG.  His purpose for doing this was to gather data on the lifespan of human memory.  What he found was that human memory is fleeting; without reinforcement, students forget about 90% of what they learn within 30 days.  The good news, however, is that Ebbinghaus also discovered the key to extending the lifespan of memories, which is repetition in timed intervals.  In other words, the effortful act of trying to retrieve a memory strengthens that memory and makes it more likely to survive in long term memory. Ebbinghaus also discovered a concept known as the serial position effect.  For example, if students are given a list of words to remember, most will remember the first few and the last few.  Words in the middle are most likely to be forgotten.  The name for our tendency to recall what is presented first is called the primacy effect.  The name for our tendency to recall what is presented last, or most recent, is called the recency effect.

Writers and speakers should consider the serial position effect when organizing their messages.  Your hello and your goodbye are always the most memorable.  Order matters.  Every piece of writing and every speech has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Put important points at the beginning and the end.  And realize that you will need to put in extra effort if you want the middle of your message to be memorable.

As both Medina and Ebbinghaus remind us, when it comes to memory we must remember that like water in a glass it can evaporate quickly unless we actively do something to stop it from disappearing.  The keys to memory are spaced repetition coupled with retrieval practice — the practice of consciously recalling information without looking at notes.  If you want to move something from short term to long term memory, you must take the time to repeat it, recite it, and retrieve it using deliberately timed intervals.  While it is true that procrastination is the thief of time, it is also, clearly, the thief of memory (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What did Hermann Ebbinghaus discover about memory, and how can we apply his concepts for more effective learning?

Challenge – Recall, Recite, Repeat:  Apply Medina’s rule for memory and Ebbinghaus’ spaced repetition to commit a short poem of at least ten lines to memory.

Sources:

1-Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0979777707

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 18

Subject:  Connotation and Denotation – Roget’s Thesaurus

Event: Birthday of Peter Mark Roget, 1779

On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852.  Roget’s work is a pioneering achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.

In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.

No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English.

Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse.  Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.

Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).

Generations of writers have turned to Roget’s work to assist their writing.  One example is American writer Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That Changed My Life”:

The book was Roget’s International Thesaurus.  It not only changed my life, but also transformed, diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and phraseology of all sorts. . . .(2).

Not all writers or English teachers are fans of the Thesaurus, however.  Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a student to grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in context.  For example, a student once wrote the sentence:

Today I ate a really good donut.  

Searching for a synonym for the word “good” in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:

Today I ate a really benevolent donut.

It’s because of mishaps like this that the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.

Because there are so many synonyms in English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a word and the connotation of a word.  A word’s denotation is the literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a word along with the feelings associated with that word.  Denotations can be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are a bit harder to find.  The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.

Notice, for example, how the writer Charles S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit” and “humor” in the following excerpt:

Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning, whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind. Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the difference between a word’s denotations and its connotations, and why is this distinction important for effective thinking and writing?

Challenge:  Is a Rant the Same as a Diatribe?

Clear thinking, cogent communication, and coherent writing depends on diction — a writer’s word choice.  Effective thinkers and writers must be students of words, and they must — like Charles S. Brooks — take time to understand the subtle distinctions between words.  Just because two words are listed as synonyms does not mean that they are interchangeable.  What are two words that — even though they are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing?  What are the subtle differences in the words’ denotations and connotations?  Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word pairs below:

mob/crowd, laugh/giggle, student/scholar, teen/juvenile, old/ancient, wealthy/rich, gregarious/social, frugal/cheap, watch/gaze, bright/smart, late/tardy, sleep/slumber, transform/change, proud/arrogant, wisdom/intelligence, confident/cocky, jail/prison

As you write, consider both the denotations and especially the connotations of the two words.

Sources:

1 – Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2- Keillor, Garrison.  “The Book That Changed My Life.”  Best Life. March 2009: 46.

3-Brooks, Charles.  “On the Difference Between Wit and Humor.”

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 17

Subject:  Virtues – Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues

Event:  Ben Franklin’s birthday, 1706

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

Franklin 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 against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.jpg
Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, Philadelphia,  Pennsylvania (Wikipedia)

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 he 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 (1).

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 (2).

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.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What was Franklin’s project, and why did he carry it out?

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? 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.

Sources:

1-Project Gutenberg’s Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin

2-Online Etymology Dictionary.  “Virtue.”

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 16

Subject: Spotlight Effect – Barry Manilow T-shirt

Event:  Birthday of Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, 1954 

In an old joke attributed to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, it is said that more people fear public speaking than fear death.  This means that at a funeral the majority of people would rather be in the casket than at the podium delivering the eulogy.

While it is true that many people fear public speaking, it’s doubtful that it is a fate worse than death.  What is true, however, is that we all tend to let our imaginations overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others in public situations.   Proof of this comes from the research of psychologist Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, who was born on January 16, 1954.  

In Gilovich’s best-known study, he had his subjects put on a shirt with a big picture of Barry Manilow on the front.  Gilovich wanted the t-shirt to feature the picture of someone who most subjects would be embarrassed to be associated with.  Manilow, the ‘70s singer known for schmaltzy pop, fit the bill. Telling his subjects that he was conducting a memory study, Gilovich had the t-shirt-clad subjects walk into a room.  As they entered, what they saw was a room full of seated students facing them.  After the subjects left the room, Gilovich asked them to estimate what percentage of the students in the room would remember their t-shirt.  Gilovich also asked the students in the room if they remembered whose face was on the t-shirt.  

The results revealed that the t-shirt-clad subjects grossly overestimated how much they were noticed.  They estimated that just under half of the students would remember the shirt; in reality, fewer than a quarter remembered seeing Manilow’s mug.

Gilovich also conducted the study by having subjects wear t-shirts that were considerably less embarrassing.  Even in these cases, though, the subjects drastically overestimated how many people remembered the shirt.

Gilovich dubbed his discovery the “spotlight effect,” an appropriate name to describe how inaccurate our perception of reality is.  Naturally, since we experience the world from our own first-person point of view, we put ourselves at the center of our own universe — in the spotlight.  This egocentrism distorts reality; the truth is that others are focused much more on themselves than on us (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the spotlight effect, and how did Gilovich’s study show the difference between perception and reality?

Challenge – Spotlight PSA:  Write a public service announcement that informs the audience about the spotlight effect and that persuades them that public speaking is nothing to fear.

Sources:  

1-Gordon, Amie M.  “Have You Fallen Prey to the ‘Spotlight Effect’?Psychology Today 21 November 2013.