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

July 27: SMOG Day

Today is the anniversary of the coinage of the word smog. On July 27, 1905 the London Globe reported: “At a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. Des Voeux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as smog, a compound of smoke and fog” (1). Smog is just one example of a class of English words know as blends (a.k.a. portmanteau words), such as spork (spoon + fork), or brunch (breakfast + lunch).

The London fog of Dickens and Hollywood was certainly less romantic than it appeared. The major culprit of the city’s dark fog was burning coal; it seems appropriate that a physician would be the one to appear on the scene to name the culprit and to try to clear it up.

When it comes to writing, there is another kind of SMOG know as the Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook. This type of SMOG, an acronym, is a test of a text’s readability, based on a formula devised by reading researcher G. Harry McLaughlin. McLaughlin says he designed his formula in 1969 BC [Before Computers], to give educators an easy method of calculating the grade level of a given text.

The readability formula works like this: First, select three, 10-sentence samples from the text. Second, count the words in the text that are 3 or more syllables. Third, estimate the count’s square root, and add 3. The resulting number will correspond to the estimated grade-level of the text.

Today, in the age of computers, you can use the SMOG Formula online by simply cutting and pasting your text. This passage, for example, comes in at 11.02 on the SMOG Index.

The final word in the SMOG acronym, gobbledygook refers to more than just multisyllabic words. It means unintelligible language, especially jargon or bureaucratese.

The word was coined by Texas lawyer and Democratic Congressman Maury Maverick. He created the word in 1944 when referring to the obscure, smoggy language used by his colleagues. To craft his metaphor, Maverick turned to the turkey since the bird is “always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity.”

It should be noted that word origins ran in the Maverick family. Maury’s grandfather was Samuel Maverick, the Texas rancher who became famous and eponymous for his unconventional practice of not branding his cattle. Of course today a maverick is anyone who stands outside the crowd, or herd, defying the status quo (3).

One organization defying SMOG is the Plain English Campaign based in New Mills, Derbyshire, England. Their stated mission is to fight “for crystal-clear language and against jargon, gobbledygook and other confusing language.”

Each year the Plain English Campaign presents The Golden Bull Awards for the year’s worst examples of gobbledygook. Here is one example of a 2004 winner:

British Airways for terms and conditions

CHARGES FOR CHANGES AND CANCELLATIONS NOTE – CANCELLATIONS – BEFORE DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE ONLY THE Y/C/J-CLASS HALF RETURN AMOUNT CAN BE REFUNDED. AFTER DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE REFUND THE DIFFERENCE /IF ANY/BETWEEN THE FARE PAID AND THE APPLICABLE NORMAL BA ONEWAY FARE. CHANGES/UPGRADES- PERMITTED ANYTIME (4).

Below are examples given by the Plain English Campaign of sentences containing gobbledygook. Each of the three sentences is followed by a clear, concise version.  Study each sentence noticing how the three bad versions cloud meaning with gobbledygook:

  1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

-Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

  1. If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

-If you have any questions, please ring.

  1. It is important that you shall read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to its immediate return to the Council by way of the envelope provided.

-Please read the notes opposite before you fill in the form. Then send it back to us as soon as possible in the envelope provided.

Today’s Challenge:  SMOG Alert

Why do some writers write sentences clogged by gobbledygook, and more importantly, what can they do to prevent writing this way?  Write a PSA in clear, simple, forceful language that provides the audience with a clear warning against using gobbledygook as well as some specific tips on how to avoid it. (Common Core Writing 1)

Quotation of the Day: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. -George Orwell

 

1 – Funk, Charles Earle. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. New York: HarperPerennial, 1950.

2 – McLaughlin, G. Harry. SMOG: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook.

3 – Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words.  

4 – http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/index.html

 

 

 

July 23:  Grand Slam Day

Today is the anniversary of Tiger Woods’ victory at the 2000 British Open. Woods won by shooting a record 19 under par at the course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Certainly winning a major professional golf tournament in record fashion is noteworthy, but what made Woods’ victory extraordinary was the fact that it made him, at 24 years-old, the youngest golfer ever to win all four of golf’s major championships: the British, the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the PGA.

Later when Woods won the 2001 Masters, he became the only player to win consecutive titles in all four major championships. Because he did not win all four titles in the same year, however, his accomplishment was dubbed The Tiger Slam. No player has ever won all four of the major tournaments in the same year (1).

Your first guess as to the origin of grand slam might take you to the baseball term for a bases loaded home run that scores four runs. While this is probably the most common use of the term, it actually originated in card games, bridge for example, where one side wins all thirteen tricks. It is also a prominent term in tennis, referring to the four national championships: the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and the U.S. Open (2).

Wherever the term grand slam is used, it usually relates to superlative achievements in high stakes competition. Also, at least in the modern sense, it has come to be associated with things that come in fours. Maybe there is something magical about the number four; after all, it is the only number in the English language which when spelled out has the same number of letters as the number it represents. Look at the groups of four below, and see if you can identify the category into which all four fit.

Example: hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds. Answer: the four card suits.

  1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  2. John, Paul, George, and Ringo
  3. Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, Thing
  4. simple, complex, compound, compound-complex
  5. from want, from fear, of speech, and of worship
  6. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph
  7. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde
  8. index, middle, ring, little
  9. fire, air, water, earth
  10. war, famine, plague, death
  11. meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables
  12. Boreas, Eurus, Zephyrus, Notus
  13. Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian

Today’s Challenge:  Your Fantastic Four for Success

How would you complete the following?:  There are four things you need for a successful _______________ : 1) _______________, 2) ______________, 3) ______________, and 4)______________. Brainstorm several topics first.

Below are ten to get you started:

camping trip or vacation

freshman year in high school or college

job search or car purchase

basketball team or football coach

marriage or friendship

website or blog

birthday party or retirement party

career in real estate or career in

interview or resume

essay or speech

Then, identify the four ingredients of success that you want to explore.  Make sure that your four things are laid out in a parallel fashion.  For example:

Four things you need for a successful freshman year are 1) a plan to fight procrastination, 2) a focus on your long term goals, 3) a willingness to work hard, and 4) an ability to evaluate your own learning.

Notice how each of the four ingredients begins in the same way, making the four elements parallel and coherent for the reader.  Once you have this basic thesis sentence formed, explain each of the four things in detail, one at a time, using evidence and examples for each.

Quotation of the Day:  Newspapers should come in four sections: Truth, Probability, Possibility, and Lies. -Thomas Jefferson

Answers: 1. the four gospels 2. the four Beatles 3. the four members of the Fantastic Four 4. four types of sentences 5. the Four Freedoms (from F.D.R.’s famous speech) 6. the four patriarchs 7. the four ghosts in Pac-Man 8. the four fingers 9. the four ancient elements 10. the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 11. the four food groups 12. the four winds 13 the four oceans

 

1 – Tiger Woods Wins British Open. Aired July 23, 2000 CNN Transcripts

http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0007/23/sun.04.html

2 – Ammer, Christine. Southpaws and Sunday Punches and Other Sports Expressions. New York: Plum___oe Books, 1993.

 

July 19:  Push the Envelope Day

Today is the anniversary of the first true space flight in 1962. Air Force pilot Bob White took the experimental aircraft the X-15 to a record altitude of 314,750 feet, pushing the envelope and breaking the 50 mile boundary separating the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. White’s flight established a world record that still stands for altitude achieved in a winged aircraft. For his feat of daring, Walker became the first pilot to earn astronaut wings (1).

Black rocket aircraft with stubby wings and short vertical stabilizers above and below tail unitThe word astronaut comes from Greek: astron, “star” + nautes, “sailor.” The Russian equivalent is cosmonaut, which is also from Greek: kosmos, “universe” + nautes, “sailor.”

Today we hear the expression push the envelope in a variety of contexts relating to attempts to “exceed the limits of what is normally done”; in other words, attempts to be innovative, as in: The computer company is trying to get its software engineers to push the envelope in developing a new approach to computing. The three-word idiom comes from the field of aviation and was originally used to describe the exploits of pilots like Bob White who attempted, but did not always succeed, in pushing the limits of a plane’s capabilities either in speed or altitude. Within the envelope, the pilot was safe; beyond it, there was uncertainty and risk (2).

Push the envelope is just one of many three-word idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when translated literally) in English that follow the pattern: verb + “the” + noun, as in “bite the bullet.” Here are five more examples, all beginning with the verb “take”:

take the plunge

take the heat

take the Fifth

take the fall

take the rap

Given the first letter of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the three-word idioms below:

  1. w_______ the s_________
  1. r________ the g________
  1. p________ the t________
  1. b________ the h _______
  1. c________ the f _______
  1. c________ the m _______
  1. h________ the c _______
  1. p________ the f _______
  1. s________ the c _______
  1. s________ the f _______

Today’s Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

What are some examples of figurative expressions or familiar idiomatic phrases that follow the pattern Verb + “the” + Noun, as in “take the plunge” or “push the envelope”?  Brainstorm as many as you can; then, select one and use it as the title of short poem or paragraph.  For more examples of three-word phrases see the list below today’s Quotation of the Day.  Play around with your expression’s meaning, both literal and figurative, as well as considering the action as expressed in the verb.  Compose your poem or paragraph, and use your three-word idiom as its title.

Quote of the Day: Before you push the envelope, open it up and see what’s inside.  –L’ Architecte Karp

break the bank, clear the air, cross the Rubicon, draw the line, drink the Kool-Aid, fly the coop, foot the bill, hit the deck, hit the hay, hit the road, hit the jackpot, hit the roof, hit the spot, hold the fort, hold the line, hold the phone, kick the habit, kick the bucket, make the grade, take the Fifth, take the rap, turn the tables

Answers: 1. weather the storm 2. run the gamut or run the gauntlet 3. pass the torch 4. bury the hatchet 5. chew the fat 6. cut the mustard 7. hit the ceiling 8. press the flesh 9. stay the course 10. straddle the fence.

 

1 – Wolverton, Mark. The Airplane That Flew Into Space. American Heritage Summer 2001 Volume 17, Issue 1

2 – Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Miffline Company, 1997.

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