August 13: Americanisms from 1950s Day

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

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

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

1949 cool

1950 DJ

1951 rock and roll

1952 Ms.

1953 UFO

1954 Fast Food

1955 hotline

1956 brinkmanship

1957 role model

1958 Murphy’s Law

1959 software

1960 sit-in (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Born in the U.S.A.

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

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

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

The following are some examples:

bottom line

workaholic

Watergate

soundbite

stealth

gridlock

wannabe

yuppie

soccer mom

millennium bug

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

Answers:

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

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

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

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

 

August 6:  Interjection Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aha

bravo

check

definitely

eureka

far-out

gadzooks

hi

I declare

jeepers

knock-knock

la-di-da

my bad

no soap

O.K.

please

quiet

rats

sorry

thanks

uff-da

very well

way to go

yadda-yadda

zounds (1)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

August 4:  Top 100 Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brave New Words

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

freegan

buzzword bingo

godcasting

NOPE

Google bombing

Drink the Kool-Aid

fauxhawk

male answer syndrome

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

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

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

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

 

1 – Hot 100 Billboard

  1. wordspy.com

 

August 1:  Heteronym Day

August First is one of the most august days on the calendar.  The preceding sentence illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of the English language.  Not only does it have more words than any other language, it also has:

  1. Many words that are spelled the same but with different meanings, called homonyms, (such as the word run which has 645 different meanings listed in the Oxford English Dictionary; the word set has over 200).
  1. Many words that are spelled differently but with the same pronunciations, called homophones (to, two, and too or sight, site, and cite).
  1. Many words that are spelled the same but with different pronunciations and meanings, called heteronyms (august, produce, and buffet).

It’s this last class of words, heteronyms, that we honor on this august day — the first day of August.  Heteronyms allow us to enjoy jokes like the following:

Why do we know so little about salivary glands?

Because they are so secretive.

Test yourself by reading the following list of heteronyms; see if you can come up with two pronunciations for each one:

agape, axes, bass, bow

buffet, console, content, converse

coop, deserts, do, does

dove, drawer, entrance, evening

fillet, grave, incense, lead

liver, minute, mobile, moped

more, number, object, present

resent ,route, rugged, sewer

slough, sow, supply, tear

tower, unionized, wind, wound

The month of August is named for the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus Caesar (63 BC – AD 14), whose great-uncle was Julius Caesar. Just as the Roman Senate renamed the month Quintilis, July in honor of Julius Caesar, they renamed Sextillus for Augustus (1).  The etymology of the adjective august dates back to the ancient Roman “augurs,” religious officials who foretold events by interpreting omens.  A person or event that was seen as favorable to the augurs was described in Latin as augustus, “meaning venerable, majestic or noble.”

August also fits into a special subcategory of heteronyms called capitonyms, words that change pronunciation and meaning when capitalized.  Based on the capitonyms below, see if you can pronounce both the capitalized and lowercase forms:

Colon, colon

Herb, herb

Job, job

Muster, muster

Nice, nice

Polish, polish

Rainier, rainier

Reading, reading

Today’s Challenge:  Hypnotic Heteronyms

What are examples of words in English that are spelled the same but that are pronounced in two different ways depending on their different meanings and different parts of speech, as in the word “produce,” which is pronounced differently when it is used as a noun than when it is used as a verb?

Select three heteronyms and write a sentence for each in which you use the word twice with both of its pronunciations and meanings, as in:

  1.  The magician made a grand entrance, and entranced the audience for three solid hours.
  1.  Yesterday’s produce sale, produced pandemonium at the Piggly Wiggly.
  1.  We had a nice two-week vacation in Nice, France.

Below each of your sentences write a brief explanation of what accounts for the different pronunciation.  For example, sentence number one above would be explained as follows:  “The first use of entrance is a noun meaning, “the manner by which a person comes into view”; the second use of entrance(d) is a verb meaning, “to fill with wonder or to put into a trance.”  For bonus credit make a drawing or cartoon to illustrate your sentence, and use your sentence as the caption. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day: The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. -Natalie Babbitt

1- BBC History “Augustus”

2 – Lederer, Richard. The Word Circus. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1998.

3- Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950.

 

July 28: Near Synonym Day

Today is the anniversary of the debut of the first cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. On July 28, 1940, Warner Brothers released the animated short A Wild Hare in technicolor. The cartoon did not identify Bugs by name — that would come later — but it did premiere his catchphrase “What’s up Doc?” and his nemesis Elmer Fudd (1).

Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter, born in London in 1866.

Potter had few playmates as a child, but she did have a menagerie of pets that included a tortoise, a frog, a snake, and a rabbit. A shy, quiet girl, Potter sketched, painted, and kept a journal in which she wrote in a secret code she invented. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902. She published numerous other animal tales, but Peter Rabbit remains the most popular (2).

All this talk about rabbits brings up the question: what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Well, according to Bernice Randall’s book When Is a Pig a Hog?, a hare is larger than a rabbit, with longer ears and legs; another difference is that hares live in the open, among rocks and thickets, while rabbits live in burrows.

Many words in English feature these kinds of fine distinctions, especially since English has more synonyms than any other language. This expansive lexicon is a blessing for writers, but it also demands attention to detail, since there are few truly synonymous words — that is words that can be used interchangeably regardless of context.

For example, the words lectern and podium appear to have no significant difference in meaning, but subtle distinctions in each word’s definition make them near-synonyms rather than true synonyms. A lectern refers to a stand that a speaker might use for holding notes, but it also refers to a slanted-top reading desk in a church from which the scriptures are read. Like lectern, podium is used for a speaker’s stand, but it also refers to a low platform upon which a speaker or conductor might stand.

The Tortoise and the Hare or The Turtle and the Rabbit?

In English, there is a menagerie of near-synonyms. Read the definitions below from When Is a Pig a Hog? See if you can identify which of the two animals listed fits the definition more closely.

  1. This domesticated member of the camel family is prized for its long, silky brown or black wool. Llama or Alpaca?
  1. A domesticated ass. Donkey or Mule?
  1. An immature swine weighing less than 120 pounds. Pig or Hog?
  1. A torpedo-shaped, small-toothed whale with a blunt snout. Dolphin or Porpoise?
  1. A leaping amphibian with smooth and moist skin, able to live on either land or water. Frog or Toad?
  1. A reptile with a soft body and hard shell that lives in the water, especially the sea. Turtle or Tortoise?
  1. A large, flesh-eating lizard-like reptile that is more aggressive than its counterpart; it also has a longer and more pointed snout, and its closed mouth shows teeth. Alligator or Crocodile?
  1. An amphibian, not a reptile, with soft, moist skin and no claws. Lizard or Salamander? (3)

Today’s Challenge:  Find the Fine Distinctions
What are some examples of pairs of words that are used interchangeably, such as “boat” or “ship”? Although the words are used interchangeably, what are the subtle differences between the two words?  Careful readers and writers pay attention to the fine distinctions among similar words.  For example, a boat is smaller than a ship, and a ship, unlike a boat is not powered by oars. Furthermore, a ship carries people or goods across deep water over long distances.

Select two of the words from the list below, or a closely related pair of your own.  Then, research, using a good dictionary, the definitions of both words.  Write an explanatory paragraph that gives the definitions for both words, including a clear explanation of what makes your two words different.  Your goal should be to provide your reader with a clear understanding of the similarities and differences between the two words and how the words might be used in different contexts. (Common Core Writing 2)

homicide and murder

burglary and robbery

slander and libel

abbreviation and acronym

monologue and soliloquy

myth and legend

story and narrative

novel and novella

diary and journal

Quotation of the Day:  What’s the difference between a fanatic and a zealot?  A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. –Winston Churchill

Answers: 1. Alpaca 2. Donkey 3. Pig 4. Porpoise 5. Frog 6. Turtle 7. Crocodile 8. Salamander

 

1 – Hunter, Matthew. “The Old Grey Hare: A History of Bugs Bunny.”

2- www.peterrabbit.com

3 – Randall, Bernice. When Is a Pig a Hog?: A Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words. New York: Galahad Books, 1991.

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 25: Retronym Day

Two seemingly unrelated events that happened on this date, 151 years apart, merge to illuminate the endless vitality of the English language.

The first event took place on July 25, 1814 when British engineer George Stephenson demonstrated the first steam locomotive. The second event took place on July 25, 1965 at the Newport, Rhode Island Folk Music Festival. For the first time ever, Bob Dylan performed with an electric guitar.

Besides the date, these two events both deal with inventions that were later improved upon or at least altered in some significant way. The alteration was such that the name also changed. For example, the word guitar was a fairly straight forward term for a stringed instrument, but the invention of the electric guitar required that a new adjective be attached to guitar to distinguish the plugged version from the unplugged version. The new term is acoustic guitar, and it’s an example of a class of words called retronyms. The word locomotive lead to the retronym steam locomotive when electric and diesel locomotives came on the scene.

A retronym, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is: “A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as snail mail in contrast to e-mail.

The word was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, one-time press secretary for Robert F. Kennedy. He used existing Greek roots to create: retro (Greek, backwards) + nym (Greek, name).

Probably the largest collection of retronyms can be found at the website of Barry Stiefel who has cataloged 229 examples. Here are a few examples that show the variety of categories that retronyms can fall under:

politics: absolute monarchy

communications: AM radio

family: biological parent

warfare: conventional weapons

computers: corded mouse

sports: natural turf (1)

Given the name of the new idea or invention, see if you can name the retronym.

Example: Color television. Retronym: black and white television

  1. surrogate mother
  2. online journalism
  3. New Coke
  4. disposable diapers
  5. microwave oven
  6. digital camera
  7. paperback book
  8. nuclear warfare
  9. New Testament
  10. World War II

Today’s Challenge:  What’s in a Retronym?
What is an example of a word that was modified in order to distinguish an old technology or idea (‘snail mail’ or ‘acoustic guitar’) from a new technology or idea (‘email’ or ‘electric guitar’)?  Select a single retronym from the list of examples below, and write a brief explanatory history of the original term and the reasons behind the need for a retronym.  Do a bit of research to find details that go beyond the obvious to provide your audience with interesting details and evidence. (Common Core Writing 2)

absolute monarchy

bar soap

British English

broadcast television

conventional weapons

human computer

land line

Old Testament

silent movie

tap water

Quotation of the Day: This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book – it makes a very poor doorstop.–Alfred Hitchcock

Answers: 1. birth mother 2. print journalism 3. Classic Coke 4. cloth diapers 5. conventional over 6. film camera 7. hardcover book 8. conventional warfare 9. Old Testament 10. World War I

 


 

1 – Stiefel, Barry. Retronym: Aspiring To Be The World’s Largest Collection Of English Language Retronyms (229 And Counting!)

 

 

 

July 24:  Freeze Day

Today is the anniversary of the final performance of one of the most famous comedy duos of all time: Martin and Lewis. The partnership of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis began in 1946 and continued successfully on stage, screen, and radio until their final performance together at New York’s Copacabana Club in 1956 (1).

Of course, Martin and Lewis are not the only famous duo in entertainment history. Below are just a few examples of names that for better or worse are frozen in time.

Abbott and Costello

Burns and Allen

The Captain and Tennille

Cheech and Chong

Donny and Marie

Laurel and Hardy

Lennon and McCartney

Penn and Teller

Simon and Garfunkel

Sonny and Cher

One interesting aspect of the duos above is that the order of the names is fixed and seldom altered: who ever heard of Teller and Penn or Costello and Abbott? This same phenomenon happens with word pairs in English called freezes. Freezes are “pairs of words which have been apparently frozen in a fixed order, such as bread and butter, husband and wife, knife and fork.”  These idiomatic combos are sometimes called Siamese twins or irreversible binomials. (2).

Because these three-word expressions are frozen in the language, they sometimes become idiomatic — that is they become metaphors. For example, in the sentence The quality of the school is the bread and butter of town property values, the freeze bread and butter does not refer to literal food but to anything that is a basic, essential, and sustaining element.

A less obvious example is the freeze warp and woof. It means “the underlying structure or foundation of something,” as in He foresaw great changes in the warp and woof of the nation’s economy. The expression goes back 1500s, alluding to woven fabric and its “threads that run lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (woof)” (3).

Here are ten more examples of freezes:

above and beyond

alpha and omega

apples and oranges

ball and chain

black and blue

cap and gown

ebb and flow

fine and dandy

hard and fast

law and order

Today’s Challenge:   Dynamic Duos

What duo from either fiction, myth, or history would you say is the most important or influential?  Why would you argue that your duo rates as the most influential duo ever?  Brainstorm a list of famous duos.  Try for a variety, such as duos from literature, myth, religion, history, music, film, or television.  See the list below for some examples:

Ben and Jerry

Bonnie and Clyde

Cain and Abel

Calvin and Hobbes

David and Goliath

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Hall and Oates

Hansel and Gretel

Jack and Jill

Laverne and Shirley

Lewis and Clark

Laurel and Hardy

Romulus and Remus

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Romeo and Juliet

Simon and Garfunkel

Tippecanoe and Tyler too

Once you have settled on your single greatest duo, write your argument, giving reasons, evidence, and explanation for what makes your duo the greatest.

Quote of the Day:  All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. -Ralph Waldo Emerson “Quotation and Originality”

 

1 – Big Bands and Big Names.

2- Aitchison, Jean. A Glossary of Language and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

  1. Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

July 17:  Psychedelic Idioms Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1968 release of the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine. To many filmgoers the psychedelic animation and upbeat music of the film were a welcome respite from the turbulent events of 1968: the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Beatles Yellow Submarine move poster.jpgIronically the Beatles themselves had very little to do with the film; in fact, all the dialogue for John, Paul, George, and Ringo was recorded by actors; thankfully, however, the songs were recorded by the actual Beatles. After seeing the finished version of the film, the Beatles agreed to make a brief non-animated appearance at the end of the film.

When the film was re-released in 1999 on DVD, reviewer Roger Ebert commented that the film had more than just visual appeal:

This is a story that appeals even to young children, but it also has a knowing, funny style that adds an undertow of sophistication . . . . [T]he overall tone is the one struck by John Lennon in his books ‘In His Own Write’ and ‘A Spaniard in the Works.’ Puns, drolleries, whimsies and asides meander through the sentences:

“There’s a cyclops! He’s got two eyes. Must be a bicyclops. It’s a whole bicloplopedia!” (1)

The 1950s was the decade of the missile gap, but the 1960s — especially the late 1960s — was the decade of the generation gap. Flower power and the flower children stood for peace and love. The word psychedelic first appeared in the 1950s to mean, according to the book 20th Century Words: “(A drug) producing an expansion of consciousness through greater awareness of the senses and emotional feelings . . . .” Its meaning later broadened to denote the “vivid colors, often in bold abstract designs or in motion” (2). With the explosion of colors in films like Yellow Submarine, psychedelic became one of the words that characterized the 1960s landscape.

Change also characterized the landscape of the 1960s, and a chronology of words that first appeared in print in that decade provides insight into some of those changes. Here is a list of other words that were children of the ’60s:

global village (1960)

DJ (1961)

lite (1962)

Beatlemania (1963)

BASIC (1964)

hypertext (1965)

body language (1966)

generation gap (1967)

reggae (1968)

orchestrate (1969) (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Colorful Titles
What are some examples of expressions or familiar phrases that refer to colors in a figurative rather than literal manner, such as “black sheep,” “red herring,” or “white elephant”?  Brainstorm a list of these idioms (an expression that doesn’t make sense when translated literally but that is nevertheless almost universally understood), attempting to cover a full spectrum of colors:  red, white, blue, green, black, yellow, purple, etc.  Here are few examples to get you thinking:

blackmail

true blue

green thumb

grey area

blue moon

yellow journalism

caught red handed

rose-colored glasses

golden oldies

red-letter day

a silver lining

Next, look at your list, and use it as a springboard for a story (fiction or non-fiction).  Using your idiom as the title, write your narrative, including characters, dialogue, conflict, and resolution.  Make sure, however, that there’s a clear connection between your story’s plot and your story’s title.

Quotation of the Day: Sky of blue and sea of green, in our yellow submarine. -The Beatles

 

1 – Ebert, Roger. Great Movies. Chicago Sun Times. 9/5/99.

2 – Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.

3 – Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

 

July 16:  Mushroom Cloud Day

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the nuclear age. On July 16, 1945 at 5:29 a.m., a mushroom cloud rose into the sky above the New Mexico desert, the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Trinity Test Fireball 16ms.jpgRobert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, named the test “Trinity” based on John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, whose first four lines read:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

The test, which took place in total secrecy, resulted in a blast equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, more than two times what was predicted by Los Alamos scientists. The blast completely vaporized the 100-foot steel tower the bomb was placed on before the test. The bomb’s mushroom cloud rose seven and a half miles into the sky, and the bomb’s shockwave was felt 100 miles away.

The 260 witnesses to the test were each sworn to secrecy. The official press release attributed the explosion to an ammunitions dump accident. On August 6, 1945, the world learned the truth when the atomic bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people.  Three days later another atomic bomb, called “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki.  The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending World War II.

Before the test J. Robert Oppenheimer used religious imagery to name the Trinity Test, and he turned again to a religious text after the test, quoting a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita:

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Describing the atomic bomb’s explosion as a mushroom cloud is not the first time that English speakers have turned to food items as metaphors.  When it comes to metaphors, you might say that our cup runneth over.  You might even say that the English language features a smorgasbord of tantalizing turns of phrase.  Here are just a few examples for you to chew on:

Adam’s apple

gravy train

peanut gallery

butter fingers

bean counter

cold turkey

cherry picking

drink the Kool-Aid

carrot and stick

in a nutshell

Because many of the metaphors we use are familiar, we forget that they’re metaphors at all.  When a metaphor loses its freshness and enters the language as a staple menu item, we call it an idiom, “an expression that doesn’t make sense when translated literally but that is nevertheless almost universally understood.”  For example, imagine someone learning English as a second language who runs into the phrase “couch potato.”  A direct translation of the two words makes little literal sense in any language; nevertheless, most English speakers know the figurative meaning of the idiom — “a lazy person” — because it’s a stock phrase that they have heard or read before.

This is the magic of language.  Metaphors season our language, enhancing its flavors and making everything more tasty.  Author Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) said it best:

I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish.

There is a miraculous side to metaphors, but as George Orwell reminds us, an old metaphor sometimes become stale.  Instead of trying to resurrect these “dead metaphors” as Orwell calls them, it’s best to let them rest in peace:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves (2).

Returning to the miraculous side of metaphor, writer and linguist Michael Erard served up a banquet of mouth-watering metaphors in his 2013 essay
“A Pledge to My Readers:  A Year in the Artisanal Language Movement.”  Read this excerpt as an appetizer:

I’ve always written high-quality sentences, prepared with the finest grammatical ingredients. In the coming year, I’m raising the bar even higher: I’ll be offering only artisanal words, locally grown, hand-picked, minimally processed, organically prepared, and sustainably packaged.

. . . . For nouns, I’m going to a nearby family-owned farm, where Anglo-Saxon and Latinate varieties are raised free-range, grass-fed, and entirely hormone-free. The farmers will regularly replenish my stocks with deliveries by bicycle, ensuring that these words ripen on the page, not in a cargo hold in the middle of the Pacific.

Getting fresh, organic verbs used to pose a challenge, because of the unusual way they propagate. Yet once I began searching out indigenous varieties of words, I was surprised to find all sorts that aren’t known outside the local area. There’s a small, family-run verb operation that conjugates them in small batches, the old-fashioned way. I also stumbled across a number of hard-to-find heirloom verbs that haven’t been seen in urban markets for 100 years, because their flesh bruises too easily, and because they don’t fit the cosmetic ideal. Let’s face it: An English verb grown in Chile may look perfectly connoted, but its pulpy taste can’t compete with the pungent verve of a local specimen, and who cares if it won’t win beauty contests? (3)

Today’s Challenge:  Food For Thought and Rumination

What are some examples of expressions or familiar phrases used in English that refer to specific foods in a figurative manner rather than a literal manner, such as – “butter fingers,” “smart cookie,” or “peanut gallery”?  Is there one particular one you like?  Why?  Brainstorm a list of food idioms.  Then, select one to write about.  Write as though you are speaking to a student who is learning English as a second language, explaining the figurative meaning of the idiom and providing vivid specific examples of how it might be use.  You might also explore the origin, or etymology, of the idiom.

Quotation of the Day:  Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. -Truman Capote

 

1 – The Manhattan Project, An Interactive History. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of History & Heritage Resources.

2- Orwell, George.  “Politics and the English Language.”

3- Erard, Michael. “A Pledge to My Readers:  A Year in the Artisanal Language Movement.”