October 17:  Coin a Word Day

On this date in 2005, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert unveiled a new word “truthiness.”  Speaking in the satiric tone familiar to fans of his show The Colbert Report, he introduced the word as follows:

And on this show, your voice will be heard… in the form of my voice. ‘Cause you’re looking at a straight-shooter, America. I tell it like it is. I calls ’em like I sees ’em. I will speak to you in plain simple English.

And that brings us to tonight’s word: truthiness.

Now I’m sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart (1).

On this night’s show the irony was especially thick, however, because as it turned out truthiness was not a new coinage after all.  As pointed out on the language website Language Log, the word dates back to 1824 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2).

Even though Colbert cannot claim credit for coining the work, he can claim to have popularized it.  In fact, he got the last laugh on the “wordanistas” when The American Dialect Society selected truthiness as its Word of the Year in 2005.

New words, also known as neologisms, are popping up more than ever in the age of technology and the internet.  So many newly minted words are appearing, in fact that there are entire websites devoted to tracking neologisms.  One such site is Word Spy, where visitors can witness the genesis and evolution of words before their very eyes.  The words at Word Spy are not in the dictionary; instead, the are mere candidates for the big lexicographical show.  If they catch on and are used by real people, especially in written communication, they may make it from Word Spy to Webster’s.

In the book Microstyle:  The Art of Writing Little, Christopher Johnson traces the various paths that neologisms take from creation to dictionary.  To illustrate the different ways words are formed, Johnson provides the following seven methods of construction:

  1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
  4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
  5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)

One of the oldest sources of new word coinages comes under Johnson’s second category.  It’s a special kind of compound word called a kenning – a figurative compound word construction.  In the Old English poem Beowulf, for example, a “ship” becomes a “sea-steed” or the “sea” becomes the “whale-road” (3).  Although kennings are a very old form they represent one of the most vibrant and playful aspects of our language, an aspect that we see alive in our language today in the following examples:

Hot potato = something no one wants

Rug rat = toddler or crawling baby

Treehugger = an environmentalist

Bookworm = someone who reads a lot

Pig-skin = a football

Gas-guzzler = a car with poor gas milage (4)

Notice that characteristic of a kenning, each example above is made up of two words to form a compound word.  Furthermore, each kenning makes no direct reference to the person or thing it is naming; instead, each relies on a figurative comparison.  Each kenning, therefore, is a beautifully package compact metaphor.

Today’s Challenge: Coin a Kenning
What new two-word figurative combination would you use to rename a noun, such as a pencil, a Post-it Note, a teacher, a bank, or cat?  Play around with words by creating some of your own kennings.  Pick a noun and brainstorm some ideas.  Remember, to qualify as a kenning your compound must by figurative, so avoid directly naming the person or thing you’re renaming.  A pencil for example might be a word-wand, a thought twig, or a sentence stick.  Once you have a few ideas, pick your best one, and begin actually using it in conversation.  This will be the true test of whether or not it resonates and packs a powerful enough punch to be picked up by real people. (Common Core Reading 4 – Interpret Words and Phrases)

Quotation of the Day:  And so people say to me, “How do I know if a word is real?” You know, anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real. -Erin McKean, The Joy of Lexicography TED Talk

1 October 17  Coin a Word Day  word spy – popularize   See TED talk on lexicography  – love –http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/search/label/Word%20origins

2-http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002586.html

3-Christopher Johnson.  Microstyle:  The Art of Writing Little.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2011:  163.

4- http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-kenning.html

https://www.ted.com/talks/erin_mckean_redefines_the_dictionary

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/ColbertMetaphors.htm

 

October 16:  Dictionary Day

Writing in the Boston Globe in 2009, lexicographer Erin McKean presented the following imaginative and idealistic vision for Dictionary Day, the day that celebrates the birthday of the one man synonymous with the dictionary, Noah Webster (1758-1843):

. . . small children placed their dictionary stands by the hearthstone, hoping that Noah himself would magically come down the chimney and leave them a shiny new dictionary (left open to the word “dictionary,” of course). In some places, Dictionary Day is celebrated with bonfires of the past years’ dictionaries, the baking of the traditional aardvark-shaped cookies, and the singing of etymology carols (1).

Noah Webster was born in Hartford, Connecticut on October 16, 1758. He went on to graduate from Yale and to work as a lawyer. His most noteworthy work, however, came as a school teacher. Unhappy with the curriculum materials he was given to teach, he created his own uniquely American curriculum: A three-part Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It included a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reader.

Webster served in the student militia at Yale during the Revolutionary War. He never saw combat, but while he never fought in the literal battle for independence from Britain, he was a key player in the battle to make American English independent from British English.

His spelling book, known as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” became one of the most popular and influential works in American history. Only the Bible sold more copies.  According Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue, Noah’s spelling book went through at least 300 editions and sold more than sixty million copies. Because of the wide use of his spelling book and his dictionary published in 1828, Webster had a significant impact on the spelling and pronunciation of American English. His dictionary contained more than 70,000 words, and it was the most complete dictionary of its time (2).

Many of the distinctive differences in spelling and pronunciation of British words versus English words can be traced back to Webster. For example:

Change of -our to –or as in colour and color, honour and honor, labour and labor.

Change of –re to er as in centre and center, metre and meter, theatre and theater

Change of –ce to se as in defence and defense, licence and license, offence and offense

The change of the British double-L in travelled and traveller to the American traveled, traveler.

Not all of Webster’s spelling changes stuck, however. David Grambs, in his book Death by Spelling, lists the following as examples of words that were retracted in later editions of Webster’s Dictionary: iz, relm, mashine, yeer, bilt, tung, breth, helth, beleeve, and wimmen (3).

After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to his dictionaries were purchased by Charles and George Merriam. The first volume of their dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was published in 1847.

After purchasing the rights for use of the Webster name, the Merriam brothers lost a legal battle to use the name exclusively. As a result, today other dictionaries use the name Webster even though they have no connection to Webster or his original work. Because of this Merriam-Webster includes the following assurance of quality for its dictionaries:

Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.™

Other publishers may use the name Webster, but only Merriam-Webster products are backed by 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. The Merriam-Webster name is your assurance that a reference work carries the quality and authority of a company that has been publishing since 1831 (4).

The following are examples of other spelling changes made by Webster. They, in a large part, account for the differences in spelling that exist today in British English versus American English:

cheque to check

draught to draft

manoeuvre to maneuver

moustache to mustache

plough to plow

skilful to skillful

mediaeval to medieval

mould to mold (2)

Today’s Challenge: Dictionary Day Decalogue

What is your favorite word in the English language?  What kind of information can you find in a dictionary besides just the correct spellings and definitions of words?  Dictionaries tell us much more than just spelling and definitions. To celebrate Dictionary Day brainstorm a list of your favorite words.  Then, grab a good dictionary, and make a list of at least “Ten Things You Can Find in a Dictionary Besides Spelling and Definitions.”  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quote of the Day:  So we should expand our thinking about dictionaries. Language is power – we understand that words can move us to tears or laughter, inspire us to great deeds or urge us to mob action. Dictionaries are the democratization of that power, and the more words they contain, the more democratic they are. The dictionary is a gigantic armory and toolbox combined, accessible to all. It reflects our preoccupations, collects our cultural knowledge, and gives us adorable pictures of aardvarks, to boot. And it does all this one word at a time. -Erin McKean

1 – http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/10/18/the_word_the_case_for_dictionary_day/

2- Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York: Perennial, 1990.

3 –Reader’s Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. New York: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983.

4 – Grambs, David. Death by Spelling: A Compendium of Tests, Super Tests, and Killer Bees. New York: Harper & Row, 1989: 27.

4-http://www.m-w.com/info/webster.htm

 

October 13: The Battle of Hastings Day

The year 1066 marks the most important year in the history of the English language. The most important single day in that year was October 13th. It’s a date that might have signaled the beginning of the extinction of English; instead, it marks the beginning of a remarkable evolution and enrichment of the language.

Harold dead bayeux tapestry.pngAt Hastings in Sussex, England on this date, the Saxon army of King Harold confronted an invading army of French-speaking soldiers from Normandy, a province of France just across the English Channel. The Battle of Hastings was fought from approximately 9 am to dusk. Thousands of soldiers died that day, and the Norman army, led by William, Duke of Normandy, prevailed. Harold was killed, shot through the eye with an arrow, and William marched his victorious army to London, where he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.

Scenes from the bloody battle are depicted in the colorful Bayeux Tapestry, a 229 feet long embroidered cloth, which was commissioned by William’s brother not long after the battle (1).

William the Conqueror was now King of England. The French speaking Normans thus ruled England, and Norman-French as well as Latin became the language of government. The Saxons were defeated, but their language did not die. The conquering Normans were outnumbered by the Saxons, who continued to use English in their common, everyday activities. So instead of being stamped out by French, English adsorbed French words, enriching its lexicon over the next two hundred years.

The Norman Invasion of 1066 marks the end of the Old English period of the history of English and the beginning of the Middle English period. One of the rich legacies of this period is the great variety of words and rich well of synonyms that are characteristic of English. Richard Lederer, in his book The Miracle of Language, states it eloquently:

Bequeathing us the common words of everyday life, many of them fashioned from a single syllable, Anglo-Saxon is the foundation of our language. Its directness, brevity and plainness make us feel more deeply and see things about us more truly. The grandeur, sonority and courtliness of the French elements lift us to another, and more literary, level of expression (1).

We can see this difference illustrated by the Anglo-Saxon words ask, end, fear, and dead and their synonyms of French derivation, question, finish, terror, and deceased. Some writers argue that we should favor the short, precise words of Anglo-Saxon origin to the longer words derived from French, Latin, or Greek. Winston Churchill, for example, expressed his bias when he said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

Today’s Challenge: Saxon Short Short Story
Is it possible to tell an effective story or give an effective speech using words of only a single syllable? One way to test Churchill’s claim is to try your hand at writing using words of only one syllable. It’s also an excellent way to learn to pay careful attention to your word choice. In general, the foundational Anglo-Saxon words in English are one syllable words, unlike words from French, Latin, or Greek, which tend to be more than a single syllable. Write a narrative of at least 200 words and make sure to use only one syllable words. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: To do all that one is able to do is to be a man; to do all that one would like to do is to be a god. -Napoleon Bonaparte

1-http://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/la_tapisserie_de_bayeux_en.html
2- Lederer, Richard. The Miracle of Language. New York: Pocket Books, 1991: 19-21.

October 7: Gender-neutral Pronoun Day

Today is the birthday of  C.C. Converse (1832-1918), an American attorney and composer of church music who is perhaps best known for his attempt to fix a glitch in the English language:  its absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun (1).

The glitch that Converse was attempting to repair can be seen in the following sentences.  Which one sentence would you select as correct?

  1. When a person arrives at work, he should check his phone messages.
  2. When a person arrives at work, she should check her phone messages.
  3. When a person arrives at work, he or she should check his or her phone messages
  4. When a person arrives at work, s/he should check his/er phone messages.
  5. When a person arrives at work, they should check their phone messages.

This is a bit of a trick question because each sentence has its own problems:

Sentence A uses the pronoun he, assuming the gender of a person is male.  Although some in the past have argued that the masculine  pronoun should become the default generic pronoun, embracing the feminine, most people today see this as an unacceptable sexist usage.

Sentence B has the same problem as Sentence A.  Some writers will randomly alternate the use of the masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid charges of sexism, but this can be confusing and distracting to the reader.

Sentence C, while attempting to avoid exclusive use of either one or the other pronoun, adds an element of clunkiness by adding the conjunction “or,” especially when used repeatedly.

Sentence D is just plain awkward.

Sentence E creates an ungrammatical situation in which the antecedent of the singular noun person is the plural they and their.

Columnist Lucy Mangan captures a typical writer’s frustration in the following rant:

The whole pronouns-must-agree-with-antecedents thing causes me utter agony. Do you know how many paragraphs I’ve had to tear down and rebuild because you can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory? Billions, that’s how many. Even if the Queen, Noam Chomsky and Stephen Fry said it was permissible to use “their” to refer to a defiantly singular, sexless something, I couldn’t. It’s not right, and for once its wrongness is mathematically provable. Look. 1 = 1. 1 not = 2. I crave a non-risible gender-neutral (not “it”) third person singular pronoun in the way normal women my age crave babies (3).

In an attempt to solve the problem, Converse coined the word thon in 1858, blending the two words “that one.”   If we apply Converse’s coinage to our sentence it becomes:

When a person arrives at work thon should check thons phone messages.

Obviously Converse’s new pronoun didn’t stick; instead, it joined the pool of other pathetic, failed pronouns of the past, such as:  ne, co, xie, per, en, hi, le, hiser, ip.  However, credit is due Converse in that Thon is the most successful attempt at a solution to date.  Thon made it into two dictionaries and was actually adopted by some writers, as we can see by this example from a psychology textbook published in 1895 by Henry Graham Williams:

Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge (1).

As of today we are still stuck without a solution to our pronoun glitch. So when a person comes upon this thorny thicket in his/her/his or her/their writing, he/she/he or she/they remain without many good options.

Today’s Challenge:  Playing with Pronouns and Points of View
If you were to write a story, from what narrative point of view would you tell the story?  When creating a fictional narrative, authors must consider point of view, the lense through which the reader sees and hears the story.  Point of view in fiction correlates to the grammatical point of view of pronouns:

First Person – I:  In the first person point of view a character in the story is the narrator,  which allows the reader to see and experience the plot intimately.  However, just as in our own lives this can be limiting since we are only privy to the thoughts, experience, and perspective of that single character.

Second Person – You:  In the second person point of view, a character directly addresses “you” the reader, as if the story is a letter.  Like a letter, the effect is a feeling of intimacy, of being talked to directly by the narrator.  The limitation, however, is that you only see and hear what that narrator reveals.

Third Person – He or She:  The third person point of view involves a narrator outside the story who reveals either the thoughts of a single character (3rd person limited) or the thoughts of more than one character (3rd person omniscient).  With third person, the voice of the narrator becomes a vital element of revealing a story’s setting and the thoughts of its characters.

Read the Aesop Fable below called “The Cat and the Fox”; then, rewrite it from three different points of view:

1:  First Person – The Cat as narrator.

2:  Second Person – The Cat speaking to the Fox’s family

3:  Third Person Omniscient – A narrator that reveals both the thoughts of the Cat and the Fox.

The Cat and the Fox

A Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said:

“Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  When you pick up a book, everyone knows it’s imaginary. You don’t have to pretend it’s not a book. We don’t have to pretend that people don’t write books. That omniscient third-person narration isn’t the only way to do it. Once you’re writing in the first person, then the narrator is a writer. -Paul Auster

1- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms:  Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  166-7.

2-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns

3- http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/mind-your-language/2010/jul/24/style-guide-grammar-lucy-mangan

September 30:  Mnemonic Device Day

On this last day of September we focus on not forgetting one of the more famous mnemonic rhymes in English:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have 31,

Except for February all alone,

It has 28 each year,

but 29 each leap year.

This verse is attributed to Mother Goose, but it’s only one of many versions of the poem.  One website, for example, lists and astonishing 90 variations of what has come to be called The Month Poem (10.

Mnemonic rhymes are just one type of mnemonic device. No, you can’t buy them in stores. A mnemonic device is a method of remembering something that is difficult to remember by remembering something that is easy to remember.

The word mnemonic is an eponym, originating from the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne.

In his book WASPLEG and Other Mnemonics, Bart Benne catalogs hundreds of mnemonic devices. To make things easy to remember, these mnemonic devices use different methods such as rhyme, acrostics, or acronyms. Another method is the nonsense sentence made up from the initial letters of what it is you are trying to remember. Here’s an example of a sentence that was created to remember the most important battles of Julius Caesar’s career:

Is Perpetual Zeal The Means?

I Ilerda

P Pharsalus

Z Zeta

T Thapsus

M Munda

Generations of school children have used the rhyme from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to remember the start date of the American Revolution:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

Rhyming couplets are also helpful in remembering key dates in English history:

William the Conqueror, Ten Sixty-Six

Played on the Saxons oft-cruel tricks.

The Spanish Armada met its fate

In Fifteen Hundred and Eighty-Eight

The acronym “BIGOT” helps in remembering the Pacific campaigns in the Unites States Marines in World War II:

Bougainville

Iwo Jima

Guadalcanal

Okinawa

Tarawa

Another mnemonic device helps both soldiers and civilians remember the order of the major rank structures in the U.S. Army from lowest to highest ranking.

Privates Can’t Salute Without Learning Correct Military Command Grades:

Private,

Corporal,

Sergeant,

Warrant Officer,

Lieutenant,

Captain,

Major,

Colonel,

and General (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Remember, Remember the Mnemonics of September
What are some examples of important information that needs to be committed to memory?  Think of something you need to remember, or something that everyone should remember, and create your own original mnemonic device. Use rhyme, acrostics, acronyms, and/or nonsense sentences to package your device in a handy, easy-to-remember format. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good. –Friedrich Nietzsche

 

1 – http://leapyearday.com/content/days-month-poem

2- Benne, Bart. WASPLEG and Other Mnemonics. Dallas: Taylor Publishing

Company, 1988.

September 29:  Mashup Day

On this date in 1967, the Beatles worked to complete the recording of the song I Am the Walrus.  Known for their innovative work in the studio, the group on this day did something truly unique, blending the conclusion of their new song with a BBC recording Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In addition to the Bard, the Beatles also drew inspiration from two other poetic sources.  One was Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” which inspired the song’s title and it plentiful use of nonsense lyrics.  The second was a playful nursery rhyme that they remembered from their childhood in Liverpool:

Yellow matter custard, green slop pie,

All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye,

Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,

Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.

This bit of rather grotesque verse inspired the colorful lyric:  “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”

The Beatles had no name for their process of creative synthesis, and they were so ahead of their time that they really didn’t need one.  Today, however, we have a name for it; it’s called a “mash-up.”

According to Newsweek, the word “mashup” was coined in 2001 by DJ Freelance Hellraiser who used Christina Aguilera’s vocals from ‘Genie in a Bottle’ and “recorded [them] over the instrumentals from ‘Hard to Explain.’”

Mash-ups are certainly not limited to musical, however. A mashup applies to any combination of two or more forms of media: music, film, television, computer program, etc. As seen by the examples below, these creative combos synthesize just about every imaginable form of media:

Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters – a book mashup that combines classic fiction and sea stories.

The Dark Side of Oz – a film mashup pairing Pink Floyd’s classic album The Dark Side of the Moon with the visuals of the film The Wizard of Oz.

Star Wars:  Invasion Los Angeles:  a computer animated video created by Kaipo Jones that sets the intergalactic battle from the film Star Wars among the familiar and famous sites of Los Angeles.

TwitterMap –  an internet mashup that combines Twitter and Google Maps to create a visual map of Tweets.

Today’s Challenge: Mother Tongue Lashing
What one word fits between the words ‘Jelly’ and ‘Bag’ to form two separate compound words? Jelly __________ Bag  The answer is the word “bean” as in jelly bean and beanbag.  This is a type of  lexical mash-up called Mother Tongue Lashing. It takes advantage of the wealth of compound words and expressions in English. For each pair of words below, name a word that can follow the first word and precede the second one to complete a compound word or a familiar two-word phrase.

  1. Life __________ Travel
  2. Punk __________ Candy
  3. Green _________ Space
  4. Rest __________ Work
  5. Word  __________ Book
  6. Rock __________ Dust
  7. Spelling __________ Sting
  8. Night __________ House

Now, create your own list of 8 Mother Tongue Lashings.  Use a dictionary to make sure that you have two-word expressions or compound words, not just two-word combinations.

Quotation of the Day:  We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World. And the Beatles were in the crow’s nest of that ship. -John Lennon

 

Answers:  time, rock, back, home, play, star, bee, light

1- http://www.newsweek.com/technology-time-your-mashup-106345

September 28:  Spelling Reform Day

On this date in 1768, Benjamin Franklin — founding father, diplomat, printer, scientist, writer, and civic reformer — wrote a letter making his case for spelling reform.

BenFranklinDuplessis.jpgMany know about his inventions, such as the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, but not many know about his attempt to eliminate six letters of the English alphabet and replace them with six of his own invention.

Franklin’s chief concern, like many who came both before and after him, was the confusing discrepancy in English between its sounds and its alphabet:  “The difficulty of learning to spell well . . .  is so great, that few attain it, thousands and thousands writing on to old age without ever being able to acquire it” (1).

To correct the imperfections in the English alphabet, Franklin proposed throwing out the six letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y and replacing them with six new letters of his own, letters which would represent the six sounds found in the following words:

  1. law, caught
  2. run, enough
  3. this, breathe
  4. singer, ring
  5. she, sure, emotion, leash
  6. thing, breath (2)

In his letter Franklin addresses objections to his spelling reform scheme.  One was that books published before the reforms were implemented would become useless.  To rebut this Franklin asked his reader to consider a similar case in Italy:  “Formerly, its inhabitants all spoke and wrote in Latin; as the language changed, the spelling followed it.”  Another objection addressed by Franklin was that of etymology – or word history –, particularly the historic roots of words that are preserved in their orthography (the way they are spelled).  To this objection, Franklin responded with the following apt example:

If I should call a man a knave and a villain, he would hardly be satisfied with my telling him that one of the words originally signified only a lad or servant; and the other an under-ploughman, or the inhabitant of a village. It is from present usage only, that the meaning of words is to be determined.

Although Franklin’s arguments are convincing, his reform plan never came to fruition.  Perhaps he was sidetracked by his other possibly more important role as  midwife to the birth of the world’s first great democracy.  Not until Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, did spelling in the United States see much reform.

Today’s Challenge:  The Case for X Reform
Great people like Benjamin Franklin demonstrate the power of ideas, ideas for making their town, state, country, or world a better place.  What do you see in your world that should be reformed, and how specifically would you propose to make it better?  Argue your case by addressing the current problem, followed by a  specific vision of how your reforms would improve the situation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Attempting to spell in English is like playing one of those computer games where, no matter what, you will lose eventually. If some evil mage has performed vile magic on our tongue, he should be bunged into gaol for his nefarious goal (and if you still need convincing of how inconsistent English pronunciation is, just read that last sentence out loud). -James Harbeck

 

1- http://grammar.about.com/od/readingsonlanguage/a/The-Case-For-Spelling-Reform-By-Benjamin-Franklin.htm

2-http://www.benfranklin300.org/_etc_pdf/Six_New_Letters_Nicola_Twilly.pdf

3- http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150605-your-language-is-sinful

 

September 24:  Vivid Verb Day

Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), known for his novel The Great Gatsby as well as numerous other short stories and novels.

In a 1938 letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald presented his powerful case for what he felt was the English language’s most potent part of speech:

. . . all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes (1).

Verbs are the engines of every sentence.  They create movement and action as well as images that your reader can see and hear.  Because verbs are so important, you should learn to select your verbs with care and learn to differentiate between imprecise, passive verbs that suck the life out of your sentences and precise, action verbs that enliven your sentences.

Like Fitzgerald, writer Constance Hale argues confident writers know the importance of vivid verbs:   “More than any other part of speech, it is the verb that determines whether the writer is a wimp or a wizard.“  Hale believes so strongly about verbs, in fact, that she wrote on entire book on them called,  Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch.

In her book, Hale talks about a “cheat” she employed as a magazine editor to determine whether or not a writer was up to snuff.  She would begin by circling every verb in the first two or three paragraphs of a submitted story.  Then she would study each verb:

Did the writer rely on wimp verbs?  Or did he craft sentences with dynamic verbs — ‘linger,’ maybe, or ‘melt,’ or ‘throttle’? If ‘is,’ ‘was,’ or ‘were’ filled most of the circles, the story idea was declined.  If the writer relied on dynamic verbs, and in doing so made every sentence jump, he got a phone call (2).

Put Hale’s “Verb Check” to the test by examining the two sentences below.  Notice how how a wimpy verb only tells, while a vivid verb shows, providing both sight and sound:

Sentence 1:  Mary was angry.

Sentence 2:  Mary slammed her fist on the desk, lowered her eyebrows into an indignant glare, and stomped out of the room (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Parts of Speech on Parade
What would you say is the most important single part of speech in the English language, and why should writers pay careful attention to how they use it?  Make your case using sentences from great writers as examples. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Verbs act.  Verbs move.  Verbs do. Verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal.  Verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech. -Donald Hall

1- http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/seven_tips_from_f_scott_fitzgerald_on_how_to_write_fiction.html

2- Hale, Constance.  Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch:  Let Verbs Power Your Writing.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

3-  Backman, Brian.  Persuasion Points:  82 Strategic Exercises for Writing High-Scoring Persuasive Essays.  Gainesville, Florida:  Maupin House Publishing, Inc., 2010.

 

September 18:  Lexicographer Day

Today is the birthday Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary.  His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755.  Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.  

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.jpgA lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers.  Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works.  Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word.  Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive.  Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean (1).

In Johnson’s Dictionary he define his job as follows:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose:  not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (198-9)

Today’s Challenge:  Lexicographer for a Day

What are the key elements of writing a definition?  The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed.  Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech.  Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into.  Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.

Here’s an example:

Pencil (Noun):  a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.

Open a dictionary to a random page and write down the first four words you find.  Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own.  Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.  –Samuel Johnson

 

1-http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/dic/johnson/1755johnsonsdictionary.html

September 16:  Eponymous Law Day

Today is the birthday of Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), the author of the book The Peter Principle. Peter was an education professor at the University of Southern California and the University of British Columbia, but he became famous in the field of business when he published The Peter Principle in 1969. The book is full of case histories that illustrate why every organization seems to fall short of reaching maximum productivity and profit. His explanation relates to the corporate mentality that promotes productive workers upward until they achieve positions beyond their ability to perform competently.

Peter’s insights into the organizational structures of businesses were so well-received that The Peter Principle has gone well beyond just the title of a popular book; it has entered the language as an adage, immortalizing its creator. The American Heritage Dictionary records the following definition of the Peter Principle:

The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent (1).

Laurence Peter is not alone in the world of eponymous lawsa principle or general rule that named for a person.  Below are some examples of other eponymous laws or principles:

Ockham’s Razor:  Explanations should never multiply causes without necessity. When two explanations are offered for a phenomenon, the simplest full explanation is preferable.

Murphy’s Law:  If anything can go wrong, it will.

The Dilbert Principle:  The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.

Hofstadter’s Law:  A task always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Parkinson’s Law:  Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Amara’s Law:  We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Stigler’s Law of Eponymy:  No scientific discovery, not even Stigler’s law, is named after its original discoverer (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Laying Down the Law
What are some general rules or principles that you have noticed based on your experience of living in the real world?  Attach your name to the one that you think is the most original and most insightful.  Then, explain and define your law, and give examples of when and where the law comes into play and how it can assist people in living better lives. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Example:

Backman’s Law of Student Speeches:   The likelihood of a sudden, unexpected and unexplainable attack of laryngitis increases the closer a student approaches the period or time when he or she is required to give a speech.

This law helps one anticipate the strange phenomenon which renders students incapable of giving their assigned speeches.  Debilitated by the sudden onset of speechlessness, a student will hobble into class and approach the teacher.  Pointing to his throat and frowning pathetically, the student will then bravely make an attempt to utter a single sentence.  Risking further throat injury, the student will whisper, “I don’t think I’m going to be able -cough! cough! – to go today.” The student will then turn and limp to his seat.  The bout of laryngitis usually ends at the tolling of the class’s final bell, miraculously disappearing just as suddenly as it appeared sixty minutes earlier.  Multiple medical studies by reputable research centers have failed to determine a reasonable cause for this debilitating yet temporary affliction; however, a team of research scientists at John Hopkins is currently conducting a study that promises to produce some breakthrough findings.

Quotation of the Day: A pessimist is a man who looks both ways before crossing a one-way street. –Laurence J. Peter

 

1 – American Heritage Dictionary

2-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_eponymous_laws