January 1: Exordium Day

On New Year’s Day our head is on a swivel; we look backward, reflecting on the year just passed, and forward, anticipating the new year ahead.

This swivel-headedness is reflected in the etymology – the word history – of the word “January.” The month’s name comes to us from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, endings, gateways, and doorways.  Janus was depicted as a two-faced god, one face looking backwards to the past and the other looking forward to the future.  

Like Janus, on this New Year’s Day, we look forward as we begin a new year.  It’s an appropriate day to spend some time considering methods for getting off on the right foot, whether writing an essay or a speech.  

In classical rhetoric, the introduction or beginning of a speech was called the exordium.  In Latin it means “to urge forward,” and it is the ancestor of the English verb exhort, which means “to urge earnestly.”  Any good exordium introduces the speaker’s topic and purpose, but the exordium is also important to establish the speaker’s ethos, or credibility, by showing the audience that he or she is intelligent, reliable, and trustworthy.  When you write a speech or essay, the exordium is your first impression, so it is important to give it careful thought (1).

Whatever you do, it is important to establish why your topic matters and why it is relevant to your audience.  The best way to do this is not by telling the audience; instead, show the audience using specific concrete language.  Use a captivating story or relevant anecdote that shows how real people are impacted by your topic.

Today’s Challenge:  New Year’s Introduction

What issues do you believe will be or will continue to be important in the coming year?  Brainstorm some issues and your specific position on those issues.  Then select one specific claim that you feel you can defend.  Imagine that you are presenting a speech on your issue, and write your exordium. Before stating your claim, show the reader why the topic is relevant.  Look at the issue for your audience’s perspective, and explain why this issue matters today and why it will still matter tomorrow. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The beginning is the most important part of the work. –Plato

1- Crowley, Sharon and Debra Hawhee.  Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students (Third Edition).  New York:  Pearson, Longman, 2004.

December 31: Spam Day

On this day in the 1930s, Jay Hormel hosted a New Year’s Eve party where he challenged his guests to create a name for his latest invention, a canned pork product.

On that night, not only was a new year born, but also one of the most successful and most recognizable brand names in history came into being: Spam. The winning name was formed from the contraction of sp(iced h)am; the winner of the contest was awarded $100.

Thanks to a sketch and song from the British television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the word Spam lost its capital letter and became a lowercase common noun referring to unsolicited e-mail. In the sketch, which first appeared in 1970, a waitress recites a list of menu items, all including Spam. As the menu is being recited, a song begins where male voices chant the word Spam more than 100 times. It’s this seemingly endless, repetitive chant that inspired computer users to select spam as the appropriate appellation for unwanted, disruptive email in 1994 (1).

One organization that is especially interested in language and new words is The American Dialect Society (ADS), a non-profit organization that studies the varieties of English specific to North America.  Founded in 1889, the ADS publishes the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), a dictionary that attempts to document and map the varieties of spoken American English in the United States.

At its annual convention each January, members of the American Dialect Society vote on their “Word of the Year,” selecting the single word that was both popular in the previous year and that was demonstrably new.  Below are some examples of previous winners:

2015:  they

2014:  #blacklivesmatter

2013:  because

2012:  hashtag

2011:  occupy

2010:  app

2009 – Tweet

2008 – Bailout

2007 – Subprime

2006 – Plutoed

2005 – truthiness (2)

Today’s Challenge: New Year, New Words

What words or phrases do you think best typify the past year? What individual words or individual phrases would best sum up your experiences this year?  Write an explanation for the word or phrase that you would submit as this year’s nominee for word of the year.  You may base your explanation either on the important influence the word has had on the broader culture, or you may base your explanation on the important influence the word has had on your personal experience this year.  

Use this writing exercise as an icebreaker at your New Year’s Eve party.  If you’re really ambitious, you might also challenge your guests to honor Spam Day by inventing a new word for the year ahead.  Award cans of Spam as the prize. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Steinmetz, Sol and Barbara Ann Kipfer. The Life of Language. New York: Random House, 2006.

2-American Dialect Society. All of the Words of the Year, 1990 to Present. http://www.americandialect.org/woty/all-of-the-words-of-the-year-1990-to-present.

December 2:  Two-Word Allusion Day

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Two speeches given by American presidents on this date in the 1800s launched key ideas that would influence the growth and influence of the United States.

The first speech, given on December 2, 1823 by President James Monroe, launched the Monroe Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address, Monroe announced that the United States would frown upon any further interference or colonization of the Americas by foreign powers.

The second speech, given on December 2, 1845, by President James Polk, launched the term Manifest Destiny. In his State of the Union Address, Polk made it clear that he was committed to the expansion of the United States through the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of the Oregon territory, and the purchase of California from Mexico. Although he did not use the term Manifest Destiny in his speech, the term, originally coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan, became the operative term to describe the expansion of the young nation, which happened to be the primary subject of Polk’s speech.

Today’s Challenge: Two Words – American History

What are some examples of allusions from American History that you think everyone should know?  Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine are just two examples of several two-word appellations for key events or ideas in American history. Below are several examples of two-word allusions from American history.  Each of these references represents a key story involving real people and real events that influenced the course of American history:

Boston Massacre, Burr-Hamilton Duel, Constitutional Convention, Dred Scott, Emancipation Proclamation, First Amendment, Great Society, Homestead Act, Mason-Dixon Line, Mayflower Compact, Mexican War, Missouri Compromise, New Deal, Northwest Passage, Oregon Trail, Plymouth Rock, Stamp Act, Teapot Dome, Underground Railroad, Whiskey Rebellion, Wounded Knee, Scopes Trial, XYZ Affair

Select one of the two-word allusions above, and research the story behind it.  Write a brief report explaining what happened, who was involved, and why these two words are an important part of the story of the Uniteds States. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

October 23:  OK Day

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Today we celebrate not only the single most recognized Americanism ever, but also the single most recognizable word period.

On this day in 1839, OK was first published in the Boston Morning Post.  Oddly, the word sprung from an intentional misspelling of “all correct.”  Following a pre-Civil War fad of misspelling words for comic effect, “all correct” was spelled “oll korrect.”  The word gained widespread usage but with a different meaning during the reelection campaign of President Martin Van Buren in 1840.  Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” which alluded to his hometown of Kinderhook, New York.  The initials OK became his rallying cry, and even though Van Buren lost the election to William Henry Harrison, OK gained popular usage, becoming an entrenched part of American English.

Allan Metcalf, an English professor in Illinois, claims that OK is the single most spoken and typed word in the world.  He should know since he wrote an entire book on the word in 2010 called OK:  The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

Clearly OK, no matter how you spell it — OK, O.K., ok, okay, okey, or ‘key — is here to stay.

Today’s Challenge:  Okie-dokie Proverbs

OK is the most popular word in English, but what do you get when you string together popular words into phrases or clauses?  What you usually get are proverbs:  short, distilled statements of wisdom that are repeated frequently both because they are concise and because they express time-tested insights into human experience.  Whether you call them proverbs, sayings, adages, maxims, motts, or aphorisms, they are recognized, repeated, and recycled from generation to generation.  What would you say is the single most important proverb?  What makes it important, and what do you know about its origin?   Brainstorm a list of proverbs.  Select the one you think is the most influential and important.  Then, make your case by explaining what the proverb means and why it is so important.  Do a bit of research on its origin and history to provide your audience with some details that go beyond the obvious. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Barnhart, David and Allan Metcalf. America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

 

October 18:  TLA Day

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On this day in 1922 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was formed.  In its almost one hundred years as the United Kingdom’s public-service broadcast service on both radio and television, it has been responsible for propagating what is known as Received Pronunciation.

What the printing press did for making written English standard, the BBC has done for making spoken British English standard.  With a variety of regional dialects of English in the United Kingdom, the BBC created an Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1926 to explore and establish the best forms of pronunciation among competing usages.  The influence and popularity of BBC broadcasts, especially during World War II, established the English spoken on air as the “correct” way to speak English.  This Received Pronunciation goes by several names:  “Standard English,” “the Queen’s English,” “Oxford English,” “Public School English,” or “BBC English.”

BBC.svg“BBC” is an example of a three-letter abbreviation (TLA), the common method in English of condensing language to save time and space.  Whether it’s the name of corporations (IBM), politicians (JFK), computer terms (CPU), agencies (CIA), countries (UAE), or text messaging (LOL), TLAs continue to be ALR (all the rage).

One distinction should be made in regard to two key terms associated with abbreviations:  acronyms and initialisms.

An abbreviation is the general term for any shortened form of a word or phrase, such as Oct. for October.

An acronym is a specific type of abbreviation in which the first letters of words are combined to form a word, as in RAM (Random Access Memory).

An initialism is another specific type of abbreviation in which the first letter of words are combined as upper case letters with each letter pronounced as an individual letter, as in FBI = “F” – “B” – “I.”

As you examine examples of TLAs, you will discover that the vast majority fit in the category of initialisms.  Many are familiar.  Look at the gaggle of TLAs below to see which ones you recognize, and use a good dictionary to look up the ones you don’t.

ABC, AKA, BCS, CBS, CEO, CIA, CNN, CPA, CPU, DNA, DVD, EKG, FAQ, FYI, HIV, IBM, IOU, IRA, LCD, LDS, MLB, NBA, NBC, NFL, NHL, NYU, POW, SAT, SDI, UFO, VHS, WWW

TLAs harness the Rule of Three (ROT), a powerful principle in writing that recognizes that there seems to be something special, maybe even magical, about things in three.  There’s nothing new about this principle.  In Latin it was stated as Omne trium perfectum, or “everything that comes in threes is perfect.”  Likewise, the French motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” demonstrates the brevity, rhythm, and balance of a tried and true trio.

Today’s Challenge:  Three-peat After Me

What is a three-word motto that you would use to sum up a principle for success in life, whether at work, at school, at home, or some other aspect of human endeavor?  Brainstorm some original mottos and sum them up with a TLA.  For example, in the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), the motto for success in selling real estate is ABC = “Always Be Closing.”  To prime the pump here are a few other example mottos:

Be the change (BTC)

Dream, believe, achieve (DBA)

Just do it (JDI)

Pain is gain (PIG)

Love conquers all (LCA)

Keep it simple (KIS)

Quitters aren’t winners (QAW) (2)

Once you’ve settled on your TLA motto, write a short motivational message in which you explain what it means, using appropriate examples and anecdotes to illustrate why it is a motto worth remembering and how it will help the audience achieve success. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Crystal, David.  Evolving English.  London:  British Library, 2010: 57.

2-Samuel, Victory. 199 Three-Word Phrases That Will Make You a Better Person. Thought Catalog 10 Mar. 2015.

October 17:  Coin a Word Day

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On this day in 2005, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert unveiled a new word: truthiness (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 word, 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, they 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.

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” and the “sea” becomes the “whale-road.”  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

Tree hugger = an environmentalist

Bookworm = someone who reads a lot

Pig-skin = a football

Gas-guzzler = a car with poor gas mileage (3)

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 packaged 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 be 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)

1-This Day in Quotes.com. True or False: Stephen Colbert Coined the Word ‘Truthiness’? 17 Oct. 2012.

2-Zimmer, Benjamin. Truthiness or Trustiness? Language Log 26 Oct. 2005. .

3-Your Dictionary.com. Examples of Kenning.

September 29:  The Beatles and the Bard Day

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On this day 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 its 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. (1)

HelloGoodbyeUS.jpgThis 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 “mash-up” 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’” (2).

Mash-ups are certainly not limited to music, however. A mash-up 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 Sea Monsters – a book mash-up that combines classic fiction and sea stories.

The Dark Side of Oz – a film/music mash-up 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 mash-up 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. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

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

1- The Beatles Bible.com. I Am the Walrus. https://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/i-am-the-walrus/2/.

2- Newsweek. Technology: Time for Your Mashup? 3 May 2006. http://www.newsweek.com/technology-time-your-mashup-106345.

September 28:  Spelling Reform Day

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

Many 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.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis 1778.jpgFranklin’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 (3).

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 (See October 16: Dictionary Day).

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)

1-Stamp, Jimmy. Ben Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet. Smithsonianmag.com 10 May 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/benjamin-franklins-phonetic-alphabet-58078802/.

2-Twilly, Nicola. Six New Letters for a Reformed Alphabet. http://www.benfranklin300.org/_etc_pdf/Six_New_Letters_Nicola_Twilly.pdf.

3-Ibid.

September 27:  Capital Day

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On this day in 1777, the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became the nation’s capital for a single day.  With the Revolutionary War still raging, George Washington’s Continental Army was outflanked at the Battle of Brandywine, causing them to retreat.  Victory by the British allowed them to capture Philadelphia, the capital of the young nation, with little resistance.

The arrival of the British caused the Second Continental Congress to pack up and move 60 miles west to new headquarters in the Lancaster County Courthouse.  Lancaster’s time as capital city was short-lived, however.  The next day the Continental Congress packed up and moved again, this time to a more strategic position on the west side of the Susquehanna River, 20 miles away in York, Pennsylvania.

Residents of Lancaster have not forgotten their moment in the sun.  In 2011 the Lancaster City Council officially designated each September 27 as Capital Day.

On a usage note, one of most common mistakes in English is confusing the words “capital” and “capitol.”  The only time you should use “capitol” with an “o” is when you are referring to buildings, such as “the capitol buildings” or “the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  “Capital” with an “a” is used for all other meanings of the word, including capital letters, capital punishment, capital finances, and capital city, meaning the name of the city on the map, rather than a reference to its governmental buildings (2).  For example, “We visited the capitol building in Olympia, the capital of Washington state.”

Today’s Challenge:  Make It a Capital Day

What makes your hometown worthy of being designated “The Nation’s Capital for a Day”?  You’ve been appointed to argue the case for your hometown, and if successful, your town will be awarded the 24-hour honor plus five million dollars.  Promote your town or city for this honor by describing its virtues Chamber of Commerce-style, identifying what makes it a special, one-of-a-king place, worthy of being named capital for a day. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Trex, Ethan. Glory Day: Lancaster’s Brief Stint as Our Nation’s Capital. Mental Floss.com 27 Sep. 2017. http://mentalfloss.com/article/31494/glory-day-lancasters-brief-stint-our-nations-capital.

2-Fogarty, Mignon.  The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009.

September Seventeenth:  Univocalic Day

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A univocalic is a piece of writing where the writer uses only a single vowel. Because September Seventeenth contains only the vowel ‘e,’ it’s the perfect day to celebrate this rare but interesting writing form.

One classic example of a univocalic was written by C.C. Bombaugh in 1890.  He used just the vowel ‘O’:

No cool monsoons blow soft on Oxford dons,

Orthodox, jog-trot, book-worm Solomons

The following are some examples of some fairly common words in English that are Univocalic:

Only A:  craftsman, awkward, paragraph, papal, saga, maharajah, bacchanal, Taj Mahal, lasagna

Only E:  sentences, cleverness, eschew, precedents, vehement, resentment, Greece, legends, sleeplessness, cheerlessness

Only I:  writing, criticism, bikini, nihilistic, dimwits, diminish, twilight, intrinsic, Viking, siblings

Only O:  bookshop, proctor, how-to book, rococo, bookworms, protocol, orthodox, Woodstock, voodoo

Only U:  untruth, numbskull, succubus, hummus, murmur, humdrum, humbug, dumbstruck, ruckus, guru

Today’s Challenge: One Vowel Howl

How many words can you list that contain only a single vowel, as in ‘September,’ ‘bookworm,’ or ‘Mississippi’?  Pick a single vowel, and make a list of words that contain only that vowel. Then, use your list of words as ideas for a univocalic composition, such as a haiku, the first sentence of a short story, or a newspaper headline.  Hold a Univocalic Day contest or reading so you can share your creations. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)