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 3:  Idiot Letter Day


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

On this date in 1993, one of the most hilarious missives in the history of letter writing was sent to an American corporation. Before we look at the letter, let’s look at the history of how it came to be written.

In July of 1993, Paul Rosa received a piece of junk mail that changed his life. It was a brief letter from Pizza Hut’s delivery unit saying that they had not received an order from Rosa’s address in a long time. The letter from the Vice-president of Pizza Hut marketing reminded Rosa of the quality, variety, and value of Pizza Hut pizza. It might have been just another piece of junk mail, but one line in the letter resonated with Rosa. It said: “You see, you’re the kind of customer we’d like to see more often.” Rosa wrote back a letter to Pizza Hut asking, “What kind of customer wouldn’t you like to see more often?”

This first letter started a letter-writing campaign that went on for months, covering more than 100 different corporations. Rosa’s mission statement was: Since American corporations are treating their customers like idiots, “while reaching for their wallets,” I am going to get even by writing them letters in which I act like an idiot.

The letters from Rosa’s “kamikaze consumer crusade” were published in 1995 in the book Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America.

The following is the letter that Rosa sent to Oil-Dri Corporation of America the makers of Cat’s Pride Premium Cat Litter on August 3, 1993.

Dear Cat Lovers,

Continue reading →

August 2:  Urgent Letter Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter that changed history. The letter, dated August 2, 1939, was written by physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard; it was addressed to the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The letter’s content warned the president of the Nazi’s possible use of uranium for the development of atomic weapons.

The story behind this historic letter that led to the Manhattan Project begins in Germany, which prior to 1933 was a hotbed of scientific inquiry: Germany had been awarded 99 Nobel Prizes in science compared to the United States’ 6 Nobel Prizes. The rise of anti-semitism and of Adolf Hitler, however, caused many Jewish scientists to flee Germany.

The rising mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki "Fat Man" bomb, August 9, 1945One of those who fled was physicist Leo Szilard, who relocated to England. While sitting at a London traffic light in 1933, he had an epiphany: theoretically, the atom could be split, creating a chain reaction of enormous power.

Szilard’s idea moved from theory to fact in 1939 when German scientists successfully split an atom. The fact that German scientists now had the knowledge of the potentially destructive power of the atom in their hands alarmed Szilard.

Traditionally scientists around the world published their breakthroughs for all to see. Szilard was afraid that the German scientists were using this information to develop a bomb. His fears were heightened when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and stopped all exports of uranium ore from the occupied country.

He urged scientists outside of Germany to delay publication of their findings in fission-related areas, and he initiated a meeting with his former teacher Albert Einstein.

Einstein, like Szilard, was a Jew and had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler. By 1939 Einstein’s theory of relativity had made him an international celebrity — just the kind of name recognition that Szilard needed to get his alarm bell heard by world leaders.

Szilard met with Einstein in New York on July 30. Einstein dictated the letter to Szilard in German, and Szilard later translated it into a typed final draft for Einstein’s signature.

The letter’s opening read as follows:

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.  (2)

Even Einstein’s signature, however, did not guarantee that the letter would get the attention it deserved. Einstein and Szilard entrusted the letter to Alexander Sachs, an unofficial advisor to F.D.R., but Roosevelt was preoccupied with the growing war in Europe, and Sachs was unable to get an appointment with him until October 1939.

To persuade Roosevelt, Sachs used a historical analogy. He told Roosevelt about an American inventor who met with the French emperor during the Napoleonic Wars. The inventor offered to build a fleet of steamships that could invade England regardless of the weather. Napoleon was incredulous, unable to think beyond ships with sails. He sent the American away. The shortsightedness, arrogance, and lack of imagination of Napoleon saved England and sealed Napoleon’s fate. It was a powerful analogy, and despite the fact that it took time for the Manhattan Project to get off the ground, it was the letter and Sach’s persuasiveness that led to the development of the atomic bomb that Harry Truman had dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Ironically, near the end of the war, the Allies discovered that the Germans were at least two years away from developing the bomb. Furthermore, both Szilard and Einstein objected to the United States’ use of the bomb. Even though Einstein did not work directly on the Manhattan Project, he called his decision to sign the letter to President Roosevelt the “one great mistake in my life” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Missives With a Mission

What are examples of the most urgent issues in today’s world, either at the local, national, or international levels?  If you were to select one urgent issue, what would it be, and how would you explain your reasoning behind why the issue is so urgent?  Select a single issue and write an open letter to the president or other official who has the power to act (See February 3: Open Letter Day). Explain in your letter what the issue is and why it is specifically an urgent issue that should be addressed immediately.  The purpose of your letter is to persuade the addressee and the general audience that your issue is, in fact, an urgent issue that needs to be addressed immediately. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others. –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1 – Gillon, Steven M. Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

2-http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Begin/Einstein.shtml

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 31:  Harry Potter Day

Today is the birthday of the literary character Harry Potter and Harry’s creator, J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Book Cover.jpgThe British author was born on July 31, 1965. The idea of a story about boy wizard came to Rowling one day on a long train ride from Manchester to London in the Summer of 1990.

At her website, Rowling recounts the day Harry was born in her imagination:

. . . I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book. (1)

It took seven years for Rowling to bring Harry Potter to life in a published book. After rejections from several publishers, Bloomsbury Children’s Books published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in June 1997.

After the publication of Philosopher’s Stone, success and awards came fast for Rowling. She sold the American rights to her books to Scholastic Books, and quit her job teaching French to write full time.  When published in the United States, the title was changed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because publishers felt that Sorcerer’s Stone would be more suggestive of magic, whereas Philosopher’s Stone was more suggestive of togas.

Sales of the seven books in the series have reached unprecedented numbers with  more than 400 million copies sold.

In 2003, Rowling achieved the rare distinction of having one of her coined words added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — a very rare achievement for a living author.

The word is muggle, defined as:

A person who possesses no magical powers. Hence in allusive and extended uses: a person who lacks a particular skill or skills, or who is regarded as inferior in some way.

The editors of the OED had little choice but to include the word in the dictionary after considering the seemingly universal popularity of Rowling’s books and the fact that the word was being used everyday by people all over the world. A similar feat was accomplished by J.R.R. Tolkien when the OED included his word “hobbit” in the 1976 edition of the OED. Tolkien, however, had died before seeing his word in the dictionary (2).

Seven Spellbinding Roots

The made-up language of spells in J. K. Rowling’s books is not a totally random creation. Hidden in the spells are word parts that resemble familiar Latin and Greek roots:

  1. Wingardium Leviosa!  Root: LEV – To Raise Up Common Words: lever, elevator, levee, elevate
  1. Locomotor Mortis!  Root: LOCO – Place Common Words: locomotive, locate, dislocate, allocate
  1. Expelliarmus!  Root: PEL To Push – Common Words: propel, expel, repel, compel
  1. Lumos!  Root: LUM – Light  Common Words: illuminate, lucid, bioluminescence, elucidate
  1. Fidelus! Root: FID -Trust  Common Words: confide, confidence, fidelity, infidel
  1. Expecto Patronus!  Root: PATR – Father Common Words: paternal, patron, patronize, patriot
  1. Finite incantatem!  Root: FIN – End or Limit Common Words: infinite, define, affinity, infinitesimal (3)

Today’s Challenge: I Put a Spell on You

What fictional character do you think special enough to warrant a birthday celebration?  What makes this character so special, and what kind of things might be done to truly honor his or her birth and fictional life?  Brainstorm a list of fictional characters that are so distinctive that although they are fictional they seem to be as real as any person who ever lived.  Select the one you like the best and write a proclamation honoring the character’s “birth” and “life” as well as suggesting what kind of unique activities might be appropriate to celebrate the character’s birthday. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quote of the Day: The book is really about the power of the imagination. What Harry is learning to do is to develop his full potential. Wizardry is just the analogy I use. –J. K. Rowling

 

1-http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/timeline/it-all-started/

2 – ‘Muggle’ Goes Into Oxford English Dictionary. BBC Newsround 24 March 2003.

3 – Resource Room: Free-spirited Structured Multisensory Learning. Reading Comprehension. Vocabulary words parts index (Greek and Latin Roots)

 

 

 

July 30:  Paperback Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first modern paperback books. On July 30, 1935, Penguin Books issued its first 10 paperback titles.

Penguin logo.svgPenguin owes its success to a German publisher, Tachnitz, which had been publishing paperbound books in a variety of languages, including English, as early as 1845. In 1931 an English language offshoot of Tachnitz was established in London. Wanting a name for the company that could be understood in a variety of languages, the German company selected the name Albatross Books.

Albatross had early success in selling English books, but when the Nazis seized the company’s presses in Germany, the company failed.

The brief success of Albatross was noted by Allan Lane, the president of England’s Bodley Head Publishing House. Lane approached the head buyers of F.W. Woolworth, a chain of retail stores, with the idea of publishing ten literary titles in paperback in the Woolworth stores at a cost of sixpence each, about the same price as a pack of cigarettes. Imitating the Albatross model, Allan called his company Penguin Books.

Lane’s plan doesn’t sound very radical today, but in the 1930s books were sold in bookstores, not retails stores. In addition, the 10 titles Lane proposed were considered too highbrow for the lower classes, the main buyers of paperbacks.

Here are the titles and authors of the first Penguin paperbacks:

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
  2. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers
  3. Gone to Earth, Mary Webb
  4. William, E. H. Young
  5. Carnival, Compton Mackenzie
  6. Poet’s Pub, Eric Linklater
  7. Madame Claire, Susan Ertz
  8. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  9. Twenty-five, Beverley Nichols
  10. Ariel, Andre Maurois

The conventional wisdom of the publishing world was wrong, however, and Lane’s plan was a rousing success. Paperbacks became all the rage in England. By the end of the year over 3 million books had been sold, and by 1937, Penguin paperbacks were being sold from vending machines at train stations.

Making books less expensive has certainly done much to spread the cause of literacy.  Another excellent feature of the inexpensive paperback is that it can be given away and enjoyed by others.  In April 2001 a website was created to encourage book sharing.  The site is called Bookcrossing.com founded by Ron Hornbaker. Taking the idea of PhotoTag.org, a site that tracks disposable cameras, and WheresGeorge.com, which tracks U.S. currency, Hornbaker had the idea of creating a site where readers could register a book and then deposit it in some public place: a park bench, a laundromat, or a coffee shop. The Bookcrossing.com website provides an ID number for each book and a registration card that can be attached to the inside cover of the book. The card briefly explains the Bookcrossing mission and directs finders of books to the online journal page of the website where they can document where and how they found the book and, if they read it, what they thought of the book.

To date, nearly half a million people have become bookcrossers. The practice has become so popular that it has been added as a word in the August 2004 edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:

bookcrossing n. the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.

To date, the two most popular books at Bookcrossing.com both have over 50,000 registrations:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Caution – Bookcrossing
What one book do you think everyone should read?  What makes that book so special?  Write your own literary message in a bottle. Imagine you are writing a note that would be placed on the inside cover of your favorite book.  Write the note to invite and to entice the finder to take the book home and to take the time to read it.

Quote of the Day: A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold. –Henry Miller

 

1 – http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/first-penguin-paperbacks

2-  Bookcrossing website

July 29:  Defeat of the Spanish Armada Day

Today is the anniversary of Britain’s victorious sea battle against Spain’s “Invincible Armada” in 1588. At the time England was a small, insignificant island nation while Spain was the richest, most powerful empire in the world.

The conflict between the two countries was political as well as religious. Elizabeth, the Protestant Queen of England, had encouraged the activities of British pirates who plundered Spanish ships returning from the New World. The Catholic king of Spain, Phillip II, had had enough of the Protestant upstarts of England and dispatched his fleet of more than 100 ships to invade the British.

On July 29, 1588 the Armada reached sight of the English shore and confronted the much smaller British fleet. Sea battles raged on and off until August. Although the English were the smaller force, they used superior tactics to outmaneuver the Spanish; in addition, terrible rain and wind prevented the Spanish from reaching the English shore. By the time the Armada turned around to return to Spain, nearly half of its ships had been destroyed (1).

Before the British victory over the Spanish Armada had been sealed, Elizabeth courageously left her palace in London to travel to Tilbury in Essex, England to address her assembled troops. Her tenacious refusal to be defeated by the Spanish foreshadows Winston Churchill’s similar refusal to yield to the Germans more than 350 years later.  Her speech was short but powerful.  Notice how in the opening lines of the speech she switches quickly from the royal “we” to the first person “I.”

My loving people,

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people (2)

The astonishing and decisive victory by the British over the Spanish Armada is one of the key turning points in history. It prevented the extinction of Protestantism in England and also prevented the end of the Reformation in Europe. It gave birth to the nationalism of the British Empire and opened the door to British exploration of the world, especially North America. Linguistically it meant that English, not Spanish, would survive on the British Isles and eventually become the global language it is today (3).

Imagine how different it would have been if Shakespeare, who began writing his plays in London in 1589, would have written in Spanish rather than English.

Today’s Challenge:  The Queen’s Speech
How do effective speakers combine reason, emotion, and credibility to make their point and motivate their audience?  Carefully read Elizabeth’s famous speech at Tilbury, and write an analysis in which you identify what makes it effective.  Consider important elements such as the speaker, the subject, the audience, the purpose, and the occasion.  Also consider her use of logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and pathos (credibility). (Common Core Speaking and Listening 3)

Quotation of the Day: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. –Sun-tzu

 

1 – Coffin, Judith G., Robert C. Stacey, Robert E. Lerner, and Standish Meacham. Western Civilization, Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

2 – The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Edition. Vol 1, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN. 0393962873

3 – http://www.microsoft.com/uk/homepc/articles/battles.asp

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

 

 

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 26:  Ghoti Day  

Today is the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw. He was born in Dublin in 1856 and began his writing career as a journalist and theater critic in London. Eventually he began writing plays of his own, his most famous being Pygmalion (1912) — the play upon which the musical My Fair Lady is based. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (1).

In addition to writing plays, Shaw was active in political causes, most notably socialism, vegetarianism, and spelling reform.

To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words:

-The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough.

-The o was from the i sound in women.

-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.

Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words.  It’s little wonder we have problems with spelling since we have an alphabet of twenty-six letters and a language with more than 40 sounds.  On top of that there are over 300 different ways to spell those forty-plus sounds.

Shaw’s passion for the spelling reform cause is reflected in the tone of his writing in a preface to a book by R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language in 1941:

Professor Wilson has shewn that it was as a reading and writing animal that Man achieved his human eminence above those who are called beasts. Well, it is I and my like who have to do the writing. I have done it professionally for the last sixty years as well as it can be done with a hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell “debt,” and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a “b” because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin for it with a “b” . . . .

If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. That must be remedied, come what may.

Shaw, like many others before and after him, failed to reform English spelling (Shaw died in 1950).  The fight for spelling reform, however, goes on even today as seen in a headline from a 2006 Associated Press article:  Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists — despiet th lak of public intrest (2).

Today’s Challenge: The Spelling List From Hell
What are examples of words in English that are difficult to spell because their pronunciation has very little correlation with their spelling?  On this 26th day of the month, create an abecedarian list of words from A-Z that are extremely difficult to spell.  To check how challenging the words on your list are, write each word phonetically and compare that to the word’s actual spelling.  For example, notice how words like psychology, chaos, colonel, and tsunami are spelled quite differently from the way they are pronounced.

Quote of the Day: You must remember that it is permissible for spelling to drive you crazy.  Spelling had this effect on Andrew Jackson, who once blew his stack while trying to write a Presidential paper.  “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” the President cried. -John Irving

 

1 – George Bernard Shaw. The Novel Prize in Literature 1925.

2 – http://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Puush-for-simpler-speling-perzists-despiet-lak-of-119163.php