August 20:  Going Postal Day

On this date in 1986, Patrick Henry Sherrill, a disgruntled postal worker, opened fire on his co-workers at a post office in Oklahoma City. Before he committed suicide, he killed 14 people. This terrible incident along with a string of such incidents involving postal workers over the next seven years, led to coinage of the phrase to go postal.

The U.S. Postal Service was understandably unhappy when this usage began gaining currency in the language. In response to this public relations nightmare they created an independent commission to assess workplace violence in 1998. The Associated Press reported its findings:

The commission found that postal workers were no more likely to resort to workplace violence than workers in other jobs. It found 0.26 workplace homicides per 100,000 postal workers from 1992 to 1998. By comparison the rate was 2.10 per 100,000 for retail workers, 1.66 in public administration, 1.32 for transportation and 0.50 for private delivery services (2).

It seems that the final fifteen years of the millennium could be called “The Age of Rage.” As chronicled in the book Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture, the phrase road rage, meaning “extreme anger exhibited by a motorist in response to perceived injustices committed by other drivers,” began to appear in a few media stories in 1988. In the years that followed, the phrase became more and more common. The statistics below show the number of stories containing the phrase road rage that appeared each year:

1988-1993: 4

1994: 10

1995: 200

1996: 900

1997: 2,000 (1)

Expressions relating to angry, crazed behavior are nothing new in English. The expression to go berserk entered the language in the 19th century, but its roots go back much farther. Berserk is from Old Norse meaning “bear shirt.” It describes the Viking tactic of putting on bearskins and attacking and pillaging the enemy in a furious, crazed rage. British author Sir Walter Scott introduced the word into English in his 1822 novel The Pirate, and by 1940 it was being used in its present form to describe “crackpot behavior” (3).

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Millennium

Besides going postal and road rage, other forms of rage have made it into print, according to Paul McFedries in his book Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. All the examples below appeared in the 1990s, where rage was clearly all the rage. Given a clue, see if you can identify the specific rage:

  1. Rage that resulted when proper etiquette was not followed, especially on greens and fairways.
  1. Rage at 20,000 feet.
  1. Rage directed at noisy audience members at a musical performance.
  1. Rage directed at doctors, nurses, and HMOs.
  1. Rage directed at pedestrians or cyclists.
  1. Rage at sporting events, directed at other fans or the coaches or players of the opposing team.
  1. Rage caused by the perceived commercialization of the Internet.
  1. Rage directed at colleagues or bosses.

Today’s Challenge:  Write A Rant
Writing is a great way to work out your problems and to blow off steam.  It also allows you to express your passion while working through and thinking about what’s bothering you.  What are things that you think are worth complaining about, the hassles of life that frustrate you?  Brainstorm a long list of things to complain about.  Then, pick one complaint you feel passionately about.  Write your rant, expressing your passion but also explaining the reasons behind your frustrations in concrete terms so that you audience can understand them. Don’t just tell what frustrates you; show it. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae. –Kurt Vonnegut

Answers: 1. golf rage 2. air rage 3. concert rage 4. patient rage 5. sidewalk rage 6. sports rage or sideline rage 7. dot.com rage 8. work rage (or desk rage)

1 – Paul McFedries. Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

2 – Talley, Tim. 20 years later, survivors recall terror of US postal massacre.

Associated Press. 19 August 2006.

3 – Metcalf, Allan. The World in So Many Words. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

August 8:  Dollar and Cents Day

Today is the anniversary of the Continental Congress’ establishment of the monetary system of the United States. The year was 1786, and the ordinance called for U.S. coins with the following names: mill, cent, dime, dollar, and eagle.

According to Bill Bryson in Made in America, bankers and businessmen wished to maintain the English system based on pounds and shillings, but Thomas Jefferson devised a distinctly new system based on dollars and cents.

File:US $2 obverse-high.jpgThe name dollar comes from a town in Bohemia called Joachimstal. A coin made there in the 1500s, the Joachimstaler, spread throughout Europe evolving from the taler, to the thaler, to the daler, and finally into the dollar.

The name dime comes from the French dixieme which means tenth. It was originally spelled disme and pronounced as deem.

The name cent comes from the Latin centum which means one hundred. The unofficial name penny comes from the Latin term pannus, which means “a piece of cloth”; at one time these pieces of cloth were used for money.

The name mill comes from the Latin millesimus which means thousandth. A mill would have represented 1/1000 of a dollar; however, the federal government never minted the mill coin. The lowest denomination of coin ever created was a 1/2 cent piece.

The eagle was a $10 coin.

The missing coin from the 1786 ordinance, common today, is the denomination that represents 1/20 of a dollar: the nickel, named for the metal from which is was made (nickels never were made of wood) (1).

Dollars and cents are certainly important in America, so important that many expressions contain references to money, such as fast buck, more bang for the buck, and pass the buck. The term buck has been slang for dollar since the mid-1800s, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. See if you can find the English idioms that fit in the sentences below; they all have to do with dollars, dimes, or cents. The literal definition of each expression is also given as a clue.

  1. A virtual certainty: It’s _____ _____ _____ that the team will make the playoffs.
  1. To be absolutely sure: You can _____ _____ _____ _____ that he will be at the party.
  1. Unexpected good fortune. I didn’t think I would get a $500 rebate on my new car. When I got the check, it was _____ _____ _____.
  1. Stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones. Dean clips all the coupons for supermarket bargains but insists on going to the best restaurants; he’s ______ _____ _____ _____ _____.
  1. So plentiful as to be valueless. Don’t bother to buy one of these — they’re a _____ _____ _____.
  1. To inform on or betray someone. No one can cheat in this class — someone’s bound to _____ _____ _____ and tell the teacher.
  1. Take action and end delay. It’s time this administration _____ _____ _____ _____ and came up with a viable budget (2)

Today’s Challenge: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
What is a story that you could tell that relates to the theme “money”?  Below are ten idioms containing the word money.  Using a money-related idiom as your title and as a spark for your memory or your imagination, tell a money-related anecdote. (Common Core Writing 3)

Money is no object

Money talks

Hush money

A run for your money

Time is money

A fool and his money are soon parted

Money to burn

Pocket money

Easy money

Not for love or money

Quote of the Day: There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either. ~Robert Graves

Answers: 1. dollars to doughnuts 2. bet your bottom dollar 3. pennies from heaven 4. penny wise and pound foolish 5. dime a dozen 6. drop a dime 7. got off the dime

 

1 – Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: Perennial, 1994.

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

 

July 17:  Psychedelic Idioms Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

global village (1960)

DJ (1961)

lite (1962)

Beatlemania (1963)

BASIC (1964)

hypertext (1965)

body language (1966)

generation gap (1967)

reggae (1968)

orchestrate (1969) (2)

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

blackmail

true blue

green thumb

grey area

blue moon

yellow journalism

caught red handed

rose-colored glasses

golden oldies

red-letter day

a silver lining

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

July 16:  Mushroom Cloud Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

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

Adam’s apple

gravy train

peanut gallery

butter fingers

bean counter

cold turkey

cherry picking

drink the Kool-Aid

carrot and stick

in a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge:  Food For Thought and Rumination

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

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

 

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

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

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

July 3:  Dog Day

Today is the first day of what is known as the Dog Days of Summer. The association of summer with “man’s best friend” comes to our language via ancient astronomy. During the period from July 3 through August 11, the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction with the Sun. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky and is part of the constellation Canis Major, Latin for the Greater Dog.

Some ancient Romans believed that the sultry heat of the Dog Days was explained by the combined heat of Sirius and the sun; however, even in the days before the telescope, this belief was more prominent among the superstitious than serious students of the stars (1).

English is replete with idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when taken literally) related to dogs. And it is interesting to note that despite the dog’s reputation for being “man’s best friend,” most of the expressions use dog in the negative sense. For example, they are used as scapegoats for missing homework: “My dog ate my homework.” They are associated with sickness: “Sick as a dog.” And they are even used to characterize life in general as harsh and cut throat: “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

Today’s Challenge: Dog Daze
What idioms, compound words, titles, quotations come to mind that contain the word “dog”?  First, brainstorm a list of at least ten words and phrases that contain the word dog, such as the following:

-Dog tired
-Hot dog
-Every dog has his day
-You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog
-Dogtown and the Z-Boys
-“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” –Groucho Marx

Second, use your list of ideas as a springboard for a topic that you can write about — any form or genre is okay, as long as your writing is interesting: speech, argument, memoir, poetry, fiction, dramatic monologue, open letter, personal essay, description, anecdote

Third, begin writing.  Use the brainstorm idea that sparked your topic as your title. Make sure that the word “dog” is in your title. Write at least 200 words. (Common Core Writing 1, 2, or 3)

Quotation of the Day: To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs. –Aldous Huxley

1 – http://www.space.com/8946-dog-days-summer-celestial-origin.html

2- Claiborne, Robert. Loose Cannons and Red Herrings: A Book of Lost Metaphors. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

June 9: Horse Racing Metaphor Day

On this day in 1973 something happened that had not happened in over two decades: a horse won racing’s Triple Crown. The name of the horse was Secretariat, and he didn’t just win the Belmont Stakes, he annihilated the competition, winning by an amazing 31 lengths. Other horses have won the Triple Crown since, but never has there been such a dominant performance on horse racing’s main stage.

After the race, Secretariat’s jockey Ron Turcotte was as surprised as anyone at his horse’s amazing performance, saying “I know this sounds crazy, but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride” (1).

You might say that Secretariat won “hands down.” If you did, you would be using an idiom that means “with no trouble, easily,” and it would be an especially appropriate idiom because the expression originates with horse racing. A jockey who is ahead of the other horses will relax his grip on the reins and drop his hands.

Many other idioms (expressions that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words) in English relate to horses and horse racing, such as:

Horse sense

Beat a dead horse

Dark horse

Hold your horses

A horse of a different color

On your high horse

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Horse around

In addition to horses, English features a whole menagerie of beastly idioms.

Examples:
As the crow flies, bee in your bonnet, bird’s eye view, can of worms, cold turkey, dog and pony show, dog eat dog, the early bird catches the worm, eat crow, the elephant in the room, fish or cut bait, a fish out of water, a fly in the ointment, hornets’ nest, kangaroo court, lame duck, lone wolf, monkey business, night owl, spring chicken, one-trick pony, puppy love, putting the cart before the horse, rat race, red herring, sacred cow, sitting duck, topdog, ugly duckling, water off a duck’s back, white elephant, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

Today’s Challenge: Your Best Beastly Bet to Win, Place, or Show
What are some examples of idioms in English that feature animals? In horse racing the terms win, place, and show are betting terms. If you bet on a horse to “win,” the horse must place first; if you bet on a horse to “show,” the horse must place first or second; and if you bet on horse to “show,” the horse must finish first, second, or third. Select your top three animal related metaphors. Imagine you were writing to a person for whom English is a first language, and write an explanation of the meaning of each idiom. Also give examples of how each might be used in a sentence. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Horse sense is a good judgment which keeps horses from betting on people. -W.C. Fields

1 – http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016464.html

2- Ammer, Christine. Southpaws & Sunday Punches:  And Other Sporting Expressions.

September 2: Idioms of Fire Day

Today is the anniversary of the start of the Great Fire of London in the year 1666.  The fire started in a bakery and spread throughout the city, raging for four days and nights before it was extinguished.

Fire is a common word in English with many literal and figurative uses.  Many English idioms feature fire.  Idioms are expressions of two or more words that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words.  Here are some examples:  hold someone’s feet to the fire, play with fire, fire on all cylinders, fight fire with fire.

Today’s Challenge:  Fire Away

Brainstorm — or should we say firestorm — a list of compound words, idioms, and titles that include the word fire.

Alternative Assignments:

-Research the etymology of the word curfew.  How does it relate to fire?

-Write about a personal experience you have had with fire.

Quote of the Day:  Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.  –William Butler Yeats