Sunday, April 30, 2006

April 30: Spellbound Day

Today is the anniversary of the release of the Academy Award nominated documentary Spellbound. The film profiles eight participants in the 1992 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Each profile follows the path each youngster took to the Nationals, showing their hometown, their family, and their study techniques. The most gripping parts of the film, however, are the scenes of competition in the National Spelling Bee. Each contenstant battles the seemingly capricious rules of English spelling, straining to comprehend each obscure word they are presented.

The most successful spellers attempt to bring order out of the chaos of English spelling through dilligent study of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish words. Each word is pronounced for the competitors, but because of the great disparity between English spelling and pronunciation, a word's etymology is a more reliable source of clues to its correct spelling.

The National Spelling Bee began in 1925, and The Scripps Howard News Service began sponsoring the bee in 1941. The bee began with only 9 contestants and has grown to over 200 participants. Each spring contestants compete for an ever-growing list of prizes, and the last half of the final day's competition is even broadcast live on ESPN.

Another term sometimes used for spelling is orthography. The word is from the Greek: ortho for correct and graphe for writing.

Spelling: The Presidential Debate

Even presidents have weighed in on correct spelling:

It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word! --Andrew Jackson

Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and, if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well. --Thomas Jefferson

Today's Challenge: Bee All That You Can Bee

Below is a list of winning words from the recent years of the National Spelling Bee. See if you can select the one in each group of three that is correct.

1. 1996 vivisepulture vivicepulture vivissepulture

2. 1997 uonym euonym euuonym

3. 1998 chiaroscurist chiarroscurist chiaroscurrist

4. 1999 logorhea loggorrhea logorrhea

5. 2000 demarch demarche demurch

6. 2001 succedaneum sucedaneum suckendaneum

7. 2002 prospicience prospisiense propiceince

8. 2003 pockocurante pococurante pococurent

9. 2004 autochthonous autokthonous autockthonous

10. 2005 apoggiatura appoggiatura appoggiatura

Today's Quote: Three things you can be sure of in life are death, taxes, and misspelling. --David Grambs

1. vivisepulture 2. euonym 3. chiaroscurist 4. logorrhea 5. demarche 6. succedaneum 7. prospicience 8. pococurante 9 autochthonous 10. appoggiatura

Saturday, April 29, 2006

April 29: Thesaurus Day

On this day in 1852, the first edition of Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus was published. Roget’s work was a pioneer achievement in lexicography. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.

In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.

No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact there are so many more in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English

Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse.

Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).

Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.

No Thesaurus Day can be complete without reading Peter Roget’s original Preface to his monumental work:

It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system or verbal classification similar to that on which the present Work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published. I had often during that long interval found this little collection, scanty and imperfect as it was, of much use to me in literary composition, and often contemplated its extension and improvement; but a sense of the magnitude of the task, amidst a multitude of other avocation, deterred me from the attempt. Since my retirement from the duties of Secretary of the Royal Society, however, finding myself possessed of more leisure, and believing that a repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others, I resolved to embark in an undertaking which, for the last three or four years, had given me incessant occupation, and has, indeed, imposed upon me an amount of labour very much greater than I had anticipated. Notwithstanding all the pains I have bestowed on its execution, I am fully aware of its numerous deficiencies and imperfections, and of its falling far short of the degree of excellence that might be attained. But, in a Work of this nature, where perfection is placed at so great a distance, I have thought it best to limit my ambition to that moderate share of merit which it may claim in its present form; trusting to the indulgence of those for whose benefit it is intended, and to the candor of critics who, while they find it easy to detect faults, can at the same time duly appreciate difficulties.

P.M. Roget
April 29, 1852

Today’s Challenge: Synonym or Antonym?

Identify the word pairs below as synonyms or antonyms:

1. precarious and secure
2. cursory and thorough
3. destitute and poor
4. turbulence and commotion
5. palpable and intangible
6. erratic and regular
7. neophyte and novice
8. repudiate and accept
9. zenith and summit
10. pillage and plunder
11. hamlet and village
12. admonish and caution
13. fiasco and failure
14. antithesis and dissimilarity
15. euphonious and strident

Today’s Quote: Words too are know by the company they keep. --Joseph Shipley

1. Ant 2. Ant 3. Syn 4. Syn 5. Ant 6. Ant 7. Syn 8. Ant 9. Syn 10. Syn 11. Syn 12. Syn 13. Syn 14. Syn 15. Ant

1 - Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.

Friday, April 28, 2006

April 28: Mockingbird Day

Today is the birthday of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926 and the events in the novel parallel her life growing up in the South during the Depression. One example is the character Dill who was drawn from Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. In 1959, Lee assisted Capote in his now classic non-fiction novel In Cold Blood (1966). To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In 1962, the novel was made into an Oscar winning film, but strangely, Harper Lee never wrote another book.

The success of To Kill a Mockingbird continues today. It’s taught in nearly 80 percent of America's middle schools and high schools. According to the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature, To Kill a Mockingbird is on every list of the book-length works most frequently taught in high school English.

Here are the lists:

Public Schools:
Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth; Huckleberry Finn; Julius Caesar; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Scarlet Letter; Of Mice and Men; Hamlet; The Great Gatsby; Lord of the Flies.

Catholic Schools:
Huckleberry Finn; The Scarlet Letter; Macbeth; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Great Gatsby; Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Of Mice and Men; Julius Caesar; Lord of the Flies.

Independent Schools:
Macbeth; Romeo and Juliet; Huckleberry Finn; The Scarlet Letter; Hamlet; The Great Gatsby; To Kill a Mockingbird; Julius Caesar; The Odyssey; Lord of the Flies

Particularly interesting is that To Kill a Mockingbird is not only the most contemporary work listed, it is also the only work by a woman.

Today’s Challenge: To Quiz a Mockingbird

See if you can identify the speaker of the following quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird.

1. Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time…it's because he wants to stay inside.

2. There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.

3. I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it …

4. First of all . . . if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view

5. Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more ‘n the rest of ‘em—

6. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system –that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.

7. People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.

8. That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.

Quote of the Day: Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will set down quietly, may alight upon you.... --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Applebee, Arthur N. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills. Bloomington IN. 1990-05-00. Eric Identifier: ED318035.

1. Jem 2. Sheriff Tate 3. Dill 4. Atticus 5. Tom Robinson 6. Atticus 7. Miss Maudie 8. Scout

Thursday, April 27, 2006

April 27: Mouse Day

On this date in 1981, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) introduced its computer mouse. It’s hard to imagine a time when we operated a computer without a mouse, a time when we didn’t point and click, or a time when we needed a good mouser more than we needed an operational mouse. Today they are ubiquitous (from Latin for everywhere).

The invention of the mouse is credited to Douglas Engelbart, who created what he called an "X-Y position indicator for a display system" in 1964. His invention, a wooden shell with two metal wheels, was patented in 1970. In 1970, however, there were no personal computers; it would be ten more years before someone stepped up to take the mouse to the big time.

The decade of the personal computer had arrived in 1980, and Steven Jobs , co-founder of Apple Computer, challenged Zerox’s (PARC) to create a mouse that was durable, useful, and inexpensive. They succeeded. Where Engelbart had used metal wheels, they used a plastic ball. Their mouse was ready for demonstration in 1981, and in January 1983 the Apple Lisa was introduced, the first commercial personal computer with a mouse. At a price of almost $10,000, the Lisa was not a commercial success, but Apple rebounded one year later with the Macintosh 128K. Like the Lisa, the Macintosh had a single-button mouse. The Macintosh revolutionized personal computing with its Graphic User Interface (GUI), the predominate method we use today of interacting with a computer using windows and icons. Imagine trying to do this without a mouse!

With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s, the mouse became what it is today: ubiquitous (1).

Today’s Challenge: Building a Better Mouse Trap

The age of the personal computer (PC) has been furtile ground for a number of new words, according to Twentieth Century Words by John Ayto. See if you can guess, based on years, which of the two words in each pair below appeared first in print (2).

1. hardware or software?

2. Internet or information superhighway?

3. home page or HTML?

4. drag or mouse?

5. download or spell checker?

6. Windows or word processor?

7. mouse potato or coach potato?

Quote of the Day: Be a fountain, not a drain --Rex Hudler

1. hardware (1945); software (1960) 2. information superhighway (1985); Internet (1986) 3. HTML (1992); home page (1993) 4. mouse (1965); drag (1993) 5. download (1980); spell checker (1983) 6. word processor (1970);Windows (1983) 7. coach potato (1979); mouse potato (1994)

1 -Soojung, Alex and Kim Pang. Mighty Mouse. Standford Magazine March/April 2002.
2- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

April 26: The ABCs of Poetry Day

April is National Poetry Month and the 26th day of the month is a reminder that in the 26 letters of the alphabet we have all we need to write poetry. For more on National Poetry month visit

What follows are the ABCs of poetic terms, 26 tools you can use to craft your own poems:

Alliteration: In poetry, it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it; in other words, there is sense, but there is also sound. Alliteration is a sound device where you repeat the beginning consonant sounds of your words. If you do it too much, your poems will sound childish, which is okay if that’s what you want. The occasional use of alliteration, however, will help you emphasize a particular line or phrase for effect.

Ballad: A ballad is basically storytelling in verse. Think of a specific incident or anecdote, and tell your story in verse. For classic examples see Casey at the Bat or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Consonance: Consonance is a sound device in poetry. It is simply the repetition of consonant sounds within words. Consonance’s twin brother is assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.

Diction: Diction is simply choosing the appropriate words, something that every writer and every poet does. Since English provides so many alternatives, it is important to select the word with the right denotations (dictionary definition) and connotations (associations, feelings).

Epic and Epigram: The epic and the epigram are the long and the short of poetry. An epic is a long narrative poem, such as the Iliad or Paradise Lost. An epigram is a short witty saying of one to four lines.

Free verse: Free verse releases you from the constraints of rhyme and meter. In free verse you chose what sounds best to you; you chose where to begin and where to end a line.

Genre: There are all kinds of different genres of verse. These are simply different types or forms of poetry: acrostic, ballad, cinquain, dramatic monologue, elegy, found poem, ghazal, haiku, Italian sonnet, jingle, kenning, limerick, malediction, narrative, ode, pantoums, quatrain, requiem, sonnet, tanka, univocalic, and villanelle.

Haiku: A three-lined form of Japanese poetry made up of 17 total syllables: Line 1 – five, Line 2 – seven, and Line 3 - five.

Imagery: Imagery is painting a picture for your reader with words. Don’t limit yourself, however, to just visual description; include other sensory language, describing sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.

Juxtapostion: When you write poetry you are free to couple words that you don’t normally see together. Put logic aside and experiment by playing with combinations, such as adjective – noun combos: delicious weathervane, omnivorous umbrella, angry textbook. Also, play around with words that have opposite meanings (oxymorons), such as intelligent stooge or merciful punishment.

Kenning: A Kenning is a compact two-word metaphor used as a synonym for a common noun. Kenning are an important feature of Old English, where the sea is called a whale-road or a king is the ring-bestower. We use these in modern times too: an old car is a gas-guzzler or a lazy person is a coach potato. Look at an everyday object, such as a paperclip, and re-name it using a kenning. How about silent staple?

Limerick: A five line poem that has a rhyme scheme of AABBA.

Metaphor: A comparison between two unrelated nouns. Metaphor is the most common type of figurative language in poetry and prose. Example: Power is a hellish fire that scorches those who use it for their evil.

Nounce word: Another benefit of poetry is that you don’t have to stick with words in the dictionary. You can create your own words, by combining or blending existing words. The only rule is that your reader should be able to make some sense out of what you’re saying. For the classic example of this type of poetry, read Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia is the use of words that imitate the sounds of nature and other things in the real word, such as the buzz of a bee or the tap, tap of your computer keyboard.

Personification: Personification is the use of human terms to describe non-human things, such as: My stubborn computer would not wake up this morning. Play around with personification by making a list of adjectives and verbs that are usually used to describe people, such as angry, joyful, loquacious, pondered, sprinted, and lifted. Then match these human words with something that is not human, such as the morning sun, the afternoon traffic, or an evening rain shower.

Quatrain: A quatrain is a stanza made up of four lines. A stanza by the way is a collection or grouping of lines, kind of like a paragraph in prose. Quatrains are the most common stanza form in English poetry.

Rhyme: Rhyme is probably the most traditional way to write poetry. You can rhyme every line if you want to, you can use rhyming couplets for emphasis at specific places in your poem, or you can avoid rhyme all together.

Simile: Similes are just LIKE metaphors, except they use the words like or as. Power is like a hellish fire that scorches those who use it for their evil.

Tone: Tone is the writer’s attitude about his or her subject. The words you select and the connotations of those words should match your attitude about your subject whether you’re writing about a place you love or a person you dislike.

Understatement: Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole. It’s the intentional description of something to make it appear less than it really is.

Viewpoint: In poetry you can write from any point of view you want, just try to be consistent. You can write from the first person point of view or from the all-seeing omniscient third person point of view. You can even write from the point of view of someone else or someTHING else. What would your coffee cup say if it could talk?

Word Order: In prose you need to stick to logical word order, but in poetry all bets are off. Experiment with different ways of chaining words together.

X –out: Read your poetry aloud, and cross out anything that you don’t like. Just like any type of writing, your poetry will be improved by X-ing out any unnecessary words.

hYperbole: Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect. When you write a poem, you can exaggerate as much as you want. Don’t let reality keep you down. Go over the top: sing the praises of your number two pencil, or imagine that you are the King of the World.

Zeugma: Okay, so it’s hard to find a poetic term that starts with Z. Zeugma is a little known type of figurative language where one word applies to two other words in different senses of the word, as in the following line from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien:
"He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men."

Today’s Challenge: Write a poem of your own. Don't worry about using all 26 techniques explained above, just try a few. But do play around with the 26 letters of the alphabet and have fun.

Quote of the Day: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. --Jean Cocteau

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

April 25: DNA Day

On this date in 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the British magazine Nature that changed the world of biology and genetics. In an article that was a model of brevity (only two pages), they presented their double helix model of the DNA, a model that for the first time explained how the genetic code is passed from one generation to the next.

The work of Watson and Crick sparked a revolution in the scientific world, leading to amazing and controversial discoveries and experiments in genetic engineering.

Fifty years to the day of the publication of Watson and Crick’s article, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) announced the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, an international effort to identify, map, and sequence the 3 billion DNA letters in the human genetic instruction book.

The root of the word genetics is from the Greek gen which means many different things relating to life: production, formation, generation, origin, cause, birth, kind, and race. Examples of words with this root are cryogenics, eugenic, genealogy, generate, genesis, genocide, genre, heterogeneous, homogeneous, indigenous, progeny, and telegenic (1).

The word gene was coined in 1909, and DNA, the three-letter initialization for deoxyribonucleic acid, first appeared in the dictionary in 1944.

Since the discovery of Watson and Crick in 1953, several other gene related terms have been added to the language, here is a small sample (2, 3).

genetic code (1961)

genetic engineering (1969)

genetic fingerprint (1969)

genetic screening (1980s)

obesity gene (1990s)

genetically modified (1995)

On April 7 (Television Broadcast Day), we looked at two-letter initializations like TV. DNA is an example of a three-letter initialization. Initializations are different from acronyms where the letters make a word (as in NASA); in initializations each letter is pronounced as an individual letter as in C – I - A.

Today's Challenge: Initial Shock Part Three

How many three-letter initializations can you name? List them alphabetically and use a good dictionary if you need help. See example answers after the Quote of the Day.

Quote of the Day: Life can only be understood backwards. It must be lived forwards. --Soren Kierkegaard

1 – Crutchfield, Roger S. English Vocabulary Quick Reference. Virginia: LexaDyne Publishing, Inc., 1999.

2 - Flexner, Stuart Berg and Anne H. Soukhanov. Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

3 – Ayto, John. 20th Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


Monday, April 24, 2006

April 24: Library of Congress Day

On this date in 1800, President John Adams approved an appropriation of $5,000 to purchase books, establishing the Library of Congress. The books were ordered from London and a total of 740 volumes were housed in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Invading British troops destroyed the library when they set fire to the Capitol Building in 1814. In 1815, Congress accepted an offer by retired President Thomas Jefferson to replace the library with his own eclectic collection of 6,487 books.

The library moved to its current location, the Thomas Jefferson Building across the street from the U.S. Capitol, in 1897. Two additional buildings were added in 1939 and 1980: The John Adams Building and the James Madison Memorial Building.

Today the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and according the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, the library contains the following materials:

-530 miles of bookshelves

-More than 290 million books and other printed materials

-2.7 million recordings

-12 million photographs

-4.8 million maps

-58 million manuscripts (1)

Today’s Challenge: Reading By the Numbers

Attempt to answer the following questions on reading statistics from Vital Statistics: An Amazing Compendium of Factoids, Minutiae, and Random Bits of Wisdom by Paul Grobman (2).

1. On average how many books does an individual American read each year?

2. On average how many books and periodicals do blind Americans read annually?

3. In what year did reading to oneself first come into vogue?

4. What are the odds that an adult in 1950 was illiterate?

5. What are the odds today that an adult is illiterate?

6. What is the most literate country on earth?

7. What is the average reading speed of the average person?

8. What is the reading speed of the world’s fastest reader?

9. What is the most popular magazine in America?

10. What is the world’s most widely read magazine?

Quote of the Day: Outside of a dog, books are man's best friend; inside of a dog it's too dark to read anyways. --Groucho Marx

1 - Library of Congress

2 - Grobman, Paul. Vital Statistics: An Amazing Compendium of Factoids, Minutiae, and Random Bits of Wisdom. New York: Plume Books, 2005.

1. 16 2. 20 3. 383 A.D. 4. 1 in 2 5. 1 in 5 6. Iceland 99.9 7. 250 words per minute 8. 2,284 9. AARP Magazine 10. Reader's Digest

Sunday, April 23, 2006

April 23: Shakespeare's Birthday

William Shakespeare was born on this date in 1564. He also died on this date in 1616.

Besides the words we have from his plays, we know little about Shakespeare's life. Here is a brief timeline of key events:

1564 Born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, 100 miles north of London
1582 Married to Anne Hathaway on November 28th
1583 Daughter Susanna is born
1585 Twins Judith and Hamnet are born
approx. 1591 Travels to London, works as an actor
1596 Eleven year-old Hamnet dies
1513 Globe Theatre burns and Shakespeare retires to Straford.
1616 Dies in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Shakespeare is clearly the most sucessful playwright who ever lived, but his influence reaches well beyond just his plays. His writing literally transformed the English language. If you want to see what the birth of the universe looked like, read Genesis Chapter 1; if you want to see what the birth of words looks like, read the plays of Shakespeare.

Here is list of words first recorded in Shakespeare, according to David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.


In addition to individual words, there are countless idiomatic expression that come from Shakespeare:

There's the rub from 'Hamlet'
It's Greek to me from 'Julius Caesar'
At one fell swoop from 'Macbeth'
Every inch a king from 'King Lear'
Play fast and loose from 'Love's Labor Lost'
What's in a name? from 'Romeo and Juliet'
Paint the lily from 'King John'
Too much of a good thing from 'As You Like It'
Give the devil his due from 'I Henry IV'

With a vocabulary of over 20,000 words, based on a count from the words of his plays, Shakespeare's vocabulary was prodigious. Even more amazing is the fact that over 1,700 of those words were original.

Today's Challenge: Two Bards with One Stone

Shakespeare's lexical creativity went beyond individual words and multi-word phrases. He also loved to couple words in distinctively new ways to create compound words and expressions, such as hot blooded, sea change, and pitched battle.

See if you can match each word on the left with its correct Shakesperean match on the right. See answers after the Quote of the Day.

laughing days
love mugger
elbow white
leap path
salad white
hugger affair
cold days
short path
snow days
primrose stock

Quote of the Day: Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think. --George Byron

laughing stock, love affair, elbow room, leap frog, salad days, hugger mugger, cold comfort, short shrift, snow white, primrose path

Saturday, April 22, 2006

April 22: Earth Day

April 22nd has been recognized as Earth Day ever since 1970, the same year that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established. On a day where many people are focused on preserving green space and maintaining clean drinking water, we will look at the relationship between the Big Blue Marble and our language. Let's begin by looking at some 'roots.'

The Latin root for earth is terra, as in 'terra firma' = firm ground. It's the root found in words like subterranean, terrestrial, extraterrestrial, and terrarium.

The Greek root for earth is geo, as in geography, geology, and geopolitics.

On Earth Day, each of us becomes an Antaeus. Do you remember him from Greek mythology? He was the son of Gaia (mother earth) and Poseidon (god of the sea). Antaeus was an undefeated wrestler until he met up with Hercules, who was able to figure out his weakness. Even Hercules had trouble defeating the great wrestler until he lifted Antaeus' legs from the earth. When he did this, Antaeus became powerless. As a result, Antaeus is a powerful metaphor for those who realize that their strength and very survival depends on Mother Earth.

Our daily conversations are well 'grounded' in earth metaphors. A number of idioms (expressions of two or more words that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words) use the earth as a metaphor. Below are a few examples using the words "earth" and "ground" from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1).

down to earth
four corners of the earth
move heaven and earth
not have an earthly chance
salt of the earth

both feet on the ground
break ground
common ground
ear to the ground
from the ground up
gain ground
hit the ground running
happy hunting ground
run into the ground
stand one's ground
worship the ground someone walks on

Today's Challenge: Clear as Mud

Celebrate Earth Day by mining the language for expressions (idioms) containing the words listed below. Try to come up with as many as you can for each word:


Quote of the Day:
Imperious Caesar. dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expell the winter's flaw!
William Shakespeare in Hamlet Act V, scene 1

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

Friday, April 21, 2006

April 21: Abecedarian Day

Today is the birthday of Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the first Kindergarten. Born in German in 1782, Froebel started a preschool in 1837 and later came up with term Kinder-Garten ('children's garden') to describe the experience of cultivating young minds through creativity and play. The first kindergarten was established in 1856, and the German has been fully adopted into English with little change from Froebel's original coinage (1).

Some say that we learn everything we need to know in kindergarten, but there is certainly one lesson that is vital to every kindergartner. In fact, instead of kindergartner we might call these children abecedarians. An abecedarian is a 'student of the alphabet.' The word comes from the letters A B C D.

After we have mastered the ABCs and learned to read, we take the alphabet for granted. What we don't realize, however, is how fundamental it is to our literacy. We also sometimes forget that the alphabet, reading, and writing are all human inventions.

We don't know who the inventor was, but we do know that around 2000 BC the idea of using letters instead of pictures to represent sounds and words began to take root. As a result, communication in writing became much more efficient and easier to learn. Instead of learning hundres of symbols, the student now need only learn less than thirty letters. Today kindergartners, or abecedarians, who learn the 26 letters of the alphabet have a foundation to begin mastering the language for reading and writing. The word alphabet is from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Beta. The Greeks didn't invent the alphabet, but they did perfect it; one of their most important adaptations was the addition of vowels.

Today's Challenge: Advanced Abecedarian

You've probably mastered the alphabet by now, but there are other ways of returning to your abecedarian roots. Below is a list of 26 vocabulary words spanning all 26 letters of the alphabet. How many do you know? How many familiar roots do you recognize? Pick up a good dictionary and look up any unfamiliar words. Also, try making your own list of 26 unfamiliar words.


Quote of the Day: Little minds are interested in the extraordinary; great minds in the commonplace. --Elbert Hubbard

1 - Metcalf, Allan. The World in So Many Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 20: Urban Legends Day

This day is purported by some to be the day that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin died, but don't believe it. Although all of three of these celebrities shared a background of drug use and rock ‘n roll, they each died on a separate day other than 4/20.

The date and number 420 has somehow evolved to connote drug use, and there are a number of stories related to why, such as the supposed common death date of the trio of dead rock starts alluded to earlier. Other stories claim that the Los Angeles police code for marijuana use in progress is 420, or that the number of chemical compounds in marijuana is 420. Both of these claims are untrue. No one knows for certain the origin of these stories, and this brings us to the topic of urban legends.

An urban legend is defined as a story that is "too good to be true" by Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah and the world’s expert in collecting and analyzing urban legends. Brunvand says these stories are told "as if they are really true, attributed to a friend of a friend of a friend." Each time the story is told, the basic elements are the same, but the setting and other minor details change.

For example, a friend might tell you about a story he heard from a friend of a friend that goes like this:

There's this man, see, and he dresses up like a little old lady and accosts unsuspecting women in shopping malls. Usually he waits in the car. When the owner of the car shows up, bags in tow, the stranger pleads fatigue and asks her for a ride home. Then the driver notices her passenger's hairy legs, the wig and, oh yeah, the knife!

This is an example of a story that was reported in the Seattle Times on May 4, 1983. It was reported as a rumor that was running up and down the shores of Puget Sound, and no doubt a story that has appeared in various parts of the country if not the world.

Even in a modern, urbanized society, people still love to tell stories. Maybe this is because we were telling stories long before the invention of writing. Urban legends allow even strangers to connect with each other. Another bonus is that they can be easily reconstructed from the basic elements of the tale and don’t need to be told exactly the same way every time. (1)

Urban legends come under the category of folklore: songs, legends, beliefs, crafts, and customs that are passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. An adjective that is frequently used to describe urban legends is apocryphal. The modern definition according to the American Heritage College Dictionary is ‘of questionable authorship or authenticity.’ The roots of the word are from Greek, meaning secret or hidden. The word was used in Latin to describe the books excluded from the cannon of the Old and New Testaments, and these books are still identified today as the Apocrypha.

Today’s Challenge: Truth or Tabloid?

Test your ability to tell fact from fiction by reading the headlines below. Which are tabloid headlines and which are actual true stories? The headlines are taken from Peter Fenton's book Truth or Tabloid? (2).

1. Roger Ebert Wills Smithsonian His Thumbs

2. Blind Man Acts As Lookout In Failed Robber Attempt

3. Tiger’s Roar Paralyzes People

4. Paleontologists Name New Dinosaur For Rock Star

5. High-Tech Wallet Alerts Spouse When It’s Opened.

6. Shy Kids More Likely To Have Loudmouth Parents

7. Author Advocates Training Children Like Cats!

8. Berserk Brides-To-Be Burglarize Bridal Boutique

9. Laughter Therapist Concludes "Clowns Are Downers"

10. Collector Wears Same T-Shirt For Ten Years

Quote of the Day: The good thing about being young is that you are not experienced enough to know you cannot possibly do the things you are doing. --Gene Brown

Answers: 1. Tabloid 2. True 3. True 4. True 5. Tabloid 6. Tabloid 7. Tabloid 8. True 9. Tabloid 10. Tabloid

1. -
2. - Fenton,Peter. Truth or Tabloid? New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

April 19: Revolution Day

Today is the anniversary of the "shot heard round the world." In 1775 at Lexington and Concord, 700 British troops confronted 70 Minutemen under the command of Captain John Parker. The Minutemen disregarded the British order to disperse, firing 'The Shot Heard Round the Word.' The American Revolution had begun (1).

In her essay, "To the Victor Belongs the Language," Rita Mae Brown traces the history of the word revolution. The word originally had no political connotations; instead, it was used to describe the revolving of planets in space. According to Brown, the political word of choice in the 14th century was "rebellion," from Latin meaning "a renewal of war."

In the 18th century, the age of the American and French Revolution, the new meaning of revolution began to evolve to include the "overthrow of tyrants." Thus revolution came to embody ideas and action related to political and social change. Brown ends her essay by alluding to the use of the Beatles’ 1969 hit "Revolution" to sell Nike running shoes in the 1980s. This illustrates that overuse of any word can corrupt its original meaning (2).

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous poem, "Concord Hymn," in 1837 to commemorate the first battle of the American Revolution. The poem was specifically written for the dedication of a monument to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Concord Hymn

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We place with joy a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

O Thou who made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free, --
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

Today’s Challenge: You Say You Want a Revolution
Match the words from the American Revolution from the person who said them.

1. They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

2. I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.

3. I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.

4. There, I guess King George will be able to read that.

5. All men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

6. The die is now cast; the colonies must either submit or triumph.... we must not retreat.

7. These are the times that try men's' souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; bur that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

8. Nothing short of independence, it appears to me, can possibly do. A peace on other terms would..... be a peace of war.

A. King George III
B. Nathan Hale
C. Ben Franklin
D. John Hancock
E. Thomas Jefferson
F. George Washington
G. Patrick Henry
H. Thomas Paine

Quote of the Day: Would that life were like the shadow cast by a wall or a tree, but it is like the shadow of a bird in flight. --Talmud

1. C, 2. G, 3. B, 4. D, 5. E, 6. A, 7. H, 8. F

1 -
2 - Brown, Rita Mae. "To the Victor Belongs the Language." in The Short Prose Reader (4th Edition). Gilbert H. Muller and Harvey S. Wiener editors. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

April 18: CliffsNotes Day

Today is the birthday of Cliff Hillegass, the founder of CliffsNotes. Working for a college bookstore in the 1930s, Hillegass developed contacts with a Toronto books seller named Jack Cole, who published guides in Canada called "Cole’s Notes." Years later Cole suggested to Hillegrass that an American version of Cole’s Notes might be a good idea for U.S. students.

In August 1958, Hillegass took out a $4,000 loan and began CliffsNotes with his first title: Hamlet. He continued by publishing 15 more guides to Shakespeare’s plays. At the beginning, the guides were simply Cole’s Notes repackaged with an new cover: Cliff’s characteristic, and now famous, yellow and black cover.

In fact, Cliffsnotes have become so popular and recognizible that they have become a part of the English language. For example, you might hear someone say, "Just give me the Cliffsnotes version," meaning: "Give me a short summary instead of all the details."

Hillegass never intended his guides to just summarize the classics or replace the reading of the classics. Nevertheless his work has spawned numerous imitators, to the point that test prep and reading guides have become a multi-million dollar industry. estimates that the amount spent on test prep material for the SAT alone amounts to $100 million dollars annually.

Hillegass sold his business to Hungry Minds, Inc. in 1999 for $14 million dollars. However, still carries the following message from its founder:

Cliff's Message to Students

A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts. By using CliffsNotes responsibly, reviewing past criticism of a literary work, and examining fresh points of view, you can establish a unique connection with a work of literature and can take a more active part in a key goal of education: redefining and applying classic wisdom to current and future problems.
—Cliff Hillegass

Today’s Challenge: First Impressions

The editors of CliffsNotes put together a list of the ‘Ten Titles that Every Adult Should Read.’ See if you can match each of the opening lines below with the appropriate title from the list.

1. This is the story of Achilles’ rage.

2. Robert Cohn was once the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.

3. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

4. 124 was spiteful.

5. When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor ....

6. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

7. "Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes."

8. "Who’s there?"

9. Call me Ishmael.

10. Who is John Galt?

A. A Tale of Two Cities
B. The Sun Also Rises
C. War and Peace
D. Walden
E. The Sound and the Fury
F. Moby Dick
G. Beloved
H. The Iliad
I. Atlas Shrugged
J. Hamlet

Quote of the Day: Obstacles are a natural part of life, just as boulders are a natural part of the course of the river. The river does not complain or get depressed because there are boulders in its path. --I Ching

Answers: 1. H, 2. B, 3. E, 4. G, 5. D, 6. A, 7. C, 8. J, 9. F, 10. I

Monday, April 17, 2006

April 17: Notorious Places Day

On this date in 1961, Cuban exiles, supported by the U.S. government attempted an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The goal of the invasion was the overthrow of the Communist regime of Fidel Castro, who had successfully led a revolution in Cuba in 1959. The invasion was a colossal failure, causing much embarrassment to President John F. Kennedy.

The Bay of Pigs lives on today, not so much as a geographic place, but as a symbol of failure. Like the Bay of Pigs, there are other geographic locations that have entered the language based on the notorious events that occurred there. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions catalogs hundreds of allusions drawn from history, literature, religion, and mythology(1). Each allusion, whether a person, place, or thing, is categorized based on the theme it has come to embody, such as fear, death, or mystery. Among these many allusions are several notorious places -- places that have leapt off the map and entered our language. Today when these places are conjured, we are transported not to a place, but to an idea, such as the military failure at The Bay of Pigs.

The following are other notorious places that have entered the language, emblematic of the negative:

Chappaquiddick: Failure
Siberia and the Gulag Archipelago: Unpleasant or Wicked Places
Little Bighorn: Defeat
Waterloo: Defeat
Alamo: Defeat
Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka: Death and Persecution
Alcatraz: Prisons and Punishment

The sites below are not listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Allusions; however, chances are you will see them used as symbols in the pages of recent newspapers.

Three-mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986): Failure and Accidents
My Lai (1968) Massacre and Death
Kent State (1970) Massacre and Death
Watergate (1972) Scandal and Abuse of Political Power
Abu Ghraib (2003) Abuse and Torture

Today's Challenge: A Place for Everything
Match the ideas below with the specific place that is associated with them. See answers after the Quote of the Day.

1. Beautiful music
2. Destruction
3. Lawlessness or unregulated conflict
4. Change and transformation
5. Victory

A. Dodge City
B. The Road to Damascus
C. Arcadia
D. Hiroshima
E. Agincourt

Quote of the Day: Failure never hurt anybody. It is fear of failure that kills you .... You got to go down the alley and take those chances.... --Jack Lemmon

Answers: 1. C, 2. D, 3. A, 4. B 5. E

1-Delahunty, Andrew, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock (Editors). Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

April 16: Cold War Day

On this date in 1947, Bernard Baruch, advisor to presidents on economic and foreign policy, coined the the term "Cold War." The occasion was the unvailing of Baruch's portrait at the South Carolina House of Representatives. Invited to speak in his home state, Baruch selected the topic of the struggle between the two post-World War II superpowers -- the United States and the Soviet Union:

Let us not be deceived, we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system.; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves.

Baruch's term stuck as an apt description of the hostilities between the West and the East that spawned a nuclear arms race but fell short of armed conflict. Below are other words and terms that became a part of the Cold War lexicon, according the the Twentieth Century Words (1):

Atom Bomb (1945)
fall out (1950)
N.A.T.O. (1950)
deterrent (1954)
conventional weapons (1955)
ICBM (1955)
unilateralism (1955)
Warsaw Pact (1955)
mushroom cloud (1958)
nuke (1959)

Today's Challenge: Cold Spell

Below are other two-word idioms that begin with "cold." Use the definitions, from The American Heritage College Dictionary (Third Edition), to guess the term.

1. Deliberate coldness or disregard, a slight or snub.
2. Actual currency (bills and coins.
3. A hard-hearted, unfeeling individual, one who shows no emotion.
4. To knock (another) unconscious.
5. Fearfulness or timidity preventing the completion of a course of action.
6. Lacking feeling or emotion.
7. Immediate, complete withdrawal from something on which one has become dependent, such as an addictive drug.

1. Cold shoulder
2. Cold cash
3. Cold fish
4. Cold cock
5. Cold feet
6. Cold blooded

Quote of the Day: They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet and fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason. --Ernest Hemingway

1 - Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

April 15: Bulwer-Lytton Day

Today is the deadline for the most delightful writing contest there is: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants face the challenge of writing the worst possible opening sentence to a novel. The contest began in January 1983, created by Scott Rice, of the San Jose State University English Department.

The contest is named after the prolific Victorian novelist Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). He was a contemporary of Dickens, and his novels were nearly as popular as Dickens'. Bulwer-Lytton's flair for the melodramatic has inspired more than twenty years of good bad writing, "writing so deliberately rotten that it both entertains and instructs," according to Scott Rice.

Here's the famous opening of Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford (1830):

It was a dark and story night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was check by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scence lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

An overall winner is selected each year, but there are also category winners for various genres, including western, detective, romance, and science fiction. Below is the overall winner for the 202 contest.

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.

Rephah Berg, Oakland CA

For more past contest winners, visit:

Today's Challenge: A Night, Dark and Stormy
Get a headstart on next year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Read the rules below; then, write your own one-sentence masterpiece.

The rules to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are childishly simple:

Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Sentences may be of any length (though you go beyond 50 or 60 words at your peril), and entries must be "original" (as it were) and previously unpublished.

Surface mail entries should be submitted on index cards, the sentence on one side and the entrant's name, address, and phone number on the other.

Email entries should be in the body of the message, NOT in an attachment. If you are submitting multiple entries, please include them in one message.

Entries will be judged by categories, from "general" to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners.

The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories). The actual deadline may be as late as June 30.

The contest accepts submissions every day of the livelong year.

Wild Card Rule: Resist the temptation to work with puns like "It was a stark and dormy night." Finally, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive . . . a pittance.

Send your entries to:Bulwer-Lytton Fiction ContestDepartment of EnglishSan Jose State UniversitySan Jose, CA 95192-0090,

Quote of the Day: The pen is mightier than the sword. --Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton

Friday, April 14, 2006

April 14: Dictionary Day

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

Webster served in the student militia at Yale during the Revolutionary War. He never saw combat, but while he was did not fight in the literal battle for independence from Britain, he was a key player in the battle to make American English independent from British English.

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

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

Change of -our to –or in color, honor, labor.

Change of –re to er in center, meter, theater

Change of –cd to se in defense and offense

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

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

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

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

Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.™
Other publishers may use the name Webster, but only Merriam-Webster products are backed by 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. The Merriam-Webster name is your assurance that a reference work carries the quality and authority of a company that has been publishing since 1831.

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

cheque to check
draught to draft
manoeuvre to maneuver
moustache to mustache
plough to plow
skilful to skillful
mediaeval to medieval
mould to mold (2)

Today's Challenge: Dictionary Day Decalogue
Dictionaries tell us much more than just spelling and definitions. To celebrate Dictionary Day, grab a good dictionary and make a list of at least "Ten Things You Can Find in a Dictionary Besides Spelling and Definitions."

Quote of the Day: All words are pegs to hand ideas on . . . --Henry W. Beecher

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2006

April 13: Phobia Day

On this day in 1970, Apollo 13, NASA’s third lunar mission, experienced an oxygen tank malfunction that caused the mission to be aborted. The famous lines from the 1987 movie Apollo 13 were "Houston we have a problem." The actual quote was "Houston, we've had a problem here." The Apollo 13 mission also gave us the oxymoron (see yesterday's post) "successful failure," meaning that although the ultimate mission of reaching the moon was a failure, the secondary mission of returning the astronauts to earth safely was a success.

Although no one died on the mission, Apollo 13 provided no solace for those with triskaidekaphobia: the fear of the number 13. After all, not only was the mission given the number 13, but other number 13s pop up when you look at the statistics related to the mission:

-The problem occurred on the 13th of April.

-The mission was launched on 4/11/70. 4 + 11 + 70 = 85 and 8+5= 13!

-The mission was launched at 13:13 Central Standard Time (1).

Even if you have no fear of the number 13, or any other numbers, there are plenty of other phobias to concern yourself with. The suffix -phobia is Greek for fear. And even if you have no chronic fears, exploring the world of phobias provides good practice for checking your knowledge of Greek and Latin roots. For example, claustrophobia is the fear of being in narrow or enclosed spaces. Claustrum is Latin for enclosed place.

Today’s Challenge: The Sum of All Fears
The following list of phobias is from O.V. Michaelsen’s book Words at Play (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc, 1997). See if you can match up each of the phobias with its correct definition. See answers after the Quote of the Day.

1. Agoraphobia
2. Euphophobia
3. Lunaediesophobia
4. Homilophobia
5. Heliophobia
6. Dextrophobia
7. Carnophobia
8. Sophophobia
9. Hygrophobia
10. Sinistrophobia

A. Fear of dampness or liquids.
B. fear of good news.
C. Fear of sunlight
D. Fear of things to the right
E. Fear of sermons
F. Fear of open or public places
G. Fear of meat
H. Fear of learning
I. Fear of Mondays
J. Fear of things to the left.

1. F, 2. B, 3. I, 4. E, 5. C, 6. D, 7. G, 8. H, 9. A, 10. J

Quote of the Day: Fear is an insidious virus. Given a breeding place in our minds ... it will eat away our spirit and block the forward path of our endeavors. --James F. Bell

1 – Kennedy Space Center

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

April 12: Oxymoron Day

At 4:30 am on this day in 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Forty-three confederate guns along the coast of Charleston, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. On the following morning, the Union commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after 33 straight hours of bombardment. No one on either side was killed, but by the end of the war four years later, 600,000 of the 3,000,000 who fought were dead (1).

The term civil war is sometimes classified as an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are combined, as in deafening silence. The word is from Greek and is itself an oxymoron that translates as "sharp-dull."

Below are other examples of oxymora (Yes, as in some other words from Greek, the plural of oxymoron is irregular: oxymora):

jumbo shrimp
guest host
old news
dry ice
light heavyweight
original copy
festina lente (Latin for hurry slowly)

In the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet, a play about contrasts, love and hate, young and old, darkness and light, Romeo presents an oxymoron-packet speech when he reacts to the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues:

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep
, that is not what it is!
(Act I.i.176)

Some individual words we use today began as oxymora. For example, the word sophomore originated from the combination of two Greek words sophos, meaning "wise," and moros, meaning "foolish, dull."

Today’s Challenge: Apples and Oranges

Try creating your own oxymora by juxatposing words that have contrasting meanings.
The combinations that work best are:

noun-noun (news magazine)
adjective-noun (poetic prose)
adverb-verb (silently yelling)

Quote of the Day: Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught. --Sir George Savile

2- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (6th Edition). Macmillian General Reference, 1992: 338.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

April 11: 101 Day

In a typical non-leap year, April 11th is the 101st day of the year.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Room 101 was the most feared room in the Ministry of Love. It was room where Winston Smith was taken to be "rehabilitated" by O’Brien.

In the following passage from the novel, Winston learns what form of torture he will be facing:

'You asked me once,' said O'Brien, 'what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. . . .'

'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.'

'In your case,' said O'Brien, 'the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.'

The fate of everyone who enters Room 101 is to face his or her worst fear and to believe, in the end, in something that is not true. In Winston’s case, O’Brien makes him believe through torture that 2+2 =5, and that he (Winston) loves Big Brother.

Interestingly enough, at the beginning of the 1999 film The Matrix, Neo lives in Room 101. This is probably not coincidental since later in the film Neo learns that his life and the entire known world inside the Matrix is a lie.

The word of books gave us the dark side of the number 101 from the mind of George Orwell, but it also gives us a much more positive side in the form of book titles.

A quick search on will yield and amazing variety of titles with the number 101. There are two main reasons this number is so prominent.

First, it refers to basic intro material on any topic, as in basic introduction college courses, such as English 101 or Psychology 101.

Second, it refers to the number of options that will be provided on a topic, such as 101 Things to do Before You Die. In this second case, these books offer the reader a bonus; while other books offer 100 options, these books promise an added extra option.

A recent search on yielded 6,396 titles containing the number 101. Here are some examples from the first category - basic intro material:

Missed Fortune 101: A Starter Kit to Becoming a Millionaire

Leadership 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know

Triathlon 101: Essentials for Multisport Success

Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About the American Legal System

Anger Busting 101: The New ABCs for Angry Men & the Women Who Love Them

Hollywood 101: The Film Industry

Rick Steve’s Europe 101: History of Art for the Traveler

Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera

Life 101: Real World Skills for Graduating College Seniors

Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family’s History and Heritage

And here are 10 titles from the second category – 101 options:

101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged

101 Things to Do With a Slow Cooker

101 Great American Poems

101 Secrets a Cool Mom Knows

101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu

101 Ways to Bug Your Parents

101 Must-Know Blues Licks

101 Power Thoughts

101 French Idioms

101 Cost-Effective Ways to Increase the Value of Your Home

Today’s Challenge: 101 on 4/11

Option One: On the 101 day of the year, brainstorm your own 101 options list. Create your own question, such as "What are 101 different ways to say ‘thank you’?" or "What are 101 reasons to procrastinate?"

Option Two: If you were to write a basic intro book on a topic you know well, what would your topic be? Create a title and then list at least ten chapter titles, dividing your topic into ten or more different parts or categories.

Quote of the Day: They who await no gifts from chance have conquered fate. -- Matthew Arnold

Monday, April 10, 2006

April 10: Toponym Day

On this day in 1896 the first Olympic marathon was run in Athens, Greece. The origin of the word marathon comes from Greek legend. According to the story, a Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army. As he approached Athens, having run a distance of nearly 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. He did not die, however, without completing his mission; with his last gasp he uttered niki, the Greek word for victory (1). Incidentally, the word niki is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory: Nike – a name that would later become the trademark of a running shoe manufacturer in Oregon.

The word marathon evolved over time beyond long distance running. Beginning in the 1920s dance marathons became a fad. The term dance marathon then became blended to become dancethon. Later –thon became a popular suffix for describing a variety of activities that people do for long periods. According to Geoffrey Nunberg in The Way We Talk Now, the first telethon was held in 1949. Milton Berle spent 16 hours on air, and one of his guests was a young comedian who would raise the telethon to an art form, Jerry Lewis. Telethons were followed by pledgeathons, callathons, bikeathons, bowlathons, walkathons, and swimathons (2).

Marathon is an example of a toponym: a word that began as a specific place name (a proper noun) and evolved into a common noun. Like the word marathon, many words we use in English have attachments to specific places and events from the past.

Today’s Challenge: Out of Nowhere

Using a good dictionary, look up the following toponyms. See if you can find the specific geographic location that each word originated from.

venetian blind

Quote of the Day:
Courage is to feel the daily daggers of relentless steel and keep on living. --Douglas Malloch

1 - Boston Athletic Association (
2 – Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Way We Talk Now. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. p. 89.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

April 9: Pseudonym Day

On this day in 1859, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) received his steamboat pilot’s license. As a 23-year-old, Clemens chose the life of a pilot over the life of a writer. Fortunately he eventually turned his attention back to writing. The big river, however, as all his readers know, never left him. In fact, for his pseudonym (pen name) he selected a term from the jargon of the riverboat pilots. The boatman’s call "Mark Twain" means that the water is two fathoms deep, the minimum depth allowed for safe navigation of a steamboat.

Clemens first used his pseudonym two years after getting his pilot’s license when he was working as a journalist for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. The impact of the river on Twain can be seem most prominently in his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and his autobiographical book Life on the Mississippi (1883).

The word pseudonym is from Greek, meaning false name. The French equivalent is nom de plume, meaning pen name.

Samuel Clemens is certainly not the first writer to assume a pseudonym. Some writers have been creative with their pen names by rearranging the letters in their actual name. For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw rearranged the letters in his middle and last name to create the pen name Redbarn Wash. Dr. Seus, pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel, at one time wrote under the pen name Theo. Le Sieg. (Geisel backwards is Le Sieg) (1).

Take a look at the twelve names listed below. Do you recognize any of the names? Every other name listed, beginning with Lewis Carrol, is the pseudonym of a famous writer. Each name following a pseudonym is the writer's acutal name.

Lewis Carrol
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
George Eliot
Mary Ann Evans
O. Henry
William Sydney Porter
George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair
Hector Hugh Munro
Dr. Seuss
Theodor Giesel

Challenge: What's in a nym?
The eight words listed below are 'words about words.' See if you can match each word with its definition:


1. A term used to distinguish ideas or objects from innovations replacing or improving them, as in skim milk.

2. A word formed from the first letter from each word of a series of words, as in Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus: SCUBA.

3. A word with the opposite meaning of another word, as in love and hate.

4. A word with the same general meaning of another word, as in happiness and joy.

5. A word derived from a real or mythical person, as in the word boycott.

6. A word derived from a geographical place or region, as in the word hamburger.

7. A word that is pronounced the same as another but is different in meaning, as in the multiple meanings of the word set.

8. A word that is spelled the same as another but with a different meaning and pronunciation, as in the word entrance.

Quote of the Day: Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. --Ludwig Wittgenstein

1. retronym 2. acronym 3. antonym 4. synonym 5. eponym 6. toponyn 7. homonym 8. heteronym

1 – Michaelsen, O. V. Words at Play: Quips, Quirks, & Oddities. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: 1997.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

April 8: Baseball Metaphors Day

On this date in 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, eclipsing Babe Ruth's record that had stood for 47 years.

The figurative use of the term home run, meaning a great success, began to appear in English in the second half of the 20th century. Of all sports, baseball, America's pasttime, has been the most fertile ground for metaphors. In fact, you can do a virtual A-Z of baseball metaphors. Remember though, to qualify for the list the word or phrase must originate with baseball but be used to refer to situations outside of baseball.

For an excellent short story, entitled with and full of sports metaphors, see James Thurber's short story The Catbird Seat.

The following list is from Christine Ammer's book Southpaws & Sunday Punches (Plume, 1992).

ballpark figure
big league
box score
bush league
catbird seat
clean-up hitter
curve ball
foul ball
go for the fences
get to first base
go to bat for
hard ball
in the ballpark
inside baseball
left field
major league
no runs, no hits, no errors
off base
on deck
pitch hit
rain check
Tinker's chance
wait 'til next year
whole new ballgame

Today Challenge: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

The following are examples of metaphors that originated from sports other than baseball. See if you can identify the sport of origin for each metaphor. For a bonus challenge, see if you can use each in a sentence that makes no direct reference to the original sport. For example, I doubled my sales last year by sending each of my clients a birthday card; that idea was a home run! See the answers below the Quote of the Day.

1. across the board
2. below the belt
3. hot hand
4. hand-off
5. game, set, match
6. full court press
7. face-off
8. end run

Quote of the Day: Language is fossil poetry which is constantly being worked over for uses of speech. Our commonest words are worn-out metaphors. --James Bradstreet Greenough and George Lyman Kittredge

1. horse racing
2. boxing
3. basketball
4. football
5. tennis
6. basketball
7. hockey
8. football

Friday, April 07, 2006

April 7: Television Broadcast Day

Today is the anniversary of the first long-distance television broadcast. In 1927, Bell Telephone Labs and AT&T provided this demonstration by broadcasting a speech from Washington, D.C. to New York City by then secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover.

The word television first appeared in 1907, according to Twentieth Century Words by John Ayto (Oxford University Press, 1999). Ayto notes that televista was the first named proposed.
Television is a hybrid word, a word derived from two separate languages. Tele is from Greek, meaning "far" and video is Latin, meaning "to see."

Other examples of hybrid words are:

monolingual: - mono from Greek -- meaning "one" and lingua from Latin -- meaning "tongue."

hyperactive: - huper from Greek -- meaning "over" and activus from Latin.

sociology: socius from Latin -- meaning "comrade" and logos from Greek -- meaning "word," "reason," "discourse."

The word broadcast, meaning to transmit by radio or television, was first recorded in 1921. The verb originally meant to scatter seed by hand, so the word we use today for the dissemination of information over the air waves was once used for dissemination of seed on the farm.

Today we take television for granted, but it has been in American homes for less than one-hundred years. In that short time, however, it has had made its mark on the English language. Like any widespread new technology, new words were needed to describe its impact on society. Try to imagine a world without the boob tube, channel surfing, music videos, or reality television.

One example of a new metaphor or idiom brought to us by television is jump the shark. It emerged in the 1990s, used by critics and fans to describe the moment that a television series had passed its peak. What does this definition have to do with a shark? Well, the reference is to an episode of the TV series Happy Days broadcasted on September 20, 1977 in which the popular character Fonzie literally jumped over a shark on a pair of water skis.

Today the phrase jump the shark has broadened to include any celebrity or musical group that has passed its peak. For more on this see

Below is a list of more words and phrases that came to us via the advent of TV:

soap opera (1939)
telethon (1949)
docudrama (1961)
game show (1961)
sitcom (1964)
cable (1979)
coach potato (1979)
infomercial (1981)
docusoap (1998) [precursor to reality television]

TV is an example of an initialization. Different from acronyms where the letters make a word (as in NASA), in initializations each letter is pronouned as an individual letter as in T-V.

Today's Challenge: Initial Shock
How many two-letter initializations can you name? List them alphabetically, and use a good dictionary if you need help. See example answers after the Quote of the Day.

Quote of the Day: Procrastination is opportunity's assassin. --Victor Kiam


Thursday, April 06, 2006

April 6: Word War I Words

Today is the anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I. The Great War had begun in Europe in 1914, and it raged on until November 17, 1919, the date we honor each year as Veterans Day.

The war in Europe popularized a number of words and expressions, many of which we use today without realizing that they were first used in the muddy trenches of Belgium and France.

Here is a sample of the WWI words from Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English (Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov, Oxford University Press, 1997).

ACE: a pilot who had shot down at least five enemy planes.

DOGFIGHT: an air battle between two planes.

GOLDBRICK: this term first refered to a second lieutenant, whose rank insignia is a rectanglular gold bar. Because many of these officers were appointed from civilian life, without training or experience, the term became one of derision, refering to anyone who did not do his share.

DUD: a shell or bomb that fails to explode. The term became broadened to mean anything that did not meet expectations.

SLACKER: one who tries to avoid military service. Not until the 80s and 90s did this word evolve to mean a lazy, unambitious young adult.

DOGTAG: a disk worn on a chain around the serviceman's neck, for identification in case of injury or death.

Today's Challenge: Them's Fighin' Words!

World War I was not the only war to contribute significantly to the English lexicon. Match up the words below to the war from which they were popularized. For more words, see Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers by Christine Ammer (Paragon House 1989).

1. brainwash
2. turn coat
3. skedaddle
4. boondocks
5. MIA
6. Dear John letter

A. Revolutionary War
B. Civil War
C. Spanish-American War
D. World War II
E. Korean War
F. Vietnam War

Answers: 1. E 2. A 3. B 4. C 5. F 6. D

Quote of the Day: War is fear cloaked in courage. --William Westmoreland

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

April 5: Veto Day

Today is the anniversary of the first veto in American presidential history. On this day in 1792, President George Washington was presented a bill that would apportion representatives among the states, and he vetoed it. The word veto has its roots in Latin, literally translated I forbid. It dates back to the days of the Roman Senate when the Roman tribunes had the power to unilaterally refuse Senate legislation.

For more than 2000 years, English has borrowed liberally from Latin, the most important language in European history. Long before English was established as a language of note, let alone a global language, Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and even after the fall of Rome, Latin survived, evolving into what we know today as the Romance Languages: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Rumanian. Until the 20th century Latin was the prestige language of government, religion, and academia. No wonder when a new republic was established in America, it turned to Latin words for its legislative practices and Latin mottoes for its currency.

As noted by Wilfred Funk in Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories (Grosset & Dunlap, 1950), some Latin words were Anglicized as they were adopted into English, a Germanic tongue. Hundreds of other word, however, came into English with little to no changes in spelling, which is one of the reasons English spelling is so ideosycratic. Here are some examples of Latin words adopted directly into English: recipe, vim, memorandum, stimulus, vacuum, veto, via, item, exit, minimum, affidavit.

Today's Challenge: From Athens to Rome

All of the ten words below are English governmental terms that were derived from either Latin or Greek. Using a good dictionary, identify which five are from Latin and which five are from Greek.


Quote of the Day: Man must be arched and buttressed from within, else the temple will crumble to dust. --Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

April 4: Four Word Review Day

On this fourth day of the fourth month, it's appropriate to focus on the number four and to honor what is probably the best wordplay site on the web. It's called Four Word Film Reviews. The creators of challenge the public to write a review of a film in four words or less. Most of the reviews are not so much reviews as they are new titles, but the fun comes in the wonderful wordplay that results. Puns, alliteration, adaptation of other film titles are all a part of the creative writing game of making every word count.

For example, here are seven examples of reviews for the film Jaws.

Gulp fiction
Shaw shark retention
Jurassic shark
shooting barrel in fish
Gil against island
Diet: fish and ships
Amity's vile horror

Reading four word movie reviews is fun in itself, but there is also something to be learned here. Shakespeare said that 'Brevity is the soul of wit.' In other words, making every word count and wasting no words is the essense of good writing. As you read four word reviews and begin to write your own, you'll learn that wordplay can be hard work, but the rewards are satisfing for both you, the writer, and your readers. Also read newspaper headlines and notice how headline writers work with the same kind of wordplay to attract the reader's attention. A good title is vital, so when you write an essay, take some time to write a short, but sweet, title of four words or less.

Below are ten four word reviews. See if you can identify the titles before you look at the answers listed below:

1. World's survival chance: slim
2. Lion, witch, wide road
3. Twist ending sleighs me
4. Song of sam
5. Ford. Explorer.
6. If the shoe fits . . .
7. Humans make bad batteries
8. Small medium, large twist
9. Original space 'n Vader.
10. Fish finds friends, anemones

1. Dr. Strangelove
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Citizen Cane
4. Casablanca
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
6. Cinderella
7. The Matrix
8. The Sixth Sense
9. Star Wars
10. Finding Nemo

Today's Challenge: Four Word Reviews Galore

Create your own four word film reviews. But don't stop with movies. Write a four word review of your favorite book. Read newspaper headlines and notice how headline writers work with the same kind of wordplay to attract the reader's attention. A good title is vital, so when you write an essay, take some time to write a short, but sweet title of four words or less.

Quote of the Day: Doubt grows with knowledge. --Johann W. Goethe

Monday, April 03, 2006

April 3: Almighty Dollar Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Washington Irving. He was the first American author to gain international acclaim and is know today for the memorable characters from his short stories, such as Ichabod Crane and Rip van Winkle.

Irving was the first writer to use the phrase "the almighty dollar" -- a phrase that stuck, characterising perfectly the American passion for capitalism. The phrase was first used in a short story called "The Creole Village," published in The Knickerbocker magazine in 1836:

The almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages; and unless some of its missionaries penetrate there, and erect banking houses and other pious shrines, there is no knowing how long the inhabitants may remain in their present state of contented poverty.

The origin of the word used to designate the monetary unit for the United States is explained in Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English ( Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov. Oxford University Press, 1997):

Dollar comes from the German 't(h)aler,' an abbreviated form of 'Joachimstaler' (meaning "of the Saint Joachim Valley"), a silver coin first minted in Joachimstal, Bohemia, in 1519. This original 't(h)ahler' or 'da(h)ler' became such a common European coin that it became the general name for any large silver coin. By 1851, the English Spelling was 'dollar.'

The history of the English and Latin words on the one dollar bill is recounted Brian Burrell's book The Words We Live By: The Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges that Have Shaped America (The Free Press, 1997). Certainly it would seem that these words would have meaning to everyone who carries around a greenback, but as Burrell explains, although the dollar is common it, it's words and symbols are enigmatic.

Here are just a sampling of the facts related to the dollar bill:

-The great seal on the back of the dollar bill displays three Latin mottos. The first is Annuit coeptis which means "He favors our undertaking." The second is Novus ordo seclorum which means "A new order of the ages." The third is the most familiar of the three: E pluribus unum which means "One, from many."

-The reverse side of the Great Seal, the side with the pyramid, was not displayed on the dollar bill until 1935.

-Two of the Latin mottoes were written by the Roman poet Virgil: Novus ordo seclorum and Annuit coeptis.

-The date written in Roman numberals at the base of the pyramid is 1776: MDCCLXXVI.

-The national motto of the United States is IN GOD WE TRUST. It became the national motto by an act of Congress in 1955, and it did not appear on U.S. currency until 1957.

-The words IN GOD WE TRUST come from Fancis Scott Key's national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, composed in 1814. The words appear in the seldom sung fourth verse: "and ths be our motto, in God is our trust."

Interestingly enough, money is the primary metaphor for describing the life of words. Words are born when they are coined. Words are the currency of communication, passed from person to person used and reused.

Today's Challenge: On the Money

The word money itself is used in many English idioms (common expressions that don't make sense when translated literally). Below are listed the literal definitions of various money idioms as explained in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer (Houghton Mifflin 1997). The position of the word money is also indicated along with blanks that reveal the number of words in the expression.

1. More than enough money for what is required or expected.
Money ______ ______

2. Every minute is an important commodity of great value.
______ ______ money

3. Wealth has great influence.
Money ______

4. A silly or stupid person readily wastes his/her wealth.
______ ______ ______ ______ money ______ ______ ______

5. Back up one's opinion with action
______ ______ money ______ ______ ______ ______

6. Receive good value
______ ______ money's ______

1 Money to burn
2 Time is money
3 Money talks
4 A fool and his money are soon parted
5 Put your money where your mouth is
6 Get your money's worth

Quote of the Day: A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use. --Washington Irving

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April 2: Allusions from Folklore Day

Today is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the renowned Danish storyteller. In honor of Andersen, the International Board of Books for Young People in Switzerland established April second as International Children's Book Day.

Before becoming a write, Andersen attempted a career as an actor. He wrote poetry and a novels, but he made his name as a writer of more than 150 fairy tales. Among his best know stories are The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, and The Emperor's New Clothes.

The Emperor's New Clothes is an example of a story from folklore that is so well known that it has entered the English language as an allusion, a reference by a writer to a famous person, place, or thing that assumes the reader knows the reference. In writing or in conversations, these stories are a kind of cultural shorthand, where the universal themes in the story become a metaphor for a modern situation. For example, say two co-workers are sitting in a restaurant eating lunch. One brings up the staff meeting where no one said anything in response to their boss' dumb idea of Hawaiian Shirt Friday. The co-workers look at each other with a sudden realization: "The Emperor Wears No Clothes."

Long before anyone was writing them down, stories were a powerful part of human culture. Before we learn to read, people told and read us stories like those by Han Christian Andersen. These stories are more than just a path to literacy, they teach the universal aspects of being human.

One powerful example that illustrates the importance of allusion and metaphor in story, is an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Darmok (Season 5, Episode 2). In the episode, Captain Picard and his crew encounter a race of aliens who speak in nothing but allusions to their own mythology and history. At first communication is impossible, but Captain Picard is able to avoid war by learning the stories behind the allusions. Armed with the stories, he is able to communicate using the images, metaphors, and allusions from the past to present situtations.

The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Oxford University Press 2003) is an excellent reference work for looking at the themes of stories. It organizes and cross-references about one thousand allusions from history, literature, mythology, the Bible, and folklore.

See if you can match the following four Hans Christian Andersen stories up with the themes listed below:

1. The Little Match Girl
2. The Emporer's New Clothes
3. Thumbelina
4. The Ugly Duckling

a. Small Size
b. Change
c. Illusion
d. Poverty

Check your answers below, after the Quote of the Day.

Today's Challenge: Allusion Anthology

If you were putting together a collection of must-know stories from folklore, what would they be? What are the stories we use as an cultural shorthand to communicate themes and ideas. In other words, what stories are so well known that a single mention of them with conjure characters and situations that relate to universal human themes?

Quote of the Day: A life that hasn't a definine plan is likely to become driftwood. --David Sarnoff

1. d 2. c 3. a 4. b