Monday, July 31, 2006

July 31: Harry Potter Day

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

The British author was born on July 31, 1965. The idea of a story about boy wizard came to Rowling one day on a long train ride from Manchester to London in the Summer of 1990. It took seven years, however, to bring Harry Potter to life in a published book. After rejections from several publishers, Bloomsbury Children's Books published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in June 1997.

After the publication of Philospher's Stone, success and awards came fast for Rowling. She sold the American rights to her books to Scholastic Books, and quit her job teaching French to write full time.

To date Rowling has written 6 books in the Harry Potter saga with a seventh in the works. Sales of these books have reached unprecedented numbers. Unbelievably, Harry Potter titles are number one, two, and three on the bestseller list for the decade (2000-2005). Potter books have sold more than 300 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages (1).

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

The word is muggle, defined as:

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

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

Today's Challenge: I Put a Spell on You
The made-up language of spells in J. K. Rowling's books is not a totally random creation. Hidden in the spells are word parts that resemble Latin and Greek roots. Given 7 roots below, along with the Potter spell, and common English words with the same root, see if you can identify the English translation of each root.

1. ROot: LEV Wingardium Leviosa! Common Words: lever, elevator, levee, elevate

2. Root: LOCO Locomotor Mortis! Common Words: locomotive, locate, dislocate, allocate

3. Root: PEL - Expelliarmus! Common Words: propel, expel, repel, compel

4. Root: LUM Lumos! Common Words: illuminate, lucid, bioluminescence, elucidate

5. Root: FID Fidelus! Common Words: confide, confidence, fidelity, infidel

6. Root: PATR Expecto Patronus! Common Words: paternal, patron, patronize, patriot

7. Root: FIN Finite incantatem! Common Words: infinite, define, affinity, infinitesimal

A. To Push

B. To Raise Up, Make Lighter

C. Trust

D. Father

E. Place

F. End or Limit

G. Light (3)

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

Answers: 1. B. To Raise Up, Make Lighter 2. E Place 3. A To Push 4. G Light
5. C Trust 6. D Father 7. F End or Limit

1 -

2 - 'Muggle' Goes Into Oxford English Dictionary. BBC Newsround 24 March 2003.

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

Sunday, July 30, 2006

July 30: Paperback Day

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

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

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

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

Lane's plan doesn't sound very radical today, but in the 1930s books were sold in bookstores, not retails stores. In addition, the 10 titles Lane proposed were considered to0 highbrow for the lower classes, the main buyers of paperbacks.

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

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

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

Today's Challenge: Paperback Writers

Try to match up the first sentences below with the list of first 10 titles release by Penguin Books.

1. Small feckless clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky - shepherdless, futile, imponderable - and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears.

2. The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as "The Styles Case" has now somewhat subsided.

3. What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this Morgue?" demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside the "Evening Banner" with air of a man released from an irksome duty.

4. If you wish to be relieved from the worries of housekeeping; if you wish to cultivate the society of retired army folk, or that of blameless spinsterhood, ask for a room (inclusive terms) at the Kensington Park Hotel, Kensington.

5. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

Quote of the Day: Paperbacks blink in and out of print like fireflies. They also, as older collectors have ruefully discovered, fade and fall apart even more rapidly than their owners. --Paul Gray

Answers: 1. Gone to Earth 2. The Mysterious Affair at Styles 3. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club4. Madame Claire 5. A Farewell to Arms

1 -

Saturday, July 29, 2006

July 29: Defeat of the Spanish Armada Day

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

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

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

Before the British victory over the Spanish Armada had been sealed, Elizabeth courageously left her palace to travel to Tilbury (Essex) to address her assembled troops. Her tenacious refusal to be defeated by the Spanish foreshadows Winston Churchill's similar refusal to yield to the Germans more than 350 years later:

My loving people,

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

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

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

Today's Challenge: From Armadillos to Tornados
Despite the fact that the British defeat of the Spanish Armada preserved an English speaking people, it did not prevent those same people from assimilating various Spanish words into English -- words such as armada, armadillo, and tornado. Given the definitions below from Success with Words and the number of letters, see if you can identify the common English words borrowed from Spanish in the 16th to the 18th centuries.

1. 7 letters: plant whose leaves are used for smoking.

2. 7 letters: swaggering show of courage.

3. 9 letters: drink or candy made from a ground bean.

4. 6 letters: fruit of a tropical tree.

5. 6 letters: plant bearing edible red fruit.

6. 9 letters: large reptile of the crocodile family.

7. 8 letters: human who eats human flesh.

8. 6 letters: tuberous plant.

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

1. tobacco 2. bravado 3. chocolate 4. banana 5. tomato 6. alligator 7. cannibal 8. potato

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

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

3 -

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

Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28: Near-Synonym Day

Today is the anniversary of the debut of the first cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. On July 28, 1940 Warner Brothers released the animated short A Wild Hare in technicolor. The cartoon did not identify Bugs by name -- that would come later -- but it did premier his catchphrase "What's up Doc?" and his nemesis Elmer Fudd (1).

Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter, born in London in 1866.

Potter had few playmates as a child, but she did have a menagerie of pets that included a tortoise, a frog, a snake, and a rabbit. A shy, quiet girl, Potter sketched, painted, and kept a journal in which she wrote in a secret code she invented. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902. She published numerous other animal tales, but Peter Rabbit remains the most popular (2).

All this talk about rabbits begs the question: what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Well, according to Bernice Randall's book When is a Pig a Hog?, a hare is larger than a rabbit, with longer ears and legs; another difference is that hares live in the open, among rocks and thickets, while rabbits live in burrows.

Many words in English feature these kinds of fine distinctions, especially since English has more synonyms than any other language. This expansive lexicon is a blessing for writers, but it also demands attention to detail, since there are very few truly synonymous words -- that is words that can be use interchangeable regardless of context.

For example, the words lectern and podium appear to have no significant difference in meaning, but subtle distinctions in each word's definition make them near-synonyms rather than true synonyms. A lectern refers to a stand that a speaker might use for holding notes, but it also refers to a slanted-top reading desk in a church from which the scriptures are read. Like lectern, podium is used for a speaker's stand, but it also refers to a low platform upon which a speaker or conductor might stand.

Today's Challenge: The Tortoise and the Hare or The Turtle and the Rabbit?

In English there is a literal menagerie of near-synonyms. Read the definitions below from When Is a Pig a Hog? See if you can identify which of the two animals listed fits the definition most closely.

1. This domesticated member of the camel family is prized for its long, silky brown or black wool. Llama or Alpaca?

2. A domesticated ass. Donkey or Mule?

3. An immature swine weighing less than 120 pounds. Pig or Hog?

4. A torpedo-shaped, small-toothed whale with a blunt snout. Dolphin or Porpoise?

5. A leaping amphibian with smooth and moist skin, able to live on either land or water. Frog or Toad?

6. A reptile with a soft body and hard shell that lives in the water, expecially the sea. Turtle or Tortoise?

7. A large, flesh-eating lizardlike reptile that is more aggressive than its counterpart; it also has a longer and more pointed snout, and its closed mouth shows teeth. Alligator or Crocodile?

8. An amphibian, not a reptile, with soft, moist skin and no claws. Lizard or Salamander? (3)

Quote of the Day:

Q: What’s the difference between a fanatic and a zealot?

A: A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. --Winston Churchill

Answers: 1. Alpaca 2. Donkey 3. Pig 4. Porpoise 5. Frog 6. Turtle 7. Crocodile 8. Salamander

1 - Hunter, Matthew. "The Old Grey Hare: A History of Bugs Bunny."


3 - Randall, Bernice. When Is a Pig a Hog?: A Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words. New York: Galahad Books, 1991.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

July 27: SMOG Day

Today is the anniversary of the coinage of the word smog. On July 27, 1905 the London Globe reported: "At a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. Des Voeux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as smog, a compound of smoke and fog" (1).

The London fog of Dickens and Hollywood was certainly less romantic than it appeared. The major culprit of the city's dark fog was coal burning; it seems appropriate that a physician would be the one to appear on the scene to name the culprit and to try to clear it up.

When it comes to writing, there is another kind of SMOG know as the Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook. This type of SMOG is a test of a text's readability, based on a formula devised by reading researcher G. Harry McLaughlin. McLaughlin says he designed his formula in 1969 BC [Before Computers], to give educators an easy method of calculating the grade level of a given text.

The readability formula works like this: First, select three, 10-sentence samples from the text. Second, count the words in the text that are 3 or more syllables. Third, estimate the count's square root, and add 3. The resulting number will correspond to the estimated grade-level of the text.

The list below shows the SMOG levels followed by examples of periodicals that have text at the different grade levels:

-0 - 6 low-literate: Soap Opera Weekly
-7 junior high school: True Confessions
-8 junior high school: Ladies Home Journal
-9 some high school: Reader's Digest
-10 some high school: Newsweek
-11 some high school: Sports Illustrated
-12 high school graduate: Time Magazine
-13 - 15 some college: New York Times
-16 university degree: Atlantic Monthly
-17 - 18 post-graduate studies: Harvard Business Review
-19+ post-graduate degree: IRS Code (2)

Today, in the age of computers, you can use the SMOG Formula online by simply cutting and pasting your text. This post, for example, comes in at 11.02 on the SMOG Index.

The word gobbledygook, however, refers to more than just multisyllabic words. It means unintelligible language, especially jargon or bureaucratese.

The word was coined by Texas lawyer and Democratic Congressman Maury Maverick. He created the word in 1944 when referring to the obscure, smoggy language used by his colleagues. The used the turkey as a metaphor, since the bird is “always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity.”

It should be noted that word origins ran in the Maverick family. Maury's grandfather was Samuel Maverick, the Texas rancher who became famous and eponymous for his unconventional practice of not branding his cattle. Of course today a maverick is anyone who stands outside the crowd, or herd, defying the status quo (3).

One organization defying SMOG is the Plain English Campaign based in New Mills, Derbyshire, England. Their stated mission is to fight "for crystal-clear language and against jargon, gobbledygook and other confusing language."

Each year the Plain English Campaign presents The Golden Bull Awards for the year's worst examples of gobbledygook. Here is one example of a 2004 winner:

British Airways for terms and conditions

Today's Challenge: Clear the SMOG
Below are examples given by the Plain English Campaign of sentences containing gobbledygook. Rewrite each sentence, eliminating the gobbledygook and replacing it with clear English.

1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

2. If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

3. It is important that you shall read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to its immediate return to the Council by way of the envelope provided.

Quote of the Day: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. --George Orwell

Suggested Answers:
1. Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
2. If you have any questions, please ring.
3. Please read the notes opposite before you fill in the form. Then send it back to us as soon as possible in the envelope provided.

1 - Funk, Charles Earle. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. New York: HarperPerennial, 1950.

2 - McLaughlin, G. Harry. SMOG: SImple Measure of Gobbledygook.

3 - Quinion, Michael. "GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK." World Wide Words.

4 -

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

July 26: Ghoti Day

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

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

To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words. The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough, the o was from the i sound in women, and the ti was from the sh sound in nation. Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words.

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

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

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

Shaw, like many other before and after him, failed to reform English spelling: he died in 1950. The fight for spelling reform goes on even today as seen in a recent headline and story: Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists -- despiet th lak of public intrest.

Today's Challenge: Is It Mispell or Misspell?
Below are common English words that are frequently misspelled. See if you can determine which word in the pairs below is spelled correctly:

A: accomodate accommodate
B: beleive believe
C: calendar calender
D: definitely definitly
E: embarass embarrass
F: foreign foriegn
G: guarentee guarantee
H: height heighth
I: intelligance intelligence
J: judgement judgment
K: knowledge knowlidge
L: license licence
M: miniature miniture
N: noticeable noticeible
O: occurence occurrence
P: perseverance perseverence
Q: questionaire questionnaire
R: restaurant restraunt
S: seperate separate
T: twelfth twelvth
U: ukelale ukulele
V: vacuum vaccum
W: weird wierd (2)

Quote of the Day: England and America are two countries separated by a common language. --George Bernard Shaw

Answers: A: accommodate B:believe C: calendar
D: definitely E: embarrass F: foreign G: guarantee H: height I: intelligence J:judgement K: knowledge L: license M: miniature N: noticeable O: occurrence P: perseverance Q: questionnaire R: restaurant S: separate T: twelfth U: ukulele V: vacuum W: weird

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

2 - 100 Most Often Misspelled Words in English

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

July 25: Retronym Day

Two seemingly unrelated events that happened on this date, 151 years apart, merge to illuminate the endless vitality of the English language.

The first event took place on July 25, 1814. British engineer George Stephenson demonstrated the first steam locomotive. The second event took place on July 25, 1965 at the Newport, Rhode Island Folk Music Festival. For the first time ever, Bob Dylan performed with an electric guitar.

Besides the date, these two events both deal with inventions that were later improved upon or at least altered in some significant way. The alteration was such that the name also changed. For example, the word guitar was a fairly straight forward term for a stringed instrument, but the invention of the electric guitar required that a new adjective be attached to guitar to distinguish the plugged version from the unplugged version. The word used is acoustic, and it's an example of a class of words called retronyms. The word locomotive lead to the retronym steam locomotive when the electric and diesel locomotives came on the scene.

A retronym, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is: "A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as snail mail in contrast to e-mail."

The word was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, one-time press secretary for Robert F. Kennedy. He used existing Greek roots to create: retro (Greek, backwards) + nym (Greek, name).

Probably the largest collection of retronyms can be found at the web site of Barry Stiefel who has catalogued 112 examples. Here are a few examples that show the variety of categories that retronyms can fall under:

politics: absolute monarchy

communications: AM radio

family: biological parent

warfare: conventional weapons

computers: corded mouse

sports: natural turf (1)

Today's Challenge: A Retro By Any Other Nym

Given the name of the new idea or invention, see if you can name the retronym.

Example: Color television. Retronym: black and white television

1. surrogate mother
2. online journalism
3. New Coke
4. disposable diapers
5. microwave oven
6. digital camera
7. paperback book
8. nuclear warfare
9. New Testament
10. World War II

Quote of the Day: This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book - it makes a very poor doorstop.
--Alfred Hitchcock

Answers: 1. birth mother 2. print journalism 3. Classic Coke 4. cloth diapers 5. conventional over 6. film camera 7. hardcover book 8. conventional warfare 9. Old Testament 10. World War I

1 - Stiefel, Barry. Retronym: Aspiring To Be The World's Largest Collection Of English Language Retronyms (112 And Counting!)

Monday, July 24, 2006

July 24: Freeze Day

Today is the anniversary of the final performance of one of the most famous comedy duos of all time: Martin and Lewis. The partnership of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis began in 1946 and continued successfully on stage, screen, and radio until their final performance together at New York's Copacabana Club in 1956 (1).

Of course, Martin and Lewis are not the only famous duo in entertainment history. Below are just a few examples of names that for better or worse are frozen in time.

Abbott and Costello
Burns and Allen
The Captain and Tennille
Cheech and Chong
Laurel and Hardy
Donny and Marie
Lennon and McCartney
Penn and Teller
Simon and Garfunkel
Sonny and Cher

One interesting aspect of the duos above is that the order of the names is fixed and seldom altered: who ever heard of Teller and Penn or Costello and Abbott? This same phenomenon happens with word pairs in English called freezes. Freezes are "pairs of words which have been apparently frozen in a fixed order, such as bread and butter, husband and wife, knife and fork" (2).

Because these three-word expressions are frozen in the language, they sometimes become idiomatic -- that is they become metaphors. For example, in the sentence The quality of the school is the bread and butter of town property values, the freeze bread and butter does not refer to literal food but to anything that is a basic, essential, and sustaining element.

A less obvious examples it the freeze warp and woof. It means "the underlying structure or foundation of something, as in He foresaw great changes in the warp and woof of the nation's economy." The expression goes back 1500s, alluding to woven fabric and its "threads that run lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (woof)" (3).

Today's Challenge: Fresh Frozen Freezes
Cool down during the dog days of summer by trying to identify the freezes below. Use the clues from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms to identify the 10 freezes below. Then, see if you can brainstorm a list of more examples:

1. More than is required: a____ and b____

2. The beginning and the end: a____ and o____

3. Unlike objects: a____ and 0____

4. A burden or restraint: b____ and c____

5. Badly bruised: b____ and b____

6. Ceremonial dress worn at graduation: c____ and g____

7. A decline and increase, constant fluctuations: e____ and f____

8. All right, excellent: f____ and d____

9. Defined, fixed, invariable: h____ and f____

10. Strict enforcement of statutes to fight crime:
l____ and o____ (3).

Quote of the Day: All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not twist of these two strands. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Answers: 1. above and beyond 2. alpha and omega 3. apples and oranges 4. ball and chain 5. black and blue 6 cap and gown 7. ebb and flow 8. fine and dandy 9. hard and fast 10. law and order

1 -The History Channel. This Date in History - Entertainment - July 24

2- Aitchison, Jean. A Glossary of Language and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Sunday, July 23, 2006

July 23: Grand Slam Day

Today is the anniversary of Tiger Woods' victory at the 2000 British Open. Woods won by shooting a record 19 under par at the course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Certainly winning a major professional golf tournament in record fashion is noteworthy, but what made Woods' victory extraordinary was the fact that it made him, at 24 years-old, the youngest golfer ever to win all four career Grand Slam titles: the British, the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship.
Later when Woods won the 2001 Masters, he became the only player to win consecutive titles in all four major championships. Because he did not win all four titles in the same year, however, his accomplishment was dubbed The Tiger Slam. No player has ever won all four of the major tournaments in the same year (1).
Your first guess as to the origin of grand slam might take you to the baseball term for a bases loaded homerun that scores four runs. While this is probably the most common use of the term, it actually originated in card games (bridge for example) where one side wins all thirteen tricks. It is also a prominent term in tennis, referring to the four national championships: the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and the U.S. Open (2).
Today's Challenge: Four Members and a Category
Wherever the term grand slam is used, it usually relates to superlative achievements and a series of victories in high stakes competition. Also, at least in the modern sense, it has come to be associated with things that come in fours. Maybe there is something magical about the number four; after all, it is the only number in the English language which when spelled out has the same number of letters as the number it represents. Look at the groups of four below, and see if you can identify the category into which all four fit.
Example: hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds. Answer: the four card suits.
1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
2. John, Paul, George, and Ringo
3. Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, Thing
4. simple, complex, compound, compound-complex
5. from want, from fear, of speech, and of worship
6. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph
7. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde
8. index, middle, ring, little
9. fire, air, water, earth
10. war, famine, plague, death
11. meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables
12. Boreas, Eurus, Zephyrus, Notus
13. Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian
Four Quotes of the Day:
-The four most beautiful things in life are thunder, lightning, a falling star, and the roar of a lion. --Laurens Van Der Post
-The vices of authority are chiefly four: delays, corruption, roughness, and facility.
--Francis Bacon
-Newspapers should come in four sections: Truth, Probability, Possibility, and Lies.
--Thomas Jefferson
-The four Ls to practice each day: Loving, Living, Learning, and Letting go.
--Marian M. Jung
Answers: 1. the four gospels 2. the four Beatles 3. the four members of the Fantastic Four 4. four types of sentences 5. the Four Freedoms (from F.D.R.'s famous speech) 6. the four patriarchs 7. the four ghosts in Pac-Man 8. the four fingers 9. the four ancient elements 10. the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 11. the four food groups 12. the four winds 13 the four oceans

1 - Tiger Woods Wins British Open. Aired July 23, 2000 CNN Transcripts
2 - Ammer, Christine. Southpaws and Sunday Punches and Other Sports Expressions. New York: Plume Books, 1993.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

July 22: Spoonerism Day

Today is the birthday of the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, born in London in 1844. Spooner lectured in history, philosophy, and divinity at Oxford University. He was small in stature and an albino, but it was his words not his appearance that made him famous.

Spooner has been immortalized in the dictionary by what we call today spoonerisms: slips of the tongue where the initial consonant sounds of words are reversed, as in one of Spooner's famous flubs -- he was officiating a wedding and after pronouncing the couple man and wife said to the groom: "Son, it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride." The error, of course, was reversing the sounds of the c in customary with the k in kiss (1).

Reverend Spooner is certainly not the only person to make this kind of error. In fact, it is quite common, and, as explained by Richard Lederer, more common in English than any other language:

The larger the number of words in a language, the greater the likelihood that two or more words will rhyme. Because English possesses almost four times the number of words of any other language, it is afflicted with a delightful case of rhymatic fever. A ghost town becomes a toast gown. A toll booth becomes a bowl tooth. A bartender becomes a tar bender. Motion pictures become potion mixtures. And your local Wal-Mart becomes a Mall Wart!

More rhymes mean more possible spoonerisms. That’s why English is the most tough and rumble of all languages, full of thud and blunder. That's why English is the most spoonerizable tongue ever invented. That's why you will enter this discussion optimistically and leave it misty optically.

Today's Challenge: Translating Silver Spoonerisms
Celebrate Soonerism Day by translating the quotes below: some of the legendary lines from Reverend Spooner. Once you've done that, try your own hand at constructing some spoonerisms.

1. Sir, you have tasted two whole worms.

2. I believe you're occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?"

3. The Lord is a shoving leopard.

4. Is the bean dizzy?

5. one swell foop

6. a blushing crow

7. When the boys come home from France, we'll have the hags flung out.

8. You hissed my mystery lecture (1)

Quote of the Day: Bloopers are the lowlife of verbal error, but spoonerisms are a different fettle of kitsch. --Roger Rosenbaltt

1. Sir, you have wasted two whole terms.
2. I believe you're occupying my pew. May I show you another seat?
3. The Lord is a loving shepherd.
4. Is the dean busy?
5. One fell swoop
6. A crushing blow
7. When the boys come home from France, we'll have the flags hung out.
8. You missed my history lecture.

1 - Reader's Digest, February 1995

2 - Lederer, Richard. "Gag Me With a Spoonerism."

Friday, July 21, 2006

July 21: Hemingway Day

Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born in Illinois in 1899.

He began his writing career as a journalist when he was 17, working as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. When America entered World War I, he tried to enlist but was rejected on the basis of a medical condition. He traveled to Europe anyway and became an ambulance driver for the Italian Army. He later wrote one his best known novels A Farewell to Arms (1929) based on his experiences in the war.

After World War I, he returned to the states, but soon was back in Europe as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Living in Paris, he met other expatriate American writers such as Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald who encouraged him to write fiction. He took their advice, writing about his experiences as an American living in Europe in The Sun Also Rises (1926). He traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s; this was the setting of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his short novel The Old Man and the Sea in 1953, and the next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961.

Hemingway's characters reflected his own experiences and personality. War, adventure, drinking, bull-fights, big game hunting and fishing were his favorite topics, and, when he wasn't writing, these were his own favorite activities.

Hemingway's writing style is known for its clarity, simplicity, and terseness. His characters' dialogue is straightforward and honest, except for the occasional understatement. In talking about writing, Hemingway said: "All you have to do is write one true sentence, a true simple declarative sentence" (1, 2)

Today's Challenge: Hemingway On Writing

Reading quotes by Hemingway is like attending a master course on writing. Read the 8 quotes below about writing. Notice not just what Hemingway says, but also how he says it. Is he practicing what he preaches? What do you notice about his word choice and the structure of his sentences? Finally, which quote do you like the best and why?

1. Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

2. All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened.

3. Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time. I only use swear words, for example, that have lasted at least a thousand years . . . .

3. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector.

4. It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg Address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

5. All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.

6. I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

7. If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

8. All our words from loose using have lost their edge.

Quote of the Day: All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. --Ernest Hemingway

1 - "Ernest Hemingway." The Nobel Prize in Literature 1954.

2 - Adler, Mortimer. "Biographical Note on Ernest Hemingway" from Great Books of the Western World. Edition 60: Imaginative Literature: Selections from the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20: Antithesis Day

Today is the anniversary of what many consider the single greatest human achievement of all time: the successful Moon mission of Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969 at 4:17 p.m. (EDT), Neil A. Armstrong became the first human to stand on the Moon. Armstrong was soon joined by Buzz Aldrin, and the two astronauts proceeded to spend 21 hours on the Moon collecting 46 pounds of moon rocks before returning to the Lunar Module (1).

The race to the Moon that began with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik was over, and the first words from a human being on the Moon were in English:

That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

It is interesting to note that the first words spoken by a human being on a heavenly body other than Earth were misspoken. Armstrong meant to say:

That's one small step for "a" man; one giant leap for mankind.

After his famous first sentence on the Moon, Armstrong began to describe the surface of the Moon:

Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.

Few people remember, however, what Armstrong said after his first "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind" statement. Even though he slightly flubbed his big line, he still crafted a memorable sentence that was structured to capture the magnitude of the moment. At the moment of mankind's most remarkable technological achievement, Armstrong used a structured form that dates back to the classical orators of ancient Greece and Rome.

The specific rhetorical device he used is called antithesis. As a word antithesis means "the exact opposite," as in Love is the antithesis of hate. But as figure of speech, antithesis juxtaposes two contrasting ideas in a balanced manner, or -- as in Armstrong's case -- a contrast of degrees: small step and giant leap; and man and mankind.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition defines antithesis as follows:

a figure of speech involving a seeming contradiction of ideas, words, clauses, or sentences within a balanced grammatical structure. Parallelism of expression serves to emphasize opposition of ideas. The familiar phrase “Man proposes, God disposes” is an example of antithesis, as is John Dryden’s description in “The Hind and the Panther”: “Too black for heaven, and yet too white for hell” (2).

One of the most famous uses of antithesis is the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, where Charles Dickens uses and re-uses antithesis to set the novel's scene:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...

Today's Challenge: The Long and the Short of Antithesis

The quotes below are other noteworthy examples of antithesis. See if you can correctly fill in the blanks with the contrasting ideas:

1. Jack Sprat could eat no _____; his wife could eat no _____.

Now is the ______ of our discontent
Made glorious ______ by this son of York....
--William Shakespeare

3. Some men see things as they are and say _____. I dream things that never were and say _____ _____.'"
--Robert F. Kennedy

4. It can't be _____ if it feels so _____ —Debbie Boone

5. The world will little note, nor long _______, what we say here, but it can never ______ what they did here."
-- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

6. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the ______ of their skin but by the ______ of their character. I have a dream today!"
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

7. Err is _____, to forgive, ______. --Alexander Pope

Quote of the Day: Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness. --Aaron Copland

Answers: 1. fat, lean 2. winter, summer 3. why, why not 4. wrong, right 5. remember, forget 6. color, content 7. human, devine

1- Apollo 11. The 30th Anniversary

2- "Antithesis." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

July 19: Push the Envelope Day

Today is the anniversary of the first true space flight in 1962. Air Force pilot Bob White took the experimental aircraft the X-15 to a record altitude of 314,750 feet, pushing the envelope and breaking the 50 mile boundary separating the Earth's atmosphere and outer space. White's flight established a world record that still stands for altitude achieved in a winged aircraft. For his feat of daring, Walker became the first pilot to earn astronaut wings (1).

The word astronaut comes from Greek: astron, "star" + nautes, "sailor." The Russian equivalent is cosmonaut, which is also from Greek: kosmos, "universe" + nautes, "sailor."

Today we hear the expression push the envelope or push the edge of the envelope in a variety contexts relating to attempts to "exceed the limits of what is normally done"; in other words attempts to be innovative, as in: The Computer company is trying to get its software engineers to push the envelope in developing a new approach to computing. The three-word idiom comes from the field of aviation and was originally used to describe the exploits of pilots like Bob White who attempted, but did not always succeed, in pushing the limits of a plane's capabilities either in speed or altitude. Within the envelope, the pilot was safe; beyond it, there was uncertainty and risk (2).

Today's Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

Push the envelope is just one of many three-word idioms (expressions that don't make sense when translated literally) in English that follow the pattern: verb + "the" + noun, as in "bite the bullet." Other examples use the same verb take:

take the plunge
take the heat
take the Fifth
take the fall
take the rap

Given the first letters of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the other three-word idioms below that fit the same structure:

1. w_______ the s_________

2. r________ the g________

3. p________ the t________

4. b________ the h _______

5. c________ the f _______

6. b________ the b _______

7. h________ the c _______

8. p________ the f _______

9. s________ the c _______

10. s________ the f _______

Quote of the Day: Before you push the envelope, open it up and see what's inside.
--L' Architecte Karp

Answers: 1. weather the storm 2. run the gamut or run the gauntlet 3. pass the torch 4. bury the hatchet 5. chew the fat 6. bite the bullet or break the bank 7. hit the ceiling 8. press the flesh 9. stay the course 10. straddle the fence.

1 - Wolverton, Mark. The Airplane That Flew Into Space. American Heritage Summer 2001 Volume 17, Issue 1

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

July 18: Semantics Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1949). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known books on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.

His name hit the headlines when he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration in 1968, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976 and served one term until 1983.

Hayakawa's most famous act as a senator came in 1981 when he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

After leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S. English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It's mission, according to its web site, is "preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States" (1).

Regardless of your position on "English as the official language of the U.S." debate, Hayakawa's writing about synonyms and word choice is instructive. In his introduction to his book Use the Right Word, Hayakawa encapsulates the history of polyglot English. A history that has given English more words than any other language and which has created an "embarrassment of riches" for the writer. Hayakawa challenges readers and writers to pay careful attention to words and especially to synonyms. He says that although we have many synonyms to choose from, there are "no exact synonyms." When using words in context there are subtle shades of meaning in every words. Denotations may be the same but connotations are different. Similarly words have different levels of abstraction. The word teach for example is more general in meaning than the word indoctrinate which is more specific.

The following paragraph contains more explanation and examples of Hayakawa's plea for attention to semantic details:

It can be argued that there really are not exact synonyms -- no exact equivalences of meaning. Such a position can be upheld if by 'meaning' we refer to the total range of contexts in which a word may be used. Certainly there are no two words that are interchangeable in all the contexts in which either might appear. But within a given context, there is often exact synonymy: I "mislaid" my wallet; I "misplaced" my wallet. In a slightly different context, however, the two words are not interchangeable: it would not be idiomatic to say, I "mislaid" my suitcase --all of which may suggest that while "misplace" is applicable to both small objects and large, "mislay" applies only to small. Also, one may suffer disappointment because of "misplaced," but never "mislaid," trust. This example shows again that words which are synonymous in one of their meanings may differ considerably in their other meanings (2).

Today's Challenge: Same Difference
Each group of three words below contains two synonyms and one antonym. See if you can identify the antonym. Then, see if you can identify the subtle differences between the remaining two synonyms.

1. sagacious ludicrous farcical

2. amateur connoisseur dilettante

3. plaudit acclaim censure

4. timidity savoir faire aplomb

5. benediction anathema curse

6. cursory superficial painstaking

7. tawdry garish modest

8. immutable fixed tempory

9. explicit cryptic arcane

10. prodigal spendthrift frugal

Quote of the Day: In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. --S. I. Hayakawa

Answers: 1. sagacious 2. connoisseur 3. censure 4. timidity
5. benediction 6. painstaking 7. modest 8. temporary 9. explicit
10. frugal

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Use The Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms. (Edited by S. I. Hayakawa). Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1968.

Monday, July 17, 2006

July 17: Words from the 1960s 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.

Ironically the Beatles themselves had very little to do with the film; in fact, all the dialogue for John, Paul, George, and Ringo was provided 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. The narration and dialogue are credited to four writers (including Love Story's Erich Segal), and yet the 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 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 (and on suffix) that were children of the '60s:

cassette (1960)

software (1960)

global village (1960)

Velcro (1960)

DJ (1961)

lite (1962)

bar code (1963)

Third World (1963)

zip code (1966)

Beatlemania (1963)

BASIC (1964)

-aholic (1965)

hypertext (1965)

microwave oven (1965)

body language (1966)

cultural revolution (1966)

generation gap (1967)

love-in (1967)

Age of Aquarius (1967)

be-in (1968)

reggae (1968)

'Nam (1969)

orchestrate (1969) (2)

Today's Challenge: Psychedelic Idioms

The '60s were psychedelic, but English has always used all the colors of the rainbow to construct common expressions. Although these expressions (idioms) use color words, the colors have nothing to do with the literal meaning of the expression. For example, the expression red tape means official forms and procedures, especially those that are complex and time consuming. Notice that the modern definition has nothing to do with literal red tape. The origin of the expression goes back to the early 1800s when British bureaucracies were known for using literal red tape to tie up official documents (3).

1. _______ elephant

2. _______ herring

3. _______ mail

4. True _______

5. _______ thumb

6. _______ area

7. _______ horn

8. _______ moon

9. _______ prose

10. _______ journalism

Quote of the Day: I wish people would get hip to it already, so I don't have to talk about it anymore and explain what the '60s were all about and explain psychedelic and all of that. --Ray Manzarek

Answers: 1. white 2. red 3. black 4. blue 5. green 6. grey 7. green 8. blue 9. purple 10. yellow

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.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

July 16: Trinity Day

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

J. Robert 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 that was equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, more than two times what was predicted by Los Alamos scientists. The blast completely vaporized the 800 yard 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 shock wave was felt 100 miles away.

260 people, sworn to secrecy, witnessed the test. The official press release attributed the explosion to an ammunitions dump accident. On August 6, 1945, the world learned the truth as the atomic bomb, code named "Little Boy," was dropped on Hiroshima killing an estimated 80,000 people instantly.

Before the test J. Robert Oppenheimer used religious imagery to name the Trinity Test, and he returned again to religious literature to describe his reaction to the test's success. He said a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita came to his mind as he watched the rising mushroom cloud:

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Today's Challenge: Special of the Day -- Food Idioms

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. See if you can fill in the blanks in the two-word food idioms below:

1. __________ ears

2. Adam's ________

3. ________ train

4. Couch _________

5. Dead ________

6. Duck ________

7. Smart ________

8. _______ counter

9. _______ days

10. Cold _______.

Quote of the Day: The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country. --J. Robert Oppenheimer

Answers: 1. Cauliflower 2. apple 3. Gravy 4. potato 5. meat 6. soup 7. cookie 8. bean 9. salad 10. turkey

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

Saturday, July 15, 2006

July 15: Amazon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first book sold on in 1995. The title of the book was Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. To name his mega-online store he searched for an appropriate metaphor. The Amazon River seemed appropriate. Although it is the world's second longest river (the Nile is the longest) it is by far the world's largest river when it comes to measuring the volume of water. Thus the name for the world's most voluminous river also became the name of the world's most voluminous bookstore.

The word Amazon has its origins in Greek mythology. The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors, so ferocious and bellicose that they would burn off their right breast to increase their ability to more accurately shoot the enemy with bow and arrow. Achilles killed Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, and Hercules, in one of his twelve labors, stole the girdle of another Amazon queen.

The name became attached the South American river when explorers noticed a resemblance between the women of the region and the Amazons of antiquity (1).

Today sells much more than books, but books are still its core product.

Since it began selling books online in 1995, has worked diligently to make their site more interactive. Its most unique feature is "Search Inside," where you can browse through a book (at least part of a book) as if you were in a bookstore. In April 2005 "Text Stats" was added to "Search Inside," giving an amazing array of numbers that allow you to compare books like you might compare baseball players. "Text Stats" gives the number of letters, words, and sentences in a book. It also lists "Fun Stats" that show the number of words per dollar and the number of words per ounce. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example, is a great value at 51,707 words per dollar.

And if you need more numbers, "Text Stats" also includes numbers related to readability. The "Fog Index," for example, gives the reader a number that corresponds with the grade level required to comprehend the book's text. This score is based on an analysis of a randomly selected 120-word passage from the book. The number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word in this passage are then plugged into a formula that spits out the book's grade level.

All this number crunching has not gone un-noticed by the press. The Washington Post ran an article in August 2005 that was not exactly a raving review:

. . . Text Stats is a triumph of trivialization. By squeezing all the life and loveliness out of poetry and prose, the computer succeeds in numbing with numbers. It's the total disassembling of truth, beauty and the mysterious meaning of words. Except for the Concordance feature, which arranges the 100 most used words in the book into a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry game (2).

Today's Challenge: Words By The Numbers
In the pairs of books below make a guess as to which one is the best value based on Number of Words Per Dollar (WPD) and which book has the higher grade level on the Fog Index (FOG).

1. Hamlet or King Lear?

2. The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick?

3. To Kill A Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies?

4. 1984 or Brave New World?

Quote of the Day: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. --Erasmus

Hamlet: 7,506 WPD; FOG: 8.0
King Lear: 6,753 WPD; FOG: 6.8

The Scarlet Letter: 14,023 WPD; FOG: 14.7
Moby Dick: 19,399 WPD; FOG 13.0

To Kill A Mockingbird: 7,610 WPD; FOG 8.2
Lord of the Flies: 6,208 WPD; 6.7

1984: 13,021 WPD; FOG 10.9
Brave New World: 5,933 WPD; FOG 9.6

1 - Ammer, Christine. Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

2 - Weeks, Linton. "Amazon's Vital Statistics Show How Books Stack Up." Washington Post. 30 August 2005.

Friday, July 14, 2006

July 14: Bastille Day

Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris prison fortress of King Louis XVI. In 1789, 13 years after the American colonists had rebelled against the British monarchy, the citizens of France rose up against the despotism of King Louis, releasing prisoners from the Bastille and raiding its arms and ammunition.

Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were arrested at their residence in Versaille, and the entire royal family was eventually executed.

Among the climate of chaos and anarchy, the National Convention established the French Republic. Although true democracy did not result from the French Revolution, the absolute monarchy in France was permanently abolished (1).

Something that may never be abolished is the relationship between the French and English languages.

This relationship between England and France began in 1066 with the Norman Invasion. With a Norman king of England, French became the language of the government. Though the Anglo-Saxon tongue became a second-class language in England, it still remained alive and well as the language of the common people. In fact, there were fewer French words absorbed into English during the Norman reign (approximately 1,000 words) than after an English king regained the throne. Between 1250 and 1500, more than 9,000 French words were absorbed into English.

English is a Germanic language. Its most frequently used words are Anglo-Saxon -- grammar words, such as pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions. However, a higher precentage of English vocabulary words come from other languages, principally Latin or the Romance languages -- the languages that descended from Latin, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Next to Latin, more of these vocabulary words were absorbed from French than any other language. The following words are a small sample of common English words that have French origins:

dentist (2)

Today's Challenge: Au Gratin, Au Pair, and Au Naturel
The list of French expressions below are frequently used in English. Use a good dictionary to translate them into English.


Au Gratin: au, with the + gratin, scraping from the pan

Au Pair: au, at the + pair, equal

Au Naturel: au, in the + naturel, natural state

bon mot
carte blanche
coup d'etat
cul de sac
deja vu
en route
faux pas
nom de plume
piece de resistance
savoir faire
tour de force

Quote of the Day: The thing that's wrong with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur. --George W. Bush

1 - Yenne, Bill. 100 Events that Shaped World History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1993.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 13: Darmok Day

Today is the birthday of British actor Patrick Stewart, best known for his role as Jean-Luc Picard the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).

Born in 1940, the son of a career soldier, Stewart became interested in drama at an early age and enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when he was 17. It's during this early training as an actor that he had to change his accent on stage to that of the Received Pronunciation ("Standard English") while maintaining his native Yorkshire dialect when speaking with family and friends.

Although his list of roles on stage and screen are varied and impressive, Stewart will always be remembered for his role on Star Trek. Ironically as an Englishman he had no idea of the importance of the role he was stepping into when he was originally cast in 1987. He soon realized, however, that the American reverence the captain of the Enterprise is virtually equivalent to the British reverence for the throne of England (1).

One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is particularly interesting to students of language. It is an episode from the 1991 season entitled "Darmok."

In this episode the Enterprise encounters an alien race called "The Children of Tama." Captain Picard and his crew are unable to decipher the language of the Tamarians, and as both parties struggle to understand each other, Captain Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, are simultaneously beemed down to the surface of an uninhabited planet, El-Adrel.

Marooned together on the planet, the two captains struggle to communicate. Although they make little progress at first, Picard continues to search for clues to the mystery of the Tamarian tongue.

When the two captains are attacked by a ferocious beast, they team up to fight for their lives. It's during this struggle that Picard makes a communication breakthrough when he realizes that Dathon is communicating abstract ideas via the names of specific people and places in Tamarian history and mythology.

For example, when Dathon says, "Shaka, when the walls fell," he is alluding to a story of failure. Conversely, when Dathon says, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered," he is alluding to a story where understanding and truth are revealed.

Eventually the crew of the Enterprise is successful in beeming Picard back to his ship. At this point he is able to finally communicate with the Tamarian ship and avoid a war that was brewing while he and Dathon were on the planet's surface. Unfortunately Dathon is killed by the beast, but not before Picard comes to the realization that Dathon was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of communication between his people and Picard's. In fact, Dathon attempted to recreate a story from his own mythology by setting up his meeting with Picard. "Darmok and Gilad at Tenagra" is the story of two foes who become friends after fighting a common enemy.

At the end of the episode a new metaphor for mutual understanding is added to the language of both the federation and the Tamarians: "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel."

The "Darmok" episode illustrates the need for imagination when searching for solutions to language barriers. It also illustrates that a language's stories and history can be almost as important as its grammar and syntax. Whether or not an entire language can be built on allusions to stories is debatable; however, there is no doubt that stories are an important part of English. Abstract ideas exist in the mind, but stories put flesh and blood on them, making them concrete. Long before we can read for ourselves, we are told stories and stories are read to us. No one reads us abstract definitions of courage, hope, or wonder; instead, these ideas are clothed in character, dialogue, and plot so that we can see them in action in our minds.

And these stories continue as we grow older, and the stories become embedded in the language as a shorthand means to making the abstract concrete. For example, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis has come to represent the confusion of tongues and the ongoing struggle for communication among people of different cultures and different languages. When you read an article about attempts to translate a language or bridge language barriers, it should be no surprise to see Babel used as a metaphor.

Just as Picard determined the abstract communications of Dathon by understanding the stories of his people, we can search our own literature, history, and mythology for references that have become metaphors for abstract ideas like love, hate, peace, and war.

Today's Challenge: Abstract to Concrete
The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions lists hundreds of allusions, and it neatly organizes them into categories based on abstract ideas and themes. See if you can match up each of the abstract ideas below with one of the eight allusions from history, mythology, and literature listed below:


1. Solomon: The king of ancient Israel.
2. Ozymandias: The imaginary ancient king from a poem by Shelley.
3. Man Friday: The man Crusoe meets on his island in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
4. Dresden: German city on the river Elbe.
5. Styx: The river that flowed through Hades in Greek mythology.
6. Peter Pan: The hero of J.M. Barrie's play.
7. Othello: The main character in Shakespeare's play Othello.
8. Marshall McLuhan: A Canadian writer and thinker (2).

Quote of the Day: To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others. --Anthony Robbins

Answers: 1. wisdom 2. power 3. friendship 4. destruction 5. death 6. youth 7. jealousy 8. communication

1 - Patrick Stewart Network - Biography

2 - The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Edited by Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the birthday of writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay "Civil Disobedience" where explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: "Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

Clearly Thoreau's thoughts and words were way ahead of his time, but both Walden and "Civil Disobedience" influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau's ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today's Challenge: The Incomplete Thoreau
In addition to practicing economy in living on Walden Pond, Thoreau practiced economy in his writing, making every word count. As a result, he is one of America's and the world's most quoted writers. Read the incomplete quotes by Thoreau below, and see if you can fill in the missing words.

1. ______ -- an experience in immortality.

2. Our life is frittered away by _____. Simplify, simplify.

3. How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not ____ ____ to live.

4. The mass of men lead lives of _____ _______.

5. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me _____.

6. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to ____ ____.

7. It is never too late to give up your _________.

8. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a ________ __________.

Quote of the Day: It still seems to me the best youth's companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one's valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. --E. B. White on Walden

Answers: 1. Spring 2. detail 3. stood up 4. quiet desperation 5. truth 6. let alone 7. prejudices 8. different drummer

1 - Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

July 11: Bowdlerize Day (Eponymous Verbs)

Today is the birthday of Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) a man who became infamous for his editing of Shakespeare. An Englishman, Bowdler studied medicine at Edinburgh but never practiced; instead, he took his scalpel to the plays of Shakespeare. His mission, according to Nancy Caldwell Sorel in Word People, was "to render Shakespeare fit to be read aloud by a gentleman in the company of ladies." His first edition of his ten-volume Family Shakespeare was published in 1818.

After he finished with the Bard’s works, Bowdler devoted himself to expurgating Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Bowdler’s work became so notorious that his name entered the language as an eponym meaning "To expurgate prudishly." Typically eponyms begin as proper nouns and become general (lower case) nouns. Unusually Bowdler moved from being a proper noun to a verb: to bowdlerize, which means the process of censoring a work by deleting objectionable words or material.

Today’s Challenge: The Flesh Became Word
Given the definitions below, see if you can identify the Eponymous Verbs.
Each one began as the name of a real person.

1. To hypnotize or enthrall.

2. To execute without due process of law; especially, to hang.

3. To destroy most disease-producing microorganisms and limit fermentation in milk, beer, or other liquids by partial or complete sterilization.

4. To illustrate (a book) with drawings, prints, or engravings taken from other books, or to mutilate (a book) by clipping out its illustrative material for such use.

5. To treat (cotton thread) with sodium hydroxide, so as to shrink the fiber and increase its color absorption and luster.

6. To abstain from using, buying, or dealing with, as a protest or means of coercion.

7. To divide a state, county, or city into voting districts to give unfair advantage to one party in elections.

8. To murder by suffocation so as to leave the body intact and suitable for dissection, or to suppress quietly and unceremoniously.

9. To stimulate or shock with an electric current, or to arouse to awareness or action; to spur; startle (1).

Quotes of the Day:

-But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me. –Mark Twain

-The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. --Walt Whitman

Answers: 1. to mesmerize 2. to lynch 3. to pasteurize 4. to grangerize 5. to mercerize 6. to boycott 7. to gerrymander 8. to burke 9. to galvanize

1 – Sorel, Nancy Caldwell. Word People: Being an Inquiry Into the Lives of those Person Who Have Lent Their Names to the English Language. New York: American Heritage Press: 1970.

Monday, July 10, 2006

July 10: Clerihew Day

Edward Oz
Writes everyday because
English never fails to amaze
Just read today's post on Word Daze

Today is the birthday of Edmund Clerihew Bentley whose middle name became a form of light verse.

Bentley made a name for himself with a classic work of detective fiction called Trent's Last Case, but he is best known for the four-line verse form that bears his middle name: the clerihew.

The clerihew is a biographical form that begins with the subject's name (or at least contains the name in the first line). It is made up of two rhyming couplets (thus the rhyme scheme is AABB). The only other requirement of the form is that it should be light hearted or humorous.

Bentley's Biography for Beginners, published in 1905, was his first collection of verse. He followed this up with additional volumes of verse in 1929 and 1939.

Here are a couple of examples of Bentley's clerihews:

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Today's Challenge: Terse Verse

Try writing your own clerihews.

-Write one about a friend, and use in a birthday card.
-Write about someone in the news.
-Write an autobiographical one as your epitaph.
-Write one about your favorite fictional character.

Examples written by Edward Oz:

Samuel Backman
Took on Superman.
It was a long night.
He forgot his Kryptonite.

Prince Hamlet was sad
because his uncle killed his dad.
He talked to his father's ghost after dark.
Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

1 - Brandreth, Gyles. The Book of Classic Puzzles and Word Games. London: Chancellor Press, 1985.

2 - Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (Sixth Edition). New York: Macmillian, 1992.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

July 9: British Versus American English Day

Today is the anniversary of the first Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in 1877. The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club was established in Wimbledon, a suburb of London, in 1868.

The growth in popularity of lawn tennis led to the decision to hold a gentlemen's singles tournament in the summer of 1877. The rules for this first tournament, written by club member Dr. Henry Jones, established fundamental aspects of the game, such as:

-The size of the court: 78 feet by 27 feet.
-The scoring system for each game: 15, 30, 40, game.
-The number of games required to win a set: 6.
-The number of faults allowed for each service: 1.

This first tournament was won by W. Spencer Gore who was first in a field of 21 (1).

Today the Wimbledon tournament is alive and well as the world's preeminent tennis tournament and the third and final jewel in the Grand Slam of tennis. Although it is open to a host of international competitors from more than 60 nations, it remains uniquely British. For example, above the players’ entrance to Centre Court there is a quote from British poet Rudyard Kipling from his poem "If": If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

Even American television sports broadcasters refer to it as the Wimbledon fortnight. Fortnight is a British term meaning a period of two weeks.

It was Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America are "two great countries divided by a common language." Wilde was exaggerating for the sake of humor, but there certainly are distinct differences, beyond just spelling and pronunciation, in British English and American English. Fortnight is just one of 4,000 vocabulary words in common usage that differ depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on . Examples are life and elevator, dustbin and garbage can, and biscuit and cookies (2).

The first American men's champion at Wimbledon was Bill Tilden in 1930. There has not been a British men's champion since 1936.

Today's Challenge: English on Holiday (or Is that Vacation?)

See if you can translate the British words below into American English.

1. candy floss

2. to grizzle

3. inverted commas

4. to nick

5. lorry

6. pram

7. knackered

8. windscreen

9. nappy

10. torch (3)

Quotes of the Day:

-America is a country that doesn't know where it is going but is determined to set a speed record getting there. -- Laurence J. Peter

-If a playwright is funny, the English look for a serious message, and if he's serious, they look for the joke. --Sacha Guitry.

Answers. 1. cotton candy 2. to whine 3. quotation marks 4. to steal 5. truck 6. baby carriage 7. worn out 8. windshield 9. diaper 10. flashlight

1 - This Day in History, July 9, General Interest. The History Channel

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

3 - Reader's Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1983.