Thursday, March 29, 2007

March 29: Words From the Vietnam War Day

On this day in 1975 the last American soldiers left Vietnam, ending a ten-year period in which the United States dropped more bombs than during all of World War II. The long conflict and the many soldiers who fought there returned with both metals and scars, but they also returned with new words that reflected their intense experience in Southeast Asia.

In the book I Hear America Talking, Stuart Berg Flexner defines some of the key terms that came out of the Vietnam War:

Charlie: The term Viet Cong (short for Vietnamese Communist) was shortened by soldiers to V.C. Since the international phonetic alphabet used for communication designated the letter C as Charlie, and V for Victor, the enemy from North Vietnam was frequently designated Charlie.

Click: Military term for kilometer, possibly reflecting the sound of the letter K, the abbreviation for kilometer, or the clicking of a gun sight being adjusted for distance.

Defoliate: The spraying of chemicals or the use of bombs on enemy territory to destroy trees or crops, depriving the enemy of concealment or food.

Domino Theory: The belief that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, its neighbors in Southeast Asia would fall one by one, as in a row of dominoes.

Escalation: As the U.S. presence in Vietnam grew under the leadership of President Johnson, this term was used to describe the increase in troop levels. It is derived from escalator, a trademark name for a "moving staircase."

Fire fight: This term to describe a short engament replaced the common word skirmish.

Fragging: This term is derived from a commonly used weapon of the war, the fragmentation grenade. It became a verb to describe the killing of an officer by use of a grenade or any other means.

Today's Challenge: "I Love the Smell of Vocabulary In the Morning"
Use a good dictionary to look of the meaning of the following words from the Vietnam War. What do they mean, and how are they related to the conflict specifically?

My Lai

Quote of the Day: Eloquence is a painting of the thoughts. –Blaise Pascal

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 28: Eponym Day

An eponym is a word derived from a real or imaginary person. For example, the word shrapnel evolved from Henry Shrapnel, an English artillery officer who developed an exploding shell that sent out bits of metal. Most often the capitalized proper noun that refers to the specific person becomes lowercase as it is transformed into a general noun, adjective, or verb.

So, what makes March 28 a date related to the de-capitalization of words? Well, it just happens to be the birthday of the "Father of Decapitation," Joseph Ignace Guillotine (1738-1814). Ironically, this French physician was against capital punishment. He suggested the beheading device to the French Legislative Assembly with the hope that a more humane and less painful form of execution would be a logical steppingstone to the elimination of capital punishment altogether.

The words capitalization and capital punishment share a common etymology; Cap in Latin means head. Capital as it refers to letters, therefore, means head letter. Capital as it refers to capital punishment means execution by decapitation.

Challenge: Off With Their Head Letters
Use a good dictionary to look up the meanings of the following lowercase words. Also, try to find the complete capitalized first and last names of the people from whom they are derived.


Quote of the Day: Two men look through the same bars; one sees the mud, and the other the stars. –Frederick Langbridge

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

March 27: Alphabet Words Day

Today is the birthday of the Father of the X-ray, German physicist William Conrad Rontgen. The first X-ray produced was of his wife’s hand on the evening of November 8, 1895. In 1901, this X-ray visionary was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics. He did not take out patents on his discovery, nor did he want them to be called "Rontgen Rays." Instead, the rays retained the original designation "X" which Rontgen had used because they were previously unknown. More than a century later, Rontgen’s name became immortalized on the Periodic Table of Elements when the element Roentgenium was named for him in 2004.

Learn more about Rontgen at

X-ray is just one of a class of interesting words that begin with a capital letter followed by a hyphen. These words are so specialized that there does not even seem to be a clear word to describe them. The closed designation would be Initial based words; for our purposes, we'll use the term alphabet words. The term E-mail (formerly electronic mail) is certainly the most controversial of all alphabet words.

Debate still rages on the Internet about the correct way to write it. Should it be E-mail, e-mail, or email? Current consensus is towards e-mail.

In honor of the X-ray, let’s return to the X-Files. In what is probably the greatest wordplay book of all time The Word Circus, Richard Lederer notes nine different spellings of Rontgen’s letter -- further evidence that English spelling is a mess!

eks: x-ray
gz: exist
gzh: luxurious
k: except
kris: Xmas
ks: hex
ksh: anxious
z: zylophone
Silent letter: faux pas

Today's Challenge: Alphabet Words A-Z
Grab a good dictionary, and see if you can find at least one alphabet word for each letter in the alphabet.

Quote of the Day: Many a friendship -- long, loyal, and self-sacrificing -- rested at first upon no thicker a foundation than a kind word. --Frederick W. Faber

Monday, March 26, 2007

March 26: Metaphors for Life Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). Although he enrolled in college, Frost never earned a degree. He worked as a teacher, a cobbler, and an editor. Of course he is best known for his work as a poet, and, next to Shakespeare, he might just be the most quoted and anthologized poet of all time.

For more on the life of Frost, visit The Academy of American Poets at

Like all great poets, Frost explores the universal themes of humanity in his poems. For example, in The Road Not Taken he uses the metaphor of the road to explore the theme of choices made over a lifetime:


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, andI--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--Robert Frost

Today's Challenge -- Life is But a Dream:
In celebration of Frost's life, WLA challenges you to write your own metaphor for life. You can write your metaphor as a poem or write it in complete sentences. The key to a successful metaphor is to show a connection between two words that we normally don't associate with each other. For example, you might compare life to a game, a battle, a classroom, a banana, a building, a race, a book, a fire, an alphabet, or even a lunch box.

Here are two simple steps for writing a metaphor from the best book on poetry writing I know: Writing Poetry by Shelley Tucker (Goodyear Books 1992) :

How to Write a Metaphor

Definition: A metaphor is a comparison between to unrelated nouns.

Step 1. Write out your two unrelated nouns: Example: Life is a song.

Step 2: Expand and elaborate on your metaphor by asking yourself Who? What? When? Where? Why? or How?


Life is a song with a consistant melody, but constantly changing lyrics.

Life is a punk rock song -- sung acappella.

Life is a song that you write yourself but that you sing with others.

Quote of the Day: The game of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor hand well. --H.T. Leslie

Sunday, March 25, 2007

March 25: Celebration of Greek Roots Day

Today is Greek Independence Day. After rebelling against the imperial rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks declaired their independence on March 25, 1821. Whether or not we have Greek ancestors, all of us are indepted to the Greeks for their contributions to civilization; democracy, tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are just a sampling Greek inventions that changed the world.

The English language is another area that owes a dept of graititude to the Greeks. While they did not invent the alphabet, the Greeks certainly adapted and perfected it after acquiring it from the Phonecians around 800 B.C. According to David Sacks excellent book, Language Visible: Untraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z, the Greeks' key adaptation was the addition of vowels: "The Greeks bequeathed to the West an alphabet that had been adapted to an Indo-European language (Greek) and was therefore accessible to other European tongues. Specifically, the Greeks had introduced vowel letters -- the equivalents of our A, E, I, O, and U -- where earlier, Semitic versions of the alphabet had contained none. Vowel letters brought the alphabet forward to a point where it could be fitted to most other languages." And of course one of those European tongues was English.

In addition to the "alphabet," the Greeks contributed several other key words used to describe language:

Words about Words and Writing
(Definitions from Success With Words: A Guide to The American Language. Published by Reader's Digest, 1983).

Alphabet: From the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

Dialect: The regional or social variety of a language.

Etymology: Word history.

Grammar: The structure of language.

Homonym: Words that have the same form but different meaning. Literally "same name."

Idiom: An expression that is traditionally correct but that does not necessarily follow general rules, from idios = private.

Poem: A composition written in meter or rhythm.

Rhetoric: The art of public speaking or the study of effective writing.

Synonym: A word that means the same thing as another.

Syntax: The branch of grammar dealing with the grouping and ordering of words.

Today's Challenge: It's Greek to Me

Grab a dictionary and search out words beginning with the Greek prefixes listed below. Try to find at least three examples for each prefix.

anti (against)
auto (self)
chrono (time)
geo (earth)
hemi (half)
hetero (different)
micro (small)
hydro (water)
philo (love)
phono (sound)
photo (light)
physio (nature)
poly (much, many)
psycho (mind)
tele (distance)

Quote of the Day: Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek. --Gus Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

March 24: Mash-up Day

Today we look at a word that you will not find in the dictionary – yet! According to Newsweek, the word "mash-up" was coined in 2001 by DJ Freelance Hellraiser who used Christian Aguilera’s vocals from ‘Genie in a Bottle’ and "recorded [them] over the instrumentals from ‘Hard to Explain.’" Mash-up is not just a musical term, however. A mash-up applies to any combination of two or more forms of media: music, film, television, computer program, etc.

So what does March 24 have to do with this strange new term? Well, on this date in 1973, Pink Floyd released its groundbreaking Dark Side of the Moon album. Later -- no one really knows when – someone came up with the crazy idea of combining, or ‘mashing,’ the Pink Floyd album with the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The fans of this mash-up claim over a 100 different moments where Pink Floyd’s music and lyrics oddly coincide with events and actions in the film. For example, when Mrs. Gulch first appears riding her bicycle, the bells and chimes at the beginning of the song "Time" begin to sound.

To learn more, do a Google search of "Dark Side of the Rainbow." "Mash-up" is just one example of a neologism, a new word that is created to describe some kind of phenomenon, concept, or invention. Some of these words have the lifespan of a common housefly, but others, if they are used enough, eventually are catalogued and included in the English lexicon.

Wordsmiths at the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, have the "rule of five" to guide their decision about whether or not to publish a neologism in the dictionary. According to the rule, the word must be published in at least five different sources over a five-year period. As a result, lexicographers are always reading, searching for potential new additions to the dictionary.

If you want to be ahead of the curve on new words, check out the web site The site is maintained by Paul McFedries, a technical writer with an obvious love of language. Here is the description of his site in his own words: Wordspy "is devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases. These aren't 'stunt words' or 'sniglets,' but new terms that have appeared multiple times in newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites, and other recorded sources."

Challenge: Mother Tongue Lashing
Here is a lexical mash-up I call Mother Tongue Lashing. It takes advantage of the wealth of compound words and expressions in English. For each pair of words below, name a word that can follow the first word and precede the second one to complete a compound word or a familiar two-word phrase.

Jelly __________ Bag.

Bean - Jelly Bean, Bean Bag

1. Life __________ Travel
2. Punk __________ Candy
3. Green _________ Tack
4. Rest __________ Work
5. Light __________ Book
6. Rock __________ Dust
7. Spelling __________ Sting
8. Night __________ House

Create your own Mother Tongue Lashings. Use a dictionary to make sure that you have two-word expressions or compound words, not just two-word combinations.

Quote of the Day: A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him --Sidney Greenberg

Friday, March 23, 2007

March 23: Meteorological Metaphors Day

Today is World Meteorological Day, celebrating the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization founded in 1950. Weather is literally all around us, but it is also figuratively all around us and in us, especially in our everyday language.

Look at the expressions below:

A port in storm
Chase rainbows
Cloud nine
Cloud of suspicion
Fair-weather friend
Head in the clouds
Greased lightning
Shoot the breeze
A snow job
Steal someone’s thunder
Tempest in a teapot
Under the weather

Each expression refers to an aspect of weather; however, the actual meaning of each expression has nothing to do with literal weather. For example, a "snow job" is an attempted deception, not a task you need a snow shovel for.

On Metrological Metaphor Day, listen to the words people speak around you. Are they borrowing weather adjectives to describe the stormy mood of their boss or the sunny disposition of their best friend? What other adjectives might fit this category: inclement, icy, hazy . . . ? Can you think of more expressions or adjectives to add to the above list?

Challenge: "Over the Rainbow"
Weather might just be the most common metaphor for song writers. List song titles that use weather as a metaphor in the title or the lyrics. Here are the lyrics to a great Bruce Springsteen song to get you started:

Waitin' On A Sunny Day

It's rainin' but there ain't a cloud in the sky
Musta been a tear from your eye
Everything'll be okay
Funny thought I felt a sweet summer breeze
Musta been you sighin' so deep
Don't worry we're gonna find a way

I'm waitin', waitin' on a sunny day
Gonna chase the clouds away
Waitin' on a sunny day

Without you I'm workin' with the rain fallin' down
Half a party in a one dog town
I need you to chase the blues away
Without you I'm a drummer girl that can't keep a beat
And ice cream truck on a deserted street
I hope that you're coming to stay

I'm waitin', waitin' on a sunny day
Gonna chase the clouds away
Waitin' on a sunny day

Hard times baby, well they come to tell us all
Sure as the tickin' of the clock on the wall
Sure as the turnin' of the night into day
Your smile girl, brings the mornin' light to my eyes
Lifts away the blues when I rise
I hope that you're coming to stay

Quote of the Day: Time is a storm in which we are all lost. --William C. Williams

Thursday, March 22, 2007

March 22: Poetry 180 Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Billy Collins. He was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. Born in 1941 in Queens, New York, Collins didn’t publish his first book, The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), until he was in his forties.

As poet laureate, Collins created a unique anthology to revive verse in American schools, called Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. With this program Collins set out to end the notion that high school is "the place where poetry goes to die." Instead, he wanted students to see that poetry was meant to be read for enjoyment, read aloud over the school intercom, and shared. In short, Collins hoped to "suggest to young people the notion that poetry can be a part of everyday life as well as a subject to be studied in the classroom."

Collins published a second anthology of poems in 2005 so that readers can enjoy year-round poetry. It’s called: 180 More: Extraordinary Poems.

To visit Poetry 180 online go to: To honor Poetry 180 Day and Billy Collins vision, read at least one poem aloud. Read it to your family at dinner, read it to your colleagues around the water cooler, or grab a megaphone and shout it from the rooftops!

Here’s a short poem to get you started:


The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
--Robert Frost

Today's Challenge: Today is also the birthday of Canadian actor William Shatner (born 1931). In honor of the man who brought us Where. No. Man. Has. Gone. Before. Select a short poem and recite it like the captain – as though Every. Word. Is. Its. Own. Sentence.

Quote of the Day: Every word was once a poem. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21: New Words from the '50s Day

The decade of the '50s was full of changes is culture and technology; these changes impacted the English language in the form of neologisms, new words that eventually entered the dictionary and our everday English lexicon. One prime example is rock 'n' roll.

Today is the anniversary of the first rock concert, held in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 21, 1952. The concert, called the Moondog Coronation Ball, was organized by Alan Freed, Cleveland disc jockey and reported originator of the now classic Americanism "Rock and Roll." Freed organized the event in honor of his loyal listeners, the Moondoggers, and himself, the King of the Moondoggers. Tickets were under $2.00, but counterfeiting of tickets created confusion, fights, and chaos in the Cleveland Arena. Legitimate ticket holders attempted to force their way into the arena, resulting in broken doors and windows. After only one song, by John "Hucklebuck" Williams, fire marshals shut the entire concert down.

On this date, which some mark as the birthday of rock ‘n’ roll, we honor the many new words that came out of the 1950s.

The Oxford Press book of 20th Century Words lists the following examples of words that entered the dictionary in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Decade:

Big Bang
Biological clock
Credit card
Fast food
Freudian slip
Junk mail
Murphy’s law
Walter Mitty
World War III

Today's Challenge: List as many words, phrases, or associations as you can for the word "rock."

Quote of the Day: Rock and Roll: Music for the neck downwards. --Keith Richards.