Monday, April 30, 2007

April 30: Spellbound Day

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

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

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

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

Spelling: The Presidential Debate
Even presidents have weighed in on correct spelling:

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

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

Today's Challenge: Bee All That You Can Bee

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

1. 1996 vivisepulture vivicepulture vivissepulture

2. 1997 uonym euonym euuonym

3. 1998 chiaroscurist chiarroscurist chiaroscurrist

4. 1999 logorhea loggorrhea logorrhea

5. 2000 demarch demarche demurch

6. 2001 succedaneum sucedaneum suckendaneum

7. 2002 prospicience prospisiense propiceince

8. 2003 pockocurante pococurante pococurent

9. 2004 autochthonous autokthonous autockthonous

10. 2005 apoggiatura appoggiatura appoggiatura

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

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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

April 29: Thesaurus Day

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

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

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

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

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

Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. No Thesaurus Day can be complete without reading Peter Roget’s original Preface to his monumental work:

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

P.M. Roget
April 29, 1852

Today’s Challenge: Synonym or Antonym?
Identify the word pairs below as synonyms or antonyms:

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 20, 2007

April 20: Urban Legends Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge: Truth or Tabloid?

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

1. Roger Ebert Wills Smithsonian His Thumbs

2. Blind Man Acts As Lookout In Failed Robber Attempt

3. Tiger’s Roar Paralyzes People

4. Paleontologists Name New Dinosaur For Rock Star

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

6. Shy Kids More Likely To Have Loudmouth Parents

7. Author Advocates Training Children Like Cats!

8. Berserk Brides-To-Be Burglarize Bridal Boutique

9. Laughter Therapist Concludes "Clowns Are Downers"

10. Collector Wears Same T-Shirt For Ten Years

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

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

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

Thursday, April 19, 2007

April 19: Revolution Day

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

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

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

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

Concord Hymn

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge: You Say You Want a Revolution

Match the words from the American Revolution from the person who said them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April 18: CliffsNotes Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge: First Impressions

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

1. This is the story of Achilles’ rage.

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

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

4. 124 was spiteful.

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

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

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

8. "Who’s there?"

9. Call me Ishmael.

10. Who is John Galt?

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April 17: Notorious Places Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Challenge: A Place for Everything
Match the ideas below with the specific place that is associated with them.

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

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

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

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

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