Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30: Memorial Day

Today is the anniversary of the celebration of the first Memorial Day in 1868. American General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30th a day "designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land."

It wasn’t until after World War I that the holiday became a national day, honoring not just the Civil War dead, but also those who served in any war.

On this day of remembrance a few mnemonic devices might be helpful. No, you can’t buy them in stores. A mnemonic device is a method of remembering something that is difficult to remember by remembering something that is easy to remember.

The word mnemonic is from the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne.

In his book WASPLEG and Other Mnemonics, Bart Benne catalogs hundreds of mnemonic devices. To make things easy to remember, these mnemonic devices use different methods such as rhyme, acrostics, or acronyms. Another method is the nonsense sentence made up from the initial letters of what it is you are trying to remember. Here’s an example of a sentence that was created to remember the most important battles of Julius Caesar’s career:

Is Perpetual Zeal The Means?

I Ilerda
P Pharsalus
Z Zeta
T Thapsus
M Munda

Generations of school children have used the rhyme from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" to remember the start date of the American Revolution:

Listen my children and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Rhyming couplets are helpful in remembering key dates in English history:

William the Conqueror, Ten Sixty-Six
Played on the Saxons oft-cruel tricks.

The Spanish Armada met its fate
In Fifteen Hundred and Eighty-Eight

The acronym "BIGOT" helps in remembering the Marine campaigns in the Pacific in World War II:

Iwo Jima

Another mnemonic device helps both soldiers and civilians remember the order of the major rank structures in the U.S. Army from lowest to highest ranking.

Privates Can’t Salute Without Learning Correct Military Command Grades:

Warrant Officer,
and General (2).

Today’s Challenge: Rhyme, Acrostics, and Acronyms Oh My!
Think of something you need to remember, or something that everyone should remember, and create your own mnemonic device.

Quote of the Day: Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good. --Friedrich Nietzsche


1 -

2 - Benne, Bart. WASPLEG and Other Mnemonics. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1988.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

May 23: Sleep-in Day

Today is the birthday of Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) who discovered animal magnetism and whose work influenced the development of hypnosis. Animal magnetism was the term used to describe the mysterious magnetic powers that Mesmer claimed he could control to cure ailments. He did several public demonstrations of his art, but was pressured to leave Vienna by the medical community. He moved to Paris to continue his work, but in 1784 a scientific panel examined his practices and proclaimed that they had no basis in science.

Mesmer died in Switzerland in 1815, but thirty years after his death Scottish physician James Braid adapted Mesmer’s ideas and invented the procedure known as hypnosis. Braid also coined the terms hypnotism, hypnotize, and hypnotist (1).

Although Franz Mesmer is hardly a household name, he has become a part of the English lexicon. The verb mesmerize, meaning to 'spellbind or enthrall,' comes from Mesmer, his experiments, and his public demonstrations of his art. Mesmerize is another example of an eponym, a word derived from the name of a real or imaginary person (See Word Daze, March 28: Eponym Day).

James Braid might have used Mesmer’s name to describe his work; but instead, Braid turned to Greek mythology to describe his practice of inducing sleep in his patients. In Greek Mythology Hypnos was the god of sleep and the son of Zeus and Nyx, the goddess who personified night.

The Roman equivalent of Hypnos is Somnus, the source of the adjectives somniferous (inducing sleep) and somnolent (drowsy; sleepy). The Roman god of sleep also inspired the verb somnambulate, meaning to sleep walk.

The common word "sleep" as you might have guessed is from Old English.

Because sleep is an activity that we spend roughly one third of our life engaged in, it has been a frequent theme in literature. Probably the most famous example is Shakespeare’s Scottish play, where Macbeth, after he has killed King Duncan, rhapsodizes on the importance of sleep:

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep' -- the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
(Act II.ii.47-52)

Today’s Challenge: I’m Only Sleeping
Below are descriptions of literary characters (and one place) that come under the category of ‘sleep’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. See if you can identify the name of each character (2).

1. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he snoozed all through the tea party.

2. Washington Irving character who slept for twenty years before waking.

3. From the Bible, its east of Eden and the place where Cain was banished after he killed Abel.

4. A Shakespearean character who sleepwalks and is troubled by guilt after urging her husband to kill the king.

5. A princess from a fairy tale who has a spell put on her by a wicked fairy.

6. Another Shakespearean character, she was queen of the fairies. While she sleeps Oberon drops magic flower juice in her eyes.

7. The Roman god of dreams, son of Somnus.

8. A character from children’s stories who sprinkles a magical substance in their eyes to make them sleepy.

Quote of the Day: Good communication is a stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after. –Ann Lindberg

Answers: 1. The Dormouse 2. Rip Van Winkle 3. The Land of Nod 4. Lady Macbeth5. Sleeping Beauty 6. Titania 7. Morpheus 8. The Sandman

1 -

2 - Delahunty, Andrew, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Monday, May 21, 2007

May 21: Defenestration Day

It's not often that we can trace the precise day and year that a word was born, but one particularly interesting word was born on this day in 1618. The word word is defenestration which means: The act of throwing something or someone out the window.

Just before the beginning of The Thirty Years War, a war in which Roman Catholics and Protestants battled for political and religious power, Protestant nobles threw two members of the Roman Catholic royal council and their secretary from a window in Hradcany Castle in Prague. The good news concerning this momentous defenestration is that no one was hurt (1).

The word defenestration comes to us from Latin: de-, out + fenestra, window.

The word window comes to English via Old Norse vindauga: vindr, wind + auga, eye. Window is also a kenning, a figurative device used figurately in Old English and Old Norse where a compound expression is used in place of a noun. They are found frequently in poetic epics like Beowulf, but we also create them today. For example, here are some modern kennings: boob tube, fat pill, gas guzzler, and gut bomb.

One interesting new meaning of defenestration that has appeared recently on the Internet but not in the dictionary - yet - is: The act of removing a Windows operating system from a computer in order to install an alternative one (2).

Today's Challenge: A Verb of Your Own
Defenestrate is not a word you hear or read everyday, but it is an example of an action verb that relates to a very specific action, such as David Letterman defenstrating TVs, watermelons, or rotten eggs. Your task today is to create one or more new action verbs. Start by thinking of an action that we don't have a single verb for in English, such as "to sneeze quietly." You might also think of some type of action that is a reletively new activity, such as: to get stuck in a fast food drive through lane without enough money to pay for your meal. Once you have a definition, set your mind to coming up with one new verb to describe it.

Quote of the Day: Three-fourths of the people you will ever meet are hungering and thirsting for appreciation. Give it to them and they will love you. --Dale Carnegie

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

2 -

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May 16: Biographer's Day

Today is the anniversary of the first meeting between Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the author of the landmark Dictionary of the English Language, and his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795). The two men met in Davies’s London bookshop in 1763, and established a relationship that would allow Boswell to produce what is recognized as the greatest biography ever written: The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791.

The word biography is Greek (bio = life + graph = writing)

A number of words feature the graph root as it relates to writing. Here are words and definitions from English Vocabulary Quick Reference by Roger S. Crutchfield (1):

Autobiography: The story of one’s life written by oneself (auto-, self)

Autograph: Written or made with one’s own hand, as a signature (auto- self)Bibliography: A list of writings (biblio- book)

Cacography: Illegible handwriting (caco, poor)

Cryptography: The art or science of writing and deciphering secret codes (crypto, secret)

Dysgraphia: Impairment of the ability to write (dys-, impaired)

Hagiography: Biographies written about saints (hagio, holy)

Lexicography: The branch of linguistics dealing wit the writing or compiling of dictionaries (lex, word)

Orthography: Correct spelling (ortho, correct)

If you are a bit behind on your reading of biography, an excellent way to get caught up is to read the book 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. As the title suggests, this excellent book features 1,000 mini-biographies that are models of concise and clear prose. In addition, the authors created what they call the BioGraph System of ranking each of the 1,000 people. To lend some objectivity to their process, they created a list of five specific criteria and awarded points in each category. For example, number one on the list is Johannes Gutenberg with a score of 21,768 and number 1,000 is Andy Warhol with 1,000 points (2).

Criteria for Inclusion in the Top 1,000 People of the Millennium:

1. Lasting Influence 10,000

2. Effect on the sum total of wisdom and beauty in the world: 5,000

3. Influence on contemporaries: 5,000

4. Singularity of contribution: 3,000

5. Charisma: 2,000

Today’s Challenge: Biomania
Each name listed below has his or her biography in 1,000 Years, 1,000 People. Which one person in each of the pairs do you think is rated higher?

1. Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck?

2. Bob Dylan or T.S. Eliot?

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower or Winston Churchill?

4. Nicholas Copernicus or Galilieo Galilei?

5. William Shakespeare or Francis Bacon?

6. Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton?

7. Ludwig van Beethoven or Johann Sebastian Bach?

8. Leonardo Da Vinci or Pablo Picasso?

9. Albert Einstein or Thomas Alva Edison?

10. George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?

11. Karl Marx or Mohandas K. Gandhi?

12. Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung?

13. Adolph Hitler or Genghis Khan?

14. John Milton or Geoffrey Chaucer?

15. Marco Polo or Ferdinand Magellan?

16. John Calvin or Martin Luther?

17. Charles Dickens or Fyodor Dostoyevsky?

18. Alexander Graham Bell or Marie Curie?

19. Joseph Stalin or Niccolo Machiavelli?

20. Susan B. Anthony or Eleanor Roosevelt?

Quote of the Day: Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. –William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night.

1. Ernest Hemingway 388 or John Steinbeck 901
2. Bob Dylan 888 or T.S. Eliot 720
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower 374 or Winston Churchill 38
4. Nicholas Copernicus 18 or Galilieo Galilei 4
5. William Shakespeare 5 or Francis Bacon 412
6. Charles Darwin 7 or Isaac Newton 6
7. Ludwig van Beethoven 10 or Johann Sebastian Bach 35
8. Leonardo Da Vinci 9 or Pablo Picasso 149
9. Albert Einstein 17 or Thomas Alva Edison 28
10. George Washington 22 or Thomas Jefferson 64
11. Karl Marx 14 or Mohandas K. Gandhi 12
12. Sigmund Freud 17 or Carl Jung 146
13. Adolph Hitler 20 or Genghis Khan 43
14. John Milton 53 or Geoffrey Chaucer 62
15. Marco Polo 66 or Ferdinand Magellan 42
16. John Calvin 69 or Martin Luther 3
17. Charles Dickens 70 or Fyodor Dostoyevsky 77
18. Alexander Graham Bell 74 or Marie Curie 75
19. Joseph Stalin 82 or Niccolo Machiavelli 40
20. Susan B. Anthony 139 or Eleanor Roosevelt 141

1 – Crutchfield, Roger S. English Vocabulary Quick Reference. Leesburg, VA: LexaDyne Publishers, Inc., 1999.

2 - Gottlieb, Agnes Hooper, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. New York: Kodansha International, 1998.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

May 15: Beatles' Trivia Day

What do Jesus Christ, San Francisco, and a Russian spacecraft have in common? The answer is: The Beatles, who released their last album, Let It Be, in the United States on this date in 1970.

The story of this odd threesome begins with Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount where he issued his Beatitudes (from Latin beatitudo for 'happiness'). These statements are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and each begins with the word Blessed ( or Happy), as in "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God."

San Francisco
Flash forward to the West Coast in the 1950s. A group of young writers and artists attempt to rattle the conventional cages of their elders. Through self-expression and social protest they make a name for themselves, and one of them, American writer Jack Kerouac, coins the term beat generation in 1952. As cited in Twentieth Century Words, Kerouac associated the word beat with beatitude: "Beat means beatitude, not beat up."

Five years later, the Russians shock the world with the launch of the first artificial earth satellite. They call their satellite Sputnik, meaning ‘traveling companion.’ When news of the satellite’s launch on October 4, 1957 hits the newspapers, this Russian word is instantly absorbed into the English lexicon.

In 1958, San Francisco columnist Herb Caen blends the ‘beat generation’ with ‘Sputnik’ to create beatnik, a catchy term to describe young bohemians like Jack Kerouac.

Two years later across the Atlantic, a fledging group of musicians from Liverpool, England settle on the name Beatles. Despite John Lennon’s claim that the name came to him in a vision of a man riding on a flaming pie, it appears more likely that the name was influenced by one of John’s favorite bands, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Looking for something catchy, they originally used Beetles, but no doubt the pun value of ‘beat’ got the better of them, influencing them to become the Beatles with an A.

Unlike Sputnik, the British band’s name did not become an instant household word. Their launch had to wait until 1963 when Beatlemania became first a British epidemic and later, in 1964, an American and worldwide pandemic (1).

In 1970, however, the world mourned as the Beatles came crashing to earth. John, Paul, George, and Ringo dissolved what was without a doubt the most popular, successful, and influential band of all time.

Even though decades have passed since the breakup of the Beatles, there is no waning of the passion for their music; for example, in the year 2000, 30 years after their breakup, the Beatles’ greatest hits CD Beatles 1 hit number one on the Billboard Album Charts. For Beatles fans, the term Beatles trivia is a contradiction in terms. For them reading about and listening to the Beatles is anything but a trivial pursuit. For the Beatle fan, knowledge about the Beatles is just as important as any other category of E.D. Hirsh’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

The word trivia has an interesting history in its own right that relates to is roots. Originating from the Latin trivialis, it is made up of tri meaning three and via meaning roads. What do three roads have to do with the modern sense of ‘unimportant tidbits of information’? Where else than at the crossroads would common people meet to exchange weather reports, small talk, and gossip?

Today’s Challenge: Don’t Call It Trivia
See if you can answer the vital Beatles questions below.

1. What poet, read during his childhood, did John Lennon credit with his creative wordplay in such songs as "I Am the Walrus"?

2. What solo album by Paul McCartney got its title from John Lennon’s story about the vision that inspired the naming of the Beatles?

3. Although Let It Be was the last album release by the Beatles, it was not the last that they recorded; what was the last album they recorded together?

4. What Beatle catchphrase did Paul McCartney’s father object to because of its non-standard usage?

5. What is the name of the record label created by the Beatles that went to court to fight the dilution of its trademark against a computer company?

6. What Beatle song is the anthem for frustrated writers?

7. What was the title of the first book published by John Lennon in 1964?

8. Which Beatle said, "I am alive and well and concerned about the rumors of my death. But if I were dead, I would be the last to know"?

9. Which Beatle said, "I hardly ever alter anything because I'm selfish about what I write, or big-headed about it. Once I've written it, I like it. And the publisher sometimes says, 'Should we leave this out, or change that?' and I fight like mad, because once I've done it I like to keep it. But I always write it straight off. I might add things when I go over it before it's published, but I seldom take anything out. So it is spontaneous"?

10. What Beatles’ song and movie got its title from a Ringo Star malapropism?

Quote of the Day: Why tell me why did you not treat me right? Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight! -- from the Beatles’ song "I’m Looking Through You."

Answers: 1. Lewis Carroll 2. Flaming Pie 3. Abbey Road 4. yeah, yeah, yeah 5. Apple Records 6. Paperback Writer 7. In His Own Write 8. Paul McCartney 9. John Lennon 10. A Hard Day's Night

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

Monday, May 14, 2007

May 14: Native American Words Day

Today is the anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first English speaking settlement in the New World. Three ships arrived on May 14, 1607 at a wooded island island in the James River. Life was not easy for these English settlers, and they almost succumbed to the same fate as an earlier group of settlers at Roanoke. That group had landed off the coast of North Carolina in 1584 and by 1590 had vanished without a trace. The settlers at Jamestown were more lucky; in 1610 Lord De La Warr (Delaware) arrived in time to resupply the 35 remaining colonists (1, 2).

The natives peoples of what is now the United States spoke hundreds of different languages, and although English has never been declared the official language of the United States, it certainly has supplanted all native languages. There are, however, a few words from the native peoples that were adopted into English; most of these were adopted in the period of early colonization by settlers like those at Jamestown. For the most part these words are from the Algonquian dialects and reflect Indian names for plants and animals or unique artifacts and social practices of Indian life.

The word moose is one example to describe the very large northern deer. Another example is succotash which originates from the Algonquian word meaning 'cooked corn kernels.'

Today's Challenge: New World Words
Below are examples of native words in their original spellings. See if you can detect the modern English equivalents of these words.

1. isquoutersquash
2. ocheck
3. arathkon
4. segakw
5. pakan
6. pawcohiccora
7. aposum
8. mohkussin (3)

Quote of the Day: Power is sweet, it is a drug, the desire for which increases with habit. --Bertrand Russell

Answers: 1. squash 2. woodchuck 3. Raccoon 4. skunk 5. pecan 6. hickory 7. opossum 8. moccasin

1 - McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

2 - Flavell, Linda and Roger. The Chronology of Words and Phrases. London: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1999.

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

Friday, May 11, 2007

May 11: Classic Movie Lines Day

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was founded on this day in 1927. The mission of this professional organization is the advancement of the arts and sciences of motion pictures.

The AMPAS is best known for its annual ceremony the Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars. By the time of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1928, movies had become a vital part of the culture.

Below are examples of movie-related words that entered the language as motion pictures evolved into a staple of modern life:

cinema (1909)

feature film (1911)

movie (1912)

talkie (1913)

movie house (1914)

movie theater (1915)

movie star (1914)

Hollywood (1926)

flick (1926)

Oscar (1936) (1)

In an essay entitle "Yadda Yadda Doo" from his book The Way We Talk Now, Geoffrey Nunberg compares the lifespan of movie lines to television catch phrases. According to Nunberg, television catch phrases come and go, like the shows from which they spawn. But movie lines have a longer life, and when they enter the language, they take on a life of their own; for example, "a lot of people use the line ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,’ but not many of them could identify it as a quote, or actually a misquote, from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (2). Like dead metaphors, movie lines become imbedded in the cultural vocabulary of all of us.

Today’s Challenge: "We’ll Always Have the Movies."

The following classic movie lines are from the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 Movie Lines of All Time. See if you can identify the movie that goes with each line (3).

1. #11 What we've got here is failure to communicate.

2. #16 They call me Mister Tibbs!

3. #29 You can't handle the truth!

4. #32 Round up the usual suspects.

5. #50 Houston, we have a problem.

6. #64 Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

7. #95 Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

8. #100 I'm king of the world!

Quote of the Day: Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. --Forrest Gump

Answers: 1. Cool Hand Luke 2. In the Head of the Night 3. A Few Good Men 4. Casablanca 5. Apollo 13 6. Dr. Strangelove 7. Dead Poets' Society 8. Titanic

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

2 Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Way We Talk Now. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

3. American Film Institute

Thursday, May 10, 2007

May 10: Words from Winston Churchill Day

On this day in 1940, Winston Churchill took the office of British Prime Minister, replacing Neville Chamberlain. On the same day Hitler began his Western offensive, storming into Holland and Belgium with 136 German divisions. By June 15, 1940, the Germans were in Paris, and the fate of the English speaking people and civilization itself was in the hands of Sir Winston Churchill.

Through his leadership, his optimistic voice, and, possibly most important, his words, Churchill helped the British to rally against the dark threat of Nazi Germany.

Three days after taking the helm of Prime Minister, Churchill entered the House of Commons to a lukewarm reception. In a brief speech, Churchill demonstrated the indomitable spirit that would continue to buoy the spirits of the British people as they faced the threat of Nazi domination.

Here is an excerpt from his address:

I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Let that be realized. No survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge, the impulse of the ages, that mankind shall move forward toward his goal.

I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. I feel entitled at this juncture, at this time, to claim the aid of all and to say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

For the complete text of Churchill’s address, visit

According to Gretchen Ruben, author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, the Prime Minster’s greatest strength was his genius with words. Churchill clearly understood the power of words. He once said, "Words are the only things which last forever." In fact, his words live on; no other author, for example, has more quotations in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

President John F. Kennedy said, "Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

He had an expansive vocabulary, and although he sometimes used anachronistic words he knew the right time to employ the plain, short Anglo-Saxon lexicon; he said, "Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all" (1).

In addition to his eloquence and excellent diction, Churchill also is memorable for his ability to use humor when appropriate. One classic example involves English grammar. When an editor objected to his ending a sentence with a preposition, Churchill wrote the following note in the margin: "This is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put."

Today’s Challenge: Churchill: Man or Myth?
Read the following quotes below. Some are often attributed to Churchill, but in reality were never said by him. See if you can tell Churchill's true words from his false.

1. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

2. "The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash."

3. "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."

4. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

5. "All this contains much that is obviously true, and much that is relevant; unfortunately, what is obviously true is not relevant, and what is relevant is not obviously true."

6. "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.''

7. "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

8. Lady Astor: "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee." Winston: "Nancy, if I were your husband I'd drink it."

Quote of the Day: A speech is like a symphony. It may have three movements but must have one dominant melody. –Winston Churchill

1. From a speech Churchill gave on March 5, 1946 Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
2. Not Churchill. Said by Churchill's assistant, Anthony Montague-Browne.
3. Not Churchill
4. Speech made in the House of Commons as the Battle Britain peaked on August 20, 1940.
5. Not Churchill
6. Churchill gave this extremely short speech at his old school, Harrow on October 29, 1941.
7. Churchill’s Speech about Dunkirk given in House of Commons June 4, 1940. 8. Vintage Winston Churchill

1 - Rubin, Gretchen. Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. New York: Random House, 2003.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9: Turn Off the TV Day

Today is the anniversary of a memorable speech by Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the National Association of Broadcasters. The year was 1961, and Newton did not have many good things to say about commercial television. His speech, where he called television "a vast wasteland," sparked a national debate about the quality, or lack there of, of television programming.

Since Minow’s speech, television has been called the idiot box and the boob tube. Television viewers have become couch potatoes (1979), and the number of channels has grown to more than 500, but "nothing is on."

Here's an excerpt from Minow's indictment:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.

To see the entire speech go to:

While Minow’s phrase "a vast wasteland" caught on, his speech certainly did not discourage the growth of television sets in American homes. In an age of reality television, satellite television, and 24-hour sports and cable new stations, television is more popular than ever.

One question that has been asked by educators since the advent of commercial television is: What is the relationship between television viewing and reading? One particularly interesting answer to this question was given by Norman Mailer in the January 23, 2005 edition of Parade Magazine. In the article Mailer says that the one thing that he would do to change America for the better would be to get rid of television commercials. Mailer argues that the constant interruptions of commercials disrupt our children’s ability to read effectively by denying them something that is necessary for reading: concentration.

Here is an excerpt from Mailer’s Parade essay:

Television is seen as the culprit, since the ability to read well is directly related to one’s ability to learn. If it is universally understood that the power to concentrate while reading is the royal road to knowledge, what may not be perceived as clearly is how much concentration itself is a species of psychic strength. It can be developed or it can go soft in much the manner that body muscle can be built up or allowed to go slack. The development of physical ability is in direct relation to use. Reading offers its analogy. When children become interested in an activity, their concentration is firm—until it is interrupted. Sixty years ago, children would read for hours. Their powers of concentration developed as naturally as breathing. Good readers became very good readers, even as men and women who go in for weight-lifting will bulk up. The connection between loving to read and doing well in school was no mystery to most students . . . . On the major networks, the amount of time given to commercials and other promotional messages increased by 36 percent from 1991 to 2003. Each of the four major networks now offers 52 minutes of commercials in the three hours from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day. It is equal to saying that every seven, 10 or 12 minutes, our attention to what is happening on the tube is cut into by a commercial. It is as bad for most children’s shows. Soon enough, children develop a fail-safe. Since the child knows that any interesting story will soon be amputated by a kaleidoscope of toys, food, dolls, clowns, new colors and the clutter of six or seven wholly different products all following one another in 10-, 20- and 30-second spots all the way through a three-minute break, the child also comes to recognize that concentration is not one’s friend but is treacherous. For soon enough, attention will be turned inside out. The need to get up and move can become a frantic if routine response for highly keyed children. Other kids, stupefied by the onslaught of a quick series of ads that have nothing to do with each other, suffer a dire spiritual product—stagnation. They sit on the couch in a stupor, they eat and drink, and alarms are sounded through the nation. Our children are becoming obese.

To see the complete text of Mailer's article go to:

Today’s Challenge: Trivial TV Tidbits
It should be noted that no one on the Word Daze staff has owned a television since 1992. In fact nowhere in the palatial offices of Word Daze Plaza is there anything resembling an idiot box. Try your hand at the questions below, and congratulate yourself if you get none of them correct.

1. What word uttered repeatedly by Homer Simpson was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001?

2. Who was on the cover of the first edition of TV Guide, published on April 3, 1953?

3. What is the most watched TV episode of all time?

4. What TV Theme song hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1976?

5. "I’ll see you all in the cafeteria." Is the final line of what TV series?

6. What country watches the most TV?

7. What was the first image shown on television?

8. What was the first TV series to broadcast a rerun?

9. What television series features a boat named after Newton Minow?

Quote of the Day: Television is a new medium. It's called a medium because nothing is well-done. --Fred Allen

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

Answers: 1. "Doh" 2. Desi Arnez, Jr. 3. MASH 4. Welcome Back, Kotter 5. Seinfled 6. Japan (an average of 4 hours, 29 minutes) 7. A statue of Felix the Cat 8. Dick Tracy 9. Gilligan's Island (the S.S. Minow)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May 1: Paradox Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1961 publication of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. In the novel the anti-hero Captain Yossarian serves in the United States Air Force on a Mediterranean island near Italy during World War II. In order to survive the war, Yossarian attempts to avoid flying on the dangerous bombing missions. His efforts are thwarted, however, by the paradoxical rule called Catch-22, explained in the following excerpt from the novel:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

According to Twentieth Century Words, the expression catch-22 to refer to "a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating" began to gain widespread use in the 1970s after the release of a film version of the novel in 1970 (1). The fact that the title of a novel took on a life of its own and developed a generic meaning in the language is a unique occurrence. For example, even a person who has never heard of Yossarian or Heller’s novel might be aware of the expression. After a job interview, for example, a frustrated teenager might return home and tell his mother: "They won’t hire me unless I have experience, but how can I get experience if no one will hire me? I’m caught in a catch-22."

A catch-22, then, is a 'damed if you do, damed if you don't' type of situation. It's a no-win situation; a chicken and egg problem that traps you in a double bind of circular logic wrapping around a conundrum. In other words, it's a kind of paradox.

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet is true. In a paradox, truth and falsehood collide and synthesize into wisdom. Great quotes, great poetry, and great speeches of all kinds are full of paradox. The etymology of paradox is Greek paradoxon meaning conflicting with expectation. For an excellent anthology of paradoxes, get the book Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. In this book Dr. Mardy Grothe has collected over one thousand examples of paradoxical quotes, including the following one from Joseph Heller: When I grow up I want to be a little boy.

Today’s Challenge: True Lies
The paradoxical quotes below are from classic literary authors. See if you can guess the author of each quote:

1. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

2. I must be cruel only to be kind.

3. Even amongst men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

4. Several excuses are always less convincing than one.

5. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

6. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

7. I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

8. The best place to hide anything is in plain view.

9. He is an honorable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly reasonable man.

10. The handsome gifts that fate and nature lend us most often are the very ones that end us.

Quote of the Day: If you want to be true to life, start lying about it. -- John Fowles

1. William Shakespeare 2. William Shakespeare 3. Joseph Heller 4. Aldous Huxley 5. Ken Kesey 6. George Orwell 7. J. D. Salinger 8. Edgar Allen Poe 9. Charles Dickens 10. John Fowles

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

2-Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.