Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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.

Sales of the seven books in Harry Potter saga 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

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)

Monday, July 30, 2007

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 ten titles Lane proposed were considered too 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

Sunday, July 29, 2007

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

Answers: 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

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

Saturday, July 28, 2007

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 used interchangeably 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, especially the sea. Turtle or Tortoise?

7. A large, flesh-eating lizard-like 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.

Friday, July 27, 2007

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). Smog is just one example of a class of English words know as blends (a.k.a. portmanteau words).

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 -

Thursday, July 26, 2007

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.

What does all this have to do with the word "Ghoti"? To find out read on.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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!)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

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.

Read more about what this historical event has to do with the English language.

Monday, July 23, 2007

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.

Read more about what this historical event has to do with the English language.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

July 22: Spoonerism Day

Today is the birthday of the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, born in London in 1844.

To read more go to the following link: