Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 13: New Words for People Day

Today is the anniversary of the appearance of a new word in a letter to the editor in The Tampa Tribune on September 13, 1995. The word is gater, meaning a person who lives in a gated community, is an example of one of many neologisms that pop up each year to describe people in new situations in the ever-changing world in which we live.

The website Word Spy, founded by Paul McFedries, searches out all kinds of new words and phrases that have appeared in print but not yet in the dictionary. McFedries site documents hundreds of the neologisms, several of which are defined beginning with: "A person who . . . ." Here are a few examples:

-mucus trooper (MYOO.kus troo.pur) n. An employee with a cold or the flu who insists on showing up for work.

-salad dodger (SAL.ud daw.jur) n. An overweight person; a person who shuns healthy foods.

-thresholder (THRESH.hohl.dur) n. A young person on the threshold of adulthood, especially one who is anxious or depressed about leaving home or taking on adult responsibilities.

-zinester (ZEEN.stur) n. A person who writes, edits, and publishes a zine; a person who reads only zines (1).

Today's Challenge: A Visit to the -er
The words below are all examples of neologisms that refer to different types of people. See if you can match up each word with the definitions below.


1. A person who donates five percent of their income to charity and/or spends five hours per week doing volunteer work.

2. The person for whom a ghostwriter writes a book.

3. A fastidious, detail-oriented person.

4. An adult son or daughter, particularly one aged 30 or more, who still lives with his or her parents. From kids in parents' pockets eroding retirement savings.

5. A person who uses phrases or quotes that were coined by other people.

6. A person who uses a wireless Internet connection without permission.

7. A chess player of limited skill.

8. A person who registers one or more Internet domain names based on the most common typographical errors that a user might commit when entering a company's registered trademark name (e.g., (1).

Quote of the Day: One company, Amsterdam-based, has a global network of more than 7,000 "springspotters" who troll their own neighborhoods and report back which trends, products and behaviors are brewing. --Shawna Vanness

Answers: 1. fiver 2. fleshwriter 3. i-dotter 4. kipper 5. phrasemoner 6. piggybacker 7. woodpusher 8. typosquatter

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

September 12: Suffix Day

On this day in 1896 the first Olympic marathon was run in Athens, Greece. The origin of the word marathon comes from Greek legend. According to the story, a Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army. As he approached Athens, having run a distance of nearly 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. He did not die, however, without completing his mission; with his last gasp he uttered “niki,” the Greek word for victory.

Incidentally, the word niki is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory: Nike – a name that would later become the trademark of a running shoe manufacturer in Oregon.

The word marathon evolved over time to mean more than just a long distance race. Beginning in the 1920s, dance marathons became a fad. The term dance marathon then became blended to become dancethon. Later –thon became a popular suffix for describing a variety of activities that people do for long periods. According to Geoffrey Nunberg in The Way We Talk Now, the first telethon was held in 1949. Milton Berle spent 16 hours on air, and one of his guests was a young comedian who would raise the telethon to an art form, Jerry Lewis. Telethons were followed by pledgeathons, callathons, bikeathons, bowlathons, walkathons, and swimathons (1).

Word of the Day: Toponym
Marathon is an example of a toponym: a word that began as a specific place name (a proper noun) and evolved into a common noun. Like the word marathon, many words we use in English have attachments to specific places and events from the past, such as afghan, bikini, bourbon, and angora.

Quote of the Day: The starting line of the New York City marathon is kind of a giant time bomb behind you about to go off. It is the most spectacular start in sport. –Bill Rogers

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: Words from 9/11 Day

The simple mention of the term 9/11 immediately evokes images of smoke rising from the Twin Towers. On this day we remember the attack of 2001 and the 2,752 lives that were lost.

Just as the date and the images associated with it have changed us, the events of 9/11 and the post-9/11 world have also changed our language.

Not since December 7, 1941 and Pearl Harbor has a term so quickly entered the English lexicon. And 9/11 was not a term that would disappear soon; it was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by the American Dialect Society in 2001, meaning lexicographers predict that the term will be used long past its origin (1).

In addition other terms have entered the common lexicon since 9/11, such as:

Axis of Evil
Shock and awe
WMD (2).

Today's Challenge: New World - New Words
The definitions below are for two-word expressions that have become a part of our everyday vocabulary since 9/11. Some are new -- others were around before 9/11, but have taken on added meaning since the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the events that followed it.

1. The United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.

2. Site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

3. Plainclothes law-enforcement officers on airplanes.

4. Alternative name for French fries promoted when France resisted military force against Iraq.

5. British national Richard Reid tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic airplane in December 2001 with explosives in his shoes.

6. The prison noted for mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces.

7. A conventional bomb that disperses radioactive material.

8. Massive collecting of information that is then sifted for specific information.

Word of the Day: asymmetrical warfare
This noun is a neologism, which according to Word Spy means, “Warfare in which the combatants have markedly different military capabilities and the weaker side uses non-standard tactics such as terrorism.”

Quote of the Day: America is not like a blanket -- one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt -- many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. --Henry M. Jackson

Answers. 1. Patriot Act 2. Ground Zero 3. air marshal 4. freedom fries 5. shoe bomber 6. Abu Ghraib 7. Dirty Bomb 8. Data mining

1 -Paul McFedries. Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

2 - Latazio, George. "New World Requires New Vocabulary." The Seattle Times. 10 Sept. 2006, A15.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10: Sibboleth Day

On this date in the year 2000, the television show The West Wing won nine Emmys, including outstanding drama. In doing so, the show broke the record for most Emmys earned for a show in its first season -- the record was previously held by "ER" and "Hill Street Blues." The West Wing continued its successful run for six more seasons, ending in May 2006. In each of its seven seasons it received an Emmy nomination for outstanding drama, winning a total of four times.

One West Wing episode in particular is of special interest to language lovers. It was called "Shibboleth" and appeared in the show's second season.

In the episode President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) must determine whether a group of Chinese stowaways should be given asylum in the U.S. or be returned to China. One key to his decision is determining whether their claim to be Christians is true or just a ploy to stay in the U.S. When President Bartlett tells his staff that he will find out the truth by employing a shibboleth, everyone in the room is puzzled (1).

A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password, where a person's pronunciation or language usage indicates his or her background. It originates in a story from the Old Testament in the Book of Judges, Chapter 12. In the story two tribes, the Ephraimite and the Gileadites, are at war. The Gileadites use the word shibboleth (which means "ear of corn") as a password to tell friend from foe. In ancient Hebrew dialects some groups pronounced it with an 'sh' sound while others pronounced it with an 's.' Using the shibboleth, the Gileadites where able to identify and kill the Ephraimites, who did not have an 'sh' sound in their language.

President Barlett's use of a shibboleth is probably more cultural than linguistic. In his interrogation of the Chinese Christian representative, he asks questions about the group's religious practices and knowledge of the Bible. He comes to the realization that the Chinese are true Christians when they turn the tables on him, saying that faith, not knowledge, is the true test of the Christian faith: "Faith is the only Shibboleth."

Shibboleths used in these kind of life or death circumstances are rare today; however, pronunciation and word choice can be an especially telling marker of a person's background. The writers of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) attempt to document the varieties of American English in the different regions of the U.S. Because "standard" English is most common in written language, the bulk of regional differences are found in oral language.

The following are some of the regional terms recorded by DARE:

-While most people recognize poached eggs, dropped eggs is a regional term used for these eggs in New England.

-The game of hopscotch is sometimes referred to as Sky Blue in Chicago, Illinois.

-In the Gulf States and Texas, a chill or shiver is known as a rigor (3).

Today's Challenge: From Shibboleth to Shining
Shibboleth Visit the website for PBS's series Do You Speak American? and take their quiz on regional terms for food, health, and recreational terms used throughout the U.S. Are there any special regional words or expressions that characterize the people who live in your region of the country?

Word of the Day: opprobrium
This word, which originates from Latin, is a noun that means “disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct; ignominy.” Notice how H.L. Mencken uses it in context in the quote below.

Quote of the Day: In small things as in large [the American] exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into arresting parts of speech. Such a term as rubberneck is almost a complete treatise on American psychology; it reveals the national habit of mind more clearly than any labored inquiry could ever reveal it. It has in it precisely the boldness and contempt for ordered forms that are so characteristically American, and it has too the grotesque humor of the country, and the delight in devastating opprobriums, and the acute feeling for the succinct and savory. —H. L. Mencken

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2 -

3 -

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

September 9: Val Speak Day

Today is the anniversary of California's admission as the 31st state of the Union. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused its population to explode, and in 1849 settlers applied for admission to the Union after drafting a state constitution that prohibited slavery. Because making California a state would upset the balance of free and slave states, statehood was delayed until September 9, 1850, when the Compromise of 1850 opened the door for California statehood.

In addition to a state constitution, Californians adopted a state seal in 1849 with the motto "Eureka," (The Greek word for "I Have Found It.") an appropriate interjection for a state whose reputation was made on gold strikes (1).

Today, many things make California distinctive and influential in regard to the culture of both American and the world. Two huge examples of this influence are Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Another influence comes under the category of language. Val Speak, the speech pattern of the California "Valley Girl" has captured the imagination of linguists and lexicographers and has crept into the lingo of people who speak English all over the world.

In 1982, Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of Frank Zappa, recorded the hit "Valley Girl" with lyrics that mock the frenetic patter that was first used by California surfers and gradually moved inland to the California's suburban shopping malls:

So like I go into this like salon place, y'know
And I wanted like to get my toenails done
And the lady like goes, oh my god, your toenails
Are like so grody It was like really embarrassing
She's like oh my god, like bag those toenails I'm like sure...
She goes, uh, I don't know if I can handle this, y'know...
I was like really embarrassed... (2)

Certainly some of the lyrics of Valley Girl are a exaggerated for effect and humor, but there is no denying the fact that Val Speak is having an impact on American English, especially among people below the age of forty.

The website for the recent PBS series Do You Speak American reports that one interesting target for linguists is the speech of young white Californians, particularly their use of the discourse marker "I'm like." Known as a quotative, "like" is used to report quoted speech, such as: He was like, "Where do you wanna go?" Unlike the word "said," "like" allows the speaker to paraphrase what was stated instead of making a literal, exact rendering.

"Like" is the offspring of an earlier quotative "goes" that appeared in the 1940s: He goes, "Do you know the make and model of your phone?" The like quotative was once the exclusive jargon of young Californians, but in the short span of the last twenty-five years it has so rapidly spread throughout American and beyond that sociolinguist William Labov has called it a linguistic "tsunami." But whether or not it is here to stay is uncertain; just as "like" replaced "goes," it appears that the word "all" may replace "like" as the hip quotative, used in sentences like this: Then, after a while, I was all, “See you later, good luck!” (3).

Today's Challenge: Like, Gag Me With Youth Speak
The words below are from the "Track That Word!" section of the Do You Speak American website under the category of Teen/Youth words and expressions. See if you can match up each of the ten words/expressions below with its correct definition.



Chop it up








1. Major preoccupation, concern, obsession
2. Worrying.
3. To Steal
4. Talking with friends with great interest, enthusiasm
5. Strong, solid, loyal
6. Twenty, pertaining to twenty dollars
7. Old, wrecked automobile
8. Confusion
9. Shoes
10. Everything is going well (4).

Word of the Day: Slang
Language that is non-standard, informal, and – depending on who you talk to – either novel and vivid, or coarse and vulgar. The word originally referred to the “special vocabulary of tramps and thieves,” and later evolved to include the “jargon of a particular profession” (5).

Quote of the Day: Nothing is wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure. --Ross MacDonald

Answers. 1. Drama 2. Buggin' 3. Chalk 4. Chop it up 5. Firme 6. Dubs 7. Hooptie 8. Jargon 9. Kicks 10. Jake

1 -

2 -

3 - Singler, John. "Like, Quote Me." Do You Speak American?

4. Track That Word - Do You Speak American?

5 – Online Etymology Dictionary

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

September 8: International Literacy Day

Today is International Literacy Day sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). First observed in 1967, International Literacy Day calls attention to the need to promote literacy and education around the world as an antidote to poverty.

According the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, more than 100 million girls and boys never enroll in school. At the minimum 860 million adults worldwide are illiterate.

Education and literacy are central to the stability, prosperity, and well-being of any country. As explained by Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General:

Literacy is not merely a cognitive skill of reading, writing and arithmetic, for literacy helps in the acquisition of learning and life skills that, when strengthened by usage and application throughout people’s lives, lead to forms of individual, community and societal development that are sustainable.

According to UNESCO figures, 32 countries have literacy rates smaller than 50%. These include Bangladesh 35.3, Afghanistan 29.4, Somalia 24.1, and Nepal 20.1 (1).

Today's Challenge: Read All About It
The eight quotes below each say something important about literacy. See if you can match up each quote with its speaker.

John F. Kennedy
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
Carl Sagan
Alvin Tofler
Abraham Lincoln
Isaac Asimov
Thomas Jefferson
Kofi Annan

1. Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in. That everyone may receive at least a moderate education appears to be an objective of vital importance.

2. Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.

3. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.

4. We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education. We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.

5. One of the greatest gifts adults can give -- to their offspring and to their society -- is to read to children.

6. The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

7. Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.

8. True literacy is becoming an arcane art and the United States is steadily dumbing down.

Word of the Day: Peruse
This word, originally from Middle English, once meant “to use or to wear out.” Today it means “to read carefully.” Some people mistakenly use it to mean “to skim-read” or “to glance over" (3).

Quote of the Day: Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. --Kofi Annan

Answers. 1. Abraham Lincoln 2. John F. Kennedy 3. Thomas Jefferson 4. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. 5. Carl Sagan 6. Alvin Tofler 7. Kofi Annan 8. Isaac Asimov

1 - UNESCO - Education - Literacy Day -

2 -

3- Online Etymology Dictionary

Monday, September 07, 2009

September Seventh: Univocalic Day

September Seventh is Univocalic Day. A univocalic is a piece of writing where the writer may use only a single vowel. Because September Seventh has nothing but the vowel 'e,' it's the perfect day to celebrate this rare but interesting writing form.

As Richard Lederer points out in his book The Word Circus, some of the longest common univocalic words use the vowel 'e':




Lederer also cites a univocalic translation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by Paul Hellweg from Word Ways magazine:

Meg kept the wee sheep,
The sheep's fleece resembled sleet;
Then wherever Meg went
The sheep went there next;

He went where she needed her texts,
The precedent he neglected;
The pre-teen felt deep cheer
When the sheep entered there.

But 'e' is not the only vowel for constructing univocalics. Dave Morice in his book Alphabet Avenue quotes a univocalic haiku by Howard Bergerson that uses only the vowel 'i':

The Haiku of Eyes

In twilight this spring
Girls with miniskirts will swim
In string bikinis (2).

Today's Challenge: One Vowel Howl
Pick a vowel and make a list of words that contain only that vowel. Then, put those words together in a sentence or a Haiku in which you only use a single vowel. Here's a famous example concerning the Ten Commandments:

Preserve these perfect tenets, men;
Ever keep these precepts ten.

Word of the Day: effervescent
This univocalic adjective derives from Latin. An effervescent liquid is bubbling. An effervescent person is lively and vivacious.

Quote of the Day: Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry. --Bill Cosby

1 - Lederer, Richard. The Word Circus. Springfield, Massachusetts, Meriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1998.

2 - Morice, Dave. Alphabet Avenue: Wordplay in the Fast Lane. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997.

Monday, July 06, 2009

July 6: Lake Wobegon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first broadcast of the radio show the Prairie Home Companion. The show was conceived by Garrison Keillor, who has hosted the variety show modeled after the Grand Ole Opry since its premier in 1974. Today’s Keillor’s show is broadcast over 580 public radio stations and has an audience of over 4 million.

In addition to music and commercials for imaginary products, each week’s show features a monologue by Keillor about his mythical hometown Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Each monologue begins the same: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” but the stories that Keillor tells about the colorful Lake Wobegon residents are always different. Keillor’s colorful descriptions, humor, and realistic insights into the human condition bring his characters to life and bring listeners back each week.

In addition to using the same opening, Keillor also uses a stock concluding line each week for his monologue: “That’s the news for Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average.”

It’s the last part of Keillor’s concluding line, “all the children are above-average,” that has captured the imagination of sociologists who have adopted Keillor's fictional town in what they call the Lake Wobegon Effect. The Lake Wobegon Effect is the tendency for groups of people to overestimate their achievements and competence in relation to other groups.

The term entered the lexicon in 1987 when Dr. John Cannel published a study that revealed that every state claimed that their students’ test scores where above the national average. This humorous and absurd finding became publicized as the Lake Wobegon Effect. The fictional town in Minnesota became a metaphor of a state-wide phenomenon.

Often we think of metaphor as the exclusive tool of poets. The fact is, however, every good communicator understands and uses metaphor to connect the known to the unknown. Scientists, business people, psychologists, sociologists, and doctors all turn to metaphor to communicate their ideas, theories, and discoveries.

This is done so frequently that there is an entire book of these metaphors called The Babinski Reflex. The author, Phillip Goldberg, calls them metaffects:

“. . . a recognized effect, law, or principle whose official meaning can be transferred to another context. The Babinski Reflex, for example, is a term describing an automatic response in the foot of an infant, thought to be a vestige of our primate ancestry. As such, it resonates metaphorically with certain forms of adult behavior that might be considered primitive or infantile . . . .” (1).

Today’s Challenge: Metaphors Be With You
See if you can match each Effect below with its correct definition from Phillip Goldberg’s book, The Babinski Reflex.

Cocktail Party Effect
Eureka Effect
Butterfly Effect
The False Consensus Effect
Hawthorne Effect
Boomerang Effect
Bandwagon Effect
Barnum Effect

1. The effect of workers becoming more productive after being signaled out or made to feel that they are special.

2. The phenomenon in which attempts to change attitudes in a particular direction produce shifts in the direction opposite that intended.

3. The tendency of some people to withhold their opinions until they know the majority’s view, at which time they merrily announce that they feel exactly the way almost everyone else does.

4. The idea that small changes can become magnified over the course of a subsequent chain of events and culminate in a major, large-scale happening.

5. The tendency of people to accept as accurate, for them personally, a generalized statement (especially a flattering one) that might in fact characterize just about anyone.

6. The rejection of unwanted messages by the senses in favor of more pertinent or interesting information.

7. The tendency of a solution of a problem to come when not directly involved in trying to solve it.

8. The tendency for people to believe that their own desires, beliefs, and even personal problems are shared by the majority (1).

Quote of the Day:
Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people. –Garrison Keillor

Answers: 1. Hawthorne Effect 2. Boomerang Effect 3. Bandwagon Effect 4. Butterfly Effect5. Barnum Effect 6. Cocktail Party Effect 7. Eureka Effect 8. False Consensus Effect

1 - Goldberg, Phillip. The Babinski Reflex: and 70 Other Useful and Amusing Metaphors from Science, Psychology, Business, Sports ... and Everyday Life. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21: Hemingway Day

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Challenge: Hemingway On Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 13: "Brand" New Words Day

Today is the anniversary of a registered trade mark that gave the world an alternative to zippers and buttons: Velcro.

One man’s annoyance can be another man’s eureka. When Swiss inventor George de Mestral returned with his dog from a walk, he noticed that he and his dog were covered with cockleburrs. Instead of being annoyed, he studied the burrs under a microscope where he noted their hook-like shape.

Engineering artificial fasteners that replicated the ones he found in nature took a few years, but Mestral was eventually successful in creating his easy to use hook and loop fastener. He registered his invention in 1958. For the name of his product, he blended two French terms: "vel" from velvet and "cro" from crochet (little hook).

Today the Velcro Industries is a successful international company, but like other successful companies, Velcro is challenged by a paradox: they want people to use their trademarked name as much as possible to promote their product; however, because the name is used so often and the product is so successful and so ubiquitous, the name of the product becomes a generic, non-capitalized word. As a result, companies like Velcro are in a constant battle to protect their trademark and in turn their bottom line. The lines are blurred even more when a word, like Google, becomes used so often that it becomes more than just a noun. No doubt the legal department at Google and the neologism department at the American Heritage Dictionary are both busy tracing the growth and development of this word.

The following statement from the Velcro website is an example of the kinds of reminders and warnings that companies put out to protect their brand names:

The goodwill and integrity which are reflective of the Velcro companies are ingrained in the VELCRO® trademark. This makes the trademark a very valuable asset to the company and to our customers who purchase the VELCRO® brand fasteners.

Many terms that we all use frequently in our everyday language were once trademarks …. All of these terms lost their distinction as trademarks because their owners allowed them to be misused by the public. That's why the Velcro companies pay close attention to how the VELCRO® trademark is used.

As stated by the Velcro website, there are several brand names that were once registered trademarks, but today they have lost their capital letter and entered the dictionary and the English lexicon as generic terms, such as cellophane, excalator, and the yo-yo.

Today's Challenge: The Law and the Language
See if you can identify which of the words below are registered trademarks and which are generic trademarks. All of the words below are from Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language, and all are capitalized to make your choice a little harder.

1. Q-Tips
2. Thermos
3. Nylon

4. Vaseline
5. Xerox
6. Zipper
7. Raisin Bran
8. Kool-Aid
9. Formica
10. Chap Stick (1)

Quote of the Day: There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so. William Shakespeare.

Answers: The generic terms are: 2. thermos 3. nylon 6. zipper 7. raisin bran

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12: Limerick Day

The English language is a maze
You can get lost in it for days
Exploring the mother tongue
Can be lots of fun
So, read today's post on Word Daze

Today is the birthday of Edward Lear, born in 1812 in London, England. Before he was a poet, he was a painter, illustrating birds for such noteworthy clients as Charles Darwin.

In 1832, while on an assignment to paint animals in the Earl of Darby's private zoo, Lear began composing humorous verse for the Earl's grandchildren. He put his poems together in his Book of Nonsense, published in 1846.

Lear is remembered for his famous poem "The Owl and the Pussycat," but his most noteworthy contribution to the literary world is the limerick.

Here are some limericks from Book of Nonsense.

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!--
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, "Does it buzz?"
He replied, "Yes, it does! "
It's a regular brute of a Bee!"

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin:
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

The limerick is a universally popular verse form, popular with children as well as adults. Besides the fixed form of five lines, rhyming AABBA, the content of the Limerick is characteristically comical and nonsensical. The adult version frequently feature lewd content. One other common feature is the naming of a character and geographic location in the first line.

For more on Lear and the limerick see

Today's Challenge: Literary Limerick

On Limerick Day write lots of limericks. Write one as a love note and put it on the refrigerator or write it on your child's lunch sack. Write a limerick advertising a product that you think is worth buying. Write a limerick about your best friend, your pet, or your boss. Finally, select a favorite literary character and write a limerick about him or her.

Quote of the Day: One of the most responsible things you can do as an adult is become more of a child. --Wayne Dyer