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