Wednesday, July 28, 2010

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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

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 -

Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 26: Ghoti Day

Today is the birthday of 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 (1).

In addition to writing plays, Shaw was active in political causes, most notably socialism, vegetarianism, and spelling reform.

To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words. The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough, the o was from the i sound in women, and the ti was from the sh sound in nation. Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words.

Shaw's passion for the spelling reform cause is reflected in the tone of his writing in a preface to a book by R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language in 1941:

Professor Wilson has shewn that it was as a reading and writing animal that Man achieved his human eminence above those who are called beasts. Well, it is I and my like who have to do the writing. I have done it professionally for the last sixty years as well as it can be done with a hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell "debt," and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a "b" because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin for it with a "b" . . . .

If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. That must be remedied, come what may.

Shaw, like many other before and after him, failed to reform English spelling: he died in 1950. The fight for spelling reform goes on even today as seen in a recent headline and story: Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists -- despiet th lak of public intrest.

Today's Challenge: Is It Mispell or Misspell?
Below are common English words that are frequently misspelled. See if you can determine which word in the pairs below is spelled correctly:

A: accomodate accommodate
B: beleive believe
C: calendar calender
D: definitely definitly
E: embarass embarrass
F: foreign foriegn
G: guarentee guarantee
H: height heighth
I: intelligance intelligence
J: judgement judgment
K: knowledge knowlidge
L: license licence
M: miniature miniture
N: noticeable noticeible
O: occurence occurrence
P: perseverance perseverence
Q: questionaire questionnaire
R: restaurant restraunt
S: seperate separate
T: twelfth twelvth
U: ukelale ukulele
V: vacuum vaccum
W: weird wierd (2)

Quote of the Day: England and America are two countries separated by a common language. --George Bernard Shaw

Answers: A: accommodate B:believe C: calendar
D: definitely E: embarrass F: foreign G: guarantee H: height I: intelligence J:judgement K: knowledge L: license M: miniature N: noticeable O: occurrence P: perseverance Q: questionnaire R: restaurant S: separate T: twelfth U: ukulele V: vacuum W: weird

1 - George Bernard Shaw. The Novel Prize in Literature 1925.

2 - 100 Most Often Misspelled Words in English

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 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 eight 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

Word of the Day: Terse (adjective) -brief and to the point.

Write: What one book would you call the "most true" book? Why?

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.

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19: Push the Envelope Day

Today is the anniversary of the first true space flight in 1962. Air Force pilot Bob White took the experimental aircraft the X-15 to a record altitude of 314,750 feet, pushing the envelope and breaking the 50 mile boundary separating the Earth's atmosphere and outer space. White's flight established a world record that still stands for altitude achieved in a winged aircraft. For his feat of daring, Walker became the first pilot to earn astronaut wings (1).

The word astronaut comes from Greek: astron, "star" + nautes, "sailor." The Russian equivalent is cosmonaut, which is also from Greek: kosmos, "universe" + nautes, "sailor."

Today we hear the expression push the envelope or push the edge of the envelope in a variety contexts relating to attempts to "exceed the limits of what is normally done"; in other words, attempts to be innovative, as in: The Computer company is trying to get its software engineers to push the envelope in developing a new approach to computing. The three-word idiom comes from the field of aviation and was originally used to describe the exploits of pilots like Bob White who attempted, but did not always succeed, in pushing the limits of a plane's capabilities either in speed or altitude. Within the envelope, the pilot was safe; beyond it, there was uncertainty and risk (2).

Today's Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

Push the envelope is just one of many three-word idioms (expressions that don't make sense when translated literally) in English that follow the pattern: verb + "the" + noun, as in "bite the bullet." Other examples use the same verb take:

take the plunge
take the heat
take the Fifth
take the fall
take the rap

Given the first letters of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the other three-word idioms below that fit the same structure:

1. w_______ the s_________

2. r________ the g________

3. p________ the t________

4. b________ the h _______

5. c________ the f _______

6. b________ the b _______

7. h________ the c _______

8. p________ the f _______

9. s________ the c _______

10. s________ the f _______

Quote of the Day: Before you push the envelope, open it up and see what's inside.
--L' Architecte Karp

Answers: 1. weather the storm 2. run the gamut or run the gauntlet 3. pass the torch 4. bury the hatchet 5. chew the fat 6. bite the bullet or break the bank 7. hit the ceiling 8. press the flesh 9. stay the course 10. straddle the fence.

Word of the Day: Gamut (noun) - A complete range, extent, or series.

Write: Using a three-word idiom as your title, write a paragraph or poem.

1 - Wolverton, Mark. The Airplane That Flew Into Space. American Heritage Summer 2001 Volume 17, Issue 1

2 - Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Miffline Company, 1997.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 18: Semantics Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1949). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known books on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.

His name hit the headlines when he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration in 1968, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976 and served one term until 1983.

Hayakawa's most famous act as a senator came in 1981 when he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

After leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S. English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It's mission, according to its web site, is "preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States" (1).

Regardless of your position on "English as the official language of the U.S." debate, Hayakawa's writing about synonyms and word choice is instructive. In his introduction to his book Use the Right Word, Hayakawa encapsulates the history of polyglot English. A history that has given English more words than any other language and which has created an "embarrassment of riches" for the writer. Hayakawa challenges readers and writers to pay careful attention to words and especially to synonyms. He says that although we have many synonyms to choose from, there are "no exact synonyms." When using words in context there are subtle shades of meaning in every words. Denotations may be the same but connotations are different. Similarly words have different levels of abstraction. The word teach for example is more general in meaning than the word indoctrinate which is more specific.

The following paragraph contains more explanation and examples of Hayakawa's plea for attention to semantic details:

It can be argued that there really are not exact synonyms -- no exact equivalences of meaning. Such a position can be upheld if by 'meaning' we refer to the total range of contexts in which a word may be used. Certainly there are no two words that are interchangeable in all the contexts in which either might appear. But within a given context, there is often exact synonymy: I "mislaid" my wallet; I "misplaced" my wallet. In a slightly different context, however, the two words are not interchangeable: it would not be idiomatic to say, I "mislaid" my suitcase --all of which may suggest that while "misplace" is applicable to both small objects and large, "mislay" applies only to small. Also, one may suffer disappointment because of "misplaced," but never "mislaid," trust. This example shows again that words which are synonymous in one of their meanings may differ considerably in their other meanings (2).

Today's Challenge: Same Difference
Each group of three words below contains two synonyms and one antonym. See if you can identify the antonym. Then, see if you can identify the subtle differences between the remaining two synonyms.

1. sagacious ludicrous farcical

2. amateur connoisseur dilettante

3. plaudit acclaim censure

4. timidity savoir faire aplomb

5. benediction anathema curse

6. cursory superficial painstaking

7. tawdry garish modest

8. immutable fixed temporary

9. explicit cryptic arcane

10. prodigal spendthrift frugal

Quote of the Day: In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. --S. I. Hayakawa

Answers: 1. sagacious 2. connoisseur 3. censure 4. timidity
5. benediction 6. painstaking 7. modest 8. temporary 9. explicit
10. frugal

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Use The Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms. (Edited by S. I. Hayakawa). Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1968.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

July 17: Words from the 1960s Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1968 release of the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. To many filmgoers the psychedelic animation and upbeat music of the film were a welcome respite from the turbulent events of 1968: the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Ironically the Beatles themselves had very little to do with the film; in fact, all the dialogue for John, Paul, George, and Ringo was provided by actors; thankfully, however, the songs were recorded by the actual Beatles. After seeing the finished version of the film, the Beatles agreed to make a brief non-animated appearance at the end of the film.

When the film was re-released in 1999 on DVD, reviewer Roger Ebert commented that the film had more than just visual appeal:

This is a story that appeals even to young children, but it also has a knowing, funny style that adds an undertow of sophistication. The narration and dialogue are credited to four writers (including Love Story's Erich Segal), and yet the overall tone is the one struck by John Lennon in his books 'In His Own Write' and 'A Spaniard in the Works.' Puns, drolleries, whimsies and asides meander through the sentences:

There's a cyclops! He's got two eyes. Must be a bicyclops. It's a whole bicloplopedia! (1)

The 1950s was the decade of the missile gap, but the 1960s -- especially the late 1960s -- was the decade of the generation gap. Flower power and the flower children stood for peace and love. The word psychedelic first appeared in the 1950s to mean, according to 20th Century Words: "(A drug) producing an expansion of consciousness through greater awareness of the senses and emotional feelings . . . ." Its meaning later broadened to denote the "vivid colors, often in bold abstract designs or in motion" (2). With the explosion of colors in films like Yellow Submarine, psychedelic became one of the words that characterized the 1960s landscape.

Change also characterized the landscape of the 1960s, and a chronology of words that first appeared in print in that decade provides insight into some of those changes. Here is a list of other words (and one suffix) that were children of the '60s:

cassette (1960)

software (1960)

global village (1960)

Velcro (1960)

DJ (1961)

lite (1962)

bar code (1963)

Third World (1963)

zip code (1966)

Beatlemania (1963)

BASIC (1964)

-aholic (1965)

hypertext (1965)

microwave oven (1965)

body language (1966)

cultural revolution (1966)

generation gap (1967)

love-in (1967)

Age of Aquarius (1967)

be-in (1968)

reggae (1968)

'Nam (1969)

orchestrate (1969) (2)

Today's Challenge: Psychedelic Idioms

The '60s were psychedelic, but English has always used all the colors of the rainbow to construct common expressions. Although these expressions (idioms) use color words, the colors have nothing to do with the literal meaning of the expression. For example, the expression red tape means official forms and procedures, especially those that are complex and time consuming. Notice that the modern definition has nothing to do with literal red tape. The origin of the expression goes back to the early 1800s when British bureaucracies were known for using literal red tape to tie up official documents (3).

1. _______ elephant

2. _______ herring

3. _______ mail

4. True _______

5. _______ thumb

6. _______ area

7. _______ horn

8. _______ moon

9. _______ prose

10. _______ journalism

Quote of the Day: I wish people would get hip to it already, so I don't have to talk about it anymore and explain what the '60s were all about and explain psychedelic and all of that. --Ray Manzarek

Word of the Day: Variegate (verb) - to make varied in appearance by differences, as in colors.

Write: The word psychedelic is word the characterises the 1960s. What new word would you select from this decade to best characterize life in this decade? Why?

Answers: 1. white 2. red 3. black 4. blue 5. green 6. grey 7. green 8. blue 9. purple 10. yellow

1 - Ebert, Roger. Great Movies. Chicago Sun Times. 9/5/99.

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

3 - Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16: Trinity Day

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the nuclear age. On July 16, 1945 at 5:29am, a mushroom cloud rose into the sky above the New Mexico desert.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, named the test "Trinity" based on John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14, whose first four lines read:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

The test, which took place in total secrecy, resulted in a blast that was equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, more than two times what was predicted by Los Alamos scientists. The blast completely vaporized the 800 yard tower the bomb was placed on before the test. The bomb's mushroom cloud rose seven and a half miles into the sky, and the bomb's shock wave was felt 100 miles away.

260 people, sworn to secrecy, witnessed the test. The official press release attributed the explosion to an ammunitions dump accident. On August 6, 1945, the world learned the truth as the atomic bomb, code named "Little Boy," was dropped on Hiroshima killing an estimated 80,000 people instantly.

Before the test J. Robert Oppenheimer used religious imagery to name the Trinity Test, and he returned again to religious literature to describe his reaction to the test's success. He said a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita came to his mind as he watched the rising mushroom cloud:

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Today's Challenge: Special of the Day -- Food Idioms

Describing the atomic bomb's explosion as a mushroom cloud is not the first time that English speakers have turned to food items as metaphors. See if you can fill in the blanks in the two-word food idioms below:

1. __________ ears

2. Adam's ________

3. ________ train

4. Couch _________

5. Dead ________

6. Duck ________

7. Smart ________

8. _______ counter

9. _______ days

10. Cold _______.

Quote of the Day: The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country. --J. Robert Oppenheimer

Word of the Day: Insatiable (adjective) -impossible to satisfy, as in an insatiable appetite.

Write: What other food idioms can you think of? Generate a list. The key is to think of expressions that have the names of food items in them, but that do not literally relate to food. Bon appetit.

Answers: 1. Cauliflower 2. apple 3. Gravy 4. potato 5. meat 6. soup 7. cookie 8. bean 9. salad 10. turkey

1 - The Manhattan Project, An Interactive History. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of History & Heritage Resources.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15: Amazon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first book sold on in 1995. The title of the book was Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. To name his mega-online store he searched for an appropriate metaphor. The Amazon River seemed appropriate. Although it is the world's second longest river (the Nile is the longest) it is by far the world's largest river when it comes to measuring the volume of water. Thus the name for the world's most voluminous river also became the name of the world's most voluminous bookstore.

The word Amazon has its origins in Greek mythology. The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors, so ferocious and bellicose that they would burn off their right breast to increase their ability to more accurately shoot the enemy with bow and arrow. Achilles killed Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, and Hercules, in one of his twelve labors, stole the girdle of another Amazon queen.

The name became attached the South American river when explorers noticed a resemblance between the women of the region and the Amazons of antiquity (1).

Today sells much more than books, but books are still its core product.

Since it began selling books online in 1995, has worked diligently to make their site more interactive. Its most unique feature is "Search Inside," where you can browse through a book (at least part of a book) as if you were in a bookstore. In April 2005 "Text Stats" was added to "Search Inside," giving an amazing array of numbers that allow you to compare books like you might compare baseball players. "Text Stats" gives the number of letters, words, and sentences in a book. It also lists "Fun Stats" that show the number of words per dollar and the number of words per ounce. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example, is a great value at 51,707 words per dollar.

And if you need more numbers, "Text Stats" also includes numbers related to readability. The "Fog Index," for example, gives the reader a number that corresponds with the grade level required to comprehend the book's text. This score is based on an analysis of a randomly selected 120-word passage from the book. The number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word in this passage are then plugged into a formula that spits out the book's grade level.

All this number crunching has not gone un-noticed by the press. The Washington Post ran an article in August 2005 that was not exactly a raving review:

. . . Text Stats is a triumph of trivialization. By squeezing all the life and loveliness out of poetry and prose, the computer succeeds in numbing with numbers. It's the total disassembling of truth, beauty and the mysterious meaning of words. Except for the Concordance feature, which arranges the 100 most used words in the book into a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry game (2).

Today's Challenge: Words By The Numbers
In the pairs of books below make a guess as to which one is the best value based on Number of Words Per Dollar (WPD) and which book has the higher grade level on the Fog Index (FOG).

1. Hamlet or King Lear?

2. The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick?

3. To Kill A Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies?

4. 1984 or Brave New World?

Quote of the Day: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. --Erasmus

Word of the Day: bellicose (adjective) - Warlike or hostile in manner or temperament.

Write: What book in your library would you say is the most valuable? Why?

Hamlet: 7,506 WPD; FOG: 8.0
King Lear: 6,753 WPD; FOG: 6.8

The Scarlet Letter: 14,023 WPD; FOG: 14.7
Moby Dick: 19,399 WPD; FOG 13.0

To Kill A Mockingbird: 7,610 WPD; FOG 8.2
Lord of the Flies: 6,208 WPD; 6.7

1984: 13,021 WPD; FOG 10.9
Brave New World: 5,933 WPD; FOG 9.6

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

2 - Weeks, Linton. "Amazon's Vital Statistics Show How Books Stack Up." Washington Post. 30 August 2005.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 14: Bastille Day

Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris prison fortress of King Louis XVI. In 1789, 13 years after the American colonists had rebelled against the British monarchy, the citizens of France rose up against the despotism of King Louis, releasing prisoners from the Bastille and raiding its arms and ammunition.

Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were arrested at their residence in Versaille, and the entire royal family was eventually executed.

Among the climate of chaos and anarchy, the National Convention established the French Republic. Although true democracy did not result from the French Revolution, the absolute monarchy in France was permanently abolished (1).

Something that may never be abolished is the relationship between the French and English languages.

This relationship between England and France began in 1066 with the Norman Invasion. With a Norman king of England, French became the language of the government. Though the Anglo-Saxon tongue became a second-class language in England, it still remained alive and well as the language of the common people. In fact, there were fewer French words absorbed into English during the Norman reign (approximately 1,000 words) than after an English king regained the throne. Between 1250 and 1500, more than 9,000 French words were absorbed into English.

English is a Germanic language. Its most frequently used words are Anglo-Saxon -- grammar words, such as pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions. However, a higher precentage of English vocabulary words come from other languages, principally Latin or the Romance languages -- the languages that descended from Latin, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Next to Latin, more of these vocabulary words were absorbed from French than any other language. The following words are a small sample of common English words that have French origins:

dentist (2)

Today's Challenge: Au Gratin, Au Pair, and Au Naturel
The list of French expressions below are frequently used in English. Use a good dictionary to translate them into English.


Au Gratin: au, with the + gratin, scraping from the pan

Au Pair: au, at the + pair, equal

Au Naturel: au, in the + naturel, natural state

bon mot
carte blanche
coup d'etat
cul de sac
deja vu
en route
faux pas
nom de plume
piece de resistance
savoir faire
tour de force

Quote of the Day: The thing that's wrong with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur. --George W. Bush

Word of the Day: Connoisseur (noun) - an expert able to appreciate a field; especally in the fine arts.

Write: What are you a connoisseur of? Why? Explain your passion.

1 - Yenne, Bill. 100 Events that Shaped World History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1993.

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To Memorize or Not to Memorize?

Memorization of anything by rote these days gets a bad rap. Teachers are supposed to take students to the upper echelons of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so wasting time on memorized poetry recitations has fallen out of style, a relic of a past age when it seemed that every high school junior memorized The Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury

I confess, however, to seeing value in memorization of quality passages of prose and poetry. I’ve required students to do if for years now, making them stand before the class and present what I call their “Memory Anthology.” I don’t know of any studies that show great cognitive benefits for this practice, but from doing it myself and from watching my students, I know that it makes them take a text, read it, re-read it, write it, and read it aloud several times. Doing this with a passage of great writing, I believe, allows them to immerse themselves in the language in a way that we seldom do anymore. It is close reading, and the best recitations are done by students who have made the passage their own. Careful, close reading reveals the subtleties of a passage’s tone, diction, and imagery. I’ll never forget a recitation of Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus presented by one of my students, a six-foot-one-inch blonde. When she got to the third and fourth lines of the poem, she put in a slight pause that made me see the poem in a new way:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty - - - woman

That one very intentional pause revealed so much about the student’s understanding of the entire poem. She didn’t just know it by rote; she knew it in her bones. She made the poem her own, and by sharing it with us, she reminded us that words still have the power to touch us and to shake us awake.

I recently read an article in the New York Times by Jim Holt, author of the book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. In talking about his hobby of daily memorization of poetry, he used a brilliant metaphor to describe what he gets out of the exercise, once he has committed a poem to memory: “I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.” That’s my hope for my students -- I want them to be property owners. It would by nice if they have a passage from Hamlet to quote in their AP essays, but it would be even better if they owned an acre of verse that they can recite to their children and maybe even their grandchildren. Who doesn’t want a huge estate, lots of acreage, and no property taxes?

Note: Holt was recently interviewed about his poetry memorization on the NPR program On Point.

July 13: Allusion Day

Today is the birthday of British actor Patrick Stewart, best known for his role as Jean-Luc Picard the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).

Born in 1940, the son of a career soldier, Stewart became interested in drama at an early age and enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when he was 17. It's during this early training as an actor that he had to change his accent on stage to that of the Received Pronunciation ("Standard English") while maintaining his native Yorkshire dialect when speaking with family and friends.

Although his list of roles on stage and screen are varied and impressive, Stewart will always be remembered for his role on Star Trek. Ironically as an Englishman he had no idea of the importance of the role he was stepping into when he was originally cast in 1987. He soon realized, however, that the American reverence the captain of the Enterprise is virtually equivalent to the British reverence for the throne of England (1).

One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is particularly interesting to students of language. It is an episode from the 1991 season entitled "Darmok."

In this episode the Enterprise encounters an alien race called "The Children of Tama." Captain Picard and his crew are unable to decipher the language of the Tamarians, and as both parties struggle to understand each other, Captain Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, are simultaneously beemed down to the surface of an uninhabited planet, El-Adrel.

Marooned together on the planet, the two captains struggle to communicate. Although they make little progress at first, Picard continues to search for clues to the mystery of the Tamarian tongue.

When the two captains are attacked by a ferocious beast, they team up to fight for their lives. It's during this struggle that Picard makes a communication breakthrough when he realizes that Dathon is communicating abstract ideas via the names of specific people and places in Tamarian history and mythology.

For example, when Dathon says, "Shaka, when the walls fell," he is alluding to a story of failure. Conversely, when Dathon says, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered," he is alluding to a story where understanding and truth are revealed.

Eventually the crew of the Enterprise is successful in beeming Picard back to his ship. At this point he is able to finally communicate with the Tamarian ship and avoid a war that was brewing while he and Dathon were on the planet's surface. Unfortunately Dathon is killed by the beast, but not before Picard comes to the realization that Dathon was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of communication between his people and Picard's. In fact, Dathon attempted to recreate a story from his own mythology by setting up his meeting with Picard. "Darmok and Gilad at Tenagra" is the story of two foes who become friends after fighting a common enemy.

At the end of the episode a new metaphor for mutual understanding is added to the language of both the federation and the Tamarians: "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel."

The "Darmok" episode illustrates the need for imagination when searching for solutions to language barriers. It also illustrates that a language's stories and history can be almost as important as its grammar and syntax. Whether or not an entire language can be built on allusions to stories is debatable; however, there is no doubt that stories are an important part of English. Abstract ideas exist in the mind, but stories put flesh and blood on them, making them concrete. Long before we can read for ourselves, we are told stories and stories are read to us. No one reads us abstract definitions of courage, hope, or wonder; instead, these ideas are clothed in character, dialogue, and plot so that we can see them in action in our minds.

And these stories continue as we grow older, and the stories become embedded in the language as a shorthand means to making the abstract concrete. For example, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis has come to represent the confusion of tongues and the ongoing struggle for communication among people of different cultures and different languages. When you read an article about attempts to translate a language or bridge language barriers, it should be no surprise to see Babel used as a metaphor.

Just as Picard determined the abstract communications of Dathon by understanding the stories of his people, we can search our own literature, history, and mythology for references that have become metaphors for abstract ideas like love, hate, peace, and war.

Today's Challenge: Abstract to Concrete
The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions lists hundreds of allusions, and it neatly organizes them into categories based on abstract ideas and themes. See if you can match up each of the abstract ideas below with one of the eight allusions from history, mythology, and literature listed below:


1. Solomon: The king of ancient Israel.
2. Ozymandias: The imaginary ancient king from a poem by Shelley.
3. Man Friday: The man Crusoe meets on his island in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
4. Dresden: German city on the river Elbe.
5. Styx: The river that flowed through Hades in Greek mythology.
6. Peter Pan: The hero of J.M. Barrie's play.
7. Othello: The main character in Shakespeare's play Othello.
8. Marshall McLuhan: A Canadian writer and thinker (2).

Quote of the Day: To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others. --Anthony Robbins

Word of the Day: Allusion (noun) - an indirect reference to a person, place, or thing from history, literature, or mythology.

Write: Write about a time that you had trouble communicating with someone.

Answers: 1. wisdom 2. power 3. friendship 4. destruction 5. death 6. youth 7. jealousy 8. communication

1 - Patrick Stewart Network - Biography

2 - The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Edited by Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the birthday of writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay "Civil Disobedience" where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: "Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

Clearly Thoreau's thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and "Civil Disobedience" influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau's ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today's Challenge: The Incomplete Thoreau
In addition to practicing economy in living on Walden Pond, Thoreau practiced economy in his writing, making every word count. As a result, he is one of America's and the world's most quoted writers. Read the incomplete quotes by Thoreau below, and see if you can fill in the missing words.

1. ______ -- an experience in immortality.

2. Our life is frittered away by _____. Simplify, simplify.

3. How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not ____ ____ to live.

4. The mass of men lead lives of _____ _______.

5. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me _____.

6. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to ____ ____.

7. It is never too late to give up your _________.

8. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a ________ __________.

9. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and _______.

Quote of the Day: It still seems to me the best youth's companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one's valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. --E. B. White on Walden

Write: Agree or disagree with one of Thoreau's quotes. Support your position with reasons and evidence.

Word of the Day: magnanimity (noun) - The quality of being courageously noble in mind and heart.

Answers: 1. Spring 2. detail 3. stood up 4. quiet desperation 5. truth 6. let alone 7. prejudices 8. different drummer 9. trust

1 - Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

July 11: Bowdlerize Day (Eponymous Verbs)

Today is the birthday of Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) a man who became infamous for his editing of Shakespeare. An Englishman, Bowdler studied medicine at Edinburgh but never practiced; instead, he took his scalpel to the plays of Shakespeare. His mission, according to Nancy Caldwell Sorel in Word People, was "to render Shakespeare fit to be read aloud by a gentleman in the company of ladies." His first edition of his ten-volume Family Shakespeare was published in 1818 (1).

After he finished with the Bard’s works, Bowdler devoted himself to expurgating Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Bowdler’s work became so notorious that his name entered the language as an eponym meaning "To expurgate prudishly." Typically eponyms begin as proper nouns and become general (lower case) nouns. Unusually Bowdler moved from being a proper noun to a verb: to bowdlerize, which means the process of censoring a work by deleting objectionable words or material.

Today’s Challenge: The Flesh Became Word
Given the definitions below, see if you can identify the Eponymous Verbs.
Each one began as the name of a real person.

1. To hypnotize or enthrall.

2. To execute without due process of law; especially, to hang.

3. To destroy most disease-producing microorganisms and limit fermentation in milk, beer, or other liquids by partial or complete sterilization.

4. To illustrate (a book) with drawings, prints, or engravings taken from other books, or to mutilate (a book) by clipping out its illustrative material for such use.

5. To treat (cotton thread) with sodium hydroxide, so as to shrink the fiber and increase its color absorption and luster.

6. To abstain from using, buying, or dealing with, as a protest or means of coercion.

7. To divide a state, county, or city into voting districts to give unfair advantage to one party in elections.

8. To murder by suffocation so as to leave the body intact and suitable for dissection, or to suppress quietly and unceremoniously.

9. To stimulate or shock with an electric current, or to arouse to awareness or action; to spur; startle (1).

Quotes of the Day:

-But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me. –Mark Twain

-The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. --Walt Whitman

Word of the Day: expurgate: To remove erroneous, vulgar, obscene, or otherwise objectionable material.

Write: What proper name from today's newspaper is most likely to become a verb?

Answers: 1. to mesmerize 2. to lynch 3. to pasteurize 4. to grangerize 5. to mercerize 6. to boycott 7. to gerrymander 8. to burke 9. to galvanize

1 – Sorel, Nancy Caldwell. Word People: Being an Inquiry Into the Lives of those Person Who Have Lent Their Names to the English Language. New York: American Heritage Press: 1970.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

July 10: Clerihew Day

Edward Oz
Writes everyday because
English never fails to amaze
Just read today's post on Word Daze

Today is the birthday of Edmund Clerihew Bentley whose middle name became a form of light verse.

Bentley made a name for himself with a classic work of detective fiction called Trent's Last Case, but he is best known for the four-line verse form that bears his middle name: the clerihew.

The clerihew is a biographical form that begins with the subject's name (or at least contains the name in the first line). It is made up of two rhyming couplets (thus the rhyme scheme is AABB). The only other requirement of the form is that it should be light hearted or humorous.

Bentley's Biography for Beginners, published in 1905, was his first collection of verse. He followed this up with additional volumes of verse in 1929 and 1939.

Here are a couple of examples of Bentley's clerihews:

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Today's Challenge: Terse Verse

Try writing your own clerihews.

-Write one about a friend, and use in a birthday card.
-Write about someone in the news.
-Write an autobiographical one as your epitaph.
-Write one about your favorite fictional character.

Examples written by Edward Oz:

Samuel Backman
Took on Superman.
It was a long night.
He forgot his Kryptonite.

Prince Hamlet was sad
Because his uncle killed his dad.
He talked to his father's ghost after dark.
Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

Word of the Day: Terse (Adjective): Brief and to the point; effectively concise.

Quote of the Day: The art of biography is different from geography. Geography is about maps, but biography is about chaps. -Edward Clerihew Bentley

1 - Brandreth, Gyles. The Book of Classic Puzzles and Word Games. London: Chancellor Press, 1985.

2 - Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (Sixth Edition). New York: Macmillian, 1992.

Friday, July 09, 2010

July 9: British Versus American English Day

Today is the anniversary of the first Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in 1877. The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club was established in Wimbledon, a suburb of London, in 1868.

The growth in popularity of lawn tennis led to the decision to hold a gentlemen's singles tournament in the summer of 1877. The rules for this first tournament, written by club member Dr. Henry Jones, established fundamental aspects of the game, such as:

-The size of the court: 78 feet by 27 feet.
-The scoring system for each game: 15, 30, 40, game.
-The number of games required to win a set: 6.
-The number of faults allowed for each service: 1.

This first tournament was won by W. Spencer Gore who was first in a field of 21 (1).

Today the Wimbledon tournament is alive and well as the world's preeminent tennis tournament and the third and final jewel in the Grand Slam of tennis. Although it is open to a host of international competitors from more than 60 nations, it remains uniquely British. For example, above the players’ entrance to Centre Court there is a quote from British poet Rudyard Kipling from his poem "If": If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

Even American television sports broadcasters refer to it as the Wimbledon fortnight. Fortnight is a British term meaning a period of two weeks.

It was Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America are "two great countries divided by a common language." Wilde was exaggerating for the sake of humor, but there certainly are distinct differences, beyond just spelling and pronunciation, in British English and American English. Fortnight is just one of 4,000 vocabulary words in common usage that differ depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on . Examples are life and elevator, dustbin and garbage can, and biscuit and cookies (2).

The first American men's champion at Wimbledon was Bill Tilden in 1930. There has not been a British men's champion since 1936.

Today's Challenge: English on Holiday (or Is that Vacation?)

See if you can translate the British words below into American English.

1. candy floss

2. to grizzle

3. inverted commas

4. to nick

5. lorry

6. pram

7. knackered

8. windscreen

9. nappy

10. torch (3)

Quotes of the Day:

-America is a country that doesn't know where it is going but is determined to set a speed record getting there. -- Laurence J. Peter

-If a playwright is funny, the English look for a serious message, and if he's serious, they look for the joke. --Sacha Guitry.

Answers. 1. cotton candy 2. to whine 3. quotation marks 4. to steal 5. truck 6. baby carriage 7. worn out 8. windshield 9. diaper 10. flashlight

1 - This Day in History, July 9, General Interest. The History Channel

2 - Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York: Perennial, 1990.

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

July 7: Utopia Day

On this date in 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed for treason.

More was caught in the middle of religious and governmental conflict when Henry VIII established the Church of England, defying the Pope and breaking from the Roman Catholic Church. Because More disagreed with the King’s decision, he resigned his office in the English Parliament and refused to take a loyalty oath. As a result, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded.

The 1966 film A Man for All Seasons portrays the events surrounding More's execution.

More is best known for his 1516 satirical novel Utopia, in which he envisioned a perfect island state with universal education, command land ownership, religious tolerance, and shared labor (1).

Because of the sharp contrast between the less than perfect island of England and More’s Idyllic Island of Utopia, the satirical aspect of the novel was clear to 16th century readers. Today utopia and utopian have become a part of the English lexicon, describing any ideal or perfect condition or place. Of course this is an idea that exists purely in the imagination since establishing any perfect society is impossible. More certainly understood this even in the 16th century since he used Greek roots to generate a name for his island that translates literally as “no place,” [ou, not + topos, place].

Today’s Challenge: Go To Your Happy Place

More is not the first writer to envision an idyllic place in literature. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions has an entire chapter devoted to these utopias. See if you can match up each of the names of the idyllic places below with its correct description:





El Dorado




1. Home of Adam and Eve where the Tree of Knowledge was found.

2. The fabled city of gold sought in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors.

3. An idealized region in classical poetry found in the mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece.

4. In poetry and literature this name is sometimes used to refer to Britain as a green paradise.

5. The name of a dreamlike place of beauty and luxury in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.”

6. A Tibetan utopia depicted in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon.’

7. In Arthurian legend, this was the place to which Arthur was conveyed after his death.

8. A great banqueting hall from Norse mythology where heroes, slain in battle, feasted with Odin eternally.

Quote of the Day: Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious, discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. --Helen Keller

Word of the Day: Idyllic - (Adjective) pleasing or picturesque in natural simplicity

Write: What is the most idyllic place you have ever been? Describe it so that your reader can experience it vicariously.

Answers: 1. Eden 2. El Dorado 3. Arcadia 4. Albion 5. Xanadu 6. Shangri-la 7. Avalon

1 – Raftery, Miriam. 100 Books that Shaped World History. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, 2002.

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