Friday, May 31, 2013

May 31: Barbaric Yawp Day

Today is the birthday American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed" (1).

One of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.

Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave self-consciousness behind and embrace their individual creativity?

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.

Today’s Challenge: Famous First Lines
Below are the first lines of some of the best known American poems. Read each line and see if you can identify the poet.

1. O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

2. There is no frigate like a book.

3. Whose woods these are I think I know.

4. What happens to a dream deferred?

5. So much depends

6. The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,

7. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

8. By the shore of Gitchie Gumee,

9. Hog butcher for the world,

Quote of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. --Walt Whitman

Answers: 1. Walt Whitman 2. Emily Dickinson 3. Robert Frost 4. Langston Hughes 5. William Carlos Williams 6. Ernest L. Thayer 7. Edgar Allen Poe 8. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 9. Carl Sandburg

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30: Mnemonic Day

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

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

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

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

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

Is Perpetual Zeal The Means?

I Ilerda
P Pharsalus
Z Zeta
T Thapsus
M Munda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iwo Jima

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

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

Warrant Officer,
and General (2).

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

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


1 -

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29: Words for Words Day

On this date in 1997, 13 year-old Rebecca Sealfon of Brooklyn, New York won the National Spelling Bee.   The winning word was euonym, which means “a name well suited to the person, place, or thing named.”  


The Greek suffix –onym meaning “name or word” is found in many words that identify categories of words.  In short, these words ending in –onym are “words for words.”

Acronym:  Words made up of the initials of other words, such as NASA or SCUBA.

Antonym:  Words with the opposite meaning, such as love and hate.

Capitonym:  Words that change pronunciation and meaning when capitalized, such as august or nice.

Contronym:  Words that are their own antonyms, such as bolt or weather.

Eponym:  Words derived from proper names, such as quixotic, which derived from the literary character Don Quixote.

Heteronym:  Words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciations, such as produce and entrance.

Pseudonym:  A pen name, such as Mark Twain for Samuel Clemens.

Retronym:  An adjective-noun pairing that evolves because of a change in the noun's meaning, such as acoustic guitar.  The adjective acoustic became necessary with the development of the electric guitar.

Synonym:  Words with same, or nearly the same, meaning, such as buy and purchase.

Today's Challenge:  You don't need the suffix -onym to categorize words.  Grab a dictionary and create your own categorized word lists.  For inspiration, visit My, which has nearly 500 word lists.

Quote of the Day:  A synonym is a word you use when you can't spell the other one.
 -Baltasar Gracian