What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 131 of 132

Elusive allusions

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, July 15, 2010

When middle-school students did not know the answer to a question I posed today, I was relieved. That’s unusual for a teacher, even a retired teacher such as I, but let me explain.

Here’s the question: What’s the name of the horse appearing at the top of today’s paper?

Hint: An allusion to the name appears in the copy to the right of the picture. It reads, “An auction triggers Bob’s concerns this week.” (Curious about the auction? Check out Over the Top on gjsentinel.com.)

To refresh your memory, an allusion is a reference to a book, film, poem, event, a work of art or something else that has found a niche in the general knowledge of our culture.

Don’t feel bad if you get the answer wrong. If you know it, you are either older than dirt or you have been watching way too many reruns.

Early this morning I glanced at the photo of the horse and then read the corresponding copy. Being in the childhood of my old age, as my mother gleefully points out, I instantly knew that the writer of this “tease” used the verb “triggers” to allude to one of the best-known horses in America, a golden palomino named Trigger.

I grew up enthralled with the TV adventures of Trigger and his master, Roy Rogers, one of America’s iconic cowboy heroes. Roy Rogers is as familiar to me as Ben Cartwright, the Lone Ranger and Rowdy Yates. (That statement should remove all doubts that I am indeed older than dirt.)

Chances are that the delightful students I met today in Vivian Lybarger’s Extended Learning class would not be familiar with any of these names either.

That’s OK. Even though many cultural allusions stand the test of time, many do not. In the meantime, new allusions are created. These students have allusions all their own, and someday they will ask people younger than themselves if those youngsters “get” the reference.

Their allusions will creep into the media, and in the shockingly near future I’ll be scratching my head over many of them. Will they elude me? I suspect so. In this matter I’ll just have to say “happy trails” to any illusions of being hip. (People still do say that, don’t they?)


Selecting a stellar word

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Four jackpots? Oh, my stars!

“Astronomical” is a stellar word choice in the headline for today’s front-page story of a reclusive woman winning her fourth (yes, you read correctly) Texas Lottery jackpot.

Astronomical is the adjective form of astronomy, a word that is composed of two Greek word parts: astron, meaning star and nomos, meaning law.

Webster’s second definition of astronomical is “extremely large, as the numbers of quantities used in astronomy.”

As the article’s lead paragraph notes, Ginther’s chance of winning four lotteries in the Lone Star State were “as slim as 1 in 18 septillion.” If she had been an astronaut (star sailor) trying to pick just one star out of all the Milky Way, her odds would have been markedly better.

Was this astonishing stroke of luck simply in Ginther’s stars? Inquiring minds may never know, because she reportedly shuns publicity. Surely we can assume, though, that this is one Texan who is thanking her lucky stars ... or maybe just one lucky star.




Top-notch teaser

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The teaser at the top of today’s paper piques my interest for two reasons: “Muscle ma’ams” is alliterative, and it’s a delightful twist on the word muscleman.

Alliteration is a poetic device in which two or more words start with the same letter. It’s a safe bet that we could pick up any newspaper in the United States on any given day and find alliteration in at least one headline. Headline writers Absolutely Adore Alliteration.

“Muscle ma’ams” sounds almost the same as muscleman. It takes someone Extraordinarily Excellent in English (OK, I’ll stop now) to turn one word into two with nearly the same sound but with a perfect new meaning.

I don’t know who wrote this teaser. I do know that I would never kick sand into this writer’s face for fear of retaliation. He or she clearly knows the power and strength of a well-chosen word.


Mandala and Mandela

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, July 12, 2010

A newspaper is called a “living textbook” with good reason. A case in point is the Sentinel’s coverage of the Buddhist monks who created an exquisite piece of sand art called a mandala at the Art Center last week and then destroyed it to underscore the impermanence of life.

Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means circle. “The basic form of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point,” according to Wikipedia.

On our home page at gjsentinel.com you can see William Woody’s video of the monks working on the mandala, and the photo above of them by Gretel Daugherty appears on page A3 in Sunday’s paper. Both provide real-world social studies lessons.

The video below reveals a bit of high ceremony before the monks scattered some of the mandala’s sand into the Colorado River.

I confess that mandala (pronounced MUN deh leh) was not part of my vocabulary before this event. Now, a simple word represents to me an entire way of life that emphasizes one’s spirituality and one’s ability to make the world a better place for fellow humans.

It also reminds me of a man with a similar last name who was mentioned in today’s Sports section. Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, appeared to a cheering crowd Sunday right before the final World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands. Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his opposition to apartheid, Mandela (Man DEL ah) also demonstrates an indomitable spirit and one’s ability to make the world a better place.

July 18 is Mandela Day. Citizens around the world are encouraged to do something good for at least 67 minutes next Sunday as a way of honoring the more than 67 years that Mandela has devoted to public service.

I hope Mandela has had a chance to see a mandala created and then released. I think he would approve.



Good taste in two languages

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, July 9, 2010


One of our headline writers had fun with the French expression a la carte, which means “by the bill of fare” or “by the menu.”  You can check out the headline and story in today's Sentinel.

When we order a la carte, we pay a separate price for each item on the menu. We probably all do mental math every time we sit down in a restaurant and consider how much our wallets will shrink and our waistlines expand if we order drinks, appetizers, side salads and desserts along with our main courses.

“A la cart” is a clever title for the story on the growth of mobile food-vending businesses. The story leads with a personal touch, introducing us to Mike Valdez, an employee of The Dog Haus.

Ach, ja! Haus, not house. This German word is an example of a cognate, a word that sounds the same and is spelled nearly the same in another language. We often find cognates in languages that have the same classification. It is not a surprise, then, to learn that English is classified as a Germanic language.

We can thank the French for phrases such as a la carte. We can thank Germanic people for house and for hot dog because a hot dog is also known as a wiener. Wiener is short for Wiener wurst, or Vienna sausage, and the German name for Vienna is Wien. If we tuck into a bratwurst, we are also savoring something compliments of our linguistic cousins.

I could ramble on about our many borrowings from other languages, but that might only bring out the “wurst” in me.

Au revoir. Bis spater.

Page 131 of 132


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