Dictionary Day

October 16.

October 16th is Dictionary Day in honor of Webster’s birthday.

Webster Long

Wrong Webster.

Noah Webster
Noah Webster

That’s better.

“On the first of May will be opened…a school, in which children may be instructed, not only in the common arts of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but in any branch of academic literature.

“The little regard that is paid to the literary improvement of females…and the general inattention to the grammatical purity and elegance of our native language, are faults in the education of youth that more gentlemen have taken pains to censure than to correct…”

–Noah Webster, April 16, 1782

Across the Atlantic, the English Parliament was just voting to end the war in America when Noah Webster, a 24 year-old Yale grad and veteran of the Connecticut Militia, posted his notice. He had earned a law degree the year before, but the post-war economy was in such bad shape that no one could afford a lawyer. So he tried his hand at teaching.

His mission to ensure the literacy of Americans became a life-long passion, as did his belief that this new country required its own distinct standards of spelling. He printed his first Speller for children in 1783. The Speller became an irreplaceable teaching tool due to Webster’s keen understanding of how children learned language at different stages.

During his lifetime, he earned far more from the Speller than from his dictionaries. The Speller sold millions of copies, and was acknowledged as a considerable force for maintaining the unity of Americans through language.

His Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1806. In it, Webster created a uniquely American way of spelling. With words such as center, harbor and program, instead of centre, harbour and programme.

In 1828, at age 70, he published his masterpiece: American Dictionary of the English Language. It contained over 70,000 entries, but sold only 2,500 copies. Webster was forced to mortgage his house to complete the second edition, which was released in 1840.

After his death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam purchased the rights to the dictionary and expanded it. The expanded “Unabridged” dictionary became the undisputed American authority on the English language for over a hundred years.

Noah Webster article – by Joshua Kendall, 2008

Noah Webster – by Horace Scudder, 1886

Bloomsday – Ireland

June 16

June 16 is Bloomsday (also Blooms Day) in Dublin, but it’s not a spring or solstice festival and it has nothing to do with Irish wildflowers.

Irish wildflowers © Jenny Seawright
Irish wildflowers © Jenny Seawright

No, Bloomsday honours Leopold Bloom, who spent a day traipsing through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904—in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses.

Each year on Bloomsday, Joyce lovers retrace the steps of the fictional characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Many old landmarks remain, though their functions may have changed:

“The house at 7 Eccles Street [Bloom’s home] now serves as home to part of the Mater Hospital Private Clinic… All Hollows Church, now Saint Andrews Church, still stands, as does the chemist shop where Bloom purchased a bar of lemon soap… Bella Cohen’s brothel now serves as a retreat house for Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.”

— James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Bernand McKenna

Martello tower in Sandycove now hosts the James Joyce Museum. Here, and along O’Connell Street, aficionados begin Bloomsday by enjoying a hearty breakfast, emulating that of Leopold Bloom…although many choose to skip the “grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine” in favor of extra sausages and Guinness.

First published in its entirety in 1922, most of Ulysses had been serialized in Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review from 1918 until 1920, the year it was banned in the U.S. due to frank descriptions of bodily functions and sexuality, as well as its commentary on organized religion and social mores.

In the 1933 New York Court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey overturned the ban, declaring that the story:

“did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on [my colleagues] was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.”

Ulysses was the original ‘24‘, and Bloom its Jack Bauer. Each of its 18 chapters documents approximately one hour in the life of Leopold Bloom (though the first few chapters follow Stephen Dedalus). The entire novel takes place in under 24 hours, beginning around 8:00 am on Thursday, June 16, 1904, and ending before dawn the next day.

With its stream-of-consciousness narrative, Ulysses was both a watershed moment in 20th century literature and the bane of English students for generations to come.

Joyce’s title juxtaposes the mundane experiences of Bloom’s romp through Dublin with the grandiose adventures of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses). Bloom’s wife Molly represents Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s  alter-ego from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) mirrors Telemachus.

For all the immortalizing Joyce did for the city of Dublin, the author supposedly never set foot in the town after 1912. He spent the last two decades of his life in Paris and Switzerland, and  died in 1941 in Zurich after an ulcer operation.

And as for the date, June 16, 1904—that was the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife-to-be Nora.

James Joyce, ca. 1918
James Joyce, ca. 1918

— God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original.

— Buck Mulligan in Ulysses

Rare recording of James Joyce reading his own work – mp3 [Note: often audio books make great literature easier to read. This is the exception.]

Fly a Kite Day

June 15

June 15 is Fly a Kite Day (or Go Fly a Kite Day), ostensibly honoring the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s famous electricity experiment in 1752.

Ben Flies a Kite

However, Franklin never specified the date of the experiment. Written records reveal that he only narrowed down the timeframe to a month (June 1752) a full fourteen years after the fact. Strange circumstances like these have led some historians to cast doubts as to the veracity of the entire experiment.

In Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax, Tom Tucker points out that the main evidence we have of the experiment, besides Franklin’s recollection 14 years later, is a single article he wrote about it for the Pennsylvania Gazette in October 1752 (and later published in Philosophical Transactions). The article leaves out several pertinent details, such as dates, witnesses, and oh yes, whether or not Franklin performed the experiment at all.

The article is written as sort of a “how-to” description. It contains details of how to construct a kite out of silk instead of paper, attach the key, and so on. But it never actually goes so far as to say the author actually carried out this task to its full extent. But the article does encourage the reader to go out and try an experiment that is more than likely to kill him. Whether Franklin realized this and this was just part of his conniving sense of humor is unknown.

Tucker argues that Franklin later chose June as the month of the experiment had occurred because French scientists had been conducting similar experiments on electricity across the Atlantic in May of 1752. It would have taken 6 weeks for such news to reach Franklin. Thus, in June his experiment would have still been an inspiration from God, as Franklin’s biographers insisted. Whereas in July it would have just been a copy.

Not all historians agree with Tucker’s hypothesis. Franklin is generally credited with proving that lightning is a form of electricity through a kite experiment so simple that it swept the rug out from more advanced scientists on the other side of the Atlantic.

Either way, don’t try it at home!

St. Urho’s Day

March 16

St. Urho statue, Menahga, Minnesota

St. Patrick is world-famous for driving the snakes out of Ireland, but the day before St. Patrick’s Day we celebrate an oft-overlooked saint named Urho, who is said to have performed the equally admirable feat of ridding his Finnish homeland of hungry grasshoppers, thus saving Finland’s all-important grape crop, and the Finns themselves, from devastation.

Plaques proclaim St. Urho’s glory, including one in Minnesota that describes the annual ceremony in his honor:

At sunrise on March 16, Finnish women and children dressed in royal purple and nile green gather around the shores of the many lakes in Finland and chant what St. Urho chanted many years ago: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away!”

Urho’s deeds are recalled in poems like The Legend of Saint Urho, by Linda Johnson. Statues have been erected in his honor. His feast day is celebrated with relish by Finnish communities throughout Minnesota.

But before you go impressing your Finnish friends with all your knowledge about their culture, you should know that, while St. Urho is a symbol of pride for many Finnish-Americans, sadly the Finns themselves are all but ignorant of their great national hero. (Or of the notion that grapes grew there.)

This is because St. Urho is a completely made-up saint. He was conjured up and popularized by Finnish-Americans (most-likely intoxicated) in Minnesota in the mid-1950’s.

Envious of the attention paid to Ireland’s patron saint on May 17, Finnish Minnesotans, created their own hero, possibly inspired by the name of then Finnish Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen. There is some debate over who is to blame—I mean, who is responsible for inventing the now world-famous saint.

Richard Mattson, a department store manager in Virginia, Minnesota, explained,

“[Gene] McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola’s Department Store, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick. I told her the Irish aren’t the only ones with great saints. She asked me to name one for the Finns. So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John), and St. Urho. Urho, a common Finnish name, had a more commanding sound.”

— “St. Urho Creator, Richard Matteson, Dies“, Mesabi Daily News, (June 7, 2001), Linda Tyssen Williams; “Well, Here We Are: The Hansons and the Becks” by J. Robert Beck

Mattson’s original St. Urho rid Finland of its frogs, not grasshoppers, a tradition that changed over time.

Soon, the employees of Ketola’s came to respect the Finnish saint, or at least their manager’s Finnish dry humor, and began throwing “St. Urho’s Day” parties as an inside joke for their beloved manager.

The story of St. Urho was reported in the Mesabi Daily News in 1956. That may be where Sulo Havumaki, a school district psychologist in Benmidji, Minnesota got wind of it.

“Sulo was a devout Catholic and, feeling left out because there weren’t any Finnish saints, made one up with tongue in cheek: St. Urho (Maybe he adopted Mattson’s…)” — William Reid

Sulo’s devotion to the obscure saint was well-known in the town. One story goes that when a neighbor’s family took a trip to Finland, they played a rather unusual practical joke on Sulo. They took some very old bones and wood with them and arriving in Finland, found a recent obituary in a Finnish newspaper. From Finland they shipped the wood and bones to Sulo along with a fictitious letter, in the name of the recently deceased…

“Sulo received the letter, which said something like “Dear Prof. Havumaki: I am the keeper of the last relics of St. Urho. News of your faith and dedication to St. Urho have reached me across the ocean. I am dying, and commend to you those last relics because I know you will protect and revere them, and pass them to the next custodian when the time is right…”

William Reid – http://www.sainturho.com/havumaki.htm

Sulo took the saint and ran with it, codifying much of the lore and the rites of the festival that is St. Urho’s Day.

Regardless of the saint’s origin, St. Urho’s Day is a very real reason (excuse) for Finnish-Americans to throw parties and drink beer in his honor.

For these true-believers, St. Patrick’s Day is merely “Hangover Day.”

from sainturho.com

Ode to Saint Urho
by Gene McGavin

Ooksi kooksi coolama vee
Santia Urho is ta poy for me!
He sase out ta hoppers as pig as pirds.
Neffer peefor haff I hurd tose words!…

…So let’s give a cheer in hower pest vay
On Sixteenth of March, St. Urho’s Tay.

Origin of St. Urho

Bug Girl’s Blog


L. Ron Hubbard’s Birthday

Today is the birthday of L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1953, which sd upi lmpe esd grsyitrf pm s brtu [pt,omrmrmy r[ofdpfr pg Dpiyj {stl/ Tjr sfjrtrmyd pg Dvormyp;pu str grmrts;;u yjpihjy yp nr vtsxu/ Yjru nr;orbr yjr rstyj od hpomh yp nr omvsfrf nu s;ormd smf pm;u Yp, Vtiodr vsm dyp[ oy/ Ypfsu pm :/ Tpm Jinnstf

d notyjfsy Dvormyp;phidyd hsyjrt om Clearwater, Florida.

March 9, 2009: Barbie turns 50

March 9, 2009


(Amerigo Vespucci, the Prophet Mohammad, and Barbie at 50)

Today’s a big day for holidays.

March 9, 2009 is the start of Purim in the Jewish calendar. It begins at sundown.

In the Sunni Muslim calendar, March 9, 2009 is Mawlid al Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad.

The second Monday in March is also the holiday formerly known as British Commonwealth Day (now just “Commonwealth Day”) across the former British Empire.

March 9 is the birthday of America. Or rather the birthday of its namesake Amerigo Vespucci. The mapmaker was born on this day in 1454.

But most important, March 9, 2009 is the 50th birthday of the Barbie doll.

+ + +

The Barbie doll, conceived by Ruth Handler in the late 1950’s, has been mass-produced 800 million times since March 9, 1959. That means, if there were a country solely inhabited by Barbie and her pals, it would be the third most populous nation on Earth.

I had the opportunity to meet the “real” Barbie — the doll’s namesake, Ruth Handler’s daughter Barbara — many years ago at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah. I remember being disillusioned that she had red hair at the time. As she has had to explain on countless occasions, “I am the name behind it, but I’m not the doll, you know…It was never made to look like me.” (The Oprah Winfrey Show)

The lack of life-like dolls for Ruth Handler’s daughter to play with once inspired the Barbie doll’s creation. However, by the time the doll came out in 1959, Barbara was 17, a Hamilton High School student in Los Angeles, California, long past the age of playing with dolls. She once told People Magazine, “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll. I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.” (People Magazine, March 6, 1989)

Mattel received criticism from women’s groups in recent decades regarding the unrealistic bodily proportions of the doll, and the effect this had on young girls’ self-esteem and body image. In the last few years, Barbie sales have taken a hit, largely due to competition from the newer Bratz Dolls, created by former Mattel employee Carter Bryant. The top-heavy Bratz Dolls have also come under fire in recent weeks for their alleged effect on girls’ self-image, a controversy (ingeniously) exposed by the Onion News Network:

Bratz Dolls heighten girls’ insecurity about head size


Cougar Barbie video

Quiz: Which Messed-Up Barbie Are You?

Heroic Defenders of the Motherland Day – Liechtenstein

March 1, 2007


Okay, this is not a real holiday. But it should be. On this day (March 1) in 2007, Liechtenstein was famously invaded by its “peace-loving” neighbor Switzerland.

170 Swiss soldiers armed with assault rifles (unloaded but still scary looking) and their trusty Swiss Army knives marched over a mile into the 4 mile-wide sovereign principality of Liechtenstein while on exercises.

So 170 Swiss guards may not seem like the big bad beast to you, but to a country the size of Liechtenstein, that’s like being invaded by Russia. The Swiss claimed it was all a misunderstanding. But we know better. This was the “Bay of Pigs” of Switzerland. They thought they would easily overrun the defenseless Liechtensteinian people. They underestimated the bravery and stalwartness of the men and women of Liechtenstein who, without a moment’s hesitation for their own safety, confronted the armed Swiss militia and gave them directions back home.

Switzerland’s thin veneer of neutral piety was cracked. The attack of March 1, 2007 revealed the Swiss monsters as the power-hungry aggressors they are.

Today the people of Liechtenstein (should) salute the Heroic Defenders of the Motherland, thanks to whom Liechtenstein continues to enjoy 200+ years of independence.

But keep an eye on that Western border…


Beer Day! – Iceland

March 1


You may be aware of the United States’ 13-year experiment with prohibition back in the, well, Prohibition Era (1920-1933).

But it is a testament to the stout-hardiness of the Icelandic people that they kept up their beer ban for over five times that long: a full 75 years. Iceland was beer-free between 1914 and 1989 — a time period that roughly mirrors the entire existence of the Soviet Union.

The beer ban was finally repealed on March 1, 1989.

Nine months later the Berlin Wall fell, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If you doubt the causal connection between these events, it is a clear indicator that you have not sufficiently participated in the celebration of Beer Day, a ritual which entails consuming your weight in the hop-filled elixir.

Just to clarify, the Icelandic people did have some help during the dark days of prohibition, and from an unlikely ally. The Spanish and Portuguese declared they would not import Iceland’s salted cod unless Iceland imported some Iberian red wine. Thus, wine was legalized while beer remained taboo.

Twenty years after the repeal, Iceland boasts one major brewery for every 100,000 people.

Which means three.

Yes, Iceland has about 300,000 people, less people than the L.A. School District, grades 7 through 12.

Iceland’s low population growth has be attributed to the fact that — in case you haven’t been paying attention — beer was illegal there for 75 years.

How Can I Do My Part to Celebrate this Historic Holiday?

Every year thousands of Americans stand in solidarity with the Icelandic people, commiserating their tragic 20th century beer drought by imbibing a round of Icelandic beer, or whatever beer happens to be nearby.

However, Americans don’t celebrate Iceland Beer Day on March 1, but whenever they get around to it, usually in April.