Word of the Week! Practicable

Special thanks to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects. Lee picks a good word; I used it frequently when teaching business and professional writing at Indiana University. I’ve not done so recently, but the time has come to dust off this term. It contains several meanings that I’d never before encountered.

The OED Online provides a long history, one dating to the 16th Century, much like many of our prior words of the week.

In 1593, one might speak of “fiue (sic) hundred practicable cases” and except for the spelling of “five,” we would employ our word of the week in precisely the same manner. One thinks of practicable matters in terms of their being feasible. The OED also includes “effective,” “practical,” and a few other definitions.

If last week’s word slid off the tongue, this one decidedly does not. The strength of practicable arises when it appears in print.  Business writers often need synonyms, especially when these provide just the nuance for a sentence. Given the word’s somewhat circuitous etymology, “A borrowing from Latin; modelled (sic) on a French lexical item,” I would argue that by combining elements of “practical,” “practice,” and “able,” practicable counts as a portmanteau word capturing the sense of a thing that can be done or used without too much fuss.

Secondary meanings extend to routes that are the best to take when traveling, or to describe a prop in a play that can be used, as in this 2002 example from the OED about theater history, “A more finished version of the garden plan..can be seen in figure 2, for an unidentified production. The lazy line back becomes here a garden path stretching across what may be a practicable footbridge.”

That is not all; I never had heard of the noun form. In the specialized language of live theater, however, drapes that could be parted by actors are a practicable, but those painted on a wall are not. I hope some reader in that field will let us know if the term still has any currency.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Crepuscular

Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. I have always thought of the term in relation to the raccoons and possums, those banes of my chicken flock, or groundhogs, terrors of my garden. Without going into the gory details, let’s just say that as the light fails or grows, I have violently curtailed many of these creatures’ crepuscular activities. Such animals are usually only spotted at dawn or dusk, very rarely in broad daylight. The same goes for the red fox that helps me control their populations. It can best be observed at the verge of the forest at twilight.

Our word means associated with, or active in, twilight.  The Oxford English Dictionary Online has examples dating back as far as the 17th Century, and these add the sense of “indistinct” to the adjective in a way we would never say today, such as this beauty from 1860, “The crepuscular realm of the writer’s own reveries.”

For animals, the word makes sense; creatures that bet their lives upon not being spotted by predators going on two legs, four, or a set of wings need to do their foraging in dim light.

I like the word because of its “mouthfeel”: it creeps over the tongue like a critter in tall grass, slinking about for an unearned meal. As with similar words, we have a Latin ancestor, crepusculum. The verb and noun “creep,” however, come from much further north; there’s Anglo-Saxon ancestry there.  By accident both words could be used for similar situations, with an unknown animal creeping around on its crepuscular rounds, at least until the patient farmer or fox spots it.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Eldritch

How can a word that appears to be about the supernatural or ancient describe a manikin in a roadster, floating around planet Earth? Wait for it…

Thanks to Writing Consultant Jennifer Cottle for this word, one she nominated while a student in my Eng. 215 class as we read the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The Providence fantasist used it a great deal, usually when describing old books of magic as “eldritch tomes” or things associated with the supernatural, as in “The Dunwich Horror,” where “the mountainous blasphemy lumbered upon its eldritch course.” Incidentally, if you think Lovecraft overused one of his favorite adjectives, it only appears once in that tale, as well as once in another personal favorite, “The Haunter of the Dark,” where I had been sure he used it on every other page.

While casting about for more examples, I recalled that the author referred to eldritch landscapes as well as objects or monsters. Over the years I had come to think of eldritch things as being ancient.

My Lovecraftian-looking Webster’s New Collegiate notes a Scottish origin and a definition of “eerie,” whereas my more recent American Heritage Dictionary notes “perhaps” a Middle English word “elriche” as an ancestor. That dictionary adds the notion of “unearthly” to our Word of the Week.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not solve the riddle of the term’s etymology, as it lists both “elriche” and “eldritch” in 16th century usages, both with the sense of things “not of this earth.”  If the two words are merely variants of the same term, “eldritch” carried the day. It also came to be used in describing strange places.

By the 19th Century, American realist William Dean Howells writes of a “Joy that had something eldritch and unearthly in it. Redundant? Howells apparently saw some distinction between something unearthly and the truly “eldritch,” and I find his association with joy original and appealing. What I do not see, in any usage, is the sense of something old, as when Lovecraft describes moldering books or mossy ruins of another time.

So like the term itself, there’s mystery in the exact meaning of “eldritch.” It’s a lovely word that trips off the tongue. I guess players of D&D and readers of fantasy novels have kept it alive for us.

We can also tip our space-helmets to Elon Musk. This week’s launch of the “Starman” manikin, seated behind the wheel of a cherry-red roadster, had me mesmerized. It looked literally unearthly, as it embarked on an endless trip around the sun. We can call this high-technology moment, eerie in its cosmic loneliness, an eldritch event.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Hyperbole

Dr. Jerry Tarver, Professor of Rhetoric & Communication Studies, nominated our word, hyperbole. Dr. Tarver provides this interesting anecdote:

William F. Buckley, Jr. once gave a speech at UR in which he discussed the compulsion politicians have for overstatement. He called this tendency the “hyperbolic imperative” and unfortunately lost the attention of a large number of students. The word makes a useful distinction between outright lying and simple exaggeration. Hyperbole in practice is not all bad by any means; the best of writers make use of it. And it is also a word best pronounced by not looking at it.

That insight will prove useful to me, personally, whenever I hear too much news; then I slip into to thinking of hyperbole as much closer to an outright lie than what Buckley claimed.  So what is the origin of this term? Looking closer, I imagine a forgotten deity from the age of Pericles.

The OED Online supports the common usage as overstatement for rhetorical effect; so far, so good then. The etymology here is indeed Greek, meaning “excess.” As for early uses, the OED goes back to 1529 and no less a speaker and writer than Catholic martyr Thomas More, best known today for his Utopia and death at the hands of Henry VIII. More noted, in the spelling of his day, “a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” Seven decades later, Shakespeare spelled the word “hiperbole” but used it in the same way as More had done.

Modern spelling has settled down, but not so a drift in meaning to something very close to lying, thus making a falsehood out of what was once merely exaggeration. We enjoy hyperbole frequently in tall tales, in the hyperbolic commentary of sportscasters or, with a wink, in political speeches.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Scruples

Here comes a word we often hear but rarely think about when we use it. When I think of “scruples,” I have always imagined someone like Dame Maggie Smith’s character from Downton Abbey, who had more scruples than teacups.

Griffin Trau nominated our word; he graduated in December, double majoring in Leadership and International Studies. Since then, he has enrolled in UR’s Master of Liberal Arts program and has one more year of eligibility on our Football team. According to Griffin, “This one is interesting for its root in Latin scrupus meaning ‘small pebble,’ or more figuratively ‘anxiety.’ The word is sometimes used in its historic sense in landscaping for the small pebbles used in driveways, paths, or buffer zones…you know, the ones that always end up in your shoes (that might be how the Romans came up with anxiety).”

In 2009, I walked the remains of a Roman road in Yorkshire, and it would make me anxious to think of little rocks in my sandals with miles to go to reach the next vicus or oppidum. In fact, my reading tells me that Roman roads were amazingly maintained. I’d doubt too many scruples vexed travelers.  Yet travelers today take their scruples with them, such as refusing to eat certain foreign foods or, in a gaff I long ago made in a pub, tipping where a local culture does not accept gratuities.

How we went from pebbles to moral or ethical sensibility is anyone’s guess. OED Online gives a first use as a noun, meaning a very small unit of measurement, from 1382.  That appears to have been lost, as well as its use as a verb. In that case The OED traces it to 1627, meaning to hesitate based on a moral or ethical principle. It also had a broader meaning to hesitate or doubt, usage that seems to have faded completely today. A fleeting adjectival usage appears as well, scrupling. Let’s not descend further into this as it would be, at best, a scrupling pursuit.

Proper usage today would be as follows, “She was a Countess from a well regarded English family, and she had many scruples about who should be admitted to her inner circle of associates.”Another native of England, Alfred Hitchcock, noted that “There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”

A less morally fraught use would involve paying attention to detail, as with “After someone broke into his unlocked car, John became scrupulous about making sure he locked the car doors every night.”

Think of the two words we still associate with this Latinate antiquity: scrupulous and its shiftless sibling, unscrupulous. For the verb, I would scruple to use it in a modern sentence. That’s a pity. “Scruple” has a rich history and losing its verbal form robs the language of richness, since it adds a moral sense to our hesitation or anxiety.

That said, I am no scrupulous guardian of the past. Changes to our language as often enrich as impoverish. Yet I have scruples about many words we lose, for with them a scruple of nuance can vanish; it is the greatest thing I fear as our language changes.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Cyclopean

Welcome to a new feature at the Writing Center’s site. I (or a guest) will provide a new word regularly with some etymology as well as clarity about how to use it. When the word came not from my head but from our students, faculty, or staff, they will be recognized.

Our word of the week is “Cyclopean.” Thanks to student Haley Lawrence for providing it last semester in my Eng. 215 class, when we read the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Here’s a typically long-winded Lovecraftian example of the adjective:

“Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.”

The usage is from the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” and here it suggests buildings not only large, but inhumanly so, to the point of discomfort. So why the image of Ray Harryhausen’s  famous cyclops from the 1958 film Seventh Voyage of Sinbad?

A search through a few dictionaries shows a first recorded use in 1641 (OED Online). In that instance, humans shook in awe before “the Cyclopean power that which [sic] is the glory of Christ.”  The Christian savior qualifies as more than human, but the idea of a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, seems lost here.  The OED also records a later usage for a telescope, certainly a one-eyed and powerful tool. That’s closer to that mythical creature who terrorized Odysseus until the wily Greek outwitted him.

The Cyclops of the epic poem was large, smart, and crafty in many ways. He was, most importantly, a rather domestic monster, keeping a herd of sheep and living in a large cave. I suppose the myth of the race of Cyclops led to all sorts of explanations for natural or ancient stonework as well as metaphors for contemporary architecture.

In Lovecraft’s prose, the term applies to large masonry of a sort that no human of his age might erect: blocks of Egyptian pyramids, The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and so forth.  Do not simply substitute “cyclopean” for “huge”: something must be huge to the point of inspiring awe. I’d call The Empire State Building or Hoover Dam Cyclopean; a McMansion or highway bridge, not so much. Imagine, 2,000 years hence, an archeologist writing “old New York staggers the explorer with the Cyclopean ruins of Midtown.”

My first print dictionary, a nearly antique Webster’s New Collegiate, adds another twist beyond one-eyed or large:  encyclopedia. The older term “cyclopedia” is a synonym for our familiar printed or online repository of information. It too is vast; think of what we mean when we say that someone has “encyclopedic knowledge” of a subject. One rarely sees printed encyclopedias any more, but if you spot one, consider how much shelf-space it takes and think of those one-eyed, inhuman giants of mythology.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment here.

 

A New “Super Bad” Writing Habit

splitcap

I am known for my hatred of superhero movies and, frankly, the entire genre of the superhero comic book. The plot arcs are so often predictable, the attempts at stirring our emotions so bombastic. I do enjoy the occasional effort such as Kickass that subverts the conventions of the genre, but that sort of film sounds its yawp into the teeth of a hurricane.

Now our superpower-obsessed tastes, not being content with ruining popular cinema, are also dumbing down speech, even student prose.

This morning during my drive to work, I listened to an otherwise talented NPR reporter use the adjective “super” to describe aspects of a refugee simulation under way. Her sloppy use of the term undercut the seriousness of the story: an Iranian immigrant who had fled Iraqi airstrikes in the First Gulf War teaches others how the experience of fleeing one’s home might feel.

The reporter, speaking too fast as so many current NPR staff do, described a life-raft as “super cramped” and at about that point, I wanted to turn off the radio. It’s a lazy word, “super,” that slowly has been creeping into student writing. I plan to add it to my Pet Peeves list at Writer’s Web.

The usage illustrates what Joe Glaser, author of Understanding Style, decries as too much informal diction seeping into formal writing. I have yet to see a student in my “Space Race” First-Year Seminar refer to the Saturn V moon rocket as “super big,”  but I await that dark day with each written response.

My hunch about “super,” as with the even worse “totally,” comes from the increased orality and interruptive nature of informal speech. I hear students talk over each other, omitting nuance and forethought. Most of my students and even some of my peers are not doing as much serious reading–if any reading at all–beyond what a class assigns. When my students do read, they do not engage in any reflection on how a decent author crafts a sentence or uses language in surprising ways.

Thus non-readers are left with a small grab-bag of simple modifiers. “Super” has become the modifier of choice to replace other simple adjectives and adverbs:  “very,” “extremely,” “extensively,” and the like.

In my courses, all of them more or less based upon a 100-point scale, I plan to deduct 1 point for “super” used in place of a more descriptive word. And I plan to be super clear about that.

Possessives’ Apostrophes: Oh, What a Mess

If a reader checks the entry in Writer’s Web, our online handbook, the rules for using apostrophes seem simple enough, whenever a word ends in the letter S:

For words that are plural, such as “Joneses,” just add the mark.

Singular words are different. They take ‘s, as in “I ran into the boss’s car! What do I do?” or “Is that Thomas’s cat?”

Prediction: in 100 years’ time, the possessives of every word that ends in an S will take a simple apostrophe. That is, of course, if anyone still bothers to punctuate.

For now, however, the situation is hopelessly muddled. Our Writing Consultants try to adhere to the simple rules just given, yet in common usage and under “house rules” for various fields of study the matter of correct usage remains far from settled.  Consider this set of exceptions from the Grammar United site about the different house styles for AP and University of Chicago formats. Happy reading.

Back? Still sane?  Good. Now consider a few classic handbooks and the advice therein.

Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers (6th Ed.)

  • “If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe”
  • “if the noun is singular and ends in -s or an s sound, add -‘s” (299).

Listen for the “S”? Why? I envision people reading their work aloud, no bad thing to do, to hear that “s” sound.

So let’s try the grandfather of all usage guides.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (2nd Ed. Sir Ernest Gowers, Ed.)

  • “It was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s. . . . In verse, and in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom is retained. . . .But elsewhere we now usually add the s and the syllable” (466).

Recent handbooks do a better job.

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I

  • “To indicate ownership, add ‘s to a singular noun or to a plural noun that does not end in s. . .” (151).
  • “If the word is plural and ends in s, add just the apostrophe” (38).

Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of American Usage

  • “For most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final s” (509).

While I remain reverential to the late Diana Hacker, whose books have so long had an honored place in writing classrooms,  I am going to come down on the side of the living. American English tends to evolve toward simplicity; in this case, the simpler usage does not remove any nuance from our language, and our Writing Consultants have dragons to slay in student work. They do not have time for this particular gnat, let alone deciding how an S sounds or if the context might be poetic or reverential.

Thus, unless a house style dictates otherwise, our Writing Center and I hold with Garner and O’Conner: add an apostrophe only to plural nouns that end in S. Possessives such as children’s hospital or men’s room are different and easy enough. The plurals do not end in an S.

So there we have it, for even the worst possessive obsessive’s grammar notes.

Mr. Fowler, rest in peace, please. And I am so pleased that you began a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did. Hah.

 

 

Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year.  How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty.  I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors.  Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.