Word of the Week! Subfusc

Once again, Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. This time he picked one that was completely new to me. As Dr. Bunn put it in an e-mail:

It can just mean gloomy, apparently, but it can also mean “the formal clothing worn for examinations and formal occasions at some universities.” In Dorothy Sayers’s novel set at Oxford, she uses it to describe clothing in dark, subdued shades, suitable for wearing under academic regalia. I always think of it on graduation day.

Only one of my American dictionaries has a brief entry, supporting Professor Bunn’s conclusion that the word is British English, not its American cousin. The OED Online provides both senses of the word given above, as an adjective or noun. The Latin roots are plain, sub + fuscus (dusky). We have a similar derivation in obfuscate and obfuscation.

As recently at 2006, the Times of London noted that “Undergraduates at Oxford University have voted by four to one to retain subfusc costume when sitting examinations.” They voted again to retain it in 2015.  There are other specificities for subfusc at Oxford. As I learned from this article about the differences between it and Cambridge, subfusc means “a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women.”
The customs surrounded academic regalia have crossed the Atlantic far better than the word itself or, for that matter, the often subfusc weather of the British Isles. While I cannot find meteorological examples of the word, it certainly works in that context.

The image of a subfusc sky with the light just returning is my own, taken at twilight in Kenmare, Ireland in 2011.  The academic regalia of Oxford comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so 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! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

This blog will continue all summer, so 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. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Penultimate

This post will run the final week of classes, but it is really the penultimate week for academic work here: do not forget your final exam week, students!

The word itself has a decidedly academic “look” to it, but I find it used as often in journals of ideas such as The Atlantic Monthly. I brought doughnuts to class today, our next-to-last writing workshop of the semester. For that penultimate class, however, I would never ask  “who ate the penultimate doughnut”?

The OED Online, online or in print, gives our word first as a noun, a form I rarely see in formal usage today. The adjectival form appears far more often, though I had never before encountered the now rare mathematical use meaning “Relating to or designating a member of a family of curves that is arbitrarily close to a degenerate form.”

A Merriam-Webster post points out a usage error for this term. Never use it in formal writing to mean “last.” Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage seconds that opinion. The word gets employed to mean “the best of the best” but that usage is also incorrect. Our word always means “next to last.”  I could see it being acceptable in casual usage as “the best for now, until something better arrives to replace it.”

The final word remains out on penultimate; in a century, it may mean exactly “the best, so far,” until a better word shows up.

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.

Word of the Week! “Analyzation”

I usually focus on words I like, but this one needs comment, if only to keep more students from using it. It cropped up in a midterm, and I marked but did not penalize it greatly.

Note that I used “penalize” rather than “punish.” The former word exemplifies “derivation,” where an affix (prefix or suffix) gets attached to a word to create a new one. Thus, from “penal” we get “penalize.”  I am not overly fond of words made with the “-ize” suffix, for no good reason other than their sound. Thus I do not put them in my list of faculty pet peeves. Like an ugly new car that gradually looks better over the  years, “-ize” verbs seem to beat down purists about style and usage.  I barely notice “penalize” now, considering it a less punitive synonym for “punish.”

Not so for “analyzation.” Consider its root: “analysis,” a word as old as Ancient Greece. The Online Etymology Dictionary supports that honorable origin. As with many “-ize” words, “analyze” provides us with a neologism that does powerful work. I use it as the soul of my courses where students analyze literary work. In fact, it’s the most powerful intellectual skill a student can hone in college, where I often tell writers “tell me what you learned. Even if I know the subject already, you can analyze what is new to you. That will then be new again to me.”

But the popular student word “analyzation” takes word-derivation a step too far, like a Rube Goldberg machine with too many steps to perform an action. A writer using our word simply makes a longer synonym for “analysis” that to a novice or careless reader sounds professional but actually, as in the title of a well respected essay by scholar David Bartholomae, merely provides another instance of “Inventing the University” rather than learning how we academics actually talk and write.

Moral: Never avoid analysis, but avoid “analyzation” at all costs.

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.

Word of the Week! Valence

Special thanks to Rita Willett, MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week. This is her second nomination and, as a writer, I can say that nothing is more pleasing than “regulars” who read one’s work.

Dr. Willett provides a term that I knew though chemistry classes, indicating particular types of chemical bonds. It appears in many other fields, all of them indicating a bond of some sort. Scouting about with Google, I found a use from linguistics, where valence indicates the number of words in a sentence to which another word, especially a verb, can bond. An verb such as “give” has a valence of three; it makes no sense alone, requiring itself (valence of 1) as well as a direct (2) and indirect object (3), as in “give me the dictionary!”

Dr. Willett and her students encountered our word through NIH’s RDoC Matrix, a graph ranking psychological motivations and threats according to positive or negative “valences.”

At first glance, the word’s meaning in psychology drifts a bit from its use in chemistry or immunology, where it also indicates a binding action for antibodies or antigens. The use of the term in psychology dates back only a century, with the OED Online providing a 1917 example, but one from 1935, in a book called A Dynamic Theory of Personality, really captures the meaning well: “A certain object or event..is experienced as an attraction (or repulsion)… We shall say of such objects that they possess a ‘valence’.”

There, then, in our bond, much like that in other fields. One positive valence I found at the NIH site is, in fact, chemical. Consider the reward given by the brain when it releases dopamine. Get a “like” online (or a regular reader responding at your blog) and you get a little dose of it, naturally.

This is why I often critique smart phones, calling them addictive “dopamine dispensers” and banning their use in class. But I digress, perhaps to release some other pleasant brain chemical related to smugness or curmudgeon-ism.

Looking for images in the Creative Commons of “dopamine reward” led to all sorts of negative valences that had me fretting about wasting professional time, since so many images were simply the same drawing of a human brain with the areas highlighted that are linked to dopamine. On the other hand, laughter must be a positive valence, and short clips of Homer Simpson being forced to eat an infinite number of donuts in Hell came up too under “dopamine reward.” This led me to Homer having a nightmare about “The Planet of the Donuts” where he’s accused of eating half the population.

Find those on your own. Right now, my brain craves the positive valence of consuming a donut, a word I prefer to spell “doughnut.” Then the negative valence of guilt for eating two, not one. I hope the valences that influence your behavior are all positive, from getting enough sleep, rewards, and positive habits.

Correction 4/9/18: I had originally noted “valence” as the spelling for a type of window treatment. As Dr. Willett pointed out, that is a “valance.” I swear I saw it listed with an “e” in one of my dictionaries. Perhaps I need an entry for “ophthalmologist.”

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.

Word of the Week! Pedagogy


Special thanks to Lisa Bayard, Manger of Tyler’s at UR, for this excellent pick. After the Bacchanalia ends, we must return to our studies.

I teach a course entitled “Composition Theory and Pedagogy,” and students rightly assume that the final word has something to do with the theory of teaching. For many years, poor student of Classical languages that I am, I mistakenly assumed that the “peda” in our word related to the Latin pedestere, to go around on foot. One often follows a mentor, like ducklings following mom. So that was that, as far as my defining the origins of “pedagogy.”

How wrong I was! While pedestere gives us the modern “pedestrian,” my thinking was rather pedestrian indeed, not have have checked a few good dictionaries.

During Spring Break, I am far from my printed dictionaries in Boatwright Library on campus, but I have the OED Online to follow me, like those ducklings, wherever I go. Their entry shows a history stretching back to Ancient Greece and, later in the Mediterranean world, Latin paedagogia. In English, by the 17th Century a “pedagogy” could mean not only the art of teaching but also the profession itself or a place where teaching gets done.

Today we generally refer to the system or theory of teaching when we use the word as a noun or adjective, as in “we practiced several pedagogical techniques for teaching the history of language.” I have heard teachers called “pedagogues” in older books; that term has faded from common usage.

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! 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.

A New “Super Bad” Writing Habit

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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.

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.