Word of the Week! Doldrum

Sailing Boat alone

July marks the lowest ebb of my summer, at least when I do not escape Richmond’s continual sauna for more temperate climes. I feel like I’m a ship becalmed under a burning sun. In a word, in the doldrums. By August I’m gearing up for the semester ahead and the doldrums lie behind me.

Our word this week has a fascinating history, with the OED Online providing an etymology from the more familiar “dull” and the less familiar “dold,” meaning dim-witted. We no longer call a dull or boring person a “doldrum,” saving that term for dull moods, as when Carlo Marx, the fictional counterpart of Allen Ginsberg in Kerouac’s On the Road,  complains of times when he is not being creative as his “doldrums.”

I consider the nautical use of the word its most pow

erful. Every summer, for no reason I can fathom, I pack my sea chest and embark on a fictional sea voyage, usually by sail. It is not something I’d ever want to do in reality, but the specialized language of sailing, the rich history, and of course the many disasters compel me to read on. This year my pick is Joshua Slocum’s 1900 memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum was the first person, at least on record, to do so. He faced many dangers, from pirates, storms, to hostile native tribes, and I looked forward with delight to his traversing the Atlantic doldrums, an equitorial region where winds are calm or nonexistent.

Slocum sailed right through, to my great disappointment. Otherwise, the book is really fine reading. Yet to this reader the thought of being beca

lmed at sea seems worse than any storm. All one can do is wait for wind. Thus the term fits well with Carlo Marx’s, and other writers’,  fears of getting stuck.

May your doldrums be brief and a fair wind fill your sails, until the storms of Autumn arrive.

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.

Creative Commons image from Flikr, courtesy of Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

 

Word of the Week! Tontine

This word was new to me, though as soon as I read the nomination, I knew it merited a post. The original meaning has changed to mean something sad, part of the passing of what Tom Brokaw called America’s “Greatest Generation.”

Originally, this term meant simply an annuity paid out to members, but as members pass away, each survivor received a larger share.  The original, as the OED Online notes, came from the name of “Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker, who initiated the scheme in France c1653.”  I have never heard of such an investment today, though I suppose they still exist, as do card games played according to the idea.

As for contemporary usage, thanks go to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, who ran across our word as a synonym for “last man’s clubs” for veterans. Usually the final survivor drinks a toast to fallen comrades, from a bottle of spirits set aside with great ceremony long before. Lee also recalls that there was an episode in the TV series M*A*S*H about a tontine that included Col. Potter.

There’s only a noun form, meaning either the type of arrangement or, as The American Heritage Dictionary adds, the members of a group who make it. So a correct usage would be, for the video I’m about to share, “a tontine, composed of the last living Doolittle Raiders, met at the Museum of the United States Air Force, where they opened a bottle of vintage cognac saved for many decades. They drank a final toast to their deceased comrades.”

PBS had an entire special about this event and the air raid on Japan that led to the tontine. It came as a very dark time in our nation’s history, early in the War and amid many US losses. It inspired everyone I met from that generation who spoke of it. So here’s a toast to our heroes. Their raid may well have spurred Japan into the hastily planned and finally disastrous Battle of Midway, an engagement that changed the entire course of the Pacific war.

At the time of writing, Col. Richard Cole, the last raider, is still participating in public events at the age of 102. His is the last goblet left standing upright in the case he built to hold the bottle and goblets for the members of  his tontine.

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.

Video by “BCI2D” at YouTube and image from the CAF’s blog. Visit their museum to take a ride in a B-25 Mitchell, the type of plane used in the raid.

Word of the Week! Atavism

Here is a term that has been on my mind a lot, ever since some kids walking down the street, twenty years ago, spotted me and my manually powered reel mower.

“Look at that dude! He’s got one of them throwback lawnmowers!”

That’s a good working definition of an atavism. The etymology given by the OED, as you might guess, is the Latin atavus, either “a great-grandfather’s grandfather” or more generally, “an ancestor.”

For once, the OED’s entry appears really limited, providing no usage examples. It notes resemblance to an ancestor rather than to one’s parents, or the recurrence of a disease common in distant family history, but not in one’s recent ancestors. My favorite print dictionaries, old and new, provide little more.  So I will strike out into the atavistic thickets by myself.

I’ve seen our word, as noun and adjective, used both in science and elsewhere, to mean a “throwback,” something from an earlier time that has somehow erupted into the present. I write “erupted” because my sense of the term is not an historical or biological survival from an earlier epoch but something that emerges, like new. It calls the mind and eye back to an earlier time. Hence  Frank Norris’ description of the titular character in one of my favorite novels, McTeague: “His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora.” Norris’ protagonist is a brute, a throwback to some imagined caveman past.

Consider nonhuman examples: I do not mean a perfectly restored 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang but one sold as new, presumably a zero-mile example found improbably on the premises of a Ford factory. Better still, imagine the faces of shocked workers when such a car appeared magically on the assembly line. That dream of car collectors would be in keeping with the biological idea of atavism.

My favorite pop-culture atavism appears at the top of this post.

I have been waiting a long time to use the Mountain Dew “Throwback” logo for something. I drank the stuff in high school. Somehow I lost the taste, but my fondness for Hillbilly kitsch has remained strong.

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: Palimpsest

This one is so much easier to understand than to say! It refers to a text that has been erased and its writing surface reused. I first learned about palimpsests in Mr. Noble’s course in Medieval History, at UVA, in the early 80s. He was a great lecturer, and he had us spellbound as he recounted the recovery of ancient texts, presumably lost, when modern researchers examined Medieval manuscripts under UV light.

The OED Online provides a comprehensive entry, with the history of the word dating to the 17th Century. I will focus less on that than on how Literary Theorists tend to use the word, rather loosely and sometimes far too often.

The palimpsest as recycled material makes great sense, given the enormous cost of vellum in the Middle Ages. The concurrent impetus to erase the pagan past, ironically, may have preserved fragments of it for us. Had monks more vellum, many more works from Antiquity would have presumably vanished. One entire text by Archimedes comes to us this way, but mostly we have bit and pieces of others.

Modern usage includes the looser idea of anything partly erased by later action, with traces of the earlier meaning remaining. I have heard this in academic talks and read it in articles for years.  Here’s a well crafted example from Leila Walker’s 2012 article, “The Child of the City and the Palimpsest at Sea: De Quincey’s Chronological Constraints”:

A palimpsest arranges its history simultaneously, although the text was recorded sequentially. Each successive layer was added at a particular moment in time, and yet, once added, each layer occupies the same material space as all other layers.

This writer uses the word well in a symbolic sense. It’s a powerful if often confusing metaphor in contemporary literary theory. I have never been comfortable with the word, since it has too many consonants in odd places.

I am also uncomfortable with the idea, one hard to deny, of our entire civilization being a palimpsest. Traces of what came before remain, like the old Richmond trolley tracks, surrounded by granite cobbles and peeking through asphalt poured over an entire street. Ancient bigotries also darkly glimmer under the placid surface, while old sacrifices, some noble, some not so, linger just at the edge of vision.

When future ages inscribe their texts upon the scraped-bare vellum of our civilization, I wonder what they will put there?

7/2/18 Update from Cynthia Price, our Director of Media & Public Relations:

Curious about today’s word. Specifically, in many villages in Africa the students turn newspapers and books sideways to write in the white spaces because they don’t have access to new books. Obviously, the words have not been erased. Would one still call the document a palimpsest since the writing surface is being reused?

I’m not sure, but its close. The children would probably erase the original text if they could, in order to have more writing space. I also am impressed by the perseverance of those who do not have the luxury to simply toss paper into bins, as we also do.

Image 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! Suborbital

As the summer moves along, I review old syllabi and create new ones. I’ve not taught my course “The Space Race” for a few years, but I did review the course materials and the word “suborbital” popped up. It’s a newcomer, with The OED only dating it to 1950.

That term describes not the free-fall of something orbiting the earth, but a specific altitude where one experiences a short period of weightlessness. Humans have been there, and beyond, since the early 1960s, with Alan Shepherd being the first American to do so. For those with enough money, however, there are now other options.

Suborbital flights will likely be in the news soon, as Sir Richard Branson’s latest craft, VSS Unity, has completed test flights and may, within a few months, take paying passengers to the edge of space.

When I explained suborbital fight to my students, I used the old cliche “what goes up MUST come down.” You can see it in the following image of the first two Project Mercury flights.Note the vertex (highest point) of the parabola and the brief duration of the journey. NASA’s little Redstone rocket, a borrowed Army missile based in Werher von Braun’s V-2, did not have the power to lift a capsule and astronaut into a true orbit, where an object is under the influence of gravity without any drag acting upon it. It falls forever but unlike a skydiver, the object in orbit has its decent checked by its forward momentum around the Earth. That perfect balance can last for a few hours or even years, if the spacecraft occasionally boosts its orbit, but for those like Alan Shepard or Sir Richard’s spacefarers, the craft do not attain free fall. They skim into the edges of space, then begin to descend. For a few moments, as they fall, travelers experience zero gravity (and Virgin Galactic customers find their wallets about a quarter million dollars lighter).

Perhaps in the era of cheaper access to space, costs will drop as they once did for airline travel. For now, experiencing suborbital flight seems a luxury for the rich, but so did transcontinental air travel during my parents’ lifetime.

Now we complain about legroom and the food and do not even look out the windows.

Addendum 6/25/18: Dr. Peter Smallwood, UR Department of Biology, reminds me that “For me, suborbital is a vein, bone, or a fracture in the bone just below the eye.”  That is the OED’s first definition, but to space-junkies like me, anything about human spaceflight drowns out the rest.

Virgin Galactic and suborbital fight images 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! Efficacy

Brian Krach, enrolled in the Paralegal Studies Program of our School of Professional and Continuing Studies, nominated our word this week:

It is certainly familiar to me as a reference to medical trials; however, I was listening to a podcast where Jerry Muller, Professor of History at Catholic University, was a guest. He made the following statement:

“Its not that I deny the problem, its that I am skeptical of the efficacy of the proposed solution.”

Note the fine-grained level of meaning in Professor Muller’s statement. The OED Online provides a concise entry, with our earliest usage cited as 1527. The first definition, “the power or capacity to produce effects” shows that not all solutions and not all medicines, however well intended they may be, are guaranteed to be efficacious for a particular problem.

Peruse the OED entry to see a few obsolete definitions, all about effects, one coming from John Locke. One aside: As I continue to look at the etymology of our Words of the Week, I wonder what happened in the 15th and 16th Centuries to give us the first recorded uses of so many words. Then I come up with a two-part answer: “Gutenberg” and “Renaissance.”

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! Existential

This word seems easy enough. The adjective refers to existence. That is, indeed, the earliest definition in The OED Online, “of or relating to the existence of a thing.” That sense goes back as far as the 17th Century.

Outside of academia, one often encounters the word in the sense of “being a matter of life or death.” I’ve heard  North Korean nuclear weapons, unmarked asteroids hurtling by the Earth, and slowly mounting climate change all referred to as “existential threats” to human civilization or even the survival of our species.

If only, however, it were that stark. We would have a very short post indeed this week, but we can blame mid-20th-Century philosophers and writers for making matters existential so complex. Here the OED and other references take us into the realm of existential philosophy, or existentialism. If you have read the works of Sartre or Camus, you may consider it a gloomy school of thought. Read The Stranger, or any of American author Paul Bowles’ austere and beautiful fiction to encounter the core of existentialism: that humans are alone in an indifferent if not hostile universe. Our actions, while freely chosen on our parts, mean, finally, nothing.

Yet an existentialist philosophy need not be so bleak. I’ve been reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, after running across the work as a reference in an article about the value of failure in learning.

Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, not only survived Auschwitz and, almost as harrowing, a Bavarian concentration camp in the Second World War’s last months, but he practiced medicine in the latter camp. He had little to offer fellow prisoners aside from a few aspirin doled out by the SS and kind words. Despite contracting typhus, Frankl reconstructed a manuscript seized from him at Auschwitz. It contained a new system of psychology that Frankl called logotherapy. This was an existentialist form of therapy to address what the psychologist called “the existential vacuum” of modern life, where cultural traditions have waned and leisure time often results in mere boredom. Frankl’s theory and practice emphasize focusing on creating meaning in one’s life and pursuing goals, even in the bleakest situations.

That’s hardly gloomy, yet there too our word of the week speaks to the essentials of human existence.

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.

Images of Viktor Frankl, by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, and of Paul Bowles courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Multilateral

The field of mathematics gives us our word this week, though today it tends to mean anything that involves three or more governments or organizations, such as the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, pictured.

It dates, in its original sense of “having more than four sides,” to the 17th Century. Our political usage of the word only appeared in the middle of the 19th, according the entry in The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

Compare this word to “bilateral,” such as the on-again, off-again talks between the leaders of the US and North Korea, or “unilateral,” such as when an organization makes a decision without any other parties’ involvement.

Our word appears in the realms of business and political science most often today, but its older geometric and social meanings linger. The OED offers a recently added definition, “offering two or more distinct curricula for secondary education,” with an earliest recorded use in 1938.

As negotiations and trade disputes continue to be in the news this summer, I expect to see “multilateral” and its kin frequently.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Iconoclast

Thanks to Dr. Jack Singal of Physics for this excellent choice.

In the original religious sense, an iconoclast defaces (literally) or destroys icons. It could also apply in secular cases, for rulers whose memory and images got erased from history by decree: consider the Roman practice of Damnatio memoriae, as in this instance.According to the Wikipedia entry for this  Second-Century image, “Geta’s face has been erased, because of the damnatio memoriae ordered by his brother after the fratricide.”  One does not get erased for trifling reasons. To see the most famous candidate for this fate, visit the Virginia Museum and be sure to say hello to the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better remembered as Caligula. His statue in Richmond is one of only a few that survived his erasure. The stories about his madness and depravity still echo down the millennia.

As for the evolution of our word, The OED Online gives a good sense of how being an iconoclast came to mean something secular, anyone who wishes to tear down established beliefs or ideals.  The American Heritage Dictionary also provides usage notes for how the word now includes this sense; that is, in fact, the reference work’s first definition.

But let’s travel back a bit in time. I had the dubious privilege of seeing the work of the original iconoclasts first-hand, during a 2005 visit to the stone cities of central Anatolia.

Note how, in my  first photo, the faces of both Byzantine figures are removed. That’s not by centuries of fading, as in the rest of the imagery. Getting closer, one can see the gouges where someone meticulously scraped away the visages. The Deutsches Historisches Museum has a fine page about the history of Christian iconoclasm, but the practice stretches back to Antiquity. What I saw in Anatolia was comparatively recent iconoclasm, dating to some point between the 5th and 9th Centuries.

More recent iconoclasm happened in the former Warsaw Pact nations and Iraq. If Richmond’s Confederate monuments ever come down, even to stand with the far less ambiguous Caligula in our museum, it’s also the same ancient urge at work. Often the images are not destroyed, as with Saddam Hussein’s statue below, but removed from places of prominence and stored or hidden. There’s a fine post about a graveyard for Soviet statues in Estonia here at “Travel Turtle.”

Increasingly, I hear those who go against accepted opinion  and tastes “just because” called iconoclasts. They are, perhaps more accurately, merely contrarian. Guilty as charged.  Now where’s the image I can deface?

You can hear more of Professor Singal’s erudition in his interview by President Crutcher, in “Astrophysics and Big Data.”

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! 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.