Word of the Week! Gadfly

Martin Luther King Jr.Reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had a transformative effect on my sense of justice and, frankly, rhetoric. It remains a masterpiece of persuasive writing; several words and metaphors that Dr. King employ struck me, as a college student, with their power.  Re-reading it today, one word, really a metaphor that has long been a favorite of mine, stands out.

The word “gadfly” in one sentence speaks entire paragraphs, both for its seeming innocence but also for its referencing Socrates’ Apology, where the doomed Greek philosopher discussed the need for someone like him to stir a lazy nation, just as a gadfly stirs a lazy horse. King writes “we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King calls here for nonviolence, as did Socrates before him, but nonviolence with an edge to it. The word itself, with “gad” of Scandinavian origin, is a cousin to our “goad,” for spurring action. When used for a person who provokes action, the term dates to the 17th Century.

I rather like gadflies. I don’t think that Dr. King would mind my calling him one. We could currently use more of them, and it’s a credit to Dr. King that he advocated goads, not bullets.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Public Domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Lollygag

Lazy Bones SignWhat a word for the start of the semester. This is the time to work, not lollygag.

Thanks to Luci Ortiz of Boatwright Library for this word. I was often accused of lollygagging by my mother, whenever I was to cut the grass or take out the trash, yet somehow found a way to delay the chore as long as possible. To teenaged me, there was no doubt what our strange-sounding term meant.

An OED search reveals the word to be American slang, originating in the 19th Century. The usage frequency given is only 3 of 8: a real pity for such a colorful word. The earliest usage, from 1862 in Harpers, gives it as “lallygag,” and after that the word settled down to its present spelling, though the original spelling with the letter A continues into the 20th Century. I fear it won’t live past the 21st.

No one knows its origin.

Best usage, from 1868: “The lascivious lolly-gagging lumps of licentiousness who disgrace the common decencies of life by their love-sick fawnings at our public dances.”

So, slackers, stop dawdling, dilly-dallying, loafing, kicking the can down the road, and above all, do not lollygag. We have work to do.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski at Flickr.

Word of the Week: Okay / O.K.

This entry is not academic, but it is great fun. Since I skipped two weeks for the holidays, I’ll dive in with no Metaphor of the Month but go right to a word request from Professor Bill Ross in Mathematics.

There’s no need to provide a definition, but the history of this workaday word fascinates.

I’d long assumed that “Old Kinderhook,” a nickname for US President Martin Van Buren, gave us the term. That is correct, according to the OED Online, but there is a second etymology that helps us to understand the staying power of O.K., long after President Van Buren vanished from living memory. For “okay” and “O.K.” the OED has this note:

From the detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read it seems clear that O.K. first appeared in 1839 (an instance of a contemporary vogue for humorous abbreviations of this type), and that in 1840 it became greatly reinforced by association with the initialism O.K.

I taught a couple of seminars about Southern literary humor before the Civil War, and making fun of speakers of German and Dutch was a favorite subject, well beyond the Southern States. That sort of linguistic humor, considered ethnocentric and insulting today, endured until recently. If you don’t remember the Katzenjammer Kids, have a look online. As the OED points out, “okay” comes from the satirical “oll korrect,” presumably spoken by an immigrant to the US, in some disastrous situation.

As befits its immigrant origins, the term has crossed the ocean again. I’ve heard Spanish speakers use it in Spain.  The Iberian term vale means about the same, but both worked for me in Madrid.

Have you heard “Okay” around the world? Where? How? Share your experiences in the comments.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of button courtesy of Wikipedia.

Working With Your Writing Consultant or Faculty Member: Best Practices

Every semester I survey the Writing Consultants. Without naming names, they note how faculty employed their helpers well or might have made better use of them. By the same token, faculty surveys reveal a few issues that Consultants should address.

This post lays out advice that has worked since 1992, when the program of assigning Consultants (then called Writing Fellows) began.

For Consultants

  • Contact your faculty member early, and let me know if you do not hear back from her within a week or ten days.
  • Meet the faculty member personally to discuss deadlines, expectations, and any professorial “pet peeves” or disciplinary secrets you can use when meeting writers. Warn faculty members of your own busy weeks.
  • Visit class if you can, to meet the writers so they can pair a name with a face. It’s good to do so early in the term, and also on days when assignments get discussed. You are paid for all contact hours, workshops, and class visits.
  • Conferences should not be scheduled in 15 minute blocks. I expect them to run at least 30 minutes on the schedule. If a writer is eager to leave early, of course, wrap things up. Overly short meetings, however, serve no one well.
  • After a set of conferences, e-mail or meet your faculty member to discuss how things went. Do not use the online summary form we use at the Center and in 383; that is for Writing-Center shift work only or if you see a friend or person outside your usual assignment to a class (we like to have some record of who we saw for hourly work, for our annual assessment).
  • Let me know if, by midterm, your services have not been employed. We will find you some other duties.
  • If a faculty member dumps a lot of work on you at a terrible time, let me know as well. We’ll find you a helper.
  • When you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

For Faculty

  • Mandatory conferences, one before midterm and one after, provide Consultants the chance to help writers as they develop. In my sections, failures to submit drafts or meet the Consultant are penalized the equivalent of a letter grade.
  • If you make conferences optional, only 25% of writers will show up, on average. As one Consultant reminded me recently, those who show up are “typically the students who need the least help.”
  • Let the Consultant arrange the conference scheduling. Many of them use a Google-based sign-up sheet and lock it down after a while so writers cannot change times at the last moment.
  • Changing deadlines can cause problems when a Consultant has a busy semester. As Dr. Sydney Watts once reminded me “their first job is to be students, not Writing Consultants.” Well said.
  • Conversely, keep the Consultant well employed. This is a paid job; if you prefer to have Consultants only see one paper, let me know so they can find other work to supplement their income that semester.
  • Consultants need a week or ten days between getting drafts and your getting them back, for a typical FYS section of 16 writers.
  • As noted for the Consultants, when you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

We look forward to working with all of you in the coming semester!

Word of the Week (and a Poem!): Yule

Silbury Hill, 2017This time of year is a personal favorite, Yule, the season around the Winter Solstice.

Last year I got to Stonehenge just after Solstice, and the delay was worth it: we had smaller crowds and better views of the standing stones. Later we spent a few days at Avebury, just after Christmas, but the Yuletide (often hyphenated as Yule-tide) festivities were still in full swing. Silbury Hill, pictured above, is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Western Europe. We had it all to ourselves, and I think my photo captures the mood of Yuletide quite well, as does this one from Avebury’s henge.

Often this holiday, the day of least light and longest darkness, gets equated to our word, “Yule,” as does the Christian holiday of Christmas. Both are true, though the word itself is far older than modern neo-Paganism or Christianity.

The OED Online traces the word “Yule” to Old English geol and gives recorded uses, in Latin texts, back as far at the 8th Century. Later phonetic spellings such as “yoole” appear before things settled in their modern form in the 17th Century, though “yole” appears in one 19th century example.

What about the less common “Yuletide”? Like “Christmastide,” it’s getting rarer to modern ears than it was in Dickens’ era, perhaps because we think of “tide” only in terms of the ocean.  We usually put “time” in place of “tide” nowadays, but that is a good substitute. Here again, the OED entry on “tide” shows a first definition, now obsolete, meaning a season or span of time.

For Yuletide, I have a poem from the grandfather of my former Writing Consultant, Nellie Searle, to share. Whatever holiday is yours this season, you’ll find some inspiration in Andrew Glaze’s “Christmas.” Glaze, according to his daughter Elizabeth, “was a born skeptic his whole life.  We described ourselves as ‘agnostic’, and our outgoing Christmas cards were never religious in theme.”

Skeptics are welcome at my Yule table. A few years ago I helped to organize a few Winter Solstice celebrations for a local Unitarian-Universalist Church, for people of many faiths. As I said then, “A newspaper clipping I still have somewhere notes that on the longest night of the year, ancient peoples made bonfires in sacred places because they feared that the sun would never return. In northern Europe, a Yule log might be decked with greenery and then burned in a ritualistic manner.  A tree would be cut, brought indoors, and adorned with lights to remind everyone that the light will never die. These traditions, and many more, continue into modern times.”

That festival and its trappings moved me then and now, to honor the light and hope for its return. Yule is just the holiday for these dark times circadian, political, ecological. We can and will, I hope, do better in the years to come.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below. Next up will be “okay,” thanks to US President Martin Van Buren and Dr. Bill Ross of UR’s Department of Mathematics.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

For the week of  December 24th, the blog takes a holiday! See you in two weeks.

Photos by the author.

Words of the Week! Elusive, Illusive, Allusive

Desert MirageThis week we have a pair of homonyms, illusive and elusive, that students confuse. OED links are given. At a colleague’s suggestion I added a quasi-literary term that we rarely encounter, allusive. The mnemonic for getting them sorted out is not too difficult, so we’ll have a go at it now.

If something is “illusive,” think of an illusion. It only seems real. It deceives you, as in “His quest a quick fortune led him toward many illusive investments, all of which collapsed.” “Elusive” is something that eludes us, so “While he invested a lot of money, good returns on his investments remained elusive.”

I well recall my first highway travel as a child. I kept warning my father of water ahead on the road. These were illusions, mirages. All such are illusive.

Writers may know, and use, literary allusions. Something that is allusive alludes to something else, literary or ordinary, as in “The state’s early and difficult frontier history left so many allusive place names: Last Chance, Broken Promise, Dead Man, Murder Creek.”

Since all three words sound nearly alike when spoken, it’s best to try the mnemonics given, before writing anything down.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Rule of Thumb

We say “rule of thumb” for an approximate measurement or rough guideline when we are uncertain, yet there’s a big misconception about this metaphor’s origin. The OED Online advises readers that “A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated.” Wikipedia’s entry likewise calls this a “modern folk etymology.”

A quick Google search revealed a 1998 article from The Baltimore Sun, where writer Stephanie Shapiro, noting an earlier debunking by William Safire, states that “In the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, ‘rule of thumb’ is additionally defined as a method by which brewers once tested the temperature of a batch of beer: They dipped a thumb in the brew.”

I know one fellow who works in the brewing industry. That rule of thumb no longer applies, if it ever did. Whether that origin from the field of zymology is true or not, I enjoy redeeming a useful metaphor like ours.

Perhaps we need a better rule of thumb for judging words and phrases in fraught times, before we condemn them?

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Timothy Valentine at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Cornucopia

I don’t hear this wonderful word much anymore, so I thought to trot it out for the week after Thanksgiving, when we enjoy a feast of plenty. What of the word that means “horn of plenty”? It may appear in seasonal imagery, but like last week’s word, it has faded from popular usage. The OED Online gives it only four of eight for frequency of usage.

As with so many words here, the history of use can only be traced to the early Gutenberg years, or 16th Century. I imagine our term enjoyed popularity before, as the concept comes from pagan Antiquity, noted in the OED entry as “the horn of the goat Amalthea by which the infant Zeus was suckled.”

We might see the image of a horn of plenty advertising specials for Thanksgiving at supermarkets, but the lovely Latinate term? That seems rare today.

Enjoy your holiday feasts and do not overdo it. There are ancient stories about that, as well.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image: “Fall Cornucopia” by Ron Cogswell at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Fulgent

Bright GemAs I write this, the gloom is almost palpable outside. We have heavy rain and lowering clouds. It is far from a fulgent day.

Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested the word after she encountered it, as we do with so many interesting terms, in a class. The OED Online has it listed with a “frequency band” of only 2 out of 8, meaning such words “occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people.”

So our word may be on the way out the door with many other ancient but lovely adjectives.

The OED’s usages vary. Wordsworth once described sunset in terms of it begin “the fulgent West” and a century later, a writer for Ebony noted a musician’s “fulgent keyboard technique.”

But the core sense of “bright,” “shiny,” or “glittering” remain, even if this word itself fades.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Gem image courtesy of Pixabay free images.

Word of the Week! Anodyne

A colleague, Dr. Ted Bunn in Physics, recently used our word to describe a “anodyne word” that lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. I knew the word but not its usage or history; Ted suggested a medical origin.

He’s correct. The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

Here’s a humorous example the OED provides from 1991 by Joanna Trollope, where “Celia and Elaine were having a carefully anodyne conversation about the church fête.” That is a conversation guaranteed to avoid an argument.

Anodynes are more than synonyms or euphemisms. They mask something, often with the worthy intention of maintaining harmony. Here’s an example I just invented, using anodyne expressions to cover up a really awful situation: “Management concluded to end our relationship with BigCo, our current vendor of bathroom supplies. That decision was made in the general interest of all our employees and the many visitors who use our hygienic facilities. The repeated difficulties with BigCo’s toilet tissue led to several quite vocal remarks to our staff about the lack of quality assurance at BigCo’s manufacturing plant.”

I let your imagination do the rest. The word “difficulties” is a perfect anodyne term.  So is “hygienic facility” or, for that matter, “restroom” in place of the British-English “toilet.”

Business writing is full of anodynes. It can be dreadful, but sometimes such language proves very useful. Consider what you have to write on a sympathy card. Mostly, however, anodyne words get in the way of making a point clearly and succinctly. At worst, they become parody or lies: “We value your call.”

I actually do value your input! Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.