Word of the Week! Bricolage

Professor Joe Hoyle in our Business School often sends me words. This one comes from a known wordsmith, songwriter Bruce Springsteen, who in his memoir  Born to Run writes “This concept of bricolage–that less is more, the best solution is the most elegant.”

The Boss has a definition not far off that of the OED, which notes that such art emerges by “appropriating a diverse miscellany of existing materials or sources.” The term is modern, only cropping up in the 1960s.

The OED’s and Springsteen’s definitions remind me of some 1990s discussions about the early developments of hypertext, both pre-Web and afterward, by authors such as Michael Joyce, Carolyn Guyer, and Ed Falco. It was a heady time, though short-lived. We imagined an online utopia of free content, international connection, and endless horizons. Partly, we got it, as well as darker things.

I well recall Joyce proclaiming ominously at a conference that .com sites had just outnumbered all other sites, as if that were not inevitable. In any case, the term “bricoleur” got bandied about quite a bit by us, the digital hipsters and fans of Cyperpunk in the late 80s and early 90s.

What makes bricolage so different from collage, such as those created by my friend, artist Eric Knight?

My sense is that collage is purely visual and made with images and words on paper, rather than the multimedia, often found-object approach of bricolage.

I enjoy both techniques.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (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 maker space full of bricolage materials courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Excoriate

Autumn TreesI love his word, though it can be grisly when not used metaphorically.

Dan Strohl, my editor at Hemmings Daily, recently pleaded with readers not to excoriate him about a post he made, at least until they read the text. That’s the old-car hobby for you. You can be skinned alive for suggesting, as Dan did, that modern car batteries can be safely stored on a concrete floor without danger of draining them. He avoided flaying, because he provided good reasons.

So, to our word and a way to employ it metaphorically.

Fall, itself a metaphor. Autumn, if you prefer (as I do). If you are what expert of written style Joseph Glaser calls a “Creative Genius” who overwrites everything, you might even say, “Break, heart! Through yonder window, I swoon with despair as the autumnal, rude winds of Boreas excoriate the fair trees of summer!”

Huh? This latinate term has a gory origin, hence my photo of bare and soon-to-be leafless trees, not flayed carcasses. Because as I learned from the OED entry, our metaphor means to skin something, to flay. Most of us who eat meat buy it pre-skinned.  Since the word can mean “to peel,” we have a vegan-friendly option, too.

Glaser notes that Latinate terms such as excoriate make writing more formal. Yes, but keep in mind the audience. “Peel” would be more accurate for an orange, whereas we’d save “excoriate” for an audience who would get the humor of this drawing-room exaggeration (and you thought we gearheads were all knuckle-draggers). Sniff.

Feel free to excoriate me in comments, or to send words and metaphors to us by e-mail (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 pxhere.

Word of the Week! Acrologia

The King from Huckleberry FinnIf this word is not in your personal dictionary–I’m looking at you, students–put it there. No, it does not appear in any form in The OED, yet. A friend shared it with me a week ago, but it’s a common-enough stylistic error in student work:

  • He is considered imminent in his field of study (instead of “eminent”)
  • The committee redacted the report (instead of “edited”)

Usually, students and other careless folk employ acrologia alongside a poorly used thesaurus: in the attempt to sound more academic, they sound “off” or even hilarious. It also marks the confidence man’s trade. Consider The “funeral orgies” noted by The King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He means “obsequies,” and his attempt to cover up his mistake would make any first-year student practicing the art of BS proud:

It’s a word that comes from the Greek word ORGO, which means outside or open or abroad, and the Hebrew word JEESUM, which means to plant, cover up, or inter. So, you see, funeral orgies are simply open, public funerals. 

Since The King is trying to punch above his intellectual weight (which is slight) it’s acrologia.

Acrologia is a subset of malapropism. We all do that, but we often encounter it afflicting ridiculous characters in drama, since actors first stepped on stage.  Malapropism can cause low-brow guffaws when coupled with a non-native speaker’s natural mistakes in vocabulary or pronunciation. Dr. Caius, noted in last week’s post, says in one line of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that he shall be the turd, when in fact he means third.

Acrologia also would not, in my estimation, include instances of mistaken idioms. as in “We use to go to Florida every year” (instead of “used to go”) or “suppose to” instead of “supposed to.” These errors come from how we write out the sounds of speech, not from an attempt to sound academic. The words remain the correct term, but the forms do not.

Some words that may have once provided examples of acrologia slide under the door, over time. In American English, even formal writing, we no longer make much distinction between “reluctant” and “reticent,” the latter (to me) implying a reluctance to speak: that person of few words in our talky-talk times.

At our Web server I’ve a list of commonly confused words that I post for my students. They have a week to correct the instances or lose 10 points on a paper. If you have more such confused and confusing words, send them, along with other good words and metaphors, by e-mail (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 the King faking his sorry about “Funeral Orgies” stolen blatantly, in honor of The King and The Duke.

 

Word of the Week! Jackanapes

Doctor CaiusUnless you are fond of Shakespeare, this word will not often crop up in your personal dictionary. Pity, as I say about older words that I love. It has fallen out of favor long ago, but what sort of ape are we talking about?

A tame one, apparently. But still an ape, which leads to the Shakespearean sense of a person who is impenitent, foolish, or who does things like a trained ape, playing tricks that amuse us. Consider Doctor Caius, a Frenchman of short temper and Monty-Pythonian insults in Merry Wives of Windsor:

I will teach a scurvy jack-a-nape priest to meddle or make.

Years ago, I saw a wonderfully dreadful production of the play locally. I won’t say where or when, but it was so bad that it was great. I did learn the word at least.  Caius is, finally, the biggest jackanapes of them all.

Considering the history of the term opens a veritable etymological barrel of monkeys.  The OED gives more variant spellings than I’ve seen before, reaching as far back as Middle English: iac nape, iac napes, jacknape, shacknapes, and many more.  So to get to the bottom of all this monkey business, it comes down to a proper name  “apparently coined as a generic proper name for an ape or a person likened to an ape.” I suppose a modern analog would be a “Negative Nelly” or “Simple Simon.”

We don’t call a person playing tricks or an unruly child a Jackanapes any longer. Again, pity. Check the OED entry for a lot more, even a botanical meaning, for this peculiar, obsolete word you will still find in literary works from a certain era.

Send us words and metaphors new, old, worthy of rediscovery or even oblivion by e-mail (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 of Dr. Caius from the collection of The National Galleries of Scotland.

Metaphor of the Month! Stentorian

Senator Warner on USS WisconsinI’d planned this one when mentioning the late Senator John Warner recently. His voice often got called stentorian, and I’d figured it might be a metaphor. And so says The OED, noting it means to be as loud as Stentor, “The name of a Greek warrior in the Trojan war, ‘whose voice was as powerful as fifty voices of other men.’ ”

Our word has a positive connotation that the definition does not denote. Warner’s voice was never annoyingly loud. He spoke clearly and his voice carried across a room (while carrying the day in many debates) or the deck of a battleship. He sounded senatorial in a way that added dignity we don’t often associate with national politicians any longer.

Professor Joe Hoyle nominated this word, long a favorite of mine. I would like to possess a stentorian voice. I’d also like the word to enjoy more use. It scores only three of eight on The OED’s usage frequency. That seems nearly as big a pity as the loss of urbane, civil, and stentorian voices in our politics.

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact me by e-mail (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 US National Archives. You have to be stentorian to be heard on the deck of the USS Wisconsin!

Word of the Week! Obscurantism

Bay Area FogTip of the hat to my student Gabriel, who used this word well in class. We agreed that in a century, given the tendency of English to Guillotine syllables from certain words, it may be “obscurism,” and so be it.

That’s a feature of English I like. Look for that variant to appear soon; a lazy Google search turned it up in several online dictionaries. There may be a related concept called  “obscurism” in visual art, but my focus is on what The OED defines  as “opposition to inquiry, enlightenment, or reform.”

The practice of obscurantism is all around us, our crowded rooms filled with obscurantists.

Rather than rant about life during the pandemic, I’d rather consider a definition Gabriel and I agreed can occur in academic prose by professionals and students alike. I call it “laying a smokescreen,” where a profession uses deliberately opaque language and syntax to confound potential critics or even, as students too often too, to sound important and lofty.

In my classes, I know BS when I smell it, so it gets cleaned up. We have other devices to add intellectual heft to hefty ideas, such as metaphor and appropriate jargon, but the use of big words by themselves or overly complex sentences do not good thinking make.

Obscurantism does not only occur in the Academy. Consider a failed attempt to warn the power company about the dangers of a meltdown at the Three-Mile Island Nuclear Plant.  You can find an entire chapter about the failed memo here, “Understanding Failures in Organizational Discourse.”

Sometimes managers ignore clear and direct writing, as in the case of Roger Boisjoly’s warning to Moton Thiokol about the dangers of “catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life” before disaster struck the space shuttle Challenger.

Obsurantism only helps an audience ignore a warning. Have a look at these cases while figuring out how to mean what you say and say what you mean. Please apply Richard Lanham’s “Paramedic Method” to sentences that seem a bit foggy.

I have been called “blunt” and “snarky” by writers of hate-mail about my op-eds, and that’s fine. I like it when colleagues say that, too. I hope never to be an obscurantist. Are you one? If so, why?

Be they foggy, clear, or indifferent, share words or metaphors by contacting me by e-mail (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 Bay Area fog courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Word of the Week! Quagmire

bog photoThis post is a tough one to make, as it comes on the heels of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. I’ve heard our two-decade involvement in that nation called a “quagmire,” and often wondered where we got this word, so often used metaphorically.

We have lots of words for swampy ground: wetland, marsh, bog, fen, morass, mire. Some like “mire” have a negative connotation, implying getting stuck, sinking, drowning perhaps. My guess was that the “ag” ending implied a Scottish origin; the Morag is a monster from Loch Morar, after all: a less-famous version of Nessie.  We have those “hags” of magical origin, too. And haggis. Don’t laugh, as it’s something I came to really like during my Scottish walking trip in 2014, to the point of eating it with all three meals one day.

A look at the OED entry parts the mists to reveal not a monster of Scottish origin or a broomstick-rider but a variant spelling from the 16th and 17th Centuries: wagmire. A “quag” is, however, a rarely used word for a marshy spot.  It’s likely a regional English term, as is mire or “myre” in older spellings. That word came from Scandinavia in dragon-prowed longships.

Why we need quag and mire together? It’s rather like saying “Marshy swamp” or “boggy marsh.”  Perhaps the intention was to imply how dangerous a particular wet place could be. We will never know: the answer sank in the quagmire long ago and has been obscured by the marshy mists of millennia (and really bad alliteration).

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact me by e-mail (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.

Bog image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Comity

Senator John WarnerProfessor Joe Hoyle in Richmond’s School of Business nominated this word, noting that in a column about the death of former Virginia Senator John Warner, “the journalist used patrician, mien, stentorian, and comity in a single sentence.  For newspapers today, I thought that was mighty impressive. ”

As do I. Warner earned all those adjectives, but comity above all. He was a man whose long career exemplified comity, which The OED defines as “Courtesy, civility, urbanity; kindly and considerate behaviour towards others.”

We could use more comity, its first usage noted in the 16th Century, in our angry modern times.

Somewhere around here I have a letter Warner (or at least his staff) wrote to me about his decision not to support funding for the International Space Station. I strongly wanted it built, and in my letter I said that Warner would no longer have my vote unless he supported a robust program of human-crewed space exploration (I’m as big a zealot as Elon Musk for settling the Solar System beyond Earth).  Warner’s reply was so temperate, so reasoned, so full of comity in admitting that our disagreement could be civil that I did pull a lever for him once more, in 1996. My wife voted for Mark Warner in the election, another Senator I greatly admire today. We still joke about our two-Warner household.

I chose Joe’s pick because we begin a school year after a great deal of strife on campus over institutional racism, the pandemic, and more. Perhaps it’s a vain hope, even a fool’s hope, that like John Warner, we can learn to reach across the divides between us to hear each other’s stories, even to agree to disagree.

Now for an entry on “stentorian.” That’s a word I have long wanted to cover. If you have words or metaphors to share, contact me by e-mail (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 Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Tolkienesque

Now that classes are about to resume on our decidedly Harry Potter campus, I’ve been reading the third of J.K. Rowling’s novels. I’m not a huge fan of the series, but it has been light summer fun.

It’s inevitable that Rowling gets contrasted, often unfairly, to work by an earlier British fantasist, J.R.R. Tolkien. We already have “Hogswartian” or “Potteresque” in the language, though I’d hoped to find “Rowlinsian.” The latter would be my preference, to honor her work and influence.

Old J.R.R. need not worry about adjectives named for him, though he now resides in what he would probably call “The Undying Lands.” The Oxford Don’s fiction generated an adjective that provides our Metaphor this month. I’ll think of it often as we get those golden hours at daybreak and dusk, once the weather breaks near the Autumnal Equinox. I associate “Tolkienesque” with glimpses of faraway mountains, groves of ancient trees, or the slanting golden light that always seems to be falling in Rivendell or Lothlorien, or perhaps on the walls of Minas Tirith, just before Sauron’s darkness descends for the awful battle there between good and evil.

You know a Tolkienesque landscape when you see it. I suppose a slag heap that reminds one of Mordor suffices, too, but usually, I hear the metaphor applied only to dreamy or ruggedly awe-inspiring places.

Tolkien’s friend and renowned fantasist C.S. Lewis beat us all to the punch, in 1950 no less, by calling something “Tolkienian,” a form now apparently falling out of use. By The OED’s reckoning, our spelling of the metaphor first appeared in 1970, about the time that the Counterculture’s fascination with Middle Earth blossomed into a cottage (or at least Hobbit-hole) industry that continues today, thanks to Peter Jackson’s films. Things Tolkienesque got spurred on by his tremendous LOTR trilogy and they survived his lamentable Hobbit films.

A few other writers, such as Virginia Woolf (Woolfian), H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraftian), and J.G. Ballard (Ballardian) have been so honored. Shakespearean? Miltonian? These enjoy long and respected usage.

I hope your Fall semesters are as epic, if not as dangerous, as Frodo’s journey through Tolkienesque landscapes.

As always, please send us words and metaphors 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.

Tolkienesque landscape, Isle of Skye 2014, by the author

Word of the Week! Planet

The planets, and outer space generally, have been making the news, so I wanted to look at the word itself. What other terms sound like it in English? Not many.

I was looking at a piece of commissioned “book art” in a colleague’s office, made from a text called Wanderers of The Sky, and then asked if my assumption were correct. The word “planet” comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “wanderer.”

My recollection of my history of astronomy courses comes in handy, here. To the Ancients, the inexplicable (to them) phenomenon of retrograde movement by the planets proved baffling. As a planet’s position across the sky changes night to night, eventually the thing appears to move, temporarily, backward.  It wandered. As the EarthSky site linked explains, you can see this when driving:

As you approach a slower car, it’s clearly moving in the same direction you are. As you pull alongside and pass it, however, from your vantage point the car appears to move backwards for just a moment. Then, as you pull ahead of it, the car appears to resume its forward motion.

With a sun-centered solar system, the explanation is easy: we are lapping an outer world. With Earth at the center of the pre-Copernican universe, however, all sorts of baroque, even perverse, explanations got proffered to explain the way the lights in the sky behaved.

The OED entry on the term confirms this origin, and thus I’ll tag this post “loan word.”

Here’s a word we use literally, save in adjectival senses I find silly, such as a Frito Lay’s extinct “Planet Lunch” snacks marketed to harried cubicle clones (and, as a quick Web search reminds me,  little kids who should eat healthier).

Compare how we use “star” metaphorically each day to describe those famous for their fifteen minutes under the sun. Or “sun,” as in Shakespeare’s famous play on the word in Richard III, using both metaphor and a play on the word “son” in one sentence:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

As we amble, like planets in their orbits, toward the start of the semester I’ll update the site with new words and metaphors on occasion, until our pace quickens in September.  If you have words or metaphors you would like covered, send them my way at jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.

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

Photo by the author