Metaphor of the Month! Ides of March

Death of CaesarI love literary metaphors, especially ones that date their popularity to a work of Shakespeare’s. We have so many–pound of flesh, sound and fury–but this month’s metaphor has an historical origin that predates the play Julius Caesar.

The OED Online cites  “Ides” as “In the ancient Roman calendar (Julian and pre-Julian): the third of the three marker days in each month, notionally the day of the full moon, which divides the month in half, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months.” The Calends (or Kalends)and Nones were the other marker days. You can read more about them here. Now we see where our word “calendar” comes from.

But back to Ides. If every month had them, why are they so metaphorically significant? Julius Caesar met his end in the Senate after a dire warning, here given from Shakespeare’s play:

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.
Sennet. Exeunt all except BRUTUS and CASSIUS

Julius should have listened better, and kept a keen eye upon his “friends” in Rome. In any case, the metaphor, a lovely one for a time in need of vigilance or a date of reckoning, has fallen out of even learned parlance these days. As with so many fading phrases, it’s a great loss to nuance and history in our language.

When language gets lost or dumbed down, it’s as often our fault as not. I just heard this when the first test passenger for Virgin Galactic, otherwise articulate and precise, described something seen from space as “super super super high def.” Going into space! And all she could manage was an adjective, super, that I consider overused to the point of oblivion. Sir Richard Branson, send me to suborbit. I promise to use more adjectives, many of them printable.

So that’s my challenge for all of you, as Spring arrives. Try some fresh words this Ides of March and every month. After all, as Cassius warns his co-conspirator, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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 credit: There are hundreds of good (and more than a few hilarious) images of the death of Caesar only a click away. This one, a painting by William Holmes Sullivan, comes from Wikipedia Commons and is licensed for Creative-Commons use.

Word of the Week! Torpor

Gray February SkyTorpor, torpid: they describe the mood and setting of a gloomy late-February day. The ground is muddy, the buds not quite ready to open. A few daffodils are in bloom, but, really? April seems a year away. We will see a bit more snow and ice.

If a prior Word of the Week,  doldrum, fit the late-summer mood last year, our word today provides the right February descriptor: listlessness, dullness of mood, or “spiritual lethargy,” as the OED’s entry puts it. That was my sense of it as a word-hungry undergrad who sometimes felt a bit torpid, for various existential or self-inflicted reasons.

The term seems to date to at least the 13th Century, probably earlier given its unaltered Latin origin. It’s also fun for me to see a Latin term come down to us basically unchanged, without sounding very Latin. An obsolete usage applies to physics, specifically, inertia.  The OED provides a noun form, too, “torpidity.”

Shake off your torpidity and take a brisk walk. Spring will arrive.

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.

Photo by the author.

Word of the Week! Sagacity

Jefferson & JacksonI’ve loved this word since early in college at UVA, where it was often used for that guy we always mentioned as though he were in the next room: Thomas Jefferson. Though his life and legacy have been fairly scrutinized by good scholarship since those days, both for his treatment of enslaved people and some of his impractical ideas about self-governance, no one I have met or whose work I have read doubts that Jefferson had as deeply a philosophical turn of mind as the French philosophes of The Enlightenment.

But was he “sagacious”? Is sagacity the same as brilliance?

The OED’s first definition, from a French word, floored and enlightened me. Though it’s obsolete, sagacity once related to having an “acute sense of smell.” That idea persisted through the 17th Century, when a more modern sense of “shrewdness” or “sound judgement” came into usage. Sagacity, then, has more to do with practical sensibilities than “book learning.” Meanwhile, shrewdness itself, from a Middle English word, has never had a completely positive sense, morally.

After reading Alan Pell Crawford’s excellent Twilight at Monticello, I’d argue that Jefferson’s sagacity was limited. At the time of the Declaration, he smelled the times correctly. Later, he proved less sagacious in missing the religious changes as Anglican Virginians veered toward more conservative sects. Jefferson remained rather naive about the ways that enslaved peoples might be freed over time, and he underestimated the divisions that emerged in America by the 1820s.

One might, looking at the evidence, say that while Andrew Jackson was far less educated than Jefferson, “Old Hickory,” with his many faults, was far more sagacious politically. And that in no way is praise for him or Jefferson. Let the scholarship speak for itself. I will be sagacious enough not to wade any deeper into those waters.

If you have an interest in Crawford’s book, I’d start with this audio interview by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

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 mashup, from Creative Commons sources, by the author.

Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

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 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.