Word of the Week! Hobo

Two hobosNo, our word this week is not academic. It may, however, turn up in a number of courses in the Humanities or Social Sciences.

When I asked a class last week, no one knew, though one student ventured that it meant a homeless person. In my afternoon class, one student described a person who travels illegally by train to seek temporary jobs. Another gave the stereotype I knew as a child: vagabonds (itself a wonderful word) carrying all their belongings tied in in a rag on the end of a stick.

As historians of the Great Depression could tell us, some Hobos might have been homeless or might have taken to the road by choice. But my concern here is the word, rather than the way of life. Much remains mysterious. We don’t really have a clear etymology for the term, as both the Wikipedia and OED entries demonstrate.

I do know this: my  Depression-Era mom warned me and my  friend about playing near the railroad tracks because there was a “hobo jungle” there and they might carry us off. To me, in the late 1960s, Hobos were colorful male wanderers with a can of beans over a campfire, dirty and tattered clothing that was once luxurious, and belongings in that famous “bindle” on a stick.  In fact, a forgotten synonym for hobo is “bindlestiff,” as the Wikipedia entry notes.

You can learn a great deal about hobos at the Wikipedia page, including a small glossary of hobo slang and a few facts about female hobos. The romanticized idea of the Hobo as a noble wanderer rejecting American standards for success and consumption has been appropriated by the Beat writers, who often traveled with hobos Postwar, and more recently by a very hip magazine.

Finally, give yourself a Hobo name. Mine is “Professor Honest Walker.”

May the yard bulls never knock you around, may you always hop a cannonball and may your Mulligan Stew be delicious. Enjoy your summers. This blog will not go on vacation, so send me words and metaphors worthy of consideration.

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

Image of walking hobos courtesy of Wikipedia. Hobo Jungle courtesy of project XRoads, University of Virginia.

Word of the Week! Eminence Grise

Francois TremblayI had never run into this phrase before encountering it, in a story from my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy. A student who pays close attention to new words–take heart, there are some!–pointed out the term and we talked about how it functions in the story.

In short, an eminence grise works quietly and decisively behind the scenes rather than serving as a public face for important events.  We have a precise origin for our term, in the person of François Leclerc du Tremblay, a monk of the early 17th Century who advised Cardinal Richelieu.  Our image, a painting from 1873, shows the respect (and likely fear) this publicly quiet man evoked among powerful French clergy and nobility.  Though never a Cardinal (and thus worthy of “Your Eminence”) Tremblay was given that honorific, paired with his gray robes, we get our term.

One rarely sees our phrase, with a usage frequency of 2 (of 8) in the OED editors’ estimation. That’s “0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage,” so I stand unsurprised that I’ve not met the term before.

“Power behind the throne” comes to mind as a possible synonum here, yet some of these figures have been very public.  Another possibility is the word “Svengali,” worth a look in a future post.

Look at any circle of the powerful and influential and you’ll find an eminence grise, sometimes quietly working for good, often not.  As usual these days, I asked ChatGPT if something like it might become an eminent grise. Here’s the response:

While it is possible for AI like myself to assist famous and influential individuals in various ways, it is unlikely that AI would become an eminent grise in the traditional sense.

This is because AI is designed to assist humans in performing specific tasks, such as generating text or making predictions based on data. While AI can be very helpful in many contexts, it lacks the complex decision-making abilities and nuanced understanding of human behavior that are often required to wield significant influence behind the scenes.

Would that more of my students wrote a first draft that well, and would that influencers (who do not act behind the scenes) possessed that level of humility.

Nominate a word students need to learn 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.

Word of the Week! Unconformity

Hutton's Section Siccar Point ScotlandA few days ago, I watched a moving and well made BBC video about how geologist James Hutton recognized what we now call Deep Time. That metaphor will appear in a future post.

Meanwhile, consider what the geologist saw when he looked at Siccar Point in eastern Scotland.  As the Wikipedia entry puts it, an unconformity means “places where the junction between two types of rock formations can be seen.”  I myself saw The Great Unconformity a little less than a year ago, when I spent three days at the South Rim of The Grand Canyon.Grand CanyonKeep in mind that an unconformity implies missing material, too. Where rocks meet, millions of years of the earth’s history may have vanished without leaving a trace.

This realization puts our four-score (or so) years into a perspective that can be humbling, exhilarating, or terrifying to those who view an unconformity. More than a few viewers, faced with this dizzying truth, deny it.

No photos of such formations can do justice to the real thing. What I first saw on a hazy Northern Arizona afternoon sent me reeling. Such a vista, though smaller, sent Hutton and his companions into some colorful prose. John Playfair wrote “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.” Hutton noted how time suddenly seemed to have “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

Hutton and his friends were not the first to ponder Deep Time. Consider Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in his Meditations “What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us – and this is soon vanished in eternity.”

What about outside geology? As late as 1982, a writer referred to “unconformities” in Shakespeare’s history plays. As to what that statement implies about errors, or missing material, I don’t know. You can see other examples at The OED.

I rather cherish nonconformists, so I like this word for more than rocks.  It merits wider use and even wider practice.

Nominate a word students need to learn 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 by Anne Burgess of “Hutton’s Section.” Grand Canyon image by me.