Metaphor of the Month! Fast and Loose

1930 poster for the film Fast and LooseEdith Wharton, one of my favorite novelists, wrote a juvenile novel called Fast and Loose, and later she made it a plot point in one of her published works. When reading that, I had expected this metaphor to be a modern one she employed in the late 1800s. Yet I found, on some delving into the OED’s entry, a first example from the year 1555, though one from two years later may be more readable, given how much English spelling has changed in half a millennium: “Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or lose.”

The reference does not necessarily portend anything salacious. Our film poster, above, does tend to imply exactly that. It’s not from Wharton’s works but it shows how popular the metaphor became by the late 1920s.

The OED’s first definition remains remarkably consistent today, “to be inconstant or inconsistent, esp. regarding one’s obligations to others; to behave immorally or irresponsibly.” Our “studient” and the 20s Flapper in the movie may have played fast and loose with money. That tends to be our usage today, or perhaps, and just as sadly, with facts.

Being irresponsible does not equal being immoral. That said, the drift of our metaphor implies doing something that hurts others. I’d say that being fast and loose with money or facts tends to injure, and it’s all too common with many public figures. So you decide if they deserve our admiration and attention.

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 source: Wikipedia page about the 1930 film.

Word of the Week! Cerulean

Blue Mesa, Arizona, 2022Forget all those shades of gray. Did you know that there exist at least 270 shades of my favorite color, blue? Blue has a lot of poetic power. We feel blue. If we have talent enough, we might sing the Blues, too.

Artist Yves Klein became so obsessed with a particular shade of blue that he made a point of partnering with a paint-maker to create it. He had difficulty finding a paint that would not change color over time; to him, what became International Klein Blue marked a venture into the Socratic realm of essences. Here’s that color, courtesy of Wikipedia.Tile of International Klein BlueMy favorite blue is cerulean. It appears in the photo at top, one I snapped in the Painted Desert of Arizona, Blue Mesa to be specific, in May, 2022. The mesas present lots of colors, but the sky was a perfect deep blue one gets without humidity. We see it best this time of year in Virginia. The effect of the heat, high altitude, and contrast of sky and topography made me nearly pass out, though I was well hydrated and protected from the sun. It was one of the few moments of vertigo I’ve experienced.

I think it mostly involved that infinite cerulean sky. We felt ready to fall upward into it.

Now let’s recover our balance to consider where we get the word “cerulean.” The ever-handy OED’s etymology for the word notes that it comes from the Latin caeruleus plus a suffix. This means a dark blue. Azure provides a good synonym.

I look forward to another desert trip with lots of cerulean skies overhead. Happy trails until next week. Don’t forget to look up (unless you are driving!).

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.

Hiking, Sedona Arizona, 2022

Metaphor of the Month! The Belle Époque

Renoir painting of large group at a partyNo one alive today can recall the mood of what we in the States call, variously “The Gilded Age,” “The Gay 90s,”and “The Progressive Era.” In England we had The late-Victorian and Edwardian Eras, or in France The Belle Époque. For the most part the era merited warm memories. I see it, at this distance, as top hats and lovely dresses, champagne and dancing, cigars and caviar, Renoir boating-parties and dinners by the Seine.

A few talented grumps disagreed; Mark Twain and co-author Charles Dudley Warner perceived and named The Gilded Age for a crass shallowness, the equivalent of the golden-escalator rides of our time. For those of means and artistic sensibilities, however, The Belle Époque seems to have been a rather splendid time to be alive.  Everywhere new ideas abounded. Consider the cultural movements such as Art Nouveau, daring ideas in music, dance, photography, philosophy, or physics. Imagine how Einstein’s theories challenged settled notions of space and time. Close to my heart, literary modernism upended what novels would do.

In academic reading, students of literature and history might run across our metaphor, “The Beautiful Time” in references to the arts and politics before The Great War we now call World War I. Mechanized horrors of trench warfare, mustard gas, artillery barrages, infantry charging machine guns, Zeppelin-bombings of London, and more lay just over the horizon like submerged U-Boats. In reading R.W.B. Lewis’ magisterial biography of novelist Edith Wharton, I find it stunning how stunned she, and most of her friends, were by the outbreak of war. Their times simply seemed too civilized, unlike our fearful era, for a global conflict. Frankly, we live in dark times and our media-feeds turn a profit reminding us of that.

Eleven decades ago, however, our counterparts lacked 24/7 news and were not distracted by the dopamine-dispensers of our ridiculous, addictive phones. Yet their newspapers provided quick reporting of a looming, then unfolding disaster in Europe. So it continues to surprise me how otherwise sensitive and perceptive people were surprised by the outbreak of war.

Glancing though an entry at the National Archives, I ran across the very moment when a famous quotation by Britain’s Foreign Secretary marked the end of The Belle Époque:

On 3 August 1914 Sir Edward Grey made his famous quote: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. He was speaking to his friend, the journalist John Alfred Spender, editor of the Westminster Gazette, in Grey’s room in the Foreign Office. Looking out from his window, across St. James’ Park, it was dusk and the first of the gas lights along the Mall were being lit. The next day Grey would have to face the Cabinet and to persuade them that the time had now come to declare war on Germany.

This powerful image, one that haunted Churchill enough to appear in his writing, captures the mood of late 1914 very well. I do wonder, however, if our era of seemingly endless gloom had a time of light and laughter as its counterpoint? I turn to experts on nostalgia for that. The abrupt rupture 9/11 made in our lives might provide one such contrast, but that tragedy is older now than all my students.

These seem to me glum thoughts in January. Even if foolishly, let’s instead look forward to Spring and the potential for change. It’s always present, perhaps in hiding, but those lamps never go out. Maybe a new Belle Époque lies ahead for us?

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: from Wikipedia, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876, Musée d’Orsay

Word of the Week! Fatuous

Homer Simpson drops Bart into bottomless pitWe live in an era of fatuous public speech. The OED defines our word as “foolish, vacantly silly, stupid.” That’s about, what? 90% of social-media content and 95% of commentary on YouTube videos, site-formerly-known-as Twitter, and other cesspools of the utopia that never happened online.

Looking for images, I found one of Bart Simpson mooning the viewer. That’s not fatuous. It’s vulgar. I’m not offended by cartoon buttocks, but such silliness goes past mere stupidity. What about that avatar of poor taste, Homer Simpson, dropping Bart into a bottomless pit? Now that’s fatuous in any modern sense of the word. Plus it made me laugh.

Perhaps I’m being fatuous in an older sense provided by the OED, “vapid” or “tasteless,”: from Latin fatuus plus an English suffix, we have a descriptor for so much speech and writing today.

I got interested the word from an exemplar of good taste and carefully crafted prose, novelist Edith Wharton. Over the holiday I began reading R.W.B. Lewis’ biography of her, where I met a few words I plan to feature here, including “insipid,” given as a synonym for this week’s word, as well as a metaphor Wharton used as title for a juvenile novel she penned, Fast and Loose.

Without playing fast and loose with facts, I can now claim that Wharton’s letters to her friends, mostly male and all well educated writers, artists, diplomats, and bon vivants, were never fatuous. To read through the missives of a more literate and more publicly polite time (at least among Wharton’s peerage, such as writers Henry James and Henry Adams) provides an excellent tonic from reading grumpy, fatuous, even frightening remarks in onine public forums today.

I’d go on to claim being online really is not  fully “life” at all, but that remains another topic,  not a fatuous one, either. I know, you are reading this online so another Simpson’s reference springs to mind.

Old Man Yell at cloud

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by yelling at me on campus, 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.