Word of the Week! Shibboleth

ShibbolethUsually, I think of Latinate words as a means to elevate the register of my writing. Those terms simply sound more formal. They are not, however, our only option. It’s hard, for a moment, to think of words from Hebrew that have entered formal writing, yet every day that I log onto one of our university servers I see it.

So what is a shibboleth? It’s more than the name of a campus computer. The OED helps a great deal here, as the word changed meanings over the centuries. The term, itself hard enough to pronounce, originally meant a term that foreigners would have a tough time pronouncing. That could “out” a spy or at least show who was who in ancient times. Then the meaning morphed, to eventually become a custom or habit that acted as a shibboleth. Another branching meaning came to mean a taboo, in the sense of a “moral formula” one must follow to become part of a sect. Consider Islam’s and Judaism’s bans on eating pork.

This sense of the term extends beyond matters of religious faith. Consider, for either of our political parties, that certain positions and slogans are sacrosanct (a nice word for another week!). Defy them and you are shown the door.

What are your shibboleths? Which have you abandoned?

And why name a computer Shibboleth?

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Karl Marx God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because it’s the best movie version of the Almighty, ever. And I break several shibboleths by posting it.

Word of the Week! Portent

PortentI suspect we will encounter this word frequently as the election approaches, both about the outcome and other events, for good or ill, on and after election day.

The word has the ring that Latin-derived terms bring to serious situations. And the portents look as serious as our nation’s current troubled state. But what is a portent, itself?

The OED’s first definition bears repeating in full: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen.”

Not all portents portend terrible events. There can be portents of rainy weather ahead, if one knows how to watch the clouds and winds.

Pope, Faulkner, Milton, and other writers in whose shadows we live all used the term well. Have a peek at the OED’s definitions. It’s one of their better entries.  Synonyms are tough to find that have the same power: Melville tried it with the chapter called “Loomings” in Moby Dick: it does capture the sense of a ship suddenly appearing out of a fogbank.

Augury” is another possibility, from telling the future by watching the behavior of birds.  The OED notes that other natural signs can be employed.  My other possible synonym, Omen, works well but it reminds me of a particularly terrifying 1970s horror film.

What is coming at us, out of the fog we traverse? Watch the portents. One or two will be accurate.

For what it’s worth, as I’m tracking how Grammarly rates my own writing, my tone is “sad.” Now that’s a bad portent for November 3.  But it’s also informative and mostly formal. That’s the best I can give you today.

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image from Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for Moby Dick.

Word of the Week! Equinoctial

Autumn TrailWe are well past the Autumnal Equinox now, but I do love this adjective enough to trot it out before Old Man Winter arrives, such as he is in these days of global warming.

The term itself stretches back to the Medieval “Little Ice Age,” with the OED giving us a first recorded usage in the year 1400. It has been used as a noun in times past; it rarely appears as such today.

Our word offers more specificity than does autumnal, the subject of a 2018 post. As the months of October through May mark my favorite time of year–I despise hot, humid weather and always have–I like to find words that conjure the mood of wood smoke from the stove we use to heat our farmhouse, stew in the dutch oven, the chirping of the last (or first) crickets.

Enter equinoctial, of Latin derivation, referencing the time around the Spring or Fall equinox.  It can also point to regions near the planet’s equator. That sense applies to days and nights being of equal length.

And hot as blazes. Get out in our cooler weather and take some socially distanced walks. This is the time for them.

PS: Apologies for a now corrected spelling error! WordPress lacks a spellcheck and I prove notoriously bad at finding these, even when reading aloud. I’ll report separately what I think about Grammarly’s plug-in for the Chrome browser.

Their word on this post: “sounds forceful.”

Send forceful words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Photo “Autumnal Trail” courtesy of photographer Christian Kortum at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! The Loaded Pause

Parliament Square, LondonOurs is a frightening time. We not only have a pandemic that has killed more than a million people around the world, but in our nation we have the potential for political violence during and after our national election. I’ve volunteered to be a poll worker. It seems a small sacrifice, but one must do something to be sure we have an election we can trust.

As I searched for metaphors of hope, I came up dry (itself an apt, arid metaphor). So I went back to a moment from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films that gave me hope in the dark days of the Second Gulf War: Gandalf and Pippin at Minas Tirith, on the night before Sauron’s forces attack the city. Both characters have reason to be afraid of what the next day will bring. Gandalf does not give his Hobbit friend any false hopes, and he says that only “a fool’s hope” remains that Frodo and Sam will complete their quest.

Not cheery stuff at our present dark hour, but I think we can agree with a statement, in both film and book (spoken by a character named Beregond in Tolkien’s text, Gandalf in Jackson’s film) that we are experiencing “the deep breath before the plunge.”  That’s a metaphor Tolkien coined, I suspect, but then I thought about other similar figures of speech.

“A loaded pause,” sounds ominous and proper for this month of October. Where did it come from, suggesting a short break in warfare, with both sides leaning on their loaded guns, waiting for battle to resume?

Several sources found in a casual Google search suggest an origin with Sir Winston Churchill, who frequently employed metaphors and, indeed, verbal pauses in his most famous speeches. Consider that he gave us “finest hour,” “Iron Curtain,” and mentioned how the lights were going out across Europe, on the eve of the Second World War. The final one itself nodded to Sir Edward Grey’s 1914 metaphor that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

Churchill’s figurative language worked all the better to sway his audiences. In a 1936 speech, named after our metaphor, you can hear how he built an argument against Hitler’s rise; one senses war creeping ever closer.  Yet in two times through, I don’t hear him utter our metaphor. It’s too good, however, to pass by.

I’m wishing for a Churchill, for all his faults and controversial legacy, or a Gandalf right now. I suspect many of you are, too. Here’s to wishing for better metaphors ahead.

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. Hopeful ones useful in academic work are most welcome! See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Parliament Square, London, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Malarkey

Snake Oil SalesmanMy 6th-Grade teacher, Miss Gilmore, had a wonderfully deep Southern accent. At times, all too frequently, we said stupid things and instead of getting angry, she’d reply “oh, malarkey!”  She probably would have spelled it “malarky,” Something I also see in print.

That’s how I learned this word, once common and hard to find today. Malarkey, however, has never vanished. It’s humbug. It’s nonsense. It’s misleading. It’s ridiculous. It may not be illegal or dangerous, but it rises to the level of silliness, at least. Earlier I considered mountebanks and their con-games. These fellows are masters of malarkey. I like my image from that post so much that I’m going to use it again.

There is no malarkey involved in the mysterious origin of our word. The author of the OED entry simply does not know. The word did cross the Atlantic to the New World. There’s an Irish surname close to our word, but that origin is probably malarkey.

Is malarkey endangered? Not the thing itself: it’s everywhere. But the word has fallen to 3 of 8 on the OED usage scale, making it one of those words “not commonly found in general text types like novels and newspapers, but at the same they are not overly opaque or obscure.”

Time to bring the word back. We need more words without four letters for the everyday, trivial nonsense we encounter. For instance: “Your call is important to us.”

Malarkey!

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of “Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap, resident snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park” courtesy of Wikipedia, via the Library of Congress.

Word of the Week! Tardy

Running LateHere’s an odd word that one hears in school, and oddly, one I’ve not covered here before. I’ll flag it under “academic culture,” since that seems to be the most common usage, as in “tardy students will be docked for each time they arrive late.”

Given the tardy nature of this week’s post, let’s give it a go. From its Latin origin, tardus, we have several forms in modern Romance languages, such as the modern Spanish tardio. Strangely, it was a word I never learned living in Spain, where my Madrid students were perpetually tardio.  In English it sounds less Latinate.

As the OED has it, tardy has always meant “slow,” though in US English it has come to mean “late” or “arriving late.” Consider other words such as “retarded,” in its non-pejorative sense. It means to slow down, as in this sentence: the damage during the test flight retarded development of the new airliner.

That sounds more forceful than would “slow” or “delay,” though either would suffice as “retarded” has a negative sense we would do well to avoid.

Older meaning for “tardy” carry similar meanings but have lost currency. Consider this 1908 example from the OED, “When a girl used to think her admirer rather tardy in asking for the wedding-day.” Sounds quaint and old-fashioned, doesn’t it?

Just set the date, man! I’d go on a bit, but I’m running late.

Don’t be tardy in getting us your favored words and metaphors! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of The Noun Project.

Words of the Week! de facto & de jure

Island of CyprusRecently, I ran across this usage from a 2018 article in The Atlantic:

And like de jure segregation—when the government legally engineered ghettos into existence—de facto segregation continues to exacerbate wealth and racial inequality today.

I often use de facto, luckily in its correct sense as stated in the OED, “in fact, in reality, in actual existence, force, or possession, as a matter of fact.”

There’s a clear distinction in all of the terms referenced by the OED using the Latin preposition de. 

For de jure, it is a case of something being “according to law.” My example will get this post banned in China, but the Chinese occupation of Tibet constitutes a de facto, but not a de jure, annexation of another nation.  The same applies in Cyprus, where in 2005 I crossed a de facto border between north and south, seeing the UN blue helmets try to maintain a ceasefire between the Turkish and Greek populations. Closer to home, many executive orders by our Presidents constitute similar de facto, but not de jure, changes to how our government functions.

Look at the news: which recent events and social changes are likely to become de facto, but not de jure, parts of our daily lives in the near future?

Maybe you have some words or metaphors that puzzle you? E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons en Español. Hay que practicarlo.

Word of the Week! Perfidious

Charlie Brown, Lucy, FootballI’m enjoying my little side-trip into Latinate terms. We’ve recently had invidious and insidious. Why not “perfidious”?  I often think of angry French critics of England’s supposed treachery, in the coinage “perfidious Albion!” spat out in many a tirade from a different, equally difficult time in human history.

Perfidious means breaking confidence or promises. In short, treacherous. The OED gives us a bit of the history, while the Wikipedia page on Perfidious Albion claims even earlier usages, back as far as the 13th Century.

Put in your poster-child for our word at the top of this post. I am sure we can think of several. I’ll be light-hearted. Lucy, from Peanuts, immediately comes to mind. And that football…I’ve used the idea before, in discussing the word casuistry. Poor Charlie; his gullible belief in perfidious Lucy provides a tale for the ages.

This week’s term has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, with the Brexit vote and outcome across The Atlantic. I won’t point any fingers, as perfidy can be found many places today.

Send us words and metaphors, wondrous, horrid, or banal! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of an entire file-folder of Charlie Brown and football images on my hard drive.

Metaphor of the Month! Annus horribilis

hurricane Laura, from spaceI will not list the bad things that have befallen us all in 2020. We still, in the States, must endure two more months before a fraught election, spikes in COVID deaths, civil unrest, tropical storms, wild fires, hurricanes, and perhaps a stray asteroid. Yes, a small one will pass the Earth the day before we go to the polls (or vote by mail and cross our fingers).

The idea for this metaphor struck me, like the eyewall of a Cat-4 storm, last night as I saw an image of our fragile, string-of-light cities dwarfed by Hurricane Laura. Truly, it’s a horrible year.

No, it’s not 1914 when Europe realized what modern warfare and the Maxim gun really meant. It’s not 1348 when the Black Plague carried off perhaps 50% of Europe’s populace. It’s not 1492, when the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas began, or 1619, when the first slave ships came to Virginia. It’s not 1945, a year of victory for the Allies but for the citizens of Axis nations, a time of fire-bombs, starvation, and atomic weaponry. It’s not even 1918-19, when the “Spanish Flu” (which seems to have begun at Fort Riley, Kansas) took the lives of perhaps 50 million, globally.

Have I made my point? Any of these could, depending on one’s view of events, be an “annus horribilis.” The term itself, a modern borrowing from Latin, surprises me by only dating to 1985. Queen Elizabeth II’s famous quip with the term comes 1992, and that’s when I first heard the phrase. If you are curious why, read thisThe OED notes the kinship with the earlier annus mirabilis, or year of wonders. John Dryden published a book of that title in 1667.

I would enjoy a year of wonders in 2021. Wouldn’t you?

Send us words and metaphors, wondrous, horrid, or banal! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA. Note the storm is visible from a million miles out.

Word of the Week! Invidious

invidiousAfter last week’s insidious, I ran across its near homonym. With school beginning and the need to ramp up student vocabularies increasing with the pile of reading on that way, let’s sort these two words out.

Insidious and invidious both have Latin roots and negative connotations, but if the former relates of subterfuge, invidious is more candid: any action or statement likely to spur resentment, offense, or anger.  As with last week’s word, our word this week has barely budged in its meaning since the 17th Century. You’ll find lots of interesting examples in the OED entry. Most commonly today, we talk about an “invidious comparison,” such as this one, from the blog for writers, The Wickeds:

“If you don’t write everyday, you can’t write a book.”

Poppycock. The disempowering message from these morons is, “You can’t write a book.”

That sort of comparison teams up something awful with something desirable. It’s sure to provoke.

I ran across our word in a book that did get written, and written well, The Men Who Lost America, about the British leaders of the Revolutionary War. Here’s the usage by author Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.

“In the view of one Cabinet insider, the government was in an invidious position and could not afford to risk alienating the brothers by denying their terms.”

Well respected General Howe and his older brother, Admiral Howe, proposed a peace conference to the Americans, something George III vehemently opposed. But the British government decided to both make war and offer an unsatisfactory peace at the same time. The brothers’ initiative failed, miserably.

We know the rest.

As the year begins with uncertainty,  be sure that we’ll press on here. Send us words and metaphors! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

quite timely image of “the suicide of an invidious plutocrat” courtesy of Wikepedia