Word of the Week (and a Poem!): Yule

Silbury Hill, 2017This time of year is a personal favorite, Yule, the season around the Winter Solstice.

Last year I got to Stonehenge just after Solstice, and the delay was worth it: we had smaller crowds and better views of the standing stones. Later we spent a few days at Avebury, just after Christmas, but the Yuletide (often hyphenated as Yule-tide) festivities were still in full swing. Silbury Hill, pictured above, is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Western Europe. We had it all to ourselves, and I think my photo captures the mood of Yuletide quite well, as does this one from Avebury’s henge.

Often this holiday, the day of least light and longest darkness, gets equated to our word, “Yule,” as does the Christian holiday of Christmas. Both are true, though the word itself is far older than modern neo-Paganism or Christianity.

The OED Online traces the word “Yule” to Old English geol and gives recorded uses, in Latin texts, back as far at the 8th Century. Later phonetic spellings such as “yoole” appear before things settled in their modern form in the 17th Century, though “yole” appears in one 19th century example.

What about the less common “Yuletide”? Like “Christmastide,” it’s getting rarer to modern ears than it was in Dickens’ era, perhaps because we think of “tide” only in terms of the ocean.  We usually put “time” in place of “tide” nowadays, but that is a good substitute. Here again, the OED entry on “tide” shows a first definition, now obsolete, meaning a season or span of time.

For Yuletide, I have a poem from the grandfather of my former Writing Consultant, Nellie Searle, to share. Whatever holiday is yours this season, you’ll find some inspiration in Andrew Glaze’s “Christmas.” Glaze, according to his daughter Elizabeth, “was a born skeptic his whole life.  We described ourselves as “agnostic”, and our outgoing Christmas cards were never religious in theme.”

Skeptics are welcome at my Yule table. A few years ago I helped to organize a few Winter Solstice celebrations for a local Unitarian-Universalist Church, for people of many faiths. As I said then, “A newspaper clipping I still have somewhere notes that on the longest night of the year, ancient peoples made bonfires in sacred places because they feared that the sun would never return. In northern Europe, a Yule log might be decked with greenery and then burned in a ritualistic manner.  A tree would be cut, brought indoors, and adorned with lights to remind everyone that the light will never die. These traditions, and many more, continue into modern times.”

That festival and its trappings moved me then and now, to honor the light and hope for its return. Yule is just the holiday for these dark times circadian, political, ecological. We can and will, I hope, do better in the years to come.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below. Next up will be “okay,” thanks to US President Martin Van Buren and Dr. Bill Ross of UR’s Department of Mathematics.

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

For the week of  December 24th, the blog takes a holiday! See you in two weeks.

Photos by the author.

Words of the Week! Elusive, Illusive, Allusive

Desert MirageThis week we have a pair of homonyms, illusive and elusive, that students confuse. OED links are given. At a colleague’s suggestion I added a quasi-literary term that we rarely encounter, allusive. The mnemonic for getting them sorted out is not too difficult, so we’ll have a go at it now.

If something is “illusive,” think of an illusion. It only seems real. It deceives you, as in “His quest a quick fortune led him toward many illusive investments, all of which collapsed.” “Elusive” is something that eludes us, so “While he invested a lot of money, good returns on his investments remained elusive.”

I well recall my first highway travel as a child. I kept warning my father of water ahead on the road. These were illusions, mirages. All such are illusive.

Writers may know, and use, literary allusions. Something that is allusive alludes to something else, literary or ordinary, as in “The state’s early and difficult frontier history left so many allusive place names: Last Chance, Broken Promise, Dead Man, Murder Creek.”

Since all three words sound nearly alike when spoken, it’s best to try the mnemonics given, before writing anything down.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Rule of Thumb

We say “rule of thumb” for an approximate measurement or rough guideline when we are uncertain, yet there’s a big misconception about this metaphor’s origin. The OED Online advises readers that “A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated.” Wikipedia’s entry likewise calls this a “modern folk etymology.”

A quick Google search revealed a 1998 article from The Baltimore Sun, where writer Stephanie Shapiro, noting an earlier debunking by William Safire, states that “In the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, ‘rule of thumb’ is additionally defined as a method by which brewers once tested the temperature of a batch of beer: They dipped a thumb in the brew.”

I know one fellow who works in the brewing industry. That rule of thumb no longer applies, if it ever did. Whether that origin from the field of zymology is true or not, I enjoy redeeming a useful metaphor like ours.

Perhaps we need a better rule of thumb for judging words and phrases in fraught times, before we condemn them?

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 Timothy Valentine at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Cornucopia

I don’t hear this wonderful word much anymore, so I thought to trot it out for the week after Thanksgiving, when we enjoy a feast of plenty. What of the word that means “horn of plenty”? It may appear in seasonal imagery, but like last week’s word, it has faded from popular usage. The OED Online gives it only four of eight for frequency of usage.

As with so many words here, the history of use can only be traced to the early Gutenberg years, or 16th Century. I imagine our term enjoyed popularity before, as the concept comes from pagan Antiquity, noted in the OED entry as “the horn of the goat Amalthea by which the infant Zeus was suckled.”

We might see the image of a horn of plenty advertising specials for Thanksgiving at supermarkets, but the lovely Latinate term? That seems rare today.

Enjoy your holiday feasts and do not overdo it. There are ancient stories about that, as well.

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: “Fall Cornucopia” by Ron Cogswell at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Fulgent

Bright GemAs I write this, the gloom is almost palpable outside. We have heavy rain and lowering clouds. It is far from a fulgent day.

Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested the word after she encountered it, as we do with so many interesting terms, in a class. The OED Online has it listed with a “frequency band” of only 2 out of 8, meaning such words “occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people.”

So our word may be on the way out the door with many other ancient but lovely adjectives.

The OED’s usages vary. Wordsworth once described sunset in terms of it begin “the fulgent West” and a century later, a writer for Ebony noted a musician’s “fulgent keyboard technique.”

But the core sense of “bright,” “shiny,” or “glittering” remain, even if this word itself fades.

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.

Gem image courtesy of Pixabay free images.

Word of the Week! Anodyne

A colleague, Dr. Ted Bunn in Physics, recently used our word to describe a “anodyne word” that lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. I knew the word but not its usage or history; Ted suggested a medical origin.

He’s correct. The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

Here’s a humorous example the OED provides from 1991 by Joanna Trollope, where “Celia and Elaine were having a carefully anodyne conversation about the church fête.” That is a conversation guaranteed to avoid an argument.

Anodynes are more than synonyms or euphemisms. They mask something, often with the worthy intention of maintaining harmony. Here’s an example I just invented, using anodyne expressions to cover up a really awful situation: “Management concluded to end our relationship with BigCo, our current vendor of bathroom supplies. That decision was made in the general interest of all our employees and the many visitors who use our hygienic facilities. The repeated difficulties with BigCo’s toilet tissue led to several quite vocal remarks to our staff about the lack of quality assurance at BigCo’s manufacturing plant.”

I let your imagination do the rest. The word “difficulties” is a perfect anodyne term.  So is “hygienic facility” or, for that matter, “restroom” in place of the British-English “toilet.”

Business writing is full of anodynes. It can be dreadful, but sometimes such language proves very useful. Consider what you have to write on a sympathy card. Mostly, however, anodyne words get in the way of making a point clearly and succinctly. At worst, they become parody or lies: “We value your call.”

I actually do value your input! 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.

Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Faustian Bargain

The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.

Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.

The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins.  To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.

I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.

Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.

Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week: Gloaming

I’m a sucker for a good sunset, and this time of year the gloaming gets resplendent. I heard that word more in the U.K., where summer twilight can be prolonged and magical. It’s a artful word, gloaming, and I almost can spot Robert Burns on some heather-covered hillside, journal in hand, writing a few lines of verse:

The hunter lo’es the morning sun;
To rouse the mountain deer, my jo;
At noon the fisher seeks the glen
Adown the burn to steer, my jo:
Gie me the hour o’ gloamin’ grey,
It maks my heart sae cheery O,
To meet thee on the lea-rig,
My ain kind Dearie O.

Burns reminds us that the gloaming is not necessarily ruddy or wonderful. It can simply be cloudy.The origin, however, is not Gaelic. Gloaming comes from the Old English glóm  or twilight. See the OED Online for more on this origin. Our word thus may have crossed from the Continent with Germanic peoples, invading the British Isles after Rome’s Empire in the West fell.

I hope my Scottish friends do not come over and run me through with a Claymore.  In their defense, I have seen my best late-day gloamings and sunsets in Scotland, though more than a few right at home rival their intensity, if not duration. Here’s one from campus, not far from my office.May your Autumn skies be glorious, and your gloaming prolonged.

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 Words of the Week here.

Images: Fort William and Glen Nevis, near Ben Nevis, Scotland, 2014, by me. Same for the University of Richmond lake view. Verse by Robert Burns, “I’ll Meet Thee On the Lea Rig.”

Word of the Week! Nimrod

This is a word I once used as an insult for a really clueless person. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, what I used to say is American slang that appeared in the 20th Century. I thought of it as a particularly Southern insult.

What remains mystifying to me is how differently the word has been used in England. There, “Nimrod” is a metaphor that refers to a hunter, after the great hunter from The Bible. That usage goes back as far as the 17th Century. The OED gives two American examples from the last hundred years, including one from a 1994 story in The Denver Post: “Towns such as Eagle, Glenwood Springs..and Gunnison throw out the welcome mat for this horde of nimrods.”

That one has me grinning, imagining a “horde of nimrods.”  How, exactly, did the term for a hunter of renown become synonymous with idiocy? One conjecture, provided at Merriam Webster’s site, is that the original Nimrod not only hunted, but as a king he got associated with building the Tower of Babel. Thus, he helped in a colossally stupid act that ended badly.

That would require more research, but when I think of my 4:30 am climbs up a tree in freezing darkness every deer season, I suppose we have at least two plausible answers.

Decades after I stopped calling people who do stupid things”nimrods,” I cannot quite recall why I abandoned the word. I would like to think that I do not insult others so often.  Perhaps I have been a nimrod often enough, myself.

Update 10/26/18: Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested that the conflation of hunter and idiot comes from Elmer Fudd. In several of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bugs or Daffy Duck refer to poor Elmer with “what a nimrod!”

As much as I love that theory (and Warner Brothers cartoons) there’s no definitive evidence. There was, however, a lively debate on the topic in the message forums at Snopes.com. Have at it.

Special thanks to Cynthia Price, Director of Media and Public Relations at the University of Richmond, for nominating our word.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image: Shotgun selfie from last deer season. What a Nimrod!

Word of the Week! Referee

“Referee” sounds simple enough to sports fans, but in academic parlance the term has much the same meaning. The OED shows us the common link: many circumstances where a neutral judge or arbiter or official must make a decision.

When one submits work to a refereed (or peer-reviewed) journal, the arbiters are not just the editors of the journal, but a panel of informed professionals in the field. I found the University of Texas Libraries as well as my own campus library offer fine guides on this.

The verb “referee” is quite similar.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.