Word of the Week! Euphemism

Prunes stuffed with walnutsDr. Tom Bonfiglio, as upset over the current Administration’s use of the term “Tender-Age Shelter” for a children’s prison housing undocumented minors in substandard and even cruel conditions, suggested I talk a bit about euphemisms.

I hope the post is not too dark, but these are dark times. Perhaps we’ll be careful in our use of euphemism once we think more about them.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage claims that euphemisms were employed in just the thuggish way Tom suggests a century ago, “as a protective device for governments and as a token of a new approach to psychological and sociological problems.” If Tom’s example is particularly Orwellian in its attempt to put a happy face on a brutal policy, it is nothing new. The OED notes that the word “euphemism” itself dates to the 17th Century, whenever one wanted to use a pleasant-sounding term in place of a harsher one. In a famous 20th Century military example, “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue” became “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” All describe a terrible condition many veterans face, but note how increasingly anodyne the terminology became. That first cousin to our week’s word, anodyne , appeared in an earlier post. You’ll want to read more about that synonym before you begin honing your euphemisms in writing.

Tom Lea's "2000 Yard Stare"By the way, “The Thousand-Yard Stare” is a metaphor for the effects of combat. It’s a euphemism in a way, but not an anodyne one, once you know what it means. I first encountered it in this rightly famous painting, “The 2000 Yard Stare,” by Tom Lea.

Euphemisms are not always used to cover the truth for sinister ends, though certainly history abounds with examples. We call “Undertakers” “Funeral Directors,” or a disease a “condition” to avoid offense or unpleasant emotions.  Some euphemisms can be silly, as with “powder room” for toilet or restroom, or pointless, as in “conveniences” for those same spaces. Others provide smart marketing; “prunes” became “dried plums.” Yes, I’d rather consume the latter!

Some euphemisms put a metaphor in place of a single word, as in “The Sun Belt” for “The South.” Yes, it is sunny here now, with severe storms about to strike. But a euphemism leaves that unpleasantness out.

I stand with Fowler’s Modern English Usage on generally avoiding euphemism when it leads, as it did in Victorian England to pregnant women being “in an interesting condition.”  Bryan A. Garner’s excellent Modern American Usage gives us a litmus test for when to use a euphemism, “[i]f plain talk is going to provoke unnecessary controversy.” He shows this clearly when he discusses why we should not say “illegitimate children” today. The test of a good euphemism is that it does not sound “roundabout or clumsy.” As Garner goes on to say, however, euphemisms “leave a linguistic garbage-heap in their wake” once they outlive their age. For instance, I find the many genteel euphemisms in Herman Melville’s South-Seas narrative Typee maddening. The story is excellent, but the writing lacks the power of his later work, such as Moby Dick or Billy Budd. Of course, Melville’s more direct later works did not find a Victorian audience. He paid for abandoning euphemism, though it gained him fame in our time.

I commend Garner’s book to all of you! And for attorneys and law students out there, I found Wydick’s excellent Plain English for Lawyers silent on euphemisms. Wydick does recommend using concrete words when possible. I suppose one must be blunt at times in a courtroom.

As Summer drifts along here, on a sea of humidity, 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 of prunes dried plums stuffed with walnuts from Marco Verch at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Pestiferous

London Walk, 2017Special thanks to Robyn Bradshaw, with UR’s Catering Department, for our word this week. When I hear it, I think of the Bubonic Plague cemeteries that still can be found in London. I immediately grabbed a photo I shot outside of one such former burial ground, taken during a 2017 London Walk in The City, the heart of London’s financial district. Where bankers now make deals, victims of the Plague once got mass burials. They were long ago reburied elsewhere, but the skull and crossbones still mark the entrance, today. Our guide, pictured, gave us a chilling sense of the terrible pandemic.

The Plague was know as “the pest,” short for pestilence, though today we think of mosquitoes or annoying people when we hear “pest.” The OED gives the Plague association for our word as its second definition.  More commonly, pestiferous means morally corrupt, even annoying. And so the horrors of the Black Death gave way to something that is a mere nuisance. Oh, bother!

If ever a word underwent a change into banality, it’s pestiferous. One 2003 example, “Something I’m afraid to even Google, for fear of the pestiferous spam it might unleash,” shows how far today (one hopes) we stand from the nightmares of the 14th Century. When you visit London (and I hope you do) take time to read about the history and myths surrounded the Underground and the “Plague Pits” of the Middle Ages.

May your summers be pest-free, though I will pester you for new words and metaphors.  Please nominate one 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 by the author. When in London, especially in the off-season, be sure to take one of the Original London Walks! A ghost walk with Shaughan is not to be forgotten.

Word of the Week! Etiology

Great Glen Way Starting PointMany thanks to our commenter Betty Ann Dillon, last week. She taught me a new word.  This term is given by the OED Online in our spelling, as well as “aetiology,” a tip to its classical Latin origin, aetiologia, and before that, Greek.

Simply put, etiology is the “cause or reason for something.” A starting point, like the sign above. Our word might appear in medical works about the cause of a disease, or in philosophy as the study of causes. This term merits tagging both for style and legal writing. Why not say “origin”? The answer is “variety.”  Our word adds sophistication (and can save you verbiage) when used with a knowing audience, raising the formal register of the sentence. Joseph Glaser advises this in Understanding Style, though it can be overdone.

As we consider how much is too much, we might wish to mull over the advice of Richard C. Wydick, whose book Plain English for Lawyers caught my eye recently. Wydick advises against too much Latin by attorneys, as well as “lawyerisms” such as “said term” instead of “that word,” since “Sometimes [lawyers] do it out of habit or haste; the old phrase is the one they learned in law school, and they have never taken time to question its use” (59).

Is this week’s word too much? As I teach my students, the answer depends upon one’s audience. Jargon and latinate terms can save time among the right people; for the wrong audience, they alienate. Over time, a speaker or writer develops a unique voice; that is something I cannot teach. I or other writing teachers can, however, impart lessons about style, audience, and purpose.  Words like the one given help to keep us in the game. There’s nuance in every slightly different synonym.

Do you have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 “Starting Point,” courtesy of faoch at Flikr. Looks to be in Fort William, Scotland. I walked the Great Glen Way in 2014, so it’s near to my heart!

Work Cited

Wydick, Richard C. Plain English for Lawyers. 5th ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2005.

Word of the Week! Profligate

Super Villain Turner D. CenturyBoth as noun and adjective, our word trips off the tongue.

As the curious image given implies, people who overindulge in vices of the flesh are “profligates” to a bumbershoot-wielding vigilante. The term has a long history, with noun & adjective usages, as well as a transitive verb, given by the OED. The Latin original means overthrowing, conquering, and 16th Century English usage includes those senses. Our modern notion of decadence and debauchery came a century later.

As with so many good words, our word came to me while reading comic books decades ago.

Contrary to the fuming of curmudgeons, many comics taught kids a great deal about vocabulary. This began for me with Marvel’s titles in the “Silver Age” of the late 60s and “Bronze Age” of the early 70s, when a stable of talented young writers penned dialogue under the leadership of the late Stan Lee. Enter a well read super villain, Turner D. Century, whom I recently described as ” a puritanical Luddite. Rides a flying bicycle built for two, has a flamethrower umbrella, and his ‘girlfriend’ is a manakin with a bomb for a head. Primo 70s Marvel.” Though Turner actually dates from the 80s, his vocabulary reaches back to earlier times.

“Profligate” works best, to my ear, as a formal adjective implying more than extravagance. To say “His profligate spending on artwork led to bankruptcy” implies a lot in a single word. Thus the power of an elevated register of speech. I try to teach writers this constantly, that big words used well can save space and time.  In another example, my garden is currently profligate with flowers. So our word has some positive uses. How could you have too many flowers?

The verb usage appears rare. I’d never encountered it, in comics or more staid literary work, until I consulted the OED today. Consider how odd it would be to say “You profligated your inheritanceTurner D. Century closeup! Lord Plushbottom, you are ruined!” instead of “Your profligate habits ruined you, M’Lord. The inheritance is gone!”  Both sound like a dramatic moment from Downton Abbey, but the latter example just sounds “right” to the educated ear. We don’t want Turner setting us on fire for a contested point of usage. He just might.

Hear ye, profligates, debauchees, and decadents! Don’t make me send Turner D. Century after you to pry words from your noggins! Do you have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by the author, from his old stash of comic books.

 

Metaphor of the Month! Deadline

Deadline SignFor June 1, I’m on deadline for my and Brian McTague’s forthcoming book, Writing Centers at the Center of Change. I planned to take a weeklong break on this blog for Memorial Day, but I wanted to know more about the term “deadline.” In any case it serves me well, if a little early, for our June Metaphor. Where did this drop-dead-serious figure of speech first appear?

The OED Online, for once, provides no definitive etymology of the term! The most interesting candidate is a military one from the United States, with its earliest use given as 1864, during our Civil War. A “dead line” is “A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.”

The grim origin has been lost as we use “deadline” for everything now.

To my knowledge, rarely have editors shot authors or publishers shot editors. That’s my cue. Back to work.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Nick Youngson’s Creative Common Image courtesy of Picpedia.

Words of the Week! Four Summertime “Blues”

Rowlandson's paintingBlue is not a feeling we associate with summer, whatever our teenage experiences while listening to The Who’s song “Summertime Blues.” I began thinking about the many figures of speech, as well as single words, we couple with the adjective blue. All of the four really are metaphors, except for one literal use of the term “blue nose.” Read on.

The other day, a friend referred to a well read friend as a “blue stocking.” The Cambridge English Dictionary calls such a person “an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.” Wikipedia and the OED Online deepen the story, adding a history of an 18th Century literary society called The Blue Stockings. Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic, social reformer and author, started and led the group. It was a difficult time for women who wished to pursue intellectual activities, formally, with no access to higher education.

Today the usage of blue stocking is rare; I’d not heard of it before my friend uttered the phrase. It’s not obsolete, with a currency of four of eight at the OED. Their entry also records a 2001 usage in Vogue that I just love: “Miuccia Prada has..embraced the Waspy,..book-editor look of yore and taken bluestocking style to silk-stocking heights.”

Thankfully, rarity (2 of 8 in the OED’s usage frequency) marks our next word, “bluebeard,” also about women. This, however, has nothing to do with a group of learned ladies but a fiend who marries again and again, only to kill his wives. The OED entry reminds of of Henry VIII’s bluebeard life. It can be used as adjective as well, as in a “bluebeard room” where someone hides something, presumably something grisly. A recent bluebeard from cinema is Robert Mitchum’s character from the excellent (and only) film directed by Charles Laughton, Night of the Hunter. The original Bluebeard (capitalized) came from a French folk tale first published in 1697. That should make us shiver, even on a warm summer day! Bluebeards can apparently be seducers who abandon their lovers, one after another. The verb “to bluebeard” appears, but seems rare.

Are you a blue blood? That is a term I did hear as a child, from better educated peers who talked about the rich families who lived (literally) across the railroad tracks from our neighborhood of modest row-houses. They were the grandees, those “to the manner born,” the would-be aristocrats of our odd little Southern city. As the gentry, they “put on airs.” What why “blue blood”? The OED cites an etymology from the Spanish sangre azul, for the fair complexion of the well-to-do; you can see those veins beneath their milky skin. I prefer skin seasoned by life outdoors.

Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyOne thinks here of Goya’s bizarre and unflattering portrait of Spanish nobility. This term is one I’ve long used, so the frequency (3 of 8) at the OED surprised me.

And finally, we have “Bluenose,” my favorite of these words (usage frequency is also a 3 of 8 at the OED). As a teen, I loved cartoons that made fun of Puritans. Often they were drawn with blue noses and scowls, making me think them eternally ill in the New England climate. That’s partly true; the OED notes that residents of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were called “Bluenoses” for the cold there. It can also be a type of sailing vessel. In this sense, unlike “bluebeard” or “blue blood” it gets capitalized. Usages appear as “blue-nose,” “blue nose,” and “bluenose.”

Usually the days, the term refers to prudes and puritanical busy-bodies. I am anything but, with my heroes being Beatniks, not busybodies, so I enjoy yanking their choir robes. I ran across the a bluenose recently in a comment on a piece I’d written about a “barn find” car for Hemmings Motor News Daily; I’d made an offhand drug reference in relation to the cars of the early 1970s, and a puritanical reader vehemently objected. In my defense, another reader said that the comments section always “brought out the bluenoses.” I loved that banter, but writers need skins as thick as auto sheet-metal, and we have to bear the dents made by many a bluenose reader.

A cousin of “bluenose” is “blue law.” There’s a false etymology that these prudish laws, aimed at curbing sales of certain products or prohibiting certain work on Sunday, came from their origin when printed on blue paper. Snopes notes that the real origin is their relation to the bluenoses who enacted them.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by Thomas Rowlandson, “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club,” and Francisco de Goya, “Charles IV of Spain and his family,” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Polymath

Doc Savage CoverProfessor Joe Hoyle, a polymath in the worlds of business and language, sent us today’s word. In terms of usage, “polymath” functions as both noun and adjective, as in “her polymath intellect soon embraced music theory as well as the poetry and aeronautical engineering for which she was famous.” The OED Online gives us a good overview, meaning a person accomplished in many fields of study, but I want to get reflective here.

Our word is perfect for that dreamy week following graduation, when many young polymaths have left our ivy-festooned campus (“festoon” is a good future word of the week, incidentally). My mind, not polymath but very retentive in ways both good and bad, went right to the reading of my childhood.

As a youngster, I enjoyed the reprints of the 1930s Pulp novels about Doc Savage, a sort of superhero without superpowers. Doc fought evil with wits and training; from birth his strange father (any father who did this would be locked up today) put his son through a rigorous set of physical and mental challenges that included daily training.  Savage ended up the world’s best polymath. In the words on the back covers of the Bantam editions of the 1970s, he had a “protean genius.” Yet not all geniuses are polymaths. In fact, synonyms for our word seem scarce. “Multi-faceted” is fine but a bit broad. “Protean” is the closest fit.

Proteus, a figure from mythology, was many things. He could change forms. So can the intellect of a polymath. Several real polymaths get cited in online lists, but they are certain to  include Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Jefferson qualifies, but like Doc Savage he really cultivated the fact and image of his broad knowledge.  Poet William Carlos Williams was a physician, but it seems that one needs several, not just two, areas of expertise.

I know one living polymath, Fran Wilde, who is both accomplished writer of fantastic literature and a talented coder. She has advanced degrees in Fine Arts and Computer Science, and she draws lovely artwork. Polymath? Yes.  My students enjoy her class visits.

The “Math” in our word is not mathematics. It’s from the Greek μάθη for “learning.”

Naturally, polymaths may have their flaws. I’ve yet to discover Fran’s, but if you know Jefferson’s life, you can quickly find his shortcomings. And if you know the books, one thing Doc Savage never figured out was a shirt that could stay un-ripped. The cover above is a rare exception. But that’s pulp fiction for you.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 Jonathan Morris at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month: Mayday!

SOS Text

This internationally recognized call for help has long been common parlance, but until today, when I checked the OED listing, I had no idea of its origin.

A 1923 usage listed gives us all we need to know: “Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’  will give place to the words ‘May-day’, the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez’, the French for ‘Help me’.”

Fascinating and perhaps our briefest post yet. Good luck with finals, students!

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Epistemology

Death of SocratesWhat can one say about “A borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element; modelled on a German lexical item”? Pretentious, perhaps, yet our word, Epistemology, as cited by the OED in the last sentence, has an everyday use in academe. It’s of recent origin, like much of modern science itself, dating from the mid 1800s.

Simply put, it’s a “theory of knowledge” but as I will explain, so much more. When one thinks hard about it, everyone’s use of data, ways of analysis, and presentation of results hinge upon that field’s epistemology. In my own, English, we have several theories of knowledge.  Sometimes they get us in trouble with those outside the profession, partly because we sling around words like epistemology or hermeneutics regularly (WordPress spellcheck does not even recognize “hermeneutics”).

If I’ve not convinced you yet that “theory of knowledge” does not work accurately in place of our word, consider that the OED also adds that our term distinguishes “between justified belief and opinion.” Every wise fool, in Socrates’ sense, has an opinion beyond his realm of understanding, something not justifiable. As the doomed philosopher puts in in The Apology, the artisans he questioned about wisdom, “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” That same error applies today. Would the epistemology of quantum physics inform the study of Chaucer, or vice versa?

For that matter, while this week’s word is not found beyond our ivy-covered walls, the idea behind it remains sound. Would I presume to tell the HVAC guy which circuit has failed, unless I had knowledge of electronics and that type of system?

Have a word worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Writing Consultant of the Year, Emily Churchill

Emily with Joe EssidThis year, as we have done annually for a long time, the faculty recognize a graduating Senior who has impressed us with the assistance provide to student writers. Emily Churchill has an additional honor: she received three simultaneous nominations from the faculty she’s assisted, a record in our program’s history.

Emily is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with majors in LALIS & Global Studies, and a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies. She was first recommended to be a writing consultant by Dr. Aurora Hermida-Ruiz when she was a student in her FYS section, “Time & the City of Seville.” That summer, she had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Herimda-Ruiz to Seville for five weeks on a summer study abroad program. 

Dr. Stephen Long in Political Science and Dr. Olivier Delers in The Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures also nominated Emily for work in their classes.

Throughout her time at Richmond, Emily studied abroad a total of six times, including two summers in Seville, a summer in Morocco, an academic year in Granada, Spain, a civic fellowship in Ecuador, and a one-week trip to Santiago, Chile with Dr. Pribble’s Latin American Politics class. 

On campus, she served as the Study Abroad Peer Advisor in addition to serving as a Writing Consultant. As she told me, “Both positions have allowed me to mentor underclassmen and form lasting connections with the Richmond community.  My long-term plan is to take a few years to travel, do research, and work in NGOs before pursuing a PhD in Hispanic Studies. I hope to write fiction in addition to producing academic research throughout my career.”

This summer she will be working in San Isidro, Costa Rica with the organization, Amigos de las Americas, which provides service-learning trips for high school students. 

I want to congratulate Emily for her hard work and thank all the Consultants and Faculty who were nominated and who will return to campus to work with student writing again in the Fall.