Word of the Week! Registrar

HIgh Density Filing System

Last year, I covered “syllabus” as our word for the first week of classes. It’s one that many students never encounter before arriving on campus.  Given the ancient history of universities, there’s no surprise that many words unknown beyond our gates crop up.

Some terms, like “campus,” “curriculum,” or “physical plant” enjoy broader usage, but I could not immediately think of anywhere else I have heard “Registrar” employed. Students learn quickly that our Registrar’s Office does a fine job of setting up enrollment systems, guaranteeing course-credit where credit is due, tallying units of same so a student my gradate correctly.  But where did they get their name?

Several British officials have held the title, including one roughly analogous to an American Justice of the Peace; this much I learned from the OED’s entry. Thus any official or office charged with keeping civil or clerical records could be a Registrar. In US parlance, however, I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Thank your college or university Registrar for the diploma hanging on the wall, or the transcript your employer requested.  The OED has this usage dating to the early 18th Century. For other meanings, our word goes back to the 16th Century and probably earlier.

I just learned that jurisdictions have a Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.

So when you call upon the Registrar this semester, thank them: their work makes this place possible as an official, degree-granting entity.

Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such services: I wish I had a photo of UVA Registar’s vast filing system from the 1980s; they provided the State of Virginia with my official transcript, proving my degree so I could take a tech-writing job for the Department of Corrections. My duties for DOC were proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records. We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to the task. We managed paper files, for over ten thousand incarcerated felons and an equal number out on parole; the files all moved about on an automated retrieval system. It included an advanced fire-suppression system that did not use water. Loss of records, none duplicated, would have been catastrophic. We’d have lost release dates, psychological profiles, and opinions by members of our Parole Board.

It was mind-numbing work, but we kept a supply of coffee handy and kept reminding ourselves that mistakes might delay a person’s release or hasten it. In a different DOC job a few months later,  I had the wrong inmate show up at my office for a pre-parole interview. He admitted that he got a free ride in a police car and got to eat a meal at a different jail. He was a non-violent offender and very affable, but no one believed his story. I gave him a cup of coffee. The next day, we got the right guy in for his chat.

Today, an incorrect entry in an electronic record and be annoying, even damaging, but with backups on and off-site, one hope we can avoid chaos.

Please send us words and metaphors 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.

Storage system photo courtesy of Police.com. Get one for your files at home! You know you need one!

Word of the Week! Arriviste

From All About EveLast week’s parvenu provides an excellent example of a loan-word from French. English has so many of these terms that they merit their own category at the blog.

Last week’s word was not quite as nasty as this also rare term, so I love it! To quote the OED, the arriviste “persistently strives to advance his or her position, social status, etc., esp. to an extent considered ruthless or unscrupulous; spec. one who has recently or rapidly advanced to a social group for which he or she is considered unfit or unworthy.”  We can use the term as noun or adjective.

Such unwelcome and unhealthy ambition! There’s no sugar-coating our Word of the Week this time. Parvenus could, I suppose, simply want to join the crowd. Arrivistes simply do not belong. They will use any means to get in.

I suppose we smile upon the parvenu who behaves well, but we should beware the arriviste. Think of the classic film All About Eve. Things do not end well.

Please send us words and metaphors 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.

Film image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Parvenu

Screaming Chicken Trans-Am
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Professor Joe Hoyle once again comes to our rescue in the dog days of August. He suggests “parvenu” and it’s a fine word I never use. Now, however, I plan to do so! Professor Hoyle writes:

The Thought for the Day in the Richmond paper was, “We are all snobs of the infinite, parvenus of the Eternal.”  James Gibbons Huneker.  The word that caught my attention was parvenus, the plural of parvenu which means, “a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity.”

Though the usage here may be kindly and figurative, usually to be called a “parvenu” is not flattering. The OED entry notes that term as more derogatory than descriptive. It’s a French loan-word dating only back as far as the 1700s.

To those we quaintly called the “Old Money” crowd, when I was an undergraduate at UVA, parvenus drove new Pontiac Trans-Ams or some other gaudy machine, purchased by newly wealthy parents. Two old-money classmates I roomed with in a Summer language institute drove beaters and never had what my mom called “folding money.”  One could sense their disdain for the flashy, even tacky, new wealth. I never heard them say nouveau riche, also a French borrowing, but I bet their parents did.

The noun and adjectival forms are the same, as is the sense of being a social climber, an upstart.  Parvenus are not typically ingenues, a term I associate with young innocent women in films and literature. Think of the main character, at least in the start of the novel, in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. By the end, Carrie is most certainly a parvenu. Parvenus often, however, are louche, another Gallic loan word that I adore.

Please send us words and metaphors 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 “Screaming Chicken” 1977 Pontiac from Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Infernal

Inferno Image

How appropriate for this season! Virginia’s infernal heat of July and August should remind us why.

In Latin, as the OED entry notes, infernālis meant “realms below.” The use of fire in the underworld is apparently a bit of Medieval Christian theology, but none of the underworlds of Antiquity were places you’d want to spend your vacation.

The association with the hellfire of Christianity can be traced back a long time; the OED’s earliest usage, from 1385, is by Chaucer.

So when I call the weather “infernally hot and humid” I’ve made an ancient reference indeed. Yet we can have “infernally cold” or dry or wet weather. Anything or anyone so bad to seem hellish can wear this metaphor (and some doubtlessly wear it proudly).

Looking forward to your words and metaphors as the weather becomes less infernal!Please send us words and metaphors 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.

Inferno image courtesy of Daniel Brachlow at Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Indemnify

Scene from film "Double Indemnity"Special thanks to Professor Jack A. Molenkamp, who teaches Business Law classes to students at UR. He finds that this term, and many other legal ones, new to his students. That is not too damning, really; for me I first thought of Billy Wilder’s excellent Double Indemnity, a signature work of film noir starring some of the finest talents in Hollywood: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. Yes, those greats in a thriller involving…insurance.

Hence, the public domain (I don’t need legal problems) photo from that film.

When I took a Communications Law course during my run-up to gradate work in Journalism, I found an entire lexicon of words that seemed familiar but had different meanings; other words were entirely foreign to me. Most youngsters do not think about insurance; hence, the lack of familiarity with “indemnity.”

Professor Molenkamp responded to my query for more information about how the word works in his field. He recommended Black’s Law Dictionary for a definitive answer, but added:

he LawDictionary.org defines “indemnify” as “[t]o save harmless; to secure against loss or damage; to give security for the reimbursement of a person in case of an anticipated loss falling upon him. Also to make good; to compensate; to make reimbursement to one of a loss already incurred by him.”

In my world, the word comes up largely in two contexts:  First, with respect to principal/agency relationships where the principal agrees to indemnify the agent for his or her activities.  Thus, a corporation will generally agree to indemnify corporate officers for their actions, as long as they are not in violation of the law.  Second, with respect to merger and acquisition transactions, where the seller agrees to indemnify the purchaser for a breach of the seller’s representations or covenants.

Variations of the word are used as other forms of speech:  thus, indemnity or indemnification, as nouns.  In addition, the one who gives an indemnity (or who agrees to indemnify) is the indemnitor; the recipient, the indemnitee.

The OED looks back as far as the 17th Century for earliest recorded uses, and they describe situations involving financial protection against possible future damages or injury: there we have the modern association with insurance. But the same definition includes more, “to secure against legal responsibility for past or future actions or events.” When you sign a waiver for that white-water rafting or at the gun range, the proprietors have used that document in this sense. Of course, they have insurance as well!

No usage in the OED dates later than the end of the 19th Century. I suppose that is a good thing: legal definitions should remain stable for a long time. One footnote: there’s an obsolete usage meaning “to hurt or harm.”

Please send us words and metaphors 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.

Word of the Week! Liminal

Threshold PhotographThis word troubled me in graduate school, during the darkest part of what I now call “The Theory Wars” in English. This was a time when ideas about how to teach literature changed rapidly, and many a student became a pawn sacrificed in a game with small global stakes. A graduate student’s worth could be measured by the obscure terms bandied about. Academic gadfly Stanley Fish, on a visit to a seminar at Indiana University, asked one notably obtuse peer of mine “son, could you please use a verb?”

Enter, not a verb but the adjective liminal. Thirty years ago to my unschooled ear, it sounded like a term for lighting. There is more to it; like palimpsest, a word featured here a while back, our current pick bubbles with energy when used well (which, sadly, appears to be a rare occurrence).  The term concerns thresholds, as the OED makes plain, and it is a youngblood of a word, first occurring in the late 19th Century. In scientific parlance, it may refer to the “lowest amount necessary to produce a particular effect.”

We might think of “limit” in the same sense, but the OED shows us that that the words do not share an etymology. When thinking about it, a limit ends something. A liminal amount or space serves as a transition.

In my field, that idea of transition takes center stage. Consider this usage by Daniel Mahala that I stumbled upon in my research, “Moreover, writing centers are themselves, as Bonnie Sunstein has amply illustrated, ‘liminal spaces’ where a kind of ‘in-betweenness’ holds sway” (9). Mahala means that centers, as support services and as academic units, have a foot in the worlds of scholarship and service. We naturally cross and, in fact, are thresholds.

Other uses in the Humanities often concern themselves with “indeterminacy, ambiguity, hybridity, potential for subversion and change” (Border Poetics). Thus we see how what was and probably still is called “high theory” adopted a word that might otherwise simply mean a boundary.

As we enter that liminal time between summer and the start of the semester, 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.

Threshold” courtesy of M Möller on Flickr.

Works Cited:

Border Poetics. “Liminality.” http://borderpoetics.wikidot.com/liminality

Mahala, Daniel. “Writing Centers in the Managed University.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43442269

Word of the Week! Casuistry

Peanuts Lucy with FootballThanks once again to Robyn Bradshaw in UR Catering for this pick. At first blush, I suspected a back-formation and a modern word, but The OED dates the word from the 18th Century for earliest recorded use by poet and wit Alexander Pope.

The root is indeed “cause” but it’s a certain kind. As our dictionary also notes, a casuist is “A theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct.”

Our word is not usually a positive one, as it is often associated with sophistry, or mere quibbling over causes in a way that obscures the truth. I suppose casuistry to be useful in our divided and money-haunted political system. Liars and thieves can then proceed with an untroubled conscience.  For some reason, the image of Lucy from Peanuts came to my mind. She’s an expert at the dark arts of casuistry and Charlie Brown? Her perfect patsy.

As for a rule of style here? First, casuistry is not a back-formation, in the way that “solicitate” oozes from “solicit.” Bryan Garner makes it plain, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, that back-formations merely add weight but no meaning to a sentence. Garner advises avoiding them as “needless variations.” On the other hand, he likes (as do I) some back-formations such as “emote,” from the noun “emotion.” Thus language gains nuance and variety. Second, watch your spelling. Note the position of the “s” in our word. I had it misspelled to match “cause” until I proofread this post!

As we Charlie Browns of the world soldier on into the dog days of 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 Caren Pilgrim at Flickr.

 

Word of the Week! Avuncular

Man from Uncle, 1960sDr. Joe Hoyle, a man I’d describe with this word, nominated it. It’s a strange world, however, where Howard Stern now gets that descriptor. Professor Hoyle wrote to me that he’d encountered that usage recently.

Stern has grown wiser from his “shock jock” days, and while retaining his keen sense of humor, he comes across in interviews as more the listener, the wise older man: the sort of fellow you’d not mind having as an uncle. And that’s our origin for “avuncular.” The OED gives its origin as the “Latin avunculus maternal uncle.” Other than an obsolete usage as a term for a pawn broker, our word has maintained its associations with uncles since the earliest recorded usage.

That’s modern, compared to many terms that appear here. It dates from the second quarter of the 19th Century.  There may be an older usage; find a wise uncle and ask him.  And if there is a comparable term for aunts, please let me know that as well. Professor Ted Bunn mentioned to me a 1982 column by the late William Safire, where the author polled erudite readers for a female equivalent of “avuncular.” “Amital” won the day, but as Safire’s colleague noted, it “sounds to me like a barbiturate.”

The results are funny, if you are well read and interested in such things.

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 MidCentArc at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! Shambles / Shambolic

Yorkshire Shambles 2009Joe Hoyle in our Business School and my old friend Dominic Carpin, owner of Dellicarpini Farm, nominated “shambolic” as a word of the week. Then I began to think of “The Shambles” in York, England, a series of meandering streets of half-timbered Medieval buildings.

Instead of a word, we have before us a metaphor.  The Shambles were places in England where butchers plyed their  trade.  A “Shamble” itself was, as early as the 9th Century, a wooden stool. Later, it meant a different piece of furniture: a table where butchers set out meat for sale.  From a still later and metaphorical use, I’ve seen “shambles” used in works about naval warfare during the age of sail; the insides of wooden vessels under cannon fire looked like butcher shops.

From these grisly examples we get the figurative “shambles,” meaning a messy, disorderly situation or place.  And thus the adjective “shambolic,” marked by the OED as colloquial and of recent coinage–the late 1950s!

This is not mere linguistic drift (see the entry on the word “fulsome“) or euphemism. It gets to the heart of why English is such a flexible language. From ancient senses of a word–who would advertise their butcher shop as a “shambles” today?–we get new words and nuance.

We’ll keep at it 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.

Photo, 2009, of York’s Shambles, by the author.

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.