Metaphor of the Month! Hobson’s Choice

Horses in stallsBy Leo Barnes

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to get a suggestion and post from Leo. I invite other student readers to send me words and metaphors. I appreciate Leo’s mention of Joseph Heller’s amazing novel, one that used to be read widely on college campuses and would merit reading again in these times.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Hobson’s Choice as an apparently free choice that in reality is more like an ultimatum. The word comes from a British 17th-century stable owner named Thomas Hobson from Cambridge. Hobson was a courier with a large stable of horses he would rent out to university students looking to go riding or visit nearby London.

He noticed that all the students only wanted to ride his best horses while the rest got no use at all. This was problematic. His most popular horses were being overworked while the rest were becoming deconditioned. Hobson fixed this by devising a system where he’d switch the horses everyday from stall to stall on a planned circuit. The horse nearest the stable entrance — and only that horse — was what Hobson would rent to students for that day. Students had the choice of that horse or no horse at all.

portrait of Thomas Hobson
by Unknown artist,painting,(1629)

What comes to mind when I think of Hobson’s Choice is Joseph Heller’s hilarious book Catch-22. In it, Milo Minderbinder offers his fellow servicemen a choice that’s not a choice at all:

“[Milo] raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative, there was an alternative, of course—since Milo detested coercion, and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve.”

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

Image credits: Ἰάσων at Flickr for horses, Wikipedia for image of Thomas Hobson.


Word of the Week! Trove

treasure trove of coinsI use this word a bit but have never covered it before. Or uncovered it: that may be closer to its meaning.

As someone who follows space-related news regularly, if not obsessively, I came across “trove” in this story about the comet Ryugu. The example from the piece shows common usage: “These samples are proving to be a veritable trove of information, not just about Ryugu but about broader solar system processes.”

I figured there would be a link to the French verb trouver meaning “to find,” since one thinks of treasure-hunters finding a trove of ancient gold or artifacts. The older use of our word got paired always with “treasure,” predating the solitary use of “trove” by several centuries.

The OED entry on this week’s word does not trace the link to trouver, but a page at the Linguistics stack-exchange does, going back even further, “The French verb. . . can trace its ancestry back to the Greek word τρόπος, which means a turn, manner, style, or figure of speech.” So we turn things up in a trove.

Comet RyuguOur little comet doesn’t look like it would turn up much, does it? We are not looking at solid gold. Ryugu’s real trove, however, is knowledge: we may have found a means by which early life emerged on our planet, through cometary bombardment with materials essential to, well, creating us and all life around us. Sobering thoughts for late winter, as plant-life begins to re-emerge from its nap?

Update: I made a few changes today, armed with coffee, to differentiate “trove” from “treasure trove.”

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 credits: Treasure trove from Bad Sassendorf-Herringsen and comet Ryugu courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Inclement

Stormy skies, Kenmare, Ireland 2011

This time of year, we run the risk of inclement weather; conditions get so bad that we might have to delay opening the campus or even close things down for that business day.

So when the weather is dandy, why do we not speak of “clement” weather?

Our word has old roots, the Latin inclementem. A quick translation reveals “cruel,” something I don’t ascribe to a funnel-cloud. It’s simply indifferent to us and our desires, falling on rich and poor, young and old alike. Then again, we love to personify weather: bitter cold, into the teeth of the gale, the pitiless sun or, more happily, gentle breezes and rain.

Studying the OED entry, we find consistent usage from the 1600s. An 1621 example got used, ironically, for a human being, in “Pope Clement the fift, [fifth] was inclement and cruell.”

Our word of the week enjoys a frequency band of 4, meaning it occurs between .1 and 1 times per million words in modern English. Usage peaked at 1.2 per million words after 1810, beginning to taper after 1840. A minor uptick occurred after 2010.

Back to “clement” for a moment, meaning “mild or human in the exercise of power an authority; merciful, lenient, kindly” and associated with those in power. The OED cites an earlier first use than for its antonym, late in the 15th Century. Though it too has a frequency band of 4, the use of “clement” never rose above .6 per million, and today it hovers at just under .2.  Weather also can be clement, but it’s rarely used to describe mild or gentle conditions. We do often speak of “clemency” when a prisoner is released or a sentence reduced.

I leave it up to the reader to consider if our increasingly inclement weather from climate change drives inclement leadership. I’d like to see both trends reverse.

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: photo by me, Kenmare, Ireland, 2011: a break in inclement weather!


Word of the Week! Impetuous

Waves crashing on Pacific CoastlineThis week’s word bears close relation to last week’s metaphor, fast and loose. With its Latinate sound, impetuous remains formal enough for academic prose yet captures, in a few syllabus, a sense of rushing headlong and without due consideration. We have all known impetuous people. Maybe we are that, ourselves!

For both objects and people, our word has meant the same thing for about the same number of years, to act with “rash energy,” as the OED notes. Ocean waves, wind, people who plunge ahead recklessly, even imprudent stock investors can be said to act impetuously.  The word implies, in people at least, a variety of passion. Now dear Valentines, hear this: don’t fall in love in an impetuous manner. You will come to regret it! And that’s our link to this week’s holiday.

The word itself comes from the French impétueux. As with so many very useful terms, ours is loan word.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Image credit: Diana Robinson at Flickr, “Waves Crashing Near Pacific Grove, California.”

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.

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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!).

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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?

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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.

Word of the Week! Euphoric

Sad Dog in Party HatLet’s end a dark year on a happy note. Do you feel euphoric that 2023 has ended? I sure do.

It’s a greeting-card’s whistling in the dark to say “the best is yet to come,” “hope springs eternal,” or “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” but hey. We are mostly still here and surprises, good and bad, await us in 2024. So we might spare a moment or three to be euphoric on New Year’s Eve.

What about the word itself? It’s from the Greek euphoria, εὐϕορία, which the OED tells me means to “bear well.” That’s a ways from the ecstasy I associate with feeling euphoric. Digging in a bit, the dictionary shows that the original and now obsolete meaning, from pathology, meant a state of well-being. Only later did our word come to mean “a state of cheerfulness or well-being, esp. one based on over-confidence or over-optimism.”

So which mood do you wish for ending 2023? Pick your sentiments, and whichever one you choose, be it whistling in the dark or finding some peace, may your 2024 bring only good tidings.

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Word of the Week! Cavil

Girl typing at desktop computer. Caption "Anyone can fake outrage on social media"Professor J.P. Jones in our Law School nominated this word, in particular as a verb. Professor Jones notes that the verb appeared in a recent Economist article. Not a verb I use, it got me interested if for no other reason than to acquire a new action verb. I’m coming off a semester full of dull and boring “is/are/was/were” verbs of being by under-read students.

The OED gives us a succinct definition that any attorney might cherish, “to object, dispute, or find fault unfairly or without good reason.” The noun form means the same thing, a frivolous objection. Our word’s origin?  Latin cavilla, where it meant a gibe or jeer.

No, we don’t ever encounter those today, now do we? Why has “cavil” fallen out of use, then? Here I have no good answer, only some hard and rather dispiriting facts.

The word has suffered a nigh-exponential decline in frequency of usage since the year 1750, falling from over 2.5 occurrences per million words to just over .006 per million. Curiously, cavil rebounded since 2017 and has enjoyed a minuscule revival to just over .009 per million. Still scarce, it appears to have made a comeback in educated circles.

I shall cling to it in an era of palpable stupid prose in once-respectable publications. Goodness, I’m Scrooge-like suddenly. Enough caviling.

The blog will continue in 2024 and I may sneak in one more holiday-themed post before lighting the Yule Log.

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: random Googling for “Fake Outrage.”