Word of the Week! Sagacity

Jefferson & JacksonI’ve loved this word since early in college at UVA, where it was often used for that guy we always mentioned as though he were in the next room: Thomas Jefferson. Though his life and legacy have been fairly scrutinized by good scholarship since those days, both for his treatment of enslaved people and some of his impractical ideas about self-governance, no one I have met or whose work I have read doubts that Jefferson had as deeply a philosophical turn of mind as the French philosophes of The Enlightenment.

But was he “sagacious”? Is sagacity the same as brilliance?

The OED’s first definition, from a French word, floored and enlightened me. Though it’s obsolete, sagacity once related to having an “acute sense of smell.” That idea persisted through the 17th Century, when a more modern sense of “shrewdness” or “sound judgement” came into usage. Sagacity, then, has more to do with practical sensibilities than “book learning.” Meanwhile, shrewdness itself, from a Middle English word, has never had a completely positive sense, morally.

After reading Alan Pell Crawford’s excellent Twilight at Monticello, I’d argue that Jefferson’s sagacity was limited. At the time of the Declaration, he smelled the times correctly. Later, he proved less sagacious in missing the religious changes as Anglican Virginians veered toward more conservative sects. Jefferson remained rather naive about the ways that enslaved peoples might be freed over time, and he underestimated the divisions that emerged in America by the 1820s.

One might, looking at the evidence, say that while Andrew Jackson was far less educated than Jefferson, “Old Hickory,” with his many faults, was far more sagacious politically. And that in no way is praise for him or Jefferson. Let the scholarship speak for itself. I will be sagacious enough not to wade any deeper into those waters.

If you have an interest in Crawford’s book, I’d start with this audio interview by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

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 mashup, from Creative Commons sources, by the author.

Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

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 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Splenetic

Image of man with Melancholic PersonalityProfessor Joe Hoyle in our School of Business spotted this word in a column by George F. Will, critiquing President Trump and his “incessantly splenetic presidency.” Whatever one’s politics, one really must admit that Will has a way with words. Thus he picks what author Joe Glaser, in his book Understanding Style, calls a neutral word: it is not derogatory or connotative. It simply states, in its original sense, that the man is more ruled by his spleen than any other organ.

The OED, a bit far down in its list of definitions, defines our word as “given or liable to fits of angry impatience or irritability.” Since the 16th Century the term has also meant, and still can mean, one with disorders of the spleen, though the definition is now obsolete. As a term relating, generally, to the spleen, it remains in current use.

So how does a spleen make one short-tempered? The idea goes far back into medical history, with the now quaint idea of four humours that govern the body. If one’s spleen produces too much “black bile” then the person would have a Melancholic personality; that is also an early synonym for “splenetic.”

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.

Creative Commons image from the Wellcome Collection courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Formication

ants crawlingBe sure to not let Autocorrect “fix” this word. Yes, it sounds like “Formica” too, and that trade name of a laminate countertop has a seeming relation to our Word of the Week.

According to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers who nominated the word, it “is the medical term for the sensation like bugs crawling over the skin. This lead me to the Latin term ‘formica’ meaning ants, which I kind of already knew because of the Formics in Ender’s Game.”  Those aliens are really rather terrifying, but I’m still stuck on how a company could think that anything associated with bugs crawling could sell a consumer product, except pesticide.

The OED specifies ants as the creepy-crawlie in its definition. The word is of recent origin, dating to the 18th Century (yes, that is recent for etymology or, for that matter, entomology).

But what about the building material? According to the official Formica account, the name came when the two inventors “needed a substitute ‘for’ mica, so they swapped in the plastic resins, which led to the company name – you guessed it – Formica.” The company site is worth your time, to see those fantastic countertops from the 1950s that still appear in retro diners across the nation. With talent like Raymond Loewy working with the firm, one sees how the trade name became synonymous for any laminate counter.

But ants on the counter? Reach for a damp paper towel and clean up.

Update 1/28/18: Dr. Kristine Nolin, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UR, reminded me that “Ants produce formic acid, which is delivered when the ant bites.” You can learn more from this site. Thanks to Dr. Nolin and the surprisingly large number of readers who saw this post! Send us new words and metaphors!

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.

Creative-Commons image, “Ants Crawling,” courtesy of Ky at Flickr.

Common Misconceptions of the Writing Center

By Griffin Myers, Writing Consultant

This week I asked Griffin, who is overseeing a proofreading project for our Writers’ Web online handbook, to discuss what she’s seen among peers.

Only bad writers use the Writing Center:

Students of all experience levels can benefit from visiting the Writing Center. Sometimes even just a second set of eyes can pick up errors that the author’s mind may not notice. Writing consultants also have training and experience with a wide variety of paper types, so can help out with unfamiliar formats or with particular professor pet peeves. Even consultants go into the center, because we understand how helpful an educated peer editor can be!

English isn’t my first language and the consultants might judge me:

Actually, English-language learners make up a significant portion of the students who come through our center.  Writing consultants are trained in how to break down errors in to patterns and can therefore address foundational confusions instead of simply fixing problems on a case to case basis. This can be helpful for any writer but especially for those still grasping the syntax and contradicting rules of the English language. We can also help you get in touch with teachers with ESL specific training, as well as those writing Consultants who have more experience with teaching English to speakers of other languages.

The Consultants will proofread my paper:

The Writing Center does not do grammar checks. Rather, we will look at your paper holistically to suggest areas of improvement from everything from format to content to yes, grammar. Our goal is to help writers recognize and correct potential weaknesses in their own writing, rather than to simply have a Consultant check off spelling and send the writer on their way.     This isn’t to say that we will not help writers with grammar: Consultants will just work with the writer to develop a better understanding of grammar, instead of just fixing case by case mistakes.

I have to have a completed draft:

Writing Consultants can help with every step of the writing process, from developing and organizing an outline, to analyzing an old graded paper to shore up weak spots together. One caveat is that the more prepared the writer is when they come into the appointment, the more the Consultant can help the student.

The Consultants are only for FYS classes:

We have in class Consultants in classes at all levels! Additionally, our Writing Center is open to everyone, regardless of current class.

The Consultants are only for English classes:

Our Consultants have a wide knowledge base that can be applied to almost any subject to improve writing quality. Additionally, if you have a specific subject that you would like help on, check out our list of Consultant majors online: one of us is likely taking the same major!

I can only go to the Writing Center for class assignments:

While sometimes a specific teacher will send you to the Writing Center with an assignment, we exist to help you, the student! This means from theses to job applications, we are happy to lend a helping hand for all of your writing needs.

The Writing Center is only for undergrads:

Any Richmond student, including SPCS students, are welcome at the Writing Center. Can’t come by at all? Try reaching out to one of our Consultants and see if they can meet on campus at a later hour, or if they’re willing to provide assistance via email.

Word of the Week! Gadfly

Martin Luther King Jr.Reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had a transformative effect on my sense of justice and, frankly, rhetoric. It remains a masterpiece of persuasive writing; several words and metaphors that Dr. King employ struck me, as a college student, with their power.  Re-reading it today, one word, really a metaphor that has long been a favorite of mine, stands out.

The word “gadfly” in one sentence speaks entire paragraphs, both for its seeming innocence but also for its referencing Socrates’ Apology, where the doomed Greek philosopher discussed the need for someone like him to stir a lazy nation, just as a gadfly stirs a lazy horse. King writes “we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King calls here for nonviolence, as did Socrates before him, but nonviolence with an edge to it. The word itself, with “gad” of Scandinavian origin, is a cousin to our “goad,” for spurring action. When used for a person who provokes action, the term dates to the 17th Century.

I rather like gadflies. I don’t think that Dr. King would mind my calling him one. We could currently use more of them, and it’s a credit to Dr. King that he advocated goads, not bullets.

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.

Public Domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Lollygag

Lazy Bones SignWhat a word for the start of the semester. This is the time to work, not lollygag.

Thanks to Luci Ortiz of Boatwright Library for this word. I was often accused of lollygagging by my mother, whenever I was to cut the grass or take out the trash, yet somehow found a way to delay the chore as long as possible. To teenaged me, there was no doubt what our strange-sounding term meant.

An OED search reveals the word to be American slang, originating in the 19th Century. The usage frequency given is only 3 of 8: a real pity for such a colorful word. The earliest usage, from 1862 in Harpers, gives it as “lallygag,” and after that the word settled down to its present spelling, though the original spelling with the letter A continues into the 20th Century. I fear it won’t live past the 21st.

No one knows its origin.

Best usage, from 1868: “The lascivious lolly-gagging lumps of licentiousness who disgrace the common decencies of life by their love-sick fawnings at our public dances.”

So, slackers, stop dawdling, dilly-dallying, loafing, kicking the can down the road, and above all, do not lollygag. We have work to do.

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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski at Flickr.

Word of the Week: Okay / O.K.

This entry is not academic, but it is great fun. Since I skipped two weeks for the holidays, I’ll dive in with no Metaphor of the Month but go right to a word request from Professor Bill Ross in Mathematics.

There’s no need to provide a definition, but the history of this workaday word fascinates.

I’d long assumed that “Old Kinderhook,” a nickname for US President Martin Van Buren, gave us the term. That is correct, according to the OED Online, but there is a second etymology that helps us to understand the staying power of O.K., long after President Van Buren vanished from living memory. For “okay” and “O.K.” the OED has this note:

From the detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read it seems clear that O.K. first appeared in 1839 (an instance of a contemporary vogue for humorous abbreviations of this type), and that in 1840 it became greatly reinforced by association with the initialism O.K.

I taught a couple of seminars about Southern literary humor before the Civil War, and making fun of speakers of German and Dutch was a favorite subject, well beyond the Southern States. That sort of linguistic humor, considered ethnocentric and insulting today, endured until recently. If you don’t remember the Katzenjammer Kids, have a look online. As the OED points out, “okay” comes from the satirical “oll korrect,” presumably spoken by an immigrant to the US, in some disastrous situation.

As befits its immigrant origins, the term has crossed the ocean again. I’ve heard Spanish speakers use it in Spain.  The Iberian term vale means about the same, but both worked for me in Madrid.

Have you heard “Okay” around the world? Where? How? Share your experiences in the comments.

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 button courtesy of Wikipedia.

Working With Your Writing Consultant or Faculty Member: Best Practices

Every semester I survey the Writing Consultants. Without naming names, they note how faculty employed their helpers well or might have made better use of them. By the same token, faculty surveys reveal a few issues that Consultants should address.

This post lays out advice that has worked since 1992, when the program of assigning Consultants (then called Writing Fellows) began.

For Consultants

  • Contact your faculty member early, and let me know if you do not hear back from her within a week or ten days.
  • Meet the faculty member personally to discuss deadlines, expectations, and any professorial “pet peeves” or disciplinary secrets you can use when meeting writers. Warn faculty members of your own busy weeks.
  • Visit class if you can, to meet the writers so they can pair a name with a face. It’s good to do so early in the term, and also on days when assignments get discussed. You are paid for all contact hours, workshops, and class visits.
  • Conferences should not be scheduled in 15 minute blocks. I expect them to run at least 30 minutes on the schedule. If a writer is eager to leave early, of course, wrap things up. Overly short meetings, however, serve no one well.
  • After a set of conferences, e-mail or meet your faculty member to discuss how things went. Do not use the online summary form we use at the Center and in 383; that is for Writing-Center shift work only or if you see a friend or person outside your usual assignment to a class (we like to have some record of who we saw for hourly work, for our annual assessment).
  • Let me know if, by midterm, your services have not been employed. We will find you some other duties.
  • If a faculty member dumps a lot of work on you at a terrible time, let me know as well. We’ll find you a helper.
  • When you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

For Faculty

  • Mandatory conferences, one before midterm and one after, provide Consultants the chance to help writers as they develop. In my sections, failures to submit drafts or meet the Consultant are penalized the equivalent of a letter grade.
  • If you make conferences optional, only 25% of writers will show up, on average. As one Consultant reminded me recently, those who show up are “typically the students who need the least help.”
  • Let the Consultant arrange the conference scheduling. Many of them use a Google-based sign-up sheet and lock it down after a while so writers cannot change times at the last moment.
  • Changing deadlines can cause problems when a Consultant has a busy semester. As Dr. Sydney Watts once reminded me “their first job is to be students, not Writing Consultants.” Well said.
  • Conversely, keep the Consultant well employed. This is a paid job; if you prefer to have Consultants only see one paper, let me know so they can find other work to supplement their income that semester.
  • Consultants need a week or ten days between getting drafts and your getting them back, for a typical FYS section of 16 writers.
  • As noted for the Consultants, when you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

We look forward to working with all of you in the coming semester!

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.