Word of the Week! Recalcitrant

Stubborn man in suit, arms crossed

Hat tip to Robyn Bradshaw for nominating this fancy way of saying “obstinately disobedient; uncooperative, refractory; objecting to constraint or restriction.” That’s the OED’s first definition for a word that comes to us from smack-dab in the Age of Reason, with a first recorded use of 1797.

In terms of our current campus debate, a refusal to listen to petitions, votes, and common 21st Century sense marks that recalcitrance of one side or both, depending upon your perspective.

I side with our Black students, so my bias should be clear as to who is not listening to reason. Yet the word proves a useful alternative to ones such as “stubborn,” “close-minded,” “pompous,” “megalomaniacal,” “arrogant,” “disdainful,” “disrespectful,” even “self-righteous.”

There are other rude synonyms I will skip, as I’m fond of the Age of Reason and fonder still of being politic about these matters. What I say aloud and in private are of little concern here.

As always, 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.

Recalcitrant dude in suit courtesy of Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Idiolect

Whisper

Several of my old college friends use phrases that appear ridiculous to outsiders. We call each other “dummy” or greet each other with the exclamation “Dit!” In reference to Beatnik culture, we say “that’s beat” for run-down or beaten up, or “peeled” if someone or something is really “beat.”  We’ve been known to call each other “peely-poo” when life gets rough.

We are using an idiolect, and I’m certain many of your families and friends employ one. The OED defines it, a fairly recent word, as the “linguistic system of one person, differing in some details from that of all other speakers of the same dialect or language.”

That original definition does not fit the dialect or private language of a very small group of speakers, though the OED does include Ebonics as an example of “the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social dialects of black people,” making our word something used by a particular community. Note the spelling difference in the example, one the OED calls a 20th-Century convention. We are well into the next century, so heed that change.

I’m guessing that the trade pidgin of the Solomons Islands would quality as an idiolect, as would the slang of many subcultures, as well as cryptolects such as thieves’ cant that thrived in England until rather recently.

Some of these words escape into wider use, as with “rube” for an easily fooled person and a “mark” as someone to be targeted for a crime.

I hope this post helps you to consider the private or hidden language around you, words that you might otherwise take for granted.

As always, 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.

Creative-Commons Image “Whisper” by Jamine Gray at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Perseverance

Mars landingThe day this post runs, NASA will have tried something novel for the human race: landing a vehicle on Mars specifically in a site that once held liquid water. The landing technique itself fascinates me: a hovering lander that will use a “skycrane” lowering rover to sample the soils of that ancient lake bed on The Red Planet.

The Rover? As with NASA’s earlier rovers, it has a poetic name: Soujourner, Curiosity, Opportunity.

This one? Perseverance. It takes that quality to send a machine that far on such a hazardous journey. And the word itself?

We have a French loan word, and since that time, the word has remained popular.

The OED’s first definition reveals a meaning that itself has persevered, a “constant persistence in a course of action or purpose; steadfast pursuit of an aim.” I enjoy finding words like this that do not vary over the centuries. Time erases so many things, but some persist.

Student writers might use “persist” as a synonym, yet that word to me, like “endure,” lacks the active nature of “persevering.” A robot like our Mars rover can be active; the evidence of hypothetical Martian life would merely persist.

So consider how, faced with challenges, “carry on” might work for a person or a machine, though it sounds less formal. Perhaps readers can offer other synonyms.

In any case, here’s to NASA’s bold mission, one we’ve discussed in my first-year seminar, The Space Race. Happy landings and good luck hunting ancient microbes. If Mars once harbored life, even microscopic life, Humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos would change forever.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA.

Word of the Week! Impeach

Andrew Johnson's ImpeachmentForget the Senate trial for a moment. This is not the space to discuss that, anyway. What about the word itself?

It came first to my attention in 1974, when Richard Nixon got impeached in the House of Representatives but resigned before the trial in the Senate.  I kept thinking of the fruit from a peach tree, and that bears no relation to our word. As a verb, “impeach” has a history reaching back to Middle English and Old French, as in this 14th Century usage cited by The OED: “He schal dwelle þere alle his lif, and no man enpeche hym” or “he shall dwell here all his life, and no man impeach him.” A noun form appears in written records about 200 years later.

Originally, the verb could mean “to hinder” or other synonyms. That would be the case for The OED example just now. Verbs signifying “the action of impeachment” gradually narrowed to two meanings still current. One we are using this week means to bring formal charges for an “act of treason or other high crime or misdemeanor” or “to find fault.” A second usage still crops up when we say someone’s conduct or action remains “unimpeachable” or beyond suspicion.

We have other “im-” prefix words in English: “imbibe” and “imply” spring to mind. A quick peek at the OED entries revealed that they share the Medieval roots of our Word of the Week as well as a transition from  -en and -em prefixes to the modern spelling.

Such elder usages and meanings vanish from human memory over time. Other memories do not fade so easily.  I recall well exactly where I was when President Nixon announced his resignation on national television.  A short period of healing followed, too short a time.

To provide a sense of the history of the process for political leaders, the reader may wish to consult a comprehensive history of impeachments, globally, at Wikipedia. Our image comes from their page about President Andrew Johnson’s Senate trial.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Sedition

Jefferson Davis at Fort MonroeOkay now, this post my have something to do with politics, but I’m not about to accuse anyone of sedition or try to wrangle a working legal definition. I will report what The OED and US law say. You then can peruse and decide.

We are going to hear “sedition” a great deal in coming months, also “seditionist,” a word last employed regularly in the late 1860s. “Treason” may also crop up.

As always, the OED provides a first stop. The second definition there, listed as “now rare” may well give us pause, as it will likely be employed in investigating and prosecuting those involved in or encouraging the recent riot at the US Capitol: “A concerted movement to overthrow an established government; a revolt, rebellion, mutiny.” Add to that the second definition, “Conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state” and I think we are nearly done with what the term means.

As to its origin, look back to French, other Romance languages, and Latin. The word has a long-term life and, sadly, history of examples for good and ill (against tyrannies and governments we might admire).

Soon in popular discussion the word “treason” will also be bandied about.  I had assumed that it differed from sedition in that it involved supporing a foreign enemy.

What’s the difference, in terms of definition? the sense from this official document in the House archives is that treason applies to someone who “owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

“Seditious conspiracy” has a different explanation and set of penalties for two or more people who “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”

There we have it. A great deal of legal action is soon to hinge upon these definitions, as well as which words and actions encouraged violent action or knowingly delayed the “execution of law” in Washington and elsewhere. Learn more about a recent (and half-forgotten) sedition trial of white supremacists here.

These are indeed momentous times, and if you have words or metaphors worth exploring, send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Alfred R. Wauld’s sketch of Confederate President Jefferson Davis imprisoned at Fort Monroe. Davis was charged with treason, not seditious conspriacy. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Word of the Week: Infamy

Pearl Harbor Attack

This post will likely run a day after the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rightly claimed it “a date which will live in infamy.”  Yet when was the last time you heard this word used in any context?

I hope we remember to pause on that day of infamy, reading FDR’s speech annually, but I also hope we add this word to our working vocabularies.  FDR’s first draft read “a date which will live in world history,” but as a source at the National Archives explains, he inserted “infamy” when revising the typescript of what he’d dictated. How he produced something that profound, under so much pressure, should inspire us to do better amid the crisis we face in these comparatively easier times.

The meaning is plain: we understand “fame” being positive, so “infamy” and “infamous” are negative. The term’s origin is Latin and French, as the OED puts it. I suspect an origin far older than the 15th Century, though like many words discussed here, it’s less a matter of first use than of Gutenberg’s invention providing us with the means to check surviving texts.

One legal definition is new to me, of a “loss of all or certain of the rights of a citizen, consequent on conviction of certain crimes.” That seems reasonable enough for some infamous folk, once convicted by a jury of their (presumaby, not infamous) peers.

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image from Wikipedia: first moments of the first wave of Japanese carrier planes over Ford Island, Pearl Harbor

Word of the Week! Hermit

Simon of the DesertThere’s a caricature of a hermit that used to appear in old cartoons: a beard grown so long it becomes the man’s clothing. He was crazy and lived alone in the wilds. Luis Buñuel, one of my favorite directors, captures the life of a religious hermit in his film Simon of the Desert, using his typically surrealist technique to show how, well, bizarre the life of an early Christian hermit could be.  Of course, the devil appears by in the form of a beautiful woman to taunt and tempt him, until they end up back in civilization, 1965 no less, at a club with a surf-rock band jamming as hipsters dance.

I love that so much, but I digress. Behind me, Satan! Back to words.

We don’t hear the word “hermit” much these days, as “shut-in” and “recluse” seem more apt for those in urban settings. To some degree, however, we are all hermits during this pandemic, which could, as an Atlantic Monthly piece explains, spark interest in a short film about Christopher Knight, the hermit of North Pond, Maine. He fared better than Simon, though he too re-entered our world when arrested after a string of burglaries for food and propane. He managed for 27 years that way in the Maine woods.

Though Knight may be our last known hermit, the term itself has a great deal of endurance. Originally, as the OED entry explains, the word stretches back to the Dark Ages, with Medieval Latin and an earlier Greek term as sources. The “H” appeared later, with earlier instances as “ermite” and similar. By the time of Piers Ploughman, the “H” appeared; not long after, the “e” at the end vanished. Variant spellings came down almost to modern times; Shakespeare has the word as “Hermight,” “Hermit,” and “Ermite” in different plays! In fact, looking over the OED entries demonstrates how powerfully English has evolved. Or how little we cared for spelling then. You choose.

Yet hermits remain the same. They continue to appeal to some of us, repel others. Solitude can be good medicine, but too much of it? That’s one reason why Knight’s story continues to interest readers, viewers, and his former, involuntary neighbors.

We welcome dispatches from your hermitages. Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image courtesy of The Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Word of the Week! Metonymy

Royal Crown of FranceThanks to Sharon Condrey, Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll at UR, for nominating this one. I’d previously covered the term synecdoche, and our term this week seems similar, at least at first blush. My earlier pick could indicate something smaller representing something bigger, such as “boots on the ground” for an Army. That’s also the sense of our word this week.

Yet synecdoche can also mean something bigger representing something smaller, as in the rotten error too many students make: “Society will not accept that change,” when they really mean “A majority of voters at this point in our history, and living in one particular state, will not accept that change.” In my classes, such papers lose 10 of 100 points for each such error, and the writers have one week to remove the error for a regrade.

Not so with metonymy, a usage that rarely leads to sweeping generalization. As the OED notes, metonymy involves “substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it.”  Thus “the gridiron” can be used to talk about the game of American football, or “the press” for print-based media outlets who now have Web pages, video streams, and more. Likewise, at the time of writing, we are still awaiting results from “the ballot box,” when voting these days appears in a variety of forms, many electronic.

I suppose that student writers might run into trouble with metonymy if overused. It could lead to lots of repetition if a writer talking about a conflict between a monarchy and parliament used “the crown” 12 times in a paper. “Synonyms are wonderful things, students,” I’ve been known to quip, “but using them well requires slowing down and giving a damn.”

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Shibboleth

ShibbolethUsually, I think of Latinate words as a means to elevate the register of my writing. Those terms simply sound more formal. They are not, however, our only option. It’s hard, for a moment, to think of words from Hebrew that have entered formal writing, yet every day that I log onto one of our university servers I see it.

So what is a shibboleth? It’s more than the name of a campus computer a communications protocol. The OED helps a great deal here, as the word changed meanings over the centuries. The term, itself hard enough to pronounce, originally meant a term that foreigners would have a tough time pronouncing. That could “out” a spy or at least show who was who in ancient times. Then the meaning morphed, to eventually become a custom or habit that acted as a shibboleth. Another branching meaning came to mean a taboo, in the sense of a “moral formula” one must follow to become part of a sect. Consider Islam’s and Judaism’s bans on eating pork.

This sense of the term extends beyond matters of religious faith. Consider, for either of our political parties, that certain positions and slogans are sacrosanct (a nice word for another week!). Defy them and you are shown the door.

Update 10/29/20, thanks to Lee Parker, UR Information Services: “Within the IT realm, Shibboleth is the name of a specific single-sign-on ‘custom or habit.’ Shibboleth allows you to maintain fewer usernames/passwords. . . . This is analogous to using your driver’s license to buy beer: the state validates your age so each store doesn’t have to do so independently.”

What are your shibboleths? Which have you abandoned?

And why name a computer Shibboleth?

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Karl Marx God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because it’s the best movie version of the Almighty, ever. And I break several shibboleths by posting it.

Word of the Week! Portent

PortentI suspect we will encounter this word frequently as the election approaches, both about the outcome and other events, for good or ill, on and after election day.

The word has the ring that Latin-derived terms bring to serious situations. And the portents look as serious as our nation’s current troubled state. But what is a portent, itself?

The OED’s first definition bears repeating in full: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen.”

Not all portents portend terrible events. There can be portents of rainy weather ahead, if one knows how to watch the clouds and winds.

Pope, Faulkner, Milton, and other writers in whose shadows we live all used the term well. Have a peek at the OED’s definitions. It’s one of their better entries.  Synonyms are tough to find that have the same power: Melville tried it with the chapter called “Loomings” in Moby Dick: it does capture the sense of a ship suddenly appearing out of a fogbank.

Augury” is another possibility, from telling the future by watching the behavior of birds.  The OED notes that other natural signs can be employed.  My other possible synonym, Omen, works well but it reminds me of a particularly terrifying 1970s horror film.

What is coming at us, out of the fog we traverse? Watch the portents. One or two will be accurate.

For what it’s worth, as I’m tracking how Grammarly rates my own writing, my tone is “sad.” Now that’s a bad portent for November 3.  But it’s also informative and mostly formal. That’s the best I can give you today.

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image from Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for Moby Dick.