Word of the Week! Susurrus

This week, UR and VCU hosted writer Fran Wilde for a  workshop on voice. Fran is giving a reading at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to celebrate the release of  the anthology His Hideous Heart, where modern authors reinterpret tales by Poe.

During our workshop on campus, I asked her the first word of Poe’s that came to mind, a word she associates with this unique voice.

“Susurrus” is a fine choice! The OED entry calls it a “whispering,” a “rustling.” Think about how the sense of the word fits its sound. That’s called onomatopoeia, a word I had to memorize in high school, and spell correctly lest the yardstick in Father Raymond’s hands came down on me:

From a remote distance, half-sensed in that gloomy place called a school yet more like a Romanesque prison-house beneath a mossy tile roof, I can to this day, in a moment of dread that darkens the sun, almost hear a susurrus of priestly robes, as the phantasmal figure glided toward me, a rod of malice raised high over the rage-knotted face

I think you get the idea of why Poe enjoyed the word.

If you can imagine the half-heard noises in The House of Usher, you have our onomatopoeic word of the week, as autumnal a term as any that Poe uttered. Though of Latin derivation, the term only dates to 1826. Why it came into being, save as an artistic coinage, remains a mystery.

Reading Poe to PoeBut that’s just so for this season of the year and for Poe’s work. He did give us the detective story, after all. Let’s get busy solving this one, if we can. I look forward to a susurrus of whispered half-answers.

Special thanks to Fran Wilde for an excellent workshop and a fine Word of the Week! She also provided advice about pronunciation. Accent that second syllabus, sus-SUR-us. I’ve been saying “SU-surrus” for decades, incorrectly. It’s a fine term never encountered in everyday or even academic speech, yet in writing, it conveys enormous power.

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 Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.

 

 

Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

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.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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, at first I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Then I recalled  that at the last election I saw a reference to our Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.

Thank a Registrar for your vote getting counted, 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.

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

Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such largely invisible services: I wish I had a photo of the UVA Registrar’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 involved proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records for an early database, OBCIS (The Offender Based Correctional Information System), now mostly a footnote in the history of corrections; the data have been merged with other databases, into what I hope remains an accurate set of records.

We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to storing paper; we needed only a small conference room to do the OBCIS coding. 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. The core of this was a giant conveyor belt for floor-to-ceiling file cabinets. If a Parole Board member or the Governor wanted a file, it needed to be available at the counter in no more than a couple of minutes. Peons like me? We waited longer. The facility included advanced fire-suppression technology 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 could be 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 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 hopes that we can avoid chaos.

Addendum for August 28: thanks to reader Marybeth Bridges for this medical reference from the UK, replete with British spellings:

A junior doctor undergoing specialty training under the UK model of graduate medical education. Under the Modernising Medical Careers programme, juniors complete two years of general medical training—the so-called Foundation Years (FY1, FY2)—after which they compete for National Training Numbers (NTNs) and begin specialty training (as specialty registrars), often beginning in the 3rd year after graduating from medical school.

Registrar posts are often described by the year of specialist training expected of the appointee—e.g., year anaesthetic registrar SpR3 is a reasonably experienced anaesthetic trainee.

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
Unknown

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.

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.