Word of the Week! Saunter

Replica of Thoreau's cabin at Walden PondThe Atlantic, still one of my favorite publications after more than 40 years as a subscriber, runs archived pieces from its illustrious past; no less a writer than Henry David Thoreau contributed to the magazine in its first decades. Recently Thoreau’s “Walking” ran and this passage by the sage of Walden Pond struck my fancy:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, — a Holy-Lander.

There the Republic was in 1862, fighting for its life in a bitter Civil War, and Thoreau found solace in walking and in words. The OED lists the etymology of our word as “obscure,” noting only a 15th Century first recorded use. I’m going with Thoreau’s folk etymology, given no other compelling counterargument.

I’ve never encountered one connotation of sauntering before, given by the dictionary, to “wander or travel about aimlessly or unprofitably; to travel as a vagrant.” The next definition, given as “obsolete” is to stroll in a leisurely way.

Well then, I’m obsolete, like Thoreau who also rambled on his walks. The devil take the power-walkers, the step-counters, the harried moms I see on my way to work. They frantically push a baby, walk a dog, and talk on the phone at the same time.

Thoreau adds about sauntering that “we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” Indeed. The writer worried about the fencing off of once-wild lands until the walker would only be able to stay on paths and roads. He hoped that day would be far off, and he got his wish. He died about the time The Atlantic ran his piece before our modern era of sign-posts and security systems, secure (as am I) that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

So I encourage you to leave the smart watch counting your steps at home and just take a walk in a National or State Park. Yes, you’ll want a phone if you get lost or injured, but try sauntering. Take a topo map you’ve learned to read, a magnetic compass, water and snacks; I’ll defy Thoreau on that as I’ve been lost only once in the woods and my map-reading training got me out. Or stay on well marked trails. They are still wilder than where the baby-strollers and power-walkers make their frantic way.

Sauntering will refresh your soul, as Thoreau intended.

As we all saunter toward the Fall semester (my final one as Writing Center Director) send words and metaphors of interest to me 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: from Wikipedia, Thoreau’s Cabin (replica) and statue of the writer out sauntering, Walden Pond. 

Metaphor of the Month! Shrinking Violet

Violet plantBy Leo Barnes

A shrinking violet is an exaggeratedly shy person. Since violets grow in the low herb layer of most forests, their rich purple petals are often veiled behind other vegetation. So the metaphor goes, getting a shy person out of their shell is as hard as spotting violets in a forest.

In pop culture, two figures – ironically highly visible superheroes – come to mind: Violet Parr and Salu Digby. Parr, the shy heroine from The Incredibles franchise, has the power of invisibility while Digby from DC comics is better known as her alter ego Shrinking Violet, and can shrink herself. How apropos!

Violet from The IncrediblesWhile we might often overlook shrinking violets, both popular media and real life remind us not to judge a book by its cover. Charismatic Atticus Finch may have endeared himself to readers in To Kill a Mockingbird but it was Boo Radley, the town recluse, who saved the day. In the Harry Potter novels, the unprepossessing Neville Longbottom was the one who ultimately killed Voldemort. In 2014, Ronald Read, a Vermont janitor and gas station clerk, donated six million dollars to his town library and hospital – money he had earned over a lifetime of frugality and investing. This from a man who barely graduated high school and was often mistaken for being broke.

While shrinking violets can be difficult to draw out, in my book a reserved nature is certainly better than an overbearing one. Sometimes shyness is endearing and, in the case of Read or Radley, even noble.

Editor’s Note: Thank you, Leo, for another excellent guest-post. I found a claim of first usage in 1820, followed by explosive growth on both sides of the Atlantic, here.

Leo’s in Indonesia for the summer, teaching English in Kediri in June as part of Dr. Leslie Bohon’s Global EFL program. I’m jealous!

The violets may have faded in my yard, but the blog continues all summer after a hiatus (a 2022 WOTW) for the rest of June. You might, however, see a loan-word from Irish here, mid-month.

As you enjoy your holidays, send words and metaphors to me 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.

Word of the Week! Autodidact

Jane Austen and David BowieWhat do David Bowie and Jane Austen have in common, other than being English? They both were self-taught in their professions.

We have a nomination this week from Sarah Spencer, a junior majoring in psychology. Sarah picks a fine word. I thought I had covered this before, but no. And like me, Sarah must have met her share of autodidacts.

My late friend Gary Braswell, who earned a GED, exemplified the self-taught person who defines autodidacts. Gary possessed the sort of math skills I’d have died for (or finished Engineering School with) in the 1980s. He read books about theoretical physics and could talk about String Theory, Dark Matter, and Special Relativity.

We seem to have an uptick in auto-didacticism, if the OED’s usage chart proves correct. The portal is acting up today, though I’ve signed in through the university account, but the snapshot shown here reveals a steep rise in usage since World War II. Are all those garage geniuses from Silicon Valley, many of them drop-outs, responsible? Bill Gates and Steve jobs make the list, as do Leonardo da Vinci, Elon Musk, Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Maya Angelou, Thomas Edison, Malcolm X, The Wright Brothers, and (Have you ever been experienced?) Jimi Hendrix and my favorite musician, David Bowie.

Seeing the paucity of women on that quick search I dug in more to discover Jane Jacobs, who wrote one of the best works about urbanism.  Then Charlotte Perkins Gilman, famous for her story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and whose early 20th Century utopian novel Herland remains a key landmark in the history of feminist literature.

Autodidacts fascinate me as they do Sarah. The best I’ve done as an autodidact has been to teach myself automotive repair, and I’m proud of my work getting one classic car back on the road and two more running well. I can do most minor repairs and a few major ones, though I leave brake-work to experts. If a car won’t start, I can call for help. If it won’t stop, on the other hand. . . YouTube certainly helped, but a lot involved trial and error. I can build fences, stone walls, even small buildings for our farm, too, but I got hands-on training with two expert builders. That training would not qualify me as an autodidactic carpenter.

Except for a hiatus for a while in June, this blog will continue in the summer months, so send words and metaphors of interest by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Word of the Week! Fickle

Flying Fickle Finger of Fate TrophyOh, the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate,” which is where I first heard our word, as a wee lad, back when “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was the hottest show on television in 1968. Their  FFFF was an award of dubious distinction given for a poor performance. The US Congress was the first recipient. Makes sense. They have earned a lifetime award.

So there. That’s where I learned how fickle fate can be. But I never learned the origin or currency of our word. So let’s have a look, shall we?

Our word has multiple origins but all point to something changeable, unusally not in a good way. Some of fickleness relates to dishonesty, though the OED gives both that original meaning and a newer one meaning “puzzling.” Often fickle behavior, from a person or even the weather, puzzles us even if it does not hurt us.

From about the year  1200, we have “false, treacherous, deceptive, deceitful, crafty” (obsolete), probably from Old English ficol “deceitful, cunning, tricky,” related to befician “deceive,” and to facen “deceit, treachery; blemish, fault.” Common Germanic (compare Old Saxon fekan “deceit,” Old High German feihhan “deceit, fraud, treachery”), from the same source as “foe.” This all comes from the The Online Etymology Dictionary. Fickleness, then, antagonizes the predictable.

We live in fickle times. It seems that anything can happen, which could explain why since Rowan and Martin’s day, usage of the word has doubled from 1968 to 2014, attested by the entry cited above. The OED also records a more gradual uptick.

There are other words I would rather see gain popularity. Wouldn’t you? I hope no fickle fingers point your way this summer, but this blog will continue in the summer months, and I hope in some form in 2025, when I retire from full-time teaching on our faculty.

So until they carry me out feet-first after some fickle fate finds me, send words and metaphors of interest by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Image Source:  from a site selling an original FFFF award!

Word of the Week! Insipid

Bowl of clear broth with vegetablesSome time back, during my rip through the R.W.B. Lewis biography of Edith Wharton, I covered the word fatuous. Our pick this week, also one Wharton employed, could be first cousin to that word. Fatuous means something silly or stupid. Wharton found much of modern life (and fiction) fatuous, insipid, or both. Truly, both words walk down the decades hand in hand.

Our word should bring to mind, to those with decent vocabularies, a bowl of very thin soup. Such a dish possesses more flavor than hot water, but the result tastes thin and lacking, quickly leading to an empty stomach. The OED seconds this culinary linkage, with references dating back to the early 17th Century, coming to us via French via the Latin insipidus.

Sometimes, silliness and blandness are not twins. For many first-years, their writing strikes me not as fatuous, because most of them work in earnest to prove themselves in college. Yet often the results too often prove insipid, featuring too many verbs of being, limited vocabularies, generalizations or superficial claims not original to themselves. I do scold them a bit, but mostly my work involves getting them to hear how insipid (and boring) the prose appears. They don’t care for their first grades of C or even B-, but there it stands. Too much writing we read remains insipid, as uninspired as the work Wharton disliked.

Frequency for our word has not been common since the days of tricorn hats, when it enjoyed about eight times the use we see today. Insipid writing, however, never went away. I suppose common terms such as “bland” or the more interesting “voiceless” have filled the void. “Tasteless” does not mean, except literally, much about food. When used metaphorically, it can mean crude or vulgar or, well, fatuous.

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

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

image source: “Clear Soup” by dielok at Flikr. That soup looks excellent, not insipid!

Word of the Week! Nostrum

Rows of patent medicines on the shelf.My students training to be Writing Consultants recently conducted an experiment in class. They traded papers with a partner and held a writing conference. Then they employed both Grammarly and Chat GPT 4.0 to see what sort of commentary these pieces of software would provide.

Results varied but one commonality emerged: software tends to dispense generally positive-sounding but generic advice such as “be sure you integrate all the sources well” or “check the first sentence of each paragraph to be certain it connects to the final idea in the paragraph before.”

Well, duh. Teaching students to prompt-engineer their questions to an AI helps, but meanwhile, thanks for the nostrums, ChatGPT.  I gave one student that word, one I knew but have rarely have used. I suspect that soon I’ll be using this word too much.

What is a nostrum? Where did it come from?  And why is it related to our photo of “polite soothing syrups”?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary quotes a famous writer for a usage example, “Whether there was real efficacy in these nostrums, and whether their author himself had faith in them, is more than can safely be said,” wrote 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, “but, at all events, the public believed in them.”

A nostrum in our modern sense can still mean a dubious medical cure; several nostrums were hyped at the highest levels of government as preventatives for COVID-`19, with a few fatal and un-prosecuted outcomes. Typically, we instead call these sorts of pharmaceutical scams “snake oil” or just “quackery.” Yet a soothing word or phrase that means little of substance can still go by “nostrum,” especially if otherwise they do not harm a patient.

In terms of origins, our obviously Latin word has an interesting backstory. From my favorite online etymology source, I leaned that current usage dates to about 1600, so again we have a Renaissance term from that era’s renewal of interest in Classical texts for secular learning. You’ll also find many good synonyms for our word at this site, so I highly recommend it. I think I found the origin of the Spanish cura, meaning priest or a cure, there. We have a link to the historically medical (as well as their typically spiritual) cures that clergy brought to folks in earlier times.

I’d heard of the Roman name for the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, our sea. And so it was for centuries. That fact must have been soothing to Romans who could live near the coast without fear of dark enemy sails appearing on the horizon!

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

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

Image Source: public domain image from Picryl

Word of the Week! Phantabulating

Banana-shaped Rocket lifts offProfessor Joe Hoyle in our Business School, a frequent nominator of words here, writes “I was reading today’s Washington Post and came across this sentence, ‘The reason Elon Musk frequently escapes account from other judges is because they don’t see through his phantabulating?’ I turned to my wife once I read, “phantabulating” and said, ‘That sounds like a Joe Essid word.’   Which mystified my wife.” You can read the Post story here, about a ruling against Musk in a Delaware court.

Joe, I don’t use “phantabulating” but I like that word a great deal.

Let’s stop mystifying your wife about our word. An abstract from a medical publication notes that “Phantabulation is characterized by frequent and purposeful interactions with contextually appropriate imagined objects. We suggest that this phenomenon results from confusion between real and imagined objects.”

That definition seems to vary from hallucination. If I see a banana on the countertop when no banana is present, I have hallucinated. If, however, I see a banana where a tomato sits on the counter, yes, we have no banana but I have phantabulated.

Some of you have may have read Oliver Sacks’ excellent book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It has been a few years, but the title itself suggests phantabulating, though a bit of re-reading reveals something very different. I recall that the patient Sacks describes, Dr. P., grabs his spouse’s head for a moment, confusing her for his nearby hat.  Technically, however, as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, Sacks’ patient “has visual agnosia. He perceives separate features of objects, but cannot correctly identify them or the whole objects that they are part of.”

Now back to Elon Musk. He recently announced that SpaceX’s Starship reusable rocket would be enlarged and updated for missions to the stars. Not Mars, 49 millions miles from us (give or take) but, say, to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. I found in Brittanica Online that the star-system lies “4.24 light-years away. A light-year is 9.44 trillion km, or 5.88 trillion miles. That is an incredibly large distance. Walking to Proxima Centauri would take 950 million years.”

Wear your best hiking boots and pack a good lunch.

Humans have difficulty with such speeds and distances, but imagine traveling 30,000 km each second, or 1/10 the speed of light. We’d reach the Moon in 13 seconds from Earth. In four decades, we’d arrive at Proxima.

Mr. Musk has a gift not simply for overstatement but also a remarkable ability to project his vision on technology that does not yet exist, though it’s contextually relevant. Looking at his current interplanetary tomato called Starship, Mr. Musk envisions a future interstellar banana Starship.

So I’d not buy a ticket on a SpaceX interstellar vacation, if I were  you. Elon is phantabulating again.

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

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

Image: Phantabulated from here and there.

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
Thomas Hobson, by Unknown artist (1629)

What comes to mind when I think of Hobson’s Choice is Joseph Heller’s hilarious book Catch-22. The story takes place during the second World War where Milo Minderbinder — the squadron mess officer — gives 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.”

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

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!