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.

Words of the Week! Elusive, Illusive, Allusive

Desert MirageThis week we have a pair of homonyms, illusive and elusive, that students confuse. OED links are given. At a colleague’s suggestion I added a quasi-literary term that we rarely encounter, allusive. The mnemonic for getting them sorted out is not too difficult, so we’ll have a go at it now.

If something is “illusive,” think of an illusion. It only seems real. It deceives you, as in “His quest a quick fortune led him toward many illusive investments, all of which collapsed.” “Elusive” is something that eludes us, so “While he invested a lot of money, good returns on his investments remained elusive.”

I well recall my first highway travel as a child. I kept warning my father of water ahead on the road. These were illusions, mirages. All such are illusive.

Writers may know, and use, literary allusions. Something that is allusive alludes to something else, literary or ordinary, as in “The state’s early and difficult frontier history left so many allusive place names: Last Chance, Broken Promise, Dead Man, Murder Creek.”

Since all three words sound nearly alike when spoken, it’s best to try the mnemonics given, before writing anything down.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Faustian Bargain

The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.

Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.

The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins.  To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.

I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.

Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.

Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Referee

“Referee” sounds simple enough to sports fans, but in academic parlance the term has much the same meaning. The OED shows us the common link: many circumstances where a neutral judge or arbiter or official must make a decision.

When one submits work to a refereed (or peer-reviewed) journal, the arbiters are not just the editors of the journal, but a panel of informed professionals in the field. I found the University of Texas Libraries as well as my own campus library offer fine guides on this.

The verb “referee” is quite similar.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Autumnal

Perhaps, by the time this post runs, the weather will match the season. Yet we do have a lovely word of the week, one often used quite metaphorically.

Solidly in the realm of the humanities, our word can imply middle age, as in “during my autumnal years, I plan to take up fly fishing.” We thereby imply someone past her or his prime, then, and the OED notes how in this sense “autumnal” is often negative. Personally, I find the word to be wistful rather than pejorative. Perhaps that’s just me and my next-to-favorite season (right after Winter).

I do not often hear “vernal” used in a similar way.  In terms of etymology, The OED Online takes us back to the 15th Century for both “autumn” and our adjective, borrowings from Latin.

Students might use our word and end up sounding pretentious. I suspect it is best left for creative writing or in its literal sense of something pertaining to the Fall season, such as the autumnal equinox or “My old grade school will host its Oktoberfest this weekend, an autumnal ritual ever since my childhood.”

My hope is that all of us will experience autumnal weather soon this year and in the decades ahead. Our currently endless summer fills me with dread.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image of New Hampshire forest courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Dark Night of The Soul

With my favorite holiday of Halloween approaching, I figured that we needed a metaphor that captures dread, doubt, and doom. I must be channeling my fellow Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who enjoyed alliteration. On to our metaphor.

Poe’s masterpiece “The Raven” is all about a long, dark night when the narrator faces a sombre truth:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token. . .

If you know the poem, then you know what the narrator discovers about his lost Lenore. If not, get over to the Poetry Foundation’s site and read it, posthaste.

But where did our figure of speech, captured so well in Poe’s verse, originate? The OED Online has an entry about the word “dark” that includes a reference to St. John of the Cross, who believed in a noche oscura that one must endure to come back into the light of faith. It is a “moment of aridity” that a mystic endures, quoth the OED, not the Raven. Over time, the Spanish Saint’s metaphor grew in scope to become any deep enough existential crisis that rocks us to our cores. The Dark Night destroys our optimism forever or we come out wiser and sadder.

Only that, and nothing more.

Academic uses can be literary (of course), political, or spiritual. Historians will speak of a Dark Night of the Soul for people making terrible decisions: despite his many quoted remarks about the strategic necessity of the A-bombings, I don’t know that Harry Truman ever got over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It would speak poorly of him if he did ever brush it off lightly.

My first brush with the idea of our metaphor happened in an undergraduate English class. Suddenly there came a phrase for the culminating moment in many a text, such as Huck Finn’s decision to “go to hell” to save his friend Jim; since strong texts often develop out of dramatic tensions in their plots or characters, many feature one or more Dark Nights of the Soul. Existentialist works could not really work with them.

I found more than a few literary uses of the term, thanks to a quick Google and Wikipedia search. My favorites? F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, in The Crack Up, that “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Fitzgerald himself struggled with alcoholism and the madness of his wife Zelda. He knew his topic well, as have many other artists.

See you on the other side of Halloween. Good luck.

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 Wikipedia Commons

Word of the Week! Civility

Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing
I find it interesting indeed that the OED Online puts our word’s most commonly used definition in 12th place: “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration.”  Perhaps that should not surprise us, as the word has more current and obsolete definitions than any I have covered for this series.

We have to peer back further than the 15th Century, when the word began to appear in English, for its origin and former utility. Here the OED gives us “Latin cīvīlitāt-, cīvīlitās art of civil government, politics.” Consider the words that come from those roots: civil, civilization, civilized.  They presume a measure of tolerance and cooperation needed to live together, not engage in constant civil war.

That sense of neighbors in conflict takes us to the first cousin of civility, “civil.” When I taught criminal-justice writing, I often took my students to court in Monroe County, Indiana. We sat in on both criminal and civil cases, the latter often over civil disputes between neighbors or family members, rather than between a citizen and the State or locality.

The purpose of these courts? To maintain civility in the area, in order to avoid civil conflict. That sensibility underlies the work of civil society organizations.

Is civility dead today? That is a good question explored by Dr. Thomas Plante. Read and decide for yourself.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image by Threeboy from Richmond, Canada (Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Word of the Week! Grotesque

Our word this week began life in an Italian cave, or grotto. As early as the 16th Century, painters captured the primitive feelings of that setting with work called grotesque. So how did the word change over time, to become something revolting and unnatural?

Slowly. By the dawn of the 20th Century, when H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, the artistic sense of the word and its more modern sense were both in play. A definition given by the OED Online, “Characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre,” came to be common. Think of any gargoyle you see on a cathedral. They are nearly all grotesques.

Thanks to Victor, in my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy, for asking about this term used by Wells, as when his narrator remarks, “The apparition of this grotesque, half-bestial creature had suddenly populated the stillness of the afternoon for me.”

Using the Project Gutenberg copy of the text, now in the public domain, I stopped counting at 20 uses of the word. Clearly, Wells was after the human-animal hybrids’ grotesque appearance and behavior. And Dr. Moreau, who makes these “Beast-Men,” certainly had art in mind as much as science, since in the novel he calls the narrator a “materialist” when the narrator questions the practical application of the doctor’s mad experiments.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month: Ivory Tower

This week we begin a new monthly feature. And the timing, in our second week of classes, is spot-on appropriate.

For new students who may have forgotten the concept, a metaphor is a type of figurative speech calling a person or thing something it is not, such as “John is a real skunk!” or the famous parables in the Bible, with the Kingdom of Heaven suddenly becoming a mustard seed.

Now on to our first academic metaphor.

We think, commonly, of “The Ivory Tower” being the haunt of cloistered academics.  Where on earth did that come from? French, actually. The OED Online traces the origin of our term to the second quarter of the 19th Century, from tour d’ivoire, as a place of sanctuary from the world and its troubles.  The image is older, going back to (thank you, Wikipedia) to The Song of Solomon 7:4:

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”

The similes and metaphors just pile up here, rather odd tools of seduction, and in this book of the Bible they get racy, fast. Have a look yourself.

In any case, I find it fascinating that none of the examples provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as my antique version of Webster’s New Collegiate, show the drift in meaning to academia, especially toward the negative sense that political pundits often use to attack us. Only The American Heritage Dictionary sheds a little light (another metaphor!) on our phrase, noting a place of “intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.”

I have many colleagues who would argue that our business in the Ivory Tower is very much about everyday life, especially how to live it in a considered and enlightened way, but this post is no more an op-ed than it is a look at the Bible’s salacious metaphors. Yet that final definition gets us to the pejorative sense of the term. Other ages had Lotus-Lands. We moderns are only left with an ivory tower.

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 Words of the Week here.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 of St. John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Syllabus

For the first week of classes, I thought to feature a word appropriate to the season. So what is so special about that document, online nowadays, that lists assignments, schedule, and policies for a class?

Not much, really. In sum, it is but a concise summary of a subject to be covered, a compendium, a list. The OED Online dates modern usage to the 17th Century. In Antiquity the term may or may not have had the same meaning, so it may not qualify as a loan-word from Latin.

I came to like the term; it mightily confused me as a first-generation, first-year student at The University of Virginia in 1979. It was to be the first of many bizarre  terms that I encountered. Many of the new-to-me terms were Latinate, as alien as Hittite despite my four years in a Catholic high school where the priests could speak Latin. Consider that we “proctor” an exam, end four years of undergraduate work with a “commencement,” earn Latin-phrased honors such as cum laude, and labor in the Grove of Akademos, the source of the word “Academy.”

So as you peruse (or write! the hour is late!) your syllabi for the upcoming academic term, be on the lookout for other traces of academia’s Classical heritage.

The Word of the Week will appear every 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Monday of the academic year, with a new entry, Metaphor of the Month, for our first Mondays.

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 Words of the Week here.