Word of the Week! “Analyzation”

I usually focus on words I like, but this one needs comment, if only to keep more students from using it. It cropped up in a midterm, and I marked but did not penalize it greatly.

Note that I used “penalize” rather than “punish.” The former word exemplifies “derivation,” where an affix (prefix or suffix) gets attached to a word to create a new one. Thus, from “penal” we get “penalize.”  I am not overly fond of words made with the “-ize” suffix, for no good reason other than their sound. Thus I do not put them in my list of faculty pet peeves. Like an ugly new car that gradually looks better over the  years, “-ize” verbs seem to beat down purists about style and usage.  I barely notice “penalize” now, considering it a less punitive synonym for “punish.”

Not so for “analyzation.” Consider its root: “analysis,” a word as old as Ancient Greece. The Online Etymology Dictionary supports that honorable origin. As with many “-ize” words, “analyze” provides us with a neologism that does powerful work. I use it as the soul of my courses where students analyze literary work. In fact, it’s the most powerful intellectual skill a student can hone in college, where I often tell writers “tell me what you learned. Even if I know the subject already, you can analyze what is new to you. That will then be new again to me.”

But the popular student word “analyzation” takes word-derivation a step too far, like a Rube Goldberg machine with too many steps to perform an action. A writer using our word simply makes a longer synonym for “analysis” that to a novice or careless reader sounds professional but actually, as in the title of a well respected essay by scholar David Bartholomae, merely provides another instance of “Inventing the University” rather than learning how we academics actually talk and write.

Moral: Never avoid analysis, but avoid “analyzation” at all costs.

Nominate a word 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.

Word of the Week! Valence

Special thanks to Rita Willett, MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week. This is her second nomination and, as a writer, I can say that nothing is more pleasing than “regulars” who read one’s work.

Dr. Willett provides a term that I knew though chemistry classes, indicating particular types of chemical bonds. It appears in many other fields, all of them indicating a bond of some sort. Scouting about with Google, I found a use from linguistics, where valence indicates the number of words in a sentence to which another word, especially a verb, can bond. An verb such as “give” has a valence of three; it makes no sense alone, requiring itself (valence of 1) as well as a direct (2) and indirect object (3), as in “give me the dictionary!”

Dr. Willett and her students encountered our word through NIH’s RDoC Matrix, a graph ranking psychological motivations and threats according to positive or negative “valences.”

At first glance, the word’s meaning in psychology drifts a bit from its use in chemistry or immunology, where it also indicates a binding action for antibodies or antigens. The use of the term in psychology dates back only a century, with the OED Online providing a 1917 example, but one from 1935, in a book called A Dynamic Theory of Personality, really captures the meaning well: “A certain object or event..is experienced as an attraction (or repulsion)… We shall say of such objects that they possess a ‘valence’.”

There, then, in our bond, much like that in other fields. One positive valence I found at the NIH site is, in fact, chemical. Consider the reward given by the brain when it releases dopamine. Get a “like” online (or a regular reader responding at your blog) and you get a little dose of it, naturally.

This is why I often critique smart phones, calling them addictive “dopamine dispensers” and banning their use in class. But I digress, perhaps to release some other pleasant brain chemical related to smugness or curmudgeon-ism.

Looking for images in the Creative Commons of “dopamine reward” led to all sorts of negative valences that had me fretting about wasting professional time, since so many images were simply the same drawing of a human brain with the areas highlighted that are linked to dopamine. On the other hand, laughter must be a positive valence, and short clips of Homer Simpson being forced to eat an infinite number of donuts in Hell came up too under “dopamine reward.” This led me to Homer having a nightmare about “The Planet of the Donuts” where he’s accused of eating half the population.

Find those on your own. Right now, my brain craves the positive valence of consuming a donut, a word I prefer to spell “doughnut.” Then the negative valence of guilt for eating two, not one. I hope the valences that influence your behavior are all positive, from getting enough sleep, rewards, and positive habits.

Correction 4/9/18: I had originally noted “valence” as the spelling for a type of window treatment. As Dr. Willett pointed out, that is a “valance.” I swear I saw it listed with an “e” in one of my dictionaries. Perhaps I need an entry for “ophthalmologist.”

Nominate a word 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.

Word of the Week! Absurd

Isn’t it wonderful to have a day dedicated to playing jokes on each other? This post honors April Fool’s Day, a last vestige of festivals from Antiquity such as Saturnalia, where the social order turned upside down.

I began my hunt for the right word by a simple Google search, to find a synonym for “foolish.” Then, looking at “absurd,” I thought how absurd the nonsense word “google” is, having no etymology I could imagine other than a now-forgotten, and rather foolish, cartoon character. Thinking about Google, as well as using it did, however, give us a word for a very special day.My go-to for the history of words, The OED Online, suggests a dual French and Latin parentage for our word, with absurde indicating something “contrary to common sense.” That 14th Century continued into English, with the OED’s examples dating back as far as the 1500s. In Hamlet, we have this: “Fie, tis a fault to heauen, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd.”

Unless one is an Adsurdist artist, the absurd is, at best, done deliberately to have fun or make fun of others. Real fools, however, do not recognize their absurdity or even deliberately embark on foolhardy adventures. That sense of reason and absurdity being at odds stands today. That makes “absurd” anything but absurd in formal usage; so many terms drift but this one, like the fool who persists in foolishness, remains delightfully unchanged.

Next week we have a faculty-nominated word from the sciences. It enshrines reason to counteract our foolish pursuits. For now, however, be a bit absurd as you play harmless tricks on friends and family.

Update: This post troubled me because “absurd” does not seem to come from the word “surd” plus the “ab” affix. I found this list of words that employ “ab” in the sense of “away from,” as in “abnormal.” By coincidence, “ab” was the site’s “word root of the day.”

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Fulsome

This word has bothered me for many years. It provides a good example of Edward Sapir’s theory of Linguistic Drift, and I warn writers to take care when using this intellectual-sounding adjective. It has drifted from a positive sense to a negative one and back to positive again!

Often I hear journalists on radio, or more likely corporate or governmental officials, describing the “fulsome praise” heaped upon this or that person. There’s a problem here; these speakers mean “generous” or “universal” when one older meaning of fulsome is, in fact, a little stinky.  If we add the verb “heaped” it all becomes, well, piled higher and deeper in its fulsomeness.

The word is English and it is very old. The OED Online cites uses from as early as the 14th Century, and this lovely example a century closer to us, “As a fulsome well Shedith his stream in to þe ryvere” can be updated to, “as a fulsome well sheds its stream into the river.”  Here the sense is copious, overflowing, positive.  And therein lies a problem with “fulsome,” as well as its closeness, phonetically, to the unabashedly bad “foul.” The OED notes that fulsome acquired a dubious reputation thanks to that kinship, though in recent years the positive aspect of fulsome  gained more usage.

A 19th Century example from the OED helps, “My complaint of the world..is this—that there is too much of everything..and so I could go on enumerating..all the things which are too full in this fulsome world. I use fulsome in the original sense.”

In this original sense, fulsome means “too much of a good thing.” It is one thing to be praised, another entirely to be fawned over by a sycophant. That sense of excess takes us to the OED’s other definitions. They include fleshy, obnoxious, overfed, lewd, bawdy, dirty, difficult to digest, filthy!  In my mind’s eye I immediately envisioned the engravings of William Hogarth, whose “Tavern Scene” from the series “The Rake’s Progress” appears above.  Try as I might, we are back to Spring Break Bacchanalia, after all!

An 1828 example from the OED is “the close, hot, fulsome smell of bad ventilation.” My 1953 edition of  Webster’s New Collegiate gives no positive definitions, emphasizing only the offensive nature of the term. My more recent American Heritage Dictionary, a volume that includes usage notes, warns readers about the double-edged meaning of our word of the week.

We have lost most derogatory senses of the word, along with the noun form of fulsome, but I remain uncomfortable when I hear about “fulsome praise,” perhaps the last holdout of a word that describes excess in all its forms. Again, I am reminded of Hogarth’s satirical drawings. The Rake’s Progress did not end well.

We have here not a question of grammar or even proper usage but rather of precise usage. So the next time you plan to honor someone who had received a reward, you might instead talk or write about “universal praise,” “widely praised,” “acclaimed,” or “greatly honored.” I, for one, would leave “fulsome” behind, unless you want to poke fun at someone being followed around by a platoon of yes-men.

Update, 3/26/18: I took a peek at Bryan Garner’s excellent A Dictionary of American Usage for advice. He calls fulsome a “skunked term,” meaning that the scent of its earlier (in this case, negative) meaning clings to it for a long time. Garner suggests “lavish” as an alternative adjective when speaking of praise.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Hogarth image courtesy of The Victorian Web.

 

 

 

Word of the Week! Pedagogy


Special thanks to Lisa Bayard, Manger of Tyler’s at UR, for this excellent pick. After the Bacchanalia ends, we must return to our studies.

I teach a course entitled “Composition Theory and Pedagogy,” and students rightly assume that the final word has something to do with the theory of teaching. For many years, poor student of Classical languages that I am, I mistakenly assumed that the “peda” in our word related to the Latin pedestere, to go around on foot. One often follows a mentor, like ducklings following mom. So that was that, as far as my defining the origins of “pedagogy.”

How wrong I was! While pedestere gives us the modern “pedestrian,” my thinking was rather pedestrian indeed, not have have checked a few good dictionaries.

During Spring Break, I am far from my printed dictionaries in Boatwright Library on campus, but I have the OED Online to follow me, like those ducklings, wherever I go. Their entry shows a history stretching back to Ancient Greece and, later in the Mediterranean world, Latin paedagogia. In English, by the 17th Century a “pedagogy” could mean not only the art of teaching but also the profession itself or a place where teaching gets done.

Today we generally refer to the system or theory of teaching when we use the word as a noun or adjective, as in “we practiced several pedagogical techniques for teaching the history of language.” I have heard teachers called “pedagogues” in older books; that term has faded from common usage.

Nominate a word 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! Bacchanalia

With Spring Breaks blooming like daffodils across America, I decided that I would nominate a word myself.

In case my choice gives offense, I admit–and dare hope–that most students will do community service, visit family, or engage in healthy and safe activities during their Spring Breaks. In my experience, I was too poor to go anywhere except right home.

Such a low-key respite from schoolwork is not, however, the reputation of the annual student holiday. In fact, we have an ancient and sacred ancestor for today’s decidedly profane revelries, a term that managed to survive two millennia without much alteration: Bacchanalia. Bacchus, the Roman god of “wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy” (Wikipedia), survives as well; he seems a less dangerous re-branding of the Greek Dionysus. In those earlier rites, people got ripped limb from limb by the followers of  the god.

Bacchus’ festivals, purportedly still celebrated at every Spring Break hotspot, can be dangerous indeed.  This must account for the negative sense in which the term and its synonym “bacchanal” have been used during my lifetime. As recently as 2016, at my alma mater The University of Virginia, an article in The Cavalier Daily reported on “this year’s Block Party — an unsanctioned bacchanal which took place on Wertland Street last Saturday.”

I leave the nature of  the rites that constitute “excess,” up to readers’ discretion. More than one martini constitutes excess to me, these days, if not the drunken disasters so often synonymous with Bacchanalia. The OED Online traces that sense of the word, a secular version of the ancient partying, to the 17th Century. My other dictionaries also raise a glass in the same direction.

If you engage in singing about drinking, you will also be singing a “Bacchanal” or “Bacchanalia.” Those usages seem as lost to us now as the proverbial lost weekend.

So have a safe and sober Spring Break. Remember, as poet, printer, and mystic William Blake wrote, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But only if you make it that far.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Hyperbole

Dr. Jerry Tarver, Professor of Rhetoric & Communication Studies, nominated our word, hyperbole. Dr. Tarver provides this interesting anecdote:

William F. Buckley, Jr. once gave a speech at UR in which he discussed the compulsion politicians have for overstatement. He called this tendency the “hyperbolic imperative” and unfortunately lost the attention of a large number of students. The word makes a useful distinction between outright lying and simple exaggeration. Hyperbole in practice is not all bad by any means; the best of writers make use of it. And it is also a word best pronounced by not looking at it.

That insight will prove useful to me, personally, whenever I hear too much news; then I slip into to thinking of hyperbole as much closer to an outright lie than what Buckley claimed.  So what is the origin of this term? Looking closer, I imagine a forgotten deity from the age of Pericles.

The OED Online supports the common usage as overstatement for rhetorical effect; so far, so good then. The etymology here is indeed Greek, meaning “excess.” As for early uses, the OED goes back to 1529 and no less a speaker and writer than Catholic martyr Thomas More, best known today for his Utopia and death at the hands of Henry VIII. More noted, in the spelling of his day, “a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” Seven decades later, Shakespeare spelled the word “hiperbole” but used it in the same way as More had done.

Modern spelling has settled down, but not so a drift in meaning to something very close to lying, thus making a falsehood out of what was once merely exaggeration. We enjoy hyperbole frequently in tall tales, in the hyperbolic commentary of sportscasters or, with a wink, in political speeches.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Scruples

Here comes a word we often hear but rarely think about when we use it. When I think of “scruples,” I have always imagined someone like Dame Maggie Smith’s character from Downton Abbey, who had more scruples than teacups.

Griffin Trau nominated our word; he graduated in December, double majoring in Leadership and International Studies. Since then, he has enrolled in UR’s Master of Liberal Arts program and has one more year of eligibility on our Football team. According to Griffin, “This one is interesting for its root in Latin scrupus meaning ‘small pebble,’ or more figuratively ‘anxiety.’ The word is sometimes used in its historic sense in landscaping for the small pebbles used in driveways, paths, or buffer zones…you know, the ones that always end up in your shoes (that might be how the Romans came up with anxiety).”

In 2009, I walked the remains of a Roman road in Yorkshire, and it would make me anxious to think of little rocks in my sandals with miles to go to reach the next vicus or oppidum. In fact, my reading tells me that Roman roads were amazingly maintained. I’d doubt too many scruples vexed travelers.  Yet travelers today take their scruples with them, such as refusing to eat certain foreign foods or, in a gaff I long ago made in a pub, tipping where a local culture does not accept gratuities.

How we went from pebbles to moral or ethical sensibility is anyone’s guess. OED Online gives a first use as a noun, meaning a very small unit of measurement, from 1382.  That appears to have been lost, as well as its use as a verb. In that case The OED traces it to 1627, meaning to hesitate based on a moral or ethical principle. It also had a broader meaning to hesitate or doubt, usage that seems to have faded completely today. A fleeting adjectival usage appears as well, scrupling. Let’s not descend further into this as it would be, at best, a scrupling pursuit.

Proper usage today would be as follows, “She was a Countess from a well regarded English family, and she had many scruples about who should be admitted to her inner circle of associates.”Another native of England, Alfred Hitchcock, noted that “There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”

A less morally fraught use would involve paying attention to detail, as with “After someone broke into his unlocked car, John became scrupulous about making sure he locked the car doors every night.”

Think of the two words we still associate with this Latinate antiquity: scrupulous and its shiftless sibling, unscrupulous. For the verb, I would scruple to use it in a modern sentence. That’s a pity. “Scruple” has a rich history and losing its verbal form robs the language of richness, since it adds a moral sense to our hesitation or anxiety.

That said, I am no scrupulous guardian of the past. Changes to our language as often enrich as impoverish. Yet I have scruples about many words we lose, for with them a scruple of nuance can vanish; it is the greatest thing I fear as our language changes.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

A 2011 Graduate on Writing in the Workplace

By Megan Reilly, WC 2011

Even though I graduated from the University of Richmond in 2011, I often reference my time at the Writing Center to colleagues and to the local New York City students that I now tutor in English and writing. In fact, the main reason why I was hired by my tutoring company in NYC was because of my work at UR!

Working at the Writing Center was a great way for me to build confidence in my own writing, develop a basis of knowledge to help all types of students, and learn how to interact with students of various backgrounds and give them constructive criticism. My work at the Writing Center benefits both my tutoring work and my work as a full-time employee at Penguin Group (USA). If you want to be in publishing it is important to have a passion to read and to write. The two go hand in hand, and I’d like to think that my ferocious reading of Nancy Drew books in middle school has made me a better writer today!

Whether it is writing persuasively in order to latch book bloggers onto a new Amy Einhorn classic, or simply writing e-mails to co-workers, being able to eloquently express yourself in writing is a skill that more and more companies are looking for in recent graduates. Being able to edit countless essays at UR (and both narrative and analytical essays at that) is an experience that will benefit me in any job I may have in the future. I had the opportunity to work with many talented writers and tutors at the Center, and I truly felt like I was continually learning how to become a better writer.