Word of the Week! Peroration

AgoraGeorge Souleret, whom I met during his time with University Facilities as an HVAC Engineer, nominated this week’s word. I saw it first as “perforation,” and wondered to what new uses that old term had been put.

Blame bifocals or autocorrect, but I need to thank George for teaching an old faculty member a new word that he most certainly should know. According to the OED, our word is a speech (sometimes just the end of one) or discourse in general.  I often tell students that academic discourse as we know it, as well as reasoned debate in the Western tradition, began in the era of Socrates. I visited the site of the Athenian Agora in 2007, and to me it was as sacred an experience as I’ll ever have in this life.

We have some excellent perorations, such as Pericles’ famous funeral oration, given before the great plague of Athens, a story that we may wish to revisit today. That epidemic swept away Pericles and two of his sons.

On a lighter note, I love one current usage given: “A perfectly dreadful hour-long peroration by an American scholar.”

Thus I’ll spare you a dreadful peroration on peroration. In an election year, I expect we’ll have our share of perorations, some dreadful, a few delightful.

But the term does provide a formal and Latinate synonym that, in the right place, provides an option to “speech,” “presentation,” and other similar terms.

image of the Stoa of Attalos, housing the Athenian Agora Museum by me, 2007.

Word of the Week! Conurbation

East Coast US at night, from spaceReader Joyce Garner nominated this term she’d found in The Atlantic, one of my favorite periodicals. While I could not find the reference, the term itself is as simple to use as it is recent.

The OED lists first recorded usage in 1915. London is certainly a conurbation, or aggregation of urban areas. Ditto greater New York. So is Madrid, where I lived in Tetuan, a small town swallowed whole by the metropolis. Closer to home, one thinks about parts of Tidewater, where Chesapeake runs into Norfolk, or how Richmond and the old city of Manchester south of the James merged to become the conurbation we call metropolitan Richmond.

“Sprawl” does not have the same sense; suburban areas are not the same as urban ones, save in New-Urbanist dense development. Nor would the sprawl of one city quite capture that idea of conurbation.

I used to fret that the planet would be covered by conurbation, back in the 80s when SF writer William Gibson invented “the BAMA Sprawl,” or Baltimore-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, for Neuromancer and the books that followed.

While sprawl continues today, longer-term population trends are downward, globally, and they were before COVID-19. In 100 years, whatever evil climate change brings to our coasts and daily lives, we may be coping with a new issue: lots of vacant areas in our conurbations.

Perhaps they’ll become parks or gardens,  as the global populace shrinks to a size less harmful to our ecosystem.

Come what may, send us words and metaphors to feature here. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of East Coast conurbations at night, as seen from the International Space Station, courtesy of NASA.

 

Word of the Week! Mountebank

Snake Oil SalesmanI’ve been enjoying Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. This scholarly work about the generation of founders from 1776 fills in the gaps and errors of Hamilton, which I enjoyed for different reasons. Ellis pulls off a difficult feat: his book manages to draw on primary sources and cover events without being at all stuffy.

He also provides some great words in use by that generation. We rarely hear the word mountebank today, though we often–all too often–encounter them. We would be more likely to call one a “fake” or a “charlatan” today. As with Strombolian from a few weeks back, I’d like to see our word this week return to regular usage. In the days of Burr and Hamilton, both given this slur, the word might lead to a duel. Today, it would simply elevate political discourse from the sewers.

Originally, as the OED notes, the word meant what we’d call a “snake-oil salesman,” a specific type of charlatan. They stood on soap-boxes or benches, hence the Italian monta in banco that proved the genesis of our English word.

Montebanks still exist today, too, even if they rarely stand atop boxes. They are instead often in the box in front of you: look at the advertisements for those “try this one simple trick” that shamelessly appear on many Web pages.

More broadly, and much more sadly, anyone claiming knowledge without having it, and using that for fame or personal fortune is a mountebank. We have many in the public eye right now, some more brazen than others.  Perhaps we need a renaissance of the old metaphor of “being ridden out of town on a rail”?

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of “Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap, resident snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park” courtesy of Wikipedia, via the Library of Congress.

Metaphor of the Month! Plato’s Cave

The MatrixHaving already covered Terra Incognita at the start of the pandemic, I still find that is what we face come Fall. We’ll be facing it until we have an effective vaccine for COVID-19. I have no assurance that we won’t attend school for more than a few weeks, with 18-22 year olds who are unlikely to socially distance or mask when out of our sight, and then shut down again.

So what metaphors come to mind for a likely vain effort that we attempt when facing the unknown?

In the midst of a national tragedy where a common refrain has become “I don’t know who to believe,” we see only shadows on a wall, not the thing behind us casting them. This calls to mind the famous metaphor that Plato employed in The Republic. It’s really an allegory–a story based upon an extended metaphor. Classics and The Bible are full of them.

In Plato’s case, we cannot perceive truth clearly. We are, as Plato’s mentor Socrates claimed, prisoners chained to seats who watch a shadow-puppet show cast from behind us. We cannot turn our heads to see the puppeteers nor the puppets casting the shadows.  And woe betide anyone who tried to drag them out of the cave. Read more at the Wikipedia site noted, or better still, find a good translation of The Republic.

You can also view the first of the Matrix films, one of my favorite pieces of science-fiction cinema. It explores the question of the Cave well, and the dilemma of leaving it. In the end, one character would rather see the shadows and betrays his friends.  That, too, proves a useful allegory for our times. So is “the red pill,” as modern metaphor. I’ll make that a future entry.

It’s my hope that with a vaccine and some sanity again in national affairs, the shadows on the cave wall may look prettier, even clearer to us.

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

Matrix image from…well, The Matrix of course.

Word of the Week! Abjure

The OathbreakersLinda Hobgood, Director of UR’s Speech Center, ran across this term recently and nominated it. And why am I using a scene from Peter Jackson’s film? Wait for it.

It has a legal sound, to my untrained ear. But that is merely one definition given by the OED. In fact, the term generally means to renounce. In the obsolete legal sense, it meant to leave a place, rather akin to renouncing one’s citizenship in the era before passports. Most all senses of the word are historical or obsolete, yet the word has a formal sensibility that merits its continuance.

One usage does remain current, for breaking an oath. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth, I first learned the term “oathbreaker,” back when I was a teen. These poor fellows vowed to defend a kingdom against evil, and yet abjured their vows. They were cursed to become the living dead, until another king would call upon them to fulfill their oaths.

That’s rough justice. As for our word?

Let’s abjure abjuring abjure, and bring it back into our formal use.

Image of Aragorn calling upon the Oathbreakers of Middle Earth, courtesy of The Lord of the Ring Wiki.

Word of the Week! Loquacious

Blah Blah BlahSome time back, I considered the history of the term laconic. Today we meet its antithesis. It’s the stuff of Twitter: running one’s mouth constantly.

I hate Twitter, incidentally. I hated it long before it became a cesspool for the worst possible ideas imaginable. But I’m loquacious in a different way: I don’t mind running on at the mouth a bit, when needed about a complex topic. Twitter, like social media generally, encourage shallow and small bits of discourse, ones disconnected from deeper meaning, often about vital and thorny subjects.

I know educators use Twitter well, but to me, there’s already a lot of talk, and not enough listening, even in our circles.

“Loquacious” has not changed its meaning much over the years. John Milton used our Latinate term just as we do today, for too much talking.

Shall I be brief about a windy subject?

One old usage, sadly labeled “poetic” and with a last recorded instance of 1888, relates to the chattering of birds.

You know, twittering birds. Tweet tweet tweet.

Word of the Week! Malaise

President CarterFeeling it, aren’t you? A sense that things have stagnated, that the future is unsure. A second wave. A troubled election. Monuments that seemed immovable pulled down, or rather like Swamp Castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, pulled down, set on fire, then tossed into lakes. Despite my personal sense that we will make progress on racial justice, there’s a gnawing…something in the humid air.

Malaise is that feeling. If you recall the 1970s, as I do, it was a popular term then, too. Though President Carter never used it in a televised speech about a national crisis of confidence, the word got associated with this event. I sure miss his empathy, right now. I miss a President who would turn down the thermostat and put on a Cardigan.

I belong to a group called Malaise Motors, a tongue-in-cheek group of enthusiasts “celebrating the mediocre cars of the 70s 80s and early 90s.” Our perverse celebration of the banal arises from a sense that a period of stagnation lay over the nation then wallowing in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, Oil Crises, and more. The cars were merely gutless, after the Muscle-Car era. They were not uniformly awful. And today, with a modicum of skill, you can (as I do) work on them yourself. Try that on a rolling computer that we call a “car” today. I digress.

That digression aside (I have a T-Shirt with a drawing of my Buick with the words “Malaise 74” under it) let’s have a peek at our word. Off the bat, it screams “French loan word,” because English lacks those feelings of cosmic-bum-outedness (we got ennui from the French, after all).  As I usually do, I ran over to the OED for counsel.

Mon Dieu! I am correct. It’s a loan word dating to only the 18th Century (perhaps no one who spoke English felt any malaise before then).  We talk about loan words a great deal in my course that prepares Writing Consultants; English has an amazing talent for nicking words from other tongues. The debate rages as to whether this happens because we can only experience things for which we already have a word (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) or whether all languages share a universal grammar (Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis). I hold with the former theory, adding one caveat: once we experience a novel situation, we invent or borrow a word from folk who have experienced it.

Want to argue about that with me? Or send us a word? We need words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 JSTOR Daily

 

Word of the Week! Vouchsafe

Downton Abbey CastIn March, I featured noisome as our word; like today’s lexical item, it appears repeatedly in Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth work, London: The Biography. I’m almost finished with its nearly 800 pages of text. I have not been vouchsafed so many uses of “vouchsafe” since I took a class in Colonial Literature, in graduate school.

Sounds old, doesn’t it? Even on Downton Abbey, I’ve not heard it. Perhaps Dame Maggie Smith’s character would have heard it…as a child.

The etymology is common-sensical: we still “vouch” for someone. To “vouch safe” would be, more or less, to safely trust something with another.

To be honest, I was lazy about the word, which is a shame. I assumed it meant to entrust something to another person, but as a casual search in the OED reveals, that trust can come with a measure of disdain. The first definition given includes the sense of granting or bestowing; the second includes doing so with a whiff of condescension, as in this 1660 usage from the OED:

“His Lordship may be pleased..to voutchafe a meetinge..to Sir Walter Dungan.”

Oh lucky Sir Walter, to bask in the glow of His Lordship! At times like that, I’m less fond of Downton Abbey than I am of Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry.

The spelling has changed since the days of Sir Walter, but the verb can be used in a transitive sense, as in the earlier example or one the OED provides from a decade later, “to vouchsafe an eye of fond desire,” quoting poet John Milton from 1671. The one intransitive use of the term is now long obsolete.

I would vouchsafe you our DVDs of Downton Abbey, especially after the third season, when things got increasingly formulaic for me. That said, I don’t want you to think me a condescending snob trying to make you learn new words from the Crawley family.

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Downton Abbey blatantly stolen, as part of an anti-monarchist direct action.

Metaphors of the Month! Navigate and Crossing the Rubicon

Mouth of the Rubicon RiverI faced a conundrum this month; I have two apt metaphors. Since they are related, let’s discuss them both. The first is an everyday word now being used metaphorically. It came my way via Ingrid Lasrado, UR’s Assistant to the EVP and Chief Operating Officer, Business Affairs.

“Navigate” sounds easy enough, as a word. As a metaphor, however, it’s loaded.

One of my students, Reda Ansar, used the verb in just that way in her final paper for the Spring term. Reda contends that “I believe that with focus and determination, we can learn to navigate this strange new situation.” We think of navigating a physical space on earth or in space, but not a situation. Is this usage as novel as the virus that has changed everything for us? As always, the OED becomes our arbiter. It’s not new but is, relatively speaking, recent, dating only to the late 1800s. It means “To control, manage, direct the course.” Those it often refers to directing a vehicle or riding animal, the entry notes the figurative sense we are after.

Reda’s example proves apt. We steer ourselves physically, emotionally, and financially through troubled and unknown waters.

One body of water, the Rubicon, provides a second and related metaphor for June. Before it was a burly model of the Jeep Wrangler named for a famous trail, the river Rubicon gained fame for its use in metaphor.

We, as a campus, crossed the Rubicon in March, by making decisions that will change us during and after the crisis. It’s an old metaphor with classical roots, but one I love. Julius Caesar’s decision to march on Rome, thus literally crossing the Rubicon with his legion, broke with tradition and marked a point of no return.

So we’ll soon see more of what awaits us  on the other side of our Rubicon. Stay healthy and send your words and metaphors in, 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: River Rubicone in Bellaria, Italy. Picture by Stefano Bolognini, 2008.

Words of the Week! Obsolescent & Obsolete

Polish Cavalryman 1938I suppose this is, like everything else, a post about the pandemic. I’ve been seeing our words of the week in reference to models of learning and college life that are not longer useful, even worn out. Some bold claims are being made that residential education itself may soon be “obsolete.”

While I doubt that, it seems reasonable to hazard a guess about which practices of ours might be “obsolescent.”

There’s a shade of difference that I knew, however, as a geeky pre-teen obsessed with the history of technology of warfare, in particular The Second World War.

Looking at my home library, there’s a book I read at age 11, Martin Blumeson’s Sicily: Whose Victory? part of a epic series of paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. I think I own about 50 of the titles, and the writing was decent, often by noted historians and with introductions by famous people involved in the actual events from a quarter century before. In the book, there’s a photo with the caption “German flak guns guard obsolescent Italian fighters” with some biplanes in the background.

I heard, and forget the source, that World War 2 began with biplanes and cavalry charges, yet ended with jet fighters and atomic weapons. By war’s end, the two military traditions and their equipment were certainly obsolete, which The OED defines as “out of date.” Yes, a biplane is a flying machine, but not one to employ in combat in an age of jet fighters. The word is a “borrowing from Latin” and dates in the OED’s reckoning to at least the 16th Century. I like that it’s really unchanged in meaning, too. A useful word, that!

As for things that are going out of use, but not gone yet? I have always guessed that fit the meaning of “obsolescent.” Turning again to The OED, I can see that the Ballantine Books series taught me well. This word means “becoming obsolete; going out of use or out of date.”  Thus, for my military examples, horses were used throughout the war, but until the struggle against the Taliban, they did not factor into the military planning of any great power. For biplanes, they are with us but as stunt planes or objects of nostalgia.

Funny how, in a time of pandemic, it’s comforting to use examples from a long-ago, if terrible, conflict. Perhaps that’s because we do not recognize what is obsolescent about our way of life until it’s obsolete?

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Polish cavalryman, 1938, courtesy of Wikipedia.