Word of the Week! Existential

This word seems easy enough. The adjective refers to existence. That is, indeed, the earliest definition in The OED Online, “of or relating to the existence of a thing.” That sense goes back as far as the 17th Century.

Outside of academia, one often encounters the word in the sense of “being a matter of life or death.” I’ve heard  North Korean nuclear weapons, unmarked asteroids hurtling by the Earth, and slowly mounting climate change all referred to as “existential threats” to human civilization or even the survival of our species.

If only, however, it were that stark. We would have a very short post indeed this week, but we can blame mid-20th-Century philosophers and writers for making matters existential so complex. Here the OED and other references take us into the realm of existential philosophy, or existentialism. If you have read the works of Sartre or Camus, you may consider it a gloomy school of thought. Read The Stranger, or any of American author Paul Bowles’ austere and beautiful fiction to encounter the core of existentialism: that humans are alone in an indifferent if not hostile universe. Our actions, while freely chosen on our parts, mean, finally, nothing.

Yet an existentialist philosophy need not be so bleak. I’ve been reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, after running across the work as a reference in an article about the value of failure in learning.

Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, not only survived Auschwitz and, almost as harrowing, a Bavarian concentration camp in the Second World War’s last months, but he practiced medicine in the latter camp. He had little to offer fellow prisoners aside from a few aspirin doled out by the SS and kind words. Despite contracting typhus, Frankl reconstructed a manuscript seized from him at Auschwitz. It contained a new system of psychology that Frankl called logotherapy. This was an existentialist form of therapy to address what the psychologist called “the existential vacuum” of modern life, where cultural traditions have waned and leisure time often results in mere boredom. Frankl’s theory and practice emphasize focusing on creating meaning in one’s life and pursuing goals, even in the bleakest situations.

That’s hardly gloomy, yet there too our word of the week speaks to the essentials of human existence.

This blog will continue all summer, so 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.

Images of Viktor Frankl, by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, and of Paul Bowles courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Multilateral

The field of mathematics gives us our word this week, though today it tends to mean anything that involves three or more governments or organizations, such as the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, pictured.

It dates, in its original sense of “having more than four sides,” to the 17th Century. Our political usage of the word only appeared in the middle of the 19th, according the entry in The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

Compare this word to “bilateral,” such as the on-again, off-again talks between the leaders of the US and North Korea, or “unilateral,” such as when an organization makes a decision without any other parties’ involvement.

Our word appears in the realms of business and political science most often today, but its older geometric and social meanings linger. The OED offers a recently added definition, “offering two or more distinct curricula for secondary education,” with an earliest recorded use in 1938.

As negotiations and trade disputes continue to be in the news this summer, I expect to see “multilateral” and its kin frequently.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Iconoclast

Thanks to Dr. Jack Singal of Physics for this excellent choice.

In the original religious sense, an iconoclast defaces (literally) or destroys icons. It could also apply in secular cases, for rulers whose memory and images got erased from history by decree: consider the Roman practice of Damnatio memoriae, as in this instance.According to the Wikipedia entry for this  Second-Century image, “Geta’s face has been erased, because of the damnatio memoriae ordered by his brother after the fratricide.”  One does not get erased for trifling reasons. To see the most famous candidate for this fate, visit the Virginia Museum and be sure to say hello to the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better remembered as Caligula. His statue in Richmond is one of only a few that survived his erasure. The stories about his madness and depravity still echo down the millennia.

As for the evolution of our word, The OED Online gives a good sense of how being an iconoclast came to mean something secular, anyone who wishes to tear down established beliefs or ideals.  The American Heritage Dictionary also provides usage notes for how the word now includes this sense; that is, in fact, the reference work’s first definition.

But let’s travel back a bit in time. I had the dubious privilege of seeing the work of the original iconoclasts first-hand, during a 2005 visit to the stone cities of central Anatolia.

Note how, in my  first photo, the faces of both Byzantine figures are removed. That’s not by centuries of fading, as in the rest of the imagery. Getting closer, one can see the gouges where someone meticulously scraped away the visages. The Deutsches Historisches Museum has a fine page about the history of Christian iconoclasm, but the practice stretches back to Antiquity. What I saw in Anatolia was comparatively recent iconoclasm, dating to some point between the 5th and 9th Centuries.

More recent iconoclasm happened in the former Warsaw Pact nations and Iraq. If Richmond’s Confederate monuments ever come down, even to stand with the far less ambiguous Caligula in our museum, it’s also the same ancient urge at work. Often the images are not destroyed, as with Saddam Hussein’s statue below, but removed from places of prominence and stored or hidden. There’s a fine post about a graveyard for Soviet statues in Estonia here at “Travel Turtle.”

Increasingly, I hear those who go against accepted opinion  and tastes “just because” called iconoclasts. They are, perhaps more accurately, merely contrarian. Guilty as charged.  Now where’s the image I can deface?

You can hear more of Professor Singal’s erudition in his interview by President Crutcher, in “Astrophysics and Big Data.”

This blog will continue all summer, so 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! Subfusc

Once again, Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. This time he picked one that was completely new to me. As Dr. Bunn put it in an e-mail:

It can just mean gloomy, apparently, but it can also mean “the formal clothing worn for examinations and formal occasions at some universities.” In Dorothy Sayers’s novel set at Oxford, she uses it to describe clothing in dark, subdued shades, suitable for wearing under academic regalia. I always think of it on graduation day.

Only one of my American dictionaries has a brief entry, supporting Professor Bunn’s conclusion that the word is British English, not its American cousin. The OED Online provides both senses of the word given above, as an adjective or noun. The Latin roots are plain, sub + fuscus (dusky). We have a similar derivation in obfuscate and obfuscation.

As recently at 2006, the Times of London noted that “Undergraduates at Oxford University have voted by four to one to retain subfusc costume when sitting examinations.” They voted again to retain it in 2015.  There are other specificities for subfusc at Oxford. As I learned from this article about the differences between it and Cambridge, subfusc means “a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women.”
The customs surrounded academic regalia have crossed the Atlantic far better than the word itself or, for that matter, the often subfusc weather of the British Isles. While I cannot find meteorological examples of the word, it certainly works in that context.

The image of a subfusc sky with the light just returning is my own, taken at twilight in Kenmare, Ireland in 2011.  The academic regalia of Oxford comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so 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! Curmudgeon

Science-Fiction and Fantasy writer Fran Wilde, who works with my students when she’s on campus, once quipped “Joe, you are a misanthrope in danger of becoming a curmudgeon.”

Fran actually had that backwards, and that says a great deal about how fine a line exists between these words and, perhaps, who they represent. The Oxford English Dictionary Online only takes the term back to the 16th Century, in the sense of being mean-spirited and mistrustful. The word’s genesis, the OED notes, is unknown.

Like some curmudgeons I have known, then, our word seems to have just shown up to spoil our days. The American Heritage Dictionary also reveals that for two centuries, attempts to find the origin of the word have failed. The term has, moreover, shifted in what it signifies. For a long time, the elusive curmudgeon often was depicted as old, mean, and miserly. Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge (a character I portrayed in our 6th Grade Christmas play). Lately the grasping miser seems to have given way to a merely grumpy old geezer, usually male. Thus my Simpsons’ example.

So short-tempered, mistrustful, grumpy? That’s me, Fran. But a hater of all mankind? Nonsense! That would be someone like Mark Twain late in his life, who wrote in an 1898 notebook entry that “The human race consists of the damned and the ought-to-be damned.” Those are the words of someone who really hates the entire species: a misanthrope.  You see it in his later work, especially after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I hope my fate is gentler than the hero of that novel or, for that matter, its author. Writing this has me grinning, something curmudgeons rarely do. So perhaps there is hope. Just stay off my lawn this summer!

This blog will continue through the balmy months, so 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! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

This blog will continue all summer, so 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. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Penultimate

This post will run the final week of classes, but it is really the penultimate week for academic work here: do not forget your final exam week, students!

The word itself has a decidedly academic “look” to it, but I find it used as often in journals of ideas such as The Atlantic Monthly. I brought doughnuts to class today, our next-to-last writing workshop of the semester. For that penultimate class, however, I would never ask  “who ate the penultimate doughnut”?

The OED Online, online or in print, gives our word first as a noun, a form I rarely see in formal usage today. The adjectival form appears far more often, though I had never before encountered the now rare mathematical use meaning “Relating to or designating a member of a family of curves that is arbitrarily close to a degenerate form.”

A Merriam-Webster post points out a usage error for this term. Never use it in formal writing to mean “last.” Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage seconds that opinion. The word gets employed to mean “the best of the best” but that usage is also incorrect. Our word always means “next to last.”  I could see it being acceptable in casual usage as “the best for now, until something better arrives to replace it.”

The final word remains out on penultimate; in a century, it may mean exactly “the best, so far,” until a better word shows up.

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! “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.