Word of the Week! Bombast

thesaurus picture

This word came up in class today. We discussed what academic writing is not, and my students noted that mere opinion and an “extreme tone” disqualify work from serious consideration.

So I dropped a “bombastic bomb” on them. Yet this week’s term has nothing to do with explosives. As “bumbast” or “bombaste,” in the 16th Century the term meant the “soft down of the cotton plant,” and could also mean earplugs made of cotton. I’d suppose, from the OED entry, that one plugged one’s ears to avoid hearing a bombastic speaker who employed the current meaning, “Inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject.”

Has this word fallen out of favor? Or simply settled into a settled definition? The latest OED usage dates back 172 years.

If “bombast” proves new to you, as a word in any case, consider some synonyms from a wonderful 1943 book I just found in my favorite used bookstore, Charlottesville Virginia’s Blue Whale Books. The American Thesaurus of Slang, by  lexicographers Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark (such names!) set forth an exhaustive listing of terms not considered formal. It’s a trove of lost words. Several book dealers online list a second edition of 1964; I highly recommend a copy.

Berrey and Van Den Bark give us dozens of great terms, from “Barnumize, bloviate, flash the gab, crack one’s jaw, swallow the dictionary, talk highfalutin’.”

None are very formal, save “bloviate,” which captures saying a lot of large words without saying much of anything. The suggested term “polysyllabic profundity” fails there, since bombast proves as fluffy as cotton. “Pompous prolixity” gets closer still to the empty nature of bombast. Unlike “bullshit,” bombast may be true, but the terms used are overly pompous.

What other terms capture a bombastic method of writing and speaking? Let me know. Meanwhile, thanks to several of you who recently sent me words and metaphors I will soon feature here. They are always welcome. Send them 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.

Thesaurus image by the author.

Word of the Week! Pernicious

Sloth in treeAfter “propinquity” last time, I found myself using another p-word. This one could be from Edith Wharton’s novels, but I used it long before I read anything by her. In fact, I think I acquired it early in my undergrad career at Virginia.

It’s not uncommon for students to pick up words that make them sound more academic, but our word serves a number of purposes really well. The term has Latin roots but its nearest ancestors are “Anglo-Norman pernicious and Middle French pernicieux,” as the OED tells us. Their definition notes an early relation to illness, too. You may have heard a doctor speak of a particularly pernicious infection.

And yet. I have this pernicious habit in late summer of NOT wanting to go back to work. Do you? Yet as soon as classes begin (and my procrastination ebbs) I really begin to enjoy myself on campus again. In that sense, pernicious means harmful or destructive. I harm my sleep habits, my mood, my schedule by delaying the inevitable (that syllabus will be ready any minute now).

Are there other things near  you that are pernicious? I do not think weeds are that, even ones like Poison Ivy. Being pernicious requires agency. For some weeds that are both invasive and difficult to eradicate, I’ve heard “Noxious,” another word I adore.

What pernicious habits do you have (keep replies safe for work, please!). And do you have words or metaphors for this blog?

Send them 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.

Sloth in tree courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Scrofulous

Some background here, ye corky-armed poltroons: I be playin’ a game with some academic friends that involves pirate ships and sailing. It’s great fun: one can design a ship, navy or pirate, and learn to tack, raise and lower sails, fire cannon with several types of shot, and (of course) be sunk down to Davy Jones’ locker.

Sea-faring has a rich vocabulary, some of which in time entered academic parlance and common use (“against the wind” comes to mind).

Likewise, nicknames with adjectives yield some excellent (cannon) fodder for this blog.

Recently several of us, between battles on the virtual sea, devised alliterative pirate names.

“Pestilential Pete” proved a fine one. “Scurvy” gets overused and can be easily solved by citrus on a ship (hence, the clever English who figured this out got called Limeys).

But what about “Scrofulous Sam”?  That was my pick. It’s not because our pirate suffers from the lymphatic disease called Scrofula, though that is the origin of our word this week, as the OED shows us. Nay, Matey, belay that thought!

Sam would more likely (he is a pirate) to suffer from a moral depravity. As the OED entry notes, Sam would be “morally corrupt.” Never confuse the word with “scruffy,” of similar antiquity but denoting physical shabbiness.

While first usage of this week’s term dates back to the 17th Century, it was only in the Victorian era that we see a first-use metaphorically, in relation to morals. An 1889 example shows how the term appears in print, and readers today are likely to encounter it in Victorian literature like this:

“Holywell-street was re-named ‘Booksellers’-row’ because of its scrofulous reputation.”

A nasty word, but formal-sounding at this distance in time, as is “pestilential” or even “barbarous.” Drawing-room dialogue in Downton Abbey, the characters never fearing the eruption of pirates, plague-victims, or Visigoths during tea hour.

At least until the next sequel. Avast!

Be thou lubber or old salt, a tar or a pantaloon, scrofulous or saintly, this blog be keepin’ a weather-eye out for new words and metaphors! Sam will take your messages in a bottle at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu

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

Flag image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Kerf

Table Saw BladeFor the past month, I have been cutting wood with a table saw, a jigsaw, and a compound miter-box saw. I’m a competent if not expert carpenter. So in this age of high prices for materials, I decided that wooden weather-board siding made at home would be cost-effective and beautiful for a porch we turned into a three-season room.

This sounds like my blog about rural life, Tractorpunk, but I’m not going to focus on DIY here, fun though it is. I’m going to focus on a concept and word that merit wider use.

As the photo (thanks, Wikipedia) indicates, a saw-blade removes material as it moves through wood. In carpentry we call that the “kerf” and if one saws hundreds of boards, as I have done, the kerf adds up in big piles of sawdust.

Do readers see the potential for a new metaphor here, one as fresh as the smell of sawdust and far better than that once-wonderful cliche “death by a thousand paper-cuts”?

The OED entry on our word traces it to Old English cyrf, as well as Old Norse a current Icelandic terms; in Iceland a kerfi is a bundle of twigs. All the words refer to a cut, the act of making one, or the result.

If kerf becomes more widely used, I’d use it this way: what gets lost when cuts get made? Thus: “Remind Mister Horrible that laying off these recently hired workers may appear wise, but the long-term kerf will be bad for our bottom line.”

What do you think about kerfs and kerfing? How might this word enjoy wider usage without your losing a finger in a table saw? Seriously. Use new words widely, but don’t use any of the tools I mentioned without a mentor. We cannot fix those kerfs.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

Word of the Week! Astonished

Jousting KnightWhen I was a UVA undergrad, each of my circle of friends encountered Mallory’s epic Le Morte D’Arthur, and then we ran about using words such as “brain-pan” for skull and the verb “astonied,” for dumbfounded or stunned, as in this sentence:

And therewithal, Sir Uwaine gat his spear in his hand and rode toward Sir Launcelot, and Sir Launcelot knew him well, and so he met him on the plain, and gave him such a buffet that he was astonied, that long he wist not where he was.

Most modern readers should be able to make sense of the passage, noting, for instance, that the “buffet” does not involve all-you-can-eat Cantonese food. Yet only recently did it occur to me that this “astonied” proves to be a linguistic ancestor to our modern “astonished,” a word I’ve long enjoyed.

We have lots of words and metaphors that express surprise: dumfound, stun, amaze, black swan, bolt out of the blue, even ambush. Some of these have negative connotations, but of them “astonish” and “amaze” seemed unalloyed in their sense of something wondrous.

At least until you get knocked off your horse in a joust. So I looked for guidance at the Online Etymology Dictionary, a well-designed, free resource for those without access to The OED. If we reach back to “astonied,” it’s not to lie there on the ground like a stone, but to be thunderstruck (from the Vulgar Latin extonare). From it we got the Old French estoner to cross the Channel in the year 1066, as William The Conqueror split brain-pans and left many Anglo-Saxons astonied by their reversal of fortune.

I would be astonished if more of today’s undergrads went around saying things like “Wit ye well, varlet! My brain-pain hath taken a terrible buffet, and I’m all astonied.” But time marches on, and I don’t know too many who still read Mallory.  If I’m wrong, I wist it not, and I’d love to hear from you.

You can send me words and metaphors by having  your squire ride with the missive to my castle, by leaving a comment below, or by e-mail at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

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

Jousting Knight courtesy of Public Domain Vectors

Word of the Week! Potsherd

The recent snowstorm proven a bit rough for us. It could have been worse, of course. Instead of entire trees coming down, we lost huge limbs as big around as my thigh. They crashed down doing little damage to buildings or objects, save for some terra-cotta planting pots that instantly became potsherds.

You’ve seen them in museums. I discovered recently that our Classics Department now displays several beautiful pieces of pottery in our building; I’m certain they also have drawers full of potsherds. And yet, for the longest time, I called these bits of broken pottery “potshards,” because a shard is a broken bit of something, true?

So, I discovered, is its ancestor, a shoord (Middle English) as well as its even older ancestor, a sceard (Old English). So we are still using a Middle English word, when we say “potsherd.” I suspect, with some resignation, that we all will say “shard” in a century, though I will not be present to hear that change. It has changed before; The OED lists pot-shoord, potsherde, pot sharde (as well as pot-shards) and Spencer’s “potshares” as antique spellings. A round 1800 the spelling settled down, like a sherd under a layer of clay, to our present form.

So when a purist talks about the fallen state of the English language in the time of our dopamine-dispensers also known at smart phones, remind the purist that language has been changing for millennia. Otherwise, when I wished you a Happy New Year, I would say “Glæd Nīwe Gēar Gesǣlig Nīwe Gēar.” Thanks to Omniglot for that translation.

Glæd Nīwe Gēar Gesǣlig Nīwe Gēar, all! Be sure to send me words and metaphors of use in academic settings, or merely intriguing, to me by leaving a comment below or by e-mail at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

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

Creative-Commons image of potsherds courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Risible

 

Monty Python Pontius PilateJoe Hoyle, as usual, sends an excellent word from his office in our School of Business. Professor Hoyle picks a term I have read but never explored. Now I plan to use it, because right now we could use anything related to laughter.

My erroneous sense of our word had been that such laughter comes from derision, mockery, or scorn. Bitter laughter, if you will. But I was wrong, so let’s look at the OED for guidance.

The word has Latin and French roots, like so many good words we have taken into English. The definitions on offer include no sense of derisiveness, simply a situation that provokes laughter.

Even a cursory Google search shows that risible coexists with words such as “comic,” “absurd,” and “ridiculous.”  Why use “funny” when each word has its own nuances? That variety and flexibility remain glories of English, when well employed. “Risible” sounds more formal, so when one wishes to elevate the diction of a sentence, it outranks “laughable” and gentles the sentiment of something ridiculous.  It’s almost genteel, even when Ponitus Pilate, in Monty Python’s retelling of the story, uses the word to berate a Roman Centurion about a tragically named friend of Pilate’s. It’s risible fun from a bunch of over-educated Brits.

Think for a bit about all of the synonyms we have for things that are funny. Then try a few new ones in your vocabulary.

Please send interesting  words and metaphors and send them 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: Scrween Cap fwom life of Bwian.

 

 

 

 

Metaphor of the Month! Under the Radar

British Radar, World War 2This metaphor gives me the chance to engage in a bit of aviation-geekery. I am also certain I can figure out a Holiday angle, as the season did suddenly come upon me by surprise after a year that dragged on, slowly: a rarity at my age.  Such unexpected events can be said to have flown under the radar.

So where did it come from, this term? The OED has many radar-related metaphors we use constantly, and they’d provide good training on the vagaries of phrasal verbs (ones that have a preposition after them) for English-Language Learners. Consider the nuances between these sentences:

  • Sorry I missed the meeting. It wasn’t even on my radar.
  • Several unpopular provisions of the law flew under the radar until just before a final vote in the Senate.
  • Briefly the darling of campus technologists and a few educators, the use of virtual worlds in learning fell off the radar after just a year or two.

“Below the radar” and “under it” pretty much imply the same thing: something slipped in unnoticed. Storms actually do this and so can stealthy aircraft or low-flying ones.

These metaphors started turning up in the 1980s; I find that date unusual, as radar played an enormous role in aerial warfare during the Second World War. The word itself is an acronym for “Radio detection and ranging,” first appearing in 1940, when the United Kingdom used it to great effect to detect Luftwaffe aircraft bound for British cities during the Battle of Britain.  At the time, London claimed that their anti-aircraft gunners were doing so well because their eyesight had been improved by eating lots of carrots.

Step back a moment. I recall when that lie, worthy of a Monty-Python skit, still had some currency.  The truth of the matter did not fly quite under the radar, as the Germans knew about British radar installations and attacked them. They had radar of their own, as did all the major combatants.

You can find an interesting history of British radar myths at The Spitfire Site, where I borrowed the Creative-Commons image above of a German radar installation. Happy landings!

And it cannot hurt to eat more carrots.

Please send interesting  words and metaphors and send them 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! Horological

Hamilton Wrist WatchRobyn Bradshaw, of UR Catering, wrote to ask me if I thought that COVID-19 might be the “Horological Torpedo of our time.” That’s a reference to Confederate John Maxwell’s timed explosive used against Union shipping just down the river from us at City Point.

I don’t know how to answer Robyn’s question, as I’m not an epidemiologist.  Out of an abundance of caution yes, I’ve gotten my COVID booster to dodge that particular torpedo. I can, however, hazard a few words about the adjective, as I collect the occasional automatic (self-winding) wrist watch.  I’m also obsessed by metaphors and quotations related to time.

Horology is the science of time, its study and measurement, to be precise as, say, a Hag-Heuer watch. Wikipedia’s entry discusses the Greek etymology of the term as well as its history as a science. We take time-keeping for granted, save when we must reset our clocks (our phones self-correct) for daylight-savings time. Phones themselves have replaced watches for many folks I know, of any age. I prefer a watch, as it’s one form of male bling that does not look ridiculous.

Horologists might study time, but I’ve heard the term used to refer to watch-makers as well as collectors, though an interesting discussion online includes the awkward, even lewd, sounding horophile as the proper term for watch-and-clock fanciers.  What gentle and, yes, time-consuming fun to argue about words in that manner!

Spend some time searching the byways and highways of your reading for interesting words and metaphors and send them 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 of Hamilton Khaki Automatic Watch ruthlessly stolen from a site selling them. It’s an excellent and reasonably priced watch, one of the first nice watches I ever bought.

Words of the Week! Halloween Adjectives!

mutantOdd, isn’t it, how many words we associate with Halloween’s horror begin with the letter “g”?  I covered “grotesque” back in 2018. Let’s have a look at a few others that spring, like a zombie from its grave, to mind.

Gruesome: We do not hear this one as much as our next word, though I associate gruesome things with gore. The OED blames Sir Walter Scott for introducing our word to literature, in the sense of “Inspiring fear, awe, or horror; such as to cause one to shudder with fear; fearful, horrible; grisly.” Grisly: there’s another G word for Halloween. In any case, thank you, Sir Walter Scott; your giving us this word is nothing, compared to how Mark Twain blamed your books for the Civil War.

Gory: Without getting visceral here, we know what this one entails (or entrails). Covered with blood! Yikes. Here’s The OED entry.

Ghastly: This word sounds almost prim, in comparison to the rest of our list. From Middle English, according to The OED, this type of terror gets associated with…guess what? The sight of carnage or death! In its obsolete sense, it’s a Downton Abbey word for something repellant, in the sense of “oh, Heavens! Her silver service looks ghastly!”

Ghoulish: I think of a ghoul (thank you, H.P. Lovecraft) as a creature that eats dead bodies. Long before Night of The Living Dead, we had such fiends in speculative literature. So what does The OED say? It notes that if you resemble a flesh-eater, or take an unnatural interest in these matters, you are ghoulish. Right now, that would include me. I like that we have, in part, an Arabic loan-word at play here, from a creature out of The Arabian Nights.

Ghostly: Even if we have not seen a ghost, we know what the word implies: a disembodied soul wandering the earth. It is an old word, going back to Germanic origins. The adjective form has a history nearly as long, but in our sense of something eerie or unnatural, we only need to time-travel back to the 18th Century. It’s a fascinating word with many obsolete meanings, as a long OED entry explains.

Grim: Given his job, how could he be the “Happy Reaper”? As with “ghost” The OED notes that the word came to the British Isles via the Grendel-haunted fens of Frisia and Germany, where the spelling was the same. Savage, cruel, fierce: all are wrapped up in this grim word.

Happy Halloween! My movie pick for 2021? 1983’s The Hunger! Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are the most stylish vampires, ever.

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 from…never you mind. Keep your lights on.