Word of the Week! Fickle

Flying Fickle Finger of Fate TrophyOh, the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate,” which is where I first heard our word, as a wee lad, back when “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was the hottest show on television in 1968. Their  FFFF was an award of dubious distinction given for a poor performance. The US Congress was the first recipient. Makes sense. They have earned a lifetime award.

So there. That’s where I learned how fickle fate can be. But I never learned the origin or currency of our word. So let’s have a look, shall we?

Our word has multiple origins but all point to something changeable, unusally not in a good way. Some of fickleness relates to dishonesty, though the OED gives both that original meaning and a newer one meaning “puzzling.” Often fickle behavior, from a person or even the weather, puzzles us even if it does not hurt us.

From about the year  1200, we have “false, treacherous, deceptive, deceitful, crafty” (obsolete), probably from Old English ficol “deceitful, cunning, tricky,” related to befician “deceive,” and to facen “deceit, treachery; blemish, fault.” Common Germanic (compare Old Saxon fekan “deceit,” Old High German feihhan “deceit, fraud, treachery”), from the same source as “foe.” This all comes from the The Online Etymology Dictionary. Fickleness, then, antagonizes the predictable.

We live in fickle times. It seems that anything can happen, which could explain why since Rowan and Martin’s day, usage of the word has doubled from 1968 to 2014, attested by the entry cited above. The OED also records a more gradual uptick.

There are other words I would rather see gain popularity. Wouldn’t you? I hope no fickle fingers point your way this summer, but this blog will continue in the summer months, and I hope in some form in 2025, when I retire from full-time teaching on our faculty.

So until they carry me out feet-first after some fickle fate finds me, send words and metaphors of interest by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Image Source:  from a site selling an original FFFF award!

Word of the Week! Insipid

Bowl of clear broth with vegetablesSome time back, during my rip through the R.W.B. Lewis biography of Edith Wharton, I covered the word fatuous. Our pick this week, also one Wharton employed, could be first cousin to that word. Fatuous means something silly or stupid. Wharton found much of modern life (and fiction) fatuous, insipid, or both. Truly, both words walk down the decades hand in hand.

Our word should bring to mind, to those with decent vocabularies, a bowl of very thin soup. Such a dish possesses more flavor than hot water, but the result tastes thin and lacking, quickly leading to an empty stomach. The OED seconds this culinary linkage, with references dating back to the early 17th Century, coming to us via French via the Latin insipidus.

Sometimes, silliness and blandness are not twins. For many first-years, their writing strikes me not as fatuous, because most of them work in earnest to prove themselves in college. Yet often the results too often prove insipid, featuring too many verbs of being, limited vocabularies, generalizations or superficial claims not original to themselves. I do scold them a bit, but mostly my work involves getting them to hear how insipid (and boring) the prose appears. They don’t care for their first grades of C or even B-, but there it stands. Too much writing we read remains insipid, as uninspired as the work Wharton disliked.

Frequency for our word has not been common since the days of tricorn hats, when it enjoyed about eight times the use we see today. Insipid writing, however, never went away. I suppose common terms such as “bland” or the more interesting “voiceless” have filled the void. “Tasteless” does not mean, except literally, much about food. When used metaphorically, it can mean crude or vulgar or, well, fatuous.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

image source: “Clear Soup” by dielok at Flikr. That soup looks excellent, not insipid!

Word of the Week! Nostrum

Rows of patent medicines on the shelf.My students training to be Writing Consultants recently conducted an experiment in class. They traded papers with a partner and held a writing conference. Then they employed both Grammarly and Chat GPT 4.0 to see what sort of commentary these pieces of software would provide.

Results varied but one commonality emerged: software tends to dispense generally positive-sounding but generic advice such as “be sure you integrate all the sources well” or “check the first sentence of each paragraph to be certain it connects to the final idea in the paragraph before.”

Well, duh. Teaching students to prompt-engineer their questions to an AI helps, but meanwhile, thanks for the nostrums, ChatGPT.  I gave one student that word, one I knew but have rarely have used. I suspect that soon I’ll be using this word too much.

What is a nostrum? Where did it come from?  And why is it related to our photo of “polite soothing syrups”?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary quotes a famous writer for a usage example, “Whether there was real efficacy in these nostrums, and whether their author himself had faith in them, is more than can safely be said,” wrote 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, “but, at all events, the public believed in them.”

A nostrum in our modern sense can still mean a dubious medical cure; several nostrums were hyped at the highest levels of government as preventatives for COVID-`19, with a few fatal and un-prosecuted outcomes. Typically, we instead call these sorts of pharmaceutical scams “snake oil” or just “quackery.” Yet a soothing word or phrase that means little of substance can still go by “nostrum,” especially if otherwise they do not harm a patient.

In terms of origins, our obviously Latin word has an interesting backstory. From my favorite online etymology source, I leaned that current usage dates to about 1600, so again we have a Renaissance term from that era’s renewal of interest in Classical texts for secular learning. You’ll also find many good synonyms for our word at this site, so I highly recommend it. I think I found the origin of the Spanish cura, meaning priest or a cure, there. We have a link to the historically medical (as well as their typically spiritual) cures that clergy brought to folks in earlier times.

I’d heard of the Roman name for the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, our sea. And so it was for centuries. That fact must have been soothing to Romans who could live near the coast without fear of dark enemy sails appearing on the horizon!

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Image Source: public domain image from Picryl

Metaphor of the Month! Hobson’s Choice

Horses in stallsBy Leo Barnes

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to get a suggestion and post from Leo. I invite other student readers to send me words and metaphors. I appreciate Leo’s mention of Joseph Heller’s amazing novel, one that used to be read widely on college campuses and would merit reading again in these times.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Hobson’s Choice as an apparently free choice that in reality is more like an ultimatum. The word comes from a British 17th-century stable owner named Thomas Hobson from Cambridge. Hobson was a courier with a large stable of horses he would rent out to university students looking to go riding or visit nearby London.

He noticed that all the students only wanted to ride his best horses while the rest got no use at all. This was problematic. His most popular horses were being overworked while the rest were becoming deconditioned. Hobson fixed this by devising a system where he’d switch the horses everyday from stall to stall on a planned circuit. The horse nearest the stable entrance — and only that horse — was what Hobson would rent to students for that day. Students had the choice of that horse or no horse at all.

portrait of Thomas Hobson
Thomas Hobson, by Unknown artist (1629)

What comes to mind when I think of Hobson’s Choice is Joseph Heller’s hilarious book Catch-22. The story takes place during the second World War where Milo Minderbinder — the squadron mess officer — gives his fellow servicemen a choice that’s not a choice at all:

“[Milo] raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative, there was an alternative, of course—since Milo detested coercion, and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve.”

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Image credits: Ἰάσων at Flickr for horses, Wikipedia for image of Thomas Hobson.


Word of the Week! Trove

treasure trove of coinsI use this word a bit but have never covered it before. Or uncovered it: that may be closer to its meaning.

As someone who follows space-related news regularly, if not obsessively, I came across “trove” in this story about the comet Ryugu. The example from the piece shows common usage: “These samples are proving to be a veritable trove of information, not just about Ryugu but about broader solar system processes.”

I figured there would be a link to the French verb trouver meaning “to find,” since one thinks of treasure-hunters finding a trove of ancient gold or artifacts. The older use of our word got paired always with “treasure,” predating the solitary use of “trove” by several centuries.

The OED entry on this week’s word does not trace the link to trouver, but a page at the Linguistics stack-exchange does, going back even further, “The French verb. . . can trace its ancestry back to the Greek word τρόπος, which means a turn, manner, style, or figure of speech.” So we turn things up in a trove.

Comet RyuguOur little comet doesn’t look like it would turn up much, does it? We are not looking at solid gold. Ryugu’s real trove, however, is knowledge: we may have found a means by which early life emerged on our planet, through cometary bombardment with materials essential to, well, creating us and all life around us. Sobering thoughts for late winter, as plant-life begins to re-emerge from its nap?

Update: I made a few changes today, armed with coffee, to differentiate “trove” from “treasure trove.”

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 credits: Treasure trove from Bad Sassendorf-Herringsen and comet Ryugu courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Euphoric

Sad Dog in Party HatLet’s end a dark year on a happy note. Do you feel euphoric that 2023 has ended? I sure do.

It’s a greeting-card’s whistling in the dark to say “the best is yet to come,” “hope springs eternal,” or “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” but hey. We are mostly still here and surprises, good and bad, await us in 2024. So we might spare a moment or three to be euphoric on New Year’s Eve.

What about the word itself? It’s from the Greek euphoria, εὐϕορία, which the OED tells me means to “bear well.” That’s a ways from the ecstasy I associate with feeling euphoric. Digging in a bit, the dictionary shows that the original and now obsolete meaning, from pathology, meant a state of well-being. Only later did our word come to mean “a state of cheerfulness or well-being, esp. one based on over-confidence or over-optimism.”

So which mood do you wish for ending 2023? Pick your sentiments, and whichever one you choose, be it whistling in the dark or finding some peace, may your 2024 bring only good tidings.

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.

Halloween Word of the Week! Skeleton

Me with Skeleton, 2023

I’ve featured Halloween adjectives  here before, but not one of my favorite words. As pronounced in England, it’s “skeluhton.” I hear “skellington”or “skellinton,” which I often say just to get a chuckle. Funny bone! Halloween skeletons are not scary by the standards of 2023.

We all know what a skeleton is and in fact, we carry one around with us (well, inside us) daily. Where did this bony word come from? The OED fact-sheet abounds with information, beyond the UK and US pronunciations. We have the Latin sceleton, and I learned that the metaphor “skeleton in the closet” first appeared in the mid-19th Century. I like the contemporaneous metaphor “skeleton at the feast,” for something that ruins a moment of enjoyment.

We use our word metaphorically all the time, in calling things “skeletal” or referring to something wasted away as a “skeleton.”

Carry those bones with you as you consider ways to vary your vocabulary.

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: Selfie with “Bucky,” the skeleton at Glenmore Yoga Studio. Boo!

Metaphor of the Month! Haywire

tangled wiresDr. Mike Kerckhove, in our Math Department, nominated this term, since he knows I bale hay (by hand!) on our farm. As a native Midwesterner, he also wondered if the term comes from what happens when a mechanical hay-baler gets out of synch. Baling wire being what it is, I can imagine the mess.

I’ve long used the expressions “gone haywire” to describe any mechanical or electronic device that starts acting oddly. To me the metaphor signified not quite a complete breakdown but rather a malfunction.

The OED’s new format online includes a factsheet showing earliest known use in the early 1900s, corresponding to the appearance of stationary, belt-driven equipment on farms; the modern balers I have considered buying run off a power shaft on the back of a tractor.

By the 1920s, our current usage appeared common. A few others appeared, such as “a hay-wire outfit” cited by the OED for a poorly run, slapdash operation. That idea persists with the expression for hasty repairs, “held together with chewing gum and baling wire.”

One day I will own a mechanical baler, instead of baling about 10 bales (during a good  year) in a wooden baling box and then binding the bales with plastic cord. That simple operation never goes haywire, but we use about 30 bales of hay or straw, mostly for animal bedding, in a typical year. Once I have a machine to pull behind the tractor, I’ll know first-hand how things do indeed go haywire. Dr. Kerckhove, you are invited to help me with the baling.

Have a word or metaphor worth our time? If so, let me know 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 source from the Creative-Commons guru Cory Doctorow, via Flickr.

Word of the Week! Flummox

Question MarksI love the “mouthfeel” of this term. It makes me want to chuckle.

A search at the OED reveals both a noun and verb form, with the verb being more frequently used. It can mean to confound, to confuse. Often I see it as an adjective, as in “The crossword puzzle completely flummoxed me today.”

I’m flummoxed by the spelling changes in our word over the centuries. The OED gives several options from past examples. Even less certain is the term’s etymology. One interesting idea involves the history of the noun, which once meant a failure on certain college campuses.

What other college terms have entered general usage? At Virginia we used to say “punt” a class for skipping it, or that a class was either a “gut” (easy) or a “bear” (hard).  “Haze,” for a noxious practice of fraternity initiation, has a broader origin, from the military.

Perhaps “flummox” provides one collegiate example that escaped campuses into general use.

Our word also calls to mind the noun “lummox,” for large and ungainly person or animal. As with our word, the etymology is uncertain but “to flummox a lummox” has real promise in a children’s book to teach some vocabulary on the sly to the wee ones.

Do any words flummox you enough to have me investigate? If so, let me know 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 source: me and Photoshop

Word of the Week! Affordance

Screenshot of iconsThis word perplexed me when I first encountered it, during some discussion of software. I recall the statement “what are the affordances of this particular application?” I disliked the word instantly, yet now find myself using it, as I draft an article about the affordances of peer tutoring by humans, as compared to the help provided by generative AI.

For a word I find ugly, affordance sure came in handy. To get at the root of our word, even the OED will not quite do. Wikipedia, however, with its crowd-sourced wisdom and peer-editing offers just the affordance we need. According to Psychologist James L. Gibson, who coined the term, affordance involves many factors beyond “usefulness.” His definitions cited in the Wikipedia entry involve how a particular environment benefits an animal. When applied to software, which most animals do not use, we see how graphical-user interfaces offer affordances that older command-line interfaces do not.

UNIX users can come lay a beating on me any time they wish to try.

We can dive into the signified/signifier rabbit hole here, but consider how the smart-phone’s icon of an envelope connotes e-mail, whereas a phone headset connotes a voice call.  The affordances of icon-based systems seem rather obvious; we recognize something immediately, saving us time as compared to looking up that command in a book. Older readers will recall post-it notes all around their desktop monitors with arcane tricks for DOS or other command-line programs.

Coda: industrial design is also all about affordance. Look at everyday items in your home or office and note their affordances. I can heat water in a ceramic cup or my teapot. I suppose I could drink from either, yet each offers different affordances.

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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.

Screen-shot by the author