Word of the Week! Altruism

A helping handRarely to I begin a post with a full definition from the OED, but for this word, I shall:

“Disinterested or selfless concern for the well-being of others, esp. as a principle of action. Opposed to selfishness, egoism, or (in early use) egotism.”

This sentiment, so at odds with the stock-market panic and hoarding now underway, should remind us of better times past and, yes, ahead once the fevers, real or anxiety-born, die down.

The entry at the OED gives us a good sense of where our word comes from, and it’s a loan word from the French altruisme. Curiously, it only dates to the mid-19th Century in English. Certainly, as any novel by Dickens attests, people were not all Scrooges and Mister Bumbles back then, or earlier.

Later formations are altruist, for one who practices altruism, as well as the slightly earlier altruistic.

Right now might seem a dangerous time to be selfless. What small acts of altruism have you practiced during this emergency? Which will you practice?

I saw a lot of altruism this week among my Writing Consultants at the university. We resume remote learning next week, so many of my student employees put their elders to shame, stepping right up to help students with their papers, regardless of their current job duties.  Don’t make fun of “Gen Z” until you have been around more of them. They are kinder than we old fogies. Good thing, that.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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 “A Helping Hand” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Quarantine

quarantine station 1957Here we are, self-isolating as the university gets ready to resume learning, by distance and technology. Even if you are not in a medical facility or ill, you are effectively in quarantine.

I was curious, in these troubled times, about the origin of our word, in both noun and verb forms. The OED entries reveal that the verb is a 19th-Century back formation (without any changes) from the noun. That older word, a borrowing from both French and Latin, dates to the 15th Century and probably earlier to pre-Gutenberg times.

Obsolete meanings from the OED refer to religious fasts, including the 40 days of fasting Jesus endured. More modern uses are quite familiar as COVID-19 works its evil magic, such as “isolation imposed on newly arrived travellers in order to prevent the spread of disease.”

As with many useful words, this one gets employed metaphorically, for legal, technological, and other purposes. May your quarantines all be short and our return to campus speedy.

Ill or healthy, I can still type, and this blog will soldier on as we cope with the emergency.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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.

Public health station, New Orleans, 1957, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Black Swan

Black SwanWrong I was, completely wrong, when I implied that the COVID-19 outbreak would not become a pandemic. Now we are talking not only about that unfortunate development but also its impacts on the global economy and the US election.

No one can predict when a new disease will emerge, so they provide perfect case-studies of black-swan events. Why that avian metaphor? It’s ancient, but the meaning has not changed. As I learned from a surprisingly erudite Wikipedia entry,  in the 2nd Century, Roman satirist Juvenal mentioned “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan.”

Today in the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo notes now “I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected ‘black swan’ event that upends historical expectation.”

Let’s look at the reasoning behind the metaphor. Wikipedia’s editors suggest to qualify it must be “an event that comes as a surprise” when, say, one assumes that all swans are white. That black bird, then, could not be a swan. In consequence, limited imaginative thinking can lead to disaster. That’s because a black-swan event also has large-scale effects.

We may not be talking about birds, but, say, a new way that birds pass infections to humans. Blinded by prior experience, researchers miss the black swan in the lake.

You may have heard the old saw that goes, in some form, “the military is always fighting the last war.” The leadership at Pearl Harbor and the builders of the Maginot Line were thus surprised by military black swans: strong airstrikes from carriers or blitzkrieg warfare featuring highly mobile armored units that bypass fortifications.

Other famous black-swan events include the start of the First World War of 1914, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event of 65 million years ago, the rapid adoption of the Smart Phone after the iPhone debuted in 2007. I’d personally not include the Housing Crisis of 2008. Many of us saw it coming, so it offered few surprises though it did have a large effect, as all black-swan events have.

We may live in a time of black swans. Manjoo’s column claims that we must adapt to increasing chaos. I hope he is wrong about the many black swans coming to roost.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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.

Word of the Week! Moot

Moot CourtI find it odd that I’ve not covered “moot” before. Perhaps my interest skews toward the Latinate. This short term just drips with the mists of the Celtic fringe of Northern Europe.

So, it’s not a moot point: where did it come from? Northern Europe, yes, but not Celtic languages. Origins of the word go to Germany and Scandinavia, all with a sense of a meeting. Remember “Ent Moot” in Tolkien’s The Two Towers?  Yet that is a real meeting. Noting “mock” about it.

So how did our word take on its modern sense of a “moot court”?

Moot can also mean a tree-stump , something our Oxford Don would have certainly considered in choosing his term for a meeting of talking, walking trees. Some noun usages mean merely “an argument” rather than the place where it occurs. Only when we get to moot as an adjective, meaning “having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic” or “unable to be resolved,” do we get our familiar meaning. Points in court were declared “moot,” and I have idea how the very word for the gathering became the word for a non-desirable outcome.

Bryan Garner’s excellent A Dictionary of Modern American Usage holds that “this shift in meaning occurred about 1900” (436). He says not why.

The reasons for that shift are not moot points. It would be worth more research to discover why.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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.

Belgrade Moot Court, courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

Garner, Bryan A. A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Word of the Week! Pettifogger

image of pettifoggerBusiness-School Professor and wordsmith  Joe Hoyle asked about this term, a timely one since it got bandied about during the Senate’s recent impeachment trial. It dates back to the 16th Century and has a nice origin, compounding “petty” with the word “fogger,” a forgotten term that may refer to “the surname of a family of wealthy mercantile bankers and venture capitalists from Augsburg, Germany.”

A “fogger,” according to that same entry, came to mean a “a low-ranking lawyer who abuses the law” but that usage petered out in the 19th Century. The term has a more modern synonym, shyster, that is with us still, in deed and word.

For our word it seems redundant to add “petty,” for small,  but it accomplishes two things. First, as my students learn in the bestselling writing text, They Say / I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, it’s acceptable practice, as the authors put it, to repeat oneself “with a difference.” Adding “petty” emphasizes how petty that fogger really can be.

Less seriously, the compounding gives us the ability to engage in some wonderfully Southern-sounding alliterative curses, such as “You, sir, are no more than a pusillanimous and picayune pettifogger plundering the public purse!”

How did I do? The word “pettifogger” had legs enough to breed what are called “back formations” in our language: the verb “pettifog” and gerund “pettifogging.” I guess dubious legal practices for small coin never go out of style.

Perchance pettifoggery promotes puerile punditry? Okay, I’ll stop. At least until next week.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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.

Sleazy lawyer image, “Reptilian” courtesy of Jeremy Sternberg.

Metaphor of the Month! Spartan

Leonidas meets Marie

Let’s continue the Peloponnesian fun with another word from Ancient Greece, in fact, from Laconia that gave us last week’s “laconic.”

Sparta was, of course, one of the most powerful Greek city-states. Yet why did a friend describe a minimalist’s house as “Spartan”? How did the virtues espoused by Marie Kondo align with those of King Leonidas?

It’s clearly a metaphor associated with “not having a lot of stuff / bare bones /  austere / reduced to essentials.” A look at the culture of ancient Sparta yields a lot of good information on Spartan values: hierarchy, simplicity, a militant orderliness for all things. The OED dates this sense of the adjective to the 19th Century, for frugality or brevity (as in a laconic reply).

Since this is still Sparta at our blog, or at least a pretense of it, I’ll end there.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Marie meets Leonidas, courtesy of Photoshop.

Word of the Week! Laconic

SpartaI would like to be more laconic in my replies. It’s a gift. The art of the terse, but meaningful, statement can be lost on academics. We professors write, as one student in my class today put it, by “spewing ideas.”

Can a critical idea be expressed in a few words? I think so. That’s the art of a laconic statement.

The term’s origin is Greek, referring to Laconia, the region where the ancient city of Sparta can be found. The term “spartan” has come to mean minimalist. Think of a laconic statement that way.

I’ve read several about historical instances of a laconic reply, but none work better than what the Spartans said to Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander The Great. During his campaign to unite Greece, he warned Sparta that “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The official reply of the Spartan government? “If.”

Millennia later, General McAuliffe of the US 101st Airborne, surrounded by the German Army at Bastogne, replied “Nuts!” to the demand that he surrender. Truly a Spartan, in spirit.

We can find laconic statements far from the battlefield. Here I’m thinking of how we understate a real problem, even a disaster, by calling it an “issue.”  A relative of few words once quipped about a tightwad’s unwillingness, “that would require spending money.”

Succinct, understated, direct: do you ever express yourself that way?

Can academics?

Maybe.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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 ancient Sparta courtesy of Wikipedia.

Words of the Week! Weather & Whether

Ah, homonyms in a time when we are once again becoming an oral culture. Too many of my students neither read enough seriously nor read with care when they are required to do so. Hence, the repeated docking of 10 points (they can get them back) for confusing “whether” and “weather.”

As in Dylan’s song, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s blowing an ill wind, for nuance in the language. I think. If so, I cannot stop it with my 10 measly points.  But what if these winds blew before? And will blow again? Hence my Mead Hall photo. We are going back to the time of Beowulf, fen-stalking Grendel the monster, and the warlike but helpless Geats that the monster preyed upon.

As we’ll see, there were once two distinct terms in play that now sound exactly alike. So where did our words come from and where diverge? Let’s dip again into Henry Bradley’s The Making of English, (a steal for your Kindle at 99 cents, the one sort of book I like to read on a screen). The philologist notes, in his chapter on changes of meaning, that “[m]ost of the distinctions that exist in spelling and not in pronunciation are between words that are historically different, and when this is so the various spelling usually represent obsolete varieties of pronunciation.”

“Whether” is one of the oldest English words I’ve featured. The OED dates an obsolete adverbial form back to the time of Beowulf, with the Old English term hwæþ(e)re. Leaving that term in the Mead Hall with the brooding Geats, let’s move forward in time a bit, to look over, in your own sweet time, (spelled many different ways) the multiple ways in which “whether” got employed down the centuries. It’s almost maddening to follow the many twists and turns this one ancient word took, until we get to 1819,  with Poet Percy Shelley wondering in a letter, “I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no.”

So am I. Can I teach Gen Z why the words are not interchangeable in writing? Or is it as doomed as Beowulf’s last battle with a dragon? Let’s not go there. What about the weather? Here we have another ancient word, this time from German, rendered in Old English as weder. I suppose when Grendel ventured out into the fens to maim, mangle, and eat Geat, he did his best work in foul weather, and he was able to distinguish the pronunciation of the two terms. The OED notes morphing in how the word got spelled, but like whether, weather (the word, if not the phenomena) settled down by the 19th Century.

What will happen next, round the colossal wreck of whether and weather? I’m no weatherman. I don’t know. Our modern forms of communication lend themselves to encouraging more simplification. Maybe we’ll use one spelling such as “wether” in a century, and listeners will then, as now, know which way the linguistic wind should blow. I and my 10-point penalty will be long gone, either way.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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.

Mead hall image courtesy of Wikipedia. I really wanted one of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm, but I didn’t know weather whether it would be safe for work.

Work of the Week! Carol

scroogeEver since I took on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in our school’s 6th grade Christmas play, I’ve wondered about the term “carol.” The only other instance of the word had been a proper name, usually female.

When meant as a “song,” usage can be traced as far back by the OED to the 14th Century. For a song specifically for Christmas, the oldest recorded usage there is the 16th. By the time Dickens wrote his tale, I suppose other uses of the word had become rare. Like the novelist, however, we still employ the adjective “Christmas” before the noun, a redundancy; there are no Thanksgiving carols or Valentine’s Day carols, after all. Some of us even go “caroling,” and we do not modify the gerund at all.

As to its origins, our word of the week harkens back to the Middle English karol and the Old French carole. The latter apparently signified a round dance with singing.

Incidentally, “hark,” a verb for “listen” that we tend to only use in a particular carol, itself comes from Middle English. We trot out the language of Chaucer for special occasions, or even older words such as last year’s pick, Yule.  Think about it for a moment: when have you used the word “herald,” as a noun or verb, save in reference to a newspaper’s title?

I have been reading Henry Bradley’s excellent, and once influential book The Making of English. I’ve an inexpensive Dover edition, but it can be had, for free, online. Bradley notes how enriching the influence of other languages were upon English, a process that continues today. The very act of including new terms adds nuance, Bradley insists, and “the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest to our purpose. . .ought to be strenuously rejected.” In that spirit, “carol” has come to possess a singular use, giving us just the right term at just the correct time. Bradley refers to this process of narrowing meanings as specialization, “whereby a word of wide meaning acquires a narrower sense.”

Something about the season of lengthening nights, then returning light, also brings out ancient words from many faiths, words perfectly suited to solemnity of long dark nights or the joy of celebrations. Some of us “deck” those halls and “trim” a tree without cutting it. I attend a Yule party every year, where we “wassail” the apple tree: drinking a toast while saying the old “Wassail! Drink hale!” from pre-Christian days.

So hearken to these antique terms this holiday.  And may they be as bright as Scrooge’s, after he had some ghostly visitors. No humbug around here, please!

We will ring in the New Year with a metaphor of the month, but until then, we’re away for the holidays. Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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 from A Christmas Carol courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Read the entire text there.

Word of the Week! Amanuensis

dictaphone operatorBelieve it or not, this word came up in lunch conversation with colleagues. One of them will have lectures taped for a student, yet he worries that his notes on the board may not be clear enough to someone not physically present. “You need an amanuensis,” I said. Word-snob that I can be, it’s good to be in company that didn’t need a definition. One person even said “I want one just so I can say that I have an amanuensis.”

So what is this Latin-sounding word? The etymology shows that, technically, it means “belonging to a secretary,” or one who writes things down for someone else. I’ve thought of it in that sense. The OED notes that this person takes dictation. That’s not very common any longer, on campuses or in offices. The term is nearly as hoary, with the OED’s last recorded instance from the year 1860. Like palimpsest, another Word of the Week, our term now mostly appears in Humanities courses, where it often occurs in historical contexts.

That history shows us how social change, with women no longer willing to enter typing or dictation pools, as well as technological change, from dictating devices to AI, doomed the profession and the term. Siri might be my imperfect amanuensis, yet she’s getting better at it with each upgrade. It’s noteworthy that Apple lets us pick a gender and generic accent (US/UK/Australian) for this small precursor to artificial intelligence.

So is our word going extinct, like a stenographer’s pad or the manual typewriter? That the OED has no usage frequency bar may provide a clue.  Once voice-to-text applications become good enough, I suspect we’ll need a new word. The Latin-derived amanuensis just sounds a bit prissy for the 21st Century. “Transcriber” comes to mind. Care to nominate a different word? Or invent one? Let me know.

Though we’ll take a short holiday break, we’ll publish this blog until classes resume in January. Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing 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 an amanuensis working a wax-cylinder Dictaphone machine courtesy of Wikipedia.