Word of the Week! Registrar

HIgh Density Filing System

Last year, I covered “syllabus” as our word for the first week of classes. It’s one that many students never encounter before arriving on campus.  Given the ancient history of universities, there’s no surprise that many words unknown beyond our gates crop up.

Some terms, like “campus,” “curriculum,” or “physical plant” enjoy broader usage, but I could not immediately think of anywhere else I have heard “Registrar” employed. Students learn quickly that our Registrar’s Office does a fine job of setting up enrollment systems, guaranteeing course-credit where credit is due, tallying units of same so a student my gradate correctly.  But where did they get their name?

Several British officials have held the title, including one roughly analogous to an American Justice of the Peace; this much I learned from the OED’s entry. Thus any official or office charged with keeping civil or clerical records could be a Registrar. In US parlance, however, at first I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Then I recalled  that at the last election I saw a reference to our Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.

Thank a Registrar for your vote getting counted, the diploma hanging on the wall, or the transcript your employer requested.  The OED has this usage dating to the early 18th Century. For other meanings, our word goes back to the 16th Century and probably earlier.

So when you call upon the Registrar this semester, tell them you appreciate the assistance: their work makes this place possible as an official, degree-granting entity.

Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such largely invisible services: I wish I had a photo of the UVA Registrar’s vast filing system from the 1980s; they provided the State of Virginia with my official transcript, proving my degree so I could take a tech-writing job for the Department of Corrections. My duties for DOC involved proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records for an early database, OBCIS (The Offender Based Correctional Information System), now mostly a footnote in the history of corrections; the data have been merged with other databases, into what I hope remains an accurate set of records.

We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to storing paper; we needed only a small conference room to do the OBCIS coding. We managed paper files for over ten thousand incarcerated felons and an equal number out on parole; the files all moved about on an automated retrieval system. The core of this was a giant conveyor belt for floor-to-ceiling file cabinets. If a Parole Board member or the Governor wanted a file, it needed to be available at the counter in no more than a couple of minutes. Peons like me? We waited longer. The facility included advanced fire-suppression technology that did not use water. Loss of records, none duplicated, would have been catastrophic. We’d have lost release dates, psychological profiles, and opinions by members of our Parole Board.

It could be mind-numbing work, but we kept a supply of coffee handy and kept reminding ourselves that mistakes might delay a person’s release or hasten it. In a different DOC job a few months later,  I had the wrong inmate show up at my office for a pre-parole interview. He admitted that he got a free ride in a police car and a meal at a different jail. He was a non-violent offender and very affable, but no one believed his story. I gave him a cup of coffee. The next day, we got the right guy in for his chat.

Today, an incorrect entry in an electronic record and be annoying, even damaging, but with backups on and off-site, one hopes that we can avoid chaos.

Addendum for August 28: thanks to reader Marybeth Bridges for this medical reference from the UK, replete with British spellings:

A junior doctor undergoing specialty training under the UK model of graduate medical education. Under the Modernising Medical Careers programme, juniors complete two years of general medical training—the so-called Foundation Years (FY1, FY2)—after which they compete for National Training Numbers (NTNs) and begin specialty training (as specialty registrars), often beginning in the 3rd year after graduating from medical school.

Registrar posts are often described by the year of specialist training expected of the appointee—e.g., year anaesthetic registrar SpR3 is a reasonably experienced anaesthetic trainee.

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.

Storage system photo courtesy of Police.com. Get one for your files at home! You know you need one!

Metaphor of the Month! Infernal

Inferno Image

How appropriate for this season! Virginia’s infernal heat of July and August should remind us why.

In Latin, as the OED entry notes, infernālis meant “realms below.” The use of fire in the underworld is apparently a bit of Medieval Christian theology, but none of the underworlds of Antiquity were places you’d want to spend your vacation.

The association with the hellfire of Christianity can be traced back a long time; the OED’s earliest usage, from 1385, is by Chaucer.

So when I call the weather “infernally hot and humid” I’ve made an ancient reference indeed. Yet we can have “infernally cold” or dry or wet weather. Anything or anyone so bad to seem hellish can wear this metaphor (and some doubtlessly wear it proudly).

Looking forward to your words and metaphors as the weather becomes less infernal!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.

Inferno image courtesy of Daniel Brachlow at Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Liminal

Threshold PhotographThis word troubled me in graduate school, during the darkest part of what I now call “The Theory Wars” in English. This was a time when ideas about how to teach literature changed rapidly, and many a student became a pawn sacrificed in a game with small global stakes. A graduate student’s worth could be measured by the obscure terms bandied about. Academic gadfly Stanley Fish, on a visit to a seminar at Indiana University, asked one notably obtuse peer of mine “son, could you please use a verb?”

Enter, not a verb but the adjective liminal. Thirty years ago to my unschooled ear, it sounded like a term for lighting. There is more to it; like palimpsest, a word featured here a while back, our current pick bubbles with energy when used well (which, sadly, appears to be a rare occurrence).  The term concerns thresholds, as the OED makes plain, and it is a youngblood of a word, first occurring in the late 19th Century. In scientific parlance, it may refer to the “lowest amount necessary to produce a particular effect.”

We might think of “limit” in the same sense, but the OED shows us that that the words do not share an etymology. When thinking about it, a limit ends something. A liminal amount or space serves as a transition.

In my field, that idea of transition takes center stage. Consider this usage by Daniel Mahala that I stumbled upon in my research, “Moreover, writing centers are themselves, as Bonnie Sunstein has amply illustrated, ‘liminal spaces’ where a kind of ‘in-betweenness’ holds sway” (9). Mahala means that centers, as support services and as academic units, have a foot in the worlds of scholarship and service. We naturally cross and, in fact, are thresholds.

Other uses in the Humanities often concern themselves with “indeterminacy, ambiguity, hybridity, potential for subversion and change” (Border Poetics). Thus we see how what was and probably still is called “high theory” adopted a word that might otherwise simply mean a boundary.

As we enter that liminal time between summer and the start of the semester, please nominate a word or metaphor 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.

Threshold” courtesy of M Möller on Flickr.

Works Cited:

Border Poetics. “Liminality.” http://borderpoetics.wikidot.com/liminality

Mahala, Daniel. “Writing Centers in the Managed University.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43442269

Word of the Week! Casuistry

Peanuts Lucy with FootballThanks once again to Robyn Bradshaw in UR Catering for this pick. At first blush, I suspected a back-formation and a modern word, but The OED dates the word from the 18th Century for earliest recorded use by poet and wit Alexander Pope.

The root is indeed “cause” but it’s a certain kind. As our dictionary also notes, a casuist is “A theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct.”

Our word is not usually a positive one, as it is often associated with sophistry, or mere quibbling over causes in a way that obscures the truth. I suppose casuistry to be useful in our divided and money-haunted political system. Liars and thieves can then proceed with an untroubled conscience.  For some reason, the image of Lucy from Peanuts came to my mind. She’s an expert at the dark arts of casuistry and Charlie Brown? Her perfect patsy.

As for a rule of style here? First, casuistry is not a back-formation, in the way that “solicitate” oozes from “solicit.” Bryan Garner makes it plain, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, that back-formations merely add weight but no meaning to a sentence. Garner advises avoiding them as “needless variations.” On the other hand, he likes (as do I) some back-formations such as “emote,” from the noun “emotion.” Thus language gains nuance and variety. Second, watch your spelling. Note the position of the “s” in our word. I had it misspelled to match “cause” until I proofread this post!

As we Charlie Browns of the world soldier on into the dog days of summer, please nominate a word or metaphor 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 Caren Pilgrim at Flickr.

 

Word of the Week! Avuncular

Man from Uncle, 1960sDr. Joe Hoyle, a man I’d describe with this word, nominated it. It’s a strange world, however, where Howard Stern now gets that descriptor. Professor Hoyle wrote to me that he’d encountered that usage recently.

Stern has grown wiser from his “shock jock” days, and while retaining his keen sense of humor, he comes across in interviews as more the listener, the wise older man: the sort of fellow you’d not mind having as an uncle. And that’s our origin for “avuncular.” The OED gives its origin as the “Latin avunculus maternal uncle.” Other than an obsolete usage as a term for a pawn broker, our word has maintained its associations with uncles since the earliest recorded usage.

That’s modern, compared to many terms that appear here. It dates from the second quarter of the 19th Century.  There may be an older usage; find a wise uncle and ask him.  And if there is a comparable term for aunts, please let me know that as well. Professor Ted Bunn mentioned to me a 1982 column by the late William Safire, where the author polled erudite readers for a female equivalent of “avuncular.” “Amital” won the day, but as Safire’s colleague noted, it “sounds to me like a barbiturate.”

The results are funny, if you are well read and interested in such things.

Please nominate a word or metaphor 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 MidCentArc at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! Shambles / Shambolic

Yorkshire Shambles 2009Joe Hoyle in our Business School and my old friend Dominic Carpin, owner of Dellicarpini Farm, nominated “shambolic” as a word of the week. Then I began to think of “The Shambles” in York, England, a series of meandering streets of half-timbered Medieval buildings.

Instead of a word, we have before us a metaphor.  The Shambles were places in England where butchers plyed their  trade.  A “Shamble” itself was, as early as the 9th Century, a wooden stool. Later, it meant a different piece of furniture: a table where butchers set out meat for sale.  From a still later and metaphorical use, I’ve seen “shambles” used in works about naval warfare during the age of sail; the insides of wooden vessels under cannon fire looked like butcher shops.

From these grisly examples we get the figurative “shambles,” meaning a messy, disorderly situation or place.  And thus the adjective “shambolic,” marked by the OED as colloquial and of recent coinage–the late 1950s!

This is not mere linguistic drift (see the entry on the word “fulsome“) or euphemism. It gets to the heart of why English is such a flexible language. From ancient senses of a word–who would advertise their butcher shop as a “shambles” today?–we get new words and nuance.

We’ll keep at it all summer! Please nominate a word or metaphor 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.

Photo, 2009, of York’s Shambles, by the author.

Word of the Week! Pestiferous

London Walk, 2017Special thanks to Robyn Bradshaw, with UR’s Catering Department, for our word this week. When I hear it, I think of the Bubonic Plague cemeteries that still can be found in London. I immediately grabbed a photo I shot outside of one such former burial ground, taken during a 2017 London Walk in The City, the heart of London’s financial district. Where bankers now make deals, victims of the Plague once got mass burials. They were long ago reburied elsewhere, but the skull and crossbones still mark the entrance, today. Our guide, pictured, gave us a chilling sense of the terrible pandemic.

The Plague was know as “the pest,” short for pestilence, though today we think of mosquitoes or annoying people when we hear “pest.” The OED gives the Plague association for our word as its second definition.  More commonly, pestiferous means morally corrupt, even annoying. And so the horrors of the Black Death gave way to something that is a mere nuisance. Oh, bother!

If ever a word underwent a change into banality, it’s pestiferous. One 2003 example, “Something I’m afraid to even Google, for fear of the pestiferous spam it might unleash,” shows how far today (one hopes) we stand from the nightmares of the 14th Century. When you visit London (and I hope you do) take time to read about the history and myths surrounded the Underground and the “Plague Pits” of the Middle Ages.

May your summers be pest-free, though I will pester you for new words and metaphors.  Please nominate one 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 by the author. When in London, especially in the off-season, be sure to take one of the Original London Walks! A ghost walk with Shaughan is not to be forgotten.

Word of the Week! Profligate

Super Villain Turner D. CenturyBoth as noun and adjective, our word trips off the tongue.

As the curious image given implies, people who overindulge in vices of the flesh are “profligates” to a bumbershoot-wielding vigilante. The term has a long history, with noun & adjective usages, as well as a transitive verb, given by the OED. The Latin original means overthrowing, conquering, and 16th Century English usage includes those senses. Our modern notion of decadence and debauchery came a century later.

As with so many good words, our word came to me while reading comic books decades ago.

Contrary to the fuming of curmudgeons, many comics taught kids a great deal about vocabulary. This began for me with Marvel’s titles in the “Silver Age” of the late 60s and “Bronze Age” of the early 70s, when a stable of talented young writers penned dialogue under the leadership of the late Stan Lee. Enter a well read super villain, Turner D. Century, whom I recently described as ” a puritanical Luddite. Rides a flying bicycle built for two, has a flamethrower umbrella, and his ‘girlfriend’ is a manakin with a bomb for a head. Primo 70s Marvel.” Though Turner actually dates from the 80s, his vocabulary reaches back to earlier times.

“Profligate” works best, to my ear, as a formal adjective implying more than extravagance. To say “His profligate spending on artwork led to bankruptcy” implies a lot in a single word. Thus the power of an elevated register of speech. I try to teach writers this constantly, that big words used well can save space and time.  In another example, my garden is currently profligate with flowers. So our word has some positive uses. How could you have too many flowers?

The verb usage appears rare. I’d never encountered it, in comics or more staid literary work, until I consulted the OED today. Consider how odd it would be to say “You profligated your inheritanceTurner D. Century closeup! Lord Plushbottom, you are ruined!” instead of “Your profligate habits ruined you, M’Lord. The inheritance is gone!”  Both sound like a dramatic moment from Downton Abbey, but the latter example just sounds “right” to the educated ear. We don’t want Turner setting us on fire for a contested point of usage. He just might.

Hear ye, profligates, debauchees, and decadents! Don’t make me send Turner D. Century after you to pry words from your noggins! Do you have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. Please nominate a word or metaphor 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.

Images by the author, from his old stash of comic books.

 

Metaphor of the Month! Deadline

Deadline SignFor June 1, I’m on deadline for my and Brian McTague’s forthcoming book, Writing Centers at the Center of Change. I planned to take a weeklong break on this blog for Memorial Day, but I wanted to know more about the term “deadline.” In any case it serves me well, if a little early, for our June Metaphor. Where did this drop-dead-serious figure of speech first appear?

The OED Online, for once, provides no definitive etymology of the term! The most interesting candidate is a military one from the United States, with its earliest use given as 1864, during our Civil War. A “dead line” is “A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.”

The grim origin has been lost as we use “deadline” for everything now.

To my knowledge, rarely have editors shot authors or publishers shot editors. That’s my cue. Back to work.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. Please nominate a word or metaphor 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.

Nick Youngson’s Creative Common Image courtesy of Picpedia.

Words of the Week! Four Summertime “Blues”

Rowlandson's paintingBlue is not a feeling we associate with summer, whatever our teenage experiences while listening to The Who’s song “Summertime Blues.” I began thinking about the many figures of speech, as well as single words, we couple with the adjective blue. All of the four really are metaphors, except for one literal use of the term “blue nose.” Read on.

The other day, a friend referred to a well read friend as a “blue stocking.” The Cambridge English Dictionary calls such a person “an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.” Wikipedia and the OED Online deepen the story, adding a history of an 18th Century literary society called The Blue Stockings. Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic, social reformer and author, started and led the group. It was a difficult time for women who wished to pursue intellectual activities, formally, with no access to higher education.

Today the usage of blue stocking is rare; I’d not heard of it before my friend uttered the phrase. It’s not obsolete, with a currency of four of eight at the OED. Their entry also records a 2001 usage in Vogue that I just love: “Miuccia Prada has..embraced the Waspy,..book-editor look of yore and taken bluestocking style to silk-stocking heights.”

Thankfully, rarity (2 of 8 in the OED’s usage frequency) marks our next word, “bluebeard,” also about women. This, however, has nothing to do with a group of learned ladies but a fiend who marries again and again, only to kill his wives. The OED entry reminds of of Henry VIII’s bluebeard life. It can be used as adjective as well, as in a “bluebeard room” where someone hides something, presumably something grisly. A recent bluebeard from cinema is Robert Mitchum’s character from the excellent (and only) film directed by Charles Laughton, Night of the Hunter. The original Bluebeard (capitalized) came from a French folk tale first published in 1697. That should make us shiver, even on a warm summer day! Bluebeards can apparently be seducers who abandon their lovers, one after another. The verb “to bluebeard” appears, but seems rare.

Are you a blue blood? That is a term I did hear as a child, from better educated peers who talked about the rich families who lived (literally) across the railroad tracks from our neighborhood of modest row-houses. They were the grandees, those “to the manner born,” the would-be aristocrats of our odd little Southern city. As the gentry, they “put on airs.” What why “blue blood”? The OED cites an etymology from the Spanish sangre azul, for the fair complexion of the well-to-do; you can see those veins beneath their milky skin. I prefer skin seasoned by life outdoors.

Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyOne thinks here of Goya’s bizarre and unflattering portrait of Spanish nobility. This term is one I’ve long used, so the frequency (3 of 8) at the OED surprised me.

And finally, we have “Bluenose,” my favorite of these words (usage frequency is also a 3 of 8 at the OED). As a teen, I loved cartoons that made fun of Puritans. Often they were drawn with blue noses and scowls, making me think them eternally ill in the New England climate. That’s partly true; the OED notes that residents of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were called “Bluenoses” for the cold there. It can also be a type of sailing vessel. In this sense, unlike “bluebeard” or “blue blood” it gets capitalized. Usages appear as “blue-nose,” “blue nose,” and “bluenose.”

Usually the days, the term refers to prudes and puritanical busy-bodies. I am anything but, with my heroes being Beatniks, not busybodies, so I enjoy yanking their choir robes. I ran across the a bluenose recently in a comment on a piece I’d written about a “barn find” car for Hemmings Motor News Daily; I’d made an offhand drug reference in relation to the cars of the early 1970s, and a puritanical reader vehemently objected. In my defense, another reader said that the comments section always “brought out the bluenoses.” I loved that banter, but writers need skins as thick as auto sheet-metal, and we have to bear the dents made by many a bluenose reader.

A cousin of “bluenose” is “blue law.” There’s a false etymology that these prudish laws, aimed at curbing sales of certain products or prohibiting certain work on Sunday, came from their origin when printed on blue paper. Snopes notes that the real origin is their relation to the bluenoses who enacted them.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. Please nominate a word or metaphor 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.

Images by Thomas Rowlandson, “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club,” and Francisco de Goya, “Charles IV of Spain and his family,” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.