Word of the Week! Loquacious

Blah Blah BlahSome time back, I considered the history of the term laconic. Today we meet its antithesis. It’s the stuff of Twitter: running one’s mouth constantly.

I hate Twitter, incidentally. I hated it long before it became a cesspool for the worst possible ideas imaginable. But I’m loquacious in a different way: I don’t mind running on at the mouth a bit, when needed about a complex topic. Twitter, like social media generally, encourage shallow and small bits of discourse, ones disconnected from deeper meaning, often about vital and thorny subjects.

I know educators use Twitter well, but to me, there’s already a lot of talk, and not enough listening, even in our circles.

“Loquacious” has not changed its meaning much over the years. John Milton used our Latinate term just as we do today, for too much talking.

Shall I be brief about a windy subject?

One old usage, sadly labeled “poetic” and with a last recorded instance of 1888, relates to the chattering of birds.

You know, twittering birds. Tweet tweet tweet.

Words of the Week! Obsolescent & Obsolete

Polish Cavalryman 1938I suppose this is, like everything else, a post about the pandemic. I’ve been seeing our words of the week in reference to models of learning and college life that are not longer useful, even worn out. Some bold claims are being made that residential education itself may soon be “obsolete.”

While I doubt that, it seems reasonable to hazard a guess about which practices of ours might be “obsolescent.”

There’s a shade of difference that I knew, however, as a geeky pre-teen obsessed with the history of technology of warfare, in particular The Second World War.

Looking at my home library, there’s a book I read at age 11, Martin Blumeson’s Sicily: Whose Victory? part of a epic series of paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. I think I own about 50 of the titles, and the writing was decent, often by noted historians and with introductions by famous people involved in the actual events from a quarter century before. In the book, there’s a photo with the caption “German flak guns guard obsolescent Italian fighters” with some biplanes in the background.

I heard, and forget the source, that World War 2 began with biplanes and cavalry charges, yet ended with jet fighters and atomic weapons. By war’s end, the two military traditions and their equipment were certainly obsolete, which The OED defines as “out of date.” Yes, a biplane is a flying machine, but not one to employ in combat in an age of jet fighters. The word is a “borrowing from Latin” and dates in the OED’s reckoning to at least the 16th Century. I like that it’s really unchanged in meaning, too. A useful word, that!

As for things that are going out of use, but not gone yet? I have always guessed that fit the meaning of “obsolescent.” Turning again to The OED, I can see that the Ballantine Books series taught me well. This word means “becoming obsolete; going out of use or out of date.”  Thus, for my military examples, horses were used throughout the war, but until the struggle against the Taliban, they did not factor into the military planning of any great power. For biplanes, they are with us but as stunt planes or objects of nostalgia.

Funny how, in a time of pandemic, it’s comforting to use examples from a long-ago, if terrible, conflict. Perhaps that’s because we do not recognize what is obsolescent about our way of life until it’s obsolete?

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Polish cavalryman, 1938, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Unprecedented

HimalayasProfessor Joe Hoyle gave me a word that helps out in my ceaseless war against the word “super,” that boring and overused adjective that I consider lazy in speech, unacceptable in writing.

We have experienced an unprecedented health crisis, at least in our lifetimes; no one living can recall the 1918-19 Spanish Flu. So in many media reports, from unemployment claims to clear air over Indian cities (pictured) to empty New York streets, we see the adjective “unprecedented” appear. To say that “Indians enjoyed unprecedented views of the Himalayas” is not, however, correct unless a person were under a certain age. Residents of Indian cities are, however, experiencing cleaner air and distant views, the best in 30  years.

That’s not the same as “unprecedented.” “Unprecedented in his lifetime” might qualify matters.

Our word means without precedent.

Where does it come from? To my ear at least, it sounds modern. I would, however, be wrong. The OED provides a first recorded usage of 1641. The word precedent, itself, is Latinate and thus, with ancient roots.

Be careful, as with any “super useful” word, not to overuse our word of the week. Soon, its currency will reach unprecedented levels. Reach deeper into the dictionary for words such as “extraordinary,” “novel” (the virus is called a novel coronavirus, since it’s a never-before-encountered form), “unique,” “unparalleled,” or other exact or near synonyms.

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.

Word of the Week! Grocer

Sainsbury's Checkout LineLet’s face it: the supermarket has dominated our lives lately. It’s one of the few places we can go without too many restrictions. We might even call it “the grocery store,” though many today sell everything from clothing to sporting goods: a giant Walmart does, itself a super-sized version of the General Stores of the early 20th Century. Yet when we think of “groceries,” we think of food and household items.

These stores, in the States at least, go back to Giant Open Air and similar in the 60s. My father was stunned that you could buy tires or a steak under the same roof. At our local Giant Open Air, you could even pick out a steak and have it cooked for you while you watched. Now, restaurants are common in big stores. Wegmans here has a Pub, a Coffee Shop, and a Cafeteria.

Only in the UK, when I encountered the “Greengrocer,” a produce-seller nearly (and sadly) extinct thanks to the giant supermarkets there, too, did I begin to question what a “grocery” was and where it came from. More recently, an article in The Atlantic about the pandemic and its long-term effects on the grocery industry got me interested in this word.

Picking “grocery” apart when saying it comes up with “gross,” and not in the sickening sense, but the sense of something sold in bulk. We trace the word back to Latin grossus, through Medieval Latin and French to get “grocer,” the merchant who sells things in bulk. Our word goes back at least to the 14th Century, as the OED outlines it.

Before the modern era of packaged goods, that is what folk did: pounds of this, dozens of that.  How “gross” also came to mean “disgusting” should be the subject of a future post.

May I admit a certain obsession with grocery stores? Why do I spend time wandering about not only stores, but Groceteria, a site about their history?

My father was a produce wholesaler, after years of driving a produce truck, so I spent hours in various stores, a delight to a kid hoping for a candy bar. In my teens I bagged groceries for the old Food Fair / Pantry Pride chain. It’s nigh impossible to find images of these quotidian, largely forgettable stores. The best I could do is this shot, with “gross” quantities of food on view, from the Food Fair in the now demolished Azalea Mall of north Richmond. That’s a lot of country ham.

Azalea MallThe caption here: In October 1966, the television game show “Supermarket Sweep” visited the Azalea Mall Food Fair for a taping. Before an audience of 300, contestants attempted to guess the correct prices of grocery items in order to win minutes of shopping for free merchandise. Bill Malone, behind the register, was the host of the show.

These were formative experiences, in an era when a cashier could earn a living wage and even retire from a chain store. I always make a point to visit grocery stores in other nations, at least to get things for a picnic. I have learned more about a culture from its grocery stores than nearly anywhere else.

I do wonder how grocery-shopping will evolve in coming years. Will “groceries” come to refer to those things we use at home, delivered to us? Or will we need an adjective for what is perishable, not easily delivered to our doors? Of will grocery-shopping in person wane completely, with modern-day counterparts (perhaps, robots) of the egg, milk, and bread delivery people returning to what was done before supermarkets offered one-stop shopping?

That is for futurists and the Market to consider, not a blog about words. But enjoy your shopping, and may your choices be plentiful and your carts full.

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; Sainsbury Store. U.K., where I’ve done my share of grocery shopping.

Word of the Week! Exemplar

Bob HooverEvery year, faculty nominate a graduating senior in our program as Writing Consultant of the Year.  Our student should have shown a real commitment to helping student writers and the ability to communicate well and do hard work when facing adversity (and a pile of drafts to read does build character!).

We have a winner, to be announced in a post later this week, but I wanted to explore a word that I link to excellence, high points, peaks.

We have many: paragon, aegis, the somewhat obsolete eidolon. This week’s word, though, has as its virtue sounding both ordinary and a trifle exalted. We recognize its lexical cousins: example, exemplify, excellent. And while some examples can be bad, exemplars are not, at least in the uses I found. Merriam Webster’s online example makes it clear that this is an example to follow, an ideal. To do something exemplary is to act as an exemplar, to do something admirable.

While hunting down a Creative-Commons image for “exemplar,” I discovered that the US Air Force Academy annually recognizes an Exemplar that an entering cadet classes wishes to emulate. I found the 2020 winner, Bob Hoover, one of my favorite pilots; Hoover was famous for his service in World War II, his competitive spirit in air races, and was longtime friend of his squadron mate, General Chuck Yeager. To qualify, “[a]n Exemplar must have exhibited integrity and character in both their professional careers and their personal lives.”

Our word sounds Latinate, so I will take us to the OED, my source for etymology. Partly true! There’s an Anglo-Norman ancestor in play, too. In Latin, it’s a model, an ideal, and much more besides.

We could use more exemplars and exemplary behavior today. Fingers crossed for lessons well (and harshly) learned.

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.

 

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.