Word of the Week! Jackanapes

Doctor CaiusUnless you are fond of Shakespeare, this word will not often crop up in your personal dictionary. Pity, as I say about older words that I love. It has fallen out of favor long ago, but what sort of ape are we talking about?

A tame one, apparently. But still an ape, which leads to the Shakespearean sense of a person who is impenitent, foolish, or who does things like a trained ape, playing tricks that amuse us. Consider Doctor Caius, a Frenchman of short temper and Monty-Pythonian insults in Merry Wives of Windsor:

I will teach a scurvy jack-a-nape priest to meddle or make.

Years ago, I saw a wonderfully dreadful production of the play locally. I won’t say where or when, but it was so bad that it was great. I did learn the word at least.  Caius is, finally, the biggest jackanapes of them all.

Considering the history of the term opens a veritable etymological barrel of monkeys.  The OED gives more variant spellings than I’ve seen before, reaching as far back as Middle English: iac nape, iac napes, jacknape, shacknapes, and many more.  So to get to the bottom of all this monkey business, it comes down to a proper name  “apparently coined as a generic proper name for an ape or a person likened to an ape.” I suppose a modern analog would be a “Negative Nelly” or “Simple Simon.”

We don’t call a person playing tricks or an unruly child a Jackanapes any longer. Again, pity. Check the OED entry for a lot more, even a botanical meaning, for this peculiar, obsolete word you will still find in literary works from a certain era.

Send us words and metaphors new, old, worthy of rediscovery or even oblivion 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.

Creative-Commons image of Dr. Caius from the collection of The National Galleries of Scotland.

Metaphor of the Month! Stentorian

Senator Warner on USS WisconsinI’d planned this one when mentioning the late Senator John Warner recently. His voice often got called stentorian, and I’d figured it might be a metaphor. And so says The OED, noting it means to be as loud as Stentor, “The name of a Greek warrior in the Trojan war, ‘whose voice was as powerful as fifty voices of other men.’ ”

Our word has a positive connotation that the definition does not denote. Warner’s voice was never annoyingly loud. He spoke clearly and his voice carried across a room (while carrying the day in many debates) or the deck of a battleship. He sounded senatorial in a way that added dignity we don’t often associate with national politicians any longer.

Professor Joe Hoyle nominated this word, long a favorite of mine. I would like to possess a stentorian voice. I’d also like the word to enjoy more use. It scores only three of eight on The OED’s usage frequency. That seems nearly as big a pity as the loss of urbane, civil, and stentorian voices in our politics.

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact 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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of US National Archives. You have to be stentorian to be heard on the deck of the USS Wisconsin!

Word of the Week! Quagmire

bog photoThis post is a tough one to make, as it comes on the heels of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. I’ve heard our two-decade involvement in that nation called a “quagmire,” and often wondered where we got this word, so often used metaphorically.

We have lots of words for swampy ground: wetland, marsh, bog, fen, morass, mire. Some like “mire” have a negative connotation, implying getting stuck, sinking, drowning perhaps. My guess was that the “ag” ending implied a Scottish origin; the Morag is a monster from Loch Morar, after all: a less-famous version of Nessie.  We have those “hags” of magical origin, too. And haggis. Don’t laugh, as it’s something I came to really like during my Scottish walking trip in 2014, to the point of eating it with all three meals one day.

A look at the OED entry parts the mists to reveal not a monster of Scottish origin or a broomstick-rider but a variant spelling from the 16th and 17th Centuries: wagmire. A “quag” is, however, a rarely used word for a marshy spot.  It’s likely a regional English term, as is mire or “myre” in older spellings. That word came from Scandinavia in dragon-prowed longships.

Why we need quag and mire together? It’s rather like saying “Marshy swamp” or “boggy marsh.”  Perhaps the intention was to imply how dangerous a particular wet place could be. We will never know: the answer sank in the quagmire long ago and has been obscured by the marshy mists of millennia (and really bad alliteration).

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact 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.

Bog image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Compass Rose

Compass RoseSummer means a time for me to read a book about the sea. I’ve written about this habit before, a strange one for me, as I really dislike the US East Coast beaches south of Maine. Give me a rocky shore near mountains and deep blue water, please, not sandflies, crowds, and blistering heat.

On such a coast as I prefer, a compass rose would come in very handy for a mariner. It’s the often fanciful symbol of a compass on a map. In the image above, one is set in concrete. In each case, the image provides both reference and aesthetic pleasure.

I ran across this term in Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, an often terrifying account of escort duty during The Battle of the Atlantic. The first ship crewed by many of the main characters is Compass Rose, and I began to wonder why a cartographer’s symbol that looks only faintly like a flower might have earned that honor.

At GISnet, Bill Thoen notes a 13th Century origin for the term, stemming from (pun intended) the resemblance the design to a rose. There was also a device called a “wind rose” for determining the direction of wind, “but the 32 points of the compass rose come from the directions of the eight major winds, the eight half-winds and the sixteen quarter-winds.”

I’m no sailor, so I’ve never heard of half or quarter-winds. Now I have. Thoen’s entry takes us further back than does the OED, which has an earliest recorded use of 1527, describing the symbol as “The roses of the windes or pointes of the compasse.” I like that notion of the roses of the wind, though soutwesterly winds in my part of the world are more like damp blankets. I prefer the west wind or a stiff northwesterly, thank you.

As metaphor, compass rose shares lots of floral company with a host of other similes and metaphors such as “fresh as a daisy,” a downcast “wallflower,” and Virginia Woolf’s famous (and often apt) comparison of academics to hothouse flowers.

May your gardens be full of flowers this summer. If you have any words or metaphors to add, contact me at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

image: Compass rose in concrete;, Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, MD, courtesy of Margaret W. Carruthers at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Resolution

Resolution SignAfter 30 years working for the university, I’ve seen many instances of what we’d call “resolve” among groups of students and faculty. But never before in my career here has there existed such a profound sense of resolution. We resolved to make it through a pandemic year and stand up for the rights of black students on campus, by challenging a tone-deaf decision to retain names of buildings honoring a segregationist who supported eugenics as well as a slave-holder.

I’m proud of our determination, or strong wills, or resolve. So where did the word “resolution” get this meaning? It was around a long time before The OED notes its first use in 1594 meaning as “firmness or steadfastness of purpose.”

Of Franco-Latin etymology, the term has instances from medical or chemical parlance dating back another 200 years. I refer you to the ample description of the word origin at the link above.

Our term still resonates well today. We “hereby resolve” in official documents; we sign documents that constitute “a resolution.” In fact, we act in a real-life drama that resembles the “climax or denouement of a play, novel, or other narrative work, in which plot elements are brought to a conclusion,” as The OED entry explains.

Things are not fully resolved on campus, but I’m confident that we’ll see a full resolution of the issues before us next year. It felt quite good to be part of something in a small way historic nationally, but on campus, momentous indeed.

The blog will continue occasionally (I’m writing a book proposal) all summer, but 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.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Picpedia.

Word of the Week! Ford

Old Ford Inn, WalesI don’t mean the vehicle in your driveway: our word predates by at least 1000 years Henry Ford’s horseless carriage and all that came from it. While of little use in academic prose, the word demonstrates the history of an everyday word made nearly obsolete by bridges. You may have sat in or driven a Ford, but when was the last time you crossed at a ford, to ford a river?

Decades back (time flies) I dined in the pub of a roadside Inn in rural Wales called “The Old Ford Inn.” It’s a charmer and it’s still around. When you tour the Brecon Beacons area, be sure to stop in.

My snapshot of the sign was on film, since it proved to be the last vacation taken without a digital camera (now, my phone does that duty). I well recall an image showing a Model T Ford motorcar crossing a stream at a shallow spot: the original meaning for a ford, both noun and verb.

The term dates to the Middle Ages, and the term was also “ford” in Old English. Variants include “vord” (Middle English) and “forde.” All indicate a shallow place for crossing a river. See the OED entry for examples.

It remains mysterious how the surname “Ford” emerged. For people who lived near a ford? Or were the first fords ford-keepers, as there were smiths, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, tinkers, and leathermen? All these trades, and variants of them, became surnames when such things originated. Peter Ackroyd’s excellent history, London: The Biography discusses the emergence after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Read a bit more at the BBC about the process.

So where did Henry’s ancestors get their last name? A Wikipedia page gets beyond the shallow waters here. Whatever your last name, take a look.

As always, 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 The Old Ford Inn, Llanhamlach, Brecon. The local lamb, when it’s the roast of the day, is to die for. The same goes for any of the meat pies.

 

Word of the Week! Moxie

moxie soda logoI love this old word, and I’m so out of touch with popular culture that I did not realize that it appears as the title of a 2021 film and a line of dolls.  My life remains complete, but I still like this word. My student John Kurkjian used it in a paper recently, to describe an aspect of heroism that unites the very different characters in the films Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff. John knows a good new vocabulary word when he spies it.

So what on earth is this bit of American Slang? It comes from the trade name of one of America’s first mass-produced soft drinks. From there the beverage loaned its name to personal virtues.  As usual, the OED comes to my rescue, for “Courage, audacity, spirit; energy, vigour; enterprise; skill, shrewdness.” I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing “moxie” a great deal soon; as with other words that seemed to have fallen into disuse for no good reason, it is primed to make a comeback.

Let’s hope that moxie itself does, too. I don’t drink soda, but I like the values of self-reliance and what gets described with the overused term “grit”; moxie would be a fine companion to them in troubled, uncertain times.

As always, 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 source: Wikipedia. It’s from one of the nation’s first mass-produced soft drinks.

 

Word of the Week! Impeach

Andrew Johnson's ImpeachmentForget the Senate trial for a moment. This is not the space to discuss that, anyway. What about the word itself?

It came first to my attention in 1974, when Richard Nixon got impeached in the House of Representatives but resigned before the trial in the Senate.  I kept thinking of the fruit from a peach tree, and that bears no relation to our word. As a verb, “impeach” has a history reaching back to Middle English and Old French, as in this 14th Century usage cited by The OED: “He schal dwelle þere alle his lif, and no man enpeche hym” or “he shall dwell here all his life, and no man impeach him.” A noun form appears in written records about 200 years later.

Originally, the verb could mean “to hinder” or other synonyms. That would be the case for The OED example just now. Verbs signifying “the action of impeachment” gradually narrowed to two meanings still current. One we are using this week means to bring formal charges for an “act of treason or other high crime or misdemeanor” or “to find fault.” A second usage still crops up when we say someone’s conduct or action remains “unimpeachable” or beyond suspicion.

We have other “im-” prefix words in English: “imbibe” and “imply” spring to mind. A quick peek at the OED entries revealed that they share the Medieval roots of our Word of the Week as well as a transition from  -en and -em prefixes to the modern spelling.

Such elder usages and meanings vanish from human memory over time. Other memories do not fade so easily.  I recall well exactly where I was when President Nixon announced his resignation on national television.  A short period of healing followed, too short a time.

To provide a sense of the history of the process for political leaders, the reader may wish to consult a comprehensive history of impeachments, globally, at Wikipedia. Our image comes from their page about President Andrew Johnson’s Senate trial.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Hermit

Simon of the DesertThere’s a caricature of a hermit that used to appear in old cartoons: a beard grown so long it becomes the man’s clothing. He was crazy and lived alone in the wilds. Luis Buñuel, one of my favorite directors, captures the life of a religious hermit in his film Simon of the Desert, using his typically surrealist technique to show how, well, bizarre the life of an early Christian hermit could be.  Of course, the devil appears by in the form of a beautiful woman to taunt and tempt him, until they end up back in civilization, 1965 no less, at a club with a surf-rock band jamming as hipsters dance.

I love that so much, but I digress. Behind me, Satan! Back to words.

We don’t hear the word “hermit” much these days, as “shut-in” and “recluse” seem more apt for those in urban settings. To some degree, however, we are all hermits during this pandemic, which could, as an Atlantic Monthly piece explains, spark interest in a short film about Christopher Knight, the hermit of North Pond, Maine. He fared better than Simon, though he too re-entered our world when arrested after a string of burglaries for food and propane. He managed for 27 years that way in the Maine woods.

Though Knight may be our last known hermit, the term itself has a great deal of endurance. Originally, as the OED entry explains, the word stretches back to the Dark Ages, with Medieval Latin and an earlier Greek term as sources. The “H” appeared later, with earlier instances as “ermite” and similar. By the time of Piers Ploughman, the “H” appeared; not long after, the “e” at the end vanished. Variant spellings came down almost to modern times; Shakespeare has the word as “Hermight,” “Hermit,” and “Ermite” in different plays! In fact, looking over the OED entries demonstrates how powerfully English has evolved. Or how little we cared for spelling then. You choose.

Yet hermits remain the same. They continue to appeal to some of us, repel others. Solitude can be good medicine, but too much of it? That’s one reason why Knight’s story continues to interest readers, viewers, and his former, involuntary neighbors.

We welcome dispatches from your hermitages. Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image courtesy of The Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Metaphor of the Month! Hit the Fan

Circulating fanNo, you will not find this one in the OED. Yet this term may not only be sadly relevant for November but also it has a mysterious history. Finally, I find it a writerly challenge to post about a curse-word without cursing. Here goes.

I ran across our metaphor in Martin Clemens‘s nearly lost classic memoir, Alone on Guadalcanal. He was a British “coast watcher” who stayed behind when Imperial Japan occupied the island. After many tribulations, Clemens and his group of indigenous Melanesian scouts met the US Marines, who landed to liberate the island in 1942.

The Marines were in a tight place, being bombed around the clock, subjected to suicide charges, then bombarded by Japanese warships at night. The see-saw war went on for months, on an island ripe for Malaria, known for venomous snakes, and ringed by waters full of sharks. While in the Marine base, Clemens heard and recorded in his diary a bit of American slang that has continued to our day, for when excrement manages to contact a rotating air disperser.

Or something.

The term often gets dated back to Norman Mailer’s excellent, if gritty, novel of the Pacific War, The Naked and the Dead. Clemens’s usage predates Mailer’s, showing the military origin of the metaphor. Gary Martin of Phrase Finder, where a post appeared about our scatological metaphor, found a recorded use in 1943 and notes a possible Canadian origin from the 1930s.

I’m willing to bet that it goes back to the first USMC unit that had an electric fan in their barracks. If you know enlisted Marines, you can imagine what followed.

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of pxfuel.