Word of the Week! Bellwether

Sheep in snowRobyn Bradshaw with UR Catering suggested this timely word. I heard it employed in reference to our recent Virginia election. A quick Google search of “2019 Virginia election bellwether” reveals that the term has become overused to the point of cliche by journalists. Though bellwether is a metaphor, I’m not going to post this as one; the original term has been so lost from our daily experience that the word seems a linguistic oddball (a word worth its own post).

But what, anyhow, is a bellwether? Literally, it’s the leader of a flock of sheep, the one with the bell. That dates to at least the 15th Century, but it’s not very kind to my native state. Neither is the definition of “wether”: a castrated male sheep.

Ouch. So let’s get figurative here. The OED records the earliest metaphorical use also in the 15th Century, simply as a leader. In those uses, the bellwether was a person, not an event. I cannot recall, in US usage, that nuance. Today we mostly use the term in relation to elections, sometimes stocks, though an entry at The Grammarist provides a few other fine examples from American English. However one employs the term, it generally means an indicator or predictor of something likely to happen more broadly, later.

Watch your spelling on this one. I have long misspelled it “bellweather.”

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.

“Sheep in Snow” courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Word of the Week! Dilly-Dally

Dilly Dally imageHere, thanks to Professor Bill Ross of Mathematics, we have a noun and verb (no variation in forms, there) apt for this time of the semester. Whatever you students (and faculty) do, now is not the time to dilly-dally.

The OED hyphenates our term, and the entry notes how similar terms, like zig-zag or shilly-shally, all express “a see-saw action.” In our case, the vacillation is between acting or not acting. The word is old, with recorded uses going back to the novel Pamela in 1740. No etymology appears at the OED. Certainly other terms for this back-and-forth exist. Send them my way.

There’s nuance in dilly-dally. This type of indecision does not necessarily stop us in our tracks, nor is it quite equal to being a slow-poke; a minor Tolkien character calls his helper a “slowcoach” in The Fellowship of the Ring. More is at stake than taking one’s time. I suppose a dilly-dallier could be purposeful, in order to come to a decision, or simply plodding. Others seem to make that call. The person dilly-dallying may not even know it.

I would say more to you dilly-dallies (a rather rare nominal plural) but we need to get busy! To work!

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 Needpix.

Word of the Week! Sardonic

SardonicI enjoy a spooky post for Halloween, so this year to follow our 2018 Metaphor The Dark Night of the Soul, I have a word useful all year long.

Odd little boy that I was, I could not wait every month to grab a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmlanda black-and-white magazine covering horror films. One cover’s image stayed with me a long time: the image of Mr. Sardonicus, a man who suffers to terrible a scare that his face gets twisted into an eternal, Joker-style grin. There is nothing happy about such a fate.

But is that “smile” of his really “sardonic”? Absolutely. According to the OED Entry, laughter or a smile meets the definition if done in a “bitter, scornful, mocking” way.  That would also describe a great deal of humor in otherwise scary movies.

As one might guess, the term sardonicus provides the original for several words in Romance languages, as well as our English term, with usage first recorded in the 17th Century.

May all your goblins and ghouls bring only treats on October 31, and no sardonic tricks.

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! 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.