Halloween Word of the Week! Skeleton

Me with Skeleton, 2023

I’ve featured Halloween adjectives  here before, but not one of my favorite words. As pronounced in England, it’s “skeluhton.” I hear “skellington”or “skellinton,” which I often say just to get a chuckle. Funny bone! Halloween skeletons are not scary by the standards of 2023.

We all know what a skeleton is and in fact, we carry one around with us (well, inside us) daily. Where did this bony word come from? The OED fact-sheet abounds with information, beyond the UK and US pronunciations. We have the Latin sceleton, and I learned that the metaphor “skeleton in the closet” first appeared in the mid-19th Century. I like the contemporaneous metaphor “skeleton at the feast,” for something that ruins a moment of enjoyment.

We use our word metaphorically all the time, in calling things “skeletal” or referring to something wasted away as a “skeleton.”

Carry those bones with you as you consider ways to vary your vocabulary.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them 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.

Image: Selfie with “Bucky,” the skeleton at Glenmore Yoga Studio. Boo!

Metaphor of the Month! Haywire

tangled wiresDr. Mike Kerckhove, in our Math Department, nominated this term, since he knows I bale hay (by hand!) on our farm. As a native Midwesterner, he also wondered if the term comes from what happens when a mechanical hay-baler gets out of synch. Baling wire being what it is, I can imagine the mess.

I’ve long used the expressions “gone haywire” to describe any mechanical or electronic device that starts acting oddly. To me the metaphor signified not quite a complete breakdown but rather a malfunction.

The OED’s new format online includes a factsheet showing earliest known use in the early 1900s, corresponding to the appearance of stationary, belt-driven equipment on farms; the modern balers I have considered buying run off a power shaft on the back of a tractor.

By the 1920s, our current usage appeared common. A few others appeared, such as “a hay-wire outfit” cited by the OED for a poorly run, slapdash operation. That idea persists with the expression for hasty repairs, “held together with chewing gum and baling wire.”

One day I will own a mechanical baler, instead of baling about 10 bales (during a good  year) in a wooden baling box and then binding the bales with plastic cord. That simple operation never goes haywire, but we use about 30 bales of hay or straw, mostly for animal bedding, in a typical year. Once I have a machine to pull behind the tractor, I’ll know first-hand how things do indeed go haywire. Dr. Kerckhove, you are invited to help me with the baling.

Have a word or metaphor worth our time? If so, let me know 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 from the Creative-Commons guru Cory Doctorow, via Flickr.

Word of the Week! Flummox

Question MarksI love the “mouthfeel” of this term. It makes me want to chuckle.

A search at the OED reveals both a noun and verb form, with the verb being more frequently used. It can mean to confound, to confuse. Often I see it as an adjective, as in “The crossword puzzle completely flummoxed me today.”

I’m flummoxed by the spelling changes in our word over the centuries. The OED gives several options from past examples. Even less certain is the term’s etymology. One interesting idea involves the history of the noun, which once meant a failure on certain college campuses.

What other college terms have entered general usage? At Virginia we used to say “punt” a class for skipping it, or that a class was either a “gut” (easy) or a “bear” (hard).  “Haze,” for a noxious practice of fraternity initiation, has a broader origin, from the military.

Perhaps “flummox” provides one collegiate example that escaped campuses into general use.

Our word also calls to mind the noun “lummox,” for large and ungainly person or animal. As with our word, the etymology is uncertain but “to flummox a lummox” has real promise in a children’s book to teach some vocabulary on the sly to the wee ones.

Do any words flummox you enough to have me investigate? If so, let me know 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: me and Photoshop

Word of the Week! Affordance

Screenshot of iconsThis word perplexed me when I first encountered it, during some discussion of software. I recall the statement “what are the affordances of this particular application?” I disliked the word instantly, yet now find myself using it, as I draft an article about the affordances of peer tutoring by humans, as compared to the help provided by generative AI.

For a word I find ugly, affordance sure came in handy. To get at the root of our word, even the OED will not quite do. Wikipedia, however, with its crowd-sourced wisdom and peer-editing offers just the affordance we need. According to Psychologist James L. Gibson, who coined the term, affordance involves many factors beyond “usefulness.” His definitions cited in the Wikipedia entry involve how a particular environment benefits an animal. When applied to software, which most animals do not use, we see how graphical-user interfaces offer affordances that older command-line interfaces do not.

UNIX users can come lay a beating on me any time they wish to try.

We can dive into the signified/signifier rabbit hole here, but consider how the smart-phone’s icon of an envelope connotes e-mail, whereas a phone headset connotes a voice call.  The affordances of icon-based systems seem rather obvious; we recognize something immediately, saving us time as compared to looking up that command in a book. Older readers will recall post-it notes all around their desktop monitors with arcane tricks for DOS or other command-line programs.

Coda: industrial design is also all about affordance. Look at everyday items in your home or office and note their affordances. I can heat water in a ceramic cup or my teapot. I suppose I could drink from either, yet each offers different affordances.

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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.

Screen-shot by the author

Word of the Week! Lachrymose

Crying face emojiAdmit it: as summer wanes and the realities of more work loom ahead, many students and faculty alike feel lachrymose. We want the restful pace of summer, if not its sweltering heat, to continue forever. We get misty-eyed as the leaves turn but we are too damned busy to sit down under a tree and let them cover us, like some Peanuts character.

Oh the tears we cry. I learned the word lacrimas when in Spain. I then began to use its cousin in English, from time to time. The origin is Latin, like so many words that elevate the register of formal prose. From The Online Etymology Dictionary, we have this: from Latin lacrimosus “tearful, sorrowful, weeping,” also “causing tears, lamentable,” from lacrimalacryma “a tear.” First usage given dates to the 1660s, from my favorite epoch, the Age of Enlightenment. Imagine a time when thinkers sought to relieve us of many tears by promising us a better future, one based on Reason and freedom from superstitions. I get lachrymose longing for such a time in our current age of unreason.

When talking about sorrow, I apply a wine-taster’s test. I tend to prefer the “mouthfeel” of lugubrious, adding to its sound its appearance in one or two favorite novels. That word connotes something dismal as well as tearful, a funeral dirge perhaps. It’s not an exact synonym. I’ll feature it as a future WOTW later.

When I was a rather sadistic and cynical undergrad, every year in late July or early August I’d invoke Jim Morrison’s lugubrious voice, in the Doors’ song “Summer’s Almost Gone.”  It provided surefire and tearful torments for my friends and roommates. The video below comes from Rhino Records, so it’s unlikely to vanish from YouTube over copyright infringement. Irony of ironies: the little commercials we endure before videos were all about productivity software! Now THAT is lachrymose.

While writing this post, Neil Young’s lachrymose classic “Old Man” followed the Doors. I seem to have a tearful playlist on YouTube.

Okay, some advice from this old man: look at your life and get back to work, slackers! As my old man might have said, “Tears won’t buy you no groceries, boy!”

Dry your eyes and send me useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing 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.

Boo-hoo-hoo emoji courtesy of Creatzilla.

Word of the Week! Unfathomable

Diver under the oceanHere we go, with another of my nautical words. I am no sailor or even that much of a lover of “going to the beach,” though if it’s a rugged coastline in Nova Scotia, Ireland, or northwest Spain, count me in. The deep blue or green of their oceans look unfathomable, as compared to the sandy brown waters I knew as a kid.

Our word has a long history and still has current use, though I’ve yet to have a student employ it. They should. Consider this June 2023 usage from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary online:

Tesla was truly ahead of his time, and quite a few of his ideas—notions that were unfathomable in that day and age—are still being pursued to this day.

Nikola Tesla was a genius, but if his ideas were truly unfathomable, would we have continued to pursue them? What is unfathomable cannot be measured. The origin is the fathom, a nautical unit of measurement meaning the span of two arms, or roughly six feet. Now it has been standardized to six feet.  The origin? The Old English word fæðm.  The Online Etymology Dictionary also noted the verb form, fathom, meaning to try to understand.

What at sea was unfathomable? Water beyond the 100-fathom hand-sounding line carried by ships. In deeper waters, a 300-fathom line might be dropped. From that same page I learned that burial at sea required six fathoms of water and gives us the term “to deep six” something. Full fathom five? Thy father was not properly buried at sea, Ferdinand.

I hope to introduce this lovely word to students who too often seem to employ the same 500 words again and again. Fathom and unfathomable merit closer fathoming, as well as usage in our formal writing. The Etymology Dictionary has a neat feature on its page that charts trends in usage. Fathom the noun has suffered a slow decline, whereas the verb has enjoyed a steady rise in usage.

Perhaps that rebound has happened because we live in apparently unfathomable times. We have many leagues to travel before we fathom some of our current problems. By the way, a league is another unit of nautical measurement, three nautical miles. That means 3.452 miles or 5.556 kilometers. Jules Verne’s novel would then put Nemo and crew a quarter of the way to the Moon. Even 20,000 fathoms under the sea would put them under the Earth’s crust, but the title certainly sounds evocative.

Send in useful words or metaphors, 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

Word of the Week! Phonics

Paleo-Hebrew Script on Seal

The blog has returned from summer break and will feature new posts occasionally until the Fall term begins. After that, I hope to have it back on a weekly schedule.

I don’t think about phonics often. I left it behind in grade school. Then this week, while reading my annual Classical work, I came across an interesting passage. Herodotus covers in great detail the intrigues of the Greek-Persian wars, but one small peacetime event caught my eye. Here’s the passage in David Greene’s 1987 translation:

These Phoenicians who came with Cadmus. . . brought to Greece. . .various matters of learning and, very notably, the alphabet, which in my opinion had not been known to Greeks before.

Fair enough, Herodotus. The historian was well aware that until relatively recently, his had been an oral culture. Consider how Homer’s epics and other stories were sung, not written down. But of particular interest to me is Greene’s footnote that this notion “was a traditional Greek belief from very early times, the word for letters being simply phoinikeia, “Phoenician things.”  Immediately I saw the word “phonics” in that and decided some other authorities might be needed here.

The OED shows us how modern phonics approaches “learning one’s letters” by means of sound. I learned to read in this manner many decades (!) ago.  At the entry linked, you can find other obsolete meanings, but all of them point to fairly modern usage, including the phonetics, that branch of linguistics dealing with speech sounds.

Wikipedia has grown more sophisticated over time, and it helps with this amusing mystery. Its entry cites Herodotus using the Greek term phoinikeia grammata for Cadmus’ gift to the Greeks. That translates as “Phoenician letters.”

Thus sometime during the Enlightenment “phonics” became associated with sound, as in phonetics, phonograph, and maybe the tiny dopamine-dispenser on which you read this, a phone.

Still, we have to thank the Phoenicians, even though theirs was not the earliest alphabet. My father would have been proud. He loved his Lebanese heritage, declaring that our ancestors, the ancient Phoenicians, had been an enlightened and talented people. It could get a little tedious, when dad would rattle off the many things they had invented or done, including finding the New World, while “Europeans were still living in caves.” I’m reminded of the proud Greek father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who probably would have insisted that the Greeks invented letters. Both fathers were weak on history after a point, but in the case of letters, we have no less an expert than Herodotus on the side of the Phoenicians. Eat some Hummus bi Tahini and Baba Ganoush (rightly or wrongly, the Lebanese take credit for them, too) and thank Cadmus for his gift.  Eggplants are ripe now and I’ll  be making some “Baba” over the weekend.

Send in useful words or metaphors, 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: Seal inscribed in the Phoenician script, from Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Swelter

I am really sorry if your Memorial Day plans got rained out. Okay, not really. I adore cool weather, even cool, wet weather. Despite growing up here, I have never loved our summers. I despise humidity and heat.

You’ll get your miserable summer soon enough. It will be sweltering, in fact. What does it mean to “swelter”? I like the word as much as I dislike its meaning, “to be oppressed by heat.” We tend to use the term as an adjective now, “sweltering,” rather than as a noun or verb. The last is the oldest form, a 15th Century usage noted in the OED entry.

Our word goes back to before the Little Ice Age and even the Medieval Warm Period to the Middle English sweltre, long before electric fans or air-conditioning made places like Virginia and points south habitable for (too many) millions of us.

In the sweltering decades to come I suspect this word will “enjoy” renewed usage. I’m around for 2 more decades, and sometimes I’m thankful it won’t be longer. As for the word, use it wisely; “hot” and “scorching” convey degrees of heat-induced suffering, while “sweltering” just sounds wicked. “Sizzling” has many meanings, but I think of hot dogs on my Weber grill or sun-bathers frying at the beach.

May you find cool shade this summer. I’ll be in Canada for part of it, my sort of climate, thank you.  As you heat-lovers burn yourselves up with UV rays, pause a moment to send in useful words or metaphors, 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 ChrisGoldNY at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Hyaline

Hyaline SeaSpecial thanks to Jessie Bailey, UR’s Assistant Director of Recruiting, Admission, and Student Services for this excellent and timely word.  Jessie adds:

In the adjective form, it means having a glassy, translucent appearance. As a noun, it means “a thing that is clear and translucent like glass, especially a smooth sea or clear sky.”

It looks like it’s used in biology and entomology to describe things like human tissues and insect wings.

I came across it this past week in the book Solenoid by Mircea Catarescu, where it was easy to remember because he uses it a lot.

The OED entry seconds Jessie’s definitions, if you wish to take a look. The roots are Greek and Latin, for glass or crystal. You’ll find guidelines for pronunciation, too. In both British and US examples, “leen” or “line” work.

The metaphorical use for smooth, glassy water really strikes my fancy at this time of year. I hope  your days are equally hyaline in the summer months ahead.

Send in useful words or metaphors, 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 Wallpaper Flare.

Word of the Week! Fruition

Tomatoes in basketNow that the school year has ended, with diplomas and awards given, I suppose we could say our efforts have all come to fruition. Or should it be “their fruition”? I believe both are correct.  The word works well in formal prose and, as a Latinate term, elevates the diction of a written sentence.

And does the word have anything to do with fruit ripening? That would be my first guess.

Officially, no. Check the OED’s entry on our word and consider how we use “fruit” metaphorically, as in “the fruit of your labors.”  As the OED editors tell us, fruition gets erroneously associated with produce, but really the word implies to enjoy, coming from the possession (or accomplishment) of something.

May I push back against those sages from Oxford? If something “comes to fruition” and has been used in examples the OED cites, such as “The greenish nuts, ripened as always from the flowers of the previous year and now in their full fruition,” hasn’t the meaning of the word changed? We could say “full ripeness,” yet I remain a descriptivist about language not a prescriptivist. Language morphs over time, and no pedant can stop that process. Methinks that OED editors protest too much, when we look at etymology.

Both “fruit” and “fruition” share the same Latin root, fruī, for “to enjoy.” I enjoy ripe oranges all summer and starting in August, fresh figs from our fig trees (the only fruit I can bring to fruition, unless one counts tomatoes).

This blog never comes to fruition. It produces fruit–savory or bitter–all summer, like an indeterminate tomato vine. So send me the fruit of your ideas, words or metaphors, 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.

2017 Tomato-Basket photo by the author