Metaphor of the Month: Mayday!

SOS Text

This internationally recognized call for help has long been common parlance, but until today, when I checked the OED listing, I had no idea of its origin.

A 1923 usage listed gives us all we need to know: “Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’  will give place to the words ‘May-day’, the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez’, the French for ‘Help me’.”

Fascinating and perhaps our briefest post yet. Good luck with finals, students!

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.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Epistemology

Death of SocratesWhat can one say about “A borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element; modelled on a German lexical item”? Pretentious, perhaps, yet our word, Epistemology, as cited by the OED in the last sentence, has an everyday use in academe. It’s of recent origin, like much of modern science itself, dating from the mid 1800s.

Simply put, it’s a “theory of knowledge” but as I will explain, so much more. When one thinks hard about it, everyone’s use of data, ways of analysis, and presentation of results hinge upon that field’s epistemology. In my own, English, we have several theories of knowledge.  Sometimes they get us in trouble with those outside the profession, partly because we sling around words like epistemology or hermeneutics regularly (WordPress spellcheck does not even recognize “hermeneutics”).

If I’ve not convinced you yet that “theory of knowledge” does not work accurately in place of our word, consider that the OED also adds that our term distinguishes “between justified belief and opinion.” Every wise fool, in Socrates’ sense, has an opinion beyond his realm of understanding, something not justifiable. As the doomed philosopher puts in in The Apology, the artisans he questioned about wisdom, “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” That same error applies today. Would the epistemology of quantum physics inform the study of Chaucer, or vice versa?

For that matter, while this week’s word is not found beyond our ivy-covered walls, the idea behind it remains sound. Would I presume to tell the HVAC guy which circuit has failed, unless I had knowledge of electronics and that type of system?

Have a word 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.

Image of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Sojourn

Map of Middle EartyMany of my readers will soon take a vacation or, if British, a holiday. Some will study abroad or go on sabbatical (a future Word of the week). All of these temporary absences count as a sojourn, a nice word for this time of year. I’m currently finishing my sojourn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, one I have taken every decade since my early teens.

Usage is really old for this word. The OED records several Fourteen Century examples, most with variant spellings. The etymology sketched out includes a few Romance languages but not any Latin term, though at Etymology Online there’s an hypothesis that our word comes from the vulgar Latin subdiurnare “to spend the day.” All definitions refer to either a temporary stay somewhere, the place itself, or merely a digression. Thus for me, my year in Madrid was a sojourn before starting graduate school, yet Segovia nearby was itself a quiet sojourn from the hectic life of the Spanish metropolis.

Graduates, what of your gap year before the grind of working life? You will never forget that sojourn.

For the rest of you, as the humidity in Virginia rises in June and continues through August, where will your sojourn be? How long will you be away? And what do you bring back from that temporary change of scenery? Finally, can  you find a sojourn in the pages of a book or while watching a film? At present, my sojourn is with Frodo Baggins in Middle Earth, as real an imaginary place as any in fiction.

Keep in mind that at the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo makes not a sojourn but a permanent departure for the uttermost West, across the ocean. He will never return. But I hope you will!

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.

Map of Middle Earth courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Vestigial

Human AppendixDr. Joe Hoyle in our Business School came to the rescue again today, with a word that I associate with “tail,” for some bizarre neuron-event that burned the image into my head, perhaps when reading Philip K. Dick’s science fiction or during a daydreaming session in a high-school Biology class. Yes, we humans have the last remnant of a tail at the tips of our spines. That final bone is our coccyx.

The OED, as usual, gives more nuance here; something vestigial is not merely a remnant but one that survives in “degenerate, atrophied, or imperfect condition or form.”  That string of adjectives says it all. If some island were the last vestige of a sunken continent, then it becomes vestigial. Though of Latin origin, the usage proves recent; the OED does not date our word before the mid-19th Century.

Our bodies are full of vestigial organs and other features, no longer needed as humans evolved: the appendix, our wisdom teeth, and more as detailed in this piece about vestigiality.

Writers beware of one issue: some Google searches for synonyms turned up “immature” or “unformed.” The latter might work, for something like the coccyx. But the former word implies that the subject might mature one day. Though not all eggs become chicks and chickens, neither egg nor chick is a vestigial chicken. An eggshell, however, is the last vestige of an egg.

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 of appendix courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: April Fool

Tarot Deck Fool CardI really did not expect the OED to have an entry for this, but they fooled me! The earliest definition is from the 17th Century, “the victim of a trick or hoax on the first of April.” Our metaphor provides a good counterpoint to last week’s gloomy word, draconian.

That’s fair enough, but where did this famous non-holiday originate, and why? If you want a variant, it’s All Fool’s Day, but that means 1 April as well. I never knew before checking at Snopes.com that the term may come from those foolish enough to forget the correct date, after the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, in the 1500s.

Yet like foolishness itself, the origin remains fickle. There was a Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated about this time of year. I like that one!

Snopes taught me as well not to prank after noon on the 1st, since bad luck will then befall the trickster. The site may also inspire fools and practical jokers with a few famous jokes played on the day. For even more tomfoolery, visit The Library of Congress blog entry for possible origins. Whatever the genesis, we should embrace a day dedicated to lighthearted fun.

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.

Public-domain Tarot Deck Fool image, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Draconian

Lawgivers from Star Trek The Original SeriesIn ancient Athens, a title of leadership was “Archon” (a lawgiver) and one of these men was named Draco. Apparently, he was so strict in the laws he passed that he gave us our word of the week. I never before heard of “draconic,” shown by the OED to mean a severe code of law or something that pertains to dragons (quite severe in their way). That word in turn gave us  draconian, employed in English and some other languages for any really harsh law or penalty.

Why the Star Trek image? It’s from a favorite episode of mine, “The Return of the Archons,” largely about good intentions for law and order gone awry.

In the show, a long-deceased scientist named Landru created  an artificial intelligence (also called Landru) with elements of his personality encoded in the software. Landru keeps a planet’s populace in check with “Lawgivers” that impose peace by “absorbing” independent thinkers into “The Body” of obedient and docile, if brainwashed, citizens.

Draconianism seems to work, for a time. Even Jim Kirk and his crew are nearly stifled by it, but in the end, draconian laws and codes fail.  Landru blows a fuse. And as for Draco? Legends vary: he may have been smothered by his own supporters in a backfired attempt to show support for him, or he died in exile.

Good intentions, indeed.

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.

Word of the Week! Anthropomorphic

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da VinciToday’s word comes to us courtesy of Cheryl Huff, on the faculty of our School of Professional and Continuing Studies. The word has cousins I use at times in my teaching: Anthropocentric for a human-focused view of the word, Anthropocene for the new epoch of Climate Change and other human-caused ecological changes, many but not all of them tragic for us and other species.

The root of all of them, “anthropo-” comes from Greek and Latin, meaning something relating to humans. Thus anthropomorphic is something to which we ascribe human characteristics.  It can also be something that has a human form, as do some robots.

We make animals anthropomorphic constantly; consider the 2005 documentary film March of the Penguins, Disney’s animals, Geico’s talking Gecko, or Carfax’s Fox. Foxes are “wise,” right? Deer, innocent and loving? Perhaps we do this partly out of guilt over what we are doing to them and their natural habitats in the Anthropocene? Or perhaps we simply like making humans the measure of all things?

If we are indeed “the measure of all things,” as went the old cliche coined by Protagoras of Abdera (the phrase is now fresh again, from disuse in our times of shallow language, where “Super” is our most popular, and most mindless, adjective), this week’s word is the one for our “all about us” time.

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 credit: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Ides of March

Death of CaesarI love literary metaphors, especially ones that date their popularity to a work of Shakespeare’s. We have so many–pound of flesh, sound and fury–but this month’s metaphor has an historical origin that predates the play Julius Caesar.

The OED Online cites  “Ides” as “In the ancient Roman calendar (Julian and pre-Julian): the third of the three marker days in each month, notionally the day of the full moon, which divides the month in half, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months.” The Calends (or Kalends)and Nones were the other marker days. You can read more about them here. Now we see where our word “calendar” comes from.

But back to Ides. If every month had them, why are they so metaphorically significant? Julius Caesar met his end in the Senate after a dire warning, here given from Shakespeare’s play:

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.
Sennet. Exeunt all except BRUTUS and CASSIUS

Julius should have listened better, and kept a keen eye upon his “friends” in Rome. In any case, the metaphor, a lovely one for a time in need of vigilance or a date of reckoning, has fallen out of even learned parlance these days. As with so many fading phrases, it’s a great loss to nuance and history in our language.

When language gets lost or dumbed down, it’s as often our fault as not. I just heard this when the first test passenger for Virgin Galactic, otherwise articulate and precise, described something seen from space as “super super super high def.” Going into space! And all she could manage was an adjective, super, that I consider overused to the point of oblivion. Sir Richard Branson, send me to suborbit. I promise to use more adjectives, many of them printable.

So that’s my challenge for all of you, as Spring arrives. Try some fresh words this Ides of March and every month. After all, as Cassius warns his co-conspirator, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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 credit: There are hundreds of good (and more than a few hilarious) images of the death of Caesar only a click away. This one, a painting by William Holmes Sullivan, comes from Wikipedia Commons and is licensed for Creative-Commons use.

Word of the Week! Torpor

Gray February SkyTorpor, torpid: they describe the mood and setting of a gloomy late-February day. The ground is muddy, the buds not quite ready to open. A few daffodils are in bloom, but, really? April seems a year away. We will see a bit more snow and ice.

If a prior Word of the Week,  doldrum, fit the late-summer mood last year, our word today provides the right February descriptor: listlessness, dullness of mood, or “spiritual lethargy,” as the OED’s entry puts it. That was my sense of it as a word-hungry undergrad who sometimes felt a bit torpid, for various existential or self-inflicted reasons.

The term seems to date to at least the 13th Century, probably earlier given its unaltered Latin origin. It’s also fun for me to see a Latin term come down to us basically unchanged, without sounding very Latin. An obsolete usage applies to physics, specifically, inertia.  The OED provides a noun form, too, “torpidity.”

Shake off your torpidity and take a brisk walk. Spring will arrive.

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 by the author.

Word of the Week! Sagacity

Jefferson & JacksonI’ve loved this word since early in college at UVA, where it was often used for that guy we always mentioned as though he were in the next room: Thomas Jefferson. Though his life and legacy have been fairly scrutinized by good scholarship since those days, both for his treatment of enslaved people and some of his impractical ideas about self-governance, no one I have met or whose work I have read doubts that Jefferson had as deeply a philosophical turn of mind as the French philosophes of The Enlightenment.

But was he “sagacious”? Is sagacity the same as brilliance?

The OED’s first definition, from a French word, floored and enlightened me. Though it’s obsolete, sagacity once related to having an “acute sense of smell.” That idea persisted through the 17th Century, when a more modern sense of “shrewdness” or “sound judgement” came into usage. Sagacity, then, has more to do with practical sensibilities than “book learning.” Meanwhile, shrewdness itself, from a Middle English word, has never had a completely positive sense, morally.

After reading Alan Pell Crawford’s excellent Twilight at Monticello, I’d argue that Jefferson’s sagacity was limited. At the time of the Declaration, he smelled the times correctly. Later, he proved less sagacious in missing the religious changes as Anglican Virginians veered toward more conservative sects. Jefferson remained rather naive about the ways that enslaved peoples might be freed over time, and he underestimated the divisions that emerged in America by the 1820s.

One might, looking at the evidence, say that while Andrew Jackson was far less educated than Jefferson, “Old Hickory,” with his many faults, was far more sagacious politically. And that in no way is praise for him or Jefferson. Let the scholarship speak for itself. I will be sagacious enough not to wade any deeper into those waters.

If you have an interest in Crawford’s book, I’d start with this audio interview by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

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 mashup, from Creative Commons sources, by the author.