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.

Word of the Week! Malarkey

Snake Oil SalesmanMy 6th-Grade teacher, Miss Gilmore, had a wonderfully deep Southern accent. At times, all too frequently, we said stupid things and instead of getting angry, she’d reply “oh, malarkey!”  She probably would have spelled it “malarky,” Something I also see in print.

That’s how I learned this word, once common and hard to find today. Malarkey, however, has never vanished. It’s humbug. It’s nonsense. It’s misleading. It’s ridiculous. It may not be illegal or dangerous, but it rises to the level of silliness, at least. Earlier I considered mountebanks and their con-games. These fellows are masters of malarkey. I like my image from that post so much that I’m going to use it again.

There is no malarkey involved in the mysterious origin of our word. The author of the OED entry simply does not know. The word did cross the Atlantic to the New World. There’s an Irish surname close to our word, but that origin is probably malarkey.

Is malarkey endangered? Not the thing itself: it’s everywhere. But the word has fallen to 3 of 8 on the OED usage scale, making it one of those words “not commonly found in general text types like novels and newspapers, but at the same they are not overly opaque or obscure.”

Time to bring the word back. We need more words without four letters for the everyday, trivial nonsense we encounter. For instance: “Your call is important to us.”

Malarkey!

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of “Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap, resident snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park” courtesy of Wikipedia, via the Library of Congress.

Word of the Week! Perfidious

Charlie Brown, Lucy, FootballI’m enjoying my little side-trip into Latinate terms. We’ve recently had invidious and insidious. Why not “perfidious”?  I often think of angry French critics of England’s supposed treachery, in the coinage “perfidious Albion!” spat out in many a tirade from a different, equally difficult time in human history.

Perfidious means breaking confidence or promises. In short, treacherous. The OED gives us a bit of the history, while the Wikipedia page on Perfidious Albion claims even earlier usages, back as far as the 13th Century.

Put in your poster-child for our word at the top of this post. I am sure we can think of several. I’ll be light-hearted. Lucy, from Peanuts, immediately comes to mind. And that football…I’ve used the idea before, in discussing the word casuistry. Poor Charlie; his gullible belief in perfidious Lucy provides a tale for the ages.

This week’s term has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, with the Brexit vote and outcome across The Atlantic. I won’t point any fingers, as perfidy can be found many places today.

Send us words and metaphors, wondrous, horrid, or banal! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of an entire file-folder of Charlie Brown and football images on my hard drive.

Word of the Week! Invidious

invidiousAfter last week’s insidious, I ran across its near homonym. With school beginning and the need to ramp up student vocabularies increasing with the pile of reading on that way, let’s sort these two words out.

Insidious and invidious both have Latin roots and negative connotations, but if the former relates of subterfuge, invidious is more candid: any action or statement likely to spur resentment, offense, or anger.  As with last week’s word, our word this week has barely budged in its meaning since the 17th Century. You’ll find lots of interesting examples in the OED entry. Most commonly today, we talk about an “invidious comparison,” such as this one, from the blog for writers, The Wickeds:

“If you don’t write everyday, you can’t write a book.”

Poppycock. The disempowering message from these morons is, “You can’t write a book.”

That sort of comparison teams up something awful with something desirable. It’s sure to provoke.

I ran across our word in a book that did get written, and written well, The Men Who Lost America, about the British leaders of the Revolutionary War. Here’s the usage by author Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.

“In the view of one Cabinet insider, the government was in an invidious position and could not afford to risk alienating the brothers by denying their terms.”

Well respected General Howe and his older brother, Admiral Howe, proposed a peace conference to the Americans, something George III vehemently opposed. But the British government decided to both make war and offer an unsatisfactory peace at the same time. The brothers’ initiative failed, miserably.

We know the rest.

As the year begins with uncertainty,  be sure that we’ll press on here. Send us words and metaphors! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

quite timely image of “the suicide of an invidious plutocrat” courtesy of Wikepedia

Word of the Week! Mountebank

Snake Oil SalesmanI’ve been enjoying Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. This scholarly work about the generation of founders from 1776 fills in the gaps and errors of Hamilton, which I enjoyed for different reasons. Ellis pulls off a difficult feat: his book manages to draw on primary sources and cover events without being at all stuffy.

He also provides some great words in use by that generation. We rarely hear the word mountebank today, though we often–all too often–encounter them. We would be more likely to call one a “fake” or a “charlatan” today. As with Strombolian from a few weeks back, I’d like to see our word this week return to regular usage. In the days of Burr and Hamilton, both given this slur, the word might lead to a duel. Today, it would simply elevate political discourse from the sewers.

Originally, as the OED notes, the word meant what we’d call a “snake-oil salesman,” a specific type of charlatan. They stood on soap-boxes or benches, hence the Italian monta in banco that proved the genesis of our English word.

Montebanks still exist today, too, even if they rarely stand atop boxes. They are instead often in the box in front of you: look at the advertisements for those “try this one simple trick” that shamelessly appear on many Web pages.

More broadly, and much more sadly, anyone claiming knowledge without having it, and using that for fame or personal fortune is a mountebank. We have many in the public eye right now, some more brazen than others.  Perhaps we need a renaissance of the old metaphor of “being ridden out of town on a rail”?

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of “Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap, resident snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park” courtesy of Wikipedia, via the Library of Congress.

Word of the Week! Strombolian

StromboliAs a child, I loved several things in the way only an OCD person can: volcanoes and maps were two of them. When these obsessions coincided, as they did on the paper place-mats of many 1960s pizza parlors?

Paradise. Studying the lumps and bumps, some smoking dramatically, on the simplified map of Italy I’d move past Etna and Vesuvius to fixate on one spot: The Island of Stromboli.

The word rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It is a word hard to say without grinning, too. Likewise our adjectival form, one I encountered when reading about volcanoes recently. As this site notes, Strombolian eruptions are “short-lived, explosive outbursts,” that remind me of how a few public figures misbehave in person and online, when they don’t get their ways.  In the world of indifferent rock and sky that will outlast all our vanities, Strombolian eruptions toss bombs into the air “that travel in parabolic ballistic paths” before building up a cinder cone. To a volcano-obsessed child, thinking about this was the next best thing to eating a pizza.

My own dad was rather Strombolian (7/14/20 update: This Bastille Day would mark his 100th birthday). I think this aspect of his temper kept him from major, stratosphere-scraping, climate-altering blasts. It was he, in fact, who got me fascinated with all things Stromboli. A clever and imaginative man despite his lack of formal education, he invented a myth about a pot-bellied giant named Stromboli, who lived on that little speck I would so faithfully study on the place-mat. I imagined Stromboli wearing an animal skin and sporting a huge, waxed handlebar mustache, right out of pizza-parlor iconography. There was no Wikipedia or Internet then, and the “S” volume of our World Book Encyclopedia was missing in action. So Stromboli grew in my mind like, well, a swelling volcano.

This was long before a sandwich called The Stromboli could be ordered in my part of Virginia. The rolled-up delight apparently began in the 50s, at an Essington, PA restaurant, and the sandwich has a fascinating back story: it’s named for a film, not a volcano. I got a real kick out seeing Strombolis erupt onto Richmond menus in the 1990s, and I told my father. He loved the idea and once again said, his voice booming, “I AM STROMBOLI!”

We should use the adjective Strombolian, among others, as much as we can. It is certainly better than the mindless “super” I hear constantly. But I’ll avoid yet another short-lived outburst on that subject. I’ll  soothe my temper by looking at my bookshelf, where I’ve not only Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa but also some fragments of Mount Saint Helens and a small lava bomb ejected during a Strombolian event in Iceland. That one I picked up in person, off a glacier littered with lava bombs.Italian placematNow I am rather hungry for a take-out Stromboli.

Image of Stromboli courtesy of Wikipedia. Placemat image blatantly stolen.

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.