Metaphor of the Month! Terra Incognita

16th Century Italian MapI’ve long thought of terra incognita, a clear borrowing from Latin, in terms of those Medieval maps with sea monsters and mysterious unexplored places.

Now, in this cruel April, well, we are in an unknown land.  We have never, in our lifetimes, experienced such a crisis. Those who could recall the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19 are long, long gone. Uncertainly reigns, and it leads to not irrational reactions, but a sort of pre-human behavior based upon fear. In 1929, one factor driving the Stock Market into its nosedive was simply lacking information, based on the lag of a key technology: the stock ticker used in exchanges.

But what is it as metaphor? When did the term become popular?

The OED entry dates our term to the early 17th Century, while Wikipedia, the source of our image above, posits an earlier usage by Ptolemy in the Second Century. There’s the term for an unknown sea, mare incognito, that was new to me, while the term “going incognito” still enjoys widespread use.

The Age of Exploration added to our maps. You’d have to go to the bottom of the ocean or to the surface of another world, today, to find terra incognita. As a metaphor, however, it still rings true for times, like today, when we find ourselves in unknown lands.  We are “off the charts,” a cousin of our metaphor, or in Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.” That last is a very dark example, if you know Hamlet. Let’s not go there. We should find hope now where we can.

We map genomes today, as well as the surfaces of strange worlds. That should give us hope. That’s mine, as we traverse this April’s terra incognita. Good luck and good health to you and yours.

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.

Word of the Week! Moot

Moot CourtI find it odd that I’ve not covered “moot” before. Perhaps my interest skews toward the Latinate. This short term just drips with the mists of the Celtic fringe of Northern Europe.

So, it’s not a moot point: where did it come from? Northern Europe, yes, but not Celtic languages. Origins of the word go to Germany and Scandinavia, all with a sense of a meeting. Remember “Ent Moot” in Tolkien’s The Two Towers?  Yet that is a real meeting. Noting “mock” about it.

So how did our word take on its modern sense of a “moot court”?

Moot can also mean a tree-stump , something our Oxford Don would have certainly considered in choosing his term for a meeting of talking, walking trees. Some noun usages mean merely “an argument” rather than the place where it occurs. Only when we get to moot as an adjective, meaning “having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic” or “unable to be resolved,” do we get our familiar meaning. Points in court were declared “moot,” and I have idea how the very word for the gathering became the word for a non-desirable outcome.

Bryan Garner’s excellent A Dictionary of Modern American Usage holds that “this shift in meaning occurred about 1900” (436). He says not why.

The reasons for that shift are not moot points. It would be worth more research to discover why.

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.

Belgrade Moot Court, courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

Garner, Bryan A. A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Words of the Week! Weather & Whether

Ah, homonyms in a time when we are once again becoming an oral culture. Too many of my students neither read enough seriously nor read with care when they are required to do so. Hence, the repeated docking of 10 points (they can get them back) for confusing “whether” and “weather.”

As in Dylan’s song, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s blowing an ill wind, for nuance in the language. I think. If so, I cannot stop it with my 10 measly points.  But what if these winds blew before? And will blow again? Hence my Mead Hall photo. We are going back to the time of Beowulf, fen-stalking Grendel the monster, and the warlike but helpless Geats that the monster preyed upon.

As we’ll see, there were once two distinct terms in play that now sound exactly alike. So where did our words come from and where diverge? Let’s dip again into Henry Bradley’s The Making of English, (a steal for your Kindle at 99 cents, the one sort of book I like to read on a screen). The philologist notes, in his chapter on changes of meaning, that “[m]ost of the distinctions that exist in spelling and not in pronunciation are between words that are historically different, and when this is so the various spelling usually represent obsolete varieties of pronunciation.”

“Whether” is one of the oldest English words I’ve featured. The OED dates an obsolete adverbial form back to the time of Beowulf, with the Old English term hwæþ(e)re. Leaving that term in the Mead Hall with the brooding Geats, let’s move forward in time a bit, to look over, in your own sweet time, (spelled many different ways) the multiple ways in which “whether” got employed down the centuries. It’s almost maddening to follow the many twists and turns this one ancient word took, until we get to 1819,  with Poet Percy Shelley wondering in a letter, “I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no.”

So am I. Can I teach Gen Z why the words are not interchangeable in writing? Or is it as doomed as Beowulf’s last battle with a dragon? Let’s not go there. What about the weather? Here we have another ancient word, this time from German, rendered in Old English as weder. I suppose when Grendel ventured out into the fens to maim, mangle, and eat Geat, he did his best work in foul weather, and he was able to distinguish the pronunciation of the two terms. The OED notes morphing in how the word got spelled, but like whether, weather (the word, if not the phenomena) settled down by the 19th Century.

What will happen next, round the colossal wreck of whether and weather? I’m no weatherman. I don’t know. Our modern forms of communication lend themselves to encouraging more simplification. Maybe we’ll use one spelling such as “wether” in a century, and listeners will then, as now, know which way the linguistic wind should blow. I and my 10-point penalty will be long gone, either way.

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.

Mead hall image courtesy of Wikipedia. I really wanted one of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm, but I didn’t know weather whether it would be safe for work.

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! Splenetic

Image of man with Melancholic PersonalityProfessor Joe Hoyle in our School of Business spotted this word in a column by George F. Will, critiquing President Trump and his “incessantly splenetic presidency.” Whatever one’s politics, one really must admit that Will has a way with words. Thus he picks what author Joe Glaser, in his book Understanding Style, calls a neutral word: it is not derogatory or connotative. It simply states, in its original sense, that the man is more ruled by his spleen than any other organ.

The OED, a bit far down in its list of definitions, defines our word as “given or liable to fits of angry impatience or irritability.” Since the 16th Century the term has also meant, and still can mean, one with disorders of the spleen, though the definition is now obsolete. As a term relating, generally, to the spleen, it remains in current use.

So how does a spleen make one short-tempered? The idea goes far back into medical history, with the now quaint idea of four humours that govern the body. If one’s spleen produces too much “black bile” then the person would have a Melancholic personality; that is also an early synonym for “splenetic.”

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.

Creative Commons image from the Wellcome Collection courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Formication

ants crawlingBe sure to not let Autocorrect “fix” this word. Yes, it sounds like “Formica” too, and that trade name of a laminate countertop has a seeming relation to our Word of the Week.

According to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers who nominated the word, it “is the medical term for the sensation like bugs crawling over the skin. This lead me to the Latin term ‘formica’ meaning ants, which I kind of already knew because of the Formics in Ender’s Game.”  Those aliens are really rather terrifying, but I’m still stuck on how a company could think that anything associated with bugs crawling could sell a consumer product, except pesticide.

The OED specifies ants as the creepy-crawlie in its definition. The word is of recent origin, dating to the 18th Century (yes, that is recent for etymology or, for that matter, entomology).

But what about the building material? According to the official Formica account, the name came when the two inventors “needed a substitute ‘for’ mica, so they swapped in the plastic resins, which led to the company name – you guessed it – Formica.” The company site is worth your time, to see those fantastic countertops from the 1950s that still appear in retro diners across the nation. With talent like Raymond Loewy working with the firm, one sees how the trade name became synonymous for any laminate counter.

But ants on the counter? Reach for a damp paper towel and clean up.

Update 1/28/18: Dr. Kristine Nolin, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UR, reminded me that “Ants produce formic acid, which is delivered when the ant bites.” You can learn more from this site. Thanks to Dr. Nolin and the surprisingly large number of readers who saw this post! Send us new words and metaphors!

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.

Creative-Commons image, “Ants Crawling,” courtesy of Ky at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Gadfly

Martin Luther King Jr.Reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had a transformative effect on my sense of justice and, frankly, rhetoric. It remains a masterpiece of persuasive writing; several words and metaphors that Dr. King employ struck me, as a college student, with their power.  Re-reading it today, one word, really a metaphor that has long been a favorite of mine, stands out.

The word “gadfly” in one sentence speaks entire paragraphs, both for its seeming innocence but also for its referencing Socrates’ Apology, where the doomed Greek philosopher discussed the need for someone like him to stir a lazy nation, just as a gadfly stirs a lazy horse. King writes “we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King calls here for nonviolence, as did Socrates before him, but nonviolence with an edge to it. The word itself, with “gad” of Scandinavian origin, is a cousin to our “goad,” for spurring action. When used for a person who provokes action, the term dates to the 17th Century.

I rather like gadflies. I don’t think that Dr. King would mind my calling him one. We could currently use more of them, and it’s a credit to Dr. King that he advocated goads, not bullets.

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 image courtesy of Wikipedia.