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.

Word of the Week! Lollygag

Lazy Bones SignWhat a word for the start of the semester. This is the time to work, not lollygag.

Thanks to Luci Ortiz of Boatwright Library for this word. I was often accused of lollygagging by my mother, whenever I was to cut the grass or take out the trash, yet somehow found a way to delay the chore as long as possible. To teenaged me, there was no doubt what our strange-sounding term meant.

An OED search reveals the word to be American slang, originating in the 19th Century. The usage frequency given is only 3 of 8: a real pity for such a colorful word. The earliest usage, from 1862 in Harpers, gives it as “lallygag,” and after that the word settled down to its present spelling, though the original spelling with the letter A continues into the 20th Century. I fear it won’t live past the 21st.

No one knows its origin.

Best usage, from 1868: “The lascivious lolly-gagging lumps of licentiousness who disgrace the common decencies of life by their love-sick fawnings at our public dances.”

So, slackers, stop dawdling, dilly-dallying, loafing, kicking the can down the road, and above all, do not lollygag. We have work to do.

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 courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski at Flickr.

Word of the Week (and a Poem!): Yule

Silbury Hill, 2017This time of year is a personal favorite, Yule, the season around the Winter Solstice.

Last year I got to Stonehenge just after Solstice, and the delay was worth it: we had smaller crowds and better views of the standing stones. Later we spent a few days at Avebury, just after Christmas, but the Yuletide (often hyphenated as Yule-tide) festivities were still in full swing. Silbury Hill, pictured above, is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Western Europe. We had it all to ourselves, and I think my photo captures the mood of Yuletide quite well, as does this one from Avebury’s henge.

Often this holiday, the day of least light and longest darkness, gets equated to our word, “Yule,” as does the Christian holiday of Christmas. Both are true, though the word itself is far older than modern neo-Paganism or Christianity.

The OED Online traces the word “Yule” to Old English geol and gives recorded uses, in Latin texts, back as far at the 8th Century. Later phonetic spellings such as “yoole” appear before things settled in their modern form in the 17th Century, though “yole” appears in one 19th century example.

What about the less common “Yuletide”? Like “Christmastide,” it’s getting rarer to modern ears than it was in Dickens’ era, perhaps because we think of “tide” only in terms of the ocean.  We usually put “time” in place of “tide” nowadays, but that is a good substitute. Here again, the OED entry on “tide” shows a first definition, now obsolete, meaning a season or span of time.

For Yuletide, I have a poem from the grandfather of my former Writing Consultant, Nellie Searle, to share. Whatever holiday is yours this season, you’ll find some inspiration in Andrew Glaze’s “Christmas.” Glaze, according to his daughter Elizabeth, “was a born skeptic his whole life.  We described ourselves as ‘agnostic’, and our outgoing Christmas cards were never religious in theme.”

Skeptics are welcome at my Yule table. A few years ago I helped to organize a few Winter Solstice celebrations for a local Unitarian-Universalist Church, for people of many faiths. As I said then, “A newspaper clipping I still have somewhere notes that on the longest night of the year, ancient peoples made bonfires in sacred places because they feared that the sun would never return. In northern Europe, a Yule log might be decked with greenery and then burned in a ritualistic manner.  A tree would be cut, brought indoors, and adorned with lights to remind everyone that the light will never die. These traditions, and many more, continue into modern times.”

That festival and its trappings moved me then and now, to honor the light and hope for its return. Yule is just the holiday for these dark times circadian, political, ecological. We can and will, I hope, do better in the years to come.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below. Next up will be “okay,” thanks to US President Martin Van Buren and Dr. Bill Ross of UR’s Department of Mathematics.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

For the week of  December 24th, the blog takes a holiday! See you in two weeks.

Photos by the author.

Words of the Week! Elusive, Illusive, Allusive

Desert MirageThis week we have a pair of homonyms, illusive and elusive, that students confuse. OED links are given. At a colleague’s suggestion I added a quasi-literary term that we rarely encounter, allusive. The mnemonic for getting them sorted out is not too difficult, so we’ll have a go at it now.

If something is “illusive,” think of an illusion. It only seems real. It deceives you, as in “His quest a quick fortune led him toward many illusive investments, all of which collapsed.” “Elusive” is something that eludes us, so “While he invested a lot of money, good returns on his investments remained elusive.”

I well recall my first highway travel as a child. I kept warning my father of water ahead on the road. These were illusions, mirages. All such are illusive.

Writers may know, and use, literary allusions. Something that is allusive alludes to something else, literary or ordinary, as in “The state’s early and difficult frontier history left so many allusive place names: Last Chance, Broken Promise, Dead Man, Murder Creek.”

Since all three words sound nearly alike when spoken, it’s best to try the mnemonics given, before writing anything down.

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 Wikipedia Commons.