Word of the Week! Hubris

Today’s New York Times ran an op-ed about human hubris and the climate crisis we now face. I use the word “hubris” a great deal in my literary studies classes, too. Many a protagonist, good or bad, gets felled by this fatal flaw of overweening pride.

I’ve always described it in my course glossary of literary terms as “the sort of pride that is so inflated that it blinds, even destroys a character, even an entire people. Many characters in classical literature and Shakespeare’s plays are so prideful that it destroys them. So is Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

I have never checked a dictionary for our word, so let’s see how I did. Though the Greek original is ancient, this loan word dates only to the late Victorian era. The OED Online gives a few usages, all of them about the same of “presumption toward the gods, self-confidence, pride.” the lack of nuance after the first definition surprises me.

Mere pride is not a vice. One can and should be proud of one’s accomplishments and those of others (envy being another fatal flaw). Hubris is a certain type of pride, however, and in the Miltonic Satan’s will to challenge the Almighty we hear echoes of many earlier myths of mortals who dared to compare their beauty, strength, or courage to the immortals of Olympus.

So beware hubris. It’s everywhere these days. It always comes before a fall.

Gustav Doré’s illustration from Paradise Lost comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Bumptious

I first noticed this word when reading Willa Cather’s excellent novel The Professor’s House, way back in graduate school. She describes in great detail the overdone decor of the main character’s abode, including “the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls.”

The alliteration stuck with me but so did the idea that an inanimate object, rather than a pushy, overly friendly person, could be “bumptious.” The OED’s entry gives a history only dating to the early 19th Century, from a humorous use of the word “bump.”  The sense here is a conceited, self-assured, or offensive person, not a carved bit of wood.

The American Heritage Dictionary adds a possible etymology of combining “bump” and “presumptuous,” which certainly describes a bumptious person, but not a ball.

Perhaps Cather, so annoyed in other places with techniques made possible by modern power tools, just hated the woodwork she’d seen somewhere and could not resist the odd pairing of words. Whatever one might think of it, the usage stuck with me nearly 30 years, much like the memory of a really boorish, bumptious buffoon.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image licensed for reuse, courtesy of Pexels.

 

Word of the Week! Soporific

Here we have a perfect word for late summer, and just today I heard a BBC reporter use it to describe the weather in a small Cuban town. Weather that hot and humid makes one drowsy, which is the nature of anything soporific.

This word can also be used to describe the actions of certain drugs. John Locke, in an example from the OED Online, noted the “soporifick” virtue of opium as early as 1690.

With school soon to begin, we might note that our word can describe the effect of a boring anecdote or lecture. The OED catches that usage well with an example from 1727, “Hibernian matrons thus of old, Their soporific stories told.”

So it’s more than boring. Not everything that bores you makes you drop off.  But in order to keep you awake, I’ll end now. I’m feeling rather drowsy myself.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Harum-Scarum

I have had a rather rushed and chaotic week renovating a house we rent, just ahead of new tenants arriving. Thus, I’ve acted rather harum-scarum about this blog, and that gives me a good opportunity to share a favorite word often found in English Literature before 1900.

The OED Online shows a likely etymology as a rhyme made up of hare + scare. If you have walked up on a bunny and watched it flee wildly, going one direction, then another, you get a sense of the recklessness and panic of the resulting harum-scarum behavior. The term is not very old, and the oldest example (perhaps misheard by the writer) from the 17th Century is harum-starum!

Wild, rash, reckless, chaotic, running one way, then another! I frequently see it in Dickensian prose about a “harum-scarum fellow” one cannot trust to act calmly. Not long ago I chastised a friend about his undependable “harum-scarum friends,” knowing that a fellow English Major would get the reference.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image from Nick Park’s excellent 2005 film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, just because I could not resist.

Word of the Week! Doldrum

Sailing Boat alone

July marks the lowest ebb of my summer, at least when I do not escape Richmond’s continual sauna for more temperate climes. I feel like I’m a ship becalmed under a burning sun. In a word, in the doldrums. By August I’m gearing up for the semester ahead and the doldrums lie behind me.

Our word this week has a fascinating history, with the OED Online providing an etymology from the more familiar “dull” and the less familiar “dold,” meaning dim-witted. We no longer call a dull or boring person a “doldrum,” saving that term for dull moods, as when Carlo Marx, the fictional counterpart of Allen Ginsberg in Kerouac’s On the Road,  complains of times when he is not being creative as his “doldrums.”

I consider the nautical use of the word its most pow

erful. Every summer, for no reason I can fathom, I pack my sea chest and embark on a fictional sea voyage, usually by sail. It is not something I’d ever want to do in reality, but the specialized language of sailing, the rich history, and of course the many disasters compel me to read on. This year my pick is Joshua Slocum’s 1900 memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum was the first person, at least on record, to do so. He faced many dangers, from pirates, storms, to hostile native tribes, and I looked forward with delight to his traversing the Atlantic doldrums, an equitorial region where winds are calm or nonexistent.

Slocum sailed right through, to my great disappointment. Otherwise, the book is really fine reading. Yet to this reader the thought of being beca

lmed at sea seems worse than any storm. All one can do is wait for wind. Thus the term fits well with Carlo Marx’s, and other writers’,  fears of getting stuck.

May your doldrums be brief and a fair wind fill your sails, until the storms of Autumn arrive.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Creative Commons image from Flikr, courtesy of Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

 

Word of The Week! Curmudgeon

Science-Fiction and Fantasy writer Fran Wilde, who works with my students when she’s on campus, once quipped “Joe, you are a misanthrope in danger of becoming a curmudgeon.”

Fran actually had that backwards, and that says a great deal about how fine a line exists between these words and, perhaps, who they represent. The Oxford English Dictionary Online only takes the term back to the 16th Century, in the sense of being mean-spirited and mistrustful. The word’s genesis, the OED notes, is unknown.

Like some curmudgeons I have known, then, our word seems to have just shown up to spoil our days. The American Heritage Dictionary also reveals that for two centuries, attempts to find the origin of the word have failed. The term has, moreover, shifted in what it signifies. For a long time, the elusive curmudgeon often was depicted as old, mean, and miserly. Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge (a character I portrayed in our 6th Grade Christmas play). Lately the grasping miser seems to have given way to a merely grumpy old geezer, usually male. Thus my Simpsons’ example.

So short-tempered, mistrustful, grumpy? That’s me, Fran. But a hater of all mankind? Nonsense! That would be someone like Mark Twain late in his life, who wrote in an 1898 notebook entry that “The human race consists of the damned and the ought-to-be damned.” Those are the words of someone who really hates the entire species: a misanthrope.  You see it in his later work, especially after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I hope my fate is gentler than the hero of that novel or, for that matter, its author. Writing this has me grinning, something curmudgeons rarely do. So perhaps there is hope. Just stay off my lawn this summer!

This blog will continue through the balmy months, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

 

Word of the Week! Amortize

The world of business provides few enough beautiful words, but this week’s is a favorite of mine, less for its mouthfeel and more for its utility. A person shows both their age and their financial sense when they can employ “amortize” and “amortization” well.

As its roots show, the word has something to do with death. That usage, The OED Online tells us, stretches back to the late Middle Ages, with a 14th Century example from Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale” provided. In 1656, T. Blount’s dictionary, Glossographia, notes “Amortize, to deaden, kill, or slay.”

That’s not what my tax accountant meant when he told me that we could amortize our equipment purchases over several years, if we wanted to write off our farming expenses. I imagine myself shooting holes in the 500 gallon cistern I use to collect rainwater for irrigation.

No, this sense of retiring a debt for equipment or liquidating something gradually appears, like modern business practices themselves, only in the 19th Century. All other morbidity clinging to the word and its nominalized form, “amortization,” have long vanished from living memory.

So consider this post a memento mori for all those other senses of “amortize,” here at the end of the academic year.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image provided courtesy of Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Penultimate

This post will run the final week of classes, but it is really the penultimate week for academic work here: do not forget your final exam week, students!

The word itself has a decidedly academic “look” to it, but I find it used as often in journals of ideas such as The Atlantic Monthly. I brought doughnuts to class today, our next-to-last writing workshop of the semester. For that penultimate class, however, I would never ask  “who ate the penultimate doughnut”?

The OED Online, online or in print, gives our word first as a noun, a form I rarely see in formal usage today. The adjectival form appears far more often, though I had never before encountered the now rare mathematical use meaning “Relating to or designating a member of a family of curves that is arbitrarily close to a degenerate form.”

A Merriam-Webster post points out a usage error for this term. Never use it in formal writing to mean “last.” Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage seconds that opinion. The word gets employed to mean “the best of the best” but that usage is also incorrect. Our word always means “next to last.”  I could see it being acceptable in casual usage as “the best for now, until something better arrives to replace it.”

The final word remains out on penultimate; in a century, it may mean exactly “the best, so far,” until a better word shows up.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Valence

Special thanks to Rita Willett, MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week. This is her second nomination and, as a writer, I can say that nothing is more pleasing than “regulars” who read one’s work.

Dr. Willett provides a term that I knew though chemistry classes, indicating particular types of chemical bonds. It appears in many other fields, all of them indicating a bond of some sort. Scouting about with Google, I found a use from linguistics, where valence indicates the number of words in a sentence to which another word, especially a verb, can bond. An verb such as “give” has a valence of three; it makes no sense alone, requiring itself (valence of 1) as well as a direct (2) and indirect object (3), as in “give me the dictionary!”

Dr. Willett and her students encountered our word through NIH’s RDoC Matrix, a graph ranking psychological motivations and threats according to positive or negative “valences.”

At first glance, the word’s meaning in psychology drifts a bit from its use in chemistry or immunology, where it also indicates a binding action for antibodies or antigens. The use of the term in psychology dates back only a century, with the OED Online providing a 1917 example, but one from 1935, in a book called A Dynamic Theory of Personality, really captures the meaning well: “A certain object or event..is experienced as an attraction (or repulsion)… We shall say of such objects that they possess a ‘valence’.”

There, then, in our bond, much like that in other fields. One positive valence I found at the NIH site is, in fact, chemical. Consider the reward given by the brain when it releases dopamine. Get a “like” online (or a regular reader responding at your blog) and you get a little dose of it, naturally.

This is why I often critique smart phones, calling them addictive “dopamine dispensers” and banning their use in class. But I digress, perhaps to release some other pleasant brain chemical related to smugness or curmudgeon-ism.

Looking for images in the Creative Commons of “dopamine reward” led to all sorts of negative valences that had me fretting about wasting professional time, since so many images were simply the same drawing of a human brain with the areas highlighted that are linked to dopamine. On the other hand, laughter must be a positive valence, and short clips of Homer Simpson being forced to eat an infinite number of donuts in Hell came up too under “dopamine reward.” This led me to Homer having a nightmare about “The Planet of the Donuts” where he’s accused of eating half the population.

Find those on your own. Right now, my brain craves the positive valence of consuming a donut, a word I prefer to spell “doughnut.” Then the negative valence of guilt for eating two, not one. I hope the valences that influence your behavior are all positive, from getting enough sleep, rewards, and positive habits.

Correction 4/9/18: I had originally noted “valence” as the spelling for a type of window treatment. As Dr. Willett pointed out, that is a “valance.” I swear I saw it listed with an “e” in one of my dictionaries. Perhaps I need an entry for “ophthalmologist.”

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Absurd

Isn’t it wonderful to have a day dedicated to playing jokes on each other? This post honors April Fool’s Day, a last vestige of festivals from Antiquity such as Saturnalia, where the social order turned upside down.

I began my hunt for the right word by a simple Google search, to find a synonym for “foolish.” Then, looking at “absurd,” I thought how absurd the nonsense word “google” is, having no etymology I could imagine other than a now-forgotten, and rather foolish, cartoon character. Thinking about Google, as well as using it did, however, give us a word for a very special day.My go-to for the history of words, The OED Online, suggests a dual French and Latin parentage for our word, with absurde indicating something “contrary to common sense.” That 14th Century continued into English, with the OED’s examples dating back as far as the 1500s. In Hamlet, we have this: “Fie, tis a fault to heauen, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd.”

Unless one is an Adsurdist artist, the absurd is, at best, done deliberately to have fun or make fun of others. Real fools, however, do not recognize their absurdity or even deliberately embark on foolhardy adventures. That sense of reason and absurdity being at odds stands today. That makes “absurd” anything but absurd in formal usage; so many terms drift but this one, like the fool who persists in foolishness, remains delightfully unchanged.

Next week we have a faculty-nominated word from the sciences. It enshrines reason to counteract our foolish pursuits. For now, however, be a bit absurd as you play harmless tricks on friends and family.

Update: This post troubled me because “absurd” does not seem to come from the word “surd” plus the “ab” affix. I found this list of words that employ “ab” in the sense of “away from,” as in “abnormal.” By coincidence, “ab” was the site’s “word root of the day.”

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.