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.

Word of the Week! Cornucopia

I don’t hear this wonderful word much anymore, so I thought to trot it out for the week after Thanksgiving, when we enjoy a feast of plenty. What of the word that means “horn of plenty”? It may appear in seasonal imagery, but like last week’s word, it has faded from popular usage. The OED Online gives it only four of eight for frequency of usage.

As with so many words here, the history of use can only be traced to the early Gutenberg years, or 16th Century. I imagine our term enjoyed popularity before, as the concept comes from pagan Antiquity, noted in the OED entry as “the horn of the goat Amalthea by which the infant Zeus was suckled.”

We might see the image of a horn of plenty advertising specials for Thanksgiving at supermarkets, but the lovely Latinate term? That seems rare today.

Enjoy your holiday feasts and do not overdo it. There are ancient stories about that, as well.

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: “Fall Cornucopia” by Ron Cogswell at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Fulgent

Bright GemAs I write this, the gloom is almost palpable outside. We have heavy rain and lowering clouds. It is far from a fulgent day.

Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested the word after she encountered it, as we do with so many interesting terms, in a class. The OED Online has it listed with a “frequency band” of only 2 out of 8, meaning such words “occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people.”

So our word may be on the way out the door with many other ancient but lovely adjectives.

The OED’s usages vary. Wordsworth once described sunset in terms of it begin “the fulgent West” and a century later, a writer for Ebony noted a musician’s “fulgent keyboard technique.”

But the core sense of “bright,” “shiny,” or “glittering” remain, even if this word itself fades.

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.

Gem image courtesy of Pixabay free images.

Word of the Week! Anodyne

A colleague, Dr. Ted Bunn in Physics, recently used our word to describe a “anodyne word” that lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. I knew the word but not its usage or history; Ted suggested a medical origin.

He’s correct. The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

Here’s a humorous example the OED provides from 1991 by Joanna Trollope, where “Celia and Elaine were having a carefully anodyne conversation about the church fête.” That is a conversation guaranteed to avoid an argument.

Anodynes are more than synonyms or euphemisms. They mask something, often with the worthy intention of maintaining harmony. Here’s an example I just invented, using anodyne expressions to cover up a really awful situation: “Management concluded to end our relationship with BigCo, our current vendor of bathroom supplies. That decision was made in the general interest of all our employees and the many visitors who use our hygienic facilities. The repeated difficulties with BigCo’s toilet tissue led to several quite vocal remarks to our staff about the lack of quality assurance at BigCo’s manufacturing plant.”

I let your imagination do the rest. The word “difficulties” is a perfect anodyne term.  So is “hygienic facility” or, for that matter, “restroom” in place of the British-English “toilet.”

Business writing is full of anodynes. It can be dreadful, but sometimes such language proves very useful. Consider what you have to write on a sympathy card. Mostly, however, anodyne words get in the way of making a point clearly and succinctly. At worst, they become parody or lies: “We value your call.”

I actually do value your input! 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.

Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Civility

Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing
I find it interesting indeed that the OED Online puts our word’s most commonly used definition in 12th place: “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration.”  Perhaps that should not surprise us, as the word has more current and obsolete definitions than any I have covered for this series.

We have to peer back further than the 15th Century, when the word began to appear in English, for its origin and former utility. Here the OED gives us “Latin cīvīlitāt-, cīvīlitās art of civil government, politics.” Consider the words that come from those roots: civil, civilization, civilized.  They presume a measure of tolerance and cooperation needed to live together, not engage in constant civil war.

That sense of neighbors in conflict takes us to the first cousin of civility, “civil.” When I taught criminal-justice writing, I often took my students to court in Monroe County, Indiana. We sat in on both criminal and civil cases, the latter often over civil disputes between neighbors or family members, rather than between a citizen and the State or locality.

The purpose of these courts? To maintain civility in the area, in order to avoid civil conflict. That sensibility underlies the work of civil society organizations.

Is civility dead today? That is a good question explored by Dr. Thomas Plante. Read and decide for yourself.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image by Threeboy from Richmond, Canada (Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Word of the Week! Hindrance

Or is it “hinderance”? I see both in print. Yet no usage guide helps here, including Garner’s Modern American Usage or the venerable text by Fowler. Nor do any of the printed dictionaries I have.  Everyone lists “hindrance” despite the drift in pronunciation. It should not surprise anyone who follows the history of language that any confusion about our word is only the latest chapter in a long history.

This term has a simple enough meaning: something that hampers, hinders, or impedes. The OED reveals a variety of spellings: “hynderance” (16th Century); “hinderaunce” (15th-16th Centuries); hindraunce (no dates given); “hinderance” (17th Century on); “hindrance” (19th Century on).

Here we have a word that has definitely lost its “a” and “u” but otherwise continues with two accepted spellings. What to do? I prefer “hinderance,” as it more closely approaches speech and the verb “hinder,” but “hindrance” remains more common in print and probably should be the one we use in service of higher grades in courses. MS Word wants to correct it to “hindrance.”  WordPress accepts both modern spellings. Yikes.

Full disclosure: I am stumped. Students, check with your professors and please stick to ONE spelling. This will make for a diverting update eventually, as the case is not closed on hinderance hindrance.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Grotesque

Our word this week began life in an Italian cave, or grotto. As early as the 16th Century, painters captured the primitive feelings of that setting with work called grotesque. So how did the word change over time, to become something revolting and unnatural?

Slowly. By the dawn of the 20th Century, when H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, the artistic sense of the word and its more modern sense were both in play. A definition given by the OED Online, “Characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre,” came to be common. Think of any gargoyle you see on a cathedral. They are nearly all grotesques.

Thanks to Victor, in my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy, for asking about this term used by Wells, as when his narrator remarks, “The apparition of this grotesque, half-bestial creature had suddenly populated the stillness of the afternoon for me.”

Using the Project Gutenberg copy of the text, now in the public domain, I stopped counting at 20 uses of the word. Clearly, Wells was after the human-animal hybrids’ grotesque appearance and behavior. And Dr. Moreau, who makes these “Beast-Men,” certainly had art in mind as much as science, since in the novel he calls the narrator a “materialist” when the narrator questions the practical application of the doctor’s mad experiments.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.