Word of the Week! Abjure

The OathbreakersLinda Hobgood, Director of UR’s Speech Center, ran across this term recently and nominated it. And why am I using a scene from Peter Jackson’s film? Wait for it.

It has a legal sound, to my untrained ear. But that is merely one definition given by the OED. In fact, the term generally means to renounce. In the obsolete legal sense, it meant to leave a place, rather akin to renouncing one’s citizenship in the era before passports. Most all senses of the word are historical or obsolete, yet the word has a formal sensibility that merits its continuance.

One usage does remain current, for breaking an oath. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth, I first learned the term “oathbreaker,” back when I was a teen. These poor fellows vowed to defend a kingdom against evil, and yet abjured their vows. They were cursed to become the living dead, until another king would call upon them to fulfill their oaths.

That’s rough justice. As for our word?

Let’s abjure abjuring abjure, and bring it back into our formal use.

Image of Aragorn calling upon the Oathbreakers of Middle Earth, courtesy of The Lord of the Ring Wiki.

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.

Word of the Week! Indemnify

Scene from film "Double Indemnity"Special thanks to Professor Jack A. Molenkamp, who teaches Business Law classes to students at UR. He finds that this term, and many other legal ones, new to his students. That is not too damning, really; for me I first thought of Billy Wilder’s excellent Double Indemnity, a signature work of film noir starring some of the finest talents in Hollywood: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. Yes, those greats in a thriller involving…insurance.

Hence, the public domain (I don’t need legal problems) photo from that film.

When I took a Communications Law course during my run-up to gradate work in Journalism, I found an entire lexicon of words that seemed familiar but had different meanings; other words were entirely foreign to me. Most youngsters do not think about insurance; hence, the lack of familiarity with “indemnity.”

Professor Molenkamp responded to my query for more information about how the word works in his field. He recommended Black’s Law Dictionary for a definitive answer, but added:

he LawDictionary.org defines “indemnify” as “[t]o save harmless; to secure against loss or damage; to give security for the reimbursement of a person in case of an anticipated loss falling upon him. Also to make good; to compensate; to make reimbursement to one of a loss already incurred by him.”

In my world, the word comes up largely in two contexts:  First, with respect to principal/agency relationships where the principal agrees to indemnify the agent for his or her activities.  Thus, a corporation will generally agree to indemnify corporate officers for their actions, as long as they are not in violation of the law.  Second, with respect to merger and acquisition transactions, where the seller agrees to indemnify the purchaser for a breach of the seller’s representations or covenants.

Variations of the word are used as other forms of speech:  thus, indemnity or indemnification, as nouns.  In addition, the one who gives an indemnity (or who agrees to indemnify) is the indemnitor; the recipient, the indemnitee.

The OED looks back as far as the 17th Century for earliest recorded uses, and they describe situations involving financial protection against possible future damages or injury: there we have the modern association with insurance. But the same definition includes more, “to secure against legal responsibility for past or future actions or events.” When you sign a waiver for that white-water rafting or at the gun range, the proprietors have used that document in this sense. Of course, they have insurance as well!

No usage in the OED dates later than the end of the 19th Century. I suppose that is a good thing: legal definitions should remain stable for a long time. One footnote: there’s an obsolete usage meaning “to hurt or harm.”

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! Euphemism

Prunes stuffed with walnutsDr. Tom Bonfiglio, as upset over the current Administration’s use of the term “Tender-Age Shelter” for a children’s prison housing undocumented minors in substandard and even cruel conditions, suggested I talk a bit about euphemisms.

I hope the post is not too dark, but these are dark times. Perhaps we’ll be careful in our use of euphemism once we think more about them.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage claims that euphemisms were employed in just the thuggish way Tom suggests a century ago, “as a protective device for governments and as a token of a new approach to psychological and sociological problems.” If Tom’s example is particularly Orwellian in its attempt to put a happy face on a brutal policy, it is nothing new. The OED notes that the word “euphemism” itself dates to the 17th Century, whenever one wanted to use a pleasant-sounding term in place of a harsher one. In a famous 20th Century military example, “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue” became “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” All describe a terrible condition many veterans face, but note how increasingly anodyne the terminology became. That first cousin to our week’s word, anodyne , appeared in an earlier post. You’ll want to read more about that synonym before you begin honing your euphemisms in writing.

Tom Lea's "2000 Yard Stare"By the way, “The Thousand-Yard Stare” is a metaphor for the effects of combat. It’s a euphemism in a way, but not an anodyne one, once you know what it means. I first encountered it in this rightly famous painting, “The 2000 Yard Stare,” by Tom Lea.

Euphemisms are not always used to cover the truth for sinister ends, though certainly history abounds with examples. We call “Undertakers” “Funeral Directors,” or a disease a “condition” to avoid offense or unpleasant emotions.  Some euphemisms can be silly, as with “powder room” for toilet or restroom, or pointless, as in “conveniences” for those same spaces. Others provide smart marketing; “prunes” became “dried plums.” Yes, I’d rather consume the latter!

Some euphemisms put a metaphor in place of a single word, as in “The Sun Belt” for “The South.” Yes, it is sunny here now, with severe storms about to strike. But a euphemism leaves that unpleasantness out.

I stand with Fowler’s Modern English Usage on generally avoiding euphemism when it leads, as it did in Victorian England to pregnant women being “in an interesting condition.”  Bryan A. Garner’s excellent Modern American Usage gives us a litmus test for when to use a euphemism, “[i]f plain talk is going to provoke unnecessary controversy.” He shows this clearly when he discusses why we should not say “illegitimate children” today. The test of a good euphemism is that it does not sound “roundabout or clumsy.” As Garner goes on to say, however, euphemisms “leave a linguistic garbage-heap in their wake” once they outlive their age. For instance, I find the many genteel euphemisms in Herman Melville’s South-Seas narrative Typee maddening. The story is excellent, but the writing lacks the power of his later work, such as Moby Dick or Billy Budd. Of course, Melville’s more direct later works did not find a Victorian audience. He paid for abandoning euphemism, though it gained him fame in our time.

I commend Garner’s book to all of you! And for attorneys and law students out there, I found Wydick’s excellent Plain English for Lawyers silent on euphemisms. Wydick does recommend using concrete words when possible. I suppose one must be blunt at times in a courtroom.

As Summer drifts along here, on a sea of humidity, 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 prunes dried plums stuffed with walnuts from Marco Verch at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Etiology

Great Glen Way Starting PointMany thanks to our commenter Betty Ann Dillon, last week. She taught me a new word.  This term is given by the OED Online in our spelling, as well as “aetiology,” a tip to its classical Latin origin, aetiologia, and before that, Greek.

Simply put, etiology is the “cause or reason for something.” A starting point, like the sign above. Our word might appear in medical works about the cause of a disease, or in philosophy as the study of causes. This term merits tagging both for style and legal writing. Why not say “origin”? The answer is “variety.”  Our word adds sophistication (and can save you verbiage) when used with a knowing audience, raising the formal register of the sentence. Joseph Glaser advises this in Understanding Style, though it can be overdone.

As we consider how much is too much, we might wish to mull over the advice of Richard C. Wydick, whose book Plain English for Lawyers caught my eye recently. Wydick advises against too much Latin by attorneys, as well as “lawyerisms” such as “said term” instead of “that word,” since “Sometimes [lawyers] do it out of habit or haste; the old phrase is the one they learned in law school, and they have never taken time to question its use” (59).

Is this week’s word too much? As I teach my students, the answer depends upon one’s audience. Jargon and latinate terms can save time among the right people; for the wrong audience, they alienate. Over time, a speaker or writer develops a unique voice; that is something I cannot teach. I or other writing teachers can, however, impart lessons about style, audience, and purpose.  Words like the one given help to keep us in the game. There’s nuance in every slightly different synonym.

Do you have a word or metaphor 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 “Starting Point,” courtesy of faoch at Flikr. Looks to be in Fort William, Scotland. I walked the Great Glen Way in 2014, so it’s near to my heart!

Work Cited

Wydick, Richard C. Plain English for Lawyers. 5th ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2005.

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

Consultant News: Legal Writing

I enjoy hearing about Writing Consultants who have helped to bring a piece of work to publication. So we all should tip our hats to Rosemarie Ferraro, who assisted Gerald Lebovits, as a judicial intern, with four articles in the New York State Bar Association Journal about legal writing:

Legal writing is one of the hardest transitions of all for first-year law students. Professor Lebovits gives a good deal of valuable advice here, my favorite being “use the passive voice only when you have good reason to use it.”

One exception I know personally involves police reporting. I long ago taught Criminal Justice writing to police officers at Indiana University. As I told them “the passive voice incriminates no one. ‘The car was stolen and, according to two witnesses, John Smith was reported nearby’ works far better than ‘John Smith stole that car!’ ”

If you know Rose, congratulate her. She has returned from study abroad and is working in our program now. If she plans to attend law school, I have no doubt that her careful eye for sentence-level details, as well as this publishing experience, would make her first year a success.

Other Writing Consultants, tell me about your work in professional writing and I will share it here with faculty.