Metaphor of the Month! Hobson’s Choice

Horses in stallsBy Leo Barnes

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to get a suggestion and post from Leo. I invite other student readers to send me words and metaphors. I appreciate Leo’s mention of Joseph Heller’s amazing novel, one that used to be read widely on college campuses and would merit reading again in these times.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Hobson’s Choice as an apparently free choice that in reality is more like an ultimatum. The word comes from a British 17th-century stable owner named Thomas Hobson from Cambridge. Hobson was a courier with a large stable of horses he would rent out to university students looking to go riding or visit nearby London.

He noticed that all the students only wanted to ride his best horses while the rest got no use at all. This was problematic. His most popular horses were being overworked while the rest were becoming deconditioned. Hobson fixed this by devising a system where he’d switch the horses everyday from stall to stall on a planned circuit. The horse nearest the stable entrance — and only that horse — was what Hobson would rent to students for that day. Students had the choice of that horse or no horse at all.

portrait of Thomas Hobson
by Unknown artist,painting,(1629)

What comes to mind when I think of Hobson’s Choice is Joseph Heller’s hilarious book Catch-22. In it, Milo Minderbinder offers his fellow servicemen a choice that’s not a choice at all:

“[Milo] raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative, there was an alternative, of course—since Milo detested coercion, and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve.”

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (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 credits: Ἰάσων at Flickr for horses, Wikipedia for image of Thomas Hobson.

 

Metaphor of the Month! Fast and Loose

1930 poster for the film Fast and LooseEdith Wharton, one of my favorite novelists, wrote a juvenile novel called Fast and Loose, and later she made it a plot point in one of her published works. When reading that, I had expected this metaphor to be a modern one she employed in the late 1800s. Yet I found, on some delving into the OED’s entry, a first example from the year 1555, though one from two years later may be more readable, given how much English spelling has changed in half a millennium: “Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or lose.”

The reference does not necessarily portend anything salacious. Our film poster, above, does tend to imply exactly that. It’s not from Wharton’s works but it shows how popular the metaphor became by the late 1920s.

The OED’s first definition remains remarkably consistent today, “to be inconstant or inconsistent, esp. regarding one’s obligations to others; to behave immorally or irresponsibly.” Our “studient” and the 20s Flapper in the movie may have played fast and loose with money. That tends to be our usage today, or perhaps, and just as sadly, with facts.

Being irresponsible does not equal being immoral. That said, the drift of our metaphor implies doing something that hurts others. I’d say that being fast and loose with money or facts tends to injure, and it’s all too common with many public figures. So you decide if they deserve our admiration and attention.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (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 source: Wikipedia page about the 1930 film.

Metaphor of the Month! The Belle Époque

Renoir painting of large group at a partyNo one alive today can recall the mood of what we in the States call, variously “The Gilded Age,” “The Gay 90s,”and “The Progressive Era.” In England we had The late-Victorian and Edwardian Eras, or in France The Belle Époque. For the most part the era merited warm memories. I see it, at this distance, as top hats and lovely dresses, champagne and dancing, cigars and caviar, Renoir boating-parties and dinners by the Seine.

A few talented grumps disagreed; Mark Twain and co-author Charles Dudley Warner perceived and named The Gilded Age for a crass shallowness, the equivalent of the golden-escalator rides of our time. For those of means and artistic sensibilities, however, The Belle Époque seems to have been a rather splendid time to be alive.  Everywhere new ideas abounded. Consider the cultural movements such as Art Nouveau, daring ideas in music, dance, photography, philosophy, or physics. Imagine how Einstein’s theories challenged settled notions of space and time. Close to my heart, literary modernism upended what novels would do.

In academic reading, students of literature and history might run across our metaphor, “The Beautiful Time” in references to the arts and politics before The Great War we now call World War I. Mechanized horrors of trench warfare, mustard gas, artillery barrages, infantry charging machine guns, Zeppelin-bombings of London, and more lay just over the horizon like submerged U-Boats. In reading R.W.B. Lewis’ magisterial biography of novelist Edith Wharton, I find it stunning how stunned she, and most of her friends, were by the outbreak of war. Their times simply seemed too civilized, unlike our fearful era, for a global conflict. Frankly, we live in dark times and our media-feeds turn a profit reminding us of that.

Eleven decades ago, however, our counterparts lacked 24/7 news and were not distracted by the dopamine-dispensers of our ridiculous, addictive phones. Yet their newspapers provided quick reporting of a looming, then unfolding disaster in Europe. So it continues to surprise me how otherwise sensitive and perceptive people were surprised by the outbreak of war.

Glancing though an entry at the National Archives, I ran across the very moment when a famous quotation by Britain’s Foreign Secretary marked the end of The Belle Époque:

On 3 August 1914 Sir Edward Grey made his famous quote: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. He was speaking to his friend, the journalist John Alfred Spender, editor of the Westminster Gazette, in Grey’s room in the Foreign Office. Looking out from his window, across St. James’ Park, it was dusk and the first of the gas lights along the Mall were being lit. The next day Grey would have to face the Cabinet and to persuade them that the time had now come to declare war on Germany.

This powerful image, one that haunted Churchill enough to appear in his writing, captures the mood of late 1914 very well. I do wonder, however, if our era of seemingly endless gloom had a time of light and laughter as its counterpoint? I turn to experts on nostalgia for that. The abrupt rupture 9/11 made in our lives might provide one such contrast, but that tragedy is older now than all my students.

These seem to me glum thoughts in January. Even if foolishly, let’s instead look forward to Spring and the potential for change. It’s always present, perhaps in hiding, but those lamps never go out. Maybe a new Belle Époque lies ahead for us?

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (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: from Wikipedia, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876, Musée d’Orsay

Metaphor of the Month! Pollyanna

Pollyanna DollToday I told my class that while I’ve been called “bumptious” (irritating and conceited, and a former word of the week) I’ve never been called a Pollyanna.

Who was this person? The OED has her as the brainchild of American children’s author Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868–1920). Pollyanna was a relentlessly and often naively cheerful character. I’d call that sort of person “perky,” and they irritate me to no end, being a bit of a grump (I was chosen to be Scrooge in our 6th Grade Christmas play).

The OED has our word not appearing very often in modern speech, and that’s a pity. Students may encounter our metaphor in the contexts of Political Science, Leadership, History, Journalism, or Literature on our campus.  I don’t know anyone who reads Porter’s works these days, but we have Pollyannas aplenty. From the OED, a 2003 example: “Although the authors conclude that ecological sustainability is slowly gaining ground, they are no pollyannas.”

Read a fine piece from Atlantic Monthly, “How We All Become Pollyannas (and Why We Should Be Glad About It)” for a nuanced look at the fictional character. She turns out not as irritating as we might believe, though Ruth Graham does note how “When she gasps in rapture upon being sent to her room to read a pamphlet about houseflies and hygiene, it’s impossible not to roll your eyes.” Despite that moment, Pollyanna fought off gloom by working to be happy.

That’s a good lesson for everyone. Now all you Pollyannas, Negative Nellies (and Neds), Bumptious Bobs, and other malcontents or perky folk, I need your words and metaphors for this blog.

Send them to me by e-mail (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.

“Large Vinyl Pollyanna Doll” courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Propinquity

The Mount, Wharton BedroomDo any fiction writers employ sentences like this today?

“Her glance, making a swift circuit of the room, dwelt for an appreciable instant on the intimate propinquity of an armchair and sofa-corner; then she turned her back to the door.”

Perhaps, if we have the attention-spans to find them.

The example comes form Edith Wharton’s The Reef, a novel I’d never studied in Graduate School, where I first encountered her fiction.  “Intimate propinquity,” along with formal, multi-syllabic terms like “importune” and “discomfit” mark her voice. Wharton was a creature of what scholars call “Old New York,” specifically its gentry. Words such as those I associate with her no longer trip off the tongues of anyone I know, yet they merit study, still.

In short, our word means nearness, be it physical or temporal. As I worked my way into a plot simultaneously predictable and tumultuous (another Wharton word!), I kept returning to this week’s word. I hung on how precisely it revealed the scene of a pivotal conversation between former lovers whose secret always stands of the verge of being revealed.

I am not sure when my reading tastes veered from fiction to history, but it happened gradually. An exception for me remains writers like Wharton, who possessed a towering ability to get into the heads of people of her time, illustrating in detail their moral beliefs, fears, prejudices, and dreams. I consider her books time-travel devices of a sort her contemporary H.G. Wells could not have imagined, with his Steampunk contraption and the resultant Morlocks and Eloi. I love that tale, too.

Right. This is not a blog post about favorite authors but their words.

Yet one cannot be separated from the other. Wharton’s words educated me. I tell my students that they will never grow a vocabulary without reading writers from different eras and perspectives.

Besides, I find it fun to eavesdrop on people from the Edwardian Era. When we read such talented writers, we feel the propinquity of their time, and the people of the fiction spring to life again, well dressed actors staging for us a play that ended a long, long time ago.

Happy reading. Summer may be ending on campus, but reading never ends.

Do you have a word or metaphor you’ve met in your reading? Send them to me by e-mail (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.

Apologies to Wharton for a Creative-Commons peek into her bedroom at The Mount, from Wikipedia. How importunate we moderns are!

Word of the Week! Astonished

Jousting KnightWhen I was a UVA undergrad, each of my circle of friends encountered Mallory’s epic Le Morte D’Arthur, and then we ran about using words such as “brain-pan” for skull and the verb “astonied,” for dumbfounded or stunned, as in this sentence:

And therewithal, Sir Uwaine gat his spear in his hand and rode toward Sir Launcelot, and Sir Launcelot knew him well, and so he met him on the plain, and gave him such a buffet that he was astonied, that long he wist not where he was.

Most modern readers should be able to make sense of the passage, noting, for instance, that the “buffet” does not involve all-you-can-eat Cantonese food. Yet only recently did it occur to me that this “astonied” proves to be a linguistic ancestor to our modern “astonished,” a word I’ve long enjoyed.

We have lots of words and metaphors that express surprise: dumfound, stun, amaze, black swan, bolt out of the blue, even ambush. Some of these have negative connotations, but of them “astonish” and “amaze” seemed unalloyed in their sense of something wondrous.

At least until you get knocked off your horse in a joust. So I looked for guidance at the Online Etymology Dictionary, a well-designed, free resource for those without access to The OED. If we reach back to “astonied,” it’s not to lie there on the ground like a stone, but to be thunderstruck (from the Vulgar Latin extonare). From it we got the Old French estoner to cross the Channel in the year 1066, as William The Conqueror split brain-pans and left many Anglo-Saxons astonied by their reversal of fortune.

I would be astonished if more of today’s undergrads went around saying things like “Wit ye well, varlet! My brain-pain hath taken a terrible buffet, and I’m all astonied.” But time marches on, and I don’t know too many who still read Mallory.  If I’m wrong, I wist it not, and I’d love to hear from you.

You can send me words and metaphors by having  your squire ride with the missive to my castle, by leaving a comment below, or by e-mail at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

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

Jousting Knight courtesy of Public Domain Vectors

Word of the Week! Phildickian

This one was nominated by reader Leslie Rose III. It’s time, as the fiction of Philip K. Dick really describes the times we endure.

I have featured a post about J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence and the adjective it generated, as well as other others who have earned that status. Dick merits it; I simply wish “Dickensian” were not already taken, as “Phildickian” does not roll off the tongue. Nor does it seem common enough to appear in dictionaries yet.

That said, let’s look at a blog post with Cory Doctorow’s fine reasoning for why our world is “best viewed through the lens of Philip  K Dick (whose books repeatedly depicted a world of constructed realities, whose true nature was obscured by totalitarians, conspiracies, and broken computers) and not Orwell or Huxley, whose computers and systems worked altogether too well to be good parallels for today’s janky dystopia.”

Janky? That needs a post, too, but Doctorow’s reasoning seems spot-on perfect. Why, in the midst of a pandemic, do I get a little paper card from the CDC, something easily forged by paranoid and selfish anti-vaxxer types, proving that I have been inoculated and boosted? Why do that, when the government was perfectly capable of printing a DEBIT card, complete with chip and magnetic stripe, for a handout from a former President’s incompetent administration? Why do some patently insane conspiracy theories, left and right, persist?

Why?

Because we live in a janky dystopia where things are not as them seem. Not the other three types of dystopias outlined in this brilliant piece at Medium. Things break, or we get lied to. Bait-and-switch games abound, even from those we grant great power.

Dick’s fiction hit its apex in the equally janky and run-down 1970s, but today things rhyme with that decade, though we have more dangerous cartoon-figures with totalitarian intent, who may or may not be fully human, waiting in the wings.

Dick was not always the best stylist, since he cranked out prose by the boatload under the influence of paranoia and drug abuse, but his best work should endure. Riley Scott did a good job with the Director’s Cut of the original Blade Runner of capturing Dick’s world. That should help the fiction stay in print.

And perhaps we’ll get a better adjective, if not a less Phildickian world. The irony of this post running on the day we commemorate a great man, Martin Luther King Jr., could not be more revealing of the gap between where we should be and where, sadly, we are.

Be sure to send me words and metaphors of use in academic settings, or merely intriguing, to me by leaving a comment below or by e-mail at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

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

Cover image from Philip K. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth.

 

Word of the Week! Jackanapes

Doctor CaiusUnless you are fond of Shakespeare, this word will not often crop up in your personal dictionary. Pity, as I say about older words that I love. It has fallen out of favor long ago, but what sort of ape are we talking about?

A tame one, apparently. But still an ape, which leads to the Shakespearean sense of a person who is impenitent, foolish, or who does things like a trained ape, playing tricks that amuse us. Consider Doctor Caius, a Frenchman of short temper and Monty-Pythonian insults in Merry Wives of Windsor:

I will teach a scurvy jack-a-nape priest to meddle or make.

Years ago, I saw a wonderfully dreadful production of the play locally. I won’t say where or when, but it was so bad that it was great. I did learn the word at least.  Caius is, finally, the biggest jackanapes of them all.

Considering the history of the term opens a veritable etymological barrel of monkeys.  The OED gives more variant spellings than I’ve seen before, reaching as far back as Middle English: iac nape, iac napes, jacknape, shacknapes, and many more.  So to get to the bottom of all this monkey business, it comes down to a proper name  “apparently coined as a generic proper name for an ape or a person likened to an ape.” I suppose a modern analog would be a “Negative Nelly” or “Simple Simon.”

We don’t call a person playing tricks or an unruly child a Jackanapes any longer. Again, pity. Check the OED entry for a lot more, even a botanical meaning, for this peculiar, obsolete word you will still find in literary works from a certain era.

Send us words and metaphors new, old, worthy of rediscovery or even oblivion by e-mail (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 of Dr. Caius from the collection of The National Galleries of Scotland.

Metaphor of the Month! Tolkienesque

Now that classes are about to resume on our decidedly Harry Potter campus, I’ve been reading the third of J.K. Rowling’s novels. I’m not a huge fan of the series, but it has been light summer fun.

It’s inevitable that Rowling gets contrasted, often unfairly, to work by an earlier British fantasist, J.R.R. Tolkien. We already have “Hogswartian” or “Potteresque” in the language, though I’d hoped to find “Rowlinsian.” The latter would be my preference, to honor her work and influence.

Old J.R.R. need not worry about adjectives named for him, though he now resides in what he would probably call “The Undying Lands.” The Oxford Don’s fiction generated an adjective that provides our Metaphor this month. I’ll think of it often as we get those golden hours at daybreak and dusk, once the weather breaks near the Autumnal Equinox. I associate “Tolkienesque” with glimpses of faraway mountains, groves of ancient trees, or the slanting golden light that always seems to be falling in Rivendell or Lothlorien, or perhaps on the walls of Minas Tirith, just before Sauron’s darkness descends for the awful battle there between good and evil.

You know a Tolkienesque landscape when you see it. I suppose a slag heap that reminds one of Mordor suffices, too, but usually, I hear the metaphor applied only to dreamy or ruggedly awe-inspiring places.

Tolkien’s friend and renowned fantasist C.S. Lewis beat us all to the punch, in 1950 no less, by calling something “Tolkienian,” a form now apparently falling out of use. By The OED’s reckoning, our spelling of the metaphor first appeared in 1970, about the time that the Counterculture’s fascination with Middle Earth blossomed into a cottage (or at least Hobbit-hole) industry that continues today, thanks to Peter Jackson’s films. Things Tolkienesque got spurred on by his tremendous LOTR trilogy and they survived his lamentable Hobbit films.

A few other writers, such as Virginia Woolf (Woolfian), H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraftian), and J.G. Ballard (Ballardian) have been so honored. Shakespearean? Miltonian? These enjoy long and respected usage.

I hope your Fall semesters are as epic, if not as dangerous, as Frodo’s journey through Tolkienesque landscapes.

As always, 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.

Tolkienesque landscape, Isle of Skye 2014, by the author

Word of the Week! Vouchsafe

Downton Abbey CastIn March, I featured noisome as our word; like today’s lexical item, it appears repeatedly in Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth work, London: The Biography. I’m almost finished with its nearly 800 pages of text. I have not been vouchsafed so many uses of “vouchsafe” since I took a class in Colonial Literature, in graduate school.

Sounds old, doesn’t it? Even on Downton Abbey, I’ve not heard it. Perhaps Dame Maggie Smith’s character would have heard it…as a child.

The etymology is common-sensical: we still “vouch” for someone. To “vouch safe” would be, more or less, to safely trust something with another.

To be honest, I was lazy about the word, which is a shame. I assumed it meant to entrust something to another person, but as a casual search in the OED reveals, that trust can come with a measure of disdain. The first definition given includes the sense of granting or bestowing; the second includes doing so with a whiff of condescension, as in this 1660 usage from the OED:

“His Lordship may be pleased..to voutchafe a meetinge..to Sir Walter Dungan.”

Oh lucky Sir Walter, to bask in the glow of His Lordship! At times like that, I’m less fond of Downton Abbey than I am of Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry.

The spelling has changed since the days of Sir Walter, but the verb can be used in a transitive sense, as in the earlier example or one the OED provides from a decade later, “to vouchsafe an eye of fond desire,” quoting poet John Milton from 1671. The one intransitive use of the term is now long obsolete.

I would vouchsafe you our DVDs of Downton Abbey, especially after the third season, when things got increasingly formulaic for me. That said, I don’t want you to think me a condescending snob trying to make you learn new words from the Crawley family.

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Downton Abbey blatantly stolen, as part of an anti-monarchist direct action.