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.

Word of the Week! Earwig

See speak hear no evilProfessor Joe Hoyle in the Business school sends us this week’s word, noting “I’ve been reading To The Lighthouse recently and [author Virginia Woolf] uses the word, ‘earwig’ on several occasions.  That’s one that I liked.”

I read the novel a decade ago, and Woolfe’s use of language enthralled me, yet that word did not stick, as “noisome” has during my reading of Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. Yet when a word gets employed enough by a talented author, there’s clearly a reason. So why “earwig”? She did not mean the insect reported, without any real evidence, of crawling into a human ear.

Instead, we turn to metaphorical usage of the the term, one that seems to have morphed into “earworm.” Most commonly, that means a piece of music that gets stuck in our heads. How that wig became a worm is beyond the scope of a short post, but it’s an interesting evolution. At one time, as the OED entry proves, “earworm” and “earwig” were synonyms. I like it that in this case, the two words diverged and added nuance to the language.

In its original and derogatory sense, an earwig could be a person who bends your ear to whisper lies or spread gossip to malicious ends. Try as I might, we don’t have a good term in formal English for such a nasty gossip today; Tolkien’s wicked counsellor Wormtongue provides a neologism that I really love. In any case, the obsolete definition for “earwig,” dating from the 15th Century, appears in the OED entry for the insect.

To get at Woolfe’s meaning, she might have been after the verbal definition of our word, the action of being an earwig, to pester someone, to fill their head with wicked insinuations or outright lies.  While the usage rarely occurs (2 of 8 on the OED’s usage scale) the concept is very much with us. If someone we call an “Influencer” spreads ridiculous notions or outright evil ideas, they are trying to earwig us. Stop your ears before bad ideas worm their way under your wig…

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.

See, speak, hear no evil, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Words of the Week! Weather & Whether

Ah, homonyms in a time when we are once again becoming an oral culture. Too many of my students neither read enough seriously nor read with care when they are required to do so. Hence, the repeated docking of 10 points (they can get them back) for confusing “whether” and “weather.”

As in Dylan’s song, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s blowing an ill wind, for nuance in the language. I think. If so, I cannot stop it with my 10 measly points.  But what if these winds blew before? And will blow again? Hence my Mead Hall photo. We are going back to the time of Beowulf, fen-stalking Grendel the monster, and the warlike but helpless Geats that the monster preyed upon.

As we’ll see, there were once two distinct terms in play that now sound exactly alike. So where did our words come from and where diverge? Let’s dip again into Henry Bradley’s The Making of English, (a steal for your Kindle at 99 cents, the one sort of book I like to read on a screen). The philologist notes, in his chapter on changes of meaning, that “[m]ost of the distinctions that exist in spelling and not in pronunciation are between words that are historically different, and when this is so the various spelling usually represent obsolete varieties of pronunciation.”

“Whether” is one of the oldest English words I’ve featured. The OED dates an obsolete adverbial form back to the time of Beowulf, with the Old English term hwæþ(e)re. Leaving that term in the Mead Hall with the brooding Geats, let’s move forward in time a bit, to look over, in your own sweet time, (spelled many different ways) the multiple ways in which “whether” got employed down the centuries. It’s almost maddening to follow the many twists and turns this one ancient word took, until we get to 1819,  with Poet Percy Shelley wondering in a letter, “I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no.”

So am I. Can I teach Gen Z why the words are not interchangeable in writing? Or is it as doomed as Beowulf’s last battle with a dragon? Let’s not go there. What about the weather? Here we have another ancient word, this time from German, rendered in Old English as weder. I suppose when Grendel ventured out into the fens to maim, mangle, and eat Geat, he did his best work in foul weather, and he was able to distinguish the pronunciation of the two terms. The OED notes morphing in how the word got spelled, but like whether, weather (the word, if not the phenomena) settled down by the 19th Century.

What will happen next, round the colossal wreck of whether and weather? I’m no weatherman. I don’t know. Our modern forms of communication lend themselves to encouraging more simplification. Maybe we’ll use one spelling such as “wether” in a century, and listeners will then, as now, know which way the linguistic wind should blow. I and my 10-point penalty will be long gone, either way.

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.

Mead hall image courtesy of Wikipedia. I really wanted one of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm, but I didn’t know weather whether it would be safe for work.

Metaphor of the Month! In Medias Res

X-15 Rocket PlaneI credit a student in my first-year seminar, “The Space Race,” for this. I’d mentioned the phrase as the way many modern films begin, right “in the middle of things,” without so much as a credit-roll. This is a handy term for studying narratives, in books or films. Often we feel “dropped right in,” which can add both confusion and excitement.

After class, my student prudently corrected my version, “in media res,” which I see from time to time. Our metaphor is pure Latin, so the correct case for the second word is “medias.” The OED lists many Latin phrases, such as in memoriam  or in nomine that we still use in certain formal, sacred, or academic settings. Bryan Garner’s Modern American usage cautions us to check spellings, as in memoriam sometimes appears as “memorium.” That’s incorrect.

Here’s a usage example. I was teaching Damian Chazelle’s excellent film First Man, and a viewer’s first encounter with Neil Armstrong, in medias res, is in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane about to blast into the upper atmosphere. Nothing boring about that! Note that I put the foreign phase we’ve borrowed into italics. I bow to the wisdom of the post at The Grammarist that does likewise.

Our pick this week might be considered just a phrase, not a metaphor, but considering how loosely I hear it employed by learned speakers, I’m going to side with its figurative usage, as in “There we were, in medias res, when he burst in and made things a shambles.” That could mean the interloper burst in early on, came late, or simply appeared, unbidden. One might not be interrupted “in the middle” to employ our metaphor. Yes, a few of us still drop in a Latin phrase. I love Academia.

I can’t resist working in old Metaphors of the Month, as I did with “shambles” just now. Send us more, and Words of the Week too, 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 NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Neil Armstrong, incidentally, so respected Hugh L. Dryden, whose name had been on the facility, that he tried to keep NASA from renaming it. That says a lot about a very humble American hero who first stepped on the Moon.

Any time I can work an X-15 or any other rocket plane or spacecraft into a post about literary terms, I shall.

Word of the Week! Susurrus

This week, UR and VCU hosted writer Fran Wilde for a  workshop on voice. Fran is giving a reading at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to celebrate the release of  the anthology His Hideous Heart, where modern authors reinterpret tales by Poe.

During our workshop on campus, I asked her the first word of Poe’s that came to mind, a word she associates with this unique voice.

“Susurrus” is a fine choice! The OED entry calls it a “whispering,” a “rustling.” Think about how the sense of the word fits its sound. That’s called onomatopoeia, a word I had to memorize in high school, and spell correctly lest the yardstick in Father Raymond’s hands came down on me:

From a remote distance, half-sensed in that gloomy place called a school yet more like a Romanesque prison-house beneath a mossy tile roof, I can to this day, in a moment of dread that darkens the sun, almost hear a susurrus of priestly robes, as the phantasmal figure glided toward me, a rod of malice raised high over the rage-knotted face

I think you get the idea of why Poe enjoyed the word.

If you can imagine the half-heard noises in The House of Usher, you have our onomatopoeic word of the week, as autumnal a term as any that Poe uttered. Though of Latin derivation, the term only dates to 1826. Why it came into being, save as an artistic coinage, remains a mystery.

Reading Poe to PoeBut that’s just so for this season of the year and for Poe’s work. He did give us the detective story, after all. Let’s get busy solving this one, if we can. I look forward to a susurrus of whispered half-answers.

Special thanks to Fran Wilde for an excellent workshop and a fine Word of the Week! She also provided advice about pronunciation. Accent that second syllabus, sus-SUR-us. I’ve been saying “SU-surrus” for decades, incorrectly. It’s a fine term never encountered in everyday or even academic speech, yet in writing, it conveys enormous power.

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.

Image of Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.

 

 

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.

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.