Word of the Week! Synecdoche

Newspaper Press

Ever wondered why we say “The Press” today, when so much news is not printed? It’s an example of synecdoche. Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, nominated this excellent word. Though not part of my everyday parlance, it serves a wonderful purpose. I hope to use it; no other word quite fits its meaning.

The word reared its head not long ago. In what may soon be forgotten amid a tumult of worse news, a media event involving a Sharpie marker provided a synecdoche for how the Executive Branch of government conducts business.

Whatever you thought of that news item, it did bring a worthy word back onto stage. A 15th Century loan-word from Latin, as the OED puts it, synecdoche occurs when a “more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one or vice versa.” Only examples suffice here:

  • Our family represents the nation. (For good or ill)
  • We need more boots on the ground. (Boots stands in for more people in that place)
  • We broke bread together. (I do hope you ate other things).
  • Society is to blame! (All of them? In a Monty Python skit, after a murderer pleads this, a detective replies “Agreed. We’ll be charging them too.”)

In academic writing, it’s wise to avoid some examples like the last. They can lead a novice writer into sweeping generalizations such as “Society supports stronger protection for minors.” I find it hard to believe that 300-million-plus Americans could agree to anything, in 2019. So qualify that claim or be ready to pile on credible evidence.

There are few alternatives to our Word of the Week. It’s not quite accurate to use “microcosm” as a synonym for synecdoche, since a microcosm works only one way, showing how something  particular can represent something general, as in “the convicted teacher’s constant drinking served as a microcosm for all the problems at the dysfunctional school.” One cannot reverse “microcosm” as one can for synecdoche, without employing the less-common “macrocosm.”

We might fall back on “symbolize” to represent how a part can indicate something about a whole, but reversing it, so “the gridlock in Congress symbolized the troubles in the Smith family” makes no sense. Mr. Smith may have gone to Washington, but. . .

“Embody” might bridge the gap, as in “the gridlock in Congress embodied so many smaller problems,” yet that use of “embody” bothers me. I’d prefer precision or a different synecdoche.

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 printing press courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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! Arriviste

From All About EveLast week’s parvenu provides an excellent example of a loan-word from French. English has so many of these terms that they merit their own category at the blog.

Last week’s word was not quite as nasty as this also rare term, so I love it! To quote the OED, the arriviste “persistently strives to advance his or her position, social status, etc., esp. to an extent considered ruthless or unscrupulous; spec. one who has recently or rapidly advanced to a social group for which he or she is considered unfit or unworthy.”  We can use the term as noun or adjective.

Such unwelcome and unhealthy ambition! There’s no sugar-coating our Word of the Week this time. Parvenus could, I suppose, simply want to join the crowd. Arrivistes simply do not belong. They will use any means to get in.

I suppose we smile upon the parvenu who behaves well, but we should beware the arriviste. Think of the classic film All About Eve. Things do not end well.

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.

Film image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Parvenu

Screaming Chicken Trans-Am
Unknown

Professor Joe Hoyle once again comes to our rescue in the dog days of August. He suggests “parvenu” and it’s a fine word I never use. Now, however, I plan to do so! Professor Hoyle writes:

The Thought for the Day in the Richmond paper was, “We are all snobs of the infinite, parvenus of the Eternal.”  James Gibbons Huneker.  The word that caught my attention was parvenus, the plural of parvenu which means, “a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity.”

Though the usage here may be kindly and figurative, usually to be called a “parvenu” is not flattering. The OED entry notes that term as more derogatory than descriptive. It’s a French loan-word dating only back as far as the 1700s.

To those we quaintly called the “Old Money” crowd, when I was an undergraduate at UVA, parvenus drove new Pontiac Trans-Ams or some other gaudy machine, purchased by newly wealthy parents. Two old-money classmates I roomed with in a Summer language institute drove beaters and never had what my mom called “folding money.”  One could sense their disdain for the flashy, even tacky, new wealth. I never heard them say nouveau riche, also a French borrowing, but I bet their parents did.

The noun and adjectival forms are the same, as is the sense of being a social climber, an upstart.  Parvenus are not typically ingenues, a term I associate with young innocent women in films and literature. Think of the main character, at least in the start of the novel, in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. By the end, Carrie is most certainly a parvenu. Parvenus often, however, are louche, another Gallic loan word that I adore.

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 “Screaming Chicken” 1977 Pontiac from Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week: Gloaming

I’m a sucker for a good sunset, and this time of year the gloaming gets resplendent. I heard that word more in the U.K., where summer twilight can be prolonged and magical. It’s a artful word, gloaming, and I almost can spot Robert Burns on some heather-covered hillside, journal in hand, writing a few lines of verse:

The hunter lo’es the morning sun;
To rouse the mountain deer, my jo;
At noon the fisher seeks the glen
Adown the burn to steer, my jo:
Gie me the hour o’ gloamin’ grey,
It maks my heart sae cheery O,
To meet thee on the lea-rig,
My ain kind Dearie O.

Burns reminds us that the gloaming is not necessarily ruddy or wonderful. It can simply be cloudy.The origin, however, is not Gaelic. Gloaming comes from the Old English glóm  or twilight. See the OED Online for more on this origin. Our word thus may have crossed from the Continent with Germanic peoples, invading the British Isles after Rome’s Empire in the West fell.

I hope my Scottish friends do not come over and run me through with a Claymore.  In their defense, I have seen my best late-day gloamings and sunsets in Scotland, though more than a few right at home rival their intensity, if not duration. Here’s one from campus, not far from my office.May your Autumn skies be glorious, and your gloaming prolonged.

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.

Images: Fort William and Glen Nevis, near Ben Nevis, Scotland, 2014, by me. Same for the University of Richmond lake view. Verse by Robert Burns, “I’ll Meet Thee On the Lea Rig.”

Word of the Week! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

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. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.