Word of the Week! Shibboleth

ShibbolethUsually, I think of Latinate words as a means to elevate the register of my writing. Those terms simply sound more formal. They are not, however, our only option. It’s hard, for a moment, to think of words from Hebrew that have entered formal writing, yet every day that I log onto one of our university servers I see it.

So what is a shibboleth? It’s more than the name of a campus computer. The OED helps a great deal here, as the word changed meanings over the centuries. The term, itself hard enough to pronounce, originally meant a term that foreigners would have a tough time pronouncing. That could “out” a spy or at least show who was who in ancient times. Then the meaning morphed, to eventually become a custom or habit that acted as a shibboleth. Another branching meaning came to mean a taboo, in the sense of a “moral formula” one must follow to become part of a sect. Consider Islam’s and Judaism’s bans on eating pork.

This sense of the term extends beyond matters of religious faith. Consider, for either of our political parties, that certain positions and slogans are sacrosanct (a nice word for another week!). Defy them and you are shown the door.

What are your shibboleths? Which have you abandoned?

And why name a computer Shibboleth?

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Karl Marx God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because it’s the best movie version of the Almighty, ever. And I break several shibboleths by posting it.

Words of the Week! de facto & de jure

Island of CyprusRecently, I ran across this usage from a 2018 article in The Atlantic:

And like de jure segregation—when the government legally engineered ghettos into existence—de facto segregation continues to exacerbate wealth and racial inequality today.

I often use de facto, luckily in its correct sense as stated in the OED, “in fact, in reality, in actual existence, force, or possession, as a matter of fact.”

There’s a clear distinction in all of the terms referenced by the OED using the Latin preposition de. 

For de jure, it is a case of something being “according to law.” My example will get this post banned in China, but the Chinese occupation of Tibet constitutes a de facto, but not a de jure, annexation of another nation.  The same applies in Cyprus, where in 2005 I crossed a de facto border between north and south, seeing the UN blue helmets try to maintain a ceasefire between the Turkish and Greek populations. Closer to home, many executive orders by our Presidents constitute similar de facto, but not de jure, changes to how our government functions.

Look at the news: which recent events and social changes are likely to become de facto, but not de jure, parts of our daily lives in the near future?

Maybe you have some words or metaphors that puzzle you? E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons en Español. Hay que practicarlo.

Word of the Week! Perfidious

Charlie Brown, Lucy, FootballI’m enjoying my little side-trip into Latinate terms. We’ve recently had invidious and insidious. Why not “perfidious”?  I often think of angry French critics of England’s supposed treachery, in the coinage “perfidious Albion!” spat out in many a tirade from a different, equally difficult time in human history.

Perfidious means breaking confidence or promises. In short, treacherous. The OED gives us a bit of the history, while the Wikipedia page on Perfidious Albion claims even earlier usages, back as far as the 13th Century.

Put in your poster-child for our word at the top of this post. I am sure we can think of several. I’ll be light-hearted. Lucy, from Peanuts, immediately comes to mind. And that football…I’ve used the idea before, in discussing the word casuistry. Poor Charlie; his gullible belief in perfidious Lucy provides a tale for the ages.

This week’s term has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, with the Brexit vote and outcome across The Atlantic. I won’t point any fingers, as perfidy can be found many places today.

Send us words and metaphors, wondrous, horrid, or banal! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of an entire file-folder of Charlie Brown and football images on my hard drive.

Metaphor of the Month! Annus horribilis

hurricane Laura, from spaceI will not list the bad things that have befallen us all in 2020. We still, in the States, must endure two more months before a fraught election, spikes in COVID deaths, civil unrest, tropical storms, wild fires, hurricanes, and perhaps a stray asteroid. Yes, a small one will pass the Earth the day before we go to the polls (or vote by mail and cross our fingers).

The idea for this metaphor struck me, like the eyewall of a Cat-4 storm, last night as I saw an image of our fragile, string-of-light cities dwarfed by Hurricane Laura. Truly, it’s a horrible year.

No, it’s not 1914 when Europe realized what modern warfare and the Maxim gun really meant. It’s not 1348 when the Black Plague carried off perhaps 50% of Europe’s populace. It’s not 1492, when the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas began, or 1619, when the first slave ships came to Virginia. It’s not 1945, a year of victory for the Allies but for the citizens of Axis nations, a time of fire-bombs, starvation, and atomic weaponry. It’s not even 1918-19, when the “Spanish Flu” (which seems to have begun at Fort Riley, Kansas) took the lives of perhaps 50 million, globally.

Have I made my point? Any of these could, depending on one’s view of events, be an “annus horribilis.” The term itself, a modern borrowing from Latin, surprises me by only dating to 1985. Queen Elizabeth II’s famous quip with the term comes 1992, and that’s when I first heard the phrase. If you are curious why, read thisThe OED notes the kinship with the earlier annus mirabilis, or year of wonders. John Dryden published a book of that title in 1667.

I would enjoy a year of wonders in 2021. Wouldn’t you?

Send us words and metaphors, wondrous, horrid, or banal! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA. Note the storm is visible from a million miles out.

Word of the Week! Invidious

invidiousAfter last week’s insidious, I ran across its near homonym. With school beginning and the need to ramp up student vocabularies increasing with the pile of reading on that way, let’s sort these two words out.

Insidious and invidious both have Latin roots and negative connotations, but if the former relates of subterfuge, invidious is more candid: any action or statement likely to spur resentment, offense, or anger.  As with last week’s word, our word this week has barely budged in its meaning since the 17th Century. You’ll find lots of interesting examples in the OED entry. Most commonly today, we talk about an “invidious comparison,” such as this one, from the blog for writers, The Wickeds:

“If you don’t write everyday, you can’t write a book.”

Poppycock. The disempowering message from these morons is, “You can’t write a book.”

That sort of comparison teams up something awful with something desirable. It’s sure to provoke.

I ran across our word in a book that did get written, and written well, The Men Who Lost America, about the British leaders of the Revolutionary War. Here’s the usage by author Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.

“In the view of one Cabinet insider, the government was in an invidious position and could not afford to risk alienating the brothers by denying their terms.”

Well respected General Howe and his older brother, Admiral Howe, proposed a peace conference to the Americans, something George III vehemently opposed. But the British government decided to both make war and offer an unsatisfactory peace at the same time. The brothers’ initiative failed, miserably.

We know the rest.

As the year begins with uncertainty,  be sure that we’ll press on here. Send us words and metaphors! E-mail jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu with your nominees. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

quite timely image of “the suicide of an invidious plutocrat” courtesy of Wikepedia

Word of the Week! Peroration

AgoraGeorge Souleret, whom I met during his time with University Facilities as an HVAC Engineer, nominated this week’s word. I saw it first as “perforation,” and wondered to what new uses that old term had been put.

Blame bifocals or autocorrect, but I need to thank George for teaching an old faculty member a new word that he most certainly should know. According to the OED, our word is a speech (sometimes just the end of one) or discourse in general.  I often tell students that academic discourse as we know it, as well as reasoned debate in the Western tradition, began in the era of Socrates. I visited the site of the Athenian Agora in 2007, and to me it was as sacred an experience as I’ll ever have in this life.

We have some excellent perorations, such as Pericles’ famous funeral oration, given before the great plague of Athens, a story that we may wish to revisit today. That epidemic swept away Pericles and two of his sons.

On a lighter note, I love one current usage given: “A perfectly dreadful hour-long peroration by an American scholar.”

Thus I’ll spare you a dreadful peroration on peroration. In an election year, I expect we’ll have our share of perorations, some dreadful, a few delightful.

But the term does provide a formal and Latinate synonym that, in the right place, provides an option to “speech,” “presentation,” and other similar terms.

image of the Stoa of Attalos, housing the Athenian Agora Museum by me, 2007.

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! Malaise

President CarterFeeling it, aren’t you? A sense that things have stagnated, that the future is unsure. A second wave. A troubled election. Monuments that seemed immovable pulled down, or rather like Swamp Castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, pulled down, set on fire, then tossed into lakes. Despite my personal sense that we will make progress on racial justice, there’s a gnawing…something in the humid air.

Malaise is that feeling. If you recall the 1970s, as I do, it was a popular term then, too. Though President Carter never used it in a televised speech about a national crisis of confidence, the word got associated with this event. I sure miss his empathy, right now. I miss a President who would turn down the thermostat and put on a Cardigan.

I belong to a group called Malaise Motors, a tongue-in-cheek group of enthusiasts “celebrating the mediocre cars of the 70s 80s and early 90s.” Our perverse celebration of the banal arises from a sense that a period of stagnation lay over the nation then wallowing in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, Oil Crises, and more. The cars were merely gutless, after the Muscle-Car era. They were not uniformly awful. And today, with a modicum of skill, you can (as I do) work on them yourself. Try that on a rolling computer that we call a “car” today. I digress.

That digression aside (I have a T-Shirt with a drawing of my Buick with the words “Malaise 74” under it) let’s have a peek at our word. Off the bat, it screams “French loan word,” because English lacks those feelings of cosmic-bum-outedness (we got ennui from the French, after all).  As I usually do, I ran over to the OED for counsel.

Mon Dieu! I am correct. It’s a loan word dating to only the 18th Century (perhaps no one who spoke English felt any malaise before then).  We talk about loan words a great deal in my course that prepares Writing Consultants; English has an amazing talent for nicking words from other tongues. The debate rages as to whether this happens because we can only experience things for which we already have a word (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) or whether all languages share a universal grammar (Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis). I hold with the former theory, adding one caveat: once we experience a novel situation, we invent or borrow a word from folk who have experienced it.

Want to argue about that with me? Or send us a word? We need 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 courtesy of JSTOR Daily

 

Words of the Week! Obsolescent & Obsolete

Polish Cavalryman 1938I suppose this is, like everything else, a post about the pandemic. I’ve been seeing our words of the week in reference to models of learning and college life that are not longer useful, even worn out. Some bold claims are being made that residential education itself may soon be “obsolete.”

While I doubt that, it seems reasonable to hazard a guess about which practices of ours might be “obsolescent.”

There’s a shade of difference that I knew, however, as a geeky pre-teen obsessed with the history of technology of warfare, in particular The Second World War.

Looking at my home library, there’s a book I read at age 11, Martin Blumeson’s Sicily: Whose Victory? part of a epic series of paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. I think I own about 50 of the titles, and the writing was decent, often by noted historians and with introductions by famous people involved in the actual events from a quarter century before. In the book, there’s a photo with the caption “German flak guns guard obsolescent Italian fighters” with some biplanes in the background.

I heard, and forget the source, that World War 2 began with biplanes and cavalry charges, yet ended with jet fighters and atomic weapons. By war’s end, the two military traditions and their equipment were certainly obsolete, which The OED defines as “out of date.” Yes, a biplane is a flying machine, but not one to employ in combat in an age of jet fighters. The word is a “borrowing from Latin” and dates in the OED’s reckoning to at least the 16th Century. I like that it’s really unchanged in meaning, too. A useful word, that!

As for things that are going out of use, but not gone yet? I have always guessed that fit the meaning of “obsolescent.” Turning again to The OED, I can see that the Ballantine Books series taught me well. This word means “becoming obsolete; going out of use or out of date.”  Thus, for my military examples, horses were used throughout the war, but until the struggle against the Taliban, they did not factor into the military planning of any great power. For biplanes, they are with us but as stunt planes or objects of nostalgia.

Funny how, in a time of pandemic, it’s comforting to use examples from a long-ago, if terrible, conflict. Perhaps that’s because we do not recognize what is obsolescent about our way of life until it’s obsolete?

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 Polish cavalryman, 1938, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Terra Incognita

16th Century Italian MapI’ve long thought of terra incognita, a clear borrowing from Latin, in terms of those Medieval maps with sea monsters and mysterious unexplored places.

Now, in this cruel April, well, we are in an unknown land.  We have never, in our lifetimes, experienced such a crisis. Those who could recall the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19 are long, long gone. Uncertainly reigns, and it leads to not irrational reactions, but a sort of pre-human behavior based upon fear. In 1929, one factor driving the Stock Market into its nosedive was simply lacking information, based on the lag of a key technology: the stock ticker used in exchanges.

But what is it as metaphor? When did the term become popular?

The OED entry dates our term to the early 17th Century, while Wikipedia, the source of our image above, posits an earlier usage by Ptolemy in the Second Century. There’s the term for an unknown sea, mare incognito, that was new to me, while the term “going incognito” still enjoys widespread use.

The Age of Exploration added to our maps. You’d have to go to the bottom of the ocean or to the surface of another world, today, to find terra incognita. As a metaphor, however, it still rings true for times, like today, when we find ourselves in unknown lands.  We are “off the charts,” a cousin of our metaphor, or in Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.” That last is a very dark example, if you know Hamlet. Let’s not go there. We should find hope now where we can.

We map genomes today, as well as the surfaces of strange worlds. That should give us hope. That’s mine, as we traverse this April’s terra incognita. Good luck and good health to you and yours.

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.