Word of the Week! Hiatus

If you wonder where this blog has been, it’s been stuck in my head while I lay in bed with COVID-19.

Folks, you don’t want to get it. Really. My recovery to full strength is going to take weeks.

Thus, the hiatus.

And what is this odd-sounding word?  And why don’t we have other words in the language that sound like it?

The etymology proves straightforward enough. As The OED has it charted out, we have a Latin loan-word. Scholars of the language, please send me other homonyms that came across intact.

As for meaning, it’s a gap. The order of definitions surprises me, as I’ve thought of the gap in chronological terms, as in “between her two terms as mayor, she enjoyed a ten-year hiatus from local politics while leading a local law firm.”

The first definition given, however, involves a break in a material object, as with a hole in a wall. Sounds very odd to say “we crept through the hiatus in the old wall.”

But there it is. If you have other loan-words from Latin that rhyme with this one, send them, as with other words and metaphors of note, 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.

Hole in wall courtesy of Wikipedia. It looks like how I feel.

 

 

Words of the Week! Halloween Adjectives!

mutantOdd, isn’t it, how many words we associate with Halloween’s horror begin with the letter “g”?  I covered “grotesque” back in 2018. Let’s have a look at a few others that spring, like a zombie from its grave, to mind.

Gruesome: We do not hear this one as much as our next word, though I associate gruesome things with gore. The OED blames Sir Walter Scott for introducing our word to literature, in the sense of “Inspiring fear, awe, or horror; such as to cause one to shudder with fear; fearful, horrible; grisly.” Grisly: there’s another G word for Halloween. In any case, thank you, Sir Walter Scott; your giving us this word is nothing, compared to how Mark Twain blamed your books for the Civil War.

Gory: Without getting visceral here, we know what this one entails (or entrails). Covered with blood! Yikes. Here’s The OED entry.

Ghastly: This word sounds almost prim, in comparison to the rest of our list. From Middle English, according to The OED, this type of terror gets associated with…guess what? The sight of carnage or death! In its obsolete sense, it’s a Downton Abbey word for something repellant, in the sense of “oh, Heavens! Her silver service looks ghastly!”

Ghoulish: I think of a ghoul (thank you, H.P. Lovecraft) as a creature that eats dead bodies. Long before Night of The Living Dead, we had such fiends in speculative literature. So what does The OED say? It notes that if you resemble a flesh-eater, or take an unnatural interest in these matters, you are ghoulish. Right now, that would include me. I like that we have, in part, an Arabic loan-word at play here, from a creature out of The Arabian Nights.

Ghostly: Even if we have not seen a ghost, we know what the word implies: a disembodied soul wandering the earth. It is an old word, going back to Germanic origins. The adjective form has a history nearly as long, but in our sense of something eerie or unnatural, we only need to time-travel back to the 18th Century. It’s a fascinating word with many obsolete meanings, as a long OED entry explains.

Grim: Given his job, how could he be the “Happy Reaper”? As with “ghost” The OED notes that the word came to the British Isles via the Grendel-haunted fens of Frisia and Germany, where the spelling was the same. Savage, cruel, fierce: all are wrapped up in this grim word.

Happy Halloween! My movie pick for 2021? 1983’s The Hunger! Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are the most stylish vampires, ever.

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…never you mind. Keep your lights on.

Word of the Week! Planet

The planets, and outer space generally, have been making the news, so I wanted to look at the word itself. What other terms sound like it in English? Not many.

I was looking at a piece of commissioned “book art” in a colleague’s office, made from a text called Wanderers of The Sky, and then asked if my assumption were correct. The word “planet” comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “wanderer.”

My recollection of my history of astronomy courses comes in handy, here. To the Ancients, the inexplicable (to them) phenomenon of retrograde movement by the planets proved baffling. As a planet’s position across the sky changes night to night, eventually the thing appears to move, temporarily, backward.  It wandered. As the EarthSky site linked explains, you can see this when driving:

As you approach a slower car, it’s clearly moving in the same direction you are. As you pull alongside and pass it, however, from your vantage point the car appears to move backwards for just a moment. Then, as you pull ahead of it, the car appears to resume its forward motion.

With a sun-centered solar system, the explanation is easy: we are lapping an outer world. With Earth at the center of the pre-Copernican universe, however, all sorts of baroque, even perverse, explanations got proffered to explain the way the lights in the sky behaved.

The OED entry on the term confirms this origin, and thus I’ll tag this post “loan word.”

Here’s a word we use literally, save in adjectival senses I find silly, such as a Frito Lay’s extinct “Planet Lunch” snacks marketed to harried cubicle clones (and, as a quick Web search reminds me,  little kids who should eat healthier).

Compare how we use “star” metaphorically each day to describe those famous for their fifteen minutes under the sun. Or “sun,” as in Shakespeare’s famous play on the word in Richard III, using both metaphor and a play on the word “son” in one sentence:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

As we amble, like planets in their orbits, toward the start of the semester I’ll update the site with new words and metaphors on occasion, until our pace quickens in September.  If you have words or metaphors you would like covered, send them my way at jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.

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

Photo by the author

Word of the Week! Paroxysm

Mount St. Helens EruptingThis term is one I do not often use, yet it simply “looks right” on the pages of literary work. Characters experience a paroxysm of grief or anger.

Where did it come from? It resembles, at first glance, no other words we use regularly, even in academic settings, except “paradox.” The OED, as usual, has an answer. The word has Latin roots, but it came to English in the 16th Century via Old and Middle French, for the “onset of an illness.” Though I avoided COVID, right before the pandemic I got really ill: I’ll never forget the onset of symptoms of what seemed like influenza. I lay shaking abed with fever and chills.

If that’s not a term fit for the sudden onset of bad things, which is usually how we employ our word, I don’t know what else would quite fit.  Our word can describe outbursts in nature, too: an Oklahoma tornado or the violent eruption of Mount St. Helens.  That type of volcanic activity would, however, be the opposite of an ongoing and relatively gentler Strombolian eruption, using a word covered here before.  The slow torture of human-caused climate change does not constitute a paroxysm, though individual weather events can.

The only positive use of the word that comes to mine would be a paroxysm of laughter. I hope we all have a few of those this summer with friends and family, after the grim months we all have endured.

If you have words or metaphors you would like covered, send them my way at jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.

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

Image of Mount St. Helens blowing her top courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Perseverance

Mars landingThe day this post runs, NASA will have tried something novel for the human race: landing a vehicle on Mars specifically in a site that once held liquid water. The landing technique itself fascinates me: a hovering lander that will use a “skycrane” lowering rover to sample the soils of that ancient lake bed on The Red Planet.

The Rover? As with NASA’s earlier rovers, it has a poetic name: Soujourner, Curiosity, Opportunity.

This one? Perseverance. It takes that quality to send a machine that far on such a hazardous journey. And the word itself?

We have a French loan word, and since that time, the word has remained popular.

The OED’s first definition reveals a meaning that itself has persevered, a “constant persistence in a course of action or purpose; steadfast pursuit of an aim.” I enjoy finding words like this that do not vary over the centuries. Time erases so many things, but some persist.

Student writers might use “persist” as a synonym, yet that word to me, like “endure,” lacks the active nature of “persevering.” A robot like our Mars rover can be active; the evidence of hypothetical Martian life would merely persist.

So consider how, faced with challenges, “carry on” might work for a person or a machine, though it sounds less formal. Perhaps readers can offer other synonyms.

In any case, here’s to NASA’s bold mission, one we’ve discussed in my first-year seminar, The Space Race. Happy landings and good luck hunting ancient microbes. If Mars once harbored life, even microscopic life, Humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos would change forever.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA.

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 a communications protocol. 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.

Update 10/29/20, thanks to Lee Parker, UR Information Services: “Within the IT realm, Shibboleth is the name of a specific single-sign-on ‘custom or habit.’ Shibboleth allows you to maintain fewer usernames/passwords. . . . This is analogous to using your driver’s license to buy beer: the state validates your age so each store doesn’t have to do so independently.”

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