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.

Word of the Week! Altruism

A helping handRarely to I begin a post with a full definition from the OED, but for this word, I shall:

“Disinterested or selfless concern for the well-being of others, esp. as a principle of action. Opposed to selfishness, egoism, or (in early use) egotism.”

This sentiment, so at odds with the stock-market panic and hoarding now underway, should remind us of better times past and, yes, ahead once the fevers, real or anxiety-born, die down.

The entry at the OED gives us a good sense of where our word comes from, and it’s a loan word from the French altruisme. Curiously, it only dates to the mid-19th Century in English. Certainly, as any novel by Dickens attests, people were not all Scrooges and Mister Bumbles back then, or earlier.

Later formations are altruist, for one who practices altruism, as well as the slightly earlier altruistic.

Right now might seem a dangerous time to be selfless. What small acts of altruism have you practiced during this emergency? Which will you practice?

I saw a lot of altruism this week among my Writing Consultants at the university. We resume remote learning next week, so many of my student employees put their elders to shame, stepping right up to help students with their papers, regardless of their current job duties.  Don’t make fun of “Gen Z” until you have been around more of them. They are kinder than we old fogies. Good thing, that.

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 “A Helping Hand” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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.