Word of the Week! Gadfly

Martin Luther King Jr.Reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had a transformative effect on my sense of justice and, frankly, rhetoric. It remains a masterpiece of persuasive writing; several words and metaphors that Dr. King employ struck me, as a college student, with their power.  Re-reading it today, one word, really a metaphor that has long been a favorite of mine, stands out.

The word “gadfly” in one sentence speaks entire paragraphs, both for its seeming innocence but also for its referencing Socrates’ Apology, where the doomed Greek philosopher discussed the need for someone like him to stir a lazy nation, just as a gadfly stirs a lazy horse. King writes “we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King calls here for nonviolence, as did Socrates before him, but nonviolence with an edge to it. The word itself, with “gad” of Scandinavian origin, is a cousin to our “goad,” for spurring action. When used for a person who provokes action, the term dates to the 17th Century.

I rather like gadflies. I don’t think that Dr. King would mind my calling him one. We could currently use more of them, and it’s a credit to Dr. King that he advocated goads, not bullets.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Public Domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Rule of Thumb

We say “rule of thumb” for an approximate measurement or rough guideline when we are uncertain, yet there’s a big misconception about this metaphor’s origin. The OED Online advises readers that “A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated.” Wikipedia’s entry likewise calls this a “modern folk etymology.”

A quick Google search revealed a 1998 article from The Baltimore Sun, where writer Stephanie Shapiro, noting an earlier debunking by William Safire, states that “In the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, ‘rule of thumb’ is additionally defined as a method by which brewers once tested the temperature of a batch of beer: They dipped a thumb in the brew.”

I know one fellow who works in the brewing industry. That rule of thumb no longer applies, if it ever did. Whether that origin from the field of zymology is true or not, I enjoy redeeming a useful metaphor like ours.

Perhaps we need a better rule of thumb for judging words and phrases in fraught times, before we condemn them?

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Timothy Valentine at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! Faustian Bargain

The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.

Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.

The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins.  To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.

I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.

Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.

Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Nimrod

This is a word I once used as an insult for a really clueless person. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, what I used to say is American slang that appeared in the 20th Century. I thought of it as a particularly Southern insult.

What remains mystifying to me is how differently the word has been used in England. There, “Nimrod” is a metaphor that refers to a hunter, after the great hunter from The Bible. That usage goes back as far as the 17th Century. The OED gives two American examples from the last hundred years, including one from a 1994 story in The Denver Post: “Towns such as Eagle, Glenwood Springs..and Gunnison throw out the welcome mat for this horde of nimrods.”

That one has me grinning, imagining a “horde of nimrods.”  How, exactly, did the term for a hunter of renown become synonymous with idiocy? One conjecture, provided at Merriam Webster’s site, is that the original Nimrod not only hunted, but as a king he got associated with building the Tower of Babel. Thus, he helped in a colossally stupid act that ended badly.

That would require more research, but when I think of my 4:30 am climbs up a tree in freezing darkness every deer season, I suppose we have at least two plausible answers.

Decades after I stopped calling people who do stupid things”nimrods,” I cannot quite recall why I abandoned the word. I would like to think that I do not insult others so often.  Perhaps I have been a nimrod often enough, myself.

Update 10/26/18: Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested that the conflation of hunter and idiot comes from Elmer Fudd. In several of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bugs or Daffy Duck refer to poor Elmer with “what a nimrod!”

As much as I love that theory (and Warner Brothers cartoons) there’s no definitive evidence. There was, however, a lively debate on the topic in the message forums at Snopes.com. Have at it.

Special thanks to Cynthia Price, Director of Media and Public Relations at the University of Richmond, for nominating our word.

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: Shotgun selfie from last deer season. What a Nimrod!

Word of the Week! Autumnal

Perhaps, by the time this post runs, the weather will match the season. Yet we do have a lovely word of the week, one often used quite metaphorically.

Solidly in the realm of the humanities, our word can imply middle age, as in “during my autumnal years, I plan to take up fly fishing.” We thereby imply someone past her or his prime, then, and the OED notes how in this sense “autumnal” is often negative. Personally, I find the word to be wistful rather than pejorative. Perhaps that’s just me and my next-to-favorite season (right after Winter).

I do not often hear “vernal” used in a similar way.  In terms of etymology, The OED Online takes us back to the 15th Century for both “autumn” and our adjective, borrowings from Latin.

Students might use our word and end up sounding pretentious. I suspect it is best left for creative writing or in its literal sense of something pertaining to the Fall season, such as the autumnal equinox or “My old grade school will host its Oktoberfest this weekend, an autumnal ritual ever since my childhood.”

My hope is that all of us will experience autumnal weather soon this year and in the decades ahead. Our currently endless summer fills me with dread.

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 of New Hampshire forest courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Dark Night of The Soul

With my favorite holiday of Halloween approaching, I figured that we needed a metaphor that captures dread, doubt, and doom. I must be channeling my fellow Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who enjoyed alliteration. On to our metaphor.

Poe’s masterpiece “The Raven” is all about a long, dark night when the narrator faces a sombre truth:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token. . .

If you know the poem, then you know what the narrator discovers about his lost Lenore. If not, get over to the Poetry Foundation’s site and read it, posthaste.

But where did our figure of speech, captured so well in Poe’s verse, originate? The OED Online has an entry about the word “dark” that includes a reference to St. John of the Cross, who believed in a noche oscura that one must endure to come back into the light of faith. It is a “moment of aridity” that a mystic endures, quoth the OED, not the Raven. Over time, the Spanish Saint’s metaphor grew in scope to become any deep enough existential crisis that rocks us to our cores. The Dark Night destroys our optimism forever or we come out wiser and sadder.

Only that, and nothing more.

Academic uses can be literary (of course), political, or spiritual. Historians will speak of a Dark Night of the Soul for people making terrible decisions: despite his many quoted remarks about the strategic necessity of the A-bombings, I don’t know that Harry Truman ever got over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It would speak poorly of him if he did ever brush it off lightly.

My first brush with the idea of our metaphor happened in an undergraduate English class. Suddenly there came a phrase for the culminating moment in many a text, such as Huck Finn’s decision to “go to hell” to save his friend Jim; since strong texts often develop out of dramatic tensions in their plots or characters, many feature one or more Dark Nights of the Soul. Existentialist works could not really work with them.

I found more than a few literary uses of the term, thanks to a quick Google and Wikipedia search. My favorites? F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, in The Crack Up, that “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Fitzgerald himself struggled with alcoholism and the madness of his wife Zelda. He knew his topic well, as have many other artists.

See you on the other side of Halloween. Good luck.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Metaphor of the Month: Ivory Tower

This week we begin a new monthly feature. And the timing, in our second week of classes, is spot-on appropriate.

For new students who may have forgotten the concept, a metaphor is a type of figurative speech calling a person or thing something it is not, such as “John is a real skunk!” or the famous parables in the Bible, with the Kingdom of Heaven suddenly becoming a mustard seed.

Now on to our first academic metaphor.

We think, commonly, of “The Ivory Tower” being the haunt of cloistered academics.  Where on earth did that come from? French, actually. The OED Online traces the origin of our term to the second quarter of the 19th Century, from tour d’ivoire, as a place of sanctuary from the world and its troubles.  The image is older, going back to (thank you, Wikipedia) to The Song of Solomon 7:4:

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”

The similes and metaphors just pile up here, rather odd tools of seduction, and in this book of the Bible they get racy, fast. Have a look yourself.

In any case, I find it fascinating that none of the examples provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as my antique version of Webster’s New Collegiate, show the drift in meaning to academia, especially toward the negative sense that political pundits often use to attack us. Only The American Heritage Dictionary sheds a little light (another metaphor!) on our phrase, noting a place of “intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.”

I have many colleagues who would argue that our business in the Ivory Tower is very much about everyday life, especially how to live it in a considered and enlightened way, but this post is no more an op-ed than it is a look at the Bible’s salacious metaphors. Yet that final definition gets us to the pejorative sense of the term. Other ages had Lotus-Lands. We moderns are only left with an ivory tower.

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.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 of St. John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.