Metaphor of the Month! Excoriate

Autumn TreesI love his word, though it can be grisly when not used metaphorically.

Dan Strohl, my editor at Hemmings Daily, recently pleaded with readers not to excoriate him about a post he made, at least until they read the text. That’s the old-car hobby for you. You can be skinned alive for suggesting, as Dan did, that modern car batteries can be safely stored on a concrete floor without danger of draining them. He avoided flaying, because he provided good reasons.

So, to our word and a way to employ it metaphorically.

Fall, itself a metaphor. Autumn, if you prefer (as I do). If you are what expert of written style Joseph Glaser calls a “Creative Genius” who overwrites everything, you might even say, “Break, heart! Through yonder window, I swoon with despair as the autumnal, rude winds of Boreas excoriate the fair trees of summer!”

Huh? This latinate term has a gory origin, hence my photo of bare and soon-to-be leafless trees, not flayed carcasses. Because as I learned from the OED entry, our metaphor means to skin something, to flay. Most of us who eat meat buy it pre-skinned.  Since the word can mean “to peel,” we have a vegan-friendly option, too.

Glaser notes that Latinate terms such as excoriate make writing more formal. Yes, but keep in mind the audience. “Peel” would be more accurate for an orange, whereas we’d save “excoriate” for an audience who would get the humor of this drawing-room exaggeration (and you thought we gearheads were all knuckle-draggers). Sniff.

Feel free to excoriate me in comments, or to send words and metaphors to us 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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of pxhere.

Metaphor of the Month! Stentorian

Senator Warner on USS WisconsinI’d planned this one when mentioning the late Senator John Warner recently. His voice often got called stentorian, and I’d figured it might be a metaphor. And so says The OED, noting it means to be as loud as Stentor, “The name of a Greek warrior in the Trojan war, ‘whose voice was as powerful as fifty voices of other men.’ ”

Our word has a positive connotation that the definition does not denote. Warner’s voice was never annoyingly loud. He spoke clearly and his voice carried across a room (while carrying the day in many debates) or the deck of a battleship. He sounded senatorial in a way that added dignity we don’t often associate with national politicians any longer.

Professor Joe Hoyle nominated this word, long a favorite of mine. I would like to possess a stentorian voice. I’d also like the word to enjoy more use. It scores only three of eight on The OED’s usage frequency. That seems nearly as big a pity as the loss of urbane, civil, and stentorian voices in our politics.

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact 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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of US National Archives. You have to be stentorian to be heard on the deck of the USS Wisconsin!

Word of the Week! Quagmire

bog photoThis post is a tough one to make, as it comes on the heels of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. I’ve heard our two-decade involvement in that nation called a “quagmire,” and often wondered where we got this word, so often used metaphorically.

We have lots of words for swampy ground: wetland, marsh, bog, fen, morass, mire. Some like “mire” have a negative connotation, implying getting stuck, sinking, drowning perhaps. My guess was that the “ag” ending implied a Scottish origin; the Morag is a monster from Loch Morar, after all: a less-famous version of Nessie.  We have those “hags” of magical origin, too. And haggis. Don’t laugh, as it’s something I came to really like during my Scottish walking trip in 2014, to the point of eating it with all three meals one day.

A look at the OED entry parts the mists to reveal not a monster of Scottish origin or a broomstick-rider but a variant spelling from the 16th and 17th Centuries: wagmire. A “quag” is, however, a rarely used word for a marshy spot.  It’s likely a regional English term, as is mire or “myre” in older spellings. That word came from Scandinavia in dragon-prowed longships.

Why we need quag and mire together? It’s rather like saying “Marshy swamp” or “boggy marsh.”  Perhaps the intention was to imply how dangerous a particular wet place could be. We will never know: the answer sank in the quagmire long ago and has been obscured by the marshy mists of millennia (and really bad alliteration).

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact 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.

Bog image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Tolkienesque

Now that classes are about to resume on our decidedly Harry Potter campus, I’ve been reading the third of J.K. Rowling’s novels. I’m not a huge fan of the series, but it has been light summer fun.

It’s inevitable that Rowling gets contrasted, often unfairly, to work by an earlier British fantasist, J.R.R. Tolkien. We already have “Hogswartian” or “Potteresque” in the language, though I’d hoped to find “Rowlinsian.” The latter would be my preference, to honor her work and influence.

Old J.R.R. need not worry about adjectives named for him, though he now resides in what he would probably call “The Undying Lands.” The Oxford Don’s fiction generated an adjective that provides our Metaphor this month. I’ll think of it often as we get those golden hours at daybreak and dusk, once the weather breaks near the Autumnal Equinox. I associate “Tolkienesque” with glimpses of faraway mountains, groves of ancient trees, or the slanting golden light that always seems to be falling in Rivendell or Lothlorien, or perhaps on the walls of Minas Tirith, just before Sauron’s darkness descends for the awful battle there between good and evil.

You know a Tolkienesque landscape when you see it. I suppose a slag heap that reminds one of Mordor suffices, too, but usually, I hear the metaphor applied only to dreamy or ruggedly awe-inspiring places.

Tolkien’s friend and renowned fantasist C.S. Lewis beat us all to the punch, in 1950 no less, by calling something “Tolkienian,” a form now apparently falling out of use. By The OED’s reckoning, our spelling of the metaphor first appeared in 1970, about the time that the Counterculture’s fascination with Middle Earth blossomed into a cottage (or at least Hobbit-hole) industry that continues today, thanks to Peter Jackson’s films. Things Tolkienesque got spurred on by his tremendous LOTR trilogy and they survived his lamentable Hobbit films.

A few other writers, such as Virginia Woolf (Woolfian), H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraftian), and J.G. Ballard (Ballardian) have been so honored. Shakespearean? Miltonian? These enjoy long and respected usage.

I hope your Fall semesters are as epic, if not as dangerous, as Frodo’s journey through Tolkienesque landscapes.

As always, 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.

Tolkienesque landscape, Isle of Skye 2014, by the author

Metaphor of the Month! Compass Rose

Compass RoseSummer means a time for me to read a book about the sea. I’ve written about this habit before, a strange one for me, as I really dislike the US East Coast beaches south of Maine. Give me a rocky shore near mountains and deep blue water, please, not sandflies, crowds, and blistering heat.

On such a coast as I prefer, a compass rose would come in very handy for a mariner. It’s the often fanciful symbol of a compass on a map. In the image above, one is set in concrete. In each case, the image provides both reference and aesthetic pleasure.

I ran across this term in Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, an often terrifying account of escort duty during The Battle of the Atlantic. The first ship crewed by many of the main characters is Compass Rose, and I began to wonder why a cartographer’s symbol that looks only faintly like a flower might have earned that honor.

At GISnet, Bill Thoen notes a 13th Century origin for the term, stemming from (pun intended) the resemblance the design to a rose. There was also a device called a “wind rose” for determining the direction of wind, “but the 32 points of the compass rose come from the directions of the eight major winds, the eight half-winds and the sixteen quarter-winds.”

I’m no sailor, so I’ve never heard of half or quarter-winds. Now I have. Thoen’s entry takes us further back than does the OED, which has an earliest recorded use of 1527, describing the symbol as “The roses of the windes or pointes of the compasse.” I like that notion of the roses of the wind, though soutwesterly winds in my part of the world are more like damp blankets. I prefer the west wind or a stiff northwesterly, thank you.

As metaphor, compass rose shares lots of floral company with a host of other similes and metaphors such as “fresh as a daisy,” a downcast “wallflower,” and Virginia Woolf’s famous (and often apt) comparison of academics to hothouse flowers.

May your gardens be full of flowers this summer. If you have any words or metaphors to add, contact me at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

image: Compass rose in concrete;, Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, MD, courtesy of Margaret W. Carruthers at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Monadnock

I have long enjoyed climbing Old Rag mountain near Madison, VA. It provided me with a then-new word, when someone called it a monadnock. Since summer hiking weather is here, let’s explore what, at first glance, seems a Native-American word.

Our word comes from Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, whose origin (thank you, Wikipedia) “Loosely translated. . .means ‘mountain that stands alone.’ ”  Over time, that peak figuratively crossed the Atlantic, so alpinists all over the world refer to such lonely peaks as Monadnocks.

As metaphor, the word has real power. I’ve heard people of strong character called “mountains,” but the OED has an excellent example by W.H. Auden, in 1947, “O stiffly stand, a staid monadnock, On her peneplain.” Auden just gave me another word I’ve never encountered; a peneplain is a level area formed by erosion. The poet knew his geology, all the better to frame a monadnock.

Get out and climb a peak this summer (if you can beat the crowds, post-COVID). I’ll save Old Rag for the off-season.

The blog will continue occasionally all summer, but 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 Fuji, one of the world’s most famous monadnocks, by Kawase Hasui.

Metaphor of the Month! Push the Envelope

X-15 in flightAs many of  you may have, I first experienced this term in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff. As a fan of all things aerospace, I began labeling anything new as “pushing the envelope.”

Soon it became such a cliche for me that I stopped. Now, in my current First-Year Seminar, “The Space Race,” here I am again, pushing that metahpor into young minds.

First, to understand the term, let’s forget the type of envelope once used to mail bills and letters (remember them?). Instead, we must delve ito the realms of physics, math, and engineering.

A UK phrase finder site that I’m mightily glad to have found gives a nicely succinct and technical explanation of our envelope, but for our purposes, let’s stop at this definition from the OED, “to exceed or extend the boundaries of what is considered possible or permissible; to pioneer or innovate.”  They provide a first recorded use in a 1970 aviation magazine, nearly a decade before Wolfe immortalized the term.

The boundaries, in the mathematic sense, are those set by the performance characteristics of normal flight in a particular type of aircraft. Go outside the envelope, and you won’t be flying…you will either push the envelope to a new place for that plane and others who fly it. Or, if you fail, you’ll be tumbling, spinning, breaking apart, crashing. Pilots prefer terms such as “inertial coupling” when talking to the rest of earthbound mortals. As Wolfe related, they might use “auger in” or “screw the pooch” when talking to each other, over a few rounds.

My favorite flying machine that pretty much pushed the envelope so far that its boundaries never fully were know? NASA’s X-15 rocket plane, a potential space vehicle that flew many times for research purposes but never got developed into an utterly cool and fully reusable spacecraft we might have had 20 years before the Space Shuttle. A fellow named Neil Armstrong was known for his journeys to the edge of space in one of them. Many X-15 pilots later earned Astronaut wings. Neil never went quite high enough for that, but he more than compensated on two later space missions, one involving a small step he took.

We can push the envelope in many ways today, but don’t push the envelope of cliche by overusing this one. It has escaped the realm of flight to auger into the earthbound realm of cubicle-land, becoming as “in the box” as the phrase for thinking outside it.

As always, 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 the North American X-15 courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Harrowing

Harrowed field

I have spent a lot of time with this word in its literal sense: the second stage of breaking soil after plowing it. Farmers turn to the disc harrow to break the large furrows created by a plow into smaller clods, closer to accepting seed.

What harrowing a field, for me at least, is a relaxing activity, in the term’s metaphorical sense it’s not so pleasant. And we live in harrowing times: a global pandemic, a contested election, an angry population.

The OED gives this sense of the term only brief mention. I’m surprised that the latest instance of the term in the sense of “That harrows or lacerates the feelings; acutely distressing or painful” dates from 1895. That’s precisely the power of this term: as the tractor’s harrow lacerates already torn soil, crushing and breaking it, so can the times harrow us.

We occasionally, in religious texts, run into this idea, from a different definition at the OED:

“The harrowing of hell was the triumphant expedition of Christ after his crucifixion, when he brought away the souls of the righteous who had..been held captive in hell since the beginning of the world.”

Without getting spiritual here, it’s a strange, rather antique sense of the term. I suppose it implies a sifting, just as physical harrowing removes roots and turns up what we want: the good soil, while burying weeds.

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.

 John Deere 2155 in the midst of harrowing a plowed field. Photo and tillage by author.

Word of the Week! Metonymy

Royal Crown of FranceThanks to Sharon Condrey, Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll at UR, for nominating this one. I’d previously covered the term synecdoche, and our term this week seems similar, at least at first blush. My earlier pick could indicate something smaller representing something bigger, such as “boots on the ground” for an Army. That’s also the sense of our word this week.

Yet synecdoche can also mean something bigger representing something smaller, as in the rotten error too many students make: “Society will not accept that change,” when they really mean “A majority of voters at this point in our history, and living in one particular state, will not accept that change.” In my classes, such papers lose 10 of 100 points for each such error, and the writers have one week to remove the error for a regrade.

Not so with metonymy, a usage that rarely leads to sweeping generalization. As the OED notes, metonymy involves “substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it.”  Thus “the gridiron” can be used to talk about the game of American football, or “the press” for print-based media outlets who now have Web pages, video streams, and more. Likewise, at the time of writing, we are still awaiting results from “the ballot box,” when voting these days appears in a variety of forms, many electronic.

I suppose that student writers might run into trouble with metonymy if overused. It could lead to lots of repetition if a writer talking about a conflict between a monarchy and parliament used “the crown” 12 times in a paper. “Synonyms are wonderful things, students,” I’ve been known to quip, “but using them well requires slowing down and giving a damn.”

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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Hit the Fan

Circulating fanNo, you will not find this one in the OED. Yet this term may not only be sadly relevant for November but also it has a mysterious history. Finally, I find it a writerly challenge to post about a curse-word without cursing. Here goes.

I ran across our metaphor in Martin Clemens‘s nearly lost classic memoir, Alone on Guadalcanal. He was a British “coast watcher” who stayed behind when Imperial Japan occupied the island. After many tribulations, Clemens and his group of indigenous Melanesian scouts met the US Marines, who landed to liberate the island in 1942.

The Marines were in a tight place, being bombed around the clock, subjected to suicide charges, then bombarded by Japanese warships at night. The see-saw war went on for months, on an island ripe for Malaria, known for venomous snakes, and ringed by waters full of sharks. While in the Marine base, Clemens heard and recorded in his diary a bit of American slang that has continued to our day, for when excrement manages to contact a rotating air disperser.

Or something.

The term often gets dated back to Norman Mailer’s excellent, if gritty, novel of the Pacific War, The Naked and the Dead. Clemens’s usage predates Mailer’s, showing the military origin of the metaphor. Gary Martin of Phrase Finder, where a post appeared about our scatological metaphor, found a recorded use in 1943 and notes a possible Canadian origin from the 1930s.

I’m willing to bet that it goes back to the first USMC unit that had an electric fan in their barracks. If you know enlisted Marines, you can imagine what followed.

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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of pxfuel.