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.

Metaphor of the Month! The Loaded Pause

Parliament Square, LondonOurs is a frightening time. We not only have a pandemic that has killed more than a million people around the world, but in our nation we have the potential for political violence during and after our national election. I’ve volunteered to be a poll worker. It seems a small sacrifice, but one must do something to be sure we have an election we can trust.

As I searched for metaphors of hope, I came up dry (itself an apt, arid metaphor). So I went back to a moment from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films that gave me hope in the dark days of the Second Gulf War: Gandalf and Pippin at Minas Tirith, on the night before Sauron’s forces attack the city. Both characters have reason to be afraid of what the next day will bring. Gandalf does not give his Hobbit friend any false hopes, and he says that only “a fool’s hope” remains that Frodo and Sam will complete their quest.

Not cheery stuff at our present dark hour, but I think we can agree with a statement, in both film and book (spoken by a character named Beregond in Tolkien’s text, Gandalf in Jackson’s film) that we are experiencing “the deep breath before the plunge.”  That’s a metaphor Tolkien coined, I suspect, but then I thought about other similar figures of speech.

“A loaded pause,” sounds ominous and proper for this month of October. Where did it come from, suggesting a short break in warfare, with both sides leaning on their loaded guns, waiting for battle to resume?

Several sources found in a casual Google search suggest an origin with Sir Winston Churchill, who frequently employed metaphors and, indeed, verbal pauses in his most famous speeches. Consider that he gave us “finest hour,” “Iron Curtain,” and mentioned how the lights were going out across Europe, on the eve of the Second World War. The final one itself nodded to Sir Edward Grey’s 1914 metaphor that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

Churchill’s figurative language worked all the better to sway his audiences. In a 1936 speech, named after our metaphor, you can hear how he built an argument against Hitler’s rise; one senses war creeping ever closer.  Yet in two times through, I don’t hear him utter our metaphor. It’s too good, however, to pass by.

I’m wishing for a Churchill, for all his faults and controversial legacy, or a Gandalf right now. I suspect many of you are, too. Here’s to wishing for better metaphors ahead.

Send us words and metaphors to feature here. Hopeful ones useful in academic work are most welcome! See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Parliament Square, London, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Metaphor of the Month! Plato’s Cave

The MatrixHaving already covered Terra Incognita at the start of the pandemic, I still find that is what we face come Fall. We’ll be facing it until we have an effective vaccine for COVID-19. I have no assurance that we won’t attend school for more than a few weeks, with 18-22 year olds who are unlikely to socially distance or mask when out of our sight, and then shut down again.

So what metaphors come to mind for a likely vain effort that we attempt when facing the unknown?

In the midst of a national tragedy where a common refrain has become “I don’t know who to believe,” we see only shadows on a wall, not the thing behind us casting them. This calls to mind the famous metaphor that Plato employed in The Republic. It’s really an allegory–a story based upon an extended metaphor. Classics and The Bible are full of them.

In Plato’s case, we cannot perceive truth clearly. We are, as Plato’s mentor Socrates claimed, prisoners chained to seats who watch a shadow-puppet show cast from behind us. We cannot turn our heads to see the puppeteers nor the puppets casting the shadows.  And woe betide anyone who tried to drag them out of the cave. Read more at the Wikipedia site noted, or better still, find a good translation of The Republic.

You can also view the first of the Matrix films, one of my favorite pieces of science-fiction cinema. It explores the question of the Cave well, and the dilemma of leaving it. In the end, one character would rather see the shadows and betrays his friends.  That, too, proves a useful allegory for our times. So is “the red pill,” as modern metaphor. I’ll make that a future entry.

It’s my hope that with a vaccine and some sanity again in national affairs, the shadows on the cave wall may look prettier, even clearer to us.

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

Matrix image from…well, The Matrix of course.

Metaphors of the Month! Navigate and Crossing the Rubicon

Mouth of the Rubicon RiverI faced a conundrum this month; I have two apt metaphors. Since they are related, let’s discuss them both. The first is an everyday word now being used metaphorically. It came my way via Ingrid Lasrado, UR’s Assistant to the EVP and Chief Operating Officer, Business Affairs.

“Navigate” sounds easy enough, as a word. As a metaphor, however, it’s loaded.

One of my students, Reda Ansar, used the verb in just that way in her final paper for the Spring term. Reda contends that “I believe that with focus and determination, we can learn to navigate this strange new situation.” We think of navigating a physical space on earth or in space, but not a situation. Is this usage as novel as the virus that has changed everything for us? As always, the OED becomes our arbiter. It’s not new but is, relatively speaking, recent, dating only to the late 1800s. It means “To control, manage, direct the course.” Those it often refers to directing a vehicle or riding animal, the entry notes the figurative sense we are after.

Reda’s example proves apt. We steer ourselves physically, emotionally, and financially through troubled and unknown waters.

One body of water, the Rubicon, provides a second and related metaphor for June. Before it was a burly model of the Jeep Wrangler named for a famous trail, the river Rubicon gained fame for its use in metaphor.

We, as a campus, crossed the Rubicon in March, by making decisions that will change us during and after the crisis. It’s an old metaphor with classical roots, but one I love. Julius Caesar’s decision to march on Rome, thus literally crossing the Rubicon with his legion, broke with tradition and marked a point of no return.

So we’ll soon see more of what awaits us  on the other side of our Rubicon. Stay healthy and send your words and metaphors in, 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: River Rubicone in Bellaria, Italy. Picture by Stefano Bolognini, 2008.

Metaphors of the Month! From the Garden…

Winter Garden / Low TunnelI have a guilty secret: I am enjoying the lockdown. It coincides with the finest season for putting in a garden. With that in mind, I’m going to bring out metaphors for May that are garden-related.

This post will do double duty in my other blog, Tractorpunk, where I write about sustainability and DIY practices for a newly (not even a decade) rural homesteader. I’ve also collected metaphors about time over there. Use this year’s extra time on your hands well; may I suggest planting a garden? I love growing and preserving (canning, dehydrating, freezing) as much of my own food as possible. I hope that’s a long-term impact of this pandemic. We need more home cooking with local food.

Many of these metaphors do indeed work in academic prose. Lots of them I learned from my mother, an avid gardener. She would sing “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch” when weeding. I got my green thumb from her.

Bad seed: Nothing good comes of bad seeds in the greenhouse. They produce stunted plants or none at all. Metaphorically, a person is a bad seed if they come from a family with a history of trouble.

Down the garden path: I’ve not a clue why this metaphor is negative. It means to be led astray, to be deceived. To me, the garden path is one of the most pleasant places to wander. There’s no deception in a well-tended garden.

Early frost / blooming early / blighted: Though not all early bloomers come to grief, early frost is a sad situation, in the garden or in a person’s life. Things go awry early, and failure results. At least a watchful gardener can put buckets on top of small plants or drape row-cover over the lettuce (I had lettuce all winter this year). You cannot do that for a person who blooms early and then is blighted. Some of us are, however, late bloomers.

Hay rake

Make hay when the sun shines: I have a very small hay-making operation, so small that instead of purchasing a big baler, I hand-bale my cut hay on about an acre of tall grass. The yield is 3 or 4 small bales annually. It seasons for a year in my barn and then becomes weed-block or in our raised-beds or litter in our chicken coops.

No matter the method, haymaking depends on a stretch of sunny weather, preferably one with enough breeze to dry the cut stalks after they are raked (my favorite part of the operation is hand-raking with a beautiful handmade Italian hay rake). Wet weather ruins hay, making it rot on the ground.

So metaphorically, there’s a time for any activity: do it in its best season, neither hurrying it nor waiting too long: not quite the same as Carpe Diem, but certainly a metaphorical cousin.  For problems, you want to nip them in the bud.

Peas in a pod: As in, “like two peas in a pod.” Okay, it’s a simile, not a metaphor, but it’s Mother’s Day and my mother was fond of this one. It can mean anything identical, but for mom it mean two people who did the same things, usually something stupid. Her wit was withering.

Reaping what you sow: I tend to over-seed my beds and then do a lot of thinning. We also are putting a six-acre field into wildlife management, which means suppressing invasive plants without chemicals but with a heavy application (think, tons) of buckwheat, clover, sunflower, bean and winter rye seed. That is most certainly not sown by hand but with a large device that looks like a rocket motor, inverted, behind my small tractor.Seeder with tractorBut if you put out no seeds, or the wrong ones, you get what you get, in the garden or outside it. When I learned to code, we said “garbage in, garbage out” about sloppy programming habits.  So much trouble results from poor planning and poor execution.

Snake in the grass: one of my least-favorite things. I keep the grass in and around the garden short, since last year I shot four Copperheads right in the garden or by the house. I will spare you the photo of a dead one shot in our chicken run, stretched out by my shotgun barrel–at 30″ they were the same length. In the woods, it’s another matter: snakes can go their own way. I don’t mind Black Racers or Rat Snakes at all, often moving them to spots where they can eat mice and keep the Copperheads at bay; I welcome black snakes into my barn and garage, though I keep an eye out! The metaphor of something dangerous in hiding conveys well with this metaphor. Watch your step around certain people!

Tender shoots: I hear this one each time a recovery comes after an economic downturn. But it’s true: the first shoots of new growth are really tender. They break or freeze easily.

Tough row to hoe: Bermuda or “wire” grass loves to sneak into our raised beds, and I don’t employ any herbicide or pesticides, preferring labor to cancer. So this metaphor comes into play a lot, when the weeds won’t come out of the ground and the bugs won’t go away; metaphorically, we all face similar tasks constantly. I think of this term as Southern, but it may well be universal.

Transplant: I grow a few hundred seedlings every year, moving from indoor grow-light station to greenhouse to raised beds. Whenever we move a plant from one growing medium to another, it’s transplanted. Think of how this metaphor works for humans. We are also uprooted. We put down new roots. We might decide to bloom where we are planted. Or we may wither in the wrong place or job. Mom was metaphorical here, too, about plants. When transplanting, she anthropomorphized her plants, saying “their feelings get hurt.” But in time, the plants would “get over it.”

Weeding and thinning: After venomous snakes, my least favorite thing. Yet you cannot grow plants as I do, without herbicides, without a lot of hand weeding. We weed in our lives all the time, from our personal libraries to our “friends” lists (I seldom do that, as I don’t accept friend offers unless I know someone in person). We also thin things, a more pleasant occupation since the over-sown seedling can go right to a flock of very eager chickens.

Windfall: Often paired with “profit,” in economic journalism, but in an orchard wind often means an early crop of perhaps underripe fruit. My one experience with windfalls has been with tall persimmon trees. The fruit is best after frost, and it does not leave the tree easily. I have to shake the tree, pick low-hanging fruit, or wait for windfall before I bake my Thanksgiving persimmon pie.

We keep bees and chickens, and these provide fertile soil for other clusters of metaphors. Stay tuned! If I missed any of your favorite garden metaphors, send them my way. I’ll be harvesting them all summer!

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.

Word of the Week! Earwig

See speak hear no evilProfessor Joe Hoyle in the Business school sends us this week’s word, noting “I’ve been reading To The Lighthouse recently and [author Virginia Woolf] uses the word, ‘earwig’ on several occasions.  That’s one that I liked.”

I read the novel a decade ago, and Woolfe’s use of language enthralled me, yet that word did not stick, as “noisome” has during my reading of Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. Yet when a word gets employed enough by a talented author, there’s clearly a reason. So why “earwig”? She did not mean the insect reported, without any real evidence, of crawling into a human ear.

Instead, we turn to metaphorical usage of the the term, one that seems to have morphed into “earworm.” Most commonly, that means a piece of music that gets stuck in our heads. How that wig became a worm is beyond the scope of a short post, but it’s an interesting evolution. At one time, as the OED entry proves, “earworm” and “earwig” were synonyms. I like it that in this case, the two words diverged and added nuance to the language.

In its original and derogatory sense, an earwig could be a person who bends your ear to whisper lies or spread gossip to malicious ends. Try as I might, we don’t have a good term in formal English for such a nasty gossip today; Tolkien’s wicked counsellor Wormtongue provides a neologism that I really love. In any case, the obsolete definition for “earwig,” dating from the 15th Century, appears in the OED entry for the insect.

To get at Woolfe’s meaning, she might have been after the verbal definition of our word, the action of being an earwig, to pester someone, to fill their head with wicked insinuations or outright lies.  While the usage rarely occurs (2 of 8 on the OED’s usage scale) the concept is very much with us. If someone we call an “Influencer” spreads ridiculous notions or outright evil ideas, they are trying to earwig us. Stop your ears before bad ideas worm their way under your wig…

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.

See, speak, hear no evil, courtesy of Wikipedia.