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.

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! Quarantine

quarantine station 1957Here we are, self-isolating as the university gets ready to resume learning, by distance and technology. Even if you are not in a medical facility or ill, you are effectively in quarantine.

I was curious, in these troubled times, about the origin of our word, in both noun and verb forms. The OED entries reveal that the verb is a 19th-Century back formation (without any changes) from the noun. That older word, a borrowing from both French and Latin, dates to the 15th Century and probably earlier to pre-Gutenberg times.

Obsolete meanings from the OED refer to religious fasts, including the 40 days of fasting Jesus endured. More modern uses are quite familiar as COVID-19 works its evil magic, such as “isolation imposed on newly arrived travellers in order to prevent the spread of disease.”

As with many useful words, this one gets employed metaphorically, for legal, technological, and other purposes. May your quarantines all be short and our return to campus speedy.

Ill or healthy, I can still type, and this blog will soldier on as we cope with the emergency.

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.

Public health station, New Orleans, 1957, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Black Swan

Black SwanWrong I was, completely wrong, when I implied that the COVID-19 outbreak would not become a pandemic. Now we are talking not only about that unfortunate development but also its impacts on the global economy and the US election.

No one can predict when a new disease will emerge, so they provide perfect case-studies of black-swan events. Why that avian metaphor? It’s ancient, but the meaning has not changed. As I learned from a surprisingly erudite Wikipedia entry,  in the 2nd Century, Roman satirist Juvenal mentioned “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan.”

Today in the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo notes now “I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected ‘black swan’ event that upends historical expectation.”

Let’s look at the reasoning behind the metaphor. Wikipedia’s editors suggest to qualify it must be “an event that comes as a surprise” when, say, one assumes that all swans are white. That black bird, then, could not be a swan. In consequence, limited imaginative thinking can lead to disaster. That’s because a black-swan event also has large-scale effects.

We may not be talking about birds, but, say, a new way that birds pass infections to humans. Blinded by prior experience, researchers miss the black swan in the lake.

You may have heard the old saw that goes, in some form, “the military is always fighting the last war.” The leadership at Pearl Harbor and the builders of the Maginot Line were thus surprised by military black swans: strong airstrikes from carriers or blitzkrieg warfare featuring highly mobile armored units that bypass fortifications.

Other famous black-swan events include the start of the First World War of 1914, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event of 65 million years ago, the rapid adoption of the Smart Phone after the iPhone debuted in 2007. I’d personally not include the Housing Crisis of 2008. Many of us saw it coming, so it offered few surprises though it did have a large effect, as all black-swan events have.

We may live in a time of black swans. Manjoo’s column claims that we must adapt to increasing chaos. I hope he is wrong about the many black swans coming to roost.

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 courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Spartan

Leonidas meets Marie

Let’s continue the Peloponnesian fun with another word from Ancient Greece, in fact, from Laconia that gave us last week’s “laconic.”

Sparta was, of course, one of the most powerful Greek city-states. Yet why did a friend describe a minimalist’s house as “Spartan”? How did the virtues espoused by Marie Kondo align with those of King Leonidas?

It’s clearly a metaphor associated with “not having a lot of stuff / bare bones /  austere / reduced to essentials.” A look at the culture of ancient Sparta yields a lot of good information on Spartan values: hierarchy, simplicity, a militant orderliness for all things. The OED dates this sense of the adjective to the 19th Century, for frugality or brevity (as in a laconic reply).

Since this is still Sparta at our blog, or at least a pretense of it, I’ll end there.

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.

Marie meets Leonidas, courtesy of Photoshop.

Word of the Week! Bellwether

Sheep in snowRobyn Bradshaw with UR Catering suggested this timely word. I heard it employed in reference to our recent Virginia election. A quick Google search of “2019 Virginia election bellwether” reveals that the term has become overused to the point of cliche by journalists. Though bellwether is a metaphor, I’m not going to post this as one; the original term has been so lost from our daily experience that the word seems a linguistic oddball (a word worth its own post).

But what, anyhow, is a bellwether? Literally, it’s the leader of a flock of sheep, the one with the bell. That dates to at least the 15th Century, but it’s not very kind to my native state. Neither is the definition of “wether”: a castrated male sheep.

Ouch. So let’s get figurative here. The OED records the earliest metaphorical use also in the 15th Century, simply as a leader. In those uses, the bellwether was a person, not an event. I cannot recall, in US usage, that nuance. Today we mostly use the term in relation to elections, sometimes stocks, though an entry at The Grammarist provides a few other fine examples from American English. However one employs the term, it generally means an indicator or predictor of something likely to happen more broadly, later.

Watch your spelling on this one. I have long misspelled it “bellweather.”

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.

“Sheep in Snow” courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Metaphor of the Month! In Medias Res

X-15 Rocket PlaneI credit a student in my first-year seminar, “The Space Race,” for this. I’d mentioned the phrase as the way many modern films begin, right “in the middle of things,” without so much as a credit-roll. This is a handy term for studying narratives, in books or films. Often we feel “dropped right in,” which can add both confusion and excitement.

After class, my student prudently corrected my version, “in media res,” which I see from time to time. Our metaphor is pure Latin, so the correct case for the second word is “medias.” The OED lists many Latin phrases, such as in memoriam  or in nomine that we still use in certain formal, sacred, or academic settings. Bryan Garner’s Modern American usage cautions us to check spellings, as in memoriam sometimes appears as “memorium.” That’s incorrect.

Here’s a usage example. I was teaching Damian Chazelle’s excellent film First Man, and a viewer’s first encounter with Neil Armstrong, in medias res, is in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane about to blast into the upper atmosphere. Nothing boring about that! Note that I put the foreign phase we’ve borrowed into italics. I bow to the wisdom of the post at The Grammarist that does likewise.

Our pick this week might be considered just a phrase, not a metaphor, but considering how loosely I hear it employed by learned speakers, I’m going to side with its figurative usage, as in “There we were, in medias res, when he burst in and made things a shambles.” That could mean the interloper burst in early on, came late, or simply appeared, unbidden. One might not be interrupted “in the middle” to employ our metaphor. Yes, a few of us still drop in a Latin phrase. I love Academia.

I can’t resist working in old Metaphors of the Month, as I did with “shambles” just now. Send us more, and Words of the Week too, 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 NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Neil Armstrong, incidentally, so respected Hugh L. Dryden, whose name had been on the facility, that he tried to keep NASA from renaming it. That says a lot about a very humble American hero who first stepped on the Moon.

Any time I can work an X-15 or any other rocket plane or spacecraft into a post about literary terms, I shall.

Metaphor of the Month! Eye of the Storm

Eye of Hurricane Isabel, 2003, from spaceWith Tropical Storm Dorian projected (for now) to strike Florida as a Hurricane, it seems appropriate to choose a metaphor apt for Hurricane Season. This one, while not an academic term, certainly has been so popular as to become a cliche, albeit a powerful one.  Sometimes, when the semester is at its most frenzied, we’ll have a day or two of relative clam. Welcome to the eye of the storm.

The metaphor does not rate a full entry at the OED, and its appearance is of recent origin. Those in the path of cyclones must have long known about the eerie calm at the center of the tempest, so it surprises me that the earliest recorded usage comes from 1884.  In his novella, TyphoonJoseph Conrad beautifully captured the experience of a battered steamer, at midnight, entering the eye:

This ring of dense vapours, gyrating madly round the calm of the centre, encompassed the ship like a motionless and unbroken wall of an aspect inconceivably sinister. Within, the sea, as if agitated by an internal commotion, leaped in peaked mounds that jostled each other, slapping heavily against her sides; and a low moaning sound, the infinite plaint of the storm’s fury, came from beyond the limits of the menacing calm. Captain MacWhirr remained silent, and Jukes’ ready ear caught suddenly the faint, long-drawn roar of some immense wave rushing unseen under that thick blackness, which made the appalling boundary of his vision.

We have a powerful term here that needs no explanation to native speakers of English. I do wonder if in other languages the metaphor shifts? Are there other images that spring to mind, aside from an eye, when other cultures describe the calm at the center of chaos?

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.

How well I recall Hurricane Isabel and my nearly two weeks without electricity. Image of Isabel, from the International Space Station and via Wikipedia, courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.