Metaphor of the Month! Horse Latitudes

Sopranino cover imageEvery summer, I read something nautical. I’m a mountain and not a water person, but sailing and ships really interest me. The closest I get is from my fishing kayak (and this has been a good fishing year for me). Four years have passed (!) since I did my last nautical metaphor, doldrum.

Part of my interest in ships and sailing involves the riches of vocabulary they bring us. In several books I encountered our rather antique metaphor, another of those terms I’d love to see used more commonly again. As the OED informs us, the term refers to a “belt of calms and light airs which borders the northern edge of the N.E. trade-winds.”  Usually the term simply indicates the literal area, even in our time of steam-ships.

The origin of the term remains unknown to the OED editors. The tales of sailors lightening their load by throwing effigies or actual horses overboard seems a stretch to this landlubber, given the animals’ value. Eating them when becalmed and starving? Possibly, according to a writer at Medium.

Metaphorically, our term suits June and early July well for academics. We are deep in our summer projects, and campus is silent of most student noise. Sometimes we have little bursts of activity; the winds pick up, so to speak. In that area of calm between steady winds, Facilities repairs and builds, plans for the year are laid down. It’s my favorite time of year, even though most summer weeks I work from home.

This summer’s read? Sopranino by Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie. They designed and sailed the world’s smallest ship–a 19′ sailboat rated for ocean travel–across the Atlantic. It’s a great story told in a light, yes, breezy style from a simpler time than ours. They do run into several sudden calms off South America, in the horse latitudes. They also get robbed in Jamaica, but being charmers, content the crooks with a few dollars. The books remains out of print but old copies are easy to find.

As Summer skims along like a fast racing yacht, I’ll post your entries. Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to 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.

Image from the 2011 edition.

Word of the Week! Sybaritic

Theatre of Sybaris

Here’s a term (a metaphor, really) that I misunderstood. For the longest time, I believed that it implied sensual decadence, the sort we might associate with gluttons and pornographers. In other words, hedonism.

Wrong. Though excess is possible for sybarites, my guide to a more nuanced meaning of our word comes from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s excellent, three-volume account of a walk he took from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I’ve finished volumes one and two, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and The Water. Simply put, Leigh Fermor proved himself one of the finest travel writers of the 20th Century, among other things all starting with the letter P: polymath, prodigy for languages, patriot. You’d do well to pick up his books.

And yes, he was a sybarite who enjoyed drinking, art, natural scenery, and beautiful women. No wonder James Bond and Indiana Jones are said to have a bit of Fermor in them.

As a commando in the Second World War, his fluency in both German and Cretan Greek was so prodigious (another P) that he led a team of commandos disguised as German officers who captured Major General Heinrich Kreipe. While waiting for a boat to Egypt, Fermor and Kriepe sat in a cave, passing the time by smoking cigarettes and spouting lines of verse at each other in ancient Greek.

But like the man himself, I digress. Fermor’s digressions go on for pages, but they entertain. I’m not sure that a dissertation on Sybaris, an ancient Greek city in southern Italy “noted for its effeminacy and luxury” in the words of the OED entry, would prove even a shadow of Fermor’s words.

We today recoil at the use of “effeminate” in a pejorative, even misogynistic sense. In Fermor’s reckoning, however, anyone can enjoy good food, drink,  art, or the company of witty, beautiful people. I remain uncertain about how the prosperous Greek city came to be associated with decadent enjoyment. Jealousy, perhaps, of the wine cellars and good life to be  had in Sybaris? I’d prefer life there to, say, Sparta. Both cities are curious ruins today: perhaps that too is a warning about the virtues of moderation?

Yet forget moralizing and think luxurious thoughts for April, perhaps our most sybaritic month of all.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

 

Metaphor of the Month! Tomfoolery

Fool's Cap

In what seems now ancient history in the year 2019, I covered the metaphor of an April Fool. It is April Fool’s Day as I write this, so I sought about for another foolish word.

So who was Tom? A generic name, equivalent to our “Joe Blow” or “John Q. Citizen,” if we are to believe the etymology given by Merriam-Webster’s Online site. This origin gets repeated by sources found with Google. Thome would have been foolish indeed for his example to endure many centuries. Admittedly, we do still call miserly folks “Scrooges,” but we have Uncle Ebenezer (I played him in our 6th Grade Christmas play) to remind us of Dickens’s original humbugler.

As usual, I sought out the OED for clarity and authority on this matter. Thome Fole was English, right?

Yes indeed. Tom was a common name in Medieval England, and as the OED explains, the earliest recorded examples from the 14th Century likely refer to specific jesters named Tom. I’m reminded of a later Tom, “Poor Tom,” the madman Edgar feigns to be from King Lear. Later, the term simply became generic, with the older spelling “fole,” from the Anglo-Norman foole, becoming our “fool.” And there we have it.

Who else from myth or history has a name that became metaphor? Tyrants, certainly, and dictators. Think of all the “Little Hitlers” since 1945. Consider the many Lincolns who have freed people and scores of Cassandras trying to warn us (though we fools do not listen).

Send words and metaphors, wise or foolish, to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Pyrrhic Victory

Battle of Santa CruzWe have, for the first time since the 1990s, a European war on. In fact, we have the first since 1945, if one considers the tragedy in the Balkans, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, to be a civil war.

If President Putin triumphs, however, it appears that his victory will be pyrrhic. That metaphor has a long, interesting history but also, as descriptor, it reveals a long past of human suffering.

The adjective pyrrhic denotes an ancient Greek war-dance. Check that etymology at the OED link. In this sense, the term has no related to King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who won a battle against the Romans but at a terrible cost in irreplaceable manpower. Recent examples might include some of Japan’s early victories in World War II. Their navy, in particular, lost aviators who had been some of the best in the world, in 1941. They never replaced them properly, with horrible consequences for their military and civilian population.

Wikipedia lists other examples. The term enjoys use beyond military history; any contest where the winner comes out weaker could be labeled a Pyrrhic Victory. Consider this example from 1998, in  the OED entry on pyrrhic as adjective:

For the Chancellor who has been running Germany for 16 years, pushing through the euro could be pyrrhic.

That entry also has a great deal about our metaphor, including a first usage in the 17th Century.

Any victory that the Russian President and his circle of minions achieve may be added to the list of nation-breaking victories. I’d prefer peace, with honor for Ukraine, and without more bloodshed. Right now, however, that prospect appears remote.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

Image of Battle of Santa Cruz courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

Metaphors of the Month! Silly Love Songs

Bryan Ferry

Happy Valentines Day. Will you be my Valentine? That itself is metaphor, and you can read about the actual Saint(s) Valentine here. Warning: you will find a severed head in that box of chocolates.

Out of curiosity, and a desire for a week to avoid writing about academic language, I decided to have a bit of fun with love-song metaphors. I ate a lot of saccharine (another metaphor) to give you folks the most overused figures of speech for love and lovers out there.

They say the world is full of silly love songs. So what’s wrong with that? I need to know. I pick on Boomer-Generation artists here, mostly. I don’t listen to formulaic contemporary pop, preferring Americana, indie rock, or old punk and glam. The other type of music I like, electronica, has no words so no metaphors can be found.

Love-and-lover metaphors from Country and Western music (those two types of music played at Bob’s Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers) merit an entire post. I’ll be walking the floor and walking the line over that subject in a year.

Love as controlled substance, and more: Maybe you have been drunk with love, but if you listen to Bryan Ferry, pictured up top, you will find a number of rather disturbing metaphors. The decidedly louche crooner remains one of my favorite musicians, but really. In Ferry’s lyrics, one can be a slave to love, and love is the drug, of course, prescribed and dispensed by his and David Stewart’s “Goddess of Love.”

Come to think of it, a person can have a “bad case of loving you,” and the Doctor of Love can “give you the pill.” That’s right, kids, just call Doctor Love. He is not a mental-health professional, clearly. When Bryan Ferry cries out “love me madly,” there is no cure. That makes sense, if you’ve known someone made insane by love.

Now we are really off to the races (the heart races, naturally) in an open car with Love, who is a stranger, after all. Love hurts, love binds, love wounds, love shines, love is painful (it really hurts a lot) until love is lost. Up to that sad point, one becomes a prisoner of love or a victim of love because love is a battlefield. If you survive, you are singed, because love is like a flame. It burns you when it’s hot.

Love birds provide a gentler metaphor where two hearts beat as one. But wait, we have a bunch more hearts to deal with here. Deep in your heart of gold (Neil Young is still searching for one) you may find a change of heart, and that brings us to all the following metaphors for the embers of love’s once-bright flames, as love grows cold.

Broken Hearts, Etc: I will give Janis Joplin a break because 1) She’s dead and 2) “Piece of My Heart” remains such a great song.  Yet the end of a loving relationship, when “you’ve lost that loving feeling,” spawns its own series of cliches (remember: all cliches once were fresh). Love can make one heartsick, or hearts can be stepped on. It’s a matter of the heart, you know, so stop dragging my heart around. A cold-hearted lover may have a heart of stone. Hearts can be given away and not returned.

Maybe that is why Warren Zevon, who has more than earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, goes out “searching for a heart,” one of his finest songs that somehow makes an old subject sound new, as he moves from a tired cliche to some interesting similes,  noting “They say love conquers all / You can’t start it like a car / You can’t stop it with a gun.”   I suppose in time those similes might become cliched, too. Or maybe not. Zevon and R.E.M. teamed up as The Hindu Love Gods for a single release, and I don’t see anyone imitating the work from that one-off experiment.

Love Light:  I saved the most overused for last. We’ve all seen it, in the eyes of our intended.

Just. Find. A. Fresh. Metaphor. People. We need more than this, Bryan Ferry!

Help me shine a light on interesting words and metaphors by leaving a comment below, or by e-mail at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

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

 

 

Metaphor of the Month! Under the Radar

British Radar, World War 2This metaphor gives me the chance to engage in a bit of aviation-geekery. I am also certain I can figure out a Holiday angle, as the season did suddenly come upon me by surprise after a year that dragged on, slowly: a rarity at my age.  Such unexpected events can be said to have flown under the radar.

So where did it come from, this term? The OED has many radar-related metaphors we use constantly, and they’d provide good training on the vagaries of phrasal verbs (ones that have a preposition after them) for English-Language Learners. Consider the nuances between these sentences:

  • Sorry I missed the meeting. It wasn’t even on my radar.
  • Several unpopular provisions of the law flew under the radar until just before a final vote in the Senate.
  • Briefly the darling of campus technologists and a few educators, the use of virtual worlds in learning fell off the radar after just a year or two.

“Below the radar” and “under it” pretty much imply the same thing: something slipped in unnoticed. Storms actually do this and so can stealthy aircraft or low-flying ones.

These metaphors started turning up in the 1980s; I find that date unusual, as radar played an enormous role in aerial warfare during the Second World War. The word itself is an acronym for “Radio detection and ranging,” first appearing in 1940, when the United Kingdom used it to great effect to detect Luftwaffe aircraft bound for British cities during the Battle of Britain.  At the time, London claimed that their anti-aircraft gunners were doing so well because their eyesight had been improved by eating lots of carrots.

Step back a moment. I recall when that lie, worthy of a Monty-Python skit, still had some currency.  The truth of the matter did not fly quite under the radar, as the Germans knew about British radar installations and attacked them. They had radar of their own, as did all the major combatants.

You can find an interesting history of British radar myths at The Spitfire Site, where I borrowed the Creative-Commons image above of a German radar installation. Happy landings!

And it cannot hurt to eat more carrots.

Please send interesting  words and metaphors and send them to 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.

Word of the Week! Comorbidity

Comorbidity imageProfessor Joe Hoyle sends us another word, albeit one better suited to Halloween than Thanksgiving. The OED’s definition is brief, “the coexistence of two or more diseases, disorders, or pathological processes in one individual.” First instance they track? 1967, making our word a neologism. These disorders can be psychological or neurological, our graphic shows (creative commons licensed).

The word has deep roots, however; “morbid” goes back centuries, and we associate it with death. Yet our Word of the Week does not imply death; many of us live with diseases for years, even decades. My doctor recently told me about an ailment that, thankfully, I do not have. With this particular disease men my age “die with it, not from it.” It’s often a comorbidity with other disorders.

Our word gets used metaphorically, these days. Professor Hoyle cited an article about a particularly detestable former American leader, where the author claimed that he “was a comorbidity.” I think the claim implies that this rascal carries all the illnesses besetting our the nation: xenophobia, toxic nostalgia, avarice, misogyny, anti-scientific thinking, cronyism, militarism, racism. In short, that man is a walking, bloviating cluster of societal diseases.

Pleasant stuff, even in a pandemic.  Stay well, folks. Nation. Avoid comorbidities if you can.

Please send interesting  (or morbid) words and metaphors and send them to 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.

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.