Metaphor of the Month! Shambles / Shambolic

Yorkshire Shambles 2009Joe Hoyle in our Business School and my old friend Dominic Carpin, owner of Dellicarpini Farm, nominated “shambolic” as a word of the week. Then I began to think of “The Shambles” in York, England, a series of meandering streets of half-timbered Medieval buildings.

Instead of a word, we have before us a metaphor.  The Shambles were places in England where butchers plyed their  trade.  A “Shamble” itself was, as early as the 9th Century, a wooden stool. Later, it meant a different piece of furniture: a table where butchers set out meat for sale.  From a still later and metaphorical use, I’ve seen “shambles” used in works about naval warfare during the age of sail; the insides of wooden vessels under cannon fire looked like butcher shops.

From these grisly examples we get the figurative “shambles,” meaning a messy, disorderly situation or place.  And thus the adjective “shambolic,” marked by the OED as colloquial and of recent coinage–the late 1950s!

This is not mere linguistic drift (see the entry on the word “fulsome“) or euphemism. It gets to the heart of why English is such a flexible language. From ancient senses of a word–who would advertise their butcher shop as a “shambles” today?–we get new words and nuance.

We’ll keep at it all summer! 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.

Photo, 2009, of York’s Shambles, by the author.

Word of the Week! Euphemism

Prunes stuffed with walnutsDr. Tom Bonfiglio, as upset over the current Administration’s use of the term “Tender-Age Shelter” for a children’s prison housing undocumented minors in substandard and even cruel conditions, suggested I talk a bit about euphemisms.

I hope the post is not too dark, but these are dark times. Perhaps we’ll be careful in our use of euphemism once we think more about them.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage claims that euphemisms were employed in just the thuggish way Tom suggests a century ago, “as a protective device for governments and as a token of a new approach to psychological and sociological problems.” If Tom’s example is particularly Orwellian in its attempt to put a happy face on a brutal policy, it is nothing new. The OED notes that the word “euphemism” itself dates to the 17th Century, whenever one wanted to use a pleasant-sounding term in place of a harsher one. In a famous 20th Century military example, “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue” became “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” All describe a terrible condition many veterans face, but note how increasingly anodyne the terminology became. That first cousin to our week’s word, anodyne , appeared in an earlier post. You’ll want to read more about that synonym before you begin honing your euphemisms in writing.

Tom Lea's "2000 Yard Stare"By the way, “The Thousand-Yard Stare” is a metaphor for the effects of combat. It’s a euphemism in a way, but not an anodyne one, once you know what it means. I first encountered it in this rightly famous painting, “The 2000 Yard Stare,” by Tom Lea.

Euphemisms are not always used to cover the truth for sinister ends, though certainly history abounds with examples. We call “Undertakers” “Funeral Directors,” or a disease a “condition” to avoid offense or unpleasant emotions.  Some euphemisms can be silly, as with “powder room” for toilet or restroom, or pointless, as in “conveniences” for those same spaces. Others provide smart marketing; “prunes” became “dried plums.” Yes, I’d rather consume the latter!

Some euphemisms put a metaphor in place of a single word, as in “The Sun Belt” for “The South.” Yes, it is sunny here now, with severe storms about to strike. But a euphemism leaves that unpleasantness out.

I stand with Fowler’s Modern English Usage on generally avoiding euphemism when it leads, as it did in Victorian England to pregnant women being “in an interesting condition.”  Bryan A. Garner’s excellent Modern American Usage gives us a litmus test for when to use a euphemism, “[i]f plain talk is going to provoke unnecessary controversy.” He shows this clearly when he discusses why we should not say “illegitimate children” today. The test of a good euphemism is that it does not sound “roundabout or clumsy.” As Garner goes on to say, however, euphemisms “leave a linguistic garbage-heap in their wake” once they outlive their age. For instance, I find the many genteel euphemisms in Herman Melville’s South-Seas narrative Typee maddening. The story is excellent, but the writing lacks the power of his later work, such as Moby Dick or Billy Budd. Of course, Melville’s more direct later works did not find a Victorian audience. He paid for abandoning euphemism, though it gained him fame in our time.

I commend Garner’s book to all of you! And for attorneys and law students out there, I found Wydick’s excellent Plain English for Lawyers silent on euphemisms. Wydick does recommend using concrete words when possible. I suppose one must be blunt at times in a courtroom.

As Summer drifts along here, on a sea of humidity, 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 of prunes dried plums stuffed with walnuts from Marco Verch at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! Deadline

Deadline SignFor June 1, I’m on deadline for my and Brian McTague’s forthcoming book, Writing Centers at the Center of Change. I planned to take a weeklong break on this blog for Memorial Day, but I wanted to know more about the term “deadline.” In any case it serves me well, if a little early, for our June Metaphor. Where did this drop-dead-serious figure of speech first appear?

The OED Online, for once, provides no definitive etymology of the term! The most interesting candidate is a military one from the United States, with its earliest use given as 1864, during our Civil War. A “dead line” is “A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.”

The grim origin has been lost as we use “deadline” for everything now.

To my knowledge, rarely have editors shot authors or publishers shot editors. That’s my cue. Back to work.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Nick Youngson’s Creative Common Image courtesy of Picpedia.

Words of the Week! Four Summertime “Blues”

Rowlandson's paintingBlue is not a feeling we associate with summer, whatever our teenage experiences while listening to The Who’s song “Summertime Blues.” I began thinking about the many figures of speech, as well as single words, we couple with the adjective blue. All of the four really are metaphors, except for one literal use of the term “blue nose.” Read on.

The other day, a friend referred to a well read friend as a “blue stocking.” The Cambridge English Dictionary calls such a person “an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.” Wikipedia and the OED Online deepen the story, adding a history of an 18th Century literary society called The Blue Stockings. Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic, social reformer and author, started and led the group. It was a difficult time for women who wished to pursue intellectual activities, formally, with no access to higher education.

Today the usage of blue stocking is rare; I’d not heard of it before my friend uttered the phrase. It’s not obsolete, with a currency of four of eight at the OED. Their entry also records a 2001 usage in Vogue that I just love: “Miuccia Prada has..embraced the Waspy,..book-editor look of yore and taken bluestocking style to silk-stocking heights.”

Thankfully, rarity (2 of 8 in the OED’s usage frequency) marks our next word, “bluebeard,” also about women. This, however, has nothing to do with a group of learned ladies but a fiend who marries again and again, only to kill his wives. The OED entry reminds of of Henry VIII’s bluebeard life. It can be used as adjective as well, as in a “bluebeard room” where someone hides something, presumably something grisly. A recent bluebeard from cinema is Robert Mitchum’s character from the excellent (and only) film directed by Charles Laughton, Night of the Hunter. The original Bluebeard (capitalized) came from a French folk tale first published in 1697. That should make us shiver, even on a warm summer day! Bluebeards can apparently be seducers who abandon their lovers, one after another. The verb “to bluebeard” appears, but seems rare.

Are you a blue blood? That is a term I did hear as a child, from better educated peers who talked about the rich families who lived (literally) across the railroad tracks from our neighborhood of modest row-houses. They were the grandees, those “to the manner born,” the would-be aristocrats of our odd little Southern city. As the gentry, they “put on airs.” What why “blue blood”? The OED cites an etymology from the Spanish sangre azul, for the fair complexion of the well-to-do; you can see those veins beneath their milky skin. I prefer skin seasoned by life outdoors.

Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyOne thinks here of Goya’s bizarre and unflattering portrait of Spanish nobility. This term is one I’ve long used, so the frequency (3 of 8) at the OED surprised me.

And finally, we have “Bluenose,” my favorite of these words (usage frequency is also a 3 of 8 at the OED). As a teen, I loved cartoons that made fun of Puritans. Often they were drawn with blue noses and scowls, making me think them eternally ill in the New England climate. That’s partly true; the OED notes that residents of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were called “Bluenoses” for the cold there. It can also be a type of sailing vessel. In this sense, unlike “bluebeard” or “blue blood” it gets capitalized. Usages appear as “blue-nose,” “blue nose,” and “bluenose.”

Usually the days, the term refers to prudes and puritanical busy-bodies. I am anything but, with my heroes being Beatniks, not busybodies, so I enjoy yanking their choir robes. I ran across the a bluenose recently in a comment on a piece I’d written about a “barn find” car for Hemmings Motor News Daily; I’d made an offhand drug reference in relation to the cars of the early 1970s, and a puritanical reader vehemently objected. In my defense, another reader said that the comments section always “brought out the bluenoses.” I loved that banter, but writers need skins as thick as auto sheet-metal, and we have to bear the dents made by many a bluenose reader.

A cousin of “bluenose” is “blue law.” There’s a false etymology that these prudish laws, aimed at curbing sales of certain products or prohibiting certain work on Sunday, came from their origin when printed on blue paper. Snopes notes that the real origin is their relation to the bluenoses who enacted them.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by Thomas Rowlandson, “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club,” and Francisco de Goya, “Charles IV of Spain and his family,” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: Mayday!

SOS Text

This internationally recognized call for help has long been common parlance, but until today, when I checked the OED listing, I had no idea of its origin.

A 1923 usage listed gives us all we need to know: “Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’  will give place to the words ‘May-day’, the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez’, the French for ‘Help me’.”

Fascinating and perhaps our briefest post yet. Good luck with finals, students!

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 Pixabay.

Metaphor of the Month: April Fool

Tarot Deck Fool CardI really did not expect the OED to have an entry for this, but they fooled me! The earliest definition is from the 17th Century, “the victim of a trick or hoax on the first of April.” Our metaphor provides a good counterpoint to last week’s gloomy word, draconian.

That’s fair enough, but where did this famous non-holiday originate, and why? If you want a variant, it’s All Fool’s Day, but that means 1 April as well. I never knew before checking at Snopes.com that the term may come from those foolish enough to forget the correct date, after the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, in the 1500s.

Yet like foolishness itself, the origin remains fickle. There was a Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated about this time of year. I like that one!

Snopes taught me as well not to prank after noon on the 1st, since bad luck will then befall the trickster. The site may also inspire fools and practical jokers with a few famous jokes played on the day. For even more tomfoolery, visit The Library of Congress blog entry for possible origins. Whatever the genesis, we should embrace a day dedicated to lighthearted fun.

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 Tarot Deck Fool image, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Ides of March

Death of CaesarI love literary metaphors, especially ones that date their popularity to a work of Shakespeare’s. We have so many–pound of flesh, sound and fury–but this month’s metaphor has an historical origin that predates the play Julius Caesar.

The OED Online cites  “Ides” as “In the ancient Roman calendar (Julian and pre-Julian): the third of the three marker days in each month, notionally the day of the full moon, which divides the month in half, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months.” The Calends (or Kalends)and Nones were the other marker days. You can read more about them here. Now we see where our word “calendar” comes from.

But back to Ides. If every month had them, why are they so metaphorically significant? Julius Caesar met his end in the Senate after a dire warning, here given from Shakespeare’s play:

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.
Sennet. Exeunt all except BRUTUS and CASSIUS

Julius should have listened better, and kept a keen eye upon his “friends” in Rome. In any case, the metaphor, a lovely one for a time in need of vigilance or a date of reckoning, has fallen out of even learned parlance these days. As with so many fading phrases, it’s a great loss to nuance and history in our language.

When language gets lost or dumbed down, it’s as often our fault as not. I just heard this when the first test passenger for Virgin Galactic, otherwise articulate and precise, described something seen from space as “super super super high def.” Going into space! And all she could manage was an adjective, super, that I consider overused to the point of oblivion. Sir Richard Branson, send me to suborbit. I promise to use more adjectives, many of them printable.

So that’s my challenge for all of you, as Spring arrives. Try some fresh words this Ides of March and every month. After all, as Cassius warns his co-conspirator, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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 credit: There are hundreds of good (and more than a few hilarious) images of the death of Caesar only a click away. This one, a painting by William Holmes Sullivan, comes from Wikipedia Commons and is licensed for Creative-Commons use.

Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

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 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.

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.