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.

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.