Word of the Week! Postulate

Screen Cap I just used this word, as a verb, in class as I noted how we work with student writers. We first look for patterns of error, postulate why, then ask writers why they repeat a certain error. This method, pioneered by scholar and teacher David Bartholomae at Pittsburgh, goes by the name “error analysis.”

For once, I got a high-falutin’ term correct. The OED notes both verb and noun forms of our word. In my case, I hit the  nail squarely: “posit or assume.”  Many other definitions occur here, from ecclesiastical to legal. Mostly the word came up during my education in sciences or philosophy. To employ it sounds less partial than “question” and less puffy than “hypothesize.” That last word triggers a near-but-not-absolute pet peeve of mine against too many -ize words.  That said, I prefer the verb “postulate” or even “hypothesize” to “suppose” (making a less precise claim) or “claim” (less certain of the outcome or reason).

These nuances make philologists get up in the morning.

As a noun, “postulate” has an interesting way of being at odds with itself, and this difficulty may come from the field of study employing it. Our term can mean both “An unfounded or disputable unproved assumption; a hypothesis, a stipulation, an unproven theory” or “A proposition or assumption taken to be self-evident or obvious; an axiom” (emphasis added). Oh my.

So tell me how your academic field uses this clever little word. While you are at it, I need your words and metaphors 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.

Screen cap from Thomas Dolby’s definitive postulate about New-Wave Music, “She Blinded Me With Science.”

Word of the Week! Zoonotic

Image of Zoonotic transmissionAvian influenza has made its appearance as close to us as Henrico County. Don’t panic, however, as the disease is not zoonotic.

If that confuses you, it should at present. That said, I have a feeling that rather like “endemic” and “comorbidity,” our word will one day become common parlance. Sadly.

It denotes a disease that can be passed from animals to humans, as COVID-19 appears to have been at its point of origin, Wuhan. The current strain of Avian Flu cannot, though for those who keep backyard or farm poultry (as I do) it means keeping wild birds away from domestic fowl through isolating feed sources, hanging up netting, and other measures. We want to protect our animals and keep this virus from mutating if possible.

Some other forms of Avian Flu, notably H1N1, are zoonotic and rather terrifying. While writing this, I speculated that the Bubonic Plague is not, as it comes from fleas carried by rats, not by the rats themselves. The World Health Organization notes otherwise, as Plague passes to humans from bacteria that the flea and rat carry. Thus, it’s zoonotic. That makes any mosquito-borne illness zoonotic too.

As The OED entry on our word indicates, zoonotic first registered in print in 1877, as modern medicine became better able to track the origins of diseases.

Do you have a word or metaphor that may enjoy common use soon?  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 courtesy of Wikipedia

Word of The Week! Bombogenesis

NOAA satellite image Here’s a new word, first noted in 1989 by The OED’s entry. It’s an apt term for human-generated climate change! First we had an A-Bomb, then an H-Bomb to trouble our sleep.

Now we have bombogenesis, “a rapid and sustained fall of barometric pressure. . .indicative of the strengthening of the cyclone into a powerful storm; also called explosive cyclogenesis.” NOAA’s web site as a fine description of the phenomenon. It’s also brief, a rarity for such a complex concept.

Call it what you will, but if you live in New England or Atlantic Canada today, you have experienced the forces behind our word, first-hand. I just spoke to my cousins in New Brunswick who were bracing for the arrival of the deep snow and blizzard conditions that accompany bombogenesis.

I’ve heard the less Latinate “Bomb Cyclone” and certainly, other synonyms must exist. As a person who loves snow and cold and hates hot, humid weather, I’ll take bombogenesis over malarial miasma, any day.

Stay warm and dry. Send me 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.

Public domain image via NOAA’s photo-stream at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Monadnock

I have long enjoyed climbing Old Rag mountain near Madison, VA. It provided me with a then-new word, when someone called it a monadnock. Since summer hiking weather is here, let’s explore what, at first glance, seems a Native-American word.

Our word comes from Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, whose origin (thank you, Wikipedia) “Loosely translated. . .means ‘mountain that stands alone.’ ”  Over time, that peak figuratively crossed the Atlantic, so alpinists all over the world refer to such lonely peaks as Monadnocks.

As metaphor, the word has real power. I’ve heard people of strong character called “mountains,” but the OED has an excellent example by W.H. Auden, in 1947, “O stiffly stand, a staid monadnock, On her peneplain.” Auden just gave me another word I’ve never encountered; a peneplain is a level area formed by erosion. The poet knew his geology, all the better to frame a monadnock.

Get out and climb a peak this summer (if you can beat the crowds, post-COVID). I’ll save Old Rag for the off-season.

The blog will continue occasionally all summer, but please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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

Image of Fuji, one of the world’s most famous monadnocks, by Kawase Hasui.

Metaphor of the Month! Push the Envelope

X-15 in flightAs many of  you may have, I first experienced this term in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff. As a fan of all things aerospace, I began labeling anything new as “pushing the envelope.”

Soon it became such a cliche for me that I stopped. Now, in my current First-Year Seminar, “The Space Race,” here I am again, pushing that metahpor into young minds.

First, to understand the term, let’s forget the type of envelope once used to mail bills and letters (remember them?). Instead, we must delve ito the realms of physics, math, and engineering.

A UK phrase finder site that I’m mightily glad to have found gives a nicely succinct and technical explanation of our envelope, but for our purposes, let’s stop at this definition from the OED, “to exceed or extend the boundaries of what is considered possible or permissible; to pioneer or innovate.”  They provide a first recorded use in a 1970 aviation magazine, nearly a decade before Wolfe immortalized the term.

The boundaries, in the mathematic sense, are those set by the performance characteristics of normal flight in a particular type of aircraft. Go outside the envelope, and you won’t be flying…you will either push the envelope to a new place for that plane and others who fly it. Or, if you fail, you’ll be tumbling, spinning, breaking apart, crashing. Pilots prefer terms such as “inertial coupling” when talking to the rest of earthbound mortals. As Wolfe related, they might use “auger in” or “screw the pooch” when talking to each other, over a few rounds.

My favorite flying machine that pretty much pushed the envelope so far that its boundaries never fully were know? NASA’s X-15 rocket plane, a potential space vehicle that flew many times for research purposes but never got developed into an utterly cool and fully reusable spacecraft we might have had 20 years before the Space Shuttle. A fellow named Neil Armstrong was known for his journeys to the edge of space in one of them. Many X-15 pilots later earned Astronaut wings. Neil never went quite high enough for that, but he more than compensated on two later space missions, one involving a small step he took.

We can push the envelope in many ways today, but don’t push the envelope of cliche by overusing this one. It has escaped the realm of flight to auger into the earthbound realm of cubicle-land, becoming as “in the box” as the phrase for thinking outside it.

As always, please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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

Image of the North American X-15 courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Strombolian

StromboliAs a child, I loved several things in the way only an OCD person can: volcanoes and maps were two of them. When these obsessions coincided, as they did on the paper place-mats of many 1960s pizza parlors?

Paradise. Studying the lumps and bumps, some smoking dramatically, on the simplified map of Italy I’d move past Etna and Vesuvius to fixate on one spot: The Island of Stromboli.

The word rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It is a word hard to say without grinning, too. Likewise our adjectival form, one I encountered when reading about volcanoes recently. As this site notes, Strombolian eruptions are “short-lived, explosive outbursts,” that remind me of how a few public figures misbehave in person and online, when they don’t get their ways.  In the world of indifferent rock and sky that will outlast all our vanities, Strombolian eruptions toss bombs into the air “that travel in parabolic ballistic paths” before building up a cinder cone. To a volcano-obsessed child, thinking about this was the next best thing to eating a pizza.

My own dad was rather Strombolian (7/14/20 update: This Bastille Day would mark his 100th birthday). I think this aspect of his temper kept him from major, stratosphere-scraping, climate-altering blasts. It was he, in fact, who got me fascinated with all things Stromboli. A clever and imaginative man despite his lack of formal education, he invented a myth about a pot-bellied giant named Stromboli, who lived on that little speck I would so faithfully study on the place-mat. I imagined Stromboli wearing an animal skin and sporting a huge, waxed handlebar mustache, right out of pizza-parlor iconography. There was no Wikipedia or Internet then, and the “S” volume of our World Book Encyclopedia was missing in action. So Stromboli grew in my mind like, well, a swelling volcano.

This was long before a sandwich called The Stromboli could be ordered in my part of Virginia. The rolled-up delight apparently began in the 50s, at an Essington, PA restaurant, and the sandwich has a fascinating back story: it’s named for a film, not a volcano. I got a real kick out seeing Strombolis erupt onto Richmond menus in the 1990s, and I told my father. He loved the idea and once again said, his voice booming, “I AM STROMBOLI!”

We should use the adjective Strombolian, among others, as much as we can. It is certainly better than the mindless “super” I hear constantly. But I’ll avoid yet another short-lived outburst on that subject. I’ll  soothe my temper by looking at my bookshelf, where I’ve not only Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa but also some fragments of Mount Saint Helens and a small lava bomb ejected during a Strombolian event in Iceland. That one I picked up in person, off a glacier littered with lava bombs.Italian placematNow I am rather hungry for a take-out Stromboli.

Image of Stromboli courtesy of Wikipedia. Placemat image blatantly stolen.

Word of the Week! Pandemic

pandemicHere I sit, barely able to stay upright, mending slowly from perhaps the worst sinus infection I’ve ever had. This malaise got to me thinking about how we classify disease outbreaks. The COVID-19 virus would be considered an epidemic, or a disease “prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.” If you are in Wuhan, it’s much worse, but I was amazed to see several people in my doctor’s office wearing surgical masks. My pharmacy displayed a sign reading “SOLD OUT of face masks.”

Folks are clearly afraid that the Chinese outbreak could jump borders and become a global pandemic, or an “epidemic over a very large area; affecting a large proportion of a population,” much like the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The CDC estimate of US deaths for that pandemic runs to 675,000. I’ve heard figures as high as 50 million for the global death toll. A third of the world’s population fell ill.

Both terms have earliest recorded usages in the 17th Century. Since then, modern hygiene and advances in medicine have helped to make pandemics rare, if still terrifying, events.

The CDC provides a very useful chart that differentiates seasonal influenza, an annual event, from pandemic flu, which happened three times in the past century.

Pandemics lead to irrational behaviors that can worsen an already critical situation. I hope you are washing your hands a lot. That’s much more effective than wearing a mask.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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

Image of soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Liminal

Threshold PhotographThis word troubled me in graduate school, during the darkest part of what I now call “The Theory Wars” in English. This was a time when ideas about how to teach literature changed rapidly, and many a student became a pawn sacrificed in a game with small global stakes. A graduate student’s worth could be measured by the obscure terms bandied about. Academic gadfly Stanley Fish, on a visit to a seminar at Indiana University, asked one notably obtuse peer of mine “son, could you please use a verb?”

Enter, not a verb but the adjective liminal. Thirty years ago to my unschooled ear, it sounded like a term for lighting. There is more to it; like palimpsest, a word featured here a while back, our current pick bubbles with energy when used well (which, sadly, appears to be a rare occurrence).  The term concerns thresholds, as the OED makes plain, and it is a youngblood of a word, first occurring in the late 19th Century. In scientific parlance, it may refer to the “lowest amount necessary to produce a particular effect.”

We might think of “limit” in the same sense, but the OED shows us that that the words do not share an etymology. When thinking about it, a limit ends something. A liminal amount or space serves as a transition.

In my field, that idea of transition takes center stage. Consider this usage by Daniel Mahala that I stumbled upon in my research, “Moreover, writing centers are themselves, as Bonnie Sunstein has amply illustrated, ‘liminal spaces’ where a kind of ‘in-betweenness’ holds sway” (9). Mahala means that centers, as support services and as academic units, have a foot in the worlds of scholarship and service. We naturally cross and, in fact, are thresholds.

Other uses in the Humanities often concern themselves with “indeterminacy, ambiguity, hybridity, potential for subversion and change” (Border Poetics). Thus we see how what was and probably still is called “high theory” adopted a word that might otherwise simply mean a boundary.

As we enter that liminal time between summer and the start of the semester, 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.

Threshold” courtesy of M Möller on Flickr.

Works Cited:

Border Poetics. “Liminality.” http://borderpoetics.wikidot.com/liminality

Mahala, Daniel. “Writing Centers in the Managed University.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43442269

Word of the Week! Vestigial

Human AppendixDr. Joe Hoyle in our Business School came to the rescue again today, with a word that I associate with “tail,” for some bizarre neuron-event that burned the image into my head, perhaps when reading Philip K. Dick’s science fiction or during a daydreaming session in a high-school Biology class. Yes, we humans have the last remnant of a tail at the tips of our spines. That final bone is our coccyx.

The OED, as usual, gives more nuance here; something vestigial is not merely a remnant but one that survives in “degenerate, atrophied, or imperfect condition or form.”  That string of adjectives says it all. If some island were the last vestige of a sunken continent, then it becomes vestigial. Though of Latin origin, the usage proves recent; the OED does not date our word before the mid-19th Century.

Our bodies are full of vestigial organs and other features, no longer needed as humans evolved: the appendix, our wisdom teeth, and more as detailed in this piece about vestigiality.

Writers beware of one issue: some Google searches for synonyms turned up “immature” or “unformed.” The latter might work, for something like the coccyx. But the former word implies that the subject might mature one day. Though not all eggs become chicks and chickens, neither egg nor chick is a vestigial chicken. An eggshell, however, is the last vestige of an egg.

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 appendix courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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.