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.

Word of the Week! Formication

ants crawlingBe sure to not let Autocorrect “fix” this word. Yes, it sounds like “Formica” too, and that trade name of a laminate countertop has a seeming relation to our Word of the Week.

According to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers who nominated the word, it “is the medical term for the sensation like bugs crawling over the skin. This lead me to the Latin term ‘formica’ meaning ants, which I kind of already knew because of the Formics in Ender’s Game.”  Those aliens are really rather terrifying, but I’m still stuck on how a company could think that anything associated with bugs crawling could sell a consumer product, except pesticide.

The OED specifies ants as the creepy-crawlie in its definition. The word is of recent origin, dating to the 18th Century (yes, that is recent for etymology or, for that matter, entomology).

But what about the building material? According to the official Formica account, the name came when the two inventors “needed a substitute ‘for’ mica, so they swapped in the plastic resins, which led to the company name – you guessed it – Formica.” The company site is worth your time, to see those fantastic countertops from the 1950s that still appear in retro diners across the nation. With talent like Raymond Loewy working with the firm, one sees how the trade name became synonymous for any laminate counter.

But ants on the counter? Reach for a damp paper towel and clean up.

Update 1/28/18: Dr. Kristine Nolin, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UR, reminded me that “Ants produce formic acid, which is delivered when the ant bites.” You can learn more from this site. Thanks to Dr. Nolin and the surprisingly large number of readers who saw this post! Send us new words and metaphors!

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.

Creative-Commons image, “Ants Crawling,” courtesy of Ky at Flickr.

Consultant News: Tech Writing at Jefferson Lab

By Julia Siewert, Writing Consultant

Editor’s Note: From time to time we run “dispatches from the field” by current or former Consultants. Here Julia shows us the utility of what we do even in the most technical of settings.

Last summer I worked as a technical writing intern at Jefferson Lab. This job involved working with subject matter experts to edit, create, and format highly technical cryogenic resource and operations manuals. These were operations modeled after JLab’s CHL2 (Central Helium Liquefier), and were being modified (and, in some cases, created from scratch) for use at SLAC for their upcoming LCLS-II project.

I learned a LOT more than I thought I would as a writer, and went by the motto “if I can understand it, so can the engineer” while I was editing. I also got to work a bit with basic graphics and got to make keys for the process and instrumentation designs for LCLS-II. Both of these combined made a comprehensive guide to the machinery and operations of the cryogenics for this awesome project at temperatures around 2-4 Kelvin (which is about -271 to -269 degrees Celsius).

This was an awesome experience, and I’m proud to say I successfully created around 9-10 complete procedural documents that will be implemented in the commissioning process. I especially enjoyed combining my love for writing with my science background and working with some of the nation’s brightest in engineering and physics.

Image (The two sections of linear accelerator in the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Lab) courtesy of Jefferson Lab at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Atavism

Here is a term that has been on my mind a lot, ever since some kids walking down the street, twenty years ago, spotted me and my manually powered reel mower.

“Look at that dude! He’s got one of them throwback lawnmowers!”

That’s a good working definition of an atavism. The etymology given by the OED, as you might guess, is the Latin atavus, either “a great-grandfather’s grandfather” or more generally, “an ancestor.”

For once, the OED’s entry appears really limited, providing no usage examples. It notes resemblance to an ancestor rather than to one’s parents, or the recurrence of a disease common in distant family history, but not in one’s recent ancestors. My favorite print dictionaries, old and new, provide little more.  So I will strike out into the atavistic thickets by myself.

I’ve seen our word, as noun and adjective, used both in science and elsewhere, to mean a “throwback,” something from an earlier time that has somehow erupted into the present. I write “erupted” because my sense of the term is not an historical or biological survival from an earlier epoch but something that emerges, like new. It calls the mind and eye back to an earlier time. Hence  Frank Norris’ description of the titular character in one of my favorite novels, McTeague: “His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora.” Norris’ protagonist is a brute, a throwback to some imagined caveman past.

Consider nonhuman examples: I do not mean a perfectly restored 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang but one sold as new, presumably a zero-mile example found improbably on the premises of a Ford factory. Better still, imagine the faces of shocked workers when such a car appeared magically on the assembly line. That dream of car collectors would be in keeping with the biological idea of atavism.

My favorite pop-culture atavism appears at the top of this post.

I have been waiting a long time to use the Mountain Dew “Throwback” logo for something. I drank the stuff in high school. Somehow I lost the taste, but my fondness for Hillbilly kitsch has remained strong.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Suborbital

As the summer moves along, I review old syllabi and create new ones. I’ve not taught my course “The Space Race” for a few years, but I did review the course materials and the word “suborbital” popped up. It’s a newcomer, with The OED only dating it to 1950.

That term describes not the free-fall of something orbiting the earth, but a specific altitude where one experiences a short period of weightlessness. Humans have been there, and beyond, since the early 1960s, with Alan Shepherd being the first American to do so. For those with enough money, however, there are now other options.

Suborbital flights will likely be in the news soon, as Sir Richard Branson’s latest craft, VSS Unity, has completed test flights and may, within a few months, take paying passengers to the edge of space.

When I explained suborbital fight to my students, I used the old cliche “what goes up MUST come down.” You can see it in the following image of the first two Project Mercury flights.Note the vertex (highest point) of the parabola and the brief duration of the journey. NASA’s little Redstone rocket, a borrowed Army missile based in Werher von Braun’s V-2, did not have the power to lift a capsule and astronaut into a true orbit, where an object is under the influence of gravity without any drag acting upon it. It falls forever but unlike a skydiver, the object in orbit has its decent checked by its forward momentum around the Earth. That perfect balance can last for a few hours or even years, if the spacecraft occasionally boosts its orbit, but for those like Alan Shepard or Sir Richard’s spacefarers, the craft do not attain free fall. They skim into the edges of space, then begin to descend. For a few moments, as they fall, travelers experience zero gravity (and Virgin Galactic customers find their wallets about a quarter million dollars lighter).

Perhaps in the era of cheaper access to space, costs will drop as they once did for airline travel. For now, experiencing suborbital flight seems a luxury for the rich, but so did transcontinental air travel during my parents’ lifetime.

Now we complain about legroom and the food and do not even look out the windows.

Addendum 6/25/18: Dr. Peter Smallwood, UR Department of Biology, reminds me that “For me, suborbital is a vein, bone, or a fracture in the bone just below the eye.”  That is the OED’s first definition, but to space-junkies like me, anything about human spaceflight drowns out the rest.

Virgin Galactic and suborbital fight images courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.