Words of the Week! Elusive, Illusive, Allusive

Desert MirageThis week we have a pair of homonyms, illusive and elusive, that students confuse. OED links are given. At a colleague’s suggestion I added a quasi-literary term that we rarely encounter, allusive. The mnemonic for getting them sorted out is not too difficult, so we’ll have a go at it now.

If something is “illusive,” think of an illusion. It only seems real. It deceives you, as in “His quest a quick fortune led him toward many illusive investments, all of which collapsed.” “Elusive” is something that eludes us, so “While he invested a lot of money, good returns on his investments remained elusive.”

I well recall my first highway travel as a child. I kept warning my father of water ahead on the road. These were illusions, mirages. All such are illusive.

Writers may know, and use, literary allusions. Something that is allusive alludes to something else, literary or ordinary, as in “The state’s early and difficult frontier history left so many allusive place names: Last Chance, Broken Promise, Dead Man, Murder Creek.”

Since all three words sound nearly alike when spoken, it’s best to try the mnemonics given, before writing anything down.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Metaphor of the Month! Faustian Bargain

The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.

Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.

The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins.  To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.

I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.

Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.

Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.

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 Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Nimrod

This is a word I once used as an insult for a really clueless person. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, what I used to say is American slang that appeared in the 20th Century. I thought of it as a particularly Southern insult.

What remains mystifying to me is how differently the word has been used in England. There, “Nimrod” is a metaphor that refers to a hunter, after the great hunter from The Bible. That usage goes back as far as the 17th Century. The OED gives two American examples from the last hundred years, including one from a 1994 story in The Denver Post: “Towns such as Eagle, Glenwood Springs..and Gunnison throw out the welcome mat for this horde of nimrods.”

That one has me grinning, imagining a “horde of nimrods.”  How, exactly, did the term for a hunter of renown become synonymous with idiocy? One conjecture, provided at Merriam Webster’s site, is that the original Nimrod not only hunted, but as a king he got associated with building the Tower of Babel. Thus, he helped in a colossally stupid act that ended badly.

That would require more research, but when I think of my 4:30 am climbs up a tree in freezing darkness every deer season, I suppose we have at least two plausible answers.

Decades after I stopped calling people who do stupid things”nimrods,” I cannot quite recall why I abandoned the word. I would like to think that I do not insult others so often.  Perhaps I have been a nimrod often enough, myself.

Update 10/26/18: Writing Consultant Griffin Myers suggested that the conflation of hunter and idiot comes from Elmer Fudd. In several of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bugs or Daffy Duck refer to poor Elmer with “what a nimrod!”

As much as I love that theory (and Warner Brothers cartoons) there’s no definitive evidence. There was, however, a lively debate on the topic in the message forums at Snopes.com. Have at it.

Special thanks to Cynthia Price, Director of Media and Public Relations at the University of Richmond, for nominating our word.

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 Words of the Week here.

Image: Shotgun selfie from last deer season. What a Nimrod!

Word of the Week! Soporific

Here we have a perfect word for late summer, and just today I heard a BBC reporter use it to describe the weather in a small Cuban town. Weather that hot and humid makes one drowsy, which is the nature of anything soporific.

This word can also be used to describe the actions of certain drugs. John Locke, in an example from the OED Online, noted the “soporifick” virtue of opium as early as 1690.

With school soon to begin, we might note that our word can describe the effect of a boring anecdote or lecture. The OED catches that usage well with an example from 1727, “Hibernian matrons thus of old, Their soporific stories told.”

So it’s more than boring. Not everything that bores you makes you drop off.  But in order to keep you awake, I’ll end now. I’m feeling rather drowsy myself.

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.

image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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! Existential

This word seems easy enough. The adjective refers to existence. That is, indeed, the earliest definition in The OED Online, “of or relating to the existence of a thing.” That sense goes back as far as the 17th Century.

Outside of academia, one often encounters the word in the sense of “being a matter of life or death.” I’ve heard  North Korean nuclear weapons, unmarked asteroids hurtling by the Earth, and slowly mounting climate change all referred to as “existential threats” to human civilization or even the survival of our species.

If only, however, it were that stark. We would have a very short post indeed this week, but we can blame mid-20th-Century philosophers and writers for making matters existential so complex. Here the OED and other references take us into the realm of existential philosophy, or existentialism. If you have read the works of Sartre or Camus, you may consider it a gloomy school of thought. Read The Stranger, or any of American author Paul Bowles’ austere and beautiful fiction to encounter the core of existentialism: that humans are alone in an indifferent if not hostile universe. Our actions, while freely chosen on our parts, mean, finally, nothing.

Yet an existentialist philosophy need not be so bleak. I’ve been reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, after running across the work as a reference in an article about the value of failure in learning.

Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, not only survived Auschwitz and, almost as harrowing, a Bavarian concentration camp in the Second World War’s last months, but he practiced medicine in the latter camp. He had little to offer fellow prisoners aside from a few aspirin doled out by the SS and kind words. Despite contracting typhus, Frankl reconstructed a manuscript seized from him at Auschwitz. It contained a new system of psychology that Frankl called logotherapy. This was an existentialist form of therapy to address what the psychologist called “the existential vacuum” of modern life, where cultural traditions have waned and leisure time often results in mere boredom. Frankl’s theory and practice emphasize focusing on creating meaning in one’s life and pursuing goals, even in the bleakest situations.

That’s hardly gloomy, yet there too our word of the week speaks to the essentials of human existence.

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.

Images of Viktor Frankl, by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, and of Paul Bowles courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of The Week! Curmudgeon

Science-Fiction and Fantasy writer Fran Wilde, who works with my students when she’s on campus, once quipped “Joe, you are a misanthrope in danger of becoming a curmudgeon.”

Fran actually had that backwards, and that says a great deal about how fine a line exists between these words and, perhaps, who they represent. The Oxford English Dictionary Online only takes the term back to the 16th Century, in the sense of being mean-spirited and mistrustful. The word’s genesis, the OED notes, is unknown.

Like some curmudgeons I have known, then, our word seems to have just shown up to spoil our days. The American Heritage Dictionary also reveals that for two centuries, attempts to find the origin of the word have failed. The term has, moreover, shifted in what it signifies. For a long time, the elusive curmudgeon often was depicted as old, mean, and miserly. Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge (a character I portrayed in our 6th Grade Christmas play). Lately the grasping miser seems to have given way to a merely grumpy old geezer, usually male. Thus my Simpsons’ example.

So short-tempered, mistrustful, grumpy? That’s me, Fran. But a hater of all mankind? Nonsense! That would be someone like Mark Twain late in his life, who wrote in an 1898 notebook entry that “The human race consists of the damned and the ought-to-be damned.” Those are the words of someone who really hates the entire species: a misanthrope.  You see it in his later work, especially after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I hope my fate is gentler than the hero of that novel or, for that matter, its author. Writing this has me grinning, something curmudgeons rarely do. So perhaps there is hope. Just stay off my lawn this summer!

This blog will continue through the balmy months, 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.

 

A New “Super Bad” Writing Habit

splitcap

I am known for my hatred of superhero movies and, frankly, the entire genre of the superhero comic book. The plot arcs are so often predictable, the attempts at stirring our emotions so bombastic. I do enjoy the occasional effort such as Kickass that subverts the conventions of the genre, but that sort of film sounds its yawp into the teeth of a hurricane.

Now our superpower-obsessed tastes, not being content with ruining popular cinema, are also dumbing down speech, even student prose.

This morning during my drive to work, I listened to an otherwise talented NPR reporter use the adjective “super” to describe aspects of a refugee simulation under way. Her sloppy use of the term undercut the seriousness of the story: an Iranian immigrant who had fled Iraqi airstrikes in the First Gulf War teaches others how the experience of fleeing one’s home might feel.

The reporter, speaking too fast as so many current NPR staff do, described a life-raft as “super cramped” and at about that point, I wanted to turn off the radio. It’s a lazy word, “super,” that slowly has been creeping into student writing. I plan to add it to my Pet Peeves list at Writer’s Web.

The usage illustrates what Joe Glaser, author of Understanding Style, decries as too much informal diction seeping into formal writing. I have yet to see a student in my “Space Race” First-Year Seminar refer to the Saturn V moon rocket as “super big,”  but I await that dark day with each written response.

My hunch about “super,” as with the even worse “totally,” comes from the increased orality and interruptive nature of informal speech. I hear students talk over each other, omitting nuance and forethought. Most of my students and even some of my peers are not doing as much serious reading–if any reading at all–beyond what a class assigns. When my students do read, they do not engage in any reflection on how a decent author crafts a sentence or uses language in surprising ways.

Thus non-readers are left with a small grab-bag of simple modifiers. “Super” has become the modifier of choice to replace other simple adjectives and adverbs:  “very,” “extremely,” “extensively,” and the like.

In my courses, all of them more or less based upon a 100-point scale, I plan to deduct 1 point for “super” used in place of a more descriptive word. And I plan to be super clear about that.

So, How’d It Go?

By Wendi E. Berry

 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/homard/2620225309/

On Feb. 23, my advanced academic writing students from the School of Professional and Continuing Studies confronted their iPods. After blogging as a prewrite and writing their critiques—in this case 600-word reviews of movies or TV episodes—they scaled what they’d written down to 300 words and prepared to tape their voices. They’d already been reading sections of their papers aloud each week in class in order to slow down, hear where they faltered, and find what worked and what needed to be re-structured and re-worded. Now they faced this new prospect.  Their voices would be taped and they would listen to the recordings with their classmates. This is what petrified them the most.

One of my students, Janice, in reflecting on that initial fear wrote, “I liked listening … even when [classmates] did not enjoy listening to their own. It seems as if all of us felt the same way, although after the first listen, we seemed to get over the initial feelings of dread at hearing our own voices.”

Another student Seth admitted “when we listened to my recording in class I could not hold my head up, even though I heard the class making positive remarks.”

An interesting thing happened during recording, and then later as they heard as each other’s podcasts.  Students became more aware of audience and the effect that had on revision.  For Deborah, the rhetorical situation became real.  In a reflective cover letter, she confided, “I was horrified at the thought of my fellow students listening to me ramble over grammatical errors and stumbling over misplaced words. I instantly began revising my paper, as well as practicing how I would say the words.”

Seth acknowledged that before this assignment revision was usually “a one-time read over and making some minor grammar corrections.” When he taped his voice with the iPod, he found that he paused often to make more precise word choices and to vary his sentence length. The biggest change was a global overhaul to the structure and moving paragraphs around to ensure his message was being heard the way he intended it.

He noted that “being able to listen to my classmates was a big help.  This gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast my recording to theirs. From listening, I noticed they had sufficient details which I lacked in the beginning.”

Another student Ryan became “obsessed” with the clarity of the writing.   “I spent a good amount of time choosing descriptive words such as ‘greasy,’ and ‘rusting,’” he wrote in his letter about the experience.

While not all students would say the assignment was enjoyable, most thought it was worthwhile. My class had the good fortune of being able to visit the Technology Learning Center (TLC) and get help from student consultants with uploading files onto Blackboard. One cable was not the right kind, but other than quickly switching cables, uploading was not an issue.  What’s the next pedagogical step for student podcasting?  I plan to use it in the summer with my English 202U students for a preliminary assignment on the way to writing a longer, more developed paper on “What Happened to the American Dream?”