Word of the Week! Paradigm

Copernican Solar SystemOur blog is back from Fall Break. Has Fall Break become a paradigmatic part of student life? I suspect that I just misused an honorable academic word, as many others have done, so let’s look deeper.

I learned the word from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book,  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the author notes:

Attempting to discover the source of that difference [between debates in the sciences and other fields of study] led me to recognize the role in scientific research of what I have since called “paradigms.” These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.

Kuhn’s 1957 book, The Copernican Revolution, does an even better job of explained one particular “paradigm shift.”  After we had a sun-centered model of our solar system established, we never really could go back.

The adoption of Kuhn’s idea in the nearly 60 years since has been astounding, from boring corporate Powerpoints to often opaque, and occasionally silly, literary theory. Before Kuhn, however, what was the status of this overly popular term?

The OED traces our word to “post-classical Latin paradigma,” meaning an example. Examples range back to the 15th Century. I’m surprised that the entry’s usage frequency is six of eight. The definitions clarify what sort or example a paradigm can be. It’s closest to Kuhn’s notion as a “pattern or model, an exemplar.” Kuhn’s own usage for science gets its own set of definitions. I hope that this sense of the word endures. Kuhn, in defining paradigms, provides us with a paradigm for academic immortality, the best any scholar can hope to have in a busy world.

Use our word carefully. I write a bit for Hemmings Motor News, and I and other readers recently sparred over misuse of the word “iconic” in regard to car designs. Now I think that some designs, say the Jaguar E-Type, are paradigms: they establish a pattern that every other maker of sports cars tries to capture.

In terms of pronunciation, remember “brother, can you spare a dime?” from the Depression-Era classic? That’s your clue.

Spare us a few 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 heliocentric solar system courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

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.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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

Writing Consultant of the Year, Emily Churchill

Emily with Joe EssidThis year, as we have done annually for a long time, the faculty recognize a graduating Senior who has impressed us with the assistance provide to student writers. Emily Churchill has an additional honor: she received three simultaneous nominations from the faculty she’s assisted, a record in our program’s history.

Emily is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with majors in LALIS & Global Studies, and a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies. She was first recommended to be a writing consultant by Dr. Aurora Hermida-Ruiz when she was a student in her FYS section, “Time & the City of Seville.” That summer, she had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Herimda-Ruiz to Seville for five weeks on a summer study abroad program. 

Dr. Stephen Long in Political Science and Dr. Olivier Delers in The Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures also nominated Emily for work in their classes.

Throughout her time at Richmond, Emily studied abroad a total of six times, including two summers in Seville, a summer in Morocco, an academic year in Granada, Spain, a civic fellowship in Ecuador, and a one-week trip to Santiago, Chile with Dr. Pribble’s Latin American Politics class. 

On campus, she served as the Study Abroad Peer Advisor in addition to serving as a Writing Consultant. As she told me, “Both positions have allowed me to mentor underclassmen and form lasting connections with the Richmond community.  My long-term plan is to take a few years to travel, do research, and work in NGOs before pursuing a PhD in Hispanic Studies. I hope to write fiction in addition to producing academic research throughout my career.”

This summer she will be working in San Isidro, Costa Rica with the organization, Amigos de las Americas, which provides service-learning trips for high school students. 

I want to congratulate Emily for her hard work and thank all the Consultants and Faculty who were nominated and who will return to campus to work with student writing again in the Fall.

Word of the Week! Sentient

Sentient beings

What do these images have in common? They represent sentient beings.

Joe Hoyle, Associate Professor of Accounting at UR, told me that a 2019 goal of his has been to hone his vocabulary. Joe’s nominated word is certainly a good one to employ.

I have used “sentient” incorrectly for years, in in my class about reading science fiction. Often in that genre of fiction, an alien life-form is either an animal or a “sentient” being, meaning (to me) that it acts according to reason, reflection, and logic.

Of course, other stories have aliens wiping humans out and saving other species because humans so seldom employ reason, reflection, and logic. So what do those most sentient of dictionary editors at the OED Online say?

In its oldest sense, “sentient” can include animals or other organisms if they are “capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.”  So for sentience, it would mean responding to stimuli not automatically, but by the senses.

Plants turn to the light, after all, but as stated in an article by Calvi, Sahi, and Trewas (2017), we cannot assume plants are non-sentient because of the “bioelectric field in seedlings and in polar tissues may also act as a primary source of learning and memory.”

Need I feel guilty, then, as I fire up my chainsaw to prune the cedars near my house?

Second-and-third-order definitions of “sentient” include being “conscious” of something. What is consciousness? Animals have it and, perhaps, plants. What of the invisibilia under the microscope?

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 (and it’s a great one!) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Splenetic

Image of man with Melancholic PersonalityProfessor Joe Hoyle in our School of Business spotted this word in a column by George F. Will, critiquing President Trump and his “incessantly splenetic presidency.” Whatever one’s politics, one really must admit that Will has a way with words. Thus he picks what author Joe Glaser, in his book Understanding Style, calls a neutral word: it is not derogatory or connotative. It simply states, in its original sense, that the man is more ruled by his spleen than any other organ.

The OED, a bit far down in its list of definitions, defines our word as “given or liable to fits of angry impatience or irritability.” Since the 16th Century the term has also meant, and still can mean, one with disorders of the spleen, though the definition is now obsolete. As a term relating, generally, to the spleen, it remains in current use.

So how does a spleen make one short-tempered? The idea goes far back into medical history, with the now quaint idea of four humours that govern the body. If one’s spleen produces too much “black bile” then the person would have a Melancholic personality; that is also an early synonym for “splenetic.”

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 from the Wellcome Collection courtesy of Wikipedia.

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!