Word of the Week! Bellwether

Sheep in snowRobyn Bradshaw with UR Catering suggested this timely word. I heard it employed in reference to our recent Virginia election. A quick Google search of “2019 Virginia election bellwether” reveals that the term has become overused to the point of cliche by journalists. Though bellwether is a metaphor, I’m not going to post this as one; the original term has been so lost from our daily experience that the word seems a linguistic oddball (a word worth its own post).

But what, anyhow, is a bellwether? Literally, it’s the leader of a flock of sheep, the one with the bell. That dates to at least the 15th Century, but it’s not very kind to my native state. Neither is the definition of “wether”: a castrated male sheep.

Ouch. So let’s get figurative here. The OED records the earliest metaphorical use also in the 15th Century, simply as a leader. In those uses, the bellwether was a person, not an event. I cannot recall, in US usage, that nuance. Today we mostly use the term in relation to elections, sometimes stocks, though an entry at The Grammarist provides a few other fine examples from American English. However one employs the term, it generally means an indicator or predictor of something likely to happen more broadly, later.

Watch your spelling on this one. I have long misspelled it “bellweather.”

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.

“Sheep in Snow” courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

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! Synecdoche

Newspaper Press

Ever wondered why we say “The Press” today, when so much news is not printed? It’s an example of synecdoche. Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, nominated this excellent word. Though not part of my everyday parlance, it serves a wonderful purpose. I hope to use it; no other word quite fits its meaning.

The word reared its head not long ago. In what may soon be forgotten amid a tumult of worse news, a media event involving a Sharpie marker provided a synecdoche for how the Executive Branch of government conducts business.

Whatever you thought of that news item, it did bring a worthy word back onto stage. A 15th Century loan-word from Latin, as the OED puts it, synecdoche occurs when a “more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one or vice versa.” Only examples suffice here:

  • Our family represents the nation. (For good or ill)
  • We need more boots on the ground. (Boots stands in for more people in that place)
  • We broke bread together. (I do hope you ate other things).
  • Society is to blame! (All of them? In a Monty Python skit, after a murderer pleads this, a detective replies “Agreed. We’ll be charging them too.”)

In academic writing, it’s wise to avoid some examples like the last. They can lead a novice writer into sweeping generalizations such as “Society supports stronger protection for minors.” I find it hard to believe that 300-million-plus Americans could agree to anything, in 2019. So qualify that claim or be ready to pile on credible evidence.

There are few alternatives to our Word of the Week. It’s not quite accurate to use “microcosm” as a synonym for synecdoche, since a microcosm works only one way, showing how something  particular can represent something general, as in “the convicted teacher’s constant drinking served as a microcosm for all the problems at the dysfunctional school.” One cannot reverse “microcosm” as one can for synecdoche, without employing the less-common “macrocosm.”

We might fall back on “symbolize” to represent how a part can indicate something about a whole, but reversing it, so “the gridlock in Congress symbolized the troubles in the Smith family” makes no sense. Mr. Smith may have gone to Washington, but. . .

“Embody” might bridge the gap, as in “the gridlock in Congress embodied so many smaller problems,” yet that use of “embody” bothers me. I’d prefer precision or a different synecdoche.

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 printing press courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! In Medias Res

X-15 Rocket PlaneI credit a student in my first-year seminar, “The Space Race,” for this. I’d mentioned the phrase as the way many modern films begin, right “in the middle of things,” without so much as a credit-roll. This is a handy term for studying narratives, in books or films. Often we feel “dropped right in,” which can add both confusion and excitement.

After class, my student prudently corrected my version, “in media res,” which I see from time to time. Our metaphor is pure Latin, so the correct case for the second word is “medias.” The OED lists many Latin phrases, such as in memoriam  or in nomine that we still use in certain formal, sacred, or academic settings. Bryan Garner’s Modern American usage cautions us to check spellings, as in memoriam sometimes appears as “memorium.” That’s incorrect.

Here’s a usage example. I was teaching Damian Chazelle’s excellent film First Man, and a viewer’s first encounter with Neil Armstrong, in medias res, is in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane about to blast into the upper atmosphere. Nothing boring about that! Note that I put the foreign phase we’ve borrowed into italics. I bow to the wisdom of the post at The Grammarist that does likewise.

Our pick this week might be considered just a phrase, not a metaphor, but considering how loosely I hear it employed by learned speakers, I’m going to side with its figurative usage, as in “There we were, in medias res, when he burst in and made things a shambles.” That could mean the interloper burst in early on, came late, or simply appeared, unbidden. One might not be interrupted “in the middle” to employ our metaphor. Yes, a few of us still drop in a Latin phrase. I love Academia.

I can’t resist working in old Metaphors of the Month, as I did with “shambles” just now. Send us more, and Words of the Week too, 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 Armstrong Flight Research Center. Neil Armstrong, incidentally, so respected Hugh L. Dryden, whose name had been on the facility, that he tried to keep NASA from renaming it. That says a lot about a very humble American hero who first stepped on the Moon.

Any time I can work an X-15 or any other rocket plane or spacecraft into a post about literary terms, I shall.

Word of the Week! Casuistry

Peanuts Lucy with FootballThanks once again to Robyn Bradshaw in UR Catering for this pick. At first blush, I suspected a back-formation and a modern word, but The OED dates the word from the 18th Century for earliest recorded use by poet and wit Alexander Pope.

The root is indeed “cause” but it’s a certain kind. As our dictionary also notes, a casuist is “A theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct.”

Our word is not usually a positive one, as it is often associated with sophistry, or mere quibbling over causes in a way that obscures the truth. I suppose casuistry to be useful in our divided and money-haunted political system. Liars and thieves can then proceed with an untroubled conscience.  For some reason, the image of Lucy from Peanuts came to my mind. She’s an expert at the dark arts of casuistry and Charlie Brown? Her perfect patsy.

As for a rule of style here? First, casuistry is not a back-formation, in the way that “solicitate” oozes from “solicit.” Bryan Garner makes it plain, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, that back-formations merely add weight but no meaning to a sentence. Garner advises avoiding them as “needless variations.” On the other hand, he likes (as do I) some back-formations such as “emote,” from the noun “emotion.” Thus language gains nuance and variety. Second, watch your spelling. Note the position of the “s” in our word. I had it misspelled to match “cause” until I proofread this post!

As we Charlie Browns of the world soldier on into the dog days of summer, 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 Caren Pilgrim at Flickr.

 

Word of the Week! Euphemism

Prunes stuffed with walnutsDr. Tom Bonfiglio, as upset over the current Administration’s use of the term “Tender-Age Shelter” for a children’s prison housing undocumented minors in substandard and even cruel conditions, suggested I talk a bit about euphemisms.

I hope the post is not too dark, but these are dark times. Perhaps we’ll be careful in our use of euphemism once we think more about them.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage claims that euphemisms were employed in just the thuggish way Tom suggests a century ago, “as a protective device for governments and as a token of a new approach to psychological and sociological problems.” If Tom’s example is particularly Orwellian in its attempt to put a happy face on a brutal policy, it is nothing new. The OED notes that the word “euphemism” itself dates to the 17th Century, whenever one wanted to use a pleasant-sounding term in place of a harsher one. In a famous 20th Century military example, “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue” became “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” All describe a terrible condition many veterans face, but note how increasingly anodyne the terminology became. That first cousin to our week’s word, anodyne , appeared in an earlier post. You’ll want to read more about that synonym before you begin honing your euphemisms in writing.

Tom Lea's "2000 Yard Stare"By the way, “The Thousand-Yard Stare” is a metaphor for the effects of combat. It’s a euphemism in a way, but not an anodyne one, once you know what it means. I first encountered it in this rightly famous painting, “The 2000 Yard Stare,” by Tom Lea.

Euphemisms are not always used to cover the truth for sinister ends, though certainly history abounds with examples. We call “Undertakers” “Funeral Directors,” or a disease a “condition” to avoid offense or unpleasant emotions.  Some euphemisms can be silly, as with “powder room” for toilet or restroom, or pointless, as in “conveniences” for those same spaces. Others provide smart marketing; “prunes” became “dried plums.” Yes, I’d rather consume the latter!

Some euphemisms put a metaphor in place of a single word, as in “The Sun Belt” for “The South.” Yes, it is sunny here now, with severe storms about to strike. But a euphemism leaves that unpleasantness out.

I stand with Fowler’s Modern English Usage on generally avoiding euphemism when it leads, as it did in Victorian England to pregnant women being “in an interesting condition.”  Bryan A. Garner’s excellent Modern American Usage gives us a litmus test for when to use a euphemism, “[i]f plain talk is going to provoke unnecessary controversy.” He shows this clearly when he discusses why we should not say “illegitimate children” today. The test of a good euphemism is that it does not sound “roundabout or clumsy.” As Garner goes on to say, however, euphemisms “leave a linguistic garbage-heap in their wake” once they outlive their age. For instance, I find the many genteel euphemisms in Herman Melville’s South-Seas narrative Typee maddening. The story is excellent, but the writing lacks the power of his later work, such as Moby Dick or Billy Budd. Of course, Melville’s more direct later works did not find a Victorian audience. He paid for abandoning euphemism, though it gained him fame in our time.

I commend Garner’s book to all of you! And for attorneys and law students out there, I found Wydick’s excellent Plain English for Lawyers silent on euphemisms. Wydick does recommend using concrete words when possible. I suppose one must be blunt at times in a courtroom.

As Summer drifts along here, on a sea of humidity, 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 prunes dried plums stuffed with walnuts from Marco Verch at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Profligate

Super Villain Turner D. CenturyBoth as noun and adjective, our word trips off the tongue.

As the curious image given implies, people who overindulge in vices of the flesh are “profligates” to a bumbershoot-wielding vigilante. The term has a long history, with noun & adjective usages, as well as a transitive verb, given by the OED. The Latin original means overthrowing, conquering, and 16th Century English usage includes those senses. Our modern notion of decadence and debauchery came a century later.

As with so many good words, our word came to me while reading comic books decades ago.

Contrary to the fuming of curmudgeons, many comics taught kids a great deal about vocabulary. This began for me with Marvel’s titles in the “Silver Age” of the late 60s and “Bronze Age” of the early 70s, when a stable of talented young writers penned dialogue under the leadership of the late Stan Lee. Enter a well read super villain, Turner D. Century, whom I recently described as ” a puritanical Luddite. Rides a flying bicycle built for two, has a flamethrower umbrella, and his ‘girlfriend’ is a manakin with a bomb for a head. Primo 70s Marvel.” Though Turner actually dates from the 80s, his vocabulary reaches back to earlier times.

“Profligate” works best, to my ear, as a formal adjective implying more than extravagance. To say “His profligate spending on artwork led to bankruptcy” implies a lot in a single word. Thus the power of an elevated register of speech. I try to teach writers this constantly, that big words used well can save space and time.  In another example, my garden is currently profligate with flowers. So our word has some positive uses. How could you have too many flowers?

The verb usage appears rare. I’d never encountered it, in comics or more staid literary work, until I consulted the OED today. Consider how odd it would be to say “You profligated your inheritanceTurner D. Century closeup! Lord Plushbottom, you are ruined!” instead of “Your profligate habits ruined you, M’Lord. The inheritance is gone!”  Both sound like a dramatic moment from Downton Abbey, but the latter example just sounds “right” to the educated ear. We don’t want Turner setting us on fire for a contested point of usage. He just might.

Hear ye, profligates, debauchees, and decadents! Don’t make me send Turner D. Century after you to pry words from your noggins! Do you have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by the author, from his old stash of comic books.

 

Words of the Week! Four Summertime “Blues”

Rowlandson's paintingBlue is not a feeling we associate with summer, whatever our teenage experiences while listening to The Who’s song “Summertime Blues.” I began thinking about the many figures of speech, as well as single words, we couple with the adjective blue. All of the four really are metaphors, except for one literal use of the term “blue nose.” Read on.

The other day, a friend referred to a well read friend as a “blue stocking.” The Cambridge English Dictionary calls such a person “an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.” Wikipedia and the OED Online deepen the story, adding a history of an 18th Century literary society called The Blue Stockings. Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic, social reformer and author, started and led the group. It was a difficult time for women who wished to pursue intellectual activities, formally, with no access to higher education.

Today the usage of blue stocking is rare; I’d not heard of it before my friend uttered the phrase. It’s not obsolete, with a currency of four of eight at the OED. Their entry also records a 2001 usage in Vogue that I just love: “Miuccia Prada has..embraced the Waspy,..book-editor look of yore and taken bluestocking style to silk-stocking heights.”

Thankfully, rarity (2 of 8 in the OED’s usage frequency) marks our next word, “bluebeard,” also about women. This, however, has nothing to do with a group of learned ladies but a fiend who marries again and again, only to kill his wives. The OED entry reminds of of Henry VIII’s bluebeard life. It can be used as adjective as well, as in a “bluebeard room” where someone hides something, presumably something grisly. A recent bluebeard from cinema is Robert Mitchum’s character from the excellent (and only) film directed by Charles Laughton, Night of the Hunter. The original Bluebeard (capitalized) came from a French folk tale first published in 1697. That should make us shiver, even on a warm summer day! Bluebeards can apparently be seducers who abandon their lovers, one after another. The verb “to bluebeard” appears, but seems rare.

Are you a blue blood? That is a term I did hear as a child, from better educated peers who talked about the rich families who lived (literally) across the railroad tracks from our neighborhood of modest row-houses. They were the grandees, those “to the manner born,” the would-be aristocrats of our odd little Southern city. As the gentry, they “put on airs.” What why “blue blood”? The OED cites an etymology from the Spanish sangre azul, for the fair complexion of the well-to-do; you can see those veins beneath their milky skin. I prefer skin seasoned by life outdoors.

Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyOne thinks here of Goya’s bizarre and unflattering portrait of Spanish nobility. This term is one I’ve long used, so the frequency (3 of 8) at the OED surprised me.

And finally, we have “Bluenose,” my favorite of these words (usage frequency is also a 3 of 8 at the OED). As a teen, I loved cartoons that made fun of Puritans. Often they were drawn with blue noses and scowls, making me think them eternally ill in the New England climate. That’s partly true; the OED notes that residents of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were called “Bluenoses” for the cold there. It can also be a type of sailing vessel. In this sense, unlike “bluebeard” or “blue blood” it gets capitalized. Usages appear as “blue-nose,” “blue nose,” and “bluenose.”

Usually the days, the term refers to prudes and puritanical busy-bodies. I am anything but, with my heroes being Beatniks, not busybodies, so I enjoy yanking their choir robes. I ran across the a bluenose recently in a comment on a piece I’d written about a “barn find” car for Hemmings Motor News Daily; I’d made an offhand drug reference in relation to the cars of the early 1970s, and a puritanical reader vehemently objected. In my defense, another reader said that the comments section always “brought out the bluenoses.” I loved that banter, but writers need skins as thick as auto sheet-metal, and we have to bear the dents made by many a bluenose reader.

A cousin of “bluenose” is “blue law.” There’s a false etymology that these prudish laws, aimed at curbing sales of certain products or prohibiting certain work on Sunday, came from their origin when printed on blue paper. Snopes notes that the real origin is their relation to the bluenoses who enacted them.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by Thomas Rowlandson, “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club,” and Francisco de Goya, “Charles IV of Spain and his family,” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Polymath

Doc Savage CoverProfessor Joe Hoyle, a polymath in the worlds of business and language, sent us today’s word. In terms of usage, “polymath” functions as both noun and adjective, as in “her polymath intellect soon embraced music theory as well as the poetry and aeronautical engineering for which she was famous.” The OED Online gives us a good overview, meaning a person accomplished in many fields of study, but I want to get reflective here.

Our word is perfect for that dreamy week following graduation, when many young polymaths have left our ivy-festooned campus (“festoon” is a good future word of the week, incidentally). My mind, not polymath but very retentive in ways both good and bad, went right to the reading of my childhood.

As a youngster, I enjoyed the reprints of the 1930s Pulp novels about Doc Savage, a sort of superhero without superpowers. Doc fought evil with wits and training; from birth his strange father (any father who did this would be locked up today) put his son through a rigorous set of physical and mental challenges that included daily training.  Savage ended up the world’s best polymath. In the words on the back covers of the Bantam editions of the 1970s, he had a “protean genius.” Yet not all geniuses are polymaths. In fact, synonyms for our word seem scarce. “Multi-faceted” is fine but a bit broad. “Protean” is the closest fit.

Proteus, a figure from mythology, was many things. He could change forms. So can the intellect of a polymath. Several real polymaths get cited in online lists, but they are certain to  include Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Jefferson qualifies, but like Doc Savage he really cultivated the fact and image of his broad knowledge.  Poet William Carlos Williams was a physician, but it seems that one needs several, not just two, areas of expertise.

I know one living polymath, Fran Wilde, who is both accomplished writer of fantastic literature and a talented coder. She has advanced degrees in Fine Arts and Computer Science, and she draws lovely artwork. Polymath? Yes.  My students enjoy her class visits.

The “Math” in our word is not mathematics. It’s from the Greek μάθη for “learning.”

Naturally, polymaths may have their flaws. I’ve yet to discover Fran’s, but if you know Jefferson’s life, you can quickly find his shortcomings. And if you know the books, one thing Doc Savage never figured out was a shirt that could stay un-ripped. The cover above is a rare exception. But that’s pulp fiction for you.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 Jonathan Morris at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Sojourn

Map of Middle EartyMany of my readers will soon take a vacation or, if British, a holiday. Some will study abroad or go on sabbatical (a future Word of the week). All of these temporary absences count as a sojourn, a nice word for this time of year. I’m currently finishing my sojourn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, one I have taken every decade since my early teens.

Usage is really old for this word. The OED records several Fourteen Century examples, most with variant spellings. The etymology sketched out includes a few Romance languages but not any Latin term, though at Etymology Online there’s an hypothesis that our word comes from the vulgar Latin subdiurnare “to spend the day.” All definitions refer to either a temporary stay somewhere, the place itself, or merely a digression. Thus for me, my year in Madrid was a sojourn before starting graduate school, yet Segovia nearby was itself a quiet sojourn from the hectic life of the Spanish metropolis.

Graduates, what of your gap year before the grind of working life? You will never forget that sojourn.

For the rest of you, as the humidity in Virginia rises in June and continues through August, where will your sojourn be? How long will you be away? And what do you bring back from that temporary change of scenery? Finally, can  you find a sojourn in the pages of a book or while watching a film? At present, my sojourn is with Frodo Baggins in Middle Earth, as real an imaginary place as any in fiction.

Keep in mind that at the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo makes not a sojourn but a permanent departure for the uttermost West, across the ocean. He will never return. But I hope you will!

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.

Map of Middle Earth courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.