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.

Word of the Week! Anthropomorphic

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da VinciToday’s word comes to us courtesy of Cheryl Huff, on the faculty of our School of Professional and Continuing Studies. The word has cousins I use at times in my teaching: Anthropocentric for a human-focused view of the word, Anthropocene for the new epoch of Climate Change and other human-caused ecological changes, many but not all of them tragic for us and other species.

The root of all of them, “anthropo-” comes from Greek and Latin, meaning something relating to humans. Thus anthropomorphic is something to which we ascribe human characteristics.  It can also be something that has a human form, as do some robots.

We make animals anthropomorphic constantly; consider the 2005 documentary film March of the Penguins, Disney’s animals, Geico’s talking Gecko, or Carfax’s Fox. Foxes are “wise,” right? Deer, innocent and loving? Perhaps we do this partly out of guilt over what we are doing to them and their natural habitats in the Anthropocene? Or perhaps we simply like making humans the measure of all things?

If we are indeed “the measure of all things,” as went the old cliche coined by Protagoras of Abdera (the phrase is now fresh again, from disuse in our times of shallow language, where “Super” is our most popular, and most mindless, adjective), this week’s word is the one for our “all about us” time.

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 credit: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy of 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.

Word of the Week: Okay / O.K.

This entry is not academic, but it is great fun. Since I skipped two weeks for the holidays, I’ll dive in with no Metaphor of the Month but go right to a word request from Professor Bill Ross in Mathematics.

There’s no need to provide a definition, but the history of this workaday word fascinates.

I’d long assumed that “Old Kinderhook,” a nickname for US President Martin Van Buren, gave us the term. That is correct, according to the OED Online, but there is a second etymology that helps us to understand the staying power of O.K., long after President Van Buren vanished from living memory. For “okay” and “O.K.” the OED has this note:

From the detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read it seems clear that O.K. first appeared in 1839 (an instance of a contemporary vogue for humorous abbreviations of this type), and that in 1840 it became greatly reinforced by association with the initialism O.K.

I taught a couple of seminars about Southern literary humor before the Civil War, and making fun of speakers of German and Dutch was a favorite subject, well beyond the Southern States. That sort of linguistic humor, considered ethnocentric and insulting today, endured until recently. If you don’t remember the Katzenjammer Kids, have a look online. As the OED points out, “okay” comes from the satirical “oll korrect,” presumably spoken by an immigrant to the US, in some disastrous situation.

As befits its immigrant origins, the term has crossed the ocean again. I’ve heard Spanish speakers use it in Spain.  The Iberian term vale means about the same, but both worked for me in Madrid.

Have you heard “Okay” around the world? Where? How? Share your experiences in the comments.

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 button 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.

Word of the Week! Anodyne

A colleague, Dr. Ted Bunn in Physics, recently used our word to describe a “anodyne word” that lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. I knew the word but not its usage or history; Ted suggested a medical origin.

He’s correct. The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

Here’s a humorous example the OED provides from 1991 by Joanna Trollope, where “Celia and Elaine were having a carefully anodyne conversation about the church fête.” That is a conversation guaranteed to avoid an argument.

Anodynes are more than synonyms or euphemisms. They mask something, often with the worthy intention of maintaining harmony. Here’s an example I just invented, using anodyne expressions to cover up a really awful situation: “Management concluded to end our relationship with BigCo, our current vendor of bathroom supplies. That decision was made in the general interest of all our employees and the many visitors who use our hygienic facilities. The repeated difficulties with BigCo’s toilet tissue led to several quite vocal remarks to our staff about the lack of quality assurance at BigCo’s manufacturing plant.”

I let your imagination do the rest. The word “difficulties” is a perfect anodyne term.  So is “hygienic facility” or, for that matter, “restroom” in place of the British-English “toilet.”

Business writing is full of anodynes. It can be dreadful, but sometimes such language proves very useful. Consider what you have to write on a sympathy card. Mostly, however, anodyne words get in the way of making a point clearly and succinctly. At worst, they become parody or lies: “We value your call.”

I actually do value your input! 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.

Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week: Gloaming

I’m a sucker for a good sunset, and this time of year the gloaming gets resplendent. I heard that word more in the U.K., where summer twilight can be prolonged and magical. It’s a artful word, gloaming, and I almost can spot Robert Burns on some heather-covered hillside, journal in hand, writing a few lines of verse:

The hunter lo’es the morning sun;
To rouse the mountain deer, my jo;
At noon the fisher seeks the glen
Adown the burn to steer, my jo:
Gie me the hour o’ gloamin’ grey,
It maks my heart sae cheery O,
To meet thee on the lea-rig,
My ain kind Dearie O.

Burns reminds us that the gloaming is not necessarily ruddy or wonderful. It can simply be cloudy.The origin, however, is not Gaelic. Gloaming comes from the Old English glóm  or twilight. See the OED Online for more on this origin. Our word thus may have crossed from the Continent with Germanic peoples, invading the British Isles after Rome’s Empire in the West fell.

I hope my Scottish friends do not come over and run me through with a Claymore.  In their defense, I have seen my best late-day gloamings and sunsets in Scotland, though more than a few right at home rival their intensity, if not duration. Here’s one from campus, not far from my office.May your Autumn skies be glorious, and your gloaming prolonged.

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.

Images: Fort William and Glen Nevis, near Ben Nevis, Scotland, 2014, by me. Same for the University of Richmond lake view. Verse by Robert Burns, “I’ll Meet Thee On the Lea Rig.”

Word of the Week! Civility

Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing
I find it interesting indeed that the OED Online puts our word’s most commonly used definition in 12th place: “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration.”  Perhaps that should not surprise us, as the word has more current and obsolete definitions than any I have covered for this series.

We have to peer back further than the 15th Century, when the word began to appear in English, for its origin and former utility. Here the OED gives us “Latin cīvīlitāt-, cīvīlitās art of civil government, politics.” Consider the words that come from those roots: civil, civilization, civilized.  They presume a measure of tolerance and cooperation needed to live together, not engage in constant civil war.

That sense of neighbors in conflict takes us to the first cousin of civility, “civil.” When I taught criminal-justice writing, I often took my students to court in Monroe County, Indiana. We sat in on both criminal and civil cases, the latter often over civil disputes between neighbors or family members, rather than between a citizen and the State or locality.

The purpose of these courts? To maintain civility in the area, in order to avoid civil conflict. That sensibility underlies the work of civil society organizations.

Is civility dead today? That is a good question explored by Dr. Thomas Plante. Read and decide for yourself.

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 by Threeboy from Richmond, Canada (Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons