Words of the Week! Reign, Rein, Rain

QE II coronationQueen Elizebeth II’s long reign just ended. She took the reins of power in 1953, on a day of rain.

Sounds simple? No. They all sound the same.

As with other homonyms I have featured here, such as weather and whether, these words get tangled up in student prose. I take points off but give my writers a week to earn them back by showing they have learned the difference. No easy mnemonic exists, as it does for here and hear (“hear as an ear in it”). So here (not hear) we all need memorization and use in print, as though we were English-Language Learners.

We encounter our words often via metaphor: Reign of Terror, rein in your enthusiasm. We take a horse by the reins, though as the OED shows us in the etymology of the word with Middle English origins, this strip of leather going to the horse’s mouth was once spelled “reign.”

So does a monarch reign by taking the reins of the population, metaphorically, and leading them? Not so much in these days of nearly universal constitutional monarchies, but we begin to see how the words could be confused! Reign shares a different Middle-English Origin (regn vs. reen), according the OED. In those ancient words, we can hear the difference. Not so now. “Reign” has multiple senses that include the realm of a monarch as well as the period of time the monarch rules.

How to get students to stop confusing them? I have no idea. Sorry to rain on your parades, but -10 points and one week to read this post, kids!

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 Queen Elizabeth II’s Gold State Coach: note footman beside the horses’ reins, at the start of her reign, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Scrofulous

Some background here, ye corky-armed poltroons: I be playin’ a game with some academic friends that involves pirate ships and sailing. It’s great fun: one can design a ship, navy or pirate, and learn to tack, raise and lower sails, fire cannon with several types of shot, and (of course) be sunk down to Davy Jones’ locker.

Sea-faring has a rich vocabulary, some of which in time entered academic parlance and common use (“against the wind” comes to mind).

Likewise, nicknames with adjectives yield some excellent (cannon) fodder for this blog.

Recently several of us, between battles on the virtual sea, devised alliterative pirate names.

“Pestilential Pete” proved a fine one. “Scurvy” gets overused and can be easily solved by citrus on a ship (hence, the clever English who figured this out got called Limeys).

But what about “Scrofulous Sam”?  That was my pick. It’s not because our pirate suffers from the lymphatic disease called Scrofula, though that is the origin of our word this week, as the OED shows us. Nay, Matey, belay that thought!

Sam would more likely (he is a pirate) to suffer from a moral depravity. As the OED entry notes, Sam would be “morally corrupt.” Never confuse the word with “scruffy,” of similar antiquity but denoting physical shabbiness.

While first usage of this week’s term dates back to the 17th Century, it was only in the Victorian era that we see a first-use metaphorically, in relation to morals. An 1889 example shows how the term appears in print, and readers today are likely to encounter it in Victorian literature like this:

“Holywell-street was re-named ‘Booksellers’-row’ because of its scrofulous reputation.”

A nasty word, but formal-sounding at this distance in time, as is “pestilential” or even “barbarous.” Drawing-room dialogue in Downton Abbey, the characters never fearing the eruption of pirates, plague-victims, or Visigoths during tea hour.

At least until the next sequel. Avast!

Be thou lubber or old salt, a tar or a pantaloon, scrofulous or saintly, this blog be keepin’ a weather-eye out for new words and metaphors! Sam will take your messages in a bottle at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Flag image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Hiatus

If you wonder where this blog has been, it’s been stuck in my head while I lay in bed with COVID-19.

Folks, you don’t want to get it. Really. My recovery to full strength is going to take weeks.

Thus, the hiatus.

And what is this odd-sounding word?  And why don’t we have other words in the language that sound like it?

The etymology proves straightforward enough. As The OED has it charted out, we have a Latin loan-word. Scholars of the language, please send me other homonyms that came across intact.

As for meaning, it’s a gap. The order of definitions surprises me, as I’ve thought of the gap in chronological terms, as in “between her two terms as mayor, she enjoyed a ten-year hiatus from local politics while leading a local law firm.”

The first definition given, however, involves a break in a material object, as with a hole in a wall. Sounds very odd to say “we crept through the hiatus in the old wall.”

But there it is. If you have other loan-words from Latin that rhyme with this one, send them, as with other words and metaphors of note, to me by e-mail (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.

Hole in wall courtesy of Wikipedia. It looks like how I feel.

 

 

(Overused) Word of the Week! Disconnect

disconnectReaders know how much I despise the noun “Society” and adjective “Super.” To me, these words indicate rushed or even lazy thinking.

While our super irritating adjective super crops up mostly in speech, society just cannot understand why using society as a noun without any qualification seems so evil in my classes.

There. I got to use them both. And I feel soiled. Now I have a third word to indicate half-baked thought: disconnect. Not as a verb, when it has a clear meaning, but as a noun. Consider this popular bit of student-think:

A serious disconnect emerges between how the two characters think of their grandmother’s past.

Just. Stop. It. I’m adding the word to my Pet Peeves list, which means writers lose 10 points and have a week to regain some or all of them by revision.

This will, I fear, be a losing battle, but consider all of the options: misunderstanding, rift, estrangement, rupture, breakdown, gulf, and so so many more!

My argument is less with the word than with the lack of variety and nuance it evidences in student work. So please, writers, slow down and consider (with a thesaurus and many examples, if you must) the power of synonyms.

Keep hope alive; Elle Magazine published an article lamenting the overuse of “super.”  We might be shouting into a hurricane, but civilization may survive, yet!

Send me misused or overused words, along with other good words and metaphors, by e-mail (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 courtesy of The Noun Project

Word of the Week! Acrologia

The King from Huckleberry FinnIf this word is not in your personal dictionary–I’m looking at you, students–put it there. No, it does not appear in any form in The OED, yet. A friend shared it with me a week ago, but it’s a common-enough stylistic error in student work:

  • He is considered imminent in his field of study (instead of “eminent”)
  • The committee redacted the report (instead of “edited”)

Usually, students and other careless folk employ acrologia alongside a poorly used thesaurus: in the attempt to sound more academic, they sound “off” or even hilarious. It also marks the confidence man’s trade. Consider The “funeral orgies” noted by The King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He means “obsequies,” and his attempt to cover up his mistake would make any first-year student practicing the art of BS proud:

It’s a word that comes from the Greek word ORGO, which means outside or open or abroad, and the Hebrew word JEESUM, which means to plant, cover up, or inter. So, you see, funeral orgies are simply open, public funerals. 

Since The King is trying to punch above his intellectual weight (which is slight) it’s acrologia.

Acrologia is a subset of malapropism. We all do that, but we often encounter it afflicting ridiculous characters in drama, since actors first stepped on stage.  Malapropism can cause low-brow guffaws when coupled with a non-native speaker’s natural mistakes in vocabulary or pronunciation. Dr. Caius, noted in last week’s post, says in one line of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that he shall be the turd, when in fact he means third.

Acrologia also would not, in my estimation, include instances of mistaken idioms. as in “We use to go to Florida every year” (instead of “used to go”) or “suppose to” instead of “supposed to.” These errors come from how we write out the sounds of speech, not from an attempt to sound academic. The words remain the correct term, but the forms do not.

Some words that may have once provided examples of acrologia slide under the door, over time. In American English, even formal writing, we no longer make much distinction between “reluctant” and “reticent,” the latter (to me) implying a reluctance to speak: that person of few words in our talky-talk times.

At our Web server I’ve a list of commonly confused words that I post for my students. They have a week to correct the instances or lose 10 points on a paper. If you have more such confused and confusing words, send them, along with other good words and metaphors, by e-mail (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 King faking his sorry about “Funeral Orgies” stolen blatantly, in honor of The King and The Duke.

 

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.

Words of the Week! Three Two-Letter Words

on in atAt the start of a troubled year and the return to classes, I decided to play it safe with the linguistic equivalent of “comfort food.” We could use a bit, true?

I will soon feature a lineup of timely words, including “sedition,” “impeach,” and “riot,” whose origins and uses may be of interest to both native speakers and English-language learners. Somehow writing about such things as words makes their awful reality more tolerable.

As political events of great import unfold around us, let’s turn for a moment to aiding newcomers to the English language. Consider this: why do we say “he lives in Virginia” or “she lives in Fairfax County” but “I grew up on Parkwood Avenue?”

And we wonder why prepositions are so hard to master. As I discovered while learning Spanish, the best method may be to memorize idiomatic usages and repeat them, frequently, with gentle corrections coming from those who grew up speaking English. Most of these speakers can often tell a learner what “sounds right,” even if we don’t know the rules.

As for rules: the Voice of America’s page about in/on/at shows us that, for position, “in” points to the most general location. Thus, “I lived for a year in Madrid,” while “on” gets more specific, as in “My apartment was on Calle Huesca,” yet “at” gets more specific still, as in “at numero 27 Calle Huesca” or “at the corner of Calle Huesca and Infanta Mercedes.”

Speaking of Mercedes, there’s the exception, where “in” gets quite specific: you can be “in” a car, but you are “on” a larger vehicle or vessel unless you mean you are literally inside a ship, airliner, or the carriage of a train. Then you are indeed “in” the ship, plane, or train.

Wing walkerThe pilot is in the biplane, while the wing-walker is on it. Here’s an extended example:

We rode in our car to the airport, left it at the extended parking lot, departed on a plane, where I managed to leave my reading glasses in the airliner! We flew to Miami and got on a cruise ship, where we had a cabin on the starboard side at the stern of the ship. We stayed in our room the first two days, as we were too seasick to be on deck.  We were very happy to be on dry land again, when the ship was in Jamaica. We docked at Ocho Rios but stayed at a small hotel on the north side of the island.

These little words are harder than they seem!

Then we have figurative uses of these prepositions. Back to my childhood, for a moment. While I did have a mean-tempered neighbor who told me to “go play in traffic!” I can assure readers that I did not actually grow up in the street or on it, in a literal sense.

The shades of meaning here are key for one (and not the only) distinction between “in” and “on.” If you are “in the street” you could be hit by a car. If you are “on the street” the meaning becomes figurative, for walking about in an urban area, unless you happen to fall down. Then you could both be “lying on the street and in the street.” We also refer to the homeless as being “on the streets” at times. Protestors and rioters (here come those future posts) are said to be “in the streets.”

As for time? Another set of distinctions appear for these words when we move to chronology. Again, the VOA page helps a great deal. Consider this example:

At 3:00 am on July 7th in 2020 we saw the peak of the meteor shower.

We’d usually skip the “in” here, inserting a comma for the preposition, but I added “in” to demonstrate the shades of specificity that distinguish our three words.  They help to master idiomatic phrases such as “at the stroke of midnight,” “at noon,” “in the afternoon,” “on the day of reckoning,” and so on.

Send words and metaphors to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu. See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Title image courtesy of me and Photoshop; Creative-Commons licensed wing-walker image from Wikipedia.

 

Word of the Week! Peroration

AgoraGeorge Souleret, whom I met during his time with University Facilities as an HVAC Engineer, nominated this week’s word. I saw it first as “perforation,” and wondered to what new uses that old term had been put.

Blame bifocals or autocorrect, but I need to thank George for teaching an old faculty member a new word that he most certainly should know. According to the OED, our word is a speech (sometimes just the end of one) or discourse in general.  I often tell students that academic discourse as we know it, as well as reasoned debate in the Western tradition, began in the era of Socrates. I visited the site of the Athenian Agora in 2007, and to me it was as sacred an experience as I’ll ever have in this life.

We have some excellent perorations, such as Pericles’ famous funeral oration, given before the great plague of Athens, a story that we may wish to revisit today. That epidemic swept away Pericles and two of his sons.

On a lighter note, I love one current usage given: “A perfectly dreadful hour-long peroration by an American scholar.”

Thus I’ll spare you a dreadful peroration on peroration. In an election year, I expect we’ll have our share of perorations, some dreadful, a few delightful.

But the term does provide a formal and Latinate synonym that, in the right place, provides an option to “speech,” “presentation,” and other similar terms.

image of the Stoa of Attalos, housing the Athenian Agora Museum by me, 2007.

Word of the Week! Unprecedented

HimalayasProfessor Joe Hoyle gave me a word that helps out in my ceaseless war against the word “super,” that boring and overused adjective that I consider lazy in speech, unacceptable in writing.

We have experienced an unprecedented health crisis, at least in our lifetimes; no one living can recall the 1918-19 Spanish Flu. So in many media reports, from unemployment claims to clear air over Indian cities (pictured) to empty New York streets, we see the adjective “unprecedented” appear. To say that “Indians enjoyed unprecedented views of the Himalayas” is not, however, correct unless a person were under a certain age. Residents of Indian cities are, however, experiencing cleaner air and distant views, the best in 30  years.

That’s not the same as “unprecedented.” “Unprecedented in his lifetime” might qualify matters.

Our word means without precedent.

Where does it come from? To my ear at least, it sounds modern. I would, however, be wrong. The OED provides a first recorded usage of 1641. The word precedent, itself, is Latinate and thus, with ancient roots.

Be careful, as with any “super useful” word, not to overuse our word of the week. Soon, its currency will reach unprecedented levels. Reach deeper into the dictionary for words such as “extraordinary,” “novel” (the virus is called a novel coronavirus, since it’s a never-before-encountered form), “unique,” “unparalleled,” or other exact or near synonyms.

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.

Metaphor of the Month! Terra Incognita

16th Century Italian MapI’ve long thought of terra incognita, a clear borrowing from Latin, in terms of those Medieval maps with sea monsters and mysterious unexplored places.

Now, in this cruel April, well, we are in an unknown land.  We have never, in our lifetimes, experienced such a crisis. Those who could recall the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19 are long, long gone. Uncertainly reigns, and it leads to not irrational reactions, but a sort of pre-human behavior based upon fear. In 1929, one factor driving the Stock Market into its nosedive was simply lacking information, based on the lag of a key technology: the stock ticker used in exchanges.

But what is it as metaphor? When did the term become popular?

The OED entry dates our term to the early 17th Century, while Wikipedia, the source of our image above, posits an earlier usage by Ptolemy in the Second Century. There’s the term for an unknown sea, mare incognito, that was new to me, while the term “going incognito” still enjoys widespread use.

The Age of Exploration added to our maps. You’d have to go to the bottom of the ocean or to the surface of another world, today, to find terra incognita. As a metaphor, however, it still rings true for times, like today, when we find ourselves in unknown lands.  We are “off the charts,” a cousin of our metaphor, or in Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.” That last is a very dark example, if you know Hamlet. Let’s not go there. We should find hope now where we can.

We map genomes today, as well as the surfaces of strange worlds. That should give us hope. That’s mine, as we traverse this April’s terra incognita. Good luck and good health to you and yours.

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.