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

Word of the Week! Hindrance

Or is it “hinderance”? I see both in print. Yet no usage guide helps here, including Garner’s Modern American Usage or the venerable text by Fowler. Nor do any of the printed dictionaries I have.  Everyone lists “hindrance” despite the drift in pronunciation. It should not surprise anyone who follows the history of language that any confusion about our word is only the latest chapter in a long history.

This term has a simple enough meaning: something that hampers, hinders, or impedes. The OED reveals a variety of spellings: “hynderance” (16th Century); “hinderaunce” (15th-16th Centuries); hindraunce (no dates given); “hinderance” (17th Century on); “hindrance” (19th Century on).

Here we have a word that has definitely lost its “a” and “u” but otherwise continues with two accepted spellings. What to do? I prefer “hinderance,” as it more closely approaches speech and the verb “hinder,” but “hindrance” remains more common in print and probably should be the one we use in service of higher grades in courses. MS Word wants to correct it to “hindrance.”  WordPress accepts both modern spellings. Yikes.

Full disclosure: I am stumped. Students, check with your professors and please stick to ONE spelling. This will make for a diverting update eventually, as the case is not closed on hinderance hindrance.

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 Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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! Tontine

This word was new to me, though as soon as I read the nomination, I knew it merited a post. The original meaning has changed to mean something sad, part of the passing of what Tom Brokaw called America’s “Greatest Generation.”

Originally, this term meant simply an annuity paid out to members, but as members pass away, each survivor received a larger share.  The original, as the OED Online notes, came from the name of “Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker, who initiated the scheme in France c1653.”  I have never heard of such an investment today, though I suppose they still exist, as do card games played according to the idea.

As for contemporary usage, thanks go to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, who ran across our word as a synonym for “last man’s clubs” for veterans. Usually the final survivor drinks a toast to fallen comrades, from a bottle of spirits set aside with great ceremony long before. Lee also recalls that there was an episode in the TV series M*A*S*H about a tontine that included Col. Potter.

There’s only a noun form, meaning either the type of arrangement or, as The American Heritage Dictionary adds, the members of a group who make it. So a correct usage would be, for the video I’m about to share, “a tontine, composed of the last living Doolittle Raiders, met at the Museum of the United States Air Force, where they opened a bottle of vintage cognac saved for many decades. They drank a final toast to their deceased comrades.”

PBS had an entire special about this event and the air raid on Japan that led to the tontine. It came as a very dark time in our nation’s history, early in the War and amid many US losses. It inspired everyone I met from that generation who spoke of it. So here’s a toast to our heroes. Their raid may well have spurred Japan into the hastily planned and finally disastrous Battle of Midway, an engagement that changed the entire course of the Pacific war.

At the time of writing, Col. Richard Cole, the last raider, is still participating in public events at the age of 102. His is the last goblet left standing upright in the case he built to hold the bottle and goblets for the members of  his tontine.

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.

Video by “BCI2D” at YouTube and image from the CAF’s blog. Visit their museum to take a ride in a B-25 Mitchell, the type of plane used in the raid.