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.

Word of the Week! Atavism

Here is a term that has been on my mind a lot, ever since some kids walking down the street, twenty years ago, spotted me and my manually powered reel mower.

“Look at that dude! He’s got one of them throwback lawnmowers!”

That’s a good working definition of an atavism. The etymology given by the OED, as you might guess, is the Latin atavus, either “a great-grandfather’s grandfather” or more generally, “an ancestor.”

For once, the OED’s entry appears really limited, providing no usage examples. It notes resemblance to an ancestor rather than to one’s parents, or the recurrence of a disease common in distant family history, but not in one’s recent ancestors. My favorite print dictionaries, old and new, provide little more.  So I will strike out into the atavistic thickets by myself.

I’ve seen our word, as noun and adjective, used both in science and elsewhere, to mean a “throwback,” something from an earlier time that has somehow erupted into the present. I write “erupted” because my sense of the term is not an historical or biological survival from an earlier epoch but something that emerges, like new. It calls the mind and eye back to an earlier time. Hence  Frank Norris’ description of the titular character in one of my favorite novels, McTeague: “His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora.” Norris’ protagonist is a brute, a throwback to some imagined caveman past.

Consider nonhuman examples: I do not mean a perfectly restored 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang but one sold as new, presumably a zero-mile example found improbably on the premises of a Ford factory. Better still, imagine the faces of shocked workers when such a car appeared magically on the assembly line. That dream of car collectors would be in keeping with the biological idea of atavism.

My favorite pop-culture atavism appears at the top of this post.

I have been waiting a long time to use the Mountain Dew “Throwback” logo for something. I drank the stuff in high school. Somehow I lost the taste, but my fondness for Hillbilly kitsch has remained strong.

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.

Word of the Week! Subfusc

Once again, Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. This time he picked one that was completely new to me. As Dr. Bunn put it in an e-mail:

It can just mean gloomy, apparently, but it can also mean “the formal clothing worn for examinations and formal occasions at some universities.” In Dorothy Sayers’s novel set at Oxford, she uses it to describe clothing in dark, subdued shades, suitable for wearing under academic regalia. I always think of it on graduation day.

Only one of my American dictionaries has a brief entry, supporting Professor Bunn’s conclusion that the word is British English, not its American cousin. The OED Online provides both senses of the word given above, as an adjective or noun. The Latin roots are plain, sub + fuscus (dusky). We have a similar derivation in obfuscate and obfuscation.

As recently at 2006, the Times of London noted that “Undergraduates at Oxford University have voted by four to one to retain subfusc costume when sitting examinations.” They voted again to retain it in 2015.  There are other specificities for subfusc at Oxford. As I learned from this article about the differences between it and Cambridge, subfusc means “a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women.”
The customs surrounded academic regalia have crossed the Atlantic far better than the word itself or, for that matter, the often subfusc weather of the British Isles. While I cannot find meteorological examples of the word, it certainly works in that context.

The image of a subfusc sky with the light just returning is my own, taken at twilight in Kenmare, Ireland in 2011.  The academic regalia of Oxford comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Word of the Week! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

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. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Penultimate

This post will run the final week of classes, but it is really the penultimate week for academic work here: do not forget your final exam week, students!

The word itself has a decidedly academic “look” to it, but I find it used as often in journals of ideas such as The Atlantic Monthly. I brought doughnuts to class today, our next-to-last writing workshop of the semester. For that penultimate class, however, I would never ask  “who ate the penultimate doughnut”?

The OED Online, online or in print, gives our word first as a noun, a form I rarely see in formal usage today. The adjectival form appears far more often, though I had never before encountered the now rare mathematical use meaning “Relating to or designating a member of a family of curves that is arbitrarily close to a degenerate form.”

A Merriam-Webster post points out a usage error for this term. Never use it in formal writing to mean “last.” Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage seconds that opinion. The word gets employed to mean “the best of the best” but that usage is also incorrect. Our word always means “next to last.”  I could see it being acceptable in casual usage as “the best for now, until something better arrives to replace it.”

The final word remains out on penultimate; in a century, it may mean exactly “the best, so far,” until a better word shows up.

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.