Word of the Week! Philology

No, I’ve not misspelled “philosophy.” That word’s lesser-employed cousin means, at its Greek roots, a lover of words.  If you are reading this, you must at least have a crush on words.

As with last year’s post, for the day commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, I wanted a word that would describe him. In addition to his other gifts and accomplishments, King’s writing demonstrate his love of words and metaphor. He was certainly a non-academic philologist. So when did philology, as a word, originate? Why has its usage tapered off today?

The OED gives us Chaucer’s example from the 14th Century, then more early 16th Century examples for earliest uses; as with so many other words at this blog, blame Gutenberg for that. I suspect that the study of language, and the sharing of ideas about it, spread with the spread of printing.

Usage ranks a surprising four of eight on the OED’s scale. That means our word is not common but also not unguessable for English speakers. It ranks alongside one of my favorite words, schismatic, yet I imagine that more academic ears would recognize our term than the one just given. Outside of Academia, both would sound alien.

Even within my circle of scholarship–writing centers and writing classrooms–no one has ever called a colleague a “philologist.” Why then has this term fallen from favor in learned circles? Most faculty I know have a curiosity about language, whatever academic discipline they practice. One supposition I see, in a casual Google search, involves snobbishness and worse, bigotry, an early generation of scholars who served as gatekeepers for “proper” written English. Those same grandees might be horrified by the OED’s inclusion of another of my favored words, “badass.”

To learn more about the modern debate about the history of philology and what constitutes philology today, read James Turner’s book from Princeton University Press (I plan to) and Mark Liberman’s post about how it fell from grace as a formal academic pursuit. Liberman posits a new definition that I both like but find limited, “the discipline of making sense of texts.”

Can we broaden that to spoken language? More than ever, we could use an inclusive form of philology to get students and those outside our campuses to be curious about, even come to love, the play of words. Poetry slams are a start. Studying speeches by King and other gifted writers would be another branch of modern philology.

I’d welcome any other speculations about the waning of philology, as word or practice, in comments. While you speculate, 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 ancient books of Wales courtesy of Wikipedia.

Words of the Week! Weather & Whether

Ah, homonyms in a time when we are once again becoming an oral culture. Too many of my students neither read enough seriously nor read with care when they are required to do so. Hence, the repeated docking of 10 points (they can get them back) for confusing “whether” and “weather.”

As in Dylan’s song, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s blowing an ill wind, for nuance in the language. I think. If so, I cannot stop it with my 10 measly points.  But what if these winds blew before? And will blow again? Hence my Mead Hall photo. We are going back to the time of Beowulf, fen-stalking Grendel the monster, and the warlike but helpless Geats that the monster preyed upon.

As we’ll see, there were once two distinct terms in play that now sound exactly alike. So where did our words come from and where diverge? Let’s dip again into Henry Bradley’s The Making of English, (a steal for your Kindle at 99 cents, the one sort of book I like to read on a screen). The philologist notes, in his chapter on changes of meaning, that “[m]ost of the distinctions that exist in spelling and not in pronunciation are between words that are historically different, and when this is so the various spelling usually represent obsolete varieties of pronunciation.”

“Whether” is one of the oldest English words I’ve featured. The OED dates an obsolete adverbial form back to the time of Beowulf, with the Old English term hwæþ(e)re. Leaving that term in the Mead Hall with the brooding Geats, let’s move forward in time a bit, to look over, in your own sweet time, (spelled many different ways) the multiple ways in which “whether” got employed down the centuries. It’s almost maddening to follow the many twists and turns this one ancient word took, until we get to 1819,  with Poet Percy Shelley wondering in a letter, “I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no.”

So am I. Can I teach Gen Z why the words are not interchangeable in writing? Or is it as doomed as Beowulf’s last battle with a dragon? Let’s not go there. What about the weather? Here we have another ancient word, this time from German, rendered in Old English as weder. I suppose when Grendel ventured out into the fens to maim, mangle, and eat Geat, he did his best work in foul weather, and he was able to distinguish the pronunciation of the two terms. The OED notes morphing in how the word got spelled, but like whether, weather (the word, if not the phenomena) settled down by the 19th Century.

What will happen next, round the colossal wreck of whether and weather? I’m no weatherman. I don’t know. Our modern forms of communication lend themselves to encouraging more simplification. Maybe we’ll use one spelling such as “wether” in a century, and listeners will then, as now, know which way the linguistic wind should blow. I and my 10-point penalty will be long gone, either way.

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.

Mead hall image courtesy of Wikipedia. I really wanted one of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm, but I didn’t know weather whether it would be safe for work.

Work of the Week! Carol

scroogeEver since I took on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in our school’s 6th grade Christmas play, I’ve wondered about the term “carol.” The only other instance of the word had been a proper name, usually female.

When meant as a “song,” usage can be traced as far back by the OED to the 14th Century. For a song specifically for Christmas, the oldest recorded usage there is the 16th. By the time Dickens wrote his tale, I suppose other uses of the word had become rare. Like the novelist, however, we still employ the adjective “Christmas” before the noun, a redundancy; there are no Thanksgiving carols or Valentine’s Day carols, after all. Some of us even go “caroling,” and we do not modify the gerund at all.

As to its origins, our word of the week harkens back to the Middle English karol and the Old French carole. The latter apparently signified a round dance with singing.

Incidentally, “hark,” a verb for “listen” that we tend to only use in a particular carol, itself comes from Middle English. We trot out the language of Chaucer for special occasions, or even older words such as last year’s pick, Yule.  Think about it for a moment: when have you used the word “herald,” as a noun or verb, save in reference to a newspaper’s title?

I have been reading Henry Bradley’s excellent, and once influential book The Making of English. I’ve an inexpensive Dover edition, but it can be had, for free, online. Bradley notes how enriching the influence of other languages were upon English, a process that continues today. The very act of including new terms adds nuance, Bradley insists, and “the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest to our purpose. . .ought to be strenuously rejected.” In that spirit, “carol” has come to possess a singular use, giving us just the right term at just the correct time. Bradley refers to this process of narrowing meanings as specialization, “whereby a word of wide meaning acquires a narrower sense.”

Something about the season of lengthening nights, then returning light, also brings out ancient words from many faiths, words perfectly suited to solemnity of long dark nights or the joy of celebrations. Some of us “deck” those halls and “trim” a tree without cutting it. I attend a Yule party every year, where we “wassail” the apple tree: drinking a toast while saying the old “Wassail! Drink hale!” from pre-Christian days.

So hearken to these antique terms this holiday.  And may they be as bright as Scrooge’s, after he had some ghostly visitors. No humbug around here, please!

We will ring in the New Year with a metaphor of the month, but until then, we’re away for the holidays. 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 from A Christmas Carol courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Read the entire text there.

Word of the Week! Amanuensis

dictaphone operatorBelieve it or not, this word came up in lunch conversation with colleagues. One of them will have lectures taped for a student, yet he worries that his notes on the board may not be clear enough to someone not physically present. “You need an amanuensis,” I said. Word-snob that I can be, it’s good to be in company that didn’t need a definition. One person even said “I want one just so I can say that I have an amanuensis.”

So what is this Latin-sounding word? The etymology shows that, technically, it means “belonging to a secretary,” or one who writes things down for someone else. I’ve thought of it in that sense. The OED notes that this person takes dictation. That’s not very common any longer, on campuses or in offices. The term is nearly as hoary, with the OED’s last recorded instance from the year 1860. Like palimpsest, another Word of the Week, our term now mostly appears in Humanities courses, where it often occurs in historical contexts.

That history shows us how social change, with women no longer willing to enter typing or dictation pools, as well as technological change, from dictating devices to AI, doomed the profession and the term. Siri might be my imperfect amanuensis, yet she’s getting better at it with each upgrade. It’s noteworthy that Apple lets us pick a gender and generic accent (US/UK/Australian) for this small precursor to artificial intelligence.

So is our word going extinct, like a stenographer’s pad or the manual typewriter? That the OED has no usage frequency bar may provide a clue.  Once voice-to-text applications become good enough, I suspect we’ll need a new word. The Latin-derived amanuensis just sounds a bit prissy for the 21st Century. “Transcriber” comes to mind. Care to nominate a different word? Or invent one? Let me know.

Though we’ll take a short holiday break, we’ll publish this blog until classes resume in January. 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 an amanuensis working a wax-cylinder Dictaphone machine courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Kluge

klugeJoe Hoyle in our Business School wanted to know more about this word, also spelled “kludge” (and pronounced “klooj”) on occasion. A kluge, involving how we connect to campus services from off campus, delayed this post. It’s one of the worst kluges in how we use technology. But more on that in a bit.

I’ve always thought of kluges as dangerous, makeshift repairs such as the one pictured. Yet there is more to it than that. The Atlantic ran a story, “The Appropriately Messy Etymology of ‘Kluge’ ” that shows how murky the term’s origins have proven. At the same time, the usage remains clear: a kluge means an ad-hoc solution, usually technological, with hardware or software. It gained currency in the era of computer science. A kluge is the opposite of an elegant solution.

The piece in The Atlantic cites other kluges in our daily lives, such as the bolted-together labyrinth of the US Federal tax code. I’d add the Interstate System, where no matter how many lanes we build, it never quite works and can grind to a halt after a single breakdown. That’s why I avoid Interstate travel at all costs, going by US Route or train.

I-95 Mixing Bowl

Yet no advanced part of our transit system merits the word “kluge” more than certain airports. Newark springs to mind, as does O’Hare. Yet Heathrow is my favorite kluge of all.

No matter how often it gets a facelift or wonderful new terminal, it remains delightfully or maddeningly (depended on your departure time) “higgledy-piggledy,” to use a British term. I’ve gone up a flight of stairs at Heathrow, down a hall, turned 180 degrees, down a flight of stairs, all to end up in sight of where I began. If that is not a kluge, I do not know what is.Heathrow Hell

Shall we then get a ruling from that most UK of authorities on vocabulary, the OED? As fate has it, another kluge–the way we establish security online: a labyrinth of passwords, VPN connections, dual-factor authentication, casting of spells and praying to dark gods, so-called “secure clients” delayed me. It took two days to consult the OED online, then publish a notice of this post to Spiderbytes, our campus e-mail list.

I finally got through the decidedly klugey process to the OED; the entry there notes that our word as slang of recent origin, for a system improvised, lashed together, in the end “forming a distressing whole.’ ” That’s I-95, Heathrow, or my password list.

The earliest example of our word comes from 1962: The word ‘kludge’ is..derived from the same root as the German Kluge.., originally meaning ‘smart’ or ‘witty’… ‘Kludge’ eventually came to mean ‘not so smart’ or ‘pretty ridiculous’.

There must be a better way for getting to content behind a paywall or password gate than our current kluge: Iris scans? Blood sample? Replacing the kluge we currently use to identify ourselves online should be on the to-do lists of every major software company.  Go ahead: invent it and you, not Elon Musk, will be teh first to land a big silver passenger rocket on Mars.

We’ll continue the blog through exams and the holiday break, so please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

top image courtesy of the Facebook group “Bikers and Riders.” Do not try that at home. Mixing Bowl I-95 kluge courtesy of Richard Layman at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Giblets

gibletsVegetarians and Vegans beware: I’m going to focus on meat this week before Thanksgiving.

I came up with our Word of the Week while slicing liver to dehydrate as doggie treats for our farm’s enormous livestock guardian dogs. Our two Anatolians, one at 100 pounds and the other pushing 200, eat a lot, but they earn their treats by keeping predators away from our chicken run and the flock.

Next week, I will have to deal with giblets as I prepare to roast our turkey (not Turkey–that home of  Anatolian dogs and worth its own entry here).  We humans have hearts and livers, but what on earth is a “giblet,” anyhow? You may have had them in gravy and half-wondered, or perhaps you did not wish to know.

The OED provides an etymology dating to “Old French gibelet, apparently a stew or ragout of game.”  In modern usage, only one meaning survives and as a plural, as those “portions of a goose taken out or cut off before cooking, the liver, gizzard, etc., with the pinions and feet.”

So giblets are whatever gets left over, things we Americans rarely eat. Supermarket turkeys often do not include them today, though once they were always frozen deep in the carcass of the fowl. Incidentally, giblets need not be from a turkey. For years I considered them some sort of bizarre internal organ particular to turkeys. Thus being raised a city boy!

Metaphors that have died out attest to wider use. The OED entry notes that until the late 19th Century, a “giblet” could be anyone or anything no longer of value: a leftover.

Now you must excuse your writer. I’m off to the butcher shop to get a 5-pound bag of chicken feet. They too get dehydrated for the dogs, so they protect the other chickens instead of licking their chops while they watch over them. If I’m very lucky this hunting season, I’ll be adding a deer’s heart and liver to the dogs’ menu. They never cease rewarding me for their treats, a good thing: the male is a lot bigger than I am!Anatolians

Whether you’ve stuck with me despite your upcoming Tofurkey feast or whether you, like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, eat “with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls” I wish you all a delightful Thanksgiving, the last non-commercial holiday on our calendar.

I suppose Black Friday does not count, though that too merits a post.

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.

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

Metaphor of the Month! Sisyphean / Sisiphean

Sisyphus and boulderPoor King Sisyphus! Doomed by the gods of ancient Greece to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill, only to have the task fail, again and again, for all eternity.

Students, in November does finishing the semester seem Sisyphean? Or “Sisiphean,” if you prefer that spelling (both occur and can be considered standard).  As WordPress recognizes and the OED gives us the “y version” I will continue with that one. Just be consistent when you employ the term in writing.

The lapse in studying Greek mythology disappoints me. I have a dark turn of mind in literature, so I love tales of woe, death, destruction, and crushed pride. They put many a vain schoolboy, even a little Edgar Allan Poe, in his place. Today, Sisyphus’ boulder seems stuck. The last recorded usage of our word by the OED: spelled with “y,”  2002; with “i,” 2007. With only three pips of eight on the OED’s usage frequency chart, is preserving our word a Sisyphean task?

In higher education, no. We are an old curiosity shop of language and a maker-space for new words or repurposed ones such as paradigm. So if you wish to be vivid in describing your endless, ever-repeating tasks, tell someone the work is Sisyphean.

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.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Richard Croft.

 

 

Word of the Week! Sardonic

SardonicI enjoy a spooky post for Halloween, so this year to follow our 2018 Metaphor The Dark Night of the Soul, I have a word useful all year long.

Odd little boy that I was, I could not wait every month to grab a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmlanda black-and-white magazine covering horror films. One cover’s image stayed with me a long time: the image of Mr. Sardonicus, a man who suffers to terrible a scare that his face gets twisted into an eternal, Joker-style grin. There is nothing happy about such a fate.

But is that “smile” of his really “sardonic”? Absolutely. According to the OED Entry, laughter or a smile meets the definition if done in a “bitter, scornful, mocking” way.  That would also describe a great deal of humor in otherwise scary movies.

As one might guess, the term sardonicus provides the original for several words in Romance languages, as well as our English term, with usage first recorded in the 17th Century.

May all your goblins and ghouls bring only treats on October 31, and no sardonic tricks.

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 courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.