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.

Metaphor of the Month: Mayday!

SOS Text

This internationally recognized call for help has long been common parlance, but until today, when I checked the OED listing, I had no idea of its origin.

A 1923 usage listed gives us all we need to know: “Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’  will give place to the words ‘May-day’, the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez’, the French for ‘Help me’.”

Fascinating and perhaps our briefest post yet. Good luck with finals, students!

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 Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Epistemology

Death of SocratesWhat can one say about “A borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element; modelled on a German lexical item”? Pretentious, perhaps, yet our word, Epistemology, as cited by the OED in the last sentence, has an everyday use in academe. It’s of recent origin, like much of modern science itself, dating from the mid 1800s.

Simply put, it’s a “theory of knowledge” but as I will explain, so much more. When one thinks hard about it, everyone’s use of data, ways of analysis, and presentation of results hinge upon that field’s epistemology. In my own, English, we have several theories of knowledge.  Sometimes they get us in trouble with those outside the profession, partly because we sling around words like epistemology or hermeneutics regularly (WordPress spellcheck does not even recognize “hermeneutics”).

If I’ve not convinced you yet that “theory of knowledge” does not work accurately in place of our word, consider that the OED also adds that our term distinguishes “between justified belief and opinion.” Every wise fool, in Socrates’ sense, has an opinion beyond his realm of understanding, something not justifiable. As the doomed philosopher puts in in The Apology, the artisans he questioned about wisdom, “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” That same error applies today. Would the epistemology of quantum physics inform the study of Chaucer, or vice versa?

For that matter, while this week’s word is not found beyond our ivy-covered walls, the idea behind it remains sound. Would I presume to tell the HVAC guy which circuit has failed, unless I had knowledge of electronics and that type of system?

Have a word 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 of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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! Vestigial

Human AppendixDr. Joe Hoyle in our Business School came to the rescue again today, with a word that I associate with “tail,” for some bizarre neuron-event that burned the image into my head, perhaps when reading Philip K. Dick’s science fiction or during a daydreaming session in a high-school Biology class. Yes, we humans have the last remnant of a tail at the tips of our spines. That final bone is our coccyx.

The OED, as usual, gives more nuance here; something vestigial is not merely a remnant but one that survives in “degenerate, atrophied, or imperfect condition or form.”  That string of adjectives says it all. If some island were the last vestige of a sunken continent, then it becomes vestigial. Though of Latin origin, the usage proves recent; the OED does not date our word before the mid-19th Century.

Our bodies are full of vestigial organs and other features, no longer needed as humans evolved: the appendix, our wisdom teeth, and more as detailed in this piece about vestigiality.

Writers beware of one issue: some Google searches for synonyms turned up “immature” or “unformed.” The latter might work, for something like the coccyx. But the former word implies that the subject might mature one day. Though not all eggs become chicks and chickens, neither egg nor chick is a vestigial chicken. An eggshell, however, is the last vestige of an egg.

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 appendix courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Sentient

Sentient beings

What do these images have in common? They represent sentient beings.

Joe Hoyle, Associate Professor of Accounting at UR, told me that a 2019 goal of his has been to hone his vocabulary. Joe’s nominated word is certainly a good one to employ.

I have used “sentient” incorrectly for years, in in my class about reading science fiction. Often in that genre of fiction, an alien life-form is either an animal or a “sentient” being, meaning (to me) that it acts according to reason, reflection, and logic.

Of course, other stories have aliens wiping humans out and saving other species because humans so seldom employ reason, reflection, and logic. So what do those most sentient of dictionary editors at the OED Online say?

In its oldest sense, “sentient” can include animals or other organisms if they are “capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.”  So for sentience, it would mean responding to stimuli not automatically, but by the senses.

Plants turn to the light, after all, but as stated in an article by Calvi, Sahi, and Trewas (2017), we cannot assume plants are non-sentient because of the “bioelectric field in seedlings and in polar tissues may also act as a primary source of learning and memory.”

Need I feel guilty, then, as I fire up my chainsaw to prune the cedars near my house?

Second-and-third-order definitions of “sentient” include being “conscious” of something. What is consciousness? Animals have it and, perhaps, plants. What of the invisibilia under the microscope?

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 (and it’s a great one!) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: April Fool

Tarot Deck Fool CardI really did not expect the OED to have an entry for this, but they fooled me! The earliest definition is from the 17th Century, “the victim of a trick or hoax on the first of April.” Our metaphor provides a good counterpoint to last week’s gloomy word, draconian.

That’s fair enough, but where did this famous non-holiday originate, and why? If you want a variant, it’s All Fool’s Day, but that means 1 April as well. I never knew before checking at Snopes.com that the term may come from those foolish enough to forget the correct date, after the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, in the 1500s.

Yet like foolishness itself, the origin remains fickle. There was a Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated about this time of year. I like that one!

Snopes taught me as well not to prank after noon on the 1st, since bad luck will then befall the trickster. The site may also inspire fools and practical jokers with a few famous jokes played on the day. For even more tomfoolery, visit The Library of Congress blog entry for possible origins. Whatever the genesis, we should embrace a day dedicated to lighthearted fun.

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.

Public-domain Tarot Deck Fool image, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Draconian

Lawgivers from Star Trek The Original SeriesIn ancient Athens, a title of leadership was “Archon” (a lawgiver) and one of these men was named Draco. Apparently, he was so strict in the laws he passed that he gave us our word of the week. I never before heard of “draconic,” shown by the OED to mean a severe code of law or something that pertains to dragons (quite severe in their way). That word in turn gave us  draconian, employed in English and some other languages for any really harsh law or penalty.

Why the Star Trek image? It’s from a favorite episode of mine, “The Return of the Archons,” largely about good intentions for law and order gone awry.

In the show, a long-deceased scientist named Landru created  an artificial intelligence (also called Landru) with elements of his personality encoded in the software. Landru keeps a planet’s populace in check with “Lawgivers” that impose peace by “absorbing” independent thinkers into “The Body” of obedient and docile, if brainwashed, citizens.

Draconianism seems to work, for a time. Even Jim Kirk and his crew are nearly stifled by it, but in the end, draconian laws and codes fail.  Landru blows a fuse. And as for Draco? Legends vary: he may have been smothered by his own supporters in a backfired attempt to show support for him, or he died in exile.

Good intentions, indeed.

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.

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.