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.

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Word of the Week! Noisome

London Slums: Dudley StreetThe WordPress spammers are back, purportedly offering praise for these posts but really trying to hawk odd services for obscure software applications, some rife with viruses of the non-Corona variety.

It’s all noisome to me. Today, when someone employs that word, it’s likely to mean something that stinks, literally. Our word once had a broader meaning than the OED’s “Offensive to the sense of smell; foul-smelling,” which itself is a rather old usage, reaching back to the 1600s. Early meanings included things that were simply offensive, even, in an obsolete meaning mentioned in the OED, “Harmful, injurious, noxious.”

You just click some of those spammers’ links. I guarantee they may be harmful to your computer’s continued operations. Noisome!

I ran across our word while reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography.  The author likes the word as much as I do: I’m barely 100 pages in, and I have found three instances. Here’s my favorite:

“London has often been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness.”

If you know London, its noise can indeed rise to the point of being offensive, almost like a terrible smell.  New York noise is different, if no less jarring. Ackroyd chose his terms well here. Eventually, like the smell of a foreign city, the noisome noise of London simply becomes part of the background. In 2018, when we left London for Salisbury at Christmas, we were amazed at the quiet of the smaller city, especially at night.

This week’s word needs a bit of a revival. In the broad sense of being annoying, “noisome” could describe many of the daily indignities of modern life.

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Image of Dudley Street, London, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

Word of the Week! Altruism

A helping handRarely to I begin a post with a full definition from the OED, but for this word, I shall:

“Disinterested or selfless concern for the well-being of others, esp. as a principle of action. Opposed to selfishness, egoism, or (in early use) egotism.”

This sentiment, so at odds with the stock-market panic and hoarding now underway, should remind us of better times past and, yes, ahead once the fevers, real or anxiety-born, die down.

The entry at the OED gives us a good sense of where our word comes from, and it’s a loan word from the French altruisme. Curiously, it only dates to the mid-19th Century in English. Certainly, as any novel by Dickens attests, people were not all Scrooges and Mister Bumbles back then, or earlier.

Later formations are altruist, for one who practices altruism, as well as the slightly earlier altruistic.

Right now might seem a dangerous time to be selfless. What small acts of altruism have you practiced during this emergency? Which will you practice?

I saw a lot of altruism this week among my Writing Consultants at the university. We resume remote learning next week, so many of my student employees put their elders to shame, stepping right up to help students with their papers, regardless of their current job duties.  Don’t make fun of “Gen Z” until you have been around more of them. They are kinder than we old fogies. Good thing, that.

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Image “A Helping Hand” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Quarantine

quarantine station 1957Here we are, self-isolating as the university gets ready to resume learning, by distance and technology. Even if you are not in a medical facility or ill, you are effectively in quarantine.

I was curious, in these troubled times, about the origin of our word, in both noun and verb forms. The OED entries reveal that the verb is a 19th-Century back formation (without any changes) from the noun. That older word, a borrowing from both French and Latin, dates to the 15th Century and probably earlier to pre-Gutenberg times.

Obsolete meanings from the OED refer to religious fasts, including the 40 days of fasting Jesus endured. More modern uses are quite familiar as COVID-19 works its evil magic, such as “isolation imposed on newly arrived travellers in order to prevent the spread of disease.”

As with many useful words, this one gets employed metaphorically, for legal, technological, and other purposes. May your quarantines all be short and our return to campus speedy.

Ill or healthy, I can still type, and this blog will soldier on as we cope with the emergency.

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Public health station, New Orleans, 1957, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Black Swan

Black SwanWrong I was, completely wrong, when I implied that the COVID-19 outbreak would not become a pandemic. Now we are talking not only about that unfortunate development but also its impacts on the global economy and the US election.

No one can predict when a new disease will emerge, so they provide perfect case-studies of black-swan events. Why that avian metaphor? It’s ancient, but the meaning has not changed. As I learned from a surprisingly erudite Wikipedia entry,  in the 2nd Century, Roman satirist Juvenal mentioned “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan.”

Today in the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo notes now “I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected ‘black swan’ event that upends historical expectation.”

Let’s look at the reasoning behind the metaphor. Wikipedia’s editors suggest to qualify it must be “an event that comes as a surprise” when, say, one assumes that all swans are white. That black bird, then, could not be a swan. In consequence, limited imaginative thinking can lead to disaster. That’s because a black-swan event also has large-scale effects.

We may not be talking about birds, but, say, a new way that birds pass infections to humans. Blinded by prior experience, researchers miss the black swan in the lake.

You may have heard the old saw that goes, in some form, “the military is always fighting the last war.” The leadership at Pearl Harbor and the builders of the Maginot Line were thus surprised by military black swans: strong airstrikes from carriers or blitzkrieg warfare featuring highly mobile armored units that bypass fortifications.

Other famous black-swan events include the start of the First World War of 1914, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event of 65 million years ago, the rapid adoption of the Smart Phone after the iPhone debuted in 2007. I’d personally not include the Housing Crisis of 2008. Many of us saw it coming, so it offered few surprises though it did have a large effect, as all black-swan events have.

We may live in a time of black swans. Manjoo’s column claims that we must adapt to increasing chaos. I hope he is wrong about the many black swans coming to roost.

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Moot

Moot CourtI find it odd that I’ve not covered “moot” before. Perhaps my interest skews toward the Latinate. This short term just drips with the mists of the Celtic fringe of Northern Europe.

So, it’s not a moot point: where did it come from? Northern Europe, yes, but not Celtic languages. Origins of the word go to Germany and Scandinavia, all with a sense of a meeting. Remember “Ent Moot” in Tolkien’s The Two Towers?  Yet that is a real meeting. Noting “mock” about it.

So how did our word take on its modern sense of a “moot court”?

Moot can also mean a tree-stump , something our Oxford Don would have certainly considered in choosing his term for a meeting of talking, walking trees. Some noun usages mean merely “an argument” rather than the place where it occurs. Only when we get to moot as an adjective, meaning “having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic” or “unable to be resolved,” do we get our familiar meaning. Points in court were declared “moot,” and I have idea how the very word for the gathering became the word for a non-desirable outcome.

Bryan Garner’s excellent A Dictionary of Modern American Usage holds that “this shift in meaning occurred about 1900” (436). He says not why.

The reasons for that shift are not moot points. It would be worth more research to discover why.

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Belgrade Moot Court, courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

Garner, Bryan A. A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Word of the Week! Pandemic

pandemicHere I sit, barely able to stay upright, mending slowly from perhaps the worst sinus infection I’ve ever had. This malaise got to me thinking about how we classify disease outbreaks. The COVID-19 virus would be considered an epidemic, or a disease “prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.” If you are in Wuhan, it’s much worse, but I was amazed to see several people in my doctor’s office wearing surgical masks. My pharmacy displayed a sign reading “SOLD OUT of face masks.”

Folks are clearly afraid that the Chinese outbreak could jump borders and become a global pandemic, or an “epidemic over a very large area; affecting a large proportion of a population,” much like the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The CDC estimate of US deaths for that pandemic runs to 675,000. I’ve heard figures as high as 50 million for the global death toll. A third of the world’s population fell ill.

Both terms have earliest recorded usages in the 17th Century. Since then, modern hygiene and advances in medicine have helped to make pandemics rare, if still terrifying, events.

The CDC provides a very useful chart that differentiates seasonal influenza, an annual event, from pandemic flu, which happened three times in the past century.

Pandemics lead to irrational behaviors that can worsen an already critical situation. I hope you are washing your hands a lot. That’s much more effective than wearing a mask.

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Image of soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Pettifogger

image of pettifoggerBusiness-School Professor and wordsmith  Joe Hoyle asked about this term, a timely one since it got bandied about during the Senate’s recent impeachment trial. It dates back to the 16th Century and has a nice origin, compounding “petty” with the word “fogger,” a forgotten term that may refer to “the surname of a family of wealthy mercantile bankers and venture capitalists from Augsburg, Germany.”

A “fogger,” according to that same entry, came to mean a “a low-ranking lawyer who abuses the law” but that usage petered out in the 19th Century. The term has a more modern synonym, shyster, that is with us still, in deed and word.

For our word it seems redundant to add “petty,” for small,  but it accomplishes two things. First, as my students learn in the bestselling writing text, They Say / I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, it’s acceptable practice, as the authors put it, to repeat oneself “with a difference.” Adding “petty” emphasizes how petty that fogger really can be.

Less seriously, the compounding gives us the ability to engage in some wonderfully Southern-sounding alliterative curses, such as “You, sir, are no more than a pusillanimous and picayune pettifogger plundering the public purse!”

How did I do? The word “pettifogger” had legs enough to breed what are called “back formations” in our language: the verb “pettifog” and gerund “pettifogging.” I guess dubious legal practices for small coin never go out of style.

Perchance pettifoggery promotes puerile punditry? Okay, I’ll stop. At least until next week.

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Sleazy lawyer image, “Reptilian” courtesy of Jeremy Sternberg.

Metaphor of the Month! Spartan

Leonidas meets Marie

Let’s continue the Peloponnesian fun with another word from Ancient Greece, in fact, from Laconia that gave us last week’s “laconic.”

Sparta was, of course, one of the most powerful Greek city-states. Yet why did a friend describe a minimalist’s house as “Spartan”? How did the virtues espoused by Marie Kondo align with those of King Leonidas?

It’s clearly a metaphor associated with “not having a lot of stuff / bare bones /  austere / reduced to essentials.” A look at the culture of ancient Sparta yields a lot of good information on Spartan values: hierarchy, simplicity, a militant orderliness for all things. The OED dates this sense of the adjective to the 19th Century, for frugality or brevity (as in a laconic reply).

Since this is still Sparta at our blog, or at least a pretense of it, I’ll end there.

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Marie meets Leonidas, courtesy of Photoshop.

Word of the Week! Laconic

SpartaI would like to be more laconic in my replies. It’s a gift. The art of the terse, but meaningful, statement can be lost on academics. We professors write, as one student in my class today put it, by “spewing ideas.”

Can a critical idea be expressed in a few words? I think so. That’s the art of a laconic statement.

The term’s origin is Greek, referring to Laconia, the region where the ancient city of Sparta can be found. The term “spartan” has come to mean minimalist. Think of a laconic statement that way.

I’ve read several about historical instances of a laconic reply, but none work better than what the Spartans said to Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander The Great. During his campaign to unite Greece, he warned Sparta that “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The official reply of the Spartan government? “If.”

Millennia later, General McAuliffe of the US 101st Airborne, surrounded by the German Army at Bastogne, replied “Nuts!” to the demand that he surrender. Truly a Spartan, in spirit.

We can find laconic statements far from the battlefield. Here I’m thinking of how we understate a real problem, even a disaster, by calling it an “issue.”  A relative of few words once quipped about a tightwad’s unwillingness, “that would require spending money.”

Succinct, understated, direct: do you ever express yourself that way?

Can academics?

Maybe.

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Image of ancient Sparta courtesy of Wikipedia.