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.

Word of the Week! Synecdoche

Newspaper Press

Ever wondered why we say “The Press” today, when so much news is not printed? It’s an example of synecdoche. Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, nominated this excellent word. Though not part of my everyday parlance, it serves a wonderful purpose. I hope to use it; no other word quite fits its meaning.

The word reared its head not long ago. In what may soon be forgotten amid a tumult of worse news, a media event involving a Sharpie marker provided a synecdoche for how the Executive Branch of government conducts business.

Whatever you thought of that news item, it did bring a worthy word back onto stage. A 15th Century loan-word from Latin, as the OED puts it, synecdoche occurs when a “more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one or vice versa.” Only examples suffice here:

  • Our family represents the nation. (For good or ill)
  • We need more boots on the ground. (Boots stands in for more people in that place)
  • We broke bread together. (I do hope you ate other things).
  • Society is to blame! (All of them? In a Monty Python skit, after a murderer pleads this, a detective replies “Agreed. We’ll be charging them too.”)

In academic writing, it’s wise to avoid some examples like the last. They can lead a novice writer into sweeping generalizations such as “Society supports stronger protection for minors.” I find it hard to believe that 300-million-plus Americans could agree to anything, in 2019. So qualify that claim or be ready to pile on credible evidence.

There are few alternatives to our Word of the Week. It’s not quite accurate to use “microcosm” as a synonym for synecdoche, since a microcosm works only one way, showing how something  particular can represent something general, as in “the convicted teacher’s constant drinking served as a microcosm for all the problems at the dysfunctional school.” One cannot reverse “microcosm” as one can for synecdoche, without employing the less-common “macrocosm.”

We might fall back on “symbolize” to represent how a part can indicate something about a whole, but reversing it, so “the gridlock in Congress symbolized the troubles in the Smith family” makes no sense. Mr. Smith may have gone to Washington, but. . .

“Embody” might bridge the gap, as in “the gridlock in Congress embodied so many smaller problems,” yet that use of “embody” bothers me. I’d prefer precision or a different synecdoche.

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 printing press courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! In Medias Res

X-15 Rocket PlaneI credit a student in my first-year seminar, “The Space Race,” for this. I’d mentioned the phrase as the way many modern films begin, right “in the middle of things,” without so much as a credit-roll. This is a handy term for studying narratives, in books or films. Often we feel “dropped right in,” which can add both confusion and excitement.

After class, my student prudently corrected my version, “in media res,” which I see from time to time. Our metaphor is pure Latin, so the correct case for the second word is “medias.” The OED lists many Latin phrases, such as in memoriam  or in nomine that we still use in certain formal, sacred, or academic settings. Bryan Garner’s Modern American usage cautions us to check spellings, as in memoriam sometimes appears as “memorium.” That’s incorrect.

Here’s a usage example. I was teaching Damian Chazelle’s excellent film First Man, and a viewer’s first encounter with Neil Armstrong, in medias res, is in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane about to blast into the upper atmosphere. Nothing boring about that! Note that I put the foreign phase we’ve borrowed into italics. I bow to the wisdom of the post at The Grammarist that does likewise.

Our pick this week might be considered just a phrase, not a metaphor, but considering how loosely I hear it employed by learned speakers, I’m going to side with its figurative usage, as in “There we were, in medias res, when he burst in and made things a shambles.” That could mean the interloper burst in early on, came late, or simply appeared, unbidden. One might not be interrupted “in the middle” to employ our metaphor. Yes, a few of us still drop in a Latin phrase. I love Academia.

I can’t resist working in old Metaphors of the Month, as I did with “shambles” just now. Send us more, and Words of the Week too, 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 NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Neil Armstrong, incidentally, so respected Hugh L. Dryden, whose name had been on the facility, that he tried to keep NASA from renaming it. That says a lot about a very humble American hero who first stepped on the Moon.

Any time I can work an X-15 or any other rocket plane or spacecraft into a post about literary terms, I shall.

Word of the Week! Praxis

PraxisApologies for a late post. I’ve been working on a different deadline, and the Friday afternoon cutoff for a Monday Spiderbyte notice slipped by, well, like a ship in the late afternoon.

We have an excellent word to make up for that tardiness, one I employ in every class where I train our Writing Consultants. Sharon Condrey, UR’s Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll, nominated a word that enjoys a good deal of academic usage; it could also prove very helpful in business settings.

I learned “praxis” as a newly minted teacher of first-year composition at Indiana University.  According to the OED, praxis is of mixed Greek and Latin parentage. It came to me through the writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and political radical (radical ideas among grad students were nothing new in the mid-80s, nor are they today). Freire very much intended to employ the Marxist notion of the term, that is, the application of economic theory to everyday practices. In a less charged political sense, that was how we applied ideas then new to the writing classroom, through pedagogy such as guided peer-review, collaborative learning, and subtle yet powerful methods for “pre-writing” when drafting essays.  This is where I got my notion of making writers prepare a “bias statement” early in the writing process, then keep it with them as they attempt that neutral and nuanced voice of the Academy.

Peruse the OED entry and you’ll find political and linguistic meanings for praxis, yet all of them are “performative” in some manner.

I tell my writers and Consultants what David Bartholomae’s theory of “Error Analysis,” where nearly every error signals a mistaken intention, not some mortal sin, is the “soul” of Writing-Center praxis. Our praxis makes some faculty and writers mad that we do not proofread papers. I have patiently explained that that level of “doing for” a writer is not only unethical but also unproductive:  writers need to know where and why their intentions went awry and then, only then, we teach them. This is hard work, but this praxis of writing centers presumes that writers can learn by doing, that repeated errors provide clues to their intentions, and that most error is systematic in some manner.

That series of axioms, derived from Bartholomae’s and other scholars’ theories, led to our modern praxis. Think, now, about a modern office that involves any degree of creative work. Don’t the “open office” layout, guided teamwork, and a flatter hierarchy all come from a theory about how we work best together? Otherwise, we’d still be in the top-down, if colorfully drunken, world of Mad Men. Don Draper and Roger Sterling were fascinating characters, but I’d not want to work for them. Would you?

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! Susurrus

This week, UR and VCU hosted writer Fran Wilde for a  workshop on voice. Fran is giving a reading at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to celebrate the release of  the anthology His Hideous Heart, where modern authors reinterpret tales by Poe.

During our workshop on campus, I asked her the first word of Poe’s that came to mind, a word she associates with this unique voice.

“Susurrus” is a fine choice! The OED entry calls it a “whispering,” a “rustling.” Think about how the sense of the word fits its sound. That’s called onomatopoeia, a word I had to memorize in high school, and spell correctly lest the yardstick in Father Raymond’s hands came down on me:

From a remote distance, half-sensed in that gloomy place called a school yet more like a Romanesque prison-house beneath a mossy tile roof, I can to this day, in a moment of dread that darkens the sun, almost hear a susurrus of priestly robes, as the phantasmal figure glided toward me, a rod of malice raised high over the rage-knotted face

I think you get the idea of why Poe enjoyed the word.

If you can imagine the half-heard noises in The House of Usher, you have our onomatopoeic word of the week, as autumnal a term as any that Poe uttered. Though of Latin derivation, the term only dates to 1826. Why it came into being, save as an artistic coinage, remains a mystery.

Reading Poe to PoeBut that’s just so for this season of the year and for Poe’s work. He did give us the detective story, after all. Let’s get busy solving this one, if we can. I look forward to a susurrus of whispered half-answers.

Special thanks to Fran Wilde for an excellent workshop and a fine Word of the Week! She also provided advice about pronunciation. Accent that second syllabus, sus-SUR-us. I’ve been saying “SU-surrus” for decades, incorrectly. It’s a fine term never encountered in everyday or even academic speech, yet in writing, it conveys enormous power.

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 Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.

 

 

Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

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.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Eye of the Storm

Eye of Hurricane Isabel, 2003, from spaceWith Tropical Storm Dorian projected (for now) to strike Florida as a Hurricane, it seems appropriate to choose a metaphor apt for Hurricane Season. This one, while not an academic term, certainly has been so popular as to become a cliche, albeit a powerful one.  Sometimes, when the semester is at its most frenzied, we’ll have a day or two of relative clam. Welcome to the eye of the storm.

The metaphor does not rate a full entry at the OED, and its appearance is of recent origin. Those in the path of cyclones must have long known about the eerie calm at the center of the tempest, so it surprises me that the earliest recorded usage comes from 1884.  In his novella, TyphoonJoseph Conrad beautifully captured the experience of a battered steamer, at midnight, entering the eye:

This ring of dense vapours, gyrating madly round the calm of the centre, encompassed the ship like a motionless and unbroken wall of an aspect inconceivably sinister. Within, the sea, as if agitated by an internal commotion, leaped in peaked mounds that jostled each other, slapping heavily against her sides; and a low moaning sound, the infinite plaint of the storm’s fury, came from beyond the limits of the menacing calm. Captain MacWhirr remained silent, and Jukes’ ready ear caught suddenly the faint, long-drawn roar of some immense wave rushing unseen under that thick blackness, which made the appalling boundary of his vision.

We have a powerful term here that needs no explanation to native speakers of English. I do wonder if in other languages the metaphor shifts? Are there other images that spring to mind, aside from an eye, when other cultures describe the calm at the center of chaos?

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.

How well I recall Hurricane Isabel and my nearly two weeks without electricity. Image of Isabel, from the International Space Station and via Wikipedia, courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.