Word of the Week! Grotesque

Our word this week began life in an Italian cave, or grotto. As early as the 16th Century, painters captured the primitive feelings of that setting with work called grotesque. So how did the word change over time, to become something revolting and unnatural?

Slowly. By the dawn of the 20th Century, when H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, the artistic sense of the word and its more modern sense were both in play. A definition given by the OED Online, “Characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre,” came to be common. Think of any gargoyle you see on a cathedral. They are nearly all grotesques.

Thanks to Victor, in my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy, for asking about this term used by Wells, as when his narrator remarks, “The apparition of this grotesque, half-bestial creature had suddenly populated the stillness of the afternoon for me.”

Using the Project Gutenberg copy of the text, now in the public domain, I stopped counting at 20 uses of the word. Clearly, Wells was after the human-animal hybrids’ grotesque appearance and behavior. And Dr. Moreau, who makes these “Beast-Men,” certainly had art in mind as much as science, since in the novel he calls the narrator a “materialist” when the narrator questions the practical application of the doctor’s mad experiments.

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! Syllabus

For the first week of classes, I thought to feature a word appropriate to the season. So what is so special about that document, online nowadays, that lists assignments, schedule, and policies for a class?

Not much, really. In sum, it is but a concise summary of a subject to be covered, a compendium, a list. The OED Online dates modern usage to the 17th Century. In Antiquity the term may or may not have had the same meaning, so it may not qualify as a loan-word from Latin.

I came to like the term; it mightily confused me as a first-generation, first-year student at The University of Virginia in 1979. It was to be the first of many bizarre  terms that I encountered. Many of the new-to-me terms were Latinate, as alien as Hittite despite my four years in a Catholic high school where the priests could speak Latin. Consider that we “proctor” an exam, end four years of undergraduate work with a “commencement,” earn Latin-phrased honors such as cum laude, and labor in the Grove of Akademos, the source of the word “Academy.”

So as you peruse (or write! the hour is late!) your syllabi for the upcoming academic term, be on the lookout for other traces of academia’s Classical heritage.

The Word of the Week will appear every 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Monday of the academic year, with a new entry, Metaphor of the Month, for our first Mondays.

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.

Word of the Week! Hubris

Today’s New York Times ran an op-ed about human hubris and the climate crisis we now face. I use the word “hubris” a great deal in my literary studies classes, too. Many a protagonist, good or bad, gets felled by this fatal flaw of overweening pride.

I’ve always described it in my course glossary of literary terms as “the sort of pride that is so inflated that it blinds, even destroys a character, even an entire people. Many characters in classical literature and Shakespeare’s plays are so prideful that it destroys them. So is Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

I have never checked a dictionary for our word, so let’s see how I did. Though the Greek original is ancient, this loan word dates only to the late Victorian era. The OED Online gives a few usages, all of them about the same of “presumption toward the gods, self-confidence, pride.” the lack of nuance after the first definition surprises me.

Mere pride is not a vice. One can and should be proud of one’s accomplishments and those of others (envy being another fatal flaw). Hubris is a certain type of pride, however, and in the Miltonic Satan’s will to challenge the Almighty we hear echoes of many earlier myths of mortals who dared to compare their beauty, strength, or courage to the immortals of Olympus.

So beware hubris. It’s everywhere these days. It always comes before a fall.

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.

Gustav Doré’s illustration from Paradise Lost comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Bumptious

I first noticed this word when reading Willa Cather’s excellent novel The Professor’s House, way back in graduate school. She describes in great detail the overdone decor of the main character’s abode, including “the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls.”

The alliteration stuck with me but so did the idea that an inanimate object, rather than a pushy, overly friendly person, could be “bumptious.” The OED’s entry gives a history only dating to the early 19th Century, from a humorous use of the word “bump.”  The sense here is a conceited, self-assured, or offensive person, not a carved bit of wood.

The American Heritage Dictionary adds a possible etymology of combining “bump” and “presumptuous,” which certainly describes a bumptious person, but not a ball.

Perhaps Cather, so annoyed in other places with techniques made possible by modern power tools, just hated the woodwork she’d seen somewhere and could not resist the odd pairing of words. Whatever one might think of it, the usage stuck with me nearly 30 years, much like the memory of a really boorish, bumptious buffoon.

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 licensed for reuse, courtesy of Pexels.

 

Word of the Week! Harum-Scarum

I have had a rather rushed and chaotic week renovating a house we rent, just ahead of new tenants arriving. Thus, I’ve acted rather harum-scarum about this blog, and that gives me a good opportunity to share a favorite word often found in English Literature before 1900.

The OED Online shows a likely etymology as a rhyme made up of hare + scare. If you have walked up on a bunny and watched it flee wildly, going one direction, then another, you get a sense of the recklessness and panic of the resulting harum-scarum behavior. The term is not very old, and the oldest example (perhaps misheard by the writer) from the 17th Century is harum-starum!

Wild, rash, reckless, chaotic, running one way, then another! I frequently see it in Dickensian prose about a “harum-scarum fellow” one cannot trust to act calmly. Not long ago I chastised a friend about his undependable “harum-scarum friends,” knowing that a fellow English Major would get the reference.

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 from Nick Park’s excellent 2005 film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, just because I could not resist.

Word of the Week! Doldrum

Sailing Boat alone

July marks the lowest ebb of my summer, at least when I do not escape Richmond’s continual sauna for more temperate climes. I feel like I’m a ship becalmed under a burning sun. In a word, in the doldrums. By August I’m gearing up for the semester ahead and the doldrums lie behind me.

Our word this week has a fascinating history, with the OED Online providing an etymology from the more familiar “dull” and the less familiar “dold,” meaning dim-witted. We no longer call a dull or boring person a “doldrum,” saving that term for dull moods, as when Carlo Marx, the fictional counterpart of Allen Ginsberg in Kerouac’s On the Road,  complains of times when he is not being creative as his “doldrums.”

I consider the nautical use of the word its most pow

erful. Every summer, for no reason I can fathom, I pack my sea chest and embark on a fictional sea voyage, usually by sail. It is not something I’d ever want to do in reality, but the specialized language of sailing, the rich history, and of course the many disasters compel me to read on. This year my pick is Joshua Slocum’s 1900 memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum was the first person, at least on record, to do so. He faced many dangers, from pirates, storms, to hostile native tribes, and I looked forward with delight to his traversing the Atlantic doldrums, an equitorial region where winds are calm or nonexistent.

Slocum sailed right through, to my great disappointment. Otherwise, the book is really fine reading. Yet to this reader the thought of being beca

lmed at sea seems worse than any storm. All one can do is wait for wind. Thus the term fits well with Carlo Marx’s, and other writers’,  fears of getting stuck.

May your doldrums be brief and a fair wind fill your sails, until the storms of Autumn arrive.

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.

Creative Commons image from Flikr, courtesy of Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

 

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: Palimpsest

This one is so much easier to understand than to say! It refers to a text that has been erased and its writing surface reused. I first learned about palimpsests in Mr. Noble’s course in Medieval History, at UVA, in the early 80s. He was a great lecturer, and he had us spellbound as he recounted the recovery of ancient texts, presumably lost, when modern researchers examined Medieval manuscripts under UV light.

The OED Online provides a comprehensive entry, with the history of the word dating to the 17th Century. I will focus less on that than on how Literary Theorists tend to use the word, rather loosely and sometimes far too often.

The palimpsest as recycled material makes great sense, given the enormous cost of vellum in the Middle Ages. The concurrent impetus to erase the pagan past, ironically, may have preserved fragments of it for us. Had monks more vellum, many more works from Antiquity would have presumably vanished. One entire text by Archimedes comes to us this way, but mostly we have bit and pieces of others.

Modern usage includes the looser idea of anything partly erased by later action, with traces of the earlier meaning remaining. I have heard this in academic talks and read it in articles for years.  Here’s a well crafted example from Leila Walker’s 2012 article, “The Child of the City and the Palimpsest at Sea: De Quincey’s Chronological Constraints”:

A palimpsest arranges its history simultaneously, although the text was recorded sequentially. Each successive layer was added at a particular moment in time, and yet, once added, each layer occupies the same material space as all other layers.

This writer uses the word well in a symbolic sense. It’s a powerful if often confusing metaphor in contemporary literary theory. I have never been comfortable with the word, since it has too many consonants in odd places.

I am also uncomfortable with the idea, one hard to deny, of our entire civilization being a palimpsest. Traces of what came before remain, like the old Richmond trolley tracks, surrounded by granite cobbles and peeking through asphalt poured over an entire street. Ancient bigotries also darkly glimmer under the placid surface, while old sacrifices, some noble, some not so, linger just at the edge of vision.

When future ages inscribe their texts upon the scraped-bare vellum of our civilization, I wonder what they will put there?

7/2/18 Update from Cynthia Price, our Director of Media & Public Relations:

Curious about today’s word. Specifically, in many villages in Africa the students turn newspapers and books sideways to write in the white spaces because they don’t have access to new books. Obviously, the words have not been erased. Would one still call the document a palimpsest since the writing surface is being reused?

I’m not sure, but its close. The children would probably erase the original text if they could, in order to have more writing space. I also am impressed by the perseverance of those who do not have the luxury to simply toss paper into bins, as we also do.

Image 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! Suborbital

As the summer moves along, I review old syllabi and create new ones. I’ve not taught my course “The Space Race” for a few years, but I did review the course materials and the word “suborbital” popped up. It’s a newcomer, with The OED only dating it to 1950.

That term describes not the free-fall of something orbiting the earth, but a specific altitude where one experiences a short period of weightlessness. Humans have been there, and beyond, since the early 1960s, with Alan Shepherd being the first American to do so. For those with enough money, however, there are now other options.

Suborbital flights will likely be in the news soon, as Sir Richard Branson’s latest craft, VSS Unity, has completed test flights and may, within a few months, take paying passengers to the edge of space.

When I explained suborbital fight to my students, I used the old cliche “what goes up MUST come down.” You can see it in the following image of the first two Project Mercury flights.Note the vertex (highest point) of the parabola and the brief duration of the journey. NASA’s little Redstone rocket, a borrowed Army missile based in Werher von Braun’s V-2, did not have the power to lift a capsule and astronaut into a true orbit, where an object is under the influence of gravity without any drag acting upon it. It falls forever but unlike a skydiver, the object in orbit has its decent checked by its forward momentum around the Earth. That perfect balance can last for a few hours or even years, if the spacecraft occasionally boosts its orbit, but for those like Alan Shepard or Sir Richard’s spacefarers, the craft do not attain free fall. They skim into the edges of space, then begin to descend. For a few moments, as they fall, travelers experience zero gravity (and Virgin Galactic customers find their wallets about a quarter million dollars lighter).

Perhaps in the era of cheaper access to space, costs will drop as they once did for airline travel. For now, experiencing suborbital flight seems a luxury for the rich, but so did transcontinental air travel during my parents’ lifetime.

Now we complain about legroom and the food and do not even look out the windows.

Addendum 6/25/18: Dr. Peter Smallwood, UR Department of Biology, reminds me that “For me, suborbital is a vein, bone, or a fracture in the bone just below the eye.”  That is the OED’s first definition, but to space-junkies like me, anything about human spaceflight drowns out the rest.

Virgin Galactic and suborbital fight images 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.