Word of the Week! Quagmire

bog photoThis post is a tough one to make, as it comes on the heels of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. I’ve heard our two-decade involvement in that nation called a “quagmire,” and often wondered where we got this word, so often used metaphorically.

We have lots of words for swampy ground: wetland, marsh, bog, fen, morass, mire. Some like “mire” have a negative connotation, implying getting stuck, sinking, drowning perhaps. My guess was that the “ag” ending implied a Scottish origin; the Morag is a monster from Loch Morar, after all: a less-famous version of Nessie.  We have those “hags” of magical origin, too. And haggis. Don’t laugh, as it’s something I came to really like during my Scottish walking trip in 2014, to the point of eating it with all three meals one day.

A look at the OED entry parts the mists to reveal not a monster of Scottish origin or a broomstick-rider but a variant spelling from the 16th and 17th Centuries: wagmire. A “quag” is, however, a rarely used word for a marshy spot.  It’s likely a regional English term, as is mire or “myre” in older spellings. That word came from Scandinavia in dragon-prowed longships.

Why we need quag and mire together? It’s rather like saying “Marshy swamp” or “boggy marsh.”  Perhaps the intention was to imply how dangerous a particular wet place could be. We will never know: the answer sank in the quagmire long ago and has been obscured by the marshy mists of millennia (and really bad alliteration).

If you have words or metaphors to share, contact me by e-mail (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.

Bog image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Comity

Senator John WarnerProfessor Joe Hoyle in Richmond’s School of Business nominated this word, noting that in a column about the death of former Virginia Senator John Warner, “the journalist used patrician, mien, stentorian, and comity in a single sentence.  For newspapers today, I thought that was mighty impressive. ”

As do I. Warner earned all those adjectives, but comity above all. He was a man whose long career exemplified comity, which The OED defines as “Courtesy, civility, urbanity; kindly and considerate behaviour towards others.”

We could use more comity, its first usage noted in the 16th Century, in our angry modern times.

Somewhere around here I have a letter Warner (or at least his staff) wrote to me about his decision not to support funding for the International Space Station. I strongly wanted it built, and in my letter I said that Warner would no longer have my vote unless he supported a robust program of human-crewed space exploration (I’m as big a zealot as Elon Musk for settling the Solar System beyond Earth).  Warner’s reply was so temperate, so reasoned, so full of comity in admitting that our disagreement could be civil that I did pull a lever for him once more, in 1996. My wife voted for Mark Warner in the election, another Senator I greatly admire today. We still joke about our two-Warner household.

I chose Joe’s pick because we begin a school year after a great deal of strife on campus over institutional racism, the pandemic, and more. Perhaps it’s a vain hope, even a fool’s hope, that like John Warner, we can learn to reach across the divides between us to hear each other’s stories, even to agree to disagree.

Now for an entry on “stentorian.” That’s a word I have long wanted to cover. If you have words or metaphors to share, contact me by e-mail (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 Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Tolkienesque

Now that classes are about to resume on our decidedly Harry Potter campus, I’ve been reading the third of J.K. Rowling’s novels. I’m not a huge fan of the series, but it has been light summer fun.

It’s inevitable that Rowling gets contrasted, often unfairly, to work by an earlier British fantasist, J.R.R. Tolkien. We already have “Hogswartian” or “Potteresque” in the language, though I’d hoped to find “Rowlinsian.” The latter would be my preference, to honor her work and influence.

Old J.R.R. need not worry about adjectives named for him, though he now resides in what he would probably call “The Undying Lands.” The Oxford Don’s fiction generated an adjective that provides our Metaphor this month. I’ll think of it often as we get those golden hours at daybreak and dusk, once the weather breaks near the Autumnal Equinox. I associate “Tolkienesque” with glimpses of faraway mountains, groves of ancient trees, or the slanting golden light that always seems to be falling in Rivendell or Lothlorien, or perhaps on the walls of Minas Tirith, just before Sauron’s darkness descends for the awful battle there between good and evil.

You know a Tolkienesque landscape when you see it. I suppose a slag heap that reminds one of Mordor suffices, too, but usually, I hear the metaphor applied only to dreamy or ruggedly awe-inspiring places.

Tolkien’s friend and renowned fantasist C.S. Lewis beat us all to the punch, in 1950 no less, by calling something “Tolkienian,” a form now apparently falling out of use. By The OED’s reckoning, our spelling of the metaphor first appeared in 1970, about the time that the Counterculture’s fascination with Middle Earth blossomed into a cottage (or at least Hobbit-hole) industry that continues today, thanks to Peter Jackson’s films. Things Tolkienesque got spurred on by his tremendous LOTR trilogy and they survived his lamentable Hobbit films.

A few other writers, such as Virginia Woolf (Woolfian), H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraftian), and J.G. Ballard (Ballardian) have been so honored. Shakespearean? Miltonian? These enjoy long and respected usage.

I hope your Fall semesters are as epic, if not as dangerous, as Frodo’s journey through Tolkienesque landscapes.

As always, 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.

Tolkienesque landscape, Isle of Skye 2014, by the author

Word of the Week! Planet

The planets, and outer space generally, have been making the news, so I wanted to look at the word itself. What other terms sound like it in English? Not many.

I was looking at a piece of commissioned “book art” in a colleague’s office, made from a text called Wanderers of The Sky, and then asked if my assumption were correct. The word “planet” comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “wanderer.”

My recollection of my history of astronomy courses comes in handy, here. To the Ancients, the inexplicable (to them) phenomenon of retrograde movement by the planets proved baffling. As a planet’s position across the sky changes night to night, eventually the thing appears to move, temporarily, backward.  It wandered. As the EarthSky site linked explains, you can see this when driving:

As you approach a slower car, it’s clearly moving in the same direction you are. As you pull alongside and pass it, however, from your vantage point the car appears to move backwards for just a moment. Then, as you pull ahead of it, the car appears to resume its forward motion.

With a sun-centered solar system, the explanation is easy: we are lapping an outer world. With Earth at the center of the pre-Copernican universe, however, all sorts of baroque, even perverse, explanations got proffered to explain the way the lights in the sky behaved.

The OED entry on the term confirms this origin, and thus I’ll tag this post “loan word.”

Here’s a word we use literally, save in adjectival senses I find silly, such as a Frito Lay’s extinct “Planet Lunch” snacks marketed to harried cubicle clones (and, as a quick Web search reminds me,  little kids who should eat healthier).

Compare how we use “star” metaphorically each day to describe those famous for their fifteen minutes under the sun. Or “sun,” as in Shakespeare’s famous play on the word in Richard III, using both metaphor and a play on the word “son” in one sentence:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

As we amble, like planets in their orbits, toward the start of the semester I’ll update the site with new words and metaphors on occasion, until our pace quickens in September.  If you have words or metaphors you would like covered, send them my way at jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Photo by the author

Word of the Week! Paroxysm

Mount St. Helens EruptingThis term is one I do not often use, yet it simply “looks right” on the pages of literary work. Characters experience a paroxysm of grief or anger.

Where did it come from? It resembles, at first glance, no other words we use regularly, even in academic settings, except “paradox.” The OED, as usual, has an answer. The word has Latin roots, but it came to English in the 16th Century via Old and Middle French, for the “onset of an illness.” Though I avoided COVID, right before the pandemic I got really ill: I’ll never forget the onset of symptoms of what seemed like influenza. I lay shaking abed with fever and chills.

If that’s not a term fit for the sudden onset of bad things, which is usually how we employ our word, I don’t know what else would quite fit.  Our word can describe outbursts in nature, too: an Oklahoma tornado or the violent eruption of Mount St. Helens.  That type of volcanic activity would, however, be the opposite of an ongoing and relatively gentler Strombolian eruption, using a word covered here before.  The slow torture of human-caused climate change does not constitute a paroxysm, though individual weather events can.

The only positive use of the word that comes to mine would be a paroxysm of laughter. I hope we all have a few of those this summer with friends and family, after the grim months we all have endured.

If you have words or metaphors you would like covered, send them my way at jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Mount St. Helens blowing her top courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Compass Rose

Compass RoseSummer means a time for me to read a book about the sea. I’ve written about this habit before, a strange one for me, as I really dislike the US East Coast beaches south of Maine. Give me a rocky shore near mountains and deep blue water, please, not sandflies, crowds, and blistering heat.

On such a coast as I prefer, a compass rose would come in very handy for a mariner. It’s the often fanciful symbol of a compass on a map. In the image above, one is set in concrete. In each case, the image provides both reference and aesthetic pleasure.

I ran across this term in Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, an often terrifying account of escort duty during The Battle of the Atlantic. The first ship crewed by many of the main characters is Compass Rose, and I began to wonder why a cartographer’s symbol that looks only faintly like a flower might have earned that honor.

At GISnet, Bill Thoen notes a 13th Century origin for the term, stemming from (pun intended) the resemblance the design to a rose. There was also a device called a “wind rose” for determining the direction of wind, “but the 32 points of the compass rose come from the directions of the eight major winds, the eight half-winds and the sixteen quarter-winds.”

I’m no sailor, so I’ve never heard of half or quarter-winds. Now I have. Thoen’s entry takes us further back than does the OED, which has an earliest recorded use of 1527, describing the symbol as “The roses of the windes or pointes of the compasse.” I like that notion of the roses of the wind, though soutwesterly winds in my part of the world are more like damp blankets. I prefer the west wind or a stiff northwesterly, thank you.

As metaphor, compass rose shares lots of floral company with a host of other similes and metaphors such as “fresh as a daisy,” a downcast “wallflower,” and Virginia Woolf’s famous (and often apt) comparison of academics to hothouse flowers.

May your gardens be full of flowers this summer. If you have any words or metaphors to add, contact me at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu.

image: Compass rose in concrete;, Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, MD, courtesy of Margaret W. Carruthers at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Monadnock

I have long enjoyed climbing Old Rag mountain near Madison, VA. It provided me with a then-new word, when someone called it a monadnock. Since summer hiking weather is here, let’s explore what, at first glance, seems a Native-American word.

Our word comes from Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, whose origin (thank you, Wikipedia) “Loosely translated. . .means ‘mountain that stands alone.’ ”  Over time, that peak figuratively crossed the Atlantic, so alpinists all over the world refer to such lonely peaks as Monadnocks.

As metaphor, the word has real power. I’ve heard people of strong character called “mountains,” but the OED has an excellent example by W.H. Auden, in 1947, “O stiffly stand, a staid monadnock, On her peneplain.” Auden just gave me another word I’ve never encountered; a peneplain is a level area formed by erosion. The poet knew his geology, all the better to frame a monadnock.

Get out and climb a peak this summer (if you can beat the crowds, post-COVID). I’ll save Old Rag for the off-season.

The blog will continue occasionally all summer, but 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 Fuji, one of the world’s most famous monadnocks, by Kawase Hasui.

Word of the Week! Resolution

Resolution SignAfter 30 years working for the university, I’ve seen many instances of what we’d call “resolve” among groups of students and faculty. But never before in my career here has there existed such a profound sense of resolution. We resolved to make it through a pandemic year and stand up for the rights of black students on campus, by challenging a tone-deaf decision to retain names of buildings honoring a segregationist who supported eugenics as well as a slave-holder.

I’m proud of our determination, or strong wills, or resolve. So where did the word “resolution” get this meaning? It was around a long time before The OED notes its first use in 1594 meaning as “firmness or steadfastness of purpose.”

Of Franco-Latin etymology, the term has instances from medical or chemical parlance dating back another 200 years. I refer you to the ample description of the word origin at the link above.

Our term still resonates well today. We “hereby resolve” in official documents; we sign documents that constitute “a resolution.” In fact, we act in a real-life drama that resembles the “climax or denouement of a play, novel, or other narrative work, in which plot elements are brought to a conclusion,” as The OED entry explains.

Things are not fully resolved on campus, but I’m confident that we’ll see a full resolution of the issues before us next year. It felt quite good to be part of something in a small way historic nationally, but on campus, momentous indeed.

The blog will continue occasionally (I’m writing a book proposal) all summer, but 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 Picpedia.

Words of the Week! White Supremacy

protestor in MinnosotaIt’s an ugly term now, but at one time, it meant something more condescending than violent, though often violence got justified by the perceived superiority of one race over others.

We have bandied this phrase about a great deal this year on campus and outside the campus gates. In my post I’m not so much pointing fingers as I am exploring a question: where and when did these words first get paired? When did they first acquire a negative connotation rather than a patronizing one?

As usual, I begin with the OED. a first recorded usage appears in the 1824 publication Emancipation, nine years before that occurred in the British Empire. I lack enough context to judge the nature of the quotation, “It may be too late by any means, however wisely and honestly attempted, to reduce them to order and obedience under White supremacy, or even among themselves.”

Presumably, the author writes about those soon to be emancipated. If that were the context, it is condescending: what would come to be called “the white man’s burden” for the recently enslaved becomes one of making these people docile and obedient. That presumes they are less civilized than the author of the piece.

On the other hand, the next OED example casts white supremacy in a negative light. In Thirty Years in India, H. Bevan writes that “The security of our empire in the East would be greatly strengthened if..our functionaries would abandon, or at least conceal, those notions of White supremacy, which are frequently absurd, and always offensive.”  The quotation dates from 1839.  Certainly, by the 20th Century, our term became associated with hateful ideologies.

Who first coined the phrase remains obscure, though I’m certain scholars have unearthed that first instance and its growth afterward.

Bevan had a more modern vision of what we today decry, than did others of the era. Today our term has a nearly universal association with hatred, bigotry, and fascism, excepting those extremists and terrorists who view it in a positive manner.

So where will our term go in the future, as both Europe and the United States become majority-minority societies? We shall see.

As always, 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 protester courtesy of Lorie Schaull at Flickr.

 

Word of the Week! Recalcitrant

Stubborn man in suit, arms crossed

Hat tip to Robyn Bradshaw for nominating this fancy way of saying “obstinately disobedient; uncooperative, refractory; objecting to constraint or restriction.” That’s the OED’s first definition for a word that comes to us from smack-dab in the Age of Reason, with a first recorded use of 1797.

In terms of our current campus debate, a refusal to listen to petitions, votes, and common 21st Century sense marks that recalcitrance of one side or both, depending upon your perspective.

I side with our Black students, so my bias should be clear as to who is not listening to reason. Yet the word proves a useful alternative to ones such as “stubborn,” “close-minded,” “pompous,” “megalomaniacal,” “arrogant,” “disdainful,” “disrespectful,” even “self-righteous.”

There are other rude synonyms I will skip, as I’m fond of the Age of Reason and fonder still of being politic about these matters. What I say aloud and in private are of little concern here.

As always, 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.

Recalcitrant dude in suit courtesy of Pixabay.