Word of the Week! Euphoric

Sad Dog in Party HatLet’s end a dark year on a happy note. Do you feel euphoric that 2023 has ended? I sure do.

It’s a greeting-card’s whistling in the dark to say “the best is yet to come,” “hope springs eternal,” or “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” but hey. We are mostly still here and surprises, good and bad, await us in 2024. So we might spare a moment or three to be euphoric on New Year’s Eve.

What about the word itself? It’s from the Greek euphoria, εὐϕορία, which the OED tells me means to “bear well.” That’s a ways from the ecstasy I associate with feeling euphoric. Digging in a bit, the dictionary shows that the original and now obsolete meaning, from pathology, meant a state of well-being. Only later did our word come to mean “a state of cheerfulness or well-being, esp. one based on over-confidence or over-optimism.”

So which mood do you wish for ending 2023? Pick your sentiments, and whichever one you choose, be it whistling in the dark or finding some peace, may your 2024 bring only good tidings.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Word of the Week! Cavil

Girl typing at desktop computer. Caption "Anyone can fake outrage on social media"Professor J.P. Jones in our Law School nominated this word, in particular as a verb. Professor Jones notes that the verb appeared in a recent Economist article. Not a verb I use, it got me interested if for no other reason than to acquire a new action verb. I’m coming off a semester full of dull and boring “is/are/was/were” verbs of being by under-read students.

The OED gives us a succinct definition that any attorney might cherish, “to object, dispute, or find fault unfairly or without good reason.” The noun form means the same thing, a frivolous objection. Our word’s origin?  Latin cavilla, where it meant a gibe or jeer.

No, we don’t ever encounter those today, now do we? Why has “cavil” fallen out of use, then? Here I have no good answer, only some hard and rather dispiriting facts.

The word has suffered a nigh-exponential decline in frequency of usage since the year 1750, falling from over 2.5 occurrences per million words to just over .006 per million. Curiously, cavil rebounded since 2017 and has enjoyed a minuscule revival to just over .009 per million. Still scarce, it appears to have made a comeback in educated circles.

I shall cling to it in an era of palpable stupid prose in once-respectable publications. Goodness, I’m Scrooge-like suddenly. Enough caviling.

The blog will continue in 2024 and I may sneak in one more holiday-themed post before lighting the Yule Log.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Image: random Googling for “Fake Outrage.”

 

Word of the Week! Gestalt

Jackson Pollock Painting

Jessie Bailey Assistant Director for Recruiting, Admission, Student Services nominated this word. I’m surprised we have not featured it before, but then it’s not a word I often use.

One reason? I think of the 1970s and pop-psychology when I see our word, rarely these days. Indeed, usage peaked in the year 1970.

Gestalt comes from German in the 1890s, and it began in the then-new field of Psychology. Any pop-culture misuses arose far later. A 1926 example in the OED sums up “The work of the Gestalt school with its stress upon the unity of psychic processes. Note, The Gestalt theorists.”

I’ll quote the OED here for a definition, “A ‘shape’, ‘configuration’, or ‘structure’ which as an object of perception forms a specific whole or unity incapable of expression simply in terms of its parts.” The human personality certainly qualifies. We all, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, contain multitudes. Our childhood experiences good or bad, educations, work, associations, cultural and linguistic backgrounds all contribute to our personality.

Loosely speaking, “the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts” expresses the idea of gestalt. A homely example would be any event that becomes full of meaning from many inputs. Consider the recent Thanksgiving meal you may have enjoyed with loved ones. That event means more than eating, certainly more than turkey and stuffing. The OED says this about the arts, providing a 1962 quotation that abstract paintings “are concerned with gestalt effects, and with after-images, they are not out to batter one’s eyes into submission.”

I happen to really like Jackson Pollock’s work. It took me a while to see that his techniques involved more than mere dripwork. Somehow the paintings began to take me places, emotionally, by their color and vastness.  Thus the gestalt of Pollock’s work, difficult to name, but to me more than line, color, and size. They evoke in me a relaxed contemplation, and your mood may be different from mine. You might feel battered into submission, whatever the OED says. I feel transported now by abstract expressionism, in a way I was not when I first encountered it four decades ago.

So thanks, Jessie, for a thought-provoking Word of the Week!

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them 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.

Image source, Flowcomm at Flickr

Word of the Week! Cavalcade

armored horsemen in a cavalcadeMany thanks to Writing Consultant Cady Cummins for this nomination. I realize that while it’s a word I rarely used, it also appeared a great deal in reading, until a few years ago. Readers of older criticism and fiction will still encounter it, but has “cavalcade” stopped being a cavalcade?

The OED shows us why usage has dwindled to about  .3 occurrences in a million words. Our word once implied a formal procession on horseback, with the same root as the word “cavalry.” How many such cavalcades have you seen, recently? We might as well say “parade,” but that assembly does not carry the formal heft or equestrian spectacle of our word, even though a casual image search online shows parades as results for “cavalcade.”

Within a century of the first usage recorded by the OED, the word also came to signify any procession. I recall a publication called A Literary Cavalcade. Sure enough, Robert Parker’s six volumes of short literary essays can still be found at Amazon.

A blog continues Parker’s work. Read about it here, then read more entries not collected in the six-volume set.

Parker’s use to me remains an outlier for a vanishing word, indeed, a vanishing (and in one regard, better) world. With so few of my students now reading for pleasure, I fear I’m at the end of a particular cavalcade now trotting off and leaving those behind in a curious, aliterate twilight.

Grim thoughts indeed. So get back on the horse that threw you, non-readers.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Image: Cavalcade courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Halloween Word of the Week! Skeleton

Me with Skeleton, 2023

I’ve featured Halloween adjectives  here before, but not one of my favorite words. As pronounced in England, it’s “skeluhton.” I hear “skellington”or “skellinton,” which I often say just to get a chuckle. Funny bone! Halloween skeletons are not scary by the standards of 2023.

We all know what a skeleton is and in fact, we carry one around with us (well, inside us) daily. Where did this bony word come from? The OED fact-sheet abounds with information, beyond the UK and US pronunciations. We have the Latin sceleton, and I learned that the metaphor “skeleton in the closet” first appeared in the mid-19th Century. I like the contemporaneous metaphor “skeleton at the feast,” for something that ruins a moment of enjoyment.

We use our word metaphorically all the time, in calling things “skeletal” or referring to something wasted away as a “skeleton.”

Carry those bones with you as you consider ways to vary your vocabulary.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

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Image: Selfie with “Bucky,” the skeleton at Glenmore Yoga Studio. Boo!

Metaphor of the Month! Haywire

tangled wiresDr. Mike Kerckhove, in our Math Department, nominated this term, since he knows I bale hay (by hand!) on our farm. As a native Midwesterner, he also wondered if the term comes from what happens when a mechanical hay-baler gets out of synch. Baling wire being what it is, I can imagine the mess.

I’ve long used the expressions “gone haywire” to describe any mechanical or electronic device that starts acting oddly. To me the metaphor signified not quite a complete breakdown but rather a malfunction.

The OED’s new format online includes a factsheet showing earliest known use in the early 1900s, corresponding to the appearance of stationary, belt-driven equipment on farms; the modern balers I have considered buying run off a power shaft on the back of a tractor.

By the 1920s, our current usage appeared common. A few others appeared, such as “a hay-wire outfit” cited by the OED for a poorly run, slapdash operation. That idea persists with the expression for hasty repairs, “held together with chewing gum and baling wire.”

One day I will own a mechanical baler, instead of baling about 10 bales (during a good  year) in a wooden baling box and then binding the bales with plastic cord. That simple operation never goes haywire, but we use about 30 bales of hay or straw, mostly for animal bedding, in a typical year. Once I have a machine to pull behind the tractor, I’ll know first-hand how things do indeed go haywire. Dr. Kerckhove, you are invited to help me with the baling.

Have a word or metaphor worth our time? If so, let me know 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 source from the Creative-Commons guru Cory Doctorow, via Flickr.

Word of the Week! Flummox

Question MarksI love the “mouthfeel” of this term. It makes me want to chuckle.

A search at the OED reveals both a noun and verb form, with the verb being more frequently used. It can mean to confound, to confuse. Often I see it as an adjective, as in “The crossword puzzle completely flummoxed me today.”

I’m flummoxed by the spelling changes in our word over the centuries. The OED gives several options from past examples. Even less certain is the term’s etymology. One interesting idea involves the history of the noun, which once meant a failure on certain college campuses.

What other college terms have entered general usage? At Virginia we used to say “punt” a class for skipping it, or that a class was either a “gut” (easy) or a “bear” (hard).  “Haze,” for a noxious practice of fraternity initiation, has a broader origin, from the military.

Perhaps “flummox” provides one collegiate example that escaped campuses into general use.

Our word also calls to mind the noun “lummox,” for large and ungainly person or animal. As with our word, the etymology is uncertain but “to flummox a lummox” has real promise in a children’s book to teach some vocabulary on the sly to the wee ones.

Do any words flummox you enough to have me investigate? If so, let me know 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 source: me and Photoshop

Word of the Week! Tantalize

Image of the Greek titan TantalusToday I bent down to get a drink from a water fountain. I pushed a button but the closer I got, the lower the water level from the fountain dropped. It proved nigh impossible to secure even a sip.

I felt like poor Tantalus, the Greek punished by Zeus for abusing the hospitality of the gods at a great feast. The details can get rather gruesome, so I leave it to the reader to investigate further. The fellow got stuck in a pool of water but whenever he bent over with parched lips, the water level fell. He was always hungry, but fruit hung just out of reach over his head.

As the OED shows us, Classically minded writers drew upon the Tantalus myth as early as the 16th Century. Again with so many words like this one, it probably enjoyed usage before Gutenberg’s printing press, but we lack earlier examples. The word has, moreover, remained fairly steady in its meaning since then. When you want something just out of reach, you get tantalized. Even mere desire for something can be called tantalizing.

That is, until you remember that a modern water fountain has a sensor to fill a cup easily, no bending or stooping required. Drink up!

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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 source: Wikipedia Commons

Metaphor of the Month! Netscape Moment

Netscape Web Browser LogoThis semester, faculty scramble at an unaccustomed pace to set policies for the use of generative artificial intelligence. Our assignments will never again be the same.

We cloistered academics are having a “Netscape moment.” As the Wikipedia page on the Netscape browser notes, the term became a metaphor for public awareness that accompanies “the dawn of a new industry.” I could not find a first use of the phrase. If you know, please share it in comments.

The shock of this new AI technology, in particular its rapid appearance in our professional lives, calls to mind an instant in 1993 (or was it 4? Tempus fugit) when I spent two weeks at Michigan Tech University, learning how to teach in networked classrooms. One event in particular remains in my brain: seeing a weather pattern from a NOAA satellite move across the screen of a computer, the video feed part of a new application, a “browser” called Mosaic.

In ten seconds, I recognized that everything we do online, personally and professionally,  would change. If only I had invested in the firm; I thought of all the applications that we now have–banking, reserving flights, watching television, buying things we probably do not need.  I recalled my grandfather’s story of how, as a child, he first saw a motorcar in Southeastern Turkey. He would always say to me “I knew that the world had changed forever.”

Mosaic yielded to Netscape, and for many first-time Internet users, that browser spurred an “aha” moment like my own.  From a 2021 story at LinkedIn, we see how usage works for our metaphor, as the writer claims that “cryptocurrency is having its ‘Netscape moment.’ Banks have now been approved by the office of the controller of currency to be custodians of cryptocurrencies.” Thus when our policies and outlook change fast because of a new technology’s adoption–in this case, cryptocurrency–our metaphor comes into play.

You can bet that IPOs for AI firms will be enormously popular. Some will crash. They may crash as hard as Crypto, an innovation I absolutely will not touch.

Other innovations thrive. That’s Silicon Valley history.

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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 source: Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Affordance

Screenshot of iconsThis word perplexed me when I first encountered it, during some discussion of software. I recall the statement “what are the affordances of this particular application?” I disliked the word instantly, yet now find myself using it, as I draft an article about the affordances of peer tutoring by humans, as compared to the help provided by generative AI.

For a word I find ugly, affordance sure came in handy. To get at the root of our word, even the OED will not quite do. Wikipedia, however, with its crowd-sourced wisdom and peer-editing offers just the affordance we need. According to Psychologist James L. Gibson, who coined the term, affordance involves many factors beyond “usefulness.” His definitions cited in the Wikipedia entry involve how a particular environment benefits an animal. When applied to software, which most animals do not use, we see how graphical-user interfaces offer affordances that older command-line interfaces do not.

UNIX users can come lay a beating on me any time they wish to try.

We can dive into the signified/signifier rabbit hole here, but consider how the smart-phone’s icon of an envelope connotes e-mail, whereas a phone headset connotes a voice call.  The affordances of icon-based systems seem rather obvious; we recognize something immediately, saving us time as compared to looking up that command in a book. Older readers will recall post-it notes all around their desktop monitors with arcane tricks for DOS or other command-line programs.

Coda: industrial design is also all about affordance. Look at everyday items in your home or office and note their affordances. I can heat water in a ceramic cup or my teapot. I suppose I could drink from either, yet each offers different affordances.

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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.

Screen-shot by the author