Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Rule of Thumb

We say “rule of thumb” for an approximate measurement or rough guideline when we are uncertain, yet there’s a big misconception about this metaphor’s origin. The OED Online advises readers that “A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated.” Wikipedia’s entry likewise calls this a “modern folk etymology.”

A quick Google search revealed a 1998 article from The Baltimore Sun, where writer Stephanie Shapiro, noting an earlier debunking by William Safire, states that “In the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, ‘rule of thumb’ is additionally defined as a method by which brewers once tested the temperature of a batch of beer: They dipped a thumb in the brew.”

I know one fellow who works in the brewing industry. That rule of thumb no longer applies, if it ever did. Whether that origin from the field of zymology is true or not, I enjoy redeeming a useful metaphor like ours.

Perhaps we need a better rule of thumb for judging words and phrases in fraught times, before we condemn them?

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Timothy Valentine at Flickr.

Metaphor of the Month! Faustian Bargain

The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.

Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.

The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins.  To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.

I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.

Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.

Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month! Dark Night of The Soul

With my favorite holiday of Halloween approaching, I figured that we needed a metaphor that captures dread, doubt, and doom. I must be channeling my fellow Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who enjoyed alliteration. On to our metaphor.

Poe’s masterpiece “The Raven” is all about a long, dark night when the narrator faces a sombre truth:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token. . .

If you know the poem, then you know what the narrator discovers about his lost Lenore. If not, get over to the Poetry Foundation’s site and read it, posthaste.

But where did our figure of speech, captured so well in Poe’s verse, originate? The OED Online has an entry about the word “dark” that includes a reference to St. John of the Cross, who believed in a noche oscura that one must endure to come back into the light of faith. It is a “moment of aridity” that a mystic endures, quoth the OED, not the Raven. Over time, the Spanish Saint’s metaphor grew in scope to become any deep enough existential crisis that rocks us to our cores. The Dark Night destroys our optimism forever or we come out wiser and sadder.

Only that, and nothing more.

Academic uses can be literary (of course), political, or spiritual. Historians will speak of a Dark Night of the Soul for people making terrible decisions: despite his many quoted remarks about the strategic necessity of the A-bombings, I don’t know that Harry Truman ever got over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It would speak poorly of him if he did ever brush it off lightly.

My first brush with the idea of our metaphor happened in an undergraduate English class. Suddenly there came a phrase for the culminating moment in many a text, such as Huck Finn’s decision to “go to hell” to save his friend Jim; since strong texts often develop out of dramatic tensions in their plots or characters, many feature one or more Dark Nights of the Soul. Existentialist works could not really work with them.

I found more than a few literary uses of the term, thanks to a quick Google and Wikipedia search. My favorites? F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, in The Crack Up, that “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Fitzgerald himself struggled with alcoholism and the madness of his wife Zelda. He knew his topic well, as have many other artists.

See you on the other side of Halloween. Good luck.

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 Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Metaphor of the Month: Ivory Tower

This week we begin a new monthly feature. And the timing, in our second week of classes, is spot-on appropriate.

For new students who may have forgotten the concept, a metaphor is a type of figurative speech calling a person or thing something it is not, such as “John is a real skunk!” or the famous parables in the Bible, with the Kingdom of Heaven suddenly becoming a mustard seed.

Now on to our first academic metaphor.

We think, commonly, of “The Ivory Tower” being the haunt of cloistered academics.  Where on earth did that come from? French, actually. The OED Online traces the origin of our term to the second quarter of the 19th Century, from tour d’ivoire, as a place of sanctuary from the world and its troubles.  The image is older, going back to (thank you, Wikipedia) to The Song of Solomon 7:4:

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”

The similes and metaphors just pile up here, rather odd tools of seduction, and in this book of the Bible they get racy, fast. Have a look yourself.

In any case, I find it fascinating that none of the examples provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as my antique version of Webster’s New Collegiate, show the drift in meaning to academia, especially toward the negative sense that political pundits often use to attack us. Only The American Heritage Dictionary sheds a little light (another metaphor!) on our phrase, noting a place of “intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.”

I have many colleagues who would argue that our business in the Ivory Tower is very much about everyday life, especially how to live it in a considered and enlightened way, but this post is no more an op-ed than it is a look at the Bible’s salacious metaphors. Yet that final definition gets us to the pejorative sense of the term. Other ages had Lotus-Lands. We moderns are only left with an ivory tower.

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.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 of St. John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.