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.

 

 

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.

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. 

Metaphor of the Month! Infernal

Inferno Image

How appropriate for this season! Virginia’s infernal heat of July and August should remind us why.

In Latin, as the OED entry notes, infernālis meant “realms below.” The use of fire in the underworld is apparently a bit of Medieval Christian theology, but none of the underworlds of Antiquity were places you’d want to spend your vacation.

The association with the hellfire of Christianity can be traced back a long time; the OED’s earliest usage, from 1385, is by Chaucer.

So when I call the weather “infernally hot and humid” I’ve made an ancient reference indeed. Yet we can have “infernally cold” or dry or wet weather. Anything or anyone so bad to seem hellish can wear this metaphor (and some doubtlessly wear it proudly).

Looking forward to your words and metaphors as the weather becomes less infernal!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.

Inferno image courtesy of Daniel Brachlow at Pixabay.

Metaphor of the Month! Shambles / Shambolic

Yorkshire Shambles 2009Joe Hoyle in our Business School and my old friend Dominic Carpin, owner of Dellicarpini Farm, nominated “shambolic” as a word of the week. Then I began to think of “The Shambles” in York, England, a series of meandering streets of half-timbered Medieval buildings.

Instead of a word, we have before us a metaphor.  The Shambles were places in England where butchers plyed their  trade.  A “Shamble” itself was, as early as the 9th Century, a wooden stool. Later, it meant a different piece of furniture: a table where butchers set out meat for sale.  From a still later and metaphorical use, I’ve seen “shambles” used in works about naval warfare during the age of sail; the insides of wooden vessels under cannon fire looked like butcher shops.

From these grisly examples we get the figurative “shambles,” meaning a messy, disorderly situation or place.  And thus the adjective “shambolic,” marked by the OED as colloquial and of recent coinage–the late 1950s!

This is not mere linguistic drift (see the entry on the word “fulsome“) or euphemism. It gets to the heart of why English is such a flexible language. From ancient senses of a word–who would advertise their butcher shop as a “shambles” today?–we get new words and nuance.

We’ll keep at it all summer! 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.

Photo, 2009, of York’s Shambles, by the author.

Metaphor of the Month! Deadline

Deadline SignFor June 1, I’m on deadline for my and Brian McTague’s forthcoming book, Writing Centers at the Center of Change. I planned to take a weeklong break on this blog for Memorial Day, but I wanted to know more about the term “deadline.” In any case it serves me well, if a little early, for our June Metaphor. Where did this drop-dead-serious figure of speech first appear?

The OED Online, for once, provides no definitive etymology of the term! The most interesting candidate is a military one from the United States, with its earliest use given as 1864, during our Civil War. A “dead line” is “A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.”

The grim origin has been lost as we use “deadline” for everything now.

To my knowledge, rarely have editors shot authors or publishers shot editors. That’s my cue. Back to work.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Nick Youngson’s Creative Common Image courtesy of Picpedia.

Words of the Week! Four Summertime “Blues”

Rowlandson's paintingBlue is not a feeling we associate with summer, whatever our teenage experiences while listening to The Who’s song “Summertime Blues.” I began thinking about the many figures of speech, as well as single words, we couple with the adjective blue. All of the four really are metaphors, except for one literal use of the term “blue nose.” Read on.

The other day, a friend referred to a well read friend as a “blue stocking.” The Cambridge English Dictionary calls such a person “an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.” Wikipedia and the OED Online deepen the story, adding a history of an 18th Century literary society called The Blue Stockings. Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic, social reformer and author, started and led the group. It was a difficult time for women who wished to pursue intellectual activities, formally, with no access to higher education.

Today the usage of blue stocking is rare; I’d not heard of it before my friend uttered the phrase. It’s not obsolete, with a currency of four of eight at the OED. Their entry also records a 2001 usage in Vogue that I just love: “Miuccia Prada has..embraced the Waspy,..book-editor look of yore and taken bluestocking style to silk-stocking heights.”

Thankfully, rarity (2 of 8 in the OED’s usage frequency) marks our next word, “bluebeard,” also about women. This, however, has nothing to do with a group of learned ladies but a fiend who marries again and again, only to kill his wives. The OED entry reminds of of Henry VIII’s bluebeard life. It can be used as adjective as well, as in a “bluebeard room” where someone hides something, presumably something grisly. A recent bluebeard from cinema is Robert Mitchum’s character from the excellent (and only) film directed by Charles Laughton, Night of the Hunter. The original Bluebeard (capitalized) came from a French folk tale first published in 1697. That should make us shiver, even on a warm summer day! Bluebeards can apparently be seducers who abandon their lovers, one after another. The verb “to bluebeard” appears, but seems rare.

Are you a blue blood? That is a term I did hear as a child, from better educated peers who talked about the rich families who lived (literally) across the railroad tracks from our neighborhood of modest row-houses. They were the grandees, those “to the manner born,” the would-be aristocrats of our odd little Southern city. As the gentry, they “put on airs.” What why “blue blood”? The OED cites an etymology from the Spanish sangre azul, for the fair complexion of the well-to-do; you can see those veins beneath their milky skin. I prefer skin seasoned by life outdoors.

Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyOne thinks here of Goya’s bizarre and unflattering portrait of Spanish nobility. This term is one I’ve long used, so the frequency (3 of 8) at the OED surprised me.

And finally, we have “Bluenose,” my favorite of these words (usage frequency is also a 3 of 8 at the OED). As a teen, I loved cartoons that made fun of Puritans. Often they were drawn with blue noses and scowls, making me think them eternally ill in the New England climate. That’s partly true; the OED notes that residents of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were called “Bluenoses” for the cold there. It can also be a type of sailing vessel. In this sense, unlike “bluebeard” or “blue blood” it gets capitalized. Usages appear as “blue-nose,” “blue nose,” and “bluenose.”

Usually the days, the term refers to prudes and puritanical busy-bodies. I am anything but, with my heroes being Beatniks, not busybodies, so I enjoy yanking their choir robes. I ran across the a bluenose recently in a comment on a piece I’d written about a “barn find” car for Hemmings Motor News Daily; I’d made an offhand drug reference in relation to the cars of the early 1970s, and a puritanical reader vehemently objected. In my defense, another reader said that the comments section always “brought out the bluenoses.” I loved that banter, but writers need skins as thick as auto sheet-metal, and we have to bear the dents made by many a bluenose reader.

A cousin of “bluenose” is “blue law.” There’s a false etymology that these prudish laws, aimed at curbing sales of certain products or prohibiting certain work on Sunday, came from their origin when printed on blue paper. Snopes notes that the real origin is their relation to the bluenoses who enacted them.

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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.

Images by Thomas Rowlandson, “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club,” and Francisco de Goya, “Charles IV of Spain and his family,” courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: Mayday!

SOS Text

This internationally recognized call for help has long been common parlance, but until today, when I checked the OED listing, I had no idea of its origin.

A 1923 usage listed gives us all we need to know: “Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’  will give place to the words ‘May-day’, the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez’, the French for ‘Help me’.”

Fascinating and perhaps our briefest post yet. Good luck with finals, students!

Have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. 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 Pixabay.

Metaphor of the Month: April Fool

Tarot Deck Fool CardI really did not expect the OED to have an entry for this, but they fooled me! The earliest definition is from the 17th Century, “the victim of a trick or hoax on the first of April.” Our metaphor provides a good counterpoint to last week’s gloomy word, draconian.

That’s fair enough, but where did this famous non-holiday originate, and why? If you want a variant, it’s All Fool’s Day, but that means 1 April as well. I never knew before checking at Snopes.com that the term may come from those foolish enough to forget the correct date, after the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, in the 1500s.

Yet like foolishness itself, the origin remains fickle. There was a Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated about this time of year. I like that one!

Snopes taught me as well not to prank after noon on the 1st, since bad luck will then befall the trickster. The site may also inspire fools and practical jokers with a few famous jokes played on the day. For even more tomfoolery, visit The Library of Congress blog entry for possible origins. Whatever the genesis, we should embrace a day dedicated to lighthearted fun.

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.

Public-domain Tarot Deck Fool image, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Ides of March

Death of CaesarI love literary metaphors, especially ones that date their popularity to a work of Shakespeare’s. We have so many–pound of flesh, sound and fury–but this month’s metaphor has an historical origin that predates the play Julius Caesar.

The OED Online cites  “Ides” as “In the ancient Roman calendar (Julian and pre-Julian): the third of the three marker days in each month, notionally the day of the full moon, which divides the month in half, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months.” The Calends (or Kalends)and Nones were the other marker days. You can read more about them here. Now we see where our word “calendar” comes from.

But back to Ides. If every month had them, why are they so metaphorically significant? Julius Caesar met his end in the Senate after a dire warning, here given from Shakespeare’s play:

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.
Sennet. Exeunt all except BRUTUS and CASSIUS

Julius should have listened better, and kept a keen eye upon his “friends” in Rome. In any case, the metaphor, a lovely one for a time in need of vigilance or a date of reckoning, has fallen out of even learned parlance these days. As with so many fading phrases, it’s a great loss to nuance and history in our language.

When language gets lost or dumbed down, it’s as often our fault as not. I just heard this when the first test passenger for Virgin Galactic, otherwise articulate and precise, described something seen from space as “super super super high def.” Going into space! And all she could manage was an adjective, super, that I consider overused to the point of oblivion. Sir Richard Branson, send me to suborbit. I promise to use more adjectives, many of them printable.

So that’s my challenge for all of you, as Spring arrives. Try some fresh words this Ides of March and every month. After all, as Cassius warns his co-conspirator, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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 credit: There are hundreds of good (and more than a few hilarious) images of the death of Caesar only a click away. This one, a painting by William Holmes Sullivan, comes from Wikipedia Commons and is licensed for Creative-Commons use.