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.

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.

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.

Word of the Week! Disaffiliation

leavingIn the prior post I discussed a word for crossings: ford. Today’s word is longer, and currently, more poignant in describing a transition. We are using it on our campus to discuss the decision by some students and faculty not to participate in uncompensated activities that promote our university.

For a time I considered ending this blog until student voices were heard about several demands, including the removal of buildings named for a slave-holder and a supporter of eugenics.

Instead, I’m going to take a different tack. As events play out on campus, I plan to affiliate this blog with words related to the long struggle for equality by marginalized people. This will keep me busy even as I work on more tangible projects to help

Disaffiliate is not a pretty word, and it rings as hollow as lots of 20th Century terms with their origins in bureaucracy. The noun form indeed comes from that era of “gray flannel suits” but the verb is far older, with the OED giving us a first recorded use of 1863. The example proves as colorful as anything else in the satirical magazine, Punch:

The wretched Lodge of Foresters who ‘continued their festivities’ after the murder, will of course be dis-affiliated by the rest of the body.

The definition of our word has not changed for more than a century and a half, to “end or remove the official connection of  to an organization.” In that regard, this post can simply end here. What, however, does the verb mean in the context of a particular institution or culture?

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 courtesy of lanchongzi at Flickr

Word of the Week! Ford

Old Ford Inn, WalesI don’t mean the vehicle in your driveway: our word predates by at least 1000 years Henry Ford’s horseless carriage and all that came from it. While of little use in academic prose, the word demonstrates the history of an everyday word made nearly obsolete by bridges. You may have sat in or driven a Ford, but when was the last time you crossed at a ford, to ford a river?

Decades back (time flies) I dined in the pub of a roadside Inn in rural Wales called “The Old Ford Inn.” It’s a charmer and it’s still around. When you tour the Brecon Beacons area, be sure to stop in.

My snapshot of the sign was on film, since it proved to be the last vacation taken without a digital camera (now, my phone does that duty). I well recall an image showing a Model T Ford motorcar crossing a stream at a shallow spot: the original meaning for a ford, both noun and verb.

The term dates to the Middle Ages, and the term was also “ford” in Old English. Variants include “vord” (Middle English) and “forde.” All indicate a shallow place for crossing a river. See the OED entry for examples.

It remains mysterious how the surname “Ford” emerged. For people who lived near a ford? Or were the first fords ford-keepers, as there were smiths, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, tinkers, and leathermen? All these trades, and variants of them, became surnames when such things originated. Peter Ackroyd’s excellent history, London: The Biography discusses the emergence after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Read a bit more at the BBC about the process.

So where did Henry’s ancestors get their last name? A Wikipedia page gets beyond the shallow waters here. Whatever your last name, take a look.

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 courtesy of The Old Ford Inn, Llanhamlach, Brecon. The local lamb, when it’s the roast of the day, is to die for. The same goes for any of the meat pies.

 

Word of the Week! Moxie

moxie soda logoI love this old word, and I’m so out of touch with popular culture that I did not realize that it appears as the title of a 2021 film and a line of dolls.  My life remains complete, but I still like this word. My student John Kurkjian used it in a paper recently, to describe an aspect of heroism that unites the very different characters in the films Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff. John knows a good new vocabulary word when he spies it.

So what on earth is this bit of American Slang? It comes from the trade name of one of America’s first mass-produced soft drinks. From there the beverage loaned its name to personal virtues.  As usual, the OED comes to my rescue, for “Courage, audacity, spirit; energy, vigour; enterprise; skill, shrewdness.” I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing “moxie” a great deal soon; as with other words that seemed to have fallen into disuse for no good reason, it is primed to make a comeback.

Let’s hope that moxie itself does, too. I don’t drink soda, but I like the values of self-reliance and what gets described with the overused term “grit”; moxie would be a fine companion to them in troubled, uncertain times.

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 source: Wikipedia. It’s from one of the nation’s first mass-produced soft drinks.

 

Word of the Week! Idiolect

Whisper

Several of my old college friends use phrases that appear ridiculous to outsiders. We call each other “dummy” or greet each other with the exclamation “Dit!” In reference to Beatnik culture, we say “that’s beat” for run-down or beaten up, or “peeled” if someone or something is really “beat.”  We’ve been known to call each other “peely-poo” when life gets rough.

We are using an idiolect, and I’m certain many of your families and friends employ one. The OED defines it, a fairly recent word, as the “linguistic system of one person, differing in some details from that of all other speakers of the same dialect or language.”

That original definition does not fit the dialect or private language of a very small group of speakers, though the OED does include Ebonics as an example of “the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social dialects of black people,” making our word something used by a particular community. Note the spelling difference in the example, one the OED calls a 20th-Century convention. We are well into the next century, so heed that change.

I’m guessing that the trade pidgin of the Solomons Islands would quality as an idiolect, as would the slang of many subcultures, as well as cryptolects such as thieves’ cant that thrived in England until rather recently.

Some of these words escape into wider use, as with “rube” for an easily fooled person and a “mark” as someone to be targeted for a crime.

I hope this post helps you to consider the private or hidden language around you, words that you might otherwise take for granted.

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.

Creative-Commons Image “Whisper” by Jamine Gray at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Perseverance

Mars landingThe day this post runs, NASA will have tried something novel for the human race: landing a vehicle on Mars specifically in a site that once held liquid water. The landing technique itself fascinates me: a hovering lander that will use a “skycrane” lowering rover to sample the soils of that ancient lake bed on The Red Planet.

The Rover? As with NASA’s earlier rovers, it has a poetic name: Soujourner, Curiosity, Opportunity.

This one? Perseverance. It takes that quality to send a machine that far on such a hazardous journey. And the word itself?

We have a French loan word, and since that time, the word has remained popular.

The OED’s first definition reveals a meaning that itself has persevered, a “constant persistence in a course of action or purpose; steadfast pursuit of an aim.” I enjoy finding words like this that do not vary over the centuries. Time erases so many things, but some persist.

Student writers might use “persist” as a synonym, yet that word to me, like “endure,” lacks the active nature of “persevering.” A robot like our Mars rover can be active; the evidence of hypothetical Martian life would merely persist.

So consider how, faced with challenges, “carry on” might work for a person or a machine, though it sounds less formal. Perhaps readers can offer other synonyms.

In any case, here’s to NASA’s bold mission, one we’ve discussed in my first-year seminar, The Space Race. Happy landings and good luck hunting ancient microbes. If Mars once harbored life, even microscopic life, Humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos would change forever.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA.

Word of the Week! Impeach

Andrew Johnson's ImpeachmentForget the Senate trial for a moment. This is not the space to discuss that, anyway. What about the word itself?

It came first to my attention in 1974, when Richard Nixon got impeached in the House of Representatives but resigned before the trial in the Senate.  I kept thinking of the fruit from a peach tree, and that bears no relation to our word. As a verb, “impeach” has a history reaching back to Middle English and Old French, as in this 14th Century usage cited by The OED: “He schal dwelle þere alle his lif, and no man enpeche hym” or “he shall dwell here all his life, and no man impeach him.” A noun form appears in written records about 200 years later.

Originally, the verb could mean “to hinder” or other synonyms. That would be the case for The OED example just now. Verbs signifying “the action of impeachment” gradually narrowed to two meanings still current. One we are using this week means to bring formal charges for an “act of treason or other high crime or misdemeanor” or “to find fault.” A second usage still crops up when we say someone’s conduct or action remains “unimpeachable” or beyond suspicion.

We have other “im-” prefix words in English: “imbibe” and “imply” spring to mind. A quick peek at the OED entries revealed that they share the Medieval roots of our Word of the Week as well as a transition from  -en and -em prefixes to the modern spelling.

Such elder usages and meanings vanish from human memory over time. Other memories do not fade so easily.  I recall well exactly where I was when President Nixon announced his resignation on national television.  A short period of healing followed, too short a time.

To provide a sense of the history of the process for political leaders, the reader may wish to consult a comprehensive history of impeachments, globally, at Wikipedia. Our image comes from their page about President Andrew Johnson’s Senate trial.

Have a word or metaphor you would like covered here? Send them to jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu.See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.