Word of the Week! Abjure

The OathbreakersLinda Hobgood, Director of UR’s Speech Center, ran across this term recently and nominated it. And why am I using a scene from Peter Jackson’s film? Wait for it.

It has a legal sound, to my untrained ear. But that is merely one definition given by the OED. In fact, the term generally means to renounce. In the obsolete legal sense, it meant to leave a place, rather akin to renouncing one’s citizenship in the era before passports. Most all senses of the word are historical or obsolete, yet the word has a formal sensibility that merits its continuance.

One usage does remain current, for breaking an oath. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth, I first learned the term “oathbreaker,” back when I was a teen. These poor fellows vowed to defend a kingdom against evil, and yet abjured their vows. They were cursed to become the living dead, until another king would call upon them to fulfill their oaths.

That’s rough justice. As for our word?

Let’s abjure abjuring abjure, and bring it back into our formal use.

Image of Aragorn calling upon the Oathbreakers of Middle Earth, courtesy of The Lord of the Ring Wiki.

Word of the Week! Loquacious

Blah Blah BlahSome time back, I considered the history of the term laconic. Today we meet its antithesis. It’s the stuff of Twitter: running one’s mouth constantly.

I hate Twitter, incidentally. I hated it long before it became a cesspool for the worst possible ideas imaginable. But I’m loquacious in a different way: I don’t mind running on at the mouth a bit, when needed about a complex topic. Twitter, like social media generally, encourage shallow and small bits of discourse, ones disconnected from deeper meaning, often about vital and thorny subjects.

I know educators use Twitter well, but to me, there’s already a lot of talk, and not enough listening, even in our circles.

“Loquacious” has not changed its meaning much over the years. John Milton used our Latinate term just as we do today, for too much talking.

Shall I be brief about a windy subject?

One old usage, sadly labeled “poetic” and with a last recorded instance of 1888, relates to the chattering of birds.

You know, twittering birds. Tweet tweet tweet.

Word of the Week! Vouchsafe

Downton Abbey CastIn March, I featured noisome as our word; like today’s lexical item, it appears repeatedly in Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth work, London: The Biography. I’m almost finished with its nearly 800 pages of text. I have not been vouchsafed so many uses of “vouchsafe” since I took a class in Colonial Literature, in graduate school.

Sounds old, doesn’t it? Even on Downton Abbey, I’ve not heard it. Perhaps Dame Maggie Smith’s character would have heard it…as a child.

The etymology is common-sensical: we still “vouch” for someone. To “vouch safe” would be, more or less, to safely trust something with another.

To be honest, I was lazy about the word, which is a shame. I assumed it meant to entrust something to another person, but as a casual search in the OED reveals, that trust can come with a measure of disdain. The first definition given includes the sense of granting or bestowing; the second includes doing so with a whiff of condescension, as in this 1660 usage from the OED:

“His Lordship may be pleased..to voutchafe a meetinge..to Sir Walter Dungan.”

Oh lucky Sir Walter, to bask in the glow of His Lordship! At times like that, I’m less fond of Downton Abbey than I am of Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry.

The spelling has changed since the days of Sir Walter, but the verb can be used in a transitive sense, as in the earlier example or one the OED provides from a decade later, “to vouchsafe an eye of fond desire,” quoting poet John Milton from 1671. The one intransitive use of the term is now long obsolete.

I would vouchsafe you our DVDs of Downton Abbey, especially after the third season, when things got increasingly formulaic for me. That said, I don’t want you to think me a condescending snob trying to make you learn new words from the Crawley family.

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Downton Abbey blatantly stolen, as part of an anti-monarchist direct action.

Words of the Week! Obsolescent & Obsolete

Polish Cavalryman 1938I suppose this is, like everything else, a post about the pandemic. I’ve been seeing our words of the week in reference to models of learning and college life that are not longer useful, even worn out. Some bold claims are being made that residential education itself may soon be “obsolete.”

While I doubt that, it seems reasonable to hazard a guess about which practices of ours might be “obsolescent.”

There’s a shade of difference that I knew, however, as a geeky pre-teen obsessed with the history of technology of warfare, in particular The Second World War.

Looking at my home library, there’s a book I read at age 11, Martin Blumeson’s Sicily: Whose Victory? part of a epic series of paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. I think I own about 50 of the titles, and the writing was decent, often by noted historians and with introductions by famous people involved in the actual events from a quarter century before. In the book, there’s a photo with the caption “German flak guns guard obsolescent Italian fighters” with some biplanes in the background.

I heard, and forget the source, that World War 2 began with biplanes and cavalry charges, yet ended with jet fighters and atomic weapons. By war’s end, the two military traditions and their equipment were certainly obsolete, which The OED defines as “out of date.” Yes, a biplane is a flying machine, but not one to employ in combat in an age of jet fighters. The word is a “borrowing from Latin” and dates in the OED’s reckoning to at least the 16th Century. I like that it’s really unchanged in meaning, too. A useful word, that!

As for things that are going out of use, but not gone yet? I have always guessed that fit the meaning of “obsolescent.” Turning again to The OED, I can see that the Ballantine Books series taught me well. This word means “becoming obsolete; going out of use or out of date.”  Thus, for my military examples, horses were used throughout the war, but until the struggle against the Taliban, they did not factor into the military planning of any great power. For biplanes, they are with us but as stunt planes or objects of nostalgia.

Funny how, in a time of pandemic, it’s comforting to use examples from a long-ago, if terrible, conflict. Perhaps that’s because we do not recognize what is obsolescent about our way of life until it’s obsolete?

Send your words and metaphors our way all summer, 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 Polish cavalryman, 1938, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Cryptolect

WhisperThis septic tank needed a glass of Vera Lynn after a bit of rabbiting about the brass tacks of Jah Rule next year.

I’ve just used the most famous cryptolect, Cockney rhyming slang, to tell you that I’m a Yank who needed his martini after talking about the facts ahead for our school year.  You might, if you are a certain age, have guessed “brass tacks,” but the other terms, I’m guessing, remained confusing. None so much as “rabbit” for “talk,” since the mystery term is shortened from “rabbit and pork.” There are so many invented languages, many of them merely collections of slang, that mark membership in a subculture. Some like Thieves’ Cant have a long and rich history and crossed oceans: you might know what a “mark” is if you watched enough classic crime drama.

Such a secret language may be intended to conceal its meaning from outsiders (the “crypto” connoting secrecy); thieves don’t want their marks to know that they are about to be conned. It appears ironic that crytpocurrency is as likely to be used by criminals as law-abiding citizens.

Speculative fiction is full of invented languages; I’m not thinking so much of the complete systems that J.R.R. Tolkien developed but rather the English dialect of a cult of asteroid-dwelling primitives called “The Scientific People” in Bester’s The Stars My Destination or the post-nuclear English of Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The new dialects have an internal logic and convey membership in the group.

We need not travel to the future or distant worlds to find cryptolects. If your own family has terms that convey an entire story but that remain inaccessible to outsiders, you use a cryptolect.  My father refused to teach his children Arabic, save for certain words and terms he wanted to use in various settings, so he could convey a message, secretly, around anyone not in our extended family.

Despite an ancient history and promising future, the word of the week is itself a newcomer. The OED gives earliest recorded uses from the 1980s.

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! Unprecedented

HimalayasProfessor Joe Hoyle gave me a word that helps out in my ceaseless war against the word “super,” that boring and overused adjective that I consider lazy in speech, unacceptable in writing.

We have experienced an unprecedented health crisis, at least in our lifetimes; no one living can recall the 1918-19 Spanish Flu. So in many media reports, from unemployment claims to clear air over Indian cities (pictured) to empty New York streets, we see the adjective “unprecedented” appear. To say that “Indians enjoyed unprecedented views of the Himalayas” is not, however, correct unless a person were under a certain age. Residents of Indian cities are, however, experiencing cleaner air and distant views, the best in 30  years.

That’s not the same as “unprecedented.” “Unprecedented in his lifetime” might qualify matters.

Our word means without precedent.

Where does it come from? To my ear at least, it sounds modern. I would, however, be wrong. The OED provides a first recorded usage of 1641. The word precedent, itself, is Latinate and thus, with ancient roots.

Be careful, as with any “super useful” word, not to overuse our word of the week. Soon, its currency will reach unprecedented levels. Reach deeper into the dictionary for words such as “extraordinary,” “novel” (the virus is called a novel coronavirus, since it’s a never-before-encountered form), “unique,” “unparalleled,” or other exact or near synonyms.

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.

Word of the Week! Grocer

Sainsbury's Checkout LineLet’s face it: the supermarket has dominated our lives lately. It’s one of the few places we can go without too many restrictions. We might even call it “the grocery store,” though many today sell everything from clothing to sporting goods: a giant Walmart does, itself a super-sized version of the General Stores of the early 20th Century. Yet when we think of “groceries,” we think of food and household items.

These stores, in the States at least, go back to Giant Open Air and similar in the 60s. My father was stunned that you could buy tires or a steak under the same roof. At our local Giant Open Air, you could even pick out a steak and have it cooked for you while you watched. Now, restaurants are common in big stores. Wegmans here has a Pub, a Coffee Shop, and a Cafeteria.

Only in the UK, when I encountered the “Greengrocer,” a produce-seller nearly (and sadly) extinct thanks to the giant supermarkets there, too, did I begin to question what a “grocery” was and where it came from. More recently, an article in The Atlantic about the pandemic and its long-term effects on the grocery industry got me interested in this word.

Picking “grocery” apart when saying it comes up with “gross,” and not in the sickening sense, but the sense of something sold in bulk. We trace the word back to Latin grossus, through Medieval Latin and French to get “grocer,” the merchant who sells things in bulk. Our word goes back at least to the 14th Century, as the OED outlines it.

Before the modern era of packaged goods, that is what folk did: pounds of this, dozens of that.  How “gross” also came to mean “disgusting” should be the subject of a future post.

May I admit a certain obsession with grocery stores? Why do I spend time wandering about not only stores, but Groceteria, a site about their history?

My father was a produce wholesaler, after years of driving a produce truck, so I spent hours in various stores, a delight to a kid hoping for a candy bar. In my teens I bagged groceries for the old Food Fair / Pantry Pride chain. It’s nigh impossible to find images of these quotidian, largely forgettable stores. The best I could do is this shot, with “gross” quantities of food on view, from the Food Fair in the now demolished Azalea Mall of north Richmond. That’s a lot of country ham.

Azalea MallThe caption here: In October 1966, the television game show “Supermarket Sweep” visited the Azalea Mall Food Fair for a taping. Before an audience of 300, contestants attempted to guess the correct prices of grocery items in order to win minutes of shopping for free merchandise. Bill Malone, behind the register, was the host of the show.

These were formative experiences, in an era when a cashier could earn a living wage and even retire from a chain store. I always make a point to visit grocery stores in other nations, at least to get things for a picnic. I have learned more about a culture from its grocery stores than nearly anywhere else.

I do wonder how grocery-shopping will evolve in coming years. Will “groceries” come to refer to those things we use at home, delivered to us? Or will we need an adjective for what is perishable, not easily delivered to our doors? Of will grocery-shopping in person wane completely, with modern-day counterparts (perhaps, robots) of the egg, milk, and bread delivery people returning to what was done before supermarkets offered one-stop shopping?

That is for futurists and the Market to consider, not a blog about words. But enjoy your shopping, and may your choices be plentiful and your carts full.

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 Wikipedia; Sainsbury Store. U.K., where I’ve done my share of grocery shopping.

Word of the Week! Exemplar

Bob HooverEvery year, faculty nominate a graduating senior in our program as Writing Consultant of the Year.  Our student should have shown a real commitment to helping student writers and the ability to communicate well and do hard work when facing adversity (and a pile of drafts to read does build character!).

We have a winner, to be announced in a post later this week, but I wanted to explore a word that I link to excellence, high points, peaks.

We have many: paragon, aegis, the somewhat obsolete eidolon. This week’s word, though, has as its virtue sounding both ordinary and a trifle exalted. We recognize its lexical cousins: example, exemplify, excellent. And while some examples can be bad, exemplars are not, at least in the uses I found. Merriam Webster’s online example makes it clear that this is an example to follow, an ideal. To do something exemplary is to act as an exemplar, to do something admirable.

While hunting down a Creative-Commons image for “exemplar,” I discovered that the US Air Force Academy annually recognizes an Exemplar that an entering cadet classes wishes to emulate. I found the 2020 winner, Bob Hoover, one of my favorite pilots; Hoover was famous for his service in World War II, his competitive spirit in air races, and was longtime friend of his squadron mate, General Chuck Yeager. To qualify, “[a]n Exemplar must have exhibited integrity and character in both their professional careers and their personal lives.”

Our word sounds Latinate, so I will take us to the OED, my source for etymology. Partly true! There’s an Anglo-Norman ancestor in play, too. In Latin, it’s a model, an ideal, and much more besides.

We could use more exemplars and exemplary behavior today. Fingers crossed for lessons well (and harshly) learned.

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.

 

Word of the Week! Earwig

See speak hear no evilProfessor Joe Hoyle in the Business school sends us this week’s word, noting “I’ve been reading To The Lighthouse recently and [author Virginia Woolf] uses the word, ‘earwig’ on several occasions.  That’s one that I liked.”

I read the novel a decade ago, and Woolfe’s use of language enthralled me, yet that word did not stick, as “noisome” has during my reading of Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. Yet when a word gets employed enough by a talented author, there’s clearly a reason. So why “earwig”? She did not mean the insect reported, without any real evidence, of crawling into a human ear.

Instead, we turn to metaphorical usage of the the term, one that seems to have morphed into “earworm.” Most commonly, that means a piece of music that gets stuck in our heads. How that wig became a worm is beyond the scope of a short post, but it’s an interesting evolution. At one time, as the OED entry proves, “earworm” and “earwig” were synonyms. I like it that in this case, the two words diverged and added nuance to the language.

In its original and derogatory sense, an earwig could be a person who bends your ear to whisper lies or spread gossip to malicious ends. Try as I might, we don’t have a good term in formal English for such a nasty gossip today; Tolkien’s wicked counsellor Wormtongue provides a neologism that I really love. In any case, the obsolete definition for “earwig,” dating from the 15th Century, appears in the OED entry for the insect.

To get at Woolfe’s meaning, she might have been after the verbal definition of our word, the action of being an earwig, to pester someone, to fill their head with wicked insinuations or outright lies.  While the usage rarely occurs (2 of 8 on the OED’s usage scale) the concept is very much with us. If someone we call an “Influencer” spreads ridiculous notions or outright evil ideas, they are trying to earwig us. Stop your ears before bad ideas worm their way under your wig…

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.

See, speak, hear no evil, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Noisome

London Slums: Dudley StreetThe WordPress spammers are back, purportedly offering praise for these posts but really trying to hawk odd services for obscure software applications, some rife with viruses of the non-Corona variety.

It’s all noisome to me. Today, when someone employs that word, it’s likely to mean something that stinks, literally. Our word once had a broader meaning than the OED’s “Offensive to the sense of smell; foul-smelling,” which itself is a rather old usage, reaching back to the 1600s. Early meanings included things that were simply offensive, even, in an obsolete meaning mentioned in the OED, “Harmful, injurious, noxious.”

You just click some of those spammers’ links. I guarantee they may be harmful to your computer’s continued operations. Noisome!

I ran across our word while reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography.  The author likes the word as much as I do: I’m barely 100 pages in, and I have found three instances. Here’s my favorite:

“London has often been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness.”

If you know London, its noise can indeed rise to the point of being offensive, almost like a terrible smell.  New York noise is different, if no less jarring. Ackroyd chose his terms well here. Eventually, like the smell of a foreign city, the noisome noise of London simply becomes part of the background. In 2018, when we left London for Salisbury at Christmas, we were amazed at the quiet of the smaller city, especially at night.

This week’s word needs a bit of a revival. In the broad sense of being annoying, “noisome” could describe many of the daily indignities of modern life.

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 Dudley Street, London, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons