Word of the Week! Bombast

thesaurus picture

This word came up in class today. We discussed what academic writing is not, and my students noted that mere opinion and an “extreme tone” disqualify work from serious consideration.

So I dropped a “bombastic bomb” on them. Yet this week’s term has nothing to do with explosives. As “bumbast” or “bombaste,” in the 16th Century the term meant the “soft down of the cotton plant,” and could also mean earplugs made of cotton. I’d suppose, from the OED entry, that one plugged one’s ears to avoid hearing a bombastic speaker who employed the current meaning, “Inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject.”

Has this word fallen out of favor? Or simply settled into a settled definition? The latest OED usage dates back 172 years.

If “bombast” proves new to you, as a word in any case, consider some synonyms from a wonderful 1943 book I just found in my favorite used bookstore, Charlottesville Virginia’s Blue Whale Books. The American Thesaurus of Slang, by  lexicographers Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark (such names!) set forth an exhaustive listing of terms not considered formal. It’s a trove of lost words. Several book dealers online list a second edition of 1964; I highly recommend a copy.

Berrey and Van Den Bark give us dozens of great terms, from “Barnumize, bloviate, flash the gab, crack one’s jaw, swallow the dictionary, talk highfalutin’.”

None are very formal, save “bloviate,” which captures saying a lot of large words without saying much of anything. The suggested term “polysyllabic profundity” fails there, since bombast proves as fluffy as cotton. “Pompous prolixity” gets closer still to the empty nature of bombast. Unlike “bullshit,” bombast may be true, but the terms used are overly pompous.

What other terms capture a bombastic method of writing and speaking? Let me know. Meanwhile, thanks to several of you who recently sent me words and metaphors I will soon feature here. They are always welcome. Send them to me 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.

Thesaurus image by the author.

Word of the Week! Propinquity

The Mount, Wharton BedroomDo any fiction writers employ sentences like this today?

“Her glance, making a swift circuit of the room, dwelt for an appreciable instant on the intimate propinquity of an armchair and sofa-corner; then she turned her back to the door.”

Perhaps, if we have the attention-spans to find them.

The example comes form Edith Wharton’s The Reef, a novel I’d never studied in Graduate School, where I first encountered her fiction.  “Intimate propinquity,” along with formal, multi-syllabic terms like “importune” and “discomfit” mark her voice. Wharton was a creature of what scholars call “Old New York,” specifically its gentry. Words such as those I associate with her no longer trip off the tongues of anyone I know, yet they merit study, still.

In short, our word means nearness, be it physical or temporal. As I worked my way into a plot simultaneously predictable and tumultuous (another Wharton word!), I kept returning to this week’s word. I hung on how precisely it revealed the scene of a pivotal conversation between former lovers whose secret always stands of the verge of being revealed.

I am not sure when my reading tastes veered from fiction to history, but it happened gradually. An exception for me remains writers like Wharton, who possessed a towering ability to get into the heads of people of her time, illustrating in detail their moral beliefs, fears, prejudices, and dreams. I consider her books time-travel devices of a sort her contemporary H.G. Wells could not have imagined, with his Steampunk contraption and the resultant Morlocks and Eloi. I love that tale, too.

Right. This is not a blog post about favorite authors but their words.

Yet one cannot be separated from the other. Wharton’s words educated me. I tell my students that they will never grow a vocabulary without reading writers from different eras and perspectives.

Besides, I find it fun to eavesdrop on people from the Edwardian Era. When we read such talented writers, we feel the propinquity of their time, and the people of the fiction spring to life again, well dressed actors staging for us a play that ended a long, long time ago.

Happy reading. Summer may be ending on campus, but reading never ends.

Do you have a word or metaphor you’ve met in your reading? Send them to me 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.

Apologies to Wharton for a Creative-Commons peek into her bedroom at The Mount, from Wikipedia. How importunate we moderns are!

(Nonce) Word of the Week! Pompatus

Steve MillerI almost had an answer to a question that haunts every fan of classic Rock: what IS “the pompatus of Love” from musician Steve Miller’s song “The Joker”? I recall debating it over bags of Doritos.

Then, as I drove back from the Shenandoah Valley with Sirius XM on, DJ Earle Bailey announced he had solved the mystery. Like me, he claims to enjoy the OED and put in the word. It came up an old term related to pomp, splendor, or ceremony. Finally the riddle resolved for the many Space Cowboys, Gangsters of Love, and Maurices of the 1970s who have been dying to know the truth.

So I tried. Not a sausage, as the Brits say. Crickets, as we Yanks say (who do not play Cricket). Earl, check your sources! Steve Miller, looking like a sober, trim, and non-evil version of another Steve who once advised a former President (and who is sadly still around), talks to Jimmy Fallon about how he made up the term here. He says he misunderstood a term from an old doo-wop song.

You can also read the etymology of this made-up term here, one Miller based upon another musician’s “nonce word” (now I have learned something). In fact, I’ll add a new category of posts for these invented terms traceable to a clear origin.

I’d love to feature more nonce words. Got some? Got any words or metaphors? Be you picker, grinner, lover, or sinner, send me  all your pompati, or is it pompatuses?

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Steve Miller, 1977, courtesy of Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Neoliberal

Take off your Left/Right/Center political caps, for a moment. Let’s see what “neoliberal” means and when it appeared. It proves a term bigger than politics, if equally disturbing.

This is (to me) a new word, noted by the OED for its first use in 1898. I find the history of how the term got used, and changed over time, fascinating.

Broadly speaking neoliberalism means “various modified or revived forms of traditional liberalism, typically based on belief in free market capitalism and the rights of the individual.”

In my field of writing studies, however, our word has enjoyed much recent usage, to describe how American colleges and universities appear to be more driven today than ever by market pressures. In the crush, the pursuit of knowledge gets put  into a distant second place, if that. Students become consumers and what we produce? A commodity. See our image above, courtesy of IJClark at Flickr.

Over the years I’ve heard Bill Clinton described as the first  modern neoliberal Progressive, and my favorite print publication, Atlantic Monthly, gets derided as neoliberal. It seems that our word only gets employed, by academics anyhow, in a pejorative sense.  Neoliberals get accused of favoring deregulation, weakening unions, harming the environment. I still find the word slippery, used in a haphazard fashion, as do the terms “technocratic” and “neoconservative,” both of which I should explore later.

I’d suggest that students use it carefully to describe a proponent of free markets, de-regulation, and individual rights, with neoliberalism employed as the philosophy.

But the term defies our current (and reductive, even silly) descriptors of conservative and liberal in US life.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me 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.

Word of the Week! Hagiography

I just finished One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs’ definitive and minute-by-minute account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book is so well written and uses sources so fairly that I want to consider parts of it for a first-year writing textbook I’ll be writing in the coming year.

In any case, I came across this sentence by Dobbs, that “[Kennedy’s friend and aide] Dave Powers makes no mention of Meyer or any other presidential girlfriend in his hagiographic memoir of JFK.”

JFK was no saint; any reading of honest biographies would discover his many very human flaws, including a number of adulterous affairs. Yet some works about his life, ended too soon and so tragically, fall into the realm of our Word of the Week.  At its root, as the OED tells us, a hagiography was a biography of a saint. I trudged through these as a Catholic teen in mandatory Church-history classes. Being a teen, I zoned out, though the martyrdoms stuck with me longest. “Grilled on a griddle! Cool.”  Thus the brain of teenaged boy.

The Saints, of course, led faultless lives and were models of piety and restraint.

That brings us to works such as the Powers memoir and others that cast a person’s life as perfect; it’s the second OED definition and often how we use our word today. A hagiography is suspect and looked down upon by serious scholars.

Students, learn to smell hagiography when it turns up under your shoe. Then find better sources. That’s as it should be. We can still admire what two imperfect men, John F. Kennedy and his rival Nikita Khrushchev, did to back the world away from the precipice of nuclear war, after the Soviet leader tried to sneak weapons into Cuba and got caught, Red (so to speak) handed.

Praise is one thing. Hagiography another, and it has little role in academic reasoning and writing.

As Summer races along I’ll post most weeks. Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me 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.

Public Domain image of our Cold War rivals courtesy of Pingnews at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Volatility

This post, so close to the end of the academic year, begins a new series focused on words that every undergraduate should know from the realms of business and economics. I’ve covered one before, amortize, but that’s rarely a concept needed in one’s 20s.

So I’ve asked faculty and professionals for words that they feel every undergrad needs. Kristopher Olexy, of Capitol Financial Solutions, recommended this term and another I will cover here soon.

Why begin with volatility now? We live in volatile times. You’ll find a good entry on the term at the OED, yet it does not capture Mr. Olexy’s sense of market volatility. He means rapid and unpredictable movements of the stock markets. As a long-term investor I don’t tend to panic with the DOW drops, but many ups and downs in he broader S&P 500 can give me the jitters.

So what does “market volatility” mean? I turn to an investment source for beginners, from Fidelity International:

when a market or security experiences periods of unpredictable, and sometimes sharp, price movements.

People often think about volatility only when prices fall, however volatility can also refer to sudden price rises too.

Let’s see how the S&P has done over the past year, using data from Bloomberg’s free market charts: year-to-date return? Down more than 12%!

Should I panic? When I look at the one-year return, there’s an increase of 1.32%, not enough to outpace inflation but rosier than that big drop. And the five-year return? Nearly 92%. Now I feel good.

So has the past year been one of market volatility? If so, why?

It looks volatile. If you’ve not been under a rock, factors driving volatility include the war in Ukraine, the lingering pandemic, associated supply-chain and labor shortages, political turmoil in the United States, energy prices.  All these variables, the Fidelity site notes, increase volatility.

While I’d rather live in boring times, we have to play the market we have, as investors large or small. My students recently expressed their love for crypto-currencies, an investment vehicle I would not touch with your money. But they are young and can take a greater risk on a very volatile market for crypto. I won’t. Stocks can be unsettling enough.

Aside from that, what should a college student know about market volatility? Not panicking at a first drop in prices is one. Volatility is normal, within reason. It’s also good to accept more of it when young, because too few grads start investing early enough (I did not until my 30s). Imagine putting a few hundred away in one’s 20s, each month, and seeing that blossom into hundreds of thousands by retirement, in addition to other investing and despite volatility.

So I tell college grads not “plastics,” the mantra from the coming-of-age film The Graduate. I tell them to “start investing now. Volatility is okay at 20. At 60, you might lose sleep over it.”

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me 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 courtesy of Pixabay

 

Word of the Week! Blackberry Winter

BlackberriesUntil a week ago, I did not know this phrase. Singer-songwriter James McMurtry, son of two renowned wordsmiths, used it on stage but didn’t explain what the “old timers” meant by it. He has an ear for language that seems on the verge of disappearing.

Since I write this post on a day of Blackberry Winter, let’s explore the idea.  First, I’m surprised that the OED has this regional colloquialism in its pages online. What the definition does not explain, however, concerns the usefulness of a day like today, that last cold-snap before the agony of our region’s hot, humid summer (I detest humidity and prefer cold weather to hot).

The term has its first recorded usage in the 19th Century, so it’s new by linguistic standards. But the idea is old: a late cold front reportedly can help blackberries “set” on their canes, to insure an abundant harvest. Readers can find other “little winters” discussed in this entry at a gardening blog.

I’m a minority in my preferences for cold and snow. So be it. I hope we’ll remember that a cold snap has salutary effects on our food supply, just as those humid July nights make certain a red tomato. If you only know food from the grocery store, it’s worth pondering. Here’s to our Blackberry Winters and Red-Tomato Summers.

If you want to  hear McMurtry sing about a Blackberry Winter, here it is.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me 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 courtesy of Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Sybaritic

Theatre of Sybaris

Here’s a term (a metaphor, really) that I misunderstood. For the longest time, I believed that it implied sensual decadence, the sort we might associate with gluttons and pornographers. In other words, hedonism.

Wrong. Though excess is possible for sybarites, my guide to a more nuanced meaning of our word comes from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s excellent, three-volume account of a walk he took from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I’ve finished volumes one and two, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and The Water. Simply put, Leigh Fermor proved himself one of the finest travel writers of the 20th Century, among other things all starting with the letter P: polymath, prodigy for languages, patriot. You’d do well to pick up his books.

And yes, he was a sybarite who enjoyed drinking, art, natural scenery, and beautiful women. No wonder James Bond and Indiana Jones are said to have a bit of Fermor in them.

As a commando in the Second World War, his fluency in both German and Cretan Greek was so prodigious (another P) that he led a team of commandos disguised as German officers who captured Major General Heinrich Kreipe. While waiting for a boat to Egypt, Fermor and Kriepe sat in a cave, passing the time by smoking cigarettes and spouting lines of verse at each other in ancient Greek.

But like the man himself, I digress. Fermor’s digressions go on for pages, but they entertain. I’m not sure that a dissertation on Sybaris, an ancient Greek city in southern Italy “noted for its effeminacy and luxury” in the words of the OED entry, would prove even a shadow of Fermor’s words.

We today recoil at the use of “effeminate” in a pejorative, even misogynistic sense. In Fermor’s reckoning, however, anyone can enjoy good food, drink,  art, or the company of witty, beautiful people. I remain uncertain about how the prosperous Greek city came to be associated with decadent enjoyment. Jealousy, perhaps, of the wine cellars and good life to be  had in Sybaris? I’d prefer life there to, say, Sparta. Both cities are curious ruins today: perhaps that too is a warning about the virtues of moderation?

Yet forget moralizing and think luxurious thoughts for April, perhaps our most sybaritic month of all.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

 

Word of the Week! Kerf

Table Saw BladeFor the past month, I have been cutting wood with a table saw, a jigsaw, and a compound miter-box saw. I’m a competent if not expert carpenter. So in this age of high prices for materials, I decided that wooden weather-board siding made at home would be cost-effective and beautiful for a porch we turned into a three-season room.

This sounds like my blog about rural life, Tractorpunk, but I’m not going to focus on DIY here, fun though it is. I’m going to focus on a concept and word that merit wider use.

As the photo (thanks, Wikipedia) indicates, a saw-blade removes material as it moves through wood. In carpentry we call that the “kerf” and if one saws hundreds of boards, as I have done, the kerf adds up in big piles of sawdust.

Do readers see the potential for a new metaphor here, one as fresh as the smell of sawdust and far better than that once-wonderful cliche “death by a thousand paper-cuts”?

The OED entry on our word traces it to Old English cyrf, as well as Old Norse a current Icelandic terms; in Iceland a kerfi is a bundle of twigs. All the words refer to a cut, the act of making one, or the result.

If kerf becomes more widely used, I’d use it this way: what gets lost when cuts get made? Thus: “Remind Mister Horrible that laying off these recently hired workers may appear wise, but the long-term kerf will be bad for our bottom line.”

What do you think about kerfs and kerfing? How might this word enjoy wider usage without your losing a finger in a table saw? Seriously. Use new words widely, but don’t use any of the tools I mentioned without a mentor. We cannot fix those kerfs.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

Word of the Week! Hiatus

If you wonder where this blog has been, it’s been stuck in my head while I lay in bed with COVID-19.

Folks, you don’t want to get it. Really. My recovery to full strength is going to take weeks.

Thus, the hiatus.

And what is this odd-sounding word?  And why don’t we have other words in the language that sound like it?

The etymology proves straightforward enough. As The OED has it charted out, we have a Latin loan-word. Scholars of the language, please send me other homonyms that came across intact.

As for meaning, it’s a gap. The order of definitions surprises me, as I’ve thought of the gap in chronological terms, as in “between her two terms as mayor, she enjoyed a ten-year hiatus from local politics while leading a local law firm.”

The first definition given, however, involves a break in a material object, as with a hole in a wall. Sounds very odd to say “we crept through the hiatus in the old wall.”

But there it is. If you have other loan-words from Latin that rhyme with this one, send them, as with other words and metaphors of note, to me 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.

Hole in wall courtesy of Wikipedia. It looks like how I feel.