Word of the Week! Philology

No, I’ve not misspelled “philosophy.” That word’s lesser-employed cousin means, at its Greek roots, a lover of words.  If you are reading this, you must at least have a crush on words.

As with last year’s post, for the day commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, I wanted a word that would describe him. In addition to his other gifts and accomplishments, King’s writing demonstrate his love of words and metaphor. He was certainly a non-academic philologist. So when did philology, as a word, originate? Why has its usage tapered off today?

The OED gives us Chaucer’s example from the 14th Century, then more early 16th Century examples for earliest uses; as with so many other words at this blog, blame Gutenberg for that. I suspect that the study of language, and the sharing of ideas about it, spread with the spread of printing.

Usage ranks a surprising four of eight on the OED’s scale. That means our word is not common but also not unguessable for English speakers. It ranks alongside one of my favorite words, schismatic, yet I imagine that more academic ears would recognize our term than the one just given. Outside of Academia, both would sound alien.

Even within my circle of scholarship–writing centers and writing classrooms–no one has ever called a colleague a “philologist.” Why then has this term fallen from favor in learned circles? Most faculty I know have a curiosity about language, whatever academic discipline they practice. One supposition I see, in a casual Google search, involves snobbishness and worse, bigotry, an early generation of scholars who served as gatekeepers for “proper” written English. Those same grandees might be horrified by the OED’s inclusion of another of my favored words, “badass.”

To learn more about the modern debate about the history of philology and what constitutes philology today, read James Turner’s book from Princeton University Press (I plan to) and Mark Liberman’s post about how it fell from grace as a formal academic pursuit. Liberman posits a new definition that I both like but find limited, “the discipline of making sense of texts.”

Can we broaden that to spoken language? More than ever, we could use an inclusive form of philology to get students and those outside our campuses to be curious about, even come to love, the play of words. Poetry slams are a start. Studying speeches by King and other gifted writers would be another branch of modern philology.

I’d welcome any other speculations about the waning of philology, as word or practice, in comments. While you speculate, 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 ancient books of Wales courtesy of Wikipedia.

Words of the Week! Weather & Whether

Ah, homonyms in a time when we are once again becoming an oral culture. Too many of my students neither read enough seriously nor read with care when they are required to do so. Hence, the repeated docking of 10 points (they can get them back) for confusing “whether” and “weather.”

As in Dylan’s song, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s blowing an ill wind, for nuance in the language. I think. If so, I cannot stop it with my 10 measly points.  But what if these winds blew before? And will blow again? Hence my Mead Hall photo. We are going back to the time of Beowulf, fen-stalking Grendel the monster, and the warlike but helpless Geats that the monster preyed upon.

As we’ll see, there were once two distinct terms in play that now sound exactly alike. So where did our words come from and where diverge? Let’s dip again into Henry Bradley’s The Making of English, (a steal for your Kindle at 99 cents, the one sort of book I like to read on a screen). The philologist notes, in his chapter on changes of meaning, that “[m]ost of the distinctions that exist in spelling and not in pronunciation are between words that are historically different, and when this is so the various spelling usually represent obsolete varieties of pronunciation.”

“Whether” is one of the oldest English words I’ve featured. The OED dates an obsolete adverbial form back to the time of Beowulf, with the Old English term hwæþ(e)re. Leaving that term in the Mead Hall with the brooding Geats, let’s move forward in time a bit, to look over, in your own sweet time, (spelled many different ways) the multiple ways in which “whether” got employed down the centuries. It’s almost maddening to follow the many twists and turns this one ancient word took, until we get to 1819,  with Poet Percy Shelley wondering in a letter, “I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no.”

So am I. Can I teach Gen Z why the words are not interchangeable in writing? Or is it as doomed as Beowulf’s last battle with a dragon? Let’s not go there. What about the weather? Here we have another ancient word, this time from German, rendered in Old English as weder. I suppose when Grendel ventured out into the fens to maim, mangle, and eat Geat, he did his best work in foul weather, and he was able to distinguish the pronunciation of the two terms. The OED notes morphing in how the word got spelled, but like whether, weather (the word, if not the phenomena) settled down by the 19th Century.

What will happen next, round the colossal wreck of whether and weather? I’m no weatherman. I don’t know. Our modern forms of communication lend themselves to encouraging more simplification. Maybe we’ll use one spelling such as “wether” in a century, and listeners will then, as now, know which way the linguistic wind should blow. I and my 10-point penalty will be long gone, either way.

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.

Mead hall image courtesy of Wikipedia. I really wanted one of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm, but I didn’t know weather whether it would be safe for work.

Work of the Week! Carol

scroogeEver since I took on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in our school’s 6th grade Christmas play, I’ve wondered about the term “carol.” The only other instance of the word had been a proper name, usually female.

When meant as a “song,” usage can be traced as far back by the OED to the 14th Century. For a song specifically for Christmas, the oldest recorded usage there is the 16th. By the time Dickens wrote his tale, I suppose other uses of the word had become rare. Like the novelist, however, we still employ the adjective “Christmas” before the noun, a redundancy; there are no Thanksgiving carols or Valentine’s Day carols, after all. Some of us even go “caroling,” and we do not modify the gerund at all.

As to its origins, our word of the week harkens back to the Middle English karol and the Old French carole. The latter apparently signified a round dance with singing.

Incidentally, “hark,” a verb for “listen” that we tend to only use in a particular carol, itself comes from Middle English. We trot out the language of Chaucer for special occasions, or even older words such as last year’s pick, Yule.  Think about it for a moment: when have you used the word “herald,” as a noun or verb, save in reference to a newspaper’s title?

I have been reading Henry Bradley’s excellent, and once influential book The Making of English. I’ve an inexpensive Dover edition, but it can be had, for free, online. Bradley notes how enriching the influence of other languages were upon English, a process that continues today. The very act of including new terms adds nuance, Bradley insists, and “the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest to our purpose. . .ought to be strenuously rejected.” In that spirit, “carol” has come to possess a singular use, giving us just the right term at just the correct time. Bradley refers to this process of narrowing meanings as specialization, “whereby a word of wide meaning acquires a narrower sense.”

Something about the season of lengthening nights, then returning light, also brings out ancient words from many faiths, words perfectly suited to solemnity of long dark nights or the joy of celebrations. Some of us “deck” those halls and “trim” a tree without cutting it. I attend a Yule party every year, where we “wassail” the apple tree: drinking a toast while saying the old “Wassail! Drink hale!” from pre-Christian days.

So hearken to these antique terms this holiday.  And may they be as bright as Scrooge’s, after he had some ghostly visitors. No humbug around here, please!

We will ring in the New Year with a metaphor of the month, but until then, we’re away for the holidays. 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 from A Christmas Carol courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Read the entire text there.

Word of the Week! Bellwether

Sheep in snowRobyn Bradshaw with UR Catering suggested this timely word. I heard it employed in reference to our recent Virginia election. A quick Google search of “2019 Virginia election bellwether” reveals that the term has become overused to the point of cliche by journalists. Though bellwether is a metaphor, I’m not going to post this as one; the original term has been so lost from our daily experience that the word seems a linguistic oddball (a word worth its own post).

But what, anyhow, is a bellwether? Literally, it’s the leader of a flock of sheep, the one with the bell. That dates to at least the 15th Century, but it’s not very kind to my native state. Neither is the definition of “wether”: a castrated male sheep.

Ouch. So let’s get figurative here. The OED records the earliest metaphorical use also in the 15th Century, simply as a leader. In those uses, the bellwether was a person, not an event. I cannot recall, in US usage, that nuance. Today we mostly use the term in relation to elections, sometimes stocks, though an entry at The Grammarist provides a few other fine examples from American English. However one employs the term, it generally means an indicator or predictor of something likely to happen more broadly, later.

Watch your spelling on this one. I have long misspelled it “bellweather.”

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.

“Sheep in Snow” courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Word of the Week! Dilly-Dally

Dilly Dally imageHere, thanks to Professor Bill Ross of Mathematics, we have a noun and verb (no variation in forms, there) apt for this time of the semester. Whatever you students (and faculty) do, now is not the time to dilly-dally.

The OED hyphenates our term, and the entry notes how similar terms, like zig-zag or shilly-shally, all express “a see-saw action.” In our case, the vacillation is between acting or not acting. The word is old, with recorded uses going back to the novel Pamela in 1740. No etymology appears at the OED. Certainly other terms for this back-and-forth exist. Send them my way.

There’s nuance in dilly-dally. This type of indecision does not necessarily stop us in our tracks, nor is it quite equal to being a slow-poke; a minor Tolkien character calls his helper a “slowcoach” in The Fellowship of the Ring. More is at stake than taking one’s time. I suppose a dilly-dallier could be purposeful, in order to come to a decision, or simply plodding. Others seem to make that call. The person dilly-dallying may not even know it.

I would say more to you dilly-dallies (a rather rare nominal plural) but we need to get busy! To work!

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 Needpix.

Word of the Week! Sardonic

SardonicI enjoy a spooky post for Halloween, so this year to follow our 2018 Metaphor The Dark Night of the Soul, I have a word useful all year long.

Odd little boy that I was, I could not wait every month to grab a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmlanda black-and-white magazine covering horror films. One cover’s image stayed with me a long time: the image of Mr. Sardonicus, a man who suffers to terrible a scare that his face gets twisted into an eternal, Joker-style grin. There is nothing happy about such a fate.

But is that “smile” of his really “sardonic”? Absolutely. According to the OED Entry, laughter or a smile meets the definition if done in a “bitter, scornful, mocking” way.  That would also describe a great deal of humor in otherwise scary movies.

As one might guess, the term sardonicus provides the original for several words in Romance languages, as well as our English term, with usage first recorded in the 17th Century.

May all your goblins and ghouls bring only treats on October 31, and no sardonic tricks.

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.

Word of the Week! Paradigm

Copernican Solar SystemOur blog is back from Fall Break. Has Fall Break become a paradigmatic part of student life? I suspect that I just misused an honorable academic word, as many others have done, so let’s look deeper.

I learned the word from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book,  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the author notes:

Attempting to discover the source of that difference [between debates in the sciences and other fields of study] led me to recognize the role in scientific research of what I have since called “paradigms.” These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.

Kuhn’s 1957 book, The Copernican Revolution, does an even better job of explained one particular “paradigm shift.”  After we had a sun-centered model of our solar system established, we never really could go back.

The adoption of Kuhn’s idea in the nearly 60 years since has been astounding, from boring corporate Powerpoints to often opaque, and occasionally silly, literary theory. Before Kuhn, however, what was the status of this overly popular term?

The OED traces our word to “post-classical Latin paradigma,” meaning an example. Examples range back to the 15th Century. I’m surprised that the entry’s usage frequency is six of eight. The definitions clarify what sort or example a paradigm can be. It’s closest to Kuhn’s notion as a “pattern or model, an exemplar.” Kuhn’s own usage for science gets its own set of definitions. I hope that this sense of the word endures. Kuhn, in defining paradigms, provides us with a paradigm for academic immortality, the best any scholar can hope to have in a busy world.

Use our word carefully. I write a bit for Hemmings Motor News, and I and other readers recently sparred over misuse of the word “iconic” in regard to car designs. Now I think that some designs, say the Jaguar E-Type, are paradigms: they establish a pattern that every other maker of sports cars tries to capture.

In terms of pronunciation, remember “brother, can you spare a dime?” from the Depression-Era classic? That’s your clue.

Spare us a few 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 heliocentric solar system courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Praxis

PraxisApologies for a late post. I’ve been working on a different deadline, and the Friday afternoon cutoff for a Monday Spiderbyte notice slipped by, well, like a ship in the late afternoon.

We have an excellent word to make up for that tardiness, one I employ in every class where I train our Writing Consultants. Sharon Condrey, UR’s Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll, nominated a word that enjoys a good deal of academic usage; it could also prove very helpful in business settings.

I learned “praxis” as a newly minted teacher of first-year composition at Indiana University.  According to the OED, praxis is of mixed Greek and Latin parentage. It came to me through the writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and political radical (radical ideas among grad students were nothing new in the mid-80s, nor are they today). Freire very much intended to employ the Marxist notion of the term, that is, the application of economic theory to everyday practices. In a less charged political sense, that was how we applied ideas then new to the writing classroom, through pedagogy such as guided peer-review, collaborative learning, and subtle yet powerful methods for “pre-writing” when drafting essays.  This is where I got my notion of making writers prepare a “bias statement” early in the writing process, then keep it with them as they attempt that neutral and nuanced voice of the Academy.

Peruse the OED entry and you’ll find political and linguistic meanings for praxis, yet all of them are “performative” in some manner.

I tell my writers and Consultants what David Bartholomae’s theory of “Error Analysis,” where nearly every error signals a mistaken intention, not some mortal sin, is the “soul” of Writing-Center praxis. Our praxis makes some faculty and writers mad that we do not proofread papers. I have patiently explained that that level of “doing for” a writer is not only unethical but also unproductive:  writers need to know where and why their intentions went awry and then, only then, we teach them. This is hard work, but this praxis of writing centers presumes that writers can learn by doing, that repeated errors provide clues to their intentions, and that most error is systematic in some manner.

That series of axioms, derived from Bartholomae’s and other scholars’ theories, led to our modern praxis. Think, now, about a modern office that involves any degree of creative work. Don’t the “open office” layout, guided teamwork, and a flatter hierarchy all come from a theory about how we work best together? Otherwise, we’d still be in the top-down, if colorfully drunken, world of Mad Men. Don Draper and Roger Sterling were fascinating characters, but I’d not want to work for them. Would you?

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! Susurrus

This week, UR and VCU hosted writer Fran Wilde for a  workshop on voice. Fran is giving a reading at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to celebrate the release of  the anthology His Hideous Heart, where modern authors reinterpret tales by Poe.

During our workshop on campus, I asked her the first word of Poe’s that came to mind, a word she associates with this unique voice.

“Susurrus” is a fine choice! The OED entry calls it a “whispering,” a “rustling.” Think about how the sense of the word fits its sound. That’s called onomatopoeia, a word I had to memorize in high school, and spell correctly lest the yardstick in Father Raymond’s hands came down on me:

From a remote distance, half-sensed in that gloomy place called a school yet more like a Romanesque prison-house beneath a mossy tile roof, I can to this day, in a moment of dread that darkens the sun, almost hear a susurrus of priestly robes, as the phantasmal figure glided toward me, a rod of malice raised high over the rage-knotted face

I think you get the idea of why Poe enjoyed the word.

If you can imagine the half-heard noises in The House of Usher, you have our onomatopoeic word of the week, as autumnal a term as any that Poe uttered. Though of Latin derivation, the term only dates to 1826. Why it came into being, save as an artistic coinage, remains a mystery.

Reading Poe to PoeBut that’s just so for this season of the year and for Poe’s work. He did give us the detective story, after all. Let’s get busy solving this one, if we can. I look forward to a susurrus of whispered half-answers.

Special thanks to Fran Wilde for an excellent workshop and a fine Word of the Week! She also provided advice about pronunciation. Accent that second syllabus, sus-SUR-us. I’ve been saying “SU-surrus” for decades, incorrectly. It’s a fine term never encountered in everyday or even academic speech, yet in writing, it conveys enormous power.

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 Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.

 

 

Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

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.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.