Word of the Week! Casuistry

Peanuts Lucy with FootballThanks once again to Robyn Bradshaw in UR Catering for this pick. At first blush, I suspected a back-formation and a modern word, but The OED dates the word from the 18th Century for earliest recorded use by poet and wit Alexander Pope.

The root is indeed “cause” but it’s a certain kind. As our dictionary also notes, a casuist is “A theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct.”

Our word is not usually a positive one, as it is often associated with sophistry, or mere quibbling over causes in a way that obscures the truth. I suppose casuistry to be useful in our divided and money-haunted political system. Liars and thieves can then proceed with an untroubled conscience.  For some reason, the image of Lucy from Peanuts came to my mind. She’s an expert at the dark arts of casuistry and Charlie Brown? Her perfect patsy.

As for a rule of style here? First, casuistry is not a back-formation, in the way that “solicitate” oozes from “solicit.” Bryan Garner makes it plain, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, that back-formations merely add weight but no meaning to a sentence. Garner advises avoiding them as “needless variations.” On the other hand, he likes (as do I) some back-formations such as “emote,” from the noun “emotion.” Thus language gains nuance and variety. Second, watch your spelling. Note the position of the “s” in our word. I had it misspelled to match “cause” until I proofread this post!

As we Charlie Browns of the world soldier on into the dog days of 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 Caren Pilgrim at Flickr.

 

Word of the Week! Avuncular

Man from Uncle, 1960sDr. Joe Hoyle, a man I’d describe with this word, nominated it. It’s a strange world, however, where Howard Stern now gets that descriptor. Professor Hoyle wrote to me that he’d encountered that usage recently.

Stern has grown wiser from his “shock jock” days, and while retaining his keen sense of humor, he comes across in interviews as more the listener, the wise older man: the sort of fellow you’d not mind having as an uncle. And that’s our origin for “avuncular.” The OED gives its origin as the “Latin avunculus maternal uncle.” Other than an obsolete usage as a term for a pawn broker, our word has maintained its associations with uncles since the earliest recorded usage.

That’s modern, compared to many terms that appear here. It dates from the second quarter of the 19th Century.  There may be an older usage; find a wise uncle and ask him.  And if there is a comparable term for aunts, please let me know that as well. Professor Ted Bunn mentioned to me a 1982 column by the late William Safire, where the author polled erudite readers for a female equivalent of “avuncular.” “Amital” won the day, but as Safire’s colleague noted, it “sounds to me like a barbiturate.”

The results are funny, if you are well read and interested in such things.

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 MidCentArc at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Pestiferous

London Walk, 2017Special thanks to Robyn Bradshaw, with UR’s Catering Department, for our word this week. When I hear it, I think of the Bubonic Plague cemeteries that still can be found in London. I immediately grabbed a photo I shot outside of one such former burial ground, taken during a 2017 London Walk in The City, the heart of London’s financial district. Where bankers now make deals, victims of the Plague once got mass burials. They were long ago reburied elsewhere, but the skull and crossbones still mark the entrance, today. Our guide, pictured, gave us a chilling sense of the terrible pandemic.

The Plague was know as “the pest,” short for pestilence, though today we think of mosquitoes or annoying people when we hear “pest.” The OED gives the Plague association for our word as its second definition.  More commonly, pestiferous means morally corrupt, even annoying. And so the horrors of the Black Death gave way to something that is a mere nuisance. Oh, bother!

If ever a word underwent a change into banality, it’s pestiferous. One 2003 example, “Something I’m afraid to even Google, for fear of the pestiferous spam it might unleash,” shows how far today (one hopes) we stand from the nightmares of the 14th Century. When you visit London (and I hope you do) take time to read about the history and myths surrounded the Underground and the “Plague Pits” of the Middle Ages.

May your summers be pest-free, though I will pester you for new words and metaphors.  Please nominate one 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 by the author. When in London, especially in the off-season, be sure to take one of the Original London Walks! A ghost walk with Shaughan is not to be forgotten.

Word of the Week! Profligate

Super Villain Turner D. CenturyBoth as noun and adjective, our word trips off the tongue.

As the curious image given implies, people who overindulge in vices of the flesh are “profligates” to a bumbershoot-wielding vigilante. The term has a long history, with noun & adjective usages, as well as a transitive verb, given by the OED. The Latin original means overthrowing, conquering, and 16th Century English usage includes those senses. Our modern notion of decadence and debauchery came a century later.

As with so many good words, our word came to me while reading comic books decades ago.

Contrary to the fuming of curmudgeons, many comics taught kids a great deal about vocabulary. This began for me with Marvel’s titles in the “Silver Age” of the late 60s and “Bronze Age” of the early 70s, when a stable of talented young writers penned dialogue under the leadership of the late Stan Lee. Enter a well read super villain, Turner D. Century, whom I recently described as ” a puritanical Luddite. Rides a flying bicycle built for two, has a flamethrower umbrella, and his ‘girlfriend’ is a manakin with a bomb for a head. Primo 70s Marvel.” Though Turner actually dates from the 80s, his vocabulary reaches back to earlier times.

“Profligate” works best, to my ear, as a formal adjective implying more than extravagance. To say “His profligate spending on artwork led to bankruptcy” implies a lot in a single word. Thus the power of an elevated register of speech. I try to teach writers this constantly, that big words used well can save space and time.  In another example, my garden is currently profligate with flowers. So our word has some positive uses. How could you have too many flowers?

The verb usage appears rare. I’d never encountered it, in comics or more staid literary work, until I consulted the OED today. Consider how odd it would be to say “You profligated your inheritanceTurner D. Century closeup! Lord Plushbottom, you are ruined!” instead of “Your profligate habits ruined you, M’Lord. The inheritance is gone!”  Both sound like a dramatic moment from Downton Abbey, but the latter example just sounds “right” to the educated ear. We don’t want Turner setting us on fire for a contested point of usage. He just might.

Hear ye, profligates, debauchees, and decadents! Don’t make me send Turner D. Century after you to pry words from your noggins! Do you 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 the author, from his old stash of comic books.

 

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.

Word of the Week! Polymath

Doc Savage CoverProfessor Joe Hoyle, a polymath in the worlds of business and language, sent us today’s word. In terms of usage, “polymath” functions as both noun and adjective, as in “her polymath intellect soon embraced music theory as well as the poetry and aeronautical engineering for which she was famous.” The OED Online gives us a good overview, meaning a person accomplished in many fields of study, but I want to get reflective here.

Our word is perfect for that dreamy week following graduation, when many young polymaths have left our ivy-festooned campus (“festoon” is a good future word of the week, incidentally). My mind, not polymath but very retentive in ways both good and bad, went right to the reading of my childhood.

As a youngster, I enjoyed the reprints of the 1930s Pulp novels about Doc Savage, a sort of superhero without superpowers. Doc fought evil with wits and training; from birth his strange father (any father who did this would be locked up today) put his son through a rigorous set of physical and mental challenges that included daily training.  Savage ended up the world’s best polymath. In the words on the back covers of the Bantam editions of the 1970s, he had a “protean genius.” Yet not all geniuses are polymaths. In fact, synonyms for our word seem scarce. “Multi-faceted” is fine but a bit broad. “Protean” is the closest fit.

Proteus, a figure from mythology, was many things. He could change forms. So can the intellect of a polymath. Several real polymaths get cited in online lists, but they are certain to  include Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Jefferson qualifies, but like Doc Savage he really cultivated the fact and image of his broad knowledge.  Poet William Carlos Williams was a physician, but it seems that one needs several, not just two, areas of expertise.

I know one living polymath, Fran Wilde, who is both accomplished writer of fantastic literature and a talented coder. She has advanced degrees in Fine Arts and Computer Science, and she draws lovely artwork. Polymath? Yes.  My students enjoy her class visits.

The “Math” in our word is not mathematics. It’s from the Greek μάθη for “learning.”

Naturally, polymaths may have their flaws. I’ve yet to discover Fran’s, but if you know Jefferson’s life, you can quickly find his shortcomings. And if you know the books, one thing Doc Savage never figured out was a shirt that could stay un-ripped. The cover above is a rare exception. But that’s pulp fiction for you.

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 Jonathan Morris at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Epistemology

Death of SocratesWhat can one say about “A borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element; modelled on a German lexical item”? Pretentious, perhaps, yet our word, Epistemology, as cited by the OED in the last sentence, has an everyday use in academe. It’s of recent origin, like much of modern science itself, dating from the mid 1800s.

Simply put, it’s a “theory of knowledge” but as I will explain, so much more. When one thinks hard about it, everyone’s use of data, ways of analysis, and presentation of results hinge upon that field’s epistemology. In my own, English, we have several theories of knowledge.  Sometimes they get us in trouble with those outside the profession, partly because we sling around words like epistemology or hermeneutics regularly (WordPress spellcheck does not even recognize “hermeneutics”).

If I’ve not convinced you yet that “theory of knowledge” does not work accurately in place of our word, consider that the OED also adds that our term distinguishes “between justified belief and opinion.” Every wise fool, in Socrates’ sense, has an opinion beyond his realm of understanding, something not justifiable. As the doomed philosopher puts in in The Apology, the artisans he questioned about wisdom, “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” That same error applies today. Would the epistemology of quantum physics inform the study of Chaucer, or vice versa?

For that matter, while this week’s word is not found beyond our ivy-covered walls, the idea behind it remains sound. Would I presume to tell the HVAC guy which circuit has failed, unless I had knowledge of electronics and that type of system?

Have a word 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 of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Sojourn

Map of Middle EartyMany of my readers will soon take a vacation or, if British, a holiday. Some will study abroad or go on sabbatical (a future Word of the week). All of these temporary absences count as a sojourn, a nice word for this time of year. I’m currently finishing my sojourn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, one I have taken every decade since my early teens.

Usage is really old for this word. The OED records several Fourteen Century examples, most with variant spellings. The etymology sketched out includes a few Romance languages but not any Latin term, though at Etymology Online there’s an hypothesis that our word comes from the vulgar Latin subdiurnare “to spend the day.” All definitions refer to either a temporary stay somewhere, the place itself, or merely a digression. Thus for me, my year in Madrid was a sojourn before starting graduate school, yet Segovia nearby was itself a quiet sojourn from the hectic life of the Spanish metropolis.

Graduates, what of your gap year before the grind of working life? You will never forget that sojourn.

For the rest of you, as the humidity in Virginia rises in June and continues through August, where will your sojourn be? How long will you be away? And what do you bring back from that temporary change of scenery? Finally, can  you find a sojourn in the pages of a book or while watching a film? At present, my sojourn is with Frodo Baggins in Middle Earth, as real an imaginary place as any in fiction.

Keep in mind that at the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo makes not a sojourn but a permanent departure for the uttermost West, across the ocean. He will never return. But I hope you will!

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.

Map of Middle Earth courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Vestigial

Human AppendixDr. Joe Hoyle in our Business School came to the rescue again today, with a word that I associate with “tail,” for some bizarre neuron-event that burned the image into my head, perhaps when reading Philip K. Dick’s science fiction or during a daydreaming session in a high-school Biology class. Yes, we humans have the last remnant of a tail at the tips of our spines. That final bone is our coccyx.

The OED, as usual, gives more nuance here; something vestigial is not merely a remnant but one that survives in “degenerate, atrophied, or imperfect condition or form.”  That string of adjectives says it all. If some island were the last vestige of a sunken continent, then it becomes vestigial. Though of Latin origin, the usage proves recent; the OED does not date our word before the mid-19th Century.

Our bodies are full of vestigial organs and other features, no longer needed as humans evolved: the appendix, our wisdom teeth, and more as detailed in this piece about vestigiality.

Writers beware of one issue: some Google searches for synonyms turned up “immature” or “unformed.” The latter might work, for something like the coccyx. But the former word implies that the subject might mature one day. Though not all eggs become chicks and chickens, neither egg nor chick is a vestigial chicken. An eggshell, however, is the last vestige of an egg.

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 of appendix courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Sentient

Sentient beings

What do these images have in common? They represent sentient beings.

Joe Hoyle, Associate Professor of Accounting at UR, told me that a 2019 goal of his has been to hone his vocabulary. Joe’s nominated word is certainly a good one to employ.

I have used “sentient” incorrectly for years, in in my class about reading science fiction. Often in that genre of fiction, an alien life-form is either an animal or a “sentient” being, meaning (to me) that it acts according to reason, reflection, and logic.

Of course, other stories have aliens wiping humans out and saving other species because humans so seldom employ reason, reflection, and logic. So what do those most sentient of dictionary editors at the OED Online say?

In its oldest sense, “sentient” can include animals or other organisms if they are “capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.”  So for sentience, it would mean responding to stimuli not automatically, but by the senses.

Plants turn to the light, after all, but as stated in an article by Calvi, Sahi, and Trewas (2017), we cannot assume plants are non-sentient because of the “bioelectric field in seedlings and in polar tissues may also act as a primary source of learning and memory.”

Need I feel guilty, then, as I fire up my chainsaw to prune the cedars near my house?

Second-and-third-order definitions of “sentient” include being “conscious” of something. What is consciousness? Animals have it and, perhaps, plants. What of the invisibilia under the microscope?

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 (and it’s a great one!) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.