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.”

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“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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

Word of the Week! Registrar

HIgh Density Filing System

Last year, I covered “syllabus” as our word for the first week of classes. It’s one that many students never encounter before arriving on campus.  Given the ancient history of universities, there’s no surprise that many words unknown beyond our gates crop up.

Some terms, like “campus,” “curriculum,” or “physical plant” enjoy broader usage, but I could not immediately think of anywhere else I have heard “Registrar” employed. Students learn quickly that our Registrar’s Office does a fine job of setting up enrollment systems, guaranteeing course-credit where credit is due, tallying units of same so a student my gradate correctly.  But where did they get their name?

Several British officials have held the title, including one roughly analogous to an American Justice of the Peace; this much I learned from the OED’s entry. Thus any official or office charged with keeping civil or clerical records could be a Registrar. In US parlance, however, at first I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Then I recalled  that at the last election I saw a reference to our Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.

Thank a Registrar for your vote getting counted, the diploma hanging on the wall, or the transcript your employer requested.  The OED has this usage dating to the early 18th Century. For other meanings, our word goes back to the 16th Century and probably earlier.

So when you call upon the Registrar this semester, tell them you appreciate the assistance: their work makes this place possible as an official, degree-granting entity.

Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such largely invisible services: I wish I had a photo of the UVA Registrar’s vast filing system from the 1980s; they provided the State of Virginia with my official transcript, proving my degree so I could take a tech-writing job for the Department of Corrections. My duties for DOC involved proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records for an early database, OBCIS (The Offender Based Correctional Information System), now mostly a footnote in the history of corrections; the data have been merged with other databases, into what I hope remains an accurate set of records.

We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to storing paper; we needed only a small conference room to do the OBCIS coding. We managed paper files for over ten thousand incarcerated felons and an equal number out on parole; the files all moved about on an automated retrieval system. The core of this was a giant conveyor belt for floor-to-ceiling file cabinets. If a Parole Board member or the Governor wanted a file, it needed to be available at the counter in no more than a couple of minutes. Peons like me? We waited longer. The facility included advanced fire-suppression technology that did not use water. Loss of records, none duplicated, would have been catastrophic. We’d have lost release dates, psychological profiles, and opinions by members of our Parole Board.

It could be mind-numbing work, but we kept a supply of coffee handy and kept reminding ourselves that mistakes might delay a person’s release or hasten it. In a different DOC job a few months later,  I had the wrong inmate show up at my office for a pre-parole interview. He admitted that he got a free ride in a police car and a meal at a different jail. He was a non-violent offender and very affable, but no one believed his story. I gave him a cup of coffee. The next day, we got the right guy in for his chat.

Today, an incorrect entry in an electronic record and be annoying, even damaging, but with backups on and off-site, one hopes that we can avoid chaos.

Addendum for August 28: thanks to reader Marybeth Bridges for this medical reference from the UK, replete with British spellings:

A junior doctor undergoing specialty training under the UK model of graduate medical education. Under the Modernising Medical Careers programme, juniors complete two years of general medical training—the so-called Foundation Years (FY1, FY2)—after which they compete for National Training Numbers (NTNs) and begin specialty training (as specialty registrars), often beginning in the 3rd year after graduating from medical school.

Registrar posts are often described by the year of specialist training expected of the appointee—e.g., year anaesthetic registrar SpR3 is a reasonably experienced anaesthetic trainee.

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Storage system photo courtesy of Police.com. Get one for your files at home! You know you need one!

Word of the Week! Arriviste

From All About EveLast week’s parvenu provides an excellent example of a loan-word from French. English has so many of these terms that they merit their own category at the blog.

Last week’s word was not quite as nasty as this also rare term, so I love it! To quote the OED, the arriviste “persistently strives to advance his or her position, social status, etc., esp. to an extent considered ruthless or unscrupulous; spec. one who has recently or rapidly advanced to a social group for which he or she is considered unfit or unworthy.”  We can use the term as noun or adjective.

Such unwelcome and unhealthy ambition! There’s no sugar-coating our Word of the Week this time. Parvenus could, I suppose, simply want to join the crowd. Arrivistes simply do not belong. They will use any means to get in.

I suppose we smile upon the parvenu who behaves well, but we should beware the arriviste. Think of the classic film All About Eve. Things do not end well.

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Film image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Parvenu

Screaming Chicken Trans-Am
Unknown

Professor Joe Hoyle once again comes to our rescue in the dog days of August. He suggests “parvenu” and it’s a fine word I never use. Now, however, I plan to do so! Professor Hoyle writes:

The Thought for the Day in the Richmond paper was, “We are all snobs of the infinite, parvenus of the Eternal.”  James Gibbons Huneker.  The word that caught my attention was parvenus, the plural of parvenu which means, “a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity.”

Though the usage here may be kindly and figurative, usually to be called a “parvenu” is not flattering. The OED entry notes that term as more derogatory than descriptive. It’s a French loan-word dating only back as far as the 1700s.

To those we quaintly called the “Old Money” crowd, when I was an undergraduate at UVA, parvenus drove new Pontiac Trans-Ams or some other gaudy machine, purchased by newly wealthy parents. Two old-money classmates I roomed with in a Summer language institute drove beaters and never had what my mom called “folding money.”  One could sense their disdain for the flashy, even tacky, new wealth. I never heard them say nouveau riche, also a French borrowing, but I bet their parents did.

The noun and adjectival forms are the same, as is the sense of being a social climber, an upstart.  Parvenus are not typically ingenues, a term I associate with young innocent women in films and literature. Think of the main character, at least in the start of the novel, in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. By the end, Carrie is most certainly a parvenu. Parvenus often, however, are louche, another Gallic loan word that I adore.

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Image of “Screaming Chicken” 1977 Pontiac from Wikipedia Commons.