Word of the Week! Nostrum

Rows of patent medicines on the shelf.My students training to be Writing Consultants recently conducted an experiment in class. They traded papers with a partner and held a writing conference. Then they employed both Grammarly and Chat GPT 4.0 to see what sort of commentary these pieces of software would provide.

Results varied but one commonality emerged: software tends to dispense generally positive-sounding but generic advice such as “be sure you integrate all the sources well” or “check the first sentence of each paragraph to be certain it connects to the final idea in the paragraph before.”

Well, duh. Teaching students to prompt-engineer their questions to an AI helps, but meanwhile, thanks for the nostrums, ChatGPT.  I gave one student that word, one I knew but have rarely have used. I suspect that soon I’ll be using this word too much.

What is a nostrum? Where did it come from?  And why is it related to our photo of “polite soothing syrups”?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary quotes a famous writer for a usage example, “Whether there was real efficacy in these nostrums, and whether their author himself had faith in them, is more than can safely be said,” wrote 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, “but, at all events, the public believed in them.”

A nostrum in our modern sense can still mean a dubious medical cure; several nostrums were hyped at the highest levels of government as preventatives for COVID-`19, with a few fatal and un-prosecuted outcomes. Typically, we instead call these sorts of pharmaceutical scams “snake oil” or just “quackery.” Yet a soothing word or phrase that means little of substance can still go by “nostrum,” especially if otherwise they do not harm a patient.

In terms of origins, our obviously Latin word has an interesting backstory. From my favorite online etymology source, I leaned that current usage dates to about 1600, so again we have a Renaissance term from that era’s renewal of interest in Classical texts for secular learning. You’ll also find many good synonyms for our word at this site, so I highly recommend it. I think I found the origin of the Spanish cura, meaning priest or a cure, there. We have a link to the historically medical (as well as their typically spiritual) cures that clergy brought to folks in earlier times.

I’d heard of the Roman name for the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, our sea. And so it was for centuries. That fact must have been soothing to Romans who could live near the coast without fear of dark enemy sails appearing on the horizon!

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Image Source: public domain image from Picryl

Word of the Week! Phantabulating

Banana-shaped Rocket lifts offProfessor Joe Hoyle in our Business School, a frequent nominator of words here, writes “I was reading today’s Washington Post and came across this sentence, ‘The reason Elon Musk frequently escapes account from other judges is because they don’t see through his phantabulating?’ I turned to my wife once I read, “phantabulating” and said, ‘That sounds like a Joe Essid word.’   Which mystified my wife.” You can read the Post story here, about a ruling against Musk in a Delaware court.

Joe, I don’t use “phantabulating” but I like that word a great deal.

Let’s stop mystifying your wife about our word. An abstract from a medical publication notes that “Phantabulation is characterized by frequent and purposeful interactions with contextually appropriate imagined objects. We suggest that this phenomenon results from confusion between real and imagined objects.”

That definition seems to vary from hallucination. If I see a banana on the countertop when no banana is present, I have hallucinated. If, however, I see a banana where a tomato sits on the counter, yes, we have no banana but I have phantabulated.

Some of you have may have read Oliver Sacks’ excellent book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It has been a few years, but the title itself suggests phantabulating, though a bit of re-reading reveals something very different. I recall that the patient Sacks describes, Dr. P., grabs his spouse’s head for a moment, confusing her for his nearby hat.  Technically, however, as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, Sacks’ patient “has visual agnosia. He perceives separate features of objects, but cannot correctly identify them or the whole objects that they are part of.”

Now back to Elon Musk. He recently announced that SpaceX’s Starship reusable rocket would be enlarged and updated for missions to the stars. Not Mars, 49 millions miles from us (give or take) but, say, to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. I found in Brittanica Online that the star-system lies “4.24 light-years away. A light-year is 9.44 trillion km, or 5.88 trillion miles. That is an incredibly large distance. Walking to Proxima Centauri would take 950 million years.”

Wear your best hiking boots and pack a good lunch.

Humans have difficulty with such speeds and distances, but imagine traveling 30,000 km each second, or 1/10 the speed of light. We’d reach the Moon in 13 seconds from Earth. In four decades, we’d arrive at Proxima.

Mr. Musk has a gift not simply for overstatement but also a remarkable ability to project his vision on technology that does not yet exist, though it’s contextually relevant. Looking at his current interplanetary tomato called Starship, Mr. Musk envisions a future interstellar banana Starship.

So I’d not buy a ticket on a SpaceX interstellar vacation, if I were  you. Elon is phantabulating again.

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

Image: Phantabulated from here and there.

Word of the Week! Trove

treasure trove of coinsI use this word a bit but have never covered it before. Or uncovered it: that may be closer to its meaning.

As someone who follows space-related news regularly, if not obsessively, I came across “trove” in this story about the comet Ryugu. The example from the piece shows common usage: “These samples are proving to be a veritable trove of information, not just about Ryugu but about broader solar system processes.”

I figured there would be a link to the French verb trouver meaning “to find,” since one thinks of treasure-hunters finding a trove of ancient gold or artifacts. The older use of our word got paired always with “treasure,” predating the solitary use of “trove” by several centuries.

The OED entry on this week’s word does not trace the link to trouver, but a page at the Linguistics stack-exchange does, going back even further, “The French verb. . . can trace its ancestry back to the Greek word τρόπος, which means a turn, manner, style, or figure of speech.” So we turn things up in a trove.

Comet RyuguOur little comet doesn’t look like it would turn up much, does it? We are not looking at solid gold. Ryugu’s real trove, however, is knowledge: we may have found a means by which early life emerged on our planet, through cometary bombardment with materials essential to, well, creating us and all life around us. Sobering thoughts for late winter, as plant-life begins to re-emerge from its nap?

Update: I made a few changes today, armed with coffee, to differentiate “trove” from “treasure trove.”

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Image credits: Treasure trove from Bad Sassendorf-Herringsen and comet Ryugu courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Inclement

Stormy skies, Kenmare, Ireland 2011

This time of year, we run the risk of inclement weather; conditions get so bad that we might have to delay opening the campus or even close things down for that business day.

So when the weather is dandy, why do we not speak of “clement” weather?

Our word has old roots, the Latin inclementem. A quick translation reveals “cruel,” something I don’t ascribe to a funnel-cloud. It’s simply indifferent to us and our desires, falling on rich and poor, young and old alike. Then again, we love to personify weather: bitter cold, into the teeth of the gale, the pitiless sun or, more happily, gentle breezes and rain.

Studying the OED entry, we find consistent usage from the 1600s. An 1621 example got used, ironically, for a human being, in “Pope Clement the fift, [fifth] was inclement and cruell.”

Our word of the week enjoys a frequency band of 4, meaning it occurs between .1 and 1 times per million words in modern English. Usage peaked at 1.2 per million words after 1810, beginning to taper after 1840. A minor uptick occurred after 2010.

Back to “clement” for a moment, meaning “mild or human in the exercise of power an authority; merciful, lenient, kindly” and associated with those in power. The OED cites an earlier first use than for its antonym, late in the 15th Century. Though it too has a frequency band of 4, the use of “clement” never rose above .6 per million, and today it hovers at just under .2.  Weather also can be clement, but it’s rarely used to describe mild or gentle conditions. We do often speak of “clemency” when a prisoner is released or a sentence reduced.

I leave it up to the reader to consider if our increasingly inclement weather from climate change drives inclement leadership. I’d like to see both trends reverse.

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image: photo by me, Kenmare, Ireland, 2011: a break in inclement weather!


Word of the Week! Impetuous

Waves crashing on Pacific CoastlineThis week’s word bears close relation to last week’s metaphor, fast and loose. With its Latinate sound, impetuous remains formal enough for academic prose yet captures, in a few syllabus, a sense of rushing headlong and without due consideration. We have all known impetuous people. Maybe we are that, ourselves!

For both objects and people, our word has meant the same thing for about the same number of years, to act with “rash energy,” as the OED notes. Ocean waves, wind, people who plunge ahead recklessly, even imprudent stock investors can be said to act impetuously.  The word implies, in people at least, a variety of passion. Now dear Valentines, hear this: don’t fall in love in an impetuous manner. You will come to regret it! And that’s our link to this week’s holiday.

The word itself comes from the French impétueux. As with so many very useful terms, ours is loan word.

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Image credit: Diana Robinson at Flickr, “Waves Crashing Near Pacific Grove, California.”

Word of the Week! Cerulean

Blue Mesa, Arizona, 2022Forget all those shades of gray. Did you know that there exist at least 270 shades of my favorite color, blue? Blue has a lot of poetic power. We feel blue. If we have talent enough, we might sing the Blues, too.

Artist Yves Klein became so obsessed with a particular shade of blue that he made a point of partnering with a paint-maker to create it. He had difficulty finding a paint that would not change color over time; to him, what became International Klein Blue marked a venture into the Socratic realm of essences. Here’s that color, courtesy of Wikipedia.Tile of International Klein BlueMy favorite blue is cerulean. It appears in the photo at top, one I snapped in the Painted Desert of Arizona, Blue Mesa to be specific, in May, 2022. The mesas present lots of colors, but the sky was a perfect deep blue one gets without humidity. We see it best this time of year in Virginia. The effect of the heat, high altitude, and contrast of sky and topography made me nearly pass out, though I was well hydrated and protected from the sun. It was one of the few moments of vertigo I’ve experienced.

I think it mostly involved that infinite cerulean sky. We felt ready to fall upward into it.

Now let’s recover our balance to consider where we get the word “cerulean.” The ever-handy OED’s etymology for the word notes that it comes from the Latin caeruleus plus a suffix. This means a dark blue. Azure provides a good synonym.

I look forward to another desert trip with lots of cerulean skies overhead. Happy trails until next week. Don’t forget to look up (unless you are driving!).

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Hiking, Sedona Arizona, 2022

Word of the Week! Fatuous

Homer Simpson drops Bart into bottomless pitWe live in an era of fatuous public speech. The OED defines our word as “foolish, vacantly silly, stupid.” That’s about, what? 90% of social-media content and 95% of commentary on YouTube videos, site-formerly-known-as Twitter, and other cesspools of the utopia that never happened online.

Looking for images, I found one of Bart Simpson mooning the viewer. That’s not fatuous. It’s vulgar. I’m not offended by cartoon buttocks, but such silliness goes past mere stupidity. What about that avatar of poor taste, Homer Simpson, dropping Bart into a bottomless pit? Now that’s fatuous in any modern sense of the word. Plus it made me laugh.

Perhaps I’m being fatuous in an older sense provided by the OED, “vapid” or “tasteless,”: from Latin fatuus plus an English suffix, we have a descriptor for so much speech and writing today.

I got interested the word from an exemplar of good taste and carefully crafted prose, novelist Edith Wharton. Over the holiday I began reading R.W.B. Lewis’ biography of her, where I met a few words I plan to feature here, including “insipid,” given as a synonym for this week’s word, as well as a metaphor Wharton used as title for a juvenile novel she penned, Fast and Loose.

Without playing fast and loose with facts, I can now claim that Wharton’s letters to her friends, mostly male and all well educated writers, artists, diplomats, and bon vivants, were never fatuous. To read through the missives of a more literate and more publicly polite time (at least among Wharton’s peerage, such as writers Henry James and Henry Adams) provides an excellent tonic from reading grumpy, fatuous, even frightening remarks in onine public forums today.

I’d go on to claim being online really is not  fully “life” at all, but that remains another topic,  not a fatuous one, either. I know, you are reading this online so another Simpson’s reference springs to mind.

Old Man Yell at cloud

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Word of the Week! Euphoric

Sad Dog in Party HatLet’s end a dark year on a happy note. Do you feel euphoric that 2023 has ended? I sure do.

It’s a greeting-card’s whistling in the dark to say “the best is yet to come,” “hope springs eternal,” or “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” but hey. We are mostly still here and surprises, good and bad, await us in 2024. So we might spare a moment or three to be euphoric on New Year’s Eve.

What about the word itself? It’s from the Greek euphoria, εὐϕορία, which the OED tells me means to “bear well.” That’s a ways from the ecstasy I associate with feeling euphoric. Digging in a bit, the dictionary shows that the original and now obsolete meaning, from pathology, meant a state of well-being. Only later did our word come to mean “a state of cheerfulness or well-being, esp. one based on over-confidence or over-optimism.”

So which mood do you wish for ending 2023? Pick your sentiments, and whichever one you choose, be it whistling in the dark or finding some peace, may your 2024 bring only good tidings.

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Word of the Week! Cavil

Girl typing at desktop computer. Caption "Anyone can fake outrage on social media"Professor J.P. Jones in our Law School nominated this word, in particular as a verb. Professor Jones notes that the verb appeared in a recent Economist article. Not a verb I use, it got me interested if for no other reason than to acquire a new action verb. I’m coming off a semester full of dull and boring “is/are/was/were” verbs of being by under-read students.

The OED gives us a succinct definition that any attorney might cherish, “to object, dispute, or find fault unfairly or without good reason.” The noun form means the same thing, a frivolous objection. Our word’s origin?  Latin cavilla, where it meant a gibe or jeer.

No, we don’t ever encounter those today, now do we? Why has “cavil” fallen out of use, then? Here I have no good answer, only some hard and rather dispiriting facts.

The word has suffered a nigh-exponential decline in frequency of usage since the year 1750, falling from over 2.5 occurrences per million words to just over .006 per million. Curiously, cavil rebounded since 2017 and has enjoyed a minuscule revival to just over .009 per million. Still scarce, it appears to have made a comeback in educated circles.

I shall cling to it in an era of palpable stupid prose in once-respectable publications. Goodness, I’m Scrooge-like suddenly. Enough caviling.

The blog will continue in 2024 and I may sneak in one more holiday-themed post before lighting the Yule Log.

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Image: random Googling for “Fake Outrage.”


Word of the Week! Gestalt

Jackson Pollock Painting

Jessie Bailey Assistant Director for Recruiting, Admission, Student Services nominated this word. I’m surprised we have not featured it before, but then it’s not a word I often use.

One reason? I think of the 1970s and pop-psychology when I see our word, rarely these days. Indeed, usage peaked in the year 1970.

Gestalt comes from German in the 1890s, and it began in the then-new field of Psychology. Any pop-culture misuses arose far later. A 1926 example in the OED sums up “The work of the Gestalt school with its stress upon the unity of psychic processes. Note, The Gestalt theorists.”

I’ll quote the OED here for a definition, “A ‘shape’, ‘configuration’, or ‘structure’ which as an object of perception forms a specific whole or unity incapable of expression simply in terms of its parts.” The human personality certainly qualifies. We all, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, contain multitudes. Our childhood experiences good or bad, educations, work, associations, cultural and linguistic backgrounds all contribute to our personality.

Loosely speaking, “the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts” expresses the idea of gestalt. A homely example would be any event that becomes full of meaning from many inputs. Consider the recent Thanksgiving meal you may have enjoyed with loved ones. That event means more than eating, certainly more than turkey and stuffing. The OED says this about the arts, providing a 1962 quotation that abstract paintings “are concerned with gestalt effects, and with after-images, they are not out to batter one’s eyes into submission.”

I happen to really like Jackson Pollock’s work. It took me a while to see that his techniques involved more than mere dripwork. Somehow the paintings began to take me places, emotionally, by their color and vastness.  Thus the gestalt of Pollock’s work, difficult to name, but to me more than line, color, and size. They evoke in me a relaxed contemplation, and your mood may be different from mine. You might feel battered into submission, whatever the OED says. I feel transported now by abstract expressionism, in a way I was not when I first encountered it four decades ago.

So thanks, Jessie, for a thought-provoking Word of the Week!

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Image source, Flowcomm at Flickr