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!

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them 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 source, Flowcomm at Flickr

Word of the Week! Cavalcade

armored horsemen in a cavalcadeMany thanks to Writing Consultant Cady Cummins for this nomination. I realize that while it’s a word I rarely used, it also appeared a great deal in reading, until a few years ago. Readers of older criticism and fiction will still encounter it, but has “cavalcade” stopped being a cavalcade?

The OED shows us why usage has dwindled to about  .3 occurrences in a million words. Our word once implied a formal procession on horseback, with the same root as the word “cavalry.” How many such cavalcades have you seen, recently? We might as well say “parade,” but that assembly does not carry the formal heft or equestrian spectacle of our word, even though a casual image search online shows parades as results for “cavalcade.”

Within a century of the first usage recorded by the OED, the word also came to signify any procession. I recall a publication called A Literary Cavalcade. Sure enough, Robert Parker’s six volumes of short literary essays can still be found at Amazon.

A blog continues Parker’s work. Read about it here, then read more entries not collected in the six-volume set.

Parker’s use to me remains an outlier for a vanishing word, indeed, a vanishing (and in one regard, better) world. With so few of my students now reading for pleasure, I fear I’m at the end of a particular cavalcade now trotting off and leaving those behind in a curious, aliterate twilight.

Grim thoughts indeed. So get back on the horse that threw you, non-readers.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them 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: Cavalcade courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Halloween Word of the Week! Skeleton

Me with Skeleton, 2023

I’ve featured Halloween adjectives  here before, but not one of my favorite words. As pronounced in England, it’s “skeluhton.” I hear “skellington”or “skellinton,” which I often say just to get a chuckle. Funny bone! Halloween skeletons are not scary by the standards of 2023.

We all know what a skeleton is and in fact, we carry one around with us (well, inside us) daily. Where did this bony word come from? The OED fact-sheet abounds with information, beyond the UK and US pronunciations. We have the Latin sceleton, and I learned that the metaphor “skeleton in the closet” first appeared in the mid-19th Century. I like the contemporaneous metaphor “skeleton at the feast,” for something that ruins a moment of enjoyment.

We use our word metaphorically all the time, in calling things “skeletal” or referring to something wasted away as a “skeleton.”

Carry those bones with you as you consider ways to vary your vocabulary.

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them 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: Selfie with “Bucky,” the skeleton at Glenmore Yoga Studio. Boo!

Word of the Week! Flummox

Question MarksI love the “mouthfeel” of this term. It makes me want to chuckle.

A search at the OED reveals both a noun and verb form, with the verb being more frequently used. It can mean to confound, to confuse. Often I see it as an adjective, as in “The crossword puzzle completely flummoxed me today.”

I’m flummoxed by the spelling changes in our word over the centuries. The OED gives several options from past examples. Even less certain is the term’s etymology. One interesting idea involves the history of the noun, which once meant a failure on certain college campuses.

What other college terms have entered general usage? At Virginia we used to say “punt” a class for skipping it, or that a class was either a “gut” (easy) or a “bear” (hard).  “Haze,” for a noxious practice of fraternity initiation, has a broader origin, from the military.

Perhaps “flummox” provides one collegiate example that escaped campuses into general use.

Our word also calls to mind the noun “lummox,” for large and ungainly person or animal. As with our word, the etymology is uncertain but “to flummox a lummox” has real promise in a children’s book to teach some vocabulary on the sly to the wee ones.

Do any words flummox you enough to have me investigate? If so, let me know 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 source: me and Photoshop

Word of the Week! Tantalize

Image of the Greek titan TantalusToday I bent down to get a drink from a water fountain. I pushed a button but the closer I got, the lower the water level from the fountain dropped. It proved nigh impossible to secure even a sip.

I felt like poor Tantalus, the Greek punished by Zeus for abusing the hospitality of the gods at a great feast. The details can get rather gruesome, so I leave it to the reader to investigate further. The fellow got stuck in a pool of water but whenever he bent over with parched lips, the water level fell. He was always hungry, but fruit hung just out of reach over his head.

As the OED shows us, Classically minded writers drew upon the Tantalus myth as early as the 16th Century. Again with so many words like this one, it probably enjoyed usage before Gutenberg’s printing press, but we lack earlier examples. The word has, moreover, remained fairly steady in its meaning since then. When you want something just out of reach, you get tantalized. Even mere desire for something can be called tantalizing.

That is, until you remember that a modern water fountain has a sensor to fill a cup easily, no bending or stooping required. Drink up!

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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 source: Wikipedia Commons

Word of the Week! Affordance

Screenshot of iconsThis word perplexed me when I first encountered it, during some discussion of software. I recall the statement “what are the affordances of this particular application?” I disliked the word instantly, yet now find myself using it, as I draft an article about the affordances of peer tutoring by humans, as compared to the help provided by generative AI.

For a word I find ugly, affordance sure came in handy. To get at the root of our word, even the OED will not quite do. Wikipedia, however, with its crowd-sourced wisdom and peer-editing offers just the affordance we need. According to Psychologist James L. Gibson, who coined the term, affordance involves many factors beyond “usefulness.” His definitions cited in the Wikipedia entry involve how a particular environment benefits an animal. When applied to software, which most animals do not use, we see how graphical-user interfaces offer affordances that older command-line interfaces do not.

UNIX users can come lay a beating on me any time they wish to try.

We can dive into the signified/signifier rabbit hole here, but consider how the smart-phone’s icon of an envelope connotes e-mail, whereas a phone headset connotes a voice call.  The affordances of icon-based systems seem rather obvious; we recognize something immediately, saving us time as compared to looking up that command in a book. Older readers will recall post-it notes all around their desktop monitors with arcane tricks for DOS or other command-line programs.

Coda: industrial design is also all about affordance. Look at everyday items in your home or office and note their affordances. I can heat water in a ceramic cup or my teapot. I suppose I could drink from either, yet each offers different affordances.

If you have useful words or metaphors, 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.

Screen-shot by the author

Word of the Week! Lachrymose

Crying face emojiAdmit it: as summer wanes and the realities of more work loom ahead, many students and faculty alike feel lachrymose. We want the restful pace of summer, if not its sweltering heat, to continue forever. We get misty-eyed as the leaves turn but we are too damned busy to sit down under a tree and let them cover us, like some Peanuts character.

Oh the tears we cry. I learned the word lacrimas when in Spain. I then began to use its cousin in English, from time to time. The origin is Latin, like so many words that elevate the register of formal prose. From The Online Etymology Dictionary, we have this: from Latin lacrimosus “tearful, sorrowful, weeping,” also “causing tears, lamentable,” from lacrimalacryma “a tear.” First usage given dates to the 1660s, from my favorite epoch, the Age of Enlightenment. Imagine a time when thinkers sought to relieve us of many tears by promising us a better future, one based on Reason and freedom from superstitions. I get lachrymose longing for such a time in our current age of unreason.

When talking about sorrow, I apply a wine-taster’s test. I tend to prefer the “mouthfeel” of lugubrious, adding to its sound its appearance in one or two favorite novels. That word connotes something dismal as well as tearful, a funeral dirge perhaps. It’s not an exact synonym. I’ll feature it as a future WOTW later.

When I was a rather sadistic and cynical undergrad, every year in late July or early August I’d invoke Jim Morrison’s lugubrious voice, in the Doors’ song “Summer’s Almost Gone.”  It provided surefire and tearful torments for my friends and roommates. The video below comes from Rhino Records, so it’s unlikely to vanish from YouTube over copyright infringement. Irony of ironies: the little commercials we endure before videos were all about productivity software! Now THAT is lachrymose.

While writing this post, Neil Young’s lachrymose classic “Old Man” followed the Doors. I seem to have a tearful playlist on YouTube.

Okay, some advice from this old man: look at your life and get back to work, slackers! As my old man might have said, “Tears won’t buy you no groceries, boy!”

Dry your eyes and send me useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing 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.

Boo-hoo-hoo emoji courtesy of Creatzilla.

Word of the Week! Unfathomable

Diver under the oceanHere we go, with another of my nautical words. I am no sailor or even that much of a lover of “going to the beach,” though if it’s a rugged coastline in Nova Scotia, Ireland, or northwest Spain, count me in. The deep blue or green of their oceans look unfathomable, as compared to the sandy brown waters I knew as a kid.

Our word has a long history and still has current use, though I’ve yet to have a student employ it. They should. Consider this June 2023 usage from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary online:

Tesla was truly ahead of his time, and quite a few of his ideas—notions that were unfathomable in that day and age—are still being pursued to this day.

Nikola Tesla was a genius, but if his ideas were truly unfathomable, would we have continued to pursue them? What is unfathomable cannot be measured. The origin is the fathom, a nautical unit of measurement meaning the span of two arms, or roughly six feet. Now it has been standardized to six feet.  The origin? The Old English word fæðm.  The Online Etymology Dictionary also noted the verb form, fathom, meaning to try to understand.

What at sea was unfathomable? Water beyond the 100-fathom hand-sounding line carried by ships. In deeper waters, a 300-fathom line might be dropped. From that same page I learned that burial at sea required six fathoms of water and gives us the term “to deep six” something. Full fathom five? Thy father was not properly buried at sea, Ferdinand.

I hope to introduce this lovely word to students who too often seem to employ the same 500 words again and again. Fathom and unfathomable merit closer fathoming, as well as usage in our formal writing. The Etymology Dictionary has a neat feature on its page that charts trends in usage. Fathom the noun has suffered a slow decline, whereas the verb has enjoyed a steady rise in usage.

Perhaps that rebound has happened because we live in apparently unfathomable times. We have many leagues to travel before we fathom some of our current problems. By the way, a league is another unit of nautical measurement, three nautical miles. That means 3.452 miles or 5.556 kilometers. Jules Verne’s novel would then put Nemo and crew a quarter of the way to the Moon. Even 20,000 fathoms under the sea would put them under the Earth’s crust, but the title certainly sounds evocative.

Send in useful words or metaphors, 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 source: Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Phonics

Paleo-Hebrew Script on Seal

The blog has returned from summer break and will feature new posts occasionally until the Fall term begins. After that, I hope to have it back on a weekly schedule.

I don’t think about phonics often. I left it behind in grade school. Then this week, while reading my annual Classical work, I came across an interesting passage. Herodotus covers in great detail the intrigues of the Greek-Persian wars, but one small peacetime event caught my eye. Here’s the passage in David Greene’s 1987 translation:

These Phoenicians who came with Cadmus. . . brought to Greece. . .various matters of learning and, very notably, the alphabet, which in my opinion had not been known to Greeks before.

Fair enough, Herodotus. The historian was well aware that until relatively recently, his had been an oral culture. Consider how Homer’s epics and other stories were sung, not written down. But of particular interest to me is Greene’s footnote that this notion “was a traditional Greek belief from very early times, the word for letters being simply phoinikeia, “Phoenician things.”  Immediately I saw the word “phonics” in that and decided some other authorities might be needed here.

The OED shows us how modern phonics approaches “learning one’s letters” by means of sound. I learned to read in this manner many decades (!) ago.  At the entry linked, you can find other obsolete meanings, but all of them point to fairly modern usage, including the phonetics, that branch of linguistics dealing with speech sounds.

Wikipedia has grown more sophisticated over time, and it helps with this amusing mystery. Its entry cites Herodotus using the Greek term phoinikeia grammata for Cadmus’ gift to the Greeks. That translates as “Phoenician letters.”

Thus sometime during the Enlightenment “phonics” became associated with sound, as in phonetics, phonograph, and maybe the tiny dopamine-dispenser on which you read this, a phone.

Still, we have to thank the Phoenicians, even though theirs was not the earliest alphabet. My father would have been proud. He loved his Lebanese heritage, declaring that our ancestors, the ancient Phoenicians, had been an enlightened and talented people. It could get a little tedious, when dad would rattle off the many things they had invented or done, including finding the New World, while “Europeans were still living in caves.” I’m reminded of the proud Greek father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who probably would have insisted that the Greeks invented letters. Both fathers were weak on history after a point, but in the case of letters, we have no less an expert than Herodotus on the side of the Phoenicians. Eat some Hummus bi Tahini and Baba Ganoush (rightly or wrongly, the Lebanese take credit for them, too) and thank Cadmus for his gift.  Eggplants are ripe now and I’ll  be making some “Baba” over the weekend.

Send in useful words or metaphors, 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: Seal inscribed in the Phoenician script, from Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Swelter

I am really sorry if your Memorial Day plans got rained out. Okay, not really. I adore cool weather, even cool, wet weather. Despite growing up here, I have never loved our summers. I despise humidity and heat.

You’ll get your miserable summer soon enough. It will be sweltering, in fact. What does it mean to “swelter”? I like the word as much as I dislike its meaning, “to be oppressed by heat.” We tend to use the term as an adjective now, “sweltering,” rather than as a noun or verb. The last is the oldest form, a 15th Century usage noted in the OED entry.

Our word goes back to before the Little Ice Age and even the Medieval Warm Period to the Middle English sweltre, long before electric fans or air-conditioning made places like Virginia and points south habitable for (too many) millions of us.

In the sweltering decades to come I suspect this word will “enjoy” renewed usage. I’m around for 2 more decades, and sometimes I’m thankful it won’t be longer. As for the word, use it wisely; “hot” and “scorching” convey degrees of heat-induced suffering, while “sweltering” just sounds wicked. “Sizzling” has many meanings, but I think of hot dogs on my Weber grill or sun-bathers frying at the beach.

May you find cool shade this summer. I’ll be in Canada for part of it, my sort of climate, thank you.  As you heat-lovers burn yourselves up with UV rays, pause a moment to send in useful words or metaphors, 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.

Creative-Commons image courtesy of ChrisGoldNY at Flickr.