Etymology, media history, journalism, et al and etc.
Will studies media history and is an assistant professor of media law/history at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He finished his Ph.D. in the Dept. of Communication at the University of Washington in May 2016, and his MPhil in history at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in 2010. He has two degrees, one in history and the other in journalism, from the UW, both finished in 2009.
It’s been a while (OK a LONG while) since I last updated this blog; since then, I’ve had two more books come out, one with Routledge, this past winter, about the impact of the internet on the news industry in the U.S.:
I’d be happy to send you a digital copy of either! Just reach out to me at my gmail: email@example.com, or my LSU email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via @willthewordguy on Twitter, OR my Mastodon account at @email@example.com.
My book about the history of the newsroom from the 1920s through the 1960s came out last year, too, with the University of Missouri Press:
Not to bury the lede/lead, but Theo came in January 2022, and it’s been a whirlwind year for Ruth and I ever since — we spent two months in France with him (and Roux!), first at ICA, then at IFALPES, a language school in Annecy, near the French Alps, where we learned beaucoup Français (though Ruth already speaks a fair bit of it, and very well!) and had some really wonderful adventures as a family, meeting some also wonderful new friends.
(Ruth and Roux near La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre, back in late May 2022)
It’s been a busy fall semester, too, with teaching and research, but we’re excited for what the new year may bring. Please drop me a line, and I’d love to grab coffee or a drink if you’re in the area (my treat, and lunch if you’re a grad student!) and/or do a Zoom catchup. Take care out there.
So it’s been a long while and I’ve been meaning to update my site/you all with our latest news: this fall Ruth and I will be starting at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University together as assistant professors! Here’s Manship announcement about me here. Ruth’s should be out in a few weeks, but basically I’ll be focusing on media law/history, and she’ll be in comparative global comm/j-studies/political communication. Ruth and I hoping to be settled into LSU/Manship by the end of summer, post AEJMC.
While we’ve both enjoyed our time at Northwest University and Seattle Pacific University, respectively, and of course our time in the #PNW, we’re both really thrilled and pretty darn spoiled to have this very rare opportunity together. We’ll be visiting Seattle and the Northwest often, however, so if you don’t see us before we go, we’ll make sure to catch you back there. My mom is here, along with many great and close friends, along with the magnificent mountains and rain, and so it’ll maintain a very special special place in my heart and head. It is, after all, where I’m “from” — having moved around so much as a military kid, I’ve adopted it as such. Lord willing, in fact, my first trip back will be this fall, for a talk at the Living Computer Museum. I’ll post more details about that later, and/or post about it on Twitter. I should also be back over at least part of the holidays and/or in the late winter/spring for a research trip.
In the meantime we’ve been working on book projects. I now haveA Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies: 1960-1990, my brief account of the history of the computer in the American newsrooms of the latter Cold War, out successfully (whew!). And I have a sequel under advance contract, still as part of the “Disruptions” series as edited by Dr. Bob Franklin, that’ll look at the adoption of the early internet by the journalism industry in the 1990s and 2000s. I have another, longer book project, based on my dissertation, under advance contract with a university press. That one is a social history of American newsroom culture during the early-to-mid-20th century. I can talk about the latter more later! Ruth has some pretty cool book developments, as well, but I’ll let her talk about those.
I’ll post links to our faculty pages, with our latest other pubs, here soon.
Please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or shout out to @willthewordguy, especially if you wanted to see us before we head out and/or once we arrive in Baton Rouge/Louisiana.
If you ever visiting our way, please don’t hesitate to say hello, either. Take care!
Time has definitely flown since I lost posted here; since 2015, I got married, and I’m now at Northwest University, in Kirkland, Washington, where I am the chair of the department of communication studies and an assistant professor, as well as the adviser to The Talon, our campus newspaper (and which recently relaunched its print edition!), and The Screech, our campus podcast.
Here’s the link to my “last word” in The Daily from yesterday, in case you missed it. Thank you for all your encouraging notes via Twitter and Facebook yesterday and today (and via email, too!). You guys are the best. And really the reason I wrote my word for so long. But it’s not my last word ever, so fear not, loyal readers. And Haylee Millikan, my delightful editor, has reassured me that if I want to a guest appearance this fall, I’d be welcome to. I might take her up on it, if the occasion warrants!
I’ll be writing more in this space, as I’ve noted before (and linking to other bits of writing I’ll be doing) and will make etymology a recurring feature as I softly relaunch this space over the summer. I had forgotten to mention that I’ll post bits of my dissertation writing here too, along with some of my images, including cartoons and photos, from my social history of the American newsroom, c. 1920-60.
Finally, I’ll also be posting links to as many old words (while acknowledging that original publication rights still definitely lie with the @The Daily). If you have an ideas, word-wise, for me, for next week, please send them my way! I’d love to hear from you.
My etymology (and posts) in the form of “Will’s Word of the Week” (slightly renamed as “Will’s Word(s) of the Week”) will also be moving here, carried forward from a wonderful (and long!) run at the UW Daily. If you’re one of my readers from before, then welcome!
But beyond etymology, this site will be my academic home-on-the-web, and I’ll try to post interesting round-ups of media history, links to long-form journalism, news about the field, and other fascinating odds and ends for your perusal. If I get published elsewhere, I’ll make sure to also cross-post/link here. I’ll also keep my CV/work page fairly regularly updated so you can track my progress into the wild blue yonder that is my still very nascent career.
Please bear with me as I prepare to softly re-launch this space this summer, and check back often. For more daily (and sometimes) hourly updates, visit my very serious Twitter account.
Being of a nostalgic, sentimental inclination, as many of you know, I promise much more in the way of reflective thoughts on my last few crazy days in the UK, when, by the grace of God, I finished my Mphil, said goodbye to good friends, and ended on a very good note indeed. I am blessed, and grateful.
For now, however, I present my final word for The Cambridge Student, for the paper’s May Week issue, which you can find in PDF form here (on p. 16, in its old spot on the left-hand side), or below. I have to thank my forebearing and good-humoured editors, James Burton, and Anna Croall, for letting me repeatedly write such etymological speculations , especially with my Americanized spelling and silly questions.
The word itself is one I had meant to explore last fall (or, rather, autumn, as they call it over there), but had only got around to at nearly the last day I was in England. I hope to keep writing in this space, and either find a new home for my column, while reposting it here, or perhaps writing it just for this blog, if I cannot do that. I will keep you posted, however, as it were. Thanks for reading, during my year away!
But enough preambling:
“Have you ever “found” something when you were not really looking for it? Or met someone, perhaps an old friend, who you did not expect to see?
Such glad happenings are examples of “serendipity,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) defines as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident [or] the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”
This nuanced word contains the idea of finding something you were not even searching for, or had given up on searching for, having lost it once before, and not knowing when you would see it again, if ever.
“Finding” anything without looking for it has a sort of fairy-tale quality. This is quite appropriate, considering that the OED credits the writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-1797) with finding it without really looking for it, in an ancient Indian fairy story, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Incidentally, and not surprisingly, the word draws its origins from “Serendip,” an old name for Sri Lanka.
In it, three princes are sent by their father on a far journey to test their wisdom and fitness to rule. Along their way, they have many adventures, as princes in fairy tales are required to do.
In a letter to a diplomat-friend in 1754, Walpole describes “serendipity,” in its first recorded usage in English: “as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” such as how they could tell an awful lot about a camel (what it had for breakfast, what it was carrying, and other camel-related information) just by the way it had walked in the sand, judging by its tracks.
This “accidental sagacity,” as Walpole puts it, is worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown or Lord Peter Wimsey. “For you must observe,” continues Walpole, “that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description.”
Indeed – finding what one is looking for can happen anytime – finding what you are not looking for, or have given up on finding again, now that is serendipity, or, perhaps, Providence.
I myself hope to be more of a “serendipitist,” and develop a keener sense of suspecting serendipity, and hope you do, too, now that term is finished and the summer well-nigh upon us. My MPhil also being done, this columnist will be heading home, back to Seattle in the United States, and to, he prays, more serendipity.
He is grateful to his friends back home and new friends here for letting him humor them with his etymologies, and wishes to thank his readers, for, well, reading. If you have any final word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until we meet again, take care!”
I know I should be frantically freaking out at the moment, what with writing up coming to a frenzied conclusion, but by way of taking another “break,” it is high time that I toss up another post, to keep my mind from sputtering to a halt … .
A couple of weekends ago, I managed to get over to the Other Place, as we call it in Cambridge. I went by bus, and stowed by bike in its belly, as it were, for the longish trip (it is much closer to the west of England than Cambridge).
Now, I’d be warned about this particular bus trip.
“It’s rather a long one,” my English friends told me. “And there’s something on the order of 70 roundabouts along the way.” I wasn’t sure why it’d take so long, or why roundabouts in such numbers were such a bad thing. After all, back in the day, there had been a direct train that must have been delightfully convenient, and so how bad could a bus be? And crossing through roundabouts on one’s bike, while thrilling, certainly wasn’t arduous. I had yet again underestimated British understatement.
As Lewis says, the universe rings true whenever you fairly test it, and so I had to experience this journey for myself. It felt more like 70,000 roundabouts, each one plastering me to the window as I attempted to read (speaking of Lewis) Surprised by Joy (and quite a good read it is, if somewhat intense and convicting). ‘Surprised by Roundabouts,’ was more like it. Slightly dizzy, several hours later, however, I eventually hopped off the bus with my bike and found I was in a bustling city full of history, bigger than Cambridge, and even a tad older and majestic, i.e. in Oxford.
My first stop was a pub.
Not because I had to get my pint or perish, per se, but because I am a nerd, or a geek, or perhaps both. My visit was to be a sort of Protestant pilgrimage (though, actually, perhaps, a merely Christian one) to see and be immersed in all things Lewis for a day. The pub in question being the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and the Baby”), where the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s informal writing group, had once met around lunchtime on Mondays or Tuesdays (they also met in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College on Thursday evenings) for nearly 30 years, from about 1933 through to the start of the 1960s, to read and discuss their various writings projects. Tolkien reflected on their name, as “a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with vague or half-informed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” Other Inklings included such towering twentieth-century literary figures as Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield and such “honorary” members (though there were hardly any rules) as Dorothy L. Sayers W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (the latter three more indirectly associated).
For a wannabe’ historian, and under-informed and somewhat under-read Inkling fan (not to mention an American abroad, and thus prone to silly sentimentalizing), to be in the very same “Rabbit Room” that people I had long read and admired and hope to read and admire for a long time to come, was … strangely surreal.
And so I ordered a club sandwich. Munching away, with an odd mix of pop music playing in the background, I felt a keen sort of pride, as I sipped on my lemonade (hey, it was a hot day, though by “lemonade” they really mean what we might call lemon-lime soda back home). Every few moments, an (American) tourist would stop and take a photo of the mantle, which had a signed note of thanks and health-wishing from the Inklings to the former owners of the pub.
“Is that where …?” and then a “Yes, dear, that’s where they met…” “… that’s SO cool,” would be followed by the click and whir of a digital camera.
My immediate seat-mates were British, a young couple with their in-laws, and I overheard them asking who the fifth most famous-est Inkling could be (rather like the fifth Beetle).
Very smugly, I must confess, and feeling like no mere tourist, I turned and declared, “you must be referring to Hugo Dyson,” to which unsolicited counsel my mess-mates were suitably impressed and thanked me.
They asked me where I was from, clearly coming across as a Man of the World (a very bad sort of man to be). “Cambridge,” I whispered, for even in my pride I knew that I was among rivals, who we had just trounced in the annual rowing regatta between the two universities.
“A spy?!” they whispered back, in a bit of wry teasing.
“Well, in a way,” managed to mutter back. As it turns out, the young fellow (who appeared to be the son-in-law of the older couple) had a very distant ancestor (though not so very distant for them) who had been a printer in eighteenth-century London, one of the sorts of figures I ostensibly study.
Anyway, I finished my lunch and marched outside (after getting the obligatory photograph, and saying a serene ‘fare-thee-well’ to my new British acquaintances), squinting in the sunlight. I came up to my bike, and to my great and utterly enforced humility, found I couldn’t quite find my bike lock’s key.
So there I was, my bicycle securely locked to a post, in Oxford, outside of Lewis’ pub, in the sun. I feared I’d have to leave “Everest” (my bike’s provisional name) behind forever, and then explain to Werner, the generous friend who had given me the bike in the first place, why, exactly, I had had to abandon it.
Saying a quick prayer, in a bit of desperation, I stuck my pen cap in the lock, hoping against hope that it would somehow cause the pins to release and thus free my bike.
“Pop!” and off it came. Now, I wasn’t sure if was more relieved that such a desperate trick actually worked, or if I was grateful that God was merciful to his smuggish servant, or if my bike lock was about as secure as some pirate refuge in the Caribbean.
As it was, and as usual, I was late.
I had scheduled a tour of the Kilns, Lewis’ home (so named because there was once a working brick kiln nearby) for 2 o’clock. It was about 10 ’til 2 by the time I got my bike lock off, and before I managed to peel away into the Saturday milieu that was Oxford. I pedaled out of town confidently, assured that I knew where I was going.
I didn’t. Not a bit, as it turns out. I got very lost. Nearly two hours later, and after consulting a gardener (a smiling Dave, who said he liked Americans so much that he had married one, and was married still) and a burly bartender for directions, I was still hopelessly turned around, circling a pleasant suburb over and over again. If they could remake Groundhog Day and set it in a single afternoon in England, that would have drawn a similar sense of wondering ennui.
Along my turned-around way, I got shouted at by a gaggle of English school girls. “Don’t go that way!” they ordered, “Get off your bike now!” (I was going down a one-way road). A bit peeved, and sun-addled, and grumpy, I shouted back, “thank you!” but obeyed As it turned out, moments later, a car passed by. Chagrined, I was even more chagrined to find myself standing over Lewis’ grave moments later, having found even that more or less by accident (thinking by now that my entire day might be a sort of living lesson in humility).
Resolving to give my quest one final try, however, I consulted my second bartender of the day (having by now realized that I had no idea where I was, my maps being hopelessly vague, and having also realized that I had failed to put in a destination address before printing off my original directions): “how do you get to CS Lewis’ house?” I asked, plaintively, having given up all pretense of being anything other than what I was, a lost American, with a tie, beard, and a book bag, all bedraggled.
Lewis’ house was just across the byway.
Ugh. Thoroughly humbled, I finally made it, and had a very pleasant tour of his home and the grounds. Yes, he was a real person, and yes, he really lived there, and yes, I am a dweeb. But that’s OK. I even made it back into town with enough time for evensong at Magdalen, a brief skip down Addison’s Walk (where Tolkien and Dyson helped explain to Lewis, one August night in 1931, how myth and legend supported the Christian story of Christ as a real man in history).
I even managed to squeeze in a quick dash past the Bodleian Library before regaining the bus for the Roundabout Return Rattle, and the trip back to my little Pigeon Hole of a room at Wolfson. Having been nearly run over, turned around until I was sweaty and exasperated, and repeatedly put in my place by Providence, I can safely say (in retrospect), that I had experienced a series of marked inconveniences, I hope, however, now rightly considered, i.e. as an Adventure. It is hard to believe that the end of my beginning in grad school is just a couple of weeks away, and that I am nearly home again.
But I will miss England, and its people, and I pray that such (mis)adventures will have tempered me, in spite of myself, when and whilst looking back on this time away.
While my last post (the first new one in a while) was full of circumspect musing and mulling, this one, I promise you, will be lighter, as in more crazy.
Not that I am going crazy, or have gone crazy, or even know if I am crazy, but (to use several of my typically horridly disproportional metaphors), I feel very much like Alec Guinness’ character, Col. Nicholson, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, sweating it out in the jungle, meticulously planning a bridge that I, in the end, will only ultimately help blow up … well, OK, not quite like that. Perhaps this whole time is much more like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, digging his way out of a prisoner-of-war camp with help from his British friends … hmmm, well, not quite like that either. This might be more like Colditz Castle, where the Germans placed the most escape-happy Allied military prisoners (gee, let’s put them all in the same place and watch what happens! sounds like a plan to me …).Well, not really … ah … hmm.
All bad metaphors aside, I have been trying to do uniquely Cambridge, or, rather, British, things, before I head home, or at least observe such things in action.
Starting with watching a man smoke a pipe. Yes, a real man, with a real pipe. And smoking it, no less …
It was a rainy Thursday afternoon, all misty in an English-spring sort of way. I was waiting for my editor James outside of Nero’s on King’s Parade (we were meeting for coffee), when a tweed-jacketed, tweed-panted fellow ambled past (though I use that latter word with caution, perhaps I should say trousers, to be safe) … anyway, said tweed-donned don (for I assume he was part of the Faculty, for he looked so very Official) was measuring his gait, it seemed.
The grey smoke curled around his greyish-white head (I could practically see the “e,” so I know it’s there, and not “gray”) and mixed in with the mist, mystically, and a little melodramatically (all right, I’ll stop with the almost annoying alliteration).
For the briefest moment, he paused and looked at me (slightly upwards, in my eye, as he was a tad shorter), out of the corner of his own eye, his right, I think. Up and down it scanned. “Another damn Yankee,” I could imagine him thinking. Then an almost imperceptible smile crept up his lip, and crawled across his craggy face. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t wearing anything silly. Just jeans and a sweater that were both blue. Perhaps that struck some sort of blue tune with him. In any event …
And then he walked on, into the rain and mist. I could smell the tobacco in his wake.
In another spate of craziness, this one more proactive, I finally managed to climb the Dark Tower, i.e. the off-limits top of the Cambridge University Library. Featured in an unfinished story by Lewis, it has long been a source of speculation amongst Cambridge students (no one really knows what’s up there).
I’ve tried to climb it before, only to be stymied by locked doors and “staff-only” signs, and 1930s-era elevators that stopped obstinately.
But earlier in the term, while walking along one of the library’s stairwells with a pile of books in my hands, I spotted two library workers emerging from the door that led to the stairs. Before it could close, I precariously (but, as I thought, rather deftly), grabbed the latch and slide in before the door could close.
My heart rose to my throat: I was in! Up I climbed, up and up and up.
Since there were two properly British (or half) flights of stairs per floor, counting off led me to about the 13th floor (including the ground floor, which they don’t have here). The views were getting better and better before I reached the top: quite a charming view of the city and colleges, with their turrets and spires through the narrow window slats in the stairwell (I wish I had my camera on me) … I was tempted to dare fortune further by attempting to get into what seemed to be offices near the tippity-top (but which could have been storage of some kind; I still want to find out exactly what!), but I heard a door open from another floor several doors down.
Without an ID badge, I’d be spotted and turned in immediately, or so I thought, and shot (OK, perhaps not shot, but thoroughly lectured, or at least frowned at, and I couldn’t bear that) … but even still, I wasn’t really supposed to be there. I thought I could claim I was lost, or that I was just really curious and a little nuts, which would have been at least honest … but as the steps echoed ever closer, I opted instead to hug my books and dart past whoever it was – in this case, from what I could tell, a bespectacled lady librarian. Hoping my maneuver would conceal my lack of proper authorization, and covering my unadorned chest, I did just that – it worked!
“Excuse me,” I muttered, in my best Busy Voice, as I bounded past. She didn’t look up, but I couldn’t tell, as I didn’t look back … I heard a responsive, “excuse me,” but didn’t stay to convey the customary exchange of apologies (usually a “sorry” on both parts, followed by a second round of sorry’s). Instead, down I departed, exiting on the nearest floor accessible to non-staff people. My head was thudding with the thrill! Dumb, yes. A good idea? perhaps not. But fun: yes, very much so.
Relating this all to my fellow MPhil-mates in the library’s canteen later, I got looks of shock: “you did what?” This is something the mild-mannered “old Will” from Michaelmas or even Lent terms wouldn’t do.
“It’s like in those old war movies when the quiet guy snaps at the end,” conjectured my friend Neil, adding, “and you’re the quiet guy. Have you snapped?”
Not yet, but perhaps I’m closer than I think … there are more “memories-in-progress” to follow, I hope, so please stay tuned. Let me know if there is anything you want me to find out/answer about life here too, as I’d love to relate it, before it’s all over, and I am home again, I hope.
Having been back to Cambridge for a month now (eek!), I’ve done what lazy bloggers tend to do when they get distracted with life-things … not post. First, my apologies! True, I have been rather preoccupied with the writing-up of my MPhil dissertation (the ostensible reason I’ve been here all along, or so I’m told), but even still, much has happened that I should have kept you posted (so to speak) about, including my decision to continue graduate school back at the University of Washington this fall (back to my old department; my program here was just for this school year), barring something unexpected. Deciding to do so was the definition of a difficult decision, I must confess, and I am trying to be all right with it now, but, indeed, I must trust that God will walk with me in it.
In the meantime, I’ve been trying to savor what’ s left of my time in England, or, rather, Britain. Not being an especially perceptive person, I’ve finally -truly- realized that this place is very much like its people: “reserved, [but] not unfriendly,” as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain (issued to our boys – and gals – heading over to fight Hitler’s Germany side-by-side with our old Allies, and advising us Yanks on how to behave properly).
Like some of my good English friends (not necessarily the wild and woolly British ones), it took a while – in my case, two terms – to get to know them, and vice versa, but in time, I have come to very much like and respect, and even to love, parts of this country and its ethos, and it has returned the favor. Not as much as my own nation, but far more than when I began. I have been tempered by my (mis)adventures here, I hope, and feel calmer, and steadier, about being in what really is a foreign land (but still oddly and paradoxically familiar, probably because so much of our history and culture are shared, well, somewhat shared). Before, my affection for England was theoretical – it came from books, mostly, and the love of those who wrote those books (esp. the Inklings and their ilk).
“Well, of course I like England,” I always thought. And I did. But it was quite another thing to make what was a bigger leap than I thought and live here, and experience England and her people first hand. Not that I am some sort of expert now, mind you. But I can now say that yes, I will miss this place, thanks to my friends here, and the hard-won lessons realized here, about what I value in life, about the need to rely on the Lord daily, in a real way.
I will want to come back, someday soon, to Cambridge, but also Britain and Europe. I feel bad for having felt so bad, at the beginning (I was a sissy, really), and for not reserving judgment, on how life was progressing away from home, in my Pigeon Hole here at Wolfson. I am glad, however, that I reserved enough (just barely enough! I should have reserved more, I think) to finally realize these things, and ere the End to boot.
I’m not done yet, of course. With a month or so to go, I still have quite a bit of work to do, and not much time to do it in (but that’s part of the fun!). I still want to see a few more things, and spend more time with my friends on this side of the Pond before heading back. I will not have a full perspective on this adventure until I’m done, of course, but I want to get a head start, and tell my story well to anyone who asks (and do a better job than saying, “It’s very English,” to anyone who asks, “how was England?”).
In the meantime, I hope to put a few more anecdotes about the silliness of life as an anxious American abroad, and a word or two more (there is just one issue remaining for the year for The Cambridge Student). Stay tuned!
Quoting from Instructions for American Servicemen by way of conclusion:
“The best way to get on it Britain is very much the same as the best way to get on in America. The same sort of courtesy and decency and friendliness that go over big in America will go over big in Britain. The British have seen a good many Americans and they like Americans. They will like your frankness as long as it is friendly. They will expect you to be generous. They are not given to back-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections. But once they get to like you they make the best friends in the world.”
I’m sorry for only getting last week’s word(s) up just now, on the literal eve of my going home for my “working break.” Please note that there will only be two words next term, probably, as there will only be two issues of The Cambridge Student, one at the beginning, and another at the end, of the term. I may continue to (indeed, I’d even love to try, even in the midst of writing up my research project, ostensibly the reason I’m here) and post blog-only words/put up some old ones from the first term, but stay posted, as it were. In the meantime, please see below (as also found on the left-hand side of pg. 16 in the paper):
“The longer one lives, the more perspective one has, at least in theory. As a university student, I confess that I sorely lack it, especially at those crucial junctures in life that involve making Big Decisions (yes, with capital letters, making them Serious). I must thank my friend Colin Thomas for suggesting we look at such matters, or, rather, some “perspicacity.”
This noun comes to us from the Middle French “perspicacité,” meaning “discernment” or “discrimination,” as derived from the classical Latin “perspicāx,” which, in turn, means, “having keen or penetrating sight,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Since roughly the late 16th century, it has meant keen mental insight. As such, the word is thus related to the adjective, “perspicacious,” referring more figuratively to clear-sightedness, but also to someone’s wit or sense of discernment. It shares the same Latin root as does the word “perspective,” namely, “perspicere,” meaning “to see through, look closely into, discern, [or] perceive,” according to the OED.
To have perspicacious perspicacity, therefore, means to have (suspicious) perspective: the Latin root at it all, “specere,” means “to look,” with a similar root for “suspect” (“suspicere,” meaning, “to look up, look up to, admire, esteem”). Hence having perspective means having a strong sense of being able to “see,” life-wise, what is really there.
All that etymological speculation aside, the first recorded usage of “perspicacity” proper comes in about 1548, in the Solace of Soule, by the theologian Thomas Becon (c. 1512-1567), with the line, “Thou shalte neuer by the perspycacyte and quyckenis of thy reason perceyue, howe it maye be possyble.” A slightly later example, from 1663, comes to us in The Parable of a Pilgrim, by Anglican clergyman (the bishop of Ely, actually) and devotional writer Simon Patrick (1626-1707), “The greatest wits want perspicacity in things that respect their own interest.” Patrick met his future wife thanks to this work, who, having read it, sought him out. This gave him a sort of romantical perspicacity, as it were.
To close, as the term’s end-time approaches, I thought it would be fun to mention a very un- perspicacious word, namely, “berserk.” A quick shout-out is due to my friend Faith Tsuruda for bringing it to my attention. As the OED relates, a “berserk” (singular) was a Viking who flew into a purposely ferocious battle-fury (i.e. the “berserker rage” of yore).
The word is Icelandic, probably, and also probably referred to the “bear-sark,” or the “bear-coat” worn while going berserk. “To go berserk” had a slightly more violent meaning back then, but has mellowed out in contemporary usage, meaning more just-plain frenzy and less frantic head-lopping. Sir Walker Scott (1771–1832) is given credit by the OED for the first modern example of the word’s usage, in a note from The Pirate, published in 1821, “The berserkars were so called from fighting without armour.”
I hope you have perspicacity, and refrain from going truly berserk, between now and next term. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to email@example.com. Until next time, take care!”