A Story About Lemmings

Lemmings, as you probably have heard, sometimes jump off cliffs en masse, plunging into the ocean below. The lemmings that survive the initial impact soon drown in the icy water as they swim out to sea.

It’s not clear how or why this mass mania besets lemming colonies. It has been suggested that it has to do with population control; when lemming populations boom, lemmings follow a leader over a cliff by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, to bring their population back into balance. That’s one theory, anyway.

The one thing everybody seems to be able to agree on is that lemmings serve as the perfect metaphor for groupthink and the danger of foolishly following the crowd—particularly when “the crowd” has ideas that the speaker or writer disagrees with.

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Jill Phillips Goes Deeper Into Love

Jill Phillips is a singer-songwriter and the star of the Gullahorn Happy Hour along with her husband, Andy Gullahorn. She’s also a Marriage and Family Therapist. Jill will soon be releasing a new album called Deeper Into Love, a collection of songs that take a journey through grief, healing, and redemption.

In this episode, Jill and I talk about the gap between the truth and how it feels, integration and disintegration, and going boldly into the house of grief.

On the Givenness of Things

If you live in the United States, you may be called upon this week (likely on Thursday) to tell what you are thankful for. Put on the spot, you may take a quick survey of your inner landscape, looking deep within to find the things you’re most thankful for. Allow me to recommend that instead of looking inward to find your deep gratitude, you look outward onto a world that you didn’t make, but that you can receive.

A posture of receptivity, a willingness to acknowledge and celebrate the “givenness of things,” is at the heart of gratitude. I love what Tish Harrison Warren had to say in a recent rumination on thankfulness.

This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.

To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.

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Carolyn Leiloglou Follows the Rules (Sometimes)

Carolyn Leiloglou writes books for children. Her picture book Library’s Most Wanted was a 2021 WILLA Award Finalist. She was also a 2018 finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize. Her poems and stories have appeared in children’s magazines around the world, including Highlights, Ladybug, Cricket, and Clubhouse Jr

In this episode, Carolyn and I discuss rule-following, characters who take themselves too seriously, and other things.

How I Decided Not to Be a Painter

When the Houston county Board of Education put on a summer enrichment program for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, I signed up for a painting class. (I signed up for Rocketry too, but that fact doesn’t figure into this story). It was the summer of 1980; the American hostages were still being held in Iran (surprisingly, that fact does figure into this story).

On the first day of class, our teacher stalked in five or ten minutes late. She surveyed the bright and willing faces of her nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old students. She seemed unimpressed.

The teacher wasn’t much taller than the eleven-year-olds in the class, but she was an imposing presence nevertheless. Her eyes somehow flickered back and forth between heavy-lidded indifference and an artistic wildness that I have since decided was mostly affectation. But it made an impression on me at the time, I don’t mind telling you.

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Free eBook: Habits of Mind for Writers

Dear Writers—

In the almost-four years that I’ve been sending out The Habit Weekly, I’ve written a lot about what it means to think like a writer. To wit:

Productive writers write for what they can give rather than for what they can get.

  • They stop thinking about hierarchies and instead think about the patch of ground that is theirs to tend.

  • They look for ways to give readers something that readers can’t (or won’t) get for themselves.

  • They get used to the idea that they really do have something meaningful to offer to the wider world.

I have gathered up eleven of my favorite essays into an ebook called Habits of Mind for Writers. I’m offering it for free to everybody who subscribes to The Habit Weekly. You can get yours by clicking here.

Habits of Mind for Writers is actually the first section of a larger collection called The Habit of Writing: Selected Letters from The Habit Weekly. The other four sections are

  • Habits of Seeing,

  • Habits of Working,

  • Habits of Storytelling, and

  • Habits of Diction.

The Habit of Writing is one of the benefits of The Habit Membership: all members receive a free copy of the full ebook. I plan to make a paperback edition available in the future, but for now at least, The Habit of Writing is available only as an ebook, and only to The Habit Membership. (If you’d like to join—and if you’re eighteen or older—we’d love to have you.)

I hope Habits of Mind for Writers will be good to you—and I hope it will help you form some new habits.

Thanks for reading—
JR

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Dear Writers—

In the almost-four years that I’ve been sending out The Habit Weekly, I’ve written a lot about what it means to think like a writer. To wit:

Productive writers write for what they can give rather than for what they can get.

  • They stop thinking about hierarchies and instead think about the patch of ground that is theirs to tend.

  • They look for ways to give readers something that readers can’t (or won’t) get for themselves.

  • They get used to the idea that they really do have something meaningful to offer to the wider world.

I have gathered up eleven of my favorite essays into an ebook called Habits of Mind for Writers. I’m offering it for free to everybody who subscribes to The Habit Weekly. You can get yours by clicking here.

Habits of Mind for Writers is actually the first section of a larger collection called The Habit of Writing: Selected Letters from The Habit Weekly. The other four sections are

  • Habits of Seeing,

  • Habits of Working,

  • Habits of Storytelling, and

  • Habits of Diction.

The Habit of Writing is one of the benefits of The Habit Membership: all members receive a free copy of the full ebook. I plan to make a paperback edition available in the future, but for now at least, The Habit of Writing is available only as an ebook, and only to The Habit Membership. (If you’d like to join—and if you’re eighteen or older—we’d love to have you.)

I hope Habits of Mind for Writers will be good to you—and I hope it will help you form some new habits.

Thanks for reading—
JR

Nimrod, Hectoring, Maudlin: Eponymns and Pejoration


A couple of week’s ago, Habit Weekly reader Andy McCright brought to my attention an interesting connection (or possible connection) between Looney Toons and the popular use of the word nimrod to mean “idiot” or “incompetent” or “doofus.”

Nimrod is an eponym—that is, a word that derives from a proper name. The book of Genesis speaks of a man named Nimrod who was “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The Bible doesn’t have much else to say about him, but according to tradition, Nimrod was a tyrannical ruler in Babel and a key player in the building of the Tower of Babel. So, while Nimrod didn’t have a great reputation, he never had a reputation for stupidity or incompetence. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, the eponym nimrod was mostly used to refer to a hunter. The ship that Ernest Shackleton sailed in his epic quest for the South Pole was called the Nimrod. It’s hard to imagine him giving his ship such a name if there was even a whiff of foolishness or incompetence around the name. That was 1907. How was it that later in the same century, nimrod came to be a synonym for doofus?

One theory is that Loony Toons cartoons played an instrumental role in nimrod’s changing fortunes. Elmer Fudd, you will remember, is a hunter of rabbits and ducks, though he is not necessarily a “mighty hunter before the Lord.” Bugs Bunny, supposedly, often referred sarcastically to Elmer Fudd as a “Nimrod,” in much the same way you might refer sarcastically to a dimwitted person as an “Einstein.” According to the theory, young viewers who didn’t know about the biblical Nimrod missed the sarcasm and assumed that a nimrod must an incompetent buffoon along the lines of Elmer Fudd.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had any success tracking down specific instances of Bugs Bunny calling Elmer Fudd a nimrod. Daffy Duck, however, does so at the 40-second mark of this video clip. I don’t know if one instance of cartoon sarcasm would be enough to transform the usage of the word, but if it’s one instance of many, maybe so. In any case, one suspects that the transformation was helped along by the fact that the word nimrod just sounds like it belongs in the same category as numbskull and dipstick.

Whatever the specifics, the word nimrod’s journey from “hunter” to “doofus” is an example of pejoration, the semantic process by which a neutral or positive word becomes a pejorative word. It made me think of a couple of other eponymous words that ended up with meanings significantly more pejorative than would seem justified when you look at the people from whom the words originated.

Hector was one of the great heroes of The Iliiad. A Trojan prince and the greatest of the Trojan warriors, admired even by his enemies not only for his military excellence, but also for his nobility and sense of fair play. He was an ideal warrior, and decidedly not a bully. So how is it that hectoring refers to bullying and verbal abuse? In the seventeenth century, swaggering bullying soldier types came to be known as Hectors, and their swaggering talk came to be known as hectoring. The word was typically used sarcastically; the idea was that these braggarts were nothing like Hector—or were like Hector only in their own minds—but the usage has stuck for more than three centuries.

Another interesting eponym is the word maudlin. It derives from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, which used to be pronounced “maudlin” in England. (I’m going to need some help here from my readers in the UK…Magdalen College in Oxford and Magdalene College in Cambridge are still pronounced “maudlin,” but from what I understand, these days Mary Magdalene is pronounced Mag-da-len, just as it is elsewhere in the English-speaking world.)

Anyway, Mary Magdalene has long been associated with the unnamed woman in the Gospels who wept on Jesus’ feet, then wiped them dry with her hair. An over-the-top display of weepy emotion (or anything intended to evoke such a display) came to be called maudlin in memory of that highly emotional scene in the Gospels.

Ok, one more…the word tawdry means “cheap” or “gaudy.” Tawdry is another eponym—in a roundabout way—from Saint Audrey. Each October there was (is?) a fair in Ely in honor of St Audrey, a seventh-century queen of Northumbria. Vendors at that fair sold ribbons or scarves known as St. Audrey’s lace, which became tawdry lace (the “Sain” got dropped, leaving ‘taudrey). Since the fair ribbons, like a lot of fair merchandise, were cheap and gaudy, tawdry came to be an adjective meaning cheap and gaudy. Here’s what the entry from etymonline.com has to say about St. Audrey and ribbons and scarves:


Her association with lace necklaces is that she supposedly died of a throat tumor, which, according to Bede, she considered God’s punishment for her youthful stylishness:”I know of a surety that I deservedly bear the weight of my trouble on my neck, for I remember that, when I was a young maiden, I bore on it the needless weight of necklaces; and therefore I believe the Divine goodness would have me endure the pain in my neck, that so I may be absolved from the guilt of my needless levity, having now, instead of gold and pearls, the fiery heat of a tumour rising on my neck.” [A.M. Sellar translation, 1907]

Interesting, no?

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