Words in the News: tropism, coalface, logorrhea and parrhesia

By Maeve Maddox

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Not since I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy have I accumulated so many words in my reading that are new to me.

These words are not coming from antique works of fiction. They pop up almost daily in the news sources I read.

Sometimes the words are vaguely familiar, like something I may have learned in a classroom and have since forgotten—tropism, for example.

As a term in biology, tropism describes the movement of an organism or part of an organism in a direction toward or away from an external stimulus. The way a sunflower turns toward the sun during the day is an example of tropism.

Used in reference to people, it means, “being drawn to” or “inclination.”

His legendary Oxford career as controversialist, actor, debater, director, dandy and libertine imbued him with his tropism toward fame’s warming light.

We are dealing here with primal matters, with a current in the national psyche far deeper and more powerful than our tropism toward corn on the cob and Japanese cars.

How can people with an automatic tropism toward democracy, human rights, women’s rights and open society ally themselves so easily with corrupt despotisms?

Sometimes the literal meaning of a word is clear to me, but I am puzzled by what is clearly a figurative use—for example, coalface.
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coalface (noun): an exposed surface of coal at which mining is carried out.

The first time I recall seeing coalface used figuratively was in a New York Times article about mental health. The expression was “the coalface of delivering care during the Covid pandemic.”

Come to find out, the figurative meaning—a Briticism—is “an active or practical, rather than theoretical, level of work or experience in a particular field, usually implying dedication and hard work.

Mr Yeo has two subordinates who will do much of the work at the House of Commons coalface.

Lord Lipsey, a Labour man to the core, has been at or near the political coalface since the early 1970s.

Some 1,200 considered responses were received, many from organizations that work at the coalface of the criminal justice system.

In the light of Orwell’s description of the hellish, backbreaking labor of working the literal coalface in his essay “Down the Mine,” using the idiom to describe the efforts of white-collar workers seems a bit exaggerated.

Two more words I’ll include in this installment of “words in the news” both have to do with language: logorrhea and parrhesia

logorrhea (noun): excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness. Modelled on the word diarrhea. Adjective: logorrheaic

. . . the logorrhea that afflicts many longtime senators.

Characters never stop speechifying to one another, replacing believable dialogue with that unmistakably Sorkinesque logorrhea of righteous self-importance.

Londa spews facts like a logorrheaic Wikipedia.

parrhesia (noun): (from a Greek word meaning “all speech.”) candor, frankness; outspokenness or boldness of speech

In the context of politics, parrhesia is often used to mean, “speaking truth to power.”

Such a spiritual orientation demands moral courage and candor from clergy. Some call it speaking truth to power and others call it parrhesia — candid, fearless speech that challenges the status quo.

The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.

Foucault summarizes, “parrhesia is the courage of truth in the person who speaks and who, regardless of everything, takes the risk of telling the whole truth that he thinks, but it is also the interlocutor’s courage in agreeing to accept the hurtful truth that he hears.”

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