Vocab Word of the day
Created: 2012-03-28Size: 939 Views: 281
Last Modified: 2012-03-28
Last Modified: 2012-03-28
holus-bolus \hoh-lus-BOH-lus\ adverb
"all at once" Incredibly, the company shuttered its factory holus-bolus, with no regard for the livelihoods of the men and women working there. The story of "holus-bolus" is not a hard one to swallow. "Holus-bolus" originated in English dialect in the mid-19th century and is believed to be a waggish reduplication of the word "bolus." "Bolus" is from the Greek word "bolos," meaning "lump," and has retained that Greek meaning. In English, "bolus" has additionally come to mean "a large pill," "a mass of chewed food," or "a dose of a drug given intravenously." Considering this "lumpish" history, it's not hard to see how "holus-bolus," a word meaning "all at once" or "all in a lump," came about.
inflammable \in-FLAM-uh-bul\ adjective
"flammable, easily inflamed, excited, or angered" The messenger trembled as he stuttered out the news of the army's defeat to the highly inflammable king. "Combustible" and "incombustible" are opposites but "flammable" and "inflammable" are synonyms. Why? The "in-" of "incombustible" is a common prefix meaning "not," but the "in-" of "inflammable" is a different prefix. "Inflammable," which dates back to 1605, descends from Latin "inflammare" ("to inflame"), itself from "in-" (here meaning "in" or "into") plus "flammare" ("to flame"). "Flammable" also comes from "flammare," but didn't enter English until 1813. In the early 20th century, firefighters worried that people might think "inflammable" meant "not able to catch fire," so they adopted "flammable" and "nonflammable" as official safety labels and encouraged their use to prevent confusion. In general use, "flammable" is now the preferred term for describing things that can catch fire, but "inflammable" is still occasionally used with that meaning as well.
bibelot \BEE-buh-loh\ noun
"a small household ornament or decorative object" Donna's children often tease her about her hobby of collecting quaint bibelots, which can be found everywhere throughout her house. Can you think of a six-letter synonym of "bibelot" that starts with the letter "g"? No? How about an eight-letter one? Crossword puzzle whizzes might guess that the words we are thinking of are "gewgaw" and "gimcrack." But "bibelot," which English speakers borrowed from French in the late 1800s, has uses beyond wordplay. In addition to its general use as a synonym of "trinket," it can refer specifically to a miniature book of elegant design (such as those made by Tiffany and Faberge). It also appears regularly in the names of things as diverse as restaurants and show dogs.
comminute \KAH-muh-noot\ verb
"to reduce to minute particles" A mortar and pestle are used to comminute the herbs and roots before introducing them into the distilled alcohol. What do "comminute," "pulverize," and "triturate" all have in common? All three words are derived from Latin and share the meaning "to reduce to small particles." "Comminute" can be traced back to the prefix "com-" and the verb "minuere," meaning "to lessen." "Pulverize" descends from a combination of "pulver-," meaning "dust" or "powder," with the suffix "-izare," which -- like the English "-ize" -- can mean "to cause to be." "Triturate" is borrowed from the past participle of the Latin "triturare," which means "to thresh." "Triturate" specifically refers to the use of rubbing or grinding to achieve pulverization, a process which could be said to resemble the use of rubbing to separate grains from harvested cereal plants.
futurity \fyoo-TOOR-uh-tee\ noun
"time to come , the quality or state of being future, future events or prospects" The motivational speaker exhorted us to change the way we live today, rather than looking always toward some vague distant futurity. "Futurity" is a forward-looking word with a literate past. Its first known use is in Shakespeare's Othello, when the downtrodden Cassio, mystified about why Othello has turned against him, beseeches Desdemona to tell him whether his "offense be of such mortal kind / That nor my service past, nor present sorrows, / Nor purpos'd merit in futurity / Can ransom me into his love again." The term was also used by Benjamin Franklin ("I must one of these days go back to see him . . . but futurities are uncertain"), and Sir Walter Scott wrote of events "still in the womb of futurity" (that is, events that hadn't happened yet). Today, "futurity" often refers to a race, usually for two-year-old horses, in which the competitors are entered at birth or before, or to a race or competition for which entries are made well in advance of the event.
irenic \eye-REN-ik\ adjective
"favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation" In an irenic gesture, the country has withdrawn its military forces from the border. In Greek mythology, Eirene was one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons and natural order; in the Iliad the Horae are the custodians of the gates of Olympus. According to Hesiod, the Horae were the daughters of Zeus and a Titaness named Themis, and their names indicate their function and relation to human life. Eirene was the goddess of peace. Her name is also the Greek word for "peace," and it gave rise to "irenic" and other peaceable terms including "irenics" (a theological term for advocacy of Christian unity), "Irena" (the genus name of two species of birds found in southern Asia and the Philippines), and the name "Irene."
ripsnorter \RIP-SNOR-ter\ noun
"something extraordinary" "Inevitably, good and evil clash in a ripsnorter of a final battle, but along the way, there is action, adventure, danger, comic relief and -- always -- very good eating." (Sue Corbette, The Miami Herald, January 22, 1999) English speakers of the mid-19th century already had the term "snorter" at their disposal if they wanted a colorful term for something extraordinary, but that didn't stop speakers in the U.S. from throwing the verb "rip" onto the front of the word to create "ripsnorter." And they didn't stop there: By the time the 20th century had reached its quarter mark, U.S. speakers had added "hummer," "humdinger" (probably an alteration of "hummer"), "pip" (from "pippin," a kind of crisp, tart apple and a term for a highly admirable person or thing), and "doozy" (thought to be an alteration of "daisy") to the catalog of words for the striking or extraordinary.
marmoreal \marh-MOR-ee-ul\ adjective
"of, relating to, or suggestive of marble or a marble statue especially in coldness or aloofness" Mary sat silently in the corner of the room, her face expressing nothing but marmoreal calm. Most marble-related words in English were chiseled from the Latin noun "marmor," meaning "marble." "Marmor" gave our language the word "marble" itself in the 12th century. It is also the parent of "marmoreal," which has been used in English since the mid-1600s. "Marbleize," another "marmor" descendant, came later, making its print debut around 1859.
ennead \EN-ee-ad\ noun
"a group of nine" Immediately following the show, viewers will be able to call or text in their votes for their favorite among this ennead of remaining contestants. Since ancient times, various groups of people have considered nine to be a very special and sacred number. Legends and literature have long characterized groups of nine as having a special, in some cases magical, significance. Ancient Egyptians organized their gods into groups of nine; even today, their principal group of gods (headed by sun god Re-Atum) is called the "Great Ennead of Heliopolis." The "Ennead" English speakers use in that name traces to "ennea," the Greek word for "nine." "Ennead" is also used generally to refer to other groups of ancient gods. Furthermore, it is the name given to six sets of nine treatises by Greek philosopher Plotinus that were collected and organized by his 3rd-century disciple, Porphyry.
slough \SLUFF\ verb
"to cast off or become cast off, to crumble slowly and fall away,">to get rid of or discard as irksome, objectionable, or disadvantageous -- usually used with" "As the war advanced the armies reluctantly sloughed off such amenities as two-man tents." (Paul Fussell, Wartime) There are two verbs spelled "slough" in English, as well as two nouns, and both sets have different pronunciations. The first noun, referring to a swamp or a discouraged state of mind, is pronounced to rhyme with either "blue" or "cow." Its related verb, which can mean "to plod through mud," has the same pronunciation. The second noun, pronounced to rhyme with "cuff," refers to the shed skin of a snake (as well as anything else that has been cast off). Its related verb describes the action of shedding or eliminating something, just like a snake sheds its skin. This "slough" derives from Middle English "slughe" and is distantly related to a Middle High German word meaning "snakeskin."
causerie \kohz-REE\ noun
"an informal conversation , a short informal essay" After the table was cleared and coffee was served, the dinner guests rose and continued their causerie in the other room. "Causerie" first appeared in English in the early 19th century, and it can be traced back to French "causer" ("to chat") and ultimately to Latin "causa" ("cause, reason"). The word was originally used to refer to a friendly or informal conversation. Then, in 1849, the author and critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve began publishing a weekly column devoted to literary topics in the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel. These critical essays were called "Causeries du lundi" ("Monday chats") and were later collected into a series of books of the same name. After that, the word "causerie" acquired a second sense in English, referring to a brief, informal article or essay.
munificent \myoo-NIF-uh-sunt\ adjective
"very liberal in giving or bestowing , characterized by great liberality or generosity" At the banquet, the president of the city's performing arts center thanked all the munificent subscribers and sponsors who made the theatrical season a success. "Munificent" was formed back in the late 1500s when English speakers, perhaps inspired by similar words such as "magnificent," altered the ending of "munificence." "Munificence" in turn comes from "munificus," the Latin word for "generous," which itself comes from "munus," a Latin noun that is variously translated as "gift," "duty," or "service." "Munus" has done a fine service to English by giving us other terms related to service or compensation, including "municipal" and "remunerate."
peregrination \pair-uh-gruh-NAY-shun\ noun
"an excursion especially on foot or to a foreign country" The eccentric millionaire set out on a peregrination around the world, in search of the perfect wine to complement his favorite meal. We begin our narrative of the linguistic travels of "peregrination" with the Latin word "peregrinus," which means "foreign" or "foreigner." That term also gave us the words "pilgrim" and "peregrine," the latter of which once meant "alien" but is now used as an adjective meaning "tending to wander" and a noun naming a kind of falcon. (The peregrine falcon is so named because it was traditionally captured during its first flight -- or pilgrimage -- from the nest.) From "peregrinus" we travel to the Latin verb "peregrinari" ("to travel in foreign lands") and its past participle "peregrinatus." Our final destination is the adoption into English in the 16th century of both "peregrination" and the verb "peregrinate" ("to travel especially on foot" or "to traverse").
intestate \in-TESS-tayt\ adjective
"having made no valid will, not disposed of by will" Mark and Joan worried about what would happen to their child if they died intestate, so they hired a lawyer to draw up a will soon after the baby was born. "Intestate" was borrowed into English in the 14th century from Latin "intestatus," which was itself formed by combining the prefix "in-" ("not") and the adjective "testatus," meaning "having left a valid will." "Testatus," in turn, derives from the past participle of the verb "testari," meaning "to make a will." Approximately a century later, English speakers returned to "testatus" to coin the word "testate," which also means "having left a valid will." Other descendants of "testari" in English include "detest," "protest," and "testament," as well as "testator" ("a person who dies leaving a will or testament in force"). The antonym of "testator" is the noun "intestate," meaning "one who dies without a will."
sternutation \ster-nyuh-TAY-shun\ noun
"the act, fact, or noise of sneezing" Julie knew that she had put on too much perfume when she entered the car and immediately heard a chorus of sternutation from the passengers. "Sternutation" comes from Latin and is a descendant of the verb "sternuere," meaning "to sneeze." One of the earliest known English uses occurred in a 16th-century edition of a book on midwifery, in a passage about infants suffering from frequent "sternutation and sneesynge." The term has long been used in serious medical contexts, but also on occasion for humorous effect. In 1850, for example, author Grace Greenwood observed that U.S. senators from opposing political parties would often come together to share snuff: "And all three forget their sectional differences in a delightful concert of sternutation. No business is too grave, no speaker too eloquent, to be 'sneezed at.'"
pink \PINK\ verb
"to perforate in an ornamental pattern, to cut a saw-toothed edge on, pierce, stab, to wound by irony, criticism, or ridicule" "The sleek curtain requires no sewing; we pinked the edges to add a bit of detail." (Jennie Voorhees, Martha Stewart Living, April 2002) Our unabridged dictionary, Webster's Third New International, includes 13 distinct entries for "pink," whereas our abridged volume, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, satisfies itself with the five most common. (Words get distinct entries in our dictionaries when they have different etymologies or different parts of speech.) Today's "pink," the only verb of the five, is from a Middle English word meaning "to thrust." Of the remaining four, the only "pink" older than the verb (which dates to 1503) is a 15th century noun referring to a kind of ship. The next-oldest noun has since 1573 referred to a genus of herbs. The noun referring to the color pink and its related adjective date to 1678 and 1720, respectively. Evidence suggests that a new verb "pink" -- a synonym of the verb "pink-slip" -- is also emerging.
ab ovo \ab-OH-voh\ adverb
"from the beginning" The documentary presented the history of the city ab ovo, beginning with its inception as a frontier trading post in the 1800s and running through the present. "Ab ovo usque ad mala." That phrase translates as "from the egg to the apples," and it was penned by the Roman poet Horace. He was alluding to the Roman tradition of starting a meal with eggs and finishing it with apples. Horace also applied "ab ovo" in an account of the Trojan War that begins with the mythical egg of Leda from which Helen (whose beauty sparked the war) was born. In both cases, Horace used "ab ovo" in its literal sense, "from the egg," but by the 16th century Sir Philip Sidney had adapted it to its modern English sense, "from the beginning": "If [the dramatic poets] wil represent an history, they must not (as Horace saith) beginne Ab ouo: but they must come to the principall poynt of that one action."
quodlibet \KWAHD-luh-bet\ noun
"a philosophical or theological point proposed for disputation; , a whimsical combination of familiar melodies or texts" "'The Past & the Future' is an operatic quodlibet, summarizing themes from previous movements, with some classical surprises." (Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 8, 2007) "Whatever." Try to get philosophical nowadays and that may be the response you hear. We don't know if someone quibbling over a minor philosophical or theological point 500 years ago might have gotten a similar reaction, but we do know that Latin "quodlibet," meaning "any whatever," was the name given to such academic debates. "Quodlibet" is a form of "quilibet," from "qui," meaning "what," and "libet," meaning "it pleases." We can't say with certainty how "quodlibet" went from disputations to musical conglomerations, but English speakers have been using "quodlibet" for light musical m langes since the early 19th century.
fatuous \FATCH-oo-us\ adjective
"complacently or inanely foolish" "Fatuous and condescending" is how one reviewer described two of the best-selling self-help books. "I am two fools, I know, / For loving, and for saying so / In whining Poetry," wrote John Donne, simultaneously confessing to both infatuation and fatuousness. As any love-struck fool can attest, infatuation can make buffoons of the best of us. So it should come as no surprise that the words "fatuous" and "infatuation" derive from the same Latin root, "fatuus," which means "foolish." Both terms have been part of English since the 17th century. "Infatuation" followed the earlier verb "infatuate," a "fatuus" descendant that once meant "to make foolish" but that now usually means "to inspire with a foolish love or admiration." "Fatuous" came directly from "fatuus." It's been used in English to describe the foolish and inane since at least 1633.
sockdolager \sock-DAH-lih-jer\ noun
"something that settles a matter , something outstanding or exceptional" For a while I was completely stumped, but then, all of a sudden, I got a sockdolager of an idea. The verb "sock" ("to punch") and the noun "doxology" ("a hymn of praise to God") may seem like an odd pairing, but it is a match that has been promoted by a few word mavens when discussing the origins of the Americanism "sockdolager." Don't be too quick to believe the hype, however. When a word's origin is simply unknown, as is the case with "sockdolager," there's a tendency for folks to fill in the gap with an interesting story, whether or not it can be verified. In the case of "sockdolager," the "sock" part is plausible but unproven, and the "doxology" to "dolager" suggestion is highly questionable. The theory continues to have many fans, but it can't deliver the knockout punch.
Laodicean \lay-ah-duh-SEE-un\ adjective
"lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics" Evan lamented the Laodicean attitude of his fellow citizens, as evidenced by the low voter turnout on Election Day. English speakers owe the word "Laodicean" to Chapter 3, verses 15 and 16 of the Book of Revelation, in which the church of Laodicea is admonished for being "neither cold nor hot, . . . neither one nor the other, but just lukewarm" in its devotion. By 1633, the name of that tepid biblical church had become a general term for any half-hearted or irresolute follower of a religious faith. Since then, the words use has broadened to cover flimsy political devotion as well. For example, in comparing U.S. presidents, journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams compared "the fiery and aggressive [Theodore] Roosevelt" to "the timorous Laodicean [Warren] Harding."
enhance \in-HANS\ verb
"heighten, increase;" The newspaper company hopes that including more full-color illustrations and adding extra news features will enhance their product and reverse the decline in circulation. When "enhance" was borrowed into English in the 13th century, it literally meant to raise something higher. That sense, though now obsolete, provides a clue about the origins of the word. "Enhance," which was spelled "enhauncen" in Middle English, comes to us from Anglo-French "enhaucer" or "enhauncer" ("to raise"), which can be traced back to the Vulgar Latin verb "inaltiare." "Inaltiare," in turn, was formed by combining the prefix "in-" with Latin "altus," meaning "high." Although "enhance" initially applied only to physically making things higher, it developed an additional and less literal sense of "to exalt especially in rank or spirit," and quickly acquired extended figurative senses for "raising" the value or attractiveness of something or someone.
popinjay \PAH-pin-jay\ noun
"a strutting supercilious person" Shopping was going fine until, in one of the boutiques, a popinjay of a sales clerk clearly snubbed us. Popinjays and parrots are birds of a feather. "Popinjay," from the Middle French word "papegai," is the original name for a parrot in English. (The French word in turn came from the Arabic word for the bird, "babghā." "Parrot," which English speakers adopted later, probably comes from Middle French "perroquet.") In the days of Middle English, parrots were rare and exotic, and it was quite a compliment to be called a "popinjay" after such a beautiful bird. But by the 1500s, parrots had become more commonplace, and their gaudy plumage and vulgar mimicry helped "popinjay" develop the pejorative sense we use today.
cogent \KOH-junt\ adjective
"having power to compel or constrain, appealing forcibly to the mind or reason , pertinent, relevant" At the town meeting, citizens presented many cogent arguments in support of building a new high school. "Trained, knowledgeable agents make cogent suggestions . . . that make sense to customers." It makes sense for us to include that comment from the president of a direct marketing consulting company because it provides such a nice opportunity to point out the etymological relationship between the words "cogent" and "agent." "Agent" derives from the Latin verb "agere," which means "to drive," "to lead," or "to act." Adding the prefix "co-" to "agere" gave Latin "cogere," a word that literally means "to drive together"; that ancient term ultimately gave English "cogent." Something that is cogent figuratively pulls together thoughts and ideas, and the cogency of an argument depends on the driving intellectual force behind it.
utile \YOO-tul\ adjective
"useful" Shaker crafts are simple, meticulously constructed, pleasing to the eye, and eminently utile, all at the same time. For over a hundred years before "useful" entered our language, "utile" served us well on its own. We borrowed "utile" from Middle French in the 15th century. The French derived it from Latin "utilis," meaning "useful," which in turn comes from "uti," meaning "to use." "Uti" (the past participle of which is "usus") is also the source of our "use" and "useful." We've been using "use" since at least the 13th century, but we didn't acquire "useful" until the late 16th century, when William Shakespeare inserted it into King John. Needless to say, we've come to prefer "useful" over "utile" since then, though "utile" functions as a very usable synonym. Other handy terms derived from "uti" include "utilize," "usury," "abuse" and "utensil."
tenderloin \TEN-der-loyn\ noun
"a strip of tender meat consisting of a large internal muscle of the loin on each side of the vertebral column, a district of a city largely devoted to vice" "Unlike old Saigon, a raucous wartime tenderloin of bars and nightclubs, Orange County is quiet -- except on Saturday nights ." (Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian, August 1992) A tenderloin, of course, is a juicy and tasty cut of meat. In the late 19th century, however, "Tenderloin" saw use as a nickname for the neighborhood of midtown Manhattan, west of Broadway and below 42nd Street. This district, which contained numerous bordellos, gambling houses, and watering holes, alongside theaters and hotels, became a hotbed of corruption -- and, it was alleged by some, blackmail by police. The notion of dishonest law enforcers being able to afford a nice meal off activity in this district is believed to have given the Tenderloin its name. Soon the term was applied to similarly seedy districts in other cities.
plumply \PLUMP-lee\ adverb
"in a wholehearted manner and without hesitation or circumlocution" Having taken offense at the remark, Sir Jeffrey plumply asked the man if his insult was intentional. In the 14th century, the word "plump" was used for a sound like that of something dropping into water (as we use "plop" today). Middle English speakers turned the "plump" sound into a verb meaning "to drop." The verb spawned a noun meaning "a sudden drop or fall," which in turn generated an adverb "plump" meaning "directly, without qualification." English novelist Fanny Burney (17521840) used the adverbial "plump" in one of her letters when she wrote of "coming plump against the question." But she didnt stop there. The adverb "plump" gave rise to "plumply," and Fanny Burney was one of the first to use the new form, this time in her diary: "The offer was plumply accepted."
deke \DEEK\ verb
"to fake (an opponent) out of position (as in ice hockey)" With a quick move to the left and then right, the forward deked the remaining defenseman and was left one-on-one with the goalie. "Deke" originated as a shortened form of "decoy." Ernest Hemingway used "deke" as a noun referring to hunting decoys in his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees ("I offered to put the dekes out with him"). About a decade later, "deke" began appearing in ice-hockey contexts in Canadian print sources as both a verb and a noun ("the act of faking an opponent out of position"). Today, "deke" has scored in many other sports, including baseball, basketball, and football. It has also checked its way into more general usage to refer to deceptive or evasive moves or actions. However, this general application of "deke" has never made it past the defenders. It occurs too rarely in English to merit its own sense in the dictionary.
glaucous \GLAW-kus\ adjective
"of a pale yellow-green color, of a light bluish-gray or bluish-white color, having a powdery or waxy coating that gives a frosted appearance and tends to rub off" In the early mornings, the lush river valley is often shrouded in a glaucous mist. "Glaucous" came to English, by way of Latin "glaucus," from Greek "glaukos," meaning "gleaming" or "gray." It has been used for a range of pale colors from a yellow-green to a bluish-gray. The word has often been used to describe the pale color of the leaves of various plants as well as the powdery bloom that can be found on some fruits and leaves. The stem "glauc-" appears in some other English words, the most familiar of which is probably "glaucoma," referring to a disease of the eye that can result in gradual loss of vision. "Glauc-" also appears in the not-so-familiar "glaucope," a word used to describe someone with fair hair and blue eyes (and a companion to "cyanope," the term for someone with fair hair and brown eyes).
pabulum \PAB-yuh-lum\ noun
"food; , intellectual sustenance, something (as writing or speech) that is insipid, simplistic, or bland" The discovery provides pabulum for the scientific community to ruminate on for decades to come. "Pabulum" derives from the Latin term for "food" or "fodder" and was first used in English in the 18th century for anything taken in by plants or animals to maintain life and growth. Within 30 years of its first appearance in English texts, it was also being used to refer to things so intellectually stimulating or nourishing that they could be considered food for thought. But the word took on a whole new flavor in the 1930s when a team of Canadian doctors formulated a highly nutritious (but bland) baby cereal and named their product "Pablum" (based on the Latin word). As a result, the similar-looking "pabulum" did a linguistic about-face and is now often used for things that are bland and unstimulating as well as for things that are intellectually sustaining.
pukka \PUCK-uh\ adjective
"genuine, authentic;" Ellingsworth stood framed in the door of his club, the picture of a pukka gentleman, immaculately groomed, upper lip appropriately stiff, perfectly genteel. "Pukka" tends to evoke the height of 18th- and 19th-century British imperialism in India, and, indeed, it was first used in English at the 1775 trial of Maha Rajah Nundocomar, who was accused of forgery and tried by a British court in Bengal. The word is borrowed from Hindi and Urdu "pakkā," which means "solid." The English speakers who borrowed it applied the "sound and reliable" sense of "solid" and thus the word came to mean "genuine." As the British Raj waned, "pukka" was occasionally appended to "sahib" (an Anglo-Indian word for a European of some social or official status). That expression is sometimes used as a compliment for an elegant and refined gentleman, but it can also imply that someone is overbearing and pretentious. These days, "pukka" is also used as a British slang word meaning "excellent" or "cool."
neologism \nee-AH-luh-jiz-um\ noun
"a new word, usage, or expression, a meaningless word coined by a psychotic" The novelists latest book is peppered with numerous slang words and neologisms that might not be familiar to some readers. The English language is constantly picking up neologisms. Recently, for example, computer technology has added a number of new terms to the language. "Webinar," "malware," "netroots," and "blogosphere" are just a few examples of modern-day neologisms that have been integrated into American English. The word "neologism" was itself a brand-new coinage at the beginning of the 19th century, when English speakers first borrowed it from the French "nèologisme." Its roots, however, are quite old. Ultimately, "neologism" comes from Greek "neos" (meaning "new") and "logos" (meaning "word").
delate \dih-LAYT\ verb
"accuse, denounce, report, relate" "In that year Archbishop Blackadder of Glasgow delated some thirty heretics to James IV who let the matter go with a jest." (J.D. Mackie, A History of Scotland) To "delate" someone is to "hand down" that person to a court of law. In Latin, "delatus" is the unlikely-looking past participle of "deferre," meaning "to bring down, report, or accuse," which in turn comes from "ferre," meaning "to carry." Not surprisingly, our word "defer," meaning "to yield to the opinion or wishes of another," can also be traced back to "deferre." At one time, in fact, "defer" and "delate" had parallel meanings (both could mean "to carry down or away" or "to offer for acceptance"), but those senses are now obsolete. Today, you are most likely to encounter "delate" or its relatives "delation" and "delator" in the context of medieval tribunals, although the words can also relate to modern ecclesiastical tribunals.
terreplein \TAIR-uh-playn\ noun
"the level space behind a parapet of a rampart where guns are mounted" Children love to climb on the defunct cannons that sit at each of the old fort's terrepleins, creating a perfect photo op for parents. Like "parapet" and "rampart," "terreplein" dates back to the 16th century. "Rampart" is the oldest of this trio; earliest evidence of the word in English is from 1536. From the Middle French word "ramparer," meaning "to fortify," it refers specifically to the broad embankment that forms the main part of a fort. The word for the protective wall on top of the rampart, "parapet," dates to 1590 and comes from Italian "parare" ("to shield") and "petto" ("chest"). The earliest evidence for today's word, "terreplein," is from only a year later. It comes (by way of Middle French) from Old Italian "terrapieno," which traces to Medieval Latin "terra plenus," meaning "filled with earth."
avuncular \uh-VUNK-yuh-ler\ adjective
"of or relating to an uncle, suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality" The avuncular orthodontist joked with his young patient, attempting to set her mind at ease about getting fitted for braces. Not all uncles are likeable fellows (Hamlet's murderous Uncle Claudius, for example, isn't exactly Mr. Nice Guy in Shakespeare's tragedy), but "avuncular" reveals that, as a group, uncles are generally seen as affable and benevolent, if at times a bit patronizing. "Avuncular" derives from the Latin noun "avunculus," which translates as "maternal uncle," but since at least the 1830s English speakers have used "avuncular" to refer to uncles from either side of the family or even to individuals who are simply uncle-like in character or behavior. And in case you were wondering, "avunculus" is also an ancestor of the word "uncle" itself.
spindrift \SPIN-drift\ noun
"sea spray; , fine wind-borne snow or sand" "The winds around the mountain were fierce and a long white plume of spindrift trailed from the summit." (Michael Palin, [London] Sunday Times, September 26, 2004) "Spindrift" first set sail in the mid-18th century under Scottish command. During its first voyage, it was known by the Scottish moniker "speendrift." "Speen" meant "to drive before a strong wind," so a "speendrift" was a drift of spray during such action. In 1823, English speakers recruited the word, but signed it up as "spindrift." At that time, its sole duty was to describe the driving sprays at sea. However, English speakers soon realized that "spindrift" had potential to serve on land as well, and the word was sent ashore to describe driving snow and sand. Today, "spindrift" still serves us commendably at sea and on land.
stanch \STAUNCH\ verb
"to check or stop the flowing of; , to stop or check in its course, to make watertight" The company's CEO gave the keynote address at the convention, stanching rumors that he was not recovering well from his surgery. The verb "stanch" has a lot in common with the adjective "staunch," meaning "steadfast." Not only do both words derive from the Anglo-French word "estancher" (which has the same meaning as "stanch"), but the spelling "s-t-a-n-c-h" is sometimes used for the adjective, and the spelling "s-t-a-u-n-c-h" is sometimes used for the verb. Although both spelling variants have been in reputable use for centuries and both are perfectly standard for either the verb or adjective, "stanch" is the form used most often for the verb and "staunch" is the most common variant for the adjective.
polemic \puh-LEM-ik\ noun
"an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another, the art or practice of disputation, disputant" "He isn't striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic." (Carmela Ciuraru, Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2009) When "polemic" was borrowed into English from French "polemique" in the mid-17th century, it referred (as it still can) to a type of hostile attack on someone's ideas. The word traces back to Greek "polemikos," which means "warlike" or "hostile" and in turn comes from the Greek noun "polemos," meaning "war." Other, considerably less common descendants of "polemos" in English include "polemarch" ("a chieftain or military commander in ancient Greece"), "polemoscope" (a kind of binoculars with an oblique mirror), and "polemology" ("the study of war").
baroque \buh-ROHK\ adjective, often capitalized
"of or relating to a style of art and music marked by complex forms and bold ornamentation, characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance, irregularly shaped" Shes an immensely talented writer, but her baroque prose style is too grandiose for my taste. "Baroque" came to English from a French word meaning "irregularly shaped." At first, the word in French was used mostly to refer to pearls. Eventually, it came to describe an extravagant style of art characterized by curving lines, gilt, and gold. This type of art, which was prevalent especially in the 17th century, was sometimes considered to be excessively decorated and overly complicated. It makes sense, therefore, that the meaning of the word "baroque" has broadened to include anything that seems excessively ornate or elaborate.
vitiate \VISH-ee-ayt\ verb
"to make faulty or defective , to debase in moral or aesthetic status, to make ineffective" Some feared that the superintendents decision to reinstate the students would vitiate the authority of the principal who suspended them in the first place. Here's one for word puzzle lovers -- and anyone else allured by alliteration. The sentence "Vivian vituperated the vicious villain for valuing vice over virtue" contains three words that derive from the same Latin source as "vitiate." Can you identify all three? If you picked "vituperate" (a verb meaning "to scold"), "vicious," and "vice," your puzzle prowess is beyond reproach. Like "vitiate," all three descend from the Latin noun "vitium," meaning "fault" or "vice."
crural \KRUR-ul\ adjective
"of or relating to the thigh or leg; specifically" During his first game of the season, the team's new quarterback was injured and sidelined with a dislocated patella and anterior crural nerve damage. "Crural" is a word that you are most likely to encounter in a medical context, where you might, for example, come across a reference to a "crural artery" or "crural nerve." "Crural" comes from Latin "cruralis," a combination of "crur-" or "crus" ("leg") and the adjectival suffix "-alis" (which, like the English suffix "-al," means "of, relating to, or characterized by"). In the mid-18th century, about 150 years after "crural" entered the English language, English borrowed "crus" itself. "Crus" -- pluralized, as in Latin, as "crura" -- is used of the leg or hind limb, and specifically of the shank, the part of the leg between the ankle and the thigh. "Crus" is also used more broadly of any anatomical part that resembles a leg or a pair of legs.
MacGuffin \muh-GUFF-in\ noun
"an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance" The missing document is the MacGuffin that sends the two spies off on an action-packed race around the world, but the real story centers on tension between the main characters. The first person to use "MacGuffin" as a word for a plot device was Alfred Hitchcock. He borrowed it from an old shaggy-dog story in which some passengers on a train interrogate a fellow passenger carrying a large, strange-looking package. The fellow says the package contains a "MacGuffin," which, he explains, is used to catch tigers in the Scottish Highlands. When the group protests that there are no tigers in the Highlands, the passenger replies, "Well, then, this must not be a MacGuffin." Hitchcock apparently appreciated the way the mysterious package holds the audiences attention and builds suspense. He recognized that an audience anticipating a solution to a mystery will continue to follow the story even if the initial interest-grabber turns out to be irrelevant.
limn \LIM\ verb
"to draw or paint on a surface, to outline in clear sharp detail , describe" In her novel, Deborah limns a vivid picture of life in the rural America of the 1950s. Allow us to shed some light on the history of "limn," a word with lustrous origins. "Limn" traces to the Middle French verb "enluminer" and ultimately to the Latin "illuminare," which means "to illuminate." Its use as an English verb dates from the days of Middle English; at first, "limn" referred to the action of illuminating (that is, decorating) medieval manuscripts with gold, silver, or brilliant colors. William Shakespeare extended the term to painting in his poem Venus and Adonis: "Look when a painter would surpass the life / In limning out a well-proportioned steed . . . ."
wiki \WIK-ee\ noun
"a Web site that allows visitors to make changes, contributions, or corrections" The corporation has designed a wiki to make communication and collaboration simpler and more efficient among its employees worldwide. Today, wikis are common stops on the information superhighway; however, they only date to 1995, after computer programmer Ward Cunningham introduced his software WikiWikiWeb to the world. The software, whose name is based on a Hawaiian term for "quick," allows Web site visitors to contribute content to its pages and comment on and make changes to information posted by others. A site using the software is referred to as a "wiki."
oracular \aw-RAK-yuh-ler\ adjective
"resembling an oracle (as in solemnity of delivery), of, relating to, or being an oracle" A knowledgeable wine drinker herself, Roberta refuses to assign oracular status to professional wine critics; she drinks what she likes, not what has been well-reviewed. When the ancient Greeks had questions or problems that were worrying them, they would often turn to one of their gods for answers by consulting an oracle. The word "oracle" has several meanings. It can refer to the god's answer, to the shrine the worshippers went to when seeking advice, or to a person through whom the god communicated, usually in the form of cryptic verse. (The words "oracular" and "oracle" trace back to the Latin verb "orare," which means "to speak.") Today, "oracle" can simply mean an authoritative pronouncement or a person who makes such pronouncements ("a designer who is an oracle of fashion"). The related adjective "oracular" is used in similar contexts ("a designer who is the oracular voice of fashion").
blench \BLENCH\ verb
"to draw back or turn aside from lack of courage" "'Let me behold thee then in thy bodily shape, if thou be'st indeed a fiend,' replied the dying knight; 'think not that I will blench from thee.'" (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe) If a stranger approaches you in a dark alley, it might cause you to blench. Do you flinch or turn white? Actually, you could do both, and both would be considered blenching because there are two separate verbs spelled "blench" in English. The "blench" that means "flinch" derives from "blencan," an Old English word meaning "to deceive." The "blench" meaning "turn white" is an alteration of "blanch," from the French adjective "blanc" ("white"). Clues to which meaning is intended can often be found in context. The "flinch" use, for example, is strictly intransitive and often followed by "from" or "at" ("blenched from the sight of blood"; "didnt blench at the sound of thunder"). The "whiten" use, meanwhile, can be intransitive ("his skin blenched with terror") or transitive ("the cold blenched her lips").
glitch \GLITCH\ noun
"a usually minor malfunction; , a minor problem that causes a temporary setback , a false or spurious electronic signal" The festival had an excellent lineup of performers, and the few glitches with the sound system did not seriously detract from the overall quality of the entertainment. There's a glitch in the etymology of "glitch" -- the origins of the word are not known for sure, though it may derive from the Yiddish "glitsh," meaning "slippery place." The first documented use of "glitch" in print in English is found in astronaut John Glenn's 1962 book Into Orbit. In it he wrote, "Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it." Today, you don't have to be an astronaut to be familiar with the word "glitch," which can be used of any minor malfunction or snag.
ostracize \AHS-truh-syze\ verb
"to exclude from a group by common consent" Ostracized by her former friends for spreading false rumors and gossip, Christina now walks to school alone. In ancient Greece, prominent citizens whose power or influence threatened the stability of the state could be exiled by a practice called ostracism. Voters would elect to banish another citizen by writing that citizen's name down on a potsherd (a fragment of earthenware or tile). Those receiving enough votes would then be subject to temporary exile from the state (usually for ten years). The English verb "ostracize" can mean "to exile by the ancient method of ostracism," but these days it usually refers to the general exclusion of one person from a group at the agreement of its members. "Ostracism" and "ostracize" derive from the Greek "ostrakizein" ("to banish by voting with potsherds"). Its ancestor, the Greek "ostrakon" ("shell" or "potsherd"), also helped to give English the word "oyster."
diabolical \dye-uh-BAH-lih-kul\ adjective
"of, relating to, or characteristic of the devil" The movies antagonist is a fairly standard supervillain, complete with the requisite incompetent minions and a diabolical scheme to destroy the world. Like the word "devil," "diabolical" traces back to Latin "diabolus," which itself descends from Greek "diabolos," a word that literally means "slanderer." In English, "diabolical" has many nuances of meaning. It can describe the devil himself (as in "my diabolical visitor") or anything related to or characteristic of him in appearance, behavior, or thought; examples include "diabolical lore," "a diabolical grin," and "a diabolical plot." In British slang, "diabolical" can also mean "disgraceful" or "bad," as in "the food was diabolical."
handsel \HAN-sul\ noun
"a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck, money given by a buyer to a seller to bind a bargain" Having signed the papers and handed over the agreed-upon handsel of $200, Caroline was now the proud owner of a small sailing skiff. According to an old custom in the British Isles, the first Monday of the new year is Handsel Monday, a day to give a small gift or good luck charm to children or to those who have served you well. As long ago as the year 1200, English speakers were using the ancestor of "handsel" for any good luck charm, especially one given at the start of some new situation or condition. By the 1500s, traders were using "handsel" for the first cash they earned in the morning -- to them, an omen of good things to follow. Nowadays, it can also be used for the first use or experience of something, especially when such a use gives a taste of things to come.
quash \KWAHSH\ verb
"to nullify especially by judicial action" Thanks to a loophole in the law, the defendant's lawyers were able to persuade the judge to quash the indictment against their client. There are two "quash" verbs in English, and although their meanings are vaguely similar, they have entirely different origins. Both essentially mean to get rid of something -- you can quash a rumor, for example, or you can quash a judicial order. The legal term "quash" (defined above) comes from an Anglo-French word, "casser," meaning "to annul," and ultimately from Latin "cassus," meaning "void." The other "quash" means "to suppress or extinguish summarily and completely." It derives from the Middle English word "quashen," meaning "to smash," and ultimately from a form of the Latin verb "quatere," meaning "to shake."
rugose \ROO-gohss\ adjective
"full of wrinkles, having the veinlets sunken and the spaces between elevated" Sam has happy memories of being a child in his grandmother's lap, stroking her soft, rugose face. "Rugose" was borrowed into English in the late 17th century from the Latin adjective "rugosus" ("wrinkled"), which itself derives from "ruga" ("wrinkle"). One descendant of "ruga" that you'll probably recognize is "corrugate," which initially meant "to form or shape into wrinkles or folds." Another, which might be more familiar to scientists, is "rugulose," meaning "finely wrinkled." In addition, there is the noun "rugosity," which can refer to either the quality or state of being full of wrinkles or an individual wrinkled place.
rebus \REE-bus\ noun
"a representation of syllables or words by means of pictures or symbols;" The answer to yesterdays rebus, which showed a man on an Ark, a spider web, and a spoon stirring coffee, was "Noah Webster." A rebus communicates its message by means of pictures or symbols whose names sound like various parts of a word, phrase, or sentence. For example, a picture of a can of tomatoes, followed by the letters UC and a picture of a well means "Can you see well?" In Latin, the word "rebus" means "by things"; "rebus" is a form of the Latin word "res," which means "thing." English speakers started using the word "rebus" for picture writing in the early 1600s.
gruntle \GRUN-tul\ verb
"to put in a good humor" The hour wait irked us, but once we were seated, we were immediately gruntled by an amiable waiter. The verb "disgruntle," which has been around since 1682, means "to make ill-humored or discontented." The prefix "dis-" often means "to do the opposite of," so people might naturally assume that if there is a "disgruntle," there must have first been a "gruntle" with exactly the opposite meaning. But actually, "dis-" doesnt always work that way -- in some rare cases it functions instead as an intensifier. "Disgruntle" developed from this intensifying sense of "dis-" plus "gruntle," an old word meaning "to grumble." In the 1920s, a writer humorously used "gruntle" to mean "to make happy" -- in other words, as an antonym of "disgruntle." The use caught on. At first "gruntle" was used only in humorous ways, but people eventually began to use it seriously as well.
natant \NAY-tunt\ adjective
"swimming or floating in water" "Before me natant birds hunker against the teeth of a northerly breeze." (Kevin J. Cook, Fort Collins Coloradoan, November 29, 2002) "Natant" and the smattering of other words birthed in the waters of Latin "natare," meaning "to swim," sound unnecessarily formal in most contexts. We could say "The natant athletes who've done their time at the local natatorium are easily distinguished by their natatorial skills; their natation is markedly better than that of those who have practiced less." Most of us, however, would prefer "The swimmers who've done their time at the local indoor swimming pool are easily distinguished by their swimming skills; their swimming is markedly better than that of those who have practiced less." The common German-derived word "swimming" suits most of us just fine. Science, though, often prefers Latin, which is why you're most likely to encounter "natare" words in scientific contexts.
encomium \en-KOH-mee-um\ noun
"glowing and warmly enthusiastic praise;" "The book is beautifully written and unquestioningly deserves the encomiums of critics who compared it to 'The Great Gatsby' for its elegiac tone." (David Milofsky, The Denver Post, August 2, 2009) "The love of praise, howe're concealed by art / Reigns more or less, and glows in every heart." British writer Edward Young knew how much people love to hear praise -- and so did the ancient Greeks, the originators of "encomium." They formalized that particular expression of praise and named it an "enkōmion," from their terms "en," meaning "in," and "kōmos," meaning "celebration." The original encomiums were eulogies or panegyrics, often ones prepared in honor of a victor in the Olympics. The term was later broadened to refer to any laudatory ode. Since then encomiums have been written praising everyone from Julius Caesar to Elton John, although not all have been entirely serious -- one of the best known is the satirical "Moriae Encomium" ("Praise of Folly") by Erasmus.
inhere \in-HEER\ verb
"to be inherent" Competitiveness inheres in the successful athlete's nature. You're probably familiar with "inherent," the adjective meaning "part of the constitution or natural character of something," but were you aware of its less common relative "inhere"? This verb looks like it could be a back-formation of "inherent" (a back-formation is a word created by removing a prefix or suffix from an existing word). But "inhere" is actually the older word. It first appeared in print in the 15th century, while "inherent" didn't show up until the late 16th century. Both are derived from the Latin verb "inhaer re" ("to inhere"), which was itself formed by combining "in-" with "haer re," a verb meaning "to adhere."
luculent \LOO-kyuh-lunt\ adjective
"clear in thought or expression" "I have heard, for example, a luculent description of poor Allister Campbell, and another drudge of the same class, running a race after dinner for a new pair of breeches." (John G. Lockhart, Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott) To shed light on the meaning of "luculent," one need only look at its root -- the Latin noun "lux," meaning "light." The English word first appeared in the 15th century with the meaning "brilliant" or "shining," as in "a luculent flame." By the mid-16th century, the "clear in thought or expression" sense had begun to shine, and by that century's end another sense was flickering with the meaning "illustrious" or "resplendent" (as in Ben Jonson's 1599 description of a "most debonair and luculent lady"). Both the "illustrious" and the "emitting light" sense have fallen out of use, and even the "clear" sense is now rare. (When it does appear, it is typically in humorous contexts in which the writer is intentionally choosing obscure words.) Today's writers seem to prefer another "lux" descendant with a similar meaning: "lucid."
hobnob \HAHB-nahb\ verb
"to associate familiarly" Bill hoped his new job as a reporter would give him an opportunity to hobnob with politicians and other notables. "Hob" and "nob" first came together in print in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, when Sir Toby Belch warned Viola (who was disguised as a man) that Sir Andrew wanted to duel. "Hob, nob is his word," said Sir Toby, using "hob nob" to mean something like "hit or miss." Sir Toby's term is probably an alteration of "habnab," a phrase that meant "to have or not have, however it may turn out." After Shakespeare's day, "hob" and "nob" became established in the phrases "to drink hob or nob" and "to drink hobnob," which were used to mean "to drink alternately to each other." Since "drinking hobnob" was generally done among friends, "hobnob" came to refer to congenial social interaction.
pescatarian \pess-kuh-TAIR-ee-un\ noun
"one whose diet includes fish but no meat" As she savored the bite of fish taco -- a food she had dearly missed since being on her vegetarian diet -- Gwyneth thought to herself, "I'll just have to consider myself a pescatarian instead." The word "vegetarian" sprouted up in 1839. "Fruitarian" ("a person who lives on fruit") ripened by 1893. In 1944, vegetarians who consume no animal or dairy products began calling themselves "vegans." Then, in 1993, those who eat fish but no other meat chose "pesce," the Italian word for "fish," to create the designation "pescatarian." In that same year, "meatatarian" was served up as a word for those whose diet largely includes meat; that word is rare, however, and is usually used in informal and humorous ways, making it the type of fare not included in our dictionaries. Another fairly recent dietary word that we will be chewing over when we next update our dictionary is "flexitarian," a person who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish.
lycanthropy \lye-KAN-thruh-pee\ noun
"a delusion that one has become a wolf, the assumption of the form and characteristics of a wolf held to be possible by witchcraft or magic" The 1941 film The Wolf Man starred Lon Chaney, Jr., as a man cursed with lycanthropy. If you happen to be afflicted with lycanthropy, the full moon is apt to cause you an inordinate amount of distress. "Lycanthropy" can refer to either the delusional idea that one is a wolf or to the werewolf transformations that have been the stuff of superstitions for centuries. In some cultures, similar myths involve human transformation into other equally feared animals: hyenas and leopards in Africa, for example, and tigers in Asia. The word "lycanthropy" itself, however, comes from the Greek words "lykos," meaning "wolf," and "anthropos," meaning "human being." Werewolf myths are usually associated with the phases of the moon; the animal nature of the werewolf (or "lycanthrope") is typically thought to take over when the moon is full.
disavow \dis-uh-VOW\ verb
"to deny responsibility for , to refuse to acknowledge or accept" The candidate has disavowed any knowledge of the letter -- received by thousands of voters -- in which her opponent was maligned. If you trace the etymology of "disavow" back through Middle English to Anglo-French, you'll arrive eventually at the prefix "des-" and the verb "avouer," meaning "to avow." The prefix "des-" in turn derives from the Latin prefix "dis-," meaning "apart." That Latin prefix plays a significant role in many current English words, including "disadvantage," "disappoint," and "disagree." "Avouer" is from Latin "advocare," meaning "to summon," and is also the source of our word "advocate."
voluble \VAHL-yuh-bul\ adjective
"easily rolling or turning , characterized by ready or rapid speech" The young man proved to be a voluble informer who would tell stories of bookies, smugglers, and hit men to the detectives for hours. English has many terms for gabby types, but it's important to choose the right word to get across what kind of chatterbox you mean. "Talkative" usually implies a readiness to engage in talk or a disposition to enjoy conversation. "Loquacious" generally suggests the power to express oneself fluently, articulately, or glibly, but it can also mean "talking excessively." "Garrulous" is even stronger in its suggestion of excessive talkativeness; it is most often used for tedious, rambling talkers. "Voluble" describes an individual who speaks easily and often.
regimen \REJ-uh-mun\ noun
"a systematic course of treatment or training, government, rule, a government in power" Sherrys personal trainer at the gym started her on a workout regimen of 30 minutes on the treadmill followed by 30 minutes of weight training. We borrowed "regimen" straight from Latin, spelling and all -- but in Latin, the word simply meant "rule" or "government." In English, it usually refers to a system of rules or guidelines, often for living a healthy life or taking a regular dose of exercise. The Latin "regimen" derives from another Latin word, the verb "regere," which means "to lead straight" or "to rule." If you trace straight back from "regere," you'll find that "regimen" has plenty of lexical kin, including "correct," "erect," "region," "rule," and "surge." If you are using the "training" sense of "regimen," be careful not to confuse the word with "regiment," another "regere" descendant, which is used for a military unit.
invective \in-VEK-tiv\ noun
"an abusive expression or speech, insulting or abusive language" The sonnet is an invective against the poet's wife and the man who cuckolded him. "Invective" began life in the 15th century as an adjective meaning "of, relating to, or characterized by insult or abuse." In 1523, it appeared in print as a noun meaning "an example of abusive speech." Eventually, the noun developed a second sense applying to abusive language as a whole. "Invective" comes to us from the Middle French word "invectif," which in turn derives from Latin "invectivus," meaning "reproachful, abusive." ("Invectivus" comes from Latin "invectus," past participle of the verb "invehere," one form of which means "to assail with words.") "Invective" is similar to "abuse," but it tends to suggest not only anger and vehemence, but also verbal and rhetorical skill. It sometimes implies public denunciation, as in "blistering political invective."
maugre \MAW-gur\ preposition
"in spite of" "I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride, / Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide." (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene i) "Maugre" is now quite rare, but having served the English language for more than 700 years, it's due whatever rest it's currently enjoying. Although it may not be a word worth incorporating into your expressive vocabulary, being familiar with it will be helpful in reading the works of such authors as Shakespeare, Scott, Milton, and, as in this quote from his Essays, First Series, Emerson: "By virtue of this inevitable nature, private will is overpowered, and, maugre our efforts or our imperfections, your genius will speak from you, and mine from me." The word is Anglo-French in origin, coming from "mal" or "mau," meaning "evil," and "gr ," meaning "grace, favor."
nudnik \NOOD-nik (the "OO" is as in "good")\ noun
"a person who is a bore or nuisance" James worried that he would never finish his work if the office nudnik didn't quit hanging around his cubicle. The suffix "-nik" came to English through Yiddish (and ultimately from Polish and Ukrainian). It means "one connected with or characterized by being." You might be familiar with "beatnik," "computernik," or "neatnik," but what about "no-goodnik" or "allrightnik"? The suffix "-nik" is frequently used in English to create nonce words that are often jocular or slightly derogatory. Some theorize that the popularity of the suffix was enhanced by Russian "Sputnik," as well as Al Capp's frequent use of "-nik" words in his "L'il Abner" cartoons. The "nud-" of the Yiddish borrowing "nudnik" ultimately comes from the Polish word "nuda," meaning "boredom."
bastion \BAS-chun\ noun
"a projecting part of a fortification, a fortified area or position, a place of security or survival, a place dominated by a particular group or marked by a particular characteristic" The university's economics department was considered the last bastion of political conservatism within an otherwise liberal campus. "Bastion" is constructed of etymological building blocks that are very similar to those of "bastille" (a word now used as a general term for a prison, but probably best known as the name of the Parisian fortress-turned-prison stormed by an angry mob at the start of the French Revolution). The history of "bastion" can be traced through Middle French to the Old Italian verb "bastire," which means "to build." "Bastille" descends from the Old Occitan verb "bastir," which also means "to build." "Bastir" and "bastire" are themselves of Germanic origin and akin to the Old High German word "besten," meaning "to patch."
sacerdotal \sass-er-DOH-tul\ adjective
"of or relating to priests or a priesthood , of, relating to, or suggesting religious belief emphasizing the powers of priests as essential mediators between God and mankind" It surprised Jim whenever Father Thomas would shed his sacerdotal role to take up a secular topic of conversation such as contemporary rock music. "Sacerdotal" is one of a host of English words derived from the Latin adjective "sacer," meaning "sacred." Other words derived from "sacer" include "desecrate," "sacrifice," "sacrilege," "consecrate," "sacrament," and even "execrable" (developed from the Latin word "exsecrari," meaning "to put under a curse"). One unlikely "sacer" descendant is "sacrum," referring to the series of five vertebrae in the lower back connected to the pelvis. In Latin this bone was called the "os sacrum," or "holy bone," a translation of the Greek "hieron osteon."
docile \DAH-sul\ adjective
"easily taught, easily led or managed" "Quite docile and harmless was Billy, and it was pitiful to see how hard he tried to learn, as if groping dimly after the lost knowledge which had cost him so much." (Louisa May Alcott, Little Men) Docile students can make teaching a lot easier. Nowadays, calling students "docile" indicates they aren't trouble-makers. But there's more than just good behavior connecting docility to teachability. The original meaning of "docile" is more to the point: "readily absorbing something taught." "The docile mind may soon thy precepts know," rendered Ben Jonson, for example, in a 17th-century translation of the Roman poet Horace. "Docile" comes from Latin "doc re," which means "to teach." Other descendants of "doc re" include "doctrine" (which can mean "something that is taught"), "document" (the earliest meaning of which was "instruction"), and "doctor" and "docent" (both of which can refer to college teachers).
rectify \REK-tuh-fye\ verb
"to set right , to purify (as alcohol) especially by repeated or fractional distillation, to correct by removing errors" The night before the Web site was to go live, the programmers worked frantically to rectify several unresolved security problems. Which of the following words does not share its ancestry with "rectify"?
1) direct 2) regimen 3) obstruct 4) correct 5) resurrectionLike "rectify," four of these words ultimately come from Latin "regere," which can mean "to lead straight," "to direct," or "to rule." "Correct" and "direct" come from "regere" via Latin "corrigere" and "dirigere," respectively. "Resurrection" comes from Latin "resurgere," whose stem "surgere," meaning "to rise," is a combination of "sub-" and "regere." "Regimen" is from Latin "regimen" ("position of authority," "direction," "set of rules"), itself from "regere." And "rectify" is from "regere" by way of Latin "rectus" ("right"). "Obstruct" is the only one of the set above that has no relation to "rectify." It traces back to Latin "struere," meaning "to build" or "to heap up."
exhilarate \ig-ZIL-uh-rayt\ verb
"to make cheerful and excited, enliven, excite, refresh, stimulate" Whooshing down a snow-covered mountain at high speed exhilarates me, said Tara, explaining her love of skiing. Many people find "exhilarate" a difficult word to spell. It's easy to forget that silent "h" in there, and is it an "er" or "ar" after the "l"? It may be easier to remember the spelling if you know that "exhilarate" is ultimately derived from the Latin adjective "hilarus," meaning "cheerful." (This also explains why the earliest meaning of "exhilarate" is "to make cheerful.") "Exhilarate" comes from "exhilaratus," the past participle of "exhilarare," which is formed by combining "ex-" and "hilarare," a verb that derives from "hilarus" and means "to cheer or gladden." If "hilarus" looks familiar, that may be because it's also the source of "hilarious" and "hilarity" (as well as "hilariously" and "hilariousness," of course).
douceur \doo-SER\ noun
"a conciliatory gift" While waiting for Marks decision on the companys contract offer, the CEO sent him two tickets to a Broadway show as a douceur. In French, "douceur" means "pleasantness," and it is often used in phrases such as "douceur de vivre" ("the pleasure of life"). The word derives from the Latin adjective "dulcis," meaning "sweet." A douceur is a gift or payment -- sometimes, but not necessarily, considered a bribe -- provided by someone to enhance or "sweeten" a deal. In the United Kingdom, "douceur" specifically refers to a tax benefit given to someone who sells a historical artifact to a public collection. Other sweet treats that "dulcis" has given to our language include "dulcet" (having a "sweet" sound that is pleasing to the ear) and "dulcimer" (a kind of stringed instrument that provides "sweet" music).
gust \GUST\ noun
"keen delight" The hungry children ate every morsel with gust. You're no doubt familiar with the simple "gust" that means "a brief burst of wind." But that word, which first appeared in print in 1588, was preceded at least a century and a half earlier by a differently derived homograph. The windy "gust" is probably derived from an Old Norse word, whereas our featured word today (which is now considerably rarer than its look-alike) comes to us through Middle English from "gustus," the Latin word for "taste." "Gustus" gave English another word as well. "Gusto" (which now usually means "zest," but can also mean "an individual or specific taste") comes to us from "gustus" by way of Italian.
perspicuous \per-SPIK-yuh-wus\ adjective
"plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation" "His language is very pure, perspicuous, and to the point." (John Kaminski, The Capital Times [Madison, Wisconsin], October 11, 2006) "Perspicuous" is based on Latin "perspicere," meaning "to see through," so that which is perspicuous is clear and understandable. "Perspicuous" has a close cousin, "perspicacious," which is used of a person with astute insight. Both words come directly from Latin adjectives that mean the same thing they do: "perspicuous" from "perspicuus," and "perspicacious" from "perspicax." Needless to say, it's possible to confuse the two. One easy way to keep out of trouble is to think of "perspicUous" as the "U" word, and remember that it means "Understandable" -- in contrast to the "A" word, "perspicAcious," which means "Astute."
ennui \ahn-WEE\ noun
"a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction" In reaction to the ennui that he was feeling after working for twelve years in an unchallenging position, Darrell began to look for a new career. The French loanword "ennui" comes from the very same Late Latin word that gave us "annoy" -- "inodiare" ("to make loathsome"). We borrowed "ennui" several centuries after absorbing "annoy" into the language. "Ennui" deals more with boredom than irritation -- and a somewhat specific sort of boredom at that. It generally refers to the feeling of jadedness that can result from living a life of too much ease. The poet Charles Lloyd described it well in his 1823 "Stanzas to Ennui" when he referred to that world-weary sensation as a "soul-destroying fiend" which visits with its "pale unrest / The chambers of the human breast / Where too much happiness hath fixed its home."
dissertate \DISS-er-tayt\ verb
"to speak or write at length" Amy shared with her academic advisor her plans to dissertate on the subject of womens roles in postcolonial India. English speakers created the word "dissert" in the mid-17th century, but a single word for the concept was apparently not enough because "dissertate" appeared in the language less than a hundred years later. Both words descend from the Latin noun "dissertus," which shares their meaning. ("Dissert" came directly from "dissertus," whereas "dissertate" came by way of "dissertatus," past participle of "dissertare," meaning "to discuss, argue, or debate.") "Dissertus" itself traces back to the verb "disserere," formed by combining the prefix "dis-" and "serere" ("to place, arrange, or join together"). Other descendants of "serere" in English include "assert," "insert," and even "series."
flyting \FLY-ting\ noun
"a dispute or exchange of personal abuse in verse form" In the first flyting in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice wittily responds to Benedick's line "What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?" with "Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet / food to feed it as Signior Benedick?" Flyting in 15th- and 16th-century Scotland is analogous to a modern-day rap competition during which rappers improvise clever disses and put-downs against their opponents. Similarly, the makars (a Scottish word for "poets") engaged in verbal duels in which they voiced extravagant invectives in verse against their rivals. The base of "flyting" is the ancient verb "flyte" (also spelled "flite"), meaning "to contend" or "to quarrel."
littoral \LIT-uh-rul\ adjective
"of, relating to, or situated or growing on or near a shore especially of the sea" The report shows dramatic improvement in the condition of the state's littoral waters since the cleanup effort began. You're most likely to encounter "littoral" in contexts relating to the military and marine sciences. A "littoral combat ship" is a fast and easily maneuverable combat ship built for use in coastal waters. And in marine ecology, the "littoral zone" is a coastal zone characterized by abundant dissolved oxygen, sunlight, nutrients, and generally high wave energies and water motion. Most of us, however, are more likely to encounter the noun "littoral," which refers to a coastal region (and more technically, to the shore zone between the high tide and low tide points). Although the adjective is older -- dating from the mid 17th century -- the noun, which dates from the early 19th century, is more common. "Littoral" comes to English from Latin "litoralis," itself from "litor-" or "litus," meaning "seashore."
anachronism \uh-NAK-ruh-niz-um\ noun
"an error in chronology; , a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place;" Manual typewriters and slide rules are often regarded as anachronisms in this age of computers and calculators. An anachronism is something that is out of place in terms of time or chronology. The word derives from "chronos," the Greek word for "time," and "ana-," a Greek prefix meaning "up," "back," or "again." When it was first used in English in the 17th century, "anachronism" referred to an error in the dating of something (as, for example, in etymology, when a word or use is mistakenly assumed to have arisen earlier than it did). Anachronisms were sometimes distinguished from parachronisms, chronological errors in which dates are set later than is correct. But "parachronism" did not stand the test of time. It is now a very rare word.
galvanize \GAL-vuh-nyze\ verb
"to stimulate with an electric current, to excite or be excited as if by an electric shock, to coat (iron or steel) with zinc;" The Russians launched a satellite into space, and the sudden realization that we were falling behind galvanized Americans into action. -- Bill Powell, Newsweek, October 9, 1989 Luigi Galvani was an Italian physician and physicist who, in the 1770s, studied the electrical nature of nerve impulses by applying electrical stimulation to frogs leg muscles, causing them to contract. Although Galvanis theory that animal tissue contained an innate electrical impulse was disproven, the Italian word "galvanismo" came to describe a current of electricity especially when produced by chemical action. English speakers borrowed the word as "galvanism" in 1797; the verb "galvanize" was introduced in 1802. Charlotte Brontë, in 1853, used the verb figuratively in her novel Villette: "Her approach always galvanized him to new and spasmodic life." These days, "galvanize" also means to cover metal with zinc or a zinc alloy to protect from rust (as in galvanized carpentry nails).
pittance \PIT-unss\ noun
"a small portion, amount, or allowance;" The children worked for a pittance at the factory in subhuman conditions. It's a pity when you haven't anything but a pittance. And in fact, "pity" and "pittance" share etymological roots. The Middle English word "pittance" came from Anglo-French "pitance," meaning "pity" or "piety." Originally, a "pittance" was a gift or bequest to a religious community, or a small charitable gift. Ultimately, the word comes from the Latin "pietas," meaning "piety" or "compassion." Our words "pity" and "piety" come from "pietas" as well.
mollycoddle \MAH-lee-kah-dul\ verb
"to treat with an excessive or absurd degree of indulgence or attention" Parents of other players complained that the coach was unfairly mollycoddling the team's star pitcher. Coddling eggs is delicate business. You need to cook them slowly and gently, keeping the water just below boiling. Given how carefully you need to treat the eggs, it's not surprising that coddle, the name for the cooking process, developed the figurative sense to pamper. Mollycoddle was formed by combining coddle with molly, a nickname for Mary. In its earliest known uses in the 1830s, mollycoddle was a noun, a synonym of our modern wimp, but within 30 years it was being used as the verb you're likely to encounter now.
pedantic \pih-DAN-tik\ adjective
"narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned, unimaginative, pedestrian" Many students at the lecture were confused about what the pedantic professor was saying because he insisted on using highly elevated diction. In Shakespeare's day, a pedant was a male schoolteacher. The word's meaning was close to that of the Italian "pedante," from which the English word was adapted. Someone who was pedantic was simply a tutor or teacher. But some instructional pedants of the day must have been pompous and dull, because by the early 1600s both "pedant" and "pedantic" had gained extended senses referring to anyone who was obnoxiously and tediously devoted to his or her own academic acumen.
macédoine \mass-uh-DWAHN\ noun
"a confused mixture , a mixture of fruits or vegetables served as a salad or cocktail or in a jellied dessert or used in a sauce or as a garnish" The focal point of the painting is a mesmerizing mac doine of warm colors. "Mac doine" is the French name for Macedonia, a region on the Balkan Peninsula that is now part of Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Historically, this area has been home to a richly varied population encompassing many ethnic groups. Etymologists believe that the cultural heterogeneity of the region may have inspired people to use its name as a generic term for any kind of wildly jumbled mixture. English speakers borrowed "mac doine" early in the 19th century. The word took on its more specific "salad" sense later in the century.
temerarious \tem-uh-RAIR-ee-us\ adjective
"marked by temerity" The brave explorer set off for the unplumbed depths of the dangerous cave with only a few supplies and one temerarious companion. If you have guessed that "temerarious" may be related to the somewhat more common word "temerity," you are correct. "Temerarious" was borrowed into English in the early 16th century from Latin "temerarius," which in turn derives from Latin "temere," meaning "blindly" or" recklessly." "Temerity," which arrived in English over a century earlier, also derives from "temere"; another descendant is the rare word "intemerate" (meaning "pure" or "undefiled"). "Temere" itself is akin to Old High German "demar," Latin "tenebrae," and Sanskrit "tamas," all of which have associations with darkness.
scrumptious \SKRUMP-shus\ adjective
"delightful, excellent;" To celebrate their first Thanksgiving in their new home, Ilene and Paul prepared a scrumptious feast for 12 guests. First appearing in English in 1830, "scrumptious" is a mouth-watering word that is used to describe what is delightful and delectable. It probably originated as an alteration of "sumptuous," and it carries the elegant and wonderful connotations of its parent. ("Sumptuous" derives via Middle English from the Latin verb "sumere," meaning "to take or spend.") British author Roald Dahl had some fun with scrumptious, and created a delightful coinage, when he inserted the infix -diddly- into the word to make scrumdiddlyumptious, the word that chocolate magnate Willy Wonka uses to name his best-selling treats in his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).
inoculate \ih-NAHK-yuh-layt\ verb
"to introduce a microorganism into, to introduce (as a microorganism) into a suitable situation for growth, to introduce immunologically active material (as an antibody or antigen) into especially in order to treat or prevent a disease, to introduce something into the mind of, to protect as if by inoculation" In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner discovered that inoculating people with cowpox could provide immunity against smallpox. If you think you see a connection between "inoculate" and "ocular" ("of or relating to the eye"), you are not mistaken -- both words look back to "oculus," the Latin word for "eye." But what does the eye have to do with inoculation? Our answer lies in the original use in English of "inoculate" in Middle English: "to insert a bud in a plant." Latin "oculus" was sometimes applied to things that were seen to resemble eyes, and one such thing was the bud of a plant. "Inoculate" was later applied to other forms of engrafting or implanting, including the introduction of vaccines as a preventative against disease.
congruous \KAHNG-groo-us\ adjective
"being in agreement, harmony, or correspondence, conforming to the circumstances or requirements of a situation , marked or enhanced by harmonious agreement among constituent elements" Im not convinced that your ideas are congruous with the clients expressed desire for simplicity, wrote my boss at the top of the design plan Id submitted. "Congruous" has been used in English since at least 1599, when it appeared in the following description: "All the parts of his bodie were in good proportion, and congruous as a man could wish." It has remained more or less true to its Latin roots: it is derived from Latin "congruus," an adjective that comes from the verb "congruere," which means "to come together" or to agree." Another familiar "congruere" descendant in English is "congruent," which first appeared at least a century earlier with the same meaning as "congruous." We also acquired "congrue," a verb meaning "to be in harmony" or "to agree," from "congruere," but it has since become obsolete.
imbroglio \im-BROHL-yoh\ noun
"a confused mass, a complicated situation, a painful or embarrassing misunderstanding, a violent or bitter altercation" The two motorists got into an imbroglio after both tried to make a move for the same parking spot. "Imbroglio" and "embroilment" are more than just synonyms; they're also linked through etymology. Both descend from the Middle French verb "embrouiller" (same meaning as "embroil"), from the prefix "em-," meaning "thoroughly," plus "brouiller," meaning "to mix" or "to confuse." ("Brouiller" is itself a descendant of an Old French word for broth.) Early in the 17th century, English speakers began using "embroil," a direct adaptation of "embrouiller." Our noun "embroilment," which also entered the language in the early 17th century, comes from the same source. Meanwhile, the Italians were using their own alteration of "embrouiller" : "imbrogliare," meaning "to entangle." In the mid-18th century, English speakers embraced the Italian noun "imbroglio" as well.
tristful \TRIST-ful\ adjective
"sad, melancholy" "And, come four o'clock, the Winter Garden is packed with tea parties gobbling cucumber sandwiches , while a tristful harpist completes recollections of rainy afternoons trapped in British seaside palm courts ." (Simon Schama, The New Yorker, May 31, 2004) The Middle English word "trist," from which "tristful" is derived, means "sad." Today, we spell this word "triste" (echoing the spelling of a French ancestor), whereas "tristful" has continued to be spelled without the "e." Is there a connection between "triste" ("sad") and "tryst" ("a secret rendezvous of lovers")? Not exactly. "Tryst" can be traced back to a Middle English "trist," but it is a different word, one that was a synonym of "trust." This word eventually fell into disuse, but before doing so, it may have given rise to a word for a station used by hunters, which is in turn believed to have led to "tryst."
disputatious \dis-pyuh-TAY-shus\ adjective
"inclined to dispute b: marked by disputation, provoking debate" The radio host's disputatious opinions and discussions have drawn legions of listeners, and now he is moving his show to network television. "Disputatious" can be used of both people and things. Disputatious people like to provoke arguments or find something to disagree about. In the "things" category, the word can apply to both situations and issues. For example, court trials are disputatious; that is, they are marked by disputation, or verbal controversy. An issue or matter is disputatious if it provokes controversy. However, if a matter, such as an assertion made by someone, is open to question rather than downright controversial, it's merely "disputable." In any case, there's no arguing that both "disputatious" and its synonym "disputative" have changed their connotation somewhat from their Latin source, the verb "disputare." That word means simply "to discuss."
pundit \PUN-dit\ noun
"a learned person , authority, critic" Grandpa likes watching liberal and conservative pundits spar about the issues of the day on the Sunday morning talk shows. The original pundits were highly respected teachers and leaders in India. Their title was taken from the Hindi word "pandit," a term of respect for a wise person that itself derives from the Sanskrit "pandita," meaning "learned." English speakers began using the form "pundit" specifically to refer to those Hindu sages as long ago as the 1600s. By the 1800s, they had also extended the term to refer to other sagacious individuals, and now "pundit" is often used with a hint of sarcasm to refer to informed opinion makers (such as political commentators, financial analysts, and newspaper columnists) who boldly share their views (sometimes at great length) on just about any subject that lies within their areas of expertise.
winnow \WIN-oh\ verb
"to remove (as chaff) by a current of air; , to remove, separate, or select as if by winnowing, to narrow or reduce, to blow on or fan" The search committee is finding it extremely difficult to winnow the list of job candidates down to five; many of them are highly qualified and very desirable. Beginning as "windwian" in Old English, "winnow" first referred to the removal of chaff from grain by a current of air. This use was soon extended to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information"). People then began using the word for the selection of the most desirable elements (as in "winnowing out the qualified applicants"). The association of "winnow" with the movement of air led to the meanings "to brandish" and "to beat with or as if with wings," but those uses are now rare. The last meanings blew in at the turn of the 19th century. They are "to blow on" and "to blow in gusts."
leviathan \luh-VYE-uh-thun\ noun
"the political state; , something large or formidable" Towering leviathans of the forest, these giant sequoias often reach heights of more than 200 feet. Old Testament references to a huge sea monster, "Leviathan" (in Hebrew, "Liwyāthān"), are thought to spring from an ancient myth in which the god Baal slays a multiheaded sea monster. Leviathan appears in the book of Psalms, as a sea serpent that is killed by God and then given as food to the Hebrews in the wilderness, and it is referred to in the book of Job as well. We began equating "Leviathan" with the political state after the philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the word in (and as the title of) his 1651 political treatise on government. Today, "Leviathan" often suggests a crushing political bureaucracy. "Leviathan" can also be immensely useful as a general term meaning "something monstrous or of enormous size."
chapfallen \CHAP-faw-lun\ adjective
"having the lower jaw hanging loosely, cast down in spirit" The team's failure to make it to the playoffs yet again was another disappointment, but hardly a surprise, for its chapfallen and long-suffering fans. "Chapfallen" is also commonly written as "chopfallen," a spelling that may help us to better understand this somewhat unusual word. The "chap" in "chapfallen" is a word that dates back to at least the 16th century. It refers to the fleshy covering of the jaw or to the jaw itself and is often used in the plural, as in "the wolf licked its chaps." If that phrase doesn't seem to quite right to you, it is likely because you are more familiar with "chops," an alteration of "chaps" which is also used to refer to the jaw or the mouth. "Fallen" is the past participle of "fall." Thus, to be "chapfallen" or "chopfallen" is, literally, to have one's jaw in a fallen or lower position.
lief \LEEF\ adverb
"soon, gladly" "I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as / lief have been myself alone." (William Shakespeare, As You Like It) "Lief" began as "l of" in Old English and has since appeared in many literary classics, first as an adjective and then as an adverb. It got its big break in the epic poem "Beowulf" as an adjective meaning "dear" or "beloved." The adverb first appeared in the 13th century, and in 1390, it was used in John Gowers collection of love stories, "Confessio Amantis." Since that time, it has graced the pages of works by William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. Today, the adjective is considered to be archaic and the adverb is used much less frequently than in days of yore. It still pops up now and then, however, in the phrases "had as lief," "would as lief," "had liefer," and "would liefer."
Nimrod \NIM-rahd\ noun
"a descendant of Ham represented in Genesis as a mighty hunter and a king of Shinar, hunter, idiot, jerk" Dad fancied himself a mighty nimrod after he captured the rabbit who had been eating our garden. Nimrod is described in Genesis as "the first on earth to be a mighty man" and "a mighty hunter before the Lord." It's easy to see how people made the leap from one mighty hunter in the Bible to calling any hunter a "nimrod." A lesser-known fact is that "nimrod" has seen some use in English as a noun meaning "tyrant" (apparently, the mighty Nimrod was not reputed to be an especially benevolent king), although that sense is now essentially obsolete. The legendary Nimrod is also sometimes associated with the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Because the tower resulted in the wrath of the Lord and proved a disastrous idea, "nimrod" is sometimes used with yet another meaning: "a stupid person."
fiery \FYE-uh-ree\ adjective
"consisting of or marked by fire, using or carried out with fire c: flammable, hot or glowing like a fire, red, full of emotion or spirit, easily provoked" "As the game ended, he gave a fiery pep talk to his linemen, and on a brutally tough day, they appreciated it." (Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News, November 16, 2009) If you find yourself tempted to spell today's word "firey," you're relying on sound logic. "Fiery" was formed by combining the word "fire" and the "-y" suffix, so it is reasonable to expect that the result would be spelled "firey." At the time that the adjective was coined in the 13th century, however, the spelling of the noun had not yet become standardized. One alternate spelling was "fier." Presumably, it was this spelling that eventually led to English speakers settling on "fiery," even as the lone surviving spelling of the noun turned out to be "fire."
ukase \yoo-KAYSS\ noun
"a proclamation by a Russian emperor or government having the force of law, a proclamation having the force of law, order, command" "The professor's first instruction to the [playwriting] class was a ukase: Never begin a play with a telephone ringing." (Bruce McCabe, The Boston Globe, June 23, 2000) English speakers adopted "ukase" more or less simultaneously from French ("ukase") and Russian ("ukaz") in the early 18th century. The word can be traced further back to the Russian verb "ukazat'," meaning "to show" or "to order," and its ultimate source is an ancient root that led to similar words in Latin, Sanskrit, and Old Church Slavic. A Russian ukase was a command from the highest levels of government that could not be disobeyed. But by the early 19th century, English speakers were also using "ukase" generally for any command that seemed to come from a higher authority, particularly one that was final or arbitrary.
provender \PRAH-vun-der\ noun
"dry food for domestic animals , food, victuals" "The ambrosial and essential part of the [huckleberry] fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden) When English speakers first chewed on the word "provender" around 1300, it referred to a stipend that a clergyman received from his cathedral or collegiate church, something also known as a "prebend." A mere 25 years later, though, the words current meanings had developed. These days youre most likely to encounter "provender" in articles written by food and travel writers. A few such writers confuse "provender" with "purveyor," meaning "a person or business that sells or provides something," but most of them keep the words straight, as Deidre Schipani does in this quote: "The kitchen remains true to its local roots. Buying from island farmers, fisherman, shrimpers, butchers and small local artisans keeps the provender and purveyors in alignment." (The Post and Courier, September 3, 2009)
namby-pamby \nam-bee-PAM-bee\ adjective
"lacking in character or substance , weak, indecisive" The candidate criticized her opponent during the debate, calling him a namby-pamby flip-flopper who could not stand up for what he believed in. Eighteenth-century poets Alexander Pope and Henry Carey didn't think much of their contemporary Ambrose Philips. His sentimental, singsong verses were too childish and simple for their palates. In 1726, Carey came up with the rhyming nickname "Namby-Pamby" (playing on "Ambrose") to parody Philips: "Namby-Pamby's doubly mild / Once a man and twice a child . . . / Now he pumps his little wits / All by little tiny bits." In 1733, Pope borrowed the nickname to take his own satirical jab at Philips in the poem "The Dunciad." Before long, "namby-pamby" was being applied to any piece of writing that was insipidly precious, simple, or sentimental, and later to anyone considered pathetically weak or indecisive.
receipt \rih-SEET\ noun
"recipe, the act or process of receiving, a writing acknowledging the receiving of goods or money" If you find that the item has been damaged during shipping, please contact us upon receipt to request a return shipping label. These days it may seem odd to speak of "grandma's cookie receipt," but at one time the only meaning of "receipt" was "recipe." The first recorded use of "receipt" is a reference to a medicinal preparation in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1386). "Recipe" didn't arrive until the 1500s, and it was also first used to describe medicine. Both words began to be applied to cooking only in the 18th century, after which "recipe" slowly became the preferred word. "Receipt" acquired its currently more familiar sense of "a written statement saying that money or goods have been received" in the 17th century. Both "receipt" and "recipe" are thought to be ultimately derived from Latin "recipere" ("to receive"), making them probable relatives as well as synonyms.
indefeasible \in-dih-FEE-zuh-bul\ adjective
"not capable of being annulled or voided or undone" After his father's untimely demise, which reeked of foul play, Prince Nikolai took to the throne as was his indefeasible right as the king's eldest son. We acquired "indefeasible" in the mid-16th century by combining the English prefix "in-" ("not") with "defeasible," a word borrowed a century earlier from Anglo-French. "Defeasible" itself can be traced to an Old French verb meaning "to undo" or "to destroy." It's no surprise, then, that something indefeasible is essentially "un-undoable" or "indestructible." Another member of this family of words is "feasible," meaning "capable of being done or carried out." Ultimately, all three -- "indefeasible," "defeasible," and "feasible" -- can be traced back to the Latin verb "facere," meaning "to do."
depredate \DEP-ruh-dayt\ verb
"to lay waste , to engage in plunder" [O]ne of our party, after being asked by the owner to help depredate a few of the green, squawky birds at a feedlot, took 4 shots and killed over one hundred. (The Bakersfield Californian, August 16, 2008) "Depredate" derives primarily from the Latin verb "praedari," meaning "to plunder," an ancestor to our words "predator" and "prey." First appearing in English in the 17th century, the word most commonly appears in contexts relating to nature and ecology, where it is often used to describe the methodical, almost automatic destruction of life. Thats how the film critic Stanley Kauffman, for example, summarized the plot of the famous horror movie Jaws (1975): A killer shark depredates the beach of an island summer resort. Several people are killed. Finally, the shark is killed. That's the story.
whimsical \WIM-zih-kul\ adjective
"full of, actuated by, or exhibiting whims, resulting from or characterized by whim or caprice; , subject to erratic behavior or unpredictable change" The whimsical decor of Marys home reflects her playful personality. As you may have guessed, the words "whimsical," "whim," and "whimsy" are related. All three ultimately derive from the word "whim-wham" ("a whimsical object" or "a whim"), which is of unknown origin and dates to at least 1500. "Whimsy" was the first of the three to spin off from "whim-wham," debuting in print in 1605. English speakers then added the adjective suffix "-ical" to "whimsy" to create "whimsical," dating from 1653. "Whim," which came about as a shortened version of "whim-wham," appeared as early as 1641 in a sense that is now obsolete, but its current sense of "a sudden wish, desire, or change of mind" didn't appear in print until 1686.
sastruga \SAS-truh-guh\ noun
"">a wavelike ridge of hard snow formed by the wind -- usually used in plural" "Over the sastrugi it is all up and down hill, and the covering of ice crystals prevents the sledge from gliding even on the down-grade." (Robert Falcon Scott, Journals: Captain Scotts Last Expedition) If "sastruga" and its plural "sastrugi" seem like unusual English words, that may be because in some ways they are. Many of the words we use in English can be traced to one of two sources: about one-quarter of our vocabulary can be traced back to English's Germanic origins, and another two-thirds comes from Latinate sources (most such words come by way of French or from Latin directly, but Spanish and Italian have made their contributions as well). "Sastruga" was borrowed from German, but is not Germanic in origin. Its originally from "zastruga," a word that comes from a dialect of Russian and means "groove," "small ridge," or "furrow." "Sastruga" is not widely used in English, and when it is used, it often takes the plural form, as in our example sentence.
intransigent \in-TRAN-suh-junt\ adjective
"characterized by refusal to compromise or to abandon an extreme position or attitude" Ms. Baxter was intransigent about her most famous rule: no gum or candy in her classroom unless youd brought enough to share with everybody. English speakers borrowed "intransigent" in the 19th century from Spanish "intransigente" ("uncompromising"), itself a combination of the familiar prefix "in-" ("not") and "transigente" ("willing to compromise"). "Transigente" comes from the Spanish verb "transigir" ("to compromise"), which in turn comes from Latin "transigere" ("to come to an agreement"). The French have a similar verb, "transiger," which also means "to compromise." You may wonder if the word "transigent" exists in English, and the answer is "not really." It has seen occasional use, but it is not well established. There is, however, one other common English word that traces from Latin "transigere": "transact," meaning "to conduct (business)."
finesse \fuh-NESS\ verb
"to make a finesse in playing cards , to bring about, direct, or manage by adroit maneuvering, evade, skirt" "A surer hand behind the camera might've finessed the jokes more effectively, or established a consistent and satisfying tone." (Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2009) "Finesse" was a noun for more than 200 years before it became a verb. In the early 16th century the noun "finesse" was used to refer to refinement or delicacy of workmanship, structure, or texture. Soon thereafter it developed the "skillful handling of a situation" meaning most common today. The first use of the verb "finesse," however, was not as a corollary of one of these meanings. Instead, its meaning had to do with cards: if you finesse in a game like bridge or whist, you withhold your highest card or trump in the hope that a lower card will take the trick because the only opposing higher card is in the hand of an opponent who has already played. The other verb meanings of "finesse" developed within a few decades of this one.
quadrennial \kwah-DREN-ee-ul\ adjective
"consisting of or lasting for four years, occurring or being done every four years" The 1990 U.S. soccer team was the first U.S team in 40 years to qualify for the championship tournament in the quadrennial World Cup. Most things "quadrennial" occur every four years (that's the more common use). We can say, for example, that the U.S. presidential election is a quadrennial event. But we can also say that president's term in office is quadrennial, making good use of the "lasting four years" sense. The Latin combining form "quadri-" adds a factor of four to many English words: "quadriceps" (the thigh muscle, which has four parts), "quadrilateral" (a four-sided polygon), "quadragenarian" (a person in his or her 40s), and "quadricentennial" (a 400th anniversary), to name a few. The "-ennial" part of "quadrennial" has the same root as in "biennial" and "centennial"; all trace back to "annus," the Latin word for "year."
groundling \GROUND-ling\ noun
"a spectator who stood in the pit of an Elizabethan theater, a person of unsophisticated taste, one that lives or works on or near the ground" The movie was panned as mindless fodder for the groundlings. In Elizabethan times, play-going audiences were a diverse bunch. In the upper gallery, the wealthier patrons fanned themselves and looked with disdain at those who could only afford the penny admission to the pit below. Pit spectators had to sit or stand in close proximity on the bare floor, exposed to the sweltering sun or the dampening rain. At times, they behaved less than decorously, and they reportedly emitted a less than pleasant odor. The pit was also called the "ground"; those in it were "groundlings." Today, we use "groundlings" to refer not only to the less than couth among us, but also (often with some facetiousness) to ordinary Janes or Joes.
arbitrary \AHR-buh-trair-ee\ adjective
"autocratic, despotic, determined by whim or caprice" The 10 p.m. deadline is arbitrary -- we could have easily selected another time for the contest to end -- but we had to pick a cutoff, and now it is set. "Arbitrary" is derived from the same source as "arbiter." The Latin word "arbiter" means "judge," and English adopted it, via Anglo-French, with the meaning "one who judges a dispute"; it can now also be used for anyone whose judgment is respected. "Arbitrary" traces back to the Latin adjective "arbitrarius" ("done by way of legal arbitration"), which itself comes from "arbiter." In English "arbitrary" first meant "depending upon choice or discretion" and was specifically used to indicate the sort of decision (as for punishment) left up to the expert determination of a judge rather than defined by law. Today, it can also be used for anything determined by or as if by a personal choice or whim.
veracity \vuh-RASS-uh-tee\ noun
"devotion to the truth , conformity with truth or fact , something true" English poet Thomas Gray wrote, "Any fool may write a most valuable book by chance, if he will only tell us what he heard and saw with veracity." "Veracity" has been a part of English since at least 1623, and we can honestly tell you that it derives from the Latin adjective "verax" ("true" or "truthful"), which in turn comes from the earlier adjective "verus" ("true"). "Verus" also gives us "verity" ("the quality of being true"), "verify" ("to establish the truth of"), and "verisimilitude" ("the appearance of truth"), among other words. In addition, "verax" is the root of the word "veraciousness," a somewhat rarer synonym and cousin of "veracity."
baptism of fire \BAP-tiz-um-uv-FYRE\ noun
"an introductory or initial experience that is a severe ordeal; , a spiritual baptism by a gift of the Holy Spirit" Sandra got her baptism of fire as a babysitter when she spent the weekend taking care of her sisters three rambunctious children. In the 1981 volume Airmobility in Vietnam, Lt. General John Tolson used the military sense of "baptism of fire," writing, "Major George D. Hardesty, Jr. of the 8th Transportation Company and Major Robert J. Dillard of the 57th could report that their units performed outstandingly under their first baptism of fire." Tolson and other users of the phrase allude (knowingly or unknowingly) to a Biblical passage: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Matthew 3:11, RSV). Since at least 1857, "baptism of fire" has been used metaphorically in English for any initiation, especially a difficult one.
malleable \MAL-ee-uh-bul\ adjective
"capable of being extended or shaped by beating with a hammer or by the pressure of rollers, capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces or influences, having a capacity for adaptive change" Grandma took the cookie dough out of the refrigerator and allowed it to soften to a consistency that was firm yet malleable. There is a hint about the origins of "malleable" in its first definition. The earliest uses of the word, which first appeared in English in the 14th century, referred primarily to metals that could be reshaped by beating with a hammer. The Middle English word "malliable" comes to us from Medieval Latin "malleabilis," which in turn derives from the Latin verb "malleare," meaning "to hammer." "Malleare" itself was created from the Latin word for "hammer": "malleus." If you have guessed that "maul" and "mallet," other English words for specific types of hammers, can also be traced back to "malleus," you have hit the nail on the head.
wassail \WAH-sul\ verb
"to indulge in riotous drinking, to sing carols from house to house at Christmas, to drink to the health or thriving of" The farmer and his revelers wassailed the apple orchard, hoping for another fruitful season, and then merrily poured cider around the trees. The salutation "wassail," from the Old Norse toast "ves heill" ("be well"), has accompanied English toast-making since the 12th century. By the 13th century, "wassail" was being used for the drink itself, and it eventually came to be used especially of a hot drink (of wine, beer, or cider with spices, sugar, and usually baked apples) drunk around Christmastime. This beverage warmed the stomachs and hearts of many Christmas revelers and was often shared with Christmas carolers. The verb "wassail" was first used in the 14th century to describe the carousing associated with indulgence in the drink; later, it was used of other activities associated with wassail and the holiday season, like caroling. Seventeenth-century farmers added cattle and trees to the wassail tradition by drinking to their health or vitality during wintertime festivities.
two-bit \TOO-BIT\ adjective
"of the value of two bits, cheap or trivial of its kind" Eliana had only a two-bit role in the musical, but her enchanting voice and beauty magnified her presence on stage. The first definition of "two-bit" makes its etymology obvious: it is derived from the noun "two bits." However, "two bits" is an interesting phrase because it actually means "the value of a quarter of a dollar." There is no such thing as a single bit, at least not anymore. The now obsolete Spanish dollar was composed of eight reals, or eight bits, so a quarter of the dollar equaled two bits. The phrase "two bits" carried over into U.S. usage, though there's no bit coin in U.S. currency. "Two bits" first appeared in print in English in 1730 (and later developed the figurative sense of "something of small worth or importance"), followed in 1802 by its adjectival relative. These days, the adjective has far surpassed the noun in popularity.
Sturm und Drang \shtoorm-unt-DRAHNG\ noun
"turmoil" The new film deftly captures the Sturm und Drang of growing up as it chronicles the turbulent lives of two teens in postwar Germany. Sturm und Drang comes from German, where it literally means storm and stress. Although its now a generic synonym of turmoil, the term was originally used in English to identify a late 18th-century German literary movement whose works were filled with rousing action and high emotionalism, and often dealt with an individual rebelling against the injustices of society. The movement took its name from the 1776 play Sturm und Drang, a work by one of its proponents, dramatist and novelist Friedrich von Klinger. Although the literary movement was well known in Germany in the late 1700s, the term Sturm und Drang didnt appear in English prose until the mid-1800s.
ergogenic \ur-guh-JEN-ik\ adjective
"enhancing physical performance" "New to this edition are chapters for rowers and a review of ergogenic aids, such as protein supplements and other products ." (Anne Stein, Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2007) No matter your profession -- be it office worker, athlete, physicist, or poet -- "ergon," the Greek word for "work," has generated a word for you to work into your vocabulary. There is "ergonomics," which concerns efficiently and safely designing things that people use -- for example, office equipment. Then there is our featured word, "ergogenic," which might crop up in a discussion about improving athletic performance. The physicist's mind is likely to think in "ergs," or centimeter-gram-second units of work. And for those of the literary, or even agricultural, bent, there is "georgic," which combines "ergon" with Greek "geō-," meaning "earth," and refers to a poem dealing with agriculture or to the activity of agriculture itself. The most common derivative, however, is "energy," which adds Greek "en," meaning "in," to "ergon."
ominous \AH-muh-nus\ adjective
"being or exhibiting an omen" Our fears about the picnic being cancelled were heightened by the sight of dark, ominous clouds appearing over the horizon. "Ominous" didn't always mean "foreshadowing evil." If you look closely, you can see the "omen" in "ominous," which gave it the original meaning of "presaging events to come" -- whether good or bad. It is ultimately derived from the Latin word "omen," which is both an ancestor and a synonym of our "omen." Today, however, "ominous" tends to suggest a menacing or threatening aspect. Its synonyms "portentous" and "fateful" are used similarly, but "ominous" is the most menacing of the three. It implies an alarming character that foreshadows evil or disaster. "Portentous" suggests being frighteningly big or impressive, but seldom gives a definite forewarning of calamity. "Fateful" implies that something is of momentous or decisive importance.
canaille \kuh-NYE\ noun
"rabble, riffraff, proletarian" "I am not going to write for [the New York Weekly] -- like all other papers that pay one splendidly, it circulates among stupid people & the canaille." (Mark Twain, letter, June 1, 1867) For a creature said to be mans best friend, the dog doesnt get a whole lot of respect in the English language. Something that has "gone to the dogs," for example, has gone to ruin, and the Britishism "dogs breakfast" means a confused mess of something. The word "canaille," which debuted in English in the 17th century, shows that we have no qualms about associating dogs with the lower levels of human society; it derives via French from Italian "canaglia," and ultimately from "canis," the Latin word for "dog." "Canis," of course, is also the source of "canine," meaning "of or relating to dogs or to the family to which they belong."
homogeneous \hoh-muh-JEEN-yus\ adjective
"of the same or a similar kind or nature, of uniform structure or composition throughout" "In my opinion the solar system is a solid homogeneous body; the planets which compose it are in actual contact with each other." (Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon) The scientific theories of Jules Verne's bold French adventurer, Michel Ardan, might have been a bit flawed (it's more accurate to classify the solar system as "heterogenous" -- that is, consisting of dissimilar ingredients or constituents), but his use of the English word "homogeneous" was perfectly correct. "Homogeneous," which derives from the Greek roots "homos," meaning "same," and "genos," meaning "kind," has been used in English since the mid-1600s. The similar word "homogenous" (originally created for the science of genetics and used with the meaning "of, relating to, or derived from another individual of the same species") can also be a synonym of "homogeneous." The words need not be used exclusively in scientific contexts -- one can speak of, for example, "a homogenous/homogeneous community."
unknown \unknown\ unknown
"" unknown unknown
embargo \im-BAHR-goh\ noun
"an order of a government prohibiting the departure of commercial ships from its ports, a legal prohibition on commerce, stoppage, impediment;" Because of the trade embargo against Cuba, certain items, such as Cuban cigars, are illegal in the United States. Embargoes may be put in place for any number of reasons. For instance, a government may place a trade embargo against another country to express its disapproval with that countrys policies. But governments are not the only bodies that can place embargoes. A publisher, for example, could place an embargo on a highly anticipated book to prevent stores from selling it before its official release date. The word "embargo," dating from the late 16th century, derives via Spanish "embargar" from Vulgar Latin "imbarricare," formed from the prefix "in-" and the noun "barra" ("bar").
gloze \GLOHZ\ verb
"give a deceptively attractive appearance to -- often used with "over",">to deal with (a subject or problem) too lightly or not at all -- often used with "over"" "His modesty and shyness were at any rate proverbial, and it does seem that he went out of his way to conceal or gloze over certain aspects of his career, his military exploits in particular." (Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts) "Gloze" and its synonym "gloss" have long, intertwined histories. "Gloze," which comes from Middle English "glose," meaning "flattery," "plausible pretext," or "explanation of a difficult word," is the older of the two; it has been used as both a verb and noun since the 14th century. The noun "gloss," referring to an explanation or interpretation, first appeared in the mid-16th century as an alteration of "gloze," and the verb "gloss" followed about a century later." During the 19th century, "gloze" briefly took on the additional meaning "to brighten" (adapting the meaning of another, unrelated "gloss" referring to luster or brightness), but by the end of that century all uses of "gloze" had faded into relative obscurity. "Gloss," on the other hand, flourished and continues to be the more common term by far today.
felicitous \fih-LISS-uh-tus\ adjective
"very well suited or expressed , pleasant, delightful" The films score, at least, is felicitous, as it lends emotional intensity to the otherwise wooden acting. The adjective "felicitous" has been a part of our language since the late 18th century, but "felicity," the noun meaning "great happiness," and later, "aptness," was around even in Middle English (as "felicite," a borrowing from Anglo-French). Both words ultimately derive from the Latin adjective "felix," meaning "fruitful" or "happy." The connection between "happy" and "felicitous" continues today in that both words can mean "notably fitting, effective, or well adapted." "Happy" typically suggests what is effectively or successfully appropriate (as in "a happy choice of words"), and "felicitous" often implies an aptness that is opportune, telling, or graceful (as in "a felicitous phrase").
myrmidon \MER-muh-dahn\ noun
"a loyal follower;" The boss was more likely to offer promotions to her myrmidons than to those workers who occasionally questioned her tactics or proposed alternate solutions. The Myrmidons, legendary inhabitants of Thessaly in Greece, were known for their fierce devotion to their king, Achilles, who led them in the Trojan War. "Myrmex" means "ant" in Greek, an image that evokes small and insignificant workers mindlessly fulfilling their duty. Whether the original Myrmidons were given their name for that reason is open to question. The "ant" association is strong, however. Some say the name is from a legendary ancestor who once had the form of an ant; others say the Myrmidons were actually transformed from ants. In any case, since the 1400s, we've employed "myrmidon" in its not-always-complimentary, ant-evoking, figurative sense.
chapel \CHAP-ul\ noun
"a private or subordinate place of worship, an assembly at an educational institution usually including devotional exercises, a place of worship used by a Christian group other than an established church" The school required all of its students to attend chapel daily. "Chapel" is ultimately derived from the Late Latin word "cappa," meaning "cloak." How did we get from a garment to a building? The answer to this question has to do with a shrine created to hold the sacred cloak of St. Martin of Tours. In Medieval Latin, this shrine was called "cappella" (from a diminutive of "cappa" meaning "short cloak or cape") in reference to the relic it contained. Later, the meaning of "cappella" broadened to include any building that housed a sacred relic, and eventually to a place of worship. Old French picked up the term as "chapele," which in turn passed into English as "chapel" in the 13th century. In case you are wondering, the term "a cappella," meaning "without instrumental accompaniment," entered English from Italian, where it literally means "in chapel style."
magnanimous \mag-NAN-uh-mus\ adjective
"showing or suggesting a lofty and courageous spirit, showing or suggesting nobility of feeling and generosity of mind" Rather than gloat about her victory in the race, Michelle chose to be magnanimous and congratulated her opponents on their strong showings. When you see "anima," "animus," or a similar formation in a word, it's an indicator of something alive, lively, or spirited. Something "animated" is full of life, for example, and an "animal" is a living, breathing thing. The Latin word "animus" means "soul" or "spirit." In "magnanimous," that "animus" is joined by Latin "magnus," meaning "great." Basically meaning "greatness of spirit," "magnanimity" is the opposite of pettiness. A truly magnanimous person can lose without complaining and win without gloating. Angry disputes can sometimes be resolved when one side makes a magnanimous gesture toward another.
wushu \WOO-SHOO\ noun
"Chinese martial arts" Before becoming a martial arts film star, Jet Li was well-known as a champion in the Chinese sport of wushu. The name of the martial art "wushu" derives from the Beijing dialect of Chinese, where it was formed by combining the words for "martial" or "military" ("wǔ") and "art" ("shù"). This form of hand-to-hand combat (known more familiarly as "kung fu") was highly developed in China by the 3rd century B.C.E, and it is credited with influencing other martial arts that arose within Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Modern wushu, however, has separated itself from traditional kung fu to emphasize aesthetics and performance. One of the more well-known divisions of wushu is tai chi, the ancient discipline of meditative movements practiced as a system of exercises.
amicable \AM-ih-kuh-bul\ adjective
"characterized by friendly goodwill" About a million couples divorce each year in the United States, and most, like my ex and me, start out striving to keep the split amicable. (Annie Finnigan, Family Circle, October 17, 2008) "Amicable," which derives from Late Latin "amicabilis," meaning "friendly," is one of a set of English words used to suggest cordial relationships. "Amicable," "neighborly," "companionable," and "friendly" all mean marked by or exhibiting goodwill and an absence of antagonism. "Amicable" implies a state of peace and a desire on the part of the parties not to quarrel ("they maintained amicable relations"; "the amicable process of bargaining"). "Neighborly" implies a disposition to live on good terms with others, particularly those who are nearby, and to be helpful on principle ("neighborly concern"). "Companionable" suggests sociability and companionship ("a companionable dinner with friends"). "Friendly" stresses cordiality and often warmth or intimacy of personal relations ("a friendly correspondence").
cosmeticize \kahz-MET-uh-syze\ verb
"to make (something unpleasant or ugly) superficially attractive" The authors of the legislation have cosmeticized it with tax breaks and tax cuts. "Cosmeticize" first appeared in print in the early 19th century as a descendant of the noun "cosmetic." Originally, its use was often literal, with the meaning "to apply a cosmetic to," but today it is often used figuratively. "Cosmeticize" does occasionally draw criticism; usage commentators are sometimes irritated by verbs coined using "-ize" as they can sound like silly, nonce words. "Cosmeticize" is fairly well-established, however, in contrast with the two other, rarer verbs that have been derived from "cosmetic": "cosmetize," which often turns up in the literal sense ("cosmetize the face"), and "cosmetic," which can be literal or figurative ("cosmeticked with bright rouge"; "embellished and cosmeticked").
pied-à-terre \pee-ay-duh-TAIR\ noun
"a temporary or second lodging" The couple owns a home in San Francisco and a pied-à-terre in Greenwich Village. In French, "mettre pied à terre" means "to dismount." In the cavalry, dismounting at the end of the day meant occupying whatever temporary quarters were available. French speakers began using "pied-à-terre" (literally, "foot to the ground") for a temporary lodging of any sort back in the 1700s. English speakers adopted the term in the early 1800s, using it, as the French did, for a home away from home. Depending on who you are, a pied-à-terre can be anything from a sprawling villa in Naples to a one-room cabin on the Snake River, but nowadays it most frequently refers to an apartment maintained in the city.
suborn \suh-BORN\ verb
"to induce secretly to do an unlawful thing, to induce to commit perjury;" "In the first place, a jury could not easily be suborned by any one." (Theodore Dreiser, The Financier) The Latin word that gave us "suborn" in the early part of the 16th century is "subornare," which translates literally as "to secretly furnish or equip." The "sub-" that brings the "secretly" meaning to "subornare" more commonly means "under" or "below," but it has its stealthy denotation in the etymologies of several other English words, including "surreptitious" (from "sub-" and "rapere," meaning "to seize") and the verb "suspect" (from "sub-" or "sus-" and "specere," meaning "to look at"). The "ornare" of "subornare" is also at work in the words "ornate," "adorn," and "ornament."
triskaidekaphobia \triss-kye-dek-uh-FOH-bee-uh\ noun
"fear of the number 13" "Billy Hart suffers absolutely no triskaidekaphobia. The Salem Avalanche infielder has worn No. 13 for six years ." (Katrina Waugh, The Roanoke Times [Virginia], July 14, 2007) It's impossible to say just how or when the number thirteen got its bad reputation. There are a number of theories, of course. Some say it comes from the Last Supper because Jesus was betrayed afterwards by one among the thirteen present. Others trace the source of the superstition back to ancient Hindu beliefs or Norse mythology. But if written references are any indication, the phenomenon isn't all that old (at least, not among English speakers). Known mention of fear of thirteen in print dates back only to the late 1800s. By circa 1911, however, it was prevalent enough to merit a name, which was formed by attaching the Greek word for "thirteen" -- "treiskaideka" (dropping that first "e") -- to "phobia" ("fear of").
doldrums \DOHL-drumz\ noun
"a spell of listlessness or despondency, a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms, squalls, and light shifting winds, a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or slump" "A vacation on a tropical island could be just the thing you need to fight against the winter doldrums," said Christine as she handed me the resort's brochure. Everyone gets the doldrums -- a feeling of low spirits and lack of energy -- every once in a while. The doldrums experienced by sailors, however, are usually of a different variety. In the mid-19th century, the word once reserved for a feeling of despondency came to be applied to certain tropical regions of the ocean marked by the absence of strong winds. Sailing vessels, reliant on wind propulsion, struggled to make headway in these regions, leading to long, arduous journeys. The exact etymology of "doldrums" is not certain, though it is believed to be related to the Old English "dol," meaning "foolish" -- a history it shares with our adjective "dull."
incoherent \in-koh-HEER-unt\ adjective
"lacking coherence: as, lacking cohesion , lacking orderly continuity, arrangement, or relevance , lacking normal clarity or intelligibility in speech or thought" I found myself unable to follow the movies rambling and incoherent plot. Something that is coherent holds or sticks together firmly, with resistance to separation (that is, it coheres). Coherent, ultimately from the Latin co- (together) and haer re (to stick or cling), entered English in the 16th century and almost from the beginning was used both of physical things (coherent stone) and of things which hold together in a much less palpable way (coherent thoughts). Its antonym, incoherent, entered the language about three-quarters of a century later. Like coherent, incoherent can be applied to both the tangible and the intangible. But, whether we are speaking of sand or logic, all things incoherent have one thing in common: they do not hold together, literally or figuratively, in a unified or intelligible whole.
interdigitate \in-ter-DIJ-uh-tayt\ verb
"to become interlocked like the fingers of folded hands" "The edges [of bridge expansion joints] often are shaped like combs, the teeth of one interdigitating with teeth of the other." (The Washington Post, January 14, 1998) It probably wont surprise you to learn that "interdigitate" comes from the prefix "inter-," as in "interlock," and the Latin word "digitus," meaning "finger." "Digitus" also gave us "digit," which is used in English today to refer to (among other things) the finger or toe of any animal. "Interdigitate" usually suggests an interlocking of things with fingerlike projections, such as muscle fibers or the teeth of an old-fashioned bear trap. The word can also be used figuratively to imply a smooth interweaving of disparate things, such as the blending of two cultures within a shared region.
Danelaw \DAYN-law\ noun
"the law in force in the part of England held by the Danes before the Norman Conquest, the part of England under the Danelaw" In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Danelaw between the Rivers Tees and Thames was governed much differently than areas to the south and west. When the Vikings invaded the east coast of England in the late 800s, their conquests reached as far as the southern kingdom of Wessex, where they were halted by the army of Alfred the Great. The invaders, many of whom were Danish, retreated back north and east to the lands they had conquered, and settled there. This region -- stretching from Essex, just above London, through East Anglia and the eastern Midlands, all the way up to Northumbria -- was distinguished from the surrounding territory by its unique legal practices, which, because they were decidedly Danish in influence, made up what Old English folks down south called the "Dena lagu" or, in today's English, the "Danes' law." Historians later applied the term "Danelaw" not only to the legal system of the region but to that geographical area itself.
noetic \noh-ET-ik\ adjective
"of, relating to, or based on the intellect" Among the events sponsored by the neighborhood bar were monthly quiz nights, which Jeanne enjoyed attending because they satisfied her thirst for noetic stimulation. "Noetic" derives from the Greek adjective "no tikos," meaning "intellectual," from the verb "noein" ("to think") and ultimately from the noun "nous," meaning "mind." ("Nous" also gave English the word "paranoia" by joining with a prefix meaning "faulty" or "abnormal.") "Noetic" is related to "noesis," a rare noun that turns up in the field of philosophy and refers to the action of perceiving or thinking. The most notable use of "noetic" might be in the name of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a research organization based in California that is devoted to studies of consciousness and the mind.
conquian \KONK-ee-un\ noun
"a card game for two played with 40 cards from which all games of rummy developed" The two friends whiled away the long summer days with endless games of conquian. Conquian is a very old card game, played more frequently in the past than now. Based on the "draw and discard" principle that forms the basis for all modern games of rummy, it's played with 40 cards of a 52-card deck. (The most common variations involve the removal of either all face cards, or the tens, nines, and eights.) The goal of the game is to form three or four of a kind, or sequences. "Conquian" comes to us from Mexican Spanish, but the word is ultimately derived from the Spanish "¿con qui n?" meaning "with whom?"
Augean stable \aw-JEE-un-STAY-bul\ noun
"a condition or place marked by great accumulation of filth or corruption" The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marred by his refusal to clean out the Augean stables of his own administration. "Augean stable" most often appears in the phrase "clean the Augean stable," which usually means "clear away corruption" or "perform a large and unpleasant task that has long called for attention." Augeas, the mythical king of Elis, kept great stables that held 3,000 oxen and had not been cleaned for thirty years -- until Hercules was assigned the job. Hercules accomplished this task by causing two rivers to run through the stables. The word "Augean" is sometimes used by itself, too -- it has come to mean "extremely difficult and usually distasteful." We can refer to "Augean tasks," "Augean labor," or even "Augean clutter."
colubrine \KAHL-yuh-bryne\ adjective
"of, relating to, or resembling a snake, of or relating to a large cosmopolitan family (" "By the time the music starts throbbing at 9, there will undoubtedly be a colubrine line slithering down Mass. Ave." (Christopher Muther, The Boston Globe, March 2002) "Colubrine" may be less common than other animal words, such as "canine," "feline," and "bovine," but it has been around for a good long while. Ultimately derived from the Latin "colubra" ("snake"), it slithered into the English language in the 16th century. ("Cobra," by the way, comes from the same Latin word, but entered English through Portuguese.) Some other words for "snakelike" are "serpentine" (a more common alternative) and "ophidian" (from the Greek word for snake: "ophis").
Mrs. Grundy \MISS-uz-GRUN-dee\ noun
"one marked by prudish conventionality in personal conduct" After a barrage of complaints from Mrs. Grundys, the Web site's managers decided to remove the "objectionable" photos. "What would Mrs. Grundy say?" Dame Ashfield, a character in Thomas Morton's 1798 play Speed the Plough, was continually asking that question and worrying about invoking the sneering condemnation of her prudish neighbor, Mrs. Grundy. Although Mrs. Grundy never actually appeared on stage during the play, her critical attitude exerted a significant influence on the actions of other characters, and ultimately on the English language. By 1813, English speakers had adopted her name as a byword for anyone with extremely rigid standards of propriety that he or she applied in judging the actions of others.
funicular \fyoo-NIK-yuh-ler\ noun
"a cable railway ascending a mountain;" "Situated in a gated community reachable by funicular, the resort's 181 guest rooms come with flat-screen TVs, nightly turndown service and, in suites, even a butler." (The New York Times, December 13, 2009) You may have fun on a funicular, but the word is not related to "fun" (which comes to us from an English dialect verb meaning "to hoax"). The noun "funicular" descends from an earlier adjective "funicular," meaning "relating to a cord under tension." It was also influenced by "funiculaire," a French word used for a type of railway that is dependent upon cables (or on "cords under tension"). Ultimately, these terms trace back to the Latin noun "funiculus," meaning "small rope." "Funicular" first appeared in print as an adjective in English in 1664; the noun has been with us since the early 20th century.
refurbish \rih-FER-bish\ verb
"to brighten or freshen up" Bill and Marie bought the historic house with the intent of refurbishing it. If you're wondering if "refurbish" implies the existence of an earlier "furbish," you are on the right track. "Furbish" was borrowed into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French "furbiss-," a distant relative of an Old High German word meaning "to polish." In its earliest uses "furbish" also meant "to polish," but it developed an extended sense of "renovate" shortly before English speakers created "refurbish" with the same meaning in the 17th century. These days "refurbish" is the more common of the two words, although "furbish" does continue to be used.
Valhalla \val-HAL-uh\ noun
"the great hall in Norse mythology where the souls of heroes slain in battle are received, a place of honor, glory, or happiness" "When the time comes, a lot of folks who vote people into baseball's Valhalla will make character a major qualification." (Sid Dorfman, The Star-Ledger [Newark, New Jersey], September 9, 2009) In Norse mythology, the souls of warriors who died nobly in battle were brought to a magnificent palace, where they spent their days fighting for diversion, immune from lasting injury, and their evenings lustily feasting on freshly killed boar and quaffing the free-flowing mead. In Old Norse, the word for this warrior heaven is "Valhǫll" (literally, "hall of the slain"); in German, it is "Walhalla." English speakers picked up the name as "Valhalla" in the 18th century. Nowadays, we can use the word figuratively, and induction or admission into a modern-day Valhalla doesn't require passing from this life. It can be a place of honor (a hall of fame, for example) or a place of bliss (as in "an ice cream lover's Valhalla").
bolide \BOH-lyde\ noun
"a large meteor" Though probably no more than a foot in diameter, the bolide offered a brief and spectacular light show as it streaked across the sky. "Bolide," like "fireball," is a name applied to very bright meteors that often trail sparks. A clue to the origins of "bolide" can be found in the missile-like appearance of these meteors. The Greek "bolis," which comes from "bol " ("throw" or "stroke"), literally means "missile" or "javelin." "Bolis" is the source of the Latin name given to these spectacular meteors, which is also "bolis." The word became "bolide" in French, from which it was borrowed by the English language in the mid-19th century.
martinet \mar-tuh-NET\ noun
"a strict disciplinarian, a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods" Spencer complained that his office manager was a power-hungry martinet who compelled him to follow ridiculous rules. When France's King Louis XIV appointed Lieutenant Colonel Jean Martinet to be inspector general of the infantry in the late 17th century, he made a wise choice. As a drillmaster, Martinet trained his troops to advance into battle in precise linear formations and to fire in volleys only upon command, thus making the most effective use of inaccurate muskets -- and making the French army one of the best on the continent. He also gave English a new word. "Martinet" has been used synonymously with "strict disciplinarian" since the 1730s.
maxixe \muh-SHEESH\ noun
"a ballroom dance of Brazilian origin that resembles the two-step" "In the 1920s, the maxixe took over the ballrooms of Rio de Janeiro." (The Toronto Star, September 20, 1998) The maxixe was in vogue for only a few decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but its influence has lived on in the still-popular samba. Born out of the marriage of Afro-Brazilian and European dance, maxixe is sometimes described as Africanized polka. Both Brazilian music and the tunes of Tin Pan Alley accompanied the dancers of the maxixe, which was brighter and snappier than the also then-popular Argentine tango. The maxixe in some ways put Brazil on the dancing map. As Sanjoy Roy put it in a July 7, 2006 article in The Guardian, "The maxixe was one of Brazil's first musical exports, spawning brief crazes in Paris in 1914, and London in 1922."
yellow-dog \yel-oh-DAWG\ adjective
"mean, contemptible, of or relating to opposition to trade unionism or a labor union" The workers were all bound under yellow-dog agreements, so they weren't able to appeal to any union forces to help renegotiate their contract. In the 19th century, the noun "yellow dog" developed a derogatory sense, meaning a low, despicable person. This usage probably came about from the traditional association of the color yellow with cowardice. Just before the turn of the century, "yellow-dog" started to be used by writers who were derogatorily describing organizations that expressed opposition to trade unions. The popularized term "yellow-dog contract" referred to an agreement made by an employer and employee in which the employee agrees not to join a labor union during the time he or she is employed. While such contracts proliferated in the 1920s, they were later made unenforceable in U.S. federal courts under the Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932).
collude \kuh-LOOD\ verb
"conspire, plot" The U.S. District Court has granted class-action status to a complaint that the retailer and manufacturer colluded to keep prices high. Our English "lude" words ("allude," "collude," "delude," "elude," and "prelude") are based on the Latin verb "ludere," meaning "to play." "Collude" dates back to 1525 and combines "ludere" and the prefix "col-," meaning "with" or "together." "Collude" is younger than the related noun "collusion," which appeared sometime in the 14th century with the specific meaning "secret agreement or cooperation." Despite their playful history, "collude" and "collusion" have always suggested deceit or trickery rather than good-natured fun.
coeval \koh-EE-vul\ adjective
"of the same or equal age, antiquity, or duration" "How old is this ancient town? One guess: It dates to 2600-2500 B.C. -- more or less coeval with nearby Stonehenge which may date to 3100 B.C." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 2007) "Coeval" comes to English from the Latin word "coaevus," meaning "of the same age." "Coaevus" was formed by combining the "co-" prefix ("in or to the same degree") with Latin "aevum" ("age" or "lifetime"). The root "ev" comes from "aevum," making words such as "longevity," "medieval," and "primeval" all near relations to "coeval." Although "coeval" can technically describe any two or more entities that coexist, it is most typically used to refer to things that have existed together for a very long time (such as galaxies) or that were concurrent with each other in the distant past (parallel historical periods of ancient civilizations, for example).
raj \RAHJ\ noun
"rule; especially often capitalized , the period of British rule in India" In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched a spectacular and highly successful campaign against the Raj, but despite all such efforts, India did not gain independence from British rule until 1947. When British trading posts were established in the Indian subcontinent in the 17th century, English speakers were immersed in the rich languages of the region, and Europeans quickly began adopting local words into their own vocabularies. By the end of the 1700s, Hindi contributions to our language ran from "ayah" (a term for a nurse or maid) to "zamindar" (a collector of land taxes or revenues). When English speakers borrowed "raj" around 1800, they used exactly the same spelling and meaning as its Hindi parent (the Hindi word in turn traces to an older term that is related to the Sanskrit word for "king"). Other words of Hindi descent that are now common in English include "chintz," "pundit," "bungalow," "veranda," "seersucker," and "bandanna."
evanescent \ev-uh-NESS-unt\ adjective
"tending to vanish like vapor" "Dance is the most evanescent of the arts, evaporating into memory the instant it's completed." (Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald, November 13, 2008) The fragile, airy quality of things evanescent reflects the etymology of the word "evanescent" itself. It derives from a form of the Latin verb "evanescere," which means "to evaporate" or "to vanish." Given the similarity in spelling between the two words, you might expect "evaporate" to come from the same Latin root, but it actually grew out of another steamy Latin root, "evaporare."
elicit \ih-LISS-it\ verb
"to draw forth or bring out (something latent or potential), to call forth or draw out (as information or a response)" The announcement of the total amount of money that the charity walk raised for the childrens hospital elicited many cheers from the crowd. "Elicit" derives from the past participle of the Latin verb "elicere," formed by combining the prefix "e-" with the verb "lacere," meaning "to entice by charm or attraction." It is not related to its near-homophone, the adjective "illicit" -- that word, meaning "unlawful," traces back to another Latin verb, "lic re," meaning "to be permitted." Nor is "elicit" related to the verb "solicit," even though it sounds like it should be. "Solicit" derives from Latin "sollicitare" ("to disturb"), formed by combining the adjective "sollus," meaning "whole," with the past participle of the verb "ci re," meaning "to move."
vulnerary \VUL-nuh-rair-ee\ adjective
"used for or useful in healing wounds" Aloe vera is a vulnerary plant whose extract is widely used to soothe and heal burns. In Latin, "vulnus" means "wound." You might think, then, that the English adjective "vulnerary" would mean "wounding" or "causing a wound" -- and, indeed, "vulnerary" has been used that way, along with two obsolete adjectives, "vulnerative" and "vulnific." But for the lasting and current use of "vulnerary," we took our cue from the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History, he used the Latin adjective "vulnerarius" to describe a plaster, or dressing, for healing wounds. And that's fine -- the suffix "-ary" merely indicates that there is a connection, which, in this case, is to wounds. (As you may have already suspected, "vulnerable" is related; it comes from the Latin verb "vulnerare," which means "to wound.")
alow \uh-LOH\ adverb
"below" "Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding sails on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world." (Noel Perrin, The New York Times, May 30, 1982) In nautical use, "alow" means "in or to a lower part of the vessel," indicating the deck or the area of the rigging closest to the deck, or below-deck as opposed to above-deck. The opposite of "alow" in this sense is "aloft," used to indicate a higher part of the vessel. Yet, while we are still likely to encounter "aloft," in both nautical and non-nautical use, "alow" has become something of a rarity. When encountered, it is usually found in the combination "alow and aloft." This phrase literally refers to the upper and lower parts of a ship or its rigging, but it can also be used to mean "completely" or "throughout" -- similar to the more familiar "high and low."
comptroller \kun-TROH-ler\ noun
"a royal-household official who examines and supervises expenditures, a public official who audits government accounts and sometimes supervises expenditures, the chief accounting officer of a business enterprise or an institution (as a college)" The comptroller verified and approved the financial information of the grant proposal. If you think "comptroller" looks like a mistaken spelling of "controller," you're partially right. Today, "comptroller" is an established word that shares one of its meanings (sense 3) with "controller." The term did originate as a misspelling, however. Around the 15th century, Middle English speakers altered the spelling of "conterroller" (meaning "controller," from the Middle French "contrerolleur") under the influence of the Middle French word "compte" ("account"). The resulting word, "comptroller," has attracted criticism over the years. Grammarian Henry Fowler condemned "comptroller" as "not merely archaic, but erroneous" in 1920, and a lexicographical column from 1931 agreed that "comptroller" is "erroneous and should not be accepted as correct." Nevertheless, such modern institutions as colleges and governments continue to have comptrollers. "Comptrollership" occasionally turns up as well.
parsnip \PAHR-snip\ noun
"a Eurasian biennial herb (Pastinaca sativa) of the carrot family with large pinnate leaves and yellow flowers that is cultivated for its long tapered edible root which is cooked as a vegetable;" "A sweet tender treat awaits my taste buds whenever I prepare parsnips. Parsnips are truly one of my favorite vegetables that I first enjoyed as a young child." (Dianne Lamb, Brattleboro Reformer, April 25, 2009) The word "parsnip" was borrowed into Middle English in the 14th century as a modification of the Old French word "pasnaie," itself derived from the Latin noun "pastinaca," meaning "parsnip" or "carrot." The scientific name for the parsnip, "Pastinaca sativa," still reflects this history. "Pastinaca," in turn, traces back to "pastinum," a Latin word for a small gardening tool used to make holes in the ground for the insertion of plants, seeds, or bulbs. "Parsnip" may also remind you of the name of another edible root, "turnip," and there's a possible explanation for the resemblance. The Middle English spelling of "parsnip" ("passenep") may have been influenced by "nepe," the old form of "turnip."
enthrall \in-THRAWL\ verb
"to hold in or reduce to slavery, to hold spellbound" "For 40 years, the Romero Quartet has enthralled audiences with superb classical guitar playing." (David Stabler, The Oregonian [Portland Oregon], January 8, 2010) In Middle English, "enthrallen" meant "to hold in thrall." "Thrall" then, as now, meant "bondage" or "slavery"; it comes from an Old Norse word, "thraell," which is probably related to an Old High German word for servant. In the 16th century, the first known figurative use of "enthrall" appeared in the following advice, translated from a Latin text by Thomas Newton: "A man should not . . . enthrall his credit and honour to Harlots." But we rarely use even this sense of mental or moral enslavement anymore. Today the word is often used in its participle form, "enthralled," which sometimes means "temporarily spellbound" ("we listened, enthralled, to the old woman's oral history"), but more often suggests a state of being generally captivated, delighted, or taken by some particular thing.
kapellmeister \kuh-PELL-mye-ster\ noun
"the director of a choir or orchestra" From 1717 to 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach served as the Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen of the Holy Roman Empire. As you may have guessed, "Kapellmeister" originated as a German word -- and in fact, even in English it is often (though not always) used for the director of a German choir. "Kapelle" once meant "choir" in German, and "Meister" is the German word for "master." The Latin "magister" is an ancestor of both "Meister" and "master," as well as of our "maestro," meaning "an eminent composer or conductor." "Kapelle" comes from "cappella," the Medieval Latin word for "chapel." As it happens, we also borrowed "Kapelle" into English, first to refer to the choir or orchestra of a royal or papal chapel, and later to describe any orchestra. "Kapellmeister" is used somewhat more frequently than "Kapelle" in current English, though neither word is especially common.
effulgence \ih-FULL-junss\ noun
"radiant splendor" The effulgence of the moon in the clear midnight sky provided enough light to help us safely make our way home. Apparently, English speakers first took a shine to "effulgence" in the middle of the 17th century; that's when the word was first used in print in our language. "Effulgence" derives from the Latin verb "fulg re," which means "to shine." "Fulg re" is also the root of "fulgent," a synonym of "radiant" that English speakers have used since the 15th century. Another related word, "refulgence," is about 30 years older than "effulgence." "Refulgence" carries a meaning similar to "effulgence" but sometimes goes further by implying reflectivity, as in "the refulgence of the knights gleaming armor."
Panglossian \pan-GLAH-see-un\ adjective
"marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds" Even the most Panglossian temperament would have had trouble finding the good in this situation. Dr. Pangloss was the pedantic old tutor in Voltaire's satirical novel Candide. Pangloss was an incurable, albeit misguided, optimist who claimed that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." So persistent was he in his optimism that he kept it even after witnessing and experiencing great cruelty and suffering. The name "Pangloss" comes from Greek "pan," meaning "all," and "glossa," meaning "tongue," suggesting glibness and talkativeness.
phony \FOH-nee\ adjective
"not genuine or real: as a *(1) , arousing suspicion , having no basis in fact , false, sham, making a false show: as (1)" "Digital tricksters increasingly place phony footage, facts and press releases on Web sites and video-sharing sites to see how quickly the falsehoods will spread through traditional and new media alike." (Sandy Cohen, The Associated Press State and Local Wire, January 1, 2010) It's the backstory of "phony" that deserves our attention. "Phony" (which dates from the early 1900s) is believed to be an alteration of the British "fawney," the word for a gilded brass ring used in a confidence game called the "fawney rig." In this game, the trickster drops a ring (or a purse with some valuables in it) and runs to pick the item up at the same time as the poor sap who notices it on the ground. The trickster asserts that the found treasure should be split between them. The one who's "found" the item, convinced now of its value, chooses instead to give the con artist some money in order to keep the item, which is, of course, phony.
prescience \PRESH-ee-unss\ noun
"foreknowledge of events:, divine omniscience, human anticipation of the course of events" Stacy had the prescience to know that the stocks value wasnt going to remain high forever, so she sold it before it decreased. If you know the origin of "science," you already know half the story of "prescience." "Science" comes from the Latin verb "scire," which means "to know" and which is the source of many English words ("conscience," "conscious," and "omniscience," just to name a few). "Prescience" comes from the Latin verb "praescire," which means "to know beforehand." "Praescire" joins the verb "scire" with the prefix "prae-," a predecessor of "pre-." A lesser-known "scire"-derived word is "nescience." "Nescience" means "ignorance" and comes from "scire" plus "ne-," which means "not" in Latin.
dally \DAL-ee\ verb
"to act playfully; , to deal lightly , to waste time, linger, dawdle" "There's nothing like dallying with your sweetie at an exquisite restaurant on Valentine's Day." (Suzanne Podhaizer, Seven Days [Burlington, Vermont], February 13-20, 2008) English speakers have been playing with different uses of "dally" since the 14th century. They first started using the word with the meaning "to chat," which was also the meaning of the Anglo-French word from which it was derived, but that meaning fell into disuse by the end of the 15th century. Next, dalliers were amusing themselves by acting playfully with each other especially in amorous and flirtatious ways. Apparently, some dalliers were also a bit derisive, leading "dally" to mean "to deal with lightly or in a way that is not serious." It didn't take long for the fuddy-duddies to criticize all this play as a waste of time. By the mid-16th century, "dally" was weighted down with its "to waste time" and "dawdle" meanings, which, in time, gave way to the word "dillydally," a humorous reduplication of "dally."
astrolabe \A-struh-layb\ noun
"a compact instrument used to observe and calculate the position of celestial bodies before the invention of the sextant" With a rotating plate and pointers that marked the positions of stars, the astrolabe could reproduce the daily motions of the stars on the celestial sphere. "Thyn Astrolabie hath a ring to putten on the thombe of thi right hond in taking the height of thinges." Thus begins a description of the astrolabe in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a medieval user's guide penned by the unlikeliest of aspiring astronomers, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is best known for his Middle English poetic masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, but when his nose wasn't buried in his writing, Chaucer was stargazing, and some of his passion for the heavens rubbed off on his son Lewis, who, according to his father, had displayed a special "abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns." Chaucer dedicated his treatise to the 10-year-old boy, setting his instructions not in the usual Latin, but in "naked wordes in Englissh" so that little Lewis could understand. When he got older, Lewis may have learned that the word "astrolabe" traces to the Greek name for the instrument.
parlous \PAR-lus\ adjective
"full of danger or risk" "Given the fragile state of the economy, this is a parlous time to be making uncertain investments," said the financial advisor. "Parlous" is both a synonym and a derivative of "perilous"; it came to be as an alteration of "perilous" in Middle English. ("Perilous" is derived from the Anglo-French "perilleus," which ultimately comes from the Latin word for "danger": "periculum.") Both words are documented in use from at least the 14th century, but by the 17th century "parlous" had slipped from common use and was considered more or less archaic. It experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 20th century (although some critics still regarded it as an archaic affectation), and today it appears in fairly common use, often modifying "state" or "times."
tare \TAIR\ noun
"a deduction from the gross weight of a substance and its container made in allowance for the weight of the container; , counterweight" Before charging us for the blueberries we'd picked, the attendant at Annie's Fields deducted the tare from the weight of the filled buckets. "Tare" came to English by way of Middle French from the Old Italian term "tara," which is itself from the Arabic word "ṭarḥa," meaning "that which is removed." The first known written record of the word "tare" in English is found in the 1489 naval inventories of Britain's King Henry VII. The records show two barrels of gunpowder weighing, "besides the tare," 500 pounds. When used of vehicles, "tare weight" refers to a vehicle's weight exclusive of any load. The term "tare" is closely tied to "net weight," which is defined as "weight excluding all tare."
flexuous \FLEK-shuh-wus\ adjective
"having curves, turns, or windings, lithe or fluid in action or movement" The last leg of the trail is a flexuous path leading up the mountain to a spectacular panoramic view of the valley. English author Thomas Hardy was fond of the word "flexuous" and described his dark-haired Tess as "the most flexuous and finely-drawn figure." "Flexuous" may be a synonym of "curvy," but it's not the word most likely to be chosen these days to describe a shapely woman. The botanists' use of "flexuous" to describe plant stems that aren't rigid is a more typical use today. But don't let that tendency deflect you from occasionally employing this ultimately quite flexible word. Stemming straight from Latin "flectere," meaning "to bend," it can also mean "undulating" or "fluid." It might, for example, be used of writing or music, or of something or someone that moves with a fluid sort of grace.
inane \ih-NAYN\ noun
"void or empty space" "And thus likewise we sometimes speak of place, distance, or bulk in the great inane beyond the confines of the world " (John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) The adjective "inane" is now most commonly encountered as a synonym of "shallow" or "silly." But when this word first entered the English language in the early 17th century, it was used to mean "empty" or "insubstantial." It was this older sense that gave rise, in the latter half of the 17th century, to the noun "inane," which often serves as a poetic reference to the void of space ("the illimitable inane," "the limitless inane," "the incomprehensible inane"). This noun usage has not always been viewed in a favorable light. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), says of "inane" that "it is used licentiously for a substantive," which in current English means that it is used as a noun without regard to the rules.
saxicolous \sak-SIK-uh-lus\ adjective
"inhabiting or growing among rocks" As a graduate student, Pam studied saxicolous lichens above the treeline in three different parts of the Canadian Rockies. "Saxicolous." It's not a word that exactly rolls off the tongue, but it's a useful designation for botanists. The word is from Latin, naturally. "Saxum" is Latin for "rock," and "colous" (meaning "living or growing in or on") traces back to Latin "-cola" meaning "inhabitant." Other "colous" offspring include "arenicolous" ("living, burrowing, or growing in sand"), "cavernicolous" ("inhabiting caves"), and "nidicolous" ("living in a nest" or "sharing the nest of another kind of animal"). All of these words were coined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe the flora and fauna of our world.
chastise \chass-TYZE\ verb
"to inflict punishment on (as by whipping), to censure severely" The boss eventually had to chastise certain employees for being consistently late. "Chastise," "castigate," "chasten," "correct," "discipline," and "punish" all imply the infliction of a penalty in return for wrongdoing. "Chastise" often applies to verbal censure or denunciation ("he chastised his son for neglecting his studies"). "Castigate" usually implies a severe, typically public censure ("an editorial castigating the entire city council"), while "chasten" suggests any affliction or trial that leaves someone humbled or subdued ("chastened by a landslide election defeat"). "Correct" implies punishment aimed at reforming an offender ("the function of prison is to correct the wrongdoer"), and "discipline," a punishment or chastisement intended to bring a wrongdoer under control ("parents disciplining their children"). Finally, "punish" implies the imposition of a penalty for a misdeed ("punished for stealing").
thaumaturgy \THAW-muh-ter-jee\ noun
"the performance of miracles; specifically" After reading all seven Harry Potter novels in a span of two weeks, Audrey was hungry for more thrilling tales of mysticism and thaumaturgy. The magic of "thaumaturgy" is miraculous. The word, from a Greek word meaning "miracle working," is applicable to any performance of miracles, especially by incantation. It can also be used of things that merely seem miraculous and unexplainable, like the thaumaturgy of a motion picture's illusions (aka "movie magic"), or the thaumaturgy at work in an athletic team's "miracle" comeback. In addition to "thaumaturgy," we also have "thaumaturge" and "thaumaturgist," both of which mean "a performer of miracles" or "a magician," and the adjective "thaumaturgic," meaning "performing miracles" or "of, relating to, or dependent on thaumaturgy."
logomachy \loh-GAH-muh-kee\ noun
"a dispute over or about words, a controversy marked by verbiage" The surprising election results have opened the floodgates of logomachy in the political media outlets. It doesn't take much to start people arguing about words, but there's no quarrel about the origin of "logomachy." It comes from the Greek roots "logos," meaning "word" or "speech," and "machesthai," meaning "to fight," and it entered English in the mid-1500s. If you're a word enthusiast, you probably know that "logos" is the root of many English words ("monologue," "neologism," "logic," and most words ending in "-logy," for example), but what about other derivatives of "machesthai"? Actually, this is a tough one even for word whizzes. Only a few very rare English words come from "machesthai." Here are two of them: "heresimach" ("an active opponent of heresy and heretics") and "naumachia" ("an ancient Roman spectacle representing a naval battle").
abrupt \uh-BRUPT\ adjective
"characterized by or involving action or change without preparation or warning , unceremoniously curt, lacking smoothness or continuity, giving the impression of being cut or broken off;" Although Kevin liked working at the auto dealership, his abrupt manner of speaking made him a poor match for a job in customer service. Well break it to you gently: "abrupt" derives from "abruptus," the past participle of the Latin verb "abrumpere," meaning "to break off." "Abrumpere" combines the prefix "ab-" with "rumpere," which means "break" and which forms the basis for several other words in English that suggest a kind of breaking, such as "interrupt," "rupture," and "bankrupt." Whether being used to describe a style of speaking that seems rudely short (as in "gave an abrupt answer"), something with a severe rise or drop ("abrupt climate change"), or something that seems rash and unprecipitated ("made the abrupt decision to quit college"), "abrupt," which first appeared in English in the 16th century, implies a kind of jarring unexpectedness that catches people off guard.
proscribe \proh-SCRYBE\ verb
"outlaw, to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful" When grammarians began to proscribe ending a sentence with a preposition in the 1700s, one astute personage noted that it is "an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to." "Proscribe" and "prescribe" each have a Latin-derived prefix that means "before" attached to the verb "scribe" (from "scribere," meaning "to write"). Yet the two words have very distinct, often nearly opposite meanings. Why? In a way, you could say it's the law. In the 15th and 16th centuries both words had legal implications. To "proscribe" was to publish the name of a person who had been condemned, outlawed, or banished. To "prescribe" meant "to lay down a rule," including legal rules or orders.
thew \THOO\ noun
"muscular power or development, strength, vitality,">muscle, sinew -- usually used in plural" "Care I for the limb, the thews, the stature, bulk, and big / assemblance of a man! Give me the spirit," retorts Falstaff to Justice Shallow in Shakespeares Henry IV, Part 2. "Thew" has had a long, difficult past during which it discovered its strengths and weaknesses. In Middle English it carried a number of meanings, referring to a custom, habit, personal quality, or virtue. The word began to tire in the 16th century but was soon revitalized with a new meaning: it began to be used specifically for the quality of physical strength and later for the muscles demonstrating that quality. In time, the word buddied up with "sinew" in both literal and figurative turns of phrase, as in "the thews and sinews of my body ached" and "their love affair was the thew and sinew of the story."
apex \AY-peks\ noun
"the highest point" Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest, reached the apex of the great mountain at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953. "Apex" entered English from Latin, where it originally meant "a small rod at the top of a flamen's cap." What's a flamen's cap? Flamens were priests who devoted themselves to serving just one of the many ancient Roman gods (for instance, just Jupiter or Mars). Those priests wore distinctive conical caps that English speakers dubbed "flamen's caps." Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramatist Ben Jonson was one of the few English writers known to have used "apex" in its flamen's-cap sense: "Upon his head a hat of delicate wool, whose top ended in a cone, and was thence called apex."
waggish \WAG-ish\ adjective
"resembling or characteristic of a wag , done or made for sport" Lisa listens to the same waggish DJ every morning, never tiring of his prank phone calls and irreverent impressions of local politicians. One who is waggish acts like a wag. What, then, is a wag? Etymologists think "wag" probably came from "waghalter," a word that was once used for a "gallows bird" (that is, a person who was going to be, or deserved to be, hanged). "Waghalter" was apparently shortened to "wag" and used jokingly or affectionately for mischievous pranksters or youths. Hence a wag is a joker, and waggery is merriment or practical joking. "Waggish" can describe the prank itself as well as the prankster type; the class clown might be said to have a "waggish disposition" or might be said to be prone to "waggish antics."
asterisk \ASS-tuh-risk\ noun
"the character * used in printing or writing as a reference mark, as an indication of the omission of letters or words, to denote a hypothetical or unattested linguistic form, or for various arbitrary meanings" Words in the text that are defined in the glossary are marked with an asterisk for quick reference. If someone asked you to associate the word "asterisk" with a heavenly body, you would probably have no problem relating it to a star -- even if you didn't know that the word "asterisk" derives from "asteriskos," a Greek word meaning "little star." "Asterisk" has been a part of the constellation of English since at least the late 1300s, but it is far from the only shining star in our language. The Greek forms "ast r," "astro," and "astrum" (all of which mean "star") still cast their light in English by way of such words as "asteroid," "astral," and "disaster" (which originally meant "an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star"). Even "star" itself is a distant relative of "asterisk."
didactic \dye-DAK-tik\ adjective
"designed or intended to teach, intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment, making moral observations" Many of the shows on the channel are didactic, teaching children about such things as the importance of recycling, exercise, and honesty through the actions of animated characters. "Didaktikos" is a Greek word that means "apt at teaching." It comes from "didaskein," meaning "to teach." Something "didactic" does just that: teaches or instructs. "Didactic" conveyed that neutral meaning when it was first borrowed in the 17th century, and still does; a didactic piece of writing is one that is meant to be instructive as well as artistic. Parables are generally didactic because they aim to teach a moral lesson. "Didactic" now sometimes has negative connotations, too, however. Something "didactic" is often overburdened with instruction to the point of being dull. Or it might be pompously instructive or moralistic.
transmogrify \transs-MAH-gruh-fye\ verb
"to change or alter greatly and often with grotesque or humorous effect" With the help of an interior decorator, Max transmogrified his drab, cluttered apartment into a stylish yet functional bachelor pad. We know that the prefix "trans-" means "across" or "beyond" and appears in many words that evoke change, such as "transform" and "transpire," but we don't know the exact origins of "transmogrify." The 17th-century dramatist, novelist, and poet Aphra Behn, who is regarded as England's first female professional writer, was among the first English authors to use the word. In her 1671 comic play The Amorous Prince, Behn wrote, "I wou'd Love would transmogriphy me to a maid now." A century later, Scottish poet Robert Burns plied the word again in verse, aptly capturing the grotesque and sometimes humorous effect of transmogrification: "Social life and Glee sit down, . . . Till, quite transmugrify'd, they're grown Debauchery and Drinking."
licit \LISS-it\ adjective
"conforming to the requirements of the law" "We are focusing on making government institutions more accountable and effective, promoting the rule of law, [and] stimulating licit economic activity, especially in agriculture." (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, April 23, 2009) "Licit" is far less common than its antonym "illicit," but you probably wont be surprised to learn that the former is the older of the two. Not by much, though: the first known use of "licit" in print is from 1483, whereas "illicit" shows up in print for the first time in 1506. For some reason "illicit" took off while "licit" just plodded along. When "licit" appears these days it often modifies "drugs" or "crops." Meanwhile, "illicit" shows up before words like "thrill" and "passion" (as well as "gambling," "relationship," "activities," and, of course, "drugs" and "crops.") The Latin word "licitus," meaning "lawful," is the root of the pair; "licitus" itself is from "lic re," meaning "to be permitted."
journeyman \JER-nee-mun\ noun
"a worker who has learned a trade and works for another person, an experienced reliable worker, athlete, or performer" The team is ready to trade three of its rookie hopefuls for the journeyman pitcher. The "journey" in "journeyman" refers to a sense of this familiar word not often used anymore: "a day's labor." This sense of "journey" was first used in the 14th century. When "journeyman" appeared the following century, it originally referred to a person who, having learned a handicraft or trade through an apprenticeship, worked for daily wages. In the 16th century, "journeyman" picked up a figurative (and mainly deprecatory) sense; namely, "one who drudges for another." These days, however, "journeyman" has little to do with drudgery, and lots to do with knowing a trade inside out.
zaftig \ZAHF-tig\ adjective
"having a full rounded figure" The Flemish painters were masters of the oil medium, rendering zaftig beauties, robust burghers, hunting scenes, and allegorical subjects with subtle interplays of light and color. "Real women have curves," as a 2002 movie title proclaimed. They are pleasingly plump, full-figured, shapely, womanly, curvy, curvaceous, voluptuous, statuesque. They are, in a word, zaftig. "Zaftig" has been juicing up our language since the 1930s (the same decade that gave us Yiddish-derived "futz," "hoo-ha," "nosh," and "schmaltz," not to mention "lox"). It comes from the Yiddish "zaftik," which means "juicy" or "succulent" and which in turn derives from "zaft," meaning "juice" or "sap."
exponent \ik-SPOH-nunt\ noun
"a symbol written above and to the right of a mathematical expression to indicate the operation of raising to a power, one that expounds or interprets, one that champions, practices, or exemplifies" "Pianist [Chick] Corea has played plenty of straight-ahead jazz, but is probably best known as an exponent of '70s jazz-rock fusion." (Curtis Ross, The Tampa Tribune, February 19, 1999) You probably won't be surprised to learn that "exponent" shares an ancestor with "proponent" -- and indeed, the Latin "ponere" ("to put") is at the root of both terms. "Exponent" descends from "exponere" ("to explain" or "to set forth"), which joins "ponere" with "ex-" ("out"). "Proponent" traces to "proponere" ("to display" or "to declare"), from "ponere" and "pro-" ("before"). "Proponent" can describe someone who offers a proposal (it's related to "propose," which also ultimately comes from "proponere"), but today it usually means "one who argues in favor of something." "Exponent" can also refer to someone who is an advocate, but it tends to refer especially to someone who stands out as a shining representative of something, and in addition it has retained its earlier meaning of "one who expounds."
lave \LAYV\ verb
"wash, bathe, to flow along or against, pour" "There are few traces of man's hand to be seen. The water laves the shore as it did a thousand years ago." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden) "Lave" is a simple, monosyllabic word that magically makes the mundane act of washing poetic. Shakespeare used it in The Taming of the Shrew, when Gremio assured the father of his beloved Bianca that she would have "basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands." And in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, Nell "laved her hands and face, and cooled her feet before setting forth to walk again." The poetry of "lave" is also heard when describing water washing against the shore, as in our example sentence, or even the pouring of water: "He laved a few cool drops upon his brow" (John Lockhart, Reginald Dalton). Before washing our hands of "lave," we'll tell you its etymology: it, as well as "lavatory," comes from Latin "lavare," meaning "to wash."
eclectic \ih-KLEK-tik\ adjective
"selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles, composed of elements drawn from various sources;" The new downtown restaurant offers an eclectic mix of appetizers and entrees at reasonable prices. "Eclectic" comes from a Greek verb meaning "to select" and was originally applied to ancient philosophers who were not committed to any single system of philosophy; instead, these philosophers selected whichever doctrines pleased them from every school of thought. Later, the word's use broadened to cover other selective natures. "Hard by, the central slab is thick with books / Diverse, but which the true eclectic mind / Knows how to group, and gather out of each / Their frequent wisdoms...." In this 19th century example from a poem by Arthur Joseph Munby, for example, the word is applied to literature lovers who cull selective works from libraries.
petard \puh-TAHRD\ noun
"a case containing an explosive to break down a door or gate or breach a wall, a firework that explodes with a loud report" "The blast occurred on Sunday afternoon in a farmer's house in the Anhui Province, destroying six rooms which stored materials for making petards and firecrackers." (RIA Novosti, January 11, 2010) Aside from historical references to siege warfare, and occasional contemporary references to fireworks, "petard" is almost always encountered in variations of the phrase "hoist with one's own petard," meaning "victimized or hurt by one's own scheme." The phrase comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar." "Hoist" in this case is the past participle of the verb "hoise," meaning "to lift or raise," and "petar(d)" refers to an explosive device used in siege warfare. Hamlet uses the example of the engineer (the person who sets the explosive device) being blown into the air by his own device as a metaphor for those who schemed against Hamlet being undone by their own schemes. The phrase has endured, even if its literal meaning has largely been forgotten.
will-o'-the-wisp \will-uh-thuh-WISP\ noun
"a light that appears at night over marshy ground, a misleading or elusive goal or hope" Though her friends think she's chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, Alexis is determined to quit her job and follow her dream of becoming a pop music star. The will-o'-the-wisp is a flame-like phosphorescence caused by gases from decaying plants in marshy areas. In olden days, it was personified as "Will with the wisp," a sprite who carried a fleeting "wisp" of light. Foolish travelers were said to try to follow the light and were then led astray into the marsh. (An 18th-century fairy tale described Will as one "who bears the wispy fire to trail the swains among the mire.") The light was first known, and still also is, as "Ignis Fatuus," which in Latin means "foolish fire." Eventually, the name "will-o'-the-wisp" was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal.
sub rosa \sub-ROH-zuh\ adverb
"in confidence" The private investigator met sub rosa with his client to show her photos of her husband rendezvousing at various local establishments with another woman. "Sub rosa" literally means "under the rose" in New Latin. Since ancient times, the rose has often been associated with secrecy. In ancient mythology, Cupid gave a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to keep him from telling about the indiscretions of Venus. Ceilings of dining rooms have been decorated with carvings of roses, reportedly to remind guests that what was said at the table should be kept confidential. Roses have also been placed over confessionals as a symbol of the confidentiality of confession. "Sub rosa" entered the English language in the 17th century, and even before then, people were using the English version, "under the rose." Earlier still, "unter der Rose" was apparently used in Germany, where the phrase is thought to have originated.
acronym \AK-ruh-nim\ noun
"a word formed from the beginning letter or letters of each or most of the parts of a compound term;" The new committee spent a fair amount of time choosing a name that would lend itself to an appealing acronym. "Acronym" was created by combining "acr-" ("beginning") with "-onym," ("name" or "word"). You may recognize "-onym" in other familiar English words such as "pseudonym" and "synonym." English speakers borrowed "-onym" directly from the Greek (it derives from "onyma," the Greek word for "name"). "Acr-" is also from Greek, but it made a side trip through Middle French on its way to English. When "acronym" first entered English, some usage commentators decreed that it should refer to combinations of initial letters that were pronounced as if they were whole words (such as "radar" or "scuba"), differentiated from an "initialism," which is spoken by pronouncing the component letters (as "FBI" and "CEO"). These days, however, that distinction is largely lost, and "acronym" is a common label for both types of abbreviation.
postulate \PAHSS-chuh-layt\ verb
"demand, claim, to assume or claim as true, existent, or necessary, to assume as an established truth (as in logic or mathematics)" "If we postulate that the doors were all securely guarded," said the detective, "then the perpetrator must have been somebody who was already in the building." In 1703, the dedication of the City and County Purchaser and Builders Dictionary included the following words: "These your extraordinary Favours seem to Postulate from me a Publick Recognition." That's also how the verb "postulate" was used when English speakers first began using it back in the late 1500s, as a synonym of "require" or "demand." (The word's Latin grandparent, "postulare," has the same meaning.) "Postulate" was also used as a noun in the late 1500s, with the meaning "demand" or "stipulation." That sense is now considered archaic, but we still use the noun "postulate." Today, it usually means "a hypothesis advanced as an essential presupposition, condition, or premise of a train of reasoning."
haywire \HAY-wyre\ adverb or adjective
"being out of order or having gone wrong, emotionally or mentally upset or out of control" The company's e-mailing system went haywire and sent out multiple copies of the advertisement to its subscribers. The wire used in baling hay -- haywire -- is often used in makeshift repairs. This hurried and temporary use of haywire gave rise to the adjective "haywire." When the adjective was first used in the early 20th century, it was primarily found in the phrase "haywire outfit," which originally denoted a poorly equipped group of loggers and then anything that was flimsy or patched together. This led to a "hastily patched-up" sense, which, in turn, gave us the more commonly used meaning, "being out of order or having gone wrong." The "crazy" sense of "haywire" may have been suggested by the difficulty of handling the springy wire, its tendency to get tangled around legs, or the disorderly appearance of the temporary repair jobs for which it was used.
archetype \AHR-kih-type\ noun
"the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies" "A redeveloped Tonsley Park will be an archetype of the new economy an economy that is knowledge-based, environmentally sustainable and responsive to climate change." (Brian Cunningham, The [Australia] Advertiser, February 9, 2010) "Archetype" derives via Latin from the Greek adjective "archetypos" ("archetypal"), formed from the verb "archein" ("to begin" or "to rule") and the noun "typos" ("type"). ("Archein" also gave us the prefix "arch-," meaning "principal" or "extreme" and used to form such words as "archenemy," "archduke," and "archconservative.") "Archetype" has specific uses in the fields of philosophy and psychology. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, believed that all things have ideal forms (aka archetypes) of which real things are merely shadows or copies. And in the psychology of C. G. Jung, "archetype" refers to an inherited idea or mode of thought that is present in the unconscious of the individual. In everyday prose, however, "archetype" is most commonly used to mean "a perfect example of something."
glower \GLOW-er (the OW is as in "cow")\ verb
"to look or stare with sullen annoyance or anger" I could sense Katherine glowering at me after I took her usual parking spot. Do words of uncertain origin make you scowl? If so, "glower" may put a frown on your face, because only part of its history can be validated. The well-established part of its story leads us to Scotland, where "glower" (or "glowren," to use the older Scottish form of the word) has been used since the late Middle Ages. Originally, the word meant simply "to look intently" or "to stare in amazement," but by the late 1700s, glowering stares were being associated with anger instead of astonishment. Beyond that, however, the history of the word is murky. The most we can say is that "glower" is a distant relative of Middle Low German "glūren," which means "to be overcast," and of Middle Dutch "gloeren," meaning "to leer."
magniloquent \mag-NIL-uh-kwunt\ adjective
"speaking in or characterized by a high-flown often bombastic style or manner" The actor delivered a magniloquent monologue, peppered with metaphors and obscure words. "Magnus" means "great" in Latin; "loqui" is a Latin verb meaning "to speak." Combine the two and you get "magniloquus," the Latin predecessor of "magniloquent." English speakers started using "magniloquent" in the 1600s -- even though wed had its synonym "grandiloquent" since the 1500s. ("Grandiloquent" comes from Latin "grandiloquus," which combines "loqui" and "grandis," another word for "great" in Latin.) Today, these synonyms continue to exist side by side and to be used interchangeably, though "grandiloquent" is the more common of the two.
wanderlust \WAHN-der-lust\ noun
"strong longing for or impulse towards wandering" After years of traveling, Philip accepted a job in Minnesota and announced his intention to settle down, but once the first cold snap hit, it didnt take long for wanderlust to set in again. "For my part," writes Robert Louis Stevenson in Travels with a Donkey, "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Sounds like a case of wanderlust if we ever heard one. Those with "wanderlust" don't necessarily need to go anywhere in particular; they just don't care to stay in one spot. The etymology of "wanderlust" is a very simple one that you can probably figure out yourself. "Wanderlust" is lust (or "desire") for wandering. The word comes from German, in which "wandern" means "to wander," and "Lust" means "desire."
verdure \VER-jer\ noun
"the greenness of growing vegetation; , a condition of health and vigor" "A city of tropical verdure, [Managua is] also one of constant reinvention, an essential quality given the wounds that nature has inflicted." (Regis St. Louis, The Miami Herald, October 19, 2008) On this, the Northern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, those of us who've suffered through a long, cold winter welcome the coming verdure. English speakers have had the use of the word "verdure" since the 14th century, when it made its way into Middle English from Anglo-French. Like the more common "verdant," the word traces back to Latin "vir re," meaning "to be green." Since the early 16th century, "verdure" has also been used to refer to a kind of tapestry with a design based on plant forms. The "verdure" that English speakers sometimes encounter on menus is Italian; in that language "verdure" refers to green vegetables or to vegetables in general.
obfuscate \AHB-fuh-skayt\ verb
"darken, to make obscure, confuse, to be evasive, unclear, or confusing" After the debate, each of the gubernatorial candidates complained to the press that his opponent had intentionally obfuscated many responses to the questions. The last syllable of "obfuscate" may sound like the "skate" in "ice skate," but the two aren't spelled the same way. How can you keep the correct spelling for "obfuscate" clear in your mind? The knowledge that the word traces to the Latin "fuscus," meaning "dark brown," may be of some help. The fact that "obfuscate" looks and sounds a little like "obscure" (although the two are etymologically distinct) might help too; both "obfuscate" and "obscure" can refer to concealing something or making it more difficult to see or understand. Or maybe alliterative devices are more your cup of tea. If that's the case, you can remember the "c" by recalling that "obfuscate" means to confuse, cloud over, or cover up.
forte \FORT\ noun
"something in which one excels" The pitcher's forte is definitely his 100-mph fastball, although his curveball is also strong. "Forte" derives from the sport of fencing -- when English speakers borrowed the word from French in the mid-17th century, it referred to the strongest part of a sword blade, between the middle and the hilt. It is therefore unsurprising that "forte" eventually developed an extended metaphorical sense for a person's strong point. (Incidentally, "forte" has its counterpoint in the word "foible," meaning both the weakest part of a sword blade and a person's weak point.) There is some controversy over how to correctly pronounce "forte"; common choices in American English are "FOR-tay" and "for-TAY," but many usage commentators recommend rhyming it with "fort." None of these is technically true to the French, in which "forte" would sound more like "for." You can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All, however, are standard.
copacetic \koh-puh-SET-ik\ adjective
"very satisfactory" Although Julie and Emma were barely on speaking terms last week, they now say that they have patched things up and everything is copacetic. Theories about the origin of "copacetic" abound. The tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson believed he had coined the word as a boy in Richmond, Virginia. When patrons of his shoeshine stand would ask, "Hows everything this morning?" he would reply, "Oh jes copacetic, boss; jes copacetic." But the word was current in Southern Black English perhaps as early as 1880, so it seems unlikely that Robinson (born in 1878) could have invented the term. Another explanation is that the word is from the Hebrew phrase "kol be sedher," meaning "everything is in order." Possibly it was coined by Harlem blacks working in Jewish businesses. The words popularity among Southern blacks, however, points to its originating in one of the Southern cities in which Jewish communities thrived, such as Atlanta.
hummock \HUM-uk\ noun
"a rounded knoll or hillock, a ridge of ice, a fertile area in the southern United States and especially Florida that is usually higher than its surroundings and that is characterized by hardwood vegetation and deep humus-rich soil" Cattle and sparse vegetation dot a rolling landscape of hummocks and shallow valleys. "Hummock" first appeared in English in the mid-1500s as an alteration of "hammock," another word which can be used for a small hill. This "hammock" is not related to the "hammock" we use to refer to a swinging bed made of netting or canvas. That "hammock" comes from the Spanish "hamaca," and ultimately from Taino, a language spoken by the original inhabitants of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. The origins of the other "hammock" and the related "hummock" are still obscure, though they are related to Middle Low German "hummel" ("small height") and "hump" ("bump"). English also borrowed "hump," another word which can refer to a small hill or hummock.
nefarious \nih-FAIR-ee-us\ adjective
"flagrantly wicked or impious" "We now learn that the two sides may have been working together in nefarious ways in some kind of conspiracy that transcends national boundaries and allegiances." (Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound) "Vicious" and "villainous" are two wicked synonyms of "nefarious," and, like "nefarious," both mean "highly reprehensible or offensive in character, nature, or conduct." But these synonyms are not used in exactly the same way in all situations. "Vicious" may imply moral depravity or it may connote malignancy, cruelty, or destructive violence. "Villainous" applies to any evil, depraved, or vile conduct or characteristic, while "nefarious" (which derives from the Latin noun "nefas," meaning "crime") suggests flagrant breaching of time-honored laws and traditions of conduct. "Nefarious" first appeared in English in the early 17th century, whereas "vicious" and "villainous" preceded "nefarious" by about two hundred years.
shibboleth \SHIB-uh-luth\ noun
"catchword, slogan, a widely held belief or truism, a custom or usage regarded as distinctive of a particular group" Taxpayers beware: Don't buy into the shibboleth that more money automatically translates into better schools. (Press Journal [Vero Beach, FL], July 27, 2003) The Bible's Book of Judges (12:4-6) tells the story of the Ephraimites, who, after they were routed by the Gileadite army, tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, wary of the ploy, asked every soldier who tried to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier said "no," he was asked to say "shibboleth" (which means "stream" in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word "shibboleth," but Ephramites said "sibboleth." Anyone who left out the initial "sh" was killed on the spot. When English speakers first borrowed "shibboleth," they used it to mean "test phrase," but it has acquired additional meanings since that time.
esemplastic \es-em-PLAS-tik\ adjective
"shaping or having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole" "The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esemplastic power of his imagination -- he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself ." (Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel) "Unusual and new-coined words are, doubtless, an evil; but vagueness, confusion, and imperfect conveyance of our thoughts, are a far greater," wrote English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, 1817. True to form, in that same work, he assembled "esemplastic" by melding the Greek phrase "es hen," meaning "into one," with "plastic" to fulfill his need for a word that accurately described the imagination's ability to shape disparate experiences into a unified whole (e.g., the poet's imaginative ability to communicate a variety of images, sensations, emotions, and experiences in the unifying framework of a poem). The verb "intensify" was another word that Coleridge was compelled to mint while writing Biographia. Coinages found in his other writings include "clerisy" and "psychosomatic," among others.
pullulate \PUL-yuh-layt\ verb
"germinate, sprout, to breed or produce freely, swarm, teem" The coastal resort town is quiet now, but with summer approaching it will soon be pullulating with tourists. To remember the history of "pullulate," think chickens. This may sound like odd advice, but it makes sense if you know that "pullulate" traces ultimately to the Latin noun "pullus," which means not only "sprout," but also "young of an animal" and, specifically, "chick." "Pullus" is also an ancestor of "pullet" ("young hen"), "poult" (meaning "young fowl" and especially "young turkey"), and even "poultry" ("domesticated fowl"). At first "pullulate" referred to sprouting, budding, and breeding around the farm; only later did it gain its "swarm" sense.
uxorial \uk-SOR-ee-ul\ adjective
"of, relating to, or characteristic of a wife" He watered the plants, cleared aspen leaves and debris from the rock garden, and cut the lawn without any uxorial prompting. (Rois M. Beal, The Washington Post, July 19, 2007) With help from "-ial," "-ious," and "-icide," the Latin word "uxor," meaning "wife," has given us the English words "uxorial," "uxorious" (meaning "excessively fond of or submissive to a wife"), and "uxoricide" ("murder of a wife by her husband" or "a wife murderer"). Do we have equivalent "husband" words? Well, sort of. "Maritus" means "husband" in Latin, so "marital" can mean "of or relating to a husband and his role in marriage" (although "maritus" also means "married," and the "of or relating to marriage or the married state" sense of "marital" is far more common). And while "mariticide" is "spouse killing," it can also be specifically "husband-killing."
chevron \SHEV-run\ noun
"a figure, pattern, or object having the shape of a V or an inverted V: as, a heraldic charge consisting of two diagonal stripes meeting at an angle usually with the point up, a sleeve badge that indicates the wearer's rank and service (as in the armed forces)" "A young cavalry soldier in a red uniform, with the three chevrons of a sergeant upon his sleeve, strode up the aisle, with an embarrassment which was only the more marked by the intense vigour of his step. " (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd) First appearing in English in the 14th century, "chevron" derives via Middle English and Anglo-French from the Vulgar Latin word "caprio," meaning "rafter" (probably due to its resemblance to two adjoining roof beams). It is also related to the Latin noun "caper," meaning "goat," again likely based on the resemblance of a V-shape to a goats horns. "Caper" is also an ancestor of "Capricorn," the tenth sign of the zodiac, represented by a goat. The resemblance of "chevron" to "chèvre," the French word for "goat" and our word for a kind of cheese that comes from goats milk, is no coincidence, as that word derives from "caper" as well.
reprobate \REP-ruh-bayt\ noun
"a person foreordained to damnation, a depraved person" "He was just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke...." (Richard Peck, A Long Way from Chicago) These days, calling someone a "reprobate" is hardly a condemnation to hellfire and brimstone, but the original reprobates of the 16th century were hardened sinners who had fallen from God's grace. By the 19th century, "reprobate" had acquired the milder, but still utterly condemnatory, sense of "a depraved person." Gradually, though, the criticism implied by "reprobate" became touched with tolerance and even a bit of humor. It is now most likely to be used as it was in this August 1995 New Yorker magazine article about the death of musician Jerry Garcia: "It was suddenly obvious that Garcia had become, against all odds, an American icon: by Thursday morning, the avuncular old reprobate had smuggled his way onto the front pages of newspapers around the world."
puerile \PYUR-ul\ adjective
"juvenile, childish, silly" Though Laura enjoys a good practical joke, she finds some of the gags pulled by her co-workers on April Fools Day to be merely puerile. "Puerile" may call to mind qualities of youth and immaturity, but the term itself is no spring chicken. On the contrary, it's been around for more than three centuries, and its predecessors in French and Latin, the adjectives "puéril" and "puerilis," respectively, are far older. Those two terms have the same basic meaning as the English word "puerile," and they both trace to the Latin noun "puer," meaning "boy" or "child." Nowadays, "puerile" can describe the acts or utterances of an actual child, but it more often refers (usually with marked disapproval) to occurrences of childishness where adult maturity would be expected or preferred.
ruthless \ROOTH-lus\ adjective
"having no pity" Even the most sociable and gentle of house cats remain, at heart, ruthless predators. "Ruthless" can be defined as "without ruth" or "having no ruth." So what, then, is ruth? The noun "ruth," which is now considerably less common than "ruthless," means "compassion for the misery of another," "sorrow for one's own faults," or "remorse." And, just as it is possible for one to be without ruth, it is also possible to be full of ruth. The antonym of "ruthless" is "ruthful," meaning "full of ruth" or "tender." "Ruthful" can also mean "full of sorrow" or "causing sorrow." "Ruth" can be traced back to the Middle English noun "ruthe," itself from "ruen," meaning "to rue" or "to feel regret, remorse, or sorrow."
dossier \DOSS-yay\ noun
"a file containing detailed records on a particular person or subject" The suspect's dossier listed two arrests for grand theft auto and several more for breaking and entering. Gather together various documents relating to the affairs of a certain individual, sort them into separate folders, label the spine of each folder, and arrange the folders in a box. "Dossier," the French word for such a compendium of spine-labeled folders, was picked up by English speakers in the late 19th century. It comes from "dos," the French word for "back," which is in turn derived from "dorsum," Latin for "back." Our word "dorsal" ("situated on the back"), as in the dorsal fin of a whale, comes from the same Latin source.
irrupt \ih-RUPT\ verb
"to rush in forcibly or violently, to undergo a sudden upsurge in numbers especially when natural ecological balances and checks are disturbed, to become active or violent especially suddenly" The stadium irrupted in applause for the local high school choir's outstanding rendition of the national anthem. "Irrupt" and "erupt have existed as discrete words since the 1800s. Both are descendants of the Latin verb "rumpere," which means "to break," but "irrupt" has affixed to it the prefix "ir-" (in the sense "into") while "erupt" begins with the prefix "e-" (meaning "out"). So "to irrupt" was originally to rush in, and "to erupt" was to burst out. But it's sometimes hard to distinguish the precise direction of a violent rush, and "irrupt" came to be used as a synonym of "erupt" in the senses "to become active or violent especially suddenly" and "to break forth," as in our example sentence.
sward \SWORD\ noun
"a portion of ground covered with grass, the grassy surface of land" "Students in flip-flops slap lazily across the green swards of campuses as bell music peals from the campaniles." (Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post, August 31, 2005) "Sward," which sprouted up in the English language more than 500 years ago, is currently used more frequently as a surname than as a noun having to do with lawns and the like. Still, you'll find the occasional reference to a "green sward" or "grassy sward" in newspapers. And the term pops up in a number of old novels, such as in this quote from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles: "The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them...." "Sward" at one time referred to skin or rind, and especially to the rind of pork or bacon, although this meaning is now archaic. The word comes from the Old English "sweard" or "swearth," meaning "skin" or "rind."
tantalize \TAN-tuh-lyze\ verb
"to tease or torment by or as if by presenting something desirable to the view but continually keeping it out of reach" The older brother mercilessly tantalized the younger one, repeatedly holding out the ball to him only to snatch it back at the last second. Pity poor King Tantalus of Phrygia. The mythic monarch offended the ancient Greek gods. As punishment, he was plunged up to his chin in water in Hades, where he had to stand beneath overhanging boughs of a tree heavily laden with ripe, juicy fruit. But though he was always hungry and thirsty, Tantalus could neither drink the water nor eat the fruit. Anytime he reached for them, they would retreat from him. Our word "tantalize" is taken from the name of the eternally tormented king.
eloquent \EL-uh-kwunt\ adjective
"marked by forceful and fluent expression, vividly or movingly expressive or revealing" Because Max is such an eloquent speaker, he was asked to give the toast at his grandfather's 75th birthday party. Since "eloquent" can have to do with speaking, it makes sense that it comes from the Latin verb "loqui," which means "to speak." "Loqui" is the parent of many "talkative" offspring in English. "Loquacious," which means "given to fluent or excessive talk," also arose from "loqui." Another "loqui" relative is "circumlocution," a word that means someone is talking around a subject to avoid making a direct statement ("circum-" means "around"). And a "ventriloquist" is someone who makes his or her voice sound like its coming from another source.
inkling \INK-ling\ noun
"a slight indication or suggestion , a slight knowledge or vague notion" "She gained some inkling of the character of Hanson's life when, half asleep, she looked out into the dining-room at six o'clock and saw him silently finishing his breakfast." (Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie) Originating in English in the early 16th century, "inkling" derives from Middle English "yngkiling," meaning "whisper or mention," and perhaps further from the verb "inclen," meaning "to hint at." It also shares a distant relationship with the Old English noun "inca," meaning "suspicion." An early sense of the word meant "a faint perceptible sound or undertone" or "rumor," but now people usually use the word to refer to a tiny bit of knowledge or information that a person receives about something. One related word you might not have heard of is the verb "inkle," a back-formation of "inkling" that occurs in some British English dialects and means "to have an idea or notion of."
waif \WAYF\ noun
"a piece of property found (as washed up by the sea) but unclaimed, stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight, something found without an owner and especially by chance, a stray person or animal;" The book is about a charming 10-year-old waif who embarks on a series of adventures with a scruffy canine sidekick. Today's "waif" came from Anglo-French "waif," meaning "stray" or "unclaimed," and, further back, probably from a Scandinavian ancestor. It entered English in the 14th century and was followed approximately a century later by another "waif," this one meaning "a pennant or flag used to signal or to show wind direction," which English speakers derived independently, possibly from the same Scandinavian word. In its earliest uses, today's word referred to a piece of unclaimed property. It eventually developed other extended meanings before acquiring the "stray person or animal" sense. The skinny appearance typical of waifs resulted in the word being applied to people with skinny body types, beginning in the 1980s, though this sense hasn't yet found a home on the pages of our dictionaries.
tatterdemalion \tatt-er-dih-MAIL-yun\ adjective
"ragged or disreputable in appearance, being in a decayed state or condition" "What he wants to do is to get the tatterdemalion main building into shape so that it can be used as a retreat for priests and laymen, perhaps with profitable results." (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, August 15, 2007) The exact origin of "tatterdemalion" is uncertain, but its probably connected to either the noun "tatter" ("a torn scrap or shred") or the adjective "tattered" ("ragged" or "wearing ragged clothes"). We do know that "tatterdemalion" has been used in print since the 1600s. In its first documented use in 1608, it was used as a noun (as it still can be) to refer to a person in ragged clothing -- the type of person we might also call a ragamuffin. ("Ragamuffin," incidentally, predates "tatterdemalion" in this sense. Like "tatterdemalion," it may have been formed by combining a known word, "rag," with a fanciful ending.) Within half a dozen years of the first appearance of "tatterdemalion," it came to be used as an adjective to describe anything or anyone ragged or disreputable.
bravado \bruh-VAH-doh\ noun
"blustering swaggering conduct, a pretense of bravery, the quality or state of being foolhardy" The kayakers attempted the rapids out of sheer bravado, and capsized as a result; fortunately, they escaped with only some mild bruises and scrapes. "Bravado" ultimately traces to the Old Italian adjective "bravo," meaning "courageous" or "wild." Nowadays, the wildness once associated with "bravado" has been tamed to an overbearing boldness that comes from arrogance or a position of power. Celebrities, political or corporate giants, and the schoolyard bully may all show "bravado" (though they often turn out to be not so tough after all). "Bravado" is also used for show-offish, daring acts that seem reckless and inconsistent with good sense, but might, nonetheless, be applauded with shouts of "Bravo!" when successful. The spectacular feats of stuntmen come to mind, for example.
frog-march \FROG-march\ verb
"to seize from behind roughly and forcefully propel forward" When the patron became loud and belligerent, a hulking bouncer swiftly pinned him in a half nelson and frog-marched him out the door. There are a couple variations of the "frog's march" used to carry off an unruly person. The first involves carrying the person face downward by the arms and legs; when this is done by four people each holding a limb, the person's body resembles a stretched out frog. In another version the person is carried off by his collar and the seat of his pants, again giving the image of a frog but this time with limbs uselessly flailing about. These ways of moving a person gave us the verb "frog-march" in the late 19th century. The verb was also extended to cover more general, less frog-like, methods of removal, such as forcing the intractable individual forward with arms held in back or at the sides.
cordial \KOR-jul\ adjective
"tending to revive, cheer, or invigorate, sincerely or deeply felt, warmly and genially affable" "Whenever I went out, I heard on all sides cordial salutations, and was welcomed with friendly smiles." (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre) "Cordial" shares the Latin root "cor" with "concord" (meaning "harmony") and "discord" (meaning "conflict"). "Cor" means "heart," and each of these "cor" descendants has something to do with the heart, at least figuratively. "Concord," which comes from "con-" (meaning "together" or "with") plus "cor," suggests that one heart is with another. "Discord" combines the prefix "dis-" (meaning "apart") with "cor," and it implies that hearts are apart. When "cordial" was first used in the 14th century, it literally meant "of or relating to the heart," but this sense has not been in use since the 17th century. Today anything that is "cordial," be it a welcome, a hello, or an agreement, comes from the heart in a figurative sense.
vulnerable \VUL-nuh-ruh-bul\ adjective
"capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, open to attack or damage" James made sure to install the latest antivirus software on his computer so it would not be vulnerable to cyber attacks. "Vulnerable" is ultimately derived from the Latin noun "vulnus" ("wound"). "Vulnus" led to the Latin verb "vulnerare," meaning "to wound," and then to the Late Latin adjective "vulnerabilis," which became "vulnerable" in English in the early 1600s. "Vulnerable" originally meant "capable of being physically wounded" or "having the power to wound" (the latter is now obsolete), but since the late 1600s, it has also been used figuratively to suggest a defenselessness against non-physical attacks. In other words, someone (or something) can be vulnerable to criticism or failure as well as to literal wounding. When it is used figuratively, "vulnerable" is often followed by the preposition "to."
scour \SKOW-er\ verb
"to move about quickly especially in search, to go through or range over in or as if in a search" "Then came the excitement of trying to locate the fallen quail, and now the dog became a major partner, for he scoured the terrain this way and that. " (James Michener, Texas, 1985) There are two verbs "scour" in English. One means to clean something by rubbing it hard with a rough object; that sense, from the 14th century, probably derives via Middle Dutch and Old French from a Late Latin verb meaning "to clean off." Todays "scour," however, dates from the 13th century and is believed to derive via Middle English from Old Norse "skūr," meaning "shower" (it also shares a distant relationship with our word "shower"). Many disparate things can be scoured. For example, one can scour an area (as in "scoured the woods in search of the lost dog") or publications (as in "scouring magazine and newspaper articles").
cap-a-pie \kap-uh-PEE\ adverb
"from head to foot" Katies maid of honor, dressed cap-a-pie in purple satin, hurried up the walkway toward the church. Think of a medieval knight riding off to battle completely encased (from head to foot, as it were) in armor. Knights thus outfitted were said to be "armed cap-a-pie." The term "cap-a-pie," which has been used in English since at least the 16th century, descends from the Middle French phrase "de cap a pe," meaning "from head to foot." Nowadays, it is generally extended to more figurative armor, as in "armed cap-a-pie against criticism." "Cap-a-pie" has also been credited with parenting another English phrase. Some people think the expression "apple-pie order," meaning "perfect order," may have originated as a corruption of "cap-a-pie order." The evidence for that theory is far from orderly, however, and it must be regarded as speculative.
omnium-gatherum \ahm-nee-um-GA-thuh-rum\ noun
"a miscellaneous collection (as of things or persons)" The book, a collection of short stories, is an omnium-gatherum of works by various writers. English abounds in Latin phrases. They roll off the learned tongue like peas off a fork. "Tabula rasa"; "ab ovo"; "a posteriori"; "deus ex machina"; "ex cathedra"; "mea culpa"; "terra firma"; "vox populi"; "ad hominem"; "sub rosa." "Omnium-gatherum" belongs on that list too, right? Not exactly. "Omnium-gatherum" sounds like Latin, and indeed omnium (the genitive plural of Latin "omnis," meaning "all") is the real thing. But "gatherum" is simply English "gather" with "-um" tacked on to give it a classical ring. We're not suggesting, however, that the phrase is anything less than literate. After all, the first person known to have used it was John Croke, a lawyer educated at Eton and Cambridge in the 16th century.
paean \PEE-un\ noun
"a joyous song or hymn of praise, tribute, thanksgiving, or triumph, a work that praises or honors its subject" "I'm supposed to write a paean to Spring for my creative writing course, but all this rain just makes me depressed and uninspired," sighed Jessica. According to the poet Homer, the Greek god Apollo sometimes took the guise of Paean, physician to the gods. The earliest musical paeans were hymns of thanksgiving and praise that were dedicated to Apollo. They were sung at events ranging from boisterous festivals to public funerals, and were the traditional marching songs of armies heading into battle. Over time, the word became generalized, and it is now used for any kind of tribute.
frowsy \FROW-zee\ adjective
"musty, stale, having a slovenly or uncared-for appearance" "Just a little effort and elbow grease applied to a frowsy courtyard, patio or side yard will reap rewards year round." (Elizabeth Bettendorf, St. Petersburg Times [Florida], April 6, 2007) The exact origins of this approximately 330-year-old word may be lost in some frowsy, old book somewhere, but some etymologists have speculated that "frowsy" (also spelled "frowzy") shares a common ancestor with the younger, chiefly British word "frowsty," a synonym of "frowsy" in both its senses. That ancestor could be the Old French word "frouste," meaning "ruinous" or "decayed," or the now mostly obsolete English word "frough" or "frow," meaning "brittle" or "fragile." The English dramatist Thomas Otway is the first person (as far as we know) to have used "frowsy" in print. In his comedy "The Souldier's Fortune," published in 1681, the character Beau refers to another character as "a frouzy Fellmonger."
tousle \TOW-zul\ verb
"dishevel, rumple" Vic stood in front of the mirror and tousled his hair, trying to master the cool, disheveled look. "Tousle" is a word that has been through what linguists call a "functional shift." That's a fancy way of saying it was originally one part of speech, then gradually came to have an additional function. "Tousle" started out as a verb back in the 15th century. By the late 19th century, "tousle" was also being used as a noun meaning "a tangled mass (as of hair)." Etymologists connect the word to an Old High German word meaning "to pull to pieces."
hawthorn \HAW-thorn\ noun
"any of a genus (Crataegus) of spring-flowering spiny shrubs or small trees of the rose family with glossy and often lobed leaves, white or pink fragrant flowers, and small red fruits" Susan said that for her, one of the signs that spring had truly arrived was the flowering of the hawthorn. A hawthorn is a thorny shrub or tree which can be planted into a hedge, and this fact provides a hint about the origins of the plant's name. The word "hawthorn" traces back to the Old English word "hagathorn," a combination of "haga" ("hedge") and "thorn" (same meaning as the modern "thorn" or "thornbush"). "Haga" was also used in Old English for the hawthorn itself, but by the 12th century the "thorn" had been added to its name.
alacrity \uh-LAK-ruh-tee\ noun
"promptness in response" "The good-humoured little attorney tapped at Mr. Pickwick's door, which was opened with great alacrity by Sam Weller." (Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers) "I have not that alacrity of spirit / Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have," says Shakespeares King Richard III in the play that bears his name. When Shakespeare penned those words some 400 years ago, "alacrity" was less than a hundred years old. Our English word derives from the Latin word "alacer," which means "lively." It denotes physical quickness coupled with eagerness or enthusiasm. Are there any other words in English from Latin "alacer"? Yes -- "allegro," which is used as a direction in music with the meaning "at a brisk lively tempo. It came to us via Italian (where it can mean "merry") and is assumed to be ultimately from "alacer."
collogue \kuh-LOHG\ verb
"intrigue, conspire, to talk privately" "If there was noise, as there often was even at dawn -- a huddle of men colloguing, a woman deliriously chanting the Mysteries -- his arrival would cause much of it to die." (Joseph O'Connor, Star of the Sea) "Collogue" has been with us since the 17th century, but beyond that little is known about its origin. In Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary, he defined "collogue" as "to wheedle, to flatter; to please with kind words." The "intrigue or conspire" meaning of "collogue" was also common in Johnson's day, but Johnson missed it; his oversight suggests that sense of the word was probably part of a dialect unfamiliar to him. The earliest known use of the "confer" sense of the word is found in an 1811 letter by Sir Walter Scott: "We shall meet and collogue upon it."
hale \HAIL\ adjective
"free from defect, disease, or infirmity" "He was a rich and powerful noble, then in his sixty-second year, but hale and sturdy, a great horseman and hunter and a pious man." (Edith Wharton, "Kerfol") When you need a word to describe someone or something in good health, you might pick "hale" or a synonym such as "healthy," "sound," or "robust." Of those terms, "healthy" is the most general, implying full strength and vigor or simply freedom from signs of disease. "Sound" generally emphasizes the complete absence of defects of mind or body. "Robust" implies the opposite of all that is delicate or sickly and usually suggests muscular strength as well as the ability to work or play long and hard. "Hale" applies especially to robustness in later life. The phrase "hale and hearty" is often used to describe an older person who retains the physical qualities of youth
repartee \rep-er-TEE\ noun
"a quick and witty reply, a succession or interchange of clever retorts , adroitness and cleverness in reply" The talk show host is a skillful interviewer whose deft use of repartee and quick-witted banter keeps his show moving at a lively, almost manic, pace. One person often noted for her repartee was Dorothy Parker, writer and legendary member of the Algonquin Round Table. Upon hearing that Calvin Coolidge had died, she replied, "How can they tell?" The taciturn Coolidge obviously didnt have a reputation for being the life of the party, but he himself came out with a particularly famous repartee on one occasion. When a dinner guest approached him and told him she had bet someone she could get him to say more than two words, he replied, "You lose." "Repartee," our word for such a quick, sharp reply (and for skill with such replies) comes from the French "repartie," of the same meaning. "Repartie" comes from the French verb "repartir," meaning "to retort."
spilth \SPILTH\ noun
"the act or an instance of spilling, something spilled, refuse, rubbish" "A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex." (Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan) "Spilth" is formed from the verb "spill" and the noun suffix "-th." This suffix comes to us from Old English and is used to indicate an act or process (as in "spilth" or the more familiar "growth") or a state or condition (as in "breadth" or "length"). The earliest known use of "spilth" is in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (c. 1607-08): "When our vaults have wept / With drunken spilth of wine ." In the senses of an act of spilling or of something spilled, English speakers today are much more likely to use the noun "spill" or sometimes "spillage," a word which, like "spilth," combines the verb "spill" with a suffix ("-age," this time borrowed from Old French) that can indicate an act or process.
soi-disant \swah-dee-ZAHNG (the NG is not pronounced, but the vowel is nasalized)\ adjective
"self-proclaimed, so-called" "It's one of the few soi-disant walking boots we've seen this month that you might be able to, you know, walk in." (The Times [London], March 3, 2010) "Soi-disant," which in French means literally "saying oneself," is one of hundreds of French terms that entered English in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the period known as the Enlightenment. Even as political antipathies between France and England were being played out on battlefields in Europe and America, English speakers were peppering their speech and writing with French. "Soi-disant" first began appearing in English texts in 1752 as a disparaging term for someone who styles or fancies him- or herself in some role. "Crepe," "vis-a-vis," "etiquette," and "sang-froid" are a few of the other French terms that became naturalized in English at that time.
clement \KLEM-unt\ adjective
"inclined to be merciful , mild" Alex Marsh is considered a clement judge -- the type who lets first-time offenders off the hook and gives repeat offenders the minimum required jail time. Defendants in court cases probably don't spend much time worrying about inclement weather. They're too busy hoping to meet a clement judge so they will be granted clemency. They should hope they don't meet an inclement judge! "Clement," "inclement," and "clemency" all derive from the Latin "clemens," which means "mild" or "calm." All three terms can refer to an individual's degree of mercy or to the relative pleasantness of the weather.
palimpsest \PAL-imp-sest\ noun
"writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased, something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface" "Canada, like any country, is a palimpsest, an overlay of classes and generations." (Margaret Atwood, New York Times Book Review, March 10, 1985) In olden days, writing surfaces were so rare that they were often used more than once. "Palimpsest" originally described an early form of recycling in which an old document was erased to make room for a new one when parchment ran short. Fortunately for modern scholars, the erasing process wasn't completely effective, so the original could often be distinguished under the newer writing. De republica, by Roman statesman and orator Cicero, is one of many documents thus recovered from a palimpsest. Nowadays, the word "palimpsest" can refer not only to such a document but to anything that has multiple layers.
spelunker \spih-LUNK-er\ noun
"one who makes a hobby of exploring and studying caves" Our favorite B horror movie is about a group of spelunkers who discover a colony of zombies in a cavern. "Spelunker" sounds like the noise a pebble makes when you drop it down a deep hole and into dark, hidden water far below. But there's nothing dark or obscure about the etymology of the term. We borrowed "spelunker" from Latin "spelunca," which in turn derives from Greek "spelynx." When you get to the bottom of things, you find that both the Latin and Greek words mean "cave." Although "spelunker" might sound neat, be careful: some cave-exploring enthusiasts prefer the term "caver."
pianistic \pee-uh-NISS-tik\ adjective
"of, relating to, or characteristic of the piano, skilled in or well adapted to piano playing" [Pianist Yuja] Wang performed as if she were claiming ownership of some of Prokofiev's pianistic ideas. (Edward Ortiz, Sacramento Bee [California], May 23, 2009) The origin of "pianistic" wont surprise anyone -- its ultimately from "piano," of course. But the "-istic suffix is less than ubiquitous and bears some attention. It is used from time to time to create adjectives that correspond to nouns ending primarily in "-ism" or "-ist." (In this case, both "pianism" and "pianist" outdate "pianistic," although only by a few years.) The pedigree of "-istic" isnt too surprising; etymologists report that it comes from Middle French ("-istique"), Latin ("-isticus"), and ultimately Greek ("-istikos"). As with words formed from the suffix "-ic," words ending in "-istic" can sometimes find life as nouns -- for example, "autistic" and "characteristic."
artifice \AHR-tuh-fus\ noun
"clever or artful skill , an ingenious device or expedient, an artful stratagem , false or insincere behavior" "When it comes to beauty and fashion, it's all about artifice and deception . We lengthen our lashes, paint our nails and lips and always and forever are on the lookout for clothes that hide our flaws ." (Ellen Warren, Chicago Tribune, April 1, 2010) Do great actors display artifice or art? Sometimes a bit of both. "Artifice" stresses creative skill or intelligence, but also implies a sense of falseness and trickery. "Art" generally rises above such falseness, suggesting instead an unanalyzable creative force. Actors may rely on some of each, but the personae they display in their roles are usually artificial creations. Therein lies a lexical connection between "art" and "artifice." "Artifice" derives from "artificium," Latin for "artifice" (that root also gave English "artificial"). "Artificium" in turn developed from "ars," the Latin root underlying the word "art" (and related terms such as "artist" and "artisan").
repine \rih-PYNE\ verb
"to feel or express dejection or discontent , to long for something" "They saw less of each other, and Robyn was aware that this did not cause her to repine as much as perhaps it should have done." (David Lodge, Nice Work) In longing, one can "repine over" something ("repining over her lost past"), or one can "pine for" something. The two words, used thus, mean close to the same thing, but not exactly. "Pining" is intense longing for what one once knew. "Repine" adds an element of discontent to any longing -- an element carried over from its first sense ("to feel or express dejection or discontent"), which has been in use since the 16th century. (Washington Irving used the first sense in his 1820 work The Sketch Book: "Through the long and weary day he repines at his unhappy lot.") "Pine" and "repine" are from Old English "pinian" ("to suffer") and probably ultimately from Latin "poena" ("punishment"). "Poena" also gave us our word "pain."
sarcasm \SAHR-kaz-um\ noun
"a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain, a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual, the use or language of sarcasm" "I grew up with an indifferent mother in a house where sarcasm reigned." (Nancy Davidoff Kelton, The Boston Globe, March 21, 2010) If you've ever been hurt by a remark full of cutting sarcasm, you have some insight into the origins of the word. "Sarcasm" can be traced back to the Greek verb "sarkazein," which initially meant "to tear flesh like a dog." "Sarkazein" eventually developed extended senses of "to bite one's lips in rage," "to gnash one's teeth," and eventually "to sneer." "Sarkazein" led to the Greek noun "sarkasmos," ("a sneering or hurtful remark"), iterations of which passed through French and Late Latin before arriving in English as "sarcasm" in the mid-16th century. Even today sarcasm is often described as sharp, cutting, or wounding, reminiscent of the original meaning of the Greek verb.
nosocomial \nah-suh-KOH-mee-ul\ adjective
"acquired or occurring in a hospital" Mariah had expected to be out of the hospital today, but she was told that she had developed a nosocomial infection that would need to be monitored by the staff for at least 24 hours. "Nosocomial" is a word that usually occurs in formal medical contexts; specifically, in reference to hospital-acquired sickness. We hope you never encounter "nosocomial" as part of your own medical diagnosis, but if you do, you might want to remember that the term descends from "nosocomium," the Late Latin word for "hospital." "Nosocomium" in turn traces to the Greek "nosos," meaning "disease." That root has given English other words as well, including "zoonosis" ("a disease communicable from animals to humans under natural conditions") and "nosology" ("a classification or list of diseases" or "a branch of medical science that deals with classification of diseases").
plagiary \PLAY-jee-air-ee\ noun
"one that plagiarizes, plagiarism" Its still unclear if the historian was engaged in deliberate plagiary or was simply sloppy with the citation of his sources. "Plagiarius," the Latin source of "plagiary," literally means "kidnapper." "Plagiarius" has its roots in the noun "plagium," meaning both "kidnapping" and "the netting of game," and ultimately in the noun "plaga," meaning "net." The literal sense of "plagiarius" was adopted into English; in the 17th and early 18th century, a kidnapper might be referred to as a "plagiary," and, in the legalese of the time, kidnapping was "plagium." But "plagiarius" also had a couple of figurative meanings -- "seducer" and "literary thief." It is the latter that has made the most enduring contribution to the English language. A "plagiary" could also be one who commits literary theft (now usually referred to as a "plagiarist") or the act or product of such theft (now, more commonly, "plagiarism").
intoxicate \in-TAHK-suh-kayt\ verb
"poison, to excite or stupefy by alcohol or a drug especially to the point where physical and mental control is markedly diminished, to excite or elate to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy" He encouraged them, cajoled them, tried to intoxicate them with learning.... (Luisa Yanez, The Miami Herald, July 22, 2005) For those who think that alcohol and drugs qualify as poisons, the history of "intoxicate" offers some etymological evidence to bolster your argument. Intoxicate traces back to toxicum, the Latin word for poison -- and the earliest meaning of "intoxicate" was just that: "to poison." This sense is now extremely rare, and we currently talk about such harmless things as flowers and perfume having the power to intoxicate. "Toxicum" turns up in the etymologies of a number of other English words including "toxic" ("poisonous"), "intoxicant" ("something that intoxicates") and "detoxify" ("to remove a poison from"), as well as a number of the names for various poisons themselves.
hoity-toity \hoy-tee-TOY-tee\ adjective
"" "Im a simple man with down-home values," said Ray. "You wont catch me hanging out with the hoity-toity crowd at trendy art galleries or chichi nightclubs." Today we most often use "hoity-toity" as an adjective, but before it was an adjective it was a noun meaning "thoughtless giddy behavior." The noun, which first appeared in print in 1668, was probably created as a singsongy rhyme based on the dialectal English word "hoit," meaning "to play the fool." The adjective "hoity-toity" can stay close to its roots and mean "foolish" (". . . as though it were very hoity-toity of me not to know that royal personage." -- W. Somerset Maugham, The Razors Edge), but in current use it more often means "pretentious."
elephantiasis \el-uh-fun-TYE-uh-sis\ noun
"enlargement and thickening of tissues; specifically , an undesirable usually enormous growth, enlargement, or overdevelopment" "Their feature film debuts with stylish efficiency until they succumb to the effects elephantiasis that overtakes virtually every Hollywood action film by the finale." (Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Observer [North Carolina], February 22, 2008) In Latin "elephantiasis" referred to a kind of leprosy in which the skin takes on the appearance of an elephant's hide. The word is still used in the medical field for various infectious skin diseases in which the affected part becomes grossly enlarged. The first known figurative use of "elephantiasis" is by English author George Meredith in a letter dated December 22, 1866. In that letter, he ribs an acquaintance for his exaggerated description of the size of a mackerel, telling him that he has "become the victim of a kind of mental elephantiasis."
yeasty \YEE-stee\ adjective
"of, relating to, or resembling yeast, immature, unsettled, marked by change, full of vitality, frivolous" "In that yeasty time in the mid-sixties when I went to work as a reporter in Paris, the world was about to pop." (Raymond Sokolov, Why We Eat What We Eat) The word "yeast" has existed in English for as long as the language has existed. Spellings have varied over time -- in Middle English it was "yest" and in Old English "gist" or "geist" -- but the word's meaning has remained basically the same for centuries. In its first documented English uses in the 1500s, the adjective "yeasty" described people or things with a yellowish or frothy appearance similar to the froth that forms on the top of fermented beverages (such as beers or ales). Since then, a number of extended, figurative senses of "yeasty" have surfaced, all of which play in some way or another on the excitable, chemical nature of fermentation, such as by connoting unsettled activity or significant change.
navel-gazing \NAY-vul-GAY-zing\ noun
"useless or excessive self-contemplation" Instead of more of the feel-good lyrics and beats that launched her to stardom, the songs on the divas sophomore release border on tedious philosophizing and navel-gazing. If you are scratching your head over something, then you are probably in a state of puzzled contemplation. But if you are staring at your navel, you could either be indulging in some useless self-contemplation or in a state of deep meditation. If the latter, the technical term for your activity would be "omphaloskepsis," which is a form of meditation that has been practiced by mystics for centuries. Navel-gazing is a pop form of omphaloskepsis that is devoid of any serious meditative value. The word has been used more or less disparagingly since its first appearance in 1963.
fructuous \FRUK-chuh-wus\ adjective
"fruitful" "The parents in our 1924 drama, like most parents past and forevermore, are praying mainly for a sound baby, with all the stuff for a long, fructuous life." (Ed Hayes, Orlando Sentinel, May 11, 2008) In Latin the word "fructus" means both "fruit" and "enjoyment" or "use." A rich crop of English derivatives grew from that root, including "fructuous," "fructose" (a sugar found in fruits), "fruition" ("the state of bearing fruit"), "usufruct" ("the right to use or enjoy something"), and even "fruit" itself. "Fructuous" comes from the Middle French adjective "fructueux" and the Latin adjective "fructuosus," both ultimately derived from "fructus."
mirage \muh-RAHZH\ noun
"an illusion sometimes seen at sea, in the desert, or over hot pavement that looks like a pool of water or a mirror in which distant objects are seen inverted, something illusory and unattainable like a mirage" "Over the sunny dunes, those distant childhood promises of a better tomorrow shimmer like a mirage in the desert heat." (Cond Nast Traveler, September 1994) A mirage is a sort of optical illusion, a reflection of light that can trick the mind into interpreting the sight as an apparently solid thing. It makes sense, therefore, that the word "mirage" has its roots in the concept of vision. "Mirage" was borrowed into English at the dawn of the 19th century from the French verb "mirer" ("to look at"), which also gave us the word "mirror." "Mirer" in turn derives from Latin "mirari" ("to wonder at"). "Mirari" is also the ancestor of the English words "admire," "miracle," and "marvel," as well as the rare adjective "mirific" (meaning "marvelous").
substantive \SUB-stun-tiv\ adjective
"having substance" There are substantive gestures available to a President that do not involve the use of force or photo ops. (Joe Klein, Time, December 8, 2008) "Substantive" was borrowed into Middle English from the Anglo-French adjective "sustentif," meaning "having or expressing substance," and can be traced back to the Latin verb "substare," which literally means "to stand under." Figuratively, the meaning of "substare" is best understood as "to stand firm" or "to hold out." Since the 14th century, we have used "substantive" to speak of that which is of enough "substance" to stand alone, or be independent. By the 19th century the word evolved related meanings, such as "enduring" and "essential." It also shares some senses with "substantial," such as "considerable in quantity."
derrick \DAIR-ik\ noun
"a hoisting apparatus employing a tackle rigged at the end of a beam, a framework or tower over a deep drill hole (as of an oil well) for supporting boring tackle or for hoisting and lowering" "But there is another type of field that is equally important to Kern County; the oil field, with its derrick rising from the soil like a shunt to coax the earths fossil fuel to the surface." (Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt) During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, London was the home of a notorious executioner named Derick. Among those he beheaded was the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, who according to a street ballad of the time had once saved the life of the ungrateful executioner. While members of the nobility were accorded the courtesy of beheading, it was the lot of commoners to be hanged, and those sent to face the rope at the hands of the executioner Derick nicknamed the gallows at Tyburn after him. Throughout the 17th century, "derick" was used as a name for both hangman and gallows. After the days of public hangings, the word "derrick" was adopted as a name for a number of less ominous frameworks or towers.
Promethean \pruh-MEE-thee-un\ adjective
"of, relating to, or resembling Prometheus, his experiences, or his art;" The Olympics showcase Promethean performances by athletes who are always pushing the limits of human ability. As some versions of the story go in Greek mythology, Prometheus (one of the Titan giants) modeled humans from clay and then taught them agriculture and all the arts of civilization. He also stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. So inventive was he that anything that bears the stamp of creativity and originality can still be called "Promethean." Zeus, however, had wanted the human race to perish, so Prometheus' actions were also disobedient. Hence "Promethean" can also mean defiant of authority or limits. As punishment for his disobedience, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where an eagle daily tore at his liver. Thus, any suffering on a grand scale can also be called Promethean -- though this sense is not as common as the others.
embezzle \im-BEZZ-ul\ verb
"to appropriate (as property entrusted to one's care) fraudulently to one's own use" The companys senior accounts manager was able to embezzle thousands of dollars from his employer by way of a loophole in accounting procedures. English has a lot of verbs that mean to steal -- some more specific than others. "Pilfer," "purloin," "rob," "swipe," "plunder," "filch," and "thieve" are some noted examples. "Embezzle" differs from these by stressing the improper appropriation of property to which a person is entrusted -- often in the form of company funds. First appearing in English in the 15th century, "embezzle" derives via Middle English from the Anglo-French "embesiller," meaning "to make away," formed from the prefix "en-" and the verb "besiller," meaning "to steal or plunder." Related to "embezzle" is "bezzle," a verb used in some British English dialects to mean "to waste or plunder" or "to drink or eat to excess."
gravamen \gruh-VAY-mun\ noun
"the material or significant part of a grievance or complaint" The gravamen of Walter's letter to the editor was that the newspaper frequently reported on the school system's failures but rarely covered its successes and improvements. "Gravamen" is not a word you hear every day, but it does show up occasionally in modern-day publications. It comes from the Latin verb "gravare," meaning "to burden," and ultimately from the Latin adjective "gravis," meaning "heavy." Fittingly, "gravamen" refers to the part of a grievance or complaint that gives it weight or substance. In legal contexts, "gravamen" is used, synonymously with "gist," to refer to the grounds on which a legal action is sustainable. "Gravis" has given English several other weighty words, including "gravity," "grieve," and the adjective "grave," meaning "important" or "serious."
translucent \trans-LOO-sunt\ adjective
"not transparent but clear enough to allow light to pass through, free from disguise or falseness" The translucent window glass gave us enough daylight to work without allowing people standing outside to see in. Look closely and you will see the same three letters in "translucent" and "elucidate," letting the family relationship between the two words shine through. Both terms descend from the Latin word "luc re," meaning "to shine." ("Translucent" is from "luc re" plus "trans-," which means "through.") When you "elucidate" something, you make it clear by explaining it in a way that can be easily understood -- you "shed light on" it. "Luc re" is also the root of another bright and shining English word, "lucid," which can mean either "bright with light" or "clear and easy to understand."
bully pulpit \BULL-ee-PULL-pit\ noun
"a prominent public position (as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one's views;" Mariah has used her position on the city council as a bully pulpit to denounce the corruption in the mayors office. "Bully pulpit" comes from the 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, who observed that the White House was a bully pulpit. For Roosevelt, "bully" was an adjective meaning "excellent" or "first-rate" -- not the noun "bully" ("a blustering browbeating person") that's so common today. Roosevelt understood the modern presidency's power of persuasion and recognized that it gave the incumbent the opportunity to exhort, instruct, or inspire. He took full advantage of his bully pulpit, speaking out about the danger of monopolies, the nation's growing role as a world power, and other issues important to him. Since the 1970s, "bully pulpit" has been used as a term for an office -- especially a political office -- that provides one with the opportunity to share one's views.
amerce \uh-MERSS\ verb
"to punish by a fine whose amount is fixed by the court;" "A freeman is not to be amerced for a small offence save in accordance with the manner of the offence. " (Magna Carta, 1215) If you break the law, you could find yourself "at the mercy" of the court. As you await your punishment (hoping that the judge will in fact be merciful), you may want to ponder the history of "amerce." It begins with the Old French phrase "a merci," meaning "at (one's) mercy," which in turn gave rise to the Anglo-French verb "amercier" (same meaning as "amerce"). Middle English speakers adopted the French word as "amercien," which was later modernized to "amerce." In addition to the legal use, "amerce" can also be used in a more general sense for the infliction of any sort of punishment, monetary or otherwise.
lily-livered \LILL-ee-LIV-erd\ adjective
"lacking courage" "I regret not hurling myself into university life because I was too lily-livered to live a little." (Laura Barton, The Guardian [London], August 16, 2001) The basis of the word "lily-livered" lies in an old belief. Years ago, people thought that health and temperament were the products of a balance or imbalance of four bodily fluids, or humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. It was believed that a deficiency of yellow bile, or choler, the humor that governed anger, spirit, and courage, would leave a persons liver colorless or white. Someone with this deficiency, and so white-livered, would be spiritless and a coward. "Lily-livered" and "white-livered" have been used synonymously since the 16th century, but "lily-livered" is now the more common expression, probably because of its alliteration.
defalcation \dee-fal-KAY-shun\ noun
"the act or an instance of embezzling, a failure to meet a promise or an expectation" "'She made off with the money, an act of defalcation that disqualifies her from receiving a bankruptcy discharge,' the judge ruled." (Orlando Sentinel, March 21, 2004) "The tea table shall be set forth every morning with its customary bill of fare, and without any manner of defalcation." No reference to embezzlement there! This line, from a 1712 issue of Spectator magazine, is an example of the earliest, and now archaic, sense of "defalcation," which is simply defined as "curtailment." "Defalcation" is ultimately from the Latin word "falx," meaning "sickle" (a tool for cutting), and it has been a part of English since the 1400s. It was used early on of monetary cutbacks (as in "a defalcation in their wages"), and by the 1600s it was used of most any sort of financial reversal (as in "a defalcation of public revenues"). Not till the mid-1800s, however, did "defalcation" refer to breaches of trust that cause a financial loss, or, specifically, to embezzlement.
luscious \LUSH-us\ adjective
"having a delicious sweet taste or smell, sexually attractive, richly luxurious or appealing to the senses, excessively ornate" The luscious aroma of freshly baked apple pies drifted from the open window of the farmhouse kitchen. Have you ever heard a young child say something is "licius" when he or she really means it's "delicious"? Back in the Middle Ages, the word "licius" was sometimes used as a shortened form of "delicious" by adults and kids alike. Linguists believe that "luscious" developed when "licius" was further altered by 15th-century speakers. Both words ultimately derive from the Latin verb "delicere," meaning "to entice by charm or attraction." The adjective "lush," which can sometimes mean "delicious" as well, is not a shortened form of "luscious"; it derived on its own from the Middle English "lusch," meaning "soft or tender."
foppery \FAH-puh-ree\ noun
"foolish character or action , the behavior or dress of a fop" "There was certainly no harm in his travelling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve." (Jane Austen, Emma) The word "fop" once referred to a foolish or silly person, a meaning that is now obsolete. The current sense of "fop" -- a man who is extremely devoted to or vain about his appearance or dress -- still holds a rather quaint charm. "Fop," which derives from Middle English, is related loosely to a Middle High German word meaning "to deceive" and dates from the 15th century. The noun "foppery" arrived on the scene in English about a century later. Its "folly" sense can be found in Shakespeares King Lear, where Edmund speaks of "the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars ."
whilom \WYE-lum\ adjective
"former" "His fatal miscalculation, however, might be his personal attacks on his whilom friend...." (The Baltimore Sun, May 2003) "Whilom" shares an ancestor with the word "while." Both trace back to the Old English word "hwil," meaning "time" or "while." In Old English "hwilum" was an adverb meaning "at times." This use passed into Middle English (with a variety of spellings, one of which was "whilom"), and in the 12th century the word acquired the meaning "formerly." The adverb's usage dwindled toward the end of the 19th century, and it has since been labeled "archaic." The adjective first appeared on the scene in the 15th century, with the now-obsolete meaning "deceased," and by the end of the 16th century it was being used with the meaning "former." It's a relatively uncommon word, but it does see occasional use.
vibrissa \vye-BRISS-uh\ noun
"one of the stiff hairs that are located especially about the nostrils or on other parts of the face in many mammals and that often serve as tactile organs, one of the bristly feathers near the mouth of many and especially insectivorous birds that may help to prevent the escape of insects" The manatees prehensile lips are studded with vibrissae that it uses to discriminate between food plants and also to manipulate those plants. The whiskers of a cat qualify as vibrissae (thats the plural of "vibrissa"), as do the hairlike feathers around the bill of some birds -- especially the insect-feeding kind. And when scientists first used "vibrissa" in the late 17th century, they used the word to refer specifically to the hairs inside the human nostril. Science got this word, as it has many others, from Latin. "Vibrissa" comes from "vibrare," which means all of the following: "to brandish," "to wave," "to rock," and "to propel suddenly." Other "vibrare" descendents in English include "vibrate," "vibrato," and "veer."
juxtapose \JUK-stuh-pohz\ verb
"to place side by side" "His expansive narrative poems juxtapose themes of melancholy and loss with a sense of elation and pure joy ." (Daina Savage, Sunday News [Lancaster, Pennsylvania], April 4, 2010) A back-formation is a word that has come about through the removal of a prefix or a suffix from a longer word. Etymologists think "juxtapose" is a back-formation that was created when people trimmed down the noun "juxtaposition." Historical evidence supports the idea: "juxtaposition" was showing up in English documents as early as 1654, but "juxtapose" didn't appear until 1851. "Juxtaposition" is itself thought to be a combination of Latin "juxta," meaning "near," and English "position."
disaster \dih-ZAS-ter\ noun
"a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction;" As soon as we saw the storm clouds gathering to the west, we knew our picnic was going to be a disaster. "Disaster" has its roots in the belief that the positions of stars influence the fate of humans, often in destructive ways; its original meaning in English was "an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star." The word comes to us through Middle French and the Old Italian word "disastro," from the Latin prefix "dis-" and Latin "astro," meaning "star." Another unfortunate word that comes to us from astrological beliefs is "ill-starred." Now generally used in the sense of "unlucky" or "having or destined to a hapless fate," "ill-starred" was originally used literally to describe someone born under or guided by an evil star. We also have "star-crossed," meaning "not favored by the stars" or "ill-fated."
qui vive \kee-VEEV\ noun
"alert, lookout" Newspaper copy editors must always be on the qui vive for factual as well as grammatical errors. When a sentinel guarding a French castle in days of yore cried, "Qui vive?" your life depended upon your answer -- the right one was usually something like "Long live the king!" The question the sentinel was asking was "Long live who?" but the act of calling out apparently impressed English listeners more than the meaning of the phrase, because when they adopted it in the early 1700s they used "qui vive" to mean "alert." Nowadays, the term is most often used in the phrase "on the qui vive," meaning "on the lookout."
callithump \KAL-uh-thump\ noun
"a noisy boisterous band or parade" Energized with cookies, cake, ice cream, fruit punch, and other sugary treats, the children erupted into a callithump, blowing noisemakers and banging pails. "Callithump" and the related adjective "callithumpian" are Americanisms, but their roots stretch back to England. In the 19th century, the noun "callithumpian" was used in the U.S. of boisterous roisterers who had their own makeshift New Year's parade. Their band instruments consisted of crude noisemakers such as pots, tin horns, and cowbells. The antecedent of "callithumpians" is an 18th-century British dialect term for another noisy group, the "Gallithumpians," who made a rumpus on election days in southern England. Today, the words "callithump" and "callithumpian" see occasional use, especially in the names of specific bands and parades. The callithumpian bands and parades of today are more organized than those of the past, but they retain an association with noise and boisterous fun.
brainiac \BRAY-nee-ak\ noun
"a very intelligent person" The company employs an army of geeky brainiacs who are devoted to providing the best in computer game graphics and technology. As Superman fans know, "Brainiac" was the superintelligent villain in the Action Comics series and its spin-offs. You don't need x-ray vision to see the connection here -- etymologists think Superman's brainy adversary was probably the inspiration for our term "brainiac." We didn't coin the term right away though. The comic-book series was launched in 1938, and the general use of "brainiac" was first recorded in print in 1982.
nidifugous \nye-DIFF-yuh-gus\ adjective
"leaving the nest soon after hatching" "Little is known about the mortality of nidifugous shorebird chicks." (Hans Schekkerman, et al., Journal of Ornithology, January 2009) "Nidifugous" hatched from the Latin words "nidus," meaning "nest," and "fugere," meaning "to flee." Its contrasting word "nidicolous," meaning "reared for a time in a nest," combines "nidus" with the English combining form "-colous" ("living or growing in or on"). Another relevant term is "precocial." A precocial bird is capable of a high degree of independent activity as soon as it emerges from the egg. While all nidifugous birds are also necessarily precocial, some nidicolous birds are also precocial -- that is, they are capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching, but instead they stick around. Other nidicolous birds are "altricial," which is to say they are hatched in a very immature and helpless condition and require care for some time.
apotheosis \uh-pah-thee-OH-sis\ noun
"elevation to divine status , the perfect example" "Long before celebrity reached its apotheosis, the great gossip columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell understood that celebrity was a basis for an ongoing, daily national conversation ." (Neal Gabler, Newsweek, December 21, 2009) Among the ancient Greeks, it was sometimes thought fitting -- or simply handy, say if you wanted a god somewhere in your bloodline -- to grant someone or other god status. So they created the word "apotheosis," meaning "making into a god." (The prefix "apo-" can mean simply "quite" or "completely," and "theos" is the Greek word for "god.") There's not a lot of Greek-style apotheosizing in the 21st century, but there is hero-worship. Our extended use of "apotheosis" as "elevation to divine status" is the equivalent of "placement on a very high pedestal." Even more common these days is to use "apotheosis" in reference to a perfect example or ultimate form. For example, one might describe a movie as "the apotheosis of the sci-fi movie genre."
Gretna Green \gret-nuh-GREEN\ noun
"a place where many eloping couples are married" "During the 1920s through the '40s, Greenwich had a world-reputation as the 'Gretna Green' of the nation, the magnet for couples in a hurry to get married." (Bernie Yudain, Connecticut Post Online, May 26, 2009) In the England of the 1700s, a person could not marry without parental consent until age 21. The Scottish were more lenient, allowing young people to marry without parental permission at 16. England also had rules that made it difficult to marry quickly, but Scottish law required only that couples declare their desire to be married in front of witnesses before tying the knot. So it isn't surprising that many English couples ran to Gretna Green, a small village on the English-Scottish border, when they decided to elope. In Gretna Green, the wedding ceremony was typically performed by the blacksmith at a roadside tollhouse, but it was all perfectly legal.
ferret \FAIR-ut\ verb
"to hunt game with ferrets, to drive out of a hiding place,">to find and bring to light by searching -- usually used with" The program was intended to ferret out inefficiency in the state's pension programs. Since the 14th century, English speakers have used "ferret" as the name of a small domesticated animal of the weasel family. The word came to us by way of Anglo-French and can be traced back to Latin "fur," meaning "thief." These days ferrets are often kept as pets, but prior to that they were typically used to hunt rabbits, rats, and other vermin, and to drive them from their underground burrows. By the 15th century, the verb "ferret" was being used of the action of hunting with ferrets. By the late 16th century, the verb had taken on figurative uses as well. Today, we most frequently encounter the verb "ferret" in the sense of "to find and bring to light by searching."
olla podrida \ah-luh-puh-DREE-duh\ noun
"a rich seasoned stew of slowly simmered meat and vegetables that is a traditional Spanish and Latin-American dish, hodgepodge" Ask around for ideas on how to stop hiccups and youll get an olla podrida of bizarre remedies. In 1599, lexicographer John Minsheu wanted to know "from whence or why they call it olla podrida." Good question. No one is sure why the Spanish used a term that means "rotten pot" to name a tasty stew, but there has been plenty of speculation on the subject. One theory holds that the name developed because the long, slow cooking process required to make the stew was compared to the process of rotting, but there's no definitive evidence to support that idea. It is more certain that both French and English speakers borrowed "olla podrida" and later adapted the term for other mixtures whose content was as varied as the stew. The French also translated "olla podrida" as "pot pourri," an expression English speakers adapted to "potpourri."
balletomane \ba-LET-uh-mayn\ noun
"a devotee of ballet" Balletomanes across the country eagerly bought tickets to the famous ballerina's final performance. If you suspected that "balletomane" originated with the idea of a "mania" for ballet, you are correct. What you may not have guessed is that the language that inspired English speakers to borrow the word in the 1930s was Russian. "Balletomane" derives from the Russian noun "baletoman," which in turn combines the word for "ballet" ("balet") and the suffix "-man," from "maniya" (meaning "mania"). The English words "mania" and "ballet" did not, however, come from Russian. ("Mania" comes from Latin and Greek, and "ballet" comes from French and Italian.) "Balletomane" is therefore somewhat unusual, both for its Russian origins and for the fact that it does not follow the more traditional "-phile" model for words meaning "someone who likes a specified thing."
obstreperous \ub-STREP-uh-rus\ adjective
"marked by unruly or aggressive noisiness , stubbornly resistant to control" On her first day of substitute teaching, Joanna expected to encounter a classroom of obstreperous teenagers, but the students were mostly well behaved. The handy Latin prefix "ob-," meaning "in the way," "against," or "toward," occurs in many Latin and English words. "Obstreperous" comes from "ob-" plus "strepere," a verb meaning "to make a noise," so someone who is obstreperous is literally making noise to rebel against something, much like a protesting crowd or an unruly child. The word has been used in English since around the beginning of the 17th century. "Strepere" has not played a role in the formation of any other notable English words, but "ob-" words abound; these include "obese," "obnoxious," "occasion," "offend," "omit," "oppress," and "oust."
delegate \DEL-uh-gayt\ verb
"to entrust to another, to appoint as one's representative, to assign responsibility or authority" In order to get everything done on time, the committee leader chose to delegate some of the minor tasks to junior members. To "delegate" is literally or figuratively to send another in one's place, an idea that is reflected in the words origin; it is a descendant of Latin "legare," meaning "to send as an emissary." Other English words that can be traced back to "legare" include "legate" ("a usually official emissary"), "legacy," "colleague," and "relegate." The noun "delegate," meaning "a person acting for another," entered English in the 15th century, followed by the verb in the next century.
ambuscade \AM-buh-skayd\ noun
"a trap in which concealed persons lie in wait to attack by surprise;" "They were apprized of the ambuscade by one of the flanking party, before the Indians fired upon them ." (George Washington, letter, August 4, 1756) "Ambuscade" derives from Middle French "embuscade," a modification of an Old Italian word formed by combining the prefix "in-" and the Latin noun "bosco," meaning "forest." This is appropriate, since many such surprise attacks have involved the attacking force hiding out in and emerging from a wooded area. "Ambuscade" has not changed in meaning since General Washingtons day, though nowadays we are more likely to use its synonym "ambush." That word actually took a slightly different path to English -- via Middle English "embushen," from Anglo-French "en-" ("in-") and "busche" ("log" or "firewood") -- though the two words ultimately share a relationship.
argy-bargy \ahr-jee-BAHR-jee\ noun
"a lively discussion" After much argy-bargy, Paul and Hugh finally came up with a plan that satisfied them both. "Argy-bargy" and its slightly older variant "argle-bargle" have been a part of British English since the second half of the 19th century. "Argy" and "argle" evolved in certain English and Scottish dialects as variant forms of "argue." As far as we can tell, "bargy" and "bargle" never existed as independent words; they only came to life with the compounds as singsong reduplications of "argy" and "argle." Some other words that can be used for a dispute in English are "squabble," "contretemps," and "donnybrook."
polyonymous \pah-lee-AH-nuh-mus\ adjective
"having or known by various names" Common epithets of Shiva, the polyonymous Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, are Shambhu, Shankara, Mahadeva, and Mahesha. "Polyonymous" comes to us from Greek. The "poly-" part means "many," and the "-onymous" part derives from the Greek word "onoma" or "onyma," meaning "name" -- so a reasonable translation of "polyonymous" is, in fact, "having many names." There are a number of other descendants of "onoma" or "onyma" in English, including "anonymous" ("having no name"), "pseudonym" ("false name"), "eponym" (someone who lends their name to something, or a word that comes from someones name), and "patronymic" (a name taken from one's father). Even "name" itself is derived from the same ancient word that gave rise to Greek "onyma," making it a distant cousin of all these name-related words.
flagitious \fluh-JISH-us\ adjective
"marked by scandalous crime or vice" "Those leading the fight against erotica distribution compiled lists of flagitious books, but tried to keep their lists confidential ." (Jay A. Gertzman, Bookleggers and Smuthounds) "Flagitious" derives from the Latin noun "flagitium," meaning "shameful thing," and is akin to the Latin noun "flagrum," meaning "whip." "Flagrum" is also the source of "flagellate" ("to whip" or "to scourge"), but despite the superficial resemblance it is not the source of "flagrant," meaning "conspicuously bad." "Flagrant" and its cousins derive instead from Latin "flagrare," meaning "to burn." "Flagitious" first appeared in the late 14th century, and it was originally applied to people who were horribly criminal or wicked. These days, it can also describe intangibles, such as actions ("flagitious promiscuity"), ideas ("a flagitious notion"), and principles ("flagitious motives").
vexillology \vek-suh-LAH-luh-jee\ noun
"the study of flags" Chris first got interested in vexillology as a child after visiting a museum with a large collection of rare flags. "The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history." Woodrow Wilson was speaking of the U.S. flag when he made that statement in an address in June of 1915, but those who engage in vexillology -- that is, vexillologists -- would likely find the comment applicable to any national banner. Vexillologists undertake scholarly investigations of flags, producing papers with titles such as "A Review of the Changing Proportions of Rectangular Flags since Medieval Times, and Some Suggestions for the Future." In the late 1950s, they coined "vexillology" as a name for their field of research from "vexillum," the Latin term for a square flag or banner of the ancient Roman cavalry. The adjectives "vexillologic" and "vexillological" and the noun "vexillologist" followed soon thereafter.
edify \ED-uh-fye\ verb
"to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge" "There's nothing like a film festival for renewing your faith in the medium, in the possibilities of movies to surprise, delight and edify us." (Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 1, 2010) The Latin noun "aedes," meaning "house" or "temple," is the root of "aedificare," a verb meaning "to erect a house." Generations of speakers built on that meaning, and by the Late Latin period, the verb had gained the figurative sense of "to instruct or improve spiritually." The word eventually passed through Anglo-French before Middle English speakers adopted it as "edify" during the 14th century. Two of its early meanings, "to build" and "to establish," are now considered archaic; the only current sense of "edify" is essentially the same as that figurative meaning in Late Latin, "to instruct and improve in moral and religious matters."
guttersnipe \GUTT-er-snype\ noun
"a homeless vagabond and especially an outcast boy or girl in the streets of a city, a person of the lowest moral or economic station" "Class is the great British reality, and the more books I wrote the more [Evelyn Waugh] termed me an unregenerable guttersnipe." (Anthony Burgess, The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1991) Unfurl yourselves under my banner, noble savages, illustrious guttersnipes, wrote Mark Twain sometime around 1869. Twain was among the first writers to use "guttersnipe" for a young hoodlum or street urchin. In doing so, he was following a trend among writers of the time to associate "gutter" (a low area at the side of a road) with a low station in life. Other writers in the late 19th century used "guttersnipe" more literally as a name for certain kinds of snipes, or birds with long thin beaks that live in wet areas. "Gutter-bird" was another term that was used at that time for both birds and disreputable persons. And even "snipe" itself has a history as a term of opprobrium; it was used as such during Shakespeares day.
asperity \uh-SPAIR-uh-tee\ noun
"roughness, harshness of manner or of temper" When asked to make a contribution, Roger glared and said with asperity, "I gave at the office." "Asperity" has had a rough history. It came to Modern English through Middle English (where it was spelled "asprete") by way of the Anglo-French ("asprete"), and ultimately derives from the Latin word "asper," which means "rough." Not only is "asper" the source of "asperity," but it also underlies the English word "exasperate" (in fact, you can see "asper" nestled in the midst of that word). Although it is far less common than "asperity" and "exasperate," the word "asper" itself is still occasionally used in English, too -- it functions as a synonym of "harsh," "bitter," or "stern."
waterloo \waw-ter-LOO\ noun
"a decisive or final defeat or setback" The senatorial candidate's misrepresentation of his military service could prove to be his waterloo. The Battle of Waterloo, which occurred on June 18, 1815, has given its name to the very notion of final defeat. Why? Maybe because it ended one of the most spectacular military careers in history (Napoleon's), as well as 23 years of recurrent conflict between France and the rest of Europe. In addition, it was Napoleon's second "final defeat." He was defeated and exiled in 1814, but he escaped his confinement, returned to France, and was restored to power for three months before meeting defeat at the hands of the forces allied under the Duke of Wellington near the Belgian village of Waterloo. The word "waterloo" first appeared in casual use the following year, 1816.
auspicious \aw-SPISH-us\ adjective
"promising success , fortunate, prosperous" The young pitcher made an auspicious debut with eight strikeouts in his first major-league game. "Auspicious" comes from Latin "auspex," which literally means "bird seer" (from the words "avis," meaning "bird," and "specere," meaning "to look"). In ancient Rome, these "bird seers" were priests, or augurs, who studied the flight and feeding patterns of birds, then delivered prophecies based on their observations. The right combination of bird behavior indicated favorable conditions, but the wrong patterns spelled trouble. The English noun "auspice," which originally referred to this practice of observing birds to discover omens, also comes from Latin "auspex." Today, the plural form "auspices" is often used with the meaning "kindly patronage and guidance."
compadre \kum-PAH-dray\ noun
"a close friend" "I'm now on the Web as a lot of my compadres in journalism are right now." (Miles O'Brien, Senate Hearing (transcript), February 24, 2010) In Spanish, a child's father and godfather are, to each other, "compadres" -- that is, "co-fathers." "Compadre" is also a traditional term of reverence and friendship for a man. The equivalent feminine term in Spanish is "comadre." "Compadre" and "comadre" appeared simultaneously in the work that gives us our first known use of "compadre" in English: "'Busy as common, comadre!' said Lopez as he entered, addressing the mother, 'late and early I can find you at work.' 'Yes, compadre,' was the answer." (Albert Pike, "A Mexican Tale," 1834). In English, "compadre" means "friend" and can refer to a person of either sex. "Comadre" continues to appear occasionally in English contexts, but it is not yet well enough established to merit entry in English dictionaries.
macerate \MASS-uh-rayt\ verb
"to cause to waste away by or as if by excessive fasting, to cause to become soft or separated into constituent elements by or as if by steeping in fluid; , to soften and wear away especially as a result of being wetted or steeped" "Absinthe is made by macerating herbs and spices, including anise and fennel, with the grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) that gives the drink its name." (Julia Reed, Newsweek, April 12, 2010) "Macerate" is derived from the Latin verb "macerare," meaning "to soften" or "to steep." That meaning was borrowed into English in 1563. However, the first English use of "macerate" refers to the wasting away of flesh especially by fasting. That use manifested itself in 1547. A few other manifestations sprouted thereafter from the word's figurative branch (e.g., Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) once wrote of "a city so macerated with expectation"); however, those extensions wilted in time. Today, the "steeping" and "soaking" senses of "macerate" saturate culinary articles (as in "macerating fruit in liquor") as well as other writings (scientific ones, for instance: "the food is macerated in the gizzard" or "the wood is macerated in the solution").
abdicate \AB-dih-kayt\ verb
"to cast off , to relinquish (as sovereign power) formally, to renounce a throne, high office, dignity, or function" The school board has been accused of abdicating its responsibilities by failing to provide sufficient oversight of the city's schools. Give it up. English includes many words for the process of throwing in the towel, especially for relinquishing a job or elected office. "Abdicate," a derivative of the prefix "ab-" (meaning "from," "away," or "off") and the Latin verb "dicare" (meaning to "proclaim"), has been used primarily for those who give up sovereign power or who evade a very serious responsibility (such as parental responsibility). "Renounce" is often used as a synonym of "abdicate," but it adds to that term the suggestion that an individual is giving up something as a sacrifice to achieve a far greater end. "Resign" is another option when you are describing a more matter-of-fact departure from a job, office, or trust.
chatelaine \SHAT-uh-layn\ noun
"the wife of a castellan , the mistress of a household or of a large establishment, a clasp or hook for a watch, purse, or bunch of keys" "Leah sets aside her artistic career to become the perfect Swiss wife, mother and chatelaine of a massive estate." (Publishers Weekly, September 22, 2008) The original chatelaine's domain was a castle or fort, and the chatelaine's duties were many. To complete them, she certainly needed keys. In the 18th century, the word "chatelaine" (borrowed from the French "châtelaine") took on an additional meaning in English that alluded to this: the word came to be used for a decorative clasp or hook from which chains holding a watch, purse, keys, etc. were suspended. These popular accessories evoked the bunch of keys the original chatelaine had worn of necessity.
winkle \WINK-ul\ verb
""> to displace, remove, or evict from a position -- usually used with ,"> to obtain or draw out by effort -- usually used with" "In 1483 a new English king, Richard III, tried again to winkle Henry out of Brittany, but he found that the young man was now a significant pawn on the European chessboard." (Nigel Calder, The English Channel) If you have ever extracted a winkle from its shell, then you understand how the verb "winkle" came to be. The word "winkle" is short for "periwinkle," the name of a marine or freshwater snail. "Periwinkle" is ultimately derived from Latin "pina," the name of a mussel, and Old English "wincle," a snail shell. Evidently the personnel of World War I's Allied Powers found their duty of finding and removing the enemy from the trenches analogous to extracting a well-entrenched snail and began using "winkle" to describe their efforts. The action of "winkling the enemy out" was later extended to other situations, such as "winkling information out of someone."
scuttlebutt \SKUTT-ul-butt\ noun
"rumor, gossip" After he retired, Bob regularly stopped by his old office to visit his buddies and catch up on the latest scuttlebutt. Nowadays, office workers catch up on the latest scuttlebutt around the water cooler, and when they do, they are continuing a long-standing (although not necessarily honorable) tradition. That kind of gossip sharing probably also occurred on the sailing ships of yore. Back in the early 1800s, the cask containing a ship's daily supply of freshwater was called a "scuttlebutt"; that name was later applied to a drinking fountain on a ship or at a naval installation. By the early 20th century, the term for the water source was also applied to the gossip and rumors generated around it, and the latest chatter has been called "scuttlebutt" ever since.
gasconade \gas-kuh-NAYD\ noun
"bravado or exaggerated boasting" "Honesty and frankness do more for the public's confidence than extravagant boasting or supercilious gasconade." (F. Gonzalez-Crussi, The New York Times, April 7, 2002) The citizens of Gascony in southwestern France have proverbially been regarded as prone to bragging. Their reputation has been immortalized in such swashbuckling literary works as Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. Linguistically, the legend survives in the word "gascon," meaning "braggart," as well as in "gasconade" itself.
circadian \ser-KAY-dee-un\ adjective
"being, having, characterized by, or occurring in approximately 24-hour periods or cycles (as of biological activity or function)" "Teenagers, like everyone else, need bright lights in the morning to synchronize their inner, circadian rhythms with nature's cycles of day and night." (Thomas H. Maugh II, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 17, 2010) Just over fifty years ago, no one talked about "circadian rhythms" -- because "circadian" hadn't even been coined yet. In 1959, a scientist formed the word from the Latin words "circa" ("about") and "dies" ("day"), and it caught on quickly. "Circadian" appeared in periodicals throughout the sixties, and appeared in a Merriam-Webster dictionary before the decade was up. Most often, it's seen and heard in the term "circadian rhythm," which refers to the inherent cycle of about 24 hours that appears to control various biological processes, such as sleep, wakefulness, and digestive activity. If you want to impress your friends, you can also use the term "circadian dysrhythmia," a fancy synonym of "jet lag."
sepulchre \SEP-ul-ker\ noun
"a place of burial , a receptacle for religious relics especially in an altar" "The distant noises in the streets were gradually hushed; the house was quiet as a sepulchre; the dead of night was coffined in the silent city." (Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit) "Sepulchre" (also spelled "sepulcher") first appeared in Middle English around the beginning of the 13th century. It was originally spelled "sepulcre," a spelling taken from Anglo-French. Like many words borrowed into English from French, "sepulchre" has roots in Latin. In Latin, "sepulchre" is "sepulcrum," a noun that is derived from the verb "sepelire," which means "to bury." "Sepultus," the past participle of "sepelire," gives us -- also by way of Anglo-French -- the related noun "sepulture," which is a synonym for "burial" and "sepulchre."
chary \CHAIR-ee\ adjective
"discreetly cautious: as, hesitant and vigilant about dangers and risks, slow to grant, accept, or expend" "And in causes both small and large, controversial and less so, he was never chary about voicing his convictions." (Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2010) It was sorrow that bred the caution of "chary." In Middle English "chary" meant "sorrowful," a sense that harks back to the word's Old English ancestor "caru" (an early form of "care," and another term that originally meant "sorrow" or "grief"). In a sense switch that demonstrates that love can be both bitter and sweet, "chary" later came to mean "dear" or "cherished." That's how 16th century English dramatist George Peele used it: "the chariest and the choicest queen, That ever did delight my royal eyes." Both sorrow and affection have largely faded from "chary," however, and in Modern English the word is most often used as a synonym of either "careful" or "sparing."
Wellerism \WELL-uh-riz-um\ noun
"an expression of comparison comprising a usually well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel" My father's favorite Wellerism is "'We'll have to rehearse that,' said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car." Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's good-natured servant in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick PapersK, and his father were fond of following well-known sayings or phrases with humorous or punning conclusions. For example, in one incident in the book, Sam quips, "What the devil do you want with me, as the man said, w[h]en he see the ghost?" Neither Charles Dickens nor Sam Weller invented that type of word play, but Weller's tendency to use such witticisms had provoked people to start calling them "Wellerisms" by 1839, soon after the publication of the novel.
advert \ad-VERT\ verb
"to turn the mind or attention, to call attention in the course of speaking or writing" "Adverted to in the very first 'Star Wars' film, the Clone Wars take place in the narrative gap between 'Attack of the Clones' and 'Revenge of the Sith,' when Anakin Skywalker is still on the not-dark side of the force." (Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2008) You may be familiar with the noun "advert," which is used, especially in British sources, as a shortened form of "advertising." That's one way to use "advert," but it has also been used as a verb in English since the 15th century. There's a hint about the origin of the verb in the idea of "turning" the mind or attention to something; the word derives via Anglo-French from the Latin verb "advertere," which in turn comes from Latin "vertere," meaning "to turn." "Vertere" is the ancestor of a number of words in English, including "controversy," "divert," "invert," "revert," and even "versatile." In addition, we'd like to turn your attention to one particular ''vertere" descendant: "avert," meaning "to avoid." Be careful to avoid mixing this one up with "advert."
nescience \NESH-ee-unss\ noun
"lack of knowledge or awareness" "[Samuel] Johnson was so vexed by a young clergyman's nescience that he complained, 'His ignorance is so great, I am afraid to show him the bottom of it.'" (Barry Baldwin, Verbatim, June 22, 2003) Eighteenth-century British poet, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson once said, "There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable that I would not rather know it than not know it." He probably knew a thing or two about the history of the word "nescience," which evolved from a combination of the Latin prefix "ne-," meaning "not," and "scire," a verb meaning "to know." And he may also have known that "scire" is an ancestor of "science," a word whose original meaning in English was "knowledge."
Antaean \an-TEE-un\ adjective
"mammoth, having superhuman strength" The movie's climax is a suspenseful fight sequence between the Antaean heroine and her grotesque alien nemesis. In Greek mythology, Antaeus was the gigantic and powerful son of Gaea the Earth goddess and Poseidon the sea god. Antaeus was a wrestler and whenever he touched his mother (the Earth), his strength was renewed, so he always won his battles even if his opponents threw him to the ground. He proved invincible until he challenged Hercules to wrestle. Hercules discovered the source of the giant's strength, lifted him off the ground, and crushed him to death. In 18th century England, the poet William Mason discovered the power of "Antaean" as a descriptive English adjective, when he used it in his Ode to the Hon. William Pitt: "If foil'd at first, resume thy course / Rise strengthen'd with Antaean force."
cadence \KAY-dunss\ noun
"a rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds (as in language), a musical chord sequence moving to a harmonic close or point of rest, the modulated and rhythmic recurrence of a sound especially in nature" "She sang, and her voice flowed in a rich cadence, swelling or dying away, like a nightingale of the woods." (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818) Falling into the hands of English speakers in the 14th century, "cadence" derives via Middle English and Old Italian from the Latin verb "cadere," meaning "to fall." ("Cadere" can be found in the history of many common English words, including "decay," "coincide," and "accident"). We most often hear "cadence" used in contexts pertaining to voice or music -- it might refer to the familiar way in which someone speaks, or the rhythms employed by a rap artist, or the rising and falling notes of a birds call. "Cadenza," the Old Italian word that factors into the history of "cadence," has its own place in English as well, usually referring to a brilliant musical flourish played before closing out an aria.
ponderous \PAHN-duh-rus\ adjective
"of very great weight, unwieldy or clumsy because of weight and size, oppressively or unpleasantly dull" "Electronic texts can be updated at the speed of a download rather than waiting for the next edition of a ponderous textbook." (St. Petersburg Times [Florida], June 6, 2010) "Ponderous" is ultimately from the Latin word for "weight," namely, "pondus" (which also gave us "ponder" and "preponderance" and is related to "pound"). We adopted "ponderous" with the literal sense "heavy" from Anglo-French "ponderus" in the 15th century, and early on we appended a figurative sense of "weighty," that is, "serious" or "important." But we stopped using the "serious" sense of "ponderous" around 200 years ago -- perhaps because in the meantime we'd imposed on it a different figurative sense of "dull and lifeless," which we still use today.
peloton \pel-uh-TAHN\ noun
"the main body of riders in a bicycle race" "The first major splits occur in the peloton at about the 110-mile mark, where many riders find they can no longer keep up." (Michael Barry, The New York Times, September 26, 2008) If you've ever watched the Tour de France on television, you've seen the peloton, the brightly colored pack of riders making up the central group. You may have also gained some inadvertent insight into the word itself, which as you may have guessed is French in origin. In French, "peloton" literally means "ball," but it is most often used with the meaning "group." It's frequently used in the bicycling context, just as in English, but it can also refer to a group in a marathon or other sporting event. French "peloton" can also mean "squad" or "platoon," and since weve told you that you probably wont be too surprised to learn that it is also the source of our word "platoon."
infra dig \IN-fruh-DIG\ adjective
"being beneath one's dignity" "Among artists lithography was infra dig by the 1870's -- because commercial illustrators had discovered it was a perfect printing medium for glaring posters." (D. J. R. Bruckner, The New York Times, December 20, 1998) In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." In other (less eloquent) words, don't put up with any treatment or situation that is unendurably infra dig. The word "infra dig" is used in relatively casual, sometimes sarcastic contexts (e.g., "Apparently, drugstore-purchased shampoo is too infra dig for my glamorous sister -- only the most expensive salon shampoos will do!"). "Infra dig" is a shortened version of the Latin phrase "infra dignitatem," meaning "beneath dignity."
congeries \KAHN-juh-reez\ noun
"aggregation, collection" As we walked past the food stalls our nostrils were assailed by a congeries of exotic, unfamiliar smells. What do "epitome," "circus," "tribunal," and "congeries" have in common? All are part of a relatively small collection of English nouns that made the transition from Latin to English unaltered in both spelling and meaning. "Congeries" joined this group in our language in the early 1600s. Latin "congeries" comes from the Latin verb "congerere," which means "to carry or bring together" and which is also the source of our word "congest." In English, "congeries" stands out because it is a singular word with a plural appearance -- and its plural is also spelled "congeries."
struthious \STROO-thee-us\ adjective
"of or relating to the ostriches and related birds" "The law is not so struthious as to compel a judge to divorce himself or herself from common sense or to ignore what is perfectly obvious." (Hon. Bruce M. Selya, U.S. v. Sklar, U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, 1990) "Struthious" can be scientific and literal, or it can be figurative with the meaning "ostrich-like," as in our example sentence. The extended use suggests a tendency to bury ones head in the sand like an ostrich. But do ostriches really do this? No -- the birds habit of lying down and flattening its neck and head against the ground to escape detection gave rise to the misconception. The word "struthious" has been fully visible in English since the 18th century. "Ostrich" is much older. Anglo-French speakers created "ostriz" from Vulgar Latin "avis struthio" ("ostrich bird"); Middle English speakers made it "ostrich" in the 13th century. Scientists seeking a genus word for ostriches turned back to Latin, choosing "struthio."
sinew \SIN-yoo\ noun
"tendon; , solid resilient strength , mainstay -- usually used in plural" "For at Trout-hall there is usually an Angler that proves good company. And let me tell you, good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue." (Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler, 1653) Many parts of the body have come to have figurative meanings in English. One can have an eye for interior design, for example, or the stomach for a fight. "Muscle," of course, can mean "strength," and so can "sinew," a word for the tissue that ties muscle to bone -- more commonly known as a tendon. (For a while, "sinew" also meant "nerve," but that usage is obsolete.) The use of "sinew" to mean "the chief supporting force" ties into its anatomical function as a stabilizing unit. "Sinew" derives via Middle English from Old English "seono"; it is also related to Old High German "senawa" ("sinew") and Sanskrit "syati" ("he binds").
perfidious \per-FID-ee-us\ adjective
"of, relating to, or characterized by faithlessness or disloyalty" "Businessmen are constantly scheming to get the government to beat up on their competitors, and the best excuse of all is that the competitor is a perfidious foreigner." (The Wall Street Journal, October 27, 1992) We wouldn't lie to you about the history of "perfidious" -- even though the word itself suggests deceitfulness. The modern English meaning of "perfidious" remains faithful to that of its Latin ancestor, "perfidus," which means "faithless." English speakers have used "perfidious" to mean "treacherous" since at least 1572. One of the earliest known uses of the term can be found in Act V, scene iii of Shakespeares All's Well That Ends Well: the "perfidious slave" Parolles is thought to be an unreliable witness; hell say whatever suits his purpose, whether true or not. In contemporary usage, "perfidious" not only implies treacherousness, but an inability to be reliable or honorable.
stand pat \STAND-PAT\ verb
"to play one's hand as dealt in draw poker without drawing, to oppose or resist change" "We cannot afford to stand pat while the world races by." (President Barack Obama, remarks at Carnegie-Mellon University, June 2, 2010) If you stand pat in draw poker you're betting on the cards in your hand being better than any you're likely to draw. It didn't take long for "stand pat" to move from the poker table, where it first appeared in the late 1800s, to the realm of politics; by the early 20th century, to stand pat was to oppose any change in U.S. tariff policy. The term continues to be used mainly in U.S. English, where it's applied to everything from a coach's decision not to change out players during a game to a homeowner's decision not to refinance. The nouns "standpatter" ("one who resists or opposes change") and "standpattism" ("resistance to change" or "reluctance to take positive action") are also used, although generally only in political contexts.
autochthonous \aw-TAHK-thuh-nus\ adjective
"indigenous, native, formed or originating in the place where found" "People tend to admire cultural forms that seem autochthonous, sprung from their native soil." (Stephen Greenblatt, Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2005) Ancient Athenians considered their ancestors the primordial inhabitants of their land, as if sprung from the very soil of the region they inhabited. Their word for any true-born Athenian, "autochthōn," itself springs from "auto-," meaning "self," and "chthōn," meaning "earth." Nowadays, the English adjective "autochthonous" is often used in somewhat meaty scientific or anthropological writing (as in "several autochthonous cases of fever broke out in the region"), but it was a "bready" context in which it made its debut. Observed English literary critic William Taylor in 1805: "The English have this great predilection for autochthonous bread and butter" (rather than French bread, one might safely presume).
prolegomenon \proh-lih-GAH-muh-nahn\ noun
"prefatory remarks;" The book is introduced by a lengthy prolegomenon, which is followed by 17 chapters of analysis. "Prolegomenon" is the singular and "prolegomena" is the plural of this scholarly word, though people sometimes mistakenly interpret "prolegomena" as the singular. The word, which comes from the Greek verb "prolegein" ("to say beforehand"), first appeared in print around 1652. It has appeared in the titles of noteworthy scholarly and philosophical works, but it has never been as common in general use as its older cousin "prologue." "Prologue" usually refers to an introduction to a literary work or to a speech addressed to the audience at the beginning of a play. "Prolegomenon" is most often used of the introduction to a work of scholarly analysis. Both words can also be used in a broader sense to refer generally to something that serves as an introduction.
ab initio \ab-ih-NISH-ee-oh\ adverb
"from the beginning" "What does not exist ab initio is wealth; wealth must be created by sustained human effort." (Richmond Times Dispatch [Virginia], December 14, 2008) Well tell you right from the beginning where "ab initio" comes from. This adverb was adopted at the end of the 16th century directly from Latin, and it translates, unsurprisingly, as "from the beginning." ("Initio" is a form of the noun "initium," meaning "beginning," which gave rise to such English words as "initial," "initiate," and "initiative.") "Ab initio" most frequently appears in legal contexts, but our example sentence is not out of the norm. Recently, people have also begun using "ab initio" as an adjective meaning "starting from or based on first principles" (as in "predicted from ab initio calculations").
bandbox \BAND-bahks\ noun
"a usually cylindrical box of cardboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire, a structure (as a baseball park) having relatively small interior dimensions" "Baseballs flew out of there at a record pace for a while, and everyone had theories about why this stadium was behaving like a bandbox, despite similar dimensions to the old place." (Filip Bondy, Daily News [New York], November 8, 2009) In the 17th century, the word "band" was sometimes used for ruffs, the large round collars of pleated muslin or linen worn by men and women of the time period, and the bandbox was invented for holding such bands. The flimsy cardboard structure of the box inspired people to start using its name for any flimsy object, especially a small and insubstantial one. But people also contemplated the neat, sharp appearance of ruffs just taken from a bandbox and began using the word in a complimentary way in phrases such as "she looked as if she came out of a bandbox." Today, "bandbox" can also be used as an adjective meaning "exquisitely neat, clean, or ordered," as in "bandbox military officers."
burgle \BER-gul\ verb
"to break into and steal from, to commit burglary against" Mike was aghast upon returning home to discover that someone had burgled his house while he was away. "Burglary," which means "forcible entry into a building especially at night with the intent to commit a crime (as theft)," and "burglar" ("one who commits burglary") have been with us since the 16th century. "Burgle" and its synonym "burglarize" didn't break into the language until the 19th century, however, arriving almost simultaneously around 1870. "Burgle" is a back-formation (that is, a word formed by removing a suffix or prefix) from "burglar." "Burglarize" comes from "burglar" as well, with the addition of the familiar "-ize" ending. Both verbs were once disparaged by grammarians ("burgle" was considered to be "facetious" and "burglarize" was labeled "colloquial"), but they are now generally accepted. "Burglarize" is slightly more common in American English, whereas "burgle" seems to be preferred in British English.
agita \AJ-uh-tuh\ noun
"a feeling of agitation or anxiety" "Bank nationalization would drive the stock market down and increase the agita of people with 401(k) plans." (Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker, April 6, 2009) Judging by its spelling and meaning, you might think that "agita" is simply a shortened version of "agitation," but that's not the case. Both "agitation" and the verb "agitate" derive from Latin "agere" ("to drive"). "Agita," which first appeared in American English in the early 1980s, comes from a dialectical pronunciation of the Italian word "acido," meaning "heartburn" or "acid," from Latin "acidus." ("Agita" is also occasionally used in English with the meaning "heartburn.") For a while the word's usage was limited to New York City and surrounding regions, but the word became more widespread in the mid-90s.
Barmecidal \bahr-muh-SYE-dul\ adjective
"providing only the illusion of abundance" The tax rebate is a Barmecidal windfall, coming as it does in the wake of new hidden taxes on consumer goods and services. "Barmecide" is the name of a family of princes in a tale from The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment). One prince in the family torments a beggar by inviting him to a fabulous feast, at which all the dishes are imaginary. The poor man plays along with his malicious host, pretending to get drunk on the imaginary wine; he then gets even by knocking down the patronizing royal.
conn \KAHN\ verb
"to conduct or direct the steering of (as a ship)" The captain successfully conned his ship through the ice-packed waters. In the 19th century, warships (and, later, submarines) began to be built with structures known as "conning towers." These structures were so called because it was from them that an officer could "conn" the vessel. The verb "conn" (also spelled "con") is first known to have appeared in English in the 1600s. It is an alteration of "cond," which is probably an alteration of Middle English "condien" or "conduen," meaning "to conduct." Since the 19th century, "conn" has also been used as a noun ("the control exercised by one who conducts or directs the steering of a ship"). This noun, though seldom encountered in general English, is likely familiar to fans of the various Star Trek series in which the directive "You have the conn" is sometimes given from the starship captain to another officer on the bridge.
declivity \di-KLIV-uh-tee\ noun
"downward inclination, a descending slope" The hikers cautiously made their way down the somewhat steep and rocky declivity that led to the river. Three different English words descend from "clivus," the Latin word for "slope" or "hill" -- with the help of three Latin prefixes. "Declivity" combines "clivus" with the prefix "de-," meaning "down" or "away." "Acclivity" uses "ad-" (which may change its second letter depending on the root word), meaning "to" or "toward." Hence, an acclivity is an upward slope. The third word has a figurative meaning in English: "proclivity" makes use of the prefix "pro-," meaning "forward," and this word refers to a personal inclination, predisposition, or "leaning."
inenarrable \in-ih-NAIR-uh-bul\ adjective
"incapable of being narrated" "Their songs were sometimes frenzied like the dances in which they whirled to syncopated rhythms, but more often muffled and sad with the inenarrable misery of their bondage." (Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County) "Ineffable," "inenarrable," "indescribable" -- English has quite a few words for expressing that which can't be expressed. The prefix "in-," meaning "not," teamed up with Latin "enarrare" ("to explain in detail") to give us "inenarrable," and the same prefix joined with Latin "effabilis" ("capable of being expressed") to create "ineffable." English speakers have used "ineffable" since the 14th century, and "inenarrable" made its way into the language from French in the 15th century. "Indescribable" was a late arrival, relatively speaking -- it has only been with us since the 18th century.
garner \GAHR-ner\ verb
"to gather into storage, to deposit as if in a granary, to acquire by effort , accumulate, collect" Through hard work and a determination to see her students succeed, Ms. Taylor has garnered considerable respect from parents and her fellow teachers. What do you call a building in which grain is stored? These days, English speakers are most likely to call it a "granary," but there was a time when the noun "garner" was also a likely candidate. That noun, which can also mean "something that is collected," dates from the 12th century. The verb "garner" joined the language two centuries later. The verb was once commonly used with the meaning "to gather into a granary," but today it usually means "to earn" or "to accumulate." The noun "garner" is uncommon in contemporary use; it is now found mainly in older literary contexts, such as these lines of verse from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor": "Or, from the garner-door, on ether borne, / The chaff flies devious from the winnow'd corn."
tactile \TAK-tul\ adjective
"perceptible by touch, of, relating to, or being the sense of touch" "Nothing prepared me for the tactile reality of the original volumes, leaf after carefully written leaf over which his hand had travelled...." (Edmund Morris, The New Yorker, January 16, 1995) "Tangible" is related to "tactile," and so are "intact," "tact," "contingent," "tangent," and even "entire." There's also the uncommon noun "taction," meaning "the act of touching." Like "tactile," all of these words can be traced back to the Latin verb "tangere," meaning "to touch." "Tactile" made its way to our language by way of French, touching ground in English in the early 17th century.
poetaster \POH-uh-tass-ter\ noun
"an inferior poet" "Germaine Greer, Chair Of Judges For The National Poetry Competition 2000, Invites Entries From Readers, But Be Warned: Poetasters Need Not Apply" (Headline, The [London] Independent, May 7, 2000) In Latin, the suffix "-aster" indicates partial resemblance. In both Latin and English, that often translates to "second-rate," or maybe even "third-rate." Not surprisingly, "poetaster" often goes hand in hand with "doggerel," meaning "verse marked by triviality or inferiority." "Most of the people who send me thick sheaves of handwritten or word-processed doggerel," Ms. Greer tells us in the Independent article we quote above, "appear never to have read any poetry, good or bad.... Every week poetasters, like literary flashers seeking to amaze and appal hapless passers-by with the sight of their grey flaccidities, send their effusions to people like me." Are there are other kinds of "-asters" out there? Yes indeed -- we have criticasters, philosophasters, and politicasters, among others.
parlay \PAHR-lay\ verb
"to bet in a parlay, to exploit successfully, to increase or otherwise transform into something of much greater value" The young actor parlayed his popularity as a teen heartthrob into a successful film career. If you're the gambling type, you may already know that "parlay" can also be used as a noun describing a series of bets in which a person places a bet, then puts the original stake of money and all of its winnings on new wagers. But you might not know that "parlay" represents a modified spelling of the French name for such bets: "paroli." You might also be unaware that the original French word is still occasionally used in English with the same meaning as the noun "parlay."
Hobson's choice \HAHB-sunz-choyss\ noun
"an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative, the necessity of accepting one of two or more equally objectionable alternatives" Reportedly, Model T manufacturer Henry Ford once gave this Hobson's choice: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Thomas Hobson worked as a licensed carrier of passengers, letters, and parcels between Cambridge and London, England. He kept horses for this purpose and rented them to university students when he wasn't using them. Of course, the students always wanted their favorite mounts, and consequently a few of Hobson's horses became overworked. To correct the situation, Hobson began a strict rotation system, giving each customer the choice of taking the horse nearest the stable door or none at all. This rule became known as "Hobson's choice," and soon people were using that term to mean "no choice at all" in all kinds of situations.
friable \FRYE-uh-bul\ adjective
"easily crumbled or pulverized" These plants will grow best in a soft, friable soil. "Friable" entered into English in the mid-1500s, and was borrowed either from Middle French or directly from Latin "friabilis." This Latin adjective comes from the verb "friare," which means "to crumble." "Fiare" in turn is related to the verb "fricare" ("to rub"), the source of the English noun "friction." "Friable" is used to describe something that can be easily reduced to a powdered form. In contemporary usage, it is often found in the discussion of asbestos. Health concerns about asbestos primarily center around friable asbestos -- that is, asbestos that is easily pulverized into tiny fibers which may remain suspended in the air and become a potential health risk to those who inhale them.
adjure \uh-JOOR\ verb
"to command solemnly under or as if under oath or penalty of a curse, to urge or advise earnestly" "Byron fled the country, adjuring Annabella to 'be kind' to his beloved sister." (Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2002) "Adjure" and its synonyms "entreat," "importune," and "implore" all mean "to ask earnestly." "Entreat" implies an effort to persuade or overcome resistance. "Importune" goes further, adding a sense of annoying persistence in trying to break down resistance to a request. "Implore," on the other hand, suggests a great urgency or anguished appeal on the part of the speaker. "Adjure" implies advising as well as pleading, and is sometimes accompanied by the invocation of something sacred. Be careful not to confuse "adjure" with "abjure," meaning "to renounce solemnly" or "to abstain from." Both words are rooted in Latin "jurare," meaning "to swear," but "adjure" includes the prefix "ad-," meaning "to" or "toward," whereas "abjure" draws on "ab-," meaning "from" or "away."
inchoate \in-KOH-ut\ adjective
"being only partly in existence or operation;" Kate had an inchoate suspicion that things were about to go wrong, but she was unable to think of any concrete reason for her concern. "Inchoate" derives from "inchoare," which means "to begin" in Latin but translates literally as "to hitch up." "Inchoare" was formed from the prefix "in-" and the noun "cohum," which refers to the strap that secures a plow beam to a pulling animal's yoke. The concept of implementing this initial step toward the larger task of plowing a field can help provide a clearer understanding of "inchoate," an adjective used to describe the imperfect form of something (as a plan or idea) in its early stages of development. Perhaps because it looks a little like the word "chaos" (although the two aren't closely related), "inchoate" now not only implies the formlessness that often marks beginnings, but also the confusion caused by chaos.
sirenian \sye-REE-nee-un\ noun
"any of an order (Sirenia) of aquatic herbivorous mammals (as a manatee, dugong, or Steller's sea cow) that have large forelimbs resembling paddles, no hind limbs, and a flattened tail resembling a fin" "Looking humanlike in certain aspects, sirenians are thought to be the basis of the myth of mermaids." (Michael McCarthy, The Independent [London], February 28, 2009) "Sirenian" traces back via Latin to Greek "seir n," which is equivalent to our word for the sirens of Greek mythology. And what is the connection between sirens and sirenians? Modern sirenians do not resemble the half bird, half woman creatures who lured sailors to their doom with their sweet singing. But as our example sentence states, sirenians are considered by some to underlie the ancient legends about mermaids. In European folklore mermaids were sometimes called "sirens," and apparently this confusion resulted in the granting of sirenians the name they bear today.
eisteddfod \eye-STETH-vawd\ noun
"a usually Welsh competitive festival of the arts especially in poetry and singing" This year's eisteddfod featured some exceptional recorder and guitar playing, but as in past years it was the bards who were the highlight of the festival. In Medieval times, Welsh bards and minstrels would assemble together for an "eisteddfod" (the Welsh word for "session") of poetry and music competition. Over time, participation and interest in these competitions lessened, and by the 17th century an eisteddfod was far from the courtly affair it once was. The competition was revived in the 19th century as a way to showcase Wales's artistic culture. It was also in that century that an official council was formed to organize the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales, an event still held each summer alternately in North or South Wales. There are awards for music, prose, drama, and art, but the one for poetry remains the eisteddfod's pinnacle.
vicarious \vye-KAIR-ee-us\ adjective
"done or suffered for the benefit of someone else, sharing in someone elses experience through the use of the imagination or sympathetic feelings" Though I have never been to the Caribbean, I always take vicarious pleasure in hearing about Leslies trips there with her family. If you act in someones stead, you take his or her place, at least temporarily. The oldest meaning of "vicarious," which was first recorded in 1637, is "serving in someone or somethings stead." The word "vicarious" derives from the Latin noun "vicis," which means "change," "alternation," or "stead." "Vicis" is also the source of the English prefix "vice-" (as in "vice president"), meaning "one that takes the place of."
fester \FESS-ter\ verb
"to generate pus, putrefy, rot, to cause increasing poisoning, irritation, or bitterness , to undergo or exist in a state of progressive deterioration" The marriage counselor advised dealing with problems immediately instead of allowing them to fester. "Fester" first entered English as a noun in the early 14th century. It was originally used as we now use the word "fistula," for an abnormal passage leading from an abscess or hollow organ and permitting passage of fluids or secretions. It later came to refer to a sore that discharges pus. The connection between "fester" and "fistula" is no accident -- both descend from Latin "fistula," which has the same meaning as the English word but can also mean "pipe" or "tube" or "a kind of ulcer." "Fester" made the trip from Latin to English by way of Anglo-French. By the end of the 14th century, it was also being used as a verb meaning "to generate pus," a use that has since developed extended senses implying a worsening state.
zwieback \SWEE-back\ noun
"a usually sweetened bread enriched with eggs that is baked and then sliced and toasted until dry and crisp" "It's the cheesiest of cheesecakes, with a zwieback crumb crust." (Tina Danze, The Dallas Morning News, February 2, 2000) In ages past, keeping food fresh for any length of time required a lot of ingenuity, especially when one needed to carry comestibles on a long journey. One of the solutions people came up with for keeping bread edible for traveling was to bake it twice, thereby drying it and slowing the spoiling process. The etymology of "zwieback" reflects this baker's trick; it was borrowed from a German word that literally means "twice baked." Nowadays, zwieback is not just used as a foodstuff -- the texture of the dried bread makes zwieback a suitable teething device for infants.
colloquy \KAH-luh-kwee\ noun
"conversation, dialogue, a high-level serious discussion" The company's employees worried and speculated as the executive team remained closeted in an intense colloquy for the entire morning. "Colloquy" may make you think of "colloquial," and there is indeed a connection between the two words. As a matter of fact, "colloquy" is the parent word from which "colloquial" was coined in the mid-18th century. "Colloquy" itself, though now the less common of the two words, has been a part of the English language since the 15th century. It is a descendant of Latin "loqui," meaning "to speak." Other descendants of "loqui" in English include "eloquent," "loquacious," "ventriloquism," and "soliloquy," as well as "elocution" and "interlocutor."
eighty-six \ay-tee-SIKS\ verb, slang
"to refuse to serve (a customer);" "NBC's Hannah Storm eighty-sixed her real last name, Storen, when her first employer, a heavy-metal-oriented radio station in Corpus Christi, asked her to host a show titled Storm by the Sea." (Sports Illustrated, September 25, 2000) If you work in a restaurant or bar, you might eighty-six (or "eliminate") a menu item when you run out of it, or you might eighty-six (or "cut off") a customer who should no longer be served. "Eighty-six" is still used in this specific context, but it has also entered the general language. These days, you dont have to be a worker in a restaurant or bar to eighty-six something -- you just have to be someone with something to get rid of or discard. There are many popular but unsubstantiated theories about the origin of "eighty-six." The explanation judged most probable by Merriam-Webster etymologists is that the word was created as a rhyming slang word for "nix," which means "to veto" or "to reject."
twee \TWEE\ adjective
"affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint" I stood in the greeting card section of the store reading through the selections, looking for one that would express my affection and appreciation without being intolerably twee. Most adults wouldn't be caught dead saying, "Oh, look at the tweet 'ittle birdie!" (at least not to anyone over the age of three), but they probably wouldn't be averse to saying, "He went fishing with his dad," "She works as a nanny," or "Hey, buddy, how's it going?" Anyone who uses "dad," "nanny," or "buddy" owes a debt to "baby talk," a term used for both the childish speech adults adopt when addressing youngsters and for the speech of small children who are just learning to talk. "Twee" also originated in baby talk, as an alteration of "sweet." In the early 1900s, it was a term of affection, but nowadays British speakers and writers, and, increasingly, Americans as well, use "twee" for things that have passed beyond agreeable and into the realm of cloying.
eminently \EM-uh-nunt-lee\ adverb
"to a high degree" "The village is eminently walkable and packed with attractions for foodies, shoppers, history buffs, and children." (Ellen Albanese, The Boston Globe, June 30, 2010) When British physician Tobias Venner wrote in 1620 of houses "somewhat eminently situated," he used "eminently" in a way that now seems unusual. Venner meant that the houses were literally located in a high place, but that lofty use of "eminently" has since slipped into obsolescence. "Eminently" traces to the Latin term "emin re," which means "to stand out." In its first documented English uses in the 15th century, the term meant "conspicuously," but that sense, like the elevated one we mentioned earlier, is now obsolete. The figurative sense for which the word is best known today began appearing in English texts in the mid-1600s.
flotilla \floh-TILL-uh\ noun
"a fleet of ships or boats; , an indefinite large number" "Just offshore was anchored a flotilla of small motorboats -- Zephyr Cove's rental fleet ." (John Flinn, The San Francisco Chronicle, July 25, 2010) "Flotilla" comes from the diminutive form of the Spanish noun "flota," meaning "fleet." "Flota" derives via Old French from Old Norse "floti" and is related to Old English "flota" ("ship"), an ancestor to our word "float." Much like other words referring to groups of particular things (such as "swarm"), "flotilla" has taken on expanded usage to refer simply to a large number of something not necessarily having to do with nautical matters, often with humorous effect (e.g., "a flotilla of rather mature-looking male models" -- Jed Perl, The New Republic).
wildcatter \WYLDE-katt-er\ noun
"one that drills wells in the hope of finding oil in territory not known to be an oil field, one that promotes unsafe and unreliable enterprises;" The feature story is about a husband-and-wife team who made their billions as property wildcatters in the real estate bubble. Messing with a wildcat, such as a lynx, can be a pretty risky undertaking, but ferocious felines played only an indirect role in the development of the word "wildcatter." That term has been used in English since the late 19th century, along with the verb "wildcat," which refers to the risky practice of drilling experimental oil wells in territory not known to produce oil. English-speakers associated "wildcat" with risk-taking ventures after a number of U.S. banks fraudulently issued banknotes with little or no capital to back them up. Supposedly, the banknotes issued by one particular bank bore the image of a panther or, as it was known locally, a "wildcat," and it was those risky notes that led to the financial risk-taking senses of "wildcat" and "wildcatter."
stolid \STAH-lid\ adjective
"having or expressing little or no sensibility" The judge was a man of stolid temperament who did not let the impassioned rhetoric of litigants affect his decisions. "Stolid" derives from "stolidus," a word that means "dull" or "stupid" in Latin. It is also distantly related to the word "stultify," meaning "to cause to appear or be stupid, foolish, or absurdly illogical." The earliest examples of usage for "stolid," dating back to the 17th century, indicate that it too was originally associated with a lack of smarts; it was used to describe people who were considered dull or stupid because they didn't wear their emotions on their sleeves. By the1800s, however, "stolid" was frequently appearing without the connotation of foolishness, and it continues to be free of such overtones today.
dog days \DAWG-DAYZ\ noun
"the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere, a period of stagnation or inactivity" "In the sapping heat of the dog days, everyone is at the beach or relaxing on the porch with iced tea." (Barbara Damrosch, Washington Post, July 15, 2010) Dogs arent the only creatures uncomfortable in oppressive heat, so why does a dog get singled out in "dog days"? The dog here is actually the Dog Star, which is also called "Sirius." The star has long been associated with sultry weather in the northern hemisphere because it rises simultaneously with the sun during the hottest days of summer. In the ancient Greek constellation system, this star (called "Seirios" in Greek) was considered the hound of the hunter Orion and was given the epithet "Kyon," meaning dog. The Greek writer Plutarch referred to the hot days of summer as "h merai kynades" (literally, "dog days"), and a Latin translation of this expression as "dies caniculares" is the source of our English phrase.
advise \ud-VYZE\ verb
"to give advice to , inform, notify, consult, confer" Betty's doctor advised her to exercise more carefully if she hoped to avoid re-injuring her sprained ankle. "Advise" was borrowed into Middle English in the 14th century from Anglo-French "aviser," itself from "avis," meaning "opinion." That "avis" is not to be confused with the Latin word "avis," meaning "bird" (an ancestor of such English words as "avian" and "aviation"). Instead, it results from the Old French phrase "ce m'est a vis" ("that appears to me"), a partial translation of Latin "mihi visum est," "it seemed so to me" or "I decided." We advise you to remember that "advise" is spelled with an "s," whereas the related noun "advice" includes a stealthy "c."
predilection \pred-uh-LEK-shun\ noun
"an established preference for something" Aware of Kim's predilection for Italian food, Theo brought her to a quaint trattoria on the east side of town that was highly recommended by his boss. Do you have a predilection for words whose histories conjure up colorful images of Wild West heroes, medieval knaves, Arabian princes, and intemperate gods, or are words with straightforward Latin roots more your style? If you favor the latter, you'll love "predilection." It's based on the Latin verb "legere," which means "to gather" or "to read." That versatile root is also the source of many other familiar English words, including "collect," "lesson," "sacrilege," and "legume."
moil \MOYL\ verb
"to work hard , to be in continuous agitation" "Why should he toil and moil when the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him?" (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter) "Moil" may mean "to work hard" but its origins are the opposite of hard; it ultimately derives from Latin "mollis," meaning "soft." (Other English derivatives of "mollis" are "emollient," "mollify," and "mollusk.") A more immediate ancestor of "moil" is the Anglo-French verb "moiller," meaning "to make wet, dampen," and one of the early meanings of "moil" in English was "to become wet and muddy." The "work hard" sense of "moil" appears most frequently in the pairing "toil and moil." Both "moil" and "toil" can also be nouns meaning "work." "Moil" implies work that is drudgery and "toil" suggests prolonged and fatiguing labor.
liminal \LIM-uh-nul\ adjective
"of or relating to a sensory threshold, barely perceptible, of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition" "The Texas/Mexico border region is a liminal zone where one culture blends into another." (Dan Goddard, San Antonio Express News, November 16, 2005) The noun "limen" refers to the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced, and "liminal" is the adjective used to describe things associated with that point, or threshold, as it is also called. Likewise, the closely related word "subliminal" means "below a threshold"; it can describe something inadequate to produce a sensation or something operating below a threshold of consciousness. Because the sensory threshold is a transitional point where sensations are just beginning to be perceptible, "liminal" acquired two extended meanings. It can mean "barely perceptible" and is now often used to mean "transitional" or "intermediate," as in "the liminal zone between sleep and wakefulness."
ponzu \PAHN-zoo\ noun
"a tangy sauce made with citrus juice, rice wine vinegar, and soy sauce and used especially on seafood" "Alternate slices of avocado with seared tuna on a plate and drizzle with store-bought ponzu sauce." (Marlene Parrish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 2010) The word "ponzu" is relatively new to English; our earliest English-language evidence of the word -- which we borrowed from Japanese -- is from 1972. But the word's history isn't as simple as that fact suggests. The Japanese word, which literally means "juice squeezed from sour oranges" is itself from the Dutch word "pons." And "pons" comes from (and shares the meaning of) the English word "punch" as it's used to refer to the beverage concoction that's often served at parties, weddings, and wakes.
insouciance \in-SOO-see-unss\ noun
"lighthearted unconcern" The teenagers careless insouciance about her schoolwork does not bode well for her grades. Don't worry -- be insouciant. Perhaps your mind will rest easier if we explain that English speakers learned "insouciance" from the French in the 1700s (and the adjective "insouciant" has been part of our language since the 1800s). The French word comes from a combination of the negative prefix "in-" and "soucier," meaning "to trouble or disturb." "Soucier" in turn traces to "sollicitus," the Latin word for "anxious." If it seems to you that "sollicitus" looks a lot like some other English words you've seen, you're right. That root also gave us "solicit" (which now means "to entreat" but which was once used to mean "to fill with concern or anxiety"), "solicitude" (meaning "uneasiness of mind"), and "solicitous" ("showing or expressing concern").
embellish \im-BELL-ish\ verb
"to make beautiful with ornamentation , to heighten the attractiveness of by adding decorative or fanciful details" Chris knew that his grandfather may have embellished the truth about his years serving on a submarine in the navy, but he enjoyed hearing the stories nonetheless. Like its synonyms "adorn," "ornament," and "garnish," "embellish" means to make something beautiful by the addition of a decorative or fanciful feature. Traditionally, the word is used specifically to stress the addition of superfluous or adventitious ornament, as in "the printer embellished the page with a floral border." "Embellish" differs from its synonyms, however, in that it is sometimes used in a euphemistic way (as in our example sentence) to refer to the inclusion of details that are not necessarily true to make a story sound more appealing. The word derives via Middle English from the Anglo-French verb "embelir," from "en-" and "bel" ("beautiful").
jovial \JOH-vee-ul\ adjective
"of or relating to Jove, markedly good-humored especially as evidenced by jollity and conviviality" Andy remembered his Uncle Jim as a jovial, easy-going man with a ready smile, a firm handshake, and a cheery greeting for all. In Roman astrology, planets were named after gods, and people were thought to share the personality traits of the god whose planet was rising when they were born. Jupiter, also called Jove, was the chief Roman god and was considered a majestic, authoritative type who was the source of joy and happiness. The Late Latin adjective "jovialis" meant "of or relating to Jove." In Middle French this had become "jovial." English speakers picked up "jovial" in the late 16th century and began applying it to folks who shared the majestic or good-natured character of Jupiter (regardless of their birth date).
grimalkin \grih-MAWL-kin\ noun
"a domestic cat;" Maizy, the family grimalkin, wasn't as fast as she used to be, but she was still very good at catching mice. In the opening scene of Macbeth, one of the three witches planning to meet with Macbeth suddenly announces, "I come, Graymalkin." The witch is responding to the summons of her familiar, or guardian spirit, which is embodied in the form of a cat. Shakespeare's "graymalkin" literally means "gray cat." The "gray" is of course the color; the "malkin" was a nickname for Matilda or Maud that came to be used in dialect as a general name for a cat (and sometimes a hare). By the 1630s, "graymalkin" had been altered to the modern spelling "grimalkin."
minuscule \MIN-uh-skyool\ adjective
"written in or in the size or style of lowercase letters, very small" As the director of a tiny nonprofit organization, Julie is adept at managing expenses while working within the restraints of a minuscule budget. "Minuscule" derives from the Latin adjective "minusculus," which means "rather small." The "minuscule" spelling is consistent with the word's etymology, but since the 19th century, people have also been spelling it "miniscule," perhaps because they associate it with the combining form "mini-" and words such as "minimal" and "minimum." Usage commentators generally consider the "miniscule" spelling an error, but it is widely used in reputable and carefully edited publications and is accepted as a legitimate variant in some dictionaries. ]>
squinny \SKWIN-ee\ verb
"to look or peer with eyes partly closed" "I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign / That this was still the town that had been 'mine' ." (Philip Larkin, "I Remember, I Remember") "I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me?" So asks Shakespeare's mad King Lear of blind Gloucester, marking the first use of the verb "squinny" in 1605. It is likely that Shakespeare formed the word from an earlier English word "squin," meaning "with the eye directed to one side." Shakespeare also uses the more familiar "squint" in King Lear: "This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. He gives the web and the pin, / squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, / and hurts the poor creature of earth." Although this is not the first known use of the verb "squint," which appears in print six years earlier, it is the first known use of the verb's transitive sense.
jeremiad \jair-uh-MYE-ud\ noun
"a prolonged lamentation or complaint;" "Siegel's book is a jeremiad against the ills the Internet has visited upon our lives." (Ellen Ullman, The Washington Post, February 10, 2008) Jeremiah was a naysayer. That Jewish prophet, who lived from about 650 to 570 BC, spent his days lambasting the Hebrews for their false worship and social injustice and denouncing the king for his selfishness, materialism, and inequities. When not calling on his people to quit their wicked ways, he was lamenting his own lot; a portion of the Old Testament's Book of Jeremiah is devoted to his "confessions," a series of lamentations on the hardships endured by a prophet with an unpopular message. Nowadays, English speakers use "Jeremiah" for a pessimistic person and "jeremiad" for the way these Jeremiahs carry on. The word "jeremiad" was actually borrowed from the French, who coined it as "jérémiade."
carceral \KAHR-suh-rul\ adjective
"of, relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison" Every time John walked by the old hospital he was haunted by the abandoned buildings imposing carceral towers and tiny windows. Describing a painting of John Howard visiting a prison in 1787, Robert Hughes wrote that Howard was "the pioneer of English carceral reform" (Time Magazine, November 11, 1985). "Prison reform" might be the more common phrase, but the use of "carceral" was by no means unprecedented. Vladimir Nabokov, in his inimitable prose, described a prison scene in Invitation to a Beheading thusly: "The door opened, whining, rattling and groaning in keeping with all the rules of carceral counterpoint." An adjective borrowed directly from Late Latin, "carceral" appeared shortly after "incarcerate" ("to imprison"), which first showed up in English around the mid-1500s; they're both ultimately from "carcer," Latin for "prison."
milquetoast \MILK-tohst\ noun
"a timid, meek, or unassertive person" Brian was such a milquetoast that he agreed to work extra hours on Sunday even though he had already told his boss that he needed that day off. Caspar Milquetoast was a comic strip character created in 1924 by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster. The strip, called "The Timid Soul," ran every Sunday in the New York Herald Tribune for many years. Webster, who claimed that Milquetoast was a self-portrait, summed up the character as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick." The earliest examples of "Milquetoast" being used as a generic synonym for "timid person" date from the mid-1930s. Caspar's last name might remind you of "milk toast," a bland concoction of buttered toast served in a dish of warm milk.
regale \rih-GAIL\ verb
"to entertain sumptuously , to give pleasure or amusement to" "Mrs. O[bama] was, no surprise, also incredibly down-to-earth; she regaled our crew with tales of First Dog Bo, whose birthday was coming up." (Glamour, December 2009) "Regale" has been an English verb since at least 1656; it was adapted from French "r galer," which has the same meaning as "regale." The French verb goes back to Middle French "galer," which means "to have a good time," and to Old French "gale," meaning "pleasure." ("Gala," meaning "a festive celebration," is from the same source.) "Regale" also has a history as a noun meaning "a sumptuous feast." That use dates back to at least 1670, when someone penned the following notice for posterity: "My Lord Duke will not be able to get away yet , all the regales that are intended for him not being yet at an end." (The lord referred to is the Duke of Buccleuch, whose regales ended once and for all 15 years later when he was beheaded.)
veridical \vuh-RID-ih-kul\ adjective
"truthful, veracious, not illusory" "All psychotherapies are based on the fact that memory is not veridical, that unconscious desires and fantasies exert their force on us all. " (Henry Kaminer, Weekly Standard, July 31, 2000) We'll tell only the truth here: "veridical" comes from the Latin word "veridicus," which itself is from two other Latin words: "verus," meaning "true," and "dicere," meaning "to say." "Verus" is an ancestor of several English words, among them "verity," "verify," and "very" (which originally meant "true"). The word "verdict" is related to "veridical" on both sides of the family: it also traces back to "verus" and "dicere." "Veridical" itself is the least common of the "verus" words. You're most likely to encounter it in contexts dealing with psychology and philosophy. ]>
quorum \KWOR-um\ noun
"a select group, the number (as a majority) of officers or members of a body that when duly assembled is legally competent to transact business" The towns charter states that a quorum of at least nine members must be present before any voting by the town council can take place. In Latin, "quorum" means "of whom," which is itself the genitive plural of "qui," meaning "who." At one time, Latin "quorum" was used in the wording of the commission issued to justices of the peace in England. In English, "quorum" initially referred to the number of justices of the peace who had to be present to constitute a legally sufficient bench. That sense is now rare, but it's not surprising that "quorum" has come to mean both "a select group" and "the minimum people required in order to conduct business."
flat-hat \FLAT-hat\ verb
"to fly low in an airplane in a reckless manner" Unable to resist the temptation to show off, the young pilot decreased altitude and flat-hatted over the county fairground. Legend has it that the term "flat-hat" originated with an incident back in the days of barnstormers in which a pedestrians hat was crushed by a low-flying airplane. According to one version of the tale, the reckless pilot was subsequently required to purchase a new hat for the hapless pedestrian. It seems unlikely that such an event actually took place, but we can well imagine how fear of having ones hat smashed flat by a passing airplane might have given rise to such a vivid verb. "Flat-hat" first appeared in English in 1940; another word for flying low to the ground, "hedgehop," debuted 14 years earlier.
dram \DRAM\ noun
"a unit of avoirdupois weight equal to 1/16 ounce, a unit of apothecaries' weight equal to 1/8 ounce, a unit of liquid capacity equal to 1/8 fluid ounce, a small portion of something to drink, a small amount" The two of them don't have a dram of sense between them, so I'm not surprised that they got into so much trouble. In avoirdupois weight -- that is, the system of weights commonly used by English speakers in North America and the United Kingdom -- a dram is equal to 1/16 ounce (1.772 grams). The word "dram" was borrowed from the Anglo-French and Late Latin word "dragme," which was originally used for a silver coin used by the ancient Greeks (now known in English as the "drachma") and for the coin's approximate weight. In the 16th century, English speakers also began using "dram" for a weight of fluid measure (also called a "fluid dram") equal to 1/8 fluid ounce, and more loosely for any small portion of something to drink. "Dram" is also used figuratively for any small amount, in much the same way as "grain" and "ounce."
hector \HEK-ter\ verb
"to play the bully , to intimidate or harass by bluster or personal pressure" The judge sternly ordered the attorney to stop hectoring the witness. In Homer's Iliad, Hector, the eldest son of King Priam of Troy, was a model soldier, son, father, and friend, the champion of the Trojan army until he was killed by the Greek hero Achilles. How did the name of a Trojan paragon become a verb meaning "to bully or harrass"? That use was likely influenced by gangs of rowdy street toughs who roamed London in the 17th century and called themselves "Hectors." They may have thought themselves gallant young blades, but to the general populace they were swaggering bullies who intimidated passersby and vandalized property. By 1660, "hector" was being used both as a verb and as a noun meaning "bully."
vulpine \VUL-pine\ adjective
"of, relating to, or resembling a fox, foxy, crafty" "There is something Gatsby-esque about the whole story. [Bernie] Madoff is a clear proxy for Meyer Wolfsheim, the vulpine, self-satisfied criminal seducer." (Daniel Gross, Newsweek, January 12, 2009) In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau described foxes crying out "raggedly and demoniacally" as they hunted through the winter forest, and he wrote, "Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated." Thoreau's was far from the first use of "vulpine"; English writers have been applying that adjective to the foxlike or crafty since at least the 15th century, and the Latin parent of our term, "vulpinus" (from the noun "vulpes," meaning "fox"), was around long before that.
clitic \KLIT-ik\ noun
"a word that is treated in pronunciation as forming a part of a neighboring word and that is often unaccented or contracted" In "what's happening?" the "s" in "what's" is a clitic. We hear clitics every day in sentences like "This'll be fine" and "C'mon over here." There are two kinds of clitics: "enclitics" and "proclitics." An enclitic is a clitic that is associated with the word that comes before it. Contractions, such as the "ve" in "would've" and the "ll" in "it'll," are enclitics. A proclitic is associated with the word that follows it. Proclitics are transcribed into print far less often than enclitics are, but we hear them frequently in speech. For example, the sentence "They love to dance" is typically pronounced with the "to" truncated to a "t" that gets tacked onto the front of "dance."
bona fides \boh-nuh-FYE-deez\ noun
"good faith , evidence of one's good faith or genuineness, evidence of one's qualifications or achievements" If you still have doubts about Robs bona fides as a lawyer, you should hear all the good things his past clients have said about him. "Bona fides" looks like a plural word in English, but in Latin, it's a singular noun that literally means "good faith." When "bona fides" entered English, it at first stayed very close to its Latin use -- it was found mostly in legal contexts and it meant "honesty or lawfulness of purpose," just as it did in Latin. It also retained its singular construction. Using this original sense one might speak of "a claimant whose bona fides is unquestionable," for example. But in the 20th century, use of "bona fides" began to widen, and it began to appear with a plural verb in certain contexts. For example, a sentence such as "the informant's bona fides were ascertained" is now possible.
Sisyphean \sis-uh-FEE-un\ adjective
"of, relating to, or suggestive of the labors of Sisyphus; specifically" "Considering the inherently fickle nature of golf, defending a title is, no doubt, as Sisyphean a task as any in the sport." (Anthony Cuaycong, BusinessWorld, July 2008) In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who annoyed the gods with his trickery. As a consequence, he was condemned for eternity to roll a huge rock up a long, steep hill in the underworld, only to watch it roll back down. The story of Sisyphus is often told in conjunction with that of Tantalus, who was condemned to stand beneath fruit-laden boughs, up to his chin in water. Whenever he bent his head to drink, the water receded, and whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches moved beyond his grasp. Thus to "tantalize" is to tease or torment by offering something desirable but keeping it out of reach -- and something "Sisyphean" (or "Sisyphian," pronounced \sih-SIFF-ee-un\) demands unending, thankless, and ultimately unsuccessful efforts.
paranymph \PAIR-uh-nimf\ noun
"a friend going with a bridegroom to fetch home the bride in ancient Greece; , best man, bridesmaid" The bride and groom, accompanied by their paranymphs, stood before the officiating clergy. "Paranymph" resulted from the marriage of the Greek prefix "para-" and the Greek word for bride, "nymph ." The prefix "para-" can mean "beside" or "alongside of," as is apparent in the word "parallel," from the Greek word "parall los," a union of "para-" and the word "all nōn," meaning "of one another." At one time, the word "paranymph" also was used for a person who solicits or speaks for another -- that is, an advocate -- but that sense is now very rare.
laconic \luh-KAH-nik\ adjective
"using or involving the use of a minimum of words" "While the Ingallses were living outside the town of De Smet, in what is now South Dakota, Laura met her future husband, a laconic homesteader ten years her senior." (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker, August 10, 2009) Laconia was an ancient country in southern Greece, bordering on the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas. Its capital city was Sparta, and the Spartans were famous for their terseness of speech. "Laconic" comes to us by way of Latin from Greek "Lakonikos," which is derived from "Lakon," meaning "native of Laconia." It has been with us since the 16th century and has sometimes been used with the basic meaning "of or relating to Laconia or its inhabitants" (though were more apt to use "Laconian" for this meaning today). In current use, "laconic" means "terse" or "concise," and thus recalls the Spartan tendency to use the fewest words possible.
zenith \ZEE-nith\ noun
"the point of the celestial sphere that is directly opposite the , the highest point reached in the heavens by a celestial body, culminating poin