Etymologie, Etimología, Étymologie, Etimologia, Etymology, (griech.) etymología, (lat.) etymologia, (esper.) etimologio
US Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika, Estados Unidos de América, États-Unis d'Amérique, Stati Uniti d'America, United States of America, (esper.) Unuigintaj Statoj de Ameriko
eXterne Wortlisten, (esper.) eksteruloj vortlistoj
XMarth - Martha Barnette's Favorite Words and their Origins

marthabarnette.com
XMarth
Martha Barnette's Favorite Words and their Origins

(E?)(L?) http://www.marthabarnette.com/learn.html

Learn a New Word

A few hundred of my favorite words and their origins.


Erstellt: 2022-07

XMarth
Martha Barnette's Favorite Words and their Origins

(E?)(L?) http://www.marthabarnette.com/learn.html

Learn a New Word

A few hundred of my favorite words and their origins.


Erstellt: 2022-07

A

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A Spacer Return to Learn a New Word accismus (ak-SIZZ-muss) The pretended refusal of something that is actually desired very much. Experts in the art of rhetoric use accismus to refer to a statement that feigns disinterest. There's a famous instance of accismus early in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," when Caesar gives the impression that he's reluctant to accept the crown. A more everyday example might be: "Why no, I couldn't possibly have that last bite of your fallen chocolate souffle with hot fudge sauce." It's from the Greek akkismos, which means "coyness," or "affectation." "Really now, Gerald, your accismus is hardly persuasive." acerbic (uh-SURR-bick) Sour, harsh, bitter. Acerbic is from Latin acerbus, meaning "harsh." It's a relative of exacerbate, meaning "to embitter, aggravate, or make harsher." "For four decades now, the alliteratively acerbic designer and self-appointed arbiter of taste has gleefully chronicled each year's fashion flops and tops." -- Martha Barnette (yes, yours truly) in an article in Salon magazine about my surreal afternoon with Mr. Blackwell, the "Worst Dressed List" guy. adumbrate (AD-uhm-brayt) 1. To give a sketchy outline of. 2. To foreshadow vaguely. 3. To disclose only partially. This word with multiple uses is from Latin adumbrare meaning "to shade or shadow." It's from Latin umbra, meaning "shadow" -- and yes, it's a linguistic relative of that other "shady" word, umbrella. (Adumbrate can also mean to "overshadow," as in the case of a 17th century text that includes the line "The lustre of his good qualities is in some measure adumbrated by certain defects.") "Mr. Smithers then proceeded to adumbrate a plan to expand employee benefits, but his speech was hardly enough to satisfy those who were hoping for specifics." afflatus (uh-FLAY-tus) A strong creative impulse; divine inspiration. This word comes from Latin afflare, meaning "to breathe on" or "to blow on." (Similarly, inspire comes from Latin for "to breathe in.") Louisa May Alcott used this word (and a variant spelling of divine) in Little Women when describing a writer's creative process: "Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The devine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her 'vortex', hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent." aficionado (uh-feesh-ee-uh-NAH-do or uh-fees-ee-uh-NAH-do) A devotee, admirer, an enthusiastic fan. From Spanish aficionar, which means "to inspire a liking for," this word is a relative of English affection.) Aficionado originally applied to devotees of bullfighting, but now applies to any type of ardent enthusiast. "With the dwindling cigar market in mind, Marvin R. Shaken, the founder, editor, and publisher of Cigar Aficionado--a magazine for men who smoke cigars--has redesigned the monthly."--Alex Kuczynski, noting in The New York Times that the magazine's cover now features "Aficionado" in huge type and the once-prominent word "Cigar" in tiny letters. agitprop (AJ-it-prop) 1. Agitation and propaganda, especially on behalf of communism. 2. A work of art, literature, drama, or music intended to convey a political perspective, with little, if any, regard for the truth. Borrowed directly from Russian, agitprop is adapted from a much longer expression that refers to the Agitation and Propaganda Section of the old Communist Central Committee. These days the word agitprop is used much more loosely, as evident in a recent article by Ruth Shalit. Writing in Salon about the now infamous commercial produced by the Wieden Kennedy ad agency, which depicted a terrified female Olympic athlete outrunning an attacker with a chainsaw, Shalit observed: "OK, so it's a bit of a stretch for Wieden to spin a chain-saw-killer ad into a victory for postmodern feminism. Nonetheless, Nike's evolution away from 'Our Sports Bras, Ourselves' agitprop seems a milestone worth cheering -- especially when you consider how mired other brands are in the same old first-wave formulas." aglet (AG-lit) That little plastic tip on the end of a shoelace. This word for the little thingie that helps the lace go through an eyelet was adapted from aguillette, an Old French word for "needle." These words derive from the Latin word for "needle," acus, the source of another sharp word in English, acute. "Then you stick the aglet through the eyelet -- and voila!" ailurophile (eye-LOOR-uh-file) A cat-lover. In Greek, the word for "cat" is ailouros. An ailurophobe, on the other hand, has a morbid fear of felines. "Funny how they insist on climbing into the lap of the only person in the room who's not an ailurophile, eh?" alma mater (AL-muh MAH-turr, AHL-muh MAH-turr) A school that one has attended. No doubt you're familiar with this one, but did you know the tender image it contains? Literally, alma mater is Latin for "nourishing mother." It's a relative of other nourishing words like alimentary, and all those maternal words, such as, well, maternal -- as well as the"mother city" otherwise known as a metropolis. "Widely known for his die-hard school spirit and exceedingly large collection of memorabilia, Sidney was probably the only alum upset to learn that officials had voted to change the name of his alma mater from Beaver College to Arcadia University." amethyst (AM-uh-thist) A purple gemstone. For some reason, the ancient Greeks believed that anyone who wore or possessed one of these purple stones could drink all night long and never become intoxicated. The amethyst's power to ward off in intoxication is reflected in its name: the Greek word amethystos literally means "not drunk" -- from the Greek stem a- meaning "not," and methystos meaning "drunk." (Greek methystos, by the way, is a distant linguistic relative of another boozy English word, mead.) "At the last minute, Vanessa scooped up her amethyst bracelet and slipped it on as she stepped out the door, figuring that it couldn't hurt and, what the heck, it might help." amok (uh-MUCK) In a murderous rage; frenzied. Sixteenth-century European explorers returned from the Indian Ocean returned with lurid tales of islanders flying into murderous rampages. The Malay language even had a word for it: amoq, or "in a homicidal rage." Portuguese explorers adopted this term as amouco, which eventually led to English run amok or run amuck. It's unclear just why and to what extent these rampages occurred. In 1772, Captain James Cook explained: "To run amock is to get drunk with opium.to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage." Some Europeans blamed fits of jealousy, while others mused that running amok must be an indigenous cultural trait. Of course, these days running amok can happen anywhere, and often refers to more benign activities. "Run amok with your favorite characters in a complete, 3-D re-creation of their town." - from promotional copy for "The Simpsons' Virtual Springfield" CD-ROM, which lets users launch water balloons from Bart's tree house, lob gummy bears at unsuspecting moviegoers, and take doughnut breaks with Homer at the local nuclear power plant. anathema (uh-NATH-uh-muh) 1. Someone or something detested, loathed, or cursed. 2. A formal ecclesiastical excommunication or curse. 3. A vehement denunciation or curse. This word is adapted from Latin anathema, which meant "an excommunicated person," or "the curse of excommunication." "Of course it was anathema to him, but then, Tommy Velour was a consummate performer -- which meant that if his audience was clamoring for a reprise of 'People,' why then, 'People' they would hear." ancillary (AN-suh-ler-ee) 1. (adj.) Subordinate or subsidiary. 2. (noun) Something that functions as an accessory, auxiliary, or adjunct. If you know that in ancient Rome, a female slave or maidservant was called an ancilla, then it's easy to see how this word came about. (Some etymologists suggest that ancilla itself goes back to even older roots that literally mean "the one who circles around.") "I do have other interests, but they're ancillary." -- Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, talking to reporters. According to Sports Illustrated, O'Neal is close friends with a retired English professor, and invariably greets the old prof with a request to learn a new word, which is how he learned ancillary. anent (uh-NENT) Concerning; regarding. This term derives from Old English on efen, which means "alongside" (literally "on even," as in "on even ground.") So, for example, if you're sick and tired of beginning memos with "Re:", you can always impress your co-workers with "Anent your question about ...." The word anent appeared a while back in a New York Times article: "The question remains a vital consideration anent the debate over the possibility of limiting nuclear war to military objectives." Then there was Sir Walter Scott, who wisely observed: "Nor is it worth while to vex oneself anent what cannot be mended." anodyne (ANN-uh-dyn) 1. Capable of soothing or relieving pain. 2. Relaxing. 3. Insipid, watered-down. This word comes from the Greek stem an- meaning "without" and odyne, meaning "pain." As a noun, anodyne can also be use to mean "a pain-relieving medicine," as in "Nurse! Bring me an anodyne!" "Freddie Prinze Jr., who specializes in anodyne romantic comedies with defiantly forgettable titles, is a nice-looking young actor with a winning, gentlemanly manner -- kind of like Ricky Nelson without the smoldering eroticism." -- from a New York Times capsule review of Freddie's latest forgettable film, "Boys and Girls." antelucan (an-tee-LOO-kan) Pertaining to the hours before dawn. From Latin antelucanus, which means "before dawn," this word is a relative of such bright words as lucid and elucidate. "She got some of her best thinking done during those antelucan reveries, although she certainly didn't mind the occasional interruptions for antelucan revelries." anthology (ann-THALL-uh-jee) A collection of selected writings, such as poems, short stories, or plays. One of the loveliest words in the English language, anthology derives from the Greek for "a gathering of flowers" or "garland" - a "literary bouquet," in other words. "She'd been terribly flattered by his seemingly thoughtful gift, an anthology of Walt Whitman poems." antic (ANN-tic) 1. a playful trick, a prank, a silly caper (often used in the plural). 2. as an adjective: ludicrously odd, funny, bizarre. In the 16th century, Italian archaeologists uncovered the ancient baths of the Emperor Titus in Rome. The walls of this huge structure were covered with bizarre paintings of satyrs, centaurs, and other bizarre creatures, all dancing and otherwise cavorting about in strange positions. These wild, comic scenes were, of course, were quite different from the kind of religious art that had dominated the early Christian Era and Middle Ages. So the Italians described these newly discovered paintings as antica, or literally, "antique." The Italian adjective eventually found its way into English as antic, and over time, its meaning expanded to encompass any similarly absurd act or gesture. See also grotesque. "Did anyone really doubt that Jordan's antics would get her voted out of the 'Big Brother' house?" apogee (APP-uh-jee) 1. The outermost point in an orbit. 2. The highest point; the apex. Borrowed into English from French, apogee derives ultimately from Greek apogaion, literally "far from the earth." (The latter part of apogaion is the etymological kin of the earth goddess name, Gaia.) "'Saturday Night Fever,' the movie released in 1977, marked the apogee of disco, a lucrative moment in pop that quickly generated a backlash, a record-business crash and a widespread repudiation."-- music critic Jon Pareles, in the New York Times. arcadian (ar-KAY-dee-uhn) Rustic or simple, in an idealized way. The ancient Greek region of Arcadia was famous for rural tranquillity and simple, pastoral ways. The adjective deriving from its name is sometimes capitialized. "Isn't it funny how all these new magazines that extol arcadian simplicity are also chock-full of advertisements extolling conspicious consumption?" augean (aw-JEE-uhn) 1. Abominably filthy from long neglect. 2. Extremely difficult and unpleasant. You remember Hercules and his twelve labors. One of them involved the stables where King Augeas kept 3000 oxen. Today we'd probably call out both the Health Department and the Humane Society to deal with Augeas, considering that for 30 years, he neglected to have anyone clean his stables. That nasty task finally accomplished by Hercules, who diverted an entire river through them to sweep them clean. Thus Augean has come to describe anything similarly filthy, or an unpleasant job requiring Herculean effort. "Whoever is really serious about tackling campaign finance reform should ready to face an Augean task." avuncular (uh-VUNG-kyuh-lerr) 1. Of or pertaining to an uncle 2. Uncle-like, especially in benevolence or geniality. This word comes from the Latin avunculus, which means "maternal uncle." The Romans considered one's maternal uncle to be a kind of benign, grandfatherly figure. (In fact, avunculus itself is a diminutive of Latin avus, which means "grandfather." The same root also produced the modern Spanish word for "grandfather,"abuelo.) "Manipulative, avuncular and enigmatic, he created a presence in The X-Files before sacrificing himself for his protege in the final episode of the first season, 'The Erlenmeyer Flask.'" -- from the Fox network's official website for the X-files. (c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette B Spacer Return to Learn a New Word badinage (bad-n-AHZH) Light banter or playful repartee. We borrowed this one from French, where "badin" means "joker." "Badinage not being his strong suit, Marvin kept picking at his pasta and hoping that at some point the conversation would turn to a topic he knew something about, like Jack Russell terriers or old episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show.'" bagatelle (bag-uh-TELL) 1. A trifle; something insignificant. 2. A short, festive piece of music, especially for the piano. 3. A brief verse. 4. A game similar to billiards. We borrowed this word from the French, who in turn adapted it from Italian bagatella, meaning "little property." Nancy Hass used it a while back in the New York Times when writing about the growing merchandising bonanza fueled by Hollywood films: "In the past, such add-ons as soundtrack albums, novelties, novelizations and foreign and television rights were mere bagatelles dwarfed by the domestic grosses of films themselves. Today, however, the equation has changed." ballot (BAL-uht) An item used to cast a vote. It used to be that in Italy, people used to cast "yea" or "nay" votes by dropping either a little white ball or a black one into a box or urn. They referred to that "little ball" a ballotta. From this Italian word comes our own term, ballot. "Then again, people laughed when they first learned that Jesse 'The Body' Ventura would be on the ballot." banana problem 1. The situation that results when one is uncertain as to when a project is actually finished (and when, therefore to stop revising it.) 2. A condition sometimes afflicting websites, in which the webmaster adds so many bells and whistles that the whole thing is a mess. Banana problem is of fairly recent vintage, but it's already turned up in the venerable New York Times. According to the New Hacker's Dictionary, this handy expression refers to the old joke about a youngster who said, "I know how to spell 'banana' . . . but I don't know when to stop." "No, Charlie, the site looks great, but I'm afraid if you insist on adding the Dancing Mahirs AND that 12-minute video clip of yourself playing ping-pong, we're going to have a real banana problem on our hands." banausic (buh-NAW-sik or buh-NAW-zik) Purely utilitarian, merely practical or routine. Banausic comes from the Greek word banausikos, which means "of or for mechanics." "I write as usual from Billings, that banausic city in southeast Montana, home to three refineries, two for oil and one for sugar." -- Mark Gooley, writing a beer review on thenetnet.com. bedlam (BED-luhm) A situation of noisy confusion and uproar. In medieval London, the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem was converted into an asylum that soon came to be known simply as Bethlehem, and later Bedlam. In those days, there was scant understanding of mental illness, and those confined to Bedlam were treated unspeakably. So it's not hard to imagine that Bedlam would come to be associated with loud, crazed confusion, or that bedlam would become a synonym for it. ("Bethlehem," by the way, comes from two Hebrew words that mean "house of bread.") "All I said was, 'Who wants a free Beanie Baby?' -- and then it was pure bedlam." behemoth (bih-HEE-muth, BEE-uh-muth) 1. A mighty animal described in Hebrew scripture. 2. Something enormous. The book of Job includes a section (40:15-19) meant to demonstrate the might of God: "Behold, Behemoth which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox. Behold his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly. He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron." Pretty impressive, no? The Hebrew word here, behemoth, is an intensive form of a word meaning "beast." Many scholars think the animal referred to here, since elsewhere in scripture Behemoth is described as living in marshes and the river Jordan. In any case, the noun behemoth now extends to all kinds of enormous things. A case in point occurred recently in a Salon magazine article by Laura Morgan Green: "… Oxford University Press is shortly to reissue the 19th century English classic "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management." But while I can't wait to browse this behemoth (the 1880 edition in Yale's library runs to 1,296 pages), I suspect that it won't offer much practical help with daily life in the 21st century." bellwether (BELL-weth-urr) A leader or indicator of future trends. A wether is "a castrated sheep," and since the 15th century, word bellwether has meant a flock's leading wether, which wears a bell around its neck to help the other sheep follow him. Bellwether soon came to be applied contemptuously to human ringleaders, but over time this derogatory sense faded away. "Stocks rose sharply yesterday, bolstered by a strong earnings report from the high-technology bellwether Intel and comments from Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, that indicated that interest rates would be rising only slightly." -- The New York Times (Speaking of, check out The Bellwether, a literary prize of $25,000 and a publishing contract for a previously unpublished manuscript of serious literary fiction about social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.) berserk (burr-SURK or burr-ZURK) Wildly or destructively violent; frenzied. In Old Norse, the word for "wild warrior" was berserkr. This word is thought to derive from bjorn, meaning "bear" (and yes, it's the source of the name Bjorn), and serkr, meaning "shirt" or "coat." Tradition has it that in battle, these berserkerswent, well, berserk -- roaring like animals, foaming at the mouth, and even leaving teeth marks in the rims of their iron shields. (According to one dictionary, this frenzied rage was "possibly induced by eating hallucinogenic mushrooms.") "'I've decided that the next time somebody is yakking too loudly on a cell phone, I'm going to go right up to him, look him straight in the eye, and repeat every single word he's saying until he hangs up. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll just go berserk,' Bjorn said." besotted (bih-SAHT-id) Stupified or intoxicated, whether by drink, obsession, or infatuation. In Middle English, the word sot meant a "foolish person." By the late 16th century, though, it also had come to refer to someone who makes himself dull or stupid due to excess drink. A British tabloid put besotted to fine use a couple of years ago when reporting the story of a dog named Bazil, who was about to be fired from a production of "The Wizard of Oz." The reason? Little Bazil had a stubborn habit of "getting frisky with the leading lady's leg.": "Sex-mad Bazil, who is Toto in the show, is so besotted by Dorothy's stockinged limb he clasps it the moment she walks on stage. Producers fear that children in the audience will ask parents tricky questions after seeing his performance." biffy (BIFF-ee) 1. An outdoor toilet, an outhouse. 2. An indoor toilet. Biffy and its variant, biff are most commonly heard in the Upper Midwest of the United States. They may be an alteration of the English term privy. "Why do you suppose it is that women always seem to go to the biffy in twos?" bildungsroman (BILL-dungs-roh-mahn) A novel principally concerned with the spiritual, moral, intellectual and psychological development of its main character. A Bildungsroman is a type of novel often found in German literature, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain being a good example of the form. Bildungsroman (which is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) derives from German "Bildung," meaning "education", and roman, which means "novel." "At the same time, it creates a sort of Bildungsroman portrait of the author as a young man whose idealism is tempered by 'raw ambition," a onetime altar boy turned politcal operative, whose messianic fervor on behalf of the candidate he helped get elected gradually gives way to disillusion and doubt."--Michiko Kakutani, reviewing George Stephanopoulous' memoir, All Too Human. bissextile (bye-SEK-still or bye-SEK-style) 1. (adj.) Containing a leap day 2.(n.) A leap year The Romans understood the need to add a day to their calendar every four years, but unlike us, they didn't add it to the end of their second month. Instead they put in an extra day at the point in the calendar that we call February 24th. They called this extra day the bissextus, because of their odd way of counting days in a month: They called the first day of a month the calends. (Hence our word calendar.) Around the middle of the month came the ides" (as in "Beware the ides of March"). Late in the month, they began counting the days backwards from the calends of the next month. To create a leap year, the Romans stuck in an extra day right after February 23 (six days back), calling it the bissextus, or literally twice sixth. "Gee, you'd think a software company with all that money and all those resources would make sure that its calendar program recognizes that this year is bissextile." billingsgate (BIHL-ingz-gayt) Language that is foul, vulgarly abusive, and coarse. One of the gates to the old walled city of London was called Billings gate, which stood near London Bridge there on the Thames. A pier was built there in the sixteenth century, and it soon became a fishmarket. Supposedly the fishwives who carried on business there were notorious for their salty, rough, scolding language, and billingsgate soon came to mean exactly that kind of talk. "He's a veritable geyser of billingsgate, which probably explains why they think he has a future in cable TV." blooper (BLOO-purr) 1. A blunder, faux pas, or clumsy mistake. 2. In baseball, a fly ball that travels just past the infield. (But also: a pitch with backspin that travels in a high arc toward the batter.) Blooper in the sense of a "blunder" apparently derives from the world of radio, where bloop first referred to the high-pitched sound of interference in a radio signal. Blooper in the sense of a fly ball that arcs just over the infielders' heads is apparently echoic, deriving from the sound of the bat striking the ball weakly. "If you like bloopers, you'll love Richard Lederer's book, The Bride of Anguished English, which includes such gems as: 'On the morning of the Illinois-Ohio State Football game, when Illinois would have to play without the services of its star running back, Frosty Peters, a newspaper published this beauty: ILLINI FACE BUCKS WITH FROSTY PETERS OUT.'" (To find out more about the irrepressible Richard Lederer, a.ka. "Conan the Grammarian" -- visit his website.) bloviate (BLOH-vee-ayt) To speak or write pompously and windily. Apparently inspired by blow, this word became widely used in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century, when people seemed to take a special delight in long, silly-sounding words like sockdolager and hornswoggle. The popularity of bloviate got a boost in the 1920s from President Warren G. Harding, who apparently found it quite useful when discussing politics. "Oh, great. You mean we're going to have to sit here and listen to him bloviate for another half hour?" bombastic (bahm-BASS-tick) Characterized by inappropriately elevated or grandiose language. Many people assume that bombastic means "loud" or "booming," like a bomb. Actually, this word means "empty," "inflated" and "insubstantial." This word's roots go all the way back to ancient Greek word bombyx, meaning "silkworm," which was once commonly used to produce material suitable for padding. This gave rise to Old French bombace, a type of "cotton padding", which eventually inspired our word bombastic. "Montgomery was known for writing bombastic memos, never using a one-syllable word when a five-syllable one would do." boondoggle (BOON-dog-ull) An unnecessary activity or wasteful expenditure. We may have the Boy Scouts to thank for this word -- or more specifically, a Rochester scoutmaster named Robert H. Link. The story goes that in 1925 Mr. Link coined boondoggle as a term for the braided leather lanyards that every young Scout was expected to make. Granted, boondoggling wasn't exactly the most useful skill for those youngsters to learn, but at least it kept them busy. Perhaps the scoutmaster borrowed the idea from American cowboys. They supposedly whiled away long hours on the lonesome range by braiding boondoggles from leather odds and ends, using them to decorate their saddles. In any case, during the 1930s, critics of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal scornfully applied the term boondoggle to costly government projects that provided what they regarded as "make-work." Such programs, they argued, were a waste of time and money -- as pointless and inconsequential as boondoggles of the leather variety. Today boondoggle usually means "a useless or unecessary project or activity" or simply a "wasteful expenditure." "They're insisting on a huge tax credit for a program to try to turn chicken manure into energy? What a boondoggle!" borborygmic (bor-buh-RIG-mik) Pertaining to rumblings in one's tummy or intestines. The Greeks had a wonderful word for this sound: borborygmus, which is pronounced "bor-buh-RIG-muss." As you might guess, it's a fine example of onomatopoeia. "All the toilets and waterpipes in the house had been suddenly seized with borborygmic convulsions." - from Ada by Vladimir Nabokov bosky (BOSS-kee) 1. Having an abundance of trees, shrubs, or underbrush. 2. Pertaining to woods. This woody word comes from Middle English bosk, meaning "bush." The word bosky also has been used colloquially to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary, puts it "somewhat worse for the drink, tipsy." This sense, the OED surmises, may derive from the fact that such a wooded place is "overshadowed" or "obscured" the way one's faculties can be obscured by too much drink. "What do you say we ditch this company picnic and continue this fascinating discussion someplace a little more, well, bosky?" boustrophedonic (boo-strohf-ih-DON-ik) Pertaining to lines of writing that run right to left, then left to right, etc. Ever wonder why we read left to right, then whip back to the left side of the page before starting the next line? Not all ancient peoples wrote that way. Some used a style called boustrophedon--Greek for "ox-turning"--mimicking the pattern of an ox trudging back and forth in a field. Archaeologists have found boustrophedonic inscriptions in such places as Crete, Italy, India, Northern Europe, Central America, and Easter Island. (The bous in boustrophedon, by the way, comes from the same linguistic root as bulimia -- literally "ox-hunger.") Here's Ilana Stern's ditty about the challenges of writing boustrophedonic email: "'You have planted a seed most demonic / Now I yearn to be boustrophedonic / But to turn like an ox / Is quite unorthodox /And damn hard in this mode electronic.'" bowdlerize (BOHD-luh-ryz) To remove or modify parts of a work to which one has (usually prudish) objections. Retired physician and self-appointed literary critic Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) took it upon himself to tidy up the works of Shakespeare by removing those lines "which cannot with propriety be read in a family." In his 1818 volume, The Family Shakespeare, he severely cut some speeches, omitted certain bawdy characters entirely and, in the case of expletives included the word "God," he routinely substituted the word "heaven." When it came to Othello, however, he threw in the editorial towel, conceding that the play was "unfortunately little suited to family reading." However, his book did find a market: in its time, his watered-down version of Shakespeare became a bestseller. Today, anything from a book to a work of art can be similarly "bowdlerized," as exemplified by a line in the Los Angeles Times by writer Patt Morrison: "A few neighbors of Caffe Michelangelo wanted the city to order the restaurant to bowdlerize its new 4-foot-high sign, which featured Michelangelo's nude statue of David rendered in full and faithful detail." boycott (BOY-kot) An organized effort to abstain from using or doing business with, in order to protest or coerce. Upon retiring from the British army, Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-97) was hired to manage the estates of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. Such absentee landlords owned most of the land there, and had a reputation for cruelly evicting poor tenant farmers who couldn't pay their exorbitant rent. So the locals began agitating for land reform. "Let's see . . . what company shall we boycott next?" brindled (BRIN-duhld) Tawny or grayish with dark flecks or streaks. Brindled is thought to derive from the Old Norse word brenna, meaning "to burn" -- perhaps because such coloration suggests the idea of something "marked by burning" or "branded." "The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason." -- Barbara Kingsolver, describing an African forest in the The Poisonwood Bible. brobdingnagian (brob-ding-NAG-ee-uhn) Enormous, huge. In Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire "Gulliver's Travels," the fanciful country of Brobdingnag was inhabited by people twelve times the size of ordinary humans. Writing in Smithsonian magazine, Robert Hendrickson used Brobdingnagian to fine effect a few years ago when describing someone blowing bubblegum: "The bubble rose, rose higher. It was a big, beautiful bubble, a Brobdingnagian bubble, a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious bubble." bromide (BROH-meyed) 1. A sedative. 2. A boring, tiresome person. 3. A conventional or trite statement. Since at least the mid-1800s, compounds made with bromine, especially potassium bromide, have been used as sedatives. Today bromide is also applied figuratively to anyone or anything soothing, trite, or otherwise sleep-inducing. Bromide appeared recently in a Newsweek article describing the way then-presidential candidate George W. Bush's family rallied around him: "Mother Barbara, who told Newsweek that she was watching the debates 'with one hand over my eyes,' sent him 'cheery' e-mail bromides like 'Just be natural.'" brumal (BROO-mull) Pertaining to or occurring in winter. It's from Latin bruma, meaning "winter." (Interestingly, the Latin word bruma itself is thought to be adapted from the Latin term for "winter solstice" -- brevima diesor "shortest day.") "Once again, the inclement weather and resulting cabin fever was quickly adding up to another brumal bummer for Brunhilde." buff (buhf) An enthusiast; an aficionado. As a reporter for the New York Sun observed in 1903, "The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic." Indeed, around the turn of the last century, a group of New Yorkers were so caught up in the excitement of firefighting that they regularly volunteered to help out around firehouses and helped professional firefighters in battling blazes. Because these volunteer firefighters wore buff-colored coats, they came to be known as buffs. Later, the meaning of buff expanded to include any kind of enthusiast. "Language buffs will enjoy the new online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary--or, should I say, well-heeled language buffs who can afford the $550 per year subscription fee." bumf (bumf) 1. Toilet paper. 2. (Contemptuously): paperwork or worthless literature. Sometimes spelledbumph, this British expression is short for "bum fodder," (i.e., toilet paper). According to the American Heritage Dictionary , bumf refers to "printed matter, such as pamphlets, forms, or memorandums, especially of an official nature and deemed of little interest or importance." "’Bumf, bumf, nothing but bumf," groused Uncle Ned as he dug through his mailbox. bunk (bunk) Empty talk; nonsense. During a Congressional debate in the early 19th century, U.S. lawmakers were treated to an unusually long-winded and irrelevant speech, even by Washington standards. The orator, Rep. Felix Walker of Buncombe County, North Carolina (home to Asheville and other mountain towns), later explained that his constituents expected him to give some kind of speech, so he wasn't so much talking to his colleagues as making a speech "for Buncombe." Soon talking to Bunkum became a derisive term applied to similar political speeches. Eventually bunkum was shortened to bunk, and applied to any kind of claptrap. "Anyone with half a brain will realize that Cameron's claims are pure bunk." bupkes (BUP-kiss) Something outrageously insignificant; a trifle. Also spelled bobkes, this word derives from Yiddish for "goat turd." "I work my fingers to the bone, and still they pay me bupkes!" burgeoning (BURR-juhn-ing) Growing quickly; flourishing. In its earliest, most literal sense burgeon meant "to put forth new buds or leaves." In fact, this word stems, as it were, from Old French burjon, which means "bud." "Who'd have predicted that her prime-time chat with Barbara Walters would inspire a burgeoning interest in that particular shade of lipstick?" (c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette C Spacer Return to Learn a New Word cachinnate (KAK-uh-nayt) To laugh loudly and boisterously; to guffaw. This word is from Latin cachinnare, meaning "to laugh loudly," and is probably onomatopoetic. "I have a feeling that the authors of that new book that says you can lose weight by sleeping more are going to be cachinnating all the way to the bank." cadge (kadj) To beg; to mooch. This word, which rhymes with "badge," has been around since the late 12th century, although its origin is disputed. It may be related to Scots cadger, meaning a "peddler" or "huckster." "Could I please, please, please, pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top, cadge just one more day to finish this project?" caducity (kuh-DOO-sih-tee, kuh-DYOO-sih-tee) 1. The weakness or infirmity of old age. 2. The state of being perishable or fleeting. This word ultimately goes back to Latin cadere, meaning "to fall." (The same root also appears inside the word for a "fallen" one, cadaver.) Similarly, leaves that are caducous (kuh-DOO-kuhs) are the type that drop off early in the season. "There, there, dear. I don't think that losing your car keys is necessarily a sign of caducity." caliginous (kuh-LIHJ-uh-nuhss) Dark, misty, gloomy. This word comes ultimately from Latin caligo, meaning "darkness." "Fingers poised over the keys, Nigel mused, 'Hmmmm, what if I began with, 'It was a caliginous and stormy night.'?'" callipygian (kal-uh-PIDGE-ee-uhn) Having a shapely butt. This useful word comes from the Greek kallos, "beautiful" (as in the "beautiful writing" that is calligraphy), and pyge, the ancient Greek word for "buttocks." "She figured that if she could spend 1,000 hours on the Stairmaster between now and her high school reunion, she¹d be looking quite callipygian when the big day arrived." candidate (KAN-dih-dayt) Someone who seeks or is nominated for an office or honor. In ancient Rome, those seeking election to public office traditionally wore togas rubbed with bright white chalk, all the better to reinforce the idea that they were pure of character. The Latin word candidus meant "white," or "pure," and so those who wore the white togas were called candidati -- the predecessor of our own word for would-be officeholders. Candidate is an etymological relative of a number of words having to do with the idea of things that are bright, glowing, and pure, including candle, candor, and candid. "Okay, but even if he did snort the stuff years ago, the question remains: How candid should a candidate be?" cantaloupe (CAN-tull-ohp) A muskmelon in season during late summer. This sweet melon gets its name from a vacation getaway - namely, the pope's. This villa, just outside Rome in the town of Cantalupo, was where the Italians first cultivated this delicately flavored fruit from Armenia. Therefore they christened it with the name that evolved into cantaloupe. "She had her doubts, but decided at last that she might as well take her psychic's advice and paint her bedroom walls the color of cantaloupe." canter (KAN-turr) A smooth easy gait for a horse, faster than a trot, but slower than a gallop. This familiar word has a colorful past: After the murder of Thomas a Becket in England's Canterbury Cathedral in the twelfth century, Canterbury became a popular destination for countless religious pilgrims traveling on horseback, including those described in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. By the early seventeenth century, the expression Canterbury pace had come to mean the easy gait at which these faithful rode to their destination. By 1673, Canterbury had become a verb, and by 1706, had shortened to canter. "Spotting a pile of clothes on the riverbank, Vanessa slowed her steed to a canter, then a trot, then stopped altogether and ever so casually got out her binoculars." captious (KAP-shuhss) 1. Hard to please, fault-finding, nitpicking. 2. Intended to entrap or perplex, especially in an argument. Often applied to someone who's highly critical and makes a habit of seizing up trivial faults, captious derives ultimately from Latin captio, which literally means "a seizing." Captious also describes questions or remarks designed to trip someone up in an argument or debate. "Considering that her parents could never praise poor Imogene without adding some captious remark, it's a wonder she's not more neurotic than she is already." cardigan (KAR-dih-guhn) A knitted sweater or jacket, usually collarless, that opens down the front. Okay, it's a dull word, but it has a colorful origin: James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868) was the British soldier who lead the famous charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. (You remember -- he was the one ordered to charge against the Russian guns: "Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.") Although more than half of his troops were killed or wounded, the earl survived the battle. The type of woolen waistcoat he habitually wore eventually was named in his honor. "He was in the middle of taping his show, singing his opening number, 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' He reached into the closet for his trademark red cardigan, and out popped an inflatable rubber doll clad in little more than a garter belt and a blond wig. Mister Rogers, startled, jumped back. His television crew doubled over in laughter."-- Peter Pae, profiling Fred McFeely Rogers, he of children's television fame, in the Wall Street Journal. cavil (KAV-ull) 1. (verb) Raise trivial objections to. 2.(noun) A petty criticism; a frivolous objection. It's from Latin cavillari , which means to "jeer" or "satirize." "Another word of warning: Whenever Smithers hands back a report you've written and says, 'Not to cavil here, but ...' be prepared to pull up a chair, because you'll be listening to him for a long, long time." cleave (kleev) Use it one way, and cleave means "to split" (as in what a meat cleaver does). So why is it that cleave can also mean just the opposite--that is, to "stick to," as in to cleave to a principle? Actually, these cleaves are two different words that evolved to have the same spelling. One cleave comes from Old English cleofan, which means "to split," making it a linguistic relative of cleft. The other cleave is from Old English cleofian, which comes from an old family of Germanic words meaning to "adhere." "Bearing in mind that one can cleave to one's spouse--and that pressures can cleave a relationship in two--the husband-and-wife authors of an oddly compelling new memoir about their marriage decided to call their book Cleaving." cenacle (SENN-uh-kull) A clique or circle, especially of writers; a literary group. The Romans' word for "meal" was cena, and they called the "dining room" a cenaculum. This word's English progeny, cenacle, first meant "small dining room", and later "a room where people with common interests gather." Eventually English cenacle came to refer specifically to any group of literary types who might gather in such a place. "But most of all, she looked forward to those regular reality checks from her cynical cenacle." cereal (SEER-ee-ull) A food prepared from various grains, such as wheat, oats, or corn. Don't look now, but there's a goddess in your granola. The word cereal derives from the name of the Roman earth goddess Ceres, who, like her Greek counterpart Demeter, presided over the growth of crops, especially grain. "I'm not kidding: Cindy's so phobic about fat that she puts orange juice on her cereal instead of milk." charlatan (SHARR-luh-tun) Someone who makes elaborate and fraudulent claims to skill or knowledge; a quack. The Italian village of Cerreto, in Umbria, once had a reputation for producing more than its share of quacks -- that is, people who hawked medicinal talents and remedies that were questionable to say the least. In Italian, such a prattling quack was called a ciarlatano. Many etymologists suspect this word is influenced both by cerretano ("an inhabitant of Cerreto") and ciarlare, meaning "to chatter." In any case, ciarlatano passed into French as "charlatan." The English soon realized the usefulness of a word for those who volubly claim to know more than they really do, so by the early 17th century, they'd adopted charlatan into their own language. "Peter Drucker once remarked that journalists use the word "guru" only because "charlatan" is too hard to spell." -- Adrian Wooldridge, being all too astute in the Wall Street Journal. chatoyant (shuh-TOY-unt) Changing in luster or color, the way cats' eyes do. This marvelous word is a relative of the English word cat. It comes from the French chatoyer, which literally means "to shimmer like cats' eyes." "Following a brisk body scrub and generous application of pineapple mango-scented moisturizer, Vanessa slipped into a magenta-and-orange dress of chatoyant silk and stepped out into the night." chiliad (KILL-ee-add) 1. A group containing 1,000 elements. 2. A millennium. Sick and tired of hearing about "millennial this" and "millennial that"? We borrowed our word millennium directly from Latin, but its Greek-based equivalent, chiliad, is a perfectly legitimate English word that works just as well. So how about if we all start using that one for the next year or so? Just remember that it begins with a "k" sound, not "ch." (It comes from the Greek khilioi, meaning "one thousand," this Greek root that also provides the kilo in kilobyte -- and thus the K in Y2K). "Actually, the new chiliad doesn't start until NEXT year, not that anybody seems particularly bothered by that fact." chimeric (kye-MER-ik, kye-MEER-ik, kih-MER-ic) 1. Unreal, imaginary, wildly fanciful, or highly improbable. 2. Extremely unrealistic. In Greek myth, the Chimera (pronounced "kye-MEER-uh" or "kih-MEER-uh") was a fire-breathing she-monster, who was part lion, part goat, and part serpent. The name later applied to any imaginary monster made up of similarly disparate parts. Both chimeric and chimerical derive from this name, and both can be applied to something similarly improbable or unrealistic, as in "How can you possibly hope to make a profit with such a chimerical plan?" Scientists have adopted the term chimera to mean "an organism produced by genetic engineering." Actually, creating all kinds of chimeric animals seems increasingly possible, as Antony Barnett recently reported in the British newspaper, The Guardian: "A biotech company has taken out a Europe-wide patent on a process which campaigners claim would allow 'chimeric' animals to be developed with body parts originating from humans." cicatrix (SIK-uh-tricks) A scar left by the formation of new tissue over a wound. This word is borrowed directly from the Latin for "scar." It's sometimes spelled cicatrice. Its plural is cicatrices (pronounced "sik-uh-TRY-seez" or "sih-KAY-trih-seez"). In botany, a cicatrix is a scar left by a fallen leaf. "After the embarrasing fiasco between the antipasto and the pesto pasta, Vanessa knew it was only a matter of time before all she'd have left of this relationship was yet another emotional cicatrix." cicerone (sis-uh-ROH-nee) A guide for sightseers. One of ancient Rome's most notable orators was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Now, to understand why he was called Cicero, you have to understand that in antiquity, a lot of folks were named for their physical characteristics. The name Crassus, for example, means "fat." In the case of Cicero, this name derives from Latin cicer, meaning "chickpea" -- a reference to the fact that he had a chickpea-shaped wart on the end of his nose. Anyway, a cicerone is a guide who likewise orates to a group of sightseers. By the way, if you want to sound even more authentically Italian (and perhaps more cicerone-like in the process), you can also pronounce this word "chich-uh-RAH-neh" or "chee-cheh-RAH-neh." "But my all-time favorite cicerone is the one in 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure' -- you know, the one who leads tourists through the Alamo and sweetly asks, 'Can you say 'adobe'?'" coccyx (KOCK-siks) The tailbone. It may sound cuckoo, but this bone at the end of the spinal cord is named after ... well, the cuckoo bird. Early anatomists apparently saw a resemblance between this bone's triangular shape and the distinctive beak of the cuckoo bird. So they took the Greeks' name the cuckoo bird, kokkux, and Latinized it as coccyx. "Put it this way: Jason's most recent skateboarding accident was none too kind to his coccyx." coconut (KOH-kuh-nuht) The brown, hard-shelled seed of the coconut, or its edible white flesh. A goblin lurks inside this word. When Portuguese explorers first happened upon coconut trees in the tropics, they were struck by the way those three holes in the bottom of the nut resembled a little face. So they called it a coco, their word for a "goblin," "bogeyman," or "grinning skull." Somewhere along the way, speakers of English added the nut to its name. "Well in that case, how about if we carve a coconut this year instead of a plain old pumpkin?" codswallop (KADZ-wall-up) Nonsense; rubbish; drivel. Many explanations have been offered as to this word's origin. One suggests that the cod in codswallop refers to cods in the old sense of "testicles" (as in codpiece.) There's another, even more highly suspect story about one Hiram Codd who made a type of soft drink known as Codd's wallop. But all anyone really seems to know for sure is that this colorful term came into use only recently, during the 1960s. "Codswallop? He said my annual report was just so much codswallop???" comedo (KAHM-ih-do) A blackhead. The Romans used the word comedo to mean "glutton," and later applied this name to those gluttonous critters, maggots. An imagined resemblance between the two led to the oh-so-helpful definition of "comedo" in the Oxford English Dictionary: "a small worm-like yellowish black-tipped pasty mass which can in some persons be made, by pressure, to exude from hair follicles." "Alas, he discovered that his attentions were as welcome as a comedo on prom night." comet (KAHM-et) A celestial body having a long tail. This word's origin is surprisingly picturesque: In ancient Greek, the word "kometes" meant "having long hair." Aristotle first applied the name "kometes" to this hurtling body which indeed seems to have long hair trailing from its "head." The name was later adopted into Latin as "cometes," which eventually arrived in English as "comet." "The annual shower comes from dust and ice pellets that break off from the comet Tempel-Tuttle as it whizzes around the sun." -- ABCNews.com, reporting on the Leonid meteor shower. compound (KAHM-pound) A group of buildings enclosed by a barrier. You might assume that the word compound (as in, for example "the Kennedy compound") simply reflects the idea that several buildings have been "compounded" together. But compound in this sense apparently comes from an entirely different source -- all the way from Malaysia, in fact. When European traders moved into the Far East to set up trading stations and factories, they surrounded them with stockades, and started referring to them by the Malay word kampong, which means "village" or "enclosure." Eventually kampong became compound. "No, he's spending the weekend at the Camp David compound, but she's in - where else? -- New York." comstockery (kahm-STOCK-uh-ree) Self-righteous, moralizing censorship. As founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, one Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) earned the dubious distinction of overseeing the destruction of 160 tons of literature and photos he deemed immoral. Comstock held special contempt for one of George Bernard Shaw's plays, and in 1905 Shaw returned the favor by writing a letter to the New York Times, which read in part: "Comstockery is the world's standing Joke at the expense of the United States. . . . It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second rate country-town civilization after all." "Look, I hate receiving those unsolicited ads for porno sites as much as the next person, but this latest proposal to censor the Net constitutes the worst kind of comstockery." con (kahn) As a verb, to steer the course of a nautical vessel. Con has many meanings in English, of course, many of which stem from entirely different sources. The con as in pro and con arises from Latin contra, meaning "against." The con in con artist is a shortened form of confidence. Then there's the verb con, meaning either to "study carefully" or "to commit to memory." It comes from Middle English connen, meaning "to know." But if you're a sailor, you also use the word con as a verb meaning to steer a vessel at sea. That's why you'll hear that raised section of a submarine --the part with the periscope -- referred to as the conning tower. And as you might have guessed, con in this sense is a relative of conduce, deriving from Latin conducere, meaning "to lead." "Long John stood by the steersman and conned the ship." -- Robert Louis Stevenson, in Treasure Island. concatenation (kon-cat-tuhn-AY-shun) A series or chain. From the Latin catena, literally, "a chain," (a relative of Spanish cadena, which means the same thing) comes this word for a series or anything similarly linked. "Sorry I'm late, honey, but that last phone call from our deranged client in Poughkeepsie set off the most unusual concatenation of events!" condign (kuhn-DYN) Fitting, adequate, deserved. It's from Latin condignus, or "altogether worthy" -- a combination of dignus meaning "worthy" and the prefix "com-," which in this case serves as an intensifier. "'But Mooooooooooom, being grounded for two weeks is hardly condign punishment!,' Bradley whined, but his impressive vocabulary failed to change her mind." conduce (kuhn-DOOS or kuhn-DYOOS) To contribute or lead to a result. This word comes from the Latin conducere, meaning "to lead" or "bring together." Usually conduce is followed by "to" or "toward." "The quiet conduces to thinking about the darkening future." -- George F. Will. connive (kuh-NYV) 1. To plot or scheme in secret. 2. To feign ignorance or avoid noticing wrongdoing, thereby tacitly condoning it. The Latin word conivere means to "shut the eyes," and by extension, "to shut the eyes to wrongdoing." That image apparently remains preserved inside the Latin word's English descendant, connive. (And yes, that would make both conivere and connive etymological relatives of nictitate, meaning "to wink.") "A young window washer, played by Robert Morse, finds ways to connive, plot and scheme his way up the corporate ladder at Worldwide Wicket Co." -- from a Wall Street Journal article summarizing the plot of the 1967 movie "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." coprolite (KAHP-ruh-lyte) A piece of fossilized excrement. It's from the Greek kopros, meaning "dung." Related words include coprophagous (kuh-PRAH-fuh-guss), which means "feeding on dung," as some beetles do. Then there's coprolalia (kahp-roh-LAY-lee-ah), the psychiatric term for the compulsive use of obscene language that accompanies certain disorders. "Of course, that still leaves us with the question of just how big a brontosaurus coprolite would be, and what practical, household uses it might have today." cornucopia (korr-nuh-KOH-pee-uh, or korr-nyuh-KOH-pee-uh) 1. A "horn of plenty" filled with things like fruit and flowers. 2. A cone-shaped holder or receptacle. In Greek myth, baby Zeus was suckled by milk from the horn of a goat named Amalthaea. At some point, the poor goat's horn broke off and was magically filled with fruit. From then on, the horn supposedly supplied endless food and drink to anyone who possessed it. The horn came to be known as the cornucopia (literally "horn of plenty") and has come to symbolize prosperity, and is often part of Thanksgiving decorations. Cornucopia derives from the Latin cornu meaning "horn" (a relative of that one-horned critter, the unicorn) and copia meaning "plenty" (a relative of such words as copious and copy.) "Have a seat and dig in -- we have a cornucopia here!" coruscate (KORR-uh-skayt) To sparkle, glitter; to exhibit dazzling virtuosity. This glittering word comes from the Latin coruscare, meaning "to flash, sparkle, gleam, vibrate." Sensing an opportunity, Vanessa leaned across the table, all the better to make her eyes coruscate in the candlelight, and purred, "So . . . have you any idea why they call it pasta putanesca?" cosset (KAHSS-it) To pamper; to treat as a pet. Its etymology is uncertain, but since at least the 1570s, the noun cosset has meant "a pet lamb." The resulting verb, to cosset, means to treat someone as gently as one would such a pet, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to fondle, caress, pet, indulge, pamper." "To cosset their guests, some innkeepers bake their own bread, make their own jams or grow their own mesclun. Tim Wilson, an owner of the Jasper Murdock Alehouse at the Norwich Inn in Norwich, Vt., brews tasty, full-bodied beers -- from hoppy pale ales to thick, creamy stouts." -- Elaine Louie, writing in the New York Times about a bed and breakfast that conveniently doubles as a brewery. costive (KOSS-tihv) 1. Suffering from constipation (or causing it) 2. Slow, sluggish 3. Stingy Costive comes from Old French costeve, which meant the same thing. Both derive from Latin constipare, literally, "to cram together" or "pack tight." "Personally, of course, I'd love to give you a raise, but you know how costive those upper management types can be." coulrophobia (kool-ROH-foh-bee-uh) An unusually strong fear of clowns. Try an Internet search for coulrophobia and you'll turn up a host of sites by coulrophobes, such as the very creepy creepyclown.com and ihateclowns.com. Reportedly coined in the 1980s, coulrophobia derives from the Greek kolobathristes, which means "one who goes on stilts". "No one could figure out why Larry consistently refused to have lunch with us at McDonald's -- until the day he took one of us aside and shared his long, sad history of coulrophobia." crapulent (KRAP-yuh-lent) Sick from excessive eating or drinking. Crapulent is from Latin crapulentus, which means "very much intoxicated." (It's apparently no relation to the similar-sounding four-letter word that describes what one feels like as a result.) "See, my fear is that after all this pre-millennial buildup, we're going to party like it's 1999, and then on January 1, 2000, we'll all wake up feeling just as crapulent as ever." crepuscular (Krih-PUS-kyew-lurr) Pertaining to twilight; dim, dusky. The Romans' word for "twilight" was crepusculum, which comes from a family of words pertaining to "darkness." Their English offspring crespuscular is also applied to animals that become active at twilight or before sunrise, such as bats and birds. A lovely example appeared recently in The New Yorker, where writer Anthony Lane was describing the effect of the August 1999 eclipse: "The air took on a quick chill, and the light grew weak and crepuscular." croupier (KROO-pee-urr, kroo-pee-AY) A gambling-casino attendant who collects and pays bets, and helps out at gambling tables. It's from the French croupe, which means "a horse's rump." (In English, croup means the same thing -- although it's no relation to the croup you have when you're sick, which comes from a different linguistic root.) Originally croupier meant "someone who rides behind another on a horse" -- that is, the one seated atop the croupe. Its meaning later extended to indicate "someone who stands behind a gambler to assist him." "In discussing his new hit movie about a novelist who becomes a croupier, director Mike Hodges told USA Today, 'It's not a costume piece or an English heritage piece, and there's not a silly nit who's usually played by Hugh Grant.'" cynosure (SY-noh-shoor) A center of attention. Cynosure goes all the way back to the ancient Greek word kunosoura, which literally means "a dog's tail." But what, you may reasonably ask, is the linguistic connection between a pooch's posterior and a focus of interest? It seems that the Greeks applied the name kunosoura, or "dog's tail" to the "handle" or "tail" of the constellation we call the Little Dipper. At the end of this "tail" is Polaris, the North Star, which long served as a guide for navigators. This sense of the "dog tail" that contained a "guiding star" led to our own use of the English derivative cynosure as "a reference point or guide," and eventually, "any center of attention." "Our newly redesigned website will be a cynosure in cyberspace." D Spacer Return to Learn a New Word daisy (DAY-zee) A small, composite flower with a yellow center and white petals. "When evening brings the merry folding hours, and sun-eyed daisies close their winking flowers . . ." As poet John Leyden observed in the early 19th century, some species of the daisy close their blossoms at night. For this reason, speakers of Old English called this flower a daeges eage, or "day's eye." Eventually the name of this cheery little "eye of the day" was condensed into daisy. "The French version of pulling petals off a daisy is much more dramatic than our own: 'Elle m'aime un peu . . . beaucoup . . . passionnement . . . a la folie . . . pas du tout!' or, 'She loves me a little . . . a lot . . . passionately . . . madly . . . not at all!'" dasypygal (dass-ip-EYE-gull) Having hairy buttocks. Who knows when you might have occasion to use this word? It's from the Greek words dasys meaning "hairy," and pyge meaning "rump" or "buttocks." "As if she wasn't having a rough morning already -- the screaming baby, the bickering neighbors, and the stopped-up kitchen drain -- there was that unforgettable moment when she learned that the plumber who came to fix it was decidedly dasypygal." deasil (DEE-zull) Clockwise. Need an opposite for widdershins"? There's always deasil. It comes from Scottish Gaelic, and is a relative of the Latin word dexter, which means "to the right" or "on the right side." "That's it -- 'widdershins'!" exclaimed Wolfgang, before stopping, turning round, and walking deasil again. decimate (DESS-uh-mayt) To destroy or kill a large part of a group. This term derives from a grisly practice among the ancient Roman military: To punish mutinous or cowardly troops, every tenth soldier from those units was routinely selected by lot to be killed by fellow soldiers. The verb for this practice was decimare, from Latin decimus, meaning "tenth" (and a relative of such words as decade and decimal). Strictly speaking, therefore, decimate means to "destroy one-tenth of a population." But its sense has expanded to encompass the idea of destroying a large part of a group - and increasingly, it's used to denote any kind of large-scale destruction. "After a week of fighting, commanders said Russian warplanes, helicopters and artillery have begun to decimate the rebels." - Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times defalcate (dih-FALL-kayt) To embezzle. This fancy word meaning "to misappropriate funds or property" has agricultural origins. It comes from the Latin word falx, which means "sickle." (In fact, if you want to describe something as sickle-shaped, you can always say that it's falcate.) Medieval Latin defalcare literally meant "to cut off with a sickle," as one would do in a field of grass. Gradually this word acquired the more general sense of "to lop off," or "to take away," and today its English descendant defalcate most often applies to the taking away of other green stuff - i.e., money. "Who would have thought the church secretary would ever defalcate and run off to St. Bart's?" defenestrate (dee-FEN-ih-strayt) To throw something or someone out of a window. Although these days you can defenestrate just about anything that'll fit through a window, this word first applied to history's most famous such tossing-out, which occurred in Prague in 1618. Angry at a lack of religious freedom, Protestant insurgents broke up a meeting of royal officials in Hradcany, the Prague Castle, then went on to express their extreme displeasure by tossing two officials and their secretary out a window. Those thus defenestrated weren't seriously hurt, however. (Depending on which account you read, this is either because they were tossed out of a window that was relatively low, or landed in a moat, or perhaps both). At any rate, this picturesque event became widely known as the Defenestration of Prague. It ignited the devastating Thirty Years' War, as Protestants from neighboring countries joined together in revolt against the Hapsburg Emperor Ferndinand II. Defenestrate comes from Latin fenestra, meaning "window," and is therefore a relative of words for "window" in several other languages, including French fenêtre, German Fenster, and Italian finestra. "Okay, but when you say you 'defenestrated' your PC, do you mean that you threw it out your window, or that you've wiped your entire operating system off your hard drive?" démarche (day-MARSH) 1. A course of action or maneuver. 2. A diplomatic protest. 3. A statement or protest made by citizens to the public authorities. As with many words originally involving diplomacy, we borrowed this one whole from the French. It derives from Old French démarche, meaning "gait," and is a relative of the English verb march. To be excruciatingly correct, you'll want to add an accent mark (the kind that looks like a forward slash) to that first e. Here's how the Wall Street Journal used the word in an editorial a couple of years ago about Bill Clinton's visit to China: "Much has been made in the TV coverage of Mr. Clinton's pointed criticism of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. And we were happy to hear it. The President also did well to bring up the mistreatment of Tibet -- a demarche that must have hit home given Mr. Jiang's defensiveness." denim (DEN-uhm) The stuff jeans are made of. Denim is yet another fabric name that derives from the place it was first produced. In this case, it was manufactured in the south of France, in the town of Nimes. So fabric from Nimes was said to be "from Nimes," a name later ironed out into denim. "We just had our antique couch recovered in denim and you'd be surprised at how good it looks." dernier cri (der-nyay-KREE) The latest thing; the newest fashion; the last word. Borrowed directly from the French, this phrase literally means "the last or latest cry." New York Times critic Ben Brantley used it a while back when writing about the D.C- area Shakespeare Theater's revival of Tennessee Williams's ''Sweet Bird of Youth'': "This latest interpretation of Williams's overheated tale of a Hollywood diva and her gigolo, which seemed the dernier cri in lurid adult drama when it opened on Broadway in 1959, has been a popular hit in Washington, and it's easy to understand why." desultory (DESS-ull-tor-ee) Flitting about from one thing to another; disjointed, disconnected; not methodical. In Roman times, a desultor was a circus entertainer who would leap from the back of one horse to another. This name derives from desilire, meaning "to leap down." (Desultor shares a common linguistic ancestor with several other "leaping" words as somersault.) "A desultory reader, Judith kept a huge stack of magazines by her bed, and it was not at all unusual for her to be perusing Allure one moment and Ferret World the next." doddle (DAHD-ull) Something easy or requiring very little effort. This word denotes an endeavor that might be described as "cakewalk." Its origin isn't clear, though it may come from the verb doddle, meaning "to totter or walk with short, unsteady steps." Doddle used as a noun appeared recently in a news story about Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a 56-year-old British explorer who plans to set out this Feb. 14 in hopes of being the first person ever to trek alone to the North Pole. Fiennes made a similar crossing of the Antarctic in 1993, but this journey will involve additional dangers, such as polar bears, which prompted a friend of Fiennes to observe: "The Antarctic is a doddle compared with the Arctic." dog days (dahg dayz) The hot, sultry period in late summer. In Roman myth, the hunter Orion had a favorite dog that was rewarded at the end of his life by being turned into the bright star known as Sirius. The Romans therefore gave the star a nickname: Canicula or "little dog" (a relative of English canine). During late summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun, and the Romans believed that the presence of Canicula made the sun even hotter during that time. So they referred to those weeks as the dies caniculares, or "Dog-Star days" - the forerunner of our own term for this sweltering period. "Because my dog has a very heavy coat, he hates the dog days as much as I do." dollars to doughnuts Most assuredly; with certainty. You usually hear this idiom used in the phrase as "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that . . ." But why doughnuts? The idea behind this phrase is the bettor is so certain of being correct that he or she is willing to risk something valuable (i.e., dollars) against something virtually worthless. In the past, the same idea has been expressed in the phrases dollars to cobwebs and dollars to buttons. But, perhaps because of its deliciously alliterative quality, dollars to doughuts" eventually won out. "Oh, I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts those aren't real!" donnybrook (DON-ee-brook) 1. A wild fight or brawl. 2. A heated public quarrel or dispute. Although Donnybrook is now a relatively quiet suburb of Dublin, the annual fair held there was once notorious as the site of knock-down, drag-out free-for-alls. In fact, brawls there eventually became such a problem that in the late 19th century, after almost 600 years in existence, the fair was finally shut down altogether. "Who'd have ever thought that this election would shape up to be such a donnybrook?" doughnutting (DOH-nut-ting) The clustering of politicians round a speaker during a televised event in order to fill the shot and give the appearance of support. You've seen it on TV, but did you know there's a word for it? This picturesque term was inspired, of course, by the non-nutritious, ring-shaped cake. "Make sure to be here at noon, because we'll need lots of doughnutting if Senator Buncombe gets a chance to give his speech." doughty (DOW-tee) Resolute, steadfast in one's courage; valiant. Doughty is rooted in Old English, where dohtig meant "worthy." "Americans march to Elgar at commencements as they march to Mendelssohn at weddings, but they probably don't think about him most of the rest of the year. To a nation with little patience for quaint remnants, he can seem an anomalous holdover of the British Empire, which much of his music appeared to embody in its doughty staunchness and solemnity." -- James Oestreich, writing in the New York Times about composer Edward Elgar. draconian (dray-KOH-nee-uhn, druh-KOH-nee-un) Extremely severe; harsh; cruel. Draco was an Athenian legislator, who in 621 B.C. received special authority to codify existing laws that had never been formally written down. Although his aim was to ensure a more uniform system of justice, the result was that he made those laws especially severe, such as mandating the death penalty even for trivial crimes. Today "Draconian" is often, but not always, capitalized. "A practice that could pass as a Draconian punishment for perjury, tongue piercing, has pushed its way into youth culture -- and the trend is alarming many dentists." -- The New York Times, reporting that the American Dental Association recently passed a resolution to oppose oral piercing, which it considers a public health hazard. droog (droog) A young ruffian, gang member, or accomplice. This word was adapted into English from Russian, where the word drug means "friend." Apparently Anthony Burgess was the first to use droog in this way, in his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. "How long ago it seems since the New York Times referred to the spray-can droogs of the subways as 'little Picassos.'" -- Times Literary Supplement, April 1984 drumble (DRUM-buhl) To be sluggish, or move sluggishly. You don't see this one too often, although it's been used by the likes of William Shakespeare ("Go, take up these clothes here, quickly… Look, how you drumble!") and Sir Walter Scott ("Why do you hesitate and drumble in that manner?") As a noun, it means "an inert or sluggish person." In any case, the etymological roots of origin of this handy word are uncertain. "Drumble not, O colleagues, for our boss wants this report pronto." duende (doo-EN-day) 1. Inspiration, magic, 'fire." 2. Attractiveness due to personal charisma; charm. This useful word is borrowed directly from Spanish, where it originally meant "ghost" or "goblin." "Still, the 'Wheel' producers, aided by Pat Sajak, have managed to convince TV viewers that Vanna possesses an abundance of duende and pulchritude."-- Man O. Dei, opining about the letter-turner's appeal in the Atlanta Inquirer. dunce (dunss) Someone regarded as stupid or foolish. This is a weird one, because as it happens, our word dunce derives from the name of one of the greatest scholars of his day. It seems that John Duns Scotus was a medieval Franciscan philosopher of great renown. He spent much of his career arguing against the teachings of the Dominicans, particularly Thomas Aquinas, forcefully challenging the harmony of faith and reason. The written works of Duns Scotus remained highly influential even after his death in 1308, and were widely used as textbooks at great universities throughout Europe. The followers of Duns Scotus continued to dominate learning for two more centuries, and resisted new ideas. When the Renaissance came along, this stubborn adherence to entrenched ideas didn't exactly go over well. Dunsmen were attacked as quibbling, dense obstructionists who were unwilling to learn or consider new things. The word Dunsmen later gave way to dunses, and eventually the word dunce came to be applied more generally to anyone who seems incapable of learning. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher used this word nicely when kvetching about wine snobbery: "All of this rigmarole over vintages keeps people out of wine stores. Some merchants treat you like a dunce if you don't know that 1990 was a classic year in Burgundy. For heaven's sake, all you're looking for is a good bottle of wine." E Spacer Return to Learn a New Word echt (EKHT) Real, authentic, genuine, or typical. English speakers adopted echt directly from German, where it means the same thing. (Ideally, it's pronounced with a bit of a guttural sound, like the "ch" in Scottish "loch.") "In Boston, Hale & Dorr, the echt-Yankee law firm, officially ended its jacket-and-tie dress code last month, lest its techie clientele in T-shirts feel out of place. (How much longer will TV news shows, already abandoned by the digital generations, be anchored by guys dressed like 80's investment bankers?)" -- The New York Times' Frank Rich writing about Net culture effulgent (ih-FULL-junt) Shining brilliantly, resplendent. It's from the Latin effulgere, literally to "shine out." "She was clad in a refulgent gown." eldritch (ELL-drich) Strange, unearthly, weird, eerie, ghostly, frightful, or hideous. This useful word's origin isn't entirely clear, although it may be related to the Old English root el- meaning "foreign or strange" and the Old English word rice, which means "kingdom." In other words, something that's eldritch may be something that's from "a strange or otherworldly place." "At that instant, we all froze at the sound of eldritch laughter wafting down the rickety staircase." embonpoint (ahn-bohn-PWAHN) Plumpness; stoutness. This word comes from the French phrase en bon point, which literally means "in good condition." "It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint." -- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan entomophagous (en-tuh-MOFF-uh-guss) Feeding on insects. Entomophagous is from Greek entomon meaning "insect" and phagein, meaning "to eat." (Actually, the Greek word entomon literally means "cut in two," a reference to an insect's segmented body. In fact, the word insect itself, is from Latin insectum, which also means "cut up.") "The only people who are not at least partially bug-eating, or 'entomophagous,' are Westerners. The other 80 percent of the world's human population grazes within the insect class deliberately and, in some cases, daily." -- from an old article on Britannica.com. (Among other things, the item helpfully noted that fire-roasted witchetty grubs from the Australian Outback taste like "nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a smoky phyllo dough.") ephemeral (ih-FEM-err-ull) Lasting for a conspicuously short period of time. At the heart of ephemeral is the ancient Greek word hemera, meaning "day." (It's the same word inside the common greeting heard throughout Greece today: Kalemera! or literally, "good day.") Add to hemera the Greek preposition epi, meaning "upon" or "around," and you get the source of our own word meaning "transient" or "fleeting," or in its most literal sense, "lasting but a day." Casually twirling her cappellini on her fork, Vanessa tried to appear as if she hadn't been rehearsing this line for hours: 'Then again, maestro, wouldn't you agree that the ephemeral nature of music is in fact one of its many charms?'" esprit d'escalier (ess-SPREE dess-kahl-YAY) A remark that occurs to someone only later, after the fact; the thing you should have said, but didn't think of. This wonderful French expression literally translates as "wit of the staircase." The English quickly recognized its usefulness, and had adopted it by the early 1900s. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines esprit d'escalier as: "An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one's way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room." "As someone once observed, esprit d'escalier afflicts everybody -- with the possible exception of William F. Buckley." estivate (ES-tuh-vayt) To spend the summer. Also spelled aestivate, this word comes from Latin aestivare, meaning "to reside during the summer." It's also a zoological term used in connection with certain animals that spend the summer in a dormant state. "No, no, no, darling, I said I'm willing to estivate anywhere with you -- just as long as it has internet access." evanesce (ev-uh-NESS) To vanish or dissipate like vapor. Both evanesce and the evocative adjective evanescent derive from Latin "evanescere" meaning to "vanish." (All these words are etymological relatives of such words as vain and vanity, which derive from Latin vanus, meaning "empty.") "On their first and only date, Vanessa watched her hopes for a romantic evening evanesce the moment that Marvin insisted on dinner at Chuck E. Cheese's because, as he put it, 'After all, I have coupons!'" execrable (EK-sih-kruh-bull) Wretched, bad, disgusting, hateful, very inferior. Execrable describes something worthy of being execrated, the latter coming from ultimately from Latin execrari -- literally, "to put under a curse." "As always, our travels were marred by execrable airline food." exiguous (ig-ZIG-yoo-uss) Extremely scanty, inadequate, small, or meager. Exiguous comes from Latin exigere, which means to "measure out." It's a linguistic cousin of exact. Handing the resume back to the boss's nephew, she began carefully, "Well, your professional accomplishments certainly are exiguous ." F Spacer Return to Learn a New Word factotum (fak-TOH-tum) An employee or assistant who does just about everything. Factotum comes the Latin fac ("to make or do," as in the benefactor who "does good") and totum ("everything") -- and is a relative of such words as total. "I'd like you to meet Rodney, our office factotum." fanatic (fuh-NAT-ik) (as a noun.) Someone marked by extreme, zealous, or unreasoning enthusiasm. (as an adjective) Fanatical. Long ago in ancient Rome, a general named Sulla received some helpful military advice from the goddess Bellona. In gratitude, Sulla directed that a temple be built for her, and imported some priests and priestesses from Asia Minor to establish rituals in her honor. And what wild rites they were! Dressed in black, these holy ones regularly worked themselves into a religious frenzy -- the highlight of which involved ripping off their robes and gashing themselves with two-headed axes, spattering their own blood upon bystanders. According to Roman belief, the goddess of that temple herself inspired those fits of religious ecstasy. The Latin word for "temple" is fanum,and for that reason, the Romans referred to such religious zeal as fanaticus -- the source of our own fanatic. (In fact, you don't see it often, but the English word fane is a poetic synonym for "temple.") All of these "temple" words are the linguistic kin of yet another familiar English term.) "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." -- Winston Churchill fantods (FAN-todz) A state of nervous irritability; the fidgets; the willies. This word has been around since the 1830s. Nobody's quite sure where it came from, although some conjecture that it may be playfully adapted from the English term fantigue, meaning "fit of bad temper." "Oh gosh, these marathon midafternoon meetings are such WOMBATS -- and they always give me the fantods!" fatuous (FACH-oo-uss) Inanely stupid; foolish, especially in an oblivious, complacent way. The Latin source of this word is fatuus,which means "silly" or foolish." The noun fatuity is a handy word for "smug stupidity" or "utter foolishness." "This glutinous hodgepodge of a book takes all the most glaring flaws of Mr. Ellis's recent work -- compulsive name-dropping, an obsession with designer clothing, a fascination with gratuitous, gruesome violence and a cast of interchangeable fatuous people -- and tries to pass them off as a novel." -- Michiko Kakutani, not saying nice things about Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama in The New York Times. feckless (FECK-liss) Weak, helpless, ineffectual, futile. This word comes from Scotland (where its opposite, feckful, means "efficient, vigorous, powerful"). Feckless comes from the Scots dialect term feck, a shortened version of the word effect. "The bouquets, the truffles, the wine, the fancy dinners all proved feckless--but then he discovered her secret weakness for paintings of dogs playing poker." fernticle (FERN-tik-cull) A freckle. Need a synonym for freckle? You just might someday, and if so, there's always fernticle, a word that arose from an imagined resemblance between these spots of pigment and "little fern seeds." "Oh, yYou can't miss him -- he's the one with all the fernticles." festoon (feh-STOON) 1. A garland hung from two points and sagging slightly in the middle. 2. To drape with festoons. A linguistic relative of feast, festival, and fiesta, the festive word festoon was adapted from Italian festone, meaning "a decoration for a feast." (Speaking of feasting, festoon is also a term used in modern dentistry to denote "the garlandlike area of the gums surrounding the necks of teeth.") "And then we'll festoon Uncle Ned's living room with rainbow crepe paper before he gets home." fizzle (FIZZ-ull) 1. To hiss or sputter. 2. To fail or end feebly, especially after a promising beginning. Fizzle is one of those words whose origins are more, well, earthy than you might expect. In a 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History, for example, it is noted that if donkeys eat a certain plant, "they will fall a fizling and farting." Indeed in its earliest sense, as the the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, fizzle meant "to break wind without noise." By the 19th century, the dictionary notes, fizzle had taken on a more respectable sense, namely, "to hiss or sputter (as a wet combustible or a fire-work)." But the original sense of this word appears rooted in the obsolete word, fist, which means "to break wind." (This kind of fist, however, is no relation to the similarly spelled English word for a clenched hand.) "For the life of him, Marvin couldn't figure out why each of his online romances seemed to fizzle not long after the first-real time meeting." flews (FLOOZ) The pendulous upper lips of certain dogs, such as bloodhounds. The origin of flews is unknown, though somehow it seems more than apt. "'No, no, I really do like your dog, but I was trying to avoid getting hit by what just flew from those flews." floccinaucinihilipilification (FLOK-sih-noh-see-NEE-hee-lee-PEE-lih-fih-KAY-shun) The categorizing of something as worthless. Whatever you think about Senator Jesse Helms, you have to admit he said a mouthful when using this word. Referring to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Helms deems worthless, the North Carolina senator reportedly said, "I note your distress at my floccinaucinihilipilification of the CTBT." A legitimate word? Yes indeed. In fact, it's the longest in the Oxford English Dictionary's first edition. This word comes from the Latin flocci, nauci, and pili, all of which roughly translate as "worth very little," and nihil, meaning "nothing." By the way, at its most literal, the pili in floccinaucinihilipilification refers to "a hair, [and therefore] a trifle" -- making it a linguistic relative of the hair-remover called a depilatory. The nihil, or "nothing," in floccinaucinihilipilification appears in such words as nihilistic and annihilate. It's a word that's apparently pretty popular around Washington these days. Sen. Helms said he learned the word from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and former presidential spokesman Mike McCurry has also been known to use it while briefing the press. "I don't care if last night's ratatouille had you reaching for the Rolaids -- I'm shocked, shocked at your floccinaucinihilipilification of my cooking skills!" flother (FLUTH-urr) A snowflake. The Oxford English Dictionary lists only one instance of this word's use, in a manuscript produced around 1275. But flother sounds so light and delicate and flake-like that it certainly seems worth reviving. "After all, no two flothers are alike." flummery (FLUM-uh-ree) Meaningless chatter; deceptive language. This derisive word comes from the Welsh llymru, the name of a soft jelly made from sour oatmeal. "Enough flummery, Jeeves -- what's your point?" footle (FOO-tull) To talk or act foolishly; to waste time. Consult several dictionaries, and you'll find all kinds of proposed sources for this word, from Latin futuere ("to have sex with") to footy (a Northern British dialectal term for "worthless" or "paltry.") Alas, the Oxford English Dictionary's verdict on this word is simply this: "Of obscure origin." "Darling, promise me you won't footle at the office party again this year." formication (for-mih-KAY-shun) An abnormal sensation that ants are crawling over one's skin. The term formication derives from the Latin word formica, or "ant." (In case you're wondering: There are no linguistic ants in your Formica kitchen countertop. Formica plastic laminate was invented in 1912 as a type of insulation for electrical wiring, and quickly replaced mica, the natural substance that had been used for this purpose. Its inventors called this new synthetic material Formica because it was a substitute for mica. Honest. Aching to know more? Visit the Formica company's website.) "Do you suppose Salvador Dali painted those because he had a little problem with formication?" foudroyant (foo-DROY-unt) 1.Dazzling, flashing. 2. Thunderous, noisy, stunning. The Latin word for "lightning" is fulgur, which gave us the French synonym foudre, as well as foudroyant -- literally, "striking with (or like) lightning." (Foudroyant is also used in medicine to describe a disease that strikes with sudden severity.) "Well, I have absolutely no idea what that halftime extravaganza was all about--but you have to admit it certainly was foudroyant." frisson (free-SOHN) A shudder; a moment of intense excitement. Frisson is borrowed directly from the French, where it means "a shiver" or "thrill." It's thought to be a linguistic descendant of the Latin word frigere, which means "to be cold." "The moment that she realized the oeillade had indeed been directed her way, Vanessa felt a frisson of delight and nervously fingered her chignon." fulminate (FULL-muh-nayt) To 'thunder'; to denounce scathingly. Strictly speaking, the root of this word, Latin fulmen, means "lightning," not "thunder." In the Middle Ages, Latin fulminare was the technical term for a formal condemnation or censure by the pope or other church authority. Now, however, anyone is free to fulminate. "First he fulminates against Tinky Winky, and now Lillith Fair - doesn't that poor fellow have anything better to do?" fungo (FUNG-go) A fly ball hit for fielding practice by a baseball player who tosses the ball up and hits it on its way down. The origin of fungo is unknown - but then, isn't it nice to know there's a word for it? "Uh-oh -- where'd my fungo go?" furtive (FERR-tiv) Stealthy; surreptitious. This word is quite picturesque when you realize that furtive dervies from Latin fur, meaning "thief." "He walked very slowly and circumspectly, and there was something indescribably guilty and furtive in his whole appearance." -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" fuscous (FUSS-kuss) Having a brownish-gray or dusky color. Here's a good one for Hangman or Scrabble. Fuscous comes from Latin fuscus, meaning "dark, tawny, dusky." "No, no, not the white one running around with the tennis ball in his mouth -- mine's the fuscous one over there by the hydrant." G Spacer Return to Learn a New Word galaxy (GAL-ucks-see) An aggregate of stars formed by mutual gravitation, such as the Milky Way. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy referred to the whitish swath of stars that cuts across the night sky as the galaktikos kyklos -- literally, the "milky circle." The kyklos is an ancestor of English words like "cycle," and the galaktikos comes from Greek gala, which means "milk." (Incidentally, the Romans called this same cloudy collection of stars the via lactea, or literally, the "milky way" -- hence our own term.) "I'm sorry, which galaxy did you say you were from?" galimatias (gal-uh-MAY-shee-uss, gal-uh-MAT-ee-uss) Nonsense, gibberish. We borrowed galimatias directly from French, where it means the same thing. Beyond that, hower, this word's origin is uncertain. Galimatias turned up recently in The New York Times, in an article by Gregg Easterbrook about a government report on global warming: "Statisticians know that merging two approximations does not produce precision; rather, it produces galimatias." galoot (guh-LOOT) A fellow, especially one who's awkward, uncouth, or foolish. No one's certain how this word came to be. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its first recorded use was in 1812. "He was a galoot, to be sure --but then, she told herself, she did like the way he doted on his mother, not to mention his twelve hamsters and the boa constrictor he'd affectionately named 'Julius Squeezer.'" galvanize (GAL-vuh-neyes) 1. To stimulate or shock with electric current. 2. To jolt into action, as if by electric shock. While dissecting a frog, 18th-century Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani noticed that when he touched his scalpel to an exposed nerve, the frog's leg twitched. He surmised that nerves produce electricity and the scalpel had served as an electrical conductor. (Actually, the scalpel had been lying near an electical machine, and the charged blade shocked the muscle into action.) Galvani began a long series of experiments to test his hunch. His idea was eventually disproved, but his studies launched a new field of research on generating electricity by chemical means, and inspired the word galvanize. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman used it when thanking hackers who briefly shut down eBay and several other online powerhouses: "Yes, thank you for doing us all a favor, which is highlighting the vulnerabilities of an increasingly wired world, but doing it in a calibrated fashion -- not so powerful that you did any lasting damage, but powerful and brazen enough to get everyone galvanized to address the threat." gargantuan (gar-GAN-choo-uhn) Gigantic, immense. When 16th-century writer Francois Rabelais wanted to satirize the excesses of the French court, he used an allegory, creating a character called Gargantua. He borrowed the name from that of a giant in medieval legend, and Rabelais' Gargantua was a big guy indeed. As a mere infant, Gargantua was a thirsty boy, feasting on the milk of 17,913 cows. When he got older, he rode a mare as large as six elephants -- and around the horse's neck jingled the bells of Notre Dame. His comb was 900 feet long, and he once dined once a salad of lettuce leaves as big as trees (and accidentally gobbled up six unfortunate pilgrims who'd hidden among them). Considering these memorable images, it's hardly surprising that the adjective gargantuan seized the imagination of English speakers as well. "As he had every night during the six years since Wendy had left him for the nunnery, Marvin switched on the Weather Channel, then settled into his recliner to dine on his usual supper: two gargantuan sandwiches and a big Diet Coke." gemütlich (guh-MOOT-lik or guh-MEWT-likh, with a guttural ending) Warm, friendly, congenial, amiable, easygoing, cozy. We borrowed this word directly from German. It derives from muot, a very old word that means "mind, spirit, joy." To be excruciatingly correct, you'll want to put those two side-by-side dots, also known as an umlaut, over the "u" in this word. Or just spell it gemuetlich, and skip the umlaut. "Of course, John Hancock is hardly the first national advertiser to feature a gay couple in such a matter-of-fact way. Ikea did it years ago, showing a gemutlich male couple feathering their love nest with inexpensive Swedish furniture." -- Ruth Shalit, writing in Salon.com gibbous (GIBB-us) 1. Convex, rounded, protuberant. 2. (Of persons or animals) humpbacked. Gibbous comes from Latin gibbus, meaning "hump." (No relation to the ape called a gibbon.) Sometimes the moon is said to be gibbous, in which case it's more than a half moon, but less than a full one. "A gibbous moon rose above the shoulder of 27,824-foot Makalu [Peak], washing the slope beneath my boots in a ghostly light, obviating the need for a headlamp." -- Jon Krakauer, on his team's final push to the Mt. Everest summit, in Into Thin Air git (git) A foolish or worthless person. The word get is sometimes used as a noun to mean "something that is begotten," i.e., "offspring." This same sense is reflected in the Scottish use of get to refer specifically to a "bastard," and more generally to a "brat," "fool," or "idiot." Git is thought to be a variation of get used in this sense. "The girl scarcely turned her head: 'Shutup yerself yer senseless git!" -- from a 1967 article in the London Observer gladiolus (glad-ee-OH-luss) A plant with showy flowers arranged on long spikes. If you know that the Latin word gladius means "sword," then it's easy to see where we get the word gladiator and gladiolus, the latter being a plant with long, sword-shaped leaves. Another name for the gladiolus is "sword lily" -- and in German, this flower goes by the cognate name, Schwertlilie. As for the plural, both gladioli and gladioluses are correct. "During their argument over what movie to see, Henry and Millicent exchanged sharp words indeed, but all was forgiven when Henry showed up the next day with an armful of gladioli and tickets to the local high school's production of 'The Mikado.'" gobbet (GOB-bit) 1. (n.) A chunk or piece, especially of raw flesh. 2. (n.) A morsel. This word is from Old French gobet," literally a "little mouthful." It's a relative of English gob, meaning a small mass. Both words are also related to French gober, meaning "gulp." (The same words are also the etymological kin of our word for a foolishly credulous person, gobemouche.) "Oh, I always hate that part in shark movies where they show all those little gobbets floating around!" gobbledygook (GOB-ull-dee-gook) Windy gibberish or jargon. Remember Samuel Maverick, the Texan who bequeathed his name to the type of political candidate who stands apart from the herd, as it were? His grandson, Maury Maverick, was a Texas congressman. In 1944, exasperated by his colleagues' affinity for bureaucratese, this Maverick penned a memo condemning such governmentspeak as gobbledygook. His inspiration for coining this word, he later said, was the idea of roosters "gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity." "Gore said the name of the prize federal employees can win each month for writing clearly is the 'Gobbledygook Elimination Prize.' Federal employees with a knack for words will win a button with a turkey head with a slash through it." -- From an article on Govexec.com about the Vice President's attempt to follow in Maverick's footsteps gobemouche (GAWB moosh) Someone who believes any report or rumor, not matter how improbable. This word is an adaptation of French gobes-mouche (from gober meaning "to gulp" and mouche, meaning "fly" (and a distant relative of our word for a much thinner, but similarly noisome insect, the mosquito). "Conspiracy theorists, gobemouches first class and ever-growing in number, can be counted on to swallow every wild claim, no matter how unlikely." -- Eugene Erlich, in "You've Got Ketchup on your Muu-Muu: An A-Z Guide to English Words from Around the World." gorilla (guh-RILL-uh) How'd the gorilla get its funny-sounding name? Around the fifth or sixth century B.C., a Carthaginian navigator named Hanno sailed along the coast of West Africa and later wrote about his travels. At one point in his journey, Hanno passed an island where he observed what he thought was "a tribe of hairy women." He reported that his African guides called them Gorillai. (Many historians speculate that what Hanno saw from a distance wasn't really a bunch of hairy women, but actual gorillas.) More than 2000 years later, an American missionary and naturalist named Dr. T.S. Savage came upon these great apes in the wild. When he reported this discovery in a natural history journal in 1847, Savage remembered Hanno and his hairy women, and called these creatures gorillas. "'Koko, the famous gorilla who is learning sign language, has invented many creative expressions of her own, such as referring to a zebra as a 'white tiger.'" gormless (GOHRM-liss) Dull, stupid, clumsy; lacking in intelligence or vitality. This handy word is a variation of gaumless, the word gaum being a Scots dialect term that means "attention" and "understanding." Thus if you call someone either gaumless or gormless, you're saying that he or she is lacking in sense, dull-witted, and in other words, pretty much out to lunch. "Not that she wasn't grateful, but she had to wonder why ther friends invariably fixed her up with the same type of date -- every last one of them gorgeous but gormless." gound (gownd) The gunk that collects in the corners of your eyes when you sleep. For some reason, intrepid etymologists have traced this word back only as far as Old English gund, meaning "matter." "Collin was never one to dilly dally in the morning: by the time he had rubbed the gound out of his eyes he was usually on his third Manhattan." -- from Depraved English, by Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea gowpen (GOW-puhn) Two hands placed together to form a bowl. Or, the amount that can be contained in a pair of cupped hands. This "handy" word is of Scandinavian origin. (By the way, if you get tired of saying gowpen, you can always use yepsen, a linguistic relative that means the very same thing.) "She looked around furtively, then gathered up a gowpen of carob-covered raisins." gravitas (GRAV-ih-tahss) High seriousness, sobriety. We lifted this word directly from Latin, where gravitas means "weight" or "heaviness." As you might guess, it's a linguistic relative of that other weighty word, gravity. "Bush had to feign substance, Gore style; Bush gravitas, Gore veritas; Bush familiarity with the English language, Gore a personal approach reasonably close to that of earthlings. -- Jake Tapper, summing up the presidential candidates' respective challenges in an article on Salon.com. gridiron (GRID-EYE-urn) A football field. In Middle English, a gridel was a set of parallel metal bars upon which foods were placed for broiling. This word is a descendant of Latin craticula, meaning "little lattice," the source also of English grill. Over time, gridel evolved into gridiron, and eventually the cooking device bequeathed its name to the playing field that resembles it. "We bought a long extension cord for the TV, so we can watch the gridiron action while we're grilling out." grig (grig) A bright, extravagantly lively person. First recorded in the 1300s, the word grig originally referred to a "dwarf" or "diminuitive person". (Much later, grig also somehow accumulated the additional meanings of a "small eel," a "short-legged hen," and a "cricket.") "That Brad is a bit of a grig, isn't he?" grotesque (groh-TESK) 1. Fantastically absurd or ugly; bizarre; spectacularly distorted in appearance or character. 2. A style of ornamentation featuring monstrous hybrid forms combining human and animal figures. In the 16th century, Italian archaeologists uncovered the ancient baths of the Emperor Titus in Rome, and found some very strange-looking sculptures. (The sculptures were similar to the weird paintings found there which, as it happens, inspired our word antic.) In any case, the Italians began referring to such a bizarre sculpture as a grottesca, because these strange works were found in a grotta or "excavation." (And yes, grotta is indeed a relative of our word grotto). Scholars in France soon borrowed the Italian grottesca, changing it to the more French- sounding grotesque. English speakers borrowed the word whole, and were soon applying it to just about anything simiarly bizarre-looking. "Still, Tyson said he wanted to fight the recognized heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, even as he conceded he was not in good enough shape to take him on. That did not stop Tyson from unleashing a grotesque harangue aimed at Lewis." -- New York Times reporter Ronald Smothers on a recent diatribe by boxer Mike Tyson, which included such lilting phrases as: ''I want your heart; I want to eat your children. Praise be to Allah.'' H Spacer Return to Learn a New Word halcyon (HAL-see-un) As a noun: the kingfisher bird. As an adjective: calm, peaceful, serene. The ancient Greek goddess Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the wind, married a mortal. But when her husband was killed at sea, she too threw herself into the depths and drowned. Along with her husband, Alcyone was magically transformed into the birds now known as halcyons. The gods took pity on the pair, declaring that during the week before and after the winter solstice, the seas would remain perfectly calm, so that the devoted pair to nest upon the waters and hatch their eggs. The phrase halcyon days now refers to any period of happy tranquility. "Oh, for those halcyon days of youth!" hands down 1. (adv.) Easily; unconditionally. 2. (adj.) Easy; certain. (When used as an adjective, it's hyphenated) This expression derives from the world of horse racing, where a hands down victory occurs when a jockey's win is so assured that he drops his hands and relaxes his grip on the reins when nearing the finish line. "Well, put it this way: If they held a contest for the title of Most Likely To Embarrass Himself on National Television, that guy would win hands down." hangdog (HANG-dog) Sad, shamefaced, browbeaten, or intimidated. The origin of hangdog apparently is grisly: It seems that in antiquity, dogs and other animals were sometimes convicted of crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. Centuries later, this reportedly happened in England as well. One report from 1595 notes that a dog was so executed "for inflicting a fatal injury on a child's finger." Shakespeare himself makes about a half dozen references to this practice. Hangdog, then, is thought to allude either to the look on a doomed dog's face or to the characterstics associated with, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a despiciable or degraded fellow fit only to hang a dog, or to be hanged like a dog." "Remember that moment in 'Moonstruck' when a hangdog Nicolas Cage tells Cher that he's in love with her, and she says, 'Snap out of it.'? Well, snap out of it." -- Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, writing about certain liberal Democrats swooning over conservative GOP candidate John McCain. happy as a clam Extremely happy. What's so happy about a bivalve mollusk, anyway? The reason this phrase seems nonsensical is that part of it has fallen away. The original phrase was happy as a clam at high tide--that is, when the high tide makes the critters safe from beachcombers. (A less common phrase that means the same thing is happy as Larry. Its origin is uncertain, though some speculate that the Larry here is Lazarus, who was supposedly raised from the dead--and who, one assumes, would have been very happy indeed.) "On the other hand, Uncle Ned has been happy as a clam ever since he discovered chat rooms." harbinger (HAR-bihn-jer) A forerunner; something that indicates what is to come. This word has military origins. It's from an old Germanic word, heriberga, or literally, "shelter for an army" -- a meaning that soon gave way to the more general sense of "a place of lodging or entertainment." By the 14th century, the English had adopted a form of this word to indicate "someone sent in advance to secure lodgings for an army or royal entourage." By 1630, this sense had expanded to mean simply "forerunner," as when poet John Milton wrote: "Now the bright morning star, day's harbinger, comes dancing from the east, and leads with her the flowery May." hector (HEK-tur) To bully, harrass, intimidate . In the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector's a good soldier, but he's not a bully. He's a model citizen and devoted family man, as in the most touching scene of this otherwise grisly epic, when Hector's baby son is frightened by the big plume atop Daddy's helmet. In fact, there was a time when the English word hector meant simply "a valiant warrior." But during the latter half of the seventeenth century, a gang of bullies roamed the streets of London, calling themselves the Hectors, perhaps likening themselves to this fabled warrior. In any case, by 1660, the verb hector had come to mean "to bluster, brag, or bully." "Your employer will refrain from calling you at 11:30 at night, but not from sending an inquiring, hectoring, must-be-promptly-answered-as soon-as-you-log-on email. E-mail doesn't just collapse distance, it demolishes all boundaries. And that can be, depending on the moment, either a blessing or a curse." -- Andrew Leonard, writing about e-culture in Newsweek hircine (HURR-syne or HURR-sin) 1.Characteristic of or resembling a goat, usually in smell. 2.Lustful. This word, from the Latin hircus, or "goat," most often describes a distinctively "goaty" smell. Because goats have a reputation for being lusty, hircine also has come to be used to describe such behavior. "Alas, he was best described as hircine, and unfortunately in more ways than one." hoi polloi (hoy puh-LOY) The masses; the common folk. In ancient Greek, hoi polloi literally means "the many." It's a relative of all those poly- words like polygamy (many marriages) and polyglot (literally, many tongues). Sticklers will argue that the expression the hoi polloi is redundant, because it literally means "the the many." But the use of the hoi polloi is so long established and widespread that many authorities aren't bothered by it. There is, however, a more important error involving this phrase: Some people, on the other hand, apparently confuse hoi polloi with hoi-toity, and use it to mean "the elite." That's the real mistake to avoid. "Yes, I'm sure this exemption will go over big in certain circles, but what about the hoi polloi?" horripilation (hoh-RIP-uh-LAY-shun) Goose bumps; bristling due to fear or cold. If you've used the phrase "goose bumps" too many times in one paragraph, you can always substitute horripilation, which derives from Latin horrere meaning "to tremble" and pilare, which means "to grow hair." "If you like horripilation, you'll love 'The Sixth Sense.'" hypnagogic (hip-nuh-GAHJ-ik) Inducing sleep; pertaining to the period of drowsiness before sleep. This word comes from the Greek words hypnos, or "sleep" (a linguistic cousin of hypnotize) and agogos, which means "leading" (like the demagogue who leads people). "Another good reason for midday naps is that sometimes the best ideas arrive right in the middle of that hypnagogic state." hypocorism (hye-POCK-uh-rizz-um) 1. A pet name. 2. The use of pet names. 3. Baby talk between adults. Hypocorism (note the accent on the second syllable) comes from the Greek hupokorizesthai, meaning "to call by endearing names." It derives ultimately to the Greek words koros and kore, which mean "boy" and "girl" respectively. "All she would admit was that their hypocorisms for each other were, well, unusual to say the least." (c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette I Spacer Return to Learn a New Word ineluctable (in-ih-LUCK-tuh-bull) Inevitable, inescapable. The Latin word luctari literally means "to wrestle." The Romans added the prefix ex- to form eluctari -- literally, "to wrestle or struggle out of." Latin eluctari is trapped inside this English word describing something that's impossible to escape. (Ineluctable is a cousin, by the way, of reluctant, which, when it first appeared in English literally meant "struggling," or "writhing.") "One more gaffe like that, and we're headed for the ineluctable conclusion that he's unelectable." ignoramus (ig-nuh-RAY-muhss) A know-nothing. If you've ever studied Latin, you might recognize ignoramus as a first-person plural verb, meaning "we don't know." In fact, that's about all it meant until the 16th century, when grand juries in England began writing ignoramus across the backs of indictments whenever they decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution. Ignoramus might have remained strictly a legal term if playwright George Ruggle hadn't come along. In 1615, he wrote a satire called Ignoramus, jokingly named after the play's main character, a lawyer who actually knew nothing about law. Ruggle wrote his play, the Oxford English Dictionary says, "to expose the ignorance and arrogance of the common lawyers." Soon the name of Ignoramus the lawyer was commonly applied to anyone ignorant. "Who in the world do you suppose was the ignoramus in charge of casting for the 'Big Brother' TV show?" in a nutshell In few words; briefly. This phrase -- or its Latin equivalent, at least -- appears all the way back in antiquity. The famous Roman orator Cicero is said to have mentioned a parchment copy of The Iliad so tiny that it could literally fit right into a nutshell. Now, this would have to be very fine print indeed, considering that this ancient epic of love, war, valor and severed body parts flying everywhere contains a grand total of 501,930 letters. Anyway, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, speakers of English showed off their erudition by describing anything similarly condensed as an Iliad in a nutshell -- a phrase that was likewise condensed into the one we use today. "'Work, eat, sleep, pay bills, empty the litter boxes -- that's my life in a nutshell,' sighed Chloe." infra dig (IN-fruh DIG) Beneath one's dignity. This phrase has been adapted into English from Latin infra dignitatem, which literally means "below dignity." "Marvin had always assumed that answering a personals ad was infra dig, but the more he read about this Vanessa person (whose ads had been running for weeks now), the more he began to think that just this once, he should make an exception." infucate (in-FYOO-kayt) To apply cosmetics; paint the face. Pronounce this one correctly, now. It's from Latin fucus, which originally denoted "a kind of red dye obtained from lichens." Later this name was applied to "rouge" or "face paint" made from such a source. English speakers borrowed fucus (rhymes with "mucus"), and actually used it quite often in the 17th century. ("Heere is an excellent Fucus to weede out Freckles," declared a writer in 1607.) Its linguistic offspring, infucate, isn't used all that often today, of course--but then again, perhaps it's just as well. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to trot off to the biffy to infucate." inglenook (ING-gull-nook) A secluded spot beside a fireplace. You already know that a nook is a small corner of a room or a hidden or secluded spot. An ingle is either a “fire in a fireplace”, or the fireplace itself. Inglenook refers either to a nook next to a fireplace, or to a cozy bench next to one. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou beside me in the inglenook sounds to me like a pretty darn good way to start the evening." insouciance (in-SOO-see-uhns) Nonchalance, indifference, lack of concern. This word and its adjectival form insouciant, comes from French words that literally mean "not caring." "With regal insouciance, Queen Elizabeth II rode this week's dot.com roller coaster, held on to her stake and emerged today as one of her nation's newest Interent millionaires when an Internet company she backed went public."--Alan Cowell, writing in The New York Times about Her Majesty's windfall from Getmapping.com, which will produce the first full aerial map of her realm. (The queen's profits, he noted, amount to "little more than a dot.com on the landscape of her personal fortune," estimated at more than $440 million.) insufflate (IN-suh-flayt) 1. To blow on, or breathe into. 2. As a medical term, to treat by blowing gas, vapor, or powder into a body cavity. This word comes from Latin insufflare, which means to inflate. (It's a linguistic relative of the name of that type of food that puffs up: a souffle.) "Insufflate my ear and I'll follow you anywhere." inveterate (in-VET-uhr-it) Of long standing; firmly established, deep-rooted. Inveterate arose from a form of Latin inveterari, which means "to grow old" or "to endure." Inveterate and inveterari are linguistic cousins of "veteran." "When Darwin's friend and inveterate champion Thomas Henry Huxley first encountered it, his reaction was, 'How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that.'"--John Durant, writing in the New York Times Book Review about early reaction to Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. isabella (iz-uh-BELL-uh) Grayish-yellow; light buff in color. It was 1601, and the Austrian Archduke Albert was determined to capture Ostend, a coastal city in northern Belgium. The story goes that the archduke's wife, Isabella, came up with a most unusual motivational technique to assist her husband's military efforts: She declared that she wouldn't remove her underwear -- even on laundry day -- until he took the city. Unfortunately for the couple, Ostend's defenders held out for three long years before falling to invaders. Thus the color name isabella and its offspring, isabelline, came to describe anything having, well, the color of underwear subjected to over-wear. That's the story, anyway. Alas, however, this proposed etymology doesn't quite wash with the Oxford English Dictionary, which points out that the first recorded use of isabella to describe such a color occurred in 1600, referring to "one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten . . . set with silver spangles." That's fully one year before the siege of Ostend began, which sort of shoots holes in the underwear theory. It may be that the real story behind this word will remain lost forever in the mists of history. But at any rate, isabella and isabelline often describe the color of various animals (such as the bird called an isabelline shrike, and the isabelline bear, a yellowish-brown bear of the Himalayas, and the isabella moth), as well as fruits, such as the Isabella peach. "Really, Marvin, we must do something about this depressing apartment of yours, and we should start by getting rid of this dreadful isabella wallpaper." izzat (IHZ-uht) Honor, reputation, prestige. This word was adopted into English from the Urdu language. It's ultimately from Arabic 'izzah, meaning "glory." "Regninald seems to drop names of the rich and famous at every opportunity, which makes me wonder: It's not that he's obsessed with izzat, is it?" (c) 1996-2006 Martha Barnette J Spacer Return to Learn a New Word jade (JAYD) A pale green or white mineral, usually used as a gemstone. Spaniards who chanced upon this stone in Mexico and Peru in the 16th century believed that it had the power to cure kidney problems. So they called it piedra de ijada, which translates as "loin stone" or "flank stone." The French shortened this to l'ejade, and later le jade, which eventually found its way into English as jade. (So why do we say that someone who's world-weary is jaded? Check out the next entry.) "Although things didn't work out with the urologist, Vanessa would cherish the gift he'd given her -- a pendant with a polished piece of jade in the shape of a kidney." jaded (JAY-ded) 1. Worn-out, wearied. 2. Cynically or pretentiously unfeeling. The "jade" in this word has nothing to do with the beautiful stone. (See above.) This other type of "jade" arose from an entirely different source: an old word jade that means "a worn-out horse." (No one's sure how this jade found its way into English, although this word may derive from an Old Norse term for "mare.") In any case, to jade -- that is, "to exhaust by driving hard" -- originally applied to horses, but soon applied to people as well. "These days, some of the country's more enterprising -- if not simply jaded and bored -- home chefs are preparing meals with all sorts of household appliances never dreamed of for cooking." -- Eileen Daspin, in a very funny Wall Street Journal article about the small but growing number of people who acknowledge that they "use their major appliances in 'weird' ways." (Examples of this so-called "machine cuisine" include: cooking foil-wrapped fish in the dishwasher, heating quesadillas on the ironing board, tumble-drying pillowcases full of freshly washed spinach.) January (JAN-yoo-er-ee) The first month of the year. In Roman myth, Janus was the god of gates, doorways, and all new beginnings. So naturally, the "gateway" to the new year is named in his honor. Janus must have been easy to pick out in a crowd, considering that he had one face on the front of his head and another on the back. This gave him the handy ability to gaze into the past and the future simultaneously. Because he presided over doorways, Janus inspired another familiar English word: janitor, which in its earliest sense meant "doorkeeper": (In 1686, for example, a writer referred to St. Peter as "the Janitor of heaven.") "Ah, January, when the color of the sky so often matches the pavement." jeans (jeenz) Those ubiquitous, durable pants. Jeans were first made out of jean, a strong cotton fabric. Before this particular fabric came along, people often wore a similar one called fustian, whose name is of uncertain origin. Later, a type of Italian fustian produced in Genoa caught on in popularity. Speakers of Middle English variously referred to Genoa as Jene or Gene, so they were soon calling this type of fabric jene fustian -- a name later shortened to jean. "There were doubletakes all around when Vanessa walked past in what she liked to think of as her Lee press-on jeans." jeremiad (jer-uh-MYE-ud) A bitter lamentation, tirade, or dire prophecy of doom. Jeremiad was inspired by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, best known for his prophecies of doom and long, woe-filled protests against the sins of his countrymen. "So, what do you make of that long jeremiad from Sun Microsystem's co-founder called 'Why the Future Doesn't Need Us'?" jobation (joh-BAY-shun) A long, tedious rebuke or harangue. The English verb jobe, meaning "to rebuke or reprimand in a long harangue," is now obsolete, but its noun form, jobation, remains with us. Both words allude to the scriptural story of Job, the good man to whom bad things happened. (His friends weren't much help, either. A Job's comforter is someone who offers solace in a way that only increases the pain--especially by self-righteously suggesting that the recipient has brought all these troubles upon himself.) "If you're finished with your jobation, may I be excused now?" juggernaut (JUHG-er-naht) 1. A belief, institution, or practice that elicits blind devotion and self-sacrifice. 2. An overwhelming, inexorable force that crushes everything in its path. In India, a 12th-century Hindu temple in the town of Puri houses a huge wooden statue of the god Jagannatha (a title of Krishna, that literally means "lord of the world"). Each year during Puri's famous "Chariot Festival," the statue is placed in a massive wooden cart and dragged more than a mile through deep sand, to another location. Thousands of pilgrims participate in the journey, which takes several days. European travelers recounting this event told tales of worshippers being crushed in the chariot's path. Such stories were likely exaggerated, but accidents are reportedly common and occasionally pilgrims seized with religious frenzy may try to hurl themselves beneath the wagon's wheels. Anyway, the annual journey of Jagannatha's huge chariot inspired our own word juggernaut. Joe Klein used it in The New Yorker to describe a weary George W. Bush in an unguarded moment on a plane after the Iowa caucuses: "But his hair was slightly mussed, and his eyes were moist and rheumy; he appeared vulnerable, for once--too palpably human to be considered a political juggernaut." julep (JOO-lip) A cocktail of bourbon, sugar, and mint. Around the fifteenth century, julep referred to a syrupy drink added to medicine in order to make the nasty stuff easier to swallow. The ancient source of this sweet word is Persian gulab, which means "rosewater." Centuries later, julep came to apply to another sweet beverage made from sugar, bourbon, crushed ice, and mint -- a potent drink most often associated with the Kentucky Derby, which, coincidentally, is known as the "Run for the Roses." "As my grandfather always said, 'Never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in a julep.'" junket (JUNG-kit) A pleasure trip, particularly one made by government officials at public expense. Junket has traveled quite a ways since the 1400s, when it meant "a small reed basket" into which a dessert of sweetened, curdled milk was set to drain. This woven container's name derives from the Latin juncus, meaning "reed" -- a linguistic relative of those reedy plants known as jonquils. Soon the name of the container applied to the creamy dessert itself, and then later to revelries at which such delicacies were served. Still later, the sense of revelries stretched even further to include any kind of jaunt for which others get stuck with the bill. "His constituents were willing to put up with his local peccadilloes, but that so-called 'fact-finding' junket to the Bahamas nearly cost him his seat." K Spacer Return to Learn a New Word kerfuffle (kurr-FUFF-ull) Disorder, flurry, agitation. When you look up kerfuffle in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED not-too-helpfully defines it with a single word, curfuffle. If you then proceed to look up curfuffle, you'll learn that a curfuffle is a state of "disorder, flurry, agitation," and that a curfuffle also can be called a gefuffle. Further, the OED will explain, both kerfuffle and curfuffle, derive from the word fuffle. Flip over to fuffle, and you'll learn that fuffle is a verb that means to "throw into disorder" or "jerk about." Fuffle, it turns out, is the linguistic ancestor of kerfuffle and curfuffle, and is onomatopoetic (which I guess would be true if you imagine the sound made when you fuffle a file of papers. All of which, of course, is enough to throw you into a kerfuffle. Anyway, kerfuffle is apparently among the favorite words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who once used it this way: "Jeffrey Toobin caused a kerfuffle when he wrote in The New Yorker this week that Bill Clinton was interested in running for the Senate from Arkansas in 2002." kibitz (KIBB-its) 1. To look on and offer unsolicited, meddlesome advice. 2. To chat or make wisecracks (especially when others are trying to work or have a serious conversation). This handy Yiddishism derives from a picturesque German source: In German, the verb kiebitzen means "to look on while other people are playing cards" (especially if it's done annoyingly, like standing too close). Even more picturesque, this verb derives from German Kiebitz, the name of a type of little bird that has a reputation for being particularly noisy and inquisitive. "HEY!" Foster finally yelled, "It's hard enough trying to deal with a computer crash without all of you standing around to kibitz!" kickshaw (KICK-shaw) 1. A culinary delicacy. 2. A trinket or bauble. Kickshaw is a corruption of the French quelque chose, which means "something." When the English began using the word kickshaw around the beginning of the 17th century, they usually applied it contemptuously to fancy French food -- i.e., an insubstantial little "something" in contrast to simpler, heartier English fare. Today it also applies to anything dainty or elegant, but relatively worthless. "Let's get going, dear -- we can always pick up a few kickshaws at the airport." kowtow (KOW-tow) To act obsequiously; to fawn or act with deference. Kowtow, which found its way into English about 200 years ago, is an adaptation of the picturesque Chinese word koutou, which comes from kou meaning "to knock" and tou, meaning "head." Originally, koutou referred to the Chinese practice of touching one's forehead to the ground in an expression of deep respect and utter submission. Kowtow is also used as a noun in English to denote this act. "He's so busy trying to kowtow to all those special interest groups, it's a wonder he doesn't get whiplash." kudos (KOO-dohss) Glory; praise. This word was imported whole from the ancient Greek, where kudos meant "magical glory." Technically, therefore, kudos is singular - which also means there 's no such thing as a kudo. "By now, of course, Aunt Dorothy was used to accepting kudos for her judo." L Spacer Return to Learn a New Word lachrymose (LACK-ruh-mohs) 1. Weepy, readily shedding tears; mournful. 2. Causing tears. Latin lacrima, meaning "tear," is the ultimate source of this word. It's also the root of lachrymal, an adjective describing tears or the state of being teary. (These are also etymological relatives of the wine known as Lachryma Christi -- literally "tear of Christ.") "He had received a lachrymose letter from his friend Faddle, at Aberdeen, in which the unfortunate youth had told him that he was destined to remain in that wretched northern city for the rest of his natural life." -- Ayala's Angel, by Anthony Trollope. laconic (luh-KON-ik) Terse; concise; characterized by extreme brevity of speech. The ancient Spartans, who lived the region of Greece known as Laconia, were famous not only for their spartan discipline, but also for their terse manner of speaking. Just how laconic were the inhabitants of Laconia? When a messenger dispatched by an enemy army announced, "If we enter Laconia, we will raze it to the ground!," the laconic response the Laconians sent back was simply: "If." "Those Darlin' boys are nothing if not laconic." lacuna (luh-KYEW-nuh) A gap or empty space. Often referring to a blank or missing space in a manuscript, this word is from Latin lacus, which means "lake," (and is thus a relative of the name of that shallow body of water, lagoon). The plural is lacunas or lacunae (luh-KYEW-nee). "He wants us to believe that his gut instincts and moral framework can carry him over the lacunae in his knowledge of geopolitics." - New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, commenting on presidential candidate George W. Bush lagniappe (lan-YAP, LAN-yap) 1. A small gift presented by a storeowner in addition to a customer's purchase. 2. A surprise gift or bonus. You hear this word mostly in southern Louisiana, where it describes a little extra something that a merchant tosses in to keep customers coming back. Lagniappe has been traced, via a similar-sounding word in American Spanish, all the way back to the Quechua language of the Inca Empire, where the word yapay meant "to give more." "All these years I've been shopping at Victoria's Secret, and do you know, they never once have given me a lagniappe!" lampoon (lam-POON) 1. (noun) A satire attacking a person, group, or institution. 2. (verb) To ridicule or satirize in or as if in a lampoon. In many French drinking songs, the most important part is the imperative in the refrain, "Lampons!" or "Let's drink!" Many etymologists suspect that this boozy exhortation may have inspired this word for poking fun at someone or something. "Saying 'there ought to be limits to freedom,' Gov. George W. Bush has filed a legal complaint against the owners of a Web site that lampoons his White House bid." -- Wayne Slater in the Dallas Morning News. leman (LEM-uhn) 1. A sweetheart. 2. An illicit lover, especially a mistress. This archaic term derives from Middle English leofman, a combination of leof, which means "dear," and "man." (The leof that gave us leman is a linguistic relative of both love and the archaic English word lief, which means "beloved.") "His philosophy might be summed up as: 'If life hands you lemans, then . . . enjoy!" liripoop (LEER-uh-poop) The long tail of a hood in the costume of a medieval academic. During the Middle Ages, academics wore a ceremonial hood with a long, hanging peak that called a liripoop (or more often, a liripipe.) In fact, search the Internet and you'll find that even today some universities still call their graduates¹ ceremonial sashes liripipes, and charge students a liripipe fee to rent them. (It's unclear where the names liripoop and liripipe originated, beyond the fact that they're from Medieval Latin liripipium. "As the graduation speaker droned on and on, Lisa commenced fidgeting and idly fingering her liripoop." lobster Newburg (LOB-sturr NEW-burg) A rich dish of lobster in a cream sauce with sherry, egg yolks, cayenne, and other seasonings. Here's one of my all-time favorite stories about how a food name came to be: A wealthy shipping magnate named Benjamin Wenburg once encouraged the chef at New York's famous Delmonico's restaurant to create this savory dish. The cholesterol-choked dish result was an instant hit, and the chef returned the favor by dubbing the dish Lobster Wenburg. Things ended badly, though: Wenburg allegedly found himself in a drunken brawl in the restaurant's posh dining room. The management retaliated by switching around the letters in the name of its popular entree from Wenburg to Newburg. "After yet another blind date gone bad -- and quickly -- Marvin proceeded to consume the plate of lobster Newburg she'd left behind, along with the bottle of Chianti, and was soon feeling much better about everything." logy (LOW-ghee) Sluggish; lethargic; lacking in mental or physical energy. This word first showed up in English in the mid-19th century. It's unclear where it came from, although it may be related to the Dutch word log which means "heavy" or "dull." "Logy from too little sleep, and rubbing the gound from our eyes, we shuffled into the kitchen to find that our thoughtful hosts had already made a piping hot pot of coffee." loophole (LOOP-hohl) A way out; an ambiguity or omission in a law or contract that allows someone to avoid complying. Medieval architecture may not be what first springs to mind when you think of a loophole, but that's the source of this word. The narrow, vertical window in a castle wall was originally called a loop, from Middle Dutch lupen meaning "to lie in wait, to peer." These windows were wider at the outside of the wall than on the inside, which let archers shoot arrows through them with little risk. Today's loopholes offer a different sort of "window" -- one that's similarly sneaky. "You could drive an armored personnel carrier through the loopholes in that law." louche (loosh) Shady; disreputable; suspicious. English speakers borrowed this evocative word directly from French, where it's used in the same sense. However, the French also use louche to mean "cross-eyed" or "squint-eyed," a sense that reflects this word's linguistic roots. Louche derives from Latin luscus, meaning "blind in one eye." "There had seemed to be something a little louche in the way she had suddenly found herself alone with Ivor." -- from Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow. ludic (LOO-dik) Characterized by playfulness. Ludic comes from Latin ludus, meaning "play," which makes it a relative of such playful words as ludicrous. This same family of words produced allude, which in its most literal sense means "to play with." Writer David Rakoff made good use of this word in Salon magazine recently, in his amusing take-off of self-important writers writing self-importantly (and floridly) about their self-important writing lives: "Autumn's end is signaled by the grackles, those cacophonous weird sisters, those ludic brigands, their greasy black pin feathers brilliantined in the sunlight like the multi-hued spumy plume upon an oily puddle, laying waste to the damson plum in the yard." lugubrious (luh-GOO-bree-uss, luh-GYOO-bree-uss) Mournful, dismal gloomy -- especially to an affected or exaggerated degree. It's from Latin lugere, meaning "to mourn." "Ever notice how that basset hound over there and his owner have the very same lugubrious look?" (c) 1999-2006 Martha Barnette M Spacer Return to Learn a New Word madefy (MAD-uh-fye) To wet or moisten. It's from Latin madere, meaning "to be wet, to drip with." "If you watch that movie, I'll be very surprised if you don't madefy a hanky or two." maffick (MAFF-ick) To rejoice with an extravagant and boisterous public celebration. One of the most famous events during the Boer War was the long siege against the British garrison at Mafeking (MAH-fih-king), a town in north central South Africa. The lifting of that 217-day siege on May 17, 1900 set off uproarious celebrations in the streets of London. Playing on the name of that South African town, the British coined mafficking as a jocular term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "extravagant demonstrations of exultation on occasions of national rejoicing." The verb maffick soon followed. "So, I assume you plan to maffick on New Year's Eve?" mall (mahl) A shopping center, often enclosed. In 17th-century England one popular game was "pall-mall," which entailed whacking a ball with a mallet to send it flying through a raised iron ring at one end of long alley. (The name pall-mall derives from French and Italian words meaning "ball" and "mallet.") One well-known pall-mall alley in London came to be known simply as The Mall. The game's popularity died out, but the name of the alley stuck. Soon "mall" was applied to similar public promenades, and later to early "shopping malls" -- originally, store-lined streets closed to automobile traffic. "But Mom, if you'd let me have my own car then you wouldn't have to drive me to the mall every day!" marathon (MAIR-uh-thon) A 26-mile, 385-yard footrace; any test of endurance. You may already know that the race called a marathon commemorates the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, who ran all the way from the city of Marathon to Athens with news of an important Greek victory over the Persians. But did you know that the name Marathon itself actually refers to a spice? In Greek, marathon means "fennel," and the Greek city of Marathon got its name from the fact that this anise-flavored plant grew there in abundance. "How about if you bring the anisette, I'll make your favorite fish-with-fennel recipe, and then if we're still awake, we can have another marathon session of Monopoly." marmoreal (mar-MOHR-ee-ull) 1. Resembling marble. 2. Resembling a marble statue. Here's a marvelous, multitasking word: An offspring of Latin marmor, meaning "marble," it means "resembling marble." If you call something marmoreal, you're likening it to marble, whether in terms of its smoothness, hardness, coolness, or color. Marmoreal can also be used to describe something that has the cold, aloof appearance of a marble statue. "It was one thing to have imagined them all this time, but quite another to behold those marmoreal shoulders when the chatoyant silk fell away at last." martinet (mar-tin-ET) 1. A strict military disciplinarian 2. Any stickler who insists on rigid adherence to rules. Colonel Jean Martinet, who formed France's first standing army, sought to instill military precision in his troops by putting them through terribly tedious, exacting drills. During a siege in 1672, Martinet was "accidentally" killed by his own troops, but his name lives on in our word for anyone similarly devoted to strictest rules, exacting discipline, and painstaking attention to detail. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently made good use of the word while musing once again about various presidential candidates' choice of attire: "Elizabeth Dole tries to coordinate the color of suit and shoes to the stage where she speaks, but the attention is so minute it backfires and makes her seem a martinet." mastodon (MASS-tuh-don) A prehistoric animal somewhat similar to the elephant. Here's an animal with an unusually picturesque name: When scientists in the early 1800s were studying the bones of this newly discovered creature, they were struck by the shape of its molars, which sported pairs of nipple-like projections. So they coined a name for this creature using the Greek word for "breast," mastos (a relative of mastectomy) and the Greek word for "tooth," odon (also found, of course, in that "teeth-correcting" practice known as orthodontia). Mastodons received a mention The New York Times a few years ago when a fellow in upstate New York was dredging his backyard pond and found a giant bone: "On a road with suburban homes, swimming pools and minivans, a 12,000-year-old mastodon has turned a quiet backyard pond into a pit of scientific inquiry." maudlin (MAHD-lin) Excessively or tearfully sentimental. Tradition has it that the follower of Jesus known as Mary Magdalene was a former prostitute. Therefore she's often depicted in western art as a woman tearfully penitent about her past. Maudlin is an alteration of Magdalene and a reference to her weepy expression. (In England, the names of Oxford's Magdalen College and Cambridge's Magdalene College are both pronounced "maudlin.") "Just a little friendly advice: once again, Smithers has had a few too many juleps, so whatever you do, don't mention the ending of 'Old Yeller,' because it always makes him terribly maudlin." mausoleum (mah-suh-LEE-uhm) A huge, stately tomb; a large, gloomy building. Poor Queen Artemisia! In the fourth century B.C. she ruled over the small kingdom of Caria, in Asia Minor, along with her husband, King Mausolus - who, according to local custom, also happened to be her brother. When he died in 353 B.C., his sister-queen was inconsolable. In fact, Artemisia was so distraught that she had Mausolus cremated, and kept his ashes on hand to add to her drinks, a little bit at a time, until she used them all up and died of grief herself a couple of years later. Before her death, however, she commissioned the greatest architects and sculptors around to build a spectacular monument to her late husband. Named after the dead king, this mausoleum became regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The building's ruins were excavated in the nineteenth century, and a statue of Mausolus recovered from that edifice now stands in the British Museum. "Well yes, Marvin, the paisley draperies and nautical-themed lampshades are a nice touch, but to be honest, this place still looks like a mausoleum." maven (MAY-vuhn) An expert or connoisseur. Maven (sometimes spelled mavin) comes ultimately from Hebrew mevin, which means "understanding." Until the 1960s, maven wasn't used widely in English. That's when TV ads for Vita Herring hit the airwaves, complete with a catchy jingle and enthusiastic recommendations from a herring connoisseur dubbed "The Beloved Herring Maven." "Gary B. Larson, a proofreader and grammar maven in Seattle, says people who have switched to the foreign style are 'sellouts trying to be highfalutin'.'"--Jon G. Auerbach, in a Wall Street Journal article on ways of writing the day's date, and the growing number of American companies switching from the "month-first" to "day-first" style. (Early on, Auerbach notes, Americans commonly used the day-first style still favored in Europe. But in the late 18th century, they began reversing it as a small act of rebellion, "culminating in the emphatic 'July 4, 1776' affixed atop the Declaration of Independence.") maverick (MAV-err-ick) An independent; an individualist. Samuel A. Maverick (1803-1870) was a New England lawyer who moved to Texas and later became mayor of San Antonio, and a member of the state legislature. After acquiring a herd of cattle in payment for a debt, he also became a rancher on a 385,000-acre spread. Cattle roamed free back then, so ranchers branded them to avoid theft and disputes over ownership. But not Maverick. For some reason, he famously left his unbranded. Soon any unbranded animal was called a maverick, and before long it also applied to any politician who supposedly isn't "branded" by special interests. Interestingly, Maverick's grandson also contributed another familiar word to our language. "If I hear one more political commentator say the word 'maverick' during this election, I'm going to have a cow!" mawkish (MAW-kish) 1. Excessively sentimental. 2. Having a faint, sickly taste. Although mawkish often describes something excessively sweet, this word originally referred to something far more icky: maggots. The obsolete English mawk means "maggot," and mawkish applied both to a person who feels nauseated and to something "nauseating" or characterized by "a faint sickly taste." As happens with so many words, mawkish lost its early vividness, and now just means "feebly sentimental" or "faintly icky-tasting." "Unfortunately, a mawkish greeting card was the very last thing she needed at that moment." meander (mee-AN-durr) To wander aimlessly; to follow a winding path. The Menderes River in Turkey is famous for its winding, crooked course. The ancient Greeks called it the Maiandros, and used a form of that name, maiandros to mean "winding." It wandered into Latin as maeander, which eventually meandered into English as meander. "When the two of them had their fill of archaeological sites, Chris hefted their picnic lunch, looked at him significantly, and asked, 'What do you say we meander along the Menderes?'" meldrop (MELL-drop) A drop of mucus at the end of the nose. Here's one of those isn't-it-nice-to-know-there's-a-word-for-it words. "Meldrop" comes from an Old Norse term for "a drop or foam from a horse's mouth." "Yes, Darling, your tie matches your suit just fine, but the meldrop has got to go." mellifluous (muh-LIHF-loo-uhss) Flowing with sweetness; smooth. This deliciously descriptive word comes from the Latin mel, meaning "honey" and fluere, meaning "to flow." This sweet-sounding word is a linguistic cousin of the name Pamela, from the Greek for "all-honey," as well as Melissa, which was borrowed whole from the Greek, where it denotes that "honey-licking" creature, the bee. "'How nice that we finally get to talk in real time!' she exclaimed in a voice so mellifluous he nearly dropped the phone." mendacious (men-DAY-shuhss) 1. Lying; given to habitually telling falsehoods. 2. Untrue, false. It's from Latin mendax, which means "lying." "Stomping her feet, she heard herself wailing against her will, 'Ooooooo! It's people like you who put the 'men' in 'mendacious!'" mephitis (muh-FYE-tiss) 1. A stench. 2. A foul, poisonous gas emanating from the earth. In Roman myth, the goddess Mephitis had the task of preventing "pestilential exhalations" from the sewers and elsewhere. Her name lives on in our word mephitis, meaning "a poisonous stench " and mephitic (muh-FIHT-ik), which describes anything that smells like one. (Incidentally, the skunk's most distinctive characteristic is reflected in its scientific name: Mephitis mephitis.) "Methinks there's a mephitis in our midst." meretricious (mer-ih-TRISH-uss) 1. Alluring in a flashy or vulgar way. 2. Pretentious; based on insincerity or deception. 3. Pertaining specifically to prostitutes. In ancient Rome, a prostitute was a meretrix, from the Latin merere, meaning "to earn money." (It's a linguistic relative, in fact, of something else that's earned, merit.) By the mid-17th century, speakers of English were using meretricious both literally (one writer referred to "the delight of meretricious embracements") as well as figuratively, as Charles Dickens later did in Pictures from Italy: "The graceful new cemetery, at no great distance from it, though yet unfinished, has already many graves among its shrubs and flowers, and airy colonnades. It might be reasonably objected elsewhere, that some of the tombs are meretricious and too fanciful; but the general brightness seems to justify it here; and Mount Vesuvius, separated from them by a lovely slope of ground, exalts and saddens the scene." mesmerize (MEZ-merr-eyes) To command attention; to be riveting or hypnotic. In the 1760s, the Austrian physician Dr. F. A. Mesmer became convinced that celestial bodies exerted some sort of force affecting the nervous systems of all creatures. Mesmer began to suspect the force was magnetism, and proceeded to try to cure his patients by stroking them with magnets. Eventually he ditched the magnets and instead tried to use what he called "animal magnetism": As soft music played in the background, he'd have patients stand in a circle and join hands. Then he'd move from one to the other, taking a few moments to stare intently into their eyes and touch them with his hand. Some people claimed that Mesmer's methods had cured them, but a government commission investigated him and branded him a charlatan. Mesmer moved to Switzerland, where he died in obscurity in 1815. His hypnotic, spellbinding methods live on in the word mesmerize, sometimes spelled mesmerise. "She seemed to be momentarily mesmerised by a complete inert soft surprise." - William Faulkner, in "The Hamlet." mien (MEEN) 1. Manner or bearing, especially as it expresses one's inner personality or state of mind. 2. Appearance or aspect. Mien comes from Middle English demeine, meaning "behavior." The Middle English term, in turn, derives from Old French demener, meaning "to behave." A related word, demean, is sometimes used with the sense of "to conduct oneself in a proper manner." (Hence also our word demeanor.) But note: None of these related words is etymologically related to the other kind of demean, as in "to debase" or "to humble." The literal sense of that word is "to make 'mean'" -- that is, "to make small or insignificant." "The nice, calm, tempered and reasonable Dick Cheney who won rave reviews for his performance during Thursday night's vice-presidential debate stepped aside Friday morning, returning to his rather nasty attack-dog mien." -- Jake Tapper in Salon magazine. mondegreen (MAHN-duh-green) A mishearing of song lyrics or popular phrases. When author Siliva Wright was a child, she heard an old Scottish ballad called "The Bonnie Earl of Murray," which includes the line, "They hae slain the Earl o' Murray/And laid him on the green." Alas, Wright misunderstood that line as "They hae slain the Earl o' Murray/And Lady Mondegreen." As a result, she spent years pitying poor Lady Mondegreen before she finally saw the lyrics in print. Writing about this in a 1954 Harper's magazine article, Wright coined the term mondegreen to denote such words misheard. Mondegreen-spotting has become increasingly popular lately, spurred along by Gavin Edwards' book "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" (a mondegreen for Jimi Hendrix's line "Scuse me while I kiss the sky"). "I can't decide whether my favorite mondegreen is 'The girl with colitis goes by' from 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' or the time I thought the newscaster said to stay tuned for a report from 'our meaty urologist.'" moniker (MAHN-i-kurr) A personal name, especially a nickname or alias. This slang term may derive from a secret jargon called Shelta, long used among Irish itinerants and tinkers, which involves inverting or changing the initial consonants of Irish or Gaelic words. Some etymologists think that moniker may derive from such an alteration of Old Irish ainm, meaning "name." (And yes, it's sometimes spelled monicker.) "The singer Prince did it. And then back again. More recently, Beaver College in Pennsylvania announced plans to do the same. Now add prunes to the list of moniker makeovers." -- Michelle Healy, noting in USA Today that the California Prune Board has begun marketing this wrinkled fruit as "dried plums." mordant (MOR-duhnt) Bitingly sarcastic. The Latin mordere, meaning "to bite," gave us this incisive word. Mordant is a close linguistic relative of that "little bite" we call a morsel, and that regretful feeling that "bites again" later on, remorse. "Her witty, mordant and splendidly vinegary observations were informed by broad and eclectic reading." - George F. Will on the 1999 death of Washington Post editor and fellow columnist Meg Greenfield. mosh pit (mahsh pit) A place where moshing occurs. What's moshing? Mosh, according to Merriam-Webster, means "to engage in uninhibited often frenzied activities (as intentional collision) with others near the stage at a rock concert." Of 1980s vintage, mosh is probably a variant of mash" or mush. Mosh pits became the site of another popular diversion at such concerts: stage-diving, in which a performer would leap from the stage into the mosh pit, and proceed to body-surf above the crowd, passed around by hundreds of hands. During the 2000 Iowa presidential primary, filmmaker Michael Moore roamed the state with what he called a "portable mosh pit": 100 tightly packed college students in a flatbed truck. Moore promised to endorse the first presidential candidate willing to fling himself in. Amazingly, conservative Republican Alan Keyes took the bait and the plunge, and then told flabbergasted onlookers: "Admittedly I was willing to fall into the mosh pit . . . Because I think that exemplifies the kind of trust in people that is the heart and soul of the Keyes campaign." mundungus (mun-DUNG-uss) Stinky tobacco. First appearing in English in the 17th century, mundungus is a joking adaptation from Spanish mondongo, meaning “tripe” – that is, the stomach lining of various animals sometimes cooked and served as (similarly odoriferous) food. “It wasn’t that she minded hearing the same old jokes over and over again – why, she’d even come to appreciate that tiresome trick with the spoon – but she detested visiting Uncle Ned’s nonetheless, and solely because of the vile mundungus that saturated his whole apartment." N Spacer Return to Learn a New Word nacreous (NAY-kree-uss) Pearly; iridescent like mother-of-pearl. The pearly inner surface of a mollusk shell is sometimes called nacre, a word that some etymologists believe derives from the Arabic for "small drum" - possibly a reference to the hollowed-out shell once it's vacated by its occupant. "As soon as the two of them stepped out onto the veranda, Vanessa looked up the nacreous moon and sighed significantly, then ever-so-casually adjusted the strap of her gown." napiform (NAY-puh-form) Resembling a turnip in shape, form, or appearance. Who knows? You just might need to use this word sometime. It's from Latin "napus," which is what the Romans called a "turnip." "Well, sure, his head is a little napiform in this picture, but then, he was only a few hours old at the time." natalitious (nay-tuh-LIH-shis) Pertaining to one's birthday. From the Latin natus, meaning "born," comes this linguistic relative of such words as innate and native. "'Felicitous natalitious wishes to you!' -- try saying that three times fast!" nekton (NEK-tuhn) Swimming sea creatures. Nineteenth-century naturalists divided the creatures of the sea into three rather poetic groupings. Nekton (from a Greek word meaning"to swim") referred to those who could swim against the current. Plankton (from the Greek for "to wander") designated those simply drifting about. The name benthos (which in Greek means "the bottom of the sea,") applies to the plants and animals that dwell in the depths. "I just hope that any nekton Tori encounters out there will be friendly." (Who's Tori? I wrote about her here.) nephalism (NEE-fuh-liz-um) Total abstinence from intoxicating beverages. This teetotaling term is from the Greek nephalios, which means "sober." "One too many mornings-after spent ‘driving the big white porcelain bus,’ as Orville liked to put it, had finally convinced him that perhaps nephalism was preferable after all." niacin (NYE-uh-sinn) A vitamin, a deficiency of which causes the disease pellagra. The name of this vitamin derives from a PR nightmare. Because niacin is derived from nicotine -- the same stuff in tobacco -- it was originally called nicotinic acid. In the 1930s, scientists discovered that nicotinic acid prevented pellagra, a disease that caused skin eruptions, gastric disturbances, nervous and mental dysfunction. So American food companies began adding nictonic acid to their products, such as bread "enriched" with this vitamin. This prompted dire warnings from anti-tobacco groups, who insisted--erroneously, it turns out--that eating bread containing nicotinic acid would cause cigarette cravings. The name proved so problematic that in 1942, nicotinic acid was finally rechristened niacin -- a combination of the first two letters of each word in its original name (nicotinic acid), plus a common chemical suffix, in. "Well, dear, if only you'd eat enough wheat germ, brewer's yeast, and legumes, then you wouldn't need niacin-enriched bread in the first place." nidify (NID-uh-fye) To build a nest. Nidify comes from the Latin word nidus, meaning "nest." It's a relative of the collective noun nide as in "a nide of pheasants," denoting a nest or brood of them. (The same Latin root that gave us nidify also hatched the fabulous French term for that car-rattling annoyance we call a pothole: In France, it's a nid-de-poule, or "chicken's nest.") "Playing the field is all well and good, but more and more, I'm getting the urge to nidify." nonplussed (non-PLUST) Bewildered; at a loss. Nonplussed is from Latin non plus, which means "not more, no further." In its most literal sense, to be nonplussed means to be in a state where no more can be said or done. "Gingerly dipping one foot into steaming suds, there in the moonless dark, Vanessa discovered that among the revelers already in the hot tub was someone who looked astonishingly like her ex -- a discovery that left her nonplussed." nosocomephrenia (noh-soh-koh-muh-FREE-nee-uh) Depression due to a prolonged hospital stay. The ancient Greek word "nosos" meant "disease" (hence English "nosophobia," which denotes the morbid fear thereof). The Greeks' word "nosos" led to their name for the place they tended their sick, "nosokomeion." This ancient word for "hospital" inspired the useful but little-used English noun "nosocomephrenia," as well as the English adjective "nosocomial," which means "pertaining to hospitals." "In addition to all the other side effects, you can also expect to experience nosocomephrenia." nudiustertian (noo-dih-uhss-TER-shee-un) Pertaining to the day before yesterday. This is an anglicized version of the Latin phrase nunc dies tertius est or "now it is the third day." "Aw, come on Mom, those clothes are sooooooooooo nudiustertian!" nugatory (NOO-guh-tor-ee, or NYOO-guh-tor-ee) Worthless, trifling, of little or no importance. This dismissive term is a descendant of Latin nugae, which means "jokes" or "trifles." (It's no relation, by the way, to nugget, which is thought to come from nug, an English dialectal term for "lump.") "Alas, it appears that he regards her attentions as nugatory at best." O Spacer Return to Learn a New Word Occam's razor (OCK-umz RAY-zur) A scientific and philosophical principle that holds, among other things, that the simplest of competing theories is the best one. William of Occam was a medieval monk from the town of Occam (also spelled Ockham) in England. He was a student of Duns Scotus, the same renowned scholar whose name, ironically, lives on in our word dunce. Like many of his contemporaries, Occam maintained that of all proffered theories, the least complicated is likely the best. He also argued that when trying to explain the unknown, one should refer to something already known. (Being a philosopher, of course, his arguments were much more elaborate than that. But in the spirit of Occam, we'll pare away the rest and keep it simple.) Occam's simplifying "razor" got a mention on ABCNews.com a while back when scientists were trying to figure out what went wrong with the Mars Polar Lander just before it reached the red planet. Early speculation centered on the possibility that the spacecraft's cruise ring had failed to detach properly, causing the Lander to burn up while hurtling through the atmosphere: "The place I think the accident investigation is going to have to look at first is the cruise ring separation," says John Pike, space analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "Occam's razor says to look for the simplest explanation." octothorp (AHK-tuh-thorp) The "pound" sign, "number sign," or "tictactoe sign." Also spelled octothorpe, this name for the "#" symbol dates from the 1960s. The story goes that it was coined by employee at Bell Labs after the telephone company introduced the # key on then-new touch-tone phone systems. When instructing their first new client in the use of the new system, employee Don Macpherson supposedly dubbed that particular key the octothorp. He chose octo- because of the symbol's eight points, and added thorpe because at the time he belonged to a group trying to get the Olympic medals of the athlete Jim Thorpe returned from Sweden. That's the story, anyway. But lacking firmer proof, the few dictionaries that even include this word fudge the issue, noting that its origin is "unknown." Another suggested origin involves the fact that thorpe is Old Norse for "farm" or "village": Some have suggested that octothorpe is so named because the # resembles eight fields around a village. Suffice to say, it's not often that you hear "Please enter your password, followed by the 'octothorp'." "Hoping to impress her, Marvin took a deep drag on his stogie before adding, 'You know, I'm thinking of changing my name to 'The Guy Formerly Known As Marvin' and just signing my name with an octothorp.'" oeillade (uh-YAHD) An amorous glance; an ogle. Oeillade is borrowed directly from that oh-so-romantic language, French. (Its pronunciation is tricky to render in print, but if you say the first syllable with a short "e" while pursing your lips as if to say "oo," you'll be pretty close.) "Beg your pardon, but was that oeillade directed at moi?" olla podrida (AHL-uh puh-DREE-duh) 1. A spicy Spanish stew. 2. An inconrguous mixture; a miscellany. Here's one of several foods that have joking names: literally, the Spanish expression olla podrida means "putrid pot." (Another example is malasado, a Hawaiian puff pastry whose name translates as "badly baked.") Anyway, this term for a mishmash of edible ingredients has also come to refer to any type of miscellaneous mixture. "Her philosophy is a spicy olla podrida of old-time religion, progressive politics, numerology, and Norman Vincent Peale." omphaloskepsis (ahm-fuh-low-SKEP-sis) Navel-gazing, presumably to help contemplation. This word has been around since at least the 1920s. It comes from the Greek word for "navel," omphalos, (a linguistic cousin of the more familiar-looking Latin word, umbilicus). The skepsis in this word comes from the Greek "examination," which also led to our term for someone who tends to examine closely, skeptic. "Ah, what I wouldn't give for a week at a spa -- all those daily massages, citrus-scented facials, low-fat gourmet meals, paraffin pedicures, and plenty of good, old-fashioned omphaloskepsis." oneiric (oh-NYE-rik) Pertaining to or suggesting dreams. The Greek word for dream, oneiros, gives us this poetic word. "The green light deepened, drowning the island of Malta and the island of Fausto and Elena hopelessly deeper in its oneiric chill." - Thomas Pynchon onychophagist (ahn-ih-KOFF-uh-jist) A nail-biter. It's from Greek onux, which means "fingernail," and phagos which means "eating." (Interestingly, the Greek word for "nail" also gave us the word onyx, because some varieties of this stone--the kind often used for carving cameos--resemble the pink and white of a human fingernail.) "Whenever the subject of life's little ironies came up, Marvin invariably brightened and seized the chance to point out that the very best manicurist in his hometown was an onychophagist." opsimath (AHP-sih-math) One who begins to learn late in life. Opsimathy (op-SIH-muh-thee), which means "learning acquired late in life," entered the English language sometime in the 17th century. Both opsimathy and opsimath derive from Greek opsimathein, meaning "to learn late." Historically, however, these words most often were used in a derogatory sense -- a sort of snooty put-down suggesting that the opsimath had been lazy or uninterested in learning until only recently. Perhaps it's time to reclaim these words and instead use them to celebrate anyone determined to continue learning right on into his or her golden years. "'You're never too old to be an opsimath,' he said optimistically." orotund (OR-uh-tuhnd) 1. Sonorous; marked by fullness, strength and clarity of sound. 2. Pompous; bombastic. Orotund conjures a vivid picture: it's from Latin ore rotundo, which means "with well-tuned speech" -- but literally this phrase means, "with a round mouth." Generally, when applied to the quality of someone's voice, orotund is a compliment. But when applied to someone's speaking style, it's often used contemptously. "A call in the midst of the crowd, my own voice, orotund, sweeping and final." --Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass oscitancy (OSS-ih-tuhn-see) 1. The act of yawning. 2. The state of drowsiness, dullness, inattention. It's from Latin root oscitare, which means "to yawn." Latin oscitare, in turn, is formed from two other words: os, meaning "mouth" (a relative of such words as oral) and citare meaning "to move." If you're oscitant, then you're "yawning" or "gaping from drowsiness." And of course, as one 18th-century writer observed, oscitancy can be contagious: "In the case of Oscitancy, when one Person has extended or dilated his Jaws, he has set the whole Company into the same Posture." oxter (OX-turr) An armpit. Oxter comes from Old English ocusta, meaning "armpit," and is thought to be a linguistic relative of such words as axis and axle. "She certainly caused a stir the Oscars by flashing those unkempt oxters, but whether this will be a bona fide fashion trend remains to be seen." P Spacer Return to Learn a New Word palilogy (puh-LIL-uh-jee) The repetition of a word or phrase, especially in immediate succession, for emphasis. The rhetorical term palilogy (rhymes with triology) derives from the Greek palin meaning "again" and logia which means "speaking." (And yes, it's a cousin of palindrome.) "One has only to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have A Dream' speech to realize that he was a master of palilogy." palindrome (PAL-in-drohm) A word, phrase, or sentence that's spelled the same backwards and forwards. In its most literal sense, palindrome means "running back again." The -drome is from Greek dromos, or "running" (which also gives us the name of that speedy desert runner, the dromedary). The palin means "again." "I don't know about you, but I just can't decide whether my favorite palindrome is 'Sit on a pan, Otis!' or 'Go hang a salami -- I'm a lasagna hog'." pamphlet (PAM-fleht) A small, unbound printed work. It's one of the sexiest words in the English language. Here's why: In the 12th century Europe, an erotic poem became enormously popular. Written in Latin, the poem was called Pamphilus, seu de Amore, which means "Pamphilus, or On Love." (All we know about the name Pamphilus in the title is that it's adapted from the Greek for "beloved by all.") Within a few years, this poem's name morphed into Pamphilet, and eventually pamphlet. These steamy verses were printed on just a few sheets of paper, and eventually their popularity became so pervasive that by the 14th century, any small booklet or brochure also came to be known as a pamphlet. "Jeremy thought it a very good omen indeed that the two of them had met while passing out pamphlets -- not to mention the fact that she'd scribbled her phone number on the back of one of them." panache (puh-NASH or puh-NAHSH) Dash, flamboyance, verve. Panache was borrowed whole into English from French, where in its earliest sense, it meant "a plume of feathers," like those on a helmet or a fancy headdress. This notion of showy ornamentation expanded to refer more generally to "a grand manner, swagger, or flair." "What she lacked in practice and piano lessons she tried to make up for with plenty of panache." pander (PAN-durr) 1. To act as a go-between in an amorous intrigue. 2. To cater to base interests. These days we most often hear pander used in connection with politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator. In its earliest uses, however, pander referred to acting as a go-between between secret lovers, or even to procuring prostitutes. The inspiration for this word is Pandarus, a character in a 14th-century Italian poem. A rather sleazy fellow, Pandarus agreed to act as a go-between for Troilus, a prince of ancient Troy who had a thing for his cousin. This story later formed the basis of a work by Chaucer and eventually for Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. In Much Ado About Nothing, it's noted that Troilus "was the first employer of panders." ""Mr. Gore is a master panderer who turned up at an MTV rally in jeans so weirdly tight that even Ted Koppel felt compelled to comment."--New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, commenting yet again on presidential candidates' attire. pandiculation (pan-di-kew-LAY-shun) The stretching that accompanies yawning. The Latin word pandere meaning "to stretch" gave us this handy word (no relation to English pander). "To guard against repetitive-strain injuries, all employees who use computers should engage in pandiculation at least once an hour." panic (PAN-ik) Sudden, overwhelming fright. You remember Pan, the horny guy in Greek myth who was half-man, half-goat. As the god of forests, fields, and flocks, he was notorious for striking sudden, unreasoning fear into the hearts of travelers camped in remote and desolate places. The Greeks blamed Pan for all those scary sounds that echoed across lonely valleys at night and spooked those camped in the woods. They called such irrational fright panikon deima--literally, "Panic fear." Much later, this expression's French descendant, panique, found its way into English, where it was first used as an adjective (spelled many different ways), as in Panique affrights, pannick fear, and panic dread. "I want to calm her panic when she's ill, cry in her arms when my life goes wrong, and argue over our different driving styles until we're in the grave." -- E. J. Graff, on wanting to marry her same-sex partner, in her splendid book What Is Marriage For? The Strange History of Our Most Intimate Institution. panjandrum (pan-JAN-druhm) 1.An important (or merely self-important) person. 2. A pretentious local official Irish actor Charles Macklin retired from the London stage in 1753 and opened a pub, where he often boasted that his memory was still so good that he could repeat any set of lines after hearing them only once. One evening writer and actor Samuel Foote took up the challenge, and penned several lines of nonsense that began: "So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop, 'What! No soap?' . . ." The lines ended with ". . . and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heel of their boots." Well, even the great Macklin had to admit defeat--or didn't even try to repeat that nonsense, depending on whose account you believe. Anyway, Foote's made-up word panjandrum didn't enjoy wide use until a hundred years later, when Edward FitzGerald (famed for his translation of the Rubaiyat), applied it humorously to a self-important local official. "So which of the panjandrums around here decided that handing out free tickets to a Barry Manilow concert was all that's needed to improve employee morale?" panoply (PAN-uh-plee) An impressive, dazzling, or ostentatious array. This poetic-sounding word has military roots: It's from Greek panoplia, a combination of the Greek words pan, meaning "all," and hopla, meaning "arms" or "armor." (In ancient Greece, heavily armed foot soldiers were known as hoplites.) English speakers originally used panoply to denote "a full suit of armor." By the 19th century, however, it had acquired the additional sense of "any splendid enveloping or surrounding array," whether real or imagined. "Hope you don't mind, but I've arranged a little getaway for us at a cabin where we can gaze out on a panoply of 200-year-old evergreens." pansy (PAN-zee) A colorful flower with velvety blossoms. This flower's name derives from the French word pensée meaning "thought." It's so named for the way the blossoms of some varieties resemble a little face crinkled up in thought. Thus pansy is a relative of such thoughtful words as pensive and ponder. (Interestingly, the German name for this flower is Stiefmutterchen. While speakers of French see a thoughtful frown in this blossom, Germans see the unforgiving scowl of a "little stepmother.") "And there is pansies, that's for thoughts. . . " -- Ophelia, in Shakespeare's Hamlet. parthenogenesis (parr-thuh-noh-JEN-ih-sis) Reproduction resulting from an unfertilized egg -- occurring, for example, among certain insects. Literally, parthenogenesis means "virgin birth," a compound of the Latin genesis, meaning "birth" or "generation," and Greek parthenos, meaning "virgin." (Incidentally, the ancient Greeks often referred to the virgin goddess Athena as Athena Parthenos, which is why the temple built in her honor on the Acropolis is called the Parthenon.) Parthenogenesis was in the news a few years ago when Danish scientists discovered a completely new freshwater creature: Only 0.1 millimeter long, this microscopic animal is distinguished by a complicated set of jaws. It's only the fourth time in the past century that anyone's discovered an animal that doesn't fit into any of the previously established animal families: "Limnognathia maerski, which reproduces through parthenogenesis, uses its jaws to scrape the bacteria and algae it feeds on from underwater moss growing in icy wells which freeze over during the long Arctic winter." -- From a wire story about the discovery. passionflower (PASH-un-FLAU-err) A tropical, tendril-bearing blossom. If you plan to say it with flowers, you might want to think twice about sending passionflowers. Unless, of course, you mean to send a blossom so named because it resembles instruments of torture. Spanish conquistadors who happened upon this plant applied to it their own religious symbolism, believing that it symbolized the passion, or suffering, of Jesus. Its tendrils, they thought, resembled whips; its showy filaments, the crown of thorns. The Spaniards likened its leaves to spears, its stamens to hammers, its 10 sepals to the apostles at the crucifixion, and believed other parts resembled nails, flesh wounds and a halo. So they called it la flor de la pasion, or "passionflower." "There's an old saying: 'A camel is a horse put together by a committee,' and I tend to think of the passionflower as sort of the botanical equivalent." pavilion (puh-VILL-yun) 1. A large, ornate tent or canopy. 2. A light, usually open structure used for entertainment or shelter, often found at parks or fairs. Here's a wonderful word with a "butterfly" inside. Pavilion derives from the Latin papilio, a word the Romans originally used to mean "butterfly" or "moth." Later they applied it figuratively to a type of tent consisting of two great flaps that resembled the wings of such an inset. The Latin word for this type of temporary structure inspired our own word for more permanent ones. (And yes, that makes "pavilion" a relative of the French insect name, papillon.) "What do you say we waltz on over to the edge of the pavilion and then take our own tour of the premises?" pedigree (PED-ih-gree) An ancestral history or lineage. Here's a word with an interesting, well, pedigree: The French word grue denotes that leggy bird, the crane, and in Old French a "crane's foot" was a referred to as a pie de grue. In fact, picture a genealogical chart with its three-line diagrams indicating who + who begat whom, and you'll see why speakers of Old French started calling this /|\ figure a pie de grue --the linguistic ancestor of pedigree. "Actually, we're not sure of his pedigree--but we're thinking maybe part chihuahua and part shar-pei?" pelf (pelf) Riches or wealth, especially when regarded with contempt or acquired by shameful means. Pelf is apparently from the Old French word pelfre, which means "booty," and may be a relative of "pilfer." "Unfortunately, as she soon learned, Henry's entire philosophy could be summed up as 'me, my pelf, and I.'" penultimate (pih-NULL-tih-mitt) Next to last. Many people, perhaps confusing this word with "pinnacle," misunderstand "penultimate" to mean something along the lines of "the very most ultimate." Actually, however, this word comes from Latin "paene," meaning "almost." (Latin "paene" also put the "pen" in "peninsula" - literally, an "almost island," from the Latin "insula," the source also of "insular.") "No, the accent in the word 'syllable' is on the first syllable, not the penultimate." peregrinate (PER-uh-grin-ate) To journey or travel. A descendant of Latin "peregrinus," which means "foreigner," this word is a linguistic relative of the English word for another type of traveler, "pilgrim." "So, do you two have any plans to peregrinate this summer?" perendinate (puh-REN-din-ayt) To put off until the day after tomorrow; to keep postponing from day to day. If you know that cras is the Latin word for "tomorrow," then it's easy to see where we get the word procrastinate. To perendinate, on the other hand, means in its most literal sense to "put off something until the day after tomorrow." It comes from the Latin perendie -- literally, "on the day after tomorrow." "Why no, sir, I haven't started that report yet, but I can assure you I'll start perendinating as soon as we get back from lunch!" persiflage (PURR-suh-flahzh) Light banter; frivolous discussion. It's from the French persifler, meaning "to banter." The French word, in turn, derives ultimately from Latin sibilare, meaning "to whistle" -- a relative of sibilant. "Lurene prided herself on being a charming dinner companion with a special talent for turning on the persiflage whenever the situation called for it." philtrum (FILL-trum) The vertical groove between one's nose and upper lip. The ancient Greeks' word for "love potion" was philtron, the source of English philter, which means the same thing. Though no one's sure why, the Greeks also used philtron to denote the dent in one's upper lip. Some have suggested that it's because the shape of one's philtrum resembles the type of small vial used to carry such a potion. Another possibility is that it's the site on the body where such a potion was often applied. Or it may just be that the Greeks regarded the philtrum as an erogenous zone. "Why, no," Vanessa said carefully, "I hadn't noticed it growing hotter in here," though her glistening philtrum clearly suggested otherwise. picayune (PICK-uh-yoon) Of little value or importance; petty, mean, trivial In early 19th-century Louisiana, picayune designated a type of small coin, worth a little more than six cents. Picayune itself derives from French picaillon, the name for an old type of copper coin. Picaillon may in turn derive from an Old Provencal word, picar, meaning "to jingle or clink." By 1892, "picayune" was well established as an English word for something of similarly scant value or charactized by pettiness. That year, for example, a Boston Journal writer asked: "Do you want another picayune Congress with all its stupidity and folly?" Pierian spring (pye-EER-ee-ehn spring) A source of inspiration. In antiquity, the part of Greece called Pieria was known as the home of the nine Muses, those beautiful goddesses who hung out with Apollo and helped inspire mortals to musical and literary greatness. According to tradition, a bubbling spring in that region would confer inspiration on anyone who drank from it. That image, in turn, inspired Alexander Pope to pen those immortal words: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." pilpul (PIL-pul) A hair-splitting, unproductive argument. Pilpul, in its original sense, is a rabbinical term for keen, highly analytical debate among Talmudic scholars, usually over some minute point. Pilpul comes from a similar-sounding Hebrew verb that means "to debate hotly" -- and may derive ultimately from a Hebrew word for "pepper." According to Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, this word now refers more generally to "unproductive hair-splitting that is employed not so much to advance clarity or reveal meaning as to display one's own cleverness." "If you two are finished with your pilpul, can we talk about something more important -- like what's for dinner?" pinniped (PINN-uh-ped) An aquatic mammal belonging to the order Pinnipedia, which includes seals and walruses. This type of animal takes its name from the Latin pinna meaning "fin, wing, or feather," and the Latin stem ped- meaning "foot" (as in pedestrian and pedestal.) "I'm afraid that the boss expects every one of us to perform like a trained pinniped." plethora (PLETH-ur-uh) An overabundance or excess. In early 16th-century England, plethora was a medical term for "illness due to an unhealthy excess of blood or other humours." Today doctors still use this word to denote an overabundance of blood in one organ or part of the body. Over time, plethora also acquired its more abstract and familiar sense. Plethora comes from Greek plethein, meaning "to become full" (Thus plethora is a linguistic relative of plethysmograph, the name of a scientific instrument that measures changes in size due to blood flow in fingers, legs, earlobes, and … well, elsewhere.) "Wow, you weren't kidding when you said we'd find a veritable plethora of pulchritude here, were you?" plutolatry (ploo-TAHL-uh-tree) Excessive devotion to wealth. The ancient Greek word "ploutos" means "wealth." Thus we have in English the words "plutocracy," meaning "rule of the wealthy" (as opposed to "democracy," which refers to rule of, by, and for "the people.") In the same way that "idolatry" involves worship of idols, "plutolatry" means "worship of wealth." "Don't you think the wild popularity of this new quiz show is just another indication of our national plutolatry?" poculation (pock-yew-LAY-shun) The drinking of wine or other intoxicating brews. Here's a word you don't see very often. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary cites only one example of its use, though it certainly deserves more. So here's to poculation, which comes from the Latin poculari which means "to frequent the cup," from poculum, meaning "cup." "Excuse me, but I'm afraid there's some static on this line - did you say `poculation' or `copulation'?" poetaster (POH-it-ass-turr) A writer of inferior, shoddy, or insignificant poetry. The Latin suffix -aster expresses the idea of "inferior" or "less than it pretends to be. Since the early 17th century, it's been added to our word "poet" to indicate a less-than-talented writer of verse. (Another example of this suffix put to good use occurs in the little-used word politicaster, which, according to The Oxford English Dictionary means "a petty, feeble, or contemptible politician." Rather like a snollygoster.) "Okay, Mom, maybe he is a poetaster -- but doesn't he have the world's cutest little goatee?" poinsettia (poin-SET-ee-uh, poin-SET-uh) A tropical American shrub, usually with bright red floral leaves surrounding its tiny, greenish-yellow flowers. Joel Roberts Poinsett served as U.S. minister to Mexico during the 1820. An amateur botanist, Poinsett brought back a showy plant known to Mexicans as la flor de nochebuena, or "Christmas Eve flower." In Britain it was called the Mexican flameleaf, but thanks to Poinsett's tireless efforts to popularize it in the United States, this plant came to be known as the poinsettia. (Incidentally, Poinsett was a fervent liberal who became notorious in several Latin American countries for meddling in their domestic affairs. For this reason, Mexicans coined the word poinsettismo to mean "high-handed, intrusive activity.") "Yes, I know that colorful blossoms can brighten up an otherwise zestless salad, but trust me, I don't think Martha Stewart would advise you to add those poisonous poinsettia leaves." poliosis (pahl-ee-OH-sis) Greyness or whiteness of the hair, especially if it's premature. Poliosis comes from the Greek polios meaning "gray." The same Greek root colors the English word polio, a shortened form of poliomyelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord's "gray matter." "Vanessa cleared her throat and tried again: 'I don't know about you,' she began, 'but I've always found poliosis terribly alluring.'" popliteal (pop-LIT-ee-ull) Of or pertaining to the back of the knee. It's from the Latin stem poplit-, which means “the back of the knee.” “Vanessa never left home without first applying that popliteal pat of perfume, and . . . well, let’s just say her efforts were amply rewarded.” poppycock (POP-ee-kock) Nonsense; rubbish; senseless chatter. Prudes may think they're keeping their language clean by using poppycock instead of stronger terms, but they're in for a surprise. Poppycock comes from Dutch pappekak, which literally means "soft feces." The pappe- in Dutch pappekak supposedly goes back to a Latin baby-talk word for "soft food," while the -kak derives from Latin cacare, meaning "to defecate" - and yes, it's a linguistic relative of English "caca." The first recorded use of poppycock was in 1865 when a writer noted: "You won't be able to find such another pack of poppycock gabblers as the present Congress of the United States." potboiler (PAHT-boy-lurr) A literary work of inferior quality, written purely for financial gain. Why do we call it a potboiler? It's a relatively recent term, first appearing in English in 1864, and refers to a literary work written solely for money -- to, in other words, stock one's cooking pot and keep it boiling. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani used it a while back when writing about the three plot lines in Margaret Atwood's book, The Blind Assassin: "The third, which apparently consists of chapters from a potboiler Laura wrote, recounts the furtive affair of a well-to-do woman and her ne'er-do-well boyfriend, who meet in grungy, borrowed apartments and seedy hotels under the constant threat of exposure." pratfall (PRAT-fahl) 1. A fall upon one's butt. 2. A humiliating defeat or failure. The word pratfall becomes even more picturesque if you know that since at least the 16th century, prat (also spelled pratt) has been slang for "buttocks.". (Actually, at times prat has been used to denote just one buttock, as in this line from a 1641 work: "First set me down here on both my prats.") Pratfall, on the other hand, as it were, is of relatively recent vintage. It first appeared in the theatrical world of the 1930s. There pratfall denoted such a tumble taken for comic effect. More recently, this word has taken on a metaphorical meaning as well, as when Ray Bradbury sagely observed in Fahrenheit 451: "Life becomes one big pratfall." precocious (prih-KOH-shuss) Exhibiting unusually mature qualities at an early age. A combination of the Latin stem pre-, meaning "before," and coquere, "to cook or ripen," eventually led to English precocious, which, in its original sense, described plants that bore fruit or blossoms early in the season. Today precocious more often describes youngsters who might be described as "early bloomers." (The coquere in precocious, by the way, is a relative of English cook.) "It won't surprise you to learn that Vanessa has always been precocious." prelapsarian (pre-lap-SAIR-ee-un) Pertaining to the period before the biblical "Fall." Remember the story of Adam and Eve, and that little lapse of theirs in the Garden? Our word lapse comes from Latin lapsus, meaning "a slip or fall." Prelapsarian, then, alludes to that time of innocence and grace before those two slipped up and nibbled that forbidden fruit. Writing in GQ magazine, Guy Lawson used this word effectively when describing a boat trip to Rendezvous Island, near Belize: "In the water off Rendezvous, in the sway of letuce coral and schools of blue tangs, we searched for lobsters hiding in the sharp knots of coral -- once, in prelapsarian days, plentiful." preposterous (prih-POSS-turr-uhss) Absurd. If you pick apart preposterous, you can see it's actually quite picturesque: It's from Latin pre and posterus, or literally "before following behind" -- which is absurd indeed! (And yes, preposterous is also the etymological kin of posterior.) "If I'd been honest with myself, I'd have admitted I hated dating--even the name was preposterous--but that wasn't the point." -- Katherine Russell Rich, in her witty, gripping memoir, The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer and Back presbyopia (prez-bee-OH-pee-uh) The inability to focus sharply on nearby objects, which sets in around middle age . As one writer noted in 1869, "Presbyopia or Long Sight is one of the first of the legion of troubles which advancing years bring upon all of us." Caused by decreasing elasticity of the lens in the eye, presbyopia gets its name from the Greek presbus, meaning "old man," and ops, meaning "eye." Someone afflicted with this annoying condition is called a presbyope. (And yes, these words are etymological relatives of Presbyterian, a denomination distinguished by the fact that it is governed by councils of "elders.") "One of the truly annoying things about presbyopia is that whenever I pick up something to read, it looks like I'm playing an invisible trombone." procrustean (pro-KRUSS-tee-uhn) Intended to enforce conformity in a way that's inflexible and arbitrary. In Greek myth, Procrustes was a giant who ran a hotel of sorts, although his hospitality skills left something to be desired. Procrustes forced his guests to spend the night on an iron bed, and if they were too long for the bed, he lopped off their legs; if they were too short, he stretched them until they fit. This old meanie's rigid, one-size-fits-all mentality lives on in our word procrustean. "Uh-oh, what do you bet the boss will insist on another procrustean solution for this problem?" profane (proh-FAYN) 1. Marked by irreverence toward that which is considered sacred. 2. Heathen; pagan; secular. 3. Vulgar, coarse. 4. (as a verb), To debase or treat with sacrilegious contempt. This word contains the Latin word for temple, fanum. The reason: in ancient Rome, certain rites were open only to those select persons who'd been initiated into the religions' holy mysteries. Everyone else was considered pro fano -- or, in Latin, "before" (or in this case, "outside of") the temple. Pro fano led to the Latin adjective profanus, the ancestor of our own word that describes something irreverent, profane. (See also fanatic.) "According to the American Library Association, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Alice Walker's The Color Purple were among the ten books most often targeted for banning in 1999 -- in part because they contain profane language." prolix (PROH-liks) Tediously lengthy; wordy. The Latin source of this word, prolixus, literally means "poured forth." (In fact, it's an etymological relative of liquid.) "One imagines JenniCam fans around the world feverishly parsing her words, in the same way Western scholars hunted for hidden meaning in Mao's prolix orations."--Thomas Nord, musing in the Louisville Courier-Journal about JenniCam.org, which offers real-time, real-life views of a young woman's daily life. protean (PROH-tee-uhn) Changing, variable, shifting in shape or form; exhibiting considerable diversity. Proteus was a wise Greek god who lived in a cave on the beach. He was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but those who wished to ask Proteus about the future had a hard time pinning him down-- literally -- for he also possessed the ability to change his shape at will. When Odysseus and his men tried to wrestle some information out of him, the shape-shifting Proteus changed into a lion, a leopard, a boar, fluid water, and finally a huge tree, before getting tired enough to give up and tell them what they needed to know. "Meryl's protean talents have made her a star." psephologist (see-FALL-oh-jist) A political scientist specializing in the study of elections. In ancient Greece, people sometimes cast votes using pebbles of various colors, depending on their choice. The Greek word for "pebble" was "psephos," the source of this fancy term for an electoral analyst. In the same way, a "psephocrat" is an "elected leader." "I'm no psephologist, but I just can't imagine that his new earth-tone wardrobe is making that much of a difference, can you?" psithurism (SITH-err-iz-um) A low whispering sound, such as the rustle of leaves. A words that sounds like what it means, psithurism comes from the Greek psythurisma, which means "a whispering." "One of the things I love about autumn is the psithurism that accompanies a walk in the woods." psittacine (SIT-uh-syn) Resembling, characteristic of, or pertaining to parrots. This word, from the Latin psittacus, meaning "parrot," can refer literally to a parrot, or describe the parrot-like behavior of someone. (According the Oxford English Dictionary, a writer in 1938 used a related word when wryly observing, "Speaking without knowing is called 'psittacism,' but it is a practice not confined to parrots.") "To run for office these days requires a psittacine willingness to repeat the same old phrases, again and again and again and again." puckeroo (puck-uh-ROO) Useless, broken. This useful bit of New Zealand slang derives directly from the Maori language, where pakaru means "broken." "'What'll I do? My Palm Pilot's puckeroo!'" puckish (PUCK-ish) Mischievous; impish. In Middle English, "the pouke" referred to an evil, malicious spirit, and often specifically to the devil of Judaeo-Christian tradition. However, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare rehabilitated this goblin's image, portraying him as a merry trickster. Someone who's puckish is similarly impish, as in the following lines from E.B. White's description of William Strunk, Jr., his mentor and collaborator on The Elements of Style: "From every line there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache." pulchritude (PULL-krih-tood or PULL-krih-tyood) Great beauty. Take a beginning Latin class and one of the first words you'll learn is pulcher, meaning "beautiful." It's the source of English pulchritude, which denotes physical beauty. "In 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance, Variety reported: "When it comes to pep, pulchritude, punch and presentation, the Harlem places have Broadway's distanced."--Nina Siegal in the New York Times. pulviscular (puhl-VISS-kew-lurr) Dusty; resembling fine powder. The only place I've seen this word is in a book by literary critic Italo Calvino. Perhaps Calvino's translator coined it himself, based on the Italian word pulviscolo, which means "fine dust." (It's a relative of pulverize.) Pulviscular may not appear in English dictionaries -- yet -- but its use here was so lovely, and so apt, that we can only hope word-lovers everywhere will make sure that this evocative term enjoys wider use. "A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off." -- Why Read The Classics? by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin. pusillanimous (pyoo-suh-LAN-uh-mus) Cowardly; lacking courage or resolution; faint-hearted; timid. It's from Latin pusillanimis,meaning "petty-spirited" (a combination of pusillus meaning "very small, petty" and animus, meaning "spirit"). Its noun form, pusillanimity means "timidity" or "cowardliness." "Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth -- or slinks through slimy seas has a brain!" -- The Wizard of Oz to the Scarecrow, from the script of the 1939 film classic, "The Wizard of Oz." Pyrrhic (PIR-ik) A costly victory; a win that nevertheless entails staggering losses. One of Alexander the Great's second cousins, King Pyrrhus of Epirus, ruled part of what's now northern Greece. In 279 B.C., King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans in a major battle at Asculum, but his army suffered tremendous casualties. This prompted Pyrrhus to exclaim, "One more such victory and I am undone!" or words to that effect. So today when we speak of a Pyrrhic victory, we mean one that's costly to the victor as well as the vanquished. "An attorney for the losing side in the case of Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale described the Scouts' Supreme Court win as 'a Pyrrhic victory.'" -- from an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Q Spacer Return to Learn a New Word quagga (KWAG-uh) A zebralike animal of southern Africa, extinct since about 1870. Here's a word every crossword-puzzler should know. Quagga may come from a native word meaning "striped." "I'm afraid that this, too, may go the way of the quagga." quidnunc (KWID-nungk) A nosy person; a busybody or gossip. Here's a great one: Latin quid nunc literally means "What now?" This term for someone who's always asking "What now?" or "What's the news?" -- that is, an overly inquisitive person -- was first recorded in English in 1709. "Oh yes, the condo is wonderful and you'll love the neighborhood, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn that you’ll be living next door to a pair of quidnuncs.” quincunx (KWIN-kungks) Five objects arranged in the same pattern as the dots on the "5" side of a die. If you're a crossword-puzzle fan, then you may already know that the ancient Romans used a coin they called an as. They also had a smaller coin that was worth only five-twelfths of an as. They called this coin a quincunx (from the Latin for "five-twelfths"). To distinguish it from other coins, the quincunx was marked with a pattern of five spots -- one in the middle and one in each of four corners. The coin has disappeared, but the name of this distinctive pattern lives on, describing such things as an arrangement of trees in an orchard. "White Castle hamburgers -- also known as 'sliders' or 'beef cookies' -- are square meat patties bearing five holes arranged in a quincunx, and topped with limp, greasy onions." quotidian (kwoh-TIHD-ee-uhn) 1. Everyday, commonplace, ordinary 2. Recurring daily. This comes from the Latin quotidie meaning "each day." "Celebrated today for the dazzling eloquence with which he inventoried Depression-era America, Walker Evans gave photography a whole new language, the vernacular of the quotidian." -- Vanity Fair (c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette R Spacer Return to Learn a New Word Rashomon (RAH-shoh-mohn) A complex story told from several different points of view. You probably won't find this one in dictionaries, though it pops up from time to time in modern prose. It's an allusion to Akira Kurosawa's 1950 movie, Rashomon, which won that year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The movie portrays two two violent crimes from several people's points of view, demonstrating that because the individuals' perceptions vary so widely, discovering the objective truth about what happened is impossible. In 1994, a writer for Vanity Fair put it to good use this way: "When you talk to any of Mrs. Clinton's longtime intimates, the Hillary that emerges is so different from her public persona that the exercise assumes the surreal quality of a Rashomon experience." rebarbative (ree-BAR-buh-tihv) Irritating, repellent. This prickly word has a "beard" in the middle of it: The barb in rebarbative goes all the way back to the Latin barba, meaning "beard." (And yes, Latin barba is a linguistic relative of English barber.) From Latin barba evolved Middle French se rebarber, which means "to confront or resist." In its most literal sense, though, se rebarber meant "to face (an enemy)", that is, to come "beard-to-beard" with him. From se rebarber came the French adjective rebarbatif, meaning "repellent," the inspiration for the English word for "causing annoyance, irritation, or aversion." "Still, everyone appeared to be extremely nice, except that that Dr. Greenfield man was a trifle rebarbative. (This was a word which Toby had recently learnt at school and could not now conceive of doing without.)" - from "The Bell," by Iris Murdoch recondite (RECK-uhn-dyte) 1. Difficult to undertand, obscure, abstruse. 2. Hidden, concealed. It's from Latin recondire, meaning "to put away." "Wayne loves nothing better than to spend whole evenings surfing the Web in search of obscure knowledge--and the more recondite, the better." recrudescence (ree-kroo-DESS-enss) A new outbreak; a renewal of activity after a period of inactivity or dormancy. Recrudescence comes from the Latin word recrudescere, which means "to grow raw again," and once literally referred to worsening wounds. (In fact, both recrudescence and the English word crude share a common root in the Latin word crudus -- literally "raw" or "bloody.") In the 18th and 19th centuries, recrudescence was used negatively sense, as in 1884, when a newspaper noted: "The fears of a recrudescence of the epidemic are now subsiding."). Nowadays, however, this word can also be used in a neutral sense, or even a positive one. "Millenarian Christian belief, which has experienced a populist recrudescence in the United States in the past decade, has a long, fevered tradition dating back to the first century A.D., when the most passionate Christians believed that the Second Coming (of Christ) was immediately at hand, and that martyrdom at the hands of their Roman oppressors, often in terrifying circumstances, was to be welcomed, even courted." -- Joyce Carol Oates, in a New York Times essay redolent (RED-oh-luhnt) 1. Fragrant, sweet-smelling. 2. Evocative or suggestive of. Redolent comes from Latin redolere, which means "to smell." It's a relative of olfactory" and odor. This word is often followed by either "of" or "with." "At this time of year, our lovely street is snowy with dogwoods and redolent of lilacs." redoubtable (rih-DOW-tuh-buhl) 1. Formidable; something to be feared. 2. Awe-inspiring, deserving honor or respect. This word derives from French redouter, meaning "to dread." And yes, it's related to the English word doubt, which, interestingly enough, once also meant "fear." (In the early 1600s, for example, a writer noted "St. Ann's Chapel is very near the sea, yet doubts not drowning.") "Brazil will need all of Ronaldo's redoubtable skills, because it opens its World Cup defense against Scotland with a queasy sense of dread." -- from a New York Times story about Brazilian soccer star "Ronaldo". rictus (RICK-tuss) 1. The gape of a mouth. 2. A wide-open bird's beak. 3. A gaping grimace. Rictus is borrowed directly from the Latin, where's it's the past participle of ringi, meaning "to gape." The plural is either rictus or rictuses. New Yorker writer Anthony Lane used this word in a review of the movie "Chicken Run." (You should know that the movie is the creation of Nick Park, the same guy who made films using the popular plasticine characters named Wallace and Gromit). Here is Lane's doozy of a sentence: "Still, even without Wallace and Gromit, most of the trademark joys are here: the compound of squashy creatures and heavy machinery, the wide, open-ended rictus of a toothy smile, and the great Parkian gulp -- the most accurate index of plucky panic since Bob Hope made that "rrrhhooww" sound at the back of his throat whenever Jane Russell ("the two and only Jane Russell," as he called her) came his way." rowel (RAU-ull) The spiked wheel on a spur. (Or, as a verb, to goad, vex, or spur.) Rowel (rhymes with "towel") derives from an Old French term meaning "small wheel," which itself goes all the way back to Latin "rota," or "wheel." This makes rowel a linguistic relative of rotate and the name of that wheel-shaped Italian pasta, rotelli. "Will you stop roweling me with questions already?" ruction (RUCK-shun) A noisy fight; a disturbance; an uproar; a riot. The roots of ruction are uncertain, although there's some evidence that it's an alteration of the word insurrection. The word ruction first appeared in English around 1825, as did the phrase to raise a ruction -- that is, "to start a quarrel." The word ruction appeared in an observation from 1900 by one F.P. Dunne, who noted, "That's life in America. 'Tis a gloryous big fight, a rough an' tumble fight, a Donnybrook fair three thousan' miles wide an' a ruction in ivry block." Another example from 1943, in the Baltimore Sun: "As a result of this little ruction, Baltimore is freed from the grip of a political coalition which boded no good for the city." S Spacer Return to Learn a New Word Salisbury steak (SAHLZ-ber-ee or SAHLZ-bree STAYK) A patty of finely chopped beef mixed with eggs, milk, and other seasonings, which is then fried, boiled or baked. Among those caught up in the health craze seizing America in the late 19th century was American physician James Henry Salisbury (1823-1905). An enthusiastic advocate of shredding all of one's food to make it more disgestible, Salisbury offered his patients this tasty prescription: eat shredded beef three times a day, and chase it with a cup of hot water. During the Civil War, Salisbury also devised a so-called "meat cure" to combat frequent outbreaks of "camp diarrhea" among soldiers. Consisting of chopped beef and similar seasonings, this "cure" was later adapted into the modern meat dish, which now bears the well-intentioned doctor's name. "Um . . . I think I just changed my mind about ordering the Salisbury steak." salmagundi (sal-muh-GUHN-dee) An assortment; a mishmash or potpourri. In its original sense, salmagundi means "a salad of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions arranged on lettuce and served with vinegar and oil." This word's origin is obscure, though some suspect it derives from an Old French word meaning "salted food." As happened with the names over several other foods, salmagundi has also acquired the more general meaning of "a mixture, assortment." A fine example of this sense occurred in 1797, when one writer wryly observed: "His mind was a sort of salmagundi." Salisbury steak (SAHLZ-ber-ee or SAHLZ-bree STAYK) A patty of finely chopped beef mixed with eggs, milk, and other seasonings, which is then fried, boiled or baked. Among those caught up in the health craze seizing America in the late 19th century was American physician James Henry Salisbury (1823-1905). An enthusiastic advocate of shredding all of one's food to make it more disgestible, Salisbury offered his patients this tasty prescription: eat shredded beef three times a day, and chase it with a cup of hot water. During the Civil War, Salisbury also devised a so-called "meat cure" to combat frequent outbreaks of "camp diarrhea" among soldiers. Consisting of chopped beef and similar seasonings, this "cure" was later adapted into the modern meat dish, which now bears the well-intentioned doctor's name. "Um . . . I think I just changed my mind about ordering the Salisbury steak." salmagundi (sal-muh-GUHN-dee) An assortment; a mishmash or potpourri. In its original sense, salmagundi means "a salad of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions arranged on lettuce and served with vinegar and oil." This word's origin is obscure, though some suspect it derives from an Old French word meaning "salted food." As happened with the names over several other foods, salmagundi has also acquired the more general meaning of "a mixture, assortment." A fine example of this sense occurred in 1797, when one writer wryly observed: "His mind was a sort of salmagundi." samizdat (SAH-miz-daht) 1. An underground publishing system with the Soviet Union, for the private production and circulation of forbidden works. 2. Literature produced and distributed through such a system. Pronounced a little differently in Russian (more like "suh-myizz-DAHT"), this word was first adapted into English in the 1960s. Samizdat is adapted from the Russian words sam, meaning "self," and izdatel'stvo meaning "publishing house." (Thus the word samizdat is an etymological relative of the term for a type of metal urn used in Russia to heat water for tea -- a samovar, a name that derives from words that literally mean "self boil.") Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan used samizdat recently in a Wall Street Journal essay: "Shut out of television and eager for news, conservatives have turned in the past 20 years to radio. And so now radio is conservative, and full of uproar. The Internet too is conservative, and full of information, of samizdat." sardonic (sahr-DAHN-ik) Scornfully derisive; characterized by bitter mocking. The ancients believed that a certain plant native to the Mediterranean isle of Sardinia would cause terrible effects if eaten. Anyone unlucky enough to nibble a leaf of this deadly herb would suffer facial convulsions that resembled horrible laughter, then promptly expire. The Greeks called those death throes Sardonios gelos or "Sardinian laughter." This grisly image remains faintly visible in our word sardonic. "The new buzz cut had its charms, of course, and the nose ring--well, she figured she could used to it--but it was Terry's sardonic wit, more than anything else, that Vanessa found so alluring." sartorial (sar-TORR-ee-ull) 1. Pertaining to a tailor, or to tailored clothes. 2. Having to do with clothes in general. This word derives from the Latin word sartor, meaning "tailor." (Incidentally, the body's longest muscle, which is found in the thigh, is called the sartorius. It's so called because the sartorius is the muscle that allows a person to sit cross-legged, as tailors often do while working.) This word turned up in pool coverage that New York Times reporter Frank Bruni provided his colleagues while they were all camped out in Austin awaiting the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. (During slow news days there, members of the media reportedly were so bored that they as they took to writing ever more elaborate pool reports to amuse each other.) "The governor himself was clean-shaven, and had clearly accomplished that task with the requisite agility, as there was not an adhesive bandage anywhere on his face. He was now only 10 yards or so from the building, and he was moving fast -- so fast that a complete sartorial appraisal was not possible, though I'm sure there will be TV images played all day, and these will allow the interested to deconstruct his wardrobe." satire (SAT-yre) 1. A literary work that attacks folly with wit or irony. 2. Sarcasm, irony, or biting wit used to poke fun at folly or stupidity. The drama festivals of ancient Rome often served up medleys of satirical verse. This mixture of various kinds of poetry was known as a lanx satura (which means "full dish" in Latin). This name was most likely an allusion to the tradition of piling a similarly eclectic mixture of foods on a plate before sacrificing it to the gods. This use of the expression lanx satura, or "full plate" to denote a mixture of bitingly funny verses eventually led to our own word for any similarly sarcastic work, satire. "Beaver College, aiming to shed a source of ridicule and boost enrollment, unveiled Monday a new school name that's seemingly satire-proof: Arcadia University." -- from an Associated Press wire story schadenfreude (SHAHD-n-froy-duh) Malicious enjoyment of other people's misfortunes. This word comes from German Schade, meaning "damage" and Freude meaning "joy." In English, it's sometimes capitalized and sometimes not. "That night, after Joel got kicked off the island, we all cheered wildly, slapped each other on the back, then raised our coconut shells in a moment of celebration and schadenfreude." schnorrer (SHNOR-urr) A parasite or moocher; someone who borrows with no intention of repaying, or who wheedles others into doing things for him. This useful word first appeared in English in the 1890s. It's from Yiddish shnorer, meaning a "beggar" or "sponger." It's from an old German word, snurren, which means to "hum," and apparently refers to the fact that some beggars used to try to get attention by playing pipes. J.D. Salinger used schnorrer in his 1962 novel Franny & Zooey: "I had lunch with him one day a couple of weeks ago. A real schnorrer, but sort of likable." Then there was the 1977 article in The New Yorker that included the thought-provoking line (and sorry I don't have any more of the context): "Investigate your own pants, you schnorrer." scintillating (SIN-tihl-ay-ting) Sparkling, shining, dazzling. This word comes from Latin scintilla, or "spark" -- the same "spark" or "tiny particle" found in the English phrase, not one scintilla. Latin scintilla also gave us another shiny English word, tinsel. "When their conversation proved less than scintillating, Vanessa tried to impress her date by performing that little trick with the spoons." sciolist (SYE-uh-list) A conceited, superficial pretender to knowledge. Now here's a word that certainly deserves wider use. First appearing in the early 17th century, sciolist derives from the word Latin sciolus, meaning "one who knows little." (Interestingly, sciolus is the diminutive of scius, the Latin word for "knowing" -- and a relative of such words as science and omniscient.) Other words in this family include sciolism, which means "superficial knowledge" and sciolistic, meaning "characteristic of a sciolist." "Television talk shows have become a vast wasteland populated almost entirely by sciolists." scuttlebutt (SKUT-ull-buht) Gossip. In nautical language, a scuttle is a hole cut out of ship in order to sink it. (That's why we speak of a project being scuttled, as in "They had to scuttle today's shuttle launch.") Sailing ships once kept their drinking water in a butt, or "cask" on deck. In order to keep the water fresh, a small hole was cut out of it. For this reason, the cask called the scuttlebutt. Naturally, sailors would gather at the scuttlebutt not only to get a drink, but to gossip, much the way we do around the water cooler or coffee machine today. Eventually the name of the place where rumors were exchanged came to be applied to the rumors themselves. "The scuttlebutt is that there's a photo of the candidate dancing nude on top of a bar, but no one's been able to find it." seersucker (SEER-suck-urr) A light, thin fabric with a striped, crinkled surface. One of the most delicious words in all of English, seersucker comes ultimately from Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, "milk and sugar" -- a picturesque reference to the way its smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that resemble thin lines of sugar. “We weren't quite sure what to make of the fact that Marvin showed up at that black-tie dinner in a seersucker suit .” serendipity (ser-uhn-DIP-ih-tee) Good luck in making happy, unexpected discoveries. Serendipity is a made-up word, and we have English author and historian Horace Walpole to thank for it. In 1754, Walpole wrote a letter claiming he'd coined this word, basing it on a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip." The reason, he said, was that the tale's heroes 'were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'" Serendip, by the way, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka. "Why," Vanessa ventured, smoothing her little black dress and trying to sound surprised, "running into each other here like this is enough to make you believe in serendipity, isn't it?" sesquipedalian (SESS-kwih-puh-DAY-lee-un) 1. Characteristic of a long word. 2. Given to using long words. Sesquipedalian comes from the Latin root sesqui-, which means "one and a half" (as in sesquicentennial, which refers to a period of "150 years"). The pedal in sesquipedalian comes from the Latin stem ped- meaning "foot" (as in pedal and pedestrian). "As my sesquipedalian friend is fond of observing, 'The word sesquipedalian is rather sesquipedalian.'" shambles (SHAM-bulls) A mess. Although today a shambles can be anything from a messy room or a disintegrating political career, this word originally had a more grisly meaning. It derives from Middle English shamel, which first referred to "a portable stall in a marketplace for the butchering and sale of meat." For some 300 years after that, the word shambles specifically meant "slaughterhouse." "I'd invite you in," she fibbed, "but you see, I've been out of town, and the people who were housesitting for me turned this place into a complete shambles." shibboleth (SHIHB-uh-lith) 1. A custom, practice, or pronunciation that betrays someone as an outsider. 2. A catchword or slogan. 3. A truism repeated so often and mindlessly as to become nearly meaningless. The Hebrew word shibboleth means either "an ear of corn" or a "torrent of water." But the word itself once served as a life-and-death verbal test. According to Judges 12:6, whenever the Gileadites suspected that an enemy Ephramite was in their midst, they demanded that he pronounce the wordshibboleth. Ephraimites typically pronounced it "sibboleth," so anyone who said it without the "sh" sound was instantly identified and slain on the spot. Shibboleth was initially used in English to mean a "telltale linguistic giveaway." This meaning later expanded to include the sense of "a catchword adopted by a particular group," and eventually, "a platitude or tired truism." "But there are still some within our country who wrongly believe they can make a contribution to the cause of justice and peace by clinging to the shibboleths that have been proved to spell nothing but disaster." -- Nelson Mandela, in his speech accepting the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. skep (skep) A beehive, particularly one made of twisted straw. Trust me, someday you'll find yourself working a crossword puzzle with "beehive" as the clue, and you'll be oh-so-glad that you know that this word. Skep comes from an Old Norse word for "basket," and indeed, although you may be skeptical about the word skepful, it's a perfectly legitimate synonym for "a basketful." "Bees like herbs, so plant some around your skep." -- From beeskep.com, which will tell you more than you ever imagined about skeps. skosh (skohsh) A small amount; a bit, a tad. Skosh comes from the Japanese word sukoshi, which means "a little bit." This word was apparently picked up in the 1950s by U.S. soldiers on overseas tours of duty. Today, skosh is sometimes used as an adjective meaning "little" or "few," as in "We had skosh time". It also appears in the the phrase skosh on, as in "I'm skosh on cash at the moment." "Could I have just a skosh of cream in that, please?" skulduggery (skull-DUG-uh-ree) Trickery; dishonest or deceitful behavior. This word is sexier than you might think: It's apparently an alteration of the Scots word sculduddery, which means "fornication" or "obscenity." (Come to think of it, even this word's spelling is tricky, considering that it's also correctly rendered as skullduggery or sculduggery or even scullduggery.) "Watergate was such a sensational piece of skulduggery."-- the London Times slob (slahb) A person who's untidy, boorish, or crude. One story making the rounds these days is that slob derives from the Serbian name, Slobodan. Don't believe it. It derives instead from Irish Gaelic slab, meaning "mud" -- specifically the soft oozing kind typically found at the edge of the sea. In English, slab may have morphed into slob partly due to the influence of the older, similar-sounding words slobber and slaver -- the latter being used as a verb meaning "to drool," and a noun meaning "gibberish or drivel". In Serbo-Croatian, by the way, the name Slobodan derives from the noun slobada (sloh-BAH-dah), which, interestingly enough, means "freedom." "But Darling, remember when you used to say that being a slob was one of my most endearing qualities?" smaze (smayz) A mixture of smoke and haze. You know about smog, a mixture of the words smoke and fog. Most dictionaries also include the handy word smaze, a combination of smoke and haze? While the word smog has been around since the early 1900s, smaze is of relatively recent vintage, dating back only to 1950s. "I say, the smaze in this place never ceases to amaze." snickersnee (SNICK-urr-snee) 1. A knife fight. 2. A large knife. Say the word snickersnee and you can almost hear the blades scrape against each other. It's sometimes spelled snick and snee or snick-a-snee -- but any way you slice it, this expression derives from Dutch steken en snijden, which literally means "to thrust and cut." "Oh, never shall I / Forget the cry, / Or the shriek that shrieked he, / As I gnashed my teeth, / When from its sheath / I drew my snickersnee!" -- Gilbert & Sullivan, "The Mikado." snollygoster (also spelled snallygaster) (SNALL-ee-goss-ter) An unscrupulous but shrewd person, especially a politician. In parts of rural America, parents sometimes kept unruly kids in line with warnings about the evil snallygaster, a nocturnal monster that preyed on chickens and naughty children. Part bird, part reptile, it struck with terrifying swiftness--hence the name snallygaster, from Pennsylvania Dutch words meaning "quick spirit," which eventually morphed into snollygoster. "What a relief the old snollygoster can't run for another term!" soccer (SOCK-urr) A game in which two teams of 11 players try to propel a ball into the opponents' goal without using their hands. Various forms of soccer have been played for centuries, but the sport became official in 1863 when the London Football Association issued a formal set of rules for the game. It was therefore called association football, and later simply, assoc. Around the same time students at Oxford University were in the habit of playfully ending various words with "-er" or "-ers" ( brekkers for "breakfast," and rugger for "rugby"). So assoc soon became soccer. "Hey, if my bod looked like that, I'd whip off my soccer jersey, too." sockdolager (Also spelled sockdologer) (sock-DOLL-uh-jurr) 1. A decisive blow 2. Something exceptional in any respect. Sockdolager can apply to several different things: a knock-out blow in a fight, a hard-hitting remark that wins an argument, or anything especially big or otherwise outstanding . No one's sure how the word sockdolager came to be, although it may be connected with the verb "to sock." It could be that it's one of several long, silly words coined or popularized in the mid-1800s, when Americans delighted in such funny-sounding mouthfuls as "hornswoggle" and "callithumpian." A bit of historical trivia: A form of the word sockdolager figured in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As an actor, John Wilkes Booth knew that the biggest laugh line in the play "Our American Cousin" would be, "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap!" So Booth waited until that line, and then as the audience roared, he fired his gun and fled. "The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away . . . then 'rip' comes another flash and another sockdologer." -- Mark Twain soi-disant (swah-dee-ZAHN) 1.Self-styled. 2. So-called or pretended. English speakers borrowed this expression whole from the French, where it literally means "saying oneself." Soi-disant is used to fine effect on a Berkeley-based website's page devoted to the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO, you may recall, made headlines a few years back when they bought a bunch of Barbies and GI Joes, switched their voiceboxes, then returned them to toy store shelves: "So, for instance, the 'new' Barbie says "Eat lead, Cobra" and Joe now says "Let's plan our dream wedding". In this era when soi-disant Liberation Organizations of every stripe are spreading sadness and fear, isn't it good to hear of one group actually doing something practical?" solecism (SAHL-uh-sizz-uhm or SOHL-uh-sizz-um) 1. A nongrammatical usage or error. 2. A breach of etiquette. 3. An error, inconsistency, or impropriety. The ancient Greeks colonized an area they called Soli, in what is now part of modern Turkey. In antiquity, this colony's inhabitants supposedly spoke Greek, but to the Athenians, their speech sounded uncouth, full of mispronounced words, slurred speech, and whopping grammatical mistakes. The Athenians referred to such speech as soloikismos (in other words, the speech "of Soli"). This term found its way into Latin as soloecismus, and eventually into English as solecism. "'That's right, Matthew,' the teacher said approvingly, "'I could of been a contender' is a fine example of a solecism." sough (SUFF or SOW) To make a soft murmuring or rustling sound. There are a couple of options for pronouncing this word. In either case, it refers to the type of gentle, soothing sound made by wind or water. As a verb, sough means to make such a sound. "That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote."--Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre spam (spam) To flood online mailboxes with unsolicited messages. Offline, of course, Spam refers to tins of compressed meat. A few years ago, hackers began using spam as verb meaning "to crash a computer program by entering too much data" or to "flood newsgroups with irrelevant postings." Apparently this use was inspired by the menu-reciting waiter in the immortal "Monty Python" sketch: "Well, there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg, bacon and Spam; egg, bacon, sausage, and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, egg, Spam Spam, bacon, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, egg, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy, and a fried egg on top of Spam." Which pretty much sums up the feeling of being spammed electronically, don't you think? "Gartner Group, a consultancy in Stamford, Conn., last year conducted a survey that showed that 84 percent of Internet users have received spam. Sixty-three percent of the recipients say they "dislike it a lot" 20 percent "dislike it somewhat" 14 percent are neutral, and only three percent like it, or say they have some use for it." -- Infoworld, 1/24/2000 spanghew (SPANG-hew) To cause a toad or frog to go flying into the air. Now here's something you may need a word for sometime. The "spang" in this word apparently derives from a Scottish word meaning "to spring, leap, or throw." The "hew" is of uncertain origin. More generally, "spanghew" can also mean "to throw or jerk violently." "Their furtive little lunchtime tete-a-tete was proceeding quite nicely - that is, until the moment when Marvin recognized his wife's voice across the restaurant and flew out of his chair as if he'd been spanghewed." spartle (SPAR-tull) To move the body or limbs in a sprawling or struggling manner. That's the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, anyway, which explains that spartle is a Scots dialect term, and a relative of Dutch and German words that describe the same kind of movement. "Well, honey, it'd be a heck of a lot easier to diaper little Jimmy if he wouldn't spartle so much!" sphairistic (sfair-IST-ik) Tennis-playing. You don't see this word very often in the sports pages. Sphairistic comes from the Greek sphairistikos which means for "playing ball." (It's a distant relative of sphere.) In the early 1870s a retired British cavalryman, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, invented a game somewhat similar to badminton. In keeping with the nineteenth-century British love of classical civilization, he proudly dubbed this new game spharistike (pronounced "sfair-RIST-ik-ee") The Times of London explained in 1927: "The name 'sphairistike,' however, was impossible (if only because people would pronounce it as a word of three syllables to rhyme with 'pike'), and it was soon rechristened." It then became lawn tennis, which eventually shortened into tennis. "Brian's sphairistic prowess is something to behold." spraints (SPRAYNTS) Otter droppings. Well, who knows? Maybe someday you'll need an 8-letter word for what an otter leaves behind. (By the way, don't confuse spraints with fumets, which are left behind by deer, or crottels, which are left behind by bunnies.) "No, no, no, I keep telling you -- those aren't spraints, they're fumets!" sprezzatura (SPRETTS-ah-TOO-ruh) Nonchalance, effortlessness. Here's a lovely word that we've borrowed directly from Italian, where it means "ease of manner" or "studied carelessness." You'll be all the more impressive if you toss it off with a little sprezzatura yourself. "Now then, try playing all those arpeggios again, this time with sprezzatura." stemwinder (STEM-wyn-durr) 1. A watch that requires winding. 2. Something remarkable of its kind. 3. A rousing speech, especially a political one. Back in Ye Olden Days, long before the birth of quartz-powered and digital watches, people had to use a separate little key to wind their pocket watches. Shortly the Civil War, watchmakers figured out how to make timepieces that could be wound using a permanently attached stem. These innovative stemwinders proved so popular that the name also came to apply to anything similarly outstanding or remarkable.("He's a stemwinder and go-getter," wrote one author in 1926.) These days stemwinder is most often applied to an especially stirring political speech. "After all the calls to unity, a stemwinder in the old tradition from Hubert Humphrey, appearances by Muskie and Kennedy, Sargent Shriver was formally nominated for Vice-President." -- Theodore White, in The Making of the President. stentorian (sten-TOR-ee-uhn) Having an extremely loud voice. During the Greeks' siege of Troy, one herald stood out among all the others. His name was Stentor, and he's described in the Iliad as having "a voice of bronze" and a shout "as loud as the cry of fifty men." Stentor supposedly died during a vocal contest with Hermes, who served as herald for the Gods, but his name lives on in this English adjective. "Then, after we'd all shifted our liripoops, we had to endure a rambling speech by a stentorian valedictorian." sternutation (sturr-nyuh-TAY-shun) 1. The act of sneezing. 2. A sneeze. This comes from Latin sternutatio, which means "a sneezing." "According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest known bout of sternutation occurred when Donna Griffiths, an English schoolgirl, began sneezing on January 13, 1981 -- and, poor thing, didn't stop until 978 days later." stilliform (STILL-uh-form) Shaped like a drop. One of the most beautiful words in the English language, stilliform means "drop-shaped." It's from Latin stilla, "drop," and a relative of the drippy words distill (to "drip down") and instill, "to put in drop by drop" -- or as the OED puts it, "To introduce (some immaterial principle, notion, feeling, or quality) little by little into the mind, soul, heart, etc.; to cause to enter by degrees; to infuse slowly or gradually; to insinuate." Anyway, I like stilliform partly because those long, thin letters -- the t-i-l-l-i-f in the middle -- look kind of, well, drippy. "Why no, there wasn't anything stilliform com Stockholm syndrome (STOCK-hohm SIN-drohm) A process in which hostages bond with their captors. In 1973, four bank employees in Stockholm, Sweden were taken hostage and held for 131 hours, during which they not only grew sympathetic to their two captors, but actually came to fear the police. Afterward, they praised the captors for having "given their lives back," and visited them in prison. A female hostage even went on to marry one of the hostage-takers. Psychologists say this phenomenon, later dubbed the Stockholm syndrome, is a defense mechanism for coping with extreme fear and complete helplessness. A more recent example apparently occurred during the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet, when some passengers became friendly with one terrorist, sharing jokes, singing songs, and even exchanging gifts with him. Nowadays, this expression is sometimes used more abstractly, as when Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg mused on what to report about the Iowa presidential primary: "I could describe the 'Stockholm syndrome' on the Gore and Bradley press buses, and the scene in the Marriott bar last night." stogy (STOH-gee) A cheap cigar. One of the first cigar-making factories in the U.S. was located in Conestoga, a village in southeastern Pennsylvania. A shortened form of this place's name, stogy, came to be applied to the product made there. Less often, the word stogy refers to a coarse, broad shoe. (In either case, this word is sometimes spelled stogie.) "Why yes, darling, that evening dress looks divine, but -- how to say this? -- the stogy really must go." Sturm und Drang (SHTOORM oont DRAHNG) Turmoil, tumult, upheaval. Literally "storm and stress" in German, Sturm und Drang originally referred to a late 18th-century literary movement characterized by passionate emotion, stormy action, and works that often concern an individual's rebellion against society. The phrase is borrowed from the title of the drama Sturm und Drang by one Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger. Jeff Goodell put this expression to good use a while back in a Rolling Stone profile of Steve Jobs: "Friends say the Sturm und Drang of the past few years has humbled Jobs ever so slightly; he is a devoted family man now, and on weekends, he can often be seen Rollerblading with his wife and two kids through the streets of Palo Alto." stymie (STY-mee) To thwart, stump, present an obstacle. This word found its way into English through the game of golf. Traditionally, a stymie occurred on the putting green when one player's ball stood between an opponent's ball and the hole. Like golf itself, stymie comes from Scotland, although this word's very earliest origins are obscure. "Yes, I can see how misplacing your car keys would stymie your efforts to get here on time, but would you mind telling me how in the world you managed to leave themin the refrigerator in the first place?" sub rosa (sub ROHZ-uh) In secret, confidentially. In Greek myth, Cupid was the son of Venus, a lusty goddess. In one myth, Cupid gave a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, in return for keeping quiet about Venus's many trysts. That story is said to have inspired the ancient practice of hanging a rose at secret meetings to remind participants that they were sworn to secrecy. This gave rise to the Latin phrase sub rosa, or literally "under the rose." For many years it was fashionable for plasterwork ceilings in dining rooms to feature a rose motif, assuring guests that their host would hold their conversations in confidence. And, beginning in the Middle Ages, a wood carving of a rose was placed the space over confessional doors in Catholic churches -- a silent guarantee that any sins confessed "under the rose" would remain secret. "If you don't mind, I'd prefer that we discuss this sub rosa." sui generis (SOO-eye JEN-ur-iss, or SOO-ee GEH-neh-riss) Unique. The Latin phrase sui generis literally means "of its own kind." English speakers adopted it intact. "The Democrats of Capitol Hill are not the Democrats of Austin. Texas Democrats are more like Republicans. Congressional Democrats are sui generis." -- former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal swan song A farewell appearance, pronouncement, action, or work. Many ancient Greeks believed that the swan, a bird that remains silent except for hissing when angry, would break that lifelong silence by singing a final song of unbelievable sweetness before the moment of its death. Apparently this tradition has no basis in fact, but the idea has been embraced in several cultures. It's reflected, for example, in the German word Schwanenlied, which means the same thing. Apparently the German expression inspired the English equivalent, first used by Thomas Carlyle in 1831: "The Phoenix soars aloft . . .or, as now, she sinks, and with spheral swan-song immolates herself in flame." "Boris Becker's Wimbledon swan song is showing signs of becoming an aria." -- Robin Finn, writing in the New York Times about Becker's surprising victories at the 1999 Wimbledon tournament. sybaritic (sib-uh-RIT-ik) Devoted to sensuality, pleasure, and luxurious living. In the 8th century B.C., some Greeks set out to form a colony called Sybaris, located on the shores of southern Italy. The Sybarites grew so prosperous that their name soon became synonymous with a devotion to luxury and pursuit of pleasure. It didn't last long, though. Sybaris later proved an easy mark for invaders, who razed the city and diverted a river to cover the ruins. "And so the two sybaritic septuagenarians stripped down to their Strumpfhosen and sank into the sumptuous (but waterless) tub - well, the young puppy of a clerk didn't know whether to avert his gaze or climb in with them, just to clinch the sale." - Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Disheveled Dictionary. sycophant (SICK-oh-funt) A self-serving flatterer; a parasite; a toady. The Latin word sycophanta and its Greek source sykophantes both mean "an informer." When sycophant first appeared in English in the mid-16th century, it was often used in that sense as well. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the English word also soon came to connote a "fawning flatterer" or "yes-man." What's even more of a puzzle, though, is the origin of the original Greek word sykophantes. It comes from sykon," the Greek word for "fig," and phainein, meaning "to show." No one's sure what the idea of "showing a fig" has to do with being "an informer." One theory is that it somehow refers to a time-honored obscene gesture that involves sticking the thumb between two fingers or into the mouth -- an action referred to in various languages as the fig. (This type of fig figures, for example, in Shakespeare's Henry V, where this obscene gesture is called either a figo or fig of Spain.) It may be that the ancients somehow connected the contemptuous act of being a secret "informer" with this similarly contemptuous action -- that is, with making an obscene "fig" behind someone's back. But no one knows for sure. By the way, the adjectival form of sycophant is sycophantic, which was used to fine effect recently by Jake Tapper in a Salon magazine story about the way that George P. Bush and Karenna Gore Schiff campaigned for their presidential-hopeful relatives: "At events and rallies they shake every hand, make eye contact, smile blindingly, greet every question and comment -- no matter how inane or sycophantic -- with what looks remarkably like interest." sylvan (SILL-vuhn) Pertaining to trees and forests; wooded. In Roman myth, Silvanus was a god of trees, fields, and forests. His name inspired the word sylvan. The source of the name Silvanus (and thus the word sylvan ) is Latin silva, which means "forest." Incidentally, sylvan is an etymological relative of such woodsy names as Sylvester and Sylvia, as well as Pennsylvania ("Penn's woods") named for the father of William Penn, the colony's founder. "Faint was the air with the odorous breath of magnolia blossoms, And with the heat of noon; and numberless sylvan islands, Fragrant and thickly embowered with blossoming hedges of roses, Near to whose shores they glided along, invited to slumber. Soon by the fairest of these their weary oars were suspended."--"Evangeline,"by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow symposium (sim-POH-zee-uhm) A meeting or conference to discuss one or more topics, especially one in which the participants make presentations to the other members. Although today we think of a symposium as a formal meeting or conference, its sounds as though such gatherings were much more fun in antiquity. In Latin, the word symposium literally means "a drinking party." It derives from Greek symposion, which literally means "a drinking-with." (Thus the word symposium is a relative of such words as potion and potable.) "I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to the symposium that comes after all the regularly scheduled ones tonight." syringe (suh-RINJ) An instrument used to inject or draw out fluids. This word has musical origins. Syringe comes from the Greek surinx, meaning "shepherd's pipe" (the kind you blow, not the kind you smoke) or "flute". This Greek root also produced the word for the tube-shaped organ that enables birds to sing: the English word syrinx, which of course also makes a darn good word if you're playing Scrabble. "Just where are you going with that syringe?" T Spacer Return to Learn a New Word tantalize (TAN-tuh-lyz) To tease or torment by displaying something appealing while keeping it out of reach. You know what this word means, of course. But did you know it derives from the name of a mythological king? In Greek tradition, good King Tantalus infuriated the gods by stealing their ambrosia and nectar -- the food and drink that conferred immortality -- and passing it along to mere mortals. To punish him, the gods forced poor Tantalus to spend eternity in a pool of water that receded when he reached down to drink from it. Over his head hung all kinds of luscious fruit, but whenever he tried to pluck some, it shrank away from his hand. Thus, to similarly withold something desired is to tantalize. "The little girls of Avonlea school always pooled their lunches, and to eat three raspberry tarts all alone or even to share them only with one's best chum would have forever and ever branded as 'awful mean' the girl who did it. And yet, when the tarts were divided among ten girls you just got enough to tantalize you." -- Lucy Maud Montgomery, on the topic of tart-swapping in Anne of Green Gables (a book which for some reason is wildly popular in Japan). tarmac (TARR-mack) 1. Pavement made from layers of crushed stone, smoothed and coated with a tar binder. 2. To make an aircraft sit on a taxiway. John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836) was a Scotsman who served as general surveyor for all of England's highways. McAdam popularized a method of building roads that was a big improvement over traditional dirt roads. It involved spreading layers of small, broken stones over a gently sloping roadbed, then using the weight of passing traffic to crush the stones into uniform size. In McAdam's honor, this was called macadamizing. Roadbuilders soon improved on this with tar-macadam, a method of smoothing the stones with a heavy roller, then adding tar to bind them. In 1903, Tarmac was registered as a proprietary name in the United States. Today we often hear it used generically, either as a noun or a verb. "In fact, Gore and Bush have completely reversed accessibility standards -- Gore comes back on Air Force 2 just about daily to rap with reporters, while with the exception of a brief Friday-night availability on a Florida tarmac a few weeks ago, Bush is hermetically sealed, safe from anyone who would ask him to explain his record or proposals." -- Jake Tapper, in Salon. tawdry (TAW-dree) Cheap and showy, gaudy. Of persons: low, mean, or base. Like many women of her day, the seventh-century Anglian princess Etheldreda was betrothed against her wishes. So, understandably, she fled to the Isle of Ely in the middle of the river Ouse, just north of Cambridge, England. There she established a religious house, served as its abbess, and eventually was canonized as St. Audrey. She died in 679 due to a throat tumor, which St. Audrey herself declared was divine punishment for the vanity of her youth, when she was overly fond of fine neckwear. In honor of St. Audrey, the townfolk of Ely held an annual fair, where merchants hawked frilly lace scarves they called St. Audrey's lace. Over time, this expression shortened to tawdry lace. Soon tacky imitations abounded, giving tawdry its later connotation of "cheap and pretentious." "For years, tawdry stories and haggard photographs have chronicled his messy divorces, his lawsuit to stop distribution of a nude videotape and his stint at the Betty Ford Clinic after a car accident." -- The New York Times on "Fraiser" star Kelsey Grammer. tchotchke (CHOCH-kuh) An inexpensive trinket, bauble, or ornament. This handy term can be spelled several ways, including tsatske, tsatskeleh, chachka, and chotchke. It comes from Yiddish, and made its first recorded appearance in English during the 1960s. I found this word especially useful a few years ago when writing an article for Salon about my visit to the International Wizard of Oz Club's special centennial convention: "At the other end of the spectrum were the 'Ozzies' for whom true fandom means collecting tchotchkes and gewgaws and kitsch (oh my!). In fact, it was hard to turn around without running into Oz memorabilia or people scrambling to find more of it -- everything from "If I Only Had a Brain" T-shirts to 1940s Oz-themed peanut butter cans to a newly authorized pillbox featuring Dorothy and Toto. (A Judy Garland pillbox? Hello?)" (You can read the whole article here.) tergiversate (tur-JIH-vur-sayt) 1. To equivocate; to use evasions or ambiguities. 2.To change sides; desert one's party, principles, or cause. This mouthful of a word has picturesque roots: It's from Latin tergum, which refers to the "back" and versare, which means "to turn." In its earliest sense, tergiversate meant to "turn one's back" on someone or something. "What I can't figure out is why most people still seem so unfazed by his shameless tendency to tergiversate." thank-you-ma'am (THANK-yoo-mam) A bump or hollow in a road. Why this silly name for a pothole or teeth-rattling bump in the road? The Oxford English Dictionary says this term was inspired by the fact that hitting one of these obstructions "causes persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour." Thank-you-ma'am in this sense has been around since at least 1849. Oliver Wendell Holmes used it nicely in The Guardian Angel: "Life's a road that's got a good many thank-you-ma'am's to go bumpin' over, says he." titivate (TIT-uh-vayt) To spruce up. Originally spelled tidivate, this word is apparently a combination of "tidy" and some word like elevate, cultivate or renovate. "The pied-a-terre she keeps in Rome includes a gigolo to press her pants, palpate her remote control, and titivate her terrazzo." -- Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Disheveled Dictionary. toady (TOH-dee) 1. Someone who defers to others for self-serving purposes; a yes man, a servile flatterer, a fawning parasite, a humble dependent. 2. To act like a toady. It was once widely believed throughout Europe that toads were poisonous. So when charlatans wanted to hawk their homemade cure-alls, they'd make an assistant eat (or pretend to eat) a toad. Afterward, the assistant would pretend to go into convulsions and drop dead, only to be miraculously revived by the charlatan. This forerunner of the infomercial proved convincing and profitable, at least for a while. In the meantime, toadeater and toady came to apply to the sort of person so contemptibly subservient that he's willing to do something similarly disgusting at someone else's behest. "Isabel looked up from her latest Harry Potter book just long enough to hiss, 'Don't you just hate how Wormtail never fails to toady to the evil Lord Voldemort?'" toff (toff) A stylishly dressed person, especially one who is or desires to be among the upper class. This chiefly British term first appeared in English in the mid-19th century. No one's sure of its origin, but many conjecture that toff is a variant of tuft, a reference to the gold tassel worn by titled students at Oxford and Cambridge. Toff appeared recently in British newspaper coverage of Madonna's recent wedding to Guy Ritchie: "One onlooker said: 'Madonna looked quite the English toff. She's obviously fallen in love with country life.'" tohubohu (TOH-hoo-BOH-hoo) A state of chaos, disorder, and utter confusion. This expression comes from a similar-sounding Hebrew phrase for "emptiness and desolation." In fact, it's the phrase used early in the book of Genesis, where the earth is described as being "without form and void." The modern English adaptation of this Hebrew phrase is spelled several ways, including tohu-bohu, tohu-vavohu, tohu-vabohu, and tohu and bohu. "Charlie had been warned, of course, that substitute teaching would be a challenge, but never in his wildest dreams had he imagined walking in to confront such a terrible tohubohu." towheaded (TOH-hed-ed) Having whitish or tousled hair. This adjective describes someone who has hair like tow, the substance defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "coarse broken flax or hemp fiber prepared for spinning." Amy Reiter used it a while back in her "People" column in Salon: "Boy George on Eminem? Scary thought. But the '80s icon says he actually admires the towheaded rapper." tragus (TRAY-gus) The little flap of cartilage that projects over the hole in your ear. Ever wonder about the name for this anatomical structure? Well, it takes its name from the ancient Greek word tragos, meaning "goat," because of the way that the hairs that grow there often resemble a billy-goat's whiskers. "Boy, Uncle Ned's tragus really lives up to its name, doesn't it?" trenchant (TREN-chunt) 1. Keen, incisive. 2. Clear-cut; distinct. 3. Vigorous; forcefully argued (as in "a trenchant analysis"). 4. Cutting, caustic. Keep in mind that a trench is something cut into the ground, and it's easy to remember that its linguistic relative, trenchant, refers to something "cutting" in a more abstract sense. Both words come from Old French trenchier, meaning "to cut." "Edmund (who, as you know, rarely says anything) astonished everyone by responding with a trenchant remark that left us all cringing." truckle (TRUCK-ull) To be servile or submissive. A truckle bed is so called because it rolls on small wheels or casters called truckles. Usually it's kept hidden under another bed until time to be rolled out. Truckle bed was first recorded in 1459; and the verb to truckle, that is "to sleep in the lower bed" first appears in 1613. A half-century or so later, truckle was being used in a more figurative to mean "take a subordinate or inferior position." (Some people call such beds trundle beds, the trundle coming from an entirely different source -- the obsolete English word trendle, which, as it happens, also means "wheel.") "The truckling tone of his marriage proposal left her flailing and cachinnating helplessly and wondering what he'd actually meant." -- Karen Elizabeth Gordon, in The Disheveled Dictionary truculent (TRUCK-yuh-lunt) 1. Pugnacious, belligerent. 2. Savage, fierce, scathing. 3. Violent. Truculent is from Latin trux, meaning "savage" or "fierce." Definitely not to be confused with truckling. (See above.) "Religion is the natural reaction of the imagination when confronted by the difficulties in a truculent world." -- poet and philosopher George Santayana in the Atlantic Monthly, 1953. tsimmes (TSIM-iss) Fuss, hullabaloo, uproar. Originally, this Yiddish word of uncertain origin meant a "stew" or "casserole" usually containing sweetened vegetables and fruit. But this jumble of ingredients proved to be an irresistible metaphor for any confused situation or fuss. It's also spelled tzimmes. "Why are you making such a tsimmes over everything?" tulip (TOO-lip or TYOO-lip) A flower in the lily family. The name of the tulip stems from its resemblance to a type of headwear -- namely, the turban. In the 1500s, Austria's ambassador visited Turkey and became enchanted with the unusual flowers there. The Turks' traditional name for this flower was lale, but the ambassador's interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for "turban," because of its shape. When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which eventually wound up in English as tulip. "I've got to get my tulips in the ground soon, but I can't decide whether to plant Abbas, Angeliques, or Blushing Brides." tumbler (TUHM-blerr) A tall drinking glass. Ever wonder why a drinking glass would have a name that makes it sound so very unstable? Well, in seventeenth-century England, tumblers were just that: cups with rounded or pointed bottoms, which made them fall over when they were set down. This encouraged imbibers to drink the whole thing in one big guzzle--and, of course, to order another round. Over time, the drinking vessel's shape changed, but its name stuck. "Then, as if she needed any more confirmation that it was going to be a rotten day, her favorite Flintstones tumbler slipped out of her hand and crashed to the floor." turdiform (TURD-ih-form) No, it's not what you might think. This bird word means "having the shape of a thrush." It comes from Latin turdus, meaning "thrush" and forma, "form." (I wish I had included this animal term in my new book Dog Days & Dandelions, but I only recently learned of it from yourdictionary.com. They also note that useful alternatives for this word are turdoid and turdine, and that if you're a true thrush-fancier, you'll of course want to keep yours in a specially constructed turdarium.) "Nigel had spent a drizzly, disappointing morning peering through his binoculars and waiting in vain, when suddenly the sight of something turdiform set his little bird-lover's heart pounding." turkey (TUR-kee) If the turkey is a bird that's native to North America, why is it named after a country thousands of miles away? It turns out that turkey is one of many foods that received their names due to geographical mix-ups. The British first applied the name turkey to another bird, the African guinea fowl, which was introduced into England in the sixteenth century by traders who, as it happened were from Turkey. Around the same time, Spaniards began bringing back real turkeys from New World, and soon English speakers were constantly confusing the gobbler with the guinea fowl. "And then for our main course, we'll have wheat gluten molded into the shape of a turkey." tuxedo (tuck-SEE-doh) A dress jacket. The story of tuxedo has many surprising twists and turns: It seems there was once a sub-group of the Delaware Nation scornfully known to other Indians as the P'tuksit. This name literally means "the wolf-footed ones," or "the round-footed ones." The name alludes to the fact that the P'tuksit Indians had a reputation for being "easily toppled" in war. Later, English settlers moved into a part of New York State once inhabited by the P'tuksit and borrowed that name for the area, anglicizing it to Tucksito. The spelling went through several changes, finally stabilizing as Tuxedo. Eventually this area was home to a wealthy New York resort called Tuxedo Park. There in 1886, an heir to the Lorillard tobacco fortune started a fashion craze by attending the country club's annual ball dressed in a formal dinner jacket minus the traditional tails. This new style quickly caught on and was named after the site of its debut. "My, my the conductor looks great in that tuxedo - and her new haircut's lovely, too!" twee (TWEE) Affectedly cute, or quaint; overly precious or nice. Although twee is now a perfectly legitimate word, it originated in baby talk, deriving from the playful use of "tweet" for "sweet" -- as in "Awwwwww, now isn't that 'tweet'? "You may have liked the movie, but I thought it was a bit twee." U Spacer Return to Learn a New Word ukulele (yoo-kuh-LAY-lee) A small, four-stringed musical instrument usually associated with Hawaiian music. There's an bug hopping around inside the name of this instrument: Ukulele derives from the Hawaiian words uku, which means "flea" and lele, which means "jumping." So what's the connection between the instrument and the insect? Portuguese laborers first brought this instrument to the Hawaiian islands. It reportedly was popularized in the late 19th century by a British army officer named Edward Purvis, who played it at the court of King Kalakaua. Purvis was a bit of a grig: Strikingly small in stature, he played his instrument with extremely lively, nimble movements -- so much so that the Hawaiians began calling him a ukulele, or "leaping flea." The name was eventually transferred to the instrument itself. "The ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-LAY-lay in its native Hawaii) is enjoying one of its periodic surges in popularity, said Nuni Walsh, a director of the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum (a largely virtual institution, consisting of a group of devotees in several states and their ukes)." -- Andy Newman, reporting in The New York Times from one of those gee-I'm-sorry-I-missed-that-events: "Ukulele Expo 2000," held in New Jersey. ultra-crepidarian (ull-truh-krep-ih-DAIR-ee-uhn) Giving opinions or criticizing beyond one's own range of expertise. This marvelous, chastening word alludes to a story about Alexander the Great's favorite artist, Apelles. It seems that when a cobbler saw Apelles' drawing of a sandal, he criticized the way Apelles had drawn the latch, and the artist promptly corrected his error. Emboldened, the cobbler went on to disparage the way Apelles had drawn the subject's legs. At that point, as one ancient writer put it, Apelles snapped "Ne supra crepidam judicaret," or "Let him not criticize above the sole." (Crepida, in Latin, is "sole" or "sandal.") In other words, the cobbler was qualified to judge footwear, but not more. Centuries later, speakers of English began using ultra-crepidarian (Latin for "beyond the sole") to describe those who give opinions on matters they know little about, and ultracrepidarianism to denote that practice. This word's first recorded use was in an 1819 letter by William Hazlitt, who opined: "You have been well-called an ultra-crepidarian critic." unctuous (UNGK-choo-uss) 1. Characterized by exaggerated or insincere earnestness, especially in an overly affected manner; cloying. 2. Oily, greasy, or fatty. The Latin word unctum, meaning "ointment," gave us this oily word. (The same root is found extreme unction, the former name for the Roman Catholic rite that in 1972 was changed to "the Anointing of the Sick." Similarly, an unguentis a "salve".) "'Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?' was a PR disaster for Fox, ending in an annulment for the couple, ignominy for unctuous groom Rick Rockwell and the inevitable Playboy spread for loathsome bride Darva Conger." -- Thomas Nord, in Louisville's Courier-Journal uvula (YOO-vyuh-luh) The soft palate at the back of the throat. Ever wonder what that little droplet of flesh is called? Well, the Romans thought it looked like a "little grape," and named it with a diminutive form of their word for that fruit, uva. "'Oh and by the way,' she said, trying to sound casual, 'Have I ever shown you my uvula?'" uxorious (uk-SORR-ee-uss) Excessively devoted to or submissive to one's wife. This word comes from the Latin word uxor, meaning "wife." "All I know is that ever since she started running for the Senate, he's seemed quite uxorious." (c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette V Spacer Return to Learn a New Word vaccine (vak-SEEN) A preparation, usually made from killed or weakened bacteria or viruses, that is administered to inoculate against a specific disease. The late 18th-century physician Edward Jenner observed that women who worked as dairy maids rarely fell victim to the dreaded disease, smallpox. Suspecting that this was because they had been exposed to the cowpox virus, the British doctor made medical history by successfully using the cowpox virus to inoculate a patient against smallpox. The medical term for the virus that causes cowpox is variola vaccinia. The variola, in Latin, means "pustule" or "pox," and the vacciniae means "of cows," deriving from Latin vacca, which means "cow" (and is a relative of the Spanish word for "cowboy," vaquero). In honor of Jenner's work with cowpox, the preventive preparation was soon called a vaccine. Although Jenner is credited with this momentous discovery, Asian physicians had already applied the same principle, taking dried crusts from smallpox lesions and administering them to children. But while some of those children developed immunity, others became infected. Jenner took the process further, surmising that he could confer immunity to smallpox using a similar virus that wasn't nearly so dangerous. For more about Jenner, check out www.whonamedit.com, "The World's Most Comprehensive Dictionary of Medical Eponyms." "As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing do to the same. Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military." -- U.S. President George W. Bush, announcing a nationwide vaccination program to prevent smallpox. vaunt (vont) (as a verb) To brag about. (as a noun) A boastful remark, or a speech of effusive self-praise. Vaunt comes from Latin vanitare, which means "to talk frivolously" -- yet another word that derives from Latin vanus, meaning "empty." "As for the much-vaunted hot sex between Tom and Nicole, there is none." -- An obviously disappointed Charles Taylor, writing in Salon about the many reasons he disliked the Stanley Kubrick movie, "Eyes Wide Shut." veisalgia (vye-SAL-juh) An alcohol-induced hangover. You don't see this word every day, but researchers used it in the medical journal called Annals of Internal Medicine, in an article about the results of too much imbibing. It's from the Norwegian kveis or "uneasiness following debauchery," and the Greek algia, which means "pain," as in the pain-reliever called an analgesic. Incidentally, the Norwegians have an even more colorful word for this condition: if you have a hangover in Norway, you're said to have toemmermenn, or literally, "lumberjacks" -- presumably some who are plying their trade bright and early inside your head. "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I just can't come in to work today, because I've been diagnosed with a terrible case of veisalgia." vernal (VURR-null) 1. Pertaining to or occurring in the spring. 2. Fresh, youthful. Latin ver, which means "spring," inspired this word, as well as the name of the vernal equinox, which marks the beginning of spring. Incidentally, Latin prima vera, meaning "first (earliest) spring," comes the lovely English adjective primaveral, which applies to the same time of year. Latin ver also gave us pasta primavera, an Italian dish literally made "spring style" - that is, with garden-fresh veggies. "Sir, wouldn't you think our learning experience would be greatly enhanced if we took full advantage of this lovely vernal weather by having class outside?" vexillologist (vek-suh-LOLL-uh-jist) Someone who specializes in the study of flags. Vexillologist is from the Latin vexillum, which means "flag." "Vexillologists and Civil War buffs will tell you that actually, the name 'Stars and Bars' refers not to the controversial flag most people associate with the Confederacy, but to a flag with altogether different design." virgule (VURR-gyool) A diagonal mark separating words (such as "and/or"); a slash mark. It's from the Latin virgula, meaning "little rod." (Similarly, if you describe something as virgulate, you're saying it's "rod-shaped.") "Not that he's pretentious, mind you -- although he does have this annoying habit of pronouncing a webpage address with, for example, 'http-colon-virgule-virgule-www-dot-funwords-dot-com." vitiate (VISH-ee-ayt) 1. To weaken, impair, or spoil the quality of. 2. To corrupt or debase. 3. To make legally invalid. Vitiate is from Latin vitium, meaning "blemish, defect, or fault." (The same linguistic root gives us another word involving depravity and corruption: vice.) "Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie--for example, the taint of vanity, any attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance--will instantly vitiate the effect." -- William James, writing in The Varieties of Religious Experience. W Spacer Return to Learn a New Word wetware (WET-wair) The human brain. Ever since software made its first appearance in the language around 1960, this word has inspired several others ending in -ware. Freeware, for example, is software distributed free of charge, while vaporware is software that's planned but still non-existent. Wetware denotes the human element in computing, whether it's the people needed to keep a computer system running, or more specifically, the human brain. A less common (and less appetizing) word for the same thing: meatware. "Oh, but if only I could upgrade my wetware!" white elephant 1. A costly possession requiring so much upkeep that it becomes a burden. 2. Something no longer wanted by its owner. In the old kingdom of Siam, the rare albino elephant was sacred, and each new one born belonged to the king. Moreover, it was forbidden to kill such an elephant or to use it for work. Therefore, the story goes, whenever the king wished to punish an obnoxious courtier, he'd make him a present of one of these pale pachyderms. It was a gift to be dreaded, however. Recipients could neither use the elephant nor get rid of it -- and inevitably went broke trying to keep it fed. Nowadays, the expression white elephant is used to apply more generally to any burdensome possession. "Of course, a cynic might be forgiven for wondering whether today's million-dollar mini-mansions are the white elephants of tomorrow." widdershins (WIDD-ur-shinnz) In a counterclockwise or contrary direction. Also spelled "withershins," this comes from Middle High German "widersinnes," meaning "back in the direction of." See also deasil. "Walking widdershins one wintry morn, Wolfgang scratched his head, trying to remember that odd word for 'counterclockwise.'" wombat (WOM-bat) A badger-sized, stocky, burrowing marsupial. You don't hear this word that often, and its etymology isn't all that interesting: it comes from a similar-sounding word in an indigeneous language of Australia. But you may see much more of it in the form of an extremely handy acronym now making its way around the Net. WOMBAT stands for "Waste Of Money, Brains, and Time." "Oy, these marathon mid-afternoon meetings are always such a WOMBAT!" Z Spacer Return to Learn a New Word zedonk (ZEE-dongk) The offspring of a male zebra and a female donkey. Yes, there is such a thing, and a zedonk is what you get, linguistically speaking, when you cross a zebra with a donkey. By the way, in case you need a synonym, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that you can use zonkey instead of zedonk. And while you'd be forgiven for assuming that a zebrass is the unfortunate result of sitting too long on certain lawn chairs, it's actually yet another name for this hybrid critter. (If you're still curious about the various results of mixing donkey genes--from asses to zedonks--drop by http://www.luckythreeranch.com/mulexing.asp, which helpfully notes, among other things: "The father of our country, George Washington, was also the father of mule breeding in the Americas.") "Yes, a lovely farm indeed, but would you happen to own any zedonks?" Zeitgeist (TSIYT-giyst) The spirit of the time; the general outlook of a particular period or generation. We borrowed Zeitgeist directly from German, where Zeit means "time" and Geist meaning "spirit." (The geist in Zeitgeist, by the way, is a relative of the geist in English poltergeist and ghost.) "Ask any critic to comment upon this final year of the Century of American Music, and you're likely to hear a heavy sigh. The year 1999 gave us fluff and smut, the inflatable sweethearts of the teenage market and the foul-mouthed bullies of hip-hop and rock. Releases from aspiring legends like Nine Inch Nails, R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige failed to make the anticipated cultural impact, while previously dismissed artists like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock rose to rule the Zeitgeist." -- Ann Powers, writing in the New York Times. zephyr (ZEFF-urr) 1. The west wind. 2. A mild breeze. 3. Any of various soft, light things like fabric or yarns. 4. Something insubstantial, airy, or fleeting. In early Greek myth, Zephyrus was a cruel, vengeful god of the west wind who delighted in stirring up deadly storms at sea. He also kidnapped a flower goddess and had a fling with one of the Harpies, those monsters with a bird's body and a woman's face. Over time, though, Zephyrus mellowed. In later Greek myth, he personified the fragrant wind wafting over the Elysian fields, where the blessed enjoyed the afterlife. And it's that sense that inspired our word zephyr -- and that indeed inspired William Shakespeare to conjure the very picture of mildness when he wrote: "They are as gentle as zephyrs blowing below the violet, not wagging his sweet head." zinnia (ZIN-ee-uh) A bright, showy flower native to Mexico. The zinnia is among the many flowers named for botanists. It commemorates the German professor of botany, Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759). Here's a story about him: While venturing deep into the mountains of Mexico to collect botanical specimens, Zinn once chanced upon some brilliant purple flowers, the likes of which he'd never seen before. He stuffed as many as he could into a sack and continued along the path. Soon he was attacked by a gang of thieves, but when they snatched away his precious sack, out spilled only faded purple blossoms. They decided the foreigner must be crazy -- for who in the world would be wandering in the wilds with a bag of dead flowers? Superstitious, they let him go, reasoning that harming someone so clearly demented could only bring bad luck. "Giddy with anticipation, Vanessa danced around the room with a zinnia between her teeth, then calmly finished getting dressed." zugunruhe (TSOOK-uhn-roo-uh) Migratory restlessness in birds. This German word has been adopted into English as an ornithological term for the restless displayed at certain times of year by caged migratory birds. But surely it deserves wider metaphorical use as a word for an "instinctive restlessness" in humans as well. "Yes, we're back from Europe, but the Zugunruhe is already kicking in." zydeco (ZYE-dih-koh) Southern Louisiana dance music combining the blues, French dance tunes, and Carribean rhythms. This foot-stompin', washboard-scrapin', accordion-squeezin', fiddle sawing music may owe its name to beans -- or has-been beans, anyway. Zydeco supposedly stems from the Creole pronunciation of les haricots, or, in French, "the beans." The reason: this phrase appears frequently in one of the earliest and most popular zydeco songs, a refrain that goes, "Les haricots sont pas salé," or literally, "The beans aren't salty." "Well, yes, Mother, I know he's struggling financially at the moment, but he assures me that any day now he's going to get a big grant to produce a zydeco version of Bach's 'Mass in B Minor'."