Today's Word "perspicacity"

perspicacity \pur-spuh-KAS-uh-tee\ (noun) - Clearness of understanding or insight; penetration, discernment.

"I understand he was a great help to Chex Centaur. There is also no problem about feeding him. I commend you for your perspicacity in selecting him." -- Piers Anthony, 'Heaven Cent'

Perspicacity comes from Latin perspicax, perspicac-, "sharp-sighted," from perspicere, "to look through," from per, "through" + specere, "to look."

Today's Word "virtu"

virtu \vuhr-TOO; vir-\ (noun) - 1 : love of or taste for fine objects of art. 2 : Productions of art (especially fine antiques). 3 : Artistic quality.

"There were gorgeous carpets and hangings, frescoed ceilings, spurious objects of virtu, and pier-tables loaded with ornaments." -- Emile Gaboriau, 'The Count's Millions'

Virtu comes from Italian virtù "virtue, excellence," from Latin virtus, "excellence, worth, goodness, virtue."

Today's Word "firmament"

firmament \FUR-muh-muhnt\ (noun) - 1 : The region of the air; the sky; the heavens. 2 : The field or sphere of an interest or activity.

"Then all at once he reached the gates of the firmament and the cloud opened, so that Moses could step out." -- Howard Schwartz, 'Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales"

Firmament comes from Late Latin firmamentum, "firmness, the sky," from Latin firmare, "to make firm."

Today's Word "melange"

melange \may-LAHNZH\ (noun) - A mixture; a medley.

"Harley Burton's office was a melange of overcrowded and mismatched furnishings. The desk, huge and oblong, was too large for the room; the chairs too small..." -- Katherine V. Forrest, 'Amateur City'

Melange derives from Old French meslance, from mesler, "to mix," ultimately from Latin miscere, "to mix."

Today's Word "redivivus"

redivivus \red-uh-VY-vuhs; -VEE-\ (adjective) - Living again; brought back to life; revived; restored.

"'He can't be redivivus if he's never died,' Diotallevi said. 'Sure he's not Ahasuerus, the wandering Jew?'" -- Umberto Eco, 'Foccault's Pendulum'

Redivivus comes from Latin, from the prefix red-, re-, "again" + vivus, "alive."

Today's Word "alfresco"

alfresco \al-FRES-koh\ (adverb) - In the open air; outdoors.

(adjective) - Taking place or located in the open air; outdoor.

"I thought an alfresco picnic would be fun, and the weather is supposed to be rather nice, later, for March; we can wrap up warm and sit on the beach." -- Tess Stimson, 'The Adultry Club'

Alfresco is from the Italian al fresco, "in the fresh (air)," from al, "in the" (a, "to, in" + il, "the") + fresco, "fresh."

Today's Word "modicum"

modicum \MOD-ih-kum\ (noun) - A small or moderate or token amount.

"She and the last three queens before her had been hard pressed to maintain a modicum of control over the miners and smelters in the Mountains of Mist..." -- Robert Jordan, 'The Fires of Heaven'

Modicum is from Latin modicus, moderate, from modus, measure.

Today's Word "hauteur"

hauteur \haw-TUR; (h)oh-\ (noun) - Haughty manner, spirit, or bearing; haughtiness; arrogance.

"The earl's eyes were momentarily hurt, his expression baffled; then he dismissed the emotions and replaced them with cold disdain, relying on the hauteur Robin knew so well." -- Jennifer Roberson, 'Lady of the Forest'

Hauteur is from the French, from haut, "high," from Latin altus, "high." It is thus related to altitude.

Today's Word "deliquesce"

deliquesce \del-ih-KWES\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To melt away or to disappear as if by melting. 2 : (Chemistry) To dissolve gradually and become liquid by attracting and absorbing moisture from the air, as certain salts, acids, and alkalies. 3 : To become fluid or soft with age, as certain fungi. 4 : To form many small divisions or branches -- used especially of the veins of a leaf.

"I stammered, rubbing my eyes and feeling my bowels deliquesce as soon as he put my life in the past conditional." -- Jon Fasman, 'The Geographer's Library'

Deliquesce comes from Latin deliquescere, from de-, "down, from, away" + liquescere, "to melt," from liquere, "to be fluid." It is related to liquid and liquor.

Today's Word "quaff"

quaff \KWOFF; KWAFF\ (transitive verb) - To drink with relish; to drink copiously of; to swallow in large draughts. (intransitive verb) To drink largely or luxuriously. (noun) A drink quaffed.

"Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!' Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'" -- Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Raven'

Quaff is of unknown origin.

Today's Word "xenophobia"

xenophobia \ZEN-uh-FOE-bee-uh\ (noun) - Fear or hatred of strangers, people from other countries, or of anything that is strange or foreign.

"Even if Indians had been accepting of mixed alliances, the xenophobia of the British warranted no other response to Anglo-Indian alliances..." -- Indu Sundaresan, 'The Splendor of Silence'

The word xenophobia was formed from the Greek elements xenos "guest, stranger, foreigner" + phobos "fear."

Today's Word "Rhabdomancy"

rhabdomancy \RAEB-deh-maen-see\ (noun) - Divination of the location of water, oil, etc. by means of a divining rod or stick; dowsing, witch-wiggling.

"I doubt, however, if he would find the children of Yankees more passive under his rhabdomancy than those of us Britishers." -- William Howitt, 'Woodburn Grange'

From Greek rhabdomanteia based on rhabdos "rod" + manteia "divination." The Proto-Indo-European root is werb- or werbh- "to turn, bend" that also developed into "warp" and "wrap." Other variants of this stem underlie "rhapsody" from Greek rhapsoidia based on rhapsis "stitching together" (from rhaptein "to sew") + oide "song, ode" + ia, a noun suffix. The suffix -mancy comes from Late Latin -mantia inherited from Greek manteia "divination." This relates today's word with an earlier Word of the Day, gastromancy "divination by means of stomach rumblings." They can cause a bit of wiggling, too.

Today's Word "indolent"

indolent \IN-duh-lehnt\ (adjective) - 1 : Disinclined to exert oneself; habitually lazy. Conducive to inactivity or laziness; lethargic. 2 : Causing little or no pain. Slow to heal, grow, or develop; inactive.

"For the indolent body there are soft lounges, soft stools; for indolent feet soft rugs; for indolent eyes faded, dingy, or flat colors..." -- Anton Chekov, 'The Wife'

Late Latin indolens, indolent-, painless : Latin in-, not + Latin dolens, present participle of dolere, to feel pain.

Today's Word "Rigmarole"

rigmarole \RIG-meh-rol\ (noun) - 1 : Rambling, disconnected speech; 2 : red tape, complicated procedure or process.

"What she really meant was not all the rigmarole of turning the futon into a bed but the secondary rigmarole of putting a sheet down..." -- Edward Docx, 'Pravda'

Today's word is an alteration of obsolete ragman roll "catalog" from the name of a scroll used in Ragman('s) Roll, a game in which objects on strings were pulled from a scroll, sometimes to gamble, sometimes for fun. The name may ultimately come from Ragemon le bon "Ragemon the Good," the title of a collection of poems about a character of that name. The original meaning of "rigmarole" was simply a long list, a catalog. Now, "roll" comes from Latin rotula "little wheel" (from rota "wheel") via Old French roler "to roll." Clearly "rotate," "rotary," "rotunda" and several other words go back to "rota" but so does "rodeo," the Spanish word for "detour, roundup" derived from rodear "to twist, wind about" from rueda "wheel, ring," a natural descendent of Latin rota.

Today's Word "Lascivious"

lascivious \lae-SI-vi-yehs\ (adjective) - Lustful, lewd, wanton; eliciting or expressing carnal desire.

"I say, gentlemen, that lascivious details cannot be screened by a moral ending, otherwise one could account all the orgies imaginable, one could decribe all the depravities of a harlot, so long as she were to made to die on a pallet in the poorhouse." -- Gustave Flaubert, 'Madame Bovary'

Today's word comes from Late Latin lasciviosus, the adjective of lascivia "lewdness, playfulness," itself from lascivus "lustful, sportive, playful" from the Proto-Indo-European root *las- "to be eager, wanton, or just unruly." Akin to "lust," highly resemblant cousin of German Lust "love, desire" as in Wanderlust "love of travel." From an older word "lascivy" = "lasciviousness," this word seems to have run amok, accumulating several suffixes only to return full circle semantically to its original meaning. The adverb is "lasciviously" and the current noun is "lasciviousness." The verb is lasciviate "to behave lewdly." Avoid such behavior at all costs but enjoy the word when criticizing others.

Today's Word "Schlep"

schlep \shlep\ (verb) - To drag, lug; to haul; to travel a great distance.

"You schlep to this village, you schlep to that one, you set up an ambush, you go back to base. Once in a while a mine blows somebody up." -- Norman Green, 'The Angel of Montague Street'

Today's word is from Yiddish shlepn "to drag, pull" taken from Middle Low German "slepen," today German schleppen "to drag, plod along, tow something heavy." "Schleppen" is related to schleifen "to grind, to drag along the floor" and apparently meant originally "to make slide." The original root, *slei-, ended up in English as "slime," "slick," "slip," and "slice." Latin limus "slime" is apparently a descendant of the same root, minus the initial [s]. Don't forget to double the final [p] before suffixes with vowels, "He schleps" but "He schlepped," "He is our schlepper," and "He is schlepping." This verb may also be used as a noun referring to a lazy, unkempt person.

Today's Word "Groundling"

groundling \GROUND-ling\ (noun) - 1 : A person of unsophisticated taste; one that lives or works on or near the ground; 2 : a spectator who stood in the pit of an Elizabethan theater.

"But then, Roger was not a groundling. He was no mere spectator, but a leading man — a (Capulet or a Montague, take your pick — who was using the Square as a sort of Green Room." -- Neal Stephenson, 'The System of the World'

In Elizabethan times, play-going audiences consisted of the upper gallery (where the wealthier patrons fanned themselves and looked with disdain at those in the pit below) and pit spectators, who had to sit or stand in close proximity on the bare floor, exposed to the sweltering sun or the dampening rain. The pit was also called the "ground"; those in it were "groundlings." Today, we use "groundlings" to refer not only to the less than couth among us, but also (often with some facetiousness) to ordinary Janes or Joes.

Today's Word "habitue"

habitue \huh-BICH-oo-ay; huh-bich-oo-AY\ (noun) - One who habitually frequents a place.

"Fielding had been an habitue of this dingy but commodious establishment for nearly twenty years." -- Simon Raven, 'Morning Star'

Habitue is from the past participle of French habituer

Today's Word "factitious"

factitious \fak-TISH-uhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Produced artificially, in distinction from what is produced by nature. 2 : Artificial; not authentic or genuine; sham.

"However, he had enough strength in him -- factitious no doubt -- to very nearly make an end of us, as you shall hear directly." -- Joseph Conrad, 'Heart of Darkness'

Factitious comes from Latin facticius, "made by art, artificial," from the past participle of facere, "to make."

Today's Word "pellucid"

pellucid \puh-LOO-sid\ (adjective) - 1 : Transparent; clear; not opaque. 2 : Easily understandable.

"It was the first time he had seen her out of mourning, and above the pellucid eyes and the pencilled brows, on the dark hair, there was a small coronal of diamonds; swaying and scintillating as if a breath played about them." -- Frank Danby, 'Joseph in Jeopardy'

Pellucid comes from Latin pellucidus, "shining, transparent," from pellucere, "to shine through," from per-, "through" + lucere, "to shine."

No Time for 'Snarge,' Gents

The recent splash landing of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River introduced us to a new hero -- "Sully" -- and a new word -- "snarge."

According to Carla Dove, the aptly named program manager of the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, "snarge" is what's left of a bird after it goes through a jet engine.

Dove's lab examines snarge and feathers found in airplane engines to determine what kind of birds be"fowl"ed them. Identifying the species involved in such collisions can help aviation and wildlife officials avoid future feather benders.

But whence "snarge"?

I found one possible clue in a British book of army and navy slang -- "Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases" by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons published in 1925. It includes this entry: "SNARGE: "Any ugly or unpleasant person."

Was it possible that a British term for a jerk became a term for bird glop and then jumped the pond to the U.S.? After all, it usually works the other way around; the substance becomes the person. Think "rotten egg," "bad apple," "little snot."

So I called Dove at the Smithsonian, wondering if she or someone in her lab had coined the term. No luck. She said "snarge" was already in common use among museum technicians when she entered the field 20 years ago.

When I mentioned the book of British slang, Dove suggested I email Robert Prys-Jones, an ornithologist who heads the bird group at Britain's Natural History Museum.

"I regret I've no idea," he emailed back. "It's not a word I've heard used in British ornithological/museum circles." So much for the Brit theory.

My hunch is that American museum technicians concocted "snarge" sometime prior to 1989 simply by blending an "sn-" word with an "arge" word. After all, words beginning with "sn-" often have nasty or gooey connotations: "snide," "snicker," "snort," "sniffle." And the "arge" sound can suggest something gooey: "discharge," "porridge," "parge" (to coat with plaster).

In fact, the online lexicon Double-tongued Dictionary suggests that "snarge" is a combination of "snot" and "garbage." So it appears that "snarge" may have been formed, appropriately enough, by blending two substances we'd just as soon not find in our windpipes or jet engines.

Today's Word "chicanery"

chicanery \shih-KAY-nuh-ree\ (noun) - 1 : The use of trickery or sophistry to deceive (as in matters of law). 2 : A trick; a subterfuge.

"Here's how to talk and keep the upper hand:
For no man's half as barefaced as a woman
When it comes to chicanery and gammon." -- Geoffrey Chaucer, 'The Canterbury Tales

Chicanery comes from French chicaner, "to quibble, to use tricks," perhaps from Middle Low German schicken, "to arrange," with the sense "to arrange to one's own advantage."

Today's Word "coxcomb"

coxcomb \KOKS-kohm\ (noun) - 1 : obsolete. A cap worn by court jesters; adorned with a strip of red. (Now cockscomb). 2 : archaic. The top of the head, or the head itself. 3 : Obsolete. A fool. 4 : A vain, showy fellow; a conceited, silly man, fond of display; a superficial pretender to knowledge or accomplishments; a dandy; a fop.

"Not at all -- I never saw him; but I fancy he is very unlike his brother -- silly and a great coxcomb." -- Jane Austen, 'Sense and Sensibility'

Coxcomb is a corrupted spelling of cock's comb, the comb of a rooster, hence the badge resembling it that was worn in the cap of a professional fool or jester, hence the wearer of the cap, hence a fool or a vain and silly man.

Today's Word "quaff"

quaff \KWOFF; KWAFF\ (transitive verb) - To drink with relish; to drink copiously of; to swallow in large draughts. (intransitive verb) To drink largely or luxuriously. (noun) A drink quaffed.

"Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!' Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'" -- Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Raven'

Quaff is of unknown origin.

Today's Word "officious"

officious \uh-FISH-uhs\ (adjective) - Marked by excessive eagerness in offering services or advice where they are neither requested nor needed; meddlesome.

"Another officious-looking woman, who looked remarkably like the first officious-looking woman, down to the little chain on her reading glasses, had him sit down across from her while she looked at Jody's papers and ignored him." -- Christopher Moore, 'Bloodsucking Fiends'

Officious comes from Latin officiosus, obliging, dutiful, from officium, dutiful action, sense of duty, official employment, from opus, a work, labor + -ficere, combining form of facere, to do, to make. It is related to official, of or pertaining to an office or public trust.

Release Mommy's Duck!

My recent column on children's verbal errors elicited a batch of delightful anecdotes from readers.

Bonnie Reinders reports that, as a young girl, she rendered the line from the Christmas carol "O Holy Night" "long lay the world" as "long-legged world." Claire Fazio remembers her son's singing "Felice Navidad" as "Release Mommy's Duck."

Another reader said a childhood friend interpreted the line from an old Latin hymn -- "Macula non est in Te" ("There is no stain in You") -- as "Dracula drinks Nescafe." That friend later went to the seminary.

A reader named Kathy recalls that, after moving her family from the North to Oklahoma, her 5-year-old daughter asked her why everyone there wanted God to be cleaner. When Kathy asked what she meant, the girl said, "Everyone down here 'washups' him."

David Menkes of Auckland, New Zealand, grew up in California, where he misheard the line in the Pledge of Allegiance as "and to the republic for witched stands." He said he visualized "roadside stalls, perhaps at Halloween, thronged with witches buying or selling apples, pumpkins, broomsticks or black cats."

Kami McManus reports that one day her 6-year-old son, Connor, came home from school and told her he hadn't been able to talk to Jesus at recess. Asked why, he said, "Because he is the sun of God, and it is cloudy out today."

Duane Schrag of Freeman, S.D., recalls that, when a friend teaching in a Catholic elementary school asked her students to write the Rosary, almost all of them rendered one line as, "Blessed is the fruit of thy wound, Jesus."

"When I was in first grade," writes Kathleen Egan, "I thought God was a gigantic legume because Sister Anna Marie had said that God was the 'Supreme Bean.'"

Lionel Loza couldn't figure out why his son Thomas was knocking over his toy dinosaurs one by one and shouting, "You stink! You stink!" Then he realized Thomas was saying, "You're extinct! You're extinct!"

Ann Manz of McKeesport, Pa., remembers that, when her husband was teaching good toilet habits to their 3-year-old son, Eric, the boy emerged from the bathroom and sputtered fearfully, "We have bugs!" All because his father had pointed to his zipper and said, "This is a fly."

And when one dad told his 7-year-old daughter he was tired because he was "getting old," she replied, "Well, Daddy, I wish you were new again."

'Lightening' Strikes Twice!

"The difference between the right word and the wrong word," wrote Mark Twain, "is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug." After reading these "enlightening" bloopers from newspapers and magazines, you'll surely agree. Can you spot the blots?

1. "Maybe lightening will strike by the end of the General Assembly's session." Will the legislators turn blonde? (Ann Duffy, Broad Brook, Conn.)

2. "The fire was the result of a lightening strike." (Mark Lander, Old Lyme, Conn.)

3. "The first-floor bath has a laundry shoot to the basement." Talk about being shot at "clothes" range! (Anastasia Stoletina, Trenton, N.J.)

4. "An administrative assistant has tenured her resignation." (Betty Lundy, West Point, Miss.) 5. "The teenagers had planned a prom around one theme, but when that fell through they adopted another theme in luau of the first." Something Hawaiian? (Susan Worthington, Lexington, Mo.)

6. Next to a check box on an absentee ballot: "My religious tenants . . . forbid secular activity on the day of the referendum." Well, then evict them! (Stuart Sidney, Storrs, Conn.)

7. "The accompanying 7.4-percent spending increase must be reigned in." Well, it is a king-sized increase. (Harold Wiest, Newcastle, Calif.)

8. "Denis of Cork was in last place at the three-quarter poll of the race." Just ahead of "Undecided." (Gerald Daly via email)

9. ["Citizens will be able to] "speak their peace and go home." (Judy Beck, Warren, Mich.)

10. (From a restaurant ad) "Peal and eat shrimp." Perfect for ringing in New Year's Eve. (Oren Spiegler, Upper Saint Clair, Pa.)

11. "He hoped [his comments] were being taken in the proper vain." But not in vain. (Art Frackenpohl, Watertown, N.Y.)

12. "Addis said a handful of dealers have always been able to peak behind the curtain." (Phil DeVergilio, Detroit)

And three from Jo Ann Lawlor of San Jose, Calif.: 13. "The California Public Utilities Commission, which overseas code changes." Man, they're outsourcing everything these days! 14. "[Menopause] is being viewed by many women as a positive right of passage." 15. The seven different colors match the palate of Texas wildflowers." Are they Venus flytraps?

Today's Word "doula"

doula \DOO-luh\ (noun) - A woman who assists during childbirth labor and provides support to the mother, her child and the family after childbirth.

"Our daughters are grown and on their own. Penny is a doula and midwife assistant in Oregon." -- Piers Anthony, 'Swell Foop'

Doula derives from Greek doula, "servant-woman, slave," akin to hierodule.

Today's Word "megalomania"

megalomania \meg-uh-lo-MAY-nee-ah; -nyuh\ (noun) - 1 : A mania for grandiose or extravagant things or actions. 2 : A mental disorder characterized by delusions of grandeur.

"I assure you all that I'm not trying to be melodramatic, and that I don't think I'm allowing my megalomania or paranoia to get the better of me." -- David Weber, 'War of Honor'

Megalomania is Scientific Latin, from the Greek elements megal-, great + mania, madness.

Today's Word "paterfamilias"

paterfamilias \pay-tuhr-fuh-MIL-ee-uhs; pat-uhr-; pah-\ (noun) plural patresfamilias \pay-treez-; pat-reez-; pah-treez-\ - The male head of a household or the father of a family.

"Here within these hallowed portals the Vestal Virgins had assembled to greet their new paterfamilias on the only ground within the Domus Publica which was common to both lots of tenants." -- Coleen McCullough, 'Caesar's Woman'

Paterfamilias is from Latin pater, "father" + familias, "of the family or household," the archaic genitive form of familia, "family or household."

Today's Word "egregious"

egregious \ih-GREE-juhs\ (adjective) - Conspicuously and outrageously bad or reprehensible.

"Now, while I rigorously defend your right to be wrong, I feel I must address some of your more egregious utterances." -- Joy Fielding, 'Heartstopper - A Novel'

Egregious derives from Latin egregius, separated or chosen from the herd, from e-, ex-, out of, from + grex, greg-, herd, flock. Egregious was formerly used with words importing a good quality (that which was distinguished "from the herd" because of excellence), but now it is joined with words having a bad sense. It is related to congregate (to "flock together," from con-, together, with + gregare, to assemble, from grex); segregate (from segregare, to separate from the herd, from se-, apart + gregare); and gregarious (from gregarius, belonging to a flock).

Today's Word "arriviste"

arriviste \a-ree-VEEST\ (noun) - A person who has recently attained success, wealth, or high status but not general acceptance or respect; an upstart.

"Then Violet McKisco, whose prettiness had been piped to the surface of her, so that she ceased her struggle to make tangible to herself her shadowy position as the wife of an arriviste who had not arrived." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'Tender is the Night'

Arriviste comes from French, from arriver, "to arrive," from (assumed) Vulgar Latin arripare, "to reach the shore," from Latin ad-, "to, toward" + ripa, "shore."

Today's Word "prink"

prink \PRINGK\ (transitive verb) - To dress up; to deck for show.

(intransitive verb) - To dress or arrange oneself for show; to primp.

"Richard and Peg's back room held an excellent double bed with thick linen curtains drawn about it from rails connecting its four tall posts, several chests for clothing, a cupboard for shoes and boots, a mirror on one wall for Peg to prink in front of, a dozen hooks on the same wall, and William Henry 's gimbaled cot." -- Colleen McCullough, 'Morgan's Run'

Prink is probably an alteration of prank, from Middle English pranken, "to show off," perhaps from Middle Dutch pronken, "to adorn oneself," and from Middle Low German prunken (from prank, "display").

Today's Word "Methuselah"

Methuselah \muh-THOO-zuh-luh\ (noun) - 1 : The name of a biblical patriarch said to have lived 969 years. 2 : An extremely old man.

"It just comes natural to me, I suppose. I used to know all the generations of Adam down to Methuselah." -- Paul Green, 'This Body the Earth'

Methuselah is from Hebrew Methushelah, Biblical patriarch represented as having lived 969 years.

Today's Word "pervicacious"

pervicacious \puhr-vih-KAY-shuhs\ (adjective) - Refusing to change one's ideas, behavior, etc.; stubborn; obstinate.

"May they be efficacious upon the mind of one of the most pervicacious young creatures that ever was heard of!" -- Samuel Ricardson, 'clarissa harlowe volume 1'

Pervicacious is from Latin pervicax, pervicac-, "stubborn, headstrong," from root pervic- of pervincere, "to carry ones point, maintain ones opinion," from per-, "through, thoroughly" + vincere, "to conquer, prevail against" + the suffix -ious, "characterized by, full of."

Today's Word "sere"

sere \SEER\ (adjective) - Dry; withered.

"Long columns of hunters are broken here and there by squads of sere." -- Ahmadou Kourouma, 'Waiting for the Vote of Wild Animals'

Sere comes from Old English sear, "dry."

Today's Word "fructuous"

fructuous \FRUHK-choo-uhs\ (adjective) - Fruitful; productive.

"This quiet, cloistered but not inactive nor unexciting life in these most ancient and fructuous groves of academe is what I want." -- Reginald Hill, 'Death's Jest'

Fructuous comes from Latin fructuosus, from fructus, "enjoyment, product, fruit," from the past participle of frui, "to enjoy."

Today's Word "apotheosis"

apotheosis \uh-pah-thee-OH-sis; ap-uh-THEE-uh-sis\ (noun) plural apotheoses \-seez\ - 1 : Elevation to divine rank or stature; deification. 2 : An exalted or glorified example; a model of excellence or perfection of a kind.

"So it would seem that the only thing standing in the way of Ariadne's apotheosis must have been some innate reluctance on her part to undergo such an irrevocable transformation." -- Fred Saberhagen, 'Ariadne's Web'

Apotheosis comes from Greek, from apotheoun, "to deify," from apo- + theos, "a god."

Today's Word "flaneur"

flaneur \flah-NUR\ (noun) - One who strolls about aimlessly; a lounger; a loafer.

"A squaw-man, a flaneur and dilettante took my virtue. For years I was his mistress -- no one knew. I learned from him the parasite cunning with which I moved..." -- Edgar Lee Masters, 'Spoon River Anthology'

Flaneur comes from French, from flâner, "to saunter; to stroll; to lounge about."

No Penalty for Clipping

We love to cut words down to size. When the term "mobile vulgus" became unruly, we chopped it to "mob." When "pantaloons" seemed a few sizes too big, we tucked it to "pants." When "abdominals" bulged, we buffed it to "abs."

Speaking of abs, here's a trim six pack: cab (cabriolet), gab (gabble), bra (brassière), deb (debutante), dis (disrespect) and fan (fanatic).

Sometimes we ask the barkeep to pour a short one instead of a double: rum (rumbullion) and whiskey (usquebaugh). And once in a while we even see double: Specs is short for both specifications and spectacles.

All the aforementioned abbreviations are formed by clipping off the back portion of a word. But once in a while we shorten a word by deleting its first part. Off with its head!

In many cases this fore-clipping (technically called "aphaeresis") involves deleting the first letter: lone (alone), cute (acute), special (especial), spy (espy), pert (apert), mend (amend) and live (alive).

Sometimes we clip a couple of letters: fend (defend), sport (disport), peal (appeal), stain (distain), ply (apply), fray (affray) and tend (from both attend and intend).

The words "apert" and "distain," of course are now obsolete, but even the old-fashioned term "drawing room" is the product of fore-clipping; it comes from "withdrawing room."

In recent years, dropping the first part of a word has become downright 'rendy, er . . . trendy. Teenagers named Topher (Christopher), Tricia (Patricia) and Zandra (Alexandra) now head to the mall (pall-mall) in the 'burbs (suburbs) to escape their 'rents (parents) and eat za (pizza). Speaking of escape, I wrote this column while vacationing in the 'Dacks, a fore-clipping I use for Adirondacks.

Now here's your chance to play executioner. Can you behead each of these words to form its abbreviated form?:

1. Miami Hurricanes 2. magazine 3. kayak 4. attitude 5. potato 6. askutasquash 7. trombone 8. alligator 9. telephone 10. turnpike 11. helicopter 12. airplane 13. raccoon 14. periwig 15. violoncello 16. omnibus 17. cantaloupe 18. caravan 19. Vietnam 20. Afro

Today's Word "senescence"

senescence \sih-NEH-suhn(t)s\ (noun) - The state of being old; the process of growing old; aging.

"Tiberius, aware of this, fumed and snuffled, but he had arrived at that stage of senescence where he hadn't the energy to sustain his varied indignations." -- Lloyd C. Douglas, 'The Robe'

Senescence is from Latin senescere, "to grow old," from senex, "old." It is related to senile. The adjective form is senescent.

Today's Word "providential"

providential \prov-uh-DEN(T)-shuhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Of or resulting from divine direction or superintendence. 2 : Occurring through or as if through divine intervention; peculiarly fortunate or appropriate.

"It's a prophecy, a plain, providential sign to us. We will rebuild the walls of Zion and enlarge our borders. The people will rally to us in our distress." -- Charles Monroe Sheldon, 'Howard Chase, Red Hill, Kansas'

Providential derives from Latin providentia, from providens, provident-, present participle of providere, literally, "to see ahead," from pro-, "forward" + videre, "to see."

Today's Word "Cockaigne"

Cockaigne \kah-KAYN\ (noun) - An imaginary land of ease and luxury.

"While analogues exist between the literary genre and other utopic forms, Utopian literature is not: myth, fantasy, folktale, Cockaigne or Earthly Paradise..." -- Alexandra Aldridge, 'The Scientific World in Dystopia'

Cockaigne comes from Middle English cokaygne, from Middle French (pais de) cocaigne "(land of) plenty," ultimately adapted or derived from a word meaning "cake."

Today's Word "misprize"

misprize \mis-PRYZ\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To hold in contempt. 2 : To undervalue.

"What was it that enabled him, short of being a monster with visibly cloven feet and exhaling brimstone, to misprize so cruelly a nature like his wife's..." -- Henry James, 'Madame de Mauves'

Misprize comes from Middle French mesprisier, from mes-, "amiss, wrong" + prisier, "to appraise."

Today's Word "favonian"

favonian \fuh-VOH-nee-uhn\ (adjective) - Pertaining to the west wind; soft; mild; gentle.

"The sun had a misty glare, the favonian wind blew steadily from the same quarter, and the streets were dismal with uncol- lected refuse." -- Vincent McHugh, 'I Am Thinking of My Darling'

Favonian is derived from Latin Favonius, "the west wind."

Cool Off with a Babbling Book

For word lovers, the summer of 2008 arrives with a refreshing splash of beach books, lakeshore lexicons and poolside paperbacks.

In "The Prodigal Tongue -- Dispatches from the Future of English" (Houghton Mifflin, $25), Mark Abley predicts that by 2015, half the world's population will be learning or speaking English. This lively, anecdotal book reports, for instance, that the blend languages Manglish, Konglish and Chinglish now flourish in Malaysia, South Korea and China, respectively.

Of course, the proliferation of English can lead to trouble. In "Screwed Up English -- Twisted Translations of English from around the World," by Charlie Croker (Adams Media, $10.95), you'll find these ominous signs: (on a menu in Madrid) "Our wine list leaves you nothing to hope for"; (for a donkey ride in Thailand) "Would you like to ride on your own ass?"

Speaking of menus, did you know "meat" once meant any kind of food? That "satellite" once denoted an obsequious attendant? That "tall" once described someone who was fair or handsome? You'll discover these delightful transformations in "Semantic Antics -- How and Why Words Change Meaning," by noted editor and lexicographer Sol Steinmetz (Random House, $14.95).

No list of summer word books is complete without "The Man Who Made Lists -- Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus," by Joshua Kendell (G. P. Putnam, $25.95). Kendell tells the fascinating story of British physician and scholar Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), whose lifelong obsessions with lists culminated in the book we all consult (turn to, access, scour) for just the right word.

Language columnist June Casagrande offers common sense, down-to-earth advice that punctures the pomposity of linguistic purists. Her handy new book "Mortal Syntax" (Penguin, $14.00) tells you when to hold the line -- "This is between you and I" (wrong); when to hesitate -- "Loan me some money" (many oppose using "loan" as a verb); and when to go with the flow -- "Hopefully these grammar snobs will get a life" (OK).

And for those lazy afternoons in the hammock, consider "Not Bartlett's -- Thoughts on the Pleasures of Life: People, Love, Gardens, Dogs and More," edited by Elise Lufkin (Helen Marx Books, $16.95). This relaxing alternative to the more compendious "Bartlett's Quotations" offers literary blooms such as "A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us" (Franz Kafka). Now, there's a nice cool thought for summer

Today's Word "peccant"

peccant \PEK-unt\ (adjective) - 1 : Sinning; guilty of transgression. 2 : Violating a rule or a principle.

"It is allowed, that Senates and great Councils are often troubled with redundant, ebullient, and other peccant Humours..." -- Jonathan Swift, 'Gulliver's Travels'

Peccant comes from the present participle of Latin of peccare, "to sin."

Today's Word "delectation"

delectation \dee-lek-TAY-shun\ (noun) - Great pleasure; delight, enjoyment.

"Julia frequently played the harp, and would choose, for her friend's special delectation, her most doleful nocturnes..." -- Leo Tolstoy, 'War and Peace'

Delectation derives from Latin delectatio, from the past participle of delectare, "to please."

Today's Word "preternatural"

preternatural \pree-tuhr-NACH-uhr-uhl; -NACH-ruhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Existing outside of nature; differing from the natural; nonnatural. 2 : Surpassing the usual or normal; extraordinary; abnormal. 3 : Beyond or outside ordinary experience; inexplicable by ordinary means.

"New Rome was busy with other matters, such as the petition for a formal definition on the question of the Preternatural Gifts of the Holy Virgin..." -- Walter M. Miller, 'A Canticle for Leibowitz"

Preternatural derives from the Latin phrase praeter naturam, "beyond nature."

Today's Word "vivify"

vivify \VIV-uh-fy\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To endue with life; to make alive; to animate. 2 : To make more lively or intense.

"Words realize nothing, vivify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing, which the words try to describe." -- Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days

Vivify comes from French vivifier, from Late Latin vivificare, from Latin vivus, alive.

Today's Word "apogee"

apogee \AP-uh-jee\ (noun) - 1 : The point in the orbit of the moon or of an artificial satellite that is at the greatest distance from the center of the earth. 2 : The farthest or highest point; culmination.

"He had suggested that perhaps a human life was a simple parabola in which one never knew when the apogee -- the highest, most sublime point -- had been." -- Dan Simmons, 'A Winter Haunting'

Apogee is derived from Greek apogaion, from apogaios, "situated (far) away from the earth," from apo-, "away from" + gaia, "earth."

Red, Write and Blue

Why are Democratic states called "blue states" and Republican states "red states"?

This mystery is worthy of another "National Treasure" movie. In fact, if you look closely at the face side of a $20 bill, the eagle on the left is blue and the number "20" in the lower right corner is red. A-ha!

OK, enough "hue"y. In fact, all language sleuths agree on one thing: The current color scheme grew out of election maps used by TV networks during the 2000 election.

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi claims the first use of the terms "red states" and "blue states" emerged just before the 2000 election on NBC's "Today Show" when the late Tim Russert pointed to a map provided by MSNBC and asked, "So how does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral red states?"

But Grant Barrett, editor of "Hatchet Jobs & Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang," says the terms "red states" and "blue states" were used well before Bush v. Gore. "If you go back to pre-2000," Barrett told a radio interviewer in 2004, "you'll actually see people talk about red states and blue states, but they're switched the other way around."

Evan Morris, who writes about word origins at, agrees. The use of blue and red on electoral maps dates back to at least 1908, Morris notes, and this color scheme has flipped back and forth several times.

But as the 20th century progressed, "red" acquired negative connotations of radicalism and communism while blue retained its association with truth and quality -- "true blue," "blue chip." So each party was increasingly reluctant to be colored red.

Finally, in 1976, trying to avoid charges of favoritism, the TV networks agreed to set blue for the incumbent party and red for the challenging party, with the colors switching every four years.

From 1976 through 1996, this scheme led to the Republicans' being blue and the Democrats' being red in every election save 1988. This reversed in 2000 and 2004 when the Republicans were red and the Democrats blue, and it's this configuration that gave us the "red state-blue state" terminology of the 2000s.

According to the 1976 agreement, the incumbent Republicans should be blue this year and the challenging Democrats red. But will the networks, in choosing this year's color scheme, abandon this dictate and yield to the powerful nomenclature of the watershed 2000 election?

Today's Word "satiety"

satiety \suh-TY-uh-tee\ (noun) - The state of being full or gratified to or beyond the point of satisfaction.

"His hungry eyes looked with a hitherto unknown, amazed satiety. More than that: here hunger was satiety and satiety, hunger." -- Harry Steinhauer, 'The Heretic of Soana'

Satiety is from Latin satietas, from satis, "enough."

Today's Word "punctilio"

punctilio \punk-TIL-ee-oh\ (noun) - 1 : A fine point of exactness in conduct, ceremony, or procedure. 2 : Strictness or exactness in the observance of formalities; as, "the punctilios of a public ceremony."

"He said, that people of birth stood a little too much upon punctilio; as people of value also did." -- Samuel Richardson. 'Clarissa: History of A Young Lady'

Punctilio comes from Obsolete Italian punctiglio, from Spanish puntillo, diminutive of punto, "point," from Latin punctum, from pungere, "to prick."

Today's Word "compunction"

compunction \kuhm-PUHNK-shuhn\ (noun) - 1 : Anxiety or deep unease proceeding from a sense of guilt or consciousness of causing pain. 2 : A sting of conscience or a twinge of uneasiness; a qualm; a scruple.

"However, he died intestate: I was his heir-at-law, and I felt a certain compunction in taking his money -- he would so have disliked my having it." -- Patrick O'Brian, 'Testimonies'

Compunction derives from Late Latin compunctio, compunction-, "sting or pricking of conscience," from the past participle of compungere, "to prick severely," from com-, intensive prefix + pungere, "to prick."

Today's Word "Hogmanay"

Hogmanay \hog-muh-NAY; HOG-muh-nay\ (noun) - The name, in Scotland, for New Year's Eve, on which children go about singing and asking for gifts; also, a gift, cake, or treat given on New Year's Eve.

"The bells were almost lost in the raucous bonhomie of the Hogmanay dance." -- Val McDermid, 'The Distant Echo'

The origin of the word Hogmanay is unknown.

Today's Word "sporadic"

sporadic \spuh-RAD-ik\ (adjective) - Occurring singly, or occasionally, or in scattered instances.

"During my lectures, my pacing could appear sporadic to the students. If I looked sporadic, I would be perceived as being sporadic." -- Christopher Scott, 'Protege'

Sporadic derives from Medieval Latin sporadicus, scattered, from Greek sporadikos, from sporas, sporad-, scattered like seed.

English Descends from Its Pedestal

A singles ad in a Texas newspaper read, "I'm looking for a man who will put me on a pedal stool." That blooper, spotted by John Bowman of San Antonio, was one of many verbal lulus sent to me recently by readers across the country. Can you spot the blots?

1. "The robber was described as a white man with a stalky to medium build." A stalker? (spotted by Phebe Krouse, Du Bois, Pa.)

2. "The eatery even created the Bush Plate, featuring ribs, beans, leaks and potato salad." Reporters must love the place. (Sandy Harris via email)

3. "[About a 92-year-old preacher] "He . . . walked slowly, with great effort and a sliding gate to the podium." At least it wasn't a pearly gate. (Betty Lundy, West Point, Miss.)

4. "Dr. NEED FIRST NAME Sutherland, an obstetric gynecologist . . ." Copy editor on vacation? (Jo Ann Lawlor, San Jose, Calif.)

5. "When I . . . saw the look of shear horror on my 16-year-old daughter's face." She didn't like her new haircut? (Susan Sherwin, Homestead, Pa.)

6. "It is a phantasmagoric display of bison heads and dear antlers?" Trophy wives? (Clare Barton, Glastonbury, Conn.)

7. "The 42-inch mowing deck, powered by a wench . . ." Strong woman! (Rod Heiman, Emery, S.D.)

8. [From a classified ad for home health workers]: "Help asses and enroll new members." Would those be the bosses? (Geri Chmil, New York City)

9. "Once our investigation starts and we have a propensity of evidence to recommend disciplinary charges, we will." That sentence should have been pre-pondered. (Elmer Sullivan, Ewing, N.J.)

10. "I just gave him the old 'eagle eye' and walked away." (Jay Lloyd, Benicia, Calif.)

11. "I was always taught to stay away from racial slurs and epitaphs." (Charles Duncan, Potsdam, N.Y.)

12. From an otherwise perfectly crafted resume: "Impeachable references upon request." (Anonymous via email)

13. "I'm engaged in a plutonic relationship." Must be out of this world! (Anonymous via email)

14. From an ad for a tool kit: "Includes level, adjustable wrench, groove joint, pliers, ape measure." Perfect for zookeepers. (Mrs. Robert Cerwonka, Potsdam, N.Y.)

15. About a film directed by John Carpenter: "Carpenter maintains a taught pace . . ." He must have learned from the best! (Carol Opdyke, Norfolk, N.Y.)

Today's Word "misprize"

misprize \mis-PRYZ\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To hold in contempt. 2 : To undervalue.

"What was it that enabled him, short of being a monster with visibly cloven feet and exhaling brimstone, to misprize so cruelly a nature like his wife's..." -- Henry James, 'Madame de Mauves'

Misprize comes from Middle French mesprisier, from mes-, "amiss, wrong" + prisier, "to appraise."

Today's Word "propitious"

propitious \pruh-PISH-uhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Presenting favorable circumstances or conditions. 2 : Favorably inclined; gracious; benevolent.

"'And what do the omens say this hour is propitious for... 'It is propitious for the making of a priestess in the ancient way.'" -- Marion Zimmer Bradley, 'The Forest House'

Propitious derives from Latin propitius, "favorable."

Today's Word "puissant"

puissant \PWISS-uhnt; PYOO-uh-suhnt; pyoo-ISS-uhnt\ (adjective) - Powerful; strong; mighty; as, a puissant prince or empire.

"'The Duke is a most high and most puissant prince, the Marquis and Earl most noble and puissant lord, the Viscount noble and puissant lord...'" -- Victor Hugo, 'The Man Who Laughs'

Puissant is from Old French puissant, "powerful," ultimately from (assumed) Vulgar Latin potere, alteration

Today's Word "ebullient"

ebullient \ih-BUL-yuhnt\ (adjective) - 1 : Overflowing with enthusiasm or excitement; high-spirited. 2 : Boiling up or over.

"He was extremely nervous and extremely jealous of other tenors and he covered his nervous jealousy with an ebullient friendliness." -- James Joyce, 'Dubliners'

Ebullient comes from Latin ebullire, "to bubble up," from e-, "out of, from" + bullire, "to bubble, to boil."

Today's Word "subterfuge"

subterfuge \SUB-tur-fyooj\ (noun) - A deceptive device or stratagem.

"Subconsciously, yes, and I was aware of the subterfuge involved, but not aware of it in a way that ever allowed me in those days to use the word subterfuge..." -- Paul Scott, 'The Jewel in the Crown'

Subterfuge comes from Late Latin subterfugium, "a secret flight," from Latin subterfugere, "to flee in secret, to evade," from subter, "underneath, underhand, in secret" + fugere, "to flee." It is related to fugitive, one who flees.

Today's Word "rubicund"

rubicund \ROO-bih-kund\ (adjective) - Inclining to redness; ruddy; red.

"But the rubicund bald colonel, more rubicund after wine, most rubicund now the Marsala was going, snatched her attention..." - D.H. Lawrence, 'Aaron's Rod'

Rubicund comes from Latin rubicundus, "red, ruddy," from rubere, "to be red."

Sometimes Language Needs Retrofitting

Linguists' version of a blonde joke:

A natural blonde, a paleoconservative and George H. W. Bush walk into a bar.

"Do you know what we all have in common?" the blonde asks the barkeep.

"You're all Republicans!" he replies.

"Nope," replies the blonde. "We're all retronyms."

Retro . . . what?

A "retronym" is a word created to distinguish an old object, concept or person from a new one. When liquid soap came along, for instance, regular soap was dubbed (actually, rubba-dub-dubbed) "bar soap" to distinguish it from the new kind. Likewise, computer searches spawned "eyeball searches" and bottled water uncorked "tap water."

And without bottle blondes, we'd have no "natural blondes," without neocons we'd have no "paleocons" (traditional conservatives), and without George W. Bush we'd have no George H. W. Bush, who was known simply as "George Bush" pre son-shine. (Of course, biologically speaking, without George H. W. Bush we'd have no George W. Bush.)

Technophobes like me love retronyms. The emergence of a retronym for a device I still use -- "black and white TV," "land line" and "dial-up Internet" -- fully certifies my dinosauric status. That's why I'm looking forward to Feb. 19, 2009, when full-power TV stations begin broadcasting in digital format only; it gives me the chance to savor the retronym for my old, rabbit-eared box -- "analog TV."

Fast-changing technology has spawned retros galore: "terrestrial radio," necessitated by satellite radio; "broadcast TV" by cable TV; "full-frame format" by letterbox format; "desktop computer" by the laptop computer.

Retail retronyms and their protonyms include "brick-and-mortar store" ("online store"), "sit-down restaurant" ("fast food restaurant"), "skirt suit" ("pants suit"), "cloth diapers" ("disposable diapers"), "paper ticket" ("e-ticket"), "natural turf" ("artificial turf"); "single-wide trailer" ("double-wide trailer").

In sports, the popularity of water polo, recumbent bicycles and above-ground pools has produced "horse polo," "upright bicycles" and "in-ground pools." But if you really want a retro fest, try the "summer Olympics" in "mainland China" featuring "indoor volleyball" and "racquet tennis," courtesy of the winter Olympics, Taiwan, beach volleyball and table tennis, respectively.

Some retronyms simply repeat the name of the original. Tired of e-books? Read a "book-book." Don't want to tee off with a metal driver? Use a "wood-wood."

But perhaps the most depressing retronyms are those I see at the gas station: "full-service island" and "free air."

Today's Word "microcosm"

microcosm \MY-kruh-koz-uhm\ (noun) - 1. A little world. 2 : A smaller, representative system having analogies to a larger system.

"You live in your microcosm and I live in mine, but you'd like to believe that because your microcosm produces a regular check it's more valid than mine." -- Charlotte Vale Allen, 'Dream Train'

Microcosm comes from Greek mikros kosmos, "small world."

Today's Word "pandemic"

pandemic \pan-DEM-ik\ (adjective) - Affecting a whole people or a number of countries; everywhere epidemic.

(noun) - A pandemic disease.

"Once a pandemic is upon you, the prime focus has to be for you to extricate yourself from any urban areas or areas of high population density." -- Alex Haynes, 'The Apocalypse Handbook'

Pandemic ultimately derives from Greek pandemos, "of all the people," from pan-, "all" + demos, "people."

Today's Word "voluptuary"

voluptuary \vuh-LUHP-choo-er-ee\ (noun) - A person devoted to luxury and the gratification of sensual appetites; a sensualist.

(adjective) - Voluptuous; luxurious.

"The hackneyed voluptuary is like the jaded epicure, the mere listlessness of whose appetite becomes at length a sufficient penalty for having made it the principle object of his enjoyment and cultivation." -- Sir Walter Scott, 'Peveril of the Peak'

Voluptuary derives from Latin voluptarius, "devoted to pleasure," from voluptas, "pleasure."

Today's Word "termagant"

termagant \TUR-muh-guhnt\ (noun) - A scolding, nagging, bad-tempered woman; a shrew.

(adjective) - Overbearing; shrewish; scolding.

"For you are the witch Magrit, the horrid harridan, the repulsive termagant, the fustigant fury, the execrable harpy, the verminous virago, the loathsome she-wolf." -- Eric Flint, 'Forward the Mage'

Termagant comes from Middle English Termagaunt, alteration of Tervagant, from Old French. Termagant was an imaginary Muslim deity represented in medieval morality plays as extremely violent and turbulent. By the sixteenth century, termagant was used for a boisterous, brawling, turbulent person of either sex, but eventually it came to refer only to women

Today's Word "contradistinction"

contradistinction \kon-truh-dis-TINK-shuhn\ (noun) - Distinction by contrast; as, "sculpture in contradistinction to painting."

"The balloon, for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet." -- by Donald Barthelme, 'Sixty Stories'

Contradistinction is contra-, from Latin contra, "against" + distinction, from Latin distinctio, from distinguere, "to distinguish."

Today's Word "avoirdupois"

avoirdupois \av-uhr-duh-POIZ; AV-uhr-duh-poiz\ (noun) - 1 : Avoirdupois weight, a system of weights based on a pound containing 16 ounces or 7,000 grains (453.59 grams). 2 : Weight; heaviness; as, a person of much avoirdupois.

"The Yemeni eased his avoirdupois upon the leather chair at his desk, cracked his knuckles, and typed in a rapid sequence -- a password, no doubt." -- Robert Ludlum, 'The Bancroft Strategy'

Avoirdupois is from Middle English avoir de pois, "goods sold by weight," from Old French aveir de peis, literally "goods of weight," from aveir, "property, goods" (from aveir, "to have," from Latin habere, "to have, to hold, to possess property") + de, "from" (from the Latin) + peis, "weight," from Latin pensum, "weight."

Today's Word "grok"

grok \GRAWK\ (transitive verb slang) - To understand, especially in a profound and intimate way. Slang.

'"Even if you explain it in short words I'm not going to grok it, okay?" Benjamin frowned the uncomprehending frown of someone whose learning of the English language had missed the word "grok" entirely."' - Eric Flint, Andrew Dennis, '1634: The Galileo Affair"

The slang word grok was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in the science fiction novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", where it is a Martian word meaning literally "to drink" and metaphorically "to be one with". It was adopted into the vocabulary of 1960's youth and hackish jargon, whence it has become a part of net culture.

Today's Word "Brobdingnagian"

Brobdingnagian \brob-ding-NAG-ee-uhn\ (adjective) - Of extraordinary size; gigantic; enormous.

"The cover was removed... revealing two gigantic pots... capable of holding 200 gallons each...a cooking apparatus as might have graced a Brobdingnagian kitchen." -- Frank T. Bullen, 'Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales'

Brobdingnagian is from Brobdingnag, a country of giants in Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Today's Word "edify"

edify \ED-uh-fy\ (transitive verb) - To instruct and improve, especially in moral and religious knowledge; to teach. --edifying, adjective

"He attended like holiness itself; He attended to edify the people with His example, to teach them His doctrine, and to favor men with His grace." -- José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, 'The Mangy Parrot: The Life and Times of Periquillo Sarniento'

Edify is from Old French edifier, from Latin aedifico, aedificare, to build.

Today's Word "winsome"

winsome \WIN-suhm\ (adjective) - 1 : Cheerful; merry; gay; light-hearted. 2 : Causing joy or pleasure; agreeable; pleasant.

"Above all, it was winsome, devastatingly winsome. For a pretty face to be winsome is normal enough and very winsome it can be, but it is a tepid thing..." -- Mervyn Peake, 'The Gormenghast Novels'

Winsome is from Old English wynsum, from wynn, "joy" + -sum (equivalent to Modern English -some), "characterized by."

Today's Word "stoic"

stoic \STOH-ik\ (noun) - 1 : (Capitalized). A member of a school of philosophy founded by Zeno holding that one should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and should submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity. 2 : Hence, one who is apparently or professedly indifferent to or unaffected by pleasure or pain, joy or grief.

(adjective) - 1 : Of or pertaining to the Stoics; resembling the Stoics or their doctrines. 2 : Not affected by passion; being or appearing indifferent to pleasure or pain, joy or grief.

"A Stoic never evaded life: he faced it. A Stoic never avoided responsibility: he accepted it. A Stoic not only believed in liberty: he practised it." -- H. J. Duteil, 'The Great American Parade'

Stoic comes from Greek stoikos, literally "of or pertaining to a colonnade or porch," from stoa, "a roofed colonnade, a porch, especially, a porch in Athens where Zeno and his successors taught."

Today's Word "desideratum"

desideratum \dih-sid-uh-RAY-tum; -RAH-\ (noun) - Something desired or considered necessary. plural desiderata

"I went, had admittance, and offered him my service as a master of the Greek language, which I had been told was a desideratum in this university." -- Oliver Goldsmith, 'The Vicar of Wakefield'

Desideratum is from Latin desideratum, "a thing desired," from desiderare, "to desire."

Today's Word "superfluous"

superfluous \soo-PER-floo-us\ (adjective) - More than is wanted or is sufficient; rendered unnecessary by superabundance; unnecessary; useless; excessive. (adverb) superfluously, (noun) superfluousness

"You must consider that what is necessary always occurs, and what is superfluous usually, but what is almost necessary, at least in my case, rarely, as a result of which, robbed of all context, it can become slightly pathetic, i.e. amusing." -- Hanns Zischler, 'Kafka Goes to the Movies'

Superfluous comes ultimately from the Latin superfluus, from superfluo, superfluere, to overflow, from super-, over, above + fluo, fluere, to flow.

Today's Word "prevaricate"

prevaricate \prih-VAIR-uh-kayt\ (intransitive verb) - To depart from or evade the truth; to speak with equivocation.

"As regards your question, however, I will not prevaricate nor deceive you, but what the old man of the sea told me, so much will I tell you in full." -- Homer, 'The Odyssey'

Prevaricate derives from the past participle of Latin praevaricari, "to pass in front of, or over, by straddling; to walk crookedly; to collude," from prae, "before, in front of" + varicare, "to straddle," from varicus, "straddling," from varus, "bent."

Today's Word "halcyon"

halcyon \HAL-see-uhn\ (noun) - 1 : A kingfisher. 2 : A mythical bird, identified with the kingfisher, that was fabled to nest at sea about the time of the winter solstice and to calm the waves during incubation.

(adjective) - 1 : Calm; quiet; peaceful; undisturbed; happy; as, "deep, halcyon repose." 2 : Marked by peace and prosperity; as, "halcyon years."

"West foreshadowed the end of Los Angeles's halcyon moment. He saw the city of angels becoming a city of despair, a place where hopes get crushed..." -- Michael Connelly, 'The Concrete Blonde'

Halcyon derives from Latin (h)alcyon, from Greek halkuon, a mythical bird, kingfisher. This bird was fabled by the Greeks to nest at sea, about the time of the winter solstice, and, during incubation, to calm the waves.

Today's Word "inimical"

inimical \ih-NIM-ih-kul\ (adjective) - 1 : Having the disposition or temper of an enemy; unfriendly; unfavorable. 2 : Opposed in tendency, influence, or effects; antagonistic; adverse.

"The gods did not care -- or rather, were inimical. Beyond question, they were inimical to him." -- Gene Wolfe, 'Litany of the Long Sun'

nimical comes from Late Latin inimicalis, from Latin inimicus, unfriendly, adverse, hostile, from in-, not + amicus, friendly, well-wishing, favorable to, from amare, to love.

Today's Word "peregrination"

peregrination \pehr-uh-gruh-NAY-shun\ (noun) - A traveling from place to place; a wandering.

"They continued their peregrination, stopping to spend a few minutes in this circle or that before moving on again, she a foot before him, he prowling, relaxed but watchful, in her wake." -- Stephanie Laurens, 'On a Wild Night'

Peregrination comes from Latin peregrinatio, from peregrinari, "to stay or travel in foreign countries," from peregre, "in a foreign country, abroad," from per, "through" + ager, "land."

Today's Word "concomitant"

concomitant \kuhn-KOM-uh-tuhnt\ (adjective) - Accompanying; attendant; occurring or existing concurrently.

(noun) - Something that accompanies or is collaterally connected with something else; an accompaniment.

"I think it's worthy of note that passions do not tend to be inflamed without the presence of concomitant phantasms." -- Don DeLillo, 'Ratner's Star'

Concomitant comes from the present participle of Latin concomitari, to accompany, from com- (used intensively) + comitari, to accompany, from comes, comit-, a companion.

Today's Word "politic"

politic \POL-ih-tik\ (adjective) - 1 : Of or pertaining to polity, or civil government; political (as in the phrase "the body politic"). 2 : (Of persons): Sagacious in promoting a policy; ingenious in devising and advancing a system of management; characterized by political skill and ingenuity; hence, shrewdly tactful, cunning. 3 : (Of actions or things): Pertaining to or promoting a policy; hence, judicious; expedient; as, "a politic decision."

"Berenike swallowed her fury and gave the governor her most politic smile." -- Randall Scott, 'Retribution'

Politic derives from Greek politikos, and from polites, "citizen," from polis,

Today's Word "undulant"

undulant \UN-juh-lunt; UN-dyuh-\ (adjective) - Resembling waves in form, motion, or occurrence.

"After some time the car slowed to a palpitant pause at a spot where the road was bordered on one hand by a woods, on the other by meadow-lands running down to an arm of a bay, on whose gently undulant surface the flame-tipped finger of a distant lighthouse drew an undulant path of radiance." -- Louis Joseph Vance, 'The Destroying Angel'

Undulant is from Late Latin undula, "a small wave," diminutive of Latin unda, "wave."

Today's Word "distrait"

distrait \dis-TRAY\ (adjective) - Divided or withdrawn in attention, especially because of anxiety.

"I noticed that after my host had read it he seemed even more distrait and strange than before." -- Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge'

Distrait is from Old French, from distraire, "to distract," from Latin distrahere, "to pull apart; to draw away; to distract," from dis- + trahere, "to draw, to pull." It is related to distraught and distracted, which have the same Latin source.


Today's Word "conspectus"

conspectus \kuhn-SPEK-tuhs\ (noun) - 1 : A general sketch or survey of a subject. 2 : A synopsis; an outline.

"Shortly after returning from London eighteen years earlier, she had stolen a conspectus of the medical sciences from her parents' physician in Dover." -- Robin Schone, 'The Lover'

Conspectus comes from the Latin, from the past participle of conspicere, "to catch sight of, to perceive," from com-, intensive prefix + specere, "to look at."

Today's Word "misnomer"

misnomer \mis-NO-muhr\ (noun) - 1 : The misnaming of a person in a legal instrument, as in a complaint or indictment. 2 : Any misnaming of a person or thing; also, a wrong or inapplicable name or designation.

"Deep Canyon was a misnomer. It wasn't deep and it wasn'ta canyon. It was a golf course and development of expensive homes that sat in a shallow trough..." -- Arthur Lyons, 'At the Hands of Another'

Misnomer is from Medieval French mesnommer, "to misname," from mes-, "wrongly" + nommer, "to name," from Latin nominare, "to name," from nomen, "a name."


Getting Divisive About 'Divisive'

Today, some random dispatches from the word front...

-- When Sen. Barack Obama delivered his speech last month about race relations in America, he pronounced "divisive," not as "di-VY-siv," but as di-VIS-iv," a rendering that's gaining popularity. Many broadcasters, including NPR's Robert Siegel and PBS NewsHour commentator David Brooks, now say "di-VIS-iv."

Not to be divisive or anything, but most dictionaries favor "di-VY-siv" -- and so do I.

PASS WORDS -- Has anyone used "passport-gate," based on "Watergate," to describe the recent scandal involving snooping into the passport applications of the presidential candidates? I haven't seen it, and that's too bad, because this term would include three words meaning "entry or passage": "pass," "port" and "gate."

LINGUISTIC "ODE"-ITY -- Technically, an "ode" is a lengthy lyric poem, usually meditative and serious in tone and written in a stately or elaborate style. Think of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," or Keats' "Ode to Psyche riding a Nightingale on a Grecian Urn" -- or something like that.

But many people today use "ode" as a general term for any verbal tribute. We might, for instance, write a prose testimonial called "Ode to Uncle Charlie" or pen a limerick titled "Ode to My Husband", e.g. "There once was a hubby named Rob. ..." Hey, wait a minute!

Similarly, the recent newspaper headline, "Ode to a Grecian jewel," introduced not an elaborate poem but a standard feature story about the island of Corfu.

But here's the snafu: Not one dictionary I consulted includes this broader definition of "ode" to mean a general tribute or paean.

SEXY SIXTY-FOUR -- Sportswriters can't seem to resist labeling each step of the NCAA basketball brackets with alliterative or assonantal phrases: "Sweet Sixteen," "Elite Eight," "Final Four." What's next? "Fortunate Forty-eight"? "Thundering Thirty-two"? "Twinkling Twelve"? "Sizzling Six"? "Towering Two"?

RETIRE THEIR JERSEYS! -- I recently learned a clever term for northern retirees who move to Florida, dislike it there and then move halfway back north to mid-South states, such as North Carolina or Tennessee: "halfbacks."

Meanwhile, lifelong Tar Heels, fed up with know-it-all halfbacks telling them how to run things, are sporting bumper stickers reading, "I don't care how you did it up North!"

Now, THAT's divisive, no matter how you pronounce it.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045. To find out more about Rob Kyff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



Today's Word "caesura"

caesura \sih-ZHUR-uh; -ZUR-\ (noun) plural caesuras or caesurae \sih-ZHUR-ee; -ZUR-ee\ - 1 : A break or pause in a line of verse, usually occurring in the middle of a line, and indicated in scanning by a double vertical line; for example, "The proper study || of mankind is man" [Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man]. 2 : Any break, pause, or interruption.

"You have improperly placed the cleft in those loaves; the caesura belongs in the middle, between the hemistichs!" -- Edmond Rostand, 'Cyrano de Bergerac'

Caesura comes from Latin caesura, "a cutting off, a division, a stop," from the past participle of caedere, "to cut."


Today's Word "preponderate"

preponderate \prih-PON-duh-rayt\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To exceed in weight. 2 : To incline or descend, as the scale of a balance; to be weighed down. 3 : To exceed in influence, power, importance, number, amount, etc.

"Amour is the one human activity of any importance in which laughter and pleasure preponderate, if ever so slightly, over misery and pain." -- Aldous Huxley, 'Crome Yellow'

Preponderate comes from the past participle of Latin praeponderare, "to weigh more, to exceed in weight," from prae, "before" + ponderare, "to weigh," from pondus, ponderis, "a weight."

Today's Word "berate"

berate \bih-RAYT\ (transitive verb) - To scold severely or angrily.

"To crawl into her bed, hug her pillow, and berate herself for being a stupid fool. Berate herself and rid herself of the remnants of any lingering wisps of her crazy dreams." -- Brenda Joyce, 'The Finer Things'

Berate is from be-, "thoroughly" + rate, "to scold, to chide," from Middle English raten.

Today's Word "salutary"

salutary \SAL-yuh-ter-ee\ (adjective) - 1 : Producing or contributing to a beneficial effect; beneficial; advantageous. 2 : Wholesome; healthful; promoting health.

"Though their presence was often exasperating to the enthusiasts, it was salutary, for it was a guarantee against extravagance and against tyranny." -- Olaf Stapledon, 'Last and First Men and Star Maker'

Salutary derives from Latin salutaris, from salus, salut-, "health."


Shedding Light on Landscape

Olana, the magnificent home of landscape painter Frederic Church, sits atop a lofty hill near Hudson, N.Y. On a recent visit there, I encountered a sign describing efforts to preserve Olana's "viewshed."

Ah, I thought, a small shelter where aesthetes can contemplate the sublime vistas that inspired Church.

Well, not quite. Here "viewshed" refers, not to a shed, but to the entire landscape visible from Olana. Local authorities and owners of surrounding properties are being asked to limit the building of structures that might sully this natural panorama.

Why am I picturing one of Church's majestic Hudson Valley paintings with a cell phone tower on the horizon?

The word "viewshed" intrigues me because it implicitly compares a field of vision to a watershed, an area drained by a river or stream system. The eye takes in the entire scene, just as a river and its tributaries absorb all the precipitation that falls on that landscape. Whether "viewshed" will eventually be included in dictionaries remains to be "scene."

But "viewshed" also raises the confusing linguistic issues surrounding its parent word, "watershed." Is a "watershed," as I previously suggested, a river basin? Or is it the dividing line between two river basins?

Amazingly enough, it's both.

Unlike most English words, "watershed" did not slowly evolve through Latin or Old English. It suddenly burst into modern English, full grown, during the early 1800s as a literal translation of the German "wasserscheide" ("water divide").

And this was its first meaning in English -- a line along a region's hilltops or mountaintops separating the waters flowing into different river basins. But by the 1830s, this meaning had expanded to denote the slope down which water flows from the divide and, by the 1870s, to denote the entire gathering ground of a water system.

Just as the word "frontier" initially meant a border between two countries but soon came to indicate the entire area near the border, so "watershed" evolved to mean the whole region on one side of the divide.

But when people today use "watershed" metaphorically to mean "turning point" or "crossroads," as in "the 2008 election will be a real watershed," they're thinking of the original meaning of "watershed" -- a dividing line.

And those who smugly view this metaphoric use of "watershed" as a mistake "because watershed means a drainage area" should be taken, not to the woodshed, but to the "viewshed," a new word based on the definition of "watershed" they prefer.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045. To find out more about Rob Kyff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


Copyright 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


Today's Word "melange"

melange \may-LAHNZH\ (noun) - A mixture; a medley.

"Harley Burton's office was a melange of overcrowded and mismatched furnishings. The desk, huge and oblong, was too large for the room; the chairs too small..." -- Katherine V. Forrest, 'Amateur City'

Melange derives from Old French meslance, from mesler, "to mix," ultimately from Latin miscere, "to mix."

Today's Word "countermand"

countermand \KOWN-tuhr-mand; kown-tuhr-MAND\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To revoke (a former command); to cancel or rescind by giving an order contrary to one previously given. 2 : To recall or order back by a contrary order.

(noun) - 1 : A contrary order. 2 : Revocation of a former order or command.

"Tis a singular messenger the captain-general has chosen to send with a countermand of an order he had given out an hour ago, to fire the town at dawn." -- J.H. Ingraham, 'The Quadroone Or St. Michael's Day'

Countermand derives from Old French contremander, from contre-, "counter" (from Latin contra) + mander, "to command" (from Latin mandare).


Today's Word "wayworn"

wayworn \WAY-worn\ (adjective) - Wearied by traveling.

"Suppose some of the boys had seen me coming through Canterbury, wayworn and ragged, and should find me out? What would they say, who made so light of money, if they could know how I scraped my halfpence together, for the purchase of my daily saveloy and beer, or my slices of pudding?" - Charles Dickens, 'David Copperfield'

Wayworn is way (from Old English weg) + worn (from Old English werian).

Today's Word "foofaraw"

foofaraw \FOO-fuh-raw\ (noun) - 1 : Excessive or flashy ornamentation or decoration. 2 : A fuss over a matter of little importance.

"A thousand pardons should you find this letter so soon tiresome in its self-aggrandizing. All this brooding over one's place in posterity, the foofaraw of these last things, December's fanfaronade. I can conceive of nothing more wearying than to dwell upon pelultimacy, as as it is the imminent state of one's own." -- Bruce Olds, 'Bucking the Tiger'

Foofaraw is perhaps from Spanish fanfarrón, "a braggart."


Today's Word "bombinate"

bombinate \BOM-buh-nayt\ (intransitive verb) - To buzz; to hum; to drone.

"Sometimes the computer bombinates way into the night, stops for a bit of rest, then resumes its hum at the early hours of the morning."

Bombinate is from Late Latin bombinatus, past participle of bombinare, alteration of Latin bombilare, from bombus, "a boom."

Hopefully, None of Us Are Confused

Q. On Letterman's first show back, his Top 10 list had this: "I don't have a joke. I just want to remind everyone that we're on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list." Shouldn't it be "so none of us IS responsible"? -- Barbara Wilkinson, East Haddam, Conn.

A. For a minute there, I thought you were going to ask me about the political correctness of "lame," a term of disparagement favored by teenagers. Does using "lame" to mean "inferior" show disrespect for people who have difficulty walking?

Nope. "Lame" crossed over into metaphoric use long ago, as in "lame excuse" and "lame attempt."

Speaking of lame, "none of us are responsible" isn't. Contrary to what many of us were taught in school, "none" doesn't always mean "not one"; it can also mean "not any." So it's perfectly acceptable to write or say, "None of us are responsible," or "None of the jokes are lame."

That said, you should use "none is" when you want to emphasize singularity: "Not a single one of us -- not one! -- not even Harry, the bespectacled little comedy writer huddled in the corner -- is responsible for this lame list."


Q. Hopefully, you will answer this e-mail. I believe I am using the word "hopefully" incorrectly because it is an adverb with no verb to modify. Is my belief correct? -- Ed Cook, St. Louis

A. Many purists detest the use of "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped," as in sentences such as, "Hopefully, you will answer this e-mail." They insist "hopefully" can mean only one thing -- "in a hopeful manner," as in "You will answer this e-mail hopefully," that is, with hope.

Hopefully, people will start accepting the use of "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped." After all, we often use other adverbs to modify entire sentences, e.g., "Curiously, the engine was still running" or "Sadly, the rain cancelled our picnic." No one would insist these sentences mean that the engine was curious when it was running, or that the rain was sad when it cancelled the picnic.

True, "hopefully" can sometimes cause ambiguity. "Hopefully, Margot bought a lottery ticket" could mean either that Margot bought the ticket with hope, or that we hope she bought it.

Nevertheless, in most contexts, the meaning of "hopefully" is clear. Hopefully, we can put the objections to "hopefully" behind us.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045. To find out more about Rob Kyff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Copyright 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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Today's Word "heterodox"

heterodox \HET-uh-ruh-doks\ (adjective) - 1 : Contrary to or differing from some acknowledged standard, especially in church doctrine or dogma; unorthodox. 2 : Holding unorthodox opinions or doctrines.

"Already I was considered heterodox if not treasonable, and I was keenly alive to the danger of my position; nevertheless I could not at times refrain from bursting out into suspicious or half-seditious utterances, even among the highest Polygonal or Circular society." -- Edwin Abbott Abbott, 'Flatland'

Heterodox comes from Greek heterodoxos, "of another opinion," from hetero-, "other" + doxa, "opinion," from dokein, "to believe."


Today's Word "foofaraw"

foofaraw \FOO-fuh-raw\ (noun) - 1 : Excessive or flashy ornamentation or decoration. 2 : A fuss over a matter of little importance.

"A thousand pardons should you find this letter so soon tiresome in its self-aggrandizing. All this brooding over one's place in posterity, the foofaraw of these last things, December's fanfaronade. I can conceive of nothing more wearying than to dwell upon pelultimacy, as as it is the imminent state of one's own." -- Bruce Olds, 'Bucking the Tiger'

Foofaraw is perhaps from Spanish fanfarrón, "a braggart."


Today's Word "equivocate"

equivocate \ih-KWIV-uh-kayt\ (intransitive verb) - To be deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead or to avoid committing oneself to anything definite.

"A woman does not thrill, blush, equivocate, and faint for nothing; especially such a woman as Miss Leavenworth." -- Anna Katharine Green, 'The Leavenworth Case'

To equivocate is literally to call equally one thing or the other: It comes from the Medieval Latin aequivocare, from the Latin aequus, equal + vocare, to call (from Latin vox, voice).


Today's Word "putative"

putative \PYOO-tuh-tiv\ (adjective) - Commonly thought or deemed; supposed; reputed.

"Having washed her hands and face, tidied her hair, and powdered her nose, she set out to find her hostess, the putative mistress of this anything but ordinary household." -- Carola Dunn, 'Mistletoe and Murder'

Putative comes from Late Latin putativus, from the Latin putare, "to cleanse, to prune, to clear up, to consider, to reckon, to think." It is related to compute, "to calculate" (from com-, intensive prefix + putare); dispute, "to contend in argument" (from dis-, "apart" + putare); and reputation, "the estimation in which one is held" (from reputatio, from the past participle of reputare, "to think over," from re-, "again" + putare).


Today's Word "idyll"

idyll \EYE-dl\ (noun) - 1 : A simple descriptive work, either in poetry or prose, dealing with simple, rustic life; pastoral scenes; and the like. 2 : A narrative poem treating an epic, romantic, or tragic theme. 3 : A lighthearted carefree episode or experience. 4 : A romantic interlude.

"For the sake of our idyll I did not take her remark as referring to the missing Stiller, but to the still unmentioned gentlemen in Paris, of whom I was less jealous than of her Stiller, funnily enough." -- Max Frisch, 'I'm Not Stiller'

Idyll ultimately derives from Greek eidullion, "a short descriptive poem (usually on pastoral subjects); an idyll," from eidos, "that which is seen; form; shape; figure." The adjective form is idyllic.


Today's Word "galvanic"

galvanic \gal-VAN-ik\ (adjective) - 1 : Of, pertaining to, or producing a direct current of electricity, especially when produced chemically. 2 : Affecting or affected as if by an electric shock; startling; shocking. 3 : Stimulating; energizing.

"I can feel in my face that I have turned either bright red or ghost white, with the same galvanic tingle that would send a polygraph machine off the edge of the paper." -- Edward Allen, 'Mustang Sally'

Galvanic is derived from the name of Luigi Galvani, a professor of physiology at Bologna, whose experiments established the presence of bioelectric forces in animal tissue.


Today's Word "trencherman"

trencherman \TREN-chuhr-muhn\ (noun) - A hearty eater.

"Dr. Zollner was arranging his large lunch in front of him with the expertise of a real trencherman." -- Nelson DeMille, 'Plum Island'

Trencherman is from trencher, "a wooden board or platter on which food is served or carved" (which itself is from Medieval French trencheoir, from Old French trenchier, "to cut," from Latin truncare, "to lop off, to shorten by cutting") + man. It is related to trench, "a hole cut into the ground."

Today's Word "dotage"

dotage \DOH-tij\ (noun) - Feebleness of mind due to old age; senility.

"Jess, you told me you would never wear that particular bonnet unless you were in your dotage or wished to bewitch the man of your dreams..." -- Elizabeth Thornton, 'Bluestocking Bride'

Dotage comes from the verb to dote, meaning "to be weak-minded, silly, or foolish; to have the intellect impaired, especially by old age," from Middle English doten. A person who's in their dotage is a dotard.

Today's Word "raillery"

raillery \RAY-luh-ree\ (noun) - 1 : Good-humored teasing or banter. 2 : An instance of such good-humored teasing; a jest.

"But as matter for ridicule is always ready to hand, and as most men are only too fond of fun and raillery, even buffoons are called witty and pass for clever fellows; though it is clear from what has been said that wit is different, and widely different, from buffoonery." -- Aristotle, 'The Nicomachean Ethics'

Raillery is taken from the French raillerie, or from the Old French railler, meaning "to tease, to mock."

 • Today's Word "pelf"
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Today's Word "pelf"

pelf \PELF\ (noun) - Money; riches; gain; -- generally conveying the idea of something ill-gotten.

"A life-long con man, Jason was always just one big scam away from taking his pelf and retiring for good."

Pelf comes from Old French pelfre, "booty, stolen goods." It is related to pilfer.

Today's Word "renascent"
Today's Word "renascent"

renascent \rih-NAS-uhnt\ (adjective) - Springing or rising again into being; showing renewed vigor.

"After the failings and anger over the current administration, a renascent opposition movement waited to make the most of that discontent."

Renascent comes from Latin renascens, present participle of renasci, "to be born again," from re-, "again" + nasci, "to be born."

Today's Word "diktat"

diktat \dik-TAHT\ (noun) - 1 : A harsh settlement unilaterally imposed on a defeated party. 2 : An authoritative decree or order.

"Management was fond of passing down diktats the actual intent of which was muddled or obscure such as 'no red neckties on the third Tuesday of each month,' or 'no brown, open-toed sandals on women on alternate Thursdays."

Diktat comes from German, from Latin dictatum, neuter past participle of dictare, "to dictate." It is related to dictator.

Today's Word "fortuitous"

fortuitous \for-TOO-uh-tuhs; -TYOO-\ (adjective) - 1 : Happening by chance; coming or occurring by accident, or without any known cause. 2 : Happening by a fortunate or lucky chance. 3 : Fortunate or lucky.

"All agreed that the arrival of the off-duty emergency medical technicians just as Frank fell over from a heart attack was a fortuitous event."

Fortuitous comes from Latin fortuitus, "accidental," from fors, "chance, luck."

These 'Choices' Are Not Choice

Today, some random dispatches from the word front…

-- Poor choices -- The word "choice" has become the word of, well … choice these days. NBC anchorman Brian Williams, for instance, sometimes signs off by humbly acknowledging, "We know you have many choices for your evening newscast, and we thank you for choosing us." Gee, you're welcome, Mr. Heep.

Similarly, a TV commercial for a local optician concedes, "We know there's a lot of choices when it comes to eyeglasses." I'm suddenly envisioning that oculist's billboard in "The Great Gatsby": "When it comes to Woodrow Wilson-style bifocals, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg knows you have many choices."

The overused "choice" has also weaseled its way into the bathetic melodrama of apology. When people do something wrong these days -- park illegally, drive drunk, trigger World War III -- they're likely to confess, "I made a poor choice." "Hmmm… Should I pull out a gun and rob this bank, or maybe just verify my account balance?"

After getting lost on a hike last month, I concocted a new version of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Chosen … er, Taken": "Two roads diverged in a wood last summer, and I made a poor choice -- bummer!"

-- Oopsie! -- Speaking of poor choices, why does every crook, criminal and crony seem to describe his or her wrongdoing as a "mistake"? This annoys Jan Christensen of Cheshire, Conn., who wrote, "Each and every human malfunction has become a MISTAKE."

She cited the response of a woman who had been caught embezzling: "You know what she said, right? 'Oh, it was just a MISTAKE!' She treated it as if she had used the pepper instead of the salt on her burger."

Another revised Frost poem: "He shakes his harness bells with gravity, to ask if there's been some depravity."

-- Meantime, Back at the Rant -- A reader from Pittsburgh, Pa., wonders why so many TV news anchors are using "meantime" instead of "meanwhile," as in, "Meantime, the accused embezzler denies any wrongdoing."

Usage authorities disagree about the acceptability of the adverbial "meantime." Some accept it as a handy shortening of "in the meantime"; after all, people have been using it that way for centuries. Others say "meantime" is a noun and should never be used as an adverb.

Meanwhile, I'd say the adverbial "meantime" is OK in conversational, anchor-people gibber jabber, but I'd avoid it in formal prose.

Today's Word "indelible"

indelible \in-DEL-uh-buhl\ (adjective) - 1 : That cannot be removed, erased, or washed away. 2 : Making marks that cannot easily be removed or erased. 3 : Incapable of being forgotten; memorable.

"Wanting an indelible representation of their eternal love for each other, Jim had a tattoo of Jane's name placed on his arm."

Indelible is from Latin indelebilis, from in-, "not" + delebilis, "that can be obliterated or destroyed," from delere, "to blot out, to efface, to destroy."

Today's Word "perdurable"

perdurable \pur-DUR-uh-bul; pur-DYUR-\ (adjective) - Very durable; lasting; continuing long.

"A mother's perdurable love for her child is often tested during the teen years."

Perdurable ultimately comes from Late Latin perdurabilis, from Latin perdurare, to last a long time, to endure, from per-, throughout + durare, to last.

Today's Word "dubiety"

dubiety \doo-BY-uh-tee; dyoo-\ (noun) - 1 : The condition or quality of being doubtful or skeptical. 2 : A matter of doubt.

"Despite a lack of forensic evidence, dubiety among the police themselves and inaccuracies in Francis' confession, he was ultimately found guilty."

Dubiety is from Late Latin dubietas, from Latin dubius, "doubtful, uncertain."

Today's Word "gravitas"

gravitas \GRAV-uh-tahs\ (noun) - High seriousness (as in a person's bearing or in the treatment of a subject).

"The speaker was so utterly lacking in gravitas that none of his pronouncements were taken at all seriously, in spite of their actual importance to the group's day-to-day existence."

Gravitas is from the Latin gravitas, "heaviness, seriousness," from gravis, "heavy, serious."

Today's Word "farrago"

farrago \fuh-RAH-go; fuh-RAY-go\ (noun) - A confused mixture; an assortment; a medley.

"Appearing on the chat show for the first time, Jenkins was subjected to a farrago of attacks from all sides such that he couldn't determine how to best defend himself."

Farrago comes from the Latin farrago, "a mixed fo_dder for cattle," hence "a medley, a hodgepodge," from far, a sort of grain.

Untangling the Metaphor Stew

"Pfizer Game Plan Unleashing Whirlwind." This ambitious newspaper headline manages to cram three metaphors into just five words, whisking us energetically from sports to runaway dogs to meteorology. Whee!

"This isn't just a mixed metaphor," wrote Henry McNulty of Cheshire, Conn., who mailed it to me. "It's a veritable metaphor stew, if I may add to the mix by borrowing from the language of cookery."

A stew it is, but a tasty one at that. As much as I know I should be condemning mixed metaphors for their illogical juxtapositions, I can't help admiring the headlong exuberance of their creators.

Something about the world of business seems to "spark torrents" of these clashers. People who wear carefully matched suits in the office suddenly pair polka dot shirts with striped pants in their prose. "This proposal," said one corporate executive, "puts orthodontic pressure on the issue. We're still waiting to see the other shoe drop." That's called putting your foot in your mouth.

When a financial writer wanted to stress the importance of examining a company carefully before acquiring it, he hopped from miners to movers to millers: "Research will perhaps never again be seen as the province of those panning for gold, but as today's movers and shakers show, it can still put bread on the table." Come to think of it, prospectors do shake their pans.

By my count there are FIVE competing metaphors in this lead sentence from a newspaper's business section: "The world's largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation's food industry." In one sentence we're whirled from medieval knights to football to nuclear weapons to barroom brawls to cooking.

And a business metaphor doesn't have to be mixed to turn sour. Sometimes writers fail to recognize illogical extensions of a single metaphor: "For any young company, capital is like mother's milk, the sustenance needed for growth. A captive audience of attentive financiers offered hope for a long, cool drink." Ugh!

I've saved one non-business metaphor for the end, quite literally. The co-founder of a modern dance troupe was describing the group's early years when she said, "We were truly naive and just shooting from the seat of our pants."


friable \FRY-uh-buhl\ (adjective) - Easily crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder.

"The house was practically falling apart around him, the crackling and friable walls unable to withstand the extreme winds of the storm."

Friable comes from Latin friabilis, from friare, "to rub, break, or crumble into small pieces."

vertiginous \vur-TIJ-uh-nuhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Affected with vertigo; giddy; dizzy. 2 : Causing or tending to cause dizziness. 3 : Turning round; whirling; revolving. 4 : Inclined to change quickly or frequently; inconstant.

"Would she have prevented him from ever scaling his vertiginous Peak? - or would she, otherwise, have been able to accompany him to that eminence..." -- Henry James, "The Golden Bowl"

Vertiginous derives from Latin vertigo, "a turning round, a whirling round; giddiness," from vertere, "to turn." Related words include reverse, "to turn back (re-) or around"; subvert, "to undermine" (from sub-, "under" + vertere -- at root "to turn from under, to overturn"); and versus, "against" (from versus, "turned towards," hence "facing, opposed," from the past participle of vertere).

Today's Word "carom"

carom \KAIR-uhm\ (noun) - 1 : A rebound following a collision; a glancing off. 2 : A shot in billiards in which the cue ball successively strikes two other balls on the table.

(intransitive verb) - 1 : To strike and rebound; to glance. 2 : To make a carom.

(transitive verb) - 1 : To make (an object) bounce off something; to cause to carom.

"Arriving home after a night spent drinking, unable to even work the light switch, Delbert bounced about the room, caroming against seemingly every piece of furniture, before collapsing drunkenly on the unmade bed."

Carom derives from obsolete carambole, from Spanish carambola, "a stroke at billiards."


These Words Are All in the Family

What does your family call a backward somersault . . . or the chunks of mud that kids' boots leave on the kitchen floor . . . or a single sock without a mate?

The Hansens of St. Paul, Minn., call that back flip a "winter pepper." In the Howard Family of Brockton, Mass., those chunks are "mud waffles."

To the Sande clan of Caldwell, Ida., that single sock is a "lurkin," because its mate is "lurking" somewhere, while the Aranows of Deerfield, Ill., call it a "Robinson Crewsock," after DeFoe's marooned hero. Hmmm . . . perhaps its mate will be found on Friday.

Welcome to the pleasures of "Family Words," a delightful new book by Paul Dickson (Marion Street Press, $14.95). Almost every family uses certain words and phrases known only to its members, and Dickson provides scores of the neolo-kins people have shared with him over the years.

To the Enders Family of Langley, British Columbia, for instance, a gift for someone else that you really want for yourself is a "sheriff's badge." That's because an Enders son once gave his dad a cap pistol, whistle and sheriff's badge for Father's Day.

In the Baeb household of Oneida, Wis., "nadia" means "come and eat" because that phrase sounds like the last name of gymnast Nadia Comaneci. And an opportunistic child in the Cukrowski clan of New Haven tried to get his presents early by christening December 23 "Christmas Adam," arguing that "Adam came before Eve."

Some family lingo can come in handy. Rather than embarrassing your son by ordering him a Shirley Temple, order him a non-alcoholic "boyhatten." If you're tired of saying, "Great Aunt" and "Great Uncle," just say "Grant" and "Grunkle" instead.

Other nomen"clanture" allows you to mention the unmentionable: "vegicrud" (decaying organic matter in the refrigerator's crisper drawer); "yulke" (little grains of dried secretion in your eyes when you awaken); "disgusto slot" (the space between kitchen appliances that's too narrow to clean).

You probably know the code letters whispered when there's not enough food for dinner guests -- "F.H.B." (Family Hold Back), but do you know "E.G.E." (Everybody Go Easy), "P.M.K." (Plenty More in the Kitchen" or "G.M.P.O.T.) (Guests Making Pigs of Themselves)?

If you'd like to share any insider terms floating in your family's secret cove, please sail them over to me at one of the addresses below. I'll publish as many as space allows.


pulchritude \PUL-kruh-tood; -tyood\ (noun) - That quality of appearance which pleases the eye; beauty; comeliness; grace; loveliness.

"The epitome of feminine pulchritude among the Sara of Chad was the wearing of lip plates, inserted during childhood." -- A. Adu Boahen, "The Horizon History of Africa"

Pulchritude comes from Latin pulchritudo, from pulcher, "beautiful." The adjective form is pulchritudinous.


Today's Word "demur"

demur \dih-MUR\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To object; to take exception. 2 : To delay.

(noun) - 1 : The act of demurring. 2 : Objection. 3 : Delay.

"Whenever Alice would ask to see something Tom had written, he would demur, saying that anything he had written was terrible."

Demur comes from Old French demorer, "to linger, to stay," from Latin demorari, from de- + morari, "to delay, to loiter," from mora, "a delay."

Today's Word "lubricious"

lubricious \loo-BRISH-us\ (adjective) - 1 : Lustful; lewd. 2 : Stimulating or appealing to sexual desire or imagination. 3 : Having a slippery or smooth quality.

"His imagination wanders between a wild sensuality,--so lubricious in its suggestions, now and then, as to occasion gossip to the effect that he had become a libertine..." -- Thomas Calvin, The Life and Works of Friedrich Schiller

Lubricious derives from Latin lubricus, "slippery, smooth."

Pentagon Got Rumsfeld's Drift

Snowflakes, carrots and rattling sabers. All these diverse items popped up as political metaphors last week.

-- Secretary of Snowfence -- On Thursday we learned that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld loved to blanket the Pentagon with memos. These missives, written at the rate of 20 to 60 a day, were often blunt, demanding and scolding.

His subordinates called them "snowflakes." But why? Did they consider them flaky? Did they think Rumsfeld was giving them a snow job? Did each memo have six points?

Apparently, none of the above. According to blogger John Hendren, a correspondent for ABC News, "The memos were known in the Pentagon as 'snowflakes' because they descended so prolifically from Rumsfeld's third-floor office."

Hendren tells the story of seeing a Pentagon inbox stacked six inches high with Rumsfeld's memos. The box was labeled "snowflakes."

So, on the face of it, Rumsfeld's snowflakes were so called simply because of their abundant, blizzard-like descent. But those sly Pentagon wags must have been well aware of the term's more subversive denotation -- tiny, flaky crystals that melt quickly.

-- 14-Carrot Oratory -- To the credit of the Democratic presidential candidates, their debate last week produced little political jargon. They managed to avoid current cliches such as "the way forward," "low-hanging fruit" and "kicking the can down the road."

OK, so they did trot out a few tired sawhorses. Barack Obama mentioned "earmarks," "pork barrel spending" and "corporate loopholes." Thankfully, sports metaphors were limited to Joseph Biden's vow to "never take my eye off the ball" and Hillary Clinton's call for "a full-court press on the diplomatic front."

When it came to mulish Iran, carrots and sticks abounded. Obama talked of "potential carrots that we can provide," while Clinton declared, "You need both carrots and sticks."

They all rattled their sabers at "saber-rattling": John Edwards ("They have been rattling the saber"); Bill Richardson ("It was saber-rattling"); Dennis Kucinich ("Saber-rattling against Iran is driving up the price of oil"). Americans haven't heard this much saber-rattling since John Wayne's cavalry corps clankily dismounted.

Clinton boldly borrowed Obama's stock phrase "turning the page" and then took the metaphor even further: "We've got to turn the page on George Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact, we have to throw the whole book away."


Today's Word "malapropism"

malapropism \mal-uh-PROP-iz-uhm\ (noun) - The usually unintentionally humorous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound; also, an example of such misuse.

"The former statesman was almost as well-known for his malapropism's, such as, 'Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child,' as he was for his time spent serving his country."

A malapropism is so called after Mrs. Malaprop, a character noted for her amusing misuse of words in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals.

Today's Word "languid"

languid \LANG-gwid\ (adjective) - 1 : Drooping or flagging from or as if from exhaustion; weak; weary; heavy. 2 : Promoting or indicating weakness or heaviness. 3 : Slow; lacking vigor or force.

"Even the buildings seemed to be sagging in the languid late summer, late afternoon heat."

Languid comes from Latin languere, "to become faint or weak; to droop; to be inactive."

Today's Word "hebetude"

hebetude \HEB-uh-tood-; -tyood\ (noun) - Mental dullness or sluggishness.

"The Hormel's eschewed a television in their house, feeling that encouraged hebetude and physical laxity."

Hebetude derives ultimately from Latin hebes, "blunt, dull, mentally dull, sluggish, stupid." The adjective form is hebetudinous.

Today's Word "coruscate"

coruscate \KOR-uh-skayt\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To give off or reflect bright beams or flashes of light; to sparkle. 2 : To exhibit brilliant, sparkling technique or style.

"Magda was fascinated by the gem on her ring, spending hours watching as it would coruscate in the light as she moved her hand to and fro."

Coruscate comes from Latin coruscatus, past participle of coruscare, "to move quickly, to tremble, to flutter, to twinkle or flash." The noun form is coruscation. Also from coruscare is the adjective coruscant, "glittering in flashes; flashing."

Today's Word "encumbrance"

encumbrance \en-KUHM-brun(t)s\ (noun) - 1 : A burden, impediment, or hindrance. 2 : A lien, mortgage, or other financial claim against a property.

"Before the company could become truly profitable they had to divest themselves of the encumbrance of their unprofitable sister organization."

Encumbrance is from Old French encombrance, from encombrer, "to block up," from en-, "in" (here used intensively) + combre, "dam, weir, hence hindrance."

You'll Get a Kick Out of This

When I was a kid, the Mantini kids and I would play a tag-like game called "kick the can." One kid would kick a tin can as far as possible along a dirt driveway. Then the kid who was "it" would have to retrieve the can before trying to tag the others.

So kicking the can as far as you could gave the other kids more time to flee. When Pete Mantini was it, he fumed when someone booted the can a huge distance.

The name of this simple children's game is alive and kicking as a political buzzword of the mid-2000s. "Kick the can" is now the metaphor of choice to describe a delaying tactic or attempt to put off a decision.

The first citation I could find for the term came in the November 11, 2002, issue of the National Review: "In each of these areas -- as in North Korea, as in Iraq -- Clinton's accomplishment was, at best, to kick the can down the road."

A few months later, Jamie Rubin, a former assistant U.S. secretary, of CNN said, "Well, diplomatically, what the prime minister did today is what we call kick the can down the road."

But here's the kicker: The game I played with the Mantini kids might NOT be the source of this political phrase.

In the children's game, kicking the can down the road is a good thing, giving you and your chums more time to escape. But, as used in most political contexts, "kick the can down the road" connotes a bad thing -- postponing a decision or avoiding an issue, a tactic that might cause more problems, well, down the road.

My hunch is that this political term derives from a more incidental pastime my friends and I indulged in as kids: repeatedly kicking the same can or stone down a dirt road as we walked, sometimes taking turns. It was a harmless way of alleviating the boredom of a long, dusty trek.

To me, this mundane diversion seems more consistent with the sense of prolongation and procrastination inherent in the political metaphor.

The only use of "kick the can" I could find that seems consistent with the crafty ploy of the game is this comment from Andrew Moravcsik, director of the European Union Program at Harvard University. It appeared in the Dec. 22, 2003, issue of Newsweek International: "Europe kicked the can down the road? Good. That's the smart play."

I just wish Pete Mantini had seen it that way.

Today's Word "nescience"

escience \NESH-uhn(t)s; NESH-ee-uhn(t)s\ (noun) - Lack of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.

"The president's seeming nescience on the subject of global warming was a tremendous cause for concern to everyone at the conference."

Nescience is from Latin nescire, "not to know," from ne-, "not" + scire, "to know." It is related to science. Nescient is the adjective form.


Today's Word "lenity"

lenity \LEN-uh-tee\ (noun) - The state or quality of being lenient; mildness; gentleness of treatment; leniency.

"The crime the defendant was being tried for was so heinous that severity was justice, lenity injustice."

Lenity comes from Latin lenitas, from lenis, "soft, mild."

Today's Word "recrimination"

recrimination \rih-krim-uh-NAY-shuhn\ (noun) - 1 : The act of returning one charge or accusation with another. 2 : An accusation brought by the accused against the accuser; a counter accusation.

"The endless acts of senseless recrimination engaged in by both parties in the House served to do little more than accomplish hopeless gridlock."

Recrimination is from Medieval Latin recriminatio, from the past participle of recriminare, from Latin re-, "back, again" + criminari, "to accuse," from crimen, "accusation, charge, crime." The related verb is recriminate.

Today's Word "prolix"

prolix \pro-LIKS; PRO-liks\ (adjective) - 1 : Extending to a great length; unnecessarily long; wordy. 2 : Tending to speak or write at excessive length.

"A prolix speaker at the best to times, everyone was concerned that Albertson's farewell speech would run well beyond it's allotted time of fifteen minutes."

Prolix is derived from Latin prolixus, "poured forth, overflowing, extended, long," from pro-, "forward" + liquere, "to be fluid."


Today's Word "mellifluous"

mellifluous \muh-LIF-loo-us\ (adjective) - Flowing as with honey; smooth; flowing sweetly or smoothly; as, a mellifluous voice.

"The mellifluous tones of the Debussy sonata were presented all the more pleasantly when they came from the instrument of such an expert pianist."

Mellifluous comes from Latin mellifluus

Today's Word "languor"

discomfit \dis-KUHM-fit; dis-kuhm-FIT\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To make uneasy or perplexed, or to put into a state of embarrassment; to disconcert; to upset. 2 : To thwart; to frustrate the plans of. 3 : (Archaic). To defeat in battle.

"A boy who can dodge over the roofs of Lahore city on a moonlight night, using every little patch and corner of darkness to discomfit his pursuer, is not likely to be checked by a line of well-trained soldiers." -- Rudyard Kipling, "Kim"

Discomfit comes from Old French desconfit, past participle of desconfire, from Latin dis- + conficere, "to make ready, to prepare, to bring about," from com- + fac

Today's Word "slugabed"

slugabed \SLUHG-uh-bed\ (noun) - One who stays in bed until a late hour; a sluggard.

"Perhaps he would lie slugabed till the household had departed for the procession, then get up late. Creep around unobtrusively, lie in the sun with the castle cats." -- Lois McMaster Bujold, 'The Curse of Chalion'

Slugabed is from slug, "sluggard" + abed, "in bed."

Today's Word "forgo"

forgo \for-GO\ (transitive verb) - To abstain from; to do without. Inflected forms: forwent, forgone, forgoing, forgoes.

"Having decided to forgo the healing silence of Zen koans in her solitude, she was reading Ann Landers when Jill came in." -- Beth Gutcheon, "Five Fortunes"

Forgo derives from Old English forgan, "to go without, to forgo," from for-, "without" + gan, "to go."

Today's Word "brackish"

brackish \BRAK-ish\ (adjective) - 1 : Somewhat salty. 2 : Distasteful; unpalatable.

"As my body grew steadily larger, my craving for cheese continued and my desire for stronger and more brackish cheeses increased." -- J. Angelica, "Fermentation"

Brackish derives from Dutch brak, "salty." It is especially used to describe a mixture of seawater and fresh water.

Today's Word "algorithm"

algorithm \AL-guh-RITH-uhm\ (noun) - A step-by-step procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps that often involves repetition of an operation.

"Their latest innovation involved some kind of complex algorithm that made the eyes of anyone with an IQ of less than 200 glaze over with incomprehension but was reckoned by the company to be a surefire thing." -- John Connolly, 'The Killing Kind'

Algorithm is an alteration of algorism, possibly influenced by arithmetic. It comes to us from the Arabic name of a ninth century Persian mathematician and textbook author, via Old French and Medieval Latin: Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi was from the Khwarizm region, an area south of the Aral Sea. Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book titled Kitab al jabr wa'l-muqabala ("Rules of restoring and equating") which is the source of the word algebra.

Today's Word "visage"

visage \VIZ-ij\ (noun) - 1 : The face, countenance, or look of a person or an animal; -- chiefly applied to the human face. 2 : Look; appearance; aspect.

"The waiter, a faceless and fawning creature whose visage was lost in the clouds of smoke that eddied, now here, now nervously there, suggested the 'speciality' of the 'house'..." -- Gilbert Sorrentino, 'Mulligan Stew'

Visage is from Old French, from vis, "face," from Latin visus, "seeing, sight, hence what is seen, appearance," from the past participle of videre, "to see."


Today's Word "matutinal"

matutinal \muh-TOOT-n-uhl\, adjective) - Relating to or occurring in the morning; early.

"You must make a little excursion one of these fine spring days...Some morning, the earlier the better. But I dare say your habits are not very matutinal, Signora?" -- Thomas Adolphus Trollope, 'A Siren'

Matutinal is from Late Latin matutinalis, from Latin matutinus, "early in the morning; pertaining to the morning."

Today's Word "cadre"

cadre \KAD-ree; -ray; KAH-dray; -druh\ (noun) - 1 : A core or nucleus of trained or otherwise qualified personnel around which an organization is formed. 2 : A tightly knit and trained group of dedicated members active in promoting the interests of a revolutionary party. 3 : A member of such a group. 4 : A framework upon which a larger entity can be built; a scheme.

"Naturally they were curious, the businessmen and cadre and assorted visitors, who offered up cigarettes and tea before making their first hedgy attempts at conversation. The cadre wanted to know if they were American, but he, along with the businessmen, insisted on broaching his questions in fragmented, nearly impenetrable English." -- 'John Dalton, 'Heaven Lake: A Novel'

Upon entering the English language around 1830 via Sir Walter Scott's Introduction to The Lay of the Last Minstrel, this word first meant "framework," and by the 1850s was a term for a group of people. It was borrowed from the French cadre, "a picture frame," from Italian quadro, "framework," from Latin quadrum, "square, four-sided thing."


Today's Word "explicate"

explicate \EK-spluh-kayt\ (transitive verb) - To explain; to clear of difficulties or obscurity.

"Every day I would come home from the office to find him waiting and he would stay until dinnertime. During that time I would read and explicate a German introduction to philosphy to him. In return he would instruct me on the Yuishikiron, the Buddhist doctrine that matter is a form of mind." -- Ōgai Mori, 'Youth and Other Stories'

Explicate comes from Latin explicare, "to unfold; to unfold the meaning or sense of; to explain, expound, or interpret," from ex-, "out" + plicare, "to fold."

Today's Word "robustious"

robustious \roh-BUHS-chuhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Boisterous; vigorous. 2 : Coarse; rough; crude.

"Four girls and four boys he had, robustious little heathens, every one of them, as he said himself." -- Marilynne Robinson, 'Gilead'

Robustious derives from Latin robustus, "oaken, hence strong, powerful, firm," from robur, "oak."


Today's Word "tete-a-tete"

tete-a-tete \TAYT-uh-TAYT; TET-uh-TET\ (adjective) - Private; confidential; familiar.

(noun) - 1 : A private conversation between two people. 2 : A short sofa intended to accommodate two persons.

"There was a phone in her office, but she wasn't near brave enough to hang around having a tete-a- tete with a corpse while she waited for the police." -- Lori Foster, 'Bad Boys to Go'

Tete-a-tete comes from the French, literally "head-to-head."

Today's Word "sui generis"

sui generis \soo-eye-JEN-ur-us; soo-ee-\ (adjective) - Being the only example of its kind; constituting a class of its own; unique.

"It was indeed when, after groping your way up the long dark spiral staircase that climbs between the thick walls of the steeple, you at last emerged on one of the two lofty platforms, flooded with light and air, that a breathtaking picture opened before you on every side -- a spectacle sui generis." -- Victor Hugo, 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'

Sui generis is from Latin, literally meaning "of its own kind": sui, "of its own" + generis, genitive form of genus, "kind."

Today's Word "supercilious"

supercilious \soo-puhr-SIL-ee-uhs\ (adjective) - Disdainfully arrogant; haughty.

"I could have gladly booted the bloke there and then, but mother was already heaping her praise and approval on the supercilious pillock, so my opinion was not asked and the trousers were duly purchased." -- Eddy Vee, ' The Teddy Boy on the Trolley Bus'

Supercilious is from Latin superciliosus, from supercilium, "an eyebrow, arrogance," from super, "over" + cilium, "an eyelid."

Today's Word "lexicon"

lexicon \LEK-suh-kon\ (noun) plural lexicons or lexica \-kuh\ - 1 : A book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language with the definition of each; a dictionary. 2 : The vocabulary of a person, group, subject, or language. 3 : [Linguistics] The total morphemes of a language.

"April Fool's Day is one of the cruelest holidays in our cultural lexicon. When else do we so gleefully dash the hopes of those around us?" -- Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, 'The Dirty Girls Social Club'

Lexicon comes from Greek lexikon, from lexikos, "of or belonging to words," from lexis, "a speaking, speech, a way of speaking, a word or phrase," from legein, "to say, to speak

Today's Word "mawkish"

mawkish \MOCK-ish\ (adjective) - 1 : Sickly or excessively sentimental. 2 : Insipid in taste; nauseous; disgusting.

"It was quickly done, without words of mawkish sentiment. But it was enough, a silent exchange of souls, the culmination of all that had gone before." -- Matt Braun, 'The Kincaids'

Mawkish originally meant "maggoty" (from Middle English mawke, maggot), hence squeamish, nauseating, hence tending to render squeamish or make nauseated, especially because of excessive sentimentality.

Today's Word "virago"

virago \vuh-RAH-go; vuh-RAY-go\ (noun) - 1 : A woman of extraordinary stature, strength, and courage. 2 : A woman regarded as loud, scolding, ill-tempered, quarrelsome, or overbearing.

"For you are the witch Magrit, the horrid harridan, the repulsive termagant, the fustigant fury, the lamia rampant, the execrable harpy, the verminous virago, the loathsome she-wolf. Hence are you known the world over as the unquestioned mistress of lore and practice of foety, this expertise being explained, of course, not simply by its natural attraction to one of your demonic foulness, but, more simply still, by the demands of self-preservation." -- Eric Flint, 'Forward the Mage'

Virago comes from Latin virago, "a man-like woman, a female warrior, a heroine" from vir, "a man."

Today's Word "onus"

onus \OH-nuhs\ (noun) - 1 : A burden; an obligation; a disagreeable necessity. 2 : a: A stigma. b: Blame. 3 : The burden of proof.

"The engineer was not as much fun to be with as he once was, and she thought that it might be the terrible onus of repairing the engines that weighed upon him." -- Michael Flynn, 'The Wreck of the River of Stars

Onus is adopted from Latin onus, "load, burden." The derivative Latin adjective onerosus yields English onerous, "burdensome, oppressive." The derivative Latin verb onerare has the compound form exonerare, "to free from (ex-) an onus or burden," which yields English exonerate, "to relieve, in a moral sense, as of a charge, obligation, or load of blame resting on one."

Today's Word "sempiternal"

sempiternal \sem-pih-TUR-nuhl\ (adjective) - Of never ending duration; having beginning but no end; everlasting; endless.

"Repetition had become a comfort in her antiquity; the well-worn phrases, unfinished business, grandstand view, made her feel solid, unchanging, sempiternal, instead of the creature of cracks and absences she knew herself to be." -- Salman Rushdie, 'The Satanic Verses'

Sempiternal comes from Medieval Latin sempiternalis, from Latin sempiternus, a contraction of semperaeternus, from semper, "always" + aeternus, "eternal."

Today's Word "votary"

votary \VOH-tuh-ree\ (noun) - 1. One who is devoted, given, or addicted to some particular pursuit, subject, study, or way of life. 2 : A devoted admirer. 3 : A devout adherent of a religion or cult. 4 : A dedicated believer or advocate.

"A priestess led a young man out onto the sunken floor, pulling him with a chain fixed to the manacles on his wrists; a second votary walked behind him, a sword at his back." -- Mark E. Rogers, 'Blood + Pearls'

Votary comes from Latin votum, "vow," from the past participle of vovere, "to vow, to devote." Related words include vow and vote, originally a vow, hence a prayer or ardent wish, hence an expression of preference, as for a candidate.

Today's Word "esurient"

esurient \ih-SUR-ee-uhnt; -ZUR-\ (adjective) - Hungry; voracious; greedy.

"Paul, whose stomach suffered no pangs, regarded the fellow with esurient eyes, the eyes of an avid curiosity." -- Carl Van Vechten, 'Firecrackers'

Esurient comes from the present participle of Latin esurire, "to be hungry, to desire eagerly," from edere, "to eat."

Today's Word "wraith"

wraith \RAYTH\ (noun) - 1 : An apparition of a living person seen before death; hence, an apparition; a specter; a ghost. 2 : A shadowy or insubstantial form, appearance, or representation of something.

"I could almost believe that it was the wraith of Hendrika doomed to keep an eternal watch over the bones of the woman her jealous rage had done to death." -- H. Rider Haggard, 'All Adventure: Allan's Wife/Marie'

Wraith is from Scottish warth, probably originally "a guardian angel, hence a person's ghost seen -- as a warning or means of protection -- immediately before death, hence any apparition," from Old Norse vörthr, "watcher, guardian."

Today's Word "cerebration"

cerebration \ser-uh-BRAY-shuhn\ (noun) - The act or product of thinking; the use of the power of reason; mental activity; thought.

"He neglected his family; his existence was taken up more with cerebration and preoccupied with the following, as he called them, philosophical questions." -- by Nikolaĭ Vasil'evich Gogol', 'Dead Souls'

Cerebration is ultimately derived from Latin cerebrum, "brain." The related verb cerebrate means "to use the power of reason; to think."

Today's Word "paragon"

paragon \PAIR-uh-gon; -guhn\ (noun) - A model of excellence or perfection; as, "a paragon of beauty; a paragon of eloquence."

"Old Roland, that paragon of acceptable standards, viewed the world with a thoroughly jaundiced, nearly blind eye." -- Samara Al-Darraji , 'Eclipse'

Paragon comes from Middle French, from Old Italian paragone, literally, "touchstone," from paragonare, "to test on a touchstone," from Greek parakonan, "to rub against, to sharpen," from para-, "beside" + akone, "a whetstone."

Today's Word "turgid"

turgid \TUR-jid\ (adjective) - 1 : Swollen, bloated, puffed up; as, "a turgid limb." 2 : Swelling in style or language; bombastic, pompous; as, "a turgid style of speaking."

"George Lane had left the turgid discussion that had been the Naval Armament committee meeting and was relaxing back in his office in the House." -- Colin Peck, ' Enrico Albyvendie'

Turgid derives from Latin turgidus, from turgere, to swell.

Today's Word "imbue"

imbue \im-BYOO\, transitive verb: 1. To tinge or dye deeply; to cause to absorb thoroughly; as, "clothes thoroughly imbued with black." 2. To instill profoundly; to cause to become impressed or penetrated.

"Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may neet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'The Scarlet Letter'

Imbue comes from Latin imbuere, "to wet, to steep, to saturate."

Today's Word "expropriate"

expropriate \ek-SPROH-pree-ayt\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To deprive of possession. 2 : To transfer (the property of another) to oneself.

"You never know when some tinhorn general's going to expropriate your property as national patrimony." -- Douglas Preston, 'The Codex'

Expropriate comes from Medieval Latin expropriatus, past participle of expropriare, "to deprive of property," from Latin ex- + proprius, "one's own." The act of expropriating is expropriation. One who expropriates is an expropriator.

Today's Word "practicable"

practicable \PRAK-tik-uh-buhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Capable of being done, accomplished, or put into practice; feasible; as, "a practicable method; a practicable aim." 2 : Capable of being used; usable.

"We changed, and I had not made up my mind, and still reflected for my comfort that it would be quite practicable to get down and walk back, when we changed again." -- Charles Dickens, 'Great Expectations'

Practicable derives from Late Latin practicare, "to act; to practice," from practicus, from Greek praktikos, "able in; fit for; doing; active," from prassein, "to do; to do habitually."

This Column Is Just Dessert

Pop quiz! See whether you can select the correct word in each context:

1. At the end of the novel, the cruel villain got his just (deserts, desserts).

2. The two armadas engaged in a fierce (naval, navel) battle.

3. The threat of icebergs caused the ship to (shear, sheer) off course.

4. When the mayor announced the curfew, a loud (hew, hue) and cry arose from the crowd.

5. The stern teacher insisted that his students (toe, tow) the line.

6. The prosecutor portrayed the defendant as an (arrant, errant) liar.

7. Your figures don't seem to (gibe, jibe) with mine.

8. Tom's (principle, principal) concern was the enormous cost of the project.

9. Sally's friends considered her to be very (straight-laced, strait-laced).

10. Henry placed the golf trophy on his fireplace (mantel, mantle).



1. deserts -- One meaning of "desert" is something deserved or merited. "Dessert" means sweet food eaten after a meal.

2. naval -- "Naval" means relating to ships or the Navy. "Navel" means the belly button.

3. sheer -- "Shear" means to cut through something as if with a sharp instrument. "Sheer" means to deviate from a course, swerve.

4. hue -- "Hew" means to cut down or shape. Today, "hue" means color, but an old meaning of "hue" -- outcry, uproar -- survives in the phrase "hue and cry."

5. toe (unless the teacher was ordering them to pull a rope) -- "Toe the line" means to adhere conscientiously to the rules. "Tow the line" means to haul a rope.

6. arrant -- "Arrant" means complete, thoroughgoing. "Errant" means roving, straying, wandering.

7. jibe -- "Jibe" means to be consistent with or in accord with. "Gibe" means a derisive remark or taunt.

8. principal -- "Principal" means chief or most important. "Principle" means a rule or standard.

9. strait-laced -- "Straight" means not bent, level, direct. "Strait" means tight, confining.

10. mantel -- A "mantel" is a shelf or other structure over or around a fireplace. A "mantle" is a cloak or something that covers, envelops or conceals.


When Nouns Become Adverbs

"I don't stay up nights worrying," said John Lennon in 1965. "Summers I used to cover Missouri," wrote Thornton Wilder in 1934. "I went over there afternoons," wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1929.

Why do we sometimes use nouns -- "nights," "summers" and "afternoons" -- as adverbs like this? In fact, this usage is a linguistic fossil, a remnant from the early history of English.

Today we use the genitive case of a noun to indicate possession, as in "night's coolness" or "summer's warmth." But in Old English, the genitive case could also indicate that a noun or adjective was being used as an adverb.

In Old English, the genitive was formed by adding "-es" to a word. (It wasn't until the 1600s that printers started replacing the "e" with an apostrophe.)

So the genitive of the Old English adjective "daeg" (day), for instance, was "daeges," which had not only the possessive meaning "of the day," but also the adverbial meanings "during the day," "on the day" and "what happens in daeges, stays in daeges."

(A "missing link" between the possessive genitive and the adverbial genitive can be found in archaic adverbial phrases, such as "of a day" ("during the day") and "of nights" ("during the nights"). William Shakespeare uses the latter construction when his character Julius Caesar praises "fat, sleek-headed men . . . such as sleep o' nights.")

Adverbial genitives, though lean and hungry, still survive in modern English. That's why we say, "I work days," meaning "I work by day," as well as "I leave early most Saturdays," "Winters I go to Florida," and "Sunday mornings I like to sleep late."

This practice of adding an "s" sound to a noun or adjective to indicate its use as an adverb also lives on in the non-standard folk formations "somewheres," "anywheres" and "nowheres," and in standard adverbs such as "nowadays," "unawares," "sideways," "backwards," "onwards," "upwards," "afterwards" and "towards."

Those last five "-ward" words were formed by tacking on the suffix "-es" to the Old English adjectives "backweard," "onweard," "upweard," "afterweard" and "toweard," and both forms of these words still survive -- "backward/backwards," "upward/upwards," etc.

Other ghosts of the adverbial genitive are "once," "twice" and "thrice." In these words the modern "-ce" spelling reflects the original "-es" spelling.

One last question: If John Lennon didn't stay up nights worrying, why did he sing about "a hard day's night"?

These Phrases Make Cents

Today you'll hear my two cents worth about some fascinating verbal coinages.

Let's start with the phrase "two cents worth" itself. Even in the pre-inflation 1800s, when this term first appeared, two cents wasn't worth much. The cheapest cigar you could buy, for instance, cost two cents, and some attribute the phrase "two cents worth" to the popularity of these "two-centers."

Others trace the term to the two-cent coin, first minted in 1864. It was the first coin to contain the words "In God We Trust," though if I can add my two cents worth, it could have been written more simply as "We Trust in God."

The self-deprecating "I'll add my two cents worth," by the way, can furnish anticipatory cover if your ideas prove to be foolish. When applied to others ("Abe chimed in with his two cents worth"), it disparages and diminishes their contributions.

And speaking of diminishment, what of "red cent," as in "not worth a red cent" or "I'm not going to pay another red cent" for this muffler? Does it refer to a devil's coin . . . blood money . . . a penny from a communist country?

Sorry; it's nothing that exotic. Back when pennies were made completely of copper, they bore a distinctly reddish color.

Perhaps even more worthless than a red cent is a plugged nickel -- and, no, I don't mean one of those "Special Issue" coins plugged on TV -- "Buy the Millard Fillmore nickel and then collect the whole obscure presidents' set!"

In centuries past, crooks would remove the center of a coin made of gold or silver and replace it with a plug made of a much less valuable metal. Such a coin was said to be "plugged."

So a nickel, which wasn't worth very much to begin with, was worth even less when reduced to a "plugged nickel."

As for "wooden nickel," sly peddlers in 19th-century America were notorious for tricking unsuspecting rubes into buying a wide variety of articles made of wood -- wooden nutmegs, wooden eggs, wooden handkerchiefs, wooden husbands who rarely smiled.

So it's not surprising that people would be warned not to accept any wooden nickels, which, it just so happens, actually existed.

Carnivals, circuses and sideshows would sometimes entice customers by giving out wooden nickels accepted as payment for their attractions. But, once the shows were over, of course, these wooden nickels were, well, not worth a plugged nickel.


Today's Word "inchoate"

inchoate \in-KOH-it\, (adjective) - 1 : In an initial or early stage; just begun. 2 : Imperfectly formed or formulated.

"He was not articulate, and was unable to put into words the inchoate ambitions inside him." -- Robert Daley, 'The Dangerous Edge'

Inchoate comes from the past participle of Latin inchoare, alteration of incohare, "to begin."

Today's Word "ephemeron"

ephemeron \ih-FEM-uh-ron\ (noun) plural ephemera \ih-FEM-uh-ruh\ - 1 : Something short-lived or of no lasting significance. 2 : ephemera: Items, especially printed matter (as posters, broadsides, pamphlets, etc.), intended to be of use or importance for only a short time but preserved by collectors.

"She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom - that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die..." -- Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings'

Ephemeron is from Greek, from ephemeros, "daily; lasting or living only a day," from epi, "upon" + hemera, "day."


Today's Word "plenary"

plenary \PLEE-nuh-ree; PLEN-uh-ree\ (adjective) - 1 : Full in all respects; complete; absolute; as, plenary authority. 2 : Fully attended by all qualified members.

"The first plenary session held at the conference was organized to define its theme. Two important papers presented at this plenary helped set its tone." -- Lalithambika Antherjanam, 'Cast Me Out If You Will'

Today's Word "pugnacious"

pugnacious \puhg-NAY-shuhs\ (adjective) - Inclined to fight; combative; quarrelsome.

"After tolerating Patrick's pugnacious daughter, Kane would be ready to swear off women for the rest of his life." -- Carol Finch, 'Moonlight Enchantress'

Pugnacious comes from Latin pugnare, "to fight," from pugnus, "fist."

There's Nothing Petty About These Peeves

Every once in a while, I ask readers to unleash their pet peeves. Let slip the dogs of words!

Bob Paquin of Columbia, Conn., detests the pretentious dropping of "the" in Briticisms such as "in hospital" and "vacationing out of country."

Judy Coleman of Quartzite, Ariz., thinks that asking, "Where are you at?" is definitely not where it's at. She writes, "Is that not asking the question twice?"

Cathie Shively of Sioux City, Iowa, is tired of hearing people say they're "reaching out" to her. She reports that a salesman recently said he was glad she had "reached out" to his company.

Owen Goudelock of Lafayette, La., has had it with "mentee." "And if we have to get rid of 'mentor' to dispose of 'mentee,'" he writes, "that's not the worst thing that could happen either."

Writes Norma Christensen of Hermiston, Ore., "When did it become OK to use the word 'that' when referring to a person? I was taught to use 'who' for people, and 'that' for objects/places."

"I'm so negatively affected by the common misuse of 'effect' and 'affect,'" writes Cynara Stites of Mansfield, Conn., "that I intend to effect a change to proper usage so I can improve my affect. The effect of this change is to make me appear to be an affected grammar snob."

An anonymous reader from New Jersey pleads, "PLEASE get people to stop saying, 'ek-set-ur-uh' for 'et cetera' ('etc.'). It's 'et-set-ur-ruh.' It drives me crazy. No 'k' sound."

What ruffles the feathers of Linda Mitchell of Elizabeth, Pa., is the annoying habit broadcasters have of using the redundant conjunctions "but, nonetheless" and "but, however."

Redundancy is also on the mind of another Pennsylvanian, Oren Spiegler of Upper Saint Clair, who's annoyed by a TV commercial touting a company's "five-year anniversary." He writes, "'Anni' means 'year,' thus the phrase should be 'fifth anniversary.'"

Joan Sanchez of Plantation, Fla., is taken aback when servers in fancy restaurants ask, "What would you guys like to drink?" The "guys," she points out, "are not all guys, but male and female." She adds, "Is this chronic dinosaurism on my part?"

When contemporary usage keeps creating such train wrecks, it's hard not to feel like a T-Rex.


Today's Word "exegete"

exegete \EK-suh-jeet\ (noun) - A person who explains or interprets difficult parts of written works.

"Haunted by the mystery of my patron saint, I stumbled for a long time over an enigma which no exegete has yet cleared up." -- Michel Tournier, 'Gemini'

Exegete is from Greek exegetes, from the verb exegeisthai, "to interpret," and is related to exegesis.

Today's Word "tutelage"

tutelage \TOO-tuhl-ij; TYOO-\ (noun) - 1 : The act of guarding or protecting; guardianship; protection. 2 : The state of being under a guardian or tutor. 3 : Instruction, especially individual instruction accompanied by close attention and guidance.

"Thomas began his formal instruction by his father at the age of twelve and was released from the tutelage of Gundar." -- Judith Hensley, 'Sir Thomas the Eggslayer'

Tutelage is from Latin tutela, "protection; guardian" (from the past participle of tueri, "to watch, to guard") + the suffix -age.

Today's Word "bedaub"

bedaub \bih-DOB\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To smudge over; to besmear or soil with anything thick and dirty. 2 : To overdecorate; to ornament showily or excessively.

"Am I, your kinsman and benefactor, a fit person to be juggled out of my commendation and eulogy, and brought to bedaub such a whitened sepulchre as the sophist Milton?" -- Sir Walter Scott, 'Woodstock: or The Cavalier'

Bedaub is from be-, "thoroughly" + daub, from Medieval French dauber, "to plaster," perhaps from Old French dauber, "to clothe in white, white-wash, plaster," from Latin dealbare, "to whitewash, to plaster," from de- (intensive prefix) + albus, "white."


Serving English, Family Style

Readers responded to my recent request for insider terms used among family members with a wide array of delightful examples.

When Alice Robinson's little boys forgot to zip their flies, she would say, "xyz" ("examine your zipper"), while Mary Enright coined "wofm" ("watch out for mom"). The Vance family calls the soupy mix in the refrigerator crisper "bacteria soup."

Bryan Kennedy's family dubbed the last, lonely ornament left on a Christmas tree a "forlornament." Lynn Crane's lexi-"kin" includes "gushel" -- to spread the branches of an artificial Christmas tree to cover the empty spaces.

Tricia warned her toddler son not to touch electrical outlets by saying, "That will bite you," and now, at age 25, he still refers to them as "bite-yous." When Michel's children behaved badly, he would ask, "Are you opening a laundry?" because the kids were "pressing" their luck.

In Susan Lawson's family, the crusty particles that form in the eyes during sleep are "sleep seeds," while in Elizabeth Jenison's family they're "sleepies." The Kolb family calls a lint ball between the toes a "wuzzy." Henry McNulty's family saves the heels of bread loaves for the ducks, so they call these crusty ends "duckies."

Maureen Scheuermann refers to nephews and nieces as "gratlings," while Phyllis Emigh calls them "niblings." In Henry Chase's house, a combination of rain and mist is "mizzle," while the Fauls family refers to police radar as "speedar." Walter Schloss's dad called a piece of bread or toast with egg yolk on it "dunkein."

In Terry Cady's family, a cat looking down at your food like a vulture is "vulching." Rani Stoddard's family refers to pets as "varmentia," and her husband, Glenn, is a "jive onion" because "he's a rapscallion." Sara Varney's son Ryan has coined "lapkin" for "napkin."

In Joe and Nancy's clan, potato chips are "beeps," and Sue Tanner's family has named its big green trash barrel "Godzilla." In Carl Schaefer's household the little flash of light that dances around the room when reflected off of a watch crystal is a "jackie." "I think it's named for my father (Jack Schaefer)," he writes.

Kate Gurtowsky's daughter refers derisively to meals made by throwing together leftovers as "replacement meals." And when someone in Sharon Matz's family starts telling embarrassing stories, people yell, "Statdazita" -- "our crazy interpretation," she reports, "of the Italian phrase 'chiudere il becco' (to shut up)."

Today's Word "beneficence"

beneficence \buh-NEFF-i-suhns\ (noun) - 1 : The practice of doing good; active goodness, kindness, or charity. 2 : A charitable gift or act.

"He was one day engaged with Mrs. Allworthy in a discourse on charity: in which the captain, with great learning, proved to Mr. Allworthy, that the word charity in Scripture nowhere means beneficence or generosity." -- Henry Fielding, 'Tom Jones'

Beneficence is from Latin beneficentia, from beneficus, kind, generous, obliging, from bene, well (from bonus, good) + facere, to do. One who, or that which, is characterized by beneficence is beneficent.

Today's Word "cant"

cant \KANT\ (noun) - 1 : The idioms and peculiarities of speech in any sect, class, or occupation. 2 : The use of religious phraseology without understanding or sincerity. 3 : Empty, solemn speech, implying what is not felt; insincere talk; hypocrisy. 4 : A whining manner of speaking, especially of beggars.

"In spite of all his gnomic cant he was like so many other Europeans, quite unable to understand the emotional depths and subtleties of the English attitude to life." -- John Fowles, 'The Magus'

Cant ultimately derives from Latin cantus, singing, chanting.

Today's Word "risible"

risible \RIZ-uh-buhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Capable of laughing; disposed to laugh. 2 : Exciting or provoking laughter; worthy of laughter; laughable; amusing. 3 : Relating to, connected with, or used in laughter; as, "risible muscles."

"The subject of these remarks was a slumbering figure, so muffled in shawl and cloak, that it would have been matter of impossibility to guess at its sex but for a brown beaver bonnet and green veil which ornamented the head, and which, having been crushed and flattened, for two hundred and fifty miles, in that particular angle of the vehicle from which the lady's snores now proceeded, presented an appearance sufficiently ludicrous to have moved less risible muscles than those of John Browdie's ruddy face." -- Charles Dickens, 'The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby'

Late Latin rīsibilis, from Latin rīsus, past participle of rīdēre, to laugh.

Today's Word "abstemious"

abstemious \ab-STEE-mee-uhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Sparing in eating and drinking; temperate; abstinent. 2 : Sparingly used or consumed; used with temperance or moderation. 3 : Marked by or spent in abstinence.

"Lucy had suddenly realized she was ravenous and, most unlike her usual abstemious self, had taken two sausages to go with her toast and coffee." -- Carola Dunn, 'A Mourning Wedding'

Abstemious comes from Latin abstemius, from ab-, abs-, "away from" + the root of temetum, "intoxicating drink."

Avarice for Aphorisms

"God is either cruel or incompetent."

"Common sense is not so common."

"The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."

These pithy quips from Woody Allen, Voltaire and Steven Wright, respectively, are classic examples of aphorisms. Briefly defined, an aphorism is a tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion. British writer James Geary loves aphorisms, and he's collected over 300 of them in a new book, "Geary's Guide to the World's Greatest Aphorists" (Bloomsbury, $25.95).

Geary includes a brief profile of each contributor. "The aphorism is our most intimate, idiosyncratic literary genre," he writes in the book's introduction, "so I've tried to give a glimpse of the lives and personalities behind the sayings through quick character sketches."

These snapshots reveal the idiosyncrasies of icons. Alexander Pope, for instance, author of "To err is human, to forgive divine," stood just four feet, six inches tall. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, "When it is darkest, men see the stars," was deeply influenced by his mother, who slept in a bed shaped like a coffin and wore a burial shroud when traveling.

Gertrude Stein, who wrote, "We are always the same age inside," drove supplies to French hospitals during World War I. (The only shortfall of Geary's wonderful collection, by the way, is that it doesn't include more female contributors.)

Just for fun, see whether you can match these aphorisms from Geary's book with their creators.

1. The difference between medicine and poison is the dose.

2. The more I see of men the more I like dogs.

3. No man is great if he thinks he is.

4. The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.

5. It's not bragging if you can back it up.

6. If you're going through hell, keep going.

7. Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes.

8. Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.

9. For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.

10. Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours.


Their creators:

a. Muhammad Ali b. Hannah Arendt c. H. L. Mencken d. Yogi Berra e. Emily Dickinson f. Mark Twain g. Madame de Stael h. David Byrne i. Winston Churchill j. Will Rogers



1-h 2-g 3-j 4-f 5-a 6-i 7-b 8-e 9-c 10-d


Today's Word "nostrum"

nostrum \NOS-truhm\ (noun) - 1. A medicine of secret composition and unproven or dubious effectiveness; a quack medicine. 2 : A usually questionable remedy or scheme; a cure-all.

"'He's carrying on his father's trade, for what he has just dispensed to us is very like a nostrum,' said Stanislas, assuming one of his most provocative poses. 'If I needed a nostrum, I could choose a better one.'" -- Honoré de Balzac, 'Lost Illusions'

Nostrum comes from Latin nostrum (remedium), "our (remedy)," from nos, "we."

Today's Word "felicitous"

felicitous \fuh-LIS-uh-tuhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Suitably applied or expressed; appropriate; apt. 2 : Happy; delightful; marked by good fortune.

""His wonderful cheerfulness, I suppose," said I, sneering with spleen, "originates not less in a felicitous fortune than in a felicitous temper." -- Herman Melville, 'The Fiddler'

Felicitous is derived from Latin felicitas, "fertility, hence success, happiness," from felix, "fertile, successful, happy."


Today's Word "slugabed"

slugabed \SLUHG-uh-bed\ (noun) - One who stays in bed until a late hour; a sluggard.

"Perhaps he would lie slugabed till the household had departed for the procession, then get up late. Creep around unobtrusively, lie in the sun with the castle cats." -- Lois McMaster Bujold, 'The Curse of Chalion'

Slugabed is from slug, "sluggard" + abed, "in bed."

Today's Word "discomfit"

discomfit \dis-KUHM-fit; dis-kuhm-FIT\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To make uneasy or perplexed, or to put into a state of embarrassment; to disconcert; to upset. 2 : To thwart; to frustrate the plans of. 3 : (Archaic). To defeat in battle.

"A boy who can dodge over the roofs of Lahore city on a moonlight night, using every little patch and corner of darkness to discomfit his pursuer, is not likely to be checked by a line of well-trained soldiers." -- Rudyard Kipling, "Kim"

Discomfit comes from Old French desconfit, past participle of desconfire, from Latin dis- + conficere, "to make ready, to prepare, to bring about," from com- + facere, "to make."

Today's Word "forgo"

forgo \for-GO\ (transitive verb) - To abstain from; to do without. Inflected forms: forwent, forgone, forgoing, forgoes.

"Having decided to forgo the healing silence of Zen koans in her solitude, she was reading Ann Landers when Jill came in." -- Beth Gutcheon, "Five Fortunes"

Forgo derives from Old English forgan, "to go without, to forgo," from for-, "without" + gan, "to go."


Writers in the 'Throws' of Carelessness

From near and far, come bloopers bizarre. Can you spot the blots?

1. " . . . an autopsy to determine if the elderly man lost courteousness for medical reasons." (Spotted by Lois Tindall, Trenton, N.J.)

2. "[An NBA coach] will take charge of a young team still in the throws of a roster overhaul." Are they free throws? (John Daigle, Vernon, Conn.)

3. "'It's pretty exciting,' according to his material grandmother." I've heard of a material girl, but . . . (Art Frackenpohl, Potsdam, N.Y.)

4. " . . . the failed car bombings in London and Glasgow bare the fingerprints of al Qaeda in Iraq." (John Moore, Watertown, N.Y.)

5. "Next week, we get a peak at what Jericho was like just before the bombs went off." Presumably mountainous. (Carl Winters, Clearwater, Fla.)

6. " . . . a principle who suspended a student for displaying a 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' banner at a school-sanctioned event." Bong! (Carolyn Flint via e-mail)

7. "The MCCC fight team won 21 out of 32 awards and brought home nine metals." Including the gold? (Moreland Houck, Trenton, N.J.)

8. "McNabb . . . exasperated the injury attempting to chase down Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams." (T. E. Spence, Trenton, N.J.)

9. "Boxer Pups AKC, 1M, 1F, Bread for Health and Temperament." A hot dog bun? (Mary Fine via e-mail)

10. "[Paris Hilton] was probably going through cocaine withdrawls." Is she from the South? (Larry Rosenblum, Sunnyvale, Calif.)

11. "Our lunch menu [includes] a variety of hot entrees and tempting deserts." Presumably also hot. (Oren Spiegler, Upper Saint Clair, Pa.)

12. "Vincent was a brawny Swiss ex-patriot." A pro football player? (Jo Ann Lawlor, San Jose, Calif.)

13. "This year, Zavesky sewed his peppers in March." (Dorothy Erhart, Sioux Falls, S.D.)

14. "There's no denying that the Vitter family . . . has been put through the proverbial ringer." (Peg Carlton, Simsbury, Conn., and Tom Weston, Storrs, Conn.)

15. " . . . those who acquaint shopping with charity." Mr. Shopping, I'd like you to meet Charity. (Carole Shmurak, Farmington, Conn.; Doris Griffith, Manchester, Conn.; and Jerri Pease, Simsbury, Conn.)


Corrections: 1. consciousness 2. throes 3. maternal 4. bear 5. peek 6. principal 7. medals 8. exacerbated 9. bred 10. withdrawals 11. desserts 12. expatriate 13. sowed 14. wringer 15. equate

Today's Word "felicitous"

felicitous \fuh-LIS-uh-tuhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Suitably applied or expressed; appropriate; apt. 2 : Happy; delightful; marked by good fortune.

""His wonderful cheerfulness, I suppose," said I, sneering with spleen, "originates not less in a felicitous fortune than in a felicitous temper." -- Herman Melville, 'The Fiddler'

Felicitous is derived from Latin felicitas, "fertility, hence success, happiness," from felix, "fertile, successful, happy."


Today's Word "germane"

germane \juhr-MAYN\ (adjective) - Appropriate or fitting; relevant.

"...Chloe was abroad until you - you assumed the authority to have her recalled. There is no way she can provide any information germane to your inquiry." -- Clare Curzon, "Body of a Woman"

Germane comes from Middle English germain, literally, "having the same parents," ultimately deriving from Latin germanus, from germen, "a bud, a shoot."


Today's Word "solecism"

solecism \SOL-uh-siz-uhm\ (noun) - 1 : A nonstandard usage or grammatical construction; also, a minor blunder in speech. 2 : A breach of good manners or etiquette. 3 : Any inconsistency, mistake, or impropriety.

"In the grammar of their life the honeymoon was an embarrassing solecism, a misplaced modifier or dangling participle remembered forever with a raised eyebrown and a comical shudder." -- Ward S. Just, "The Translator"

Solecism comes from Latin soloecismus, from Greek soloikizein, "to speak incorrectly," from soloikos, "speaking incorrectly," literally, "an inhabitant of Soloi," a city in ancient Cilicia where a dialect regarded as substandard was spoken.


Today's Word "raiment"

raiment \RAY-ment\ (noun) - Clothing in general; garments; -- usually singular in form, with a collective sense.

"When he saw the doctor coming, it was as if from a very long distance, and his white coat shone like the illumined raiment of an angel." -- Niall Williams, "As It Is In Heaven"

Raiment is from Middle English rayment, short for arrayment, from arrayen, "to array."

Today's Word "perfervid"

perfervid \puhr-FUR-vid\ (adjective) - Ardent; impassioned; marked by exaggerated or overwrought emotion.

"To court their own discomfiture by love is a common instinct with certain perfervid women, whose temerity in this respect resembles that of the daring aristocrats who, previous to the French Revolution, patronised and coquetted with the philosophy which afterwards proved their ruin." -- Thomas Hardy, "Return of the Native"

Perfervid is from Latin per-, "through, thoroughly" + fervidus, "boiling," from fervere, "to boil."

Use of Semicolons Gives Us Pause

Pity the poor semicolon. Part comma and part period, it's caught in the gray, no-man's-land of punctuation.

No one seems to know how or when to use this little eye winker; some writers simply choose the unibrow of punctuation -- the dash -- instead.

But semicolons are useful signals that help readers negotiate the highway of English. If the period is a red light (stop for a while), and the comma is a flashing yellow light (slow down briefly), the semicolon is a flashing red light. It tells the reader to stop briefly; check things out; and then proceed.

More specifically, the semicolon is useful in four situations:

-- Uniting -- When you want to show that two complete thoughts are closely connected, but you don't want to use a conjunction such as "and," "but" or "so," you can join them with a semicolon: "All millionaires are not happy; they just think they are"; "The town was in chaos; looters filled the streets."

-- Pausing -- Even when you use a conjunction between two complete thoughts, you sometimes want the reader to pause a bit longer, so you place a semicolon before the conjunction: "He knew he should punish the boy; but he could not bring himself to do it"; "There's a time to take action; and that time has come."

-- Separating -- When using certain conjunctions known as "conjunctive adverbs," you should separate these from the preceding clause with a semicolon. (Conjunctive adverbs include "therefore," "accordingly," "however," "nevertheless," "besides," "consequently," "moreover," "thus," "then," "hence" and "indeed.") "He was desperate for money; therefore, he took the job"; "she felt she had succeeded; indeed, she had triumphed."

-- Clarifying -- When you are listing items in a series and some of those items contain internal commas, you can avoid confusion by separating the items with a semicolon: "My favorite trios are Crosby, Stills and Nash; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Snap, Crackle and Pop"; "The stars of the basketball team are Jenna, the playmaker; Sally, the shooter; and Megan, the rebounder.

Usage expert Bryan Garner describes the semicolon as a "supercomma." Picture the semicolon as the drab Clark Kent of punctuation who, miraculously transforming himself into Superman, flies in to rescue our sentences.

Today's Word "moil"

moil \MOYL\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To work with painful effort; to labor; to toil; to drudge. 2 : To churn or swirl about continuously.

(noun) - 1 : Toil; hard work; drudgery. 2 : Confusion; turmoil.

"Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him?" -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Scarlet Letter"

Moil comes from Middle English moillen, "to soak, to wet," hence "to soil, to soil one's hands, to work very hard," from Old French moillier, "to soften, especially by making wet," ultimately from Latin mollis, "soft."

Today's Word "malversation"

malversation \mal-vur-SAY-shun\ (noun) - Misconduct, corruption, or extortion in public office.

"...Lord St. Vincent... hated Pitt and his administration (and) was working to impeach Lord Melville for malversation of the secret funds and to get him out of the Admiralty." -- Patrick O'Brian, "Post Captain"

Malversation comes, via French, from Latin male, "badly" + versari, "to be engaged in, to take part in."

Today's Word "recherche"

recherche \ruh-sher-SHAY\ (adjective) - 1 : Uncommon; exotic; rare. 2 : Exquisite; choice. 3 : Excessively refined; affected. 4 : Pretentious; overblown.

"She was mocking the pretensions of the cookery writer who insists on recherche ingredients not because of their qualities but their snob value." -- Angela Carter, "Shaking a Leg"

Recherche comes from French, from rechercher, "to seek out," from re- + chercher, "to look for, to seek."

Today's Word "lucubration"

lucubration \loo-kyoo-BRAY-shun; loo-kuh-\ (noun) - 1. The act of studying by candlelight; nocturnal study; meditation. 2 : That which is composed by night; that which is produced by meditation in retirement; hence (loosely) any literary composition.

"Jean-Jacques' famous letter to Hume is, on the face of it, the lucubration of a monomaniac. It was a lucubration, however, which called for a reply..." -- Francis Henry Gribble, "Rousseau and the Women He Loved"

Lucubration comes from Latin lucubratus, past participle of lucubrare, "to work by night, composed at night (as by candlelight)," ultimately connected with lux, "light." Hence it is related to lucent, "shining, bright," and lucid, "clear." The verb form is lucubrate.

Today's Word "peremptory"

peremptory \puh-REMP-tuh-ree\ (adjective) - 1 : Precluding or putting an end to all debate or action. 2 : Not allowing contradiction or refusal; absolute; decisive; conclusive; final. 3 : Expressive of urgency or command. 4 : Offensively self-assured or given to exercising usually unwarranted power; dictatorial; dogmatic.

"...Pressing my lips to hers for the first time, I picked her up bodily and tossed her to her seat behind Sola again, commanding the latter in peremptory tones to hold her there by force, and then, slapping the thoat upon the flank, I saw them borne away; Dejah Thoris struggling to the last to free herself from Sola's grasp." -- Edgar Rice Burroughs, "A Princess of Mars"

Peremptory comes from Latin peremptorius, "destructive," from peremptus, past participle of perimere, "to take thoroughly, to do away with, to destroy; hence, to thwart, to frustrate," from per-, "thoroughly" + emere, "to take, to obtain."


Today's Word "commodious"

commodious \kuh-MOH-dee-us\ (adjective) - Comfortably or conveniently spacious; roomy; as, a commodious house.

"This is its harbour of refuge, a sure, commodious, and mysterious one, sheltered from all gales." -- Jules Verne, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea"

Commodious derives from the Latin commodus, "conforming to measure, hence convenient or fit for a particular purpose," from com-, "with" + modus, "measure."

Today's Word "verisimilitude"

verisimilitude \ver-uh-suh-MIL-uh-tood; -tyood\ (noun) - 1 : The appearance of truth; the quality of seeming to be true. 2 : Something that has the appearance of being true or real.

"For those plays, Ms. Smith interviewed hundreds of people of different races and ages, somehow managing to internalize their expressions, anger and quirks enough to be able to portray them with astonishing verisimilitude." -- Sarah Boxer, "An Experiment in Artistic Democracy"

Verisimilitude comes from Latin verisimilitudo, from verisimilis, from verus, "true" + similis, "like, resembling, similar." The adjective form is verisimilar.

Today's Word "censure"

censure \SEN-shur\ (noun) - 1 : The act of blaming or finding fault with and condemning as wrong; reprehension; blame. 2 : An official reprimand or expression of disapproval.

(transitive verb) - 1 : To find fault with and condemn as wrong; to blame; to criticize severely. 2 : To express official disapproval of.

"That the Church, therefore, had once a power of publick censure is evident, because that power was frequently exercised." -- James Boswell, "The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies"

Censure comes from Latin censura, "censorship, judgment," from censere, "to form or express an opinion, to appraise."

Today's Word "languor"

languor \LANG-guhr; LANG-uhr\ (noun) - 1 : Mental or physical weariness or fatigue. 2 : Listless indolence, especially the indolence of one who is satiated by a life of luxury or pleasure. 3 : A heaviness or oppressive stillness of the air.

"She had been particularly unwell, however, suffering from headache to a degree, which made her aunt declare, that had the ball taken place, she did not think Jane could have attended it; and it was charity to impute some of her unbecoming indifference to the languor of ill-health." -- Jane Austen, "Emma"

Languor is from Latin languor, from languere, "to be faint or weak." The adjective form is languorous.

Today's Word "malapropism"

malapropism \mal-uh-PROP-iz-uhm\ (noun) - The usually unintentionally humorous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound; also, an example of such misuse.

"The former statesman was almost as well-known for his malapropism's, such as, 'Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child,' as he was for his time spent serving his country."

A malapropism is so called after Mrs. Malaprop, a character noted for her amusing misuse of words in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals.


Today's Word "ephemeron"

ephemeron \ih-FEM-uh-ron\ (noun) plural ephemera \ih-FEM-uh-ruh\ - 1 : Something short-lived or of no lasting significance. 2 : ephemera: Items, especially printed matter (as posters, broadsides, pamphlets, etc.), intended to be of use or importance for only a short time but preserved by collectors.

"She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom - that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die..." -- Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings'

Ephemeron is from Greek, from ephemeros, "daily; lasting or living only a day," from epi, "upon" + hemera, "day."


Today's Word "desultory"

desultory \DES-uhl-tor-ee\ (adjective) - 1 : Jumping or passing from one thing or subject to another without order or rational connection; disconnected; aimless. 2 : By the way; as a digression; not connected with the subject. 3 : Coming disconnectedly or occurring haphazardly; random. 4 : Disappointing in performance or progress.

"He felt as he had felt when a raw lieutenant in India during his first hill-campaign, when the etiquette of the service had compelled him to rise and walk up and down in front of his men under a desultory shower of jezail-bullets." -- P.G. Wodehouse, 'The Little Warrior'

Desultory comes from Latin desultorius, from desultor, "a leaper," from the past participle of desilire, "to leap down," from de-, "down from" + salire, "to leap."

Looking for Words in All the Wrong Places

Scientists studying the mating habits of bunnies recently reported an amazing discovery: "We observed the courting rabbits using binoculars."

Did bachelor bunnies use these devices to scope out the does? "Hey, Flopsy, check out the fluffy tail behind that tree!"

Ah, the joys of the misplaced modifier -- descriptive words and phrases that end up where they don't belong. Like kids playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, hapless newspaper writers pin these danglers all over the place:

1. "After more than 100 years in existence, President Bush dissolved the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service." Wow, he's in pretty good shape for a centenarian! (Spotted by Art Wright, Storrs, Conn.)

2. "We feature freshly roasted lean meats with no added fats, which are hand-carved." Don't you just hate machine-carved fat? (Diane Nagel of Cranberry Lake, N.Y.)

3. "Fondly named Rose Garden Auto Care, devoted customers can still receive the friendly neighborhood service they were used to." Isn't it cute when businesses create nicknames for their customers? (Jo Ann Lawlor, San Jose, Calif.)

4. "A woman will stand trial on charges that she fatally shot her sleeping husband after waiving her right to a preliminary hearing." (Kathy Bandi, Shelocta, Pa.) Now that's what I call premeditation!

5. "He walked over to a heavy mahogany drum table with ugly claw feet." I hope he didn't scratch it. (Betty Lundy, West Point, Miss.)

6. (About a new exhibit at George Washington's estate, Mr. Vernon): "One theater offers the experience of fighting the British with artificial fog and snow." Were the patriots really that desperate for ammunition? (Linda Duncan, East Hartford, Conn.)

7. "They set up two deck chairs and a plastic owl on a stake that Nick named Lucifer." A devilish mis-stake. (Norman Stevens, Storrs, Conn.)

8. "Brown is accused of firing gunshots July 4 after the fireworks show on the Mississippi River levee that wounded two people." Dam criminal! (Doug Johnson, Watson, La.)

9. Headline: "Bipartisan bill restoring rights for detainees killed by GOP" Isn't it a little late? (Charles Duncan, via e-mail)

10. "Rich Misterka ... will be driving a 1955 LT Mack [truck] containing 13 trees that will be given to the Department of the Interior with his wife Debbie." Squeeze in, honey, there's plenty of room back there. (Scott Barton, Bennington, Vt.)

Today's Word "inhere"

inhere \in-HIR\ (intransitive verb) - To be inherent; to belong, as attributes or qualities.

"The foundations of the palace, like those of the prison, inhere in the fine quality of the stone, in marble stairways, in real gold, in carvings, the rarest in the realm, the absolute power of their hosts." -- Jean Genet, 'The Thief's Journal'

Inhere is from Latin inhaerere, from in-, "in" + haerere, "to stick, to hang."


Today's Word "peripatetic"

peripatetic \pair-uh-puh-TET-ik\ (adjective) - 1. Of or pertaining to walking about or traveling from place to place; itinerant. 2 : Of or pertaining to the philosophy taught by Aristotle (who gave his instructions while walking in the Lyceum at Athens), or to his followers.

(noun) - 1 : One who walks about; a pedestrian; an itinerant. 2 : follower of Aristotle; an Aristotelian.

"Mary, the eldest, a fine girl with a haughty clear brow, was a peripatetic governess, who gave lessons to the tradesmen's daughters." -- David Herbert Lawrence, 'The Prussian Officer and Other Stories'

Peripatetic derives from the Greek peripatetikos, from peripatein, meaning "to walk about," from peri-, "around, about" + patein, "to walk."

Today's Word "congeries"

congeries \KON-juh-reez\ (noun) - A collection; an aggregation.

"But if the congeries of past events, if congeries it was, could be separated from its usual partnership with sentiment, it cannot have been too much to cheer Lolita on in her wholehearted attempt." -- Gilbert Sorrentino, 'Pack of Lies'

Congeries is from Latin congeries, meaning "a heap, a mass," or from congerere, meaning "to carry together, to bring together, to collect," from com-, "with, together" + gerere, "to carry." It's related to the word congest, meaning "to overfill or overcrowd," which derives from the past participle of congerere.

Only Things Certain Are Death and Syntaxes

The Republican pollster, consultant and wordsmith Frank Luntz sure knows how to tweak a phrase.

In 1994 he helped coin the term "Contract with America" for Congressional Republicans, and since then he's cleverly crafted conservative catchphrases for maximum appeal. It was Luntz, for instance, who advised Republicans that their efforts to abolish the inheritance tax would gain more support if they called it the "death tax."

In his recent book, "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" (Hyperion, $24.95), Luntz shows how political phrases are shrewdly honed to make policies more persuasive. No matter where you stand politically, Luntz's insights into the subtle connotations of words are fascinating.

Republicans have hit linguistic homeruns, Luntz says, by referring to wiretapping as "electronic intercepts" (sounds like they just happened to overhear something), dubbing tax cuts "tax relief" (implying that taxpayers are besieged), and calling trial lawyers "personal injury lawyers" (conjuring images of sleazy ambulance-chasers).

For decades, U.S. oil companies have described their efforts as "drilling for oil," a term that conjured images of rickety derricks and gushing glop. So now they boast of "exploring for energy." Meanwhile, advocates for non-petroleum energy sources have found "renewable energy" more persuasive than "alternative energy," a phrase that suggests Left Coast touchy-feelyism.

The words "globalization" and "global economy" have gone global these days, but Luntz says we should think twice about using them. "'Globalization,'" he writes, "represents something big, something distant and something foreign." His polling shows that the Americans find the euphemisms "free market economy" and "free trade" much more appealing.

Advocates of "school choice" and "vouchers," Luntz says, would be better off calling for "parental choice" and "opportunity scholarships." "'School choice," he notes, sounds as if the schools are in control, while "vouchers" remind people that money is being drained from public schools.

And Republicans might have found more success in reforming Social Security, Luntz says, had they advocated "personalizing" Social Security rather than "privatizing" it. "Private," he says, bears all sorts of negative connotations (e.g. private clubs, private schools), while "personalize" suggests individual choice, ownership and control.

Luntz reminds us that, while a word to the wise is sufficient, we also need to be wise to the word.


Today's Word "raillery"

raillery \RAY-luh-ree\ (noun) - 1 : Good-humored teasing or banter. 2 : An instance of such good-humored teasing; a jest.

"But as matter for ridicule is always ready to hand, and as most men are only too fond of fun and raillery, even buffoons are called witty and pass for clever fellows; though it is clear from what has been said that wit is different, and widely different, from buffoonery." -- Aristotle, 'The Nicomachean Ethics'

Raillery is taken from the French raillerie, or from the Old French railler, meaning "to tease, to mock."

Today's Word "arcane"

arcane \ar-KAYN\ (adjective) - Understood or known by only a few.

"Gustav had no skills in the arcane art himself, a fact he had bitterly regretted as a child, having mistakenly imagined that magic could solve all his problems, ease all his griefs, make everything right." -- Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, 'Guardians of the Lost'

Arcane is derived from Latin arcanus, meaning "shut, closed, secret," from arca, "chest, box."


Today's Word "tutelary"

tutelary \TOO-tuh-lair-ee; TYOO-\ (adjective) - Having the guardianship or charge of protecting a person or a thing; guardian; protecting; as, "tutelary goddesses."

"But there is a tutelary deity for misers, and by a chain of unforeseen circumstances that tutelary deity was so ordering matters that the purchase-money of his extortionate bargain was to be tumbled after all into the old toper's pouch." -- Honore de Balzac, 'Lost Illusions'

Today's Word "pablum"

pablum \PAB-luhm\ (noun) - Something (as writing or speech) that is trite, insipid, or simplistic.

"'It's not all pablum for the masses, you know!' I let out my breath. He was probably just embarrassed to be caught enjoying the pablum of the masses." -- Jacqueline Girdner, 'Murder Most Mellow'

Pablum is derived from Pablum, a trademarked brand of bland, soft cereal for infants.

Today's Word "superannuated"

superannuated \soo-pur-AN-yoo-ay-tid\ (adjective) - 1 : Discharged or disqualified on account of old age; retired from service, especially with a pension. 2 : Old; no longer in use; no longer valid; outmoded.

"The worthy man was hale and hearty, not exceeding three score and seven, and had never dreamt of being superannuated." -- John Galt, 'The Provost'

Superannuated derives from Medieval Latin superannuatus, "too old," from Latin super, "above, over" + annus, "year."


Getting Something for 'Nothing'

"Nothing is better than Aleve." That advertising slogan for the popular pain reliever drew this response from one of my waggish readers: "Nothing is better than Aleve, so I take nothing."

We use and encounter ambiguous phrases and sentences like this every day, often without pausing to consider their dubious logic. Like the slogan for Aleve, many of them involve the expression of a negative sense, indicated by words such as "nothing," "aren't" and "don't."

Bruce Powell of Canton, Conn., for instance, wonders about this common holiday valediction: "If I don't see you, have a Merry Christmas." He writes, "Does that greeting apply only if I don't see you? What about if I do actually see you?" Of course, no one would ever say, "If I DO see you, DON'T have a Merry Christmas," but that's what seems to be implied.

Similarly, many people say, "I really miss not seeing you," which, when you think about it, really means the exact opposite of the intended meaning.

Another reader, K.L. Baldwin of Titusville, Pa., reports hearing characters on TV shows use sentences such as "It usually always does this" and "That often never happens." The adverbs seem to cancel each other out, of course. But the scary thing is, these sentences make an odd kind of sense.

They're similar to some of the baffling pronouncements attributed to Yogi Berra: "If the people don't want to come out to the park, nobody's going to stop them"; "It gets late early out there"; and "I really didn't say everything I said." Though technically these statements are illogical, we get the idea.

Such expressions fall into the category of idioms -- constructions that appear to violate some grammatical rule or cannot be understood based solely on the meanings of their individual words.

Children can sometimes expose the illogical nature of idioms by asking about their meanings. When my daughter, Allison, was about 5, for instance, I told her that one of her friends would be coming over "any minute." I thought she would be happy, but she was disappointed. She took "any minute" literally to mean at any random time -- a minute from now, or an hour from now.

A couple of years later, asking Allison about a recent conversation with a friend, I said, "What did Anna have to say?" Allison replied, "Anna didn't HAVE to say anything. She just said what she wanted to say."

But now that Allison is older, that often never happens.

Today's Word "plangent"

plangent \PLAN-juhnt\ (adjective) - 1 : Beating with a loud or deep sound, as, "the plangent wave." 2 : Expressing sadness; plaintive.

"He let the plangent memory of the music fill his head and flow down his arms and fill his fingers." -- Terry Pratchet, 'Soul Music'

Plangent derives from the present participle of Latin plangere, to beat, to strike (noisily), especially to strike the breast, head, etc. as a sign of grief.

Today's Word "malcontent"

malcontent \mal-kuhn-TENT; MAL-kuhn-tent\ (noun) - 1 : One who is discontented or dissatisfied. 2 : A discontented subject of a government; one who opposes an established order.

(adjective) - Discontented; uneasy; dissatisfied.

"I was excited, but something, the malcontent perhaps, was keeping me from displaying my enthusiasm." -- Chuck Bohatka, Jr., 'Enough Shorts for a Wardrobe'

Malcontent is from the Old French term combining mal, "bad, ill" (from Latin malus) and content, "contained," from Latin contentus, past participle of continere, "to hold together, to contain," from con-, "with, together" + tenere, "to hold."

Today's Word "benefaction"

benefaction \BEN-uh-fak-shuhn; ben-uh-FAK-shuhn\ (noun) - 1 : The act of conferring a benefit. 2 : A benefit conferred; especially, a charitable donation.

"On my side, I could have cursed the kindness that conferred upon me this benefaction, but I kept my vexation under the surface for policy's sake, and did with I could to let on to be glad." -- Jules Verne, 'Around the World in 80 Days'

enefaction is from Late Latin benefactio, from Latin benefacere, "to do well, to do good to," from bene, "well" + facere, "to do."


Today's Word "spoony"

spoony \SPOO-nee\ (adjective) - 1 : Foolish; silly; excessively sentimental. 2 : Foolishly or sentimentally in love.

"There is no doubt whatever that I was a lackadaisical young spoony; but there was a purity of heart in all this, that prevents my having quite a contemptuous recollection of it, let me laugh as I may." -- Charles Dickens, 'David Copperfield'

Spoony is from the slang term spoon, meaning "a simpleton or a silly person."

Today's Word "ephemeron"

consanguineous \kon-san(g)-GWIN-ee-us\ (adjective) - Of the same blood; related by birth; descended from the same parent or ancestor.

"...Descent in the royal house to which she belongs had always been confused by substitutions and adoptions; the effects of consanguineous marriage having been fortunately mitigated by impotence on the part of the Kings and gallantry on the part of the Queens, and by the fact that the beauty of Egyptian women far surpassed that of the descendents of the Macedonian mountain brigands." -- Thornton Wilder, 'The Ides of March'

Consanguineous is from Latin consanguineus, from com-, con-, "with, together" + sanguineus, from sanguis, sanguin-, "blood." The noun form is consanguinity, "relationship by blood, or close relation or connection."

Turn of the Screw

You're sitting on the floor with the instructions and pieces for the "easy-to-assemble" bookcase in front of you. You open the little bag of screws, only to discover that they're Phillips screws, the kind with those crisscross slots.

As you head downstairs to rummage through drawers for the only Phillips screwdriver in the house, you're likely to curse "Phillips," whoever the heck he is.

Meet Mr. Phillips.

During the early 1930s, workers on U.S. auto assembly lines were discovering that their new power screwdrivers had so much torque that they kept slipping out of the slots of regular screws.

When Henry F. Phillips of Portland, Ore., heard about this, he devised a new screw with an X-shaped slot that would enable power screwdrivers to center easily and drive the screw home more quickly and securely.

After several companies rejected Phillips' device, he finally sold it to General Motors, which began using the new kind of screw to make Cadillacs.

Soon the Phillips head screw and Phillips screwdriver caught on with American manufacturers, though Phillips never really cashed in on his invention because he had failed to patent it.

Another "P" phrase based on the name of an inventor is "Ponzi scheme," which, come to think of it, leaves its victims feeling as if they've been on the receiving end of one of Phillips' devices.

In 1919, Charles Ponzi, an inveterate con man, devised a new form of fraud. He sold promissory notes to investors, guaranteeing them a 40 percent return over a short time period.

As Ponzi recruited new participants, he used their money to pay dividends to the first investors. This made his gimmick seem legitimate, luring even more people who were eager to get in on the action.

All along, of course, Ponzi was pocketing oodles of money for himself, and soon he was sporting expensive suits and gold-handled canes. But, as the number of participants multiplied, he could no longer pay off all the investors.

Within a short time, the whole scheme crashed, thousands of investors lost their money and Ponzi was sentenced to federal prison.

To this day, we still refer to any fraud that pays quick returns to early investors with money sucked from latecomers as a "Ponzi scheme." And if you'll just forward this column to five of your friends, in three days you'll receive hundreds of Phillips screwdrivers.


Today's Word "flippant"

flippant \FLIP-uhnt\ (adjective) - Lacking proper seriousness or respect; showing inappropriate levity; pert.

"Betty made some flippant rejoinder, but as she watched him, she was not gay." -- Humphry Ward, 'Sir George Tressady'

Flippant probably comes from flip. The noun form is flippancy.

Today's Word "ineffable"

ineffable \in-EF-uh-buhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Incapable of being expressed in words; unspeakable; unutterable; indescribable. 2 : Not to be uttered; taboo.

"In the light of the pyre, I saw in her face an ineffable sadness, even a longing, as she gazed down at the burial party tending to the dead mothers..." -- Michael Curtis Ford, 'The Ten Thousand: A Novel of Ancient Greece'

Ineffable is from Latin ineffabilis, from in-, "not" + effabilis, "utterable," from effari, "to utter," from ex-, "out" + fari, "to speak."

Today's Word "epigone"

epigone \EP-uh-gohn\ (noun) - An inferior imitator, especially of some distinguished writer, artist, musician, or philosopher.

"He was a conscious epigone, even in the l9th century preferring the powdered wig and ruffles of an earlier age." -- Andre Norton, 'Leopard in Exile'

Epigone derives from Greek epigonos, from epigignesthai, to be born after, from epi-, "upon, after" + gignesthai, "to be born." The adjective form is epigonic.

Today's Word "sesquipedalian"

sesquipedalian \ses-kwuh-puh-DAYL-yuhn\ (adjective) - 1 : Given to or characterized by the use of long words. 2 : Long and ponderous; having many syllables.

(noun) - A long word.

"Because my father was a professor, I early picked up a sesquipedalian way of speaking." -- Damon Knight, 'A Science Fiction Argosy'

Sesquipedalian comes from Latin sesquipedalis, "a foot and a half long, hence inordinately long," from sesqui, "one half more, half as much again" + pes, ped-, "a foot."


I Now Pronounce You "Man" and "Wyfe"

You say, "tuh-MAY-toh," and your husband says, "tuh-MAH-toh." Don't call the whole thing off! Even respected authorities disagree over the pronunciation of many words.

Can you select the pronunciations preferred by most (but not all) pronunciation experts?:

1. demur (to object, take exception to) -- a. di-MYOOR; b. di-MUR

2. forte (a person's strength) -- a. FOR-tay; b. FORT

3. grievous (causing grief, dire) -- a. GREE-vus; b. GREE-vee-us

4. Realtor (a member of the National Association of Realtors) -- a. REEL-tur; b. REE-luh-tur

5. niche (a cranny; a suitable area of talent or comfort, or a segment of a market) -- a. NITCH; b. NEESH

6. conch (a marine gastropod mollusk or its shell) -- a. KAHNCH; b. CONK

7. pastoral (of or relating to rural life, or being a church pastor) -- a. pa-STOR-ul; b. PAS-tur-ul

8. sorbet (frozen dessert) -- a. SOR-bit; b. sor-BAY


Answers and explanations:

1. b. di-MUR. Here "mur" is pronounced as in "murky," not as in "mural." The adjective "demure" (shy, reserved) is pronounced "di-MYOOR."

2. b. FORT. The musical direction "forte," an Italian word meaning "loudly," is pronounced "FOR-tay," but "forte," meaning "strength," is derived from the French word "fort," meaning "strong."

3. a. GREE-vus. "Grievous" has two syllables, not three.

4. a. REEL-tur. I mispronounced this word for many years.

5. a. NITCH. While both pronunciations are common and acceptable, most authorities prefer "NITCH." Because "niche" entered English from French during the 1600s, they say, its pronunciation has been fully Anglicized.

6. b. CONK. Purists want to conk people over the head for saying "KAHNCH."

7. b. PAS-tur-ul. "Do pastures have stores in them?" the purists angrily ask. "Then don't put a 'store' in 'pastoral'"?

8. a. SOR-bit. The fact that "sorbet" shares the same Turkish root as "sherbet" provides a clue to its historically accurate pronunciation. But because "sorbet" entered English through French, it acquired the fancified "ay" pronunciation that has been adopted by just about everyone. Just as sorbet cleanses the palate, pronunciation experts have tried for decades to cleanse "sor-BAY" from English-speaking palates. Nice try.


Today's Word "quondam"

quondam \KWAHN-duhm; KWAHN-dam\ (adjective) - Having been formerly; former; sometime.

"It is time for me to speak of Patrick Quilly, my quondam catamite, cook and general housekeeper." -- John Banville, 'The Untouchable'

Quondam comes from the Latin quondam, "formerly," from quom, "when."

Today's Word "effulgence"

effulgence \i-FUL-juhn(t)s\ (noun) - The state of being bright and radiant; splendor; brilliance.

"The moment Sri Caitanya appeared, His beauty and effulgence transfixed everyone." -- N. S. Narasimha, 'The Way of the Vaisnava sages'

From Latin ex, "out of, from" + fulgere, "to shine." The adjective form of the word is effulgent.

Today's Word "puerile"

puerile \PYOO-uhr-uhl; PYOOR-uhl\ (adjective) - Displaying or suggesting a lack of maturity; juvenile; childish.

"Hal cleared his throat to out-spit Leroy, then swallowed hard, laughing at his puerile urge." - Evelyn Cole, 'For The Sake Of All Others'

Puerile comes from Latin puerilis, from puer, "child, boy."


Today's Word "provender"

provender \PROV-uhn-duhr\ (noun) - 1 : Dry food for domestic animals, such as hay, straw, corn, oats, or a mixture of ground grain; feed. 2 : Food or provisions.

"It may be long ere we find any other provender now that we are leaving the auspices of the Tree Dwellers." -- Cecelia Dart-Thornton, 'The Battle of Evernight'

Provender comes from Old French, from Late Latin praebenda (prae and pro being confused), "a daily allowance of provisions," from praebere, contraction of praehibere, "to hold forth, to offer, to afford," from prae-, "before" + habere, "to have, to hold."

Today's Word "aberrant"

aberrant \a-BERR-unt; AB-ur-unt\ (adjective) - Markedly different from an accepted norm; Deviating from the ordinary or natural type; abnormal.

"Another factor the court had to consider was whether the crime was part of a single period of aberrant behavior." -- Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, 'Sullivan's Evidence'

That which is aberrant is literally that which "wanders away from" what is accepted, ordinary, normal, natural, etc., aberrant being from Latin aberro, aberrare, to wander off, to lose one's way, from ab, away from + erro, errare, to wander.

Today's Word "edacious"

edacious \i-DAY-shus\ (adjective) - Given to eating; voracious; devouring.

"Occasionally the road must be set back, and once the lighthouse was moved back from the cliffs, eaten away by the edacious tooth of the sea." -- Henry White Warren, 'Among The Forces'

Edacious is from Latin edax, edac-, gluttonous, consuming, from edo, edere, to eat.

Today's Word "perspicacity"

perspicacity \pur-spuh-KAS-uh-tee\ (noun) - Clearness of understanding or insight; penetration, discernment.

"Such a horse gives its rider discernment and perspicacity, if not clairvoyance. It will save you from being surprised by your enemies." -- Sudhin N. Ghose, 'Folk Tales and Fairy Stories from India'

Perspicacity comes from Latin perspicax, perspicac-, "sharp-sighted," from perspicere, "to look through," from per, "through" + specere, "to look."

Today's Word "sardonic"

sardonic \sar-DON-ik\ (adjective) - Scornful, mocking; disdainfully humorous.

"The young man stood looking down at her with sardonic contempt, a cowed self-conscious look on his thick, pale face." -- D.H. Lawrence, 'Women in Love'

Sardonic comes from French sardonique, from Latin sardonius, from Greek sardonios, sardanios, "derisive."

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Avatar

The word "avatar" seems to be, well, the avatar of trendy writers these days. Most commonly, it refers to a god-like hero. Writes political columnist David Ignatius, for instance, "To understand why Obama needs tougher scrutiny now, we need only recall his political avatar, President John F. Kennedy."

The popularity of "avatar" has undoubtedly been boosted in recent years by cyber-speak, where it denotes the onscreen image you create of yourself for an interactive game. A TV science fiction series titled "Avatar" premiered in 2005, and a movie with the same name is set for release next year.

"Avatar" derives from the Sanskrit "avatarah," meaning "descent of a god from heaven." In Hindu philosophy, it refers to the incarnation of a divine being, especially Vishnu, in human or animal form.

That's the sense Robert Frost used in the poem "One More Brevity," which describes a stray Dalmatian as an earthly incarnation of Sirius, the dog star. He was, wrote Frost, "not a meteorite, but an avatar."

"Avatar" entered English during the early 1700s, and soon its meaning expanded to include the embodiment of a concept or quality ("Lindbergh's flight was the very avatar of courage"), a temporary manifestation of an ongoing phenomenon ("McCarthyism was an avatar of Cold War paranoia") or a revered role model, as used by Ignatius to describe JFK.

Another trendy term these days is "turnkey." A current TV commercial for a home re-modeler, for instance, touts his "turnkey service." "Turnkey" refers to any business product or service that provides an entire package ready for immediate use, such as in a computer sold with built-in software.

The term may have originated in real estate where a "turnkey home" is a house that's ready to move into as soon as you turn the key. Others suggest it began as a reference to starting a car; just turn the key and vrrrooooom!

And let's not forget the Dickensian term "turnkey" for a prison guard. It's one of those delightful verb-object words mischievously coined for unsavory people: "sawbones" (doctor), "pickpocket," "killjoy," "scofflaw."

In fact, "turnkey" is alive and well in today's prison slang, where it means a guard who just does his job without taking any noticeable interest in prison life -- in other words, the very avatar of indifference.

Today's Word "bombast"

bombast \BOM-bast\ (noun) - Pompous or pretentious speech or writing.

"Sain Flint decided not to run Amelia Lowell's bombast on the front page. Instead, he put it on page three." -- Richard S. Wheeler, 'Flint's Truth'

Bombast comes from Medieval French bombace, "cotton, hance padding," from Late Latin bombax, "cotton."

Today's Word "sojourn"

sojourn \SOH-juhrn; so-JURN\ (intransitive verb) - To stay as a temporary resident; to dwell for a time.

(noun) - A temporary stay.

"At times during this interminable sojourn, I might disappear for hours on end; Sita would wake from her fitful slumber and find herself alone..." -- Ashok Mathur, 'The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar'

Sojourn comes from Old French sojorner, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin subdiurnare, from Latin sub-, "under, a little over" + Late Latin diurnus, "lasting for a day," from Latin dies, "day."

Today's Word "palimpsest"

palimpsest \PAL-imp-sest\ (noun) - 1 : A manuscript, usually of papyrus or parchment, on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible. 2 : An object or place whose older layers or aspects are apparent beneath its surface.

"A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath..." -- Salman Rushdie, 'Shame, a novel'

Palimpsest is from Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsestos, "scraped or rubbed again," from palin, "again" + psen, "to rub (away)."


Today's Word "ennui"

ennui \on-WEE\ (noun) - A feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction arising from lack of interest; boredom.

"The day at Swampscott passed in ennui, the lack of activity causing the three attorneys to make constant calls to their offices in the hopes that someone wanted their services..." -- Robert Ludlum, 'The Road to Omaha'

Ennui is from the French, from Old French enui, "annoyance," from enuier, "to annoy, to bore," from the Latin phrase in odium, "in hatred or dislike."

Today's Word "supererogatory"

supererogatory \soo-puhr-ih-ROG-uh-tor-ee\ (adjective) - 1 : Going beyond what is required or expected. 2 : Superfluous; unnecessary.

"I shall attempt no such supererogatory task as a description of Paris." -- James Weldon Johnson, 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man'

Supererogatory comes from Latin supererogare, "to spend over and above," from super, "over, above" + erogare, "to ask for," from e-, "out" + rogare, "to ask, to request."

Death, Be Not Ungrammatical

As most of you know, I cherish verbal bloopers -- the sillier the better. But whenever someone sends me a mistake that appeared in an obituary, I don't use it in my column.

The notion of ridiculing a verbal error in such a context seems heartless, especially when such tributes are often composed in haste by grieving people. And, besides, I believe in ghosts.

But, because many of us will be called upon to write an obituary or tribute for a relative or friend at some point, it's worth noting the banana peels lying in the obituary writer's path. It's better to consider these linguistic issues in dispassionate objectivity now than when your sobbing cousin hands you a pad and pencil and asks, "Will you write Dad's tribute?"

Interred/interned -- You'd be amazed how many obits read, "he will be interned" or "internment will take place" at this or that cemetery (sometimes misspelled "cemetary"). "Inter" means to bury or entomb a body. "Intern" means to work as a student in a professional field to gain supervised practical experience.

Formerly -- Often an obit will read, "He was formerly a trustee" at a college, for example, or "he was the former husband" of someone. But, if the person was still active as a trustee or still married to the person at the time of death, "formerly" and "former" aren't needed. And it's "formerly," not "formally." It's common to see phrases such as "John Smith, formally of Hartford."

Widow/late -- Sometimes tributes redundantly describe someone as the "widow of the late John Jones." It's either "wife of the late John Jones" or "widow of John Jones."

Beside/besides -- Many obituaries mistakenly read, "Beside her husband, she leaves . . ." She may have stood beside (next to) her husband till the end, but it's "besides" (in addition to).

Misspellings and usage errors -- Here's a sampling of other common mistakes found in obituaries: "golf was his favorite pass time" (pastime); "he was borne and raised in Connecticut" (born); "his recently diseased wife" (deceased); "she is survived by her two son in laws" (sons in law); "she graduated Smith College" (from Smith College); "he received many metals" (medals); "he died of a congenial heart condition (congenital); "he past away last Saturday" (passed away); "for the repose of his sole" (soul).
-Rob Kyff,

Today's Word "blandishment"

blandishment \BLAN-dish-muhnt\ (noun) - Speech or action that flatters and tends to coax, entice, or persuade; allurement -- often used in the plural.

"The woman was temptation personified, and every blandishment she offered contained a challenge, I thought, to my ultimate moral strength." -- Jack Whyte, 'The Singing Sword'

Blandishment ultimately comes from Latin blandiri, "to flatter, caress, coax," from blandus, "flattering, mild."


Today's Word "vituperate"

vituperate \vy-TOO-puh-rate, -TYOO-, vi-\ (verb) - To find fault with; to scold; to overwhelm with wordy abuse; to censure severely or abusively; to rate.

"The incensed priests...continued to raise their voices, vituperating each other in bad Latin." -- Sir Walter Scott, 'Ivanhoe'

Vituperate comes from Latin vitupero, vituperare, to scold, blame, censure.

Today's Word "doppelganger"

doppelganger \DOP-uhl-gang-uhr\ (noun) - 1 : A ghostly double or counterpart of a living person. 2 : Alter ego; double.

"The doppelganger dropped Ray to the linoleum and whispered to the mirror." -- Steven Deighan, 'A Dead Calmness'

Doppelganger is from the German doppel, "double" + Gänger, "goer."

Jekyll Words Play 'Hyde' and Seek

A mom going out shopping leaves a note for her teenage son: "Please make sure the door is fast, then dust the tables and trim the Christmas tree." She returns to find the door hinges glistening with oil, the tables covered with thicker dust and the tree pruned to half its original size.

Ah, the paradoxes of English! Even the simplest words can have two opposite meanings. "Fast" can mean "not moving" (stand fast) or "moving rapidly"; "dust" can mean "remove dust" or "place dust on" (dust crops); "trim" can mean "decorate" or "reduce in size."

Linguist Richard Lederer calls such words "contranyms." Investment guru John Train calls them "antilogies." I call them fun.

See how many contradictory words and phrases you can find in this ambiguous "recommendation":

When considering top managers, I always throw out the name Jekyll N. Hyde. In fact, I can't be too lavish with my praise for him. A qualified expert and a wicked boss, he bags the best executives and continuously overlooks the details of his office. An apparent go-getter, he tables the best ideas at meetings and finishes every project. When an employee asks for something, he lets him have it. His career with our company is just winding up.

Now look for two-faced words in this senator's "tribute" to another nation:

Esteemed colleagues, we should sanction the nation of Ambigua for these actions. When it comes to supporting our policies, Ambigua is critical. Ambiguans have fought with us in several wars, and this experience has tempered their resolve to help us. They have backed us consistently, if not valiantly. Ambiguans have cleaved our allies and buckled our alliances. Their loyalty is a moot issue, and their ethics are untouchable.


Contranyms and Antilogies:

First paragraph: throw out (propose/discard); can't be too lavish (is/is not praising him lavishly); qualified (competent/dubious); wicked (great/evil); bags (hires/fires); overlooks (watches over/fails to watch over); apparent (obvious/seeming); tables (proposes/rejects); finishes (completes/destroys): lets him have it (gives it to him/yells at him); winding up (getting started/ending).

Second paragraph: sanction (approve/condemn); critical (vital/disapproving); fought with us (alongside us/against us); tempered (strengthened/reduced); if not valiantly (they backed us valiantly/not valiantly); cleaved (brought together/split); buckled (secured/crumpled); moot (not debatable/debatable); untouchable (above reproach/abhorrent).


Today's Word "contumely"

contumely \kon-TYOO-muh-lee; -TOO-; KON-tyoo-mee-lee; -too-; KON-tum-lee\ (noun) - 1 : Rudeness or rough treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt; scornful insolence. 2 : An instance of contemptuousness in act or speech.

"But surely it would be desperate unkindness to add contumely to our self-protection, unless, indeed, we believe that contumely is one of our best means of self-protection." -- Samuel Butler, 'Erewhon'

Contumely comes ultimately from Latin contumelia, outrage, insult.

Today's Word "skulk"

skulk \SKUHLK\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To hide, or get out of the way, in a sneaking manner; to lurk. 2 : To move about in a stealthy way. 3 : To avoid responsibilities and duties.

(noun) - 1 : One who skulks. 2 : A group of foxes.

"You're too large to skulk about. They'd see you in an instant." -- Kinley MacGregor, Claiming the Highlander

Skulk is from Middle English skulken, ultimately of Scandinavian origin.

Today's Word "hauteur"

hauteur \haw-TUR; (h)oh-\ (noun) - Haughty manner, spirit, or bearing; haughtiness; arrogance.

"She was unremarkable in every way save for the hauteur with which she regarded him." -- Karen Robards, 'Scandalous'

Hauteur is from the French, from haut, "high," from Latin altus, "high." It is thus related to altitude.

Today's Word "ineluctable"

ineluctable \in-ih-LUCK-tuh-buhl\ (adjective) - Impossible to avoid or evade; inevitable.

"All of this, she thought, more probable than battle orders wrapping up cigars in enemy territory, a sad and ineluctable fact of history." -- Padgett Powell, 'Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men'

Ineluctable is from Latin ineluctabilis, from in-, "not" + eluctari, "to struggle out of, to get free from," from ex-, e-, "out of" + luctari, "to struggle."

Today's Word "exalt"

exalt \ig-ZOLT\ (verb) - 1 : To praise, glorify, or honor. 2 : To heighten or intensify. 3 : To raise in rank, character, or status; as, "exalted the humble shoemaker to the rank of King's adviser."

"A warrior should never exalt in his victory, Wharton, before the enemy is completely disarmed." -- Christina Dodd, 'A Knight to Remember'

Exalt comes from Latin exalto, exaltare, to raise high, from ex-, out of (but here simply used intensively; that is, to give emphasis) + altus, high.

Sending in the 'Shock Tropes'

Some random dispatches from the word front . . .

Casting A Pall On Shock -- When did it become mandatory for angry people to describe themselves as "shocked and appalled"?

Citizens are "shocked and appalled" by potholes, pooches and parking tickets. Public officials are "shocked and appalled" by crooks, cronies and crackpots. Newspaper readers are "shocked and appalled" by the overuse of alliteration.

OK, so there are a few times when this melodramatic phrase is appropriate. When an MIT student walked into Boston's Logan Airport last year with a circuit board and wiring on her chest, state police Major Scott Pare described himself, appropriately enough, as "shocked and appalled."

But for lesser transgressions, let's dial down the language. "Surprised and annoyed" would be nice.

"Oversighted" Sighting -- When John McCain said recently that a Congressional committee would "oversight" an issue, he unwittingly demonstrated how a word's part of speech can travel full circle.

In a Rube Goldberg-like sequence, 1. the VERB "oversee" led to the NOUN "oversight" ("Congressional oversight"); 2. this in turn led to the ADJECTIVE "oversight" ("oversight committee"); and 3. this was then converted back to a VERB ("oversight an issue").

McCain, of course, could have used the original verb "oversee," but the new verb "oversight" is a better choice because it alludes to "Congressional oversight."

Adjusted for "Conflation" -- What's the latest buzzword of political pundits? Say hello to "conflate." An old and perfectly respectable verb meaning "to bring together or meld," "conflate" has picked up a negative sense of "confusing two different things."

New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg, for instance, recently called John McCain's erroneous suggestion that Iran's Shiite mullahs and Iraq's Sunni terrorists were allies "rhetorical conflation."

Turn, Turn, Turn -- If you have any doubt that times are a' changin', consider this: People are starting to use "turn of the century" in a new way. I realized this when I read these words in a recent article by Ian Buruma: "The first time I visited this august assemblage, around the turn of the century . . ."

Images of starched collars and brown derbies immediately came to mind. "Wow," I thought, "this guy is old!" Then it hit me; Buruma meant eight years ago, not 108 years ago.

Call me "shocked," though not "appalled."

Today's Word "autodidact"

autodidact \aw-toh-DY-dakt\ (noun) - One who is self-taught.

"I'm an autodidact and a good one, because I'll kick my own (butt) if I don't learn, which is a sight to see with this leg brace." -- Dean Koontz, 'One Door Away from Heaven'

Autodidact is from Greek autodidaktos, "self-taught," from auto-, "self" + didaktos, "taught," from didaskein, "to teach."

Today's Word "inveigh"

inveigh \in-VAY\ (intransitive verb) - To rail (against some person or thing); to protest strongly or attack with harsh and bitter language -- usually with "against."

"I could inveigh against someone who denied his Jewishness, who played at being a goy." -- Michael Brodsky, 'Detour'

Inveigh is from Latin invehi, "to attack with words," passive form of invehere, "to carry or bring into or against," from in-, "in, into" + vehere, "to carry."

Today's Word "crapulous"

crapulous \KRAP-yuh-lus\ (adjective) - 1 : Suffering the effects of, or derived from, or suggestive of gross intemperance, especially in drinking; as, a crapulous stomach. 2 : Marked by gross intemperance, especially in drinking; as, a crapulous old reprobate.

"His place in the parlour at the George, his absence from church, his old, crapulous, disreputable vices, were all things of course in Debenham." -- Robert Louis Stevenson, 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'

Crapulous is from Late Latin crapulosus, from Latin crapula, from Greek kraipale, drunkenness and its consequences, nausea, sickness, and headache.

Today's Word "defenestrate"

defenestrate \dee-FEN-uh-strayt\ (transitive verb) - To throw out of a window.

"You can't defenestrate every man who proposes to Nefret. It would take too much of your time." -- Elizabeth Peters, 'The Falcon at the Portal'

Defenestrate is derived from Latin de-, "out of" + fenestra, "window." The noun form is defenestration.

Betwixt and Be-teen

Recently I've noticed that students making assembly announcements at the high school where I teach invariably preface their proclamations with "so," followed by a brief pause and then their statement. "So . . . We're having a bake sale."; "So . . . There's a yearbook meeting scheduled for today."; "So . . . the volleyball tournament is this weekend."

Here "so" functions as a handy, all-purpose transitional word that breaks the ice, establishes a casual, non-authoritarian tone and, not incidentally, gives the speaker a chance to summon breath and courage. It seems to have become a mandatory mantra of adolescent self-consciousness.

Two more glimpses into teen talk:

Liking the Participle -- Henry McNulty of Cheshire, Conn., has noticed that teenagers often replace the present tense of verbs with the present participle, especially when expressing a preference or desire, e.g. "I'm liking the color," "I'm wanting to go swimming."

Not to be too analytical about it, but this phrasing puts a distance between the speaker and his or her feelings. It's more tentative and noncommittal than the straightforward "I like the color" or "I want to go swimming."

I've heard adults use the preferential participle, usually when they're trying to talk themselves into something or persuading someone else that they're overcoming their initial doubts.

Think of a skeptical wife walking through a house that her husband thinks they should buy. To hint that she might be won over, without fully committing herself, she might say, "I'm liking the cabinets."

Very, Sort of Trendy -- Speaking of tentative, Michael Ray emailed me to report that young women are adding a new twist to Valley Girl talk. They're sprinkling their sentences with "very, sort of," as in, "He's just very, sort of, strange when it comes to money." When you think about it, "very" and "sort of" are nearly opposites, so describing something as "very, sort of" is very, sort of hedging your bet.

Speaking of "very," more and more teenagers seem to be using "very" with participles, as in, "He's very paying attention to this," or "She's very making things worse."

Teenagers have been using "so" this way for years ("He's so paying attention to this," "She's so making things worse"), but this is a new "very"-ation.

Today's Word "acrid"

acrid \AK-rid\ (adjective) - 1 : Sharp and harsh, or bitter to the taste or smell; pungent. 2 : Caustic in language or tone; bitter.

"It sizzled and sparked, and sent its acrid odor up everyone's nostrils; Jennifer thought of hellfire." -- Richard Janssen, 'The Evil I Do'

Acrid comes from Latin acer, "sharp."


Today's Word "constitutional"

constitutional \kon-stih-TOO-shuhn-uhl; -TYOO-\ (noun) - A walk taken for one's health.

"A wise physician does not simply give a tonic for a diseased limb, or a high fever; the patient might be dead before the constitutional remedy could become effective." -- Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 'The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories'

A constitutional is so called because it is taken for the benefit of one's constitution.

Today's Word "autodidact"

autodidact \aw-toh-DY-dakt\ (noun) - One who is self-taught.

"I'm an autodidact and a good one, because I'll kick my own (butt) if I don't learn, which is a sight to see with this leg brace." -- Dean Koontz, 'One Door Away from Heaven'

Autodidact is from Greek autodidaktos, "self-taught," from auto-, "self" + didaktos, "taught," from didaskein, "to teach."


Today's Word "specious"

specious \SPEE-shuhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Apparently right; superficially fair, just, or correct, but not so in reality; as, "specious reasoning; a specious argument." 2 : Deceptively pleasing or attractive.

"Our breach of hospitality went to my conscience a little; but I quickly silenced that monitor by two or three specious reasons, which served to satisfy and reconcile me to myself." -- Oliver Goldsmith, 'The Vicar of Wakefield'

Specious is from Latin speciosus, from species, "appearance," from specere, "to look at."


Today's Word "juju"

juju \JOO-joo\ (noun) - 1 : An object superstitiously believed to embody magical powers. 2 : The power associated with a juju.

"They have powerful juju. They can make juju to kill all of us." -- T. M. Aluko, 'One Man, One Matchet'

Juju is of West African origin, akin to Hausa djudju, fetish, evil spirit.

Today's Word "genial"

genial \JEEN-yuhl; JEE-nee-uhl\ (adjective) - 1 : Friendly, warm; kindly; sympathetically cheerful and cheering. 2 : Mild, pleasant; comfortable; favorable to life or growth.

"She, like he, like all beings in this happy valley with its genial clime, goes always naked, stark staring, as someone's said, wearing nothing daylong but the shells and beads braided into her black hair." -- Robert Coover, 'Ghost Town'

Genial comes from Latin genialis, "relating to enjoyment; joyful," from genius, "guardian spirit; spirit of enjoyment."


Today's Word "Zeitgeist"

Zeitgeist \TSYT-guyst; ZYT-guyst\ (noun) - [Often capitalized] The spirit of the time; the general intellectual and moral state or temper characteristic of any period of time.

"Yet being a man, as I say, with his hair a little stirred by a Zeitgeist that made for change, Gates did at times display a disposition towards developments." -- Herbert George Wells, 'The New Machiavelli'

Zeitgeist is from the German: Zeit, "time" + Geist, "spirit."

Today's Word "tittle-tattle"

tittle-tattle \TIT-uhl TAT-uhl\ (noun) - 1 : Idle, trifling talk; empty prattle. 2 : An idle, trifling talker; a gossip.

(verb) - 1 : to talk idly; to prate.

"Both were in their seventies, and like two old parrots they told, in identical words, the tale they had heard so often from their mother...The tittle-tattle of a half-starved countryside that throughout its long winters had nothing but tittle-tattle for amusement." -- Eric Linklater, 'The Dark of Summer'

Tittle-tattle is a varied reduplication of tattle, which derives from Medieval Dutch tatelen, to babble.


Today's Word "grok"

grok \GRAWK\ (transitive verb slang) - To understand, especially in a profound and intimate way. Slang.

'"Even if you explain it in short words I'm not going to grok it, okay?" Benjamin frowned the uncomprehending frown of someone whose learning of the English language had missed the word "grok" entirely."' - Eric Flint, Andrew Dennis, '1634: The Galileo Affair"

The slang word grok was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in the science fiction novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", where it is a Martian word meaning literally "to drink" and metaphorically "to be one with". It was adopted into the vocabulary of 1960's youth and hackish jargon, whence it has become a part of net culture.

Today's Word "Celibate"

celibate \SEL-eh-beyt\ (adjective) - 1 : Unmarried for religious reasons, bound by oath or inclination never to marry. 2 : Sexually abstinent.

"He'd been celibate too many months. Celibate, not because he'd been on pilgrimage or fasting, no such nonsense — he'd leave that to the monks — but celibate out of convenience and squeamishness. Traveling with his daughter made dalliance difficult." -- Brenda Rickman Vantrease, 'The Illuminator'

There is no question about the original meaning of today's word because of its origin: Latin "caelibatus" from caelebs "unmarried." The Latin word is a mystery but might have come from an old root *kai "alone" combined with the same root underlying English "live" and German leben "live." If so, today's word would have originated in a compound meaning "alone-living." Since we don't find the second root elsewhere in Latin, it could have died out early, forcing the compound to become a single noun, or the compound might have been borrowed from a Germanic language in the first place. The root *kai also developed into Latvian kails "naked, bare" and Sanskrit kevala "alone, exclusive, only."

Today's Word "Cockalorum"

cockalorum \kah-kuh-LOR-um\ (noun) - 1 : A boastful and self-important person; 2 : boastful talk

"Now, did he survive, and succeed, he'd be puffed full of relief and joy, and breakfast would be a nigh-hysterically blissful explosion of high-cockalorum." -- Dewey Lambdin, 'Havoc's Sword'

From the obsolete Flemish word "kockeloeren," meaning "to crow." It dates back to 1715 when it was used to describe the Marquis of Huntly-son of the Duke of Gordon, a Celtic Highlander chief who was himself known as the "Cock of the North." The image of a rooster (a.k.a. cock) strutting confidently across the barnyard has given us "crow" ("to brag"), "cock" ("a self-important person"), and "cocky" ("overconfident").

Today's Word "Intransigent"

intransigent \in-TRAEN-seh-jehnt/ (adjective) - Stubbornly resistant; recalcitrant, utterly uncompromising.

"We shouldn't dilute our own prestige by bending over backwards to accommodate every unreasonable demand of every intransigent government." -- Shashi Tharoor, 'Riot: A Love Story'

From Spanish "intransigente" from Latin in- "not" + transigentem, accusative present participle of transigir "to compromise," based on trans- "across" + agere "to do, act, move, drive." "Agere" is the origin of English "agent," "act," "actual," and "navigate," from navis "ship" + agere. "Ambassador" and "embassy" originate in Latin ambactus "servant" from *amb(i) "around" +ag-to- "one who moves," i.e. "one who goes around."

Today's Word "eschew"

eschew \es-CHOO\ (transitive verb) - To shun; to avoid (as something wrong or distasteful).

"Normally, I would eschew the Minneapolis skyway system. Only normally it wasn't five degrees below zero and normally the wind that seemed to gain velocity as it was funneled between the downtown skyscrapers wasn't pwereful enough to lift you off your feet." -- David Housewright, 'Pretty Girl Gone'

Eschew comes from Old French eschiver, ultimately of Germanic origin.

Today's Word "plebeian"

plebeian \plih-BEE-uhn\ (adjective) - 1 : Of or pertaining to the Roman plebs, or common people. 2 : Of or pertaining to the common people. 3 : Vulgar; common; crude or coarse in nature or manner.

(noun) - 1 : One of the plebs, or common people of ancient Rome; opposed to patrician. 2 : One of the common people or lower classes. 3 : A coarse, crude, or vulgar person.

"Clodius wanted to be elected tribune, but was barred from doing so, since it's a strictly plebeian office, off-limits to patricians." -- Steven Saylor, 'The Venus Throw'

Plebeian is from Latin plebeius, from plebs, plebis, "the common people.

Today's Word "contretemps"

contretemps \KAHN-truh-tahn\ (noun) plural contretemps \-tahnz\ - An inopportune or embarrassing situation or event; a hitch.

"'I am very sorry, Mr Slater, if you have recently had some - some contretemps with the law, but please, that should not affect this matter!" -- Ann Granger, 'The Companion'

Contretemps comes from French, from contre, "against" (from Latin contra) + temps, "time" (from Latin tempus).

Today's Word "scuttlebutt"

scuttlebutt \SKUHT-l-buht\ (noun) - 1 : A drinking fountain on a ship. 2 : A cask on a ship that contains the day's supply of drinking water. 3 : Gossip; rumor.

"I'd never been there, of course, so my information was only scuttlebut." -- Stephen Greenleaf, 'Blood Type'

Scuttlebutt comes from scuttle, "a small opening" + butt, "a large cask" -- that is, a small hole cut into a cask or barrel to allow individual cups of water to be drawn out. The modern equivalent is the office water cooler, also a source of refreshment and gossip.

Today's Word "quandary"

quandary \KWAHN-duh-ree; -dree\ (noun) - A state of difficulty, perplexity, doubt, or uncertainty.

"It was a perfect correlative to my actual financial quandry, the thought of which sent me further into a dismal spiral. What would I do when the bills came..." -- T. Jefferson Parker, 'Summer of Fear'

Quandary is of unknown origin.

Today's Word "mountebank"

mountebank \MOUN-tuh-bank\ (noun) - 1 : A peddler of quack medicine, who stands on a platform to appeal to the audience. 2 : A charlatan; a boastful pretender to knowledge or a skill.

"I am God's mountebank, doing God's precious business in my own way. But God's precious business cannot be carried on, even by a mountebank, without money..." -- Arnold Bennett, 'Anna of the Five Towns'

Mountebank comes from the Italian montambanco, montimbanco, from the phrase monta in banco, literally "mounts on bench" (i.e. "gets up on a bench").

Today's Word "aubade"

aubade \oh-BAHD\ (noun) - A song or poem greeting the dawn; also, a composition suggestive of morning.

"She sang the first aubade welcoming the sun, then turned westward and moved into the second one, the song which sang the daystar farewell." -- Eliszbeth Haydon, 'Elegy for a Lost Star'

Aubade comes from the French, from aube, dawn + the noun suffix -ade: aube ultimately derives from Latin albus, white, pale, as in "alba lux," the "pale light" of dawn.

Today's Word "toothsome"

toothsome \TOOTH-suhm\ (adjective) - 1 : Pleasing to the taste; delicious; as, "a toothsome pie." 2 : Agreeable; attractive; as, "a toothsome offer." 3 : Sexually attractive.

"She got very soft pillows and clean bed-clothes for Lisbeth and she placed toothsome dishes before Lisbeth..." -- Caradoc Evans, 'My Neighbors'

Toothsome is derived from tooth + -some.

Today's Word "uxorious"

uxorious \uk-SOR-ee-us; ug-ZOR-\ (adjective) - Excessively fond of or submissive to a wife.

"Of looks, words, consideration, habitual deference, and eager attention, I was quite as uxorious as I should have been of the warm kiss, or the yielding, fond embrace." -- W. Gilmore Simms, 'Confession, Or, the Blind Heart'

Uxorious is from Latin uxorius, from uxor, wife.

Today's Word "travail"

travail \truh-VAYL; TRAV-ayl\ (noun) - 1 : Painful or arduous work; severe toil or exertion. 2 : Agony; anguish. 3 : The labor of childbirth

(intransitive verb) - 1 : To work very hard; to toil. 2 : To suffer the pangs of childbirth; to be in labor.

"What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness, marriage till death do us part yes but long dead before the parting, home and fireside and kiddies such a travail and a deadliness as to make a man run outn into the night with his hands over his head." -- Walker Perchy, 'The Second Coming'

Travail is from Old French traveillier, travaillier, from Vulgar Latin tripalium, "a three-staked instrument of torture," from Latin tripalis, "three-staked," from tri-, "three" + palus, "a stake."

Today's Word "mollify"

mollify \MOL-uh-fy\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To pacify; to soothe or calm in temper or disposition. 2 : To reduce in intensity; to temper. 3 : To soften; to reduce the rigidity of.

"...Doubtless she had poisoned my beer with something intended to mollify me, to mollify Molloy, with the result that I was nothing more than a lump of melting wax, so to speak." -- Samuel Becket, 'Molloy'

Mollify comes from Middle French mollifier, ultimately from Latin mollis, "soft."

Today's Word "inclement"

inclement \in-KLEM-uhnt\ (adjective) - 1 : Rough, harsh; extreme, severe -- generally restricted to the elements or weather. 2 : Severe, unrelenting; cruel.

"Maritally, it had been an inclement winter. It was looking like an inclement spring." -- Stephen White, 'Dry Ice'

Inclement is from Latin in-, "not" + clemens, "gentle, merciful."

Today's Word "subaltern"

subaltern \suhb-OL-tuhrn; SUHB-uhl-tuhrn\ (adjective) - 1 : Ranked or ranged below; subordinate; inferior. 2 : (Chiefly British) Ranking as a junior officer; being below the rank of captain. 3 : (Logic) Asserting only a part of what is asserted in a related proposition.

(noun) - 1 : A person holding a subordinate position. 2 : (Chiefly British) A commissioned military officer below the rank of captain. 3 : (Logic) A subaltern proposition.

"At the gates of the fortress, Fouquet was fretting and fuming in his carriage as he awaited the return of the subaltern, who finally came back in a rather sulky mood." -- Alexandre Dumas, 'The Man in the Iron Mask'

Subaltern derives from Late Latin subalternus, "subordinate," from Latin sub-, "under" + Latin alternus, "alternate," from alter, "other."

Today's Word "redact"

redact \rih-DAKT\ (transitive verb) - 1 : To draw up or frame (a statement, proclamation, etc.); to put in writing. 2 : To make ready and put in shape for publication; to edit.

"Back when we were in college, we used to lie in bed and regularly redact a mutual fantasy about how someday we could run a cafe or a hotel in some distant country..." -- Peter Gadol, 'Light at Dusk'

Redact derives from Latin redactus, past participle of redigere, to drive

Today's Word "apocryphal"

apocryphal \uh-POK-ruh-fuhl\ (adjective) - 1 : (Bible) Pertaining to the Apocrypha. 2 : Not canonical. Hence: Of doubtful authority or authenticity; equivocal; fictitious; spurious; false.

"But Gary was obsessed with the apocryphal writings. He was sure he could use the information from these Scrolls to avoid the apocalypse." -- Brad Kelln, 'Method of Madness: A Psychological Thriller"

Apocryphal ultimately derives from Greek apokruphos, "hidden (hence, spurious)," from apokruptein, "to hide away," from apo-, "away, from" + kruptein, "to hide."

Today's Word "clemency"

clemency \KLEM-uhn-see\ (noun) - 1 : Disposition to forgive and spare, as offenders; mercy. 2 : An act or instance of mercy or leniency. 3 : Mildness, especially of weather.

"If the buccaneers surrendered, he would give them clemency -- if they did not he would sail to Maracaibo and would destroy the bucsaneers utterly." -- Shirlee Busbee, 'Spanish Rose'

Clemency comes from Latin clementia, from clemens, "mild, merciful."

Today's Word "choleric"

choleric \KOL-uh-rik; kuh-LAIR-ik\ (adjective) - 1 : Easily irritated; inclined to anger; bad-tempered. 2 : Angry; indicating or expressing anger; excited by anger.

"My father says he is a bit choleric and it is better to drop papers off sometimes than to see him in person." -- Jon Mango, "Seven Mile Bridge

Choleric is the adjective form of choler, "yellow bile," from Latin cholera, "a bilious disease," from Greek kholera, from khole, "bile." Choler was supposed by medieval physicians to be the source of irritability.

Today's Word "sedulous"

sedulous \SEJ-uh-luhs\ (adjective) - 1 : Diligent in application or pursuit; steadily industrious. 2 : Characterized by or accomplished with care and perseverance.

"Eating and sleeping; hearing grave, sedulous men read out of grave, sedulous book what we have heard a hundred times." -- Mary Webb, 'Gone to Earth'

Sedulous is from Latin sedulus, "busy, diligent," from se-, "apart, without" + dolus, "guile, trickery."

Today's Word "billingsgate"

billingsgate \BIL-ingz-gayt; -git\ (noun) - Coarsely abusive, foul, or profane language.

"These are the people who make life a burthen to the tourist. Their tongues are never still. They talk forever and forever, and that is the kind of billingsgate they use. -- Mark Twain, 'The Innocents Abroad'

Billingsgate is so called after Billingsgate, a former market in London celebrated for fish and foul language.

Today's Word "transmogrify"

transmogrify \trans-MOG-ruh-fy\ (transitive verb) - To change into a different shape or to transform, often with bizarre or humorous effect.

"Jennie suddenly felt suspicious; it wouldn't be Camille's fault, but grief could transmogrify that forgiveness at any moment..." -- Nancy Woodruff, 'Someone Else's Child'

Transmogrify is perhaps a humorous blend of transmigrate (for the form) and transmute (for the sense).

Today's Word "aficionado"

aficionado \uh-fish-ee-uh-NAH-doh\ (noun) - An enthusiastic admirer; a fan.

"He cautiously descended a dark, narrow stairway to a cool room with a smooth floor and every sort of treasure an art aficionado could imagine." -- Tamara Sneed, 'All the Man I Need'

Aficionado derives from Spanish aficionar, "to induce a liking for," from afición, "a liking for."

Today's Word "paladin"

paladin \PAL-uh-din\ (noun) - 1 : A knight-errant; a distinguished champion of a medieval king or prince; as, the paladins of Charlemagne. 2 : A champion of a cause.

"I did not want to be a paladin. My mother and father wanted it for me. I did not work against my parents, but the priests saw my lack of inner motivation." -- Roby Ward, 'Heroes Of Watussin'

Paladin derives from Late Latin palatinus, "an officer of the palace," from Latin palatium, "royal residence, palace," from Palatium, one of the seven hills of Rome, on which Augustus had his residence.

Today's Word "querulous"

querulous \KWER-uh-luhs; -yuh\ (adjective) - 1 : Apt to find fault; habitually complaining. 2 : Expressing complaint; fretful; whining.

"For a younger man, he suddenly sounded like a querulous uncle. Or how she'd imagined a querulous uncle would sound." -- Anne Bishop, 'Belladonna'

Querulous comes from Latin querulus, from queri, "to complain."

Today's Word "cynosure"

cynosure \SY-nuh-shoor; SIN-uh-shoor\ (noun) - 1 : Anything to which attention is strongly turned; a center of attraction. 2 : That which serves to guide or direct. 3 : [Capitalized]. The northern constellation Ursa Minor, which contains the North Star; also, the North Star itself.

"They would be the cynosure of all eyes. What was a cynosure and why was it never mentioned except in reference to eyes?" -- Ngaio Marsh, 'False Scent'

Cynosure derives from Latin cynosura, from Greek kunosoura, "dog's tail, the constellation Ursa Minor," from kuon, kun-, "dog" + oura, "tail."

Today's Word "tmesis"

tmesis \TMEE-sis\ (noun) - In grammar and rhetoric, the separation of the parts of a compound word, now generally done for humorous effect; for example, "what place soever" instead of "whatsoever place," or "abso-bloody-lutely."

"As an example of a tmesis, Franklin was wont to quote Shakespeare from Richard II, :If on the first, how heinous e'er it be, To win thy after-love I pardon thee."

Tmesis is from Greek tmesis, "a cutting," from temnein, "to cut."

Today's Word "sacrosanct"

sacrosanct \SAK-roh-sankt\ (adjective) - Sacred or inviolable.

"The public's right to know is sacrosanct, and it is our sacrosanct duty as journalists to respect this right. Otherwise we could no longer proudly call ourselves journalists in the public service." -- Andrea Camilleri, Stephen Sartarelli, 'The Patience of the Spider'

Sacrosanct comes from Latin sacrosanctus, "consecrated with religious ceremonies, hence holy, sacred," from sacrum, "religious rite" (from sacer, "holy") + sanctus, "consecrated," from sancire, "to make sacred by a religious act."

Today's Word "alpenglow"

alpenglow \AL-puhn-gloh\ (noun) - A reddish glow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains.

"I had seen light similar to this in Switzerland, where it was known as alpenglow. But this was no ordinary alpenglow." -- Paul Watkins, 'The Ice Soldier'

Alpenglow is a partial translation of German Alpenglühen, from Alpen, "Alps" + glühen, "to glow."

Today's Word "tyro"

tyro \TY-roh\ (noun) - A beginner in learning; a novice.

"There could be no doubt in anyone's mind: this young man was a tyro, sent here for some mysterious reason but certainly not to gain any new information." -- Ian Rankin, 'Witch Hunt: A Novel'

Tyro is from Latin tiro, "a young soldier, a recruit," hence "a beginner, a learner."

Today's Word "parley"

parley \PAR-lee\ (noun) - A conference or discussion, especially with an enemy, as with regard to a truce or other matters.

"To the Cid who in good time girt brand my greeting do I send, And let us hold the parley when three weeks are at an end." -- Cid, 'The Lay of the Cid'

arley comes from Old French parlée, from parler, "to speak," from Medieval Latin parabolare, from Late Latin parabola, "a proverb, a parable, a similitude," from Greek parabole, "a comparison, a placing beside," from paraballein, "to throw beside, hence to compare," from para-, "beside" + ballein, "to throw."

Today's Word "expatiate"

expatiate \ek-SPAY-shee-ayt\ (intransitive verb) - 1 : To speak or write at length or in considerable detail. 2 : To move about freely; to wander.

"I will not expatiate upon her beauty. I will not expatiate upon her intelligence, her quickness of perception, her powers of memory, her sweet consideration..." Charles Dickens, 'George Silverman's Explanation'

Expatiate is from Latin expatiari, "to walk or go far and wide," from ex-, "out" + spatiari, "to walk about," from spatium, "space; an open space, a place for walking in."

Today's Word "dilatory"

dilatory \DIL-uh-tor-ee\ (adjective) - 1 : Tending to put off what ought to be done at once; given to procrastination. 2 : Marked by procrastination or delay; intended to cause delay; -- said of actions or measures.

"We are dilatory, we bears, dilatory and slow by nature, and hate to make up our minds, and dread the severing consequences of action..." -- Jean Garrigue, 'The Animal Hotel'

Dilatory is from Latin dilatorius, from dilator, "a dilatory person, a loiterer," from dilatus, past participle of differre, "to delay, to put off," from dis-, "apart, in different directions" + ferre, "to carry."

Today's Word "somniferous"

somniferous \som-NIF-uhr-uhs\ (adjective) - Causing or inducing sleep.

"The wine which had exerted its somniferous influence over Mr. Snodgrass, and Mr. Winkle, had stolen upon the senses of Mr. Pickwick." -- Charles Dickens, 'The Pickwick Papers'

Somniferous comes from Latin somnifer, "sleep-bringing," from somnus, "sleep" + ferre, "to bring."

Today's Word "parsimonious"

parsimonious \par-suh-MOH-nee-uhs\ (adjective) - Sparing in expenditure; frugal to excess.

"What was it but a rather pointless, long-drawn-out affair, in the true Russian style, about a moujik who was inordinately parsimonious, even as moujiks go." -- Henry Miller, 'Moloch: Or, This Gentile World'

Parsimonious is the adjective form of parsimony, from Latin parsimonia, "thrift, parsimony," from parsus, past participle of parcere, "to spare, to be sparing, to economize."

Today's Word "turbid"

turbid \TUR-bid\ (adjective) - 1 : Muddy; thick with or as if with roiled sediment; not clear; -- used of liquids of any kind. 2 : Thick; dense; dark; -- used of clouds, air, fog, smoke, etc. 3 : Disturbed; confused; disordered.

"In the very middle of those times was a Stickly- Prickly Hedgehog, and he lived on the banks of the turbid Amazon, eating shelly snails and things." -- Rudyard Kipling, 'Just So Stories'

Turbid comes from Latin turbidus, "confused, disordered," from turba, "disturbance, commotion."

Today's Word "fallible"

fallible \FAL-uh-bul\ (adjective) - 1 : Liable to make a mistake. 2 : Liable to be inaccurate or erroneous.

"You are human and fallible... The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely intrusted." -- Charlotte Bronte, "Jane Eyre'

Fallible derives from Medieval Latin fallibilis, from Latin fallere, "to deceive." It is related to fail, false (from falsum, the past participle of fallere), fallacy ("a false notion"), fault (from Old French falte, from fallere), and faucet (from Old Provençal falsar, "to falsify, to create a fault in, to bore through," from fallere).

Today's Word "intrepid"

intrepid \in-TREP-id\, adjective) - Fearless; bold; brave; undaunted; courageous; as, an intrepid soldier; intrepid spirit.

"The French settlers' commander had seemed so intrepid. Why wasn't he intrepid enough to stick his head in the noose?" -- Harry Turtledove, 'Opening Atlantis'

Intrepid comes from Latin intrepidus, "calm," from in-, "not" + trepidus, "anxious, disturbed."

Today's Word "egregious"

egregious \ih-GREE-juhs\ (adjective) - Conspicuously and outrageously bad or reprehensible.

"Now, while I rigorously defend your right to be wrong, I feel I must address some of your more egregious utterances." -- Joy Fielding, 'Heartstopper - A Novel'

Egregious derives from Latin egregius, separated or chosen from the herd, from e-, ex-, out of, from + grex, greg-, herd, flock. Egregious was formerly used with words importing a good quality (that which was distinguished "from the herd" because of excellence), but now it is joined with words having a bad sense. It is related to congregate (to "flock together," from con-, together, with + gregare, to assemble, from grex); segregate (from segregare, to separate from the herd, from se-, apart + gregare); and gregarious (from gregarius, belonging to a flock).

Today's Word "imprimatur"

imprimatur \im-prih-MAH-tur; -MAY-\ (noun) - 1 : Official license or approval to print or publish a book, paper, etc.; especially, such a license issued by the Roman Catholic episcopal authority. 2 : Approval; sanction. 3 : A mark of approval or distinction.

"After realizing that Frenchman and Arab alike were mesmerized by the power of official stamps, the engineers fabricated their own rubber imprimatur..." -- Rick Atkinson, 'An Army at Dawn'

Imprimatur is from New Latin imprimatur, "let it be printed," from imprimere, "to imprint," from Latin, from in- + premere, "to press."