Friday, December 31, 2010


Hogmanay \hog-muh-NEY\ , noun;
1. A gift given on New Year's Eve
proper noun;
1. New Year's Eve in Scotland

This word has so many variations that it's hard to nail down exactly where it came from. It is attested in English in 1443 as hagnonayse so technically it entered Middle English from Middle French. The Middle French forms include auguilanleu, haguirenleu, haguimenlo, aguilanleu, aguiloneu, aguillenneu, aguillanneuf, and more. The aguillanneuf form survived into Modern French, but its current usage is as Cris de Paris, or an expression used by hawkers at auction times to get the attention of potential customers. As a Cris de Paris the word takes a variety of forms, mostly because it is hollered rather than written down.

Here's to a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011 to all you linguaphiles out there:
Happy New Years! 新年快乐! Bonne Année!  أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة Gutes Neues Jahr! Ĝojan Kristnaskon kaj feliĉan novan jaron! Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mhaise duit! 新年おめでとうございます! QISmaS botIvjaj 'ej DIS chu' botIvjaj! С Рождеством Христовым! ༄༅།།ལོ་གསར་ལ་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་ཞུ།! Ngikufisela uKhisimusi oMuhle noNyaka oMusha oNempumelelo!

* English, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic, German, Esperanto, Irish, Japanese, Klingon, Russian, Tibetan, Zulu - feel free to correct me if any of these are wrong!

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, December 31
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Dithyrambic \dith-uh-RAM-bik\ , adjective;
1. Wildly enthusiastic
2. Wildly irregular in form
3. Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of a dithyramb

Dithyramb dates to the 1600's and comes from Latin dithyrambus which is derived from Greek dithyrambos, which is of unknown origin. In Greek it was 'a wild choric hymn, originally in honor of Dionysus or Bacchus' that was 'wild in character; a Baccanalian song.'

It sort of makes sense that a song sung to Dionysus, god of wine and fertility, would be a bit rambunctious!

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, December 30
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Engram \EN-gram\ , noun;
1. The supposed physical basis of an individual memory in the brain
2. The presumed encoding in neural tissue that provides a physical basis for the persistence of memory; a memory trace

This word dates from 1904 and comes from German engramm which is derived from Greek ἐν (en- prefix) + γράμμα ("letter").

I always find affixes to be pretty interesting because they are often multi-purpose, so their definitions can be tricky to nail down. I also like them because the ability to skillfully manipulate affixes - particularly old ones - is a true testament to language fluency.
The affix we're dealing with today is en- which is very similar in form and function to in- (and identical to em-, which is different for phonological reasons). However, en- and in- are not cut from the same cloth. English en-/em- words generally come from French, although it is a Latin prefix, so any romance language can contribute a word with this form. En- and em- turn nouns and adjectives into verbs or alter other verbs to convey a sense of putting something into something else or becomes entrenched with something. For example: tangle (noun, "twisted together, caught") → entangle (verb, "cause to become twisted together with or caught in")
In- is a native English prefix so there are a lot of archaic usages that can be applied, but generally speaking it conveys a sense of "in, within, internal." So if you are heading inland, you are moving toward the internal part of the land in relation to the sea.
Of course, it is trickier than this in actual usage because linguistic biases have made French-sounding words more and less fashionable at different points in time. As a result many in- words have been written as en-/em- words at different times, and vice versa.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, December 29
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Gambrinus \gam-BRAHY-nuhs\ , noun;
1. A mythical Flemish king, the reputed inventor of beer

This is a tough one because it's a name, so there's no real etymology for it. Also, I'm having a really hard time nailing down information about this king. There is a Wikipedia article here, but it isn't well cited so you can take from it what you will. I tried to look it up the old fashioned way, in an encyclopedia, but I don't have a physical version here at the in-laws' house and the online Encyclopedia Britannica does not have an entry for him. Oh well.


Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, December 28

Monday, December 27, 2010


Eschatological \es-kuh-tl-OJ-i-kuhl\ , adjective;
1. Regarding last, or final, matters, often of a theological nature
2. Regarding any system of doctrines concerning theological endings, such as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.

Eschatology dates to 1844 and comes from Greek eskhatos ("last, furthest, uttermost, extreme, most remote") + -ology ("discourse").

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, December 27
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Powwow \POU-wou\ , verb;
1. To confer
1. A ceremony, especially one accompanied by magic, feasting, and dancing, performed for the cure of disease, success in a hunt, etc.
2. A council or conference of or with Native Americans

This word dates to the 1620's and came from Narragansett powwaw or pauwau meaning "shaman, medicine man, Native American priest." It is derived from a verb meaning "to use divination, to dream" which ultimately comes from Proto-Algonquian *pawe:wa ("he dreams, one who dreams"). The meaning "magical ceremony among North American Indians is recorded from the 1660's and the sense of "council, conference, meeting" is first recorded in 1812. The verb definition "to confer" is attested from 1780.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, December 26
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or 

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Eleemosynary \el-uh-MOS-uh-ner-ee\ , adjective;
1. Of or for charity; charitable; as, "an eleemosynary institution"
2. Given in charity; having the nature of alms; as, "eleemosynary assistance"
3. Supported by or dependent on charity; as, "the eleemosynary poor"

This word dates to the 1610's from Medieval Latin eleemosynarius ("pertaining to alms"). The Medieval Latin word derives from Late Latin eleemosyna ("alms") which comes from Greek eleemosyne ("pity"). Eleemosyne comes from eleos ("pity, mercy") which is of unknown origin.

The English word alms also comes from Greek eleemosyne like this:
eleemosyne > eleemosyna > *alemosyna > *alemosna > ælmesse
(Greek > Church Latin > Vulgar Latin > Proto-Germanic > Old English)

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, December 25
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or 

Friday, December 24, 2010


Chaffer \CHAF-er\ , verb;
1. To bargain; haggle
2. To bandy words; chatter
1. Bargaining; haggling

Dating to the early 13th century, cheffare meant "buying and selling" and probably came from an Old English compound ceap ("bargain, sale") + faru ("faring, going"). Later the word took on its "haggling" meaning and usage as a verb is recorded from the mid-14th century.

There is another chaffer (alternatively chafer) that refers to a type of beetle. That word has a different etymology, however, so the identical spelling is an accident of natural language change. It derives from Old English cefer ("beetle") and likely ultimately comes from Old Germanic *kafroz/*kafruz.

The second noun version also seems to have a different etymology than the other definitions listed. It comes from the verb chaff which is obviously related to the noun chaff, both of which have uncertain origins. It is not even clear which came first, the noun or the verb, so which derived from which is open to interpretation.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, December 24
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or 

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Zenith \ZEE-nith\ , noun;
1. A highest point or state; culmination
2. The point on the celestial sphere vertically above a given position or observer. Opposite of nadir.

This word dates to the late 14th century and comes from Old French cenith (Modern French zénith). It's origin is rooted in Middle Latin cenit (also senit), which is a bungled scribal transliteration of Arabic samt ("road, path"). Samt is an abbreviation of samt ar-ras, which is literally "the way over the head." The bungling is probably partially influenced by the classical Latin semita ("sidetrack, side path" - notion of "thing going off to the side"). Semita is a compound of se- ("apart") +  *mi-ta (suffixed form of Proto-Indo-European base *mei meaning "to change").

Nadir also dates to the late 14th century and comes from Middle Latin. The Arabic word from which it derives is nazir, which means "opposite to." The association between nadir and zenith is actually a bit of a mistake. In Arabic, "zenith" was as-samt and "opposite of zenith" was nazir as-samt, so when this word was adopted into Middle Latin it was abbreviated erroneously and became nadir.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, December 23
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Lagniappe \LAN-yap\ , noun;
1. A small gift given with a purchase to a customer, for good measure
2. A gratuity or tip
3. An unexpected or indirect benefit

This word, with the meaning "dividend, something extra," dates to 1849 and comes from New Orleans Creole. Originally it was a bit of something New Orleans shopkeepers would give to customers. It's origin in Creole is speculative; it's probably from American Spanish la ñapa ("the gift"), possibly with influence from Quechua yapa ("something added, gift").

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, December 22
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Caliginous \kuh-LIJ-uh-nuhs\ , adjective;
1. Misty; dim; dark

According to
This word dates to the 1540's and comes from Latin caliginosus ("misty") which derives from caliginem (nominative caligo), meaning "mistiness, darkness, fog, gloom."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, December 21

Monday, December 20, 2010


Ferret \FER-it\ , verb;
1. To search out, discover, or bring to light
2. To drive out by using or as if using a ferret
3. To harry, worry, or torment
1. Domesticated, usually red-eyed, and albinic variety of the polecat
2. A narrow tape or ribbon, as of silk or cotton, used for binding, trimming, etc.

According to
This noun dates to the late 14th century and comes from Old French furet, which is a diminutive version of fuiron ("weasel, ferrit" literally "thief"). The Old French word probably comes from Late Latin furionem (related to furonem, "cat" or "robber") from Latin fur (genitive is furis and it means "thief"). In the early 15th century this word was used to refer to half-tamed ferrets used to kill rats and flush rabbits from burrows, which extended the sense of the word to "search out, discover" in the 1570's. The sense of "worry" is related to the hunting definition because if you are "hunting after" something you "worry" about it.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, December 20

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Nth \ENTH\ , adjective;
1. Being the last in a series of infinitely decreasing or increasing values, amounts, etc.
2. (Of an item in a series of occurrences, planned events, things used, etc., that is thought of as being infinitely large) being the latest, or most recent

According to
Dating to 1852, the phrase to the nth is a figurative application of a mathematical term indicating an indefinite number. N is an abbreviation for number.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, December 19

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Replevy \ri-PLEV-ee\ , verb;
1. To recover goods or chattels wrongfully taken or detained

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Law school is following me! Make it stop!
As a law school student's wife I am learning a fair share about the law. Probably more than I would really wish to know, but you have to support your spouse! Anyway, for the last two days I have been blissfully freed from all the law chatter, but here it is, a law-related word. They're following me...

The etymology of replevy is kind of boring, so I'm going to focus instead on chattel. According to
Chattel dates to the early 13th century in the form of chatel meaning "property, goods." The word comes directly from Old French chatel ("chattels, goods, wealth, possessions, property; profit; cattle") which derives from Late Latin capitale ("property"). Capitale is the neuter case of the Latin adjective capitalis ("principal, chief"), which comes from caput (genitive capitis, "head"). The word cattle has the same lineage, but it entered English from Anglo-French catel ("property"), which came directly from Old French chatel. Both cattle and chattel had approximately the same meaning in English, except cattle tended to refer to livestock where as chattel was other moveable property. By the mid-1500's cattle was almost exclusively used to refer to bovines.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, December 18

Friday, December 17, 2010


Horripilate \haw-RIP-uh-leyt\ , verb;
1. To produce a bristling of the hair on the skin from cold, fear, etc.; goose flesh

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, horripilation comes from Late Latin horripilātio, which is a noun of action deriving from horripilāre. The Latin words are compounds from horrēre ("to bristle") + pilus ("hair"). Horripilate is a derivation of horripilation, as is horripilant ("causing horripilation").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, December 17

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Liminal \LIM-uh-nl\ , adjective;
1. Relating to the point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced

According to
Dating to 1884, this rare word comes from Latin limen, which means "threshold".

It's always interesting to find out about a word like this. I bet that most of us have at least heard of the word subliminal, and any native speaker knows that sub- is a prefix, so it makes perfect sense that liminal is a word. However, that line of thinking doesn't always apply (oh, the complexity of language) so you don't necessarily think about the viability the root word. Except, of course, in the epic 90's classic** "Clueless" where it was asked, "You can be overwhelmed and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be whelmed?"

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, December 16
** Sarcasm

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Boondocks \BOON-doks\ , noun;
1. A remote rural area (usually preceded by "the")
2. An uninhabited area with thick natural vegetation, as a backwoods or marsh

According to
This word is a recent entry to the English language, only dating to the 1910's. It comes from Tagalog bundok, which means "mountain." It was adopted by occupying GI's in the Philippines for "remote and wild place." The word was readopted, or possibly just reinforced, during World War II. Other adaptations are boondockers ("shoes suited for rough terrain," 1953) and boonies, which is a colloquial shortening by U.S. troops in the Vietnam war used to reference the rural areas of that country.

This is not an uncommon way for languages to adopt foreign words, in fact some Philippinos still call westerners jurs, from soldiers because of the amount of time foreigners have spent occupying that country.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, December 15

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Brazen \BREY-zuhn\ , adjective;
1. Shameless or impudent
2. Made of brass

According to
This is an Old English word bræsen meaning "of brass" from bræs "brass" + -en. The figurative sense of "hardened in effrontery" is from the 1570's as brazen face, which possibly suggested a face that could not show shame. To brazen it out "face impudently" is from the 1550's.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, December 14

Monday, December 13, 2010


Prosopography \pros-uh-POG-ruh-fee\ , noun;
1. A description of a person's appearance, career, personality, etc.
2. A study of a collection of persons or characters, especially their appearances, careers, personalities, etc., within a historical, literary, or social context

According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word came from the post-classical Latin prosopographia and was a "personification" (1564), then a description of a person's appearance (1577), then of an individuals life (1610). Ultimately this word derives from prosopoeia which is the "face created" in Greek.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, December 13

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Gallivant \GAL-uh-vant\ , verb;
1. To wander about, seeking pleasure or diversion; gad
2. To go about with members of the opposite sex

According to
This word is probably a 'humorous perversion' of gallant and it is attested from 1809.
Gallant dates to the early 15th century but at that time it meant "showy, finely dressed." It came from Old French galant which meant "courteous," but in the 14th century it meant "amusing, entertaining; lively bold." Galant is the present participle of galer ("make merry") and probably came from Frankish *wala- ("good, well") which came from Proto-Germanic *wal- which derived from Proto-Indo-European *wel- ("to wish, will"). The sense of gallant as being "politely attentive to women" was adopted in the 17th century, mimicking the French adoption of a similar definition. The noun gallant meaning "man of fashion and pleasure" dates to the mid-15th century, although it entered the language in the late 14th century with a meaning of "dissolute man, rake."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, December 12

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Philter \FIL-ter\ , noun;
1. A magic potion for any purpose
2. A potion, charm, or drug supposed to cause the person taking it to fall in love, usually with some specific person

According to
Philter (alternatively philtre) meaning "love potion" dates to the 1580's and comes from Middle French philtre. French philtre dates to the 1560's and derives from Latin philtrum which comes from Greek philtron. Philtron is a combination of philein ("to love" from philos "loving") + -tron (instrumental suffix) so its literal meaning is "to make oneself beloved" but it was actually used to mean "love charm"

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, December 11

Friday, December 10, 2010


Fletcherize \FLECH-uh-rahyz\ , verb;
1. To chew (food) slowly and thoroughly

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word is one of a handful of variations on fletcherism, so named for Horace Fletcher who was a Victorian-era American health-food faddist who advocated chewing your food 32 times (about 100 times per minute) in order to stay healthy and lose weight. In addition to fletcherism ("the practice of thorough mastication advocated by Fletcher") the OED references fletcherite ("follower of Fletcher").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, December 10

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Farouche \fa-ROOSH\ , adjective;
1. Sullenly unsociable or shy
2. Fierce

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, farouche is French, but of unknown origin. There have been claims that it is linked to Latin ferōcem, but the OED doesn't see that as being very credible. Ferōcem is the accusative masculine (and feminine) singular of ferōx, which means "wild, bold, gallant; warlike; defiant, arrogant."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this word is that it's two definitions are practically antonymic of each other. The French definitions are less polarized, meaning "savage, animal like; brutish; anti-social". The OED only lists one definition for this word, "Sullen, shy and repellent in manner" so it could be that the second definition is a sort-of 'leftover' from the French word and the sense of shyness is how it evolved in English. This theory, however, is problematic because a web search suggests that people like naming things Farouche when they want to convey a sense of "fierceness" in terms of beauty and fashion - unless, for some reason, these salons and modeling agencies want to attract only sullen clients.

What do you think? Have you heard this word before? If so, in what context? 

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, December 9

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Bespoke \bih-SPOHK\ , adjective;
1. Made to individual order; custom made
2. Of the making or selling of such clothes
3. Archaic: Engaged to be married; spoken for

According to
This word, meaning "custom or custom-made, made to order" of goods as opposed to ready-made, dates to 1755 and is a variation on bespoken, which dates to the 1600's. Bespoken is the past participle of bespeak ("to speak for, to arrange beforehand") which dates to the 1580's.
The Oxford English Dictionary's etymology for bespeak is sort of confusing, but basically it has Germanic origins and its relatives in Old English, Old Saxon, Modern Dutch, Old High German, and  Middle High and Modern German are bi/besprecan, bisprecan, bespreken, bisprehhan, and besprechen respectively. Sprecan (later specan) is the predecessor of speak in Modern English.

For non-grammophiles out there, lets talk about past participles. These often come up in etymologies for various reasons, and they are confusing. Basically a participle is a word that can behave as a verb or an adjective (and sometimes an adverb). There are all kinds of different participles in various languages, but in English we have two: present and past.
Present participles are also called active, imperfect, or progressive participles and are identical in form to the gerund*.
Past participles are also called passive or perfect participles and are usually identical in form to the past tense (irregular verbs are, well, irregular).

I believe the best way to learn grammar rules is with examples, so take the verb eat:
  • I eat eggs daily. (present tense)
  • I ate eggs this morning. (simple past tense)
  • I have eaten eggs before. (past participle - verb form)
  • I gave my half eaten eggs to my dog. (past participle - adjective form)
  • My dog was eating eggs when I left for work. (present participle - verb form)
  • An eating dog might bite. (present participle - adjective form)
It gets more complicated when you look at whether the participles convey an active sense (e.g. our fallen comrades) or passive sense (e.g. the attached files) and they can modify nouns or sentences (e.g. Seen from a plane, our cars appear tiny). However, the basics of participles are relatively straightforward.

*A gerund is a verb that becomes a noun by adding -ing, as in "Reading is fun."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, December 8

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Estivate \ES-tuh-veyt\ , verb;
1. To spend the summer, as at a specific place or in a certain activity
2. In zoology, to spend a hot, dry season in an inactive, dormant state, as certain reptiles, snails, insects and small mammals

According to
This word dates to the mid-17th century and comes from Latin aestivare ("to spend the summer") which derives from aestus ("heat") and aestas ("summer," literally "the hot season"). Aestus and aestas come from Proto-Indo-European *aidh- meaning "to burn."

Estivate certainly conjurs up memories of camps and pool passes for many of us, so tell me: what is your fondest estivating memory?

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, December 7

Monday, December 6, 2010


Pogonip \POG-uh-nip\ , noun;
1. An ice fog that forms in the mountain valleys of the western U.S.

Great word today because.....IT'S SNOWING!!!!
Yes, yes, it snowed in the Midwest days ago, but it has finally come to the Big Apple!

I can't find this word in the online Oxford English Dictionary, but according to Wikipedia (not the best source, I know, but the only one I have at the moment):
Pogonip is an English adaptation of the Shoshone word payinppih ("cloud"). It's a phenomenon that only occurs under specific conditions where humidity is nearly 100% and the air temperature is well below 0°.

This makes me think of that myth that the Inuit language has a hundred words for snow. That idea arose out of a misunderstanding by the first wave of Europeans who encountered the Inuit people. In reality their language is like German in the sense that they have long compound words with complex meanings, so something like "drifting snow" in English would probably be compounded in Inuit and look like one word, but it isn't really. There was also a tendency to romanticize this idea of a ridiculous amount of snow words, so the equivalent of something like "water = melted snow" or "rain = unfrozen falling snow" may have been included in these word lists even though they are a bit silly.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, December 6

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Rehearsal \ri-HUR-suhl\ , noun;
1. A session of exercise, drill, or practice, usually private, in preparation for a public performance, ceremony, etc.
2. The act of rehearsing
3. A repeating or relating

I recently received an invitation to a rehearsal dinner for an upcoming wedding and it reminded me of how strangely this word is spelled and made me curious as to its etymology.

So, according to
Rehearsal dates to the late 14th century and meant "restatement." It is a combination of rehearse and the suffix -al, which conveys a sense of relation. Our current idea of rehearsal as a preparation for a theatrical or musical performance dates to the 1570's and a wedding rehearsal dinner is attested by 1953.

Rehearse dates to the 1300's meaning "to give an account of." It comes from Anglo-French rehearser which is derived from Old French rehercier ("to go over again, repeat" or literally "to rake over again"). Rehercier is a combination of re- ("again") + hercier ("to rake, harrow").

Hercier is also a forebear to hearse, which dates to the late 13th century in Anglo-Latin meaning "flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin." If hercier means "to rake, harrow", then herce means "a long rake, harrow," which comes from Middle Latin hercia. Hercia comes from Latin hirpicem (nominative is hirpex) meaning "harrow," which derives from Oscan hirpus ("wolf"). The transformation from "wolf" to "harrow" is supposedly an allusion to the animal's teeth. Hirpus may also be related to Latin hirsutus ("shaggy, bristly"). So how does this all relate back to hearse? I has to do with using a rake to break up the soil, which you have to do to bury someone, and then extended to temporary frameworks built over the deceased, then to "vehicle for carrying a body," which dates to the 1640's.

You might also like: Inky Fool: Re-Hearsing

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Scurf \SKURF\ , noun;
1. The scales or small shreds of epidermis that are continually exfoliated from the skin
2. Any scaly matter or incrustation on the surface

According to
This word first appears in late Old English as sceorf from Proto-Germanic *skurf-, which is probably from the same root as Old English sceorfan ("to gnaw") or scearfian ("to cut into shreds").

At first glance the definition of this word is kind of gross, but considering we lose tons of skin cells everyday it's really pretty benign. This, however, has not always been the case. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a number of obsolete and rare definitions:
~ A morbid condition of the skin, especially the head, characterized by the separation of branny scales, without inflammation
~ A similar condition as above, but in animals
~ A scab
~ The 'scum' of the population (rare, but not completely obsolete)
~ A contemptable person, especially a miser or a skinflint (slang)
~ An employer who pays less than the usual rate of wages (slang)
~ A laborer who accepts less than the usual rate (slang)

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, December 4

Friday, December 3, 2010


Divagate \DAHY-vuh-geyt\ , verb;
1. To wander; stray
2. To digress in speech

According to
Divagate dates to the 1590's and comes from Latin divagatus, which is the past participle of divagari ("to wander about"). It comes from a combination of di(s)- + vagari ("apart" + "to wander, ramble"). Vagari is also a predecessor of vague.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, December 3

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Tristful \TRIST-fuhl\ , adjective;
1. Full of sadness; sorrowful

According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word is a combination of trist + -ful, which is obvious. Trist is an archaic word for "sad" that comes directly from French triste ("sad") which derives from Latin tristis ("sad, sorrowful, gloomy"). Provençal trist(e), Spanish triste, Portuguese triste, and Italian tristo all come from this Latin root as well and mean approximately the same thing.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, December 2

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Palingenesis \pal-in-JEN-uh-sis\ , noun;
1. Rebirth; regeneration
2. In biology, embryonic development that reproduces the ancestral features of the species
3. Baptism in the Christian faith
4. The doctrine of transmigration of souls

According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word is probably an alteration of palingenesia, which comes from the Ancient Greek word genesis.

And no, Sarah Palin has nothing to do with it.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, December 1

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Lilliputian \lil-i-PYOO-shuhn\ , adjective;
1. Extremely small; tiny; diminutive
2. Trivial

No need to consult the dictionaries for the etymology of this one! Jonathan Swift wrote about the people of Lilliput who were only 6" tall in Gulliver's Travels (1726). A story this iconic becomes part of our collective knowledge, so words and phrases are easily translated into our day-to-day speech without specifically mentioning its source. See frabjous for a similar type of word from C.S. Lewis.

Speaking of C.S. Lewis, this made me laugh.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, November 30

Monday, November 29, 2010


Impetrate \IM-pi-treyt\ , verb;
1. To entreat; ask for

According to the Oxford English Dictionary impetrate came from Latin impetrat-, which is the participial stem of impetrare ("to obtain by request or exertion, to procure, effect"). It is a combination of im- + patrare ("into, in, within; on, upon; towards, against" + "to bring to pass, accomplish, achieve").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, November 29

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Namaste \NUHM-uh-stey\ , noun;
1. A conventional Hindu expression on meeting or parting, used by the speaker usually while holding the palms together vertically in front of the bosom
2. A conventional Hindu expression on meeting or parting, frequently a part of yoga practice

According to
The word dates to 1948 in English, but in Hindi it is much older. It comes from Sanskrit namas ("bowing") + te (dative of tuam, singular "you"). It has been used as a word of greeting since 1967.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, November 28

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Olio \OH-lee-oh\ , noun;
1. A mixture of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge
2. A dish of many ingredients
3. A medley or potpourri, as of musical or literary selections; miscellany

According to
Olio was a 'medley dish of Iberian origin' and the word entered English around the 1640's. Exactly which language it entered from is up for debate. It was either from Spanish olla or Portuguese olha, both of which came from Latin olla meaning "pot, jar." The Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from Spanish.

If you try to look up a recipe for olio you will find a bunch for aglio e olio, which is Italian for garlic and oil. This recipe has many varieties, but it always includes spaghetti, olive oil, and garlic. Unfortunately, I don't think this is the same olio from which this word derived.
Real olio, or ollo podrida, is a thick stew with meat and fowl, bacon, pumpkins, cabbage, turnips, and other ingredients stewed or boiled together and highly spiced. Apparently ollo was used the way we use casserole, that is, it was a generic word referring to a type of dish, rather than a specific recipe. It also sounds like it was very similar to our casseroles in the sense that you just throw what you have into a container and cook it up.

For more on making olio click here.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, November 27

Friday, November 26, 2010


Bonanza \buh-NAN-zuh\ , noun;
1. A source of great and sudden wealth or luck
2. A rich mass of ore, as found in mining

According to
This word is definitively American, related to our unique 'wild west' culture. Dating from 1844 bonanza is a Spanish word meaning "a rich load," but it originally meant "fair weather at sea, prosperity." It comes from Latin bonus ("good") via Vulgar Latin *bonacia. Bonus is also an antecessor to the prefix bene-.

If you read that and are wondering what on earth 'Vulgar Latin' is, you're in luck because I'm going to tell you.
Latin is a member of the Italic language family, which is one of the branches of Proto-Indo-European (If you haven't done so yet, go back and read my post on eke where I outline the PIE language tree). Latin was the language of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, which assimilated many peoples into its culture as it spread through Europe. Over time Latin changed, as languages always do, and a distinction was made between 'Classical' (high) and 'Vulgar' (low) Latin. Classical Latin was the written language which, much like modern written English, was idealized into the 'true' language that educated people were expected to speak. Vulgar Latin was the name given to any dialectal speech, much like our Spanglish or Ebonics (African American Vernacular English), and like our modern equivalents there was a general feeling that these were poor versions of the language. The truth is that all dialects and language are created equal in the sense that they are rule-based and equally complex, but the advent of written language gave us room to idealize "classroom" languages (the version you learn in school, whether it's your writing class or a foreign language) and look down on certain oral variations as sub-standard. It's worth noting that everyone speaks a dialect. Everyone. Even those of us from the Midwest who tend to think our speech is very 'neutral' (nothing like those Bostonians or Texans!). Have you ever heard someone say something like, "I'm going to the store, wanna come with?" This phrase breaks more than one classroom grammar rule, yet it's a phrase that I guarantee is uttered all over this nation of ours by people who might look down on a phrase like "Who she think she is?"
I digress, various versions of Vulgar Latin evolved and changed independently of each other and eventually became our modern Romance languages.

If you're bored, look up the video "American Tongues" (IMDB entry here). It's a really funny and interesting look at our linguistic prejudices in the United States.

One more thing: there was  television show in the 1960's and 70's named Bonanza that my dad liked, so he liked to watch the re-runs on TV Land when I was a kid. There was a recurring story arc that if one of the main characters in the show fell in love with a woman, she would eventually be killed off the show. One evening he was watching an episode where one of the female characters had just died and I walked in as the male character was walking around his house in anguish. Dad remarked, "Bet he burns the house down," to which I responded, "Who's Betty?"
And thus, the nickname "Betty" was established, mostly reserved for when I was suffering a "blonde moment," of which I have many.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, November 26

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Consanguineous \kon-san(g)-GWIN-ee-us\ , adjective;
1. Of the same blood; related by birth; descended from the same parent of ancestor

According to
This word dates to the 1600's and comes from Latin consanguineus or "of the same blood." It is a combination of com- + sanguineus ("together" + "of blood")

Happy Thanksgiving!
Now go spend time with your favorite people, consanguineous or otherwise!

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, November 25

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Heuristic \hyoo-RIS-tik\ , adjective;
1. Serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation
2. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own, as by experimenting, evaluating possible answers or solutions, or by trial and error
3. Of, pertaining to, or based on experimentation, evaluation, or trial-and-error methods
4. Denoting a rule of thumb for solving a problem without the exhaustive applications of an algorithm

According to
This word dates to 1821 and meant "serving to discover or find out" from an irregular formation of the Greek word heuretikos ("inventive"). Heuretikos is related to heuriskein ("to find") which is a predecessor of eureka.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, November 24

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Mithridate \MITH-ri-deyt\ , noun;
1. A confection believed to contain an antidote to every poison

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word entered English via Middle French and Latin, but it really comes from Hellenistic Greek as the name of Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, who was said to have made himself immune to poisons because of his constant use of antidotes.

Mithridates VI ruled Pontus from about 120 BC until his death in 63 BC and is remembered as one of the Roman Empire's most formidable and successful enemies. Oddly enough, this man who took extraordinary measures to make himself immune to poisons tried to commit suicide by poison after he was defeated and felt himself in danger of capture by Romans. It didn't work, of course, and he was killed with a sword.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, November 23

Monday, November 22, 2010


Enspirit \en-SPIR-it\ , verb;
1. To infuse life into; enliven

I know another word for this: coffee and the online Oxford English dictionary don't contain this word, but if the etymology is similar to enliven, which is probably is, then it's too boring and obvious to write about anyway.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, November 22

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Bamboozle \bam-BOO-zuhl\ , verb;
1. To deceive or get the better of (somebody) by trickery, flattery, or the like
2. To perplex; mystify

According to
Dating to 1703 this was originally a slang or cant word, perhaps from Scottish from bombaze ("perplex") which is related to bombast, or French embabuiner ("to make a fool of", literally "to make a baboon of").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, November 21

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Weal \WEEL\ , noun;
1. Well-being, prosperity, or happiness
2. A raised mark on the surface of the body produced by a blow
3. Obsolete: the state or body politic

According to
This word actually has two different etymologies depending on the definition. The sense of "well-being" comes from the Old English word wela meaning "wealth" or "welfare, well-being" in late Old English). The word derives from West Germanic *welon from the Proto-Indo-European base *wel- ("to wish, will"), which is also related to the adverb well.
The second definition dates to 1821 and is an alteration of wale that comes from Old English walu, which derives from Proto-Germanic *walo. Walu originally meant "ridge" in the sense of earth or stone ridges, but it later meant something like "ridge made on flesh by a lash." Wale has worn many hats over the centuries: it referred to the "horizontal planks which extend along a ship's sides" from the 13th century, then later the ridges of textile fabrics in the 1580s, and now something like "raised line."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, November 20

Friday, November 19, 2010


Hallow \HAL-oh\ , verb;
1. To make holy; sanctify; consecrate
1. Hallo
1. To shout or chase with cries of "hallo!"

According to
This word comes from Old English halgian ("to make holy, to honor as holy") which is related to halig ("holy"). Halig comes from Proto-Germanic *khailig which is also related to the modern English word health.

This word should have been last month, don't you think? Around Halloween perhaps?

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, November 19

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Aoristic \ey-uh-RIS-tik\ , adjective;
1. Indefinite; indeterminate
2. In grammar: A tense of the verb indicating past action without reference to whether the action involved was momentary or continuous

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word is Greek. The first attribution the OED lists for the first definition is from 1846 by George Grote: "In the genuine Grecian epic, the theme was an unknown and aoristic past."

I had never heard of aoristic in English grammar and it turns out there's a good reason for that: it doesn't exist. Aoristic is another term for perfective aspect, which is the opposite of the imperfective aspect. The imperfective aspect describes an action from a specific viewpoint - sort of like background information. The perfective aspect, on the other hand views a situation as a simple whole and describes a completed action. We can sort of express these in English; in a narrative the imperfective would describe the setting (The sun was shining. The birds were singing. etc.) while the perfective would describe what's happening in the foreground (The young lovers went to the park and had a lovely picnic.)

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, November 18

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Idioglossia \id-ee-uh-GLOS-ee-uh\ , noun;
1. A private form of speech invented by one child or by children who are in close contact, as twins
2. A pathological condition in which a person's speech is so severely distorted that it is unintelligible

The etymology of this word is really not that interesting: idio- is used to indicate the individual or something attributed to the individual and -glossia is spoken language. The really interesting thing is it's implications in the tabula rasa/innatism debate, which is a language-specific aspect of nature v. nurture.  
Tabula rasa means "blank slate" and it was introduced by John Locke as a theory for how we acquire language. He argued that we are born 'blank' and language imprints on us from what we hear as a small child. Innatism is the opposite argument, stating that we are born with a structure for grammar (sort of like a rough outline) and we insert the language(s) we hear into that existing framework.
There are compelling arguments for both sides, but in my opinion there is just a little too much science backing innatism to really buy into tabula rasa. Take our word today, idioglossia, and what it refers too: one could argue that these are just altered versions of language that one has already learned, and they would have a point. However, this is not the only possible type of idioglossia. Consider born-deaf individuals who were not exposed to a formal sign language early in life. These people are deprived of all spoken language in their formative years, yet they are demonstrated to be able to communicate complex thoughts with others through forms of sign language they have developed over time. The famous case that linguists study is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), which was spontaneously created in the late 1970's and early 1980's in a school for the deaf. Prior to this time, deaf Nicaraguans were largely isolated and depended on 'homegrown' signs to communicate their needs. In 1977 a program was created for deaf students which quickly grew, serving over 400 students by 1983. The teachers attempted to connect with the students by using a finger-spelling system to teach them Spanish and lip reading, but it failed miserably. The students, however, started to develop their own way of communicating with each other which quickly took on the appearance of pidgin languages. In 1986, MIT linguists saw that younger students were starting to add grammar and conjugation to the pidgin of the older students, which is recognized as the second stage in the development of a new language.
Today NSL is considered a full-fledged signed language, though it is "unwritable" and "unspeakable", and it is still heavily studied by linguists because of it's unique status as a newly created language.
I would argue that NSL was formed when idioglossias between students began connecting to the idioglossias between other students until it became a large web that became increasingly interconnected and complex until it reached the status of pidgin and continued on until it became an independent, unique language.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednsday, November 17

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Gest \JEST\ , noun;
1. A notable deed or exploit
2. Archaic: A metrical romance or history

According to
The word dates back to the 1300's and comes from Old French geste ("action, exploit, romance") which derives from Latin gesta ("actions, exploits"). Gesta is the neuter plural of gestus, the past participle of gerere, which means "to carry on, wage, perform." The English word jest comes from the same lineage.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, November 16

Monday, November 15, 2010

De Rigueur

De rigueur \duh ri-GUR\ , adjective;
1. Strictly required, as by etiquette, usage, or fashion

This word is obviously French: rigueur means "strictness," so de regueur means "of strictness" (literal) and conveys a meaning of "according to obligation of convention."

This word is kind of boring, so let me refer you to a website that is an excellent diversion from work:


*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, November 15

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Emend \ih-MEND\ , verb;
1. To free from faults or errors; correct
2. To edit or change a text

According to
Dating from the 1400's, emend comes from Latin emendare ("to free from fault") which is a combination of ex- ("out") +  mendum "fault, blemish"). This word entered the English language about 100 years after amend did, although the latter took a slightly more circuitous route. It also comes from Latin emendare, but took on the Old French spelling amender. Both words have the same basic meaning, but amend can be used in more contexts (e.g. legislation) while emend can only be used in the context of written language.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, November 14

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Debonair \deb-uh-NAIR\ , adjective;
1. Courteous, gracious, and having a sophisticated charm
2. Jaunty; carefree; sprightly

According to
Dating from the early 13th century, this word comes from Old French debonaire which derives from de bon'aire ("of good race"). It was originally used to refer to hawks, so it meant "thoroughbred" (antonym of demalaire, "of poor race"). The Middle English definition ("docile, courteous") became obsolete at some point, only to be revived with a sense of "pleasant, affable" in the 1680's.

I like this word because it makes me think of a bygone era - Don Draper style, if you will. I think that men should start wearing suits and hats again and be more debonair. Ladies, we might have to start wearing hats and heels, but that's a deal I'd shake on!

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, November 13

Friday, November 12, 2010


Alechemical \al-KEM-ik-uhl\ , adjective;
1. Pertaining to the transformation of something common, usually of little value, into a substance of great worth
2. Relating to a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold

The etymology of alchemical obviously derives from the etymology of alchemy, so according to
Alchemy dates to the mid-14th century and comes from Old French alkemie which derives from Middle Latin alkimia. The Latin word comes from Arabic al-kimiya which comes from Greek khemeioa. Khemeioa is found in a 4th century text in a Diocletian decree that refers to "the old writings of the Egyptians." It is therefore plausible that the word has roots in Egypt, perhaps from Khemia which is an old name for Egypt that literally means "land of the black earth." Alternatively, it could come from Greek kymatos ("that which is poured out") from khein ("to pour"), which is also related to khymos ("juice, sap"). The most likely situation is that both influences combined to create the word that Latin later adopted. The al- is the Arabic definite article "the."

Most of us know that alchemy was a science that attempted to turn base metals into gold. This is, of course, impossible (at least according to atomic science as we now understand it) and it is not a very good definition of alchemy. In truth, it was a philosophical and spiritual discipline that also involved figuring out how to prepare the "elixir of longevity," and achieving ultimate wisdom. The whole idea of alchemy involved understanding, deconstructing, and reconstructing matter in a way that does not destroy it and therefore gives the alchemist control over that matter and a deep wisdom about it. Alchemy was a forerunner to modern scientific chemistry and gave rise to many substances and processes we still use today (metal working and cosmetics, for example)

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, November 12

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Whilom \HWAHY-luhm\ , adjective;
1. Former; erstwhile
1. At one time

According to
The definition "at time past" is considered archaic and dates to the 1200's. It comes from Old English hwilum ("at times"), which is the dative case of while.

Dative case of while...scary, right? Anyone who has taken German or Russian or Latin knows about grammatical cases and how tricky they can be for Modern English speakers, but that wasn't always the case (pardon the pun...). Old English was fully inflected with five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), and also assigned masculine and feminine gender to all nouns. This really isn't surprising considering how closely related English and German are, so the interesting question is: why don't we use cases and gender anymore?

The short answer is: who knows? One theory is that in areas where Old English speakers heavily intermingled with Old Norse speakers, the use of cases started to decline and eventually disappeared. This could also explain why some of the modern languages that came from Old Norse also don't use case (Danish, Swedish), although some still do (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian). The loss of grammatical gender is more puzzling because it may be linked to the influence of Old Norse as well, but all modern Norse-derived languages still use gender. Why English would lose gender with case is uncertain, but the two are probably linked, whether the Old Norse theory is correct or not.
Remnants of our case system do still exist, but almost exclusively in our pronouns. Consider: "I want a soda, please give it to me." Both I and me refer to the first person singular, but they have different forms. In Old English, was nominative and was accusative and dative, and our current usage reflects those now-outdated uses.
Grammatical gender still exists as well, but in very weak forms. We don't use it at all in our definite and indefinite articles, unlike some other modern European languages. His/her/it and their various forms reflect gender (and case), but in a very straightforward way that is not really in line with true grammatical gender. In colloquial language things like boats and cars can be referred to as she/her, which definitely mimics grammatical gender, and other word pairings act in a similar way (consider: brother/sister, doe/buck, waiter/waitress).

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, November 11

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Ullage \UHL-ij\ , noun;
1. The amount by which the contents fall short of filling a container, as a cask or bottle
2. The quantity of wine, liquor, or the like, remaining in a container that has lost part of its contents by evaporation, leakage, or use
3. In rocketry, the volume of a loaded tank of liquid propellant in excess of the volume of the propellant; the space provided for thermal expansion of the propellant and the accumulation of gases evolved from it

According to
This word, with the first definition, dates to the late 15th century and comes from an Anglo-French 14th century word ulliage. Ulliage comes from a 13th century Anglo-Latin word oliagium, which derives from Old French ouillage. Ouillage comes from ouiller ("to fill up (a barrel) to the bung"), which is literally "to fill to the eye," which makes sense when you know that "eye" in Old French is ueil. Ueil, by the way, comes from Latin ochulus.

It is so strange to think about how a word like this can start in Latin and end up being used to describe something related to rocket science. That's the beauty of language folks, it's malleability and ability to be recycled over and over again!

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, November 10

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Moue \MOO\ , noun;
1. A pouting grimace

According to
This word came directly from French (moue) around 1850. It derives from Old French moe or possibly from Middle Dutch mouwe, both meaning "pout."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, November 9

Monday, November 8, 2010


Demotic \dih-MOT-ik\ , adjective;
1. Of or pertaining to the common people; popular
2. Of or pertaining to the ordinary, everyday, current form of language; vernacular
3. Of, pertaining to, or noting the simplified form of hieratic writing used in ancient Egypt between 700 b.c. and a.d. 500

According to
The word dates to 1822 and comes from Greek demotikos ("of or for the common people, in common use") which derives from demos ("common people", originally "district"). Demos comes from Proto-Indo-European *da-mo- ("division"), from the base *da- ("to divide").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, November 8

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Palpitate \PAL-pi-teyt\ , verb;
1. To pulsate with unusual rapidity from exertion, emotion, disease, etc.; flutter
2. To cause to pulsate or tremble

According to
Palpitate dates from the 1620's and comes from Latin palpitatus, which is the past participle of palpitare ("to throb, to flutter").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, November 7

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Nacreous \NEY-kree-uhs\ , adjective;
1. Resembling nacre (mother-of-pearl); lustrous; pearly

This word is so boring, I can't believe I'm even bothering to tell you what the etymology dictionary says:
From 1840, it means "resembling nacre" from nacre + -ous.

At least the nacre is slightly more interesting. According to
The word nacre dates to the 1590's and comes from Middle French meaning "type of shellfish that yields mother-of-pearl." The word probably entered the Romance language family via Italian from Arabic as naccaro (now nacchera). The Arabic word is nakara, meaning "to hollow out," in reference to the shape of the mollusk shell. The association between nacre and mother-of-pearl started around 1718.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, November 6

Friday, November 5, 2010


Saccade \sa-KAHD\ , noun;
1. The movement of the eye when it makes a sudden change, as in reading
2. The act of checking a horse quickly with a single strong pull of the reins

According to
Dating to the mid-18th century, this word comes from French saccade ("a jerk"), which derives from saquer ("to shake, pull"). Saquer is an obscure word that is a dialectal variation on an Old French word, sachier, which is ultimately from Latin saccus, meaning "sack."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, November 5

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Brumal \BROO-muhl\ , adjectve;
1. Of winter

Well, appropriate for this cold and rainy day. This morning was one of those mornings where you are supposed to hit snooze and sleep until noon. Supposed to, of course, doesn't mean you can so here I am, working. Oh well, tomorrow morning is supposed to be the same and I don't have to work, so I'll just look forward to that.

According to
Brumal meant "belonging to winter" as far back as the 1510's and comes from Latin brumalis, which derives from bruma, meaning "winter." Bruma is also the source of Brumaire, which is the second month in the calendar of the French Republic and is literally "the foggy month." Their second month does not correspond to ours, in fact we are currently in the month of Brumaire, which runs from our October 22 through November 20. "The foggy month" was coined in 1793 by Fabre d'Eglantine, who took it from French brume ("fog").

While I'm certainly no expert, I did study French for a long time, so I was surprised to see this French month that I've never heard of. Turns out, there's a good reason for that: it was only used for 12 years from 1793-1805 and in Paris for 18 days in 1871. The French Republican Calendar (also called the French Revolutionary Calendar) was part of a larger effort by revolutionaries to wipe out various aspects of the ancien régime, or Old Rule. Among the changes was a new social and legal system, a new system of weights and measures, and the new calendar. Some of the changes were more successful than others; the new system for weights and measures ultimately became the modern metric system, but the calendar was killed by Napoleon in 1806.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, November 4

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Hyperbolic \hahy-per-BOL-ik\ , adjective;
1. Using hyperbole; exaggertaing
2. Of or pertaining to a hyperbola

According to
This word dates back to the 1640's and comes from the Greek hyperbolikos ("extravagant") which derives from hyperbole. Hyperbole literally means "a throwing beyond," but it really conveys a sense of "extravagance." Geometric hyperbolic began around the 1670's.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, November 3

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Thwart \THWAWRT\ , verb;
1. To oppose successfully; prevent from accomplishing a purpose
1. Passing or lying crosswise or across; transverse

I love words with kooky spellings like this. I mean, it makes perfect sense within our spelling rules, but it looks cool anyway. It would be even better (not to mention a fantastic Scrabble® word) if it was spelled like the pronunciation guide!

As is to be expected, a word with this kind of spelling definitely comes from the Germanic branch of the Proto-Indo-European tree. According to
The word dates to the 12th century and comes from Old Norse þvert ("across"), which was originally the neuter of thverr (an adjective meaning "transverse, across"). Thverr is a cognate with Old English þweorh ("transverse, perverse, angry, cross"), both coming from Proto-Germanic *thwerkhaz. The Proto-Germanic word was altered  from *therkh-, probably because of influences by *thwer- ("to turn"). The original Proto-Indo-European word was *twork- or *twerk-, meaning "twist." The verb definition dates from the mid-13th century.

The letter þ is called a thorn and is a letter that was in several Old and Middle languages in the Germanic family. In English, it eventually gave way to the 'th' digraph. It could either be the 'th' in that (voiced) or this (voiceless). Either way, it's a dental fricative (for those who took a phonetics class in college).

If you are feeling a bit lost in this Proto-Indo-European, Germanic family, etc. terminology, read the Eke post from October 26.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010


Enceinte \en-SEYNT\ , adjective;
1. Pregnant; with child
1. A wall or enclosure, as of a fortified place

According to
Enceinte used to be spelled insente and dates to the 1600's. It comes from 12th century French enceinte ("pregnant"), which came from Late Latin incinta ("ungirt"). Incinta is a combination of Latin in- (a privative prefix) + cincta (the feminine of cinctus and the past participle of cingere, meaning "to grind"). The modern form of this word is from the 18th century and is possibly a reborrowing from French.

This use of 'reborrowing' is incorrect. In linguistics, if a word is adopted from a foreign language, phonologically adjusted to the new language, and then the new form is adopted by the original foreign language, it is 'reborrowed'. For clarification, here's an example: the Old French word tenez was adopted (and adapted) into English as tennis, which was adopted into Modern French as le tennis. The word came from French, went through an English filter, and re-entered the French language. Since enceinte originally entered the English language from French influences, it could not be 'reborrowed' in the linguistic sense. What I think they meant was that this word was adopted once as "pregnant" and then, after the French definition had shifted into the current noun version, it was adopted a second, separate, time.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, November 1, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010


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

How apropos for Halloween...chicanery or treat!

According to
Dating to 1600, the word comes from French chicanerie ("trickery"), which derives from Middle French chicaner ("to pettifog, quibble"). Chicaner perhaps comes from Middle Low German schikken ("to arrange, bring about") or from the name of a golf-like game once played in Languedoc.
According to the OED, this word was once more anglicized, spelled chicanry.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, October 31

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Caterwaul \KAR-uhr-wawl\, intransitive verb;
1. To make a harsh cry
2. To have a noisy argument
1. A shrill, discordant sound

I have a feeling this one somehow relates to cat + wail...

According to
The modern form of this word comes from caterwrawen, which dates to the late 14th century, and probably derives from Middle Dutch cater- ("tomcat") + Middle English waul ("to yowl"). Waul comes from Old English *wrag or *wrah meaning "angry."
The Oxford English Dictionary's etymology of this word is somewhat more involved. First, the noun apparently came from the verb, and the verb has occurred in various forms: caterwrawe, -wawe, -wrawl(e), -wawle, -waul. Wrawren, wrawlen, and wraule appeared as independent verbs and were applied to cats, squalling children, and the like. The reason that there is so much variation in this word (and that its etymology isn't very clear) is because the word probably started out as an onomatopoeia and was eventually adopted as a regular word. There is a long list of Proto-Indo-European-derived words that are similar to waul and its variations that all have similar meanings. The OED corroborates's derivation of cater, but adds that it may have also existed in Old English, but there's no real way of proving that with the information we have.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, October 30

Friday, October 29, 2010


Trepidation \trep-uh-DAY-shuhn\ , noun;
1. [archaic] An involuntary trembling; quaking; quivering
2. A state of dread or alarm; nervous agitation; apprehension; fright

According to
The word dates to around 1600 and comes from Latin trepidationem (nominative: trepidatio), meaning "agitation, alarm, trembling." It is a 'noun of action' from the past participle stem of trepidare ("to tremble, hurry") from trepidus ("alarmed, scared"). The Latin word derives from Proto-Indo-European *trep-, meaning "to shake, tremble." *Trep- also lead to Sanskrit trprah ("hasty"), and Old Church Slavonic (the great-grandparent of all Slavic tongues) trepetati ("to tremble").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, October 29

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Kvetch \KVECH\ , intransitive verb;
1. To complain habitually
1. A complaint
2. A habitual complainer

According to
Kvetch, meaning "to complain, whine," dates to 1965 and comes from Yiddish kvetshn, which is literally "squeeze, press," and derives from German quetsche, "crusher, presser."

I need to stick this one in my New York lingo hat. Lots of New Yorkers like to throw around Yiddish words (we've all schlepped at some point, no?)

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, October 28

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


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

According to
Dating from the 1530's, the word comes from Latin inchoatus, which is the past participle of inchoare, and alteration of incohare, which means "to begin." Incohare is a combination of in- ("on") + cohum ("strap fastened to the oxen's yoke") and originally meant "to hitch up."

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, October 27

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Eke \EEK\ , transitive verb;
1. To gain or supplement with great effort or difficulty -- used with 'out'
2. To increase or make last by being economical -- used with 'out'

This is one of those words that is in every crossword ever. It's also one of those rare words that is pure English, through and through.

According to
The word dates back to about 1200 and comes from eken, meaning "to increase, lengthen." Eken is probably a variation of echen, from north England and the English Midlands, derived from Old English ecan, eacian, and eacan, all meaning "to increase" and all coming from eaca ("an increase"). Eaca comes from a proto-Germanic word *aukan, which comes from proto-Indo-European *aug-, meaning "to increase" (which is also where augment comes from). The modern usage is usually to eke out, and that phrase dates back to the 1590's and means "to make something go further or last longer," like if you eke out your income by taking a second job.

Historical linguists are constantly trying to rebuild and recreate old versions of modern languages to see what the linguistic landscape looked like at various points in time. One of the theories of the whole science of historical linguistics is that if you go back far enough there was a proto-language that is the common ancestor for all modern tongues - the "Adam" of human language, if you will. So far this has not been discovered, but linguists have learned a lot about the way languages are related and they organize these relationships into something resembling genealogical family trees.
The most studied language family is proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE was a language that long ago split into 6 groups: Italic, Hellenic, Germanic, Celtic, Anatolian (extinct), and Tocharian (extinct). Italic is the ancestor of Latin, and therefore all the Romance Languages. Hellenic is the forbear of Greek, and Celtic is the basis of all the Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland and Scotland. The Germanic family tree includes English, German, the Norse languages, Dutch, and the like. Language families roughly correlate to geographic regions, but there are no real lines separating one from another because language exists in a continuum. For Example, in Parisians speak French and Berliners speak German, but along the French-German border the language is a mixture of the two: either German-sounding French or French-sounding German. This type of overlapping is an example of the fluidity of spoken language and is the basis for how languages split from each other in the first place.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, October 26

Monday, October 25, 2010


Juju \JOO-joo\ , noun;
1. An object superstitiously believed to embody magical powers
2. The power associated with a juju

The Oxford English Dictionary actually has three different entries for juju or ju-ju. The first is similar to the given definition: "An object of any kind superstitiously venerated by West African native peoples, and used as a charm, amulet, or means of protections; a fetish. Also, the supernatural or magical power attributed to such objects, or the system of observances connected therewith; also, a ban on interdiction effected by means of such an object (corresponding to the Polynesian taboo)." The etymology for this definition is uncertain, but it's definitely West African and possibly from French joujou, meaning "plaything."
Another definition is: "A style of music originating among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, characterized by lyrics drawn from the traditional praise songs, proverbs, etc., and typically an instrumental backing of intricate, melodic guitar lines and complex polyrhythms played on a range of percussion, [especially] talking drums." This etymology is also uncertain, but it's possibly from Hausa jùujúu, meaning "fetish"
The third definition is: "A marijuana cigarette", which is a reduplication form of (mari)ju(ana).

I have a feeling that the reason these etymologies are 'uncertain' is because they are as old as time. This idea of superstition and protective charms is as old as the human race and a word like juju could have been made up a thousand times by a thousand different people to mean something like this. Obviously there's nothing superstitious about the sounds involved - sounds are sounds, they don't intrinsically mean anything - but a simple, reduplicated word could have come from anywhere at anytime. I also have a suspicion that the marijuana juju has much more to do with the magical juju than the actual word 'marijuana'. I don't have any real evidence, but if juju has been in the vernacular meaning something magical it could be easily applied to marijuana - plus no one really pronounces the -ju-.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Monday, October 25

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Slugabed \SLUHG-uh-bed\ , noun;
1. One who stays in bed until a late hour; a sluggard

I'm pretty sure this word was made up by someone's mom and put here as a joke. Slugabed?

It does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the etymology is exactly what you'd think: slug- + abed ("lazy" + "in bed") = slugabed. Surprisingly (well, maybe not when you consider that the component words are somewhat archaic) the word dates back to at least 1592 when Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet IV.V.2 'Why Lambe, why Lady, fie you sluggabed.'

I'm going to hazard a guess here, based on the Shakespeare line, that this word was actually in English slang long before 1592. The trouble with etymology dictionaries and historical linguistics is that spoken language is incredibly rich and vibrant, but also fluid and variable. The goal of historical linguistics is to re-create what a language looked like at various points in time and to trace its evolution. If you were to read Beowulf in its original form it would be nearly impossible (unless you've studied Old English extensively, in which case, good for you!), but that language was the basis of the English we speak today. The attempt to trace language and re-create it is very romantic and most people would probably find it interesting, but it's an enormous task that is basically impossible. The problem is that language disappears as soon as it's used. In the absence of recording technology the things we say today are only recorded in the memory of those who heard them - but human memory is very fallible and people have a tendency to die. So, to trace words in the distant past we have to rely on written texts alone. Since literacy for the masses was not particularly common until recent centuries, most writing was done by specialists and scholars only. Imagine reading your psychology 101 textbook and treating it as a representation of English today, not an accurate picture. Shakespeare was a revolutionary playwright who wrote for the masses, not haute society. He used slang, vulgar speech, vernacular, and all sorts of 'improper' English that most writers of his generation would never dream of using in their compositions. Because of this, several words in the OED owe their first attribution to him. Keep in mind, he was not creating words that ended up 'sticking' simply because he wrote them (Lewis Carroll did do that, but that's another post), he was just reflecting the common language as he saw it.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, October 24

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Parse \PAHRS\ , transitive verb;
1. To resolve (as a sentence) into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactical relationship of each part
2. To describe grammatically by stating its part of speech, form, and syntactical relationship in a sentence
3. To examine closely or analyze critically, especially by breaking up into components
4. To make sense of; to comprehend
5. (Computer science) To analyze of seperate (input, for example) into more easily processed components
intransitive verb;
1. To admit of being parsed

According to
This word is pretty old, dating from 1550's, meaning "to state the parts of speech in a sentence." It's the verb use of Middle English pars, which is a noun meaning "part of speech." Pars comes from Old French pars, which is the plural of part, meaning "part" and deriving from Latin pars, used in the school question Quae pars orationis?, ("What part of speech?").

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Thursday, October 23

Friday, October 22, 2010


Crepuscular \kri-PUS-kyuh-lur\ , adjective;
1. Of, pertaining to, or resembling twilight; dim
2. (zoology) Appearing or active at twilight

This word perfectly conjurs up an image of twilight; it's dark and a little damp, you can hear the scratches and shuffles of nocturnal creatures greeting their new day. The rustle of leaves in the cool night air makes you shiver and the sound of something large moving in the bushes startles you. A far away coyote howls at the moon as you pull your jacket tight and briskly begin your walk home.

According to
This word was used in a figurative sense in the late 1600's and early 1700's, but the meaning became more literal around 1755. It derives from Latin crepusculum, meaning "twilight, dusk". Crepusculum comes from creper ("dusky") which is of unknown origin. The word generally refers to evening twilight, as opposed to dawn.

I'm not sure I understand the figurative v. literal sense of this word. I'm guessing the figurative sense was something like, "Why are you trying to read in this crepuscular room? It'll ruin your eyes." Since the room isn't affected by sunset like nature is, it's a figurative usage. The literal sense could really mean the zoological application, especially since the online etymology gives an exact year rather than a decade or century. If an existing word was coined as a scientific term it might be easier to pinpoint an origin, unlike spoken language, in which is almost impossible to determine exactly when and where words enter the vocabulary.

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, October 22