Friday, December 1st
Circle Unbroken Word of the Day:
Though we know that the earth travels around the sun roughly circularly, it appears to us that the sun travels around the earth in a similar way. Either of the circles thus traversed is sometimes called the ecliptic, so called because eclipses occur when the moon crosses this circle. The root of both eclipse and ecliptic is Greek ekleipein, "omit, fail."
Saturday, December 2nd
In Good Trim Word of the Day:
Asians and travelers thereto will be familiar with this word, referring to a cigar cut flat at both ends. Cheroot enjoys the distinction of being one of only a handful of words in English whose immediate ancestor is Tamil.
Sunday, December 3rd
Aim to Succeed Word of the Day:
We hear from time to time that certain individuals wish to reestablish this. Just what is it? In a nutshell, a caliphate is rule by a successor to the prophet Muhammad. The word is from the Arabic verb for "succeed," in the sense of "be a successor to."
Monday, December 4th
Heartfelt Word of the Day:
Ever notice that moment when your heart relaxes so that its chambers can fill up with blood? Probably not, but if you ever do, now you'll have a name for it. Most of us encounter this term in blood pressure readings, along with its companion systole.
Tuesday, December 5th
Painless Word of the Day:
It's no relation to iodine, and completely lacks its sting. As a noun, anodyne means "painkiller," but it's more frequent as an adjective meaning "pain relieving," and by extension, "soothing," "relaxing," and even "bland."
Wednesday, December 6th
Smooth as Butter Word of the Day:
This one is fun to say, but even more fun to eat: and what wouldn't be, when the only ingredients are brown sugar, cream, butter, and nuts? It's good south of the border, but you probably won't have to travel that far to find the real thing.
Thursday, December 7th
Ready for My Close-up Word of the Day:
These days cynosure means something that attracts attention, or that enjoys a lot of it. Its earlier meaning was "one that provides guidance." Next time you cruise by a big dictionary, check out the curious story of how it got where it is today from its original meaning in Greek: "dog's tail."
Friday, December 8th
Flawless Word of the Day:
It's from Latin and literally means "without blemish." From there it's a short hop to the idea of "without fault or error," hence its application to the soul of the mother of Jesus, which is celebrated by Catholics today.
Saturday, December 9th
Uphill Battle Word of the Day:
This eponymous adjective aptly describes any futile task, in honor of Sisyphus, who had the original uphill battle: rolling a boulder to the top of a hill in Hades, only to have it roll to the bottom whenever he started to reach the top.
Sunday, December 10th
Available in Translation Word of the Day:
This Middle English native, which has earlier origins in French and probably Celtic, has quite similar looking cognates in European languages both Romance and Germanic, and always means the same thing: a structure built by the water where boats can dock. No one has done it better justice, however, than the French, thanks to the 1938 film Le Quai des Brumes.
Monday, December 11th
All Downhill Word of the Day:
For reasons not yet determined, this verb is the preferred Brit variant for what Americans deem rappel: that is, descend vertically on a rope, typically from a mountainside.
Tuesday, December 12th
Be One of the Day:
Though described by the Chinese as early as 2600 BCE, English takes its name for a chronic deficiency of vitamin B1 from Sinhalese. Best way to avoid it: red meat, legumes, brewer's yeast, whole grains, nuts.
Wednesday, December 13th
If I Live to Be 100 Word of the Day:
If you should live so long, it's possible you still won't find a good use for this word, which is the Latinate equivalent of hundredth -- a word with good Germanic credentials that works well for nearly all purposes. Centesimal enjoyed a brief vogue as an alternative for centigrade, but these days it finds little to do.
Thursday, December 14th
Take Your Lumps Word of the Day:
If spelling reform ever comes to English, this word will be pretty high on the list. Its meaning hasn't changed in the last 800 years: a device to separate substances of different consistency. In Middle English it was spelled sive, which at least had the merit of looking like its rhymes give and live.
Friday, December 15th
Got a Light? Word of the Day:
Take your pick: it's a candelabrum with seven or nine branches, depending on what you're celebrating with it. One version is for Hanukkah, which begins today, commemorating the rededication of the Temple after its defilement so many long years ago.
Saturday, December 16th
Beautifully Tanned Word of the Day:
It's leather of the finest type, tanned so as to be nonporous. It was originally made in Cordoba, Spain; hence the name. Interestingly, Cordoba is just a stone's throw away from another place that also has its leather named after it: Morocco.
Sunday, December 17th
Got What It Takes Word of the Day:
This is one of those great words, like notwithstanding and heretofore, that got bashed together back in the day when English was more agglutinative. These days it has a slightly informal ring, to designate the necessary means of doing something -- which often means the money.
Monday, December 18th
Cut Out for It Word of the Day:
This one falls into the category of spelling stumpers; try to remember the silent "h" and the 3 consecutive vowels and you've nailed it. It's an outline of an object against a lighter background, like you might have done in third grade with black construction paper and scissors.
Tuesday, December 19th
Left Behind Word of the Day:
It designates anything that's left behind, though we reserve it mainly for physical substances whose remainder is either not useful or not desirable. If you want to sound a little more high-flown, the form residuum may suit your needs, and the adjective residual is also handy.
Wednesday, December 20th
Vintage Clothing Word of the Day:
This one has proven to be more enduring in its figurative meaning -- an ineffectual or childish man -- than in its original meaning, which was a garment of early 20th century vintage: short pants fastened to a waist band, worn by children.
Thursday, December 21st
Shine On Word of the Day:
Credit our ancestral stargazers for noticing that we get two of these a year: the time when the sun is farthest from the celestial equator and starts its journey back. The origins are Latin and translate more or less as "sun standing."
Friday, December 22nd
Unrivaled Word of the Day:
The origins are French, and the meaning is literally "without equal." Americans may find their mouths watering when they see this word, as it also designates a little disk of chocolate with sugar beads on top.
Saturday, December 23rd
Old School Word of the Day:
You're revealing your age if you get a whiff of stencil fluid on seeing this word. The photocopier has pretty much resigned this method of making multiple copies to history, but many will remember the bright purple lettering and surprisingly appealing smell of school handouts in days gone by.
Sunday, December 24th
Half Right Word of the Day:
You would balk if given a glass of milk after ordering one of these coffees, even though "milk" is all that latte means. It's one of a whole basketful of compounds that lose one or the other of their components but manage to hold onto their meaning, like dirigible for dirigible balloon, or convertible for convertible automobile.
Monday, December 25th
Vividly Remembered Word of the Day:
You won't find a use for this one every day, but it's the word of choice to describe images of startling accuracy, or someone with a memory or imaginative ability of extreme vividness. There is a common root in kaleidoscope: the Greek word eidos, "form."
Tuesday, December 26th
Charity Towards All Word of the Day:
It's the obligation of the haves to behave generously to the have-nots. Though it comes in for some ironic use these days, it's probably the motivating force behind Boxing Day, on which servants were honored with big boxes of goodies by their employers. And all before the word "regifting" entered the vocabulary!
Wednesday, December 27th
Something Fishy Word of the Day:
This word started its life in the 15th century to denote a keeper of an alehouse, but shortly thereafter achieved sturdier legs as the name (probably via folk etymology) of a couple of different fish.
Thursday, December 28th
Three-in-One Word of the Day:
Thank the unique shape of this musical instrument for giving rise to the two other meanings of this word: coiled wire with sharp points on it, and a delightful verb meaning to collapse in the way that this instrument compacts: perhaps not too far away from telescope.
Friday, December 29th
Multiple Choice Word of the Day:
Quick: is it the number you're dividing, or the number you're dividing by? If you said the second, you're right! The number you're dividing is the dividend, and the result (which of course you remember from grade school) is the quotient. Now, what's a subtrahend?
Saturday, December 30th
Sine qua non
Must-Have Word of the Day:
This useful Latin phrase literally means "without which not," but has the job in English of denoting something that is essential -- so essential that without it you've got nothing to write home about.
Sunday, December 31st
Secret Decoder Ring Word of the Day:
The crypt part means "hidden" and by extension, "secret": it also appears in encryption, cryptology, and cryptic (to name a few related words). Practitioners of cryptanalysis don't actually analyze crypts (that would be a better job for archaeologists), but try to crack secret codes.