Friday, October 1st
Coat of Many Colors Word of the Day:
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Nigeria, we salute today dashiki, a brightly colored, loose fitting pullover shirt. Dashiki is a Yoruba word with origins in Hausa, these two being a tiny fraction of the 500 living languages spoken in Nigeria today -- which uses English, the former colonial language, as its official language.
Saturday, October 2nd
Battle-Scarred Word of the Day:
To be a veteran of anything implies a certain age because you can't be a veteran till you've done it for a while. Veteran's etymon is true to form in this case: it's based on Latin vetus, "old." It hasn't strayed far from its original meaning of an old soldier — the first OED citation, from 1509, mentions a knight.
Sunday, October 3rd
In the Bag Word of the Day:
Most of us today would feel a bit vulnerable carrying around our budget in a leather pouch, but that's where budget comes from; it's from the diminutive bougette, from bouge, "leather bag." The usage developed from England's Chancellor of the Exchequer who, in presenting his annual statement, was formerly said to open the budget. The word became a verb in the century following its introduction as a noun in this sense (the 15th century).
Monday, October 4th
Good Values Word of the Day:
This word falls into a specialized niche in English of singular nouns used for plural things. The plural things in this case are values or principles, a set of which compose an ethic. The relationship to ethical is obvious; to ethos a little less so. All are derived ultimately from Greek ethos, "custom, habit, character."
Tuesday, October 5th
Hit Me Again Word of the Day:
If you believe that bad things travel in packs you will find validation from the use of this word: plural instances (depredations) outnumber singulars by more than 5 to 1, Suggesting that once the depredation (or pillaging) starts, it's just one blow after another. It's ultimately from a Latin verb meaning "plunder."
Wednesday, October 6th
Double Your Pleasure Word of the Day:
Memorizing this word is an economical exercise because you get two for one: there's quiver the verb (meaning more or less the same thing as tremble), and there's quiver the noun, meaning a case for holding arrows. Though separately derived, both words go back to Middle English, with separate routes back to Old English.
Thursday, October 7th
One Trick Pony Word of the Day:
So many words beginning with mono- have relatives with a similar ending but beginning with duo-, trio-, oligo-, or poly-, allowing you to construct a little memory bucket for their elements of shared meaning. Not so with monotony, which is monotonously single in form. The literal meaning, constancy of tone or pitch, is far outnumbered in usage by the slightly figurative meaning: wearying lack of variety.
Friday, October 8th
Beastly Word of the Day:
It's difficult to overestimate the contribution to knowledge and language of the great Swedish taxonomist Linnæus, and we have him to thank as well for fauna — a noun used to describe the animal life of a particular region. Fauna was the sister or consort of the Roman god Faunus, whose dominion was forests, plains, and fields. Fauna came into its present use with the publication of Linnæus' 1746 work Fauna Suecica.
Saturday, October 9th
Bearable Tension Word of the Day:
A large handful of English adjectives end in -ile and describe qualities of materials. Besides tensile there is ductile, fissile, and protractile, to name only a few. The -ile bit is a reduction of Latin -ilis. The tens- bit is best known by its appearance in the near relative "tense." Tensile means "capable of withstanding tension."
Sunday, October 10th
Holy Transparent Word of the Day:
If the middle vowels in this verb were transposed you would have a better clue to its close relationship to sacred, but even without that, it's not too hard to hear an echo. Consecrate is a mashup of the common Latin prefix con- ("together") and sacrare, "sacred." The verb means "to make sacred."
Monday, October 11th
On the Map Word of the Day:
Cartoonists take note: you, too, may have the opportunity to make an enduring contribution to English if you can draw a cartoon that goes viral the way that one did in the 19th century to give us gerrymander. The word is a blend of Gerry (from Massachusetts governor Eldridge Gerry) and salamander. The governor ordered the redrawing of a constituency to favor his party, and a cartoonist drew a map of the oddly contoured result to resemble a salamander. The rest is political and etymological history.
Tuesday, October 12th
Both Sides Now Word of the Day:
Ambi- may clue you up that his word has got something to do with the idea of "two" or "both" (as in amphibian, ambidextrous). The -guous part is a bit of a red herring because most words related to Latin agere, "drive," have the ending -gate in English. The literal upshot, "drive both ways," gave rise to the more common meaning today: subject to more than one interpretation.
Wednesday, October 13th
Weeping and Wailing Word of the Day:
When an English verb begins with the prefix be- you can lay two fairly certain bets: you're dealing with an ancient verb, and it's probably transitive. Both of these bets pay off here: bemoan, first appearing before the 12th century, means "moan about," or in other words, "regret or lament strongly."
Thursday, October 14th
Sign Me Up Word of the Day:
On this day in 1960, in a speech at the University of Michigan, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy announced his idea for an organization that would soon become known as the Peace Corps. Central to the idea was the volunteer, or one who performs voluntary work. The -eer ending is a boilerplate solution for many English words inspired by French counterparts that end in -aire, -ere, and -ier.
Friday, October 15th
Poison Arrow Word of the Day:
You might associate poison arrows with primitive tribes of the Amazon, but it turns out the ancient Greeks let them fly as well — and a result, bequeathed to us the most common term in English designating something poisonous. The ultimate root of the adjective toxic is Greek toxicon pharmacon, "poison for arrows"; The root toxon means "bow."
Saturday, October 16th
Round and Round Word of the Day:
It's a happy word that closely resembles its only relatives in form and meaning, and such is the case with whorl: it has intersecting lines in its history with whirl and whirligig. Whorl is a favorite with botanists, who use it to describe a circular arrangement of leaves, flowers, or petals around a central axis.
Sunday, October 17th
Chew on This Word of the Day:
Rodents don't generally figure high on people's lists of furry friends, and one reason for this may be their tendency to chew things to bits. Latin had a word for that, corrodere, which gives us corrode. We use the verb for the natural effects of deterioration on stone or metal, but the end result is not so different from what chewing does. The rode bit on the end of corrode is the same one as at the front of rodent.
Monday, October 18th
Eat, Drink and Be Merry Word of the Day:
You don't have to be German to celebrate this autumn festival, which has its official 200th anniversary this year. The original celebration in Munich, to commemorate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, proved an occasion too joyous to limit to a one-off; today Germans and beer drinkers the world over take part in events inspired by the original.
Tuesday, October 19th
I Disagree Word of the Day:
Three verbs in English form a handy trio with a common root and different prefixes: assent, consent, and dissent. The common -sent bit is based on Latin sentire, "feeling," and appears in more than a dozen English words, the most mnemonically handy being sentiment. Dissent is all about not feeling like everybody else does, or in other words, to withhold assent.
Wednesday, October 20th
All-in-One Word of the Day:
The handful of words closely related to integrity in English — integer, integrate, integral, and entirety — don't exactly suggest what integrity means, but they all contain the idea of something whole, complete and undivided. That's pretty much what a person's integrity has to be, if it's still going to get that name.
Thursday, October 21st
All Broken Up Word of the Day:
This handy verb of Latin origin doesn't give immediate clues as to its meaning because there is no corresponding verb molish. The main relative of the verb is the noun mole, which exists multiple times in English, with different derivations. Demolish's mole is the mole that means "a protective structure of stone or concrete." It's from a verb that means "construct."
Friday, October 22nd
Mysterious Past Word of the Day:
Your etymological instincts may tell you that this word, because of its small, compact shape and initial consonant combo, is more likely to be Germanic than Romantic. You're right! Just how Germanic, however, isn't entirely clear: it's the sort of word whose origins etymologists must qualify with "probably" or "perhaps." There are two main schools: those connecting it with an Old Norse word for "short-haired," and those connecting it with Low German and Dutch origins.
Saturday, October 23rd
Ground Down Word of the Day:
The letters v and w often stand in for each other when words drift into other languages. Keeping that in mind is probably your best clue for tracking down the closest buddy of this verb in English: it's the noun powder. Pulverize, from Latin roots, means "reduce to powder."
Sunday, October 24th
Not so Lofty Word of the Day:
Though many may aspire to be on one, the origins of pedestal do not suggest such a lofty place: it's from Italian piedestallo, "foot of a stall." It originally referred to the foundation of a column, and later expanded to include the base for a statue or other monument. The "stall" in question eventually gave rise to the stall in English, for an enclosed space for a horse or other animal.
Monday, October 25th
Worth a Try Word of the Day:
Though it differs from essay by only a single letter and is closely related to it, assay has taken a much quieter route through the history of English and is today a relatively infrequent word. It works both as a noun and verb to stand in slightly more elegantly for "try," but its main uses today are technical, for the chemical testing of substances such as ores.
Tuesday, October 26th
Praiseworthy Word of the Day:
This 15th-century verb has become wonderfully forgiving in modern times because most dictionaries admit two spellings: the original one, which you see here, and the more English-friendly extoll (owing to toll and perhaps to the completely unrelated atoll). While you can extol (that is, praise) just about anything or anyone, the things most likely to be extolled in these modern times are "virtues" and "benefits."
Wednesday, October 27th
Not on Speaking Terms Word of the Day:
Every word type needs its poster child, and for eponyms a very good candidate is boycott. The verb came first: "to refuse to do business with, as a sign of disapproval." The inspiration was one Captain Charles Boycott (1832-97), an Irish land agent so treated in 1880, in an attempt by the Irish Land League to get a break on rent.
Thursday, October 28th
One After the Other Word of the Day:
A little spelling trick somewhat obscures the nearest English relations of this word, but if you concentrate on sound rather than letters, you'll probably get there. Sequence and consequent are both closely related. Consecutive characterizes things that follow one after the other.
Friday, October 29th
Get Real Word of the Day:
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the influential British philosopher A J Ayer, which we mark by saluting logical positivism, an empirical philosophy much promoted by him, particularly in his 1936 work Language, Truth and Logic. Writers today would do well to reflect on his formulation that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical basis.
Saturday, October 30th
Past Its Prime Word of the Day:
How can something be superannuated if it was not annuated in the first place? English has somehow dispensed with the need for the possible verb annuate (which would probably mean "pass one year") but thanks to a Latin word meaning roughly "over a year," we get this adjective to describe something that is too old to be of use.
Sunday, October 31st
Just Like Granddad Word of the Day:
It's a good thing that we have this elegant-looking word to refer to the reappearance of something from an earlier time, because if we relied on more familiar words to form the idea we would probably end up with something like "throwbackhood." Atavism and its related adjective atavistic come ultimately from a Latin word that means "ancestor" or "grandfather."