Saturday, December 1st
Cuts Both Ways Word of the Day:
Sixty years ago today the first gender reassignment surgery (or "sex change operation," as it is popularly called) was announced in Denmark when George Jorgensen became Christine Jorgensen. In honor whereof, we salute a word that didn't come along until nearly twenty years later; the noun transgender is first attested in the 1970s.
Sunday, December 2nd
Contrary Word of the Day:
English hasn't found any use for thetical, a possible adjective derivable from thesis, but we're all over antithetical, an adjective whose underlying noun is antithesis. Antithetical has some specific meanings in rhetoric and logic, but people use it mainly as a strong way of saying directly opposed or opposite. It is nearly always followed by "to."
Monday, December 3rd
What He Said Word of the Day:
Over the centuries there have been a few consonant substitutions that mask the relationship between today's word slander and its nearest English relative scandal. Their common ancestor is Latin scandalum, "stumbling block, offense." It's not surprising that scandals may follow from slanders, which are uttered false representations against another. The verb slander preceded the noun by a century.
Tuesday, December 4th
Slow Fade Word of the Day:
Today's handy adjective combines the idea of obsolete with the idea of "becoming," a meaning that you can often interpret from -scent adjectives. It's a sophisticated idea that didn't arrive in English till the mid-18th century, when the estimable Samuel Johnson used the word in his dictionary. However, the word was available for borrowing long before that; it's little changed from its Latin ancestor obsolescere.
Wednesday, December 5th
It's Official! Word of the Day:
Before you tack on a second l on the end of this word, ask yourself: is it worth it? Probably not, because although marshall is an accepted spelling and a moderately frequent surname, a single l will do for marshal when it is a noun or uninflected verb. Throughout its long history marshal, a Germanic word, has always denoted an official of some kind: first one associated with nobility in medieval times, now a law enforcement officer.
Thursday, December 6th
Real Handful Word of the Day:
The idea of hand lurks in many words that contain -man- (like manual, manage, and emancipate) and it does also in manipulate, a verb derived ultimately from Latin manipulus, "handful." Manipulate is a latecomer to English, being a back-formation from the noun manipulation. They both wandered in from French in the 19th century.
Friday, December 7th
Godlike Word of the Day:
Though their meanings may seem distinct, there's good reason to store today's adjective jovial and Roman god Jupiter (aka Jove) in the same little memory box. While you're there you can throw in the planet Jupiter as well, and then it all begins to make sense: it was once thought that the planet exerted a cheerful influence on those born under it. The adjective came along in the 16th century, when fanciful astrological notions were more influential than they are today.
Saturday, December 8th
Light Up Above Word of the Day:
Sundown this evening marks the beginning of the Judaic festival Hanukkah. Joining the festivities, we salute menorah, a candelabrum with seven or nine branches that is used ceremonially throughout the festival. Menorah, of Hebrew origin, is ultimately from the same Semitic root that leads to minaret in Arabic.
Sunday, December 9th
Endgame Word of the Day:
Death is not usually a stress-free topic so there exist many words to talk about it in different ways, to avoid using the main d-word. One of those is demise, a word of French origin that began in English as a legal term and still has that function. Demise is related to two other English words that it resembles: dismiss, and the rare demit, a now semiretired verb.
Monday, December 10th
Insert Here! Word of the Day:
Some words are easier to get your tongue around when extra vowels or consonants are inserted in them. Sometimes this addition becomes a part of the spelling of the word and sometimes it doesn't, but in either case the phenom is called epenthesis. The even cooler related adjective is epenthetic. The word thimble, for example, has an epenthetic b in it.
Tuesday, December 11th
Thicker Than Water Word of the Day:
The connection of today's noun and adjective with kin is obvious so it remains only to explain the -dred-ful ending. The -red is an Old English suffix meaning "condition," which also appears in hatred. Kindred is the condition of being related. Kindred's favorite job today is to modify spirit.
Wednesday, December 12th
Despicable Acts Word of the Day:
We tend to hold people responsible for their own moral failings, and the use of today's verb bears that out. Deprave, which means "corrupt morally" is not common as a finite verb, being outnumbered dozens to one by its past participle as an adjective (e.g., "depraved acts") and by the noun depravity. The origin is a Latin verb with a similar meaning.
Thursday, December 13th
Undertake This! Word of the Day:
Today's word, a noun of French origin, enjoys generally positive associations today in its most frequent meaning: one who takes some risk to organize and begin a new business venture. Its original meaning in English was a little less grand than this: it was simply one who undertook something, morphing later to one who organized musical entertainments: a job description that we now give to impresario.
Friday, December 14th
Ill-Begotten Word of the Day:
When you want to knock down your opponents' claims there's hardly a better way than to characterize them than spurious, that is "plausible but false" or "intended to deceive." Spurious began its 400-year career on no better footing: it originally denoted persons born out of wedlock.
Saturday, December 15th
All Stirred Up Word of the Day:
Like many words with good sound sense, today's noun turmoil is of uncertain origin. It sounds like what it is: a state of great agitation. It was originally a verb, which is now archaic. Etymologists speculate on a connection with French trémie de moulin "mill-hopper," in reference to the constant to and fro motion of that apparatus.
Sunday, December 16th
Grand Opening Word of the Day:
For a thing as sophisticated as a camera it wouldn't do to call the opening being the lens the "hole," and so we use this somewhat grand-sounding word, aperture, which means "hole" or "opening." Aperture had a couple of other uses before it was applied to optical instruments but that's its main use now. The origin is the Latin verb aperire, which shows up variously disguised in aperitif, overt, and pert.
Monday, December 17th
Bridge to Somewhere Word of the Day:
If you think this word looks a bit like pontiff you're on the right track; it's older than pontiff but influenced its development. A pontifex was a priest who belonged to a council of them in ancient Rome. Christianity found it convenient to adopt a related term for its head guy. The origins of pontifex are Latin pons, "bridge," and fecs, a combining form from the verb for "make."
Tuesday, December 18th
Apeman Word of the Day:
Today's word, missing link, developed a sense in the 19th century pertaining to a hypothetical intermediate life form that would bridge the evolutionary gap between humans and apes. We celebrate it today, the 100th anniversary of the "discovery" of Piltdown Man, an alleged such missing link which proved, forty years later, to be a hoax.
Wednesday, December 19th
Goin' to the Chapel Word of the Day:
Five centuries of usage have sealed the deal on the peculiar use of today's word, an adjective at heart (nuptial, pertaining to marriage) that becomes a plural noun with the addition of an s, but denotes a single wedding. Nuptials is a favorite for journalists looking for variations on "wedding." The word is originally from Latin word that also gives us nubile and connubial.
Thursday, December 20th
By Hook or by Crook Word of the Day:
Etymologists have not found a satisfactory narrative for the origin of today's word, a verb that means "bring about by underhand methods." Wangle has no proven connection to the much older verb wrangle, which is unfortunate because these days people conflate the two words and use wrangle when they seem to mean wangle.
Friday, December 21st
Tight-Fisted Word of the Day:
There may be those rare times when retrench means "trench again," but the usual meaning of today's verb is "economize," especially in response to fiscal difficulties. Retrench is from a French verb in which the prefix re- denotes reversal rather than repetition. The derived noun is retrenchment.
Saturday, December 22nd
Give Me Shelta Word of the Day:
Today's word, though not of precisely determinate origin, is probably from Shelta, a creole spoken in the British Isles. It means "name" or "nickname" and we salute it today, the 100th anniversary of the birth of a woman born Claudia Alta Taylor, but known during her life by the moniker Lady Bird Johnson, wife of US president Lyndon Johnson.
Sunday, December 23rd
Shadow of Doubt Word of the Day:
Today's adjective is sometimes used to characterize something as generally known or assumed, and sometimes used to cast doubt on some claim or opinion. Both uses are legitimate, based on the word's history, which is all about people's perceptions: it's from Latin putare, "think, consider, reckon." The same root appears in depute, dispute, impute, and repute.
Monday, December 24th
All Downhill Word of the Day:
Their distinct uses may have resulted in completely separate storage compartments in your mind, but you might want to consider throwing today's word skid into the same box as ski because they have a common ancestor, an Old Norse word that meant "stick of wood." Skids, in the sense of "supporting beam," came along first. English did not find an opportunity to import ski till nearly a century after skid came along, in the 17th century.
Tuesday, December 25th
Smooth Sailing Word of the Day:
Those who associate today's word with the long-running Western television series are getting a big long in tooth now, but bonanza lives on to characterize any source of sudden and great wealth. The word is from Spanish and originated in mining, to refer to a rich vein of ore. The Spanish meaning is "calm sea," a condition generally regarded as favorable.
Wednesday, December 26th
Food for Thought Word of the Day:
Today's 14th-century verb plopped into English from French along with its noun purveyor. In modern usage the noun outnumbers the verb by about five to one. Purvey has a common history with provide and provision, which may explain why purveyor has the specific sense of a seller of provisions. Interestingly, today "information" is one of the most likely objects of purvey, suggesting that we moderns view information as something consumable and requiring regular replenishing.
Thursday, December 27th
Best Deal Word of the Day:
The closest relative of today's noun in English is one that opens a window on its meaning: an optimist is one who expects or looks for the optimum outcome. The common ancestor of both words is Latin optimum, "best." On the other end of the scale there is pessimist, from Latin pessimus, "worst" -- a word that hasn't found a home in English in any other form.
Friday, December 28th
Going in Style Word of the Day:
Styles have been around since the 14th century, but they didn't team up with the even older suffix -ize until the turn of the 20th century, when stylize came into being with a specific meaning: conform to a particular style. Today we see the word mainly as a participial adjective to characterize artistic expressions that depart from naturalism.
Saturday, December 29th
Leave Your Mark Word of the Day:
Today's word, a noun of Greek origin, has not been idle during its 400-year sojourn in English, having picked up many specific meanings. Its most common meaning is the figurative one, "a mark of disgrace," but it also has particular meanings in medicine, zoology, and botany. The original meaning was "a mark left by branding."
Sunday, December 30th
It Takes Two Word of the Day:
Today's word, a noun of Latin origin, began as a noun referring to the quality of being pleasing. Today it mainly names a feature or service that provides comfort and pleasure. A single amenity rarely suffices, for we tend to talk about them in the plural -- often in connection with the ones available in a particular place.
Monday, December 31st
Charm Offensive Word of the Day:
Those who consider themselves to be God's gift and who are also highly influential or effective might be on to something: charisma, a word from Greek, is from a verb that means "favor" and was often used of those thought to be favored by the Gods. We use charisma today to designate a quality of leaders that makes people want to follow them.