Tuesday, October 1st
If Only! Word of the Day:
Deciphering attempts based on component parts doesn't work on today's adjective, since wist and its relatives have all perished from the modern English scene. Wistful is a 17th-century coinage, based on wistly (which meant "silent, attentive") and influenced by wishful. Those feeling wistful today are full of yearning and melancholy.
Wednesday, October 2nd
Got Child? Word of the Day:
Today's verb can look back on an illustrious career that began before the year 1000. It's from get with the addition of the once-productive prefix be-. The earliest meaning was "get by effort," which led naturally to the meaning that has endured for 800 years: get offspring by reproduction. It is usually a predicate for dads, not moms, as any early Bible translation will attest.
Thursday, October 3rd
Well-Rounded Word of the Day:
Three hundred years ago today was the birth day of Denis Diderot, a French philosopher and writer. He devoted a great part of his adult life to writing and editing the Encyclopédie, a monumental reference work which was the model and archetype of encyclopedias today. Encyclopedia is a Greek-derived word from roots that mean "all-round education."
Friday, October 4th
Pie Hole Word of the Day:
Compound adjectives referring to people's mouths are never flattering in English, and today's word follows the pattern. Mealy-mouthed is opposite to "direct" in several senses and can suggest deviousness, insincerity, timidity, equivocation, or compromising in speech. The connection with meal is not straightforward but the word manages to sound disparaging even without making obvious etymological sense.
Saturday, October 5th
Boys' Club Word of the Day:
Today's adjective is applied approvingly to men who are strong and forceful. It's no slight to women that they can't be virile, since the word is derived from the Latin for "man" and so is in one sense simply a synonym of masculine. There is no comparable descendent from Latin that flatters women, who must content themselves with feminine.
Sunday, October 6th
Note-Taker's Word of the Day:
A dossier is a somewhat formal word for a file containing documents pertaining to a particular subject. The French look is no mistake, the word is a direct loaner. Looking for things to do with a dossier? The most frequent verbs that take dossier as their objects are compile, produce, and publish. You could do them in that order.
Monday, October 7th
Bottom Feeder's Word of the Day:
Whenever possible we like our nouns to have related verbs and adjectives so that we might benefit from reduced storage space in our overtaxed brains. No such luck in the case of turpitude, a standalone descendant from Latin turpitudo, "base, vile." Turpitude is the condition of being depraved, or rarely as a count noun, an act of depravity. Its favorite left-hand companion is moral.
Tuesday, October 8th
Down Yonder Word of the Day:
It's fashionable to blame Greece for a lot of things these days but we can't blame them, or their ancient ancestors, for the peculiar spelling of this word from an ancient Greek root that meant "earth." Transliterators were just doing their letter-for-letter job. Chthonic finds work today mainly in literary contexts, where it characterizes things of the underworld. More manageable synonyms include infernal and nether.
Wednesday, October 9th
Tearing Up the Joint Word of the Day:
This wee but vital part of your anatomy is not likely to come to your attention except in the breach — that would be a literal breach, which is usually called a tear when the meniscus is involved. It's a crescent-shaped bit of cartilage separating the bones in a joint, especially the knee. The word is from a Greek diminutive for moon; in other words, a crescent, which is roughly the shape of the meniscus in the knee.
Thursday, October 10th
You're the Top! Word of the Day:
No one actually runs for office to be elected as a potentate since that strategy would probably fail. Clever leaders who achieve the status normally do so only after power is consolidated. Potentate, a powerful leader, is an obvious derivative of potent. Both words are from Latin. Though the thing it designates surely existed long before, potentate only settled in English in the 15th century.
Friday, October 11th
Sweetly Singing Word of the Day:
Fifty years ago today was the last day among mortals for Edith Giovanna Gassion, known to the world as Edith Piaf, perhaps the most famous French singer of the 20th century. Her stage name is based on Parisian slang, piaf being a word for sparrow, which we therefore salute today. Sparrow is a native English word and is attested before the 12th century; it has a cognate in German.
Saturday, October 12th
It's Just Nerves Word of the Day:
Feeling a bit off lately? If that's you all the time, it could be that you have a neurosis, that is, a mental or emotional disorder that affects only part of the personality. The word has existed in English since the 18th century. It has now fallen from fashion as an official diagnosis, a steep fall from the heyday it enjoyed when Freud was all the rage. Neurosis is from the same Greek root that gives is neuron and nerve.
Sunday, October 13th
Blow Me Down Word of the Day:
It's not lunchtime and we're not choosing from a selection of dishes set out on a table. Today we salute the other buffet, the one we usually use as a verb and participle today (as in buffeted by high winds) but that derives from an earlier and now mostly obsolete noun buffet, which meant "blow" or something that strikes with force. Both buffets are from French. Today's buffet is from the French noun buffe.
Monday, October 14th
Not What You Think Word of the Day:
It's refreshing to know that not all words beginning with sex need be a cause for blushing, and sextant is one of them. Its root is Latin sextus, "sixth," and it's formed on the same basis as quadrant, "fourth." A sextant is a nautical instrument that was used for determining geographic location, back in the day before satellites did that for us. The scale on a sextant has the length of one sixth of a circle (i.e., 60 degrees), hence the name.
Tuesday, October 15th
All About You Word of the Day:
Ego nearly always gets a bad rap so you may find that anima is a better choice for talking about the real you: the inner you, that is, stripped of the conveniences of personality — the bit of you that is properly called the persona. Both anima and persona are part of the lingo of psychologist C. G. Jung. Anima, sometimes contrasted with animus, is from Latin for breath, spirit, vital force.
Wednesday, October 16th
Crazy Idea Word of the Day:
If you find that your grip on reality fluctuates with the phases of the moon you might consider describing yourself as a lunatic. Though it is not likely to win you any friends, you would be etymologically correct, since lunacy (that is, insanity) was once thought to be related to phases of the moon. Lunatic is one of several moon-related words from Latin luna, including lunar and sublunary.
Thursday, October 17th
Up to a Point Word of the Day:
Perhaps not all pictures are worth a thousand words but a picture of an obelisk is certainly worth a dozen or more — the dozen or more words that dictionaries use to define obelisk, because seeing one is a bit easier than deciphering "a stone pillar having a rectangular cross section tapering towards a pyramidal top." Obelisk is ultimately from a Greek word for "pointed pillar."
Friday, October 18th
Soldier On! Word of the Day:
English borrowed samurai from Japanese more or less intact to denote a warrior who was a member of a feudal aristocracy. You don't see many around today but their legend lives on in many filmic adaptations. The word in Japanese is made up of roots that mean "serve" or "wait watchfully."
Saturday, October 19th
My Way Word of the Day:
Those who are incompletely schooled might be inclined to misspell today's word as preemptory because of the verb preempt, a word that is related historically and semantically. Peremptory is an adjective with the meaning "not allowing contradiction," or by extension, offensively self-assured or imperious. The word goes way back in English and perhaps not surprisingly has origins in law.
Sunday, October 20th
Five-String Word of the Day:
Louis Marhsal Jones, known professionally as Grandpa Jones, was born 100 years ago on this day. In his honor we salute the instrument that made him famous: the banjo. Etymologists agree only that the word emerged in New World English but they quibble about whether it's based on a word of Spanish and Portuguese or of African origin.
Monday, October 21st
Dandy's Word of the Day:
As you stand before the mirror, making minor adjustments to you impeccable appearance that others might characterize as spruce, you may wonder: has sprucing up got anything to do with trees? The answer is maybe. The verb and adjective are of obscure origin but may come from Spruce leather, a kind of leather that was imported from Prussia. Prussia, the word and the place, are the origin of spruce, the tree.
Tuesday, October 22nd
Hasty Word of the Day:
Soundwise, brisk and brusque differ only by their internal vowel: a fact that is often completely meaningless in English, but perhaps not in this case, since brisk is probably a modification of brusque, a French import. An alternative etymological theory has brisk derived more locally, from cognates found in Welsh, Irish, and Gaelic. The most frequent sense of brisk today is quick, active, and lively.
Wednesday, October 23rd
Sounds Reasonable Word of the Day:
Many of the mismatches between English spelling and pronunciation can be explained by today's word sandhi (from Sanskrit), a linguistics term that denotes the modification of a sound when followed by another, such as pronunciation of -ed as \d\ in prized and as \t\ in priced, or the fact that terminal -s in English is pronounced either as /s/ or /z/ depending on the voicing status of what precedes it.
Thursday, October 24th
Storage Available Word of the Day:
It's one of the whacky facts of English that the words for the thing you store a coat on and the place where you store an airplane sound exactly the same. Hangar, a 19th-century addition to English from French, did not consult hanger before settling in. The rather un-French look of hangar may arise from its having been originally a Germanic word that made its way back home to the Germanic family.
Friday, October 25th
Can You Hear Me Now? Word of the Day:
Something that makes a racket could be said to be raucous, but etymology plays no part in this coincidence. Raucous is a nearly direct Latin import from the 18th century. Racket is less convincingly derived but is older and probably native English word, of possible imitative origin. Laughter is the favorite right-hand companion of raucous today.
Saturday, October 26th
Beastly Word of the Day:
You would be excused, though completely wrong, for thinking that a menagerie would be a good place to house a menage. The words are related but have evolved towards different meanings. Both words are from French. Menagerie originally had a meaning along the lines of "animal husbandry" and later came to designate a collection of animals.
Sunday, October 27th
Stuff Happens Word of the Day:
The most important take-home about today's word, in view of modern usage, is that it's a noncount noun, and so incidences are a confusion for which users probably mean incidents (plural of incident) or just incidence, which means "relative frequency." The Latin root that gives us both words meant 'happening.'
Monday, October 28th
Done Deal Word of the Day:
Leaving aside the fashionable car that you may wish you owned and that starts with a capital F, lowercase fiat designates an authoritative decree or order, sometimes an arbitrary one. Fiat is a verb form in Latin — to be specific, the third person singular present subjunctive of fieri, "become," and might be translated as "let it be done." Perhaps fiat became a noun in English by fiat.
Tuesday, October 29th
Extra Room Word of the Day:
If etymologists ruled the world, today's adjective bicameral might mean "two-roomed" in just about any context you wish, but usage has decreed that bicameral refers only to legislatures that consists of two chambers, such as are found today in nearly all US states, in the US as a whole, and in the UK. Bicameral came later to English than the concept; it appears first in the earlyish 19th century.
Wednesday, October 30th
That's Nothing! Word of the Day:
You don't see the word nil at a glance in annihilate, and the reason for that is that nil is a contraction — of nihil, the Latin for "nothing." But it all makes sense when you reflect that nil means nothing, and annihilate means "make nothing," or in other words, utterly destroy. The original meaning of annihilate was "cause to have no effect," a meaning for which today we are more likely to use nullify.
Thursday, October 31st
Coast to Coast Word of the Day:
One hundred years ago today marked the opening of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental paved highway in the United States. In its honor we salute transcontinental, an adjective for which English (the American variety) first found an application in the 19th century, with the building of a railroad that covered the same distance.