Sunday, March 1st
The Unkindest Cut Word of the Day:
The poor fellow (Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin) who gave his name to this decapitating device didn't actually invent it -- he proposed it as a more humane way to carry out executions. In our civilized age the word denotes a paper-cutting machine, or a device by which debate on a bill is brought to an end.
Monday, March 2nd
Comes in All Sizes Word of the Day:
Given the unexpected spelling, it's just as well that in modern times we've cut off the violon part to designate this middle-sized instrument in the string family. Oddly enough, violoncello is actually a diminutive -- of violon, an old term for a double bass which is in turn an augmentative of viola.
Tuesday, March 3rd
Distant Cousins Word of the Day:
The spelling challenge in this word, denoting a doctor of animals, lies in its resemblance to veteran, a word whose meaning suggests no relationship. But they have a common ancestor in Latin vetus, "old." Another cousin of theirs is inveterate.
Wednesday, March 4th
Way Over the Top Word of the Day:
This handy Latin term is so much more elegant than "till I thought I was going to throw up," which is pretty close to what it means. It needn't be a spelling demon if you remember that the second word is just nausea with an 'm' on the end.
Thursday, March 5th
Do the Math Word of the Day:
Long winded or what? If you know what a quaver is (Brit for an eighth note) and you're current on combining forms from Greek, Latin, and French that mean "half," you'll observe that this is a half-half-half-eighth note, or a 64th note, as it's known in the American system. Fortunately these little guys make very few appearances in music.
Friday, March 6th
You Break Me Up Word of the Day:
Wherever -lys- or -lyz- appear in English (analyze, hydrolyze) you can be pretty sure that things are falling to pieces, and so it is with lysozyme -- an enzyme found in a number of bodily fluids that deals death to bacteria by breaking down their cell walls.
Saturday, March 7th
Floats My Boat Word of the Day:
This word, representing a small boat, belongs to a small and select class of words in English that come from Hindi. The 'h' is an insertion to distinguish the word in both sound and spelling from the English adjective dingy.
Sunday, March 8th
Strings Attached Word of the Day:
This word, denoting a stringed musical instrument of antiquity, hasn't got a familiar handle on it anywhere. It does, however, have one common relative in English, namely psalm, which denoted (way back when) a song sung to the accompaniment of strings.
Monday, March 9th
Small is Beautiful Word of the Day:
Some words are fated forever to informality, and this is one: a noun denoting a small amount of something. Judging by the number of synonyms (see wordmap), lots of things come in small quantities! Smidgen is a descendant of smidge, a Scots word.
Tuesday, March 10th
Just So Word of the Day:
The danger inherent in short Latin phrases that replace longer English equivalents is misuse, and per se (literal meaning: "by itself") comes in for a lot of it. Per se raises eyebrows in informal conversation when all you mean is "as such," but it gets a pretty good workout in scholarly papers to mean "in and of itself."
Wednesday, March 11th
Rosy-cheeked Word of the Day:
The first picture that comes to your mind may be of a bouncing baby, but the original and enduring meaning of this word is a certain kind of angel, often portrayed as a child with wings. The word is from Hebrew via Latin and Greek; it put in a good 800 years in English before anyone hit on the idea of applying it to a child.
Thursday, March 12th
It's the Pants Word of the Day:
This word, from Hindi, has all but lost its original meaning, denoting a strong cotton fabric. These days, in a few corners of the English-speaking world, it's found in the plural designating trousers made from this fabric -- in other words, jeans.
Friday, March 13th
Knock on Wood Word of the Day:
The xylo- part of this word comes from the Greek for "wood" and clues us up about what gives this instrument its unique sound: the graduated wooden bars representing tones of the scale. A related word in English is xylem, the tissue that forms the woody part of plants.
Saturday, March 14th
Back from the Dead Word of the Day:
American English gets credit for resuscitating this Old English word (originally feeze) and giving it new life. It means "disturb" but has the curious usage pattern of almost never occurring without a negativizing word. Don't be fazed by it!
Sunday, March 15th
See You in Court Word of the Day:
This legal officer has a different job depending on what country you encounter him in: in the US, a bailiff is a kind of court usher and security guard. In the UK, he carries out writs and executes repossession orders: kind of a government-backed repo man.
Monday, March 16th
Ich Bin from Vienna Word of the Day:
You're probably not thinking of Strauss waltzes and cream-topped tortes as you spread the mustard and relish on your hot dog, but in German, wiener simply means "Viennese." Thank the lowly wienerwurst, parent of the sausage that we designate by this word today. The spelling weiner is also widely found in English, somewhat obscuring the word's origins.
Tuesday, March 17th
You Be the Judge Word of the Day:
This formal and technical verb means "settle as a judge". If your English instincts are even moderately developed you probably guessed a good part of that from the form of the word. Better than 90% of English words containing the sequence -jud- trace their roots to either Latin words related to judging and courts, or to Greek Ioudaios, "Jew."
Wednesday, March 18th
PTL Word of the Day:
The great thing about words in English from languages that don't use the Roman alphabet is that you can spell them more than one way and probably still be right. This one (from Hebrew "praise the Lord") is pretty well settled in English now as spelled above, but still competes in some contexts with alleluia.
Thursday, March 19th
Full Color Word of the Day:
Many English words ending -escent mean "reflecting or emitting light" of a particular kind. If you're clued up that irid comes from the word for "rainbow" in Latin, then you've got this one nailed: "reflecting various colors"
Friday, March 20th
Deceptively Similar Word of the Day:
Despite being a tropical fruit and having its ultimate linguistic source in Malay, the apple-sized fruit called mangosteen has no relation, taxonomically or etymologically, to the more commonly found mango. A Google image search sorts them out nicely.
Saturday, March 21st
Love My Stuff Word of the Day:
This word today usually denotes the kit that accompanies a particular activity and is sometimes used with an ironic twist, perhaps to characterize equipment as excessive or silly. Its origins, however, were no joke: the Greek roots mean essentially "besides the dowry" and denoted a woman's property that was not part of the marriage deal.
Sunday, March 22nd
Lessons of History Word of the Day:
We don't normally associate atomic bomb tests with the names of garments, but this one's an exception. The skimpy two-piece bathing suit is named after the Pacific atoll of the same name, where an atomic bomb was exploded in 1946. Island and garment alike were deemed to be "explosive."
Monday, March 23rd
Flying Through the Air Word of the Day:
It's a star! It's a bone! But at it's most basic, it's a four-sided figure with only two sides (or sometimes no sides) parallel. If acrobats are flying through your mind, there's a good reason: trapeze comes from the same root, and is probably based on the shape formed by the roof, the bar, and the two ropes that connect them.
Tuesday, March 24th
Eyes of the Beholder Word of the Day:
This optical toy that produces symmetrical patterns gets its name from classical Greek, though the Greeks never used the word themselves: it was coined by the toy's 19th century inventor, from words meaning "look at beautiful forms."
Wednesday, March 25th
Name That Sound Word of the Day:
This word, denoting a low indistinct sound (among other things), has many companions in English that are (1) imitative in origin, and (2) reduplicative. Some fellow travelers include tut-tut, pooh-pooh, susurrus, and splish-splash.
Thursday, March 26th
Confidential Agent Word of the Day:
The pronunciation of this noun obscures the fact that it contains secret but the etymology is unmistakable: a secretary was originally a confidential assistant or someone who was entrusted with a secret. Even today, it's probably a rare secretary who doesn't harbor a secret or two!
Friday, March 27th
Long Way Around Word of the Day:
This verb, meaning "to introduce or suggest indirectly," has a couple of cousins in English: one of them not very helpful (sinus) and the other more related in meaning: sinuous, "curved": the common meaning element is the choosing of a route other than the most direct one.
Saturday, March 28th
Dye, Dye, My Darling Word of the Day:
This little word comes from an early designation (azote) of the gas we now call nitrogen and designates a molecular formation containing nitrogen. Azo compounds tend to be brightly colored, and are used in dyes and printing, along with their cousins, the diazo compounds, which have two azo groups.
Sunday, March 29th
Highbrow Word of the Day:
Here's something to think about the next time you raise your eyebrows: this adjective, meaning "haughty," or "disdainful," comes from the Latin word for "eyebrow." Perhaps it was applied originally to folks who raised their eyebrows a bit too often, or for the wrong reasons!
Monday, March 30th
Headcount Word of the Day:
English has more homegrown ways of saying "for each person," but this Latinate way of doing it (literally "by heads") now has a permanent place when you want to throw statistics around. It's been used in this way since the 17th century and shows no signs of slowing down.
Tuesday, March 31st
In Case You're Wandering Word of the Day:
When behavior departs from the norm, aberrant is at hand to describe it if you want to set a formal, or even scientific tone to the discussion. Its cousins in English, error and errant, also have double -r- and denote something that's either not wanted or not expected. The Latin root means "wander."