Friday, December 1st
Hair of the Dog Word of the Day:
We have all, perhaps, experienced remorse (regret, typically for a misdeed), and few of us would argue with its etymology, a Latin verb meaning "bite again." The main root also appears in mordant and morsel. The implication seems to be that the first "bite" was the commission of the deed that led to the second (and subsequent) bites.
Saturday, December 2nd
It Takes Two Word of the Day:
Who doesn't love monosyllables with extremely long pedigrees in English? Yoke has been on the job for nearly a thousand years and has picked up dozens of senses, subsenses, and compounds in modern dictionaries, but it has never deserted its original meaning: a device that joins animals at the neck so they can work as a team. In these days of instant, unedited publishing, yoke is also a frequent misspelling for its homophone yolk.
Sunday, December 3rd
People Will Talk Word of the Day:
If you want to go just slightly more formal than talk, converse feels like a natural choice, so it may be surprising to learn that it didn't always mean "talk"; an earlier meaning was "keep company." The current meaning developed naturally, starting in the late 16th century, from the fact that people could hardly keep company with each other without wagging their tongues.
Monday, December 4th
Hoi Polloi Word of the Day:
The existence of the homophone hoard and the fact that the meanings of horde and hoard both contain the idea of large numbers of things spells havoc for the proper use of the two words. They are in fact separately derived, and not synonymous. A horde typically refers to a teeming crowd of people; a hoard can be a large number of anything that is collected and stored up for future use.
Tuesday, December 5th
Ever Useful Word of the Day:
Words don't generally abide by the notion that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. As evidence of this, we salute utility, a noun first attested in Chaucer in one of its enduring meanings ("the quality of being useful"), and not acquiring its meaning of "a regulated company that offers or performs a public service" till more than 500 years later. The latter meaning is a North American coinage and is still used chiefly there.
Wednesday, December 6th
More Than a Pretty Face Word of the Day:
When we read of a character in Jane Austen's Persuasion that "He was quite as good-looking as he had appeared at Lyme, his countenance improved by speaking; and his manners were so exactly what they ought to be," we may regret that countenance has fallen from fashion in the intervening period, but we salute it today to promote its revival. Countenance is related to contain; the sense referring to someone's face and expression developed from an earlier meaning of "bearing, demeanor."
Thursday, December 7th
Drawn to Scale Word of the Day:
The obvious relatives of this adjective — analog and analogy — are both useful in fixing its range of reference: there are always two things involved, and there is a point of similarity that can be described or demonstrated in a scalar way. The Greek root is a word that means "proportionate," a feature that can be found in all analogous relationships.
Friday, December 8th
Times Are Hard Word of the Day:
The varied words descended from Latin advertere besides this one — the verb advert and advertent — aren't a huge help because they've all drifted, not entirely in the same direction, from the original meaning of "turn toward." Adverse, the underlying adjective in adversity, developed the meaning of "unfavorable" from the slight shift of "turn toward" to "turn against."
Saturday, December 9th
How's the Weather? Word of the Day:
Owing to the way some Latin and Greek nouns inflect, it's perfectly reasonable that we have two nouns in English from the same source, with similar meaning, and slightly different forms: the more common climate, and the rarer and more literary clime. Both are ultimately from Greek klima, "inclination."
Sunday, December 10th
Water, Water Everywhere Word of the Day:
Your thoughts may go immediately to winter weather, attics, and wall cavities when you see the verb insulate, so it may come as a surprise to learn that the word is related to isle: both words are descendants of Latin insula, "island." The idea of insulate is to "make an island," which is in fact an old meaning of the word. From this developed the idea of causing a thing to be detached or distinct from its surroundings.
Monday, December 11th
Where's the Beef? Word of the Day:
All adjectives ending in -ivorous are about eating, and most words beginning carn- are about flesh or meat. And there you have it: carnivorous characterizes critters, including most humans, who include the flesh of animals in their diet. Curiously, one of the nouns most likely to follow carnivorous is plant. But you probably don't need to worry about the philodendron too much after you go to bed.
Tuesday, December 12th
Sign Me Up Word of the Day:
Where you put the stress on this word will tell your listeners all they need to know about whether you mean the noun or the verb: following a pattern that is widespread in English, the noun stresses the first syllable, the verb the second. In either case, the meaning of the word is compulsory military service. The Latin root, conscribere, meant "enlist" or "enroll."
Wednesday, December 13th
Subject to Abuse Word of the Day:
It's a rare modern dictionary that does not include a usage note at this verb, and a rare language cop who is at a loss to round up perceived misuses of it. A summary of most authorities' advice about the word comprises these two points: the most dependable and problem-free meaning of the verb is the same as "consist of," and if you're tempted to use the verb passively (i.e., be comprised of) you are skating onto thin ice.
Thursday, December 14th
Something Completely Different Word of the Day:
It would be fun to think that diversify meant "make up two poems," on the grounds of the resemblance to versify. But it would also be wrong. You'll get closer to the mark if you look toward relatives diverse and divert. Diversify means "make more diverse," or "make different." Things likely to be diversified these days include portfolios, economies, and faculties.
Friday, December 15th
Your Turn Word of the Day:
The usual pattern is for children to outlive their parents, and so it often is with words. Tournament is a child of tourney. The latter word still exists in English, but normally gets air time only when journalists and headline writers tire of tournament — or when they're writing about medieval jousts, which is what the original tourneys were.
Saturday, December 16th
Slo-Mo Word of the Day:
No prizes awarded for guessing that this adjective characterizing slow movement comes from slug. But which slug: the garden pest, the piece of lead, or the heavy blow? If you guess the garden pest, you're almost right. The garden pest was in fact named for an earlier meaning: an idle or indolent person, whom we usually call a sluggard today.
Sunday, December 17th
Out You Go Word of the Day:
It's a bit confusing that English has words from Latin cedere ("go") that end in both -ceed and -cede. If you can keep the spellings straight, you can probably store them all in the same memory box labeled "go." Exceed takes the idea of "go" and adds the notion of "out" or "beyond," represented by ex-. So in other words, "go beyond" (in amount, degree, or expectation).
Monday, December 18th
Gotcha! Word of the Day:
The logical thing would be to think that captivate meant "make captive" or "take prisoner." That was among its original meanings, but it seems to have sprung into English fully developed, with its current meaning, "beguile, enchant," present from the same time (16th century) as the more literal meaning. Shakespeare was in on the ground floor; he says, in Venus and Adonis: And this I do to captivate the eye/Of the fair breeder that is standing by.
Tuesday, December 19th
All Awash Word of the Day:
If you think of something lavish as being characterized by "pouring it on," you'll have a good clue to the origin of this word. It's related to a number of other words from Latin lavare ("wash"), such as lavatory and lave. Lavish was originally a noun meaning "profusion" or "excessive abundance."
Wednesday, December 20th
View from the Top Word of the Day:
A lot of words reminiscent of castles came to English from French and this is one of them: it refers to a wall built around or in front of a space being defended, especially one with a walkway along the top, such as might surround a castle. Look for it in the company of bastion and parapet, other words for defensive structures.
Thursday, December 21st
Be Very Afraid Word of the Day:
Remember that the -hor you see here is the same one that appears in horrendous, horrible, and horrid — and thus will you be able to remember this word, which means "loathe." The underlying verb of all these cousins is Latin horrere, "tremble." Abhor was originally a bit more graphic in meaning: to shrink back with shuddering.
Friday, December 22nd
Two for One Word of the Day:
The spelling d-e-f-i-l-e is a bargain in English: you get two separately derived words for the storage space of one. There's defile the verb, which means to debase or make impure; and there's defile the noun, a narrow passage or gorge. The verb is somewhat deceptive etymologically, being derived from a French word related to foul but also influenced by an Old English word with a 'i' vowel.
Saturday, December 23rd
Hair of the Dog Word of the Day:
It took only a century — the 14th till the 15th — for bristle, originally a noun for stiff animal hair, to develop into a verb and take on the figurative jobs it enjoys today. Folks that bristle display an animallike reaction of defense, which lower critters do by stiffening their bristles. Places that bristle with something have lots of it, closely packed, like bristles.
Sunday, December 24th
Along for the Ride Word of the Day:
Accessory is hardly a word that needs dressing up, but if you want to add just a spot of formality or irony to it, appurtenance does the job pretty well. Appertain is the most closely-related verb, and from there the meaning pretty much leaps out: an accessory object that pertains to a particular activity.
Monday, December 25th
Share the Memory Word of the Day:
This verb shares enough common ground with its synonym memorialize, and with their common relative memory, that its meaning is not difficult to commit to memory. What may pose a greater problem is remembering that the double m precedes the single m — until you remember that the first m is from the assimilated prefix con, "together."
Tuesday, December 26th
Not At All Exceptional Word of the Day:
If the meaning of this adjective doesn't leap out at you, remember that it's associated with the construction "take exception to something." That's the kind of exception that exceptionable refers to, and that makes it a synonym of objectionable. The usage of exceptionable these days is pretty much confined to legalese, except the handful of hits you can find in a news search every day by hacks who use it as an elegant variation for "exceptional."
Wednesday, December 27th
All Airy-Fairy Word of the Day:
The key to the kingdom of meaning for this adjective is the sequence -corp-, found also in related words corporation, corpse, corporal, and corpuscle. All hark back to Latin corpus, "body." The in- prefix here is negativizing; incorporeal means "lacking a body," or in other words, "immaterial."
Thursday, December 28th
Some Like It Hot Word of the Day:
You may wonder why we have this adjective fervent when fervid, from the same root, exists, and means about the same thing. Blame the highly inflected forms of Latin if you must. In fact fervent (meaning "passionate") wins out over its near synonym in usage numbers. Supporter is the most winning noun after fervent, closely followed by hope, prayer, wish, and believer.
Friday, December 29th
Hidden Treasure Word of the Day:
The original meaning of this verb was "place into the public treasury," whence it developed the more general meaning it enjoys today, "seize by authority." The nearest (and for practical purposes, only) relative in English of confiscate is fiscal; both are the descendants of Latin fiscus, "treasury."
Saturday, December 30th
Teeth-Baring Word of the Day:
There are perhaps not as many kinds of smiles as kinds of snow that the Eskimos are reputed to distinguish, but there are a fair number, and a smirk is one of them; a smile that expresses smugness or scorn. The consonant pairs in smirk suggest a word native to English, and so it is — descended from an Old English word that means "smile."
Sunday, December 31st
You Would Cry Too Word of the Day:
How many adjectives does a language need for "insincerely emotional"? If that language is English, lots, judging by the wordmap of maudlin. The history of maudlin is more interesting than that of most of its synonyms: maudlin is an alteration of the Biblical name Magdalene. Its meaning arose from depictions of Mary Magdalene as a weeping penitent.