Monday, January 1st
Most Unworthy Word of the Day:
The obvious obverse of this adjective, "dignant," never found a home in English, but indignant still has quite a lot family scattered about, in word such as dignify, deign, and condign. Its meaning, "angered by injustice," arises from the meaning of its Latin root dignus, "worthy."
Tuesday, January 2nd
What's the Use? Word of the Day:
The English relatives of commodity all bear a passing resemblance to it — accommodate, commode, commodious — but their meanings seem to be all over the map. There is, however, an element of common meaning, centered around the idea of what is useful: the Latin root commodus, "useful, convenient, suitable," underlies them all. A commodity was originally an economic good; today it indicates one that is widely available and traded.
Wednesday, January 3rd
Available for Viewing Word of the Day:
First came the panorama, a late 18th century word so successful that it spawned two others on its pattern: cyclorama, and today's word, diorama. The dio- part is from Greek dia, "through," reflecting the fact that the earliest dioramas were viewed through a hole or opening. The common -orama part is from Greek, horama, "sight." All three words refer to paintings or displays of various kinds.
Thursday, January 4th
Not for Real Word of the Day:
The brilliant sound sense of this adjective insures a permanent place for it in English: just hearing the word bogus makes you think "fake." The origins of the word are in fact quite obscure; it was, by various accounts, a slang term for counterfeit money, or for the machine that made it, but where bogus comes from before that is a matter for speculation (and, perhaps, bogus theories).
Friday, January 5th
There's the Rub Word of the Day:
If you combine a knowledge of French with a knowledge of physics and a bit of imagination, you might be able to guess the etymology of this verb, which means "make sore by rubbing." Recall that rubbing generates friction; friction causes heat; the French word for heat is chauffer. Et voilà!
Saturday, January 6th
It's a Wash Word of the Day:
Words beginning with cata- are nearly all Greek in origin and contain the idea of "down," which is the case here (from Greek kata-, "down".) Cataclysm now means something akin to calamity, but it originally referred to the Biblical flood, in which it is truer to its origins, which are literally "down washing," or deluge.
Sunday, January 7th
Along for the Ride Word of the Day:
It's a bit strange that incidental nearly always designates something attendant or nonessential, while its parent incident labels an event worthy of remark. But it's been that way since the beginning, and perhaps is not so far removed from what you would take to be its meaning: "pertaining to an incident."
Monday, January 8th
Knock 'em Back Word of the Day:
The verb came first — as early as the 8th century, according to the OED — and it only meant "rinse," but once the noun developed in the 16th century, as a synonym of hogwash, it was pretty much downhill for swill, which rarely has positive connotations now, whether used as a noun or verb. It's an English original, with no known cognates.
Tuesday, January 9th
Worth Taking On Word of the Day:
The handy regularity of the English descendents of Latin sumere ("take") results in our having a handful nouns ending -sumption that have an underlying verb ending -sume. Can you rattle off five of the nouns in 10 seconds? OK, we'll help: assumption, consumption, presumption, resumption, and the special bonus word, subsumption.
Wednesday, January 10th
Floats My Boat Word of the Day:
If you know this word you may already be picturing the waves, the oars, and perhaps the sails — because a skiff refers to any number of small boats, powered in a number of different ways. The word is a descendant of the same Germanic root that gives us ship. If, on the other hand, you're a speaker of any of a handful of English dialects, your thoughts may not have gone boaty at all, and you'll be thinking of a light dusting of snow — which is another meaning of skiff, from a Scots word that is widely used in North America.
Thursday, January 11th
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes Word of the Day:
There are smells and then there are fumes, which would hardly ever be regarded as a Good Thing. Etymology is right on the money here, because fume is a descendant of Latin fumus, "smoke," a thing that we rarely think of as smelling good. If you've seen a no fumar sign somewhere or other, you've spotted a relative.
Friday, January 12th
Where's the Beef? Word of the Day:
Coinages ending in -vore are all the rage now, as foodie-ism gains new converts, but carnivore can rest on secure laurels as the original noun characterizing those whose diet includes or focuses on a particular thing. In this case, the thing is meat, that part of the word being from Latin carn-, "meat, flesh." The noun dates only to the 19th century, though the adjective carnivorous appears much earlier.
Saturday, January 13th
Unfair Trade Word of the Day:
This verb appears to be nothing more than the sum of its parts: fore-, "before" and -stall, "stop," with the meaning "stop beforehand," or in other words, preclude. Its history is in fact more colorful: the original meaning was "ambush." The earliest verb sense was "intercept and buy up goods before they reach the market, so as to raise the price."
Sunday, January 14th
The Hole Story Word of the Day:
The jury is out, and probably will remain so, on the etymology of this noun, but one theory with a fairly reliable paper trail is that it's a variant, and much more sensible spelling, of borough, in one of its specialized senses of a stronghold or fortified place. The place being fortified in this case would be the home of a burrowing animal such as a rabbit or ground squirrel.
Monday, January 15th
Bare Cupboard Word of the Day:
The verb famish, "cause to starve," seems to have taken early retirement in English, but it has left its participle around to put in an appearance where needed — as a synonym for "ravenous." The only common relative of famished in English is famine; they're both descendants of Latin fames, "hunger."
Tuesday, January 16th
Here, There, and Everywhere Word of the Day:
This adjective handily combines the meanings of its parts omni-, "all," and present to mean "present everywhere at once." Nouns denoting inanimate things normally follow omnipresent (smell, threat, cameras), though if you're a deity and therefore capable of being everywhere at once, you're entitled to carry around this adjective as an attribute.
Wednesday, January 17th
Show Me Word of the Day:
This common verb, meaning "show clearly," has only a single rhyme in English, remonstrate, to which it is related etymologically though not much semantically. Their common ancestor is Latin monstrare ("show"), which via a different route gives us muster. And muster, if you think about it, partakes somewhat of the same idea, in so far as something mustered will be evident and available to show.
Thursday, January 18th
I'm Against It Word of the Day:
It's no accident that many words beginning with ob- have a contrary notion: the prefix often means "against." In the case of obstinate, ob- was prefixed to -stinare, a Latin verb meaning "stand," to produce the overall sense of "stand against." Obstinate as an adjective means "contrary and stubborn." If you're thinking it would make a good verb, you're in line with a handful of folks from the 15th to the 19th centuries who used it that way.
Friday, January 19th
Beyond Doubt Word of the Day:
A large handful of English words with a negative prefix have no common positive form, without the prefix; unimpeachable, meaning "beyond doubt or reproach," is one of them. Those who wish to express the opposite of unimpeachable would probably not resort to impeachable but would head instead to exceptionable, culpable, or questionable.
Saturday, January 20th
It's a Steal Word of the Day:
For your next cocktail party performance you could do worse than to point out a simple pattern in English nouns dating from Middle English or earlier that have a consistent pattern with underling roots. Stealth (sneaky avoidance of detection) is derived from underlying steal, showing the same pattern as health and heal, wealth and weal. Slightly different transformations apply to foul and filth, till and tilth.
Sunday, January 21st
Missing the Point Word of the Day:
Those who suffer the heartbreak of astigmatism lack a common focusing point on the retina for incoming light, owing to a defect in the curvature of the lens. The big fancy word for the condition comes about from a- meaning "not, lacking" and stigma, "mark, point, focus."
Monday, January 22nd
Worth Chewing On Word of the Day:
Where there is a homophone, there is a possible occasion for misspelling and for spellchecker fail — so it's always a good idea to have a mnemonic for keeping soundalikes and near-lookalikes separate in your mind. In the case of bait and bate, you can remember that bait is the one you use with fish, who may bite at it.
Tuesday, January 23rd
Divide and Conquer Word of the Day:
The initial vowel may throw you off but the sound of this adjective is not so far removed from its nearest relative, envy, and that connection supplies a good clue to the meaning of invidious: tending to cause discontent, animosity, or envy. Invidious is less common than its lookalike insidious, which is equally negative in force but different in meaning.
Wednesday, January 24th
Break the Bank Word of the Day:
The rupt that you see in bankrupt proceeds from the same ultimate source as the one you see in disrupt and interrupt, though it's easy to overlook the similarity because of pronunciation differences. Latin rumpere, "break," lurks in the background. The more immediate parents of bankrupt are words in French and Italian that mean "broken bank."
Thursday, January 25th
At Your Service Word of the Day:
English gets great mileage out of this verb, appearing originally in the 14th century with the meaning "melt down" (as with suet) or "extract by melting" (as with lard). The busy wordmap of render should clue you up that it's a verb whose meaning is highly context-dependent. The hands-down favorite use today is with "service" as the object, where render provides a more interesting word choice than do.
Friday, January 26th
What a Dump! Word of the Day:
Many dictionaries maintain a dignified silence on the origin of this word — because little is known about it. Hovel dates from Middle English and it settled into a spelling pattern and pronunciation along the lines of the much older shovel, its only common rhyme. Hovel was originally an open shed for cattle; that meaning informs the main one today, "a rude or miserable dwelling-place; a wretched cabin" (as the OED puts it).
Saturday, January 27th
Sure to Follow Word of the Day:
Sometimes the sound, rather than the spelling of a word, gives a clue to its origin, and that's the case with execute. Its roots are the prefix ex- and Latin sequi, "follow." The original meaning was "follow up," which is what you do in most everything that you execute — carry out something that has been decided, determined, or planned earlier.
Sunday, January 28th
What the Devil! Word of the Day:
The verb exercise had hardly settled into English when this devilish soundalike came along a century later. Some speakers take care to distinguish the second vowel in exorcise, though it's often a homophone of exercise. Being from Greek roots, it would be consistent with other verbs to spell this one exorcize — but again, the presence of exercise had a haunting effect on the newer verb.
Monday, January 29th
All Glory, Laud, and Honor Word of the Day:
Though we live in an age that celebrates celebrities, it's easy to overlook the connection between the two words because of their divergent sound patterns. The connection is in fact very close: both celebrate and celebrity come from Latin celeber, "much frequented, honored, famous."
Tuesday, January 30th
Dog's Life Word of the Day:
The easy way out if you're asked to provide the meaning of this adjective is "like a cynic," but that hardly answers the question of what a cynic is. For that, we travel back to Greek kynikós literally "doglike, currish." This comes as something of a surprise in that we don't normally think of dogs as "believing the worst of human nature," as the cynical do.
Wednesday, January 31st
Everybody's Got the Fever Word of the Day:
The similarity of consonant sounds in this adjective are not far away from its noun relative fever, and the meanings are related as well: febrile means "characterized by fever," or by extension, "characterized by a great deal of nervous excitement or energy," which is probably the sense intended in such common collocations as "febrile imagination" or "febrile atmosphere."