Word Archive

PROPINQUITY (nearness of relation, nearness in place and time)
‘He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Hasken and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation.’ – Edith Wharton
STOTTING (the act of a quadruped jumping high off the ground with all four feet in the air.)
Often performed by prey animals, such as gazelle, when pursued by a predator. One theory suggests this behavior signals the prey animal is healthy and strong, encouraging the predator to hunt a different one. I have seen a predator (dog) perform a similar maneuver in the effort to see prey in the underbrush. Is this also stotting?
LARBOARD  (‘on the left side’ in nautical terms, an archaic term that has been replaced by ‘port’)
The Middle English word ‘ladebord’ (lade + board) referred to the side of the ship where cargo was put aboard. The word morphed to ‘larboard’ in the 16th century, probably by analogy to ‘starboard’ (the right-hand side in nautical terms). It is conjectured that ‘port’ replaced ‘larboard’ because, given the noisy conditions on a ship, it was difficult to discern ‘larboard’ from ‘starboard’.
SUMORLANG  (Old English adjective meaning ‘long as in summer’, very long in time.)
‘sumorlangne daeg’ –  ‘a long day’.
CREPUSCULAR  (relating to twilight, or active and about at twilight, e.g., certain animals) From the Latin ‘crepusculum’ (twilight)  + suffix -ar.  Cited from mid-17th century.
MADRUGADA  (noun, feminine. Spanish word for early morning)
My dictionary lists ‘dawn’ as an English translation for ‘la madrugada’, but I learned this word in Mexico, in the Yucatán, where I was told it was ‘pre-dawn’. This is a special, lovely time of day in a hot, humid latitude; people rise early to enjoy the cool shadows and silver light before the tropical sun pours molten heat over the land.
PLANGENT  (English adj. A plaintiff or melancholy resounding sound, as a bell)
From the Latin stem ‘plangent’ (v. plangere) meaning ‘lamenting’. English usage from early 19th century.
AUSCULTATION (English nominalization. The act of listening to internal parts of the body, usually through a stethoscope, as part of a medical diagnostic.)
Note: Before the invention of the stethoscope, physicians would sometimes apply their ear directly to the chest to listen and this was known as ‘immediate auscultation’. When the stethoscope came into use, the employment of it for such diagnostics was referred to as ‘mediate auscultation’. (A Sea of Words)
Related to the Latin verb ‘auscultare’ (listen to)
VERMILION (a brilliant red color, a pigment derived from mercury sulfide, also known as cinnabar. Alt. spelling: vermillion)
Note: Entered Middle English from the Old French vermeillon.
PRANA  (Sanskrit – often translated as ‘life force’, ‘vital energy’)
Note: In yogic practice, breathing is considered to be the most important way in which prana is absorbed into the body. The etymology of the components of the term ‘prana’ are prefix pra- (going forth) and the stem -ana (life force).  ‘-ana’ may be cognate to Latin ‘animus’ from which English gets ‘animate’ and ‘animal’.  Given the etymology of ‘prana’ a more literal translation might be ‘breathing forth’.
RUCHE  (English noun.  A decorative pleat or frill on a garment, or curtains or fabric-covered furniture.)
From the Latin ‘rusca’ (tree bark), but earliest origin is apparently from Celtic. Perhaps the Romans borrowed it when they occupied the British Isles.
PROLATE  (English adjective.  A spheroidal geometric form elongated at the poles. Contrasts with ‘oblate’ which is a spheroidal form flattened at the poles.)
Consider the route from Latin; ‘pro’ (forward) + ‘ferre’ (to carry) –> ‘proferre’ (to prolong); the past participle of ‘proferre’ is ‘prolatus’ (carried forward)
DUNGAREES (English noun. Blue denim pants, usually coveralls or work pants.)
Apparently entered English in the 17th century with the sense ‘cotton cloth from India’. From the Hindi word ‘dungri’.
ERSTWHILE (English adjective. ‘former’, ‘previous’  ‘His erstwhile opponents have apparently closed ranks with him to pass the bill’.)
Note: the adverbial meaning of this word (‘formerly’) has become archaic, an example of a word’s contracting usage over time. ‘The Farrington-Petts, erstwhile the reigning social family of the small community’  However, ‘meanwhile’ (‘at the same time’) has remained a robust word in current English.
‘erst’ (adverb: ‘long ago’) is now archaic  ‘the friends whom erst you knew’. The word is from Old English ‘aerest’ which is the superlative form of OE ‘aere’. corresponding to the modern, again archaic, ‘ere’ (‘temporally before’).  ‘She wished he would return ere long’ (prepositional use) ‘They traveled hours through a dark wood ere they stopped.’ (as conjunction)
WINSOME (English adjective. Attractive, appealing in a person’s appearance or manner. ‘a winsome smile’)
From the Old English noun ‘wyn’ (delight, pleasure, joy) and the OE suffix -sum (same).  Another OE -sum forms the group sense, e.g., ‘threesome’ ‘foursome’.
‘winsome’ belongs with the positive attribute set which also includes ‘handsome’ (originally meant to handle easily), ‘toothsome’, ‘wholesome’, ‘awesome’ versus the negative attribute set which includes ‘loathsome’, ‘tiresome’, ‘lonesome’ and probably ‘fearsome’ — unless this last term is perceived as a good quality, the way ‘bad’ can be a positive.
QUINTESSENTIAL (English adjective. Possessing the most pure or perfect example of a characteristic. ‘It is considered the quintessential flim noir of the 1940s.)
Note: Derived from ‘quintessence’ (Medieval Latin ‘quinta’ (fifth) + ‘essentia’ (essence). In medieval natural philosophy, ‘quintessence’ comprised the fifth basic element of the universe, along with earth, air, fire and water. Heavenly bodies were believed to be composed of quintessence, but it was also believed to reside latently in all things. One of the great objectives of alchemy was to extract quintessence from materials. The modern restricted usage of ‘quintessential’ as a general modifier without theoretical significance any longer is an example of how the semantics of terminology changes over time, affected by our evolving theories of nature which replace earlier, less empirical ones.
HELIOTROPE (English noun. A fragrant purple or blue flower of the borage family. Also the name of a pale purple color which is typical of the heliotrope’s flowers. Many color terms are taken from plants, especially flowers and fruits: rose, violet, orchid, lavender, fuchsia, apricot, peach, plum, cherry, walnut.
The word’s origin is Greek from ‘helios’ (sun) + ‘trepein’ (to turn), ‘turning toward the sun’ which characterizes the plant’s behavior during daylight. Note: Our name for the country of Greece is derived from the Roman (Latin) name for it, Graecia. The Greeks referred to their own land as Hellas, related to ‘helios’.
RATIOCINATE (English verb. To make judgments on the basis of logic and reason.)
Currently rare, almost archaic form. From the Latin passive participle stem ‘ratiocinat-‘ (to be deliberated, calculated) which is formed from Latin passive infinitive form ‘ratiocinari’.  Latin has six forms of the infinitive!  The noun ‘ratio’ is related and is from Latin (to think, to deem, suppose). The mathematical sense of ‘ratio’ (mathematical relationship between two quantities) is first attested in mid-17th century.
PLENOPTIC  (English adjective. A term from optics, refers to all the paths of light traveling in a given space – a light field.)
Note: from Latin ‘plenus’ (full) and Greek ‘optikos’ (of sight)
VERAISON (English noun. The onset of color change in wine grape berries during the growing season. This is an important transition for winegrowers because it signals important chemical changes that the berries will undergo which will contribute significantly to their ultimate flavor and characteristics in the wine made from them.
The word is borrowed from French ‘véraison’ whose root appears to be related to ‘vrai’ (true). Old French/Middle English ‘verai’ (true).
MEME (English noun. Coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) by analogy to ‘gene’. A ‘meme’ is a unit of cultural information (custom, behavior, belief, value) transmitted via communication and behavior (often imitative). It is not transmitted genetically, The idea of a unit of culture is not precise and has led to different accounts of what can be a meme.  The term appears to be gaining in usage through the Internet, where a ‘meme’ can be anything from a file, image or website, to an idea. It has become associated with trendy, viral topics that are spread rapidly across digital space — often employed by marketing to create ‘buzz’. As the term gains currency, its semantics may continue to shift and realign.
Note: related to the Greek word ‘mimema’ (that which is imitated)
PERSIMMON (English noun. A medium-sized orange fruit with sweet flesh. The word used as an adjective is a color term.
Note: The origin is from the the Algonquian language, Powhatan, from the form ‘pasimenan’ (fruit dried artificially) related to ‘pasimeneu’ (he dries fruit). The proto-Algonquian */-min-/ means ‘fruit, berry’.  I wonder whether the Powhatan meanings imply that these fruits were dried as their usual form of preparation.
COEFFICIENT  (English noun) A numeric or symbolic multiplier in an algebraic expression. For example, in 3x^2, ‘3’ is the numeric  coefficient of the expression, and in x(a + b), ‘x’ is the symbolic coefficient of the expression.
In physics, a coefficient is a measure of a physical or chemical property that is constant for a system under specified conditions, e.g., ‘the coefficient of friction’ and ‘the coefficient of elasticity’ for particular systems (surface of water, rubber band).
Note: The word is derived from the Latin prefix ‘com’ (together) and the root ‘efficient’ (accomplishing) yielding the sense ‘cooperating to produce a result’. The French mathematician Frqnçois Viète (1540-1603) may have first used the term in a mathematical sense.
PELL-MELL (English adverb. In a rushed, confused or hasty manner. ‘People were running pell-mell out of the burning building.’  The word is also used less often as an adjective, ‘the pell-mell construction of housing developments in the outskirts of the city’, and rarely as a noun, ‘he was happy to leave the pell-mell of city life for the countryside.’
Note: Attested in 16th century, from Middle French pêle-mêle, in turn from Old French pesle mesle, mesle pesle (a jingling rhyme or reduplication) based on the stem of the verb ‘mesler’ (to mix or mingle).
BAYOU (English noun. A marshy wetland which is an outlet for a river or lake. The word entered English from French in Louisiana in the 18th century. The original word is from Choctaw (Native American language of the southeast) ‘bayuk’ (small stream).
QUADRIVIUM  (English noun. In medieval times the then-considered liberal arts curriculum of four core subjects: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.)
Note: During the Middle Ages the notion of the liberal arts (artes liberales) consisted of the quadrivium listed above and the ‘trivium’ (grammar, logic and rhetoric). These were subject matters intended for intellectual enrichment, without immediate practical use, and considered the worthy pursuit of a free or liberal mind; ‘liberal’ in the sense of ‘not servile or mechanical’.
PLUVIAL  (English adjective. Related to rainfall, especially a lot of rain.)
Note: The word came into English via French ‘pluvial’ around the 12th century. Forms also exist in Latin and Greek as well as in Old English ‘flowan’ (to flow). The PIE (Proto-Indo-European root is *pleu (to flow, to swim). Notice that *p has change to f in Germanic (part of Grimm’s Law) which is why the Old English form is ‘flowan’ and not ‘plowan’.
VOTATION  (English nominalization. A tally of votes as in an election. This word does not appear in standard English dictionaries; I read it via Twitter — a techie tweeted a tally of votes for various names for his new product, as in ‘the votation so far is …’.)
Note: The form is cited at http://www.urbandictionary.com where other related words are also listed. These forms are not yet attested, but obey rules of English morphology (word formation). These include: ‘votate’ ‘votator’ votating’ ‘votated’
HITHER  (English adverb. To or toward this place. ‘He whistled for the dog to come hither’.
Note: From the Old English form ‘hider’ (medial ‘d’ -> ‘th’ also transformed O.E. ‘fader’ to ‘father’) ‘Thither’ (to or toward that place) bears a parallel relation to ‘there’ as ‘hither’ to ‘here’.
ORGANELLE  (English noun. Any of a number of organized or specialized structures within a living cell.)
Note: From Latin ‘organum’ (instrument or tool). Mitochondria are one type of organelle within living eukaryotic cells with their own DNA, called mDNA.
THREADBARE (English adjective. Refers to cloth or fabric that is worn, shabby, tattered.) Attested from the 14th century; in weaving the vertically-stretched threads are covered over by the fluffier cross-woven nap, which if worn down, would tend to expose the threads, hence ‘baring (exposing) the threads.
COFFERDAM  (English noun. A watertight enclosure that is pumped dry to provide a work area below the waterline, as when repairing a ship or constructing a bridge.)
The word can be used as a verb – “…the idea was to cofferdam the blast.” R. Heinlein — Farnham’s Freehold (In this context, sandbags enclosing a tunnel of air were intended to serve as a cushioning structure for an explosive force.)
An apparent compound of ‘coffer’ and ‘dam’ – the verb ‘coffer’ (from French ‘coffrer’) means to enclose or secure, as in a coffer or chest. So, an enclosure that serves as a sort of dam to keep water out.
FILIGREE (English noun. Ornamental work using fine wires, usually of gold or silver. Also a verb in the sense of creating such delicate wire tracery.)
Note: The word is a shortened form of ‘filegreen’ (17th century) which entered via French ‘filigrane’ which took the word from Italian ‘filigrana’.  The Latin roots are ‘filum’ (thread) and ‘granum’ (grain).   Hmm, ‘threadgrain’ meaning ‘grains of thread’ is a nice image.
HORSEFEATHERS (English interjection. An exclamation of disbelief or disgust, assertion that something is nonesense. Coined in the early 20th century and is probably a euphemistic alternate for ‘horseshit’.  (So why ‘horse’ and ‘feathers’, and not ‘bull’ and ‘scales’?)
URSINE  (English adjective. Of or related to bears. From Latin ‘ursinus’ genitive of ‘bear’. Parallel forms exist for other animals: canine, feline, bovine, and equine.)
PREVARICATE (English verb. To speak or behave in an evasive or deceitful manner.)
Note: The current sense is attested from mid-17th century. Earlier, the word meant ‘to transgress or make a false accusation’. The Latin root means ‘walk crookedly’: prae (before) + varicari (straddle); varicari is derived from varus (knock-kneed, bent)
QUIRT  (English noun.  A short riding whip. Some issue as to its origin: either from Spanish ‘cuerda’ (cord, Latin ‘chorda’) or from Mexican Spanish ‘cuarta’ (whip). First attested in United States mid-19th century.)
PUNNET  (English noun. British usage. A small basket for holding fruits and vegetables, as ‘I bought a punnet of mushrooms’. The word is attested from mid-19th century and its origin is uncertain. A dialect variant of ‘pound’ (as a measure of weight) is ‘pun’ and it might be that ‘punnet’ is a diminutive of ‘pun’.)
TREACLE  (English noun. Content or observations that are overly-sentimental or excessively flattering. In British usage, it is a name for ‘molasses’.)
Note: The word entered English via Old French ‘triacle’ and originally meant ‘antidote against venomous animals’ in the 14th century. Sense of ‘molasses’ appears late 17th century and sense of ‘sweet or sentimental’ appears early 18th century. There is speculation that the connection between the meanings arose from molasses being used as a laxative (a sort of medicine or antidote) and that the sweetness of molasses was also used to disguise the flavor of certain medications.
HELVE  (English noun. The handle of an axe or weapon. From Old English ‘helfe’)
Note: In Old English, ‘v’ is an allophone (context-dependent variant of a sound) for ‘f’. Both sounds were written with the letter ‘f’ in OE — the modern spelling more closely reflects the pronunciation of the word, which would use ‘v’ between vowels and with voiced consonents.)
SHORTENING  (English noun. A general term to describe edible fats, e.g., lard, butter, and margarine, especially in the context of making pastries and cookies.)
Note: The noun is related to a 15th-century adjectival sense of ‘short’ (easily crumbled). The verb ‘shorten’ (to make crumbly) appears in the 18th century. Both ‘shortbread’ and ‘shortcake’ are related to this sense of ‘short’ as well.  Now you know why it’s ‘shortening’ and not, perhaps, the more appropriate ‘fattening’. 🙂
CHICLE  (English noun. A milky latex substance derived from the tropical Sapodilla tree, used in making chewing gum. Latin American Spanish took the word from the Nahautl (Aztec) word ‘tzictli’.)
EME (Middle English noun. Uncle, also spelled ‘eam’.)
Note: English’s sister languages retain versions of the older form: Dutch ‘oom’ (uncle) and German ‘Ohm’ (uncle). The PIE (Proto-IndoEuropean) form is *awo (grandfather or an adult male other than one’s father).
BOBA (English noun. A fairly recent word that refers to both a ‘bubble milk tea with tapioca balls’ and the ‘black tapioca balls’ themselves.)
Note: I’m not certain of the etymology of this word — I’ve found two different accounts of it: 1) the word is from the Chinese word 泡沫 that itself was derived phonetically from the English word ‘bubble’, 2) ‘Bo’ is Cantonese slang for ‘breast’ which refers to the milk used in the tea drink, and ‘boba’ is further slang which literally translates as ‘dominatrix of breasts’.
GAS  (English noun. The word was actually invented by a 17th-century alchemist, JB van Helmont, patterned after the Greek word ‘khaos’. Dutch ‘g’ approximates  Greek ‘kh’ as a sound. For Helmont the term referred to rarified vapor, and was different from ‘air’ — alchemy attempted to derive substances by purification processes of ‘essences’ of nature, Helmont was an experimenter and observer (he apparently discovered CO2), but did not work within the framework of the modern scientific method, nor have knowledge of molecules. ‘Gas’ took on its modern chemistry meaning in the 18th century in the context of working first with combustible vapors, ‘coal gas’ and later, sadly, ‘poison gas’. The extension to intestinal vapors is attested from late 19th century, and ‘gas’ referring to fuel for the car, appears in the early 20th century. ‘Gasoline’ (originally ‘gasolene’) was formed from the coined word ‘gas’ plus two chemical suffixes -ol (oil) and -ene (type of hydrocarbon))
LITOTES (English noun. Rhetorical device of expressing ironical understatement by negating the contrary of the intended meaning, e.g., “He isn’t poor” to imply “he’s very rich”)
Note: From Greek ‘litos’ (meager, plain). Litotes is one among many rhetorical devices defined and used from the time of the Greeks — other devices include irony, metaphor, anaphora, hyperbole, prolepsis, synecdoche and tautology. A more complete listing of such rhetorical devices with definitions and examples is given at http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/rhetoric.html
VIRIDIAN  (English noun. A green-blue pigment of hydrated chromium hydroxide, the color is more green than blue. Used as an adjective as a descriptive color term.)
Note: From the Latin ‘viridis’ (green) related to ‘virere’ (be green)
JOLLY  (English adjective. The attribute of being fun or happy.)
Note: Entered the language through Old French ‘jolif’ (festive, amorous, pretty) in the 14th century. The origins of the French word are less certain; possibly a Germanic loan word, perhaps related to Old Norse ‘jol’ (12-day winter heathen festival), or perhaps from Latin ‘gaudere’ (to rejoice). Is there a relationship between ‘yule’ and ‘jolly’? Old English ‘geal’ (Christmas day) corresponds to the Old Norse ‘jol’ described above. The ‘Jolly Roger’ referring to a pirate ship’s flag is of unknown origin, but is attested from mid 18th century and whose sense is believed to be the now-obsolete Middle English meaning of ‘gallant’. And, a slang sense of ‘Roger’ during this same time period referred to, ahem, a certain piece of male anatomy. Quite a semantic combo for a ship’s flag, if there’s anything to this analysis!
HURRICANE (English noun. A large violent storm, a cyclone originating off the coast of West Africa and often moving toward the Caribbean and sometimes northward. Winds exceed 74 mph (64 knots). These storms are seasonal, occurring June through October in the northern hemisphere.)
Note: The origin of the word is Arawakan, a language spoken by indigenous people of the Caribbean (Arawak) and meant ‘god of the storm’ (hurakán). There are numerous spellings of the word occurring both in Spanish and English; Spanish includes alternations of ‘huracan’ and ‘furacan’, ‘h’ and ‘f’ were frequently interchanged in word-initial position during the Spanish colonial era (e.g., references to both ‘Hernando’ and ‘Fernando’ Cortés). Among spellings recorded in earlier centuries of modern English are: forcane, herrycano, harrycain, and hurlecane.
PROBIOTIC (English noun. Microorganisms that are introduced into the body, usually by ingestion of an edible substance, and which provide healthful benefits to the body.)
Note: Contrast the term with ‘antibiotic’ which are organic substances that kill or inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms which inhabit the body. Etymologically, ‘biotic’ comes from Greek ‘biotikos’ (pertaining to life).
HONEY (English noun. A sweet, sticky golden fluid made by insects, e.g., bees, from the nectar of flowers and used to provide nutrition for the associated colony of insects.)
Note: The Old English form was ‘hunig’ and related Germanic forms were: ‘hunang’ (Old Norse), ‘honung’ (Swedish), and ‘honig’ (German).  A different (more widespread) word of IndoEuropean origin is represented by Gothic ‘miliþ’ from ProtoIndoEuropean *melith’ (honey). Spanish ‘miel’ is a derivative of this form.
WINDOW (English noun. An opening in a wall or structure, for viewing — usually filled with glass. The word is used metaphorically to mean anything which affords a view onto something. Also refers to a framed portion of the electronic display on a computer, in which specific processes and actions can be executed.)
Note: Derived from Old Norse vindauga -> vindr (wind) + auga (eye). Early Germanic homes had an open hole in the roof, the Old English word (which got replaced by O.N. vindauga) was eagduru (eye door). You have to wonder whether these openings tended to let the wind into the house. 🙂  Until the mid-seventeenth century, English used the Latinate fenester to refer to windows of glass; then ‘window’ eventually expanded into all contexts of usage
LEMMA  (English noun. An auxiliary proposition used to  support the validity of a logical or mathematical proof. Also, in linguistics, a ‘lemma’ is the canonical form used in referring to sets of morphologically-related words, e.g., in English, ‘be’ is the lemma that also represents the related verb forms: ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘being’.)
Note: The word is from Greek ‘lemma’, ‘lemmata’ (plural form) meaning ‘an argument assumed, given’. These are related to the root ‘lambanein’ (to take). The word ‘dilemma’ is also from Greek and had the original meaning (from rhetoric) of ‘two premises’.
ALOOF  (English adjective. A personal quality of being emotionally distant, conspicuously detached or uninvolved.)
Note: Another nautical origin here. A combination form from Middle English ‘a’ (directional term ‘to’ ‘toward’) + ‘luff’ (windward direction). Middle Dutch ‘lof’ meant ‘the weather side of the ship’, or the side of the ship from which the wind is blowing. ‘Aloof!’ (to windward!) was a command to steer the ship’s bow away from a dangerous leeward shore, or some other peril to be avoided. The sense was extended to mean ‘at a distance’ literally, then more figuratively to include its current emotional connotation.
OPOSSUM (English noun. A North American marsupial that has back feet with opposable ‘thumbs’ and a prehensile tail. As a defense, the animal can go into a coma-like state, appearing dead to would-be predators. The term ‘playing possum’ derives from this.)
Note: The English word is from Powhatan, an Algonquian language, and is a combination formed from ‘op’ (white) and ‘assom’ (dog). The animals are furry and possess white faces.
FORTNIGHT  (English noun. A period of time equal to two weeks.)
Note: A shortening from Old English ‘feowertyne niht’ (fourteen nights), which became ‘fourteniht’ during Middle English, and contracted to its current form in the 17th century. There was apparently an ancient Germanic tradition of measuring time spans by reckoning the number of nights.
CEREAL  (English noun. Edible grain, produced from a grass, such as wheat, corn and oats. The later, and more common usage, is a manufactured product of dried grains eaten for breakfast, often with milk.)
Note: The word comes from Latin ‘Cerealis’ (of grain), originally ‘of Ceres’; Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture. This form relates back to the ProtoIndoEuropean form *keres, with base *ker (to grow).
BAFFLE (English verb/noun. The primary verb sense is to bewilder or confuse, a secondary meaning is to dampen or restrain a process, as in ‘baffle a noise’. The noun sense of ‘baffle’ relates to the secondary verb sense; a ‘baffle’ is a device that constrains the passage or flow of a substance or light.)
Note: The word may be a Scots respelling of ‘bauchle’ which came from French ‘bafouer’ (to ridicule, abuse). There is speculation that the word has onomatopoeic origins in a ‘natural sound of disgust’ as ‘baf’ or ‘bah’. (There is German ‘baff machen’ (to flabbergast).) Further influences on the meaning come from sailors (where else!); ‘baffling’ as the adjective ‘bewildering’ was originally a description of squirrely, variable winds which made progress through the water difficult.
FREEBOOTER (English noun. A pirate or plunderer, robber. The word is from 16th-century Dutch ‘vrijbuiten’ (to plunder) itself a compound form from the Dutch words ‘vrij’ (free) and ‘buit’ (booty))
Note: The English word ‘filibuster’ is probably derived from the Dutch ‘vrijbuiten’ also via Spanish ‘filibustero’ or French ‘flibustier’ — references to 16th-century pirates in the Caribbean. The modern sense of ‘filibuster’ as legislative obstruction apparently came into usage in the mid-19th century, by analogy of pirating a debate.
PRETTY  (English adjective, adverb, noun, verb.  As an adjective it means attractive, pleasing to the eye, ‘what pretty flowers’; the noun refers to objects which possess such pleasing attribute, ‘leaving so soon, my pretty?’; the verb refers to the act of adding such attributes to an object, ‘I prettied up the front yard before the party’; the adverb (outlier here) refers to a moderate amount of degree of some attribute, ‘we were pretty tired’, ‘it’s a pretty good film’.)
Note: Old English ‘praettig’ (artful, cunning) shifted meaning toward ‘gallant, manly’ in Middle English. By the 15th century the term further evolved to ‘attractive, comely’. The adverbial sense is attested from about this time (15th century) and the verb appears later – early 20th century. It would be interesting to know how the word acquired its adverbial function.
LIMELIGHT  (English noun. An intense white light produced by the incandescence of burning lime. Figuratively, it refers to being at the center of attention.)
Note: The term is an alternate, popular name for the Drummond Light, invented in the early 19th century by the Scottish engineer, Captain Thomas Drummond. The brilliant light was originally used in lighthouses and later adapted to the Victorian stage, where it shone on the principal actors, who were thus, ‘in the limelight’.
BUNGLE (English verb/noun. To execute a task or deed in a clumsy, ineffectual manner, or (as noun) such a resulting clumsy execution.)
Note: Origins of the word are conjectured as either a conflation of ‘boggle’ and ‘bumble’, or possibly from the Swedish verb ‘bangla’ (to work ineffectually).
NOON  (English noun. A temporal word referring to midday or 12:00 p.m.)
Note: The word’s form in Old English was ‘non’ and at that time referred to 3 p.m., or the ‘ninth hour’ (Latin: nona hora) of daylight according to Roman reckoning. During the 12th century the word shifted its reference to 12 p.m., either because the Church at that time shifted midday prayers three hours earlier, or the convention of eating the midday meal shifted to that earlier time.
ATOLL (English noun. A ring-like coral structure, either a reef or an island, sometimes referring to a series of such islands.)
Note: The word is from the Divehi language spoken in the Maldives, coral islands lying to the west of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Incidentally, the name ‘Maldive’ comes from the phrase apparently common in many Indian languages, ‘mala div’, meaning ‘garland island’. An apt name indeed for a chain of beautiful atolls.
FOIBLE  (English noun. The weaker portion of a sword blade in fencing – from mid-blade to the point. The sense was metaphorically extended to refer to a character flaw or weakness in a person.)
Note: A borrowing from French, Old French ”foible/feble’ (feeble).
RIBOSOME  (English noun. A small molecular structure, consisting of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and proteins which are involved in the synthesis of polypeptides and proteins. Ribosomes are located in the cytoplasm (non-nucleus portion of a cell) of eukaryotic living cells.)
Note: The term was coined in the 1950s by R.B. Roberts as a combination form: ribo (ribonucleic acid) + -some (body, Greek ‘soma’)
DITHER (English noun/verb. Indecisive behavior or acting in an indecisive way. The computational meaning refers to a technique of averaging the available colors in a digital palate to approximate a color that is not actually available in the palate; the technique arranges various pixels in the actual palate into patterns that, from a viewing distance, achieve the appearance of the goal color.)
Note: the form’s origin may relate to obsolete dialectal forms from the 17th century: ‘didder’ and ‘dadder’.
FEDORA  (English noun. A low hat with a creased crown and short brim, the hat is usually made of felt or wool.)
Note: The hat’s name is taken from a drama written by the 19th-century French playwright, Victorien Sardou. Sarah Bernhardt sported a hat styled in this fashion (creased crown) in her performance of the play’s lead character, the Russian princess Fédora Romanoff. Women’s rights activists at the time then began to wear the hat style. Etymologically the Russian word comes from Greek ‘Theodoros’ ( ‘theos’ (god) ‘doron’ (gift)).  Whether these hats qualify as a gift from god remains open to opinion, but they have emerged in women’s fashions again in recent years. I certainly enjoy wearing my gray wool one on crisp October mornings. 🙂
SCARLET (English noun/adjective. A brilliant red color. A dated usage refers to sinful or immoral conduct, presumably the ‘red’ of shame.)
Note: The word seems to have a circuitous route going back to Latin ‘sigillatus’ (cloth decorated with small figures), through Arabic ‘siqillat’ (rich cloth) back through Middle Latin ‘scarlatum’ (cloth of scarlet) to Old French ‘escarlate’ (rich cloth – not necessarily red cloth, however.)
DOOHICKEY (English noun. A general name for any small object or gadget, often serves as a placeholder when the speaker does not know the name of the object. I recently saw the term ‘doohickery’ in print – referring to a whole class of gadgets associated with a recent electric car model.)
Note: The word was apparently coined in the 20th century (military personnel) as a blend of two separate words which refer to gadgets, ‘doodad’ and ‘hickey’.
EGREGIOUS (English adjective. Exceedingly bad or shocking.)
Note: The word’s meaning etymologically is opposite its current sense. The word is from Latin ‘ex’ (out of) + ‘grex/grege(ablative form) (flock, herd) and meant something outstanding, distinguished or exceptionally good, literally to stand out from the herd. Apparently, through ironic usage, the meaning reversed its polarity in the late 16th century.
BANTER  (English noun/verb. Playful, teasing exchange of remarks, conversation.)
Note: Attested from late 17th century and of unknown origin. A mystery word!
CHARACTEROLOGICAL (English adjective. Relating to the study of character, including its development and differences across different individuals.)
Note: The term is first attested in the early 20th century and is morphologically derived from ‘character’. ‘Character’ entered English via Old French, earlier passed through Latin from Greek ‘kharakter’ (a stamping tool) and metaphorically (imprint on the soul). Greek ‘kharassein’ (to engrave) and ‘kharax’ (pointed stake) are related to this noun. The original PIE root is *gher- (to scrape, scratch).
BLAIN (English noun. An inflamed swelling or sore of the skin.)
Note: From Old English ‘blegen’ (a sore). The term ‘chilblain’ attested from the 16th century is a compound of ‘chill’ and ‘blain’, a swelling or burning condition of, usually, an extremity caused by exposure to the cold.
KIOSK (English noun. A small service structure, often open in the front, where newspapers, refreshments or information is sold or obtained.)
Note: The word’s original meaning in the 17th century was ‘open pavilion’ and took on the narrow meaning of a small stand or enclosure from the 20th-century British usage of a ‘telephone kiosk’.  Borrowed from French ‘kiosque’ which was taken from Turkish ‘koshk’ from Persian ‘kushk’.
PITTANCE (English noun. An extremely small, often perceived as inadequately small, amount of money paid or received as a wage or salary.  “He made only a pittance as a part-time librarian.”
Note: The word came into English via Old French ‘pitance’ (small allotment of food piously given to a monk or poor person) from Latin ‘pitancia’, related to Latin ‘pietas’ (pity). In 13th century English, the word’s meaning referred to pious donations of extra food given to entire religious orders, such as monasteries.
EXFILTRATE (English verb. To withdraw personnel, e.g., troops or espionage agents, surreptitiously from a compromised position. The verb is expanding its usage to allow data in the role of object (not just people): “terrorists and military organizations are at work exfiltrating vast amounts of data from the U.S. public and private sectors.” (Wall Street Journal, 12/06/10.)
Note: This verb is a late 20th century back-formation from ‘exfiltration’; probably to parallel the existing ‘infiltrate’, ‘infiltration’.
UKASE (English noun. An arbitrary command, originally an edict from the Russian government, as from the Czar.)
Note: Entered English in 18th century. From the Russian ‘ukaz’ (edict) related to Old Church Slavonic ‘ukazati’ (‘u’ intensifier prefix + ‘kazati’  to show or order.)
CANNONADE (English noun/intransitive verb. A continuous volley or firing of artillery or big guns.)
Note: Mid-17th century term ‘cannon’ + ‘-ade’ borrowed from French ‘canonnade’. The suffix -ade denotes an action or product of an action. ‘Barricade’ is probably from ‘barrica’ (Spanish: barrel) + -ade. Is it that stacks of wooden barrels could have constituted a suitably obstructive structure? Other words on this pattern include ‘lemonade’ and ‘limeade’ from the result of extracting juice from citrus fruits. ‘Parade’ is from French ‘parade’ (display, show) and is related to the Latin verb ‘parer’ (to adorn, prepare, arrange). ‘Blockade’ may be a back-formation influenced by this pattern.
SWASHBUCKLING (English verb/adjective. Possessing a daring trait of personality, e.g., to undertake daring, romantic feats with bravado. The form is derived from the earlier ‘swashbuckler’ (a swaggering fighting man))
Note: The word is a compound form of ‘swash’ (a strike or blow) and ‘buckler’ (a shield). The noun form is attested from the 16th century and the adjectival form appears a century later. ‘Swash’ may be formed from ‘wash’ with a preceding intensifier ‘s’ added. The word could be an imitation of the sound of water hitting an object – a ‘swashbuckler’ was one who made threatening noises by striking his opponent’s shield.
REFULGENT (English adjective. The quality of shining brightly, often used now in a literary or poetic sense.)
Note: Entered English in the 16th century from Latin, apparently from the inflected form ‘refulgentem’ of the nominalization ‘refulgens’ which is the present participle of the Latin verb ‘refulgere’ (to flash back or reflect brilliantly); ‘re’ (back) + fulgere (flash).
PERTINACITY  (English noun. The quality of tenaciousness in holding a viewpoint or following through on a course of action. The adjective ‘pertinacious’ is probably more widely used than the noun.)
Note: Borrowed from Old French in the 16th century, the word comes from Latin ‘per’ (very) + ‘tenax’ (tenacious)
DESUETUDE (English noun. To be in a state of disuse. ‘The mill fell into desuetude after the railroad bypassed the town.’
Note: The word entered English through French; it is a Latin word formed with the preposition ‘de’ (away, from) and ‘suescere’ (become used to, accustomed to).
DRUPE (English noun. A botanical term that describes thin-skinned fruits which encase a central pit that contains the plant’s seed. Examples include the ‘stone fruits’ such as plums, cherries, apricots, peaches and also mangos, coffee plants and olives.)
Note: the word is used technically and is from Latin ‘drupa’ which was derived from Greek ‘dryppa’ which is a shortened form of ‘drypepes’ (tree-ripened): ‘drys’ (tree) + ‘pepon’ (ripe).
FECKLESS (English, adjective)  Of a person; the quality of feeble-mindedness, of an action; being careless or irresponsible. “The town’s feckless spending of its cash reserves led to a budget shortfall.”
Note: Attested from the 15th century the ‘word ‘feck’  is from northern English and Scots dialects and is a variant of ‘effeck’ (effect, value, vigor); ‘feck’ + ‘less’ is the absence of such qualities. The opposite term, ‘feckful’ has not survived into modern English. Too bad, I rather like it!
LEE (English noun) a location that provides shelter from the wind or weather, usually referring to either a piece of land or an object. For example, the lee side of a boulder could provide protection from the wind to a campsite. ‘Lee’ enjoys wide usage in nautical contexts. Somewhat counterintuitive to non-sailors, a ‘lee shore’ is coastline relative to a ship that faces the ship’s protected side, which means the wind (or weather) could blow the ship toward the shore and its rocks — a dangerous situation. The tendency for a sailboat to point its bow away from the wind is called ‘lee helm’ and the opposite, where the boat tends to point towards the wind is called ‘weather helm’. The Windward and Leeward Islands of the Caribbean similarly describe their position relative to the prevailing southeasterly winds, the Leewards being more downwind.
Note: The word comes from Old English ‘hleo’ (shelter) and has no known cognates outside of Germanic. Old Norse had ‘hly’ (shelter, warmth) and German has related ‘lau’ (tepid), so the meaning originally may have been ‘warm’.
ULLAGE (English noun) An approximate measure, an amount by which a container falls short of being full. It is often used today in the context of rare, old wines (from the 18th and 19th centuries) and refers to the amount of leakage or evaporation that has occurred since the bottle was originally filled and sealed.
Note: An Anglo-French form ‘ulliage’ from earlier Old French ‘euillier’ (to fill up). The related French word ‘ueil’ (eye)  is cognate with Latin ‘ochulus’ (eye). The association comes from the fact that barrels would be filled through a small orifice (bunghole or eye) and filled up to that orifice, so ‘fill to the eye’ is literally the original verb’s meaning. Apparently the nominal usage is cited from the 15th century, and the Anglo-Norman verb appears at least a century earlier. An example of the process of nominalization.
ECLIPTIC (English noun)  The sun’s apparent path across the celestial sphere in the course of a year, described as a great circle. The word comes to English from Greek and is related to the Greek word ‘ekleipein’ (fail to appear). An ‘eclipse’ is a kind of failure to appear — at least from the point of view of a human observer — and the name ‘ecliptic’ arises from the fact that both solar and lunar eclipses were observed to occur only when the moon’s path crossed the sun’s great circle path, hence the ‘ecliptic’.
INSOLATION (English noun)  The amount of radiation received from the sun over a given area for a given period of time.
Note: from the Latin ‘insolare’ — ‘in’ (toward) + ‘sol’ (sun)
AMEN  (English exclamation) A declaration of affirmation or assent, agreement with something. Often used at the end of a prayer or hymn.
Note: The word traces its root in Old English from earlier Ecclesiastical Latin ‘amen’, Greek ‘amen’ and Hebrew ‘amen’ (truth). In Old English the form is used as an expression of agreement (verily, surely, truly), but interestingly (Online Etymological Dictionary) Old English used ‘amen’ only in Gospels. In other Biblical texts, the expression used was Old English ‘Swa hit ys’ or ‘Soðlic!’ or ‘Sy!’
BLING  (English noun).  This current popular form is a shorter version of ‘bling-bling’.  Both terms refer to expensive or ostentatious jewelry and whose pronunciation is said to be imitative of the way light reflects off jewels. Origins are 1990s American rap slang.
Note: there is the German verb ‘blinken’ (to gleam, sparkle).
GALAXY (English noun)  A collection of stars (millions or billions) that form a structure based on their gravitational attraction. The structure includes gas and dust aggregates also. Our Milky Way is a giant spiral galaxy. Originally ‘galaxy’ only referred to our own system; astronomers by mid-19th century were speculating about the size and significance of distant spiral nebulae, but not until the early 20th century was ‘galaxy’ understood as a concept that applied to many objects across the visible universe.
Note: The word comes into English from Old French ‘galaxie’ based in turn on Late Latin ‘galaxias’ which was a borrowing from Greek ‘galaxias’.  The Greek phrase ‘galaxias kyklos’ (milky circle) relates to the Greek word ‘gala’ (milk), the genitive form is ‘gelaktos’ and is related to the word ‘lactation’. (The Latin expression for ‘Milky Way’ is ‘via lactea’.) With little light pollution in ancient times, the Mediterranean cultures must have indeed enjoyed a big milky circle in the night sky.
STEGANOGRAPHY (English noun) The craft of writing hidden messages in such a way that only the creator of the message and its recipient can know of the existence of the message. Note that this differs from encryption where a message may be detected by third parties, but not readable.  There is an interesting review on Wikipedia of the different techniques employed to hide messages.
Note: The word comes from two Greek forms, ‘steganos’ (covered) and ‘graphei’ (writing).
HAPPENSTANCE (noun, English)  A coincidence. “It was happenstance that we were both on the New-York-bound train that morning.”
Note: A combination of ‘happen’ and ‘circumstance’.  The verb ‘happen’ is formed from the English noun ‘hap’ which meant ‘chance, fate’.

1 Response to Word Archive

  1. Eugene Seidel says:

    Hi Ann, every one of these words is a gem. You are very good at making their facets sparkle. Bookmarked 🙂

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