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These are the words you could find on this page:
Aborigine, Agoraphobia, Archipelago, Assay, Augur, Avuncular, Bedlam, Bijou, Bravura, Bush, Captious, Cavil, Charley horse, Cloying, Edentulous, Fete, Flabbergast, Fusillade, Gonfalon, Grok, Guinea pig, Gumshoe, Heckle, High jinks, Hokum, Hortatory, Hubris, It's a dog's life, Lilliputian, Linchpin, Louche, Love, Maudlin, Mediocre, Moxie, Natty, Obsequious, Orotund, Paragon, Paroxysm, Perdition, Peripatetic, Podunk, Postulate, Robot, Saccade, Schadenfreude, Scion, Semaphore, Sinuous, Solstice, Sturm und Drang, Sutler, Swashbuckler, Tabula rasa, Tenterhooks, Turgid, Voluble, Wainscot, Weird

Aborigine [n. ab-uh-RIJ-uh-nee]
An aborigine is someone who belongs to a tribe or race that was the earliest known to inhabit a certain area. Those most often thought of as aborigines are Australians, but there are also American, African, and Japanese aborigines, and many others all around the world.
This word's origin involved "folk etymology," in which a word evolves to match an incorrect understanding of its origin. In this case, there was a tribe that inhabited some areas of Italy before the Roman civilization appeared. The tribe's name sounded similar to a Latin phrase, "ab origines" (from the beginning).
Since the tribe had been there "from the beginning," or at least since before the Romans arrived, they became known by the Romans as the Aborigine. Today, aborigines in general are any people who have been present in an area since prehistoric times.
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Agoraphobia [n. ah-GORE-ah-FOE-bee-uh]
An abnormal fear of open or public spaces is known as agoraphobia. For example, "Ralph never leaves the house because of his agoraphobia." Someone who suffers from agoraphobia is called an agoraphobe.
Agoraphobia comes from the Greek word agora, which referred to an open space where people could assemble, and phobia, the Greek term for an irrational fear or aversion.
There are many other cool words using the suffix -phobia. Here are more:
claustrophobia: fear of enclosed spaces
acrophobia: fear of heights
nyctophobia: fear of the dark
xenophobia: fear and hatred of strangers or people of foreign origin
arachnophobia: fear of spiders
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Archipelago [n. ar-kuh-PEL-uh-go]
Usually, an archipelago is a group of many nearby islands, but it can also be a sea that contains many islands. Example: "We spent many happy weeks sailing among the islands of the Philippine archipelago."
The original archipelago was the Aegean Sea, a narrow body of water that separates Italy from southeastern Europe. The Greeks called it arkhipelagos, a compound of arkhi- (great) and pelagos (sea). The Romans called it arcipelagus, and in Italian it is still called Arcipelago.
The Greek prefix arkhi- came from arkhein (to begin; to rule). It has become part of other "great," "beginning," or "ruling" words, including these:
architect: the principal designer of a building
archaic: of the distant past; no longer current or applicable
archangel: a high-ranking angel
archetype: original model or design; prototype
archive: a collection of historical documents
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Assay [v., n. ASS-ay / ass-AY]
To assay a task is to mentally evaluate your ability to do it. To assay can also be to chemically analyze a substance, and an assay is the act of assaying, or it is the result of a chemical assay. Example: "I stood at the base of the sheer wall, assaying my climbing ability."
This word looks like essay, another verb with a similar meaning, and both are from the same root. To essay is to evaluate your ability by actually attempting something, as opposed to mentally deciding. It's a subtle difference that is not always honored in practice, and the two words may be evolving into one. In fact, some dictionaries do not show the difference.
Both words come from Old French essai (test; effort), from Late Latin exagium (act of weighing). That's from the prefix ex- (out) with agere (to drive).
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To augur is to predict something will happen. Near synonyms include divine, prognosticate, foretell, presage, and foreshadow.
Another sense has the verb serving as a sign of good or bad things in the future. Example: "The storm clouds on the horizon do not augur well for the outdoor wedding ceremony."
In ancient Rome there were augures who were official diviners. Even today the noun form of augur refers to those who can foretell events. The Romans were keen believers that prophets could foretell events by a variety of means including studying celestial phenomena or the behavior of birds or animals. Roman officials would seek guidance of these soothsayers before making public policy or going to war.
Augury, a variation of augur, entered the English language in the 14th century. It describes the practice of predicting the future based on signs or omens.
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Avuncular [adj. ah-VUNG-kyu-ler]
Someone who is kind and friendly, particularly an older man who is attentive to young people, could be described as avuncular. Example: "The doctor showed avuncular concern for his patients."
The word, which refers literally to the attributes of an uncle, is also used to refer to characteristics associated with the genial relative. Near synonyms include caring, helpful, benevolent, and warmhearted.
It is derived from the Latin avunculus for maternal uncle, which was a variation of avus for grandfather. This word can also be used as an adverb (avuncularly) or noun (avuncularity).
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Bedlam [n. BED-lum]
Bedlam describes a noisy lack of order, a scene of confusion. Near synonyms include: chaos, pandemonium, hubbub and uproar. Example: "When the referee awarded the penalty kick, complete bedlam broke out among the home team's fans."
The word is a corruption of Bethlehem the popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary Bethlehem in London, England, which was used to house the mentally ill. In 1403, the asylum became Britain's first to exclusively serve this purpose.
Bedlam is capitalized when used as a noun describing a lunatic asylum. It was also used in the early 16th century to refer to an insane person. Madmen were labeled Tom O'Bedlams. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a Tom O'Bedlam.
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Bijou [n., adj. BEE-jhoo]
Bijou is a jewel of a noun that refers to a small and delicately crafted ornament, usually a piece of jewelry. The plural is bijous or bijoux. A bijouterie is a collection of these trinkets and ornaments.
The dainty adjective describes something delicate, elegant, or highly prized. It is something that is small but still attractive and fashionable. Example: "The street was lined with bijou cafes, bars and buildings."
In use in the English language since the late 17th century, bijou is taken from the Breton bizou (ring) which was derived from the Breton biz (finger).
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Bravura [adj. & n. brah-VYU-rah]
When you go to see a show, you hope that the actors will give a bravura performance. This word refers to a self-assured, brilliant showing. Example: "The singer's bravura display captivated the audience."
Upon seeing an artist's bravura efforts you may be inclined to shout out bravo, the Italian word for excellent from which bravura was derived. The use of both words in English can be traced to the late 18th century.
While the noun can refer to any brilliant skill, it is most often used in the context of an artistic performance. Near synonyms include virtuosity, dash, brilliance, spirit, vigor and daring.
Bravura is not always good, though. Its negative sense refers to something done with a showy manner or someone taking unnecessary action to make their performance appear more exciting or clever.
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Bush [n. BUSH]
A bush is a small shrub that has many branches, or it can be a thicket. Collectively, the bush is the wildest backwoods, land that is far from human settlement. A person can also have a bush of hair, which is a wild, unruly shag.
This word came from the ancient Germanic root busk by three separate paths that became re-united in English. Old English busc (bush) combined with Old French bois (wood) and a Scandinavian root that led to Danish busk (bush), giving our modern word.
Also from the same root is bouquet, from Old French bosquet (thicket), the diminutive of bosc (forest). The latter also led to English bosky (wooded), while Old French embuschier gave English ambush (to attack by surprise from cover).
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Captious [adj. KAP-shus]
If an argument or question is captious, it is designed to trap the unwary into a calculated line of reasoning. Someone who is captious is a person who tends to point out faults and objections, especially if that person is ill-tempered and argumentative. Example: "At first we were taken in by Simon's apparently earnest objections, but then we realized they were captious attempts to derail the project."
Captious sounds like capture, and the resemblance is no accident. Both words trace back to Latin capere (to take or sieze). That Latin word also had a sense of deception or sly manipulation through cunning arguments. To be captious is to sieze control of an argument by introducing critical comments designed to entrap the attention and lead it in chosen directions.
The same Latin root has given us a large family of words, including capable, capacious, caption, captive, captor, capture, catch, conceive, deceive, except, municipal, occupy, participate, perceive, and susceptible.
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Cavil [v., n. KA-vul]
To cavil is to raise trivial, frivolous objections, to find fault unnecessarily. Such an objection is a cavil, and someone who cavils is a caviler [n. KA-vuh-lur]. Example: "Although the committee's list was long, most of their comments turned out to be petty cavils that were easily dismissed."
A cavil is usually lighthearted, and maybe even a bit silly. Near synonyms with slightly more negative meanings include quibble, bicker, nit-pick, and split hairs.
If someone cavils, you might think they are joking. In fact, joking and jest gave rise to cavilling, since the word comes from Latin cavillari (to jest), from cavilla (raillery; teasing or ridicule). From Latin, the word moved into Old French, then appeared in English by the mid 1500s, and has not changed much since then.
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Charley horse [n. CHAR-lee HORS]
A charley horse is a sudden, involuntary cramp in a muscle, especially in the leg or arm. It is painful, and may take several weeks to heal. This informal name for a severe muscle strain or sprain is most often used in connection with athletes, especially baseball players.
The phrase first appeared in the 1880s. No one knows the exact origin but there are two fairly popular theories. The first, which is probably not true, relates the phrase to a race horse named Charley or Charlie who was allegedly lamed by the affliction.
A more likely story is that the phrase referred to a baseball player named Charley Radbourne who fell prey to a muscle cramp during a game in 1880. Radbourne's nickname was "Old Hoss."
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Cloying [adj. KLOY-ing]
If something is cloying then it is so sweet, rich, or sentimental that it is disgusting or distasteful. It's too much of a good thing. There is also the verb to cloy, which is to digust with excess. Example: "Wherever she went, Madame Bouve was accompanied by an overwhelming cloud of cloying, jasmine-scented perfume."
While today's sense of cloying involves an excess of something that might be desirable in smaller amounts, its roots reveal a harsher history. To cloy was once to clog, and before that the word referred to the act of accidentally pricking the foot of a horse with a nail during the process of shoeing.
Middle English acloien (to make lame) was the source, from Old French encloer (to drive a nail), ultimately from Medieval Latin inclavare (to nail in). Through the years, this word has evolved from a penetrating spike to a penetrating sweetness.
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Edentulous [adj. ee-DEN-chu-lus]
If you have no teeth you are edentulous. Example: "The edentulous dog at the Harvey household posed no threat to the postman."
The word may not have much bite, but it has been in our vocabulary since the late 1700s. It comes from the Latin edentulus. It uses the prefix e- or ex- which meant missing or absent and the Latin dent- (tooth).
Other words using the dent- root include:
dentist: the person who offers plastic toys for good brushing habits
dentures: an artificial set of teeth
dentifrice: a powder or paste for cleaning teeth
denturist: someone who fits and repairs dentures
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Fete [n., v. FAYT / FET]
A fete is a large, elaborate party, festival, or celebration, often held outdoors and often in honor of some person. To have a fete held in your honor is to be feted. Example: "The yacht club spared no expense to celebrate its founder's birthday, and held a huge fete for its four hundred members."
A fete is a festival that often includes a feast. It's also a time of great festivity. All of these words emerged in the 19th century from the same ancestor, Old French feste (festival).
The original Latin root was festus (festive), which was also the source of festoon (party decoration; to decorate) and Spanish fiesta (holiday, time of celebration).
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Flabbergast [v. FLAB-ur-gast]
If you are flabbergasted, then you are utterly astounded, overcome with astonishment. Near synonyms include dumbfounded and dumbstruck. Example: "I was flabbergasted when the lights came on and suddenly everyone started singing 'Happy Birthday.'"
Little is known about the origins of this curious word, which has been part of the language since at least the 1700s. It is a compound word whose second part might be related to Middle English gasten (to terrify), source of aghast, ghost, and ghastly.
The first half of the word is more difficult to pin down. Two theories have been suggested. Maybe flabber- is related to flabby, implying that someone who is flabbergasted is so surprised they shake like jelly. Or perhaps flabber- is from flap, in the sense that something surprising is something that "causes a flap" (makes a big scene). This word will probably remain mysterious forever.
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Fusillade [n. FYU-seh-lod]
A fusillade is a number of shots fired simultaneously or in rapid succession. Near synonyms include salvo, volley and burst.
In common usage this military term describes a sudden large outpouring or barrage of something, especially an outburst of criticism. Example: "The press corps met the mayor with a fusillade of questions."
Fusillade is related to fuse (a tube or casing which explodes when a charge is ignited), fusil (a light kind of flintlock musket formerly in use) and fusileer (a soldier armed with a fusil). All of these share the root word fusiller, which is the French verb to shoot.
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Gonfalon [n. GON-fuh-lon]
A gonfalon is a flag, but only if it is suspended from a horizontal bar rather than a vertical mast. Most gonfalons are seen at the heads of religious or military processions. Sometimes a gonfalon's cross-shaped support is held by a person called a gonfalonier [n. GON-fuh-luh-NYIR].
The first gonfalons were displayed in medieval Italy as part of religious observances. The Italian word was gonfalone, from the Germanic compound gund-fanon (battle flag). The first part of that came from gundjo (war, battle), which also was the source of English gun by way of Old Norse gunnr (war).
Behind all of these words was the ancient root gwhen (to kill; strike). The same root also led to other words related to war, destruction, or threat. These include bane, German Bahn (road; originally, a road forcefully hacked through the woods), defend, fence, and offend.
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Grok [v. GROK]
To grok something is to understand it so profoundly that its nature is intuitively clear to you. Example: "Although Professor Sweeny could describe the math of quantum physics, he admitted that he did not really grok its subtle weirdness."
There are very few words in English that came from an extraterrestrial source, but grok is one of them. In this case, it is from the language of fictional Martians in Robert Heinlein's 1961 science fiction novel, "Stranger In A Strange Land." The book's main character is Michael Valentine Smith, a human raised by Martians, who brings the word to Earth.
When Heinlein's book became popular, the word spread among young people, and today it has become a well established part of the language, heard especially among the many new readers of Heinlein's classic science fiction stories.
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Guinea pig [n. GIN-ee pig]
A guinea pig is a small, furry animal in the genus Cavia. A guinea pig can also be called a Cavy. Guinea pigs are sometimes used for scientific research. As a result, a person who is a subject of scientific experiments might also be called a guinea pig.
You might think that a guinea pig is a pig from the West African country of Guinea or the island of New Guinea (near Australia). But they are not pigs. They are rodents from South America.
Cavies were originally called Guiana pigs [guy-AN-uh pigs] by sailors who purchased them on the island of Dutch Guiana (now called Surinam), which is off the coast of South America. Over time, the word changed to its current form.
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Gumshoe [n. GUM-shoo]
We now use the word gumshoe to informally describe a person who works as a private investigator or detective but the original gumshoe was quite literally something people would wear on their feet.
Gumshoes in the late 1800s were shoes or boots made of gum rubber. Precursors to contemporary sneakers, these shoes were soft-soled and quieter than other shoes available at the time. At the start of the 1900s, "to gumshoe" meant to sneak around quietly.
Later the word referred to either thieves or the police who caught the crooks. By 1908 the word almost exclusively described the good guys, the people who investigated the crimes by acting stealthily or surreptiously.
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Heckle [v. HEH-kul]
To heckle is to call out loud, unfriendly statements during a performance or a public presentation. Near synonyms include badger, plague, torment, taunt, hassle and harass. Example: "When the audience started to heckle, the unfortunate comedian was at a loss for words."
Heckle is a variant of the Scottish word hekelen which in the 14th century described the work of combing flax. While heckle is still a word for dressing flax or hemp, the teasing sense is more common. In the 19th century, heckle referred to interrupting and jeering at public officals but today the audience at all kinds of events can be heard heckling when they are frustrated with a call, a comment, or bored by a joke.
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High jinks, hijinks [n. hy-jinks]
High jinks are rowdy, noisy, playful activities, often including humorous, mischievous pranks or practical jokes. Example: "It was traditional on campus to stage all sorts of elaborate, creative high jinks on April Fool's Day."
The original high jinks were rowdy drinking games in seventeenth century Scotland, in which dice were rolled to choose who would have to perform some kind of silly action, down a large drink, or suffer some kind of forfeit. Today the term has broadened to include any sort of playful tomfoolery.
No one seems to know the origin of jinks, but for centuries a jink has been a sudden change of direction by one who is being pursued. The word can also be a verb, as in "he jinked to the left into a blind alley." Maybe there is a connection with high jinks in the unpredictable nature of drinking games.
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Hokum [n. HOE-kum]
Something that appears to be impressive or legitimate but turns out to be untrue is hokum. Near synonyms include: utter nonsense, bunk, and claptrap.
Originally theatrical slang, hokum traces back to between 1915 and 1920. Even today it refers to a stock technique or certain props onstage designed to elicit a sentimental response from the audience.
The noun is believed to be a combination of the words hocus-pocus (words used in conjuring) and bunkum (insincere speechmaking).
The adjective hokey (HO-key), which describes something silly, corny, or sappy, was formed from the word hokum. It was first recorded in 1927.
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Hortatory [adj. HOR-tuh-tor-ee]
If a speech or writing is hortatory, then it carries a quality of strong urging. Example: "Frank's speech was studded with hortatory exclamations, in which he urged us to get involved to save the rainforest."
A related synonym is hortative [adj. HOR-tuh-tiv], which can also be a noun naming a communication that is hortatory. Both of these words came from the Latin hortari (to encourage).
Also from hortari, combined with the Latin prefix ex- (more so; intensely), we have these closely related words:
exhort [v. ig-ZORT]: urge strongly; appeal urgently
exhortative [adj. ig-ZORT-uh-tiv] intended to encourage or incite
exhortatory [adj. ig-ZORT-uh-tor-ee]: exhortative
exhortation [n. eg-zor-TAY-shun]: an exortative speech or writing
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Hubris [n. HYOO-bris]
Someone who suffers from hubris has exaggerated pride and belief in their own self worth. Example: "It was hubris that brought about his downfall."
This inflated pride or overblown self-confidence is not seen as a positive attribute. Near synonyms include arrogance, presumption and haughtiness.
In classical Greek thought, hubris was what motivated someone to disregard the limits governing human action. The person with hubris (or hybris, using the original Greek word) would usually end up paying for their excess. The proverb "pride comes before a fall," echoes the Greeks' moralizing about hubris.
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It's a dog's life
If you say "it's a dog's life," what you mean might depend on how old you are. In modern western civilization most dogs have it pretty good. They get plenty to eat, a warm place to sleep, and lots of love. So a young person who uses this phrase usually means that life is good.
But in the past dogs were work animals and they often worked very hard. They were expected to earn their keep doing service as herders, guards, and many other functions. Most dogs did not have an easy life and older people who use this phrase usually mean that life is difficult, a sense that has survived since the phrase's origins in the sixteenth century. Other expressions that reflect this view include "it's a dog eat dog world," "dog tired," and "die like a dog."
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Lilliputian [n. or adj. lil-uh-PYOO-shun]
If something is Lilliputian, it is miniature or undersized. Example: "The dining room table in Jane's doll house was set with Lilliputian plates, cups and silverware." The word can also describe something trivial or petty. It is not always capitalized, particularly when used as a noun.
The word is from English satirist Jonathan Swift's novel "Gulliver's Travels" in which Gulliver finds himself the giant prisoner of the six-inch-high inhabitants of Lilliput. The Lilliputians refer to him as "Man-Mountain."
Swift also coined some other words in his book. The Yahoos were a race of sub-humans Gulliver encountered, and a Yahoo is a brutish or boorish person. Brobdingnag was a nation of giants, and something really huge might be described as Brobdignagian.
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Linchpin [n. LINCH-pin]
The linchpin is an important component holding something together. It refers to someone or something that is essential in a larger whole. Example: "The pitcher is the linchpin of the baseball team."
Linchpin is named after the locking pin inserted through the end of an axle or shaft. In Middle English the lynspin held the wheel on the carriage. The word is derived from the Old English lynis (axle) and pin. It was Modern English speakers who started saying the word as linchpin and began using it figuratively.
Near synonyms include anchor, mainstay and backbone.

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Someone who is louche has questionable taste or morals, or they could be lacking in respectability. If you're imagining a squint-eyed character who makes you suspicious or anxious you're not far off from this word's origins. Louche is a borrowed French word (meaning cross- eyed) derived from the Latin luscus which literally meant blind in one eye.
First used in the English language in the early 19th-century, louche refers to character, behavior, or appearance. It can also describe something that is less than decent. Example: "The louche air of the hotel room left Lucy fantasizing about a suite at the Four Seasons."
Near synonyms include shady, shifty, indecent, and disreputable.
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Love [n., v. LUV]
Deep, tender affection, romantic attraction, a sense of oneness, intense desire, infatuation, sexual feelings, emotional attachment, and an enthusiastic predilection can all be called love, and to love is to feel or express any of these.
It is not surprising that such an important word is very old, with many modern cousins. From the ancient Indo-European root leubh came a large family of words including Old English lufu, which led to love. Also in the family are libido, believe, livelong, leave, and furlough, as well as German liebe (love) and archaic English adjective lief (dear; beloved; precious).
A zero score in a game of tennis is also called love. This arose from the French expression l'oeuf (the egg), which referred to the round numeral. After the game was invented in Britain, it became popular in France. British tennis fanciers picked up the expression there and adapted it into English.
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Do you know someone who is easily moved to tears? If so, you can describe them as maudlin. Anyone who is effusively sentimental is maudlin. Near synonyms include weepy, syrupy, mawkish, and mushy. Example: "Anne had a tendency to get maudlin when looking through family photo albums."
Maudlin is derived from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, the weeping sinner who washed Jesus' feet with her repentant tears. According to the Bible she was present at Christ's crucifixion and was the first to meet with him after he had risen from the dead. In religious paintings of the Middle Ages she was often shown with red eyes or crying.
By the 16th century Magdalene had gradually eroded into maudlin which the English used to describe someone who was in a tearful drunken state. This second sense of maudlin, describing someone who has had so much to drink that they are emotionally silly or sad about life in general, remains in contemporary use.
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Mediocre [adj. me-de-O-kur]
Mediocre describes something of ordinary or moderate quality, value, or ability. It is neither good nor bad but indifferent. Near synonyms include: so-so, middling, average, and run-of-the-mill. Example: "The opening band's mediocre set was overshadowed by the headliner's enthusiastic performance."
This adjective has been in use in English since the 16th century. It was borrowed, through French, from the Latin mediocris (in a middle state, literally at middle height). Medius is the Latin for middle and ocris was Old Latin for a rugged mountain. Medius is also the root word for medium (the middle point between extremes), mid (something in a middle position), and median (situated in the middle).
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Moxie [n. MOX-ee]
If you have moxie, then you are able to bravely face difficulty with spirit and courage, or you show aggressive energy and take the initiative. Example: "Of all Mary's wonderful qualities, my favorite is the simple moxie with which she confronts each new challenge in life."
Moxie was the name of a fizzy, potently stimulating beverage, first introduced in Maine in 1876 and still sold today (see today's Cool Fact, linked below). By the 1920s, the word was used informally to describe guts, courage, and spunky nerve.
How did the drink gets its name? One of the ingredients of the original Moxie (sold as a medical nerve tonic) was wintergreen, an herb known as moxie in those times. The word came from the Algonquin Indian root maski- (medicine).
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Natty [adj. NA-tee]
Natty describes someone who is smart in dress and manners. It is a slang word meaning trimly neat and tidy. Example: "Jim was a natty dresser with his shirts freshly pressed and his shoes shined."
This well-groomed word entered the English language in the 18th century. Its source was the word netty which had a similar meaning in the 16th century. Netty was derived from the Middle English word net which meant tidy or clean.
Natty is just one way to say someone looks good. Near synonyms include dapper, dashing, rakish, smart, snappy, spruce and stylish. There are also adverb (nattily) and noun (nattiness) forms.
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Obsequious [adj. ob-SEE-kwee-us]
You've just won the spelling bee by getting the word obsequious right. If someone flattered and complimented you afterwards, offering to carry your books or to do some other favor, their behavior might be described as obsequious.
Someone who is obsequious is overly attentive and ready to serve. Near synonyms are fawning, servile, subservient, deferential, ingratiating and bootlicking. Example: "The obsequious car salesman complimented the customer's taste and intelligence."
Taken from the Latin obsequium for compliance, this word has at its center the Latin sequi- which means to follow. This root also gives us sequence, sequel, consecutive and consequence.
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Orotund [adj. ORE-ah-tuhnd]
If someone speaks in full and rich tones you could describe their speaking style as orotund. This person could also have a strong, imposing voice and clear delivery. Example: "His orotund voice was music to my ears." Near synonyms include resonant, resounding, and sonorous.
The negative sense of orotund, refers to a pretentiously grand style of writing or expression. Near synonyms of this sense include pompous, bombastic, grandiose, overblown and inflated.
Orotund, a modification of the Latin ore rotundo (with rounded mouth), has a noun (orotundity) and adverb (orotundly) form as well.
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If you never could describe what made the teacher's pet so special this word should help. That special student was likely a paragon, someone who has a particularly large amount of a positive characteristic (as in virtue, honesty, or discretion).
A paragon is the model of excellence. A peerless example of some particular trait, a paragon is perfection of a kind. Near synonyms include model, standard, and archetype. Example: "Linda was well- respected because she was a paragon of discretion."
While it is certain this adjective is ideal, its origins are unclear. It is likely taken from the Greek parakonon, a verb formed from para (alongside) and akonan (sharpen). Instead of comparing someone against another person, the Greeks would "sharpen" them against others. Today, we're left with a paragon sharpening the teacher's pencils while the rest are compared with this virtuous student.
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Paroxysm [n. PAR-ox-sih-zem]
A paroxysm is a fit, attack, or convulsion. It can also describe a sudden violent action or uncontrollable outburst of emotion. "She went into paroxysms of joyful laughter every time she looked at her new engagement ring."
The earliest use of paroxysm in English is in the 15th century when it denoted agitation or intensification of a disease or its symptoms. Paroxysm is still used this way in today's medical terminology.
The noun is derived from the ancient Greek paroxynein (to stimulate, to irritate). It is a compound of the prefix para- and oxunein (to sharpen). Oxunein is a variation on oxys (acidic, sharp), which is also the root, via French, of the word oxygen.
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Perdition is the loss of one's soul, as described in various religions. Example: "Threatened with perdition, Carrie struggled to be good." Near synonyms include destruction, devastation, havoc, ravage, wrack and ruin, and misery.
This infernal noun can also refer to the destination of doomed souls. It is another way to describe hell, Hades, or the underworld.
Perdition entered Middle English from the Old French perdiciun which originated in Latin. Its origins can be traced back to the verb perdere which meant to lose.
Perditionable, an adjective form, refers to something or someone capable of being ruined.
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Peripatetic may sound like something you don't want to catch, but all it refers to is someone who moves around a lot. Near synonyms include itinerant, migrant, wandering, roving, and rambling. Example: "As the daughter of an Army officer, Emily had a peripatetic childhood."
Used precisely, peripatetic describes someone who is given to walking. It comes from the Greek peripatein which meant walking around. The Greek prefix peri- means around.
The noun peripatetic refers to someone who walks, a pedestrian. Perhaps the most famous peripatetic is Aristotle. The Greek philosopher's followers would learn their lessons walking beside him as he paced the shady lanes of the garden at the Lyceum. His students came to be called peripatetikos.
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"If you don't study hard you could end up someplace like Podunk University," Jeff's parents threatened.
What is it about Podunk that might make a reluctant student hit the books? In the example above, and in contemporary figurative use of this noun, Podunk describes a small, unimportant town. Used to refer to a place of geographical obscurity, Podunk is synonymous with Anywhere-USA or Nowhere-USA.
The location of the original Podunk is unclear. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and New York are among the American states that can lay claim to a Podunk. The word itself, which first was used figuratively in the mid-19th century by a newspaper journalist, appears to have come from an Algonquin word. It was either the name of a tribe in Connecticut or a generic term for a swampy place.
Native Americans can be thanked for many other words in our vocabulary. They include:
caucus: private meeting of leaders of a political party
toboggan: sled
moccasins: shoes or slippers
plantain: an overgrown banana chiefly used in cooking
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Postulate [v. POS-chu-layt / n. POS-chu-lit]
To postulate is to assume (for the sake of argument) the truth of some statement or idea, or it can be to make a demand or claim. A postulate is a presumed fact, something that is given as true without proof, or it can be a requirement or prerequisite for something. Example: "'Let us postulate,' began Holmes, 'that the thief entered through the air duct.'"
The original use of this word in English was the verb form, which came from the Latin postulare (demand; request). Roman logicians used the word to name any statement in a proof that was so basic and obvious that it "demanded" to be taken as true. A similar word is axiom, an unproven statement that is always taken as true.
The noun form of the word evolved in the 1600s. A related word is postulant [n. POS-chu-lint] (one who submits a request or application; one who applies for a religious office).
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Robot [n. ROW-bot]
A robot is a mechanical or electronic device that performs some kind of useful work. Some robots are humanoid in form, but most are not. The science of robots is called robotics [n. row-BOT-iks].
The first robots were fictional characters in "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)," a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek. He based the name for his mechanical slaves on the Czech word robota (forced labor, drudgery), a word from the same root as the German arbeit (work). The word was adopted into German, and then into English by 1923.
Today, robots are everywhere, even in cyberspace. A recent variant of the word is bot (a network-based software program that runs independently, making its own decisions and interacting with humans or other bots).
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Saccade [n. sah-KAHD]
When we look at something, our eyes do not stand still. If they did, we would not be able to see what we are looking at. Instead, our eyes move rapidly around over a small area of the scene, making quick, short movements called saccades.
The word for these movements was imported directly from French, where it names a twitch or spasmodic jerk. It's from Old French saquier (to pull), which is from sac (sack). The idea was that a twitch was like the sudden jerk when something is pulled quickly from a sack. Another word from the same French root is saccate [adj. SAK-ayt] (shaped like a pouch or sack).
The original root of all these words was Latin saccus (bag).
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Taking malicious satisfaction in another person's troubles is schadenfreude. Even though there may be some guilt involved, this noun comes in handy when someone feels glee or gloats over another person's suffering. Example: "She had a feeling of schadenfreude when the boy who dumped her was unable to find a date for the prom."
Sometimes capitalized, schadenfreude is a compound of two German words: schaden (damage) and freude (joy). Although this word was in use in the German language early in the 19th century, its first appearance in English is thought to be 1895.
Other German words used in the English language include:
kindergarten: from kinder for child and garten for garden
waltz: from walzen which meant to dance
realpolitik: political realism, taken from real and politik
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Scion [n. SIGH-un]
A child is the scion of his or her parents. Near synonyms include descendant, issue, heir, progeny and offspring. Example: "It is often noted that presidential candidate George W. Bush is the scion of a former Republican president."
Scion is an offshoot of the Middle English word, taken from the Old French cion, that meant to sprout or split open. Both were likely derived from the Latin secare (to cut). In literary usage, a scion is usually the young member of a rich, famous or distinguished family.
Another sense of the word scion describes a shoot of a plant, especially one taken from another for replanting. A branch or portion of a tree growing from such a shoot is called a graft. The word graft is taken from the Latin graphium, (to write) and was named this because of the resemblance of a scion to a pointed pencil.
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Semaphore [n. SEM-uh-for]
A semaphore is a system to send messages that uses flags, lights, or mechanical arms to encode the message. Before the invention of the electric telegraph semaphore messaging systems extended across Europe and America. In computer science a semaphore is a storage location that contains a value indicating whether some process has finished.
The word is a compound of two Greek roots. The first half is sema-, from sema (sign), which also was the root of semiology (the science of signs and sign language) and semiotic (relating to semantics, the study of meaning).
The second half is -phore, a suffix that generally relates to carrying or bearing. It's from Greek pherein (to carry). Another "carrying" word is chromatophore (a color-containing cell in a living organism).
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Sinuous [adj. SIN-yuh-wus or SIN-you-us]
Sinuous has several different meanings. For instance, something that has a wavy form or is abounding in curves, (such as a snake) is sinuous.
Sinuous also describes someone or something that moves in a supple manner with smooth, lithe movements. Example: "The sinuous bodies of the dancers entranced the audience."
In another less flattering usage, sinuous describes something that is devious or sneaky. It can also mean something that is intricate or complex.
Sinuous first appeared in the English language in 1578. It derives from the Latin noun sinus (for curve, fold or hollow). This is also the root word of sinus (best known today as the naval cavity), which has described opening, recesses and cavities of all sorts since the 1400s.
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Solstice [n. SOL-stis]
In every year, there are two solstices. The June solstice happens when the Earth's north pole is tilted its maximum amount towards the Sun. The December solstice happens when the north pole is most tilted away from the Sun. In the north, the June solstice is the day with the most sunshine, and the December solstice has the longest night.
The word came into Middle English from Old French, from the Latin solstitium. That's a compound of sol- (sun) and -stitium (a stoppage), so the root means "the Sun stands still," reflecting the time when the Sun stops moving north or south and begins moving in the opposite direction.
In each year, there is also an equinox [n. EH-kwuh-noks] in March and another in September. These days are the times when the night is as long as the day. This is reflected in the word's Latin root, aequinoctium, from aequi- (equal) and nox (night).
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Sturm und Drang
Sturm und drang, literally translated from the German, means storm and stress. In English this expression refers to a period of emotional turmoil or turbulence. Example: "After months of sturm and drang she decided to call off the wedding."
Taken from a 1776 German drama by Friedrich von Klinger, sturm und drang also refers to a late 18th century literary and artistic movement whose works focused on the struggles of highly emotional individuals in conflict with conventional society. This phrase fermented in Germany for years and appeared in English prose in the mid-1800s.
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Sutler [n. SUT-lur]
In the days when armies travelled on foot, there were merchants called sutlers who would follow along behind them hawking food and supplies. The encampment behind the lines where the sutlers worked was called a suttlery. Today, armies travel in high-tech motorized vehicles and bring along their own provisions, so the sutlers are gone.
The opportunistic, greedy sutlers were generally reviled among the troops. They often inflated prices as much as possible, and sold very poor quality food, liquor, and supplies.
The soldiers' low view of the sutlers was reflected in the origin of the word, Dutch soeteler (one who performs base, menial work). That word was originally based on German sudeln (to make filthy).
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Swashbuckler [n. SWASH-buhk-ler]
A swashbuckler is a swordsman, soldier, or adventurer who takes reckless chances and brags of conquests. A swashbuckler is sometimes a bully and may also be called a daredevil.
The original swashbucklers are said to have been swaggering braggarts. They would make lots of noise banging their swords against their shields and challenge people to duels. This behavior is described with swash (to strike or move violently) and buckler (shield).
The noun swashbuckler also refers to dramatic or literary work that deals with the actions of a swashbuckler.
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Tabula rasa [n. TAB-yuh-luh RA-suh]
Tabula rasa describes anything, especially the mind, that has not yet been formed or developed. It also describes getting a fresh start or a new opportunity. Example: "At birth a child's mind is tabula rasa, ready to receive knowledge."
This word is Latin for smoothed or erased tablet. In ancient Rome, notes were jotted down on a layer of beeswax held in a wooden frame. When writers were done with the text they would erase it by smoothing out the wax. Erase is similarly derived from the Latin e- (out) and (radere) to scrape, scratch, or shave.
Aristotle was the first to compare the mind to a blank slate but it was John Locke who developed the concept that man is born without understanding and gains knowledge through experience.
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Tenterhooks [n. TEN-ter-huks]
Tenterhooks were sharp hooked nails attached to a wood frame called a tenter which was used, during the 15th century, to stretch and dry lengths of cloth. There aren't many tenterhooks around today, but people will still describe themselves as being "on tenterhooks." Example, "I was kept on tenterhooks all morning, until they told me I was being promoted."
The expression, referring to a state of uneasiness or suspense, has been in use since the 16th century. While it is unlikely anyone was ever literally put on tenterhooks, the feeling of strain is captured in the Latin word tendere (stretch) from which the word tenter is derived.
Tendere is also the root for words such as:
tends - inclined to do something
tendency - a direction in which something moves
tenuous - slight, of little substance or oversubtle
tent stretching something over a frame to provide shelter
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Something that is turgid is swollen beyond its natural state. Near synonyms are swelled, puffy, inflated, bloated and tumid.
Turgid and tumid share a figurative sense as well. One might refer to another's turgid style of speaking if they excessively embellish their language. Near synonyms are bombastic, grandiose and pompous. Example: His turgid political prose was not winning over the voters.
Turgid comes from the Latin turgidus which was a variation of turgere (to be swollen). Tumid comes from the Latin tumidus which is from the verb tumere (to swell). Turgid entered the English language in the mid-17th century but tumid could warn its adjectival rival against getting a swollen head since the latter came on the scene first. Tumid was used in English in the mid-16th century.
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Forced to make a presentation to the class about your summer vacation, you may have wished you were more voluble. Someone who is described by this adjective speaks with confidence. These talkative individuals are fluent in speech, uttering their words smoothly. Example: "A voluble speaker, Paul approached every debate with enthusiasm."
A second meaning of voluble traces back to the literal meaning of its root word volvere. The Latin word meant to roll, to turn around. It evolved into volubilis, which in the 15th century became voluble and still describes something that is easily set in motion.
Others in the family of English words that go back to Latin volvere include:
volume - mass, bulk
evolution - a process of growth, development
revolve - to rotate
involve - to include
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Wainscot [n., v. WAYN-skut]
The wainscot of a wall is a facing or paneling layer (often wood) that is applied to its surface, or it is a strip along the base that is of a different material than the wall. This layer or base strip is collectively called wainscoting, and to apply it is to wainscot the wall.
Although there is some uncertainty about the origins of this strange word, the most often-cited theory is that it emerged from Low German wagenschot (wagon-board), which is thought to have referred to the planks used to construct wagons. An interesting bit of evidence is English wainwright (one who builds wagons).
Apparently, some time before the sixteenth century the same high-quality oak panels used for wagons became popular as interior paneling for luxury residences. This wood, imported from Russia or Germany, was eventually called wainscoting in English, possibly influenced by German Wand (wall).
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Weird [adj., n. WEERD]
Something that is weird is strikingly odd or unusual, often with a supernatural or surreal quality. As a noun, one's weird is one's fate or destiny, and one of the Greek Fates (mystical sisters who determined the future) was named Weird.
Today, weirdness is often little more than being mildly unusual. "He's a little weird, but he's a nice guy," we might say casually. But in times past, the word was more associated with what is eerie, spooky, eldritch, and downright frightening. There was a saying, "after word comes weird," a reminder of the belief that predicting an event out loud could make it actually happen, especially if the event was bad.
The source of our modern word was Old English wyrd (fate), from an ancient root that gave rise to a vast array of words including worth, versatile, verse, avert, universe, worry, wrong, wry, and worm.
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