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These are the words you could find on this page:
Abracadabra, Aftermath, Ambidextrous, Artichoke, Bevy, Billabong, Carouse, Defenestrate, Dieresis / Diaeresis, Dixie, Dross, Dudgeon, Dungarees, Eavesdrop, Equivocal, Extremophile, Furbelow, Goody two-shoes, Goose Bumps, Groovy, Harridan, Impecunious, Interrobang / Interabang, Jackanapes, Kangaroo court, Knock on wood, Leopard, Ligature, Mess, Midwife, Nickname, Noon, Nostalgia, Palimpsest, P'and q's, Penguin, Plethora, Pointillism, Pretty, Rapacious, Regatta, Rhapsody, Rigmarole / Rigamarole, Rubber, Rubric, Sinister, Smart, Species, Stolid, Tattoo, Terpsichorean, The whole nine yards, Thug, Tucket, Two bits, Ultramarine, Ventifact, Verdigris, Wilderness, Xylophone

Abracadabra [n. ab-ruh-cuh-DAB-ruh]
The magician waves the wand and intones "Abracadabra." Something amazing and mysterious happens. This very ancient word has always been associated with mystical powers, and it comes down almost unchanged from its origin.
The oldest known users of this word were members of the ancient Alexandrian Gnostic sect of the Basilidians in the second and third centuries AD. They probably based their mystical word "abrasadabra" on the name of their deity, Abraxas. Another possible origin was the three Hebrew words Ab (the father), Ben (the son) and Acadsch (the holy spirit).
Today the word might be used frivolously as a flourish for parlor tricks, but in the past its profound mystical powers were taken very seriously.
For many centuries it was worn as a charm, written in an inverted triangle. At the top the whole word appeared, and on each succeeding line the last letter was removed, until the last line showed only the letter "a." With each letter that disappeared, it was believed that one trouble would disappear.
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Aftermath [n. AF-tur-math]
The aftermath of an event is the time immediately following it, when the direct consequences are still being felt. Usually the word is used in connection with tragic or disastrous events: "In the aftermath of the crash, the police scoured the site looking for evidence."
The first part of the word seems to make sense, since the aftermath comes after the event. But what does it have to do with math? There's a clue in a much older meaning of the word. An aftermath is a second crop, planted after a previous crop has been grown and harvested in the same year.
Usually the first crop was grass or a similar grazing crop, which had to be mowed down at the end of its growing season. By the 17th century, the Old English aftermaeth (after mowing) began to take on a connotation of "a resulting condition," leading to the modern meaning of the word.
More "after" words:
afterburner: a jet engine enhancement that adds thrust by burning gases at the back of the engine.
afterpiece: a short comedy presentation following a play
aftershock: a small earthquake following and related to a large one
afterdamp: noxious gases left in a mine following an explosion
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Ambidextrous [adj. am-bi-DEK-strus]
If you are ambidextrous, it means that you can use your right and left hands about equally well. Some ambidextrous people have handedness for particular activities -- writing with the right hand and drawing with the left one, for instance.
The word has an interesting origin. The Latin "ambi-" means on both sides or around, and "dexter" means right-handed or skillful. So, literally, ambidextrous means having two "right" hands.
We see the ambi- root in a number of other words, including:
ambiguous: having at least two possible meanings
ambivalent: having mixed feelings
ambiversion: describes a personality that is sometimes introverted,
sometimes extroverted
The dexter- root gives us these words:
dexterous, dextrous: skillful with one's hands
dextral: on the right side, right-handed
dextrorotation: a turning to the right
This last term is normally used to describe the polarization of light, but The Learning Kingdom suggests a more general usage: "To get to the bank, continue on Main Street and then make a dextrorotation onto First Street..." :-)
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Artichoke [n. AR-tih-choke]
An artichoke is the large, edible flower of Cynara scolymus, a thistle- like plant from the Mediterranean region, and it's also the name of the whole plant. If you've ever eaten the central "heart" of an artichoke, with its dense, hairy covering, you might think the name has something to do with "choking on the heart."
Actually, the word comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf (the edible flower of a plant in the thistle family). The word migrated into Old Spanish, as alcarchofa, then into Italian as articiocco.
Although the "true" artichoke is an edible thistle flower, similar to the original Arabian plant, the word was first applied in English to a different plant, the Jerusalem artichoke. The latter, a member of the sunflower family, is not from Jerusalem, and its flowers are not edible. The name was modified from the Italian girasole (sunflower).
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Bevy [n. BEV-ee]
Bevy is a collective noun, used to name a group of things. Usually, a bevy is composed of living things that are somehow beautiful or pleasing. For example, you might see a bevy of quails or a bevy of beautiful ladies.
The ultimate origin of the word is not known, but it goes back at least to the fifteenth century. Spencer used it in his "Shepherd's Calendar," where he referred to a "bevie of ladies bright."
There are many collective nouns. Here are more:
flock: animals, especially sheep or birds; from Old English floc
herd: four-footed herbivores (cows, horses, buffalo, elephants)
drove: a herd or flock being driven to a new location
pack: wolves, dogs, or grouse
gaggle: geese, from Middle English gagelen (to cackle)
pod: marine mammals (whales, dolphins, seals)
school: aquatic animals, especially fish, swimming together
muster: peacocks; from Latin monstrare (to show), from monere (to warn)
cete [seet]: badgers; from Latin coetus (a coming together)
exaltation: larks; from Latin exaltare, from ex- (up) and altus (high)
nide: pheasants; from Latin nidus (nest)
pride: lions; from Old English prud (proud)
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Billabong [n. BILL-uh-bong]
A billabong is an oxbow lake, formed when a meandering river cuts off one of its own loops, or it's a dead-end channel formed in a similar way. It can also be a streambed that's only full when it rains, or a waterhole that's left behind when the rest of a stream dries up.
The word is from the arid Australian "outback," where finding water can sometimes be a matter of life and death. Like many of the curious words in Australian English, it came from one of the hundreds of aborigine languages. It's from Wiradhuri, from bila (river) and bang (a place filled with water only after it rains).
The popular song "Waltzing Mathilda" contains more examples of odd Australian words, including these:
coolibah: a kind of eucalyptus tree that grows beside billabongs
swagman: a drifter who roams without a home, a hobo
billy: metal water can
tucker: food
jumbuck: sheep
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Carouse [v. kuh-ROWZ]
To carouse is to engage in boisterous, drunken revelry: "We drank round after round of that excellent brew, and caroused until daybreak." The word looks like it might be related to "arouse" or "carousel," but actually it comes from a much different source.
In German, when a mug of beer is completely empty, it is "gar aus," and there is the expression "trinken gar aus" (to drink until the mug is empty). The contraction "Garaus" was used in much the same way that we might say "Bottoms up."
When the expression first entered English, it was only used as an adverb: "Those poor sots drank carouse and made utter fools of themselves." Later the word became a verb, and it also became possible to have a carousal (rowdy drinking session).
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Defenestrate [v. dee-FEN-ih-strayt]
If you have ever thrown something out a window, then you defenestrated it, and you engaged in defenestration.
Something that is fenestrated is something that has windows, and fenestration is the design and placement of windows in buildings. A fenestra is a small opening such as a hole in a bone, or a transparent window in a moth's wing.
All of these window words come from the Latin fenestra (window). The Learning Kingdom suggests these new window words:
refenestrate: to climb back into a window after jumping out
exofenestral: outside of a window
intrafenestral: inside of a window
Here's a way to use the last two: "is that spider exofenestral or intrafenestral?"
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Dieresis / Diaeresis [n. dy-AIR-ih-sis]
A dieresis is a special mark (two small dots) that is placed over the second of two vowels in a word to show that the vowel is pronounced separately. It may look like a German umlaut, but it's not the same. You may have seen it over the "e" of "noel" and over the "i" of "naive." A dieresis can also be used to show that a vowel is not silent, as in the "e" of "Bronte." The basic character set used in this article does not allow us to show these diereses in position.
A dieresis can also be a short pause in a line of poetic verse that happens when the end of a word and the end of a metric foot come at the same moment.
The meaning has to do with a break or separation. The original root is Greek diairein (to divide), from dia- (apart) and hairein (to take). Although the Greek prefic dia- usually means "through" or "across," there are some words where it means "apart."
Here are more "apart" words:
diagnosis: analysis, evaluation, or conclusion ("knowing apart")
diacritical: making a distinction, able to distinguish ("separating apart")
dialysis: separating molecules in a solution ("loosening apart")
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Dixie [n. DIX-ee]
The "Land of Dixie," or Dixieland, is the southeastern part of the United States, those states that seceded as the Confederacy during the Civil War. You might think the name is related to Jeremiah Dixon, the surveyor who, with Charles Mason, established the "Mason-Dixon Line" to separate the northern and southern states.
Actually, the word comes from the French "dix" (ten), although Mr. Dixon's name may have influenced its evolution. A New Orleans bank in the early 19th century issued ten dollar bills inscribed "dix," which were called "dixies," and those bills became status symbols among wealthy landholders. So the south was literally the "Land of Dixies."
The phrase "to whistle Dixie" (to fantasize about an unrealistically optimistic future) is a reference to several Confederate war songs about the "Land of Dixie." The best known one was written by Daniel D. Emmett, a member of a northern minstrel troupe.
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Dross [n. DRAHSS]
Something that is useless or worthless is dross. This noun refers to the less-than-desirable parts of something. Near synonyms include: refuse, rubbish, and impurity.
Another more specific use of the word dross describes the scum or slag thrown off from metals in the process of melting them.
It traces back to the Old English dros, which corresponds to the Middle Dutch droes and the Germanic dros. All of these are words for dregs (less than desirable parts).
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Dudgeon [n. DUH-jun]
Dudgeon is a feeling of resentment or anger. Near synonyms include offense and indignation. This noun is most often used in the phrase "in high dudgeon," which describes someone doing something angrily, taking offense at the way he or she has been treated.
Example: "He left the party in high dudgeon saying that he was tired of always being the butt of jokes."
The archaic meaning of dudgeon is a wood used especially for dagger hilts. In the 15th century the noun also described the dagger itself if the hilt was made of the dudgeon.
How the sense of indignation came to be attached to this word is unknown but this usage was first seen in the late 1500s. The word dudgeon is likely from French. There is an archaic French word digeon that is sometimes linked with this English noun.
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Dungarees [n. dung-guh-REEZ]
Dungarees are sturdy pants or other clothing made of heavy cotton fabric, often blue. They are also known as blue jeans. Like "blue jeans" and "pants," the word is almost always used in the plural.
In the early 1700s, a coarse, cotton cloth arrived in England, imported from India. This fabric, known in the Indian trade language of Hindustani as dungri, was first used for sails and tents. Today, that fabric is called denim.
The seamen, noticing dungri's hard-wearing qualities, began making work pants out of it. Naturally, the pants were called dungris. For many decades, they were the standard dress for the navy and merchant marine. In World War II, after millions of young people wore them in the military, dungarees came into popular fashion.
There are several other clothing words that emerged from Hindustani, including bandanna, cummerbund, and pajamas.
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Eavesdrop [v. EEVZ-drop]
If you eavesdrop, then you secretly listen in on a conversation, and you are an eavesdropper. "Quietly, she picked up the telephone extension and eavesdropped on Tom and Sue."
This is an old word from Anglo-Saxon times, before there were such things as rain gutters and down spouts. Roofs were designed with a wide overhanging edge, the eaves, which carried rainwater away from the building's foundation. The eavesdrip (later, the eavesdrop) was the sheltered area under the eaves, where one could stand and listen clandestinely to conversations within the house.
The root of eaves was Old English yfes, from the ancient upo-. That root branched into a varied family of words, including up, uproar, open, above, often, supple, valet, vassal, and opal.
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Equivocal [adj. ih-KWIV-uh-kul]
An equivocal statement is ambiguous. It's open to two or more interpretations, or it's of uncertain significance. Often, equivocal statements are intended to mislead. Political speech is sometimes criticized for its equivocal expressions, especially during elections.
The word is from Late Latin aequivocus, which was assembled from two parts: aequi (equal) and vox (voice). Equivocal speech says two (or more) things with the same statement.
There are several related words. To speak equivocally [ih-KWIV-uh- klee] is to equivocate [ih-KWIV-uh-kayt], and to do so is to engage in equivocation [ih-KWIV-uh-KAY-shun]. Also, an equivocal word, phrase, or expression is an equivoque [EK-wuh-voke].
Here are more "equal" words:
equable: unvarying, steady, free from extremes
equator: line dividing a sphere into two equal halves
equilibrium: condition in which opposing forces balance
equinox: time when day and night are of equal duration
equipollent: of equal force, power, or significance
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Extremophile [n. ik-STREEM-uh-fyl]
An extremophile is a life form that lives in conditions that are so severe that they would kill other kinds of life. There are extremophile life forms that grow in boiling water, and others that thrive in caustic acid, or under pressures that would crush other life forms.
The word is made of two parts, extreme and the suffix -phile.
Extreme (as an adjective) means most remote, greatest or highest, excessive in degree, or very intense. It comes through Old French, from the Latin extremus (outermost limit of something), from exter (outward). That root also gave us external, exterior, and the prefix extra-. The -phile part is from the Greek philos (beloved), and appears in words like these:
thermophile: an extremophile that loves high temperatures
bibliophile: lover of books
philanthropist: benevolent lover of people
philosopher: lover of wisdom
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Furbelow [n. FUR-buh-low]
Usually this word appears in the plural form, as part of a phrase: "Those extra trimmings are nothing but frills and furbelows!" A furbelow is a frilly decoration or trim on a woman's dress, like the lacy edge of a petticoat, or a pleated border.
The word is seldom used today, but when it is it almost always carries an implication of unnecessary trimmings or decorations, or something that is excessively ostentatious and showy.
There's no connection with fur here. The word is from the Provencal farbella (fringe), from Italian faldella (little pleat). That's the diminutive of falda (flap, loose end), which is from an ancient Germanic root that also gave us fold, as well as the -fold suffix (twofold, threefold, etc).
A somewhat more distant connection from the same ancient root led to the -uple series, including triple, octuple, decuple, multiple, and the other numeric -uples.
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Goody two-shoes [n. GOOD-ee TOO SHOOZ]
A goody two-shoes is a smugly self-righteous person who makes a big show about being good and virtuous while secretly hiding less benevolent motivations. "That Justine is such a goody two-shoes, but watch out when you turn your back."
Originally, a goody two-shoes was simply someone who went around parading his or her goodness, which may have been annoying but not necessarily hypocritical. It was not until the 1930s that the phrase took on a negative tone.
The origin is thought to be a moralistic nursery story by Oliver Goldsmith, originally published in 1765 or 1766 in a book of children's stories. In "The History of Little Goody Two Shoes," Goody was a poor girl who owned only one shoe. When she somehow obtained a pair of shoes, she rushed around with delight, proudly exclaiming "Two shoes. Two shoes." to everyone she met.
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Goose Bumps [n. pl. GOOS bumps]
The plural noun goose bumps describes the rough, bumpy feeling your skin experiences when you are cold or afraid. It is a much easier way of describing this biological phenomenon than the more technical word horripilations.
Since the 1930s we've been using goose bumps, goose pimples, or goose flesh to describe this feeling. Many animals, including geese, get this prickly reaction. It is unclear, however, why we compare our bumps to the puffing out of feathers by this wild or domesticated water bird.
Goose comes from the Middle English gos from the Old English, which was akin to the Germanic gans (all of which meant goose).
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Groovy [adj. GROO-vee]
If something is groovy it's quite pleasing, wonderful, and delightful, and to groove is to experience great pleasure: "The music was groovy, and we were grooving on the flowers and butterflies."
Today this word is obsolete slang, which is another way of saying it's out of style. Although many people remember it from the sixties, it had an earlier origin.
In the 1930s, jazz musicians knew that to be "in the groove" was to play with effortless grace, to feel the music flowing through them. The phrase might have been a reference to the way a phonograph needle would slide easily along in the groove of a record. The shortened form, "groovey," was in the dictionary as early as 1937, was in use through the early forties, and then dropped out of common speech.
In the mid-sixties, the word had a second life with the modern spelling, adopted by flower children and hippies, and the verb form emerged. Today, it has once again disappeared from popular use, except as part of deliberately out-of-style speech.
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Harridan [n. HAR-ih-den]
A sharp-tongued woman, especially one who is older, can be called a harridan. This noun describes fierce, ill-tempered women who are always scolding and disapproving. Near synonyms include: shrew and hag. Example: "Bianca's older sister was an ill-tempered harridan named Kate."
The word, in use since the 1700s, is perhaps a modification of the French haridelle, which described an old horse or gaunt woman. Making the leap from a horse to a woman who nags is not so far-fetched when you recognize that the noun nag has been in use since the 15th century to describe a horse that is old or in poor condition. This latter noun developed from the Middle English nagge, akin to the Dutch negge (small horse).
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Impecunious [adj. im-pih-KYOO-nee-us]
To be impecunious is to have very little money, to be poor. "Because of my impecunious state, I was forced to ask for alms in the plaza."
In Middle English, to be pecunious was to be rich. Today we also have pecuniary (relating to money). The root is Latin pecunia (money, wealth).
A related Latin word, peculium (cattle, private property) led to the modern words peculate (to embezzle funds or private property) and peculiar (unusual, eccentric, odd; belonging distinctly and primarily to one owner).
All these words stem from the ancient root peku- (wealth), which also gave us pecorino (Italian cheese made from ewe's milk), while from the Germanic modification fehu- came the modern words feud, feudal, fee, and fellow.
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Interrobang / Interabang [n. in-TAIR-uh-bang]
When someone shouts with alarm and asks a question at the same time, the exclamation could end with an interrobang. It's a punctuation mark that combines a question mark with an exclamation point: "You did WHAT?!" (We can't show it to you here, because there's no standard letter code for it, but you can see it at the web page linked below.)
The interrobang was invented by Martin K. Specter in 1962. The first part of the word, interro-, is short for interrogation point, which is another name for a question mark. An interrogation is a questioning, from the Latin inter- (in the presence of) and -rogare (to ask).
The second part, -bang, was originally a printer's slang word for an exclamation point. That word has now migrated into the world of computers, where it has been joined by dot (period [.]), squiggle (tilde [~]) and hat (caret [^]).
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Jackanapes [n. JAK-uh-nayps]
A jackanapes is an impudent upstart. This word is rare today, but it was quite popular in former centuries. "That ruddy jackanapes will get what's coming to him!"
There are several stories about the origins of the word, but all of them mention one William de la Pole, Fourth Earl and First Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450), whose Middle English nickname was Jack Napis, Jack Napes, or perhaps Jack-n-Apes. This name was almost certainly a reference to his symbol, an ape on a chain.
Before the First Duke, it is possible that Jack Napes was simply a general term of endearment for a pet monkey. The name may have taken on its unpleasant sense as a result of de la Pole's reputation; he was widely seen as the cause of England's eventual defeat at the end of the Hundred Years' War, and was murdered while crossing the English Channel.
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Kangaroo court [n. KANG-guh-ROO KORT]
A kangaroo court is a mock or illegal court that is set up in violation of established legal procedure, or it is one that is characterized by dishonesty or incompetence. Example: "The impromptu civil trials of the Gold Rush days were little more than kangaroo courts."
You might expect that this term originated in Australia, the land of kangaroos, but it seems to be of American origin. It first appeared in the early 1850s in the far western US. It may have originated during the California Gold Rush, possibly in connection with Australian prospectors, many of whom arrived during that time.
It is not known how this meaning evolved. One theory is that a "kangaroo court" was a court in which legal procedures were largely a sham, and the action "jumped" quickly from accusation to sentencing without due process. Another idea is that "kangaroo" was a reference to Australian "claim jumpers," prospectors who illegally mined someone else's claim.
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Knock on wood
In Britain, the phrase is "touch wood," but the meaning is the same. It's said (while performing the act, of course) as a way of warding off evil influences. "With good weather, we'll make it into port by Sunday, knock on wood."
There are several interesting theories about the origin of this ancient ritual. The most commonly accepted explanation goes back to pre-Christian times, when Pagans believed in the protective powers of the spirits of certain trees, notably oak, ash, or holly. By touching the tree, one was said to awaken the benevolent spirit within.
Another theory that may ultimately come from the same source involves the (extremely ancient) children's game of tag, where one who is touching a tree is safe from capture.
It is likely that another explanation, in which the wood is the cross of Jesus, is a Christian reinterpretation of a much older source. Another unlikely theory explains that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews would use certain codes to knock on the wooden doors of synagogues for safe entry.
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Leopard [n. LEP-urd]
A leopard is a large cat, having fur with rosette markings on a lighter background, or black fur. There are several species throughout Africa and southern Asia.
It might seem that the name has something to do with leaping, and in fact leopards are very good leapers. The name has been spelled "lepard," "lippard," or even "leapard," but the "leap" connection is false. Actually, the word is a combination of two words meaning "cat."
The name comes from Late Greek leopardos, which is a combination of leon (lion) and pardos (pard). What's a pard? In Middle English, a pard was a "great cat," and the word is still considered valid today. So a leopard is a "lion-great cat."
Leopards were once thought to be hybrids between lions and other cats. In modern classification the leopard family includes the African leopard, the Asian snow leopard, the cheetah, and the black leopard, or black panther.
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Ligature [n. LIG-uh-chur]
Ligature is the act of tying or binding, and a ligature is something that binds or ties, like a cord or bandage. It can also be a united pair of letters such as "a" with "e" (which we can't show you here, because the character is not in the standard set). In music a ligature is a slurred connection between two adjacent notes.
In the interesting case of combined letters, ligatures were first used by scribes in medieval times to increase writing speed and to save space. Today they are used to improve readability, and some computer fonts include them. They may include such combinations as ff, fi, fl, ffi, ffl, Rp, ct, st, Sh, Si, Sl, SS, and St.
The word came through Old French, from Late Latin ligatura, from ligare (to bind). It's part of a family of "binding and connecting" words, that also includes these words:
ligate: to tie or bind with a ligature
ligase: a biological molecule that links together two other molecules
ligament: (anatomy) a sheet or band of connective tissue
lien: a document that binds a person to pay a debt
oblige: to make someone indebted (bound) or grateful
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Mess [n., v. MES]
A mess is a disorderly, haphazard pile of stuff: "Will you please clean up this mess?" It can also be a group of people (usually military) who eat together, the meal they eat, and the place where they eat it. It is also possible to mess up (make a mistake), mess around (putter aimlessly) and be a mess (be dirty and untidy).
With all these meanings, what was the original root of the word? It comes from the Latin missus (a portion of food, a course at a meal), based on the verb mittere (to send). The idea was that a course of food was a "sending from the cook."
In the fifteenth century, a mess was also a group of people (originally mess-mates) who sat together to eat. This usage became part of military language, and the meaning widened further to include the room where mess was served to the mess.
The less savory meanings (disorderly pile, dirty, and untidy) are much more recent. They emerged from the idea that a mess was "a plate of assorted food, piled up in a disorganized way and without thought."
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Midwife [n., v. MID-wyf]
Someone who assists a woman giving birth to a child is a midwife, the act of doing so is called midwifery [mid-WIF-ur-ee], and the verb form is "to act as a midwife." The word is also used in a more general sense, meaning to assist in bringing about some goal: "The president was midwife to the peace talks."
The usual sense of "mid" is "between or among." Is the midwife someone who is between the mother and the child? Actually, the first syllable comes from the Old English mid (together with), source of the modern German mit (with) and Dutch met (with). A midwife is someone who stays with the woman who will give birth.
Most midwives are women, so it makes sense that the second part, -wife, comes from the Old English wif (woman), which did not carry the modern implication of being married.
In the southern states of the US, a midwife might be called a granny.
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Nickname [n. NIK-naym]
A nickname is an extra, informal name given to a person. Often it describes some notable aspect of the person, like "Spike" or "Red" or "Slugger."
One incorrect explanation of the word's origin is that it came from the verb "to nick" as in "to catch," because the nickname usually catches some certain essence of the person. Another refers to the French expression "faire la nique" (to make fun of).
Actually, the original usage was not "a nickname," but "an eke name" (an extra name). In a process that has happened several times in English, the "n" migrated, forming "a neke name." The same thing happened to "an ewt" (a small amphibian). The reverse process happened to "a napron" (a garment worn while cooking) and "a nadder" (a snake).
The Middle English eke (extra) is from the Old English eaca (addition), from the same ancient root as German auch (also).

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Noon [n. NOON]
Today, noon is twelve o'clock in the daytime, or it is the moment when the sun is at its highest point in the sky for the day. It's also known as noontide, noontime, or midday. But noon was not always twelve o'clock.
In the early Middle Ages, time was reckoned from the moment of sunrise, rather than midnight. The time known in Latin as nona hora (ninth hour) was also the appointed time of the church's Divine Office of Nones, one of a series of seven such "canonical hours" that began before dawn and ended after sunset.
Since the original Nones occurred nine hours after dawn it would fall during what is now the afternoon. But by the twelfth century the word had become associated (in popular use) with some other event, probably a midday meal, and the "appointed time" of the event had slipped forward in the day.
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Nostalgia [n. noh-STAL-juh]
If you have felt a bittersweet longing upon remembering something from the past, you may have felt nostalgia. It's not quite sadness and not quite pain, a wistful remembrance of how things used to be.
Until fairly recently the only accepted dictionary definition of the word was "melancholia caused by severe homesickness." This somewhat medical meaning has fallen out of common use, in favor of the broader, more subtle sense described above.
The word is from the Greek nostos (a return home) and the suffix -algia, from algos (pain). Nostos is from the ancient root nes- (return home), which also appears in harness. The suffix -algia also appears in other pain words, including neuralgia (nerve pain) and myalgia (muscle pain).
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Palimpsest [n. PAL-imp-sest]
In medieval times, parchment or vellum were sometimes in short supply or quite expensive. Existing manuscripts were sometimes prepared for new works by washing or scraping off the old writing.
Such a rewritten manuscript is called a palimpsest. Often, through modern restoration methods, the older text (which is usually much more interesting to historians) can be recovered.
Another motivation for some palimpsests was religious: ancient Greek texts were "converted" by replacing the pagan words with "the word of God."
The word comes through Latin, from the Greek palimpsestos (scraped again), a compound of palin (again) with psen (to scrape).
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P'and q's
Your p's and q's are something that you should be mindful of. It can be manners or behavior, but when you're minding your p's and q's you are being careful to be at your very best. Example: "Pete had to watch his p's and q's when he went out to dinner with his in-laws."
There are many explanations of the origins of p's and q's but the most common is that it is derived from the phrase "mind one's p's and q's." This is said to have been a refrain heard in 18th century schools alluding to the difficulty children had learning to write the very similar "p" and "q". A similar theory states that typesetters had a problem distinguishing between the two letters because they had to look at the letters backwards.
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Penguin [n. PENG-gwin]
A penguin is any of various stout, flightless marine diving birds that live in cool regions of the southern hemisphere. Penguins are colored white in front and black in back, looking as if they are wearing tuxedoes.
The source of the word is mysterious. As early as the fifteenth century, accounts of voyages to the southern oceans referred to small black and white seabirds found there, calling them penguins.
The most commonly accepted explanation was offered by the British scholar John Selden in 1613. He speculated that the name might have come from the Welsh "pen gwyn" (head of white), another name for the great auk, a flightless, black and white diving bird that could then be found on islands in the North Atlantic.
On seeing the flightless, black and white southern birds, Welsh sailors might have applied the same name. Later, the northern great auk became extinct, but the southern birds kept the name.
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If you have a large amount of something, you have a plethora of that thing. Near synonyms include: excess, profusion, and abundance. Example: "There was such a plethora of books on Eva's topic available, she didn't know where to start."
Plethora is traced back to the 1500s in English but its original root word is the Greek plethora, which literally meant fullness. This was a variant on plethein (to be full).
A less common usage of plethora, at least in everyday conversation, describes an excess of blood in the body's circulatory system or in a particular organ.
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Pointillism [n. POIN-tl-iz-em or PWAN-tl-iz-em]
Pointillism is a method of painting in which the surface of the canvas is crowded with small spots or strokes of various colors. When viewing such a work from a distance, the eye blends the dots together into a coherent picture.
French neo-impressionist painters invented this method of producing luminous effects on canvas in the early 1900s. Sometimes capitalized, this noun is a French word that combines the verb pointiller (to mark with points) and -isme (-ism). The origins are in the Latin punctum which is a past participle of the verb pungere (to prick).
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Pretty [adj. PRIT-ee]
Here's a word with a group of very different meanings. Something that is pretty can be something attractive or pleasing in a delicate, graceful way: "What a pretty kitty cat."
Here are some additional meanings:
clever, adroit: "A pretty recovery, when Johnson caught the pass."
very large, considerable: "He inherited a pretty fortune."
terrible, very bad: "A pretty predicament."
fairly, moderately: "A pretty good harvest."
The earliest recorded use of the word is from Old English, as praettig (crafty, cunning), derived from praett (trick, wile). In the 1400s, it was prety (clever, artful; cleverly made). A man could also be prety (brave, gallant, warlike).
Over the years the meaning changed until by the eighteenth century a "pretty fellow" was an effeminate fop, and the word was also being used to describe girls and women, with a meaning somewhat less strong than "beautiful."
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Rapacious [adj. ruh-PAE-shus]
Rapacious describes someone who is given to plundering or taking things by force. Near synonyms include ravenous, voracious, and gluttonous. Example: "The serfs suffered in poverty while catering to the whims of the rapacious Lord." In animals, rapacious describes creatures that survive by capturing live prey.
In English use since the mid 1600s, rapacious is from the Latin rapax (greedy) which is derived from the verb rapere (to seize).
The Latin verb rapere is the source of other English words:
* rapture (seized with ecstasy)
* ravage (to do ruinous damage)
* ravish (to transport with strong emotion)
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Regatta [n. rih-GA-tuh, rih-GAE-tuh]
Regatta is a nautical term for a boat race. It can be rowboats, yachts, dinghies, or any other vessel, as long as they are in competition on the water.
A regatta is also an organized series of such races. These organized events are usually a more prominent sporting and social event. Example: "The regatta was an event that all the yacht club members eagerly anticipated."
Regatta entered the English language from Italian in the mid-1600s. It was from the Venetian regatta (or regata) meaning contention. This was a variation on regattare (to contend), which likely derived from the vulgar Latin recaptare (to contend). Recaptare combined re- and captare (to try to catch).
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Rhapsody [n. RAP-suh-dee]
A poem or song that is lyrical or emotionally charged might be called a rhapsody. It's an expression that shows exalted, impassioned style, with great emotional enthusiasm: "His oration was not just a speech; it was a rhapsody of glorious praise." The word can also refer to the state of someone who is experiencing such emotions.
The word is sometimes spelled "rapsody," which might lead to a false association with "rapt," an unrelated word that also implies a kind of emotional transport.
Actually the source is the Greek rhapsoida (an epic poem), from rhaptein (to sew together) and oide (song). So a rhapsody is a song or story that has been "stitched together," the product of a "weaver of songs." The implication of greatly exalted emotional heights is a more recent addition from the 17th century.
The first part, rhaptein, comes from the ancient root werp- (to turn, wind) which also gave us wrap and raphe (an anatomical seamlike ridge). The second part, oide, comes from the ancient root aweid- (to sing), which also gave us ode, comedy, parody, melody, and tragedy.
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Rigmarole / Rigamarole [n. RIG-muh-rol]
Rigmarole is either a confused, rambling discourse, or a complicated set of petty procedures: "His mess hall cleanup instructions were a bunch of annoying rigmarole."
One theory about the origin of this strange word involves a medieval game of chance called Ragman. The "ragman roll" was a long roll of parchment with many written entries. It may have included a list of characters in which the first character was always named "Ragmon le bon" (Anglo-Norman for Ragamon the Good, or Ragged Man the Good).
Each entry had a piece of string attached to it. Players of the game would each select a string, and the roll would be opened to see who had gotten which entry. These dangling strings certainly made the whole roll look quite ragged, and "ragged roll" is another possible origin of our word.
Through the years, lists and catalogs were sometimes called ragman rolls. In the 16th century, a ragman was a long, rambling discourse. By the 18th century it had been replaced by rigmarole.
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Rubber [n. RUB-ur]
In its raw form, rubber is a yellowish, elastic substance that is made from the milky latex (sap) of cetain plants. By implementing various treatments it can be altered for a wide range of uses. It can be hard or soft, sticky or dry, heavy or light.
Rubber was used by native Americans for centuries before Europeans discovered it. They called it caoutchouc, and centuries earlier in the Quechua language of the Incas it was known as kawchu.
When the odd substance from the New World began to find use in the form of erasers (small chunks that were used to rub out marks made with a graphite pencil), the English scientist Joseph Priestly decided to start calling it rubber, and the name stuck. Today the word refers not only to the material originally known as caoutchouc, but also to various synthetic substances with similar properties and uses.
In most other languages, rubber is known by names that translate literally as "gum," a word for the gooey, sticky sap of trees, including the rubber tree.
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Rubric [n. ROO-brik]
A rubric is an established set of procedures, rules, or customs. An authoritative set of instructions, a rubric can also be used as a guideline for grading. "The professor gave her teaching assistants a rubric to help them grade the students' papers."
Rubric can also refer to a heading or any part of a book printed in red to differentiate it from the rest. This is the current usage closest to the original meaning. Rubric is traced back to the Romans who had a system of highlighting important messages in red. The Greeks also printed feast days in red in their calendars (this is where we get red-letter day to describe a special day).
The word rubric developed from the Middle English rubrike (a heading in red letters). This was from the French rubrique, which is derived from the Latin rubrica from ruber (red).
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Sinister [adj. SIN-i-ster]
This is a followup to yesterday's "ambidextrous". Sinister means evil or containing an evil threat. A person can be sinister or have sinister plans.
This word has a surprising origin -- "sinister" is the Latin word for "left". Throughout history, many people considered the left side to be evil or unlucky (in Latin, "sinister" also meant unlucky), and the right side to be good. Left-handedness itself was considered a malady, and until recently it was common for teachers to require left-handed children to use their right hands in an effort to "cure" them.
Similarly, in English the word right -- meaning right side -- is the same as the word right -- meaning correct or fitting, as in "right answer" and "legal right." This is also true in many other languages; examples include French (droit), Spanish (derecho), and Russian (pravo).
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Smart [adj., v. SMART]
If you're smart then you are intelligent, clever, sharp, bright, quick-witted. As an adjective the word has a broad range of other meanings, including impertinent, energetic, shrewd, or fashionable.
Originally, smart was a verb meaning "to be sharply painful" and that meaning is still alive today: "That really smarts." The origin is the Old West Germanic smert, source of the German schmerz (pain). The Greek smerdnos (terrible) may have come from the same ancient root.
The Old English adjective smeart (stinging, painful) was used in the 11th century. The modern senses (clever, alert, etc) emerged in the 17th century, probably a reference to the way a sudden pain can "wake up" the senses and make one more alert.
In the 18th century, the word was used to describe people who were fashionable, neat, and well-groomed. Several derogatory meanings are of more recent origin, including the phrase "smart alec" (know-it-all, conceited wise guy).
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Species [n. SPEE-sheez]
A species is a classification of life forms that share enough genetic traits that they can interbreed to produce offspring that are still able to breed.
In the modern system of scientific names, each species of life is given a Latin name of two words. The first word is always capitalized, and the second is not. The first word names the genus, a larger group that includes one or more species. The second word is the name of the species itself. For example, all the members of the human race belong to one species, Homo sapiens.
Like many scientific terms, the word comes down unchanged from Latin, where species means "a seeing, kind, or form." It's from the ancient root spek- (to observe), which is also the source of spy, specimen, spectacle, spectrum, aspect, circumspect, conspicuous, expect, inspect, perspective, suspect, and despicable.
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Stolid [adj. STOH-lid]
Someone who is stolid is unemotional, impassive, and unreactive. "He was a gruff, stolid farmer from the Northeast."
The word sounds like a combination of solid and still, and stolid people might seem to show the same combination of traits. Of those similar sounding words, still is from the same root, the ancient stel-.
The root stel- has given us words relating to holding, standing, supporting, locating, and putting. It led to stolid through the Latin stolidus (unmoving, stupid). It also branched into many variants, including these:
still: unmoving
stall: a compartment, booth, or cubicle
stall: to prevent further progress or come to a stop
stalk: part of a plant that supports leaves, flowers, and fruit
stilts: two poles with foot rests, for walking above the ground
forestall: to delay, hinder, or prevent
installment: a regularly presented part of a series
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Tattoo [n. ta-TOO]
There are two meanings for this word. A tattoo can be a mark or design, usually permanent, that is made by injecting dyes just under the skin. It can also be a military display, or a signal sounded on a drum or bugle. The two meanings have very different origins.
The military meaning comes from the Dutch taptoe (to close a tap or spigot), which also meant "closing time for the tavern." This migrated into English as the name of a drum beat that was used to signal that the enlisted men had to return to their quarters for the night. Later the meaning broadened to include other kinds of military flourishes.
The meaning "a skin design" was brought to us by the explorer Captain James Cook, who wrote of the Tahitian practice of "tatau" in his journal in 1769. His sailors, who received tattoos from the Polynesian natives, carried them into English ports, where they showed them off and popularized the art.
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Terpsichorean [adj. turp-si-kah-RE-an or turp-si-KOR-e-an]
The namesake of the adjective terpsichorean is the Greek muse Terpsichore. Terpsichore was one of the nine muses of Greek mythology. Often shown dancing and holding a lyre, she presided over the arts and sciences. Terpsichore was said to have inspired those who excelled at dancing.
Not surprisingly, the adjective terpsichorean describes something that relates to dance. Example: "Amy's terpsichorean activities had given her an enviable grace and agility."
The adjective has been in use in English since the 1800s.
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The whole nine yards
To go the whole nine yards is to carry some act to full completion, with a sense that it is accomplished without stopping and at full speed. "When Desmond built his boat, he went the whole nine yards, from cutting and shaping the timber to applying the final touches of brass trim."
It may seem like the phrase has something to do with team sports. Do the nine yards represent distance won or lost on a football field? Although the expression is popular among sports fans, the origin lies elsewhere.
One theory says the expression came from the cement delivery industry, where a rotating mixer truck carries nine cubic yards of cement. To discharge the whole nine yards would be to fully complete the task.
Another theory describes the space between the inner and outer walls of a prison, which was nine yards wide. To go the whole nine yards was to escape entirely.
The most popular theory refers to World War II war planes, which carried machine gun ammunition belts 27 feet (nine yards) long. To discharge the whole nine yards was to fully empty the belt.
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Thug [n. THUG]
A thug is a tough criminal, like a mobster or a Mafia bodyguard. "Those thugs and hoodlums ought to be arrested!" The word is blunt, direct, and forceful, like the people it names.
The original thugs belonged to a guild of assassins and robbers in India who worshipped the goddess Kali. In Hindi they were the thag or the Thugees (thieves), words that evolved from Sanskrit sthagah (a cheat), from sthagati (cover; hide). Their favorite method of assassination was strangulation, so they were also known as the phansigar (stranglers).
The ultimate root of this line of words was Indo-European steg- or teg- (cover), which also led to covering words like deck (a covering), protect (cover up), detect (uncover), and integument (outer covering).
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Tucket [n. TUK-it]
At a professional sports event, there might be an organist who plays short, rousing musical fanfares, to help get everybody excited. Each one of those little blasts of music is called a tucket.
Originally a tucket was a trumpet fanfare, used to announce the arrival of someone important like a king or queen. The reason for the fanfare was to give people time to get composed for the royal audience.
The word is from Middle English tukken (to beat a drum), which was also the source of Modern English tuck (a tap or beat of a drum). An earlier ancestor was Old French toquer (to strike), which is from Vulgar Latin toccare (to touch).
Another word from the same root is toccata [tuh-KAH-tuh], from Italian. A toccata is a musical composition, usually for the keyboard, in a free style with full chords and elaborate runs. There's also tocsin [TOK-sin], which is an alarm that is rung on a bell, or a more general warning or omen.
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Two bits
If you have two bits, then you have a quarter (the US coin, worth twenty-five cents). Does that mean one bit is twelve and a half cents?
The oldest known use of the word "bit" for a coin goes back to Great Britain in the seventeenth century, when any coin could be called a "bit." A three cent coin could be called a "threepenny bit" [THRUH- puh-nee bit].
According to one story, the same slang migrated to the southwestern US, where Mexican coins were commonly used as currency. There, the Mexican real [ray-AHL] worth about twelve and a half cents, was called a "bit." When the US quarter came out, it was worth about two reals, or two bits.
Another story is that the Spanish dollar coin, worth about the same as one US dollar, was actually cut into pieces to make change. This was the origin of the term "pieces of eight," and of course two of those pieces, or "two bits," would be worth one quarter of a dollar.
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Ultramarine [adj., n. ul-truh-muh-REEN]
Ultramarine is a vivid blue color, and it is also the name of a pigment that is the same color.
Since the word's Latin origin, ultramarinus, literally means "beyond the sea" you might think that it means "bluer than blue" or "deeper than navy blue." Actually, the color was originally made by grinding up the mineral called lapis lazuli. That mineral was called ultramarinus in Medieval Latin because it was imported from Asia, which was beyond the sea.
Lapis lazuli is itself related to another blue word, azure. It's from the Latin lapis (stone) and Medieval Latin lazuli, from the Arabic al- lazaward (blue stone), which came from the Persian lajward (blue). The bright blue minerals azurite, lazulite, and lazurite inherited their names from the same source.
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Ventifact [n. VEN-tuh-fact]
A ventifact is a stone that has been eroded by windblown particles, such as dry sand. Such a stone can take on unusual, sometimes bizarre shapes, with thin, sharp-edged features, flat facets, grooves, or holes. Ventifacts are found in dry, windy places like Antarctica, high deserts, and Mars.
A ventifact is a result of moving air and hard particles operating on rock. The word is a combination of the Latin ventus (wind) and factum (something made, a product). Another "product" word is artifact (something made by human craft).
More "windy" words:
vent: an opening through which gases can flow
ventilate: to allow fresh air to enter and circulate
ventail: the movable lower front part of a medieval war helmet
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Verdigris [n. VUR-dih-grees]
The statue of liberty is covered with verdigris, a coating of green copper chloride and copper sulfate. That coating usually appears on any bronze, brass or copper object that has been exposed to the air for a long enough time. There's also a bluish green copper-based paint pigment called verdigris.
In Old French it was called verte grez, a simplification of vert-de- Grice (green of Greece). There is some mystery about the precise original meaning of the word. Was it a green pigment originally produced in Greece, and exported to France and other countries? How did the word come to be applied to the greenish patina on weathered copper-containing metal?
There is also another kind of green pigment made of copper carbonate, which is called verditer [VUR-dih-ter], from the Old French verd de terre (green of Earth).
The Latin viridis (green) was part of the origin of the Old French word verd (green). The same root also gave us the modern English words verdure (lush, green vegetation) and verdant (lushly green, applied to plant life), plus an interesting medieval English word, verdurer [VUR-der-er] (one who tends to the welfare of forests).
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Wilderness [n. WIL-dur-nis]
Wilderness is where wild creatures live. It's unspoiled nature, or land that has been allowed to "go back to nature," especially if that land is uninhabited by humans. The wilderness is certainly wilder than inhabited land, but the original meaning was not a comparison of relative wildness.
The word's ancestor in Old English was wildeornis, which translates as "wild deerness," or more accurately, "wild beastness," specifically the state of being a wild animal. The root of that was wilddeor (wild beast), from Old English wilde (wild) and deor (wild animal).
The modern animal called a deer got its name from a much-narrowed interpretation of Old English deor. Reindeer also inherited part of their name from the same root, and the related German word for animal is Tier.
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Xylophone [n. ZY-luh-fone]
A xylophone is a musical percussion instrument. It's a set of tuned blocks, usually arranged in two rows like the keys of a piano keyboard, that emit musical notes when struck by small mallets. The blocks are sized so that their notes form a chromatic musical scale.
Although not all modern xylophone keys are made of wood, the original ones were. Xylo- is from the Greek xulon (wood) and -phone is from Greek phone (voice, sound). The first use of the word is from the 1860s, when the instrument was invented.
More "wooden" words:
xylography [zy-LOH-gru-fee]: the arts of wood engraving and woodblock printing
xylem [ZY-lum]: water-conducting woody plant tissue
xylophagus [zy-LOH-fuh-gus]: feeding on wood
xyloid [ZY-loid]: of or similar to wood
xylotomy [zy-LOH-tuh-mee]: preparation of wood sections for microscope study

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