Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

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Tue, 08/19/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 19, 2014 is:

demesne • \dih-MAYN\  • noun
1 : legal possession of land as one’s own 2 a : the land attached to a mansion b : landed property : estate c : region, territory 3 : realm, domain

Lewis and Clark were commissioned to explore the vast demesne of forests and plains that the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

"Just as no monarch can ever quite control her entire demesne, no sister can ever quite neutralize the mischief of younger brothers." — Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe, February 4, 2014

Did you know?
Why isn't "demesne" pronounced the way it's spelled? Our word actually began as "demayn" or "demeyn" in the 14th century, when it was borrowed from Anglo-French property law. At that time, the Anglo-French form was "demeine." Later, the Anglo-French spelling changed to "demesne," perhaps by association with another term from Anglo-French property law: "mesne," meaning "intermediate." ("Mesne" has entered English as a legal term as well.) According to rules of French pronunciation, the "s" was silent and the vowel was long. English speakers eventually followed suit, adopting the "demesne" spelling. Our word "domain" (which overlaps with the meaning of "demesne" in some applications) also comes from Anglo-French "demeine."

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Mon, 08/18/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 18, 2014 is:

backstairs • \BAK-stairz\  • adjective
: secret, furtive; also : sordid, scandalous

The article accuses the influential Washington lobbyist of having been involved in a number of backstairs deals to limit regulation of financial institutions.

"During the protracted balloting—it went four rounds before Jackson was declared the winner—backstairs talks began, aimed at stopping Jackson, according to operatives." —Jeff E. Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), May 22, 2013

Did you know?
When Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, wrote in 1654 about leading someone "down a back-stairs," he wasn’t referring to anything scandalous. He simply meant "down a secondary set of stairs at the back of a house." Just over a decade earlier, however, Boyle’s contemporary, Sir Edward Dering, had used the phrase "going up the back-stairs" in a figurative way to suggest a means of approach that was not entirely honest and upfront. The figurative use likely arose from the simple notion that the stairs at the rear of a building are less visible and thus allow for a certain degree of sneakiness. By 1663, "backstairs" was also being used adjectivally to describe something done furtively, often with an underhanded or sinister connotation.

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Sun, 08/17/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 17, 2014 is:

crazy-quilt • \KRAY-zee-KWILT\  • adjective
: resembling a patchwork quilt without a design : haphazard

"No one questioned her comings and goings; her crazy-quilt schedule was attributed to familial and civic duties." — Toni Cade Bambara, Those Bones Are Not My Child, 1999

"The crazy quilt nature of the music Miles Davis made at the Fillmore in 1970 is one of its best features. His rowdy players showed him other ways to bring the funk." — Kevin Whitehead, National Public Radio, May 16, 2014

Did you know?
A crazy quilt is a quilt with no perceivable design or pattern, lacking repeating motifs, and often made out of discarded scraps of cloth. Shortly after crazy quilts became popular in the late nineteenth century, the term "crazy quilt" found a place in English as a metaphor for things that appear random, unplanned, or out of order; for example, testimony in the 1896 Proceedings of the Illinois State Bar Association asserted that "We all know that as juries are instructed now, the instructions are a crazy-quilt—just a crazy-quilt, and nothing else." The adjective came about soon afterward. A more common term to describe crazy quilts, "patchwork," also describes something composed of ill-assorted, miscellaneous, or incongruous parts.

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Sat, 08/16/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 16, 2014 is:

jink • \JINK\  • verb
: to move quickly or unexpectedly with sudden turns and shifts (as in dodging)

"Two fighters immediately launched missiles, and the American aircraft jinked up, then down to lose them." — Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising, 1986

"Robben jinked and juked his way down Holland’s right wing seemingly at will, leaving helpless defenders tackling air as he motored past them into open space." — Nicholas Nehamas and Jacob Feldman, The Miami Herald, July 14, 2014

Did you know?
The investigation into the origins of "jink" begins with documents from 18th century Scotland. Unfortunately, they contain no clear indication of how this shifty little word was formed. What can be said with certainty is that the word has always expressed a quick or unexpected motion. For instance, in two poems from 1785, Robert Burns uses the verb to indicate both the quick motion of a fiddler's elbow and the sudden disappearance of a cheat around a corner. In the 20th century, the verb caught on with air force pilots and rugby players, who began using it to describe their elusive maneuvers to dodge opponents and enemies. "Jink" can also be used as a noun meaning "a quick evasive turn" or, in its plural form, "pranks." (Etymologists are quite certain that the latter use is connected with the term "high jinks.")

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Fri, 08/15/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 15, 2014 is:

rapport • \ra-POR\  • noun
: relation : especially : relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity

Once our daughter had developed a rapport with her piano teacher, she began to show some real enthusiasm for learning and practicing the piano.

"In general, the new superintendent will be responsible for promoting the individual identity of each of the parks, and building rapport with members of communities in which the historic sites are located." — Joe L. Hughes II, The Gaffney Ledger (South Carolina), July 11, 2014

Did you know?
One thing that may occur to you when considering today’s word is its resemblance to an even more common English word, "report." "Report" comes from the French verb "reporter" and "rapport" comes from the French "rapporter." Both verbs mean "to bring back" and can be traced back to the Latin verb "portare," meaning "to carry." "Rapporter" also has the additional sense of "to report," which influenced the original English meaning of "rapport" ("an act or instance of reporting"). That sense of "rapport" dropped out of regular use by the end of the 19th century.

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Thu, 08/14/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 14, 2014 is:

aperçu • \ap-er-SOO\  • noun
1 : a brief survey or sketch : outline 2 : an immediate impression; especially : an intuitive insight

"On every other page, there's a nice apercu: breath is 'cooked air'; perfume is 'liquid memory'; when astronauts are weightless in their spaceship, they lose their sense of smell…." — Anatole Broyard, New York Times Book Review, 29 July 1990

"As a poet, Mr. Lehman has always been conversational in style, given to seemingly casual aperçus that take on a larger resonance…." — Sarah Douglas, New York Observer, October 29, 2013

Did you know?
In French, "aperçu" is the past participle of the verb "apercevoir" ("to perceive" or "to comprehend"), which in turn comes from Latin "percipere" ("to perceive"). (The same verb also gave us "apperceive," meaning "to have consciousness of oneself," and the noun "apperception," meaning "introspective self-consciousness" or "mental perception.") "Aperçu" in French is also a noun meaning "glimpse" or "outline, general idea." English speakers borrowed the noun "aperçu," meaning and all, in the early 19th century.

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Wed, 08/13/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 13, 2014 is:

Janus-faced • \JAY-nus-fayst\  • adjective
: having two contrasting aspects; especially : duplicitous, two-faced

The dancers wore grotesque Janus-faced masks, flashing faces of terror and pleasure as they twirled about the stage.

"The helmsman decreased speed a fraction, steering the boat to mid-river. The surface was glassy and the reflections of the trees made it difficult to tell up from down. A Janus-faced river, Harry thought." — Ward Just, American Romantic, 2014

Did you know?
In Roman religion, Janus was the deity who presided over doors, gates, archways, and all beginnings, structural and temporal (the month of January is named for him). He is represented as having a single head with two faces looking in opposite directions. The shrine of Janus in the Roman Forum was a rectangular bronze structure with double doors at each end. Traditionally, the doors were left open in times of war and kept closed in times of peace. That open/closed dichotomy, along with the deity's two-faced head, confers duplicity and contrariness to the word "Janus," evinced in the meaning of the term "Janus-faced."

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Tue, 08/12/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 12, 2014 is:

abscond • \ab-SKAHND\  • verb
: to depart secretly and hide oneself

Before anyone could catch on to the fact that Roger was embezzling funds from the company, he had absconded to Mexico with over $100,000.

"Turns out that if you get caught gatecrashing a White House state dinner with your wife, after which said wife absconds with the guitarist from Journey, who you wrongly accuse of kidnapping her, it tends to stick in people's minds." —Marianna Garvey, Brian Niemietz and Oli Coleman, The Daily News (New York), June 2, 2014

Did you know?
First appearing in English in the 16th century, "abscond" derives from Latin "abscondere," meaning "to hide away," a product of the prefix "ab-" and "condere," a verb meaning "to conceal." ("Condere" is also the root for "recondite," a word meaning "concealed" as well as "hard to understand" or "obscure.") In general usage, "abscond" refers to any act of running away and hiding (usually from the law and often with funds), but, in legal circles, the word is used specifically when someone who has already become the focus of a legal proceeding hides or takes off in order to evade the legal process (as in "absconded from parole").

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Mon, 08/11/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 11, 2014 is:

wyvern • \WYE-vern\  • noun
: a mythical animal usually represented as a 2-legged winged creature resembling a dragon

Symbols commonly used in heraldry include a number of mythical creatures, among them the winged wyvern.

"Wyverns keep a silent watch over the people of Leicester from rooftops and steeples across the city. Their coiled, winged bodies, part serpent part dragon, have been entwined in our ancient history for hundreds of years." — Leicester Mercury (United Kingdom), June 13, 2014

Did you know?
Wyverns are often depicted as having the tail of a viper—a venomous snake—and that fact is reflected in the etymology of "wyvern": it comes ultimately from the Latin word "vipera," which means "viper." ("Vipera" is also, of course, the source of our word "viper.") The creature the wyvern most closely resembles, however, is the also-mythical dragon. "Dragon" is a much older word—it has been in use since the 13th century, while "wyvern" dates to the early 17th—but it too has snakes in its history. The word originally referred not to the lizard-like creature we imagine today but to a huge serpent.

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Sun, 08/10/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 10, 2014 is:

bootless • \BOOT-lus\  • adjective
: useless, unprofitable

We already knew that our mechanic was on vacation, so any attempt to call him at his garage would be bootless.

"The international alliance that won the Cold War has been bootless in the case of Syria." —David Ignatius, Washington Post, February 12, 2014

Did you know?
This sense of "bootless" has nothing to do with footwear. The "boot" in this case is an obsolete noun that meant "use" or "avail." That "boot" descended from Old English "bōt" and is ultimately related to our modern word "better," whose remote Germanic ancestor meant literally "of more use." Of course, English does also see the occasional use of "bootless" to mean simply "lacking boots," as Anne Brontë used the word in Agnes Grey (1847): "And what would their parents think of me, if they saw or heard the children rioting, hatless, bonnetless, gloveless, and bootless, in the deep soft snow?"

Categories: Fun Stuff


Sat, 08/09/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 09, 2014 is:

apophasis • \uh-PAH-fuh-sis\  • noun
: the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it

"I won't bring up that little incident that happened the last time you tried to cook a meal," said Laura, in a blatant display of apophasis.

"The hope is that if people recognize when rhetoric is being used to deceive, they will learn to use more persuasive language themselves. For example, salespeople tell us 'you don't need to decide now.' This is apophasis, whereby the negative words do not stick in our minds and appear to reject a point while actually emphasizing it." — Nicholas Cole, Alternatives Journal, 2014

Did you know?
Apophasis is a sly debater's trick, a way of sneaking an issue into the discussion while maintaining plausible deniability. It should come as no surprise, then, that the roots of "apophasis" lie in the concept of denial—the word was adopted into English from Late Latin, where it means "repudiation," and derives from the Greek "apophanai," meaning "to deny." ("Apophanai," in turn, comes from "apo-," meaning "away from" or "off," and "phanai," meaning "to say.") This particular rhetorical stunt is also known by the labels "preterition" and "paraleipsis" (which is a Greek word for "omission"), but those words are rarer than "apophasis." Incidentally, don’t confuse "apophasis" with "apophysis"; the latter is a scientific word for an expanded or projecting part of an organism.

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Fri, 08/08/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 08, 2014 is:

foolscap • \FOOLZ-kap\  • noun
1 : a cap or hood usually with bells worn by jesters 2 : a conical cap for slow or lazy students 3 : a size of paper formerly standard in Great Britain; broadly : a piece of writing paper

The exhibit includes a number of early legal documents written on foolscap with quill and ink.

"In 1894, Lincoln's personal secretary, John Nicolay, published what he called 'the autograph manuscript' of the Gettysburg Address. The first page was written in pen on lined stationery marked 'Executive Mansion'; the second is in pencil on bluish foolscap." — Allen G. Breed, Watertown Daily Times (New York), November 24, 2013

Did you know?
These days, we are most likely to encounter "foolscap" as a reference to a sheet of paper or, more specifically, to a sheet of paper that is similar in size to a sheet of legal paper. In the mid-1600s, when the use of "foolscap" was first attested to in English, we would have encountered it as a reference to an actual fool's cap—the cap, often with bells on, worn as part of a jester's motley. How did we get from this colorful cap to a sheet of paper? The connection is attributable to the former use of a watermark depicting a fool's cap that was used on long sheets of writing or printing paper. There are various explanations for the introduction of this watermark—including the claim that a 1648 British parliamentary group substituted it for the royal arms during exceptionally turbulent times—but such explanations remain unsupported by historical facts.

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Thu, 08/07/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 07, 2014 is:

florescence • \flor-ESS-unss\  • noun
: a state or period of being in bloom or of flourishing

"Salmonberry flowers … add their showy magenta florescence to the visual banquet." —Carla Peterson, Capital City Weekly (Alaska), May 25, 2011

"Just one year later, the Solidarność movement was flourishing, animated by a new sense of national unity and a commitment to non-violence.… But this florescence occurred against a backdrop of fear that, at any point, the Soviet Union might intervene…." — Victor Gaetan, The National Catholic Register, June 18, 2014

Did you know?
The flowering of botany as a science in the 18th century produced a garden of English words that came about as adaptations of Latin words. Botanists picked "florescence" as a showy word to refer to the blooming of a flower—a good choice given that the term grew out of the New Latin "florescentia," meaning "blossoming." "Florescentia" is related to the Latin verb "florēre" ("to blossom or flourish") and rooted in the Latin noun "flos," meaning "flower." Less literal types appreciated the word, too, and applied it to anything that seemed to be thriving or flourishing, as in "the highest florescence of a civilization."

Categories: Fun Stuff


Wed, 08/06/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 06, 2014 is:

chicane • \shih-KAYN\  • verb
: to use deception : to trick or cheat

Claiming to be their long-lost grandson, the scammer chicaned the couple into wiring money to him.

"There are two related issues here. One being the commercialization of education and the other being that education is regarded as solely a vehicle for job training. They feed on each other and now we are chicaned into discussing education in purely economic terms." — Dunstan Chan, Sound and Silence, 2013

Did you know?
There's no mystery about the origins of "chicane." It's from the Middle French verb "chicaner," meaning "to quibble" or "to prevent justice," and print evidence of its use as a verb in English dates to around 1672. The noun form of "chicane" was first used in print in 1686. In addition to referring to "trickery," the noun "chicane" is used to refer to an obstacle or a series of tight turns in opposite directions on a racecourse. In card games, "chicane" refers to the absence of trumps in a hand of cards. One curiosity of this word set is that the word that would appear to be a derivative of "chicane"—"chicanery" (a synonym of "chicane" in its "trickery" sense)—actually appeared in English over 60 years before "chicane."

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