Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

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

oxymoron • \ahk-sih-MOR-ahn\  • noun
: a combination of contradictory or incongruous words; broadly : something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements

"That's an oxymoron!" said Joanne, when she heard the DJ describe the song as an "instant classic."

"A 'healthy snack' sounds like an oxymoron. The two words seem to be on opposite ends. But that does not have to be the case." — Karen Miller, The Boston Banner, October 23, 2014

Did you know?
The Greeks exhaustively classified the elements of rhetoric, or effective speech and writing, and gave the name oxymōron, literally "pointed foolishness," to the deliberate juxtaposing of seemingly contradictory words. The roots of oxymoron, oxys meaning "sharp" or "keen" and mōros meaning "foolish," are nearly antonyms themselves, making oxymoron nicely self-descriptive. Oxymoron originally applied to a meaningful paradox condensed into a couple of words, as in "precious bane," "lonely crowd," or "sweet sorrow." Today, however, oxymoron can also refer to unintentional contradictions, like "a plastic glass."

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Wed, 12/17/2014 - 12:00am

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

ergonomic • \er-guh-NAH-mik\  • adjective
1 : of or relating to the science of designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely 2 : designed or arranged for safe, comfortable, and efficient use

Clara hoped that the ergonomic arrangement of her new workstation would help reduce the daily aches in her elbow and wrist.

"Fender has been credited with design and manufacturing innovations that revolutionized the world of electric guitars and basses. The Stratocaster body introduced a curvy ergonomic design for ease of playing…." — Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2014

Did you know?
In 1969, a British publication assured the public that although the word ergonomics looked forbidding, "all it means is the science of making things fit people, instead of asking people to fit things." Ergonomic design as a field of study originated in the 19th century when a Polish author, Wojciech Jastrzebowski, wrote an article about the relation between human activity and the methods used to accomplish that activity. In the article, written in his native Polish, Jastrzebowski coined the word ergonomji, an efficient combination of the Greek ergo-, meaning "work," and nomos, meaning "law." British scientist K. F. H. Murrell is credited with creating the English word ergonomics in 1949, applying the -nomics ending to ergo- in imitation of economics. Earliest evidence of the adjective ergonomic dates to 1954.

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Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:00am

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

réchauffé • \ray-shoh-FAY\  • noun
1 : something presented in a new form without change of substance : rehash 2 : a warmed-over dish of food

The day after the holiday, it was traditional to serve réchauffés and snacks rather than cook a full meal.

"[It] is a réchauffé, … lifted and stitched from 'The Gastronomical Me' and other books." — Victoria Glendinning, New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1991

Did you know?
We borrowed réchauffé in the early 19th century from the French; it is the past participle of their verb réchauffer, which means "to reheat." Nineteenth-century French speakers were using it figuratively to designate something that was already old hat—you might say, "warmed over." English speakers adopted that same meaning, which is still our most common. But within decades someone had apparently decided that leftovers would seem more appealing with a French name. The notion caught on. A recipe for "Réchauffé of Beef a la Jardiniere," for example, instructs the cook to reheat "yesterday's piece of meat" in a little water with some tomatoes added, and serve it on a platter with peas and carrots and potatoes. Réchauffé shares its root with another English word, chafing dish, the name of a receptacle for keeping food warm at the table.

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Mon, 12/15/2014 - 12:00am

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

incommensurable • \in-kuh-MEN-suh-ruh-bul\  • adjective
: not commensurable; broadly : lacking a basis of comparison in respect to a quality normally subject to comparison

The two theories are incommensurable, making any attempt at comparison across disciplines ridiculous.

"Camus' own predicament as an Algerian of European descent sympathetic to both sides of the Algerian War led him to recognize a collision of incommensurable truths and embrace classical moderation." — Steven G. Kellman, The Texas Observer, December 2013

Did you know?
Commensurable means "having a common measure" or "corresponding in size, extent, amount, or degree." Its antonym incommensurable generally refers to things that are unlike and incompatible, sharing no common ground (as in the "incommensurable theories" of the first example sentence), or to things that are very disproportionate, often to the point of defying comparison ("incommensurable crimes"). Both words entered English in the 1500s and were originally used (as they still can be) for numbers that have or don't have a common divisor. They came to English by way of Middle French and Late Latin, ultimately deriving from the Latin noun mensura, meaning "measure." Mensura is also an ancestor of commensurate (meaning "coextensive" or "proportionate") and incommensurate ("disproportionate" or "insufficient"), which overlap in meaning with commensurable and incommensurable but are not exact synonyms.

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Sun, 12/14/2014 - 12:00am

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

nabob • \NAY-bahb\  • noun
: a person of great wealth or importance

Those of us in coach had to wait while the nabobs in first class got seated ahead of us.

"Roughly 70 citizens had addresses on the hill. Many of those listed on the hill worked in the useful trades. The development of the hill as an exclusive neighborhood, as the city's nabobs had hoped, did not begin until the early 1880s." — Lawrence Kreisman, Seattle Times, November 7, 2014

Did you know?
In India's Mogul Empire, founded in the 16th century, provincial governors carried the Urdu title of nawab. In 1612, Captain Robert Coverte published a report of his "discovery" of "the Great Mogoll, a prince not till now knowne to our English nation." The Captain informed the English-speaking world that "An earle is called a Nawbob," thereby introducing the English version of the word. Nabob, as it thereafter came to be spelled, gained its extended sense of "a prominent person" in the late 18th century, when it was applied sarcastically to British officials of the East India Company returning home after amassing great wealth in Asia. The word was perhaps most famously used by Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a 1970 speech written by William Safire, when he referred to critical members of the news media as "nattering nabobs of negativism."

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Sat, 12/13/2014 - 12:00am

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

tractable • \TRAK-tuh-bul\  • adjective
1 : capable of being easily led, taught, or controlled 2 : easily handled, managed, or wrought

The couple had hoped to find a tractable and obedient dog that wouldn't cause too much trouble, but instead they got Rufus and their life has never been the same.

"But values have been steadily rising simply because it's such a good driver's car. It's incredibly tractable and usable—more so than any other car I can think of from that period, in fact." — Dylan Miles, quoted in Classic Driver, November 14, 2014

Did you know?
Obedient, docile, and amenable are synonyms of tractable, but those four words have slightly different shades of meaning. Tractable describes an individual whose character permits easy handling, while docile implies a predisposition to submit readily to authority. Obedient is often used to describe compliance with authority, although that compliance is not necessarily offered eagerly. Amenable, on the other hand, is usually used when one cooperates out of a desire to be agreeable. Tractable dates from the early 16th century and derives from the Latin verb tractare ("to handle" or "to treat"). Despite the resemblance, this root did not give us the noun tractor or verbs such as contract or attract—those all derive from a loosely related Latin verb trahere ("to draw or drag").

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Fri, 12/12/2014 - 12:00am

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

flapdoodle • \FLAP-doo-dul\  • noun
: nonsense

"Not a trace of academic fustian! Not a line of flapdoodle! Not a hint of college professor! Here was sharp and shrewd judgment." — H. L. Mencken, The Smart Set, June 1917

"Chalk that up to the triumph—rare enough these days—of facts over flapdoodle." — Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2013

Did you know?
Combining the letters f, d, and l is a great formula for creating funny words—witness folderol, fiddlesticks, fandangle, flamdoodle, flummadiddle, and fiddledeedee. To ascribe pedigreed origins to any of those silly syllables would be fiddle-faddle. Flapdoodle certainly can't claim high-flown ancestors. Like many of its nonsensical fellows listed above, it most likely originated as an alteration of some other absurd word (fadoodle is a candidate), but its exact origins are unknown.

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Thu, 12/11/2014 - 12:00am

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

allege • \uh-LEJ\  • verb
1 : to assert without proof or before proving 2 : to bring forward as a reason or excuse

She alleges that her roommate stole hundreds of dollars from her.

"The Chicago lawsuit … alleges a two-decade-long campaign by the industry to persuade doctors to make the use of painkillers routine for chronic pain by obscuring the drugs' risks and misrepresenting their efficacy." — David Armstrong, Businessweek, November 14, 2014

Did you know?
These days, someone "alleges" something before presenting the evidence to prove it (or perhaps without evidence at all), but the word actually derives from the Middle English verb alleggen, meaning "to submit (something) in evidence or as justification." Alleggen, in turn, traces back to Anglo-French and probably ultimately to Latin allegare, meaning "to send as a representative" or "to offer as proof in support of a plea." Indeed, allege once referred to the actions of someone who came forward to testify in court; this sense isn't used anymore, but it led to the development of the current "assert without proof" sense.

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Wed, 12/10/2014 - 12:00am

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

calumny • \KAL-um-nee\  • noun
1 : a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation 2 : the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another's reputation

The notion that the mayor knew about the problem before the newspaper broke the story is nothing but calumny.

"Some say that showing respect for your opponent after heaping disrespect upon him … and having disrespect heaped upon you civilizes our politics. In truth, however, it degrades our politics. It says that anything goes—calumny and character assassination are all just part of the rough and tumble of campaigning.…" — Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2014

Did you know?
Calumny made an appearance in these famous words from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go." The word had been in the English language for a while, though, before Hamlet uttered it. It first entered English in the 15th century and comes from the Middle French word calomnie of the same meaning. Calomnie, in turn, derives from the Latin word calumnia, (meaning "false accusation," "false claim," or "trickery"), which itself traces to the Latin verb calvi, meaning "to deceive."

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Tue, 12/09/2014 - 12:00am

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

mellifluous • \muh-LIFF-luh-wus\  • adjective
1 : having a smooth rich flow 2 : filled with something (such as honey) that sweetens

The young diva has a powerful, mellifluous voice that makes her album a sweet aural confection.

"Corr recorded the album in Los Angeles with producer Mitchell Froom, and the style looks back to the mellifluous pop of the Carpenters, Dusty Springfield, and Burt Bacharach, music her parents played when she was a kid in the '70s." — Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 2014

Did you know?
In Latin, mel means "honey" and fluere means "to flow." Those two linguistic components flow smoothly together in mellifluus (from Late Latin) and mellyfluous (from Middle English), the ancestors of mellifluous. The adjective these days typically applies to sound, as it has for centuries. In 1671, for example, Milton wrote in Paradise Regained of the "Wisest of men; from whose mouth issu'd forth Mellifluous streams." But mellifluous can also be used of flavor, as when wine critic Eric Asimov used it to describe pinot grigio in the book Wine With Food: "Most pinot grigios give many people exactly what they want: a mellifluous, easy-to-pronounce wine that can be ordered without fear of embarrassment and that is at the least cold, refreshing, and for the most part cheap."

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Mon, 12/08/2014 - 12:00am

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

greenmail • \GREEN-mail\  • noun
: the practice of buying enough of a company's stock to threaten a hostile takeover and reselling it to the company at a price above market value; also : the money paid for such stock

In an astonishing act of greenmail, the investor bought up all available shares of the company and leveraged his sale back to the company at triple the purchase price.

"We arrived in the middle of great turmoil, with the era of greenmail and leveraged buyouts, when both managers and corporate raiders were abusing shareholders horribly." — Nell Minow, interview in USA TODAY, October 20, 2014

Did you know?
Greenmail is a recent English coinage, but its history spans a millennium. In the Anglo-Saxon historical records for 1086, we find an early use of a word that still survives in Scottish English as mail, meaning "payment" or "rent." The 16th century saw the appearance of the compound blackmail, which was originally a tribute that freebooting chiefs at the Scottish border exacted in exchange for immunity from pillage. In 1862, the U.S. government began printing paper money using green ink, and soon the word green came to suggest money. Finally, in the 1980s, greenmail was coined by combining green and blackmail to describe a particular type of financial piracy.

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Sun, 12/07/2014 - 12:00am

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

impervious • \im-PER-vee-us\  • adjective
1 a : not allowing entrance or passage : impenetrable b : not capable of being damaged or harmed 2 : not capable of being affected or disturbed

Jane remains impervious to any attempt to reason with her; she’s made up her mind and nothing we can say will lead her to change it.

"Boot trends come and go every fall—over-the-knee, ankle, combat, wedges—but one boot remains, impervious to passing fads: the cowboy boot." — Bethany Ao, The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), November 5, 2014

Did you know?
The English language is far from impervious, and, of course, a great many Latinate terms have entered it throughout its history. Impervious is one of the many that broke through in the 17th century. It comes from the Latin impervius, which adds the prefix im- to pervius, meaning "passable" or "penetrable." Pervius—which is also the source of the relatively uncommon English word pervious, meaning "accessible" or "permeable"—comes from per-, meaning "through," and via, meaning "way."

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Sat, 12/06/2014 - 12:00am

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

bouleversement • \bool-vair-suh-MAHNG\  • noun
1 : reversal 2 : a violent disturbance : disorder

The darkening sky prompted a bouleversement of the captain's order to prepare to set sail.

"In fact, [Susan Sontag] had written two novels at the beginning of her career, in the sixties. She didn't like them much, so she became a critic, indeed, the most famous and influential young critic of the sixties and seventies, a central figure in the aesthetic bouleversement of that period.…" — Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 10, 2005

Did you know?
English picked up bouleversement from French in the latter part of the 18th century (it ultimately traces to Middle French boule, meaning "ball," and verser, meaning "to overturn"), and while not very common, it has steadily remained in use since that time. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one, used it in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise: "For the second time in his life Amory had had a complete bouleversement and was hurrying into line with his generation." Both Fitzgerald's use and our first example sentence suggest the idea of turning something around, but as shown in our second example, some usage of bouleversement dispenses with this notion and instead implies a general kind of upheaval or dramatic change, as in a revolution.

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Fri, 12/05/2014 - 12:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 05, 2014 is:

deride • \dih-RYDE\  • verb
1 : to laugh at contemptuously 2 : to subject to usually bitter or contemptuous ridicule

Although derided by classmates for his cocksure insistence that he would be a millionaire by the age of 25, he achieved his goal when his Internet startup went public.

"The aggressive, scowling superstar who'd deride you for your lack of taste and even tell you you're holding your phone wrong suddenly wants to invite you to dinner." — Chris Matyszczyk, CNET, November 2, 2014

Did you know?
When deride was borrowed into English in the 16th century, it came to us by combining the prefix de- with ridēre, a Latin verb meaning "to laugh." Ridēre is also the ancestor of the English words risible ("laughable") and ridiculous. Of course, English has a number of words meaning "to laugh at unkindly"; in addition to deride, we have ridicule, mock, and taunt. Deride suggests laughter loaded with contemptuousness or bitterness, whereas ridicule implies a deliberate often malicious belittling ("consistently ridiculed everything she said"). Mock implies scorn often ironically expressed by mimicry or sham deference ("mocking the speaker's impassioned tones"). Taunt suggests jeeringly provoking insult or challenge ("hometown fans taunted the visiting team").

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