Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

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

utopia • \yoo-TOH-pee-uh\  • noun
: an impractical scheme for social improvement

To some people, gated communities are visions of Utopia—safe, quiet, and out of the way.

"Peninsula Players has entertained generations of audiences since it was founded in 1935 by a brother-and-sister team, Caroline and Richard Fisher, who dreamed of an artistic utopia where actors, designers and technicians could focus on their craft while being surrounded by nature in a contemplative setting." — From an article in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, March 12, 2014

Did you know?
In 1516, English humanist Sir Thomas More published a book titled Utopia. It compared social and economic conditions in Europe with those of an ideal society on an imaginary island located off the coast of the Americas. More wanted to imply that the perfect conditions on his fictional island could never really exist, so he called it "Utopia," a name he created by combining the Greek words "ou" (meaning "no, not") and "topos" (meaning "place," a root used in our word "topography"). The earliest generic use of "utopia" was for an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. The current use of "utopia," referring to an ideal place or society, was inspired by More's description of Utopia's perfection.

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Walter Mitty

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 1:00am

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

Walter Mitty • \WAWL-ter-MIT-ee\  • noun
: a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming

Alan is a Walter Mitty who loves to read travel books but rarely ventures beyond the limits of his own small town.

"Ralphie eventually has to resort to his own Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy to deal with his real-life predicament." — From an article by Bill Eggert in The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), December 14, 2013

Did you know?
The original Walter Mitty was created by humorist James Thurber in his famous story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." In Walter's real life, he is a reticent, henpecked proofreader befuddled by everyday life. But in his fantasies, Walter imagines himself as various daring and heroic characters. Thurber's popular story was first published in The New Yorker in 1939. "Walter Mitty" has since become the eponym for dreamers who imagine themselves in dramatic or heroic situations.

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Mon, 04/14/2014 - 1:00am

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

madeleine • \MAD-uh-lun\  • noun
1 : a small rich shell-shaped cake 2 : one that evokes a memory

"The evening started with wine and snacks, which included house-made charcuterie, cheese, and cornbread madeleines—the latter, I thought, a clever mashup of French and US traditions…." — From an article by Tom Philpott on, March 11, 2014 "Every year, the family gathered in the backyard to roast a whole pig in a pit. Between the smell and the smoke, it makes for my own 35-pound madeleine." — From an article by Ana Menéndez in Gourmet, September 2007

Did you know?
The madeleine is said to have been named after a 19th-century French cook named Madeleine Paumier, but it was the French author Marcel Proust who immortalized the pastry in his 1913 book Swann's Way, the first volume of his seven-part novel Remembrance of Things Past. In that work, a taste of tea-soaked cake evokes a surge of memory and nostalgia. As more and more readers chewed on the profound mnemonic power attributed to a mere morsel of cake, the word "madeleine" itself became a designation for anything that evokes a memory.

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tabula rasa

Sun, 04/13/2014 - 1:00am

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

tabula rasa • \TAB-yuh-luh-RAH-zuh\  • noun
1 : the mind in its hypothetical primary blank or empty state before receiving outside impressions 2 : something existing in its original pristine state

"In those pioneering days, I was something of a tabula rasa in the kitchen, unless you count my knack for toasting a flawless Pop-Tart." — From an article by Andy Borowitz in Food & Wine, June 2003

"When city officials began handing out development contracts in the 1980s, there was no urban context to go by. It was as close as a city gets to tabula rasa: two square mile of parking lots, vacant warehouses and abandoned railroad tracks." — From an article by Matt Chaban in the New York Daily News, March 7, 2014

Did you know?
Philosophers have been arguing that babies are born with minds that are essentially blank slates since the days of Aristotle. (Later, some psychologists took up the case as well.) English speakers have called that initial state of mental blankness "tabula rasa" (a term taken from a Latin phrase that translates as "smooth or erased tablet") since the 16th century, but it wasn't until British philosopher John Locke championed the concept in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 that the term gained widespread popularity in our language. In later years, a figurative sense of the term emerged, referring to something that exists in its original state and that has yet to be altered by outside forces.

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Sat, 04/12/2014 - 1:00am

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

recondite • \REK-un-dyte\  • adjective
1 : hidden from sight : concealed 2 : difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend : deep 3 : of, relating to, or dealing with something little known or obscure

"We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of precious wax in their construction." — From Charles Darwin's 1859 book On the Origin of Species

"The week after Michelle Obama went on Jimmy Fallon's 'Late Night' show to present the recondite art of Mom Dancing, her segment doomed Jay Leno in Fallon's favor." — From an article by Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News (New York), December 29, 2013

Did you know?
While "recondite" may be used to describe something difficult to understand, there is nothing recondite about the word's history. It dates to the early 1600s, when it was coined from the synonymous Latin word "reconditus." "Recondite" is one of those underused but useful words that's always a boon to one's vocabulary, but take off the "re-" and you get something very obscure: "condite" is an obsolete verb meaning both "to pickle or preserve" and "to embalm." If we add the prefix "in-" to "condite" we get "incondite," which means "badly put together," as in "incondite prose." All three words have Latin "condere" at their root; that verb is translated variously as "to put or bring together," "to put up, store," and "to conceal."

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Fri, 04/11/2014 - 1:00am

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

collimate • \KAH-luh-mayt\  • verb
: to make (something, such as light rays) parallel

"Amazingly, some astrophysical jets—streams of charged particles collimated and accelerated over astronomical distances—also exhibit a helical structure." — From an article by Mario Livio on The Huffington Post, November 20, 2013

"The higher cost and fixed eyepieces of the … binoculars are distinct disadvantages, but setup time is reduced—there's no need to collimate optics or align tube assemblies." — From a product review by Phil Harrington in Astronomy, February 2004

Did you know?
One might expect a science-y word like "collimate" to have a straightforward etymology, but that's not the case. "Collimate" comes from Latin "collimare," a misreading of the Latin word "collineare," meaning "to direct in a straight line." The erroneous "collimare" appeared in some editions of the works of ancient Roman statesman Cicero and scholar Aulus Gellius. The error was propagated by later writers—most notably by astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler, who wrote in Latin. And so it was the spelling "collimate," rather than "collineate," that passed into English in the 19th century.

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Thu, 04/10/2014 - 1:00am

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

kith • \KITH\  • noun
: familiar friends, neighbors, or relatives

Alan looked forward to the annual block party as a way to stay connected with his kith.

"Many urban dwellers, embedded in networks of kith and kin, wouldn't dream of swapping the spiciness of the city for the white-bread pleasures of suburbia." — From an article by David L. Kirp in The New York Times, October 20, 2013

Did you know?
"Kith" has had many meanings over the years. In its earliest uses it referred to knowledge of something, but that meaning died out in the 1400s. Another sense, "one's native land," had come and gone by the early 1500s. The sense "friends, fellow countrymen, or neighbors" developed before the 12th century and was sometimes used as a synonym of "kinsfolk." That last sense got "kith" into hot water after people began using the word in the alliterative phrase "kith and kin." Over the years, usage commentators have complained that "kith" means the same thing as "kin," so "kith and kin" is redundant. Clearly, they have overlooked some other historical definitions, but if you want to avoid redundancy charges, be sure to include friends as well as relatives among your "kith and kin."

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Wed, 04/09/2014 - 1:00am

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

rancid • \RAN-sid\  • adjective
1 : having a rank smell or taste 2 : offensive

Although considered healthier, unsaturated fats become rancid much more easily than saturated fats do.

"Oddly enough, this wild conjecture is about as far as McGinniss goes into the rancid waters of tabloid gossip." — From a book review by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, March 11, 2014

Did you know?
"Rancid" has a fairly straightforward history; it derives from Latin "rancidus," itself from the Latin verb "rancēre," meaning "to be rancid" or "to stink." In addition to the related words "rancidness" and "rancidity," another descendant of "rancēre" in English is "rancor," meaning "bitter deep-seated ill will." ("Rancor" passed through Middle French rather than being borrowed into English directly.) These days, "rancid" also has developed a second, extended sense which is used in the context of offenses to less literal or physical senses than those of smell or taste, and you might see references to "rancid behavior" or "a rancid personality."

Categories: Fun Stuff


Tue, 04/08/2014 - 1:00am

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

virescent • \vuh-RESS-unt\  • adjective
: beginning to be green : greenish

Buds formed on the bare trees, infusing the stark branches with a slight virescent tint.

"While Heisman Trophy winner and National Football League quarterback Tim Tebow read 'Green Eggs and Ham,' during Dr. Seuss Week, Lincoln Elementary kindergarten teacher Mary Jo Bures quietly slipped away to a meeting. None of the kindergartners noticed, their eyes fixated on the screen, their ears absorbing the story of Sam I Am and his never wavering quest to get the narrator to try the virescent foods." — From an article by Chris Dunker in the Beatrice Daily Sun (Nebraska), February 25, 2014

Did you know?
"Virescent" first appeared in English in 1826. It derives from the present participle of "virescere," a Latin verb meaning "to become green" and a form of another verb, "virēre," meaning "to be green." "Virēre" also gave us another adjective meaning green, "verdant," only the route to that adjective takes a stop at Old French "verdoier" ("to be green"). "Virescent" has seen occasional general use, as when Thomas Hardy wrote, in his 1881 novel A Laodicean, of "[t]he summer … tipping every twig with a virescent yellow." But it is nowadays found most frequently in scientific contexts, especially those pertaining to botany.

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Mon, 04/07/2014 - 1:00am

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

spandex • \SPAN-deks\  • noun
: any of various elastic textile fibers made chiefly of polyurethane; also : clothing made of this material

While spandex is appropriate for running races and perhaps errands too, few of us can get away with donning it in the workplace.

"[Olympic bobsled brakeman Chris] Fogt says his athletic life and his military career have some similarities, particularly the camaraderie forged in the trenches…. 'For us, it's obviously slightly different. Your life's not in danger. At the same time, you're sliding down an icy track in a bathtub with four men in spandex. You get very close.'" — From an article by Rick Maese in the Washington Post, February 24, 2014

Did you know?
Spandex is a fiber that has had an impact on fashion high and low, casual and formal, outer and under. It's not a trademark, as a number of the names of other fibers are, among them "Dacron," "Lycra," and "Orlon." It's a generic term, coined in 1959 as an anagram of the word "expands." Anagrammatic coinages are not common; the only other in our dictionaries that the average person is likely to be familiar with is "sideburns." "Sideburns" is an anagram (and synonym) of "burnsides," from Ambrose E. Burnside, a Union general in the American Civil War credited with originating the fashion (in the U.S., at least) also known as "side-whiskers."

Categories: Fun Stuff


Sun, 04/06/2014 - 1:00am

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

epistolary • \ih-PIST-uh-lair-ee\  • adjective
1 : of, relating to, or suitable to a letter 2 : contained in or carried on by letters 3 : written in the form of a series of letters

"Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston." — From D.T. Max's 2012 biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

"If we replace simple letters with their instant always-on alternatives, we relinquish so much epistolary architecture too. The elegant opening address and sign-off, the politeness of tone and the correct grammar and spelling." — From an article by Simon Garfield in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), February 14, 2014

Did you know?
"Epistolary" was formed from the noun "epistle," which refers to a composition written in the form of a letter to a particular person or group. In its original sense, "epistle" refers to one of the 21 letters (such as those from the apostle Paul) found in the New Testament. Dating from the 13th century, "epistle" came to English via Anglo-French and Latin from the Greek noun "epistolē," meaning "message" or "letter." "Epistolē," in turn, came from the verb "epistellein," meaning "to send to" or "to send from." "Epistolary" appeared in English four centuries after "epistle" and can be used to describe something related to or contained in a letter (as in "epistolary greetings") or composed of letters (as in "an epistolary novel").

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Sat, 04/05/2014 - 1:00am

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

debunk • \dee-BUNK\  • verb
: to expose the sham or falseness of

At the premiere of their new movie, the actor and actress addressed the media to debunk the rumor that they were dating.

"Illusionists and comedians Penn and Teller have made a career out of pulling back the curtain, whether to reveal the methods magicians employ in their tricks or to debunk pseudoscientific claptrap on their former television series." — From a movie review by Marc Mohan in The Oregonian (Portland) , March 7, 2014

Did you know?
If you guessed that "debunk" has something to do with "bunk," meaning "nonsense," you're correct. We started using "bunk" at the beginning of the 20th century. (It derived, via "bunkum," from a remark made by a congressman from Buncombe county, North Carolina.) A little less than 25 years later, "debunk" was first used in print for the act of taking the "bunk" out of something. There are plenty of synonyms for "debunk," including "disprove," "rebut," "refute," and the somewhat rarer "confute." Even "falsify" can mean "prove something false," in addition to "make something false." "Debunk" itself often suggests that something is not merely untrue, but also a sham; one can simply disprove a myth, but if it is "debunked," the implication is that it was a grossly exaggerated or foolish claim.

Categories: Fun Stuff


Fri, 04/04/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 04, 2014 is:

narwhal • \NAHR-wahl\  • noun
: an arctic cetacean (Monodon monoceros) about 20 feet (6 meters) long with the male having a long twisted ivory tusk

In medieval times, the tusk of the narwhal was sometimes passed off and sold as the horn of the fabled unicorn.

"Polar bears and narwhals—some of the Arctic's most unusual and beloved creatures—are the focus of a family activity day at the Whatcom Museum, part of its continuing events in support of the 'Vanishing Ice' exhibit." — From an article by Robert Mittendorf in The Bellingham Herald (Washington), January 9, 2014

Did you know?
The narwhal is a toothed whale found throughout arctic waters. Its Latin binomial, Monodon monoceros, is derived from the Greek words for "single-toothed" and "single-horned." Its English name (also sometimes spelled "narwhale") comes from the Norwegian and Danish "narvhal" and the Swedish "narval," words which are probably a modification of the Icelandic "nárhvalur," which comes from the Old Norse "nāhvalr." In Old Norse "hvalr" means "whale" and is akin to the Old English "hwæl," the ancestor of the Modern English "whale." The first element of "nāhvalr" is believed to be "nār," the Old Norse word for "corpse," from the resemblance of the animal's color to that of a human corpse.

Categories: Fun Stuff


Thu, 04/03/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 03, 2014 is:

cadge • \KAJ\  • verb
: beg, sponge

Mike tried to cadge a cigarette from Paula, but she told him to get his own pack.

"With a straight face I actually said that I was still hungry and tried to cadge a second half-pound burrito. I failed." — From a blog post by Karl Wilder at, March 4, 2014

Did you know?
As long ago as the 1400s, peddlers traveled the British countryside, each with a packhorse or a horse and cart, first carrying produce from rural farms to town markets, then returning with small wares to sell to country folk. The Middle English name for such traders was "cadgear"; Scottish dialects rendered the term as "cadger." Etymologists are pretty sure the verb "cadge" was created as a back-formation of "cadger" (which is to say, it was formed by removal of the "-er" suffix). At its most general, "cadger" meant "carrier," and the verb "cadge" meant "to carry." More specifically, the verb meant to go about as a cadger or peddler. By the 1800s, it was used when someone who posed as a peddler turned out to be more of a beggar—and that use led to our present-day one.

Categories: Fun Stuff