Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

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Mon, 09/01/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 01, 2014 is:

impregnable • \im-PREG-nuh-bul\  • adjective
1 : incapable of being taken by assault : unconquerable 2 : unassailable; also : impenetrable

"The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable…." — Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897

"He is too generous in his assessment of Lee's disastrous frontal attacks at the Battle of Malvern Hill that capped the Seven Days campaign, and his equally futile assault—now famous as Pickett's Charge—on another impregnable federal position at Gettysburg, in 1863." — Fergus M. Bordewich, The New York Times, June 29, 2014

Did you know?
Since the days when the Norman French ruled England, English-speakers have been captured by the allure of French terms. Impregnable is one of the many English words that bear a French ancestry. It derives from the Middle French verb prendre, which means "to take or capture." Combining prendre with various prefixes has given our language many other words, too, including surprise, reprise and enterprise.

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Sun, 08/31/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 31, 2014 is:

permutation • \per-myoo-TAY-shun\  • noun
1 : often major or fundamental change (as in character or condition) based primarily on rearrangement of existent elements; also : a form or variety resulting from such change 2 a : the act or process of changing the lineal order of an ordered set of objects b : an ordered arrangement of a set of objects

The policy went through a number of permutations before the committee settled on its final version.

"There are grilled cheeses with pierogi, hamburger patties, jerk shrimp and crabmeat. They use gouda, beer cheese, buffalo mozzarella and provolone. The permutations are potentially limitless." — Dan Gigler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 31, 2014

Did you know?
Permutation has not changed all that much since it was borrowed into Middle English from Anglo-French in the 14th century as permutacioun, meaning "exchange, transformation." Permutacioun traces back to the Latin verb permutare, meaning "to change thoroughly, exchange," and ultimately derives from the Latin mutare, "to change." Other descendants of mutare in English include commute, mutant, and mutual. Permutation also has a specific application in the field of mathematics relating to the ordering of a given set of objects. For example, permutations of items a, b, and c are abc, acb, bac, etc.

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Sat, 08/30/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 30, 2014 is:

cap-a-pie • \kap-uh-PEE\  • adverb
: from head to foot

The birthday girl—dressed cap-a-pie as a princess, from tiara to sequined slippers—waited excitedly for her guests to arrive.

"It's only in cartoons that crows have yellow beaks and feet. They are of one shade cap-a-pie, black as midnight and fleet of wing." — M. D. Harmon, Portland Press Herald (Maine), January 5, 2004

Did you know?
Think of a medieval knight riding off to battle completely encased (from head to foot, as it were) in armor. Knights thus outfitted were said to be "armed cap-a-pie." The term cap-a-pie, which has been used in English since at least the 16th century, descends from the Middle French phrase de cap a pé, meaning "from head to foot." Nowadays, it is generally extended to more figurative armor, as in "armed cap-a-pie against criticism." Cap-a-pie has also been credited with parenting another English phrase. Some people think the expression "apple-pie order," meaning "perfect order," may have originated as a corruption of "cap-a-pie order." The evidence for that theory is far from orderly, however, and it must be regarded as speculative.

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Fri, 08/29/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 29, 2014 is:

precocial • \prih-KOH-shul\  • adjective
: capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth

The mallard is a type of precocial bird that can often fly independently just 24 hours after hatching.

"Hares are like deer, horses and cattle in the sense that their offspring are precocial. They still have multiple offspring per pregnancy, but they are born fully furred with their eyes open." — Bill Danielson, The Recorder (Greenfield, Massachusetts), June 26, 2014

Did you know?
Precocial and its partner altricial are really for the birds. Well, at least they are often used to describe the young of our feathered friends. The chicks of precocial birds can see as soon as they hatch and generally have strong legs and a body covered with fine down. Those are attributes you would expect in birds described by the word precocial, which traces to the Latin precox, a term that means "precocious" or "early ripening" (yes, that root also gave us the word "precocious"). Ducks, geese, ostriches, pheasants, and quail are among the birds that hatch precocial offspring. Altricial chicks, on the other hand, are basically featherless and helpless at birth and require days or weeks of parental care before becoming independent.

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Thu, 08/28/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 28, 2014 is:

pica • \PYE-kuh\  • noun
: an abnormal desire to eat substances (as chalk or ashes) not normally eaten

Some women suffer from pica during pregnancy.

"Pica is an eating disorder that makes you want to nibble on substances with no nutritional value. Sufferers crave washing powder, cigarette ash, dog food, soil, chalk, ice and raw rice, among other things." — Shenaaz Jamal, The Times (South Africa), June 17, 2014

Did you know?
In Latin, pica means "magpie." The magpie bird is an opportunistic omnivore that characteristically eats just about anything. The eating disorder in which people are compelled to eat nonnutritious substances—such as ice, dirt, hair, or laundry starch—has since the 16th century taken its name from that bird of indiscriminate eating habits. Another pica dating back to the 16th century refers to a 12-point printing type. According to one theory, the name comes from a collection of church rules called "pica" whose close black print on white pages resembled the coloring of the magpie; however, no such collection printed in pica from the 16th century is known.

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Wed, 08/27/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 27, 2014 is:

fleer • \FLEER\  • noun
: a word or look of derision or mockery

When Adam suggested that the firm's partners do the work pro bono he half-expected to be hit with a collective fleer, but the others readily agreed.

"He expressed himself, of course, with eccentric abandon—it would have been impossible for him to do otherwise; but he was content to indicate his deepest feelings with a fleer." — Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, 1918

Did you know?
Fleer first appeared in English as a verb (fleryen in Middle English) meaning "to laugh, grin, or grimace in a coarse manner." The verb is of Scandinavian origin and is akin to the Norwegian flire, meaning "to giggle." The noun fleer first and most famously appeared in William Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, in which the evil Iago invites Othello to observe the signs of his wife's unfaithfulness in the visage of her supposed lover, Cassio: "And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns / That dwell in every region of his face…."

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Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 26, 2014 is:

suffrage • \SUF-rij\  • noun
1 : a vote given in deciding a disputed question or electing a person for an office or trust 2 : the right of voting; also : the exercise of such right

On August 26, 1920—42 years after such an amendment had first been introduced in Congress—the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution became law, finally granting women suffrage.

"The Clark Chateau, 321 W. Broadway St., is hosting an exhibit that celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage in the state of Montana." — Montana Standard, July 9, 2014

Did you know?
Why would a 17th-century writer warn people that a chapel was only for "private or secret suffrages"? Because in addition to the meanings listed above, "suffrage" has been used since the 14th century to mean "prayer" (especially a prayer requesting divine help or intercession). So how did "suffrage" come to mean "a vote" or "the right to vote"? To answer that, we must look to the word’s Latin ancestor, "suffragium," which can be translated as "vote," "support," or "prayer." That term produced descendants in a number of languages, and English picked up its senses of "suffrage" from two different places. We took the "prayer" sense from a Middle French "suffragium" offspring that emphasized the word’s spiritual aspects, and we elected to adopt the "voting" senses directly from the original Latin.

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Mon, 08/25/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 25, 2014 is:

operose • \AH-puh-rohss\  • adjective
: tedious, wearisome

The operose volume offers up considerably more verbiage than useful information.

"But now competitors face an operose task: it is not enough that they know how to spell a tongue-twister, they should also know its meaning." — Economic Times, April 16, 2013

Did you know?
"Operose" comes from the Latin "operosus" (meaning "laborious," "industrious," or "painstaking"). That word combines the noun "oper-," "opus," which means "work," with "-osus," the Latin equivalent of the English "-ose" and "-ous" suffixes, meaning "full of" or "abounding in." In its earliest uses, beginning in the mid-1500s, the word was used to describe people who are industrious or painstaking in their efforts. Within a little over 100 years, however, the word was being applied as it more commonly is today: to describe tasks and undertakings requiring much time and effort.

Categories: Fun Stuff


Sun, 08/24/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 24, 2014 is:

dovecote • \DUV-koht\  • noun
1 : a small compartmented raised house or box for domestic pigeons 2 : a settled or harmonious group or organization

"The Sultan of Oman has also been a significant contributor, paying for the magnificent dovecote made from English walnut at the end of the lime walk." — Steve Whysall, Vancouver Sun, June 26, 2014

"A leaked anonymous letter, the so-called Trojan Horse letter, claimed there was a conservative Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate and take over as many as two dozen local schools. It caused fluttering in very many interested dovecotes." — Mary Dejevsky, Newsweek, June 15, 2014

Did you know?
When Shakespeare's Coriolanus was condemned to die by the Volscians, the doomed general proudly reminded his enemies, "Like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli." (Coriolanus was referring to an earlier victory in which his army had seized the city of Corioli from the Volscians.) When he introduced that eagle into the dovecote, Shakespeare also introduced a new figure of speech, but one that wasn't truly "discovered" by most writers until the 19th century—and then from a misquote. English novelist Edward G. Lytton reminded folks about it in 1853 when he wrote about how "the great Roman general did 'flutter the dove-cots in Corioli.'" Nowadays, we sometimes "ruffle" dovecotes or "cause a flurry" in them, in addition to "fluttering" them or "causing a flutter" in them.

Categories: Fun Stuff


Sat, 08/23/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 23, 2014 is:

purfle • \PER-ful\  • verb
: to ornament the border or edges of

The guitar maker used abalone shell to purfle the instrument.

"She wore a silk dress purfled with gold, and they compared her beauty to the moon." — Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest, June 30, 2011

Did you know?
Today we use "purfle" mostly in reference to setting a decorative inlaid border around the body of a guitar or violin, a process known as "purfling." In the past, "purfle" got the most use in connection with adornment of garments. "The Bishop of Ely … wore a robe of scarlet … purfled with minever," reported an English clergyman in 1840, for example. We embellished our language with "purfle," first as "purfilen" in the 1300s, when we took it with its meaning from Middle French "porfiler."

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Davy Jones's Locker

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 22, 2014 is:

Davy Jones's Locker • \day-vee-johnz-LAH-ker\  • noun
: the bottom of the ocean

"We asked where the rest of the ship's company were; a gruff old fellow made answer, 'One boat's crew of 'em is gone to Davy Jones's locker: —went off after a whale, last cruise, and never come back agin.…'" — Herman Melville, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847

"They were storm driven throughout a long night and slammed into the cliffs of Guana Island 20 miles to the Southwest: a close call with Davy Jones' locker." — Jonathan Russo, Shelter Island Reporter (New York), June 23, 2014

Did you know?
Was there a real Davy Jones? Folks have been pondering that question for centuries. Sailors have long used "Davy Jones" as the name of a personified evil spirit of the ocean depths, but no one knows exactly why. Some claim the original Davy Jones was a British pirate, but evidence of such a pirate is lacking. Others swear he was a London pub owner who kept drugged ale in a special locker, served it to the unwary, and then had them shanghaied. But the theory considered most plausible is that "Davy" was inspired by St. David, the patron saint of Wales. (St. David was often invoked by Welsh sailors.) "Jones" is traced to Jonah, the biblical figure who was swallowed by a great fish.

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Thu, 08/21/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 21, 2014 is:

ragamuffin • \RAG-uh-muf-in\  • noun
: a ragged often disreputable person; especially : a poorly clothed often dirty child

Tourists in the city were often surrounded by young ragamuffins begging to be allowed to do small services for an equally small donation.

"Miller shows remarkable range in her portrayal of Rose, who transforms from an underfoot ragamuffin to a confident vixen." — David N. Dunkle, The Patriot-News (Pennsylvania), July 18, 2014

Did you know?
If you’ve guessed that "rag" or "ragged" is related to "ragamuffin," you may be correct, but the origins of today's word are somewhat murky. In Middle English the term functioned both as a surname and generically to denote a ragged and sometimes stupid person, and in the Middle English alliterative poem Piers Plowman William Langland used the word to serve as the name of a demon. The "muffin" part of "ragamuffin" may have its origin in either of two Anglo-Norman words for a devil or scoundrel, but that too is uncertain. No matter its muddied history: the word has continued to develop in modern times. It can also refer to a type of music with rap lyrics and a reggae beat, a meaning that can be found at Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

Categories: Fun Stuff


Wed, 08/20/2014 - 1:00am

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 20, 2014 is:

flyblown • \FLY-blohn\  • adjective
1 a : not pure : tainted b : not bright and new : seedy c : trite, hackneyed 2 : infested with eggs or young larvae of a blowfly

"This is a mighty simple movie, with its flyblown wisdom spelled out." — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, November 2, 1987

"The landscape of 'The Rover' is an arid, flyblown sandpit. We see a guarded container car train with Chinese markings clank across the horizon…. A vastness of tarmac roads connects nasty clusters of buildings that don't add up to towns." — Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 20, 2014

Did you know?
One meaning of "blow" (used mostly, it seems, by 17th century entomologists) is "to deposit eggs or larvae on"—hence the blowfly, which lays its eggs on meat or wounds. "Flyblown" has its origins in the very unpleasant image of a blowfly's victim, and it's from this literal meaning that the more common senses come. Phrases such as "flyblown shack" and "flyblown restaurant" still suggest the actual presence of flies, if not necessarily their embryonic precursors.

Categories: Fun Stuff


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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