Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

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Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.


    • Oct 1, 2023 LATEST EPISODE
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    Latest episodes from Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day


    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 1, 2023 2:04

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 1, 2023 is: echt • EKHT • adjective Echt is an adjective used mostly in formal or literary speech and writing as a synonym of authentic, genuine, and true. // An echt New Englander wouldn't dream of putting tomatoes in their clam chowder. See the entry > Examples: “There is a version of ‘Tao'—call it the best piece of theater we never saw—that would have featured [Philip] Glass playing piano alongside the action onstage. But early in development, the idea was shot down by his manager; Glass just didn't have the time. But his score is a substantial, crucial contribution. This is late Glass—far from the echt Minimalist sound of ‘Glassworks'…” — Joshua Barone, The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2023 Did you know? When it comes to uncommon-but-nifty words, echt is true-blue, the real deal, the genuine article. (Actually it's an adjective, not an article, of course—but you get the drift.) The earliest known use of echt—a synonym of true and genuine—in English is credited to playwright George Bernard Shaw, who used the word in a 1916 journal article. Shaw borrowed echt directly from German, but since then others have also adapted the Yiddish word ekht, meaning “true to form.” Both the German echt and Yiddish ekht share the same Middle High German source, both contributed to the English echt, and both, therefore, are the real (etymological) McCoy.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 30, 2023 2:03

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 30, 2023 is: palmy • PAH-mee • adjective Palmy describes something that is flourishing or marked by prosperity, or something that is abounding in or bearing palms. // They knew her in her palmy days when she was living high. // They moved to a palmy suburb with lots of new homes and parks. See the entry > Examples: “The newspaper industry will survive, and golfers are in no danger of becoming an extinct species. Still, in both cases, the palmy days are probably long gone. Advertising revenues that largely sustained the press have been diverted to the upstart media of a digitized world, while the leisurely pace of golf proves increasingly out of step with the modern hurly-burly.” — James Gill, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 May 2022 Did you know? Our language became a smidge more prosperous the day palmy first waved “hello.” As the palm branch has traditionally been used as a symbol of victory, so did the word palm come to mean “victory” or “triumph” in the late 14th century, thanks to the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer. Centuries later, William Shakespeare would employ palmy as a synonym for triumphant or flourishing in the tragedy Hamlet when the character Horatio speaks of the “palmy state of Rome / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell.” That use remains somewhat common, and English speakers have since dug back into palmy's vegetal roots to develop the also familiar sense of “abounding in or bearing palms,” as in “palmy beaches.”


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 29, 2023 2:10

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 29, 2023 is: coax • KOHKS • verb To coax a person or animal is to influence or persuade them to do something by talking in a gentle and friendly way. Coax can also be used when someone is working to bring about something desired with great perseverance and usually with considerable effort. // It took almost an hour to coax the cat down from the tree. // Our outdoor survival instructor taught us how to coax a fire to burn by blowing on it. See the entry > Examples: “We glimpse their lives through the eyes of Eva (Flomaria Papadaki), a young newcomer who's joined the dance troupe after fleeing small-town life in Poland. … Eva is more inhibited than the others, and Kalia manages to slowly coax her out of her shell, showing her the ropes of a profession offering escape for both the dancers and their drunken spectators.” — Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter, 11 Aug. 2023 Did you know? In days of yore, if you wanted to call someone a sap or a dupe, the word cokes was it, what you wanted, the real thing: to make a cokes of someone was to make a fool of them. This now-obsolete noun is believed to be the source of the verb coax. However, the earliest known sense of the verb, appearing in the late 16th century, was not “to make a fool of” (this meaning came later) but rather something sweeter: “to pet or caress; to treat lovingly.” As such an act of coaxing (or “cokesing”) was sometimes done for personal gain or favor, the word soon came to be used to refer to influencing or persuading people by kind acts or words. By the 19th century, the spelling cokes had fallen out of use, along with the meanings “to make a fool of” and “to treat lovingly.”


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 28, 2023 2:10

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 28, 2023 is: fervid • FER-vid • adjective Fervid is a somewhat formal word describing people or things that express, or are expressive of, strong feelings. // Many of the movie franchise's most fervid fans camped outside of theaters for days leading up to the new installment's opening night. See the entry > Examples: “Unabashed pop groups with fervid teenage followings tend to get trivialized, at least in the media. They're dismissed as being slick and calculated and superficial. But there's a story in ‘Wham!,' the new Netflix documentary about the quintessential pop duo of the 1980s, that testifies to what a chancy and audacious artist George Michael was even back in his teen-idol days.” — Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 8 July 2023 Did you know? If you've ever felt as if your emotions were going to boil over, whether you were overly bubbly or, less happily, you needed to simmer down over something, you should have no trouble understanding the roots of fervid. Fervid comes from the Latin verb fervēre, meaning “to boil” or “to glow,” as well as, by extension, “to seethe” or “to be roused.” In English, this root gave us not only fervid but the similar-sounding and practically synonymous word fervent. But while fervid usually suggests warm emotion that is expressed in a spontaneous or feverish manner (as in “fervid basketball fans”), fervent is reserved for a kind of emotional warmth that is steady and sincere (as in “a fervent belief in human kindness”). Fervid fans of kimchi or sauerkraut (or fervent followers of anything fermented), may appreciate that fervēre is also the root of ferment.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 27, 2023 2:35

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 27, 2023 is: nepotism • NEP-uh-tiz-um • noun Nepotism refers to favoritism based on kinship, and especially to the unfair practice of giving jobs and other favors to relatives. // It was strongly believed that nepotism played a role in helping Jessica get the sales manager position at her cousin's store. See the entry > Examples: "Venture to a certain corner of the Internet, and you'll find an uncanny kind of social satire: that of the wishful work design. There's the made-up meeting punctuality score, which tells you who among your invitees is most likely to show up to the brainstorm 10 minutes late. Or the fictitious LinkedIn nepotism disclosure, which adds a label to tell you which manager is actually just related to the boss." — Gabriela Riccardi, Quartz, 12 July 2023 Did you know? We happen to have neither Merriams nor Websters on our staff at Merriam-Webster, and familial connections to the company's founders do not provide an advantage to job applicants. If it were otherwise, we might be accused of nepotism—that is, favoritism based on kinship, especially in professional contexts. English speakers have kept nepotism in the family since the late 1600s, having adopted it from the French, who were inspired by Gregorio Leti's 1667 book Il nipotismo di Roma (English title: The History of the Popes' Nephews). The book explores a practice introduced by Pope Sixtus IV: during his papacy in the late 15th century he granted many special favors to members of his family, in particular to his nephews. This practice of papal favoritism was carried on by his near successors. Today, nepotism is mostly associated with business and politics. In recent informal English use, the shortened form nepo has been hitched to the denigrating term baby to refer especially to celebrities who had a parent (or two) who were also in the entertainment industry.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 26, 2023 1:38

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 26, 2023 is: grok • GRAHK • verb To grok something is to understand it both profoundly and intuitively. // She enjoyed the deep discussions in her metaphysics class that helped her grok some of the main themes of Western philosophy. See the entry > Examples: "The thing that marketing teams can't fully grok is that TikTok interest is organic, growing like a mushroom, sending out spores that germinate and thread through existing cultural ephemera." — Chelsea G. Summers, Vulture, 22 Nov. 2022 Did you know? Grok may be the only English word that derives from Martian. Yes, we do mean the language of the planet Mars. No, we're not getting spacey; we've just ventured into the realm of science fiction. Grok was introduced in Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The book's main character, Valentine Michael Smith, is a Martian-raised human who comes to Earth as an adult, bringing with him words from his native tongue and a unique perspective on the strange ways of earthlings. Grok was quickly adopted by the youth culture of America and has since peppered the vernacular of those who grok it.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 25, 2023 2:05

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 25, 2023 is: quorum • KWOR-um • noun Quorum refers to the smallest number of people who must be present at a meeting in order for official decisions to be made. Broadly speaking, quorum may refer to any select group. // The organization's charter states that a quorum of at least seven board members must be present before any voting can take place. See the entry > Examples: "There has been criticism of several councillors not appearing at committee and council meetings over the last two years forcing some meetings to be cancelled because of a lack of quorum." — Kevin Werner, The Hamilton (Ontario) Mountain News, 14 July 2022 Did you know? It takes two drama queens to tango, three Nervous Nellies to change a lightbulb, and 218 U.S. House Representatives to constitute a formal meeting. Each of these minimums—especially the last one—may be described as a quorum. This word, which can be pluralized as quorums or quora, comes directly from the Latin word quorum, which translates as "of whom." At one time, this Latin quorum was used in the wording of the commissions granting power to justices of the peace in England. Later, when it became an English noun, quorum initially referred to the number of justices of the peace who had to be present to constitute a legally sufficient bench. That sense is now rare, and today quorum is used to refer to the minimum number of people required to be present at a meeting in order for official business to take place. It can also be used more broadly to mean simply "a select group."


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 24, 2023 2:09

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 24, 2023 is: lionize • LYE-uh-nyze • verb To lionize someone is to treat them as a person of great interest or importance. // While her name was not attached to her books in her lifetime (she published anonymously), Jane Austen continues two centuries hence to be lionized as one of the English language's greatest novelists. See the entry > Examples: “What I love about this memoir, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2019, is its incredible sense of place. [Sarah M.] Broom's story is submerged in one of the most lionized—and complex—cities in America: New Orleans. More specifically, she focuses on New Orleans East and the yellow shotgun house that the author's steadfast mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961, and where Broom grew up as the youngest of 12 siblings.” — Isaac Fitzgerald, The Atlantic, 10 Aug. 2022 Did you know? Across time and across cultures—as evidenced from Chauvet-Pont d'Arc's paintings to The Lion King—lions have captured people's imaginations. Though the big cats themselves are fascinatingly complex, it's perhaps no surprise that humans have long projected qualities of bravery and regality upon the proverbial “king of the beasts.” It is precisely those and similar admirable qualities that led, in the 18th century, to lion being used for a person who is similarly well-regarded, especially after a long and distinguished career in a particular field, as in “lion of the Senate,” or “literary lion.” This sense of lion imbues the verb lionize, which first appeared in English in the early 19th century to apply to acts of treating someone as, perhaps, deserving of roaring applause.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 23, 2023 2:24

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 23, 2023 is: tenebrous • TEN-uh-brus • adjective Tenebrous is a formal word that is often used as a synonym of gloomy. It also can be used to describe dark, unlit places (as in “the tenebrous abyss”) or things that are difficult to understand (as in “a tenebrous tangle of lies”). // The neighborhood children made sure never to approach the abandoned mansion, which sat tenebrous and foreboding at the top of the hill. // A horror film seems incomplete without someone running through a tenebrous forest or alley. See the entry > Examples: “On the heels of Greig Fraser's spectacular work on Dune, the cinematographer gives the film a moody, tenebrous look to match the tortured pit of Batman's soul, and production designer James Chinlund's world-building is first-rate, weaving together elements from real cities and sets to form a Gotham that resembles New York while establishing its own gritty, gothic identity, pulsing with menace and mystery.” — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 Feb. 2022 Did you know? Tenebrous can mean both “obscure” and “murky,” but its history is crystal clear. Etymologists know that the word comes from the Latin noun tenebrae, meaning “darkness.” Tenebrous has been used in English since the 15th century, and in subsequent centuries has been joined by some interesting and even less common relations. Tenebrionid is the name that may be given to any of at least 20,000 species of mostly nocturnal beetles, also called darkling beetles, many of whom love inhabiting dark places. Tenebrism refers to a style of painting—associated especially with the Italian painter Caravaggio—in which most of the figures are engulfed in shadow while some are dramatically illuminated by concentrated light. And let's not forget the terrific tenebrific, a tenebrous synonym.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 22, 2023 2:03

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 22, 2023 is: mesmerize • MEZ-muh-ryze • verb Mesmerize means "to hold the attention of someone entirely; to interest or amaze someone so much that nothing else is seen or noticed." The word is often used in the phrase "be mesmerized." // The crowd was mesmerized by the flawlessly synchronous movements of the acrobats. See the entry > Examples: "Yep, Ruth [Handler] ended up naming two of her iconic dolls after her kids. The idea for Barbie and Ken stemmed from a family Europe trip in 1956.... Barbara, then still a teenager, saw a doll that looked like an adult woman in a store window in Switzerland and was mesmerized." — Korin Miller, Women's Health, 21 July 2023 Did you know? Experts can't agree on whether Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was a quack or a genius, but all concede that the Swabian physician's name is the source of the word mesmerize. In his day, Mesmer was the toast of Paris, where he enjoyed the support of notables including Queen Marie Antoinette. He treated patients with therapeutic procedures (called, appropriately enough, mesmerism) involving what he claimed was a mysterious force termed animal magnetism. (Many believe that mesmerism was what we now call hypnotism). Accordingly, the verb mesmerize was first used to mean "to subject to mesmerism" before broadening to be synonymous with hypnotize, and later to mean "to amaze or captivate."


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 21, 2023 2:20

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 21, 2023 is: regimen • REJ-uh-mun • noun Regimen refers to a plan or set of rules about food, exercise, etc., designed to make someone become or stay healthy. // Sherry's personal trainer at the gym started her on a workout regimen of 30 minutes on the treadmill followed by 30 minutes of weight training. See the entry > Examples: “For those with natural hair, taking on a protective hairstyle is more than an expectation, it's a symbolic rite of passage. ... That said, tucking your hair into a protective style is not an excuse to completely disregard all hair-care practices. If anything, it's the exact opposite: Establishing an effective hair-care regimen is essential to maximizing and maintaining a protective style, so once it's removed, both the scalp and hair are healthy and happy.” — Janelle Sessoms,, 16 June 2023 Did you know? Being but humble lexicographers, we cannot say whether an apple a day truly keeps the doctor away, but as far as regimens go, one could do a lot worse than snackin' on a McIntosh. Regimen, which usually refers to a system of rules or guidelines—often for living a healthy life or taking a regular dose of exercise—comes ultimately from a Latin verb, regere, meaning “to direct.” Regere led in apple-pie order to the English word regimen, first by way of the Latin noun regimen, meaning “steering” or “control,” and then via the Medieval Latin regimen, referring to a set of rules. Other regere descendants fell further from the tree, including correct, erect, region, rule, and surge. Be sure not to confuse regimen with another of its kin, regiment, which refers to a military unit, as doing so could upset the apple cart.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 20, 2023 2:12

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 20, 2023 is: churlish • CHUR-lish • adjective Churlish is a formal word that means “irritable and rude.” // It would be churlish not to congratulate the winning team because we lost the match. See the entry > Examples: “‘Ted Lasso' has gradually become more of a light drama than a comedy, but it's such a pleasant one that it seems churlish to even point this out. In that dramatic vein, the show's depiction of Nate is more compelling than I might have anticipated. The series has never been particularly interested in validating the man-child archetype, but it is interested in how insecurity can manifest itself into toxic behavior and Nate is the epitome of that.” — Nina Metz, The Chicago Tribune, 15 Mar. 2023 Did you know? In Old English, the word ceorl referred to a free peasant—someone who was neither part of the nobility nor enslaved or in debt. In Anglo-Saxon England, which lasted roughly from the 5th to 11th centuries, ceorls had many rights that peasants of lower social status did not, and a few even rose to the rank of thane. However, as most ceorls were driven into the class of unfree villeins over the centuries, especially following the Norman Conquest, the connotation of the word ceorl—spelled cherl in Middle English and then finally churl—diminished as well, eventually coming to mean “a lowly peasant” and later “a rude, ill-bred person.” Similarly, churlish began in the form ceorlisc in Old English as a simple descriptor of someone with the rank of ceorl, but today it describes a boorish person, or their rude and insensitive behavior.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 19, 2023 2:19

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 19, 2023 is: pontificate • pahn-TIF-uh-kayt • verb To pontificate is to speak or express an opinion about something in a pompous or dogmatic way. // Stan loves to hear himself talk and will often pontificate on even the most trivial issues. See the entry > Examples: "Fact is, you can find good pizza from Memphis to Salt Lake City. But you have to look a lot harder than you do in Orlando. So, stop with this nonsense already. Similarly, let's abandon the absolutes. This place is THE BEST. That place is THE WORST. These things are entirely subjective and ranted about on the internet by a small but exhaustingly vocal contingent of zealots, many of whom I suspect enjoy pontificating far more than they enjoy pizza." — Amy Drew Thompson, The Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, 8 June 2023 Did you know? We hate to drone on, so we'll give you the TL;DR on pontificate. In ancient Rome, a pontifex (plural pontifices) was a member of an important council of priests. With the rise of Catholicism, the title pontifex was transferred to the Pope and to Catholic bishops. From pontifex, by way of Medieval Latin, comes the English verb pontificate, which in the early 1800s meant “to officiate as a pontiff”—that is, as a bishop or Pope. (Note that the noun pontificate), which refers to the state, office, or term of office of a pontiff had been borrowed directly from Latin in the 15th century.) By the late 1800s, pontificate was also being used derisively for lay individuals who spoke as if they had the authority of a member of the clergy. To this day the word connotes an air of spurious superiority—one might consider this sense of pontificate to be the spiritual forerunner of mansplain.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 18, 2023 2:11

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 18, 2023 is: zenith • ZEE-nith • noun Zenith refers to the strongest or most successful period of time for a person or thing. // At the zenith of her music career in the early 2000s, she released her best-selling album to date. See the entry > Examples: "Once deemed ‘one of the most underrated musicians in rock history' by David Bowie, John Cale is best known as the viola-scraping Velvet Underground co-founder who grounded the group in the avant-garde. But those years hardly marked a creative zenith for Cale. Since leaving the band in 1968, he has released more than a dozen solo albums, ranging in style from orchestral pop to new wave and punk; collaborated with luminaries like Patti Smith and Brian Eno; and scored numerous films." — Olivia Horn, The New York Times, 18 Aug. 2023 Did you know? When you reach the zenith, you're at the top, the pinnacle, the summit, the peak. Zenith developed from an Arabic phrase meaning "the way over one's head," and then traveled through Old Spanish, Medieval Latin, and Middle French before arriving in English. As long ago as the 1300s, English speakers used zenith to name the highest point in the celestial heavens, directly overhead. By the 1600s, zenith was being used for other high points as well. The celestial term is often contrasted with nadir, which refers to the point that is vertically downward from the observer (imagine a line going through the Earth from the observer's feet and out the other side into the sky). Figuratively, nadir simply means "the lowest point."


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 17, 2023 2:11

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 17, 2023 is: shofar • SHOH-far • noun A shofar is the horn of an animal (usually a ram) blown as a trumpet by the ancient Hebrews in battle and during religious observances. It is used in modern Judaism especially during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. // As a child, Eli's favorite part of the High Holidays was the sounding of the shofar. See the entry > Examples: "Synagogues will also blow a shofar, a curved ram's horn, during Rosh Hashanah. There are many interpretations of the shofar's meaning. One is that it represents the biblical story told in Genesis, in which Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son, Isaac. Rabbis have also interpreted the loud blast of the shofar as a wake-up call for the new year. [Rabbi Charlie] Schwartz called the sounding of the shofar 'the pinnacle of the Rosh Hashanah service in synagogues.'" — Marina Pitofsky, USA Today, 2 Sept. 2021 Did you know? One of the shofar's original uses was to proclaim the Jubilee year (a year of emancipation of enslaved Jews and restoration of alienated lands to their former owners). Today, it is mainly used in synagogues during the High Holidays. It is blown daily, except on Shabbat, during the month of Elul (the 12th month of the civil year or the 6th month of the ecclesiastical year in the Jewish calendar), and is sounded a number of times during the Rosh Hashanah services, and again at the end of the last service (known as neilah) on Yom Kippur. The custom is to sound the shofar in several series that alternate shorter notes resembling sobbing and wailing with longer unbroken blasts.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 16, 2023 2:20

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 16, 2023 is: mellifluous • muh-LIFF-luh-wus • adjective Mellifluous is an adjective used in formal speech and writing to describe things with a smooth, flowing sound. It can also be used to mean “filled with something (such as honey) that sweetens,” as in “mellifluous confections.” // Though not so enchanting as the dawn chorus of early spring, Sasha looks forward to the fall, when the woods ring again with mellifluous birdsong. See the entry > Examples: “‘Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,' is an homage to the late Pulitzer Prize-winner, but also a walking meditation. The walls act as an altar—the writings, scripts, maps, drafts, letters and photos are thoughtfully placed assemblages that carry Morrison's spirit. The author's mellifluous voice, though subtle, echoes throughout the exhibition space, as an edited interview of Morrison at Boston College plays on repeat.” — Felice León, Essence, 2 Mar. 2023 Did you know? Have a bee in your bonnet to learn some mellifluous facts? Sweet—we won't make you comb for them. Mellifluous comes from two Latin roots: the noun mel, meaning “honey,” and the verb fluere, meaning “to flow.” These linguistic components flowed smoothly together into the Late Latin word mellifluus, then continued on into the Middle English word mellyfluous, before crystallizing into the adjective we employ today. As it has for centuries, mellifluous typically and figuratively describes sound, and is often at the tip of the tongues of writers who proclaim that a voice or melody is smooth like molasses (molasses, like mellifluous, is a descendant of the Latin mel). But mellifluous can also be used to describe edibles and potables, such as wine, with a pronounced note of sweetness.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 15, 2023 2:09

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 15, 2023 is: demure • dih-MYOOR • adjective When describing something observed, such as clothing or an attitude, demure means "not attracting or demanding a lot of attention," making it a synonym of reserved and modest. When used to describe a person—it's usually applied to a girl or woman—it typically means "quiet and polite," but it can also describe someone who puts on a show of false modesty, making it a synonym of coy. // It's an elegant gown with a demure neckline. // The girl greeted her parents' dinner party guests with a demure curtsy. See the entry > Examples: "After his wife's near-fall, Harry protectively stopped for a second to make sure she was okay, before they carried on walking to the ceremony. The former Suits actress, who looked elegant and demure in a blue maxi dress, laughed off the near mishap and carried on walking." — Emmy Griffiths, Hello Magazine, 8 June 2023 Did you know? In the nearly seven centuries that demure has been in use, its meaning has only shifted slightly. While it began solely as a descriptive term for people of quiet modesty and sedate reserve—those who don't draw attention to themselves, whether because of a shy nature or determined self-control—it came to be applied also to those whose modesty and reservation is more affectation than sincere expression. While demure sounds French and entered the language at a time when the native tongue of England was borrowing many French words from the Normans, the etymological evidence requires that we exercise restraint: the word's origin remains obscure.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 14, 2023 2:13

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 14, 2023 is: harbinger • HAHR-bun-jer • noun A harbinger is something that foreshadows, or gives an early indication of, something that will happen in the future. // When the star running back went down with an injury in the team's first game, it turned out to be the harbinger of a disappointing season. See the entry > Examples: “Whether a subtle whiff of campfire on a cool autumn breeze or the less-than-subtle lure of a pumpkin spice latte, the spicy, savory harbingers of fall spark a shift in the food and wine we crave.” — Anna Lee Iijima, The Chicago Tribune, 14 Sept. 2022 Did you know? In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, four hobbits—pursued by riders in black—seek safe harbor in the village of Bree. Unbeknownst to the hobbits, the innkeeper of The Prancing Pony, Butterbur, was made aware of their potential arrival by the wizard Gandalf some months prior (“... I was asked to look out for hobbits of the Shire ...”). When you consider the oldest, now-obsolete definitions of harbinger, there are multiple harbingers in this section of the tale. The first is Butterbur himself: coming from the Anglo-French herberge, meaning “lodgings,” harbinger was used as long ago as the 12th century to mean “one who provides lodgings.” Later on, harbinger was also used for a person sent ahead of a main party to seek lodgings. Those sent ahead would announce the approach of those following behind (the hobbits did not send Gandalf to Bree, but he did still herald their eventual arrival—making him a harbinger of sorts), which is how our modern sense of harbinger came to be used for someone or something which foretells a future event—such as how the hobbits' arrival is a harbinger of the evil pursuing them and threatening all of Middle Earth.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 13, 2023 2:17

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 13, 2023 is: abstain • ub-STAYN • verb To abstain from something is to choose to not do or have that thing. Abstain can also mean specifically "to choose not to vote." // The doctor insisted that Drew abstain from eating for at least 12 hours before his blood test. // Ten members voted for the proposal, six members voted against it, and two abstained. See the entry > Examples: "In this impassioned plea to restore native ecosystems, landscape designer Reynolds (The Garden Awakening) sets out to recruit green 'warriors' to build ARKs, or 'Acts of Restorative Kindness,' on their land. ... Those looking to turn their gardens into ARKs should overcome 'the shame of having a messy garden'; abstain from using fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides; cut back on concrete usage in landscaping so as to 'let the earth breathe as much as possible'; and plant native flora." — Publisher's Weekly, 1 Aug. 2022 Did you know? If you abstain, you're consciously, and usually with effort, choosing to hold back from doing something that you would like to do. Lucky for you, we'd never abstain from sharing a good bit of word history. Abstain traces back through Middle English and Anglo-French to the Latin verb abstinēre, which combines the prefix ab- ("from, away, off") with tenēre, a Latin verb meaning "to hold." (Spanish speakers might recognize tenēre's influence in the Spanish verb tener, meaning "to have, hold, or take.") Tenēre has many offspring in English; other descendants include contain, detain, maintain, obtain, pertain, retain, and sustain, as well as some words that don't end in -tain, such as tenant and tenacious. Abstain, like many of its cousins, has been used by English speakers since at least the 14th century.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 12, 2023 1:43

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 12, 2023 is: fallible • FAL-uh-bul • adjective Fallible means “capable of making mistakes or being wrong.” // We can be too hard on ourselves at times and often need gentle reminders that everyone is fallible. See the entry > Examples: “AI is fallible. We see biased responses. ... This is because of how AI models are trained—in other words, it's because of the data. Skewed data will lead to skewed results and misrepresentations.” — Kevin Collins, Forbes, 8 June 2023 Did you know? “Humanum est errare” is a Latin expression that translates as “To err is human.” Of course, cynics might say that it is also human to deceive. The history of the word fallible simultaneously recognizes both of these character flaws. In modern usage, fallible refers to one's ability to make mistakes, but it descends from the Latin verb fallere, which means “to deceive.” Fallible has been used to describe the potential for error since at least the 15th century. Other descendants of fallere in English, all of which actually predate fallible, include fallacy (the earliest, now obsolete, meaning was “guile, trickery”), fault, false, and even fjail. Whoops, we mean fail.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 11, 2023 1:36

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 11, 2023 is: injunction • in-JUNK-shun • noun Injunction refers to an order from a court of law that says something must be done or must not be done. // The group has obtained an injunction to prevent the demolition of the building. See the entry > Examples: “While a district court rejected the group's request for an emergency injunction at the end of June, the Fifth Circuit obliged—blocking the new rule from being carried out for the time being.” — Ayelet Sheffey, Business Insider, 7 Aug. 2023 Did you know? Injunction, injunction, what's your function? When it first joined the English language in the 1400s, injunction referred to an authoritative command, and in the following century it developed a legal second sense applying specifically to a court order. Both of these meanings are still in use. Injunction ultimately comes from the Latin verb injungere (“to enjoin,” i.e., to issue an authoritative command or order), which in turn is based on jungere, meaning “to join”: it is joined as a jungere descendant by several words including junction, conjunction, enjoin, and join.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 10, 2023 2:21

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 10, 2023 is: orotund • OR-uh-tund • adjective Orotund is a formal word used as a synonym of sonorous to describe something—usually a voice—marked by fullness, strength, and clarity of sound. It can also be used disapprovingly to mean "pompous" or "bombastic." // As a child, she loved listening to her grandfather's rich, orotund baritone as he told stories of his childhood growing up overseas. // Every year the mayor gives a version of the same overblown, orotund speech, full of fancy promises they never seem to keep. See the entry > Examples: "The interplay of warring voices informs the thesis of Pan's project. The abstract structure, at least compared to a traditional opera, piercingly emphasizes the beauty of its arrangements. Across the seamless span of 'A Found Lament' and 'A Tender Accent,' swooning sighs and orotund mezzo-soprano are backed by an almost melodic drone, and high-pitched voices cry out, '害怕! (Fear!),' to protest the minatory wall of mechanical sound encroaching on them." — Zhenzhen Yu, Pitchfork, 22 Jan. 2022 Did you know? An experiment: first breathe in deeply, then try to sing the strongest, lowest note that you can, at the utmost floor of your register. How lovely. Now, what vowel did you sing for your one-syllable song? We'll bet you a skillet full of bacon it was o. Why? Shaping one's mouth into an o-shape is pretty much a surefire way to produce an orotund or resonant sound, that is, one that is full, strong, and loud. Try the same exercise with a long e sound, as in sleep, and see (or hear) what we mean. Orotund comes from the Latin phrase ore rotundo, literally meaning "with round mouth." It was adopted into English in the late 18th century to describe the strength of one's vocal delivery but has since picked up an additional sense of "pompous" or "bombastic" to describe inflated speech that may be full of sound and fury, yet signifies nothing.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 9, 2023 2:20

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 9, 2023 is: bellwether • BEL-WEH-ther • noun Bellwether refers to someone or something that leads others or shows what will happen in the future—in other words, a leader or a trendsetter. // She was known as a bellwether of fashion because she was always one step ahead of the runways and magazines. See the entry > Examples: “To shape a subjective and experiential cinema between the wilds of 1960s Haiti and a contemporary French boarding school—the blackest of nights, the comfiest of bourgeois trappings—constitutes a remarkable achievement. If there will be a future cinema indebted to Twin Peaks season three, Zombi Child's our bellwether.” — Nick Newman, The Film Stage, 22 Dec. 2020 Did you know? Because it suggests the act of forecasting, one might be inclined to think that bellwether has something to do with weather. But the wether in bellwether has nothing to do with meteorology. Instead, to learn whither wether, we must head to the sheep farm. We usually think of sheep more as followers than leaders, but in a flock one sheep must lead the way. Since long ago, it has been common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of one sheep in their flock, thereby designating it the lead sheep. This animal was historically called the bellwether, a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep, and today specifically to a castrated male sheep). It eventually followed that bellwether would come to refer to someone who takes initiative or who actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others. This usage first appeared in English in the 15th century and has remained in the language ever since.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 8, 2023 2:29

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 8, 2023 is: redound • rih-DOWND • verb Redound is a formal word that when paired with to means “to have a particular result.” It is often used in one of two idioms: “It redounds to someone's credit/honor” is used to say that a person deserves credit/respect for having done something. “Redound to the advantage of” means “to benefit (someone or something).” Redound is also sometimes used as a synonym of accrue and reflect. // It redounds to his credit that he worked so hard to prevent this crisis. // We need to be aware that this new policy may redound to the advantage of our competitors. See the entry > Examples: “Making mass transit more affordable and better utilized reduces hardship and its attendant costly ills while boosting air quality and public health. This investment in the health and well-being of those with the least resources in our county will redound to everyone's benefit.” — Dawn Plummer, The Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Post-Gazette, 12 Apr. 2022 Did you know? A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. Or to be redundant: a redounding tide undulates such that the surrounding water elevates every pontoon. This latter sentence—in addition to featuring five words with some relationship to the Latin word for “wave,” unda (redundant, redound, undulate, surround, and water)—highlights the earliest and now-archaic meaning of redound, “to swell or overflow,” which entered English in the 14th century. Since then, additional uses of redound have abounded (abound being another unda relation), all containing ripples, however faint, of the original aqueous meaning. When an action or accomplishment redounds to someone's credit or honor, for example, it reflects positively back on them the way a wave produced by someone jumping into a pool bounces back to the jumper. And when something redounds to someone's advantage, one might say that it helps by accruing like, well, a rising tide.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 7, 2023 2:35

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 7, 2023 is: disingenuous • dis-in-JEN-yuh-wuss • adjective Disingenuous is a formal word that describes things, such as speech or behavior, that give a false appearance of being honest or sincere. Similarly, a person who is being disingenuous may seem sincere, but is in fact only pretending to be open and candid. // Her recent expressions of concern about the community center closing are disingenuous at best because she stands to benefit financially when the property is redeveloped. See the entry > Examples: “You know those one-line reviews on Amazon listings that don't quite seem legitimate? Like the ones that rate a product five stars and say something incredibly vague, like “This is such a great item,” without expanding on any specifics? Well, that's just one type of fake feedback that the FTC wants to crack down on. The FTC's proposed rule seeks to ban several different types of disingenuous reviews and would not just punish the companies that use them but also the brokers that falsify feedback.” — Emma Roth,, 30 June 2023 Did you know? To be disingenuous is to feign sincerity—to pretend you are speaking genuinely and honestly while concealing an ulterior motive. Similarly, a disingenuous remark might contain a hint of truth, but it is delivered with the intent to deceive or to serve some hidden purpose. While not currently defined in our dictionary, the internet term sealioning might also shed some light on the meaning of disingenuous, especially if you've ever been dragged into an online argument with a stranger whose true purpose is to exhaust you and erode your goodwill. As media critic Anita Sarkeesian wrote for Marie Claire magazine, “Sealioning is when an uninvited stranger pops into your conversation and peppers you with unsolicited and insincere questions. The sealion politely demands evidence for even the most mundane or self-evident statements and insists that you justify your opinions until he's satisfied—which he never is, since he's asking questions in bad faith.” In other words: textbook disingenuous behavior.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 6, 2023 2:24

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 6, 2023 is: pareidolia • pair-eye-DOH-lee-uh • noun Pareidolia refers to the tendency to perceive a specific and often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. // For those especially prone to pareidolia, a simple piece of toast can get distracting. See the entry > Examples: “A key to interpersonal interactions is the ability to read facial expressions, which is why we are hardwired to recognise faces and often believe to see them even in random objects (this is called face pareidolia). Just as with faces, recognising social dynamics is largely innate and effortless.” — Damian K. F. Pang, Psychology Today, 14 May 2023 Did you know? If you've ever spotted an image of a dog or a shoe in the clouds, you've exhibited what is called pareidolia, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random pattern. Pareidolia emerged in English in 1962, borrowed from the German word Pareidolie, itself a combination of the Greek prefix par-, the Greek noun eídōlon (“image, reflection”), and the German suffix -ie. But although the word may be relatively new to English speakers, the concept is not. During the Renaissance, for example, artists such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo—who painted collections of fruits, vegetables, and other objects to look like human portraits—used pareidolia as a technique in their work, while Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “… if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.” So the next time you see the man or even a toad in the moon, you can think of your kinship with Da Vinci.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 5, 2023 1:35

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 5, 2023 is: ambiguous • am-BIG-yuh-wus • adjective To describe something as ambiguous is to say that it can be understood in more than one way or that it has more than one possible meaning. // We were confused by the ambiguous wording of his message. See the entry > Examples: “There are a lot of reasons for medical errors: inexperienced caregivers; ambiguous symptoms; understaffed hospitals, underlying conditions.” — Jeffrey Kluger, Time, 26 July 2023 Did you know? Ambiguous may highlight the vague and obscure, but its origins are as clear as a bell. This word comes from the Latin verb ambigō or ambigere, meaning “to be undecided; to dispute,” which in turn combines amb- (“on both sides”) with agere (“to be in motion”). Ambi- is a prefix to many English words denoting two or more options, such as ambivalent, ambidextrous, and ambient. Similar prefixes include bi- (as in bicentennial), di- (as in dialect), and multi- (as in multiverse).


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 4, 2023 2:51

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 4, 2023 is: gauntlet • GAWNT-lut • noun Gauntlet was first used in English to refer to the reinforced glove worn with a suit of armor in the Middle Ages. Gauntlet later came to refer to any long, heavy glove worn to protect the hand, as well as to an open challenge to an argument, fight, competition, etc., usually in the common phrase “throw down the gauntlet.” // In marketing the product this way, the company has thrown down the gauntlet to its top two competitors. See the entry > Examples: “WGA [Writers Guild of America] and SAG [Screen Actors Guild] sought a residual formula that would give standardization and certainty to creators and performers. The talent, a spokesman for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists said in 1960, is ‘entitled to get a portion of all this money that is floating around. It is as simple as that. Where would everybody be without talent?' The WGA threw down the gauntlet first. On Jan. 16, 1960, citing ‘a consistently uncompromising attitude on the part of producers,' WGA president Curtis Kenyon, a former screenwriter now toiling in television, called a ‘two-pronged' strike against both film and television production.” — Thomas Doherty, The Hollywood Reporter, 18 July 2023 Did you know? There's no reason to treat the word gauntlet with kid gloves, so let's go straight to the punch: gauntlet (which comes from the Middle French word gantelet, the diminutive of gant, meaning “glove”) first referred to the reinforced glove of a suit of armor, but today it's mostly encountered in figurative phrases, such as “throw down the gauntlet” and “pick up the gauntlet,” that arose from the conventions of medieval combat. To challenge someone to combat, a knight would throw his glove at another knight's feet. The second knight would pick the glove up if he intended to accept the challenge, in which case a jousting match might ensue. Accordingly, to throw down the gauntlet is to issue an open challenge, while to pick up the gauntlet is to accept one. (The gauntlet that means “severe trial,” or “ordeal,” often used in the phrase “run the gauntlet,” is an alteration of gantelope, a word that originates from Swedish gata, meaning “lane” or “way.”)


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 3, 2023 2:05

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 3, 2023 is: upbraid • up-BRAYD • verb To upbraid someone is to speak to them in an angry or critical way in response to something they have done wrong—in other words, to scold them. // The teacher upbraided the class after discovering the chalkboard erasers had been clapped all over the walls. See the entry > Examples: “Shot mostly in black-and-white, with amusing bits of animation included (the scene in which Troyal is upbraided for ordering a steak well-done is a quirky comedic highlight), this movie gets better the more it strays from its real-life models and into hazy hallucinatory American weirdness.” — Glenn Kenny, The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2023 Did you know? First things first: do not confuse upbraid with topknot lest you be upbraided for it. Topknot is a noun referring to a hairstyle, while upbraid is a verb (and an ancient one at that) meaning “to criticize or scold severely.” However, it may soothe your pride to know that the braid in upbraid likely comes from the same source as our hirsutal verb braid, meaning “to do up (the hair) by interweaving three or more strands.” That source is the Old English word bregdan, which could be used to mean “to snatch,” “to move suddenly,” or “to plait,” i.e. “braid.” The Old English verb ūpbregdan is probably a combination of this bregdan with ūp, meaning “up.” If the connection between moving suddenly upward at someone and berating them seems obscure, you might consider upbraid to be a more formal counterpart of the expression “to get/be in someone's face.”


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 2, 2023 1:50

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 2, 2023 is: copacetic • koh-puh-SET-ik • adjective Copacetic (less commonly spelled copasetic or copesetic) describes things that are very satisfactory. // Worry not: I assure you that everything's copacetic. See the entry > Examples: "Yes, 'atmosphere,' has always been a factor in restaurant criticism and there have been some extraordinary and inspiring outliers, but restaurateurs of the past didn't necessarily agonize over coming up with a unique look or small decor details. For the most part, as long as the place looked nice (and clean) and there were chairs to sit in and tables to eat at, everything was copacetic." — Elizabeth Chorney-Booth, The Calgary (Alberta) Herald, 1 July 2023 Did you know? If you're living the life of Riley, strolling along easy street, or wallowing in hog heaven, your circumstances may be described as copacetic. A word of obscure origin, copacetic has for over a century satisfied those who've had a hankering to describe that which is hunky-dory or otherwise completely satisfactory. (If "of obscure origin" leaves you feeling less than copacetic, the note here will undoubtedly remedy that.) Life isn't always beer and skittles, but when you do find yourself walking that primrose path, just remember: it's all copacetic.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 2, 2023 1:50

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 2, 2023 is: copacetic • koh-puh-SET-ik • adjective Copacetic (less commonly spelled copasetic or copesetic) describes things that are very satisfactory. // Worry not: I assure you that everything's copacetic. See the entry > Examples: "Yes, 'atmosphere,' has always been a factor in restaurant criticism and there have been some extraordinary and inspiring outliers, but restaurateurs of the past didn't necessarily agonize over coming up with a unique look or small decor details. For the most part, as long as the place looked nice (and clean) and there were chairs to sit in and tables to eat at, everything was copacetic." — Elizabeth Chorney-Booth, The Calgary (Alberta) Herald, 1 July 2023 Did you know? If you're living the life of Riley, strolling along easy street, or wallowing in hog heaven, your circumstances may be described as copacetic. A word of obscure origin, copacetic has for over a century satisfied those who've had a hankering to describe that which is hunky-dory or otherwise completely satisfactory. (If "of obscure origin" leaves you feeling less than copacetic, the note here will undoubtedly remedy that.) Life isn't always beer and skittles, but when you do find yourself walking that primrose path, just remember: it's all copacetic.


    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 1, 2023 1:53

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 1, 2023 is: embargo • im-BAHR-goh • noun Embargo refers to a government order that limits trade in some way. In broader usage, embargo can function as a synonym of prohibition. // The government has placed an embargo on arms shipments. See the entry > Examples: “Since its review embargo lifted on July 18, ‘Barbie' has received a largely positive critical response, with The Independent describing it as ‘a near-miraculous achievement' and The Times dubbing it ‘a gorgeous and fascinating mishmash.'” — Eleanor Burleigh, The Bucks Free Press (Buckinghamshire, England), 21 July 2023 Did you know? English speakers got embargo—both the word and the concept, it seems—from the Spanish in the early 17th century. The word first referred specifically to a government order prohibiting commercial ships from entering or leaving that country's ports. (The Spanish word comes from embargar, “to bar.”) By the middle of the 17th century embargo was being used more broadly to refer to any government order that limits trade in some way. Today, the word is applied more broadly still to refer to various prohibitions. Publishers, for example, often place an embargo on a book to prevent stores from selling it before its official release date. And in Jane Austen's novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot says “I lay no embargo on anybody's words.” We feel similarly.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 31, 2023 2:00

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 31, 2023 is: pundit • PUN-dit • noun A pundit is someone who is usually considered an expert on a particular subject and who shares their opinion on that subject in a public setting (such as a television or radio program). // Grandpa likes watching liberal and conservative pundits spar about the issues of the day on the Sunday morning talk shows. See the entry > Examples: “… the family film quickly fell flat at the box office in the latest blow for the storied animation studio. Many pundits worry that original animated IP [intellectual property] is no longer a theatrical proposition.” — Pamela McClintock, The Hollywood Reporter, 19 June 2023 Did you know? It's no hot take to say that the original pundits were highly learned scholars and teachers in India; it's just a statement of fact. Our English word pundit comes from the Hindi word paṇḍit, a term of respect (and sometimes an honorary title) for a wise person, especially one with knowledge of philosophy, religion, and law; its ultimate source is the Sanskrit word paṇḍita, meaning “learned.” English speakers have used pundit to refer to sages of India since the 1600s, but as is typically done with English, they eventually pushed the word into new semantic territory. By the late 1800s, pundit could also refer to a member of what is sometimes called the commentariat or punditocracy—that is, the collective group of political commentators, financial analysts, and newspaper columnists often paid to share their views on a variety of subjects.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 30, 2023 2:17

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 30, 2023 is: caustic • KAWSS-tik • adjective In general contexts, caustic describes bluntly and harshly critical remarks, statements, or ways of being and communicating, as in "a caustic remark" or "caustic humor." In contexts involving chemistry, caustic is a synonym of corrosive, and is used to describe things capable of destroying or eating away matter by chemical action. // She was a writer whose caustic wit endears her still to readers everywhere. // The chemical was so caustic that it ate through the pipes. See the entry > Examples: "For [novelist Milan] Kundera, the deadly foe of truthful art was kitsch: the narcissistic sentimentality that, under any social system, effaces realities and encourages people to 'gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie.' With caustic irony, mordant wit and acrobatic literary skill, he mocked the beautifying lie wherever he found it—in politics, in culture or in personal relationships." — The Economist, 13 July 2023 Did you know? If you have a burning desire to know the origins of caustic, you're already well on your way to figuring it out. Caustic was formed in Middle English as an adjective describing chemical substances, such as lime and lye, that are capable of destroying or eating away at something. The word is based on the Latin adjective causticus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek verb kaiein, meaning "to burn." In time, caustic was baked into the English language as an adjective describing people or things (such as wit or remarks) that are bitingly sarcastic. Other kaiein descendants in English include cautery and cauterize, causalgia (a burning pain caused by nerve damage), and encaustic (a kind of paint that is heated after it's applied).


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 29, 2023 2:09

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 29, 2023 is: oxymoron • ahk-sih-MOR-ahn • noun An oxymoron is a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings, such as “cruel kindness” or “open secret.” In broader usage, oxymoron can also refer to something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements. // Her favorite Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, is filled with clever wordplay, including oxymorons such as “sweet sorrow” and “heavy lightness.” See the entry > Examples: “Until now I thought ‘enjoyable science book' was an oxymoron. [Author, Katie] Spalding proved me wrong. I learned a lot and had fun doing it. Turns out a spoonful of snark helps the factoids go down—in a most delightful way.” — Curt Schleier, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 19 May 2023 Did you know? The ancient Greeks exhaustively classified the elements of rhetoric, or effective speech and writing, and gave the name oxymoron—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, what is commonly cited as an oxymoron is often simply a curiosity of language, where one or both elements have multiple meanings (shrimp in "jumbo shrimp" doesn't mean "small"; it refers to a sea creature), or a phrase whose elements seem antithetical in spirit, such as "organized chaos."


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 28, 2023 1:54

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 28, 2023 is: assay • a-SAY • verb Assay is a technical word meaning "to test something (such as a metal or drug) to find out what it contains or to assess its value." // Experts will assay the gold to determine its purity. See the entry > Examples: "An obscure testing lab was hired to assay the metal because using the leading firm in the field would supposedly alert the Canadian nickel cartel." — Walter Shapiro, The New Republic, 24 Mar. 2022 Did you know? Usage experts warn against confusing the verbs assay and essay. Some confusion shouldn't be surprising; not only do the two somewhat uncommon words look and sound alike, they also come from the same root, the Middle French word essai, meaning "test" or "effort." (Essai, in turn, comes from the Late Latin word exagium, meaning "act of weighing.") At one time, the two terms were synonyms, sharing the meaning "try" or "attempt," but they are now typically differentiated, with essay meaning "to try or attempt" (as in "a comedic actor essaying her first dramatic role") and assay meaning "to test or evaluate" (as in "blood assayed to detect the presence of the antibody"). Of course, essay is more common as a noun referring to a short analytic or personal literary composition, but that's another essay.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 27, 2023 2:37

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 27, 2023 is: myriad • MEER-ee-ud • noun The noun myriad is usually followed by of and means “a great number,” as in “a myriad of possibilities.” It is also common as an adjective meaning “very many” or “both numerous and diverse,” as in “myriad topics were discussed at the convention.” // The middle school class generated a myriad of ideas for ways they could volunteer in the community. See the entry > Examples: “With a film career spanning more than three decades as an actor, director, writer, and martial artist, Michael Jai White has cemented himself as one of the top action stars and Black martial artists in the genre today. Studying martial arts since a young age, White learned a myriad of styles over the years … with eight black belts to his name and earning the title of ‘The Mantle of the Black Dragon' in 2019 at the Urban Action Film Showcase from the Black Dragon himself, Ron van Clief.” — Frankie “Balboa” Diaz,, 15 June 2023 Did you know? You don't need ten thousand justifications to use myriad as a noun, only one: with more than 400 years of usage history behind it, the noun myriad, as in the phrase “a myriad of,” is a well-established and respectable member of the English language. Still, we understand that “myriad of” raises the hackles of myriad folks who were taught at one point or another that myriad is only to be used as an adjective, and that phrases like “a myriad of emailers vexed about myriad” should be shunned in favor of “myriad emailers vexed about myriad.” Now, to each their own lexical peeves and pleasures, but let it be known that myriad entered the English language in the mid-1500s as a noun, and since its introduction has been used in the senses of “ten thousand,” “a set of ten thousand,” “an immense or indefinitely large number,” and “a great multitude”; furthermore, it has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton, Thoreau, Twain, and DuBois—no slouches when it comes to wielding words. Myriad the adjective is about 200 years younger, but both continue to enjoy wide use today.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 26, 2023 2:21

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 26, 2023 is: suffrage • SUF-rij • noun Suffrage means “the right to vote in an election.” // The Nineteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage to women, was certified on August 26, 1920, making it an official part of the Constitution of the United States. See the entry > Examples: “The Liberty Tree dates back to 1763, and it played a significant role in the Underground Railroad. ... The tree also stands outside what were once the High Street stables of Edward E. Bennett, a local hotel keeper who sheltered enslaved people seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. During the 19th century, people often gathered around the tree to hear speeches by leaders of the time such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Douglass on subjects ranging from abolition to women's suffrage.” — Tiana Woodard, The Boston Globe, 8 July 2023 Did you know? Why would a 17th-century writer warn people that a chapel was only for “private or secret suffrages”? Because 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”? In answering that question, we get a lesson about the ways Latin words enter English. The Latin word suffrāgium has a number of vote-related meanings, including “a vote cast in an assembly” and “the right to vote.” In Medieval Latin, this same word had expanded to mean “vote, selection, aid, support, intercessory prayer,” and it's this suffrāgium that gave us the prayer kind of suffrage in the 14th century. It wasn't until the 16th century that English speakers mined the older—the classical—Latin suffrāgium for a word to use with regard to voting, and especially to refer to the right to vote.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 25, 2023 2:07

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 25, 2023 is: quiescent • kwy-ESS-unt • adjective Quiescent is a formal word that describes things that are quiet, inactive, or in a state of peaceful rest. In medical contexts it describes a condition that is not currently developing or causing symptoms, as in "a quiescent disease/virus." // Volcanoes often exist for centuries in a quiescent state before their sudden, violent eruptions. See the entry > Examples: "The mechanism is just one way that scientists are realizing that asteroids can be active, dynamic places rather than quiescent lumps of rock." — Meghan Bartels, Scientific American, 29 Mar. 2023 Did you know? Hush your puppies and calm your kitties, it's time to make much (tranquil) ado about quiescent. As you might expect from both its meaning and the sequence of its first four letters, quiescent shares roots with the far more common, and less formal, word quiet. In fact, short is the list of English words beginning "q-u-i-e" that have no kinship with quiet and its various relations suggestive of restfulness and calm. (Our unabridged dictionary lists only two: quiebracha and quiebrahacha, both rare variants of quebracho.) Today's adjective quiescent traces back to the Latin verb quiēscere, meaning "to become quiet" or "to rest," and was possibly first used by Francis Bacon, who wrote in 1605 that "… as Aristotle endeavoureth to prove, that in all motion there is some point quiescent…" Way to bring it home, Bacon.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 24, 2023 3:04

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 24, 2023 is: empirical • im-PEER-uh-kul • adjective When we describe something, such as data, as empirical, we mean that it originated in, or was based on, observation or experience. Empirical can also be used to describe something that is capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment, as in “empirical laws.” // The team of conservation biologists gathered reams of empirical data—from species inventories to soil analyses—to help them get a better understanding of the forest's ecology. See the entry > Examples: “Scholars have long tried to understand why Neolithic farmer populations go through boom-bust cycles, including ‘collapses' when whole regions are abandoned. According to one common explanation, climate fluctuations are the main driver, but empirical tests do not fully support this claim. In a new paper, published in the latest issue of Scientific Reports, Turchin and his team seem to have come up with a new piece of information. ‘Our study shows that periodic outbreaks of warfare—and not climate fluctuations—can account for the observed boom-bust patterns in the data,' argues Turchin...” — The Complexity Science Hub,, 19 June 2023 Did you know? When empirical first appeared as an adjective in English, it meant simply “in the manner of an empiric.” In the ancient world, empirics were members of a sect of doctors who practiced medicine using treatments observed to be clinically effective, rather than treatments based on theoretical principles. This sounds all fine and good to a modern reader, but empirics were in direct opposition to Galen, the 2nd century Greek physician whose theories and practices (including the theory of bodily humors) dominated medicine in Europe from the Middle Ages until the mid-17th century. As the underdogs in this rivalry, empirics took some reputational hits, evidenced by the use of empiric to refer to someone who disregards or deviates from the rules of science or accepted practice; to be called an empiric was sometimes like being called a quack or charlatan. Empirical can still be used critically to describe ideas and practices that rely on experience or observation alone and without due regard for system or theory. But, perhaps in a bit of a case of “the Empirics strike back,” empirical more often keeps its narrower sense, and is used positively to describe evidence and information grounded in observation and experience, or capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 23, 2023 1:56

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 23, 2023 is: duplicity • doo-PLISS-uh-tee • noun Duplicity is a formal word that refers to dishonest behavior meant to trick or deceive someone. // The extent of his duplicity wasn't clear until a century after his death, when documents revealing more of his many deceptions were discovered. See the entry > Examples: “Series three ended with a bang—patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, in one of TV's most memorable performances) doing the dirty on his children and rewriting his divorce settlement to rob them of boardroom power at the family firm, just as they were about to wrest control from him. And, the kicker, he was able to do it thanks to the duplicity of son-in-law Tom (Matthew Macfadyen).” — Chris Bennion, The Daily Telegraph (London), 25 May 2023 Did you know? We've all probably dealt with someone who acted a little two-faced—they said one thing and did another, for example, or they talked “from both sides of their mouth.” If such behavior has made you do a double take or left you feeling double-crossed, you may be single-minded in your quest to learn more about duplicity. Duplicity comes from a long line of “double” talk, starting with its Latin ancestor duplex, which means “double” or “twofold.” Duplex is also the source of the English word duplex (which can be a noun meaning “a two-family house” or an adjective meaning “double”), and it is the root of another term for doubling it up, duplicate.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 22, 2023 1:47

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 22, 2023 is: lackluster • LAK-luss-ter • adjective Lackluster describes something lacking in sheen, brilliance, or vitality—in other words, something dull or mediocre. // After a summer of lackluster sales, business is booming at the coffee shop now that students are returning. See the entry > Examples: “Layers of texture and pattern can keep a black-and-white bedroom from feeling lackluster.” — Monique Valeris, Good Housekeeping, April 2021 Did you know? Lackluster may describe things that are dull, but the word itself is no yawn. In its earliest uses in the early 17th century, lackluster (also spelled lacklustre) usually described eyes that were dull or lacking in brightness, as in “a lackluster stare.” Later, it came to describe other things whose sheen had been removed; Charles Dickens, in his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit, writes of the faded image of the dragon on the sign outside a village alehouse: “many a wintry storm of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, had changed his colour from a gaudy blue to a faint lack-lustre shade of grey.” These days lackluster is broadly used to describe anything blah, from a spiritless sensation to a humdrum hump day.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 21, 2023 1:58

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 21, 2023 is: frisson • free-SOHN (the second vowel is pronounced nasally) • noun Frisson refers to a brief moment of emotional excitement. // He felt a frisson of delight as he stepped tentatively through the door to the walled garden. See the entry > Examples: “I still remember the frisson of mild excitement when a reporter entered the committee room. The members sat up, some straightened their ties, others coughed, and a new urgency was brought to the business of quizzing some hapless civil servant on whatever mundane business was before them.” — John McManus, The Irish Times, 6 July 2023 Did you know? A chill down one's spine isn't always a sensation of fear or suspense. As Daniel Marenco writes, “What is most exciting about literature is how much it surprises us and makes us fall in love. Poetry especially has this gift, the gift of provoking in us a frisson, a shiver, this capacity, like a bee, to put honey on the tip of our tongue, provoking that pleasant sensation of feeling and perceiving.” His relating of frisson and shiver is apt given that frisson comes from the French word for “shiver.” (Those familiar with shivering will note that it's also apt that frisson traces back to ultimately to Late Latin frīgēre “to be cold” or frīgēscere “to become cold.”) A frisson can be compared to a thrill or a rush, as it refers to a brief moment of emotional excitement, as in “a frisson of surprise.”


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 20, 2023 2:20

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 20, 2023 is: balmy • BAH-mee • adjective Balmy is an adjective that is often used to describe weather that is warm, calm, and pleasant. It can also be used to describe someone or something (such as an idea) that is foolish or irrational. // After a long, eight-hour drive, we were rewarded with a mild, balmy evening at our vacation spot on the shores of Lake Erie. // Despite being a devout Green Bay fan, she finds the idea of attending games in head-to-toe yellow and green body paint to be a bit balmy. See the entry > Examples: “While our warmer winters have caused some of these dinosaur-like birds to remain in southern Michigan all year long, most are just now returning from balmier winter locales like Mexico and Cuba. You're most likely to find sandhill cranes this time of year in wet meadows, marshy areas and agricultural fields, though if you learn their distinctive, prehistoric-sounding call, you can also hear them as they flock overhead this season.” — Emily Bingham, (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 14 Mar. 2023 Did you know? Aromatic ointments and fragrances are the bomb. They are also, literally, balms: healing substances and soothing scents with the power to ease both mind and body. The original balm, what Latin-speakers referred to as balsamum, was the oleoresin of a species of balsam tree. In Anglo-French, balsamum became basme and baume, spellings which entered Middle English and later became balm. Balm eventually begat the adjective balmy, used to describe things with a balm's comforting, calming qualities, as when Shakespeare's Othello speaks of “balmy slumbers.” Today balmy is typically used to describe the weather—balmy breezes, balmy temperatures, balmy spring afternoons, et al—conditions that are neither too hot nor too cold, but just right—Goldilocks conditions, even.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 19, 2023 1:58

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 19, 2023 is: slake • SLAYK • verb Slake is a verb meaning "to satisfy or quench." It can also mean "to hydrate." // The quest to slake his wanderlust was never-ending. // They slaked their thirst with cold lemonade. See the entry > Examples: "The warm weather of late spring and summer brings certain wines to mind—racy rosés to slake our thirst, for example." — Dave McIntyre, The Washington Post, 1 June 2023 Did you know? Have no fear, the Word of the Day is here to slake your thirst for knowledge. The uses of slake are varied and fluid. Its most common meaning is synonymous with satisfy or quench—one can slake anything from curiosity to literal thirst. In chemistry, slake can mean "to cause a substance to heat and crumble by treatment with water," and is used specifically in the noun phrase slaked lime, which refers to a compound used in binding agents such as plaster and cement. The word has some obsolete meanings as well: in Shakespearean times, slake meant "to subside or abate" or "to lessen the force of." The most erudite word enthusiasts may also be aware of earlier meanings of slake, such as "to slacken one's efforts" or "to cause to be relaxed or loose." These early meanings recall the word's Old English ancestor sleac, which not only meant "slack" but is also slack's source.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 18, 2023 2:21

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 18, 2023 is: inkling • INK-ling • noun Inkling refers to a slight, uncertain idea about something, or to a slight amount of knowledge about something. // As the professor explained the complex math formula in class, I didn't have an inkling of what it all meant. See the entry > Examples: “It was in Jim [Melchert]'s class that I first felt the inkling that there was more to being an artist than simply expressing yourself. It was also about paying attention—looking closely and curiously—and being open to where it might take you.” — Sharon Mizota, The Los Angeles Times, 5 June 2023 Did you know? This may come as a surprise, but inkling has not a drop to do with ink, whether of squid, tattoo, or any other variety. Originating in English in the early 16th century, inkling comes instead from Middle English yngkiling, meaning “whisper or mention,” and perhaps further back from the verb inclen, meaning “to hint at.” An early sense of the word meant “a faint perceptible sound or undertone” or “rumor,” but now people usually use the word to refer to a vague notion someone has (“had an inkling they would be there”), or to a hint of something present (“a conversation with not even an inkling of anger”). One related word you might not have heard of is the rare verb inkle, a back-formation of inkling that in some British English dialects can mean “to utter or communicate in an undertone or whisper, to hint, give a hint of” or “to have an idea or notion of.” (Inkle is also a noun referring to “a colored linen tape or braid woven on a very narrow loom and used for trimming” but etymologists don't have an inkling of where that inkle came from.)


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 17, 2023 2:21

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 17, 2023 is: volatile • VAH-luh-tul • adjective Volatile has several closely related meanings, including “subject to rapid or unexpected change,” “having or showing extreme or sudden changes of emotion,” and “likely to become dangerous or out of control.” // Our financial advisor cautioned us to be conservative with our investments while the stock market was still volatile. // One classic trope of war movies is the drill sergeant with a volatile temper, always ready to yell at recruits for the slightest infraction of the rules. // The protests are increasing, creating a volatile situation in the capital. See the entry > Examples: “This smart … novel has more secrets than you could successfully hide from your Sunday school teacher. Set in a beautifully evoked Cape Cod, in politically volatile 2016, the novel centers on the Gardner family. There's Adam, the brilliant, but erratic, father; Ken, his Babbitt-like real estate developer son; and Abby, his artist daughter, whom he considers ‘a special snowflake of the highest order.'” — Jeffrey Ann Goudie, The Boston Globe, 23 June 2023 Did you know? Volatile was originally for the birds—quite literally. Back in the 14th century, the word was a noun and volatiles were birds (especially wild fowl) or other winged creatures, such as butterflies. That's not as flighty as it sounds. Volatile traces back to the Latin verb volare, which means “to fly.” By the end of the 16th century, people were using volatile as an adjective to describe meal ground so fine and light that it could easily “fly” or be blown about. Soon after, the adjective was extended to creatures that were capable of flying (as in “volatile insects”), later to vapors and gases, and by the early 17th century, to individuals or things as prone to sudden change as some gaseous substances. In recent years, volatile has alighted in economic, political, and technical contexts far flown from its avian origins.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 16, 2023 2:07

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 16, 2023 is: chasten • CHAY-sun • verb To chasten someone is to cause them to feel sad or embarrassed about something that has happened, or in other words, to make them feel more humble or restrained. // He was arrogant as a young man, but he has been chastened by life's hardships and is now more cognizant of his own failings and weaknesses. See the entry > Examples: "AutoPacific asked people looking to buy a new vehicle about their interest in 11 different ... features, starting with a data plan for the car for a hypothetical price of $15/month. The results may chasten some of the investors demanding that the car companies keep traveling down this path. The most in-demand or desirable feature was Internet connection with a Wi-Fi hotspot.... But only 30 percent of people looking to buy a new car said they were interested in paying for their car's Internet access." — Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica, 24 Mar. 2023 Did you know? Buck up, logophiles! There's no need to fret if you have a hard time sussing out the finer distinctions between chasten, castigate, and chastise, three verbs with overlapping histories and meanings. All three come (via different routes) from the Latin verb castīgāre, meaning "to punish," and all have been used to refer to physical punishment, but today are more likely to refer to a verbal dressing-down than a rap on the knuckles (or worse). However, while one is usually castigated or chastised by another person, one can be chastened—made to feel humility or embarrassment—by a humbling situation or experience. Just don't let encountering an unfamiliar or subtle word be one of them; that's what we're here for.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 15, 2023 2:58

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 15, 2023 is: nexus • NEK-sus • noun A nexus is a relationship or connection between people or things. // Her final research paper for her pedagogy class highlighted the nexus between teachers and students. See the entry > Examples: “Darren Tucker, a field supervisor with Arizona Game and Fish, said that the last known fatal bear attack in Arizona happened in 2011 in the Pinetop area, further adding to the ‘extremely uncommon' nature of the attack, stating that it seemed ‘predatory in nature.' ‘We didn't see any obvious attractants. The location and the surrounding residencies looked pretty tidy,' Tucker told reporters. ‘However, typically, nine times out of ten when we have wildlife-human conflict there is some nexus to food.'” — Kye Graves, USA Today, 16 June 2023 Did you know? If you're unfamiliar with the word nexus, the popular, long-running video game series The Legend of Zelda may provide an object lesson in its several definitions (and if you're unfamiliar with the games, we will explain). When nexus came into English in the 17th century, it meant “connection” or “link.” Eventually, people began using it to refer to a connected group or series of things, as in “a nexus of relationships.” In recent decades it has taken on a third meaning: “center” or “hub,” perhaps from the notion that a point in the center of an arrangement serves to join together the objects that surround it. Now, one might plausibly say that the 20 Zelda games (not counting remakes and spin-offs) themselves form a nexus, as each represents an installment in a long, twisty saga with numerous echoes and callbacks to other games in the series. Most of these feature the fictional land of Hyrule, which often presents magical nexuses to shadowy alternate dimensions (1991's A Link to the Past), the past (2011's Skyward Sword), or the underworld (2023's Tears of the Kingdom) that the hero, Link (ahem) must traverse. As for nexus's third meaning, Hyrule's map is nearly always situated around a central nexus, or hub, in the form of the castle where the titular Zelda lives. (If you're into gaming or curious about its lingo, don't miss the article “Popular Gaming Terms Explained”).


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 14, 2023 1:57

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 14, 2023 is: asunder • uh-SUN-der • adverb or adjective Asunder is most often used as an adverb—often with a verb such as tear or pull—to mean "apart" or "into pieces." It is more rarely used as an adjective meaning "apart from each other," as in "he stood with his legs wide asunder." // The park was torn asunder by yesterday's microburst, and many of its trails have been blocked by fallen trees. See the entry > Examples: "House of the Dragon chronicles the events leading up to and during the Dance of the Dragons, the name given by the poets of Westeros to a gruesome civil war that tore House Targaryen asunder." — Nick Romano,, 11 Aug. 2022 Did you know? To get to the root of today's word, it helps to take it apart and focus on the sunder. You see, asunder comes from the verb sunder, which means "to break apart" or "to become parted, disunited, or severed." Both words come from the Old English word sundor, meaning "apart." The adverbial "into parts" sense of asunder is often used in the phrase "tear asunder," which can be used both literally (as in "fabric torn asunder") and, more often, figuratively (as in "a community torn asunder by the dispute"). The adjectival "apart from each other" sense can be found in the phrase "poles asunder," used to describe two things that are as vastly far apart as the poles of the Earth.


    Play Episode Listen Later Aug 13, 2023 2:16

    Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 13, 2023 is: travesty • TRAV-uh-stee • noun Travesty refers to something that is shocking, upsetting, or ridiculous because it is not what it is supposed to be, but is instead a distorted or badly inferior imitation of it. The word is often used in the phrase “a travesty of.” Travesty is not a synonym of tragedy, which refers instead to a disastrous event. // That the timber company only had to pay a minimal fine after being found guilty of illegal logging was considered by many to be a travesty of justice. See the entry > Examples: “Ten years and a number of entries later, ‘Fast Five' is the first sequel to the 2001 ‘The Fast and the Furious' that's worth watching, that isn't an embarrassment or a travesty of the original picture.” — Mick LaSalle,, 20 May 2023 Did you know? When disaster strikes, keeping track of which word to use seems pretty unimportant. But you don't want to describe disastrous events as travesties, because they're not: they're tragedies. Travesties are terrible too, but travesty refers specifically to something that is done in a way that makes a mockery of what it's supposed to be: for example, a contest won by the judge's spouse could be considered a travesty. And a trial in which the defendant wasn't allowed to present evidence could be described as a “travesty of justice.” Travesty, which can also function as a verb meaning “to make a travesty of” or “to parody,” comes from the French verb travestir, meaning “to disguise.” Its roots, however, wind back through Italian to the Latin verb vestire, meaning “to clothe” or “to dress.” Other descendants of vestire include vestment, divest, and invest.

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