Friday, July 31, 2009


olivaceous \ˌä-lə-ˈvā-shəs\ adjective: of the color olive or olive green

Etymology: Latin oliva olive + -aceus characterized by, full of

If olive and olive green are too quotidian for you, go ahead and use olivaceous.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


lambent \ˈlam-bənt\ adjective: 1. playing lightly on or over a surface; flickering, 2. softly bright or radiant, 3. marked by lightness or brilliance especially of expression

Etymology: Latin lambent-, lambens, present participle of lambere to lick

You’ve probably heard lambent used to describe a brilliant, flashing or playful wit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


levigate \ˈle-və-ˌgāt\ transitive verb: 1. polish, smooth, 2 a. to grind to a fine smooth powder while in moist condition, b. to separate (fine powder) from coarser material by suspending in a liquid

Etymology: Latin levigatus, past participle of levigare to make smooth, from levis smooth (akin to Greek leios smooth and perhaps to Latin linere to smear) + -igare (akin to agere to drive)

Imagine the Pixies’ song “Levitate Me” as “Levigate Me.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


fulgurant \ˈful-g(y)ə-rənt, ˈful-jə-, ˈfəl-\adjective: 1. flashing like lightning, 2. brilliant

Etymology: Latin fulgurare glitter, flash, shine brightly

Fulgurant is related to fulgent.

Monday, July 27, 2009


wan \ˈwän\ adjective: 1 a. suggestive of poor health; sickly, pallid, b. lacking vitality; feeble, 2: dim, faint, 3: languid {a wan smile}

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English wann dark, livid

We all know this word from Sir John Suckling’s “Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover?”

Sunday, July 26, 2009


indurate \ˈin-də-rət, -dyə-; in-ˈdur-ət, -ˈdyur-\ adjective: physically or morally hardened

Etymology: Latin indurare to make hard

This is one of those words with multiple pronunciations; say it one way and a person is bound to take umbrage; say it the other and risk offending someone else.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


lemniscate \lem-ˈnis-kət\ noun: a figure-eight shaped curve whose equation in polar coordinates is ρ2=a2 cos 2θ or ρ2=a2 sin 2θ

Etymology: New Latin lemniscata, from feminine of Latin lemniscatus with hanging ribbons, from lemniscus

Honestly, what’s more fascinating than geometry? It’s the math you can draw!

Friday, July 24, 2009


omphaloskepsis \ˌäm(p)-fə-lō-ˈskep-səs\ noun: 1. contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation, 2: indisposition to motion, exertion or change; inertia

Etymology: New Latin, from Greek omphalos + skepsis examination

Omphaloskepsis has taken on additional meanings; it can be a synonym for “introspection” or it can mean “self-centeredness, egotism or conceit.” How long have these other meanings been around?

Thursday, July 23, 2009


blepharospasm \ˈble-fə-rō-ˌspa-zəm \ noun: spasmodic winking of the eyelids due to contraction of the muscle encircling the orbit

Etymology: New Latin, from Greek, from blepharon

Any connection between the entry word and its illustration is purely coincidental.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


strigil \ˈstri-jəl\ noun: an metal instrument used by ancient Greeks and Romans for scraping dirt, sweat and oil off the skin after exercising

Etymology: Latin strigilis; akin to Latin stringere to touch lightly

A conventional subject of ancient Greek sculpture depicted an athlete using a strigil.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


divagate \ˈdī-və-ˌgāt, ˈdi-\ intransitive verb: to wander or stray from a course or subject; diverge, digress

Etymology: Late Latin divagatus, past participle of divagari, from Latin dis- + vagari to wander

I divagate when looking up a word in the dictionary. Other words jump out and distract; they’re so tempting I can’t resist reading their definitions.

Monday, July 20, 2009


cavil \ˈka-vəl\ intransitive verb: to raise trivial and frivolous objection
transitive verb: to raise trivial objections to

Etymology: Latin cavillari to jest, cavil, from cavilla raillery; akin to Latin calvi to deceive

The cavilry—whiners on horseback.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


limn \ˈlim\ transitive verb: 1. to draw or paint on a surface, 2 . to outline in clear sharp detail; delineate, 3. describe {the novel limns the frontier life of the settlers}

Etymology: Middle English limnen to illuminate (a manuscript), probably back-formation from lymnour illuminator, alteration of lumenur, from Anglo-French aluminer, enluminer to illuminate, ultimately from Latin illuminare

Figurative artists limn limbs.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


lugubrious \lə-ˈgü-brē-əs\ adjective: 1. mournful; exaggeratedly or affectedly mournful {dark, dramatic and lugubrious brooding — V. S. Pritchett}, 2: dismal {a lugubrious landscape}

Etymology: Latin lugubris, from lugēre to mourn; akin to Greek lygros mournful

Lugubrious is a common enough word, but it’s strangely underutilized in everyday speech. Let’s do all we can to right that wrong.

Friday, July 17, 2009


salacious \sə-ˈlā-shəs\ adjective: 1. arousing or appealing to sexual desire or imagination; lascivious, 2. lecherous, lustful

Etymology: Latin salac-, salax, from salire to move spasmodically, leap

The closest word Italian has in meaning to the English word salacious is lascivo, obviously a cognate to the English lascivious. The Italian descendant of the Latin salire is saltare, and it still means “to jump.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009


sedulous \ˈse-jə-ləs\ adjective: 1 : involving or accomplished with careful perseverance {sedulous craftsmanship}, 2. diligent in application or pursuit {a sedulous student}

Etymology: Latin sedulus, from sedulo sincerely, diligently, from sed-, se without + dolus guile

Note the etymology. Something that meant “without guile or deceitful cunning” has come to mean “accomplished with careful perseverance” or “diligent in pursuit.” Makes sense.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


pulchritude \ˈpəl-krə-ˌtüd\ noun: physical comeliness

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin pulchritudin-, pulchritudo, from pulchr-, pulcher beautiful

adjectival form: pulchritudinous \ˌpəl-krə-ˈtü-dən-əs\

I used to think this word sounded discordant with its meaning, but I’ve known it long enough for it to feel natural now.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


recherché \rə-ˌsher-ˈshā\ adjective: 1 a. exquisite, choice, b. exotic, rare, 2: excessively refined; affected, 3. pretentious, overblown

Etymology: French, from past participle of rechercher to seek out, from Middle French recercher to go about seeking, from Old French recerchier, from re- again, backward + cerchier, sercher to search

Is it recherché to use the term recherché?

Monday, July 13, 2009


peckish \ˈpe-kish\ adjective: 1. hungry, 2. crotchety

Etymology: Middle English peck, perhaps from Middle Low German pekken

If you encounter a peckish man, do not mistake his hunger for crotchetiness; whereas if you encounter a peckish man, do not mistake his crotchetiness for hunger.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


peduncle \ˈpē-ˌdəŋ-kəl, pi-ˈ dəŋ-kəl \ noun: 1. a stalk bearing a flower or flower cluster or a fructification, 2. a narrow part by which some larger part or the whole body of an organism is attached; stalk, pedicel, 3. a narrow stalk by which a tumor or polyp is attached

Etymology: New Latin pedunculus, diminutive of Latin ped-, pes foot

Just puts a smile on your face, doesn’t it? Peduncle.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


zaftig \ˈzäf-tig\ adjective: (of a woman) having a full rounded figure; pleasingly plump

Etymology: Yiddish zaftik juicy, succulent, from zaft juice, sap, from Middle High German saf, saft, from Old High German saf

Add zaftig to your vocabular arsenal of complimentary terms, next to callipygian and bathykolpian.

Friday, July 10, 2009


rill \ˈril\ noun: a very small brook
intransitive verb: to flow like a rill

Etymology: Dutch ril or Low German rille; akin to Old English rīth rivulet

You can’t find krill in a rill; they’re marine critters, not freshwater.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


abstruse \əb-ˈstrüs, ab-\ adjective: difficult to comprehend; recondite {the abstruse calculations of mathematicians}

Etymology: Latin abstrusus, from past participle of abstrudere to conceal, from abs-, ab- from + trudere to push

Try pronouncing the word abstruse. It isn't very round or open, is it? It almost feels as if you're extruding the word out of your oral cavity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


fiasco \fē-ˈäs-(ˌ)kō, -ˈas-\ noun: bottle, flask; especially a bulbous long-necked straw-covered bottle for wine

Etymology: Italian, from Late Latin flasco bottle, probably of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German flaska bottle

fiasco \fē-ˈas-(ˌ)kō also -ˈäs-\ noun: a complete failure

Etymology: French, from Italian, from fare fiasco, literally, to make a bottle

Why would making a bottle be an idiom for “a complete failure?” According to Wiktionary the phrase is used in Italian theater to mean “failure in a performance.” That’s still not an explanation, but at least it hints at a context. Wiktionary also goes on to point out an idiomatic similarity with the British English phrase to bottle out, meaning “to lose one’s nerve.”

Wiktionary again: “An alternative interpretation of the Italian fare fiasco as a meaning for failure can be traced to production of glass bottles by glass blowing. A mistake in the process would result in a bottle of irregular shape with a protruding or enlarged base.” Recall the first definition of fiasco above: a bulbous bottle for wine. (Chianti is often sold in these fiaschi; click here for a picture of one.) Italian also has a word for a regularly shaped bottle: bottiglia. So, as a glassblower, if you wanted to make a bottiglia, but instead blew too hard and wound up with a fiasco, you would have made a mistake relative to your intention, even if the resultant vessel could do its job, especially for Chianti.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


farrago \fə-ˈrä-(ˌ)gō, -ˈrā-\ noun: a confused mixture; hodgepodge

Etymology: Latin farragin-, farrago mixed fodder, mixture, from far spelt

Farrago sounds like it should be the name of a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Monday, July 6, 2009


flexuous \ˈflek-sh(ə-)wəs\ adjective: 1. having curves, turns, or windings, 2. lithe or fluid in action or movement

Etymology: Latin flexuosus, from flexus bend, from flectere

Where has this word been all my life?

Sunday, July 5, 2009


quiescent \kwī-ˈe-sənt\ adjective: 1. marked by inactivity or repose; tranquilly at rest, 2. causing no trouble or symptoms {quiescent gallstones}

Etymology: Latin quiescent-, quiescens, present participle of quiescere to become quiet, rest, from quies

I hear a phone ring in the distance. It is ignored.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


vinous \ˈvī-nəs\ adjective: 1. of, relating to, or made with wine {vinous medications}, 2. showing the effects of the use of wine, 3. of the color of red wine; vinaceous

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin vinosus, from vinum wine

And the reddish-purple color burgundy is so called from its resemblance to the wine of the same name.

Friday, July 3, 2009


froward \ˈfrō-(w)ərd\ adjective: habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition

Etymology: Middle English, ‘turned away,’ ‘froward,’ from fro ‘from’ + -ward ‘that occurs or is situated in the direction of’

Have you ever heard this word used in casual conversation? I haven’t.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


pyrrhic \ˈpir-ik\ noun: a metrical foot consisting of two short or unaccented syllables

Etymology: Latin pyrrhichius, from Greek (pous) pyrrhichios, from pyrrhichē, a kind of dance

I’m surprised today’s pyrrhic doesn’t share an etymological root with yesterday’s Pyrrhic.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Pyrrhic \ˈpir-ik\ adjective: 1. achieved at excessive cost {a Pyrrhic victory}, 2. costly to the point of negating or outweighing expected benefits {a great but Pyrrhic act of ingenuity}

Etymology: Pyrrhus, king of Epirus who sustained heavy losses in defeating the Romans

I was introduced to this word by a film critic who used it to describe the Quay Brothers’ Institute Benjamenta. He wrote that the filmmakers’ success in capturing a certain mood or atmosphere in that picture came at the expense of narrative flow and character development.