Saturday, January 31, 2009


vespertine \ˈves-pər-ˌtīn\ adjective: 1. of, relating to, or occurring in the evening, 2. of an organism, active at dusk or in the evening

Etymology: Latin vespertinus, from vesper evening star

As matutinal is to dawn, so vespertine is to dusk. They are the two halves to crepuscular's whole. Björk’s 2001 album is named Vespertine. It’s an apt title, neatly summing up the atmosphere of the music.

Friday, January 30, 2009


matutinal \ˌma-chu-ˈtī-nəl; mə-ˈtüt-nəl\ adjective: 1. of, relating to, or occurring in the morning, 2. of an organism, active in the pre-dawn hours or early morning

Etymology: Late Latin matutinalis, from Latin matutinus, from Matuta goddess of morning

January 7th's post on crepuscular gave its meaning as “active during twilight”. Since twilight can refer to dawn or dusk, we need matutinal to specify dawn at the exclusion of dusk.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


oscine \ˈä-ˌsīn\ adjective: of or relating to a large suborder (Oscines) of passerine birds (as larks, shrikes, finches, orioles, and crows) characterized by a vocal apparatus highly specialized for singing

Etymology: New Latin Oscines, suborder name, from Latin, plural of oscin-, oscen songbird, bird giving omens by its cry, from obs-, ob- in front of, in the way + canere to sing

I often discover new words in thematic bursts. The past few posts, for example, came out of a recent session of dictionary-hopping where one word led naturally to the next. Look for a new theme tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


passerine \ˈpa-sə-ˌrīn\ adjective: of or relating to the largest order (Passeriformes) of birds which includes over half of all living birds and consists chiefly of altricial songbirds of perching habits

Etymology: Latin passerinus of sparrows, from passer sparrow

Did you read that? Over half of all living birds are passerines. Over half of all living birds. Watch out—they're everywhere...

Monday, January 26, 2009


altricial \al-ˈtri-shəl\ adjective: being hatched or born or having young that are hatched or born in a very immature and helpless condition so as to require care for some time {altricial birds}

Etymology: Latin altric-, altrix, feminine of altor one who nourishes, from alere to nourish

Altrix is mentioned above as the feminine form of "one who nourishes." So if a dominatrix is a woman who dominates and an editrix is a female editor, wouldn't an altrix be a mother?


precocial \pri-ˈkō-shəl\ adjective: capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth {ducklings are precocial}

Etymology: New Latin praecoces precocial birds, from Latin, plural of praecoc-, praecox early ripening, from prae- + coquere to cook

The very similar precocious refers to a child unusually mature for his or her age. I doubt any human newborn would be labeled precocial; that would be creepy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


pubescent \pyü-ˈbe- sənt \ adjective: covered with fine soft short hairs

Etymology: Latin pubescent-, pubescens, present participle of pubescere to reach puberty, become covered as with hair, from pubes

A mischievous word for casual conversation.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


transpicuous \tran(t)s-ˈpi-kyə-wəs\ adjective: clearly seen through or understood

Etymology: New Latin transpicuus, from Latin transpicere to look through, from trans- + specere to look, see

Transpicuous joins former posts on pellucid and diaphanous; they're all synonyms for transparent.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


gibbosity \ji-ˈbä-sə-tē, gi-\ noun: protuberance, swelling

Etymology: Middle English, from Late Latin gibbosus humpbacked, from Latin gibbus hump

The adjectival form is gibbous, a word we all know for its use in describing a swollen moon.


peripatetic \ˌper-ə-pə-ˈte-tik\ adjective: 1. of, relating to, or given to walking, 2. moving or traveling from place to place; itinerant

Etymology: Middle French & Latin; Middle French peripatetique, from Latin peripateticus, from Greek peripatētikos, from peripatein to walk up and down, discourse while pacing (as did Aristotle), from peri- + patein to tread; akin to Sanskrit patha path

Sounds pathological, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


concupiscence \kän-ˈkyü-pə-sən(t)s, kən-\ noun: strong desire, especially sexual desire

Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin concupiscentia, from Latin concupiscent-, concupiscens, present participle of concupiscere to desire ardently, from com- + cupere to desire

This seems like the perfect word for a spelling bee.

Monday, January 19, 2009


pellucid \pə-ˈlü-səd\ adjective: 1. admitting maximum passage of light without diffusion or distortion {a pellucid stream}, 2. reflecting light evenly from all surfaces, 3. easy to understand

Etymology: Latin pellucidus, from per through + lucidus lucid

After posts on diaphanous and pelage, it’s suitable that pellucid makes an appearance. It’s moderately synonymous to the former and shares a syllable with the latter. Of course the similarity in pronunciation between pellucid and pelage is coincidental, but it makes one think of a hairy coat of light, doesn't it?


pelage \ˈpe-lij\ noun: the hairy covering of a mammal

Etymology: French, from Middle French, from poil hair, from Old French peil, from Latin pilus

Pelage is a fun word to say. Try it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


fulgent \ˈfül-jənt, ˈfəl-\ adjective: dazzlingly bright; radiant

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin fulgent-, fulgens, present participle of fulgēre to shine; akin to Latin flagrare to burn

Are fulgent and refulgent straight synonyms, or is one used abstractly while the other is used literally?

Saturday, January 17, 2009


majuscule \ˈma-jəs-ˌkyül, mə-ˈjəs-\ noun: a large letter (as a capital)

Etymology: French, from Latin majusculus rather large, diminutive of major

A miniscule is a lowercase letter, but we also use the word as an adjective to refer to something very small. It’s too bad majuscule hasn’t been adopted as an adjective for things very large.

Friday, January 16, 2009


otiose \ˈō-shē-ˌōs, ˈō-tē-\ adjective: 1. producing no useful result; futile, 2. being at leisure; idle, 3. lacking use or effect; functionless

Etymology: Latin otiosus, from otium leisure

I just read this word in a book. We can’t be familiar with all words, but sometimes I’m amazed to go through life without running into a word like otiose until now.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


fluvial \ˈflü-vē-əl\ adjective: of, relating to, or living in a stream or river

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin fluvialis, from fluvius river, from fluere

This word is virtually identical in Italian: fluviale. One would say “porto fluviale” (river port) or “pesca fluviale” (freshwater fishing).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


diaphanous \dī-ˈa-fə-nəs\ adjective: 1. characterized by such fineness of texture as to permit seeing through {diaphanous fabrics}, 2. characterized by extreme delicacy of form; ethereal {painted diaphanous landscapes}, 3. insubstantial, vague {had only a diaphanous hope of success}

Etymology: Medieval Latin diaphanus, from Greek diaphanēs, from diaphainein to show through, from dia- + phainein to show

Diaphanous has many fine synonymous—gossamer, pellucid, sheer, transpicuous—but where plain talk is admired don’t shun the perfectly upstanding transparent.


osculate \ˈäs-kyə-ˌlāt\ transitive verb: to kiss

osculation \ˌäs-kyə-ˈlā-shən\ noun: the act of kissing ; a kiss

osculatory \ˈäs-kyə-lə-ˌto°r-ē\ adjective

Etymology: Latin osculatus, past participle of osculari, from osculum kiss, from diminutive of os mouth

Why use one syllable where four will suffice? Norma Shearer took this advice to heart when speaking to Clark Gable in 1931’s A Free Soul: “You just talked yourself out of the warmest osculation.”

Monday, January 12, 2009


fulvous \ˈful-vəs, ˈfəl-\ adjective: of a dull brownish yellow; tawny

Etymology: Latin fulvus; perhaps akin to Latin flavus yellow

Does fulvous correspond to a specific hue or range of hues on a color chart, or is it a hazy, imprecise term safe only for casual conversationists and pretentious artists?

Sunday, January 11, 2009


flocculent \ˈflä-kyə-lənt\ adjective: resembling wool especially in loose fluffy organization

Etymology: Latin flocc crowd, band + English -ulent that abounds in

Here's another word that sounds dirty but isn't. Use it with caution or mischief as your inclination dictates.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


flense \ˈflen(t)s\ transitive verb: to strip (as a whale) of blubber or skin.

Etymology: Dutch flensen or Danish & Norwegian flense

For years I thought flense was spelled flence. Maybe I was influenced by fence, as in “to practice the art of attack and defense with a foil or saber.”

Friday, January 9, 2009


glabrous \ˈglā-brəs\ adjective: smooth; especially: having a surface without hairs or projections {glabrous skin} {glabrous leaves}

Etymology: Latin glabr-, glaber smooth, bald

The next time you wish to say “bald head” in conversation, try “glabrous pate” instead. Your friends will appreciate the assonance.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


crepuscular \kri-ˈpəs-kyə-lər\ adjective: 1. of, relating to, or resembling twilight; dim {crepuscular light}, 2. occurring or active during twilight {crepuscular insects} {crepuscular activity}

Etymology: Latin crepusculum, from creper dusky

The noun form is crepuscule. According to Merriam-Webster it’s a straight synonym for twilight, but to my ears crepuscule sounds like a portmanteau of crêpe and corpuscle. That would make it a small, thin pancake of cellular bodies, perhaps blood cells.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


ferrule \ˈfer-əl, ˈfe-rəl\ noun: 1. a ring or cap usually of metal put around a slender shaft (as a cane or a tool handle) to strengthen it or prevent splitting, 2. a usually metal sleeve used especially for joining or binding one part to another (as pipe sections or the bristles and handle of a brush)

Etymology: alteration of Middle English virole, from Anglo-French, from Latin viriola, diminutive of viria bracelet, of Celtic origin; akin to Old Irish fiar oblique

Ferrule is one of those words that’s either mundane or exotic, depending on one’s background. Artists, for example, know not to let ferrules stay wet after washing their brushes, lest it lead to rust and bristle rot.

Monday, January 5, 2009


crapulous \ˈkra-pyə-ləs\ adjective: 1. marked by intemperance especially in eating or drinking, 2. sick from excessive indulgence in liquor

Etymology: Late Latin crapulosus, from Latin crapula intoxication, from Greek kraipalē

This word is simply fantastic. Its underutilization is a crime, so let's do all we can to redress the injustice.


velleity \ve-ˈlē-ə-tē, və-\ noun: 1. the lowest degree of volition, 2. a slight wish or tendency; inclination

Etymology: New Latin velleitas, from Latin velle to wish, will

I was introduced to this word through a friend who used it to mean “a desire not strong enough to be acted upon.” No other word means exactly that, so I continue to use velleity in this sense.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


villous \ˈvi-ləs\ adjective: 1. covered or furnished with villi {a villous adenoma}, 2. having soft, long hairs {leaves villous underneath}

Etymology: Middle English, fibrous, from Latin villosus hairy, shaggy, from villus

To the ear villous sounds like villainous, thus conflating hairiness with evil.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


penetralia \ˌpe-nə-ˈtrā-lē-ə\ noun plural: 1. the innermost parts of a building, especially the sanctuary of a temple, 2. the most private, hidden or secret parts or recesses {the penetralia of the soul}

Etymology: Latin, neuter plural of penetralis inner, from penetrare to penetrate

Those who hear this word will most likely misconstrue its G-rated meaning, so have fun with it.

Friday, January 2, 2009


gastrocnemius \ˌgas-(ˌ)träk-ˈnē-mē-əs, -trək-\ noun: the largest and most superficial muscle of the calf of the leg arising by two heads from the condyles of the femur and attaching to a tendon that becomes part of the Achilles tendon

Etymology: New Latin, from Greek gastroknēmē calf of the leg, from gastr- stomach + knēmē shank

This word is noteworthy because of its etymology: belly of the leg. How cool is that? A leg-belly.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


ort \ˈȯrt\ noun: a morsel left at a meal; scrap

Etymology: Middle English, from Middle Low German orte

I've never heard this word uttered in casual conversation. That's a shame, because ort just feels right; what else could it be but a scrap of food?