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cap-a-pie   New window
Date: Saturday, 30 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 30, 2014 is: cap-a-pie \kap-uh-PEE\ adverb : from head to foot Examples: The birthday girl—dressed cap-a-pie as a princess, from tiara to sequined slippers—waited excitedly for her guests to arrive. "It's only in cartoons that crows have yellow beaks and feet. They are of one shade cap-a-pie, black as midnight and fleet of wing." — M. D. Harmon, Portland Press Herald (Maine), January 5, 2004 Did you know? Think of a medieval knight riding off to battle completely encased (from head to foot, as it were) in armor. Knights thus outfitted were said to be "armed cap-a-pie." The term cap-a-pie, which has been used in English since at least the 16th century, descends from the Middle French phrase de cap a pé, meaning "from head to foot." Nowadays, it is generally extended to more figurative armor, as in "armed cap-a-pie against criticism." Cap-a-pie has also been credited with parenting another English phrase. Some people think the expression "apple-pie order," meaning "perfect order," may have originated as a corruption of "cap-a-pie order." The evidence for that theory is far from orderly, however, and it must be regarded as speculative.
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precocial   New window
Date: Friday, 29 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 29, 2014 is: precocial \prih-KOH-shul\ adjective : capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth Examples: The mallard is a type of precocial bird that can often fly independently just 24 hours after hatching. "Hares are like deer, horses and cattle in the sense that their offspring are precocial. They still have multiple offspring per pregnancy, but they are born fully furred with their eyes open." — Bill Danielson, The Recorder (Greenfield, Massachusetts), June 26, 2014 Did you know? Precocial and its partner altricial are really for the birds. Well, at least they are often used to describe the young of our feathered friends. The chicks of precocial birds can see as soon as they hatch and generally have strong legs and a body covered with fine down. Those are attributes you would expect in birds described by the word precocial, which traces to the Latin precox, a term that means "precocious" or "early ripening" (yes, that root also gave us the word "precocious"). Ducks, geese, ostriches, pheasants, and quail are among the birds that hatch precocial offspring. Altricial chicks, on the other hand, are basically featherless and helpless at birth and require days or weeks of parental care before becoming independent.
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pica   New window
Date: Thursday, 28 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 28, 2014 is: pica \PYE-kuh\ noun : an abnormal desire to eat substances (as chalk or ashes) not normally eaten Examples: Some women suffer from pica during pregnancy. "Pica is an eating disorder that makes you want to nibble on substances with no nutritional value. Sufferers crave washing powder, cigarette ash, dog food, soil, chalk, ice and raw rice, among other things." — Shenaaz Jamal, The Times (South Africa), June 17, 2014 Did you know? In Latin, pica means "magpie." The magpie bird is an opportunistic omnivore that characteristically eats just about anything. The eating disorder in which people are compelled to eat nonnutritious substances—such as ice, dirt, hair, or laundry starch—has since the 16th century taken its name from that bird of indiscriminate eating habits. Another pica dating back to the 16th century refers to a 12-point printing type. According to one theory, the name comes from a collection of church rules called "pica" whose close black print on white pages resembled the coloring of the magpie; however, no such collection printed in pica from the 16th century is known.
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fleer   New window
Date: Wednesday, 27 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 27, 2014 is: fleer \FLEER\ noun : a word or look of derision or mockery Examples: When Adam suggested that the firm's partners do the work pro bono he half-expected to be hit with a collective fleer, but the others readily agreed. "He expressed himself, of course, with eccentric abandon—it would have been impossible for him to do otherwise; but he was content to indicate his deepest feelings with a fleer." — Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, 1918 Did you know? Fleer first appeared in English as a verb (fleryen in Middle English) meaning "to laugh, grin, or grimace in a coarse manner." The verb is of Scandinavian origin and is akin to the Norwegian flire, meaning "to giggle." The noun fleer first and most famously appeared in William Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, in which the evil Iago invites Othello to observe the signs of his wife's unfaithfulness in the visage of her supposed lover, Cassio: "And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns / That dwell in every region of his face…."
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suffrage   New window
Date: Tuesday, 26 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 26, 2014 is: suffrage \SUF-rij\ noun 1 : a vote given in deciding a disputed question or electing a person for an office or trust 2 : the right of voting; also : the exercise of such right Examples: On August 26, 1920—42 years after such an amendment had first been introduced in Congress—the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution became law, finally granting women suffrage. "The Clark Chateau, 321 W. Broadway St., is hosting an exhibit that celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage in the state of Montana." — Montana Standard, July 9, 2014 Did you know? Why would a 17th-century writer warn people that a chapel was only for "private or secret suffrages"? Because in addition to the meanings listed above, "suffrage" has been used since the 14th century to mean "prayer" (especially a prayer requesting divine help or intercession). So how did "suffrage" come to mean "a vote" or "the right to vote"? To answer that, we must look to the word’s Latin ancestor, "suffragium," which can be translated as "vote," "support," or "prayer." That term produced descendants in a number of languages, and English picked up its senses of "suffrage" from two different places. We took the "prayer" sense from a Middle French "suffragium" offspring that emphasized the word’s spiritual aspects, and we elected to adopt the "voting" senses directly from the original Latin.
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operose   New window
Date: Monday, 25 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 25, 2014 is: operose \AH-puh-rohss\ adjective : tedious, wearisome Examples: The operose volume offers up considerably more verbiage than useful information. "But now competitors face an operose task: it is not enough that they know how to spell a tongue-twister, they should also know its meaning." — Economic Times, April 16, 2013 Did you know? "Operose" comes from the Latin "operosus" (meaning "laborious," "industrious," or "painstaking"). That word combines the noun "oper-," "opus," which means "work," with "-osus," the Latin equivalent of the English "-ose" and "-ous" suffixes, meaning "full of" or "abounding in." In its earliest uses, beginning in the mid-1500s, the word was used to describe people who are industrious or painstaking in their efforts. Within a little over 100 years, however, the word was being applied as it more commonly is today: to describe tasks and undertakings requiring much time and effort.
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dovecote   New window
Date: Sunday, 24 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 24, 2014 is: dovecote \DUV-koht\ noun 1 : a small compartmented raised house or box for domestic pigeons 2 : a settled or harmonious group or organization Examples: "The Sultan of Oman has also been a significant contributor, paying for the magnificent dovecote made from English walnut at the end of the lime walk." — Steve Whysall, Vancouver Sun, June 26, 2014 "A leaked anonymous letter, the so-called Trojan Horse letter, claimed there was a conservative Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate and take over as many as two dozen local schools. It caused fluttering in very many interested dovecotes." — Mary Dejevsky, Newsweek, June 15, 2014 Did you know? When Shakespeare's Coriolanus was condemned to die by the Volscians, the doomed general proudly reminded his enemies, "Like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli." (Coriolanus was referring to an earlier victory in which his army had seized the city of Corioli from the Volscians.) When he introduced that eagle into the dovecote, Shakespeare also introduced a new figure of speech, but one that wasn't truly "discovered" by most writers until the 19th century—and then from a misquote. English novelist Edward G. Lytton reminded folks about it in 1853 when he wrote about how "the great Roman general did 'flutter the dove-cots in Corioli.'" Nowadays, we sometimes "ruffle" dovecotes or "cause a flurry" in them, in addition to "fluttering" them or "causing a flutter" in them.
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purfle   New window
Date: Saturday, 23 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 23, 2014 is: purfle \PER-ful\ verb : to ornament the border or edges of Examples: The guitar maker used abalone shell to purfle the instrument. "She wore a silk dress purfled with gold, and they compared her beauty to the moon." — Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest, June 30, 2011 Did you know? Today we use "purfle" mostly in reference to setting a decorative inlaid border around the body of a guitar or violin, a process known as "purfling." In the past, "purfle" got the most use in connection with adornment of garments. "The Bishop of Ely … wore a robe of scarlet … purfled with minever," reported an English clergyman in 1840, for example. We embellished our language with "purfle," first as "purfilen" in the 1300s, when we took it with its meaning from Middle French "porfiler."
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Date: Friday, 22 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 22, 2014 is: Davy Jones's Locker \day-vee-johnz-LAH-ker\ noun : the bottom of the ocean Examples: "We asked where the rest of the ship's company were; a gruff old fellow made answer, 'One boat's crew of 'em is gone to Davy Jones's locker: —went off after a whale, last cruise, and never come back agin.…'" — Herman Melville, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847 "They were storm driven throughout a long night and slammed into the cliffs of Guana Island 20 miles to the Southwest: a close call with Davy Jones' locker." — Jonathan Russo, Shelter Island Reporter (New York), June 23, 2014 Did you know? Was there a real Davy Jones? Folks have been pondering that question for centuries. Sailors have long used "Davy Jones" as the name of a personified evil spirit of the ocean depths, but no one knows exactly why. Some claim the original Davy Jones was a British pirate, but evidence of such a pirate is lacking. Others swear he was a London pub owner who kept drugged ale in a special locker, served it to the unwary, and then had them shanghaied. But the theory considered most plausible is that "Davy" was inspired by St. David, the patron saint of Wales. (St. David was often invoked by Welsh sailors.) "Jones" is traced to Jonah, the biblical figure who was swallowed by a great fish.
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Date: Thursday, 21 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 21, 2014 is: ragamuffin \RAG-uh-muf-in\ noun : a ragged often disreputable person; especially : a poorly clothed often dirty child Examples: Tourists in the city were often surrounded by young ragamuffins begging to be allowed to do small services for an equally small donation. "Miller shows remarkable range in her portrayal of Rose, who transforms from an underfoot ragamuffin to a confident vixen." — David N. Dunkle, The Patriot-News (Pennsylvania), July 18, 2014 Did you know? If you’ve guessed that "rag" or "ragged" is related to "ragamuffin," you may be correct, but the origins of today's word are somewhat murky. In Middle English the term functioned both as a surname and generically to denote a ragged and sometimes stupid person, and in the Middle English alliterative poem Piers Plowman William Langland used the word to serve as the name of a demon. The "muffin" part of "ragamuffin" may have its origin in either of two Anglo-Norman words for a devil or scoundrel, but that too is uncertain. No matter its muddied history: the word has continued to develop in modern times. It can also refer to a type of music with rap lyrics and a reggae beat, a meaning that can be found at Merriam-Webster Unabridged.
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flyblown   New window
Date: Wednesday, 20 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 20, 2014 is: flyblown \FLY-blohn\ adjective 1 a : not pure : tainted b : not bright and new : seedy c : trite, hackneyed 2 : infested with eggs or young larvae of a blowfly Examples: "This is a mighty simple movie, with its flyblown wisdom spelled out." — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, November 2, 1987 "The landscape of 'The Rover' is an arid, flyblown sandpit. We see a guarded container car train with Chinese markings clank across the horizon…. A vastness of tarmac roads connects nasty clusters of buildings that don't add up to towns." — Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 20, 2014 Did you know? One meaning of "blow" (used mostly, it seems, by 17th century entomologists) is "to deposit eggs or larvae on"—hence the blowfly, which lays its eggs on meat or wounds. "Flyblown" has its origins in the very unpleasant image of a blowfly's victim, and it's from this literal meaning that the more common senses come. Phrases such as "flyblown shack" and "flyblown restaurant" still suggest the actual presence of flies, if not necessarily their embryonic precursors.
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demesne   New window
Date: Tuesday, 19 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 19, 2014 is: demesne \dih-MAYN\ noun 1 : legal possession of land as one’s own 2 a : the land attached to a mansion b : landed property : estate c : region, territory 3 : realm, domain Examples: Lewis and Clark were commissioned to explore the vast demesne of forests and plains that the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. "Just as no monarch can ever quite control her entire demesne, no sister can ever quite neutralize the mischief of younger brothers." — Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe, February 4, 2014 Did you know? Why isn't "demesne" pronounced the way it's spelled? Our word actually began as "demayn" or "demeyn" in the 14th century, when it was borrowed from Anglo-French property law. At that time, the Anglo-French form was "demeine." Later, the Anglo-French spelling changed to "demesne," perhaps by association with another term from Anglo-French property law: "mesne," meaning "intermediate." ("Mesne" has entered English as a legal term as well.) According to rules of French pronunciation, the "s" was silent and the vowel was long. English speakers eventually followed suit, adopting the "demesne" spelling. Our word "domain" (which overlaps with the meaning of "demesne" in some applications) also comes from Anglo-French "demeine."
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Date: Monday, 18 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 18, 2014 is: backstairs \BAK-stairz\ adjective : secret, furtive; also : sordid, scandalous Examples: The article accuses the influential Washington lobbyist of having been involved in a number of backstairs deals to limit regulation of financial institutions. "During the protracted balloting—it went four rounds before Jackson was declared the winner—backstairs talks began, aimed at stopping Jackson, according to operatives." —Jeff E. Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), May 22, 2013 Did you know? When Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, wrote in 1654 about leading someone "down a back-stairs," he wasn’t referring to anything scandalous. He simply meant "down a secondary set of stairs at the back of a house." Just over a decade earlier, however, Boyle’s contemporary, Sir Edward Dering, had used the phrase "going up the back-stairs" in a figurative way to suggest a means of approach that was not entirely honest and upfront. The figurative use likely arose from the simple notion that the stairs at the rear of a building are less visible and thus allow for a certain degree of sneakiness. By 1663, "backstairs" was also being used adjectivally to describe something done furtively, often with an underhanded or sinister connotation.
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Date: Sunday, 17 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 17, 2014 is: crazy-quilt \KRAY-zee-KWILT\ adjective : resembling a patchwork quilt without a design : haphazard Examples: "No one questioned her comings and goings; her crazy-quilt schedule was attributed to familial and civic duties." — Toni Cade Bambara, Those Bones Are Not My Child, 1999 "The crazy quilt nature of the music Miles Davis made at the Fillmore in 1970 is one of its best features. His rowdy players showed him other ways to bring the funk." — Kevin Whitehead, National Public Radio, May 16, 2014 Did you know? A crazy quilt is a quilt with no perceivable design or pattern, lacking repeating motifs, and often made out of discarded scraps of cloth. Shortly after crazy quilts became popular in the late nineteenth century, the term "crazy quilt" found a place in English as a metaphor for things that appear random, unplanned, or out of order; for example, testimony in the 1896 Proceedings of the Illinois State Bar Association asserted that "We all know that as juries are instructed now, the instructions are a crazy-quilt—just a crazy-quilt, and nothing else." The adjective came about soon afterward. A more common term to describe crazy quilts, "patchwork," also describes something composed of ill-assorted, miscellaneous, or incongruous parts.
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jink   New window
Date: Saturday, 16 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 16, 2014 is: jink \JINK\ verb : to move quickly or unexpectedly with sudden turns and shifts (as in dodging) Examples: "Two fighters immediately launched missiles, and the American aircraft jinked up, then down to lose them." — Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising, 1986 "Robben jinked and juked his way down Holland’s right wing seemingly at will, leaving helpless defenders tackling air as he motored past them into open space." — Nicholas Nehamas and Jacob Feldman, The Miami Herald, July 14, 2014 Did you know? The investigation into the origins of "jink" begins with documents from 18th century Scotland. Unfortunately, they contain no clear indication of how this shifty little word was formed. What can be said with certainty is that the word has always expressed a quick or unexpected motion. For instance, in two poems from 1785, Robert Burns uses the verb to indicate both the quick motion of a fiddler's elbow and the sudden disappearance of a cheat around a corner. In the 20th century, the verb caught on with air force pilots and rugby players, who began using it to describe their elusive maneuvers to dodge opponents and enemies. "Jink" can also be used as a noun meaning "a quick evasive turn" or, in its plural form, "pranks." (Etymologists are quite certain that the latter use is connected with the term "high jinks.")
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rapport   New window
Date: Friday, 15 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 15, 2014 is: rapport \ra-POR\ noun : relation : especially : relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity Examples: Once our daughter had developed a rapport with her piano teacher, she began to show some real enthusiasm for learning and practicing the piano. "In general, the new superintendent will be responsible for promoting the individual identity of each of the parks, and building rapport with members of communities in which the historic sites are located." — Joe L. Hughes II, The Gaffney Ledger (South Carolina), July 11, 2014 Did you know? One thing that may occur to you when considering today’s word is its resemblance to an even more common English word, "report." "Report" comes from the French verb "reporter" and "rapport" comes from the French "rapporter." Both verbs mean "to bring back" and can be traced back to the Latin verb "portare," meaning "to carry." "Rapporter" also has the additional sense of "to report," which influenced the original English meaning of "rapport" ("an act or instance of reporting"). That sense of "rapport" dropped out of regular use by the end of the 19th century.
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aperçu   New window
Date: Thursday, 14 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 14, 2014 is: aperçu \ap-er-SOO\ noun 1 : a brief survey or sketch : outline 2 : an immediate impression; especially : an intuitive insight Examples: "On every other page, there's a nice apercu: breath is 'cooked air'; perfume is 'liquid memory'; when astronauts are weightless in their spaceship, they lose their sense of smell…." — Anatole Broyard, New York Times Book Review, 29 July 1990 "As a poet, Mr. Lehman has always been conversational in style, given to seemingly casual aperçus that take on a larger resonance…." — Sarah Douglas, New York Observer, October 29, 2013 Did you know? In French, "aperçu" is the past participle of the verb "apercevoir" ("to perceive" or "to comprehend"), which in turn comes from Latin "percipere" ("to perceive"). (The same verb also gave us "apperceive," meaning "to have consciousness of oneself," and the noun "apperception," meaning "introspective self-consciousness" or "mental perception.") "Aperçu" in French is also a noun meaning "glimpse" or "outline, general idea." English speakers borrowed the noun "aperçu," meaning and all, in the early 19th century.
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Date: Wednesday, 13 Aug 2014 15:35
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 13, 2014 is: Janus-faced \JAY-nus-fayst\ adjective : having two contrasting aspects; especially : duplicitous, two-faced Examples: The dancers wore grotesque Janus-faced masks, flashing faces of terror and pleasure as they twirled about the stage. "The helmsman decreased speed a fraction, steering the boat to mid-river. The surface was glassy and the reflections of the trees made it difficult to tell up from down. A Janus-faced river, Harry thought." — Ward Just, American Romantic, 2014 Did you know? In Roman religion, Janus was the deity who presided over doors, gates, archways, and all beginnings, structural and temporal (the month of January is named for him). He is represented as having a single head with two faces looking in opposite directions. The shrine of Janus in the Roman Forum was a rectangular bronze structure with double doors at each end. Traditionally, the doors were left open in times of war and kept closed in times of peace. That open/closed dichotomy, along with the deity's two-faced head, confers duplicity and contrariness to the word "Janus," evinced in the meaning of the term "Janus-faced."
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abscond   New window
Date: Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 12, 2014 is: abscond \ab-SKAHND\ verb : to depart secretly and hide oneself Examples: Before anyone could catch on to the fact that Roger was embezzling funds from the company, he had absconded to Mexico with over $100,000. "Turns out that if you get caught gatecrashing a White House state dinner with your wife, after which said wife absconds with the guitarist from Journey, who you wrongly accuse of kidnapping her, it tends to stick in people's minds." —Marianna Garvey, Brian Niemietz and Oli Coleman, The Daily News (New York), June 2, 2014 Did you know? First appearing in English in the 16th century, "abscond" derives from Latin "abscondere," meaning "to hide away," a product of the prefix "ab-" and "condere," a verb meaning "to conceal." ("Condere" is also the root for "recondite," a word meaning "concealed" as well as "hard to understand" or "obscure.") In general usage, "abscond" refers to any act of running away and hiding (usually from the law and often with funds), but, in legal circles, the word is used specifically when someone who has already become the focus of a legal proceeding hides or takes off in order to evade the legal process (as in "absconded from parole").
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wyvern   New window
Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 06:00
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 11, 2014 is: wyvern \WYE-vern\ noun : a mythical animal usually represented as a 2-legged winged creature resembling a dragon Examples: Symbols commonly used in heraldry include a number of mythical creatures, among them the winged wyvern. "Wyverns keep a silent watch over the people of Leicester from rooftops and steeples across the city. Their coiled, winged bodies, part serpent part dragon, have been entwined in our ancient history for hundreds of years." — Leicester Mercury (United Kingdom), June 13, 2014 Did you know? Wyverns are often depicted as having the tail of a viper—a venomous snake—and that fact is reflected in the etymology of "wyvern": it comes ultimately from the Latin word "vipera," which means "viper." ("Vipera" is also, of course, the source of our word "viper.") The creature the wyvern most closely resembles, however, is the also-mythical dragon. "Dragon" is a much older word—it has been in use since the 13th century, while "wyvern" dates to the early 17th—but it too has snakes in its history. The word originally referred not to the lizard-like creature we imagine today but to a huge serpent.
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