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A Musical Fantasy With Steven Mackey, “Shivaree,” & Other Words Of The Day

At Dictionary.com, we know well that learning new words is about so much more than just definitions. Learning new words is about discovering new ideas and feelings, about unlocking experiences and opportunities. It’s about empowering our communication, enriching our relationships, and inspiring our creativity and self-expression.

Composer and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey knows this well, too. And if you give Mackey a word? He will give you a piece of music.

Based on a ritual of reading Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day with his daughter, Mackey created Shivaree: Fantasy for Trumpet and Orchestra, a piece of classical music that has its world premiere today, October 21, 2021, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Shivaree is a composition for solo trumpet and orchestra made up of 12 movements, each of which was written as a musical interpretation of different words discovered through our very own Word of the Day. (The words also serve as the title of each movement.)

In our Q&A with Mackey below, learn all about Shivaree and the art of interpreting words musically. Discover which Words of the Day inspired Mackey and why he interpreted them the way he did. Then listen to what they sound like in passages from Shivaree!

A Q&A with Dictionary.com and composer Steven Mackey

Dictionary.com: Talk to us about Shivaree both as a piece of music and a creative process. How did it come about? Take us into the mind of a composer—how does a word result in music? How do you musically interpret a word?

Steven Mackey: I subscribe to the Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day and was struck by the word shivaree when it came up a few years ago. I took notice because it evoked a glorious cacophony. I had not officially started composing the Trumpet Fantasy for Tom Hooten [Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic] and the LA Phil, but the music evoked by the word shivaree seemed like a playful and appealing contrast to the more heroic proclamations that the trumpet is associated with. I didn’t know how any of that would relate to the finished product—I merely took note, which eventually led me to add more Words of the Day, particularly words that made me smile at the thought that someone somewhere felt that it wasn’t good enough to describe the thing … it needed its own word.

I would read the Word of the Day to my kids every morning and after a while my 10-year-old daughter—catching on to the notion that words might suggest music—would randomly come into my study and say, “Give me a word,” and would improvise on that word at the piano. She inspired me to do the same with my list. Some words like shivaree are intrinsically musical, and responding to them was simply the act of trying to capture the music suggested by the word, but others like exonumia required more free association.

Always looking for unusual formal ideas for my music and particularly partial to the idea of miniatures, I made the decision to pick a bunch of words and write short musical responses to them. With more short responses than I needed, I started to explore putting them in different orders to explore the possibilities of continuity.

Dictionary.com: Now, the dictionary is going to put you in the hot seat. Shivaree is considered a fantasy. “Define” that for us in terms of musical compositions.

Mackey: I think of a fantasy as a piece that follows its own path rather than aspires to some existing paradigm of form. It is not A-B-A, a song form, a sonata, a dance form, etc. A fantasy is allowed to spontaneously shift direction without any preconceived notion of structure.

Dictionary.com: Discuss Shivaree as a whole. What were you hoping to achieve in this piece of music? Is there an overarching theme to the words you selected?

Mackey: There is no overarching theme to the words I selected. However, the musical responses to those words do combine and connect to make longer arcs and musical narratives. One narrative is the evolution of the trumpet from a rowdy noise maker in “Shivaree” through a growling underground spirit, and eventually onto the heroic trumpet we know and love, and continuing past that to explore the trumpet’s vulnerable vocal qualities in “Apopemptic.”

Dictionary.com: Of all the words in your piece, do you have a favorite—one that most stands out and resonates with you? Is your favorite word also your favorite movement, musically speaking?

Mackey: That is a tough question. Each of the words has had a turn at being my favorite while I was working with it. At this moment I am particularly partial to apopemptic—”pertaining to leave-taking.” I’m happy there is a word that acknowledges the nuance of departing. I actually sketched the music for this movement, thinking of my friend, the great composer Louis Andriessen, who passed away recently, before learning the word. The music has a gentle touch of farewell—it is tinged with melancholy, but not fraught. Then rather late in the process of composing this past August, apopemptic showed up as a Word of the Day. Without that word, what would I say? I guess part of the reason that is my favorite word is because I really needed it!

Dictionary.com: Let’s flip the creative process. The second half of the program in which your piece is premiering is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. What word would you use to describe it?

Mackey: Transcendent.

Dictionary.com: Can you speak to us more broadly about the power of Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day and the role of learning new words in your life?

Mackey: Knowing that someone somewhere has experienced a particular feeling, a state of being, gesture, object, etc., that I have experienced and wanted to label it with more precision, specificity, and nuance, gives rise to a sense of connectedness—that awareness that the experience of others is similar to mine, and I am not alone.

Not to mention it is a fun way to start the day with my kids.

Dictionary.com: And what would you say to the aspiring musicians, composers, and other artists out there about the power of words and language?

Mackey: “In the beginning there was the word.” Words don’t just describe our world; they invent the world. Words make the experience of the world available to us. Our reality is constructed by what we can identify and label.

Dictionary.com: Finally, we have a tradition for team members at Dictionary.com where we ask them to describe themselves in three words. What are yours?

Steven Mackey: Quirky, athletic, optimistic.

The Words & Movements of Shivaree

shivaree

[ shiv-uh-ree ]

noun

a mock serenade with kettles, pans, horns, and other noisemakers given for a newly married couple; charvari.

How Steven Mackey interpreted shivaree

Shivaree describes a musical activity, so the task was simply to make my version of that music.”

Where does shivaree come from?

Shivaree, “a mock serenade with noisemakers” is of obscure origin, though there is a general prevailing theory. Shivaree is likely a corruption of the French term charivari. Charivari is also of obscure origin but may derive, via Late Latin carībaria, “headache,” from Ancient Greek karēbaría, equivalent to kárā or kárē, “head,” barýs “heavy,” and the abstract noun suffix -ía. The logic is that a noisy, boisterous celebration would cause quite the headache! An alternative theory is that shivaree, again like shivoo, derives instead from the French phrase chez vous “at your home.”

Shivaree was first recorded in English in the early 1800s. For more about shivaree, visit its Word of the Day.

chthonian

[ thoh-nee-uhn ]

adjective

relating to deities, spirits and other beings dwelling under the earth.

How Steven Mackey interpreted chthonian

“I was surprised that underground spirits were on people’s minds enough to invent a word, but there it is. It evoked musical images of turbulence and magma embedded with mournful cries.”

Where does chthonian come from?

Chthonian ultimately derives from the Greek adjective chthónios, “of the earth, the underground, the underworld.” Chthónios is a derivative of the noun chthṓn, deriving from a very, very old Proto-Indo-European word meaning “earth” and surviving in most of the “daughter” languages.

One form of this ancient root yields Latin humus (from homos), “earth,” the adjective humilis, “low to the ground” (English humble), and the noun humilitās, (stem humilitāt-) “lowness of height or position, low condition (English humility).

Another form of the root, dhgh(e)mōn, “one who is on the earth, human being,” becomes homō (stem homin-) in Latin, as in Homo sapiens. Latin also derives, somewhat obscurely, the adjective humānus “of man, human, humane, gentle,” source of such English words as human and humane. (Hebrew follows a similar semantic development with ādhām “man, mankind, human being, Adam” and ădhāmāh “earth, soil, ground.”)

In the Germanic languages, the Proto-Indo-European roots yields guma, “human being, man” in Gothic and Old English. Old English has the noun brȳdguma, “young man about to be married or recently married; bridegroom, husband,” which becomes brīdgome in Middle English, and bridegroom in English. The -groom in bridegroom arose in the 16th century due to the influence of groom “boy, young man.”

Chthonian entered English in the mid-19th century. For more about chthonian, visit its Word of the Day.

erumpent

[ ih-ruhm-puhnt ]

adjective

bursting forth.

How Steven Mackey interpreted erumpent: 

“This was another easy one. I’m always looking for an excuse to have music burst forth.”

Where does erumpent come from?

The rare adjective erumpent, used almost exclusively in biology, comes straight from Latin ērumpēns, the present participle of ērumpere, “to burst forth.” The compound verb ērumpere is composed of the prefix ē- (a variant of ex- “out, out of”) and the simple verb rumpere, “to break,” whose past participle ruptus forms the much more common derivative erupt.

Erumpent entered English in the mid-17th century. For more about erumpent, visit its Word of the Day.

tintinnabulation

[ tin-ti-nab-yuhley-shuhn ]

noun

the ringing or sound of bells.

How Steven Mackey interpreted tintinnabulation:

“Since the definition—“the ringing of bells”—has fewer syllables than the word, it wasn’t invented as a shorthand. So why was it invented? Anyway, it is intrinsically sonic and therefore musically suggestive.”

Where does tintinnabulation come from?

Tintinnabulation is a fittingly tuneful term meaning “the ringing or sound of bells.” This noun was notably sounded by Edgar Allan Poe in his 1849 poem “The Bells”: “Keeping time … / To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells …”

English tintinnabulation is formed on Latin tintinnābulum “bell.” Tintinnābulum is composed of -bulum, a suffix that indicates agency, and tintinnāre “to ring,” a verb that apparently imitates the sound of jingling bells.

And, if you can’t get rid of that ringing in your ears? You may have what medicine calls tinnitus “a ringing or similar sensation of sound in the ears.” Tinnitus is ultimately from a Latin verb related to tintinnāre: tinnīre “to ring, tinkle.”

Tintinnabulation entered English in the early 1800s. For more about tintinnabulation, visit its Word of the Day.

exonumia 

[ ek-suhnoo-mee-uh, –nyoo– ]

noun

items, as tokens or medals, that resemble money but are not intended to circulate as money.

How Steven Mackey interpreted exonumia

“This is perhaps the least intrinsically musical word and the strangest sounding word, and it gave rise to the strangest music. It’s hard to say exactly what the relationship is between the word and its music beyond that strangeness. Perhaps the short quirky phrases represent tokens and there is a fair amount of clinking, like a jar full of change.”

Where does exonumia come from?

Exonumia, a relatively new noun meaning “items such as subway tokens or bus tokens that resemble money but do not circulate as money,” is formed from the originally Greek adverb and combining form éxō, “out, outside, without” and the first syllable of numismatics, “the study or collecting of coins, medals, or paper money.”

Numismatics, in turn, is a derivative of the Late Latin noun numisma (stem numismat-) from Latin nomisma “coin, medal, token,” from Greek nómisma “established usage, custom, current coin.” The final element -ia is the noun suffix (-ia in Latin, -ía in Greek), familiar in learned English words like agoraphobia and anesthesia.

Exonumia entered English in the early 1960s. For more about exonumia, visit its Word of the Day.

requiescat

[ rek-wee-es-kaht, -kat ]

noun

a wish or prayer for the repose of the dead.

How Steven Mackey interpreted requiescat

“Several of these words have a humorous aspect. Requiescat was treated with solemnity and earnestness. The trumpet begins with a grieving moan which evolves into full-throated singing—rising, uplifting.”

Where does requiescat come from?

Requiescat, as many high school Latin students will be eager to tell you, is the third person singular present subjunctive active of the Latin verb requiēscere, “to rest, be at rest, rest in death” and means “May he/she/it rest.”

Requiescat usually appears in the phrase Requiescat In Pace (abbreviated R.I.P.) “May he/she/it rest in peace,” seen on tombstones.

Requiescat entered English in the second half of the 1700s. For more about requiescat, visit its Word of the Day.

deipnosophist

[ dahyp-nosuh-fist ]

noun

a person who is an adept conversationalist at table.

How Steven Mackey interpreted deipnosophist

“I couldn’t resist a playful rendering of a typical conversation which I once heard described as ‘one person talking while the other person ignores what is being said and instead says what they are going to say.'”

Where does deipnosophist come from?

No dinner party is complete without a deipnosophist, “a person who is an adept conversationalist at a meal.” This is the type of person who, at least as dictionary editors hope, regales fellow feasters with the origin of such an intriguing word as deipnosophist.

Deipnosophist is based on Deipnosophistaí, the title of a literary work by Athenaeus, a Greek philosopher and rhetorician writing in Naucratis, Egypt, in the late 200s CE. Deipnosophistaí is the plural of deipnosophistḗs, literally “an expert in the affairs of the kitchen,” and the work features a banquet where learned men discuss food and a wide range of other topics. Deipnosophistḗs is formed on Greek deîpnon “meal, dinner” and sophistḗs “expert, wise person.” Sophistḗs is the source of English sophist, which historically refers to a type of professional teacher in ancient Greece and later, a person who argues cleverly but speciously. Sophistḗs is related to Greek sophía “skill, wisdom,” source of the -sophy in philosophy.

Deipnosophist is recorded in English by the 1600s. For more about deipnosophist, visit its Word of the Day.

omphaloskepsis

[ om-fuh-loh-skep-sis ]

noun

the contemplation of one’s navel as part of a mystical exercise.

How Steven Mackey interpreted omphaloskepsis

In this movement the trumpet contemplates middle C and only middle C, while the orchestra shifts and turns around it.

Where does omphaloskepsis come from?

Let’s allow ourselves some etymological navel-gazing, shall we? Omphaloskepsis, a noun meaning “contemplating one’s navel” and implying contempt, first occurs in Aldous Huxley’s satirical novel Those Barren Leaves (1925). The equally dismissive adjective omphaloskeptical is first recorded in 1978.

Omphaloskepsis breaks down to two Greek words: omphalós, meaning “navel, bellybutton, a boss on a shield,” and the Greek noun and combining form sképsis, -skepsis “viewing, perception, examination, speculation.”

The Greek omphalós derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “bellybutton, boss of a shield, hub of a wheel.” This ancient root also ultimately yields such English words umbilical (via umbilīcus “bellybutton” and umbō “the boss of a shield”) and navel (from Old English nafela, meaning “bellybutton”).

The Greek sképsis and -skepsis derive from the verb sképtesthai “to look around, look back, consider, survey, spy on,” which is the ultimate source of the English word skeptical.

For more about omphaloskepsis, visit its Word of the Day.

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horripilation

[ haw-rip-uhley-shuhn, ho- ]

noun

a bristling of the hair on the skin from cold, fear, etc.; goose bumps.

How Steven Mackey interpreted horripilation

“There is a technique on the trumpet called ‘tongue stop’ or ‘tongue slap’ which would be an apt soundtrack to a cartoon depicting goosebumps popping up.”

Where does horripilation come from?

Horripilation is a fancy word for goose bumps. Horripilation ultimately comes from the Late Latin noun horripilātiō, a derivative of the verb horripilāre, “to become bristly or hairy.” Horripilātiō first appears in the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible, prepared chiefly by Saint Jerome at the end of the 4th century CE.

Horripilation entered English in the mid-17th century. For more about horripilation, visit its Word of the Day.

deliquesce

[ del-i-kwes ]

verb

to melt away.

How Steven Mackey interpreted deliquesce

“I love the musical gesture of melting away. This was an excuse to start with something big and broad so the melting away had farther to go.”

Where does deliquesce come from?

Deliquesce, “to melt away; become liquid,” comes straight from Latin dēliquēscere, “to become liquid, dissipate one’s energy,” a compound of the preposition and prefix , dē-, here indicating removal, and the verb liquēscere “to melt, decompose, putrefy.”

Liquēscere is what’s known as an inchoative verb (also called an inceptive verb), meaning that the verb indicates the beginning, the inception of an action. In Latin (and in Greek) the suffix -sc- (Latin) and -sk- (Greek) changes a verb of state, such as liquēre “to be liquid, be clear,” to an inceptive verb. Derivatives of liquēre include liquidus “clear, fluid” (English liquid) and liquor “fluidity, liquid character” (English liquor).

Deliquesce entered English in the mid-18th century. For more about deliquesce, visit its Word of the Day.

apopemptic

[ ap-uhpemp-tik ]

adjective

pertaining to leave-taking or departing; valedictory.

How Steven Mackey interpreted apopemptic

“‘Parting is such sweet sorrow.’ I aimed for that bittersweet spot and quoted a short phrase from an old song by composer Louis Andriessen, who passed away in July 2021.

After exploring these 11 different words, the piece concludes by circling back to the title word in a final movement called ‘Shivaree (slight return)’—a nod to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child (slight return).’”

Where does apopemptic come from?

The English apopemptic is a straightforward borrowing of the Greek adjective apopemptikós, “pertaining to dismissal, valedictory,” a derivative of the adverb and preposition apό- “off, away” and the verb pémpein “to send,” a verb with no clear etymology. The Greek noun pompḗ, a derivative of pémpein, means “escort, procession, parade, magnificence,” adopted into Latin as pompa (with the same meanings), source of the English word pomp.

Apopemptic entered English in the mid-18th century. For more about apopemptic, visit its Word of the Day.

🎵Explore the fanciful word list

Ready to compose your own musical, or linguistic, masterpiece? Then take another look at these words by visiting our word list and find your inspiration.

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