Word of the Day

Friday, January 29, 2021

alembic

[ uh-lem-bik ]

noun

anything that transforms, purifies, or refines.

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What is the origin of alembic?

Alembic “a vessel with a beaked cap or head, formerly used in distilling,” covers quite a bit of Western civilization. It comes from Middle English alambik, alembec, lambic, lembic, from Middle French alembic, alambic and from Medieval Latin alembicus, alembicum. The English, French, and Latin forms come from Arabic al-anbīq, composed of al– “the” and anbīq “a vessel for distilling, a distilling flask, a still.” Anbīq comes via Persian from Greek ámbix (stem ámbīk-) “a vessel with a spout, an alembic.” Alembic entered English in the late 14th century.

how is alembic used?

What caused this hasty decision? Or had change formed slowly in the alembic of his discontent?

Regina O'Melveny, The Book of Madness and Cures, 2012

But the more he read the more he was astonished to find how the facts had passed through the alembic of Carlyle’s brain and had come out and fitted themselves, each as a part of one great whole, making a compact result, indestructible and unrivalled …

James T. Fields, "Some Memories of Charles Dickens," Atlantic Monthly, August 1870

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

torrential

[ taw-ren-shuhl, toh-, tuh- ]

adjective

falling in rushing, violent, or abundant and unceasing streams.

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What is the origin of torrential?

Torrential “falling in rushing, violent, or abundant and unceasing streams” is a derivative of the noun torrent. Torrent comes from the Latin noun torrens (inflectional stem torrent-) “a rushing stream, torrent.” Torrens is also a present participle meaning “scorching, burning hot,” but also, curiously, “flowing headlong, rushing, torrential,” which Latinists confess is not easily explained. Torrens comes from the verb torrēre “to heat, scorch, dry up,” from the root ters-, source also of Latin terra “land, dry land.” Torrential entered English in the first half of the 19th century.

how is torrential used?

The torrential downpour that drenched the city this week clogged drains and traffic.

Robert Mankoff, "Through a Glass Lightly," The New Yorker, July 16, 2014

After they had spent several nights on the street in Bogotá, her old boss had given them a room to sleep in, allowing them to escape the torrential rain that had taken over the city that week.

Julie Turkewitz, "How We Followed a 1,500-Mile Migration Journey," New York Times, December 10, 2020

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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

shibboleth

[ shib-uh-lith, ‐leth ]

noun

a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

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What is the origin of shibboleth?

Shibboleth “a peculiarity of pronunciation distinguishing one group of people from another” comes from Biblical Hebrew shibbōleth, which occurs in Judges 12:4-6. The Gileadites used the word shibbōleth as a linguistic test to distinguish themselves from the fleeing Ephraimites, who pronounced shibbōleth as sibbōleth. Shibbōleth is translated in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, as “ear of grain.” But modern scholars think that shibbōleth means “freshet, a sudden rise in the level of a stream or river, as by heavy rainfall,” because the slaughter of the Ephraimites by the Gileadites took place at the fords of the river Jordan. Shibboleth entered English in the second half of the 14th century in John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (Wycliffe used the spellings Sebolech and Shebolech).

how is shibboleth used?

The shibboleth persists in politics that government can and should be run “like a business.” … It’s pretty clear that governments do not actually operate like business for a vast number of reasons …

Eric Schnurer, "What Would It Mean for Governments to Compete Like Businesses?" The Atlantic, May 22, 2013

Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome “nerves” or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire.

E. M. Forster, A Room with a View, 1908

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