Word of the Day

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Barmecidal

[ bahr-muh-sahyd-l ]

adjective

giving only the illusion of plenty; illusory: a Barmecidal banquet.

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What is the origin of Barmecidal?

It is forgivable, even rational—but nevertheless incorrect—to think that Barmecidal means something like “killing Barm or a Barm or a barm or barms,” just as the adjective homicidal is formed from the noun homicide. Analyzing Barmecidal from back to front, we see the familiar adjectival suffix –al. The element –id or –ide is the not so familiar Greek noun suffix –id, a feminine patronymic suffix having the general sense “offspring of, descendant of,” and used especially with the names of dynasties (such as Pisistratid, Abbasid, Attalid). The first two syllables, Barmec-, come from Persian Barmak, the name of a wealthy Iranian family that was very influential in Baghdad under the Abassid dynasty, and famous for its patronage of the arts and sciences. A Barmecidal banquet (or feast) refers to a story from the The Arabian Nights Entertainments; its “hero” is Ja’far ibn Yahya Barmaki (Ja’far al-Barmaki, also Giafar), who served a beggar a series of empty platters, pretending the empty platters were a sumptuous feast, a fiction or nasty joke that the beggar cheerfully accepted.

how is Barmecidal used?

The men employed by Mr. Hackley, the Street Contractor, assembled yesterday, the regular pay-day, at the office, in the Park, to receive their semi-monthly wages, but they were met by the assurance that there was no money, and that it was only a Barmecidal pay-day.

"The Street Contractor's Pay-Day, but no Money," New York Times, January 22, 1862

Why … did I leave the Great Gatsby bemoaning not the Barmecidal mousetrap of the American dream, but rather the director’s Liza-Minnelli-performing-“All-the-Single-Ladies”-in-Sex-and-the-City-2 style of adapting epic tragedies?

Moze Halperin, "How '#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills' Makes 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' 'Gatsby,' and 'The Bling Ring' Obsolete," Flavorwire, January 29, 2014
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Monday, July 15, 2019

remora

[ rem-er-uh ]

noun

an obstacle, hindrance, or obstruction.

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What is the origin of remora?

Remora comes directly from Latin remora “hindrance, delay,” composed of the prefix re– “back, backward, again” and the noun mora “delay, obstacle, pause.” Other English words ultimately derived from mora include moratorium and demur. Remora is first recorded in English in the early 16th century as a name for the suckerfish, which has sucking disks on its head by which it can attach to the likes of sharks, turtles, and ships. This name is found in Late Latin in the 4th century a.d., so called because the fish was believed to slow the progress of ships. In Book 32, Chapter 1 of his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79 ) gives mora as a classical Latin gloss of Greek echenēis, literally meaning “holding (back) a ship,” and marvels at the supposed power of these fish: “But alas for human vanity!—when their prows, beaked as they are with brass and with iron, and armed for the onset, can thus be arrested and rivetted to the spot by a little fish, no more than some half foot in length!” (translated by John Bostock and Henry T. Riley, 1855). Remora in the archaic sense “obstacle, hindrance, obstruction” entered English by the early 1600s.

how is remora used?

… notwithstanding the remora of their dismasted ship, and the disadvantage of repairing damages at sea, the French fleet arrived in safety ….

David Price, Memoirs of the Early Life and Service of a Field Officer, 1839

The great remora to any improvement in our civil code, is the reduction that such reform must produce in the revenue.

Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon; or, Many Things in Few Words, Vol. 1, 1820
Sunday, July 14, 2019

raison d'être

[ rey-zohn de-truh ]

noun

reason or justification for being or existence: Art is the artist's raison d'être.

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What is the origin of raison d'être?

The quasi-English phrase raison d’être “reason of being” is still unnaturalized, retaining a French pronunciation of sorts. The English noun reason comes from Middle English reason, raisoun, raison (with still more spelling variants), from Old French reason, reason, raison, etc., from Latin ratiō (inflectional stem ratiōn-), whose many meanings include “a count, calculation, reckoning (as in business or accounts), theory (as opposed to practice), faculty or exercise of reason.”

The French preposition de “of, for” becomes d’ before a vowel. De comes from the Latin preposition “away, away from, down, down from.” The development from to Romance de, di “of” can be seen over the centuries in graffiti, epitaphs, and personal letters. St. Augustine of Hippo defended vulgarisms (which after all became standard in Romance): “Better that grammarians condemn us than that the common people not understand.”

Être is the French infinitive “to be,” and as is typical in French, it is much worn down from its original. In Old French the infinitive was estre, a regular development of Vulgar Latin essere “to be,” from Latin esse. Esse in Latin is an archaism, and the infinitives of nearly all other verbs end in –ere or –āre, or –īre. In Vulgar Latin, however, esse is an anomaly, and the Vulgus “the common people” simple regularized esse to essere. (Essere is even today the infinitive of the verb “to be” in standard Italian.) French loses a vowel after a stressed syllable; thus essere becomes essre (esre), and esre develops an excrescent consonant t between s and r for ease of pronunciation. Raison d’être first appears in English in a letter written in 1864 by John Stuart Mill.

how is raison d'être used?

He would have no raison d’être if there were no lugubrious miseries in the world, as an undertaker would have no meaning if there were no funerals.

D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love, 1920

After all, measuring risk, and setting prices accordingly, is the raison d’être of a health-insurance company.

James Surowiecki, "Fifth Wheel," The New Yorker, December 27, 2009

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