Word of the Day

Wednesday, January 22, 2020


[ kuh-prees ]


a sudden, unpredictable change, as of one's mind or the weather.

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What is the origin of caprice?

Caprice is capricious. It certainly comes from French, from Italian capriccio; the problem is where does Italian capriccio come from? In Italian, capriccio originally meant “sudden startle, shiver,” now “whim, fancy, fad.” The Italian word may come from an unattested Vulgar Latin capriceus “goat,” the image being of a kid skipping or frisking. Capriccio may also derive from the Italian noun capo “head, leader” (from Vulgar Latin capum, from Latin caput) and riccio (from Latin ēricius “hedgehog”), which as an adjective means “curly, frizzy” and as a noun means “hedgehog,” the image now being of the hair standing on end in fright. Caprice entered English in the second half of the 17th century.

how is caprice used?

This is only a caprice—and it would be the worst thing in the world to give in to her.

Rachel Crothers, He and She, 1920

The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
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Tuesday, January 21, 2020


[ kwawr-uhm, kwohr- ]


the number of members of a group or organization required to be present to transact business legally, usually a majority.

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What is the origin of quorum?

Quorum comes from Latin quōrum “of whom.” (To get into the grammatical weeds, quōrum is the masculine genitive plural of the relative and interrogative pronoun and adjective quī, quae, quod “who, which, what.”) In medieval England, the Latin formula for commissioning justices of the peace would mention certain prominent local persons in general, known for their learning, experience, and prudence, and then specify one or more such persons as definitely to be included: Quōrum ūnum N esse volumus “Of whom we want N to be one.” Such commissioned justices were necessary to constitute a bench and were known as justices of the quorum. The current sense, “the number of members of a group or organization required to be present to transact business legally, usually a majority,” dates from the early 17th century. Quorum entered English in the first half of the 15th century.

how is quorum used?

… new members can only be approved by a twelve-member quorum, and the shrunken Academy now has ten active members instead of its usual eighteen: a Catch-22 if there ever was one.

Alexandra Schwartz, "The Swedish Academy and the Illusions of the Nobel Prize in Literature," The New Yorker, May 5, 2018

Along with two pre-existing vacancies, this will shrink what should be a six-member board to three members—one short of the quorum required to hold meetings and perform many basic functions.

The New York Times Editorial Board, "The Election Watchdog That Can't Bark," New York Times, August 29, 2019
Monday, January 20, 2020


[ bee-kuhn ]


a person or thing that illuminates or inspires: The Bible has been our beacon during this trouble.

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What is the origin of beacon?

Beacon comes from Old English bēacen, bēcen, bēcn “a sign, portent; a standard, banner; a signal, signal fire, signal hill or tower, watchtower; lighthouse.” (Most of these senses appear in Beowulf.) Bēacen comes from Germanic baukna– “beacon, signal,” the source of Old Frisian bāken, Old Saxon bōkan, Old High German bouhhan. The derivative Germanic verb bauknjan “to make a sign, signal” becomes bēcnan in Old English and beckon in English.

how is beacon used?

As is often the case with those who die young, Martin Luther King Jr. has become more symbol than man: pacifist, beacon of nonviolent racial reform.

, "Remembering Martin Luther King Jr." New York Times, January 20, 2019

At first sight we had not rated the American town favorably, but now it seemed a beacon of civilization.

James A. Michener, Texas, 1985
Sunday, January 19, 2020


[ lahng-louf ]


the sport of cross-country skiing.

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What is the origin of langlauf?

Langlauf, “cross-country skiing, cross-country skiing race,” is a German compound noun formed from the adjective lang, cognate with English long, and the noun Lauf “run,” related to English leap (from the Old English noun hlȳp) and lope. Langlauf entered English in the 1920s.

how is langlauf used?

“Haven’t you got a boat that’ll cut through the ice?” … “It’s too thick to get through. Langlauf is the easiest way by far.”

Michael Smith, No Man Dies Twice, 2018

Pontresina, a picture-book village tucked just around the mountain from imperious St. Moritz, turns out to be one of the best places in the world to do cross-country skiing—or langlauf as it’s known.

Allison Pearson, "Skiing in Switzerland: Allison Pearson learns to cross-country ski in Pontresina," Telegraph, March 2, 2012
Saturday, January 18, 2020


[ si-non-uh-muhs ]


equivalent in meaning; expressing or implying the same idea; having the character of synonyms or a synonym.

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What is the origin of synonymous?

Synonymous comes from the Medieval Latin adjective synōnymus, from Greek synṓnymos “having the same name and nature and definition,” a term that Aristotle uses in his logical system. Synṓnymos is a compound of the preposition and prefix syn, syn– “with, together with” and the noun ónyma, ónoma “name, word, noun.” The English metaphysical poet John Donne is the first writer credited with using synonymous in English in 1610.

how is synonymous used?

But for a while there, Netflix was on its way to being like Kleenex or Coke—a brand name that becomes synonymous with an entire product (in this case, streaming video).

Katey Rich, "30 Rock Leaving Netflix Is Truly the End of an Era," Vanity Fair, September 15, 2017

Over time, Instagram became synonymous with artfully posed, aspirational photos of everyday life.

Casey Newton, "Instagram's new stories are a near-perfect copy of Snapchat stories," The Verge, August 2, 2016
Friday, January 17, 2020


[ ri-pohst ]


a quick, sharp return in speech or action; counterstroke: a brilliant riposte to an insult.

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What is the origin of riposte?

Riposte, earlier risposte, in its “social” sense “a quick, sharp return in speech or action” and its fencing sense “a quick thrust given after parrying a lunge,” comes via French from Old Italian risposta “response, reply” (13th century), which by the mid-16th century had developed its fencing sense. Risposta is a (feminine) noun use of the past participle of the verb rispondere “to answer,” from an unattested Vulgar Latin verb respondere, from Latin respondēre “to speak in answer to, answer, answer back” (the Latin verb has no “touché” sense associated with it). Risposte entered English in the early 18th century, riposte a century later.

how is riposte used?

George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

Talib Visram, "How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts," Mental Floss, July 16, 2018

Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, in an annual letter to shareholders, argued that Amazon’s growth has benefited its third-party merchants—a veiled riposte to calls to break up the company.

Spencer Soper, "Bezos Rebuts Warren's Amazon Breakup Call in Antitrust Defense," Washington Post, April 11, 2019
Thursday, January 16, 2020


[ flin-tee ]


unyielding; unmerciful; obdurate: a flinty heart.

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What is the origin of flinty?

Flinty is an obvious combination of the noun flint “a hard stone, a type of silica” and the adjective suffix –y, from Old English –ig, cognate with German –ig, and related to Greek –ikos and Latin –icus. One odd element here is that the derived, metaphorical sense “unyielding, unmerciful, obdurate” appears in the first half of the 16th century, about 75 years before the literal sense “consisting of flint stone” (in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1). A second oddity is that the noun flint, which comes from Old English flint, has impeccable cognates with other Germanic languages (Middle Dutch vlint, Old High German flins, Danish flint, Swedish flinta), from a Proto-Indo-European root (s)plei– “to split, splice.” But flint may be related to Greek plínthos “brick, air-dried brick, squared building stone,” except that a non-Greek language is the usual source of Greek terms associated with building and architecture and nouns with the suffix –inthos, such as asáminthos “bathtub,” terébinthos “terebinth tree, turpentine tree”—the ultimate source of English turpentine. Flinty entered English in the first half of the 16th century.

how is flinty used?

The section’s editor, Seymour Peck, a flinty New Yorker, had me write columns on movies, theatre, rock music, and television as well as on art, extending my capacities, while cracking down on my flakiness.

Peter Schjeldahl, "The Art of Dying," The New Yorker, December 16, 2019

I opened my mouth to deny it, and he forestalled me with one lifted finger, his gaze flinty.

Jacqueline Carey, "You, and You Alone," Songs of Love and Death, 2010

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