Word of the Day

Word of the day

Sunday, October 17, 2021

colubrine

[ kol-uh-brahyn, -brin, -yuh- ]

adjective

of or resembling a snake; snakelike.

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What is the origin of colubrine?

Colubrine “of or resembling a snake” derives from the Latin adjective colubrīnus, of the same meaning, from coluber “snake.” Despite the similar spelling, coluber is not the source of coil, the circular gathering movement that typifies snakes; coil derives instead from the Latin verb colligere “to gather together,” and coil’s resemblance to colubrine is a happy coincidence. Much as English has multiple names for wolverines, as we learned in yesterday’s Word of the Day podcast about quickhatch, the Romans had several words for snakes. In addition to coluber, two other Latin terms meaning “snake” that have descendants in English were dracō and serpēns, which you may also recognize as constellations. From dracō, originally a borrowing from Ancient Greek, we have dragon as well as draconian and the name of an antagonist in the Harry Potter book series. From serpēns, literally meaning “crawling,” English has serpent and serpentine. Colubrine was first recorded in English in the 1520s.

how is colubrine used?

On that lonely island in Aasha’s picture Chellam wanders … Inside her head a dozen snakes lie coiled around one another in a heavy mass. Inside her belly stands a tiny matchstick figure, a smaller version of herself … This matchstick representation of Chellam is accurate in at least one respect: there is indeed a terrible colubrine knot of bad memories and black questions inside Chellam’s head that will die with her, unhatched.

Preeta Samarasan, Evening Is the Whole Day, 2008

Moore uses quotations most often to describe the male figure, and in reshaping the words of male writers, she undercuts both his character and language …. The snippet of [Philip] Littell’s words in the poem is “something feline, / something colubrine.” In different ways, the two adjectives reflect a certain denigration of male power. A description of a male figure as colubrine has phallic overtones, but also the negative connotations of a snake; feline is typically used in reference to a female…

Elisabeth W. Joyce, "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique," Mosaic, Vol. 26, Fall 1993

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Word of the day

Saturday, October 16, 2021

quickhatch

[ kwik-hach ]

noun

a wolverine.

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What is the origin of quickhatch?

Quickhatch “wolverine” is a borrowing of East Cree kwi˙hkwaha˙če˙w, with the spelling and pronunciation altered significantly probably because of association with the similar-sounding yet unrelated words quick and hatch. East Cree belongs to the Algonquian family of languages, and the cognate of kwi˙hkwaha˙če˙w in East Cree’s close relative Montagnais was kwa·hkwa·če·w, which was borrowed into French and became carcajou, another name for the wolverine. Wolverines are also known as gluttons, and while glutton is of Latin origin, it is used as a name for wolverines as a translation of German Vielfrass “eating much.” Quickhatch was first recorded in English in the late 1600s.

how is quickhatch used?

He is sometimes called wolverine .… The European labourers in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company call him Quickhatch …. Some people seem to think that he is a variety of the badger; others, that he is a kind of bear. The glutton is so greedy that he stuffs himself till he is ready to burst. But some writers say that this is fable. But all agree that he is very troublesome to man.

Thomas Jackson, Stories about Animals, 1874

The wolverine—also called the mountain devil, the quickhatch, the carcajou, the skunk bear––is a cantankerous, and sometimes vicious animal about the size of a small labrador retriever. It is the largest land dweller in the weasel family, and an an odd fit to be at the vanguard in the debate of how climate change threatens animals and what should be done about it.

J. Weston Phippen, "Great News For Wolverines, and a Lashing For U.S. Fish and Wildlife," The Atlantic, April 8, 2016

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Word of the day

Friday, October 15, 2021

penumbral

[ pi-nuhm-bruhl ]

adjective

relating to or being a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area.

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What is the origin of penumbral?

Penumbral “relating to or being a shadowy area” is the adjectival form of New Latin penumbra, which 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler coined in 1604 as a combination of Latin paene “almost” and umbra “shade.” Umbra is also the source of the English terms somber, umber, umbrage, and umbrella, all of which originally had senses related to shadows or darkness. While penumbra and umbra in the context of astronomy today both refer to the shadow that results when a planetary body cuts off direct light, a penumbra results when the light is only partially cut off, while an umbra results when the light is fully blocked. Penumbral was first recorded in English in the 1660s.

how is penumbral used?

The lock buzzed and she pushed inward to a claustrophobic hall of black-painted walls and sticky green carpet. Beyond that, a narrow staircase led down to a nightclub that managed to be both garish and penumbral. Nearly a dozen rooms ran off the lower corridor, which finally opened into a dance floor and bar. On the wall was a pair of crossed scimitars, vaguely Baltic in origin.

Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May: Strange Tide, 2016

After a while the darkness gets the better of her. It cannot even be called darkness anymore, since she’s begun to see bluish filaments of lights coiling and uncoiling like glowing threads in the space above her .… When she can no longer resist—it’s either turn on the light or continue to pinch her face to remind herself she has form and heft and isn’t merely a pair of eyes connected to a brain in shapeless dark—the penlight throws a ghostly penumbral beam on the far wall, temporarily banishing these.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils, 2017

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