Word of the Day

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

esprit de l'escalier

[ es-pree duh le-skahl-yey ]

noun

French.

a perfect comeback or witty remark that one frustratingly comes up with only when the moment for doing so has passed: Writers, by nature, tend to be people in whom l' esprit de l'escalier is a recurrent experience.

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What is the origin of esprit de l'escalier?

The still very foreign phrase esprit de l’escalier first appears in English in one of the remarkable, not to say idiosyncratic, let alone cranky books by the Fowler brothers, F.W. (Francis George) and H.W. (Henry George), The King’s English (1906): “No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier.” The French phrase was coined by the French philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot in his Paradoxe sur le comédien (1773–77), a dramatic essay or dialogue between two actors: “l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” (a sensitive man like me, entirely overcome by the objection made against him, loses his head and can only recover his wits at the bottom of the staircase), that is, after he has left the gathering.

how is esprit de l'escalier used?

Your esprit de l’escalier doesn’t kick in until you’re well out the door.

Lauren Collins, "Sally Rooney Gets in Your Head," The New Yorker, December 31, 2018

Later, l’esprit de l’escalier provided Mercia with: Glad you’re in agreement/I haven’t yet spoken/Is that a greeting/Yes indeed—but at the time, affronted, she grabbed at a couple of garments and announced, I’ll try these.

Zoë Wicomb, October, 2014
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Monday, June 10, 2019

nebulated

[ neb-yuh-ley-tid ]

adjective

having dim or indistinct markings, as a bird or other animal.

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What is the origin of nebulated?

The adjective nebulated comes from Late Latin nebulātus, past participle of nebulāre “to cloud, obscure,” a derivative of the noun nebula “mist, cloud.” Nebula is the Latin result of the Proto-Indo-European root nebh– (with many variants) “cloud.” The neuter noun nebhos yields Greek néphos “cloud, clouds,” Slavic (Polish) niebo “sky, heaven,” Hittite nebis “heaven.” The root nebh– and the suffix –el yield Middle Welsh nyfel “cloud” and Greek nephélē “cloud, clouds,” corresponding to Latin nebula. The Germanic form of the root, neb-, and the suffix –l– form German Nebel “fog, mist” and Old Norse niflheim “the world of darkness,” ruled over by the goddess Hel. Nebulated entered English in the late 15th century.

how is nebulated used?

Immature birds are smaller, with central tail-feathers not, or scarcely, projecting, and have chiefly nebulated plumage below, with admixture of pale cinnamon, especially on under tail-coverts …

William Leon Dawson, The Birds of California,  Vol. 3, 1923

I fear that the intellectual gloom of the age is too great and nebulated by prejudice to duly appreciate your sentiments and devotion.

Henry Hatch, letter to the editor, The Republican, Vol. 1, No. 8, October 15, 1819
Sunday, June 09, 2019

Delphic

[ del-fik ]

adjective

oracular; obscure; ambiguous: She was known for her Delphic pronouncements.

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What is the origin of Delphic?

English Delphic comes via Latin Delphicus from the Greek adjective Delphikós, a derivative of the plural noun Delphoí, the name of the inhabitants of Delphi and of the historic city itself. The many dialect forms of the name, especially Aeolic Bélphoi, point to a form gwelphoi with an original labiovelar (a sound combining a velar, such as k or g, and a bilabial, such as w), as in Latin quis, quid “who, what” and English quick and Gwendolyn. Gwelphoi is a Greek derivative of the Proto-Indo-European root gwelbh– “womb” (the city was so named from its shape). Gwelbh– is also the source of the Greek noun adelpheós (Attic adelphós) “brother,” whose first letter a– is a much-reduced form of sem– “one,” related to Greek homós “same” and English “same.” Adelph(e)ós therefore means “born of the same womb.” Delphic entered English at the end of the 16th century.

how is Delphic used?

The poems of his mature career were often Delphic, haunted, and bleak.

Dan Chiasson, "The Final Prophecy of W. S. Merwin," The New Yorker, March 17, 2019

… he would certainly make a few Delphic pronouncements that next to nobody would understand, such as: “You can get many kinds of balance toward any seemingly grinding postulate of life.”

Newsweek, "About Jack," December 15, 2002

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