Word of the Day

Thursday, December 19, 2019


[ flah-nœr ]


idler; dawdler; loafer.

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What is the origin of flâneur?

Flâneur “idler; dawdler; loafer” is borrowed directly from French flâneur, an agent noun of the verb flâner “to stroll, saunter aimlessly; lounge.” The ultimate origin of French flâner is obscure. In 19th-century France, the flâneur was a figure for a type of wealthy, foppish man-about-town who leisurely wandered the boulevards of Paris and lounged at its cafés. In the early 1900s, German literary critic Walter Benjamin, inspired in great part by the writing of Charles Baudelaire, helped develop the flâneur into a symbol of the modern artist and writer, at once immersed in and alienated by the hustle and bustle of urban life. English borrowed another noun from French to describe the disposition of the flâneur: flânerie “idleness, dawdling.” Flâneur entered English in the mid-1800s.

how is flâneur used?

It was, after all, the age of the flaneur: a foppish, solvent young man who would roam the colonnades of Paris from dawn to dusk, idly though publicly observing the quotidian pathos of the working men around him.

Paul Llewellyn, "America's Walk of Shame," Spy, July/August 1997

Oscar Wilde is a flaneur, but not William Wordsworth. It happens in crowds, in great capital cities, in man-made environments.

Peter Bradshaw, "A walk on the Wilde side: 'The Flaneur'," Independent, October 9, 1994
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Wednesday, December 18, 2019


[ dahyp-nos-uh-fist ]


a person who is an adept conversationalist at a meal.

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What is the origin of deipnosophist?

No dinner party is complete without a deipnosophist “a person who is an adept conversationalist at a meal.” This is the type of person who, at least as dictionary editors hope, regales fellow feasters with the origin of such an intriguing word as deipnosophist. Deipnosophist is based on Deipnosophistaí, the title of a literary work by Athenaeus, a Greek philosopher and rhetorician writing in Naucratis, Egypt, in the late 200s a.d. Deipnosophistaí is the plural of deipnosophistḗs, literally “an expert in the affairs of the kitchen,” and the work features a banquet where learned men discuss food and a wide range of other topics. Deipnosophistḗs is formed on Greek deîpnon “meal, dinner” and sophistḗs “expert, wise person.” Sophistḗs is the source of English sophist, which historically refers to a type of professional teacher in ancient Greece and later, a person who argues cleverly but speciously. Sophistḗs is related to Greek sophía “skill, wisdom,” source of the –sophy in philosophy. Deipnosophist is recorded in English by the 1600s.

how is deipnosophist used?

Mr. MacPherson, a self-described “deipnosophist” (a fancy word for an adept dinner conversationalist), said the hearth is a good place to start for putting guests at ease.

Rima Suqi, "Tending the Hearth," New York Times, March 18, 2009

Its author, one Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881—1937), was a deipnosophist, clubman, and literary miscellanist with a special interest in tonsorial subjects.

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, Commentary on Poets Ranked by Beard Weight: The Commemorative Edition, 2011
Tuesday, December 17, 2019


[ tin-ti-nab-yuh-ley-shuhn ]


the ringing or sound of bells.

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What is the origin of tintinnabulation?

Tintinnabulation is a fittingly tuneful term meaning “the ringing or sound of bells.” This noun was notably sounded by Edgar Allan Poe in his 1849 poem “The Bells”: “Keeping time … / To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells …” English tintinnabulation is formed on Latin tintinnābulum “bell.” Tintinnābulum is composed of –bulum, a suffix that indicates agency, and tintinnāre “to ring,” a verb that apparently imitates the sound of jingling bells. And, if you can’t get rid of that ringing in your ears? You may have what medicine calls tinnitus “a ringing or similar sensation of sound in the ears.” Tinnitus is ultimately from a Latin verb related to tintinnāre: tinnīre “to ring, tinkle.” Tintinnabulation entered English in the early 1800s.

how is tintinnabulation used?

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells / bells, bells, bells— / From the jingling and tinkling of the bells.

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Bells," Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art, November 1849

I walked as fast as possible on one shoe toward the far-off tintinnabulation of the bells.

Jim Harrison, Dalva, 1988
Monday, December 16, 2019


[ wel-ter ]


a confused mass; a jumble or muddle: a welter of anxious faces.

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What is the origin of welter?

The noun welter “confused mass; a jumble or muddle” develops from the verb welter “to roll, toss; writhe, tumble about.” Found in English by the 1300s, the verb welter is a form of Middle English welten, Old English weltan “to roll,” cognate with Middle Dutch welteren and Low German weltern “to roll.” The specific form welter is known as a frequentative, which is a verb that expresses repetitive action, indicated by the suffix –er, as seen in such other verbs as flicker or shudder. Welter, then, has the meaning of rolling over again and again, as waves heaving in the sea or pigs wallowing in the mud, which gave rise to its noun senses, such as “confused mass.” The noun welter is first recorded in English in the late 1500s.

how is welter used?

What traitors books can be! … Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953
[The pilot] would be expected to know what to do within seconds if a system he didn’t know existed set off a welter of cockpit alerts and forced the plane downward.

Alec MacGillis, "The Case Against Boeing," The New Yorker, November 11, 2019
Sunday, December 15, 2019


[ per-uh-pi-tahy-uh, -tee-uh ]


a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, especially in a literary work.

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What is the origin of peripeteia?

Peripeteia comes from Greek peripéteia “sudden change.” Peripéteia has a literal sense of “falling around,” composed of the prefix peri– “about, around,” pet-, base of píptein “to fall,” and –eia, a noun-forming suffix. In his Poetics, Aristotle describes peripeteia as the turning point in the plot of a tragedy where the protagonist experiences a sudden, surprising, and often ironic reversal of fortune, such as when, in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Oedipus discovers—spoiler alert—he killed his father and married his mother. This critical moment of recognition or discovery had a name in ancient Greek tragedy, too: anagnorisis.

how is peripeteia used?

Mr. Weld’s political peripeteia—which, as a student of the classics, he would recognize as the point in a drama when a sudden reversal occurs—seems to have come during his second term as governor of Massachusetts.

Michael Cooper, "A Candidate's Sudden Turn From Prospect to Dropout," New York Times, June 7, 2006

Bendjelloul’s documentary is delicately balanced on an iceberg-sized peripeteia that is easily spoiled, so if you want to see this movie … read no further.

Sasha Frere-Jones, "Cold Facts," The New Yorker, August 3, 2012
Saturday, December 14, 2019


[ es-kyuh-luhnt ]


suitable for use as food; edible.

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What is the origin of esculent?

People of a certain age may remember the old TV commercial from around 1957 or 1958 for Nucoa oleomargarine, “The new ubiquitous comestible is Nucoa, over all,” written by the great Stan Freberg. Esculent is right up there with comestible in the obscure word category. Both words mean exactly the same thing, “edible, something edible,” and both words derive from the Latin verb esse “to eat,” from the Proto-Indo-European root ed– “to eat” (preliterary Latin edsi “to eat” becomes esse in Latin). A suffixed noun form of ed-, edeska, becomes Latin esca “food,” from which the adjective esculentus is derived. Comestible comes from Late Latin comestibilis “eatable, edible,” from the Latin compound verb comesse (also comedere) “to eat up, finish eating,” formed from the intensive prefix com– and the simple verb esse. Esculent entered English in the first half of the 17th century (comestible in the late 15th century).

how is esculent used?

We have a surplus of rice, tobacco, furs, peltry, potash, lamp oils, timber, which France wants; she has a surplus of wines, brandies, esculent oils, fruits, manufactures of all kinds, which we want.

Thomas Jefferson to Comte de Montmorin, July 23, 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11, 1955

Kala had moved slowly along an elephant track toward the east, and was busily engaged in turning over rotted limbs and logs in search of esculent bugs and fungi …

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, 1912
Friday, December 13, 2019


[ fes-tl ]


pertaining to or befitting a feast, festival, holiday, or gala occasion.

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What is the origin of festal?

The adjective festal comes via Old French festal, festel from the Latin neuter singular noun festum “holiday,” a noun use of the adjective festus “relating to or befitting a feast or holiday.” (The French and English suffix –al derives from Latin –ālis.) Festa, the plural of festum, becomes a singular feminine noun in Vulgar Latin and the Romance languages, yielding feste in Old French (fête in French), festa in Provençal, Catalan, Portuguese, and Italian, and fiesta in Spanish (Castilian). Festus forms the Latin adjective festīvus “festal, jovial, festive.” Festal entered English in the second half of the 15th century.

how is festal used?

In honour of this glad day, we shall drink the best wine and sup on the finest festal dishes.

Stephen R. Lawhead, The Bone House, 2011

Into this festal season of the year—as it already was, and continued to be during the greater part of two centuries—the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity …

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850

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