Word of the Day

Thursday, December 17, 2020

gravitas

[ grav-i-tahs, ‐tas ]

noun

seriousness or sobriety, as of conduct or speech.

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What is the origin of gravitas?

Gravitas comes straight from the Latin noun gravitās, which has many meanings: “seriousness of conduct, temperament, or speech; solemnity or majesty (of a speaker or writer); authority, influence or importance (of a person or institution).” (The inflectional stem of gravitās is gravitāt-, which by regular phonetic change becomes gravité in French and gravity in English.) Gravitas became necessary in English because during the first half of the 17th century, gravity acquired its physical meanings “force of attraction, heaviness, gravitation,” and a sentence like “The Prime Minister displayed an unusual lack of gravity” would be unintentionally humorous today. Gravitas entered English in the 1920s.

how is gravitas used?

Dad was gearing up to say something, a gradual process that involved shifting around in his chair, some throat-clearing, lifting his tea halfway to his mouth and putting it down again, so Paul and Grandma broke off their staring contest and waited for him to speak. Grief had lent him a certain gravitas.

Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel, 2020

… a growing number of independent research-oriented institutions like his own, Mr. Coogan said, have brought gravitas to a field that once seemed lighter than Spider-Man’s touch.

Michael Cieply, "Even at Comic-Con, You Can't Defy Gravitas," New York Times, July 13, 2012

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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

scintillating

[ sin-tl-ey-ting ]

adjective

witty; brilliantly clever.

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What is the origin of scintillating?

Scintillating “witty, brilliantly clever” ultimately derives from the Latin noun scintilla “glittering speck, spark.” Scintilla and its few derivatives refer generally only to physical phenomena; the only metaphorical sense that scintilla has is of eyes flashing in anger or passion, not the sense of sparkling or flashing wit. Scintilla comes from the Proto-Indo-European root skai– (and its variants) “to glow dully, reflect,” as in Greek skiā́ “shadow,” Gothic skeinan “to light, shine,” and Old English scīnan (English shine). Finally, Tocharian B skiyo “shadow, shade,” is exactly equivalent to Greek skiā́. Scintillating entered English in the second half of the 17th century in its literal sense; the sense “witty, clever” dates from the end of the 18th century.

how is scintillating used?

Across the crowded living room, where all the clever, scintillating talk and noise of a cocktail party seem nervous and inane, a boy and a girl suddenly see each other.

Thomas Williams, The Hair of Harold Roux, 1974

What had once seemed perhaps a bit flat next to the scintillating wit and effervescent sparkle of our mother came to seem the most valuable quality in the world one person could give another, infinite patience and attention ….

Corby Kummer, "About My Father," The Atlantic, December 17, 2009

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

plotz

[ plots ]

verb (used without object)

to collapse or faint, as from surprise, excitement, or exhaustion.

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What is the origin of plotz?

Plotz “to collapse or faint, as from surprise, excitement, or exhaustion,” is one of those Yiddish words that make you smile just from its sound. Many Americans learned plotz in the early 1950s from Mad magazine (originally a comic book). Plotz is an American slang term that comes from Yiddish platsn “to crack, split, burst,” from Middle High German platzen “to burst.” Plotz entered English about 1920.

how is plotz used?

Simmel was worried about street lamps, murals, the occasional honk of a horn. Had he lived to see a smartphone, or modern Tokyo, he would have plotzed.

Andrew Marantz, "Can Smart Wood Help You Log Off?" The New Yorker, October 7, 2019

Make an effort to include your parents in this milestone, let them decide whether to take part somehow, and if they decline, then invite your mother-in-law to take a bigger role. If/when your mom plotzes … you can simply and kindly remind your mother that she was invited to take part and chose not to.

Carolyn Hax, "Q. Uninterested parents vs. engaged in-laws," Washington Post, April 29, 2016

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Monday, December 14, 2020

paraselene

[ par-uh-si-lee-nee ]

noun

Meteorology.

a bright moonlike spot on a lunar halo; a mock moon.

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What is the origin of paraselene?

Paraselene “a bright moonlike spot on a lunar halo; a mock moon, a moon dog,” is a compound noun formed from the Greek preposition and prefix pará, para– “alongside, contrary to” and the noun selḗnē “moon, the moon.” Selḗnē is the Attic Greek form (when people say they are studying classical Greek, they mean the Greek of Attica, whose chief city was Athens); other dialects have selā́nā (Doric Greek and most other dialects); as usual, Aeolic Greek goes its own way with selánnā (Aeolic is the dialect of the lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus). All the Greek forms derive from an unrecorded selasnā, a derivative of the neuter noun sélas “light, glow, beam.” Sixty percent of Greek words have no clear etymology; selḗnē, selā́nā, selánnā is among them. Paraselene entered English in the mid-17th century.

how is paraselene used?

In this image, the first quarter moon is flanked on both sides of a halo by “mock moons,” also known as paraselenae or “moondogs.” The apparitions are formed when moonlight is refracted through thin, plate-shaped ice crystals in cirrus clouds.

Nina Sen, "Dazzling 'Moondogs' Shine Over Alaska's Call of the Wild (Photo)," Space.com, April 1, 2013

The darkest part of the winter is from the middle of December to the middle of January, when the aurora transforms the sky into a vault of fire, and paraselene appear, surrounding the moon with blazing cresses, circles, and mock-moons, scarcely surpassed by the wonderful deceptions of the solar rays.

"Arctic and Antarctic Oceans," Scientific American, March 20, 1869

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Sunday, December 13, 2020

misbegotten

[ mis-bi-got-n ]

adjective

badly conceived, made, or carried out.

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What is the origin of misbegotten?

Misbegotten “badly conceived, made, or carried out,” is hard to figure out from its component parts. Misbegotten is made up of the prefix mis– “wrongly, incorrectly,” from the Germanic prefix missa– “astray, wrong” (from the same root as the verb miss “to fail to hit or strike”), as in Gothic missadeths “transgression, offense,” which occurs in Old English as misdǽd and in English as misdeed. Begotten is the past participle of beget, which comes from the Old English verb begietan “to get, acquire,” which since the second half of the 14th century has meant “to generate offspring; produce as an effect.” Beget is a compound of the prefix be-, a Germanic prefix originally meaning “about, around, on all sides,” with many other meanings, but here having a figurative sense (as also with befall, begin, behave). The verb get is from Old Norse geta “to get, be able to, beget, engender.” Misbegotten entered English in the first half of the 16th century in the sense “illegitimate child.”

how is misbegotten used?

It is long past time to end U.S. support for this misbegotten and unwinnable war.

Editorial Board, "End U.S. support for this misbegotten and unwinnable war," Washington Post, August 18, 2018

Does our respect for companion creatures herald a new way of relating to non-humans, rejecting centuries of misbegotten thinking about animals as unfeeling biological machines?

Brandon Keim, "Dogs and Cats Are Blurring the Lines Between Pets and People," Wired, April 8, 2014

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Saturday, December 12, 2020

lyceum

[ lahy-see-uhm ]

noun

an institution for popular education providing discussions, lectures, concerts, etc.

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What is the origin of lyceum?

The English noun lyceum comes from Latin Lycīum, Lycēum, from Greek Lýkeion, the name of a gymnasium in southeast Athens with a neighboring sanctuary of Apóllōn Lýkios / Lýkeios. The area was one of the places where Socrates used to ask his good-humored but troublesome questions, and where Aristotle used to lecture. The sanctuary also gave its name to Aristotle’s school, the Lýkeion. It is unclear what exactly lýkeios means: It may mean “belonging to a wolf” (lýkos) because of the Athenian military and athletic cult of Apóllōn Lýkios “Wolf-Apollo.” Lýkeios is also an epithet of Apollo meaning “Lycian (Apollo),” i.e., Apollo was born in Lycia (his mother Leto was Lycian). Finally, because of Apollo’s association with the sun, lýkeios may be from the same root as Greek lýchnos “lantern, lamp” and Latin lux (stem luc-) “light.” Modern authorities consider the connection with Lycia and Leto to be the most probable one. Lyceum entered English in the second half of the 16th century.

how is lyceum used?

At a lyceum, not long since, I felt that the lecturer had chosen a theme too foreign to himself, and so failed to interest me as much as he might have done.

Henry David Thoreau, "Life Without Principle," The Atlantic, October 1863

On the lyceum circuit, they travelled from town to town, an adult-education campaign offering lectures on everything from physical exercise to the moral crisis of slavery.

Evan Osnos, "Bringing Our Politics Back from the Brink," The New Yorker, November 9, 2020

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Friday, December 11, 2020

avuncular

[ uh-vuhng-kyuh-ler ]

adjective

acting like an uncle, as in being kind, patient, generous, etc., especially to younger people.

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What is the origin of avuncular?

Avuncular typically means “acting in a kindly, benevolent manner towards one’s nieces and nephews.” Avuncular comes from the Latin noun avunculus “mother’s brother, uncle,” a derivative of the noun avus “grandfather, forefather, ancestor.” (English uncle comes via Old French and Anglo-French oncle, uncle from avunculus.) Latin avus comes from Proto-Indo-European awos “grandfather, maternal grandfather.” Awo– is also the source for Armenian hav “grandfather,” Old Irish áue, Middle Irish ó(a), úa, both meaning “grandson, descendant,” and the source of O’ in Gaelic surnames, such as O’Connor “descendant of Connor.” Variants of the stem appear in Lithuanian avýnas “maternal uncle,” Old Prussian awis, and Old Church Slavonic ujĭ, both meaning “uncle.” The Latin term for father’s brother, paternal uncle is patruus (a derivative of patr– father), for maternal aunt matertera (a derivative of mātr-), and for paternal aunt amita. Latin is interesting to anthropologists because of its unusually full and exact kinship terms, every possible kinship relation having its own term and not a descriptive compound noun, for example, “father’s brother, mother’s mother, sister’s son.” (The Latin system of kinship terms is an excellent example of the so-called Sudanese pattern.) Indeed, anthropologists use Latin kinship terms as the basis of a general terminology for cross-cultural use. Avuncular entered English in the first half of the 19th century.

how is avuncular used?

Immersed in bubbles, fully suited, he [Stephen Colbert] provided his signature mix of acid critique and avuncular reassurance.

Doreen St. Félix, "What We're Watching Under Quarantine," The New Yorker, March 23, 2020

He also, later on, has a consoling, avuncular chat with his frightened boy-self.

James Parker, "The New David Copperfield Movie Might Be Better Than the Book," The Atlantic, September 2020

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