Word of the Day

Saturday, December 21, 2019

halcyon

[ hal-see-uhn ]

adjective

calm; peaceful; tranquil: halcyon weather.

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What is the origin of halcyon?

The English adjective halcyon “calm; peaceful; tranquil” is rooted in ancient Greek—and classical mythology. Halcyon ultimately derives via Latin alcyōn from Greek alkyṓn “kingfisher.” In ancient myths, the halcyon named a bird, usually identified with the kingfisher, that was said to breed around the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and was believed to have the power to charm the winds and waves into calmness. Halcyon frequently occurs in the expression halcyon days, a period of calm weather in the winter, historically a stretch of fourteen days around the winter solstice connected with (the myth of) breeding kingfishers. Halcyon days evolved to mean, more broadly, “a time of peace and prosperity,” and the adjective halcyon evolved to mean, variously, “calm; rich; carefree.” Halcyon is recorded in English by the late 1300s.

how is halcyon used?

… the sun high and bright, the sky a preternatural robin’s-egg blue. The kind of halcyon day reserved for picture postcards.

Carmen K. Sisson, "After the tornadoes: Rebuilding a campus, piece by piece," Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2008

This halcyon weather continued until the day a black storm arose.

Richard O'Mara, "The Sea," The Sewanee Review, Fall 2013
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Friday, December 20, 2019

effervescent

[ ef-er-ves-uhnt ]

adjective

vivacious; merry; lively; sparkling.

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What is the origin of effervescent?

Effervescent is a buoyant adjective meaning “vivacious; merry; lively; sparkling,” as in “The choir delivered an effervescent performance of favorite Christmas carols.” Effervescent derives from Latin effervēscere “to boil (over); burst forth; seethe; rage.” Effervēscere is composed of ef-, a variant of the prefix ex– “out of,” and fervēscere “to start boiling,” from fervēre “to be hot,” ultimate source of English fervent “enthusiastic, ardent.” True to its Latin root, fervent originally meant “hot, glowing” in English, just as effervescent first meant “giving off bubbles of gas” before evolving to its variously “bubbly” metaphorical senses. Effervescent entered English in the late 1600s.

how is effervescent used?

Yet his spirits are so effervescent that, with only a candle for fuel and only raw turnips for supper, he is able to lose himself in illusions of grandeur.

Walter Fuller Taylor, The Story of American Letters, 1956

The book combines effervescent comedy and stinging critique, but its most arresting quality is the lively humanity of its characters.

"Briefly Noted: The Sellout," The New Yorker, April 13, 2015
Thursday, December 19, 2019

flâneur

[ flah-nœr ]

noun

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
Wednesday, December 18, 2019

deipnosophist

[ dahyp-nos-uh-fist ]

noun

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

tintinnabulation

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

noun

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

welter

[ wel-ter ]

noun

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

peripeteia

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

noun

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

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