Word of the Day

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

irenic

[ ahy-ren-ik, ahy-ree-nik ]

adjective

tending to promote peace or reconciliation; peaceful or conciliatory.

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What is the origin of irenic?

Irenic “peaceful, conciliatory” comes straight from Greek eirēnikós “belonging to peace,” a derivative of the noun eirḗnē. Eirḗnē was also the name of the Greek goddess of Peace, the name of an 8th-century Byzantine empress, and the name of several Christian saints, whence the English female name Irene. The bewildering number of dialect forms (irā́nā, irḗnā, ireinā, etc.) point to a non-Greek origin. Irenic entered English in the second half of the 19th century.

how is irenic used?

When casual readers of poetry think about Heaney, his Irishness, his charisma, his connection to thousands of years of poetic tradition …, and his irenic political attitudes first come to mind.

Stephanie Burt, "How Seamus Heaney Became a Poet of Happiness," The New Yorker, October 3, 2019

After a presidential election that deserves the word it was given in headlines—historic—welcome to the newly irenic but still newsworthy period in American politics that goes by the ancient Latin name of interregnum, “between reigns.”

William Safire, "Interregnum," New York Times, November 14, 2008

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Monday, November 16, 2020

zeitgeber

[ tsahyt-gey-ber ]

noun

an environmental cue, as the length of daylight or the degree of temperature, that helps to regulate the cycles of an organism's biological clock.

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What is the origin of zeitgeber?

Zeitgeber “an environmental cue, such as the length of daylight, that helps regulate the biological clock of an organism,” comes from German Zeitgeber, literally “time giver,” a compound of Zeit “time” (cognate with English tide) and Geber, an agent noun from the verb geben “to give” (cognate with English give). The German term is formed on the analogy of Taktgeber “electronic synchronization device, timer, metronome.” Takt and Zeit are near synonyms except that Takt is more narrowly applied to music and rhythm. Zeitgeber entered English in the late 1950s.

how is zeitgeber used?

Natural light is the best-known, though not the only, zeitgeber that syncs human sleep patterns up with the Earth’s 24-hour day. 

Julie Beck, "The Caves of Forgotten Time," The Atlantic, November 9, 2015

Night-shift workers also struggle, he says, because they don’t get the environmental and social cues that help adjust the circadian clock. The most important of these cues, called zeitgebers (German for ”time givers”) is sunlight.

Tara Parker-Pope, "Before Sunrise," New York Times, November 20, 2011 

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Sunday, November 15, 2020

friable

[ frahy-uh-buhl ]

adjective

easily crumbled or reduced to powder; crumbly.

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What is the origin of friable?

The English adjective friable comes from Middle French friable from Latin friābilis “easily crumbled, crumbly,” a derivative of the verb friāre “to break into small pieces, crumble.” Friāre is akin to the verb fricāre “to rub, chafe” (source of English friction) and the adjective frīvolus “worthless, trashy” (English frivolous). In the Olden Days, when studying Latin in high school was routine, some clever wag would reinvent for the millionth time the saying Sīc friat crustulum “Thus crumbles the cookie.” Friable entered English in the second half of the 16th century.

how is friable used?

In some places, the limestone was so friable that, if you brushed a finger against it, it ran like sand through an hourglass.

Lauren Collins, "On the Roof of Notre-Dame, Before It Burned," The New Yorker, April 15, 2019

In autumn, the days are pleasant, the soil friable, and there is a good choice of desired rose varieties.

Cynthia Westcott, "Tis Possible to Plant Roses This Fall," New York Times, September 13, 1970

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

triclinium

[ trahy-klin-ee-uhm ]

noun

Roman History.

a dining room, especially one containing a couch extending along three sides of a table, for reclining on at meals.

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What is the origin of triclinium?

The uncommon noun triclinium comes from Latin trīclīnium, straight from Greek triklī́nion “dining room.” A triklī́nion was more precisely an arrangement of three chaise longues in the shape of a capital Greek pi (Π) on three sides of a central table for dining (the fourth side was left open for servants or busboys). Triklī́nion is a compound made up of the Greek (and Latin) combining form tri– “three,” as in triangle (a “three-cornered” geometric figure), triathlete, and tripod (literally “three-footed”). Klī́nion is a derivative of klī́nē “couch, bed, sickbed,” source of English clinic and clinical. Lying on couches while dining was introduced into Greece in the early seventh century b.c. from Asia Minor (now western Turkey). The Romans adopted the Greek custom via the Etruscans, and the Etruscans (and Romans) scandalized the Greeks by allowing citizen women (such as wives), to participate in banquets. Triclinium entered English in the first half of the 17th century.

how is triclinium used?

Ancient Romans could recline on the triclinium’s long benches, discussing music, literature and other refined topics, while contemplating a vista of ecstatic abandon.

Karen Rosenberg, "Pompeii Style, B.C.E. (Before Catastrophic Eruption)," New York Times, October 23, 2008

The most elegant type of Hellenistic derivation has a curving headrest or fulcrum at one end; but a true triclinium evidently required a matching set of three fitted together …

Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet, 2003

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Friday, November 13, 2020

volte-face

[ volt-fahs, vohlt-; French vawltuh-fas ]

noun

a turnabout, especially a reversal of opinion or policy.

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What is the origin of volte-face?

Volte-face “a turnabout, reversal of opinion or policy, an about-face,” comes via French volte-face from Italian volta-faccia (also voltafaccia), a compound of volta, the imperative singular of the verb voltare “to turn” and the noun faccia “face.” Voltare comes from an unrecorded Vulgar Latin volvitāre, equivalent to Latin volvere “to turn, roll.” Faccia (and face) likewise come from the Vulgar Latin noun facia, from Latin faciēs “outward appearance, looks, face.” Volte-face entered English in the first half of the 19th century.

how is volte-face used?

Grubman had shocked the rest of Wall Street by upgrading A.T. & T., a company he had criticized for years, from neutral to buy. He tried to justify his volte-face by saying that the phone giant’s purchase of a big cable company, Telecommunications Inc., had transformed its prospects, but this explanation was greeted with skepticism.

John Cassidy, "The Investigation," The New Yorker, March 31, 2003

In the manner of the high school teacher he once was, Riordan begins with faint praise (“there are things I like about this adaptation”) before an abrupt volte face. “Having said that, here’s the bad news: The script as a whole is terrible,” he wrote, in a letter so beloved by his fans that it’s even been given dramatic readings.

Allison Flood, "Rick Riordan: 'I feel very protective of my fans. I am aware of my responsibility to make them feel safe,'" Guardian, October 26, 2020

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

modicum

[ mod-i-kuhm, moh-di- ]

noun

a moderate or small amount.

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What is the origin of modicum?

Modicum in Latin means “a small, modest amount,” specifically of money, if we may be so crass. Modicum is a noun use of the neuter singular of the adjective modicus “(used for) measuring, moderate, restrained, slight,” a derivative of the noun modus “measured amount or quantity, limit, measure, time, melody.” Modus is a derivative of the verb meditārī “to think about, ponder, meditate,” from the Proto-Indo-European root med-, mēd-, mod-, mōd– “to measure, take proper measures, judge, cure.” Further Latin derivatives from this set of roots include medērī “to heal, cure,” medicus “physician,” medicīna “the art of medicine, the practice of medicine, the administration of medicines,” remediāre “to treat (successfully), cure,” and its derivative noun remediātiō (stem remediātiōn-), source of English remediate and remediation. The variant mod– also yields Latin modestus “restrained, temperate,” and its opposite immodestus “unrestrained, licentious,” English modest and immodest. Modicum entered English in the second half of the 14th century.

how is modicum used?

But by relieving himself of his secret he discovers at least a modicum of peace.

Paul Morton, "The March of Progress Is Never Neat: Merle Miller's On Being Different," The Millions, November 15, 2012

Anxiety and depression naturally arise when we perceive we have no power over a situation. Doing something, such as documenting seasonal changes, is a way to restore a modicum of control and a sense of well-being.

Theresa Crimmins, "To Ease Climate Anxiety, Reconnect with the Rhythms of the Seasons," Scientific American, January 5, 2020

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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

fidelity

[ fi-del-i-tee, fahy- ]

noun

loyalty.

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What is the origin of fidelity?

Fidelity “loyalty, faithfulness” comes via Middle English and Old French from the Latin noun fidēlitās (inflectional stem fidēlitāt-), a derivative of the adjective fidēlis (familiar to Americans from the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis “Always Faithful”). Fidēlis is a derivative of the noun fidēs “trust, assurance, guarantee.” The Latin forms come from the Proto-Indo-European root bheidh-, bhoidh-, bhidh– “to trust.” The variant bheidh– is the source of Latin fīdus “faithful, loyal,” fīdere “to trust, have confidence in,” Greek peísesthai “to trust, rely on, obey, be persuaded,” and Greek Peithṓ “(the goddess of) persuasion.” Bhoidh– is the source of Latin foedus “formal agreement, league, treaty” (source of English federal, federate, and confederate); the variant bhidh– forms Latin fidēs and Greek pístis “faith, trust, authentication,” and pistós “faithful, reliable, credible.” The English noun faith comes from Middle English feith, faith, from Old French feid, feit, fei, from Latin fidem, the accusative singular of fidēs. (The English pronunciation of faith is all but identical to that implied by the Old French forms, quite different from the modern French pronunciation.) Fidelity entered English in the early 16th century.

how is fidelity used?

Through it all he’s shown a deep and abiding fidelity to one of our cherished ideals as a people and that is equal justice under the law.

Barack Obama, "Remarks on the Resignation of Eric H. Holder, Jr., as Attorney General," speech, Washington D.C., September 25, 2014, The American Presidency Project.

The chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force issued similar messages, reinforcing their fidelity to the Constitution and pledging to battle racism in their ranks.

Doyle McManus, "Trump finds an unexpected center of resistance: the Pentagon," Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2020

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