Word of the Day

Saturday, October 03, 2020

leitmotif

[ lahyt-moh-teef ]

noun

a unifying or dominant motif; a recurrent theme: A leitmotif in science fiction is the evolving relationship between humans and machines.

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What is the origin of leitmotif?

The English noun leitmotif, also spelled leitmotiv, “leading motive, guiding motive, a recurring theme associated with a particular person, place, or event,” comes from the German noun Leitmotif and is especially associated with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (the Ring Cycle), but the term antedates Wagner, and Wagner himself never used it. German Leitmotif is a compound of the verb leiten “to guide, lead” (cognate with the English verb lead) and the noun Motiv, a German borrowing from French motif. Leitmotif entered English in the second half of the 19th century.

how is leitmotif used?

Two weeks before Christmas, on one of those balmy, pale-gold afternoons that pass for winter in Northern California, a handful of Silicon Valley’s most prominent executives and financiers held a secret meeting whose leitmotif was that rarest of concepts in the world of business: guilt.

"Fear and Trembling in Silicon Valley," Wired, March 1, 2000

So the leitmotif of the inevitability of change and loss in the 10 items of grandfatherly wisdom I wanted to share with him is now something he is experiencing palpably.

Charles Johnson, "Charles Johnson on What We Learn From Impermanence," Vanity Fair, May 1, 2020

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Friday, October 02, 2020

élan

[ ey-lahn, ey-lan; French ey-lahn ]

noun

dash; impetuous ardor: to dance with great élan.

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What is the origin of élan?

The still unnaturalized French noun élan, “dash, impetuous ardor,” originally applied to a military charge or rush. Élan comes from Old and Middle French eslan “a rush,” from the verb eslancer “to throw or cast a lance or dart.” Eslancer in turn comes from the Latin preposition and prefix ex, ex- “out, out of, from” and the noun lancea “light spear for throwing,” possibly a Gaulish or Spanish loanword in Latin. Élan entered English in the second half of the 19th century.

how is élan used?

He then launched into the Gigue of Bach’s C-major Suite—robust, driving music that Ma brought off with his usual precision and élan.

Alex Ross, "Yo-Yo Ma's Days of Action," The New Yorker, December 10, 2008

With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Richard Rodriguez, "Final Edition," Harper's Magazine, November 2009

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Thursday, October 01, 2020

finagle

[ fi-ney-guhl ]

verb (used with object)

to get or achieve (something) by guile, trickery, or manipulation: to finagle an assignment to the Membership Committee.

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What is the origin of finagle?

Finagle (or fenagle), “to cheat or swindle a person,” is in origin an American slang word. Finagle is probably a variant of fainaigue, a British dialect term with two meanings: “to shirk work or responsibility” and “to renege at a card game,” that is, to play a card that is not of the suit led when one can follow suit” (this to a layman sounds an awful lot like cheating). A citation from 1839 from Herefordshire (a county in West England) reads, “If two men are heaving a heavy weight, and one of them pretends to be putting out his strength, though in reality leaving all the strain on the other, he is said to feneague [sic].” Fainaigue (feneague) and finagle (fenagle) have no agreed etymology. Finagle entered English in the mid-1920s.

how is finagle used?

Meng pleaded guilty last year to using his position in China to finagle more than $2 million in bribes between 2005 and 2017.

Colin Dwyer, "Former Interpol President Sentenced To Prison In China For Corruption," NPR, January 21, 2020

in order to provide its citizens tests for a pandemic disease, the wealthiest and most powerful nation had to desperately finagle the services of volunteer coders at Google.

, "I Don't Know Who Needs to Hear This, but Brands Can't Save You," New York Times, March 18, 2020

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