Word of the Day

Monday, November 02, 2020

leviathan

[ li-vahy-uh-thuhn ]

noun

anything of immense size and power.

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What is the origin of leviathan?

“Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?” asks God of Job (Job 41). Leviathan first appears in Middle English in John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (ca. 1382). Leviathan comes from the Vulgate (the Latin version of the Bible, prepared by Saint Jerome at the end of the 4th century a.d.), from Hebrew liwyāthān, a kind of serpent or sea serpent or dragon of enormous size, possibly derived from the Semitic root lwy “to twist, encircle” (its etymology is uncertain). The most famous application of Leviathan is Thomas Hobbes’ book on politics, Leviathan (1651): Hobbes applied Leviathan to the state, omnipotent, totalitarian, and characterized by vast coercive machinery.

how is leviathan used?

It’s ironic that Microsoft has come to be viewed as an underdog rather than a leviathan. But recent opinion suggests that that is the case …

Benjamin Carlson, "Is Microsoft Winning the Long War with Apple for Techie Hearts?," The Atlantic, September 23, 2009

While much of North America has been sweltering through a summer of record heat, a group of Canadian scientists have been rafting across the Arctic Ocean on a leviathan of floating ice.

John F. Burns, "On an Island of Ice, in an Arctic Odyssey," New York Times, August 21, 1988

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Sunday, November 01, 2020

agonist

[ ag-uh-nist ]

noun

a person who is torn by inner conflict.

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What is the origin of agonist?

The English noun agonist comes from the rare Late Latin noun agōnista, “an athlete or combatant for a prize in the games,” a word used once by St. Augustine in a sermon. Latin agōnista betrays its Greek origin with its –ista agent suffix (borrowed from Greek -istḗs). In Greek, agōnistḗs means “a combatant, contestant (in athletic games), a champion, a pleader or public speaker,” which covers a lot of territory when you consider the roles that competitive athletic games and public speaking (including criminal and civil trials) occupied in ancient Greek life. Agōnistḗs is a derivative of the noun agōnía, one of whose many meanings is “mental or spiritual anguish, agony,” which influenced one of the English meanings of agonist but doesn’t occur in Greek agōnistḗs. Agonist entered English in the first half of the 17th century.

how is agonist used?

There was a fissure in him from the start; the dream and the business did not march together; his will was not always the servant of his intelligence; he was an agonist, a self- tormentor, who ran to meet suffering halfway.

John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door, 1940

He was an agonist. He would argue one way; he would argue another; he just didn’t want to see bigotry thrive or watch a man die.

Jill Lepore, "Objection," The New Yorker, May 16, 2011

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Saturday, October 31, 2020

eldritch

[ el-drich ]

adjective

eerie; weird; spooky.

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What is the origin of eldritch?

If the word is weird, eerie, and uncanny, it’s likely to be Scots, and eldritch is all of them. Most etymologists see a connection between eldritch and elf, as the early spelling variant elphrish suggests. The second syllable is likely to be Middle English riche “kingdom, realm” (from Old English rīce); the d is an excrescent or intrusive consonant between the l and the r, like chimbley for chimney in Oliver Twist: “they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley.” This “Elf Kingdom” used to be exclusively Scots; the first “non-Scots” author to use the word was Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Scarlet Letter (1850). Eldritch entered English in the early 16th century.

how is eldritch used?

In this anthology podcast, the mountains of central Appalachia are haunted by the sort of sanity-draining eldritch monsters found in a Stephen King novel, or in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.”

Phoebe Lett, "4 Podcasts That Go Bump in the Night," The New York Times, October 10, 2020

Despite the eldritch horrors of Toni’s princess cake, her competitors’ renditions were, somehow, even more atrocious.

Helen Rosner, "The Joys of Netflix's "Nailed It!," the Baking Competition That Celebrates Kitchen Disaster," The New Yorker, June 1, 2018

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Friday, October 30, 2020

gloaming

[ gloh-ming ]

noun

twilight; dusk.

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What is the origin of gloaming?

Gloaming, “twilight, dusk,” ultimately comes from Old English glōmung, which occurs once as a translation of Latin crepusculum “dusk, twilight.” Glōmung is a derivative of glōm “twilight, darkness,” from the same root as the verb glōwan “to glow like a coal or fire” (gloaming being the glow of sunrise or sunset). It is tempting to include gloom and its variant glum in this group, but the philological evidence is against it. Gloaming entered English before 1000.

how is gloaming used?

During the workweek, when we are earning the money to pay for all those expensive gardening implements, it’s not possible to do much outside until dusk. Then, with the fireflies, we emerge into the gloaming armed with an arsenal of rakes, pitchforks and spades, like some medieval rabble on its way to battle.

Nancy deWolf Smith, "A Garden of Curses," Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2000

Fortunately, at certain times and places Mercury is more removed from this all-obliterating influence than he is at others, and at such times he may be very distinctly seen, shortly after sunset, twinkling through the gloaming in the west.

Percival Lowell, "Mercury in the Light of Recent Discoveries," The Atlantic, April 1897

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Thursday, October 29, 2020

extramundane

[ ek-struh-muhn-deyn, -muhn-deyn ]

adjective

beyond our world or the material universe.

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What is the origin of extramundane?

Extramundane, “beyond the physical universe,” comes from Late Latin extrāmundānus “beyond, outside the world,” a compound of the preposition and combining form extra, extra– “outside, beyond” and the adjective mundānus “pertaining to the world, the physical universe” and also “inhabiting the world, cosmopolite,” a step beyond urbane, so to speak, and also quite different from the current sense of mundane: “common, ordinary.” Cicero even has Socrates claiming cīvitātemmundānum “world citizenship.” Mundānus is a derivative of the noun mundus “the heavens, sky, firmament; the universe; the earth, the world, our world,” a loan translation of Greek kósmos. Extramundane entered English in the second half of the 17th century.

how is extramundane used?

One of the subordinate bodies or bureaus or the British Astronomical Association, a company of learned and industrious men who find more pleasure and profit in the investigation of extramundane affairs than in the study of politics or art or other trivial earthly things, is devoted exclusively to the observation of Mars.

"Mars and Saturn," New York Times, January 23, 1916

I know that there are extramundane occurrences, and I’ve had my share of experiences that can only be explained as ‘supernatural,’ but they have always been the exception.

Brian Lumley, The Burrowers Beneath, 1974

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

prescient

[ presh-uhnt, ‐ee-uhnt pree-shuhnt, ‐shee-uhnt ]

adjective

having knowledge of things or events before they exist or happen; having foresight.

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What is the origin of prescient?

Prescient comes from Old French from Late Latin praescient-, the present participle stem of the verb praescīre, “to know beforehand, know in advance.” The verb is used mostly by the Latin church fathers (Tertullian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine) to refer to God’s foreknowledge. Praescīre is a derivative of Latin praesciscere, “to get to know beforehand,” a relatively rare compound verb made up of the inceptive verb sciscere “to get to know” (an inceptive verb is one that shows the beginning of an action), formed from the simple verb scīre “to know” and the inceptive infix –sc-; prae– is the Latin preposition and prefix prae, prae– “in front, ahead, before.” Prescient entered English at the end of the 16th century.

how is prescient used?

He was known to have had prescient visions that were accurate, penetrating, and defied four-dimensional explanation.

Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965

Seen now, “The Social Network,” about the founding of Facebook and the lawsuits that followed, feels grimly prescient and perhaps representative of how the past few years since the movie premiered—and the past few months of the pandemic—have changed our relationship to social media and each other.

Maya Phillips, "'The Social Network' 10 Years Later: A Grim Online Life Foretold," New York Times, October 5, 2020

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

mal du pays

[ mal dy pey-ee ]

noun

French.

homesickness.

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What is the origin of mal du pays?

Mal du pays is French for “homesickness,” formed from the noun mal, “evil, hurt, harm,” from the Latin adjective and noun malus “bad, wicked,” and pays, “country, land, region.” Pays comes from Vulgar Latin pāgēnsis, pāgēsis, “inhabitant of a region,” equivalent to Latin pāgānus, which has two meanings: “pertaining to a pāgus” (“rural community”), and “civilian, civil, citizen,” a military usage, but used by reputable authors (Tacitus, Suetonius). Roman military slang influenced Latin Christianity: Tabernāculum meant “pup tent, shelter half” (English tabernacle, for both Jewish and Christian usage); sacrāmentum, “the oath of loyalty that a soldier swore annually to his commanding general” (English sacrament), and pāgānus “civilian,” meant “non-Christian, non-Jewish,” English pagan. Mal du pays entered English in the second half of the 18th century.

how is mal du pays used?

It is the most gentle, depressed-looking creature I ever saw; it seems to have the mal du pays ….

Maria Edgeworth, "Maria Edgeworth to Ludy Edgeworth, January 12, 1822," in A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, Vol. 2, 1867

For all of its aural joy and ebullience, though, one can still hear Mr. Nabay’s mal du pays.

Andy Beta, "Sounds Converge From All Corners," Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2012

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