Word of the Day

Word of the day

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

manticore

[ man-ti-kawr, -kohr ]

noun

a legendary monster with a man's head, horns, a lion's body, and the tail of a dragon or, sometimes, a scorpion.

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What is the origin of manticore?

While the legends involving manticores were likely tall tales about lions and tigers and similar beasts, manticore is not a compound of English man and tiger, which is a common misconception. Instead, manticore “a legendary monster with a man’s head, a lion’s body, and the tail of a dragon or scorpion” derives via Middle English from Latin mantichōrās, which was a either a variant or a misreading of Ancient Greek martichṓras. This word, in turn, was borrowed from the Old Persian element martiya- “man” and an additional Iranian source akin to Modern Persian -khōr “eat, devour.” The martiya- element descends from a Proto-Indo-European root, mer- “to harm, die”—compare immortal (via Latin) and ambrosia (via Ancient Greek), both literally meaning “not of death”—while the -khōr element is cognate to English swallow and swill. Manticore was first recorded in English in the early 1300s.

how is manticore used?

According to 5th Century Greek physician and historian Ctesias, the Mantichora (or manticore) was an Indian creature with the strength and body of a lion and the face and ears of a man. It also had three rows of terrible, terrible teeth. Blood-red in colour and as swift as a stag, its densely quilled tail resembled a scorpion’s, right down to its poisoned tips.

Becky Crew, “Curious (and Terrifying) Creatures in Zoology, Plus One Obscure Christmas Gift Idea,” Scientific American, December 20, 2013
[B]estiaries featured incredibly vivid, lively illustrations that spelled out the behaviors of the various creatures .… Such symbolism was so important in the Middle Ages, according to [T. H.] White, “that it did not matter whether certain animals existed”—the part man, part lion, part scorpion with probably some identity issues known as the manticore, for instance—but “what did matter was what they meant.” It was an era of intense faith that a higher power had created every creature with a meaning to be decoded by man.

Matt Simon, “Fantastically Wrong: Unicorns Dig Virgin Women, and Other Lessons From Medieval Bestiaries,” Wired, November 19, 2014

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Word of the day

Monday, October 18, 2021

mojo

[ moh-joh ]

noun

exceptional ability, good luck, success.

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What is the origin of mojo?

Mojo “exceptional ability, good luck, success” in its earliest sense denoted an object that was believed to carry a magic spell. From there, the word expanded to indicate magic itself and personal use of magic, and mojo’s popular use today in reference to seemingly magical influence or ability is informal. Mojo is of uncertain origin but is most likely related to the word moco “witchcraft, magic” in Gullah, a creole language spoken by an African-American population located along the southern Atlantic coast. Though Gullah is based on English, it incorporates ample vocabulary from the Niger–Congo language subfamily, which is spread across much of sub-Saharan Africa and includes languages such as Fulani, Mende, Yoruba, Swahili, and Zulu. Gullah moco may have its origin in one of these languages, as the Fulani word for “medicine man” is moco’o. Mojo was first recorded in the late 1920s.

how is mojo used?

Here’s a confession: For the last week or so I’ve felt a little drained. Low energy, low motivation, a sense that something is a little off. It’s nothing serious, but one of those passing phases we’re all familiar with when things feel overwhelming. As an old editor of mine used to put it: My mojo is a little off.

Tim Herrera, “Feeling Burned Out? Here Are 3 Things That Can Help,” New York Times, May 6, 2018

Powers, here, Austin Powers. You know, Powers by name, Powers by reputation. Crikey, it’s been a long time. Finally somebody besides Dr. Evil’s invented a time machine to take us back to the 60’s. Back to the old U.K.—my time! Back to London at its swingingest, most smashing, most shagadelic, when I made my bones! When England—not America—had the mojo, when every man wanted to be me, and every dolly bird wanted to be with me!

Michiko Kakutani, "Books of the Times; Hipoisie and Chic-oisie And London Had the Mojo," New York Times, July 23, 2002

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Word of the day

Sunday, October 17, 2021

colubrine

[ kol-uh-brahyn, -brin, -yuh- ]

adjective

of or resembling a snake; snakelike.

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What is the origin of colubrine?

Colubrine “of or resembling a snake” derives from the Latin adjective colubrīnus, of the same meaning, from coluber “snake.” Despite the similar spelling, coluber is not the source of coil, the circular gathering movement that typifies snakes; coil derives instead from the Latin verb colligere “to gather together,” and coil’s resemblance to colubrine is a happy coincidence. Much as English has multiple names for wolverines, as we learned in yesterday’s Word of the Day podcast about quickhatch, the Romans had several words for snakes. In addition to coluber, two other Latin terms meaning “snake” that have descendants in English were dracō and serpēns, which you may also recognize as constellations. From dracō, originally a borrowing from Ancient Greek, we have dragon as well as draconian and the name of an antagonist in the Harry Potter book series. From serpēns, literally meaning “crawling,” English has serpent and serpentine. Colubrine was first recorded in English in the 1520s.

how is colubrine used?

On that lonely island in Aasha’s picture Chellam wanders … Inside her head a dozen snakes lie coiled around one another in a heavy mass. Inside her belly stands a tiny matchstick figure, a smaller version of herself … This matchstick representation of Chellam is accurate in at least one respect: there is indeed a terrible colubrine knot of bad memories and black questions inside Chellam’s head that will die with her, unhatched.

Preeta Samarasan, Evening Is the Whole Day, 2008

Moore uses quotations most often to describe the male figure, and in reshaping the words of male writers, she undercuts both his character and language …. The snippet of [Philip] Littell’s words in the poem is “something feline, / something colubrine.” In different ways, the two adjectives reflect a certain denigration of male power. A description of a male figure as colubrine has phallic overtones, but also the negative connotations of a snake; feline is typically used in reference to a female…

Elisabeth W. Joyce, "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique," Mosaic, Vol. 26, Fall 1993

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