Word of the Day

Thursday, June 25, 2020

mondegreen

[ mon-di-green ]

noun

a word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of another word or phrase, especially in a song or poem.

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What is the origin of mondegreen?

The trouble with mondegreens is that they are usually so hysterically funny that you cannot stop citing examples of them instead of describing their “taxonomy” and history. Mondegreen was coined by the U.S. writer and humorist Sylvia Wright (1917-81), who wrote in an article in Harper’s Magazine: “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen,’” the last line being a child’s mishearing and consequent misunderstanding of “laid him on the green.” Ms. Wright persisted in her idiosyncratic version because the real words were less romantic than her own (mis)interpretation in which she always imagined the Bonnie Earl o’ Moray dying beside his faithful lover Lady Mondegreen.

how is mondegreen used?

We’ve been misunderstanding song lyrics for decades, Elton John’s “hold me closer, Tony Danza”—er, “tiny dancer”—­included. These funky musical mishearings even have their own name: mondegreens.

Sara Kiley Watson, "This is why you mishear popular song lyrics," Popular Science, January 23, 2020

We still have mondegreen moments. Even though I know Creedence Clearwater Revival is singing, “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” lately it sounds suspiciously like “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

Liane Kupferberg Carter, "We've celebrated our 35th anniversary with an usual gift: His-and-hers hearing aids," Washington Post, December 18, 2016

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

withershins

[ with-er-shinz ]

adverb

Chiefly Scot.

in a direction contrary to the natural one, especially contrary to the apparent course of the sun or counterclockwise: considered as unlucky or causing disaster.

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What is the origin of withershins?

All you have to remember is that withershins (or widdershins) is the exact opposite of deasil, and you’ll get back home all safe and sound. Withershins is an adverb meaning “going contrary to the natural direction, contrary to the course of the sun, counterclockwise (and therefore unlucky).” Deasil, from Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic deiseal “to the right, clockwise, following the sun,” is restricted to Scots. Withershins comes from Middle Low German weddersins, weddersinnes “against the way, in the opposite direction,” formed from wider “back, again” (cognate with the prefix with– in withstand) and sinnes, the genitive case (used as an adverb) of sin “way, course, direction.” Withershins entered English in the first half of the 16th century.

how is withershins used?

The fishermen, when about to proceed to the fishing, think they would have bad luck, if they were to row the boat “withershins” about.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. XV, 1845

Abel had walked slowly around the outside of the building, first clockwise and then withershins, but there was still no sign of his quarry, and the rest of the lower hollow was just as empty. 

Kate Sedley, The Brothers of Glastonbury, 1997

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

ad hominem

[ ad hom-uh-nuhm -nem, ahd‐ ]

adjective

attacking an opponent's character or motives rather than answering the argument or claim.

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What is the origin of ad hominem?

The phrase ad hominem, literally “to a person,” originally meant in rhetoric and logic “by appealing to the audience’s feelings, emotions, or interests, not to their intelligence or reason.” Nowadays the usual meaning of ad hominem is “by attacking an opponent’s character or motives, not their arguments.” Hominem, the object of the preposition ad “to,” is the accusative singular case of the Latin noun homō (inflectional stem homin-) “human being (of either sex), individual, person.”Homō is also used colloquially in Roman comedy (Plautus): Mī homō et mea mulier, vōs salūtō, literally “My man and my woman, I greet you.” In the example from Plautus we can clearly see that homō “man” is contrasted with mulier “woman.” In fact, all the Romance languages use a form of homin– to mean “man” as opposed to woman, e.g., Italian uomo, Spanish hombre (dissimilated from omne, which is contracted from omine), Portuguese homem, Catalan home, French homme, Sardo (Sardinian) omine, and Romanian om. The unpleasant counterpart ad fēminam “appealing to one’s personal feelings about or prejudices against women,” appeared in the 19th century. Ad hominem entered English in the 16th century.

how is ad hominem used?

In the case of online harassment, that instinctive preference for “free speech” may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad-hominem abuse.

Kefela Sanneh, "The Hell You Say," The New Yorker, August 3, 2015

Greta Thunberg, at age 16, has quickly become one of the most visible climate activists in the world. Her detractors increasingly rely on ad hominem attacks to blunt her influence.

Scott Waldman, E&E News, "Climate Deniers Launch Personal Attacks on Teen Activist," Scientific American, August 9, 2019

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Monday, June 22, 2020

lassitude

[ las-i-tood, -tyood ]

noun

weariness of body or mind from strain, oppressive climate, etc.; lack of energy; listlessness.

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What is the origin of lassitude?

The primary meaning of lassitude is “weariness of mind or body, listlessness,” but lassitude has a second meaning, “indolent indifference.” The immediate source of the English word is Middle French lassitude, which, as in English, may be pleasant or unpleasant fatigue. French lassitude comes from Latin lassitūdō, which in Latin always has an unpleasant sense. Lassitūdō is a derivative of the adjective lassus “tired, weary, exhausted,” a derivative of the Proto-Indo-European root -, – “to let go, go slack,” extended with –d (lēd-, ləd-). The same root yields Greek lēdeîn “to be tired,” Albanian lodhem “to become tired,” and Germanic lētan, which in Old English becomes lǣtan “to allow, permit, suffer” and let in English. Lassitude entered English in the 16th century.

how is lassitude used?

it occurred to me, as I ate another astringent chip, that this lassitude, the trouble focusing, the sleep difficulties, my exhaustion: Oh yes, I thought, I remember this. I was grieving.

R. O. Kwon, "Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving," New York Times, April 9, 2020

Heavy lassitude settled upon me as I walked away from Peter Kanarjian. There had been too much excitement in the past eighteen hours, and I had had little sleep.

Walter A. Roberts, The Mind Reader, 1929

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

agnate

[ ag-neyt ]

adjective

related or akin through males or on the father's side.

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What is the origin of agnate?

The English adjective and noun agnate comes straight from Latin agnātus, adgnātus, past participle (also used as a noun) of the verb agnascī (also adnascī and adgnascī) “to be born in addition to; (of a human being) to be born after the father makes his will.” (The noun agnātus, adgnātus is a male blood relative on the father’s side; agnāta, adgnāta is a female blood relative on the father’s side.) Agnascī (adnascī, adgnascī) is a compound verb formed from the preposition and prefix ad, ad– “to, toward, in addition” and the simple verb (g)nascī “to be born” (Romans of the classical age had the same difficulty with initial gn– as modern English speakers do with, say, gnat, gnarly, and Gnostic). The much rarer Latin terms for “a blood relative on the mother’s side” are ēnātus for a male relative and ēnāta for a female, formed from the preposition and prefix ē, ē– (from ex “out of”) and nascī. Agnate entered English in the second half of the 15th century.

how is agnate used?

Rather than writing that one thing is like another, she suggested, pupils might use “commensurate” or “agnate,” which means related through male descent or on the father’s side.

James R. Hagerty, "'Use More Expressive Words!' Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore,"  Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2015

As office-holding tended to become hereditary, however, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, greater emphasis was placed upon agnate descent.

John B. Freed, The Counts of Falkenstein: Noble Self-Consciousness in Twelfth-Century Germany, 1984

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

tête-à-tête

[ teyt-uh-teyt, tet-uh-tet; French te-ta-tet ]

noun,

a private conversation or interview, usually between two people.

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What is the origin of tête-à-tête?

Tête-à-tête, “a private conversation, usually between two people,” in French literally means “head to head.” The tête in tête-à-tête comes from Old French teste, from testa “head” in Vulgar Latin, from Latin testa “terracotta pot, brick.” Tête-à-tête first occurs in French in a comédie-ballet by Molière entitled La comtesse d’Escarbagnas “The Countess of Escarbagnas” (1671). Testa is the Italian word for head, too, but if you use testa a testa in Italian, you will get only a lot of laughs. Tête-à-tête entered English in the early 18th century.

how is tête-à-tête used?

While she and Osborne were having their delightful tête-à-tête above stairs, old Mrs. Sedley and Captain Dobbin were conversing below upon the state of the affairs ….

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, 1848

It’s a meeting that promises awkward handshakes, a “family photo” against a scenic backdrop and tense tête-à-têtes on the sidelines.

Claire Parker, "The G-7 summit kicks off on Saturday. Here are some key relationships to watch." Washington Post, August 23, 2019

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Friday, June 19, 2020

inflection point

[ in-flek-shuhn point ]

noun

a point at which a major or decisive change takes place; critical point.

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What is the origin of inflection point?

Inflection point, also point of inflection and flex point, originally, in the first half of the 18th century, was and still is today, was a mathematical term used in geometry and calculus, meaning “a point on a curve at which the curvature changes from convex to concave or vice versa.” This mathematical term gradually spread to other disciplines, such as engineering and economics, that use mathematics extensively. The second meaning of inflection point, “a critical point at which a major or decisive change takes place,” dates from about 2006 and appears to be the coinage of Andrew Grove (1936–2016), a Hungarian-born American businessman, engineer, and author, and a pioneer in the semiconductor industry (Time magazine named him Man of the Year in 1997). Inflection is the usual American spelling, inflexion the usual British one. The Latin noun is inflexiō (inflectional stem inflexiōn-) “bending, curving,” a derivative of the verb inflectere “to bend, curve inward.”

how is inflection point used?

We can either confront it for what it is and make it an inflection point in the arc of our nation’s history, or we can become complicit in the perpetuation of our disease because we refuse to admit we are ill. This time may be different. I pray that it is different.

I think we are at huge inflection point. We need not charitable solutions to structural problems but we need the type of change—and I believe that means that we change the rules.

Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color Of Change, "Bear Witness, Take Action," YouTube, June 13, 2020

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