Word of the Day

Word of the day

Saturday, December 25, 2021


[ pee-uhn ]


any song of praise, joy, or triumph.

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What is the origin of paean?

Paean “any song of praise, joy, or triumph” derives via Latin paeān “religious or festive hymn” from Ancient Greek paián, a song addressed to Apollo in gratitude. This term is a common use of the name Paiā́n, which was originally the name of the physician of the gods but later became a nickname for Apollo. While Paiā́n is of uncertain origin, possibly pre-Greek, it has another floral descendant in English: peony, the state flower of Indiana. Paiā́n is not related to Pan, the name of the Greek god of forests, pastures, and shepherds. Paean was first recorded in English circa 1540.

how is paean used?

[Poet Nikky] Finney’s couplets reference everything from Harriet Tubman to Black Olympians and astronauts, and from inventions by Black Americans to horrifically racist scientific beliefs of the past. Don’t call it a libretto, she says; it’s a paean, a song of praise …. That harmonic tension—between words of absolute love for the rich inner life and accomplishments of Black Americans, and the pain and sadness inflicted on them for four centuries—is what [composer Michael] Abels tried to honor.

Tim Greiving, “Four centuries of Black American history are told in new Kronos Quartet performance,” NPR, November 17, 2021

A very different sort of uneasy calm hovers over Puts’s Silent Night, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. After brief paeans to the “glory of the battle” that marks the beginning of the war, the opera picks out the threads of its multiple storylines. A pregnant French woman rebukes her husband for enlisting. A Scottish soldier persuades his brother—fatefully, as it turns out—to join him. Two lovers, both of them opera singers, are separated after singing in Germany.

Steven Winn, "Two Gripping Operas Go Deep Into the Horrors of War in the 20th Century," San Francisco Classical Voice, December 5, 2021
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Word of the day

Friday, December 24, 2021


[ wist-fuhl ]


pensive, especially in a melancholy way.

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What is the origin of wistful?

Wistful “pensive in a melancholy way” is likely a compound of the adjective whist (also wist) “quiet, silent, attentive” and the suffix -ful, perhaps because of the influence of the adjective wishful. As an interjection, whist is used to mean “hush! silence! be still!” Whist is likely of imitative origin and belongs to a class of similar-sounding interjections, along with hist, hush, and sh, that are used to demand silence. The sibilant sounds s and sh appear to be universal sounds indicating silence that appear in disparate languages, from Latin st to Finnish hys and Swahili usu. These widespread, common sounds are not the result of baby talk, as with the recent Word of the Day selection babushka; rather, they are onomatopoeic. Alternatively, wistful could simply be an alteration of the adverb wistly “with close intention.” Wistful was first recorded circa 1610.

how is wistful used?

On holidays, it’s natural to feel a longing for times gone by—a childhood spent singing carols or meals spent with now departed loved ones. Recently scientists have explored the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, finding that it serves a positive function, improving mood and possibly mental health …. [W]hen subjects were induced to experience wistful reverie via sentimental song lyrics or memories, they reported greater self-continuity …. [N]ostalgia boosted self-continuity by increasing a sense of social connectedness. Sentimental recollections often include loved ones, which can remind us of a social web that extends across people—and across time.

Matthew Hutson, “Why Nostalgia Is Good for You,” Scientific American, November 1, 2016

The novelty of those days, of breaking the routine, of delighting in the outdoors and connecting with nature instead of sitting in a classroom, casts a wistful resonance all these years later. With a few details changed, my kids, now 10 and 12, have roughly mirrored this routine each winter themselves … until their canceled snow day earlier this school year .… Even for the small minority of students who require or prefer remote learning, the value of a surprise snow holiday is still something to be embraced.

David Zweigh, “In Defense of Snow Days,” Wired, May 14, 2021
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Word of the day

Thursday, December 23, 2021


[ kuh-vawrt ]

verb (used without object)

to behave in a high-spirited, festive manner; make merry.

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What is the origin of cavort?

Cavort “to behave in a high-spirited, festive manner,” earlier cavault, is of uncertain origin. One hypothesis is a connection to curvet “a leap of a horse from a rearing position”; curvet ultimately derives via Italian corvette and French courbette from the Latin adjective curvus “crooked, bent, curved.” An alternative hypothesis is a link to vault, in the sense “to leap over,” which follows a path similar to that of curvet above: vault comes by way of French volter and Italian voltare, both meaning “to turn,” from Latin volvere, of the same meaning. Whether cavort is simply a corruption of curvet, an elaboration of vault, or a compound of curvet and vault remains unclear. Cavort was first recorded in English circa 1790.

how is cavort used?

Boise is home to Basque Block, a visually striking, albeit compact, corridor of Basque restaurants, murals, and a museum in the middle of downtown. Once every five years, the block comes alive with Jaialdi, a massive, six-day celebration that takes over West Grove Street …. Dancers from across the country cavort to the sounds of the txirula, while other Basque-Americans show off their skills in farm competitions like milk-can carrying, wagon lifting, and hay bale throwing. Standing in the audience, you’re likely to hear as much Basque as English.

Alex Schechter, “Looking for Basque country in Idaho? Just follow the sheep,” National Geographic, November 1, 2019

Visitors to Great Ormond Street Hospital this Christmas are in for a woolly surprise. The local postbox, on the corner with Queen Square, has been decorated with this festive tableau. Elves, reindeer and gingerbread people cavort around a Christmas tree, all on top of a traditional postbox. A note around the pillar (and a bit of sleuthing) reveals this to be the work of Sabine Oakley in the Random Acts of Crochet Kindness group on Facebook. She placed the topper on 10 November, and it’s still looking bright and cheerful one month on.

Matt Brown, "Crocheted Christmas Post Box Brings Joy To Great Ormond Street," Londonist, December 9, 2021
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