Word of the Day

Sunday, September 15, 2019


[ ri-fyoo-jee-uhm ]


an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas.

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What is the origin of refugium?

The biological or ecological sense of English refugium “an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas,” is a straightforward borrowing of the Latin noun refugium. (The usual English plural is the Latin plural, refugia, but refugiums is also found.) The Latin noun does not have the modern English sense, of course, and means only “a place or means of shelter, a place to flee or retreat to.” Refugium entered English in the early 20th century.

how is refugium used?

Hence, it served as a refugium for animal and plant species that the ice cap displaced or destroyed elsewhere.

Dan O'Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome, 2006

Trees that survive in a refugium also may help speed the recovery of the surrounding ecosystem. Their seeds float across the charred landscape, producing a new crop of plants.

Carl Zimmer, "'Lifeboats' Amid the World's Wildfires," New York Times, October 12, 2018
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Saturday, September 14, 2019


[ kon-truh-nim ]


a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings, as cleave, meaning "to adhere closely" and "to part or split"; Janus word.

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What is the origin of contranym?

Contranym, “a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings,” is a good term to have though trotting it out in certain circles may spark debate about whether it should be spelled contranym (from contra– and –(o)nym), an example of prodelision (loss of an initial vowel), or contronym (from contr(a)– and –onym), an example of elision (loss of a final vowel). Contranyms are also called Janus words (Janus was the Roman god of doorways, beginnings, transitions, and time, and is usually portrayed as having two faces, one looking toward the past, the other toward the future). Some very common, current contranyms (or Janus words) include sanction “to authorize, approve, or allow” and “to penalize, discipline” (the Latin verb sancīre means both “to ratify solemnly, confirm (laws, treaties)” and “to make an offense punishable by law”); the verb cleave “to split, divide” and “to remain faithful to” (cleave derives from two different Old English verbs: cleofian “to adhere, stick” and clēofan “to separate, split”); and oversight “supervision (as by a Congressional committee),” and “omission, mistake.” Contranym entered English in the early 1960s.

how is contranym used?

Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym.

Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue, 1990

“No, totally.” “No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.” These curious uses turn “no” into a kind of contranym: a word that can function as its own opposite.

Kathryn Schulz, "What Part of 'No, Totally' Don't You Understand?" The New Yorker, April 7, 2015
Friday, September 13, 2019

bona fides

[ boh-nah fee-des ]


good faith; absence of fraud or deceit; the state of being exactly as claims or appearances indicate: The bona fides of this contract is open to question.

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What is the origin of bona fides?

The Latin phrase bona fidēs “good faith,” is composed of a singular noun in the nominative case (fidēs “faith”) modified by a singular adjective (bona “good”). The relatively recent sense of bona fides “guarantees of good faith, credentials” (as if fidēs, because of its final s, were a plural noun) is first recorded in 1944. The Latin phrase bonā fidē and the English phrase bona fide also mean “in good faith” (fidē being a singular noun in the ablative case, which is frequently used in Latin in adverbial functions). Bona fide was originally an adverbial phrase but since the late 18th century also used as an adjective, e.g., the legal term bona fide purchaser. Bona fides entered English in the 19th century.

how is bona fides used?

Few things have sent up our food-conscious era quite so accurately (or affectionately) as that first-season “Portlandia” sketch in which a restaurant waiter is given the third degree by concerned patrons over the bona fides of the menu’s locally raised chicken.

Robert Abele, "Review: 'The Biggest Little Farm' is a winning doc about a couple's agricultural dream," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2019

Of course it took me a little while to establish my bona fides but at last I did—it will seem ironic to you, but while neither side fully believed in my honesty both were exultant at having penetrated the enemy intelligence service.

Lawrence Durrell, Quinx, 1985
Thursday, September 12, 2019


[ sis-uh-roh-nee-uhn ]


characterized by melodious language, clarity, and forcefulness of presentation, as in the style of Cicero: Ciceronian invective.

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What is the origin of Ciceronian?

The adjective Ciceronian comes from Latin Cicerōniānus “pertaining to Cicero,” an adjective coined by the Stoic author and philosopher Seneca. The Roman orator, statesman, and man of letters Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.) made Roman oratory the equal of Greek, especially of Demosthenes, the last great Athenian orator, as Greek rhetoricians themselves admitted. Ancient critics said of the styles of Demosthenes and Cicero that Demosthenes was so lean and spare that nothing could be taken away, that Cicero was so full and ample that nothing could be added. For as long as Latin was the chief cultural language of Western civilization (up to the 18th or 19th century), Cicero in prose (like Vergil in poetry) was held up as a model to be imitated or an idol to be cast down. There are still several million former teenagers who after a martini or two can recite from memory the opening sentence of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline from their junior year in high school: Quō ūsque tandem abūtēre, Catilīna, patientiā nostrā? (“How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?”) Ciceronian entered English in the second half of the 17th century.

how is Ciceronian used?

… those who could not follow her reasoning were nonetheless able to enjoy her Ciceronian eloquence. “She spoke like an angel,” one of the Frenchmen commented.

Massimo Mazzotti, "From Genius to Witch: The Rise and Fall of a Filosofessa," Los Angeles Review of Books, July 11, 2018

Its rhetoric was powerful, even Ciceronian, I thought, with the grand sweep of its opening line: “Great triumphs and great tragedies can redirect the course of a people’s destiny.”

Willem Marx, "Misinformation intern," Harper's Magazine, August 23, 2019
Wednesday, September 11, 2019


[ ih-pis-tl-er-ee ]


contained in or carried on by letters: an epistolary friendship.

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What is the origin of epistolary?

English epistolary comes from the Latin adjective epistulāris (also epistolāris), a derivative of the noun epistula (epistola) “a letter, a dispatch, a written communication, an epistle (as in the New Testament).” Epistula comes from Greek epistolḗ, which has the same meanings. An epistolary novel is one that is composed in a series of documents, usually (private) letters, but also diary entries, newspaper articles, and other documents. Such novels were especially popular in the 18th century, e.g., in England, Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740); in France, Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782); and in Germany, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774). Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel Dracula, published in 1897, and continuously in print ever since, has attained a kind of immortality. Epistolary entered English in the 17th century.

how is epistolary used?

Her imaginative epistolary novel opens with Johanna’s engagement to Theo in 1888 and winds its way through the avant-garde Paris art scene ….

Sarah Ferguson, "Johanna: A Novel of the van Gogh Family," New York Times, June 4, 1995

Their disagreement lay dormant for nearly two decades, during which time their epistolary friendship flourished ….

Nathan Goldman, "'I Don't Know If This Letter Will Reach You': The Letters of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem," Los Angeles Review of Books, March 12, 2019
Tuesday, September 10, 2019


[ sluhb-er ]

verb (used with object)

to perform hastily or carelessly.

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What is the origin of slubber?

Slubber  is an older, infrequent verb that means “to perform (something) hastily or carelessly.” Earlier senses include “to smear; smudge” and “to sully (a reputation, etc.).” Slubber comes from Low German slubbern “to do work carelessly” and appears to be related to slabber and the more familiar slobber “to let saliva run from the mouth,” with an earlier sense of “to eat in a hasty, messy manner”—an unfastidious trio of terms forming one “sloppy” family. Slubber entered English in the early 1500s.

how is slubber used?

Slubber not business for my sake, Bassanio …

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1600

It must be “slubber’d o’er in haste,”—its important preliminaries left to the cold imagination of the reader—its fine spirit perhaps evaporating for want to being embodied in words.

Caroline Kirkland, Western Clearings, 1845
Monday, September 09, 2019


[ ik-uh-bah-nuh; Japanese ee-ke-bah-nah ]


the Japanese art of arranging flowers.

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What is the origin of ikebana?

Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, comes from the Japanese verb ikeru “to keep alive, make alive, arrange” and –bana, a variant used as a combining form of hana “flower.” Ikebana dates to the 6th century when offerings of flowers were placed at altars; later, flowers were also displayed in tokonomas (alcoves in private homes). Ikebana entered English at the beginning of the 20th century.

how is ikebana used?

… were you to consider the philosophy at the core of ikebana, grounded as it is in Japan’s ancient polytheism and its Buddhist traditions, you might find something quite relevant to the times we live in: an art that can expand your appreciation  of beauty.

Deborah Needleman, "The Rise of Modern Ikebana," New York Times, November 6, 2017

One must surpass and transcend concepts of traditional use and discover a “new face” in the material, and this “new face” is the primary focus of contemporary ikebana.

Shozo Sato, Ikebana: The Art of Arranging Flowers, 2012

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