Word of the Day

Word of the day

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

revenant

[ rev-uh-nuhnt ]

noun

a person who returns as a spirit after death; ghost.

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What is the origin of revenant?

Revenant “a person who returns as a spirit after death” is a direct borrowing from French, in which the word is a present participle meaning “coming back, returning.” The infinitive, revenir, is a combination of the prefix re- “back, again” and venir “to come,” the latter from Latin venīre, of the same meaning. Venīre is the source of English terms such as adventure, avenue, convenient, eventual, and invention, all of which originally related to movement, gathering, or discovery (i.e., coming across something); the Latin verb derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root, gwā- “to go, come,” that gives us come, become, welcome, and the Ancient Greek-derived terms acrobat and basis (from baínein). Revenant was first recorded in English in the 1820s.

how is revenant used?

Greek literature has often referenced the rising of the undead, like in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus sacrifices a ram and an ewe to convince the dead to appear for his service. Since the concept of death was viewed as more fluid than concrete in ancient Greece, the belief that the dead could rise as revenants to fulfill their own agendas or the agendas of a conjurer was not uncommon.

Lindsay N. Smith, “Where to Travel if You’re Obsessed With Zombies,” National Geographic, March 29, 2017

One afternoon I was over at my friend Rudd’s. We were in his studio, a rough space framed out above the garage. Rudd is a contractor and photographer, and we were looking at his landscape photos. We’d been talking about a picture of a barren tree in a field burning with red brush. I said something about haunted landscapes, revenants, and he grabbed a crate off a bookcase. ‘Now this here’ll haunt you. This is a real ghost from the past.’

Jennifer Kabat, "Ghostlands," Granta, March 14, 2019

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Word of the day

Monday, October 25, 2021

Faustian

[ fou-stee-uhn ]

adjective

sacrificing spiritual values for power, knowledge, or material gain.

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What is the origin of Faustian?

Faustian “sacrificing spiritual values for power, knowledge, or material gain” is derived from the name of the part-historical, part-legendary figure Johann Georg Faust, whose surname often appears instead as the more Latin-sounding Faustus. The surname Faust is of uncertain origin but may derive either from the Latin adjective faustus “fortunate, lucky,” a cognate of favorable and favorite, or from the German noun Faust “fist.” Faust’s first notable appearance in the English-speaking world was as the main character of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, in which Faust makes a deal with the Devil that leads to an unfortunate end. Though originally written in German, another famous play featuring this character was Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which was published almost 200 years after Marlowe’s earlier work. Faustian was first recorded in English in the late 1870s.

how is Faustian used?

The Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground reservoir that gives life to these fields, is disappearing …. This is the breadbasket of America—the region that supplies at least one fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest .… With a liquid treasure below their feet and a global market eager for their products, farmers here and across the region have made a Faustian bargain—giving up long-term conservation for short-term gain. To capitalize on economic opportunities, landowners are knowingly “mining” a finite resource.

Jane Braxton Little, “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source,” Scientific American, March 1, 2009

I always wanted to do a show about a couple that’s on a honeymoon—a thing about money, and someone marrying into money, and realizing what she may have lost. The Faustian bargain that happens when you want a life style, but you also want to retain your independence and power. And so I thought that was a good place to start.

Mike White, as quoted in "Mike White on Money, Status, and Appearing on 'Survivor,'" The New Yorker, July 18, 2021

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Word of the day

Sunday, October 24, 2021

prestidigitation

[ pres-ti-dij-i-tey-shuhn ]

noun

sleight of hand; legerdemain.

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What is the origin of prestidigitation?

Prestidigitation “sleight of hand” is a borrowing from French, in which it literally means “nimble-fingeredness.” From there, the etymology becomes a bit murky. The -digit- element is clear; it derives from Latin digitus “finger,” which is also the source of digital (literally “of or relating to fingers”). For the presti- element, in contrast, there are at least three theories. The first is that presti- comes from Latin praestō “at hand,” a compound of prae “before” and a derivation from the Proto-Indo-European root ghes- “hand.” A second theory derives Latin praestō instead from prae and stāre “to stand,” which would make prestidigitation a distant relative of words such as stable, stand, state, and static. The third theory asserts that prestidigitation is a coinage based on or at least influenced by French prestigiateur “juggler, conjurer,” from Latin praestīgiae “juggler’s tricks,” a compound of prae and stringere “to bind fast,” which would make prestidigitation a distant relative of strait, stress, strict, and stringent. Prestidigitation was first recorded in English in the 1840s.

how is prestidigitation used?

Toscato began gently with a little prestidigitation, picking five-pound notes out of the air, and simplicities of that kind. He then borrowed a handkerchief, produced an orange out of the handkerchief, a vegetable-marrow out of the orange, a gibus hat out of the vegetable-marrow, a live sucking-pig out of the gibus hat, five hundred yards of coloured paper out of the sucking-pig, a Union-jack twelve feet by ten out of the bunch of paper, and a wardrobe with real doors and full of ladies’ dresses out of the Union-jack. Lastly, a beautiful young girl stepped forth from the wardrobe.

Arnold Bennett, A Great Man, 1904
[Derek] DelGaudio jettisoned most of the trappings of magic shows and used his prestidigitation skills in service of a meditation on identity. The illusions were less “ta-da!” moments than metaphors for the stories that we tell about ourselves—and what we hide.

Michael Schulman, "The Magician Who Used His Skills to Cheat at Cards," The New Yorker, March 12, 2021

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