Word of the Day

Friday, December 27, 2019

shilly-shally

[ shil-ee-shal-ee ]

verb (used without object)

to show indecision or hesitation; be irresolute; vacillate.

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What is the origin of shilly-shally?

We have no need to shilly-shally in giving the origin of this amusing term. It develops from the expression to stand shill I, shall I, a playful variation of the repeated question, shall I? shall I?—which a wishy-washy person would struggle to answer. Shilly-shally is modeled after another so-called reduplication (and near synonym), dilly-dally “to loiter or vacillate.” English is fond of such reduplications, or words formed by repeating a word or syllable. Many reduplications are exact, such as boo-boo. Others rhyme, like razzle-dazzle. Shilly-shally follows a pattern known as ablaut reduplication, in which vowels predictably alternate: chitchat, mishmash, and zigzag are other common examples. Entering English at the end of the 1600s, shilly-shally can also be a noun meaning “irresolution; hesitation; vacillation,” an adjective, “irresolute; undecided; vacillating,” and an adverb, “irresolutely.”

how is shilly-shally used?

Experience had taught him that where evil is concerned, it was better to be frank than to shilly-shally.

Anthony C. Winkler, The Family Mansion, 2013

I made my choice and stood by it. But you shilly-shally between both sides.

Ann Rinaldi, Finishing Becca, 1994
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Thursday, December 26, 2019

ephemeral

[ ih-fem-er-uhl ]

adjective

lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory: the ephemeral joys of childhood.

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What is the origin of ephemeral?

Something ephemeral lasts only a very short time. It derives from Greek ephḗmeros “short-lived, lasting but a day.” Ephḗmeros is ultimately based on the preposition and adverb epí “upon, up to, during,” among many other senses, and the noun hēméra “day.” In English, ephemeral originally described fevers that spanned just a day, and evolved to refer to organisms (and other things) not long for this world, including flowers or insects—like the mayfly, which is classified as an ephemerid and shuffles off this mortal coil within two days. Ephḗmeros is also the source of the English plural noun ephemera (singular ephemeron) “items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.” Ephemeral has not proved as much in English, entering in the late 1500s.

how is ephemeral used?

In this country, man’s work seems ephemeral, his influence transitory. Summer scorches the heath. Winter brings a pale damp light.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate, 1994

It’s only with the rise of the Internet that a truly casual, willfully ephemeral prose has ascended—and become central to daily life.

Katy Waldman, "Is the Internet Making Writing Better?" The New Yorker, July 26, 2019
Wednesday, December 25, 2019

big-hearted

[ big-hahr-tid ]

adjective

generous; kind.

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What is the origin of big-hearted?

Big-hearted “generous; kind” certainly wears its heart on its sleeve, etymologically speaking. It’s a straightforward compound of big “magnanimous; generous; kindly” and hearted “having a specified kind of heart.” While big-hearted is found in English in the 1700s in the sense of “courageous,” the word heart, as regarded as the center of a person’s emotion and disposition, reaches well back into Old English. Hearted is used in combination with other adjectives to describe various temperaments: cold-hearted, fainthearted, hardhearted, and lighthearted are some other common examples.

how is big-hearted used?

The varied gifts were ranged about the foot of the bed, the golf stockings bulging with sweets were hung at its head, and the big-hearted donors retired ….

John Kendrick Bangs, "The House of Seven Santas," The Little Book of Christmas, 1912

For his part, the Badger left him in no doubt that a small effort now, and a big-hearted gesture, would make all the difference to the life of Toad, of the River Bank and of them all.

William Horwood, The Willows at Christmas, 1999
Tuesday, December 24, 2019

atiptoe

[ uh-tip-toh ]

adverb, adjective

eagerly expectant, as anticipating a desired event or arrival: waiting atiptoe for the mail.

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What is the origin of atiptoe?

If children wait atiptoe for Christmas morning, they are “eagerly expectant,” their anticipation likened to the excitement associated with standing on tiptoe. And indeed, “on tiptoe” is what the adjective and adverb atiptoe literally means. The initial a– in atiptoe is a reduced form of the Old English preposition on, variously meaning “on, in, into, toward.” This particular a– (the form has many other senses or functions in English) appears in a great variety of words, such as acknowledge, ablaze, aloud, and away. So, afoot, as another example, began as the prepositional phrase on foot. Atiptoe is recorded English by the late 1500s.

how is atiptoe used?

Ethel was standing beside her all aglow and atiptoe with anticipation.

The Cooperative Poultryman, 1950

The audience was atiptoe when “Suor Angelica” began, but despondent at the curtain’s fall.

Pierre V. R. Key, "Music and Musicians," Theatre Magazine, Vol. 29, 1919
Monday, December 23, 2019

gemütlich

[ guh-moot-lik, -moot-; German guh-myt-likh ]

adjective

comfortable and pleasant; cozy.

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What is the origin of gemütlich?

The adjective gemütlich “comfortable and pleasant; cozy” is borrowed directly from German gemütlich “homey, casual, social.” Gemütlich is composed of Gemüt “mind, mentality” and –lich, which is equivalent to English’s adverb-forming suffix –ly. The German noun Gemüt—which might be more properly translated as “the total composition of the human psyche and spirit”—is formed from ge-, a collective noun-forming prefix, and Mut “courage,” related to English mood. Gemütlich entered English in the mid-1800s.

how is gemütlich used?

[S]he … looks after their five-room apartment, with its gemütlich mélange of plump hassocks and squashy chairs and cream-colored lace window curtains.

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, 1965

Nina exclaimed at the old walnut trimmings, gurgled over the crowded decorations in the Victorian manner, and settled down, announcing that it was so gemütlich, she would love a cup of tea.

Paul Horgan, The Fault of Angels, 1933
Sunday, December 22, 2019

kvell

[ kvel ]

verb (used without object)

Slang.

to be extraordinarily pleased; especially, to be bursting with pride, as over one's family.

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What is the origin of kvell?

We can’t help but kvell about Yiddish words borrowed into English. Kvell “to be extraordinarily pleased, burst with pride” comes from Yiddish kveln “be delighted,” related to Middle High German and German quellen “well up, gush.” The informal verb kvell is often used to convey pride and pleasure, especially about the accomplishments of one’s own family. For example: “‘My granddaughter graduated at the top of her medical school class,’ he kvelled.” For the opposite of kvell, one might consider another borrowing from Yiddish: kvetch “to complain, especially chronically,” from the Yiddish verb kvetshn, which literally means “to squeeze, pinch.” Kvell entered English in the mid-1900s.

how is kvell used?

Sidney, more than any of the others, has kept his parents reliably supplied with … reasons to kvell: full scholarships, graduation cum laude, smart grandsons, Junior Chamber of Commerce awards.

Jane Howard, Families, 1978

Omega threw a rollicking cocktail party starring Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts, to kvell over the fortieth birthday of the first lunar landing—of both man and wristwatch.

Patricia Marx, "Face Value," The New Yorker, May 18, 2009
Saturday, December 21, 2019

halcyon

[ hal-see-uhn ]

adjective

calm; peaceful; tranquil: halcyon weather.

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What is the origin of halcyon?

The English adjective halcyon “calm; peaceful; tranquil” is rooted in ancient Greek—and classical mythology. Halcyon ultimately derives via Latin alcyōn from Greek alkyṓn “kingfisher.” In ancient myths, the halcyon named a bird, usually identified with the kingfisher, that was said to breed around the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and was believed to have the power to charm the winds and waves into calmness. Halcyon frequently occurs in the expression halcyon days, a period of calm weather in the winter, historically a stretch of fourteen days around the winter solstice connected with (the myth of) breeding kingfishers. Halcyon days evolved to mean, more broadly, “a time of peace and prosperity,” and the adjective halcyon evolved to mean, variously, “calm; rich; carefree.” Halcyon is recorded in English by the late 1300s.

how is halcyon used?

… the sun high and bright, the sky a preternatural robin’s-egg blue. The kind of halcyon day reserved for picture postcards.

Carmen K. Sisson, "After the tornadoes: Rebuilding a campus, piece by piece," Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2008

This halcyon weather continued until the day a black storm arose.

Richard O'Mara, "The Sea," The Sewanee Review, Fall 2013

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