Word of the Day

Friday, April 12, 2019

unicorn

[ yoo-ni-kawrn ]

noun

a person or thing that is rare and highly valued, or is a hypothetical ideal.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of unicorn?

Unicorn comes from Old French unicorne, from the Latin adjective ūnicornis “one-horned,” which is used as a noun possibly referring to the rhinoceros in the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible as edited or translated by St. Jerome (c347–420). Ūnicornis is a loan translation from the Greek noun and adjective monókerōs “single-horned” (referring to a wild ox or a unicorn), a word that occurs in the book of Psalms in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures). Ūnicornis is a compound of ūni-, the stem of ūnus “one,” and cornū “horn” and the adjective suffix –is. Unicorn entered English in the 13th century.

how is unicorn used?

Are such politically star-crossed lovers as Mary Matalin and James Carville a relationship unicorn?

Jen Doll, "The Trouble with Interpolitical Dating Is Just the Trouble with Dating," The Atlantic (Wire), October 31, 2012

Big N.B.A. trades are always followed by a scramble to label players and teams as winners and losers, but every so often a unicorn of a deal comes together, and everyone involved seems to benefit.

Benjamin Hoffman, "In the Carmelo Anthony Trade, Everyone Wins," New York Times, July 19, 2018

SIGN UP FOR A VOCABULARY BOOST IN YOUR EMAIL

Get the Word of the Day delivered daily
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Thursday, April 11, 2019

alacrity

[ uh-lak-ri-tee ]

noun

cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness: We accepted the invitation with alacrity.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of alacrity?

Alacrity comes from Middle French alacrite from Latin alacritāt-, the stem of alacritās “liveliness, zeal, enthusiasm.” Alacritās is a derivative noun of the adjective alacer “nimble, brisk, enthusiastic, keen.” Latin alacer develops into Italian allegro and Spanish alegre “cheerful, happy.” Alacrity entered English in the 15th century.

how is alacrity used?

Mrs Tulliver was an amiable fish of this kind, and, after running her head against the same resisting medium for fourteen years, would go at it again to-day with undulled alacrity.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860

The president has grumbled for months about what he views as Nielsen’s lackluster performance on immigration enforcement and is believed to be looking for a replacement who will implement his policy ideas with more alacrity.

Nick Miroff, Josh Dawsey, and Philip Rucker, "Trump is preparing to remove Kirstjen Nielsen as Homeland Security secretary, aides say," Washington Post, November 12, 2018
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

flimflam

[ flim-flam ]

verb

to trick, deceive, swindle, or cheat: A fortuneteller flimflammed her out of her savings.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of flimflam?

Flimflam “to trick, deceive, swindle,” shows the same common vowel alteration in a reduplicated word as in mishmash or pitterpatter. Flimflam may possibly be based on a Scandinavian word, e.g., Old Norse flim “a lampoon, mockery.” Flimflam entered English in the 16th century as a noun meaning “idle talk, nonsense; a cheap deception.” The verb sense “to cheat, swindle,” originally an Americanism, arose in the late 19th century.

how is flimflam used?

Slamming my fist on my writing desk I cursed the day a year before that I’d allowed by friend Eddy Dorobek to flimflam me into buying a used laptop from him and giving up my dead father’s rickety old Underwood portable.

Dan Fante,  86'd, 2009

Col. Leonard was there and he knows how they tried to flimflam us.

Charlie Mann, "Evening Session: January 21, 1913," Annual Report of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, 1913
Tuesday, April 09, 2019

polysemy

[ pol-ee-see-mee, puh-lis-uh-mee ]

noun

a condition in which a single word, phrase, or concept has more than one meaning or connotation.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of polysemy?

Fast can mean “moving quickly” or “firmly fixed.” The word shows polysemy, which ultimately derives from Greek polýsēmos “having many meanings.” Polýsēmos joins polýs “many, much,” and sêma “sign, mark, token.” Polýs yields the combining form poly-, seen in many English words, such as polygon “many angles” or polytheism “many gods.” Sêma produces another term used, like polysemy, in linguistics: semantics “the study of meaning.” In linguistics, polysemy and semantics were modeled on French polysémie and sémantique. These words were formed in the late 19th century by French linguist Michel Bréal (1832–1915)—a man perhaps better remembered for inspiring the modern Olympic marathon in 1896. Polysemy entered English in the 1920s.

how is polysemy used?

Twenty-three alternate meanings for it are listed in English alone—it is, the editors say, a model of “polysemy,” packing multiple meanings into a single sign … .

Adam Gopnik, "Word Magic," The New Yorker, May 26, 2014

This rich polysemy of language is the basis for William Empson’s first type of poetic ambiguity: “when a detail is effective in several ways at once.”

C. Namwali Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, 2014
Monday, April 08, 2019

funemployed

[ fuhn-em-ploid ]

adjective

without a paid job but enjoying the free time: Ask one of your funemployed friends to come along with you.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of funemployed?

Funemployed, an informal combination of fun and (un)employed, is a neologism dating to 1995.

how is funemployed used?

So far, at least, he seems like an excellent match for this slightly wilder, funemployed new version of Jess.

Izzy Grinspan, "New Girl Recap: Off the Grid," Vulture, September 26, 2012

Buoyed by severance, savings, unemployment checks or their parents, the funemployed do not spend their days poring over job listings.

Kimi Yoshino, "For the 'funemployed,' unemployment is welcome," Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2009
Sunday, April 07, 2019

vade mecum

[ vey-dee mee-kuhm, vah- ]

noun

something a person carries about for frequent or regular use.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of vade mecum?

A vade mecum in English is something, especially a book or manual, that a person carries about for consulting. The English phrase comes from the Latin phrase vāde mēcum “go with me.” The first word, vāde, is the second person singular imperative of vādere “to go, advance, proceed,” from the same Proto-Indo-European root wadh– “to go” as the Germanic (English) wade. Mēcum ”with me,” and its kindred forms tēcum “with thee,” nōbiscum “with us,” and vōbiscum “with you,” are relics or fossils in Latin of an earlier stage in the language when “prepositions” (elements that precede the words governed) were “postpositions” (the elements followed the words governed). During imperial times, the anomalous mēcum and tēcum were strengthened, reinforced by the “regular” preposition cum, yielding cum mēcum and cum tēcum, which persist in modern Spanish as conmigo and contigo. Vade mecum entered English in the 17th century.

how is vade mecum used?

… the complete poem, though subjected to repeated prosecutions, made its way in pirated editions and became a vade mecum among the radicals.

Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick, A Literary History of England, 2nd ed., Vol. 4, The Nineteenth Century and After, 1967

The travel guides we consult to find a trattoria near Piazza Navova may one day seem as foreign—and as revealing of an era marked by overwhelming plenty—as these fictional vade mecums.

Richard B. Woodward, "Armchair Traveler," New York Times, September 24, 2008
Saturday, April 06, 2019

plasticity

[ pla-stis-i-tee ]

noun

the capability of being molded, receiving shape, or being made to assume a desired form: the plasticity of social institutions.

learn about the english language

What is the origin of plasticity?

Plasticity is made up of plastic and the noun suffix –ity. Plastic comes via Latin plasticus “for molding or modeling,” from Greek plastikós with the same meanings. Plastikós is a derivative of the verb plássein, pláttein “to mold, form.” Other derivatives from the Greek include plaster, from Medieval Latin plastrum “plaster (both medical and building senses),” ultimately an alteration of Greek émplaston “molded on, daubed”; plastid “an organelle of plant cells”; plastique (as in the explosive); and plastron “a piece of armor; part of a turtle’s shell.” Plasticity entered English in the 18th century.

how is plasticity used?

Studies reveal adolescence to be a period of heightened “plasticity” during which the brain is highly influenced by experience.

Laurence Steinberg, "The Case for Delayed Adulthood," New York Times, September 19, 2014

Comic actors, like dramatic ones, have their comfortable niches, from Bill Murray’s sardonic schlubbism to Jim Carrey’s manic plasticity.

Christopher Orr, "The Movie Review: 'Along Came Polly'," The Atlantic, June 8, 2004

SIGN UP FOR A VOCABULARY BOOST IN YOUR EMAIL

Get the Word of the Day delivered daily
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.