Word of the Day

Word of the day

Saturday, January 15, 2022

violescent

[ vahy-uh-les-uhnt ]

adjective

tending to a violet color.

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What is the origin of violescent?

Violescent “tending to a violet color” derives from the Latin noun viola “violet” and the inchoative suffix -escent “becoming, starting to be,” as we learned about from the recent Word of the Day evanesce. Viola is of uncertain origin but appears to have a cognate in Ancient Greek: íon “violet.” Ancient Greek once had a letter called wau or digamma, which made the “w” sound and looked like the Roman letter F, but eventually lost the letter entirely; this is how earlier wíon became íon while the “w” was preserved as “v” in Latin viola. A similar phenomenon happened with Ancient Greek oînos (earlier woînos) and Latin vīnum “wine” as well as Ancient Greek elaíā (earlier elaíwā) and Latin olīva “olive.” Violescent was first recorded in English in the 1840s.

how is violescent used?

Fashion Week in New York started on Thursday with designer runways shrouded in gray …. Occasional breaks in the overcast tones on the catwalks brought flashes of burgundy and teal, although the go-to color of the day was purple. Violescent dresses, skirts and shirts were paired with black-and-white coordinating pieces by Richard Chai Love. The designer cut lavender damask into dresses, coats and suits. Nicholas K, meanwhile, showed a handful of smoky mauve fashions, including a luscious knitted wrap and a luminescent jacket.

Barbara Goldberg, “Smoke, coal, mercury on the runway at New York’s Fashion Week,” Reuters, February 7, 2013

The sudden alternations of warm light and cold shade made him shiver. In front of the Palazzo di Venezia, and in front of the Gesu, it had seemed to him as if all the night of ancient times were falling icily upon his shoulders; but at each fresh square, each broadening of the new thoroughfares, there came a return to light, to the pleasant warmth and gaiety of life. The yellow sunflashes, in falling from the house fronts, sharply outlined the violescent shadows. Strips of sky, very blue and very benign, could be perceived between the roofs.

Émile Zola (1840–1902), Rome, of The Three Cities, translated by Ernest A. Vizetelly, 2009

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Friday, January 14, 2022

trailblaze

[ treyl-bleyz ]

verb (used with object)

to be a pioneer in (a particular subject, technique, etc.).

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What is the origin of trailblaze?

Trailblaze “​​to be a pioneer in something” is a back formation from the noun trailblazer. Back formations are words formed from other, slightly longer words by dropping what appears to be a suffix; in English, this frequently results in verbs formed from nouns, such as edit from editor, or—as we learned from the recent Word of the Day fomites—singular nouns formed from plurals. Trailblazer is a compound of trail “path across a wild region” and blaze “a mark made on a tree.” An earlier meaning of blaze, however, was “a white area on an animal’s face,” and the definition has since expanded to refer to similarly noticeable spots elsewhere. Blaze in the sense of “fire, torch” is related to blaze in the sense “white area,” albeit more distantly; in the Indo-European language family, words for both light and dark colors often derive from roots meaning “fire,” “shine,” or “burn.” Trailblaze was first recorded in English in the early 1900s.

how is trailblaze used?

While they were not-so-friendly rivals, in certain ways Janet [Jackson] and Madonna helped trailblaze similar terrain. Both were strong, intelligent, fiercely ambitious artists. Neither expressed any reticence about their desire for mass commercial success. Both were engaged in similar struggles for respect, empowerment and agency in an industry dominated by men and male expectations. Both also faced serious pushback from music critics.

Joseph Vogel, “The Nation That Janet Jackson Built,” The Atlantic, September 15, 2014

The forest was in the middle stages of rebirth. Parts of it had been consumed by a blaze in the eighties, and adolescent trees stood calf-like among the charred carcasses of their forefathers. That’s the machine of the world, how past meshes with future: dig deep enough or wait long enough and you’ll find the bones of a dead thing. Kids consume the legacies of their parents. People found cities over unmarked graves. Civilizations rise up from the ruins of those that trailblazed before them. Whole histories are built on the leftovers of older worlds.

D. W. Wilson, Ballistics, 2013

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Thursday, January 13, 2022

will-o'-the-wisp

[ wil-uh-thuh-wisp ]

noun

a flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, chiefly over marshy ground, and believed to be due to spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter.

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What is the origin of will-o'-the-wisp?

Will-o’-the-wisp “a flitting phosphorescent light seen at night” is an abbreviated form of the term Will with the wisp. In this term, Will is the common nickname for William, while wisp refers to a small bundle of straw or hay that is lit for use as a torch. The name William derives from a Germanic name roughly meaning “desired helmet”; compare English will “the power of control the mind has over its own actions” and helm “a medieval helmet completely enclosing the head.” The inclusion of the nickname Will in will-o’-the-wisp is for the same reason why the nickname Jack appears in jack-o’-lantern, which used to be a synonym of will-o’-the-wisp: both Will and Jack were common names in England at the time, and they were used as stock names for the mythical figure who carried a light in marshland at night. Will-o’-the-wisp was first recorded in English in the first decade of the 1600s.

how is will-o'-the-wisp used?

In early November 1783,… [Tom] Paine and [George] Washington got to talking with two colonels about the will-o-the-wisp, the fiery globe that people sometimes claimed to see floating over marshes. They came up with two plausible hypotheses. The colonels thought that they were produced from some kind of matter in the marches, such as turpentine. Washington and Paine thought it was a gas. So the next night, they got in a scow with some [soldiers] and set out on the Millstone River to conduct an experiment. The [soldiers] poked poles into the mud, and Washington and Paine held torches close. They saw bubbles rise, and then a flash of light broke out across the water. Washington and Paine were right. The gas would turn out to be methane, produced by the microbes in the mud.

Carl Zimmer, “Science and Politics: The Tale of George Washington's Swamp Gas,” National Geographic, October 17, 2008

In 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Will o’ the Wisp as many called the ghostly lights that hover and wheel above boggy marshland on dark, moonless nights, in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ “About, about in reel and rout, the death-fires danced at night; the water, like a witch’s oil, burnt green and blue and white.” …. Not all Will o’ the Wisps are said to be dangerous, some are said to guard treasure or to highlight dangerous ground where travellers should not tread, others are said to be spirits of the dead trapped on earth looking for salvation by claiming other souls. The scientific explanation for Will o’ the Wisps is a far cry from the romance and mysticism of folklore, sadly.

Stacia Briggs and Siofra Connor, "Weird Suffolk: The ghostly lights at Syleham which tempt travellers into treacherous water," East Anglian Daily Times, November 30, 2019

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