Word of the Day

Monday, December 16, 2019

welter

[ wel-ter ]

noun

a confused mass; a jumble or muddle: a welter of anxious faces.

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What is the origin of welter?

The noun welter “confused mass; a jumble or muddle” develops from the verb welter “to roll, toss; writhe, tumble about.” Found in English by the 1300s, the verb welter is a form of Middle English welten, Old English weltan “to roll,” cognate with Middle Dutch welteren and Low German weltern “to roll.” The specific form welter is known as a frequentative, which is a verb that expresses repetitive action, indicated by the suffix –er, as seen in such other verbs as flicker or shudder. Welter, then, has the meaning of rolling over again and again, as waves heaving in the sea or pigs wallowing in the mud, which gave rise to its noun senses, such as “confused mass.” The noun welter is first recorded in English in the late 1500s.

how is welter used?

What traitors books can be! … Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953
[The pilot] would be expected to know what to do within seconds if a system he didn’t know existed set off a welter of cockpit alerts and forced the plane downward.

Alec MacGillis, "The Case Against Boeing," The New Yorker, November 11, 2019
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Sunday, December 15, 2019

peripeteia

[ per-uh-pi-tahy-uh, -tee-uh ]

noun

a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, especially in a literary work.

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What is the origin of peripeteia?

Peripeteia comes from Greek peripéteia “sudden change.” Peripéteia has a literal sense of “falling around,” composed of the prefix peri– “about, around,” pet-, base of píptein “to fall,” and –eia, a noun-forming suffix. In his Poetics, Aristotle describes peripeteia as the turning point in the plot of a tragedy where the protagonist experiences a sudden, surprising, and often ironic reversal of fortune, such as when, in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Oedipus discovers—spoiler alert—he killed his father and married his mother. This critical moment of recognition or discovery had a name in ancient Greek tragedy, too: anagnorisis.

how is peripeteia used?

Mr. Weld’s political peripeteia—which, as a student of the classics, he would recognize as the point in a drama when a sudden reversal occurs—seems to have come during his second term as governor of Massachusetts.

Michael Cooper, "A Candidate's Sudden Turn From Prospect to Dropout," New York Times, June 7, 2006

Bendjelloul’s documentary is delicately balanced on an iceberg-sized peripeteia that is easily spoiled, so if you want to see this movie … read no further.

Sasha Frere-Jones, "Cold Facts," The New Yorker, August 3, 2012
Saturday, December 14, 2019

esculent

[ es-kyuh-luhnt ]

adjective

suitable for use as food; edible.

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What is the origin of esculent?

People of a certain age may remember the old TV commercial from around 1957 or 1958 for Nucoa oleomargarine, “The new ubiquitous comestible is Nucoa, over all,” written by the great Stan Freberg. Esculent is right up there with comestible in the obscure word category. Both words mean exactly the same thing, “edible, something edible,” and both words derive from the Latin verb esse “to eat,” from the Proto-Indo-European root ed– “to eat” (preliterary Latin edsi “to eat” becomes esse in Latin). A suffixed noun form of ed-, edeska, becomes Latin esca “food,” from which the adjective esculentus is derived. Comestible comes from Late Latin comestibilis “eatable, edible,” from the Latin compound verb comesse (also comedere) “to eat up, finish eating,” formed from the intensive prefix com– and the simple verb esse. Esculent entered English in the first half of the 17th century (comestible in the late 15th century).

how is esculent used?

We have a surplus of rice, tobacco, furs, peltry, potash, lamp oils, timber, which France wants; she has a surplus of wines, brandies, esculent oils, fruits, manufactures of all kinds, which we want.

Thomas Jefferson to Comte de Montmorin, July 23, 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11, 1955

Kala had moved slowly along an elephant track toward the east, and was busily engaged in turning over rotted limbs and logs in search of esculent bugs and fungi …

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, 1912

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