Word of the Day

Word of the day

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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Word of the day

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

corvine

[ kawr-vahyn, -vin ]

adjective

pertaining to or resembling a crow.

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What is the origin of corvine?

Corvine “of or relating to crows” derives from the Latin adjective corvīnus, from the noun corvus “raven” and the adjectival suffix -īnus. A common misconception is that corvus shares an origin with the similar-sounding English word crow, but in fact—as we learned from the recent Word of the Day ravenouscorvus shares an origin instead with English raven. Latin c- frequently corresponds to Old English h-, and Latin corvus is therefore related to Old English hrǣfn, which became raven in modern English. This pattern also explains how Latin caput connects to English head (Old English hēafod) and how Latin cor (stem cord-) is cognate to English heart (Old English heorte). Corvine was first recorded in the 1650s.

how is corvine used?

I looked overhead and then scanned the horizon. In the north, above the trees shading a dry creek bed, there were a lot of crows. A bunch of them. I’d go so far as to say that it was even a crowd of crows. Dozens, in any event. They settled into the trees and then roiled upward, like ash and cinders from a fierce fire … I felt as if I were looking in on a corvine colloquium to which I had not been invited.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Sounds From the Sky,” The New York Times, November 19, 2013

He had a corvine nose, mouse-like eyes and a base, greedy expression. The two men charmed and wheedled and swindled their way into court, extorting money with astrological predictions, remedies against sickness, vague promises to find the philosopher’s stone.

Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, Veritas, translated by Gregory Dowling, 2013

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Word of the day

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

skookum

[ skoo-kuhm ]

adjective

large; powerful; impressive.

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What is the origin of skookum?

Skookum “large, powerful, impressive” derives from Chinook Jargon, a pidgin spoken primarily during the 1800s in the Pacific Northwest that still has hundreds of speakers today. A pidgin is a simplified language variety that fuses elements from multiple languages, and Chinook Jargon is primarily based on four sources: English, French, Lower Chinook (a Chinookan language once spoken along the Columbia River), and Nootka (a Wakashan language still spoken along the western coast of Vancouver Island). However, skookum entered Chinook Jargon instead from Lower Chehalis, a Salishan language once spoken in the southwestern coastal area of the Olympic Peninsula; skookum derives from Lower Chehalis skwəkwə́m “ghost, spirit, monster.” Skookum was first recorded in English circa 1830.

how is skookum used?

[Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato] is perhaps now most widely associated with Baroque and bel canto opera—her skookum approach to the aria “Tanti affetti” from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago,” with its dizzying runs and leaps up and down the staff, has made her rendition a cult favorite—but she is no less at ease with the gentle lines of the American songbook.

Joel Rozen, “Opera’s Miss Congeniality Takes On a Rare ‘Cinderella,’” The New York Times, April 6, 2018

At the head of the anti statehood efforts was the lobbyist for the Alaska Packers Association, W.C. Arnold. “The fishing and cannery industries employed W.C. Arnold, a man so powerful that he was called ‘Judge Arnold,'” Alaskan historian Claus Kaske told the San Francisco Chronicle in September of 2008. “Arnold was a skookum lobbyist, and he told Congress that business was paying the cost of running the territory.”

Dave Kiffer, "Ketchikan Supported Alaska Statehood, Eventually Chronicle, Daily News Fought The Battle Locally," SitNews, January 03, 2009

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