Cocktail [n. KOK-tayl]
This word for a mixed drink with a spirit base was apparently first used in the early 19th century in America. The word also referred to a horse whose tail had been cocked - that is, cut short so that it sticks up like the tail of a cock. There is no consensus on the ultimate origin of the word, but there are many stories of how the word came to be applied to mixed drinks. Here's one: In Culpepper Court House, Virginia, there was an inn named the Cock And Bottle, run by Colonel Carter. The sign swinging by the entrance showed a cock and a bottle, indicating that draft or bottled ale could be had within ("cock" was another name for the draft ale tap). If the keg was nearly empty, the muddy dregs were called the "cocktail." According to the story, Colonel Carter was once served this "cocktail," and became so angry with its poor quality that he said "hereafter, I will drink cocktails of my own brewing." Right away, he poured together various ingredients for a new drink, making the first mixed cocktail.

Tantalize [v. TAN-tuh-lyz]
To tantalize someone is to excite them by showing or offering something desirable, but keeping it out of reach. "The hungry kids were tantalized by the cakes behind the glass." Tantalus "the sufferer" was a mythical Greek king, one of the sons of Zeus, who was condemned for his crimes to a deep abyss called Tartarus. There, he was forced to stand in clear, fresh water that receded whenever he tried to take a drink. Delicious fruit hung over his head, but it lifted away whenever he reached for it. Other words named after the suffering King Tantalus include the tantalus, which is a kind of liquor cabinet. It can be locked, but it has a glass front, so the bottles it contains can be seen but not obtained.

Deja Vu [n. DAY-zha VOO]
If it seems like you've read this phrase before, you may be experiencing the odd, slightly surreal sensation of deja vu. It's the illusion that what you are currently experiencing has been experienced before, even though you are actually experiencing it for the first time. The phrase is French: deja (already) and vu (seen). Deja vu happens unexpectedly, and is usually a fleeting experience. No one knows exactly how or why it happens, but some researchers are studying it, hoping to learn more about consciousness. Different kinds of deja vu experience have been identified, including deja vecu (already experienced) and deja senti (already felt). The opposite of deja vu is jamais vu (never seen), in which a familiar situation seems to be experienced for the first time. This equally odd, surreal experience can happen to people who temporarily lose their memory.

Make No Bones About It
To make no bones about something is to get right to the point, to express yourself simply and directly. "She made no bones about it, saying just that it was time to sell the stock." To make no bones is to be straightforward and candid. There is some controversy about how the phrase got started. The most popular theories are: Stew theory: when you make a stew, if you don't include the bones, then the stew is simpler. To make no bones is to "create a simpler stew" by speaking plainly and directly. Dice theory: when gamblers roll the dice (also known as bones), they might make various good luck gestures, including blowing on them, waving the hands about, or tapping them on the table. To make no bones might be to roll the dice without any kind of fanfare, to just toss them out and see what comes up.

Zany [adj. ZAY-nee]
If you are zany, then you are bizarre, ludicrously comical, clownish: "Those zany Marx Brothers are at it again!" The word was first used as a noun, to refer to someone prone to outlandish, comical behavior. The first zanies were characters in the Italian comedia dell'arte in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The zanni was a buffoon who feebly attempted to mimic the behavior of another character, usually a clown. Why were such buffoons called zanni? Zanni was a Venetian variant for the name Gianni, a familiar form of Giovanni (which in English is the name John), and Giovanni was the generic name of these characters in the comedia.

Hurricane [n. HUR-ih-kane]
A hurricane is a cyclonic (rotating) tropical storm with winds at the center in excess of 74 miles per hour. Such storms can happen in most tropical areas of the world, but they are only called hurricanes if they originate in the tropical regions of the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans. According to several sources, when European voyagers first encountered these very severe storms, they borrowed a native Caribbean word, hurakan, to name them. The word is from the Taino language, derived from hura (wind). But an alternate story is that the word comes from the name of the Mayan god of winds, Hunraken. Perhaps the two derivations are related? Similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called tropical cyclones, from Greek kuklos (circle). In the Northwest Pacific, they are typhoons, from chinese tai fung (great wind). In each area, the storms are given proper names, alphabetically in the order in which they appear. The practice of naming severe tropical storms was started by an Australian weatherman, Clement Wragge. Also known as "Wet Wragge," he gave the worst storms the names of people with whom he had quarrels.

Syzygy [n. SIZ-uh-jee]
The most common meaning of syzygy is the precise conjunction or opposition of celestial bodies: "The sun, moon, and earth are in syzygy when they all form a straight line." Syzygy also refers to a certain combination of metrical structures in classical verses. The word comes (through Latin) from Greek suzugia (union), from suzugos (paired), which is a combination of sun- (together) and zugon (yoke), from zugoun (to join). The Greek prefix sun- was a prolific lexical root. Together with stellein (to send), it gave us systaltic (muscles rhythmically contracting, to pump blood). With histanai (set up; establish) it formed system (parts working together as a whole). The sun- prefix also evolved into syn- and sym-, which form parts of many other "together" words, including syndrome, synchrony, sympatric, sympathy, symphony, symmetry, symbol, synthesis, syntax, synonym, synergy, syndicate, and many more.

Crony [n. KROE-nee]
A crony is someone whom you have known for a while, a friend of long standing. He or she is someone you expect to know for a good while longer: "Frank Sinatra and his cronies became known as the Rat Pack." The first known written record of the word is from 1665, in the diary of Samuel Pepys, where it was spelled "chrony." This spelling reflects the word's probable origin, as Cambridge University slang derived from the Greek word khronios (long-lasting), a derivative of khronos (time). There is also cronyism [KROE-nee-izm], which is favoritism shown to close friends or associates without regard to qualifications. Politicians are sometimes accused of cronyism. Here are more words about time: chronic: of long duration or repeated occurrence chronicle: an extended record of events, in time order chronograph: an instrument that records time intervals chronological: arranged in time order chronoscope: an optical instrument to measure small time intervals synchronous: occurring or existing at the same time

Smog [n. SMOG]
That ugly brown layer of smog that hangs over some cities is composed of auto exhaust, industrial emissions, and possibly some fog as well. Smog is a combination word, from smoke and fog. Who was the first to use the word? The earliest record of the word's usage in America is in a 1923 headline by Hubbard Keavy, a Des Moines, Iowa newspaper man. It is reported that he had never heard the word before, but "created" it for himself when he realized he did not have space to write "smoke and fog". The word was certainly in use before 1923 however. In 1905 we have the first known use of the word, in a London Newspaper report of a meeting of the Public Health Congress. It describes a paper by Dr. H. A. des Voeux, using the word to describe London's chronic air pollution. Today, London's air is much cleaner. But other cities, such as Mexico City, sometimes experience extremely dangerous "smog days."

Concrete [n., adj., v. kon-KREET]
Here's a simple word with a surprisingly complex set of meanings. Concrete is any of several substances formed by the hardening of mixtures of sand, pebbles, or slag with a cementing material. As an adjective, the word means relating to an actual, specific thing; really existing; not abstract; or formed by the coming together of many parts into one continuous mass. As a verb, to concrete is to create something made out of concrete, or to form something that is concrete. Among all the meanings, two themes emerge: solidness with real actual existence, and the coming together of many small parts into a whole. The original meaning related mainly to solidness and reality. It was not until the early 19th century that the word was applied to building material. The word comes through Old French concret, from Latin concrescere (grow together; harden). That's from com- (together) and crescere (grow). Crescere also gave us crescent (the moon's shape when it is growing), increase, and accrue.

Supercilious [adj. soo-pur-SIL-ee-yus]
If you are supercilious, then you are feeling or showing haughty disdain. You might also be condescending, highfalutin, hoity-toity, contemptuous, or arrogant: "Judy was taken aback by Professor Cheswick's supercilious rejection of her carefully considered answer." Supercilious is one of a large class of super- words which imply "aboveness." In this case, it means "above the eyelid," because -cilious comes from the Latin cilium (eyelid), source of the biological term cilium (hairlike appendage). What is above the eyelid? The eyebrow! The word refers to the haughty lifting of the eyebrow, a frequent accompaniment of superciliousness. Here are some other interesting super- words: superciliary: relating to the eyebrow superconductivity: electric conductance with zero resistance superfluid: a liquid with zero viscosity (resistance to flow) superable: possible to overcome, surmountable supererogate: to do more than required, "above and beyond the call of duty"

Labret [n. LAY-brit]
A labret is an ornament that passes through a pierced upper or lower lip. The word originally referred to stone or gold ornaments worn by African or South American natives, but today labrets are becoming popular as fashion accessories in some social groups. Labret comes from the Latin labrum (lip) with the -et ending (something worn, from Latin -ittum). The word lip is also derived from labrum, and labrum is also a modern word, meaning a liplike structure such as the outer mouth of a snail shell. There is also labretifery [n. lah-brih-TIF-uh-ree], which is the practice of wearing a labret, made by adding the unusual suffix -ifery, derived from Latin ferre (to carry). A word with the related suffix -fer is aquifer (water carried in underground rock strata).

Quintessence [n. kwin-TES-uns]
The quintessence of something is its purest, most fundamental essence: "The pudding's flavor was accented by the tangy quintessence of lemon." It can also be the most typical or characteristic instance of a thing: "His performance was the quintessence of wry sarcasm." In medieval alchemy (the pseudo-scientific precursor to modern chemistry), there were four fundamental "essences:" earth, water, air, and fire. It was thought that in addition, there must be a fifth essence, more subtle and pervasive. Aristotle called it "aither", and another Greek term for it was pempte ousia (fifth essence). The Latin name for the same essence was quinta essentia, which made its way through French into English, where it took on the modern meaning. The five alchemical essences did not turn out to be the simplest elements of material reality, but the name of the elusive fifth essence survives.

high muckamuck [n. hy-muk-uh-muk]
A high muckamuck is someone who is not only in a position of authority, but who also wants to make sure that you know he or she is an important person. It's almost always used in a derogatory fashion: "That bothersome Mr. Featherwhistle thinks he's the high muckamuck of the Bridge Club." The expression has its origin in Alaska, back around the mid-1800s. In the Chinook pidgin language, which borrowed from English, French, Nootka, Chinook, and Salishan, there was a phrase "hayo mackamack" (plenty to eat). We have the phrase in written form from 1853 in its original meaning, and from 1856 to mean a pompous, self-important person. In those difficult days in the Alaskan wilderness, a person with plenty to eat was probably a fairly well-to-do individual, and an important person to know.

Concrete [n., adj., v. kon-KREET]
Here's a simple word with a surprisingly complex set of meanings. Concrete is any of several substances formed by the hardening of mixtures of sand, pebbles, or slag with a cementing material. As an adjective, the word means relating to an actual, specific thing; really existing; not abstract; or formed by the coming together of many parts into one continuous mass. As a verb, to concrete is to create something made out of concrete, or to form something that is concrete. Among all the meanings, two themes emerge: solidness with real actual existence, and the coming together of many small parts into a whole. The original meaning related mainly to solidness and reality. It was not until the early 19th century that the word was applied to building material. The word comes through Old French concret, from Latin concrescere (grow together; harden). That's from com- (together) and crescere (grow). Crescere also gave us crescent (the moon's shape when it is growing), increase, and accrue.

hypocorism [n. hy-POK-uh-riz-um]
If your name is Michael, but people call you Mike (or Mikey), then they are practicing hypocorism. A hypocorism is a pet name or a nickname, and hypocorism is also the use of such a name. >From its origins, the word means "a secret caress." Late Latin had hypocorisma, from Greek hupokorizesthai (to call by endearing names). This was from hypo- (beneath, in secret) and korizesthai (caress), which was based on koros (adolescent boy) and kore (adolescent girl). The prefix hypo- has been incorporated in lots of other secret or beneath words, including these: hypocrisy: to pretend a belief while secretly believing otherwise hypobaric: less than normal atmospheric pressure hypocenter: the surface point directly beneath an aerial nuclear blast hypoglossal: under the tongue hypolimnion: the cold, bottom layer of a lake

realm [n. RELM]
A realm can be a kingdom, ruled by a monarch: "King James toured his entire realm." A realm can also be an area of discourse, such as "the realm of calculus." This word is a hybrid, made of two words which merged in Old French. The original root was the Latin regimen (system of government). That root also gave us many other governing and regulating words, including rector, regime, regiment, regular, regulate, rule, rank, and dozens more. In Old French, regimen was combined with reial (royal), giving realme (a government by hereditary monarchy). Reial was itself derived from Latin rex (king), which emerged from the same Indo-European root as regimen. So realm is a result of recombining of two words that branched from the same root.

hobby [n. HOB-ee]
If you have a hobby, then there's something you do for fun, outside of your work: "Joe's hobby is constructing model airplanes." In medieval England, a hobbyhorse was originally a small horse or pony, similar to Hob's horse. Who was Hob? Hob was a pet name for Robert or Robin, and the best known Robin was Robin Hood. In later times, there were the Morris Dances, frolics that often incorporated characters from the Robin Hood legends, with wicker and cloth horses as part of the costumes. These hobbyhorses later evolved into children's playthings, usually just a horse's head on a stick. Still later, the phrase "to ride a hobbyhorse" came to mean the pursuit of childish pleasures with adult passion. Then the latter half of the word dropped away, and the meaning changed to reflect an activity that is just for fun.

snack [n. SNAK]
A snack is a small meal, just a bite to eat: "You can have a snack around three, but don't eat very much or you'll spoil your dinner!" Originally, snack meant bite, as in the closing of jaws. It is recorded as early as 1513, in Gavin Douglas's Aeneid. The meaning of "a quick meal" did not emerge until the 18th century. Snack is related to the similar-sounding words snatch and snap. All three words have to do with biting, seizing, and grabbing. The immediate root of snack is Middle English snak, from snacchen (to trap or bite). The same root led to snatch in English, and to Middle Dutch snappen (to seize), which led to snap in English. Meanwhile, the Dutch word snaps (gulp, mouthful) emerged from snappen, and was borrowed by German as schnapps (gin-like drink), which also migrated into English.

snollygoster [n. SNOL-ee-gos-ter]
A snollygoster is an unscrupulous, unprincipled person. A politician who is perceived as acting without moral and ethical principles or who seems only interested in self-advancement might be called a snollygoster. When President Truman said the word meant "a man born out of wedlock," a debate on the meaning of the word began on the wire services, ending with the conclusion that a snollygoster is "a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform, or principles." The word has also been used by lobster fishermen in the northeastern US. To them, a snollygoster is a particularly severe storm, one strong enough to blow away children and poultry (see the origins, below). Whatever the exact meaning of this seldom-heard word, its origin is probably an alteration of snallygaster, a mythical beast said to prey on poultry and children. That's probably from the Pennsylvania Dutch schnelle geeschter (fast spirit), which is from Middle High German snel (fast, quick) and geist (ghost, spirit).

polka dot [n. POKE-uh DOT]
Polka dots are round spots on fabric or painted surfaces, forming various patterns. Sometimes they are all the same size, sometimes they are different sizes. Usually they are quite colorful. The phrase was first used in the nineteenth century, when a dance called the polka became popular in America. In those days, fads lasted a lot longer than they do today, so there was enough time for fashions to adopt the names of popular dances. There were polka hats, polka gauze, and polka dots, but only polka dots survived until today. As for the dance, the polka is a lively couples dance that originated in Bohemia. The word is from the Czech polka (Polish woman), which is ultimately from Slavic polje (broad flat land, field). That word came from an ancient root that gave us a bunch of flat, broad words, including veldt, floor, plane, planet, and polynya (open area of water surrounded by sea ice).

altricial [adj. all-TRISH-ul]
Creatures that are altricial are helpless, naked, and blind when they are first born. The word is often applied to birds, but it has recently been applied in a new way to describe a certain kind of robot (see today's Cool Fact, below). The word is derived from Latin altrix, the feminine form of altor (nourisher), from alere (to nourish), because altricial birds must be directly nourished by their parents before they can take care of themselves. The opposite of altricial is precocial [prih-KO-shul], from the Latin praecox (premature; not fully ripened or cooked), the same root as precocious (maturing early). Precocial birds are covered with down when they are born, and can run about immediately and feed themselves. The Latin alere has contributed to several other modern words about nourishing and growing: alible: nourishing aliment: nourishing substance; food alimony: payment (nourishment) to support an ex-spouse alumnus: a past graduate (one who has "grown out") adult: one who has grown up adolescent: one who is similar to (but not quite) a grownup coalesce: to grow together altricial robot: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1999/02/02.html

gargoyle [n. GAR-goil]
Gargoyles are the fantastic, often grotesque figures perched on corners and down spouts of old buildings, especially in Europe. Their purpose, when not merely decorative, is to funnel rainwater away from the building, usually through a spout that emerges from the figure's mouth. It's no coincidence that the word, when spoken, sounds like the liquid sounds made by gargoyles when they are spouting. The ultimate roots, the ancient garg- and gurg-, were onomatopoetic words: they sounded like the throat sounds they named. >From those roots came the Latin gurgulio (gullet) and gurges (whirlpool), and then Old French gargouille (throat, waterspout), which led to gargoyle. From the same roots, we also have gurgle, gargle, gullet, gully, gulp, gurgitation, and regurgitate.

comet [n. KOM-it]
Comets are frozen ice-balls, tens of kilometers across, that swing through the inner solar system from the cold depths of space. While they are here they can put on a spectacular show, with huge tails of gas and dust fanning out across the sky. Although in past centuries comets were thought to be powerful, mysterious harbingers of difficult times, they got their name from their resemblance to something human and ordinary: streaming hair. The Greek kome means "hair of the head," and the Greeks called comets "aster kometes" (star with long hair). The first recorded use was by Aristotle. Later the phrase contracted to kometes. It passed through Latin as cometa, then through Old French into English. There is also the coma [KOE-muh], which is the roughly spherical, fuzzy halo that surrounds the head of the comet. That word also comes from the Greek kome, but the other meaning of coma (deep sleep) comes down through a different lineage.

trivia [n. TRIV-ee-uh]
Trivia is a plural noun that can be used in singular or plural constructions. It refers to facts and details which are insignificant and unworthy of much notice: "Don't bother me with the trivia of your daily affairs." The word derives ultimately from Latin trivium (the crossing place of three roads), from tri- (three of something) and via (road). From here, there are two main theories about the word's exact evolution. One theory is that the word evolved directly from the sense of three roads meeting. The idea is that a crossroads is a dirty, public place. Something trivial is thus something public and banal, of no interest, appropriate to the street corner. Another theory involves the traditional medieval division of liberal arts education into seven subjects. Of these, there were the difficult, interesting upper four (the quadrivium) and the more commonplace lower three (grammar, rhetoric and logic: the trivium, from which the modern word is said to have arisen).

Ponzi scheme [n. PON-zee SKEEM]
"Fifty percent profit in forty-five days!" That was the claim of Charles Ponzi, an alleged financial wizard who, in the summer of 1920, ran an "investment company" in Boston, claiming to reap great profits by trading postal reply coupons. As you may have already guessed, his investment scheme was a fraud. Ponzi was using investors' money to pay off earlier investors, and keeping some for himself. Before it was all over he had collected $9,500,000 from 10,000 investors. Today, a Ponzi scheme is any investment swindle in which high profits are promised from imaginary sources, and early investors are paid off from money received from later investors. Before Ponzi, such a scheme was called a bubble.

vernissage [n. ver-ni-SAZH]
On the day before an art gallery opens a new show, there may be a special private showing, or vernissage, for the artist and a few friends. The word comes from the days when artists wanted a chance to make final touchups to their work before showing it to the public. In particular they wanted a chance to freshen the varnish on their paintings. Artists would come by the gallery on the day before the show was to open, and they would invite their friends along to keep them company. Vernissage literally means "varnishing." It's from the French vernis (varnish). That's from Medieval Latin veronix (sandarac resin), which came from Late Greek verenike, an alteration of Berenike (Berenice), an ancient city in Cyrenaica, Libya, where varnishing was first practiced. Today, pre-show varnishing is not needed, but the tradition of the private opening lives on.

oscillate [v. OS-uh-layt]
Something that oscillates swings back and forth or up and down, or vibrates with a steady, repeating cycle. "The great, black oil pump, with its oscillating head, reminded me of a huge grasshopper." The word can also be used more figuratively: to fluctuate, vacillate, or be indecisive. The word goes back to the Greek os (mouth; face), which was also the source for English oral. The diminutive form, oscillum, was applied to small masks of the god Bacchus, which were hung in vineyards as charms. There they would swing back and forth in the breeze. Over time, the word came to refer to the to-and-fro motion of such masks, and the verb oscillare (to ride in a swing) was formed. There are tiny electronic circuits called oscillators, creating signals that vibrate millions of times per second, inside the computer you are using to read this.

silly [adj. SIL-ee]
If you are silly, then you might show a lack of wisdom or good sense. A silly person can also be someone who is frivolous, irresponsibly lighthearted, or lacking seriousness. You can also be "knocked silly" (rendered semiconscious or dazed by a blow). This word's meaning has been through a number of interesting changes. In Anglo-Saxon England, to be seely was to be blessed, to possess a kind of innocent saintliness. Seely people were looked on with a certain awe. The word's evolution took it through "pious," "innocent," "harmless," pitiable," and "feeble," leading up to today's multiple meanings. The original root was prehistoric West Germanic saeliga (luck; happiness). That led to the current German selig (blissful; blessed) and our modern English word.

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Updated Jan 1st 2002



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