gnomon [n. NO-mun]
The gnomon of a sundial is the part that sticks up and casts a shadow, showing what time it is. More generally, a gnomon is any kind of pointer that indicates a value by casting a shadow. Another kind of gnomon is the shape left behind by removing a parallelogram (diamond) from a larger parallelogram with which it shares a corner. The two meanings are related because the shape of a sundial gnomon is often like a diamond with a smaller diamond taken out. The word comes through Latin, from the Greek gignoskein (to know). That root gave us many "knowing" words, including these: gnosis: intuitive knowing of esoteric truths agnostic: one who claims not to know agnosia: inability to interpret sensory inputs (inability to know) diagnosis: identification, interpretation, or description

bloviate [v. BLOW-vee-ayt]
To bloviate is to speak loudly, verbosely, and at great length, without saying much. It's an American word that was used by (and to describe) President Warren Harding, who was known for long, windy speeches. To bloviate is to engage in bloviation [n. blow-vee-AY- shun]. In the early nineteenth century, it was fashionable to create "latinized" words by adding Latin endings to ordinary words, giving them an enhanced sense of importance or formality. From blow (brag, boast) was created bloviate, to describe the extended, self-important speeches of certain political figures. This word has gone in and out of fashion several times after mostly vanishing for the first half of the twentieth century. It is not found in most dictionaries, but is now heard again in the political arena, where such a word may live for years to come.

fore [interj., adj. FOR]
When you're golfing, it's wise to watch out when you hear somebody yell "Fore!" It means there's a golf ball headed your way. The adjective sense of this word describes something that is located up ahead or toward the front, as in the nautical opposites, fore and aft. In every case, the word is short for before. It's originally from the ancient root per, which led to a wide variety of words about distance, direction, importance, and temporal sequence. These words include for, far, first, forth, former, from, proton, furnish, approach, probe, prove, private, and prime. The golf warning came out of British military terminology. When troops were lined up for battle, the ranks would fire in sequence. When a line behind was to shoot, the commander would yell out "'ware before!." On hearing this, it was smart to kneel down if you were in front.

warp and woof
The warp and woof of something is its underlying structure, the base or foundation of its being. Example: "The great masses of individual consumers form the warp and woof of the American economy." Although this expression dates back only to the 1800s, the two words of which it is made are very ancient, and both come from one of humanity's most ancient practices: weaving. In fact, it was in the textile industry that the words came together as a popular expression. The warp of a woven fabric is the yarn or thread that runs along the length of the fabric. The word is from Old English wearpan (to throw away), from an ancient root that also gave us reverberate, verbena, and rhombus. The woof of a fabric is the fiber that runs across the fabric. The word is from Middle English oof, from Old English wefan (to weave), from an ancient root that was also the source of weave, web, weevil, wafer, waffle, wave, and wobble.

deasil [adj. DEE-zul]
Something that rotates clockwise is moving deasil, the direction of the sun's path around the sky in the northern hemisphere. Example: "As part of the midnight ritual, we were required to march deasil around the altar three times." This rare word is the opposite of widdershins [adj. WID-ur-shinz], a more common word that means counterclockwise. Both words are derived from Gaelic. Deasil is related to the Latin dexter (right, rightward), while widdershins is a compound of Old High German widar (back, again) and sinnes (in the direction of). The Latin dexter carried a sense of goodness and skillfulness, which is preserved in Modern English dextrous. In the Wicca tradition of witchcraft, which still uses both of the old rotation words, deasil movement is thought to be good and positive, while widdershins movement invokes dark, negative qualities. Another Cool Word from the root dexter

bower [n. BOU-ur]
A bower is usually a shady, leafy recess, like a little garden nook with green foliage all around. It can also be a woman's private chamber in a medieval castle or a rustic country cottage. All three senses of this word came from the same root, Middle English bour (dwelling), from Old English bur, from the ancient Germanic root *buram (dweller; farmer). Also from that root was Old English gebur (dwellers), source of neighbor, and Middle Dutch gheboer (peasant), source of boor. Much more recently, we have bowery, which originally named a sleazy district in New York City and now can refer to any rough, dangerous part of town. It's from New York's Bowery Street, which once led to the bouwerij (farm) of Peter Stuyvesant. Australia's bower birds build leafy nests to attract their mates http://www.wnet.org/nature/bowerbird/index.html

electric [adj. ih-LEK-trik]
Something that is electric holds, carries or uses electricity [n. ih-lek-TRIS-ih-tee] or it is exciting, thrilling, or charged with emotion. Example: "Just before the fireworks show, the atmosphere was electric with the crowd's anticipation." An electron [n. ih-LEK- tron] is a particle of negative electric charge. The basic principle of all electric machines is the reuinion of separated electric charges, with negatively charged electrons flowing through the machine toward a positively charged absence of electrons on the other side. This separation of charges is reflected in the word's origin. The Latin root was electrum (amber, fossilized tree sap). When amber is rubbed with certain materials (for example, feathers or wool), an electric charge develops as many electrons are collected by one material and lost by the other.

coriaceous [adj. kor-ee-AY-shus]
If something is coriaceous then it is leathery or has a tough, leathery texture. Example: "The old man squinted out to sea, and a frown creased his coriaceous forehead." Nowadays, this word is seldom used in ordinary speech, but a web search reveals hundreds of pages where the word is used as a technical term describing plant leaves, fungi, or other natural phenomena. Like many such technical terms, it's from Latin. The root is corium (leather), which also gave us these words: cuirass [n. kwih-RAS]: armor to protect the chest currier [n. KUR-ee-ur]: one who prepares tanned hides for use excoriate [v. ik-SKOR-ee-ayt]: tear or scrape off the skin; strongly censure or denounce

espionage [n. ES-pee-uh-nazh]
To engage in espionage is to spy secretly on another party who is an enemy or a potential enemy. This other party can be a foreign government or a company or other organization, but not usually an individual. In the distant past, the prehistoric root spek- (to observe) gave rise to Germanic spehon (watcher). From that word, Old Italian had spione (spy), which led to Old French espionner (to spy), the source of English spy. Later, there was French espionnage, the immediate ancestor of English espionage. Other words also branched out from the ancient spek-, including Latin specere (to look at), which gave rise to specimen, spectacle, spectrum, aspect, despise, expect, inspect, perspective, prospect, suspect, and many other words.

sublimate [v. SUB-luh-mayt]
To sublimate is to change from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid stage, or the reverse process. Iodine, moth balls, and ice are all able to sublimate under the right conditions. In psychology, to sublimate an impulse is to change its expression to a socially acceptable form. When a solid sublimates, its molecules are lifted up, and they drift away. The root of the word is the Latin sublimare (to elevate), from sublimis (uplifted), which is also the source of sublime (noble, majestic, supreme, unexcelled). The Latin root sublimis is a compound of sub- (under) and limen (threshold, lintel). From the same two roots we also have subliminal (below the threshold of conscious awareness). Today's Cool Fact is about freeze-drying, a process of sublimation  http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1999/11/15.html

hale [adj. HAYL]
If you are hale, then you are free of illness, strong and healthy. The word usually implies exceptional vigor and robustness, and is often applied to older people. Example: "My dad is hale and hearty, living his seventy-second year to its fullest." This word is from Old English hal (healthy), whose ancient root was prehistoric Germanic khailaz (undamaged). That root split into a family of words, including hale and its close relative, whole, which received its wh- beginning in the 16th century. Other members of the family diverged more in meaning. They include hail, heal, hallow, health, and holy. Also in the same family are German heil (salute), Russian celyi (whole), and Welsh coel (good omen).

symbiosis [n. sim-bee-OH-sis]
Symbiosis is a close relationship between two unrelated species of life that is prolonged over many generations. Such a relationship is symbiotic [adj. sim-bee-AW-tik] and a life form in a symbiotic relationship is called a symbiont [n. SIM-bee-ont] or a symbiote [n. SIM-bee-ote]. Most symbiotic relationships benefit both symbionts. An example is the relationship between bees and flowers, in which the bees receive food (nectar and pollen) and the flowers are fertilized. Another example is the relationship between humans and the bacteria in our intestines, which help us digest our food. The word comes from the Greek sumbiosis (companionship) derived from sumbios (living together), which is a compound of syn- (together) and bios (life). Today's Cool Fact is about a symbiotic relationship  http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1999/11/12.html

meme [n. MEEM]
A meme is an idea that spreads itself from one mind to another, competing with other ideas to be held by the minds within which it lives. Memes are the basic building blocks of culture, just as genes are the basic building blocks of organic life. The study of memes is called memetics [n. meh-MEH-tiks]. This simple little word is so new it does not appear in most dictionaries, yet memetics has quickly become an important field of study. The basic idea of the meme (and the word) was introduced in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene." Dawkins argued that ideas follow some of the same evolutionary laws as genes, competing for limited resources (minds) and passing themselves on to subsequent generations, while evolving to be more fit for survival. The idea of memes is itself a meme, which may have just entered your mind for the first time. Here are more memes about memetics

pabulum [n. PAB-yuh-lum]
Pabulum can be good, nourishing food or it can be insipidly non- stimulating entertainment or other intellectual fare. Example: "This season's Tuesday night comedies are little more than pabulum designed to hypnotise millions of viewers." When this word was first introduced into English in the 18th century, it came from the Latin pabulum (food, nourishment, fodder), and carried that meaning. Within 30 years, it added the sense of stimulating intellectual nourishment. In the early 1930s, a new breakfast cereal for babies was patented. Highly nutritious but also quite bland, it was called Pablum, after the same Latin root. With the great success of Pablum, the similar sounding pabulum came to refer not only to stimulating nourishment, but also to anything bland and unstimulating.

smithereens [n. smith-ur-EENZ]
If something is in smithereens, then it has been smashed into many tiny fragments. Example: "I was horrified to discover that my blue ming vase had been smashed to smithereens in the earthquake." This word is almost never seen in the singular form, although one might expect that one fragment would be a smithereen. The origin is Irish smidirin (little fragment), which is the diminutive of smiodar (fragment). Several other Irish diminutives have made it into English, including the names Colleen, from Cailin (little girl) and Kathleen, from Caitlin. There is also poteen (illegally distilled Irish whiskey), from poitin (small pot). More about the Irish language and its influence on English  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/irish/language.html

schlemiel [n. shluh-MEEL]
A schlemiel is someone who is a clumsy, unlucky bungler. Example: "After losing my fifth golf ball into the water hazard, I felt like a total schlemiel." Schlemiel is one of a group of words beginning in sh- or sch- that were imported from Yiddish. It's from shlemil, a word whose origin is said to be in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish holy book. There, a man named Shelumiel is described, who experiences difficult times and never wins any battles. Sometimes, along with schlemiel comes schlimazel, another word for an unlucky dolt, from Yiddish shlimazl (bad luck). Here are more words from Yiddish shlock: trash, cheap merchandise schlep: carry, lug laboriously schmaltz: over-sentimentality schmooze: hang around talking and not working schnook: someone who is easily fooled schmuck: fool, heedless oaf.

tautochrone [n. TOT-uh-krone]
A tautochrone is a curve, shaped so that an object falling along it under the influence of gravity will reach the bottom after the same amount of time, no matter where it starts from. It's a U-shaped curve, with the ends higher than the center. An inverted tautochrone is a cycloid, which is the curve traced by a point on the outside of a wheel as it rolls along the ground. The word comes from Greek tauto- (the same) and chronos (time). Here are more "sameness" words from tauto-: tautology [n. tot-AW-luh-gee]: redundant explanation; meaningless proof that is true whether or not its component statements are true tautegorical [adj. tot-uh-GOR-ih-kul]: saying the same thing with different words (opposite of allegorical) tautoousious [adj. tot-oh-OW-see-us]: absolutely identical The mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange studied the tautochrone  http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Lagrange.html

sangfroid [n. sahn-FWAH]
If you have sangfroid, then you are calm and collected, even when things get difficult or stressful. Example: "We expected Pete to be nervous and sweaty as he stepped up to the podium, but his sangfroid surprised everyone." In English, if you are "cold blooded" you are ruthless and unfeeling, lacking compassion. In French, to have cold blood means to be calm and collected, even under stress. Sangfroid is from the French sang-froid (cold blood), originally from Latin sanguis (blood) and frigidus (cold). Here are more "bloody" words: sangria [n. sang-GREE-uh]: cold drink with wine and fruit juice sanguicolous [adj. sang-GWIK-uh-lus]: living in the blood (as a parasite) sanguine [adj. SANG-gwin]: blood colored; of cheerful, healthy temper sanguinary [adj. SANG-gwin-air-ee]: accompanied by bloodshed; bloodthirsty

evince [v. ih-VINS]
To evince is to show clearly, to constitute outward evidence of something, or to reveal. Example: "This thin layer of dark red sediment evinces the arrival of ash from a volcanic eruption 6,000 years ago." Near-synonyms for this word include manifest, demonstrate, and indicate. The root was Latin evincere (to vanquish, to prove), which came from ex- (out) and vincere (to conquer). In the 1600s, to evince could be to convict of wrongdoing, or to subdue. Later, that meaning was dropped, and to evince was to prove by argument as in a court. The modern meaning emerged in the 1700s. Another modern word that evolved from evincere is evict, which is to put out or eject by legal process. For example, a tenant may be evicted from an apartment. Also from vincere are vanquish, victor, and convince.

haliography [n. hal-ee-OG-ruh-fee]
A description of the sea is a haliography, and someone who writes such a description is a haliographer [n. hal-ee-OG-ruh-fer]. Example: "I have always enjoyed the evocative haliographies of Conrad and Melville." The suffix -graphy refers to something that is written or represented in some way. It's from the Greek graphein (to write). The prefix halio is a modification of halo-, a prefix from the Greek hals (salt, sea). Here are more "salty" words haloid [adj. HAL-oid]: salt-like halimous [adj. HAL-ih-mus]: of or about salt; marine halophyte [n. HALE-uh-fyt]: plant that lives in salty soil halophile [n. HAL-uh-fyl]: life form that prefers a salty environment halomancy [n. HAL-oh-man-see]: fortune telling with salt halogen [n. HALE-uh-jen]: element that forms salts with metals halocline [n. HALE-uh-klyn]: vertical gradient in ocean salinity.

sandwich [n., v. SAND-wich]
A sandwich is a food item made from two or more slices of bread with meat, cheese, or other filling between them. It can also be anything that has similar alternating layers, and to sandwich something is to enclose it between two layers. This word's story goes back to the municipal borough of Sandwich, in England near Dover. In the 1760s, the fourth Earl of Sandwich was John Montague, a heavy gambler who liked to stay at the gaming tables for many hours. To make this possible, he instructed his servant to bring him pieces of meat and cheese between slices of bread. He could eat these without making a mess, while still keeping one hand free for rolling the dice. Montague's requested snack was not a new invention, but his extended gambling binges were well known. Soon his favorite bread and meat combination was known as a sandwich. Are you hungry? Make yourself a nice sandwich. http://www.garvick.com/recipesmm/sandwich_recipes.htm http://www.recipeamerica.com/recipes/sandwich.htm http://soar.berkeley.edu/recipes/sandwiches/

slake [v. SLAYK]
To slake is to lessen or abate. You can slake your thirst by drinking, or slake someone's fear by reassuring them. To slake can also be to cool or refresh by wetting or moistening, and to slake lime (calcium oxide) is to change it into calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) by combining it with water. Of all these meanings, the oldest is the first one. The word is from Middle English slaken (to abate), from Old English slacean, derived from slaec (sluggish). This root was also the source of Modern English slack, slacken, and slacker. From the idea of slaking thirst by drinking came slaking by adding water to cool or refresh. That usage led to slaking as a name for the chemical alteration of lime by adding water. Unlike slaking to cool, slaking lime causes the release of heat.

lollygag [v. LOL-ee-gag]; alternate spelling lallygag
To lollygag is to dawdle or waste time by aimlessly puttering around. Example: "You kids stop lollygagging and get busy with your homework!" People have been accused of lollygagging as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. There has always been a negative judgment in the accusations, but the meaning of the word has changed. In the mid-1800s, the word referred to lascivious indulgence in kisses and caresses, like the (then) scandalous actions of a lovestruck couple. No one knows the origin of lollygag, but it has been suggested that the root was the dialect word lolly (tongue), which makes sense considering the original meaning of the word. If so, it is closely related to lollipop, a word that originally referred to a kind of treacle candy.

pass the buck
To pass the buck is to shift responsibility or avoid blame by assigning it to someone else. Example: "Accused of eating all the cookies, Larry passed the buck to Joe, pointing out the crumbs on his chin." This expression originated in poker games in the American west. The buck was a token, usually a silver dollar or dollar bill, that was passed around to show whose turn it was. An alternate theory says the token was a buckhorn knife. How did a dollar come to be called a buck? The most widely accepted theory is that the word originally referred to a buckskin, which was used as a unit of barter between Native Americans and colonials. As the name of an animal, buck goes back to Old English buc (male deer) and bucca (male goat).

boondocks [n. BOON-doks]
If you are from the boondocks, then you come from a rural place, far away from the big city. The boondocks can also be a wild, densely vegetated place, like a jungle or thick forest. Such places can also be called the boonies. Both words are slang, and they are always plural. This word sounds like the name of one of America's wilderness folk heroes, Daniel Boone. But its origin is in the South Pacific, far from Daniel Boone's Kentucky home. It entered English from Tagalog [tah-GAH-log], the language spoken in the Philippines. American soldiers there heard locals referring to the back-country as bundok (mountains), and dreaded being assigned to marches out there. They brought the word back home with them, and it came to be applied to any wild, remote area.

dunnage [n. DUN-ij]
Dunnage can be loose packing material that is used to fill and level off a ship's hold before the cargo is added, or it can be your personal baggage. It can also be the padding in a shipping container, like styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap. Some sources claim that the origin of this word is unknown, listing various theories. One theory says the word comes from Low German "dunne twige" (brushwood), since that was often the material used as dunnage in ship's holds in the 1800s. Another theory is that it comes from Dunlop, a town in Scotland. However, the American Heritage Dictionary says the origin is Middle English dennage, from Middle Dutch denne (flooring of a ship), which makes sense to us. The dunnage room of a ship is where the crew are bunked, and it used to be where the dunnage was stored when not in use. Visit the dunnage room of the steamer William G. Mather. http://little.nhlink.net/wgm/vt/dunnage/dunn.html

vocable [n., adj. VOE-kuh-bul]
If you look at a word as a sequence of sounds or syllables, without considering its meaning, then you are seeing that word as a vocable. Also, a word that is vocable is one that can be spoken. Example: "The vocable 'mama' seems like a natural sound for a baby's first word." Language has been a part of human culture for many millennia, and the words we use to describe words are very old. From the ancient root wek- came the Latin vox (voice) and vocare (to call). Those roots gave us a family of modern words having to do with voices, words, and language. More "language" words from vox and vocare vocal: relating to the voice voice: sound produced by the vocal cords vocation: a regular occupation or calling vocabulary: all the words known; all the words of a language vociferous: prone to noisy vocal outbreaks vocoder: device for producing artificial speech

kleptocracy [n. klep-TOK-ruh-see]
A kleptocracy is a government that is run by thieves, or characterized by rampant greed and corruption. The first part of the word is from Greek kleptein (to steal), which also forms part of kleptomania (compulsive thievery). The suffix ocracy is from the French -cratie, originally from Greek kratos (strength, power). Today, that suffix refers to any organization that governs or rules. Here are more forms of government democracy: by the people, from Greek demos (people) meritocracy: by those deemed most deserving (meritorious) bureaucracy: composed of a hierarchy of non-elected officials autocracy: by one person who holds absolute power theocracy: by a religious institution or authority hagiocracy: by holy men or saints.

put on the dog
To put on the dog is to dress in a sharp, flashy way, in your very best clothes. Example: "For Bob and Alice's wedding, I really put on the dog, with a full tuxedo and an irridescent blue-green bow tie." Today, this expression has nothing to do with wearing your pet. Its origin might have had something to do with an actual dog, but no one knows for sure. Several explanations have been offered for this mysterious phrase. According to one story, in medieval times the very best shoes were made of dog skin. Since the expression was first recorded in America in the 1870s, this is an unlikely origin. Another explanation refers to the popularity of dressed-up ladies' lap dogs in the late 1800's in the US, when putting on the dog might have had quite a literal meaning.

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Updated Apr 25th 2002



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