Martha Barnette - Buff Up Your Brain!
HomeLearn a New WordAbout MarthaOn the AirIn PrintIn PersonLinks
Color
                 
 

A
Spacer

    Return to
Learn a New Word
 
 

accismus
(ak-SIZZ-muss)

The pretended refusal of something that is actually desired very much.

Experts in the art of rhetoric use accismus to refer to a statement that feigns disinterest. There's a famous instance of accismus early in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," when Caesar gives the impression that he's reluctant to accept the crown. A more everyday example might be: "Why no, I couldn't possibly have that last bite of your fallen chocolate souffle with hot fudge sauce." It's from the Greek akkismos, which means "coyness," or "affectation."

"Really now, Gerald, your accismus is hardly persuasive."

 

 

acerbic

(uh-SURR-bick)

Sour, harsh, bitter.

Acerbic is from Latin acerbus, meaning "harsh." It's a relative of exacerbate, meaning "to embitter, aggravate, or make harsher."

"For four decades now, the alliteratively acerbic designer and self-appointed arbiter of taste has gleefully chronicled each year's fashion flops and tops." -- Martha Barnette (yes, yours truly) in an article in Salon magazine about my surreal afternoon with Mr. Blackwell, the "Worst Dressed List" guy.

 

 

 

adumbrate

(AD-uhm-brayt)

1. To give a sketchy outline of. 2. To foreshadow vaguely. 3. To disclose only partially.

This word with multiple uses is from Latin adumbrare meaning "to shade or shadow." It's from Latin umbra, meaning "shadow" -- and yes, it's a linguistic relative of that other "shady" word, umbrella.

(Adumbrate can also mean to "overshadow," as in the case of a 17th century text that includes the line "The lustre of his good qualities is in some measure adumbrated by certain defects.")

"Mr. Smithers then proceeded to adumbrate a plan to expand employee benefits, but his speech was hardly enough to satisfy those who were hoping for specifics."

 

 

 

afflatus

(uh-FLAY-tus)

A strong creative impulse; divine inspiration.

This word comes from Latin afflare, meaning "to breathe on" or "to blow on." (Similarly, inspire comes from Latin for "to breathe in.") Louisa May Alcott used this word (and a variant spelling of divine) in Little Women when describing a writer's creative process:

"Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The devine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her 'vortex', hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent."

 

 

 

aficionado

(uh-feesh-ee-uh-NAH-do or uh-fees-ee-uh-NAH-do)

A devotee, admirer, an enthusiastic fan.

From Spanish aficionar, which means "to inspire a liking for," this word is a relative of English affection.) Aficionado originally applied to devotees of bullfighting, but now applies to any type of ardent enthusiast.

"With the dwindling cigar market in mind, Marvin R. Shaken, the founder, editor, and publisher of Cigar Aficionado--a magazine for men who smoke cigars--has redesigned the monthly."--Alex Kuczynski, noting in The New York Times that the magazine's cover now features "Aficionado" in huge type and the once-prominent word "Cigar" in tiny letters.

 

 

 

agitprop

(AJ-it-prop)

1. Agitation and propaganda, especially on behalf of communism.


2. A work of art, literature, drama, or music intended to convey a political perspective, with little, if any, regard for the truth.

Borrowed directly from Russian, agitprop is adapted from a much longer expression that refers to the Agitation and Propaganda Section of the old Communist Central Committee.

These days the word agitprop is used much more loosely, as evident in a recent article by Ruth Shalit. Writing in Salon about the now infamous commercial produced by the Wieden Kennedy ad agency, which depicted a terrified female Olympic athlete outrunning an attacker with a chainsaw, Shalit observed:

"OK, so it's a bit of a stretch for Wieden to spin a chain-saw-killer ad into a victory for postmodern feminism. Nonetheless, Nike's evolution away from 'Our Sports Bras, Ourselves' agitprop seems a milestone worth cheering -- especially when you consider how mired other brands are in the same old first-wave formulas."

 

 

aglet

(AG-lit)

That little plastic tip on the end of a shoelace.

This word for the little thingie that helps the lace go through an eyelet was adapted from aguillette, an Old French word for "needle." These words derive from the Latin word for "needle," acus, the source of another sharp word in English, acute.

"Then you stick the aglet through the eyelet -- and voila!"

 

 

ailurophile

(eye-LOOR-uh-file)

A cat-lover.

In Greek, the word for "cat" is ailouros. An ailurophobe, on the other hand, has a morbid fear of felines.

"Funny how they insist on climbing into the lap of the only person in the room who's not an ailurophile, eh?"

 

 

 

alma mater

(AL-muh MAH-turr, AHL-muh MAH-turr)

A school that one has attended.

No doubt you're familiar with this one, but did you know the tender image it contains? Literally, alma mater is Latin for "nourishing mother." It's a relative of other nourishing words like alimentary, and all those maternal words, such as, well, maternal -- as well as the"mother city" otherwise known as a metropolis.

"Widely known for his die-hard school spirit and exceedingly large collection of memorabilia, Sidney was probably the only alum upset to learn that officials had voted to change the name of his alma mater from Beaver College to Arcadia University."

 

 

 

amethyst

(AM-uh-thist)

A purple gemstone.

For some reason, the ancient Greeks believed that anyone who wore or possessed one of these purple stones could drink all night long and never become intoxicated. The amethyst's power to ward off in intoxication is reflected in its name: the Greek word amethystos literally means "not drunk" -- from the Greek stem a- meaning "not," and methystos meaning "drunk." (Greek methystos, by the way, is a distant linguistic relative of another boozy English word, mead.)

"At the last minute, Vanessa scooped up her amethyst bracelet and slipped it on as she stepped out the door, figuring that it couldn't hurt and, what the heck, it might help."

 

 

 

amok

(uh-MUCK)

In a murderous rage; frenzied.

Sixteenth-century European explorers returned from the Indian Ocean returned with lurid tales of islanders flying into murderous rampages. The Malay language even had a word for it: amoq, or "in a homicidal rage." Portuguese explorers adopted this term as amouco, which eventually led to English run amok or run amuck.

It's unclear just why and to what extent these rampages occurred. In 1772, Captain James Cook explained: "To run amock is to get drunk with opium.to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage." Some Europeans blamed fits of jealousy, while others mused that running amok must be an indigenous cultural trait.

Of course, these days running amok can happen anywhere, and often refers to more benign activities.

"Run amok with your favorite characters in a complete, 3-D re-creation of their town." - from promotional copy for "The Simpsons' Virtual Springfield" CD-ROM, which lets users launch water balloons from Bart's tree house, lob gummy bears at unsuspecting moviegoers, and take doughnut breaks with Homer at the local nuclear power plant.

 

 

 

anathema
(uh-NATH-uh-muh)

1. Someone or something detested, loathed, or cursed.


2. A formal ecclesiastical excommunication or curse.


3. A vehement denunciation or curse.

This word is adapted from Latin anathema, which meant "an excommunicated person," or "the curse of excommunication."

"Of course it was anathema to him, but then, Tommy Velour was a consummate performer -- which meant that if his audience was clamoring for a reprise of 'People,' why then, 'People' they would hear."

 

 


ancillary

(AN-suh-ler-ee)

1. (adj.) Subordinate or subsidiary.

2. (noun) Something that functions as an accessory, auxiliary, or adjunct.

If you know that in ancient Rome, a female slave or maidservant was called an ancilla, then it's easy to see how this word came about. (Some etymologists suggest that ancilla itself goes back to even older roots that literally mean "the one who circles around.")

"I do have other interests, but they're ancillary." -- Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, talking to reporters. According to Sports Illustrated, O'Neal is close friends with a retired English professor, and invariably greets the old prof with a request to learn a new word, which is how he learned ancillary.

 

 

 

anent

(uh-NENT)

Concerning; regarding.

This term derives from Old English on efen, which means "alongside" (literally "on even," as in "on even ground.") So, for example, if you're sick and tired of beginning memos with "Re:", you can always impress your co-workers with "Anent your question about ...."

The word anent appeared a while back in a New York Times article: "The question remains a vital consideration anent the debate over the possibility of limiting nuclear war to military objectives." Then there was Sir Walter Scott, who wisely observed:

"Nor is it worth while to vex oneself anent what cannot be mended."

 

 

 

anodyne

(ANN-uh-dyn)

1. Capable of soothing or relieving pain.


2. Relaxing.


3. Insipid, watered-down.

This word comes from the Greek stem an- meaning "without" and odyne, meaning "pain." As a noun, anodyne can also be use to mean "a pain-relieving medicine," as in "Nurse! Bring me an anodyne!"

"Freddie Prinze Jr., who specializes in anodyne romantic comedies with defiantly forgettable titles, is a nice-looking young actor with a winning, gentlemanly manner -- kind of like Ricky Nelson without the smoldering eroticism." -- from a New York Times capsule review of Freddie's latest forgettable film, "Boys and Girls."

 

 

 

antelucan

(an-tee-LOO-kan)

Pertaining to the hours before dawn.

From Latin antelucanus, which means "before dawn," this word is a relative of such bright words as lucid and elucidate.

"She got some of her best thinking done during those antelucan reveries, although she certainly didn't mind the occasional interruptions for antelucan revelries."

 

 

 

anthology

(ann-THALL-uh-jee)

A collection of selected writings, such as poems, short stories, or plays.

One of the loveliest words in the English language, anthology derives from the Greek for "a gathering of flowers" or "garland" - a "literary bouquet," in other words.

"She'd been terribly flattered by his seemingly thoughtful gift, an anthology of Walt Whitman poems."

 

 

 

antic

(ANN-tic)

1. a playful trick, a prank, a silly caper (often used in the plural).


2. as an adjective: ludicrously odd, funny, bizarre.

In the 16th century, Italian archaeologists uncovered the ancient baths of the Emperor
Titus in Rome. The walls of this huge structure were covered with bizarre paintings of
satyrs, centaurs, and other bizarre creatures, all dancing and otherwise cavorting about in
strange positions.

These wild, comic scenes were, of course, were quite different from the kind of religious
art that had dominated the early Christian Era and Middle Ages. So the Italians described
these newly discovered paintings as antica, or literally, "antique." The Italian adjective
eventually found its way into English as antic, and over time, its meaning expanded to
encompass any similarly absurd act or gesture. See also grotesque.

"Did anyone really doubt that Jordan's antics would get her voted out of the 'Big Brother'
house?"

 

 


apogee

(APP-uh-jee)

1. The outermost point in an orbit.

2. The highest point; the apex.

Borrowed into English from French, apogee derives ultimately from Greek apogaion, literally "far from the earth." (The latter part of apogaion is the etymological kin of the earth goddess name, Gaia.)

"'Saturday Night Fever,' the movie released in 1977, marked the apogee of disco, a lucrative moment in pop that quickly generated a backlash, a record-business crash and a widespread repudiation."-- music critic Jon Pareles, in the New York Times.

 

 

 

arcadian

(ar-KAY-dee-uhn)

Rustic or simple, in an idealized way.

The ancient Greek region of Arcadia was famous for rural tranquillity and simple, pastoral ways. The adjective deriving from its name is sometimes capitialized.

"Isn't it funny how all these new magazines that extol arcadian simplicity are also chock-full of advertisements extolling conspicious consumption?"

 

 

 

augean
(aw-JEE-uhn)

1. Abominably filthy from long neglect.


2. Extremely difficult and unpleasant.

You remember Hercules and his twelve labors. One of them involved the stables where King Augeas kept 3000 oxen. Today we'd probably call out both the Health Department and the Humane Society to deal with Augeas, considering that for 30 years, he neglected to have anyone clean his stables.

That nasty task finally accomplished by Hercules, who diverted an entire river through them to sweep them clean. Thus Augean has come to describe anything similarly filthy, or an unpleasant job requiring Herculean effort.

"Whoever is really serious about tackling campaign finance reform should ready to face an Augean task."

 

 


avuncular

(uh-VUNG-kyuh-lerr)

1. Of or pertaining to an uncle


2. Uncle-like, especially in benevolence or geniality.

This word comes from the Latin avunculus, which means "maternal uncle." The Romans considered one's maternal uncle to be a kind of benign, grandfatherly figure. (In fact, avunculus itself is a diminutive of Latin avus, which means "grandfather." The same root also produced the modern Spanish word for "grandfather,"abuelo.)

"Manipulative, avuncular and enigmatic, he created a presence in The X-Files before sacrificing himself for his protege in the final episode of the first season, 'The Erlenmeyer Flask.'" -- from the Fox network's official website for the X-files.

 

 

(c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette

 
                 
Color
HOMELEARN A NEW WORDABOUT MARTHAON THE AIRIN PRINTIN PERSONLINKS