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To laugh loudly and boisterously; to guffaw.

This word is from Latin cachinnare, meaning "to laugh loudly," and is probably onomatopoetic.

"I have a feeling that the authors of that new book that says you can lose weight by sleeping more are going to be cachinnating all the way to the bank."





To beg; to mooch.

This word, which rhymes with "badge," has been around since the late 12th century, although its origin is disputed. It may be related to Scots cadger, meaning a "peddler" or "huckster."

"Could I please, please, please, pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top, cadge just one more day to finish this project?"




(kuh-DOO-sih-tee, kuh-DYOO-sih-tee)

1. The weakness or infirmity of old age.
2. The state of being perishable or fleeting.

This word ultimately goes back to Latin cadere, meaning "to fall." (The same root also appears inside the word for a "fallen" one, cadaver.) Similarly, leaves that are caducous (kuh-DOO-kuhs) are the type that drop off early in the season.

"There, there, dear. I don't think that losing your car keys is necessarily a sign of caducity."





Dark, misty, gloomy.

This word comes ultimately from Latin caligo, meaning "darkness."

"Fingers poised over the keys, Nigel mused, 'Hmmmm, what if I began with, 'It was a caliginous and stormy night.'?'"






Having a shapely butt.

This useful word comes from the Greek kallos, "beautiful" (as in the "beautiful writing" that is calligraphy), and pyge, the ancient Greek word for "buttocks."

"She figured that if she could spend 1,000 hours on the Stairmaster between now and her high school reunion, she¹d be looking quite callipygian when the big day arrived."





Someone who seeks or is nominated for an office or honor.

In ancient Rome, those seeking election to public office traditionally wore togas rubbed with bright white chalk, all the better to reinforce the idea that they were pure of character. The Latin word candidus meant "white," or "pure," and so those who wore the white togas were called candidati -- the predecessor of our own word for would-be officeholders.

Candidate is an etymological relative of a number of words having to do with the idea of things that are bright, glowing, and pure, including candle, candor, and candid.

"Okay, but even if he did snort the stuff years ago, the question remains: How candid should a candidate be?"





A muskmelon in season during late summer.

This sweet melon gets its name from a vacation getaway - namely, the pope's. This villa, just outside Rome in the town of Cantalupo, was where the Italians first cultivated this delicately flavored fruit from Armenia. Therefore they christened it with the name that evolved into cantaloupe.

"She had her doubts, but decided at last that she might as well take her psychic's advice and paint her bedroom walls the color of cantaloupe."






A smooth easy gait for a horse, faster than a trot, but slower than a gallop.

This familiar word has a colorful past: After the murder of Thomas a Becket in England's Canterbury Cathedral in the twelfth century, Canterbury became a popular destination for countless religious pilgrims traveling on horseback, including those described in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. By the early seventeenth century, the expression Canterbury pace had come to mean the easy gait at which these faithful rode to their destination. By 1673, Canterbury had become a verb, and by 1706, had shortened to canter.

"Spotting a pile of clothes on the riverbank, Vanessa slowed her steed to a canter, then a trot, then stopped altogether and ever so casually got out her binoculars."





1. Hard to please, fault-finding, nitpicking.

2. Intended to entrap or perplex, especially in an argument.

Often applied to someone who's highly critical and makes a habit of seizing up trivial faults, captious derives ultimately from Latin captio, which literally means "a seizing." Captious also describes questions or remarks designed to trip someone up in an argument or debate.

"Considering that her parents could never praise poor Imogene without adding some captious remark, it's a wonder she's not more neurotic than she is already."




A knitted sweater or jacket, usually collarless, that opens down the front.


Okay, it's a dull word, but it has a colorful origin:

James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868) was the British soldier who lead the famous charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. (You remember -- he was the one ordered to charge against the Russian guns: "Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.")

Although more than half of his troops were killed or wounded, the earl survived the battle. The type of woolen waistcoat he habitually wore eventually was named in his honor.

"He was in the middle of taping his show, singing his opening number, 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' He reached into the closet for his trademark red cardigan, and out popped an inflatable rubber doll clad in little more than a garter belt and a blond wig. Mister Rogers, startled, jumped back. His television crew doubled over in laughter."-- Peter Pae, profiling Fred McFeely Rogers, he of children's television fame, in the Wall Street Journal.




1. (verb) Raise trivial objections to.

2.(noun) A petty criticism; a frivolous objection.

It's from Latin cavillari , which means to "jeer" or "satirize."

"Another word of warning: Whenever Smithers hands back a report you've written and says, 'Not to cavil here, but ...' be prepared to pull up a chair, because you'll be listening to him for a long, long time."





Use it one way, and cleave means "to split" (as in what a meat cleaver does). So why is it that cleave can also mean just the opposite--that is, to "stick to," as in to cleave to a principle?

Actually, these cleaves are two different words that evolved to have the same spelling. One cleave comes from Old English cleofan, which means "to split," making it a linguistic relative of cleft. The other cleave is from Old English cleofian, which comes from an old family of Germanic words meaning to "adhere."

"Bearing in mind that one can cleave to one's spouse--and that pressures can cleave a relationship in two--the husband-and-wife authors of an oddly compelling new memoir about their marriage decided to call their book Cleaving."






A clique or circle, especially of writers; a literary group.

The Romans' word for "meal" was cena, and they called the "dining room" a cenaculum. This word's English progeny, cenacle, first meant "small dining room", and later "a room where people with common interests gather." Eventually English cenacle came to refer specifically to any group of literary types who might gather in such a place.

"But most of all, she looked forward to those regular reality checks from her cynical cenacle."






A food prepared from various grains, such as wheat, oats, or corn.

Don't look now, but there's a goddess in your granola. The word cereal derives from the name of the Roman earth goddess Ceres, who, like her Greek counterpart Demeter, presided over the growth of crops, especially grain.

"I'm not kidding: Cindy's so phobic about fat that she puts orange juice on her cereal instead of milk."




Someone who makes elaborate and fraudulent claims to skill or knowledge; a quack.

The Italian village of Cerreto, in Umbria, once had a reputation for producing more than its share of quacks -- that is, people who hawked medicinal talents and remedies that were questionable to say the least.

In Italian, such a prattling quack was called a ciarlatano. Many etymologists suspect this word is influenced both by cerretano ("an inhabitant of Cerreto") and ciarlare, meaning "to chatter." In any case, ciarlatano passed into French as "charlatan." The English soon realized the usefulness of a word for those who volubly claim to know more than they really do, so by the early 17th century, they'd adopted charlatan into their own language.

"Peter Drucker once remarked that journalists use the word "guru" only because "charlatan" is too hard to spell." -- Adrian Wooldridge, being all too astute in the Wall Street Journal.






Changing in luster or color, the way cats' eyes do.

This marvelous word is a relative of the English word cat. It comes from the French chatoyer, which literally means "to shimmer like cats' eyes."

"Following a brisk body scrub and generous application of pineapple mango-scented moisturizer, Vanessa slipped into a magenta-and-orange dress of chatoyant silk and stepped out into the night."






1. A group containing 1,000 elements.

2. A millennium.

Sick and tired of hearing about "millennial this" and "millennial that"? We borrowed our word millennium directly from Latin, but its Greek-based equivalent, chiliad, is a perfectly legitimate English word that works just as well. So how about if we all start using that one for the next year or so?

Just remember that it begins with a "k" sound, not "ch." (It comes from the Greek khilioi, meaning "one thousand," this Greek root that also provides the kilo in kilobyte -- and thus the K in Y2K).

"Actually, the new chiliad doesn't start until NEXT year, not that anybody seems particularly bothered by that fact."





(kye-MER-ik, kye-MEER-ik, kih-MER-ic)

1. Unreal, imaginary, wildly fanciful, or highly improbable.

2. Extremely unrealistic.

In Greek myth, the Chimera (pronounced "kye-MEER-uh" or "kih-MEER-uh") was a fire-breathing she-monster, who was part lion, part goat, and part serpent. The name later applied to any imaginary monster made up of similarly disparate parts.

Both chimeric and chimerical derive from this name, and both can be applied to something similarly improbable or unrealistic, as in "How can you possibly hope to make a profit with such a chimerical plan?"

Scientists have adopted the term chimera to mean "an organism produced by genetic engineering." Actually, creating all kinds of chimeric animals seems increasingly possible, as Antony Barnett recently reported in the British newspaper, The Guardian:

"A biotech company has taken out a Europe-wide patent on a process which campaigners claim would allow 'chimeric' animals to be developed with body parts originating from humans."





A scar left by the formation of new tissue over a wound.

This word is borrowed directly from the Latin for "scar." It's sometimes spelled cicatrice. Its plural is cicatrices (pronounced "sik-uh-TRY-seez" or "sih-KAY-trih-seez").

In botany, a cicatrix is a scar left by a fallen leaf.

"After the embarrasing fiasco between the antipasto and the pesto pasta, Vanessa knew it was only a matter of time before all she'd have left of this relationship was yet another emotional cicatrix."





A guide for sightseers.

One of ancient Rome's most notable orators was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Now, to understand why he was called Cicero, you have to understand that in antiquity, a lot of folks were named for their physical characteristics. The name Crassus, for example, means "fat." In the case of Cicero, this name derives from Latin cicer, meaning "chickpea" -- a reference to the fact that he had a chickpea-shaped wart on the end of his nose.

Anyway, a cicerone is a guide who likewise orates to a group of sightseers. By the way, if you want to sound even more authentically Italian (and perhaps more cicerone-like in the process), you can also pronounce this word "chich-uh-RAH-neh" or "chee-cheh-RAH-neh."

"But my all-time favorite cicerone is the one in 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure' -- you know, the one who leads tourists through the Alamo and sweetly asks, 'Can you say 'adobe'?'"





The tailbone.

It may sound cuckoo, but this bone at the end of the spinal cord is named after ... well, the cuckoo bird.

Early anatomists apparently saw a resemblance between this bone's triangular shape and the distinctive beak of the cuckoo bird. So they took the Greeks' name the cuckoo bird, kokkux, and Latinized it as coccyx.

"Put it this way: Jason's most recent skateboarding accident was none too kind to his coccyx."





The brown, hard-shelled seed of the coconut, or its edible white flesh.

A goblin lurks inside this word.

When Portuguese explorers first happened upon coconut trees in the tropics, they were struck by the way those three holes in the bottom of the nut resembled a little face. So they called it a coco, their word for a "goblin," "bogeyman," or "grinning skull." Somewhere along the way, speakers of English added the nut to its name.

"Well in that case, how about if we carve a coconut this year instead of a plain old pumpkin?"





Nonsense; rubbish; drivel.

Many explanations have been offered as to this word's origin. One suggests that the cod in codswallop refers to cods in the old sense of "testicles" (as in codpiece.) There's another, even more highly suspect story about one Hiram Codd who made a type of soft drink known as Codd's wallop.

But all anyone really seems to know for sure is that this colorful term came into use only recently, during the 1960s.

"Codswallop? He said my annual report was just so much codswallop???"





A blackhead.

The Romans used the word comedo to mean "glutton," and later applied this name to those gluttonous critters, maggots. An imagined resemblance between the two led to the oh-so-helpful definition of "comedo" in the Oxford English Dictionary: "a small worm-like yellowish black-tipped pasty mass which can in some persons be made, by pressure, to exude from hair follicles."

"Alas, he discovered that his attentions were as welcome as a comedo on prom night."





A celestial body having a long tail.

This word's origin is surprisingly picturesque: In ancient Greek, the word "kometes" meant "having long hair." Aristotle first applied the name "kometes" to this hurtling body which indeed seems to have long hair trailing from its "head." The name was later adopted into Latin as "cometes," which eventually arrived in English as "comet."

"The annual shower comes from dust and ice pellets that break off from the comet Tempel-Tuttle as it whizzes around the sun." --, reporting on the Leonid meteor shower.





A group of buildings enclosed by a barrier.

You might assume that the word compound (as in, for example "the Kennedy compound") simply reflects the idea that several buildings have been "compounded" together. But compound in this sense apparently comes from an entirely different source -- all the way from Malaysia, in fact. When European traders moved into the Far East to set up trading stations and factories, they surrounded them with stockades, and started referring to them by the Malay word kampong, which means "village" or "enclosure." Eventually kampong became compound.

"No, he's spending the weekend at the Camp David compound, but she's in - where else? -- New York."






Self-righteous, moralizing censorship.

As founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, one Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) earned the dubious distinction of overseeing the destruction of 160 tons of literature and photos he deemed immoral. Comstock held special contempt for one of George Bernard Shaw's plays, and in 1905 Shaw returned the favor by writing a letter to the New York Times, which read in part: "Comstockery is the world's standing Joke at the expense of the United States. . . . It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second rate country-town civilization after all."

"Look, I hate receiving those unsolicited ads for porno sites as much as the next person, but this latest proposal to censor the Net constitutes the worst kind of comstockery."






As a verb, to steer the course of a nautical vessel.

Con has many meanings in English, of course, many of which stem from entirely different sources. The con as in pro and con arises from Latin contra, meaning "against." The con in con artist is a shortened form of confidence.

Then there's the verb con, meaning either to "study carefully" or "to commit to memory." It comes from Middle English connen, meaning "to know."

But if you're a sailor, you also use the word con as a verb meaning to steer a vessel at sea. That's why you'll hear that raised section of a submarine --the part with the periscope -- referred to as the conning tower. And as you might have guessed, con in this sense is a relative of conduce, deriving from Latin conducere, meaning "to lead."

"Long John stood by the steersman and conned the ship." -- Robert Louis Stevenson, in Treasure Island.





A series or chain.

From the Latin catena, literally, "a chain," (a relative of Spanish cadena, which means the same thing) comes this word for a series or anything similarly linked.

"Sorry I'm late, honey, but that last phone call from our deranged client in Poughkeepsie set off the most unusual concatenation of events!"





Fitting, adequate, deserved.

It's from Latin condignus, or "altogether worthy" -- a combination of dignus meaning "worthy" and the prefix "com-," which in this case serves as an intensifier.

"'But Mooooooooooom, being grounded for two weeks is hardly condign punishment!,' Bradley whined, but his impressive vocabulary failed to change her mind."





(kuhn-DOOS or kuhn-DYOOS)

To contribute or lead to a result.

This word comes from the Latin conducere, meaning "to lead" or "bring together." Usually conduce is followed by "to" or "toward."

"The quiet conduces to thinking about the darkening future." -- George F. Will.




1. To plot or scheme in secret.

2. To feign ignorance or avoid noticing wrongdoing, thereby tacitly condoning it.

The Latin word conivere means to "shut the eyes," and by extension, "to shut the eyes
to wrongdoing." That image apparently remains preserved inside the Latin word's
English descendant, connive. (And yes, that would make both conivere and connive
etymological relatives of nictitate, meaning "to wink.")

"A young window washer, played by Robert Morse, finds ways to connive, plot and
scheme his way up the corporate ladder at Worldwide Wicket Co."
-- from a Wall Street
article summarizing the plot of the 1967 movie "How To Succeed in Business
Without Really Trying."






A piece of fossilized excrement.

It's from the Greek kopros, meaning "dung." Related words include coprophagous (kuh-PRAH-fuh-guss), which means "feeding on dung," as some beetles do. Then there's coprolalia (kahp-roh-LAY-lee-ah), the psychiatric term for the compulsive use of obscene language that accompanies certain disorders.

"Of course, that still leaves us with the question of just how big a brontosaurus coprolite would be, and what practical, household uses it might have today."





(korr-nuh-KOH-pee-uh, or korr-nyuh-KOH-pee-uh)

1. A "horn of plenty" filled with things like fruit and flowers.

2. A cone-shaped holder or receptacle.

In Greek myth, baby Zeus was suckled by milk from the horn of a goat named Amalthaea. At some point, the poor goat's horn broke off and was magically filled with fruit. From then on, the horn supposedly supplied endless food and drink to anyone who possessed it.

The horn came to be known as the cornucopia (literally "horn of plenty") and has come to symbolize prosperity, and is often part of Thanksgiving decorations.

Cornucopia derives from the Latin cornu meaning "horn" (a relative of that one-horned critter, the unicorn) and copia meaning "plenty" (a relative of such words as copious and copy.)

"Have a seat and dig in -- we have a cornucopia here!"




To sparkle, glitter; to exhibit dazzling virtuosity.

This glittering word comes from the Latin coruscare, meaning "to flash, sparkle, gleam, vibrate."

Sensing an opportunity, Vanessa leaned across the table, all the better to make her eyes coruscate in the candlelight, and purred, "So . . . have you any idea why they call it pasta putanesca?"






To pamper; to treat as a pet.

Its etymology is uncertain, but since at least the 1570s, the noun cosset has meant "a pet lamb." The resulting verb, to cosset, means to treat someone as gently as one would such a pet, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to fondle, caress, pet, indulge, pamper."

"To cosset their guests, some innkeepers bake their own bread, make their own jams or grow their own mesclun. Tim Wilson, an owner of the Jasper Murdock Alehouse at the Norwich Inn in Norwich, Vt., brews tasty, full-bodied beers -- from hoppy pale ales to thick, creamy stouts." -- Elaine Louie, writing in the New York Times about a bed and breakfast that conveniently doubles as a brewery.





1. Suffering from constipation (or causing it)

2. Slow, sluggish

3. Stingy

Costive comes from Old French costeve, which meant the same thing. Both derive from Latin constipare, literally, "to cram together" or "pack tight."

"Personally, of course, I'd love to give you a raise, but you know how costive those upper management types can be."





An unusually strong fear of clowns.

Try an Internet search for coulrophobia and you'll turn up a host of sites by coulrophobes, such as the very creepy and Reportedly coined in the 1980s, coulrophobia derives from the Greek kolobathristes, which means "one who goes on stilts".

"No one could figure out why Larry consistently refused to have lunch with us at McDonald's -- until the day he took one of us aside and shared his long, sad history of coulrophobia."




Sick from excessive eating or drinking.

Crapulent is from Latin crapulentus, which means "very much intoxicated." (It's apparently no relation to the similar-sounding four-letter word that describes what one feels like as a result.)

"See, my fear is that after all this pre-millennial buildup, we're going to party like it's 1999, and then on January 1, 2000, we'll all wake up feeling just as crapulent as ever."






Pertaining to twilight; dim, dusky.

The Romans' word for "twilight" was crepusculum, which comes from a family of words pertaining to "darkness." Their English offspring crespuscular is also applied to animals that become active at twilight or before sunrise, such as bats and birds. A lovely example appeared recently in The New Yorker, where writer Anthony Lane was describing the effect of the August 1999 eclipse:

"The air took on a quick chill, and the light grew weak and crepuscular."





(KROO-pee-urr, kroo-pee-AY)

A gambling-casino attendant who collects and pays bets, and helps out at gambling tables.

It's from the French croupe, which means "a horse's rump." (In English, croup means the same thing -- although it's no relation to the croup you have when you're sick, which comes from a different linguistic root.)

Originally croupier meant "someone who rides behind another on a horse" -- that is, the one seated atop the croupe. Its meaning later extended to indicate "someone who stands behind a gambler to assist him."

"In discussing his new hit movie about a novelist who becomes a croupier, director Mike Hodges told USA Today, 'It's not a costume piece or an English heritage piece, and there's not a silly nit who's usually played by Hugh Grant.'"





A center of attention.

Cynosure goes all the way back to the ancient Greek word kunosoura, which literally means "a dog's tail." But what, you may reasonably ask, is the linguistic connection between a pooch's posterior and a focus of interest?

It seems that the Greeks applied the name kunosoura, or "dog's tail" to the "handle" or "tail" of the constellation we call the Little Dipper. At the end of this "tail" is Polaris, the North Star, which long served as a guide for navigators. This sense of the "dog tail" that contained a "guiding star" led to our own use of the English derivative cynosure as "a reference point or guide," and eventually, "any center of attention."

"Our newly redesigned website will be a cynosure in cyberspace."

(c) 1999-2005  Martha Barnette