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An aggregate of stars formed by mutual gravitation, such as the Milky Way.

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy referred to the whitish swath of stars that cuts across the night sky as the galaktikos kyklos -- literally, the "milky circle." The kyklos is an ancestor of English words like "cycle," and the galaktikos comes from Greek gala, which means "milk."

(Incidentally, the Romans called this same cloudy collection of stars the via lactea, or literally, the "milky way" -- hence our own term.)

"I'm sorry, which galaxy did you say you were from?"





(gal-uh-MAY-shee-uss, gal-uh-MAT-ee-uss)

Nonsense, gibberish.

We borrowed galimatias directly from French, where it means the same thing. Beyond that, hower, this word's origin is uncertain.

Galimatias turned up recently in The New York Times, in an article by Gregg Easterbrook about a government report on global warming:

"Statisticians know that merging two approximations does not produce precision; rather, it produces galimatias."






A fellow, especially one who's awkward, uncouth, or foolish.

No one's certain how this word came to be. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its first recorded use was in 1812.

"He was a galoot, to be sure --but then, she told herself, she did like the way he doted on his mother, not to mention his twelve hamsters and the boa constrictor he'd affectionately named 'Julius Squeezer.'"






1. To stimulate or shock with electric current.

2. To jolt into action, as if by electric shock.

While dissecting a frog, 18th-century Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani noticed that when he touched his scalpel to an exposed nerve, the frog's leg twitched. He surmised that nerves produce electricity and the scalpel had served as an electrical conductor. (Actually, the scalpel had been lying near an electical machine, and the charged blade shocked the muscle into action.)

Galvani began a long series of experiments to test his hunch. His idea was eventually disproved, but his studies launched a new field of research on generating electricity by chemical means, and inspired the word galvanize. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman used it when thanking hackers who briefly shut down eBay and several other online powerhouses:

"Yes, thank you for doing us all a favor, which is highlighting the vulnerabilities of an increasingly wired world, but doing it in a calibrated fashion -- not so powerful that you did any lasting damage, but powerful and brazen enough to get everyone galvanized to address the threat."






Gigantic, immense.

When 16th-century writer Francois Rabelais wanted to satirize the excesses of the French court, he used an allegory, creating a character called Gargantua.

He borrowed the name from that of a giant in medieval legend, and Rabelais' Gargantua was a big guy indeed. As a mere infant, Gargantua was a thirsty boy, feasting on the milk of 17,913 cows. When he got older, he rode a mare as large as six elephants -- and around the horse's neck jingled the bells of Notre Dame. His comb was 900 feet long, and he once dined once a salad of lettuce leaves as big as trees (and accidentally gobbled up six unfortunate pilgrims who'd hidden among them).

Considering these memorable images, it's hardly surprising that the adjective gargantuan seized the imagination of English speakers as well.

"As he had every night during the six years since Wendy had left him for the nunnery, Marvin switched on the Weather Channel, then settled into his recliner to dine on his usual supper: two gargantuan sandwiches and a big Diet Coke."






(guh-MOOT-lik or guh-MEWT-likh, with a guttural ending)

Warm, friendly, congenial, amiable, easygoing, cozy.

We borrowed this word directly from German. It derives from muot, a very old word that means "mind, spirit, joy." To be excruciatingly correct, you'll want to put those two side-by-side dots, also known as an umlaut, over the "u" in this word. Or just spell it gemuetlich, and skip the umlaut.

"Of course, John Hancock is hardly the first national advertiser to feature a gay couple in such a matter-of-fact way. Ikea did it years ago, showing a gemutlich male couple feathering their love nest with inexpensive Swedish furniture." -- Ruth Shalit, writing in







1. Convex, rounded, protuberant.

2. (Of persons or animals) humpbacked.

Gibbous comes from Latin gibbus, meaning "hump." (No relation to the ape called a gibbon.) Sometimes the moon is said to be gibbous, in which case it's more than a half moon, but less than a full one.

"A gibbous moon rose above the shoulder of 27,824-foot Makalu [Peak], washing the slope beneath my boots in a ghostly light, obviating the need for a headlamp." -- Jon Krakauer, on his team's final push to the Mt. Everest summit, in Into Thin Air






A foolish or worthless person.

The word get is sometimes used as a noun to mean "something that is begotten," i.e., "offspring." This same sense is reflected in the Scottish use of get to refer specifically to a "bastard," and more generally to a "brat," "fool," or "idiot." Git is thought to be a variation of get used in this sense.

"The girl scarcely turned her head: 'Shutup yerself yer senseless git!" -- from a 1967 article in the London Observer






A plant with showy flowers arranged on long spikes.

If you know that the Latin word gladius means "sword," then it's easy to see where we get the word gladiator and gladiolus, the latter being a plant with long, sword-shaped leaves. Another name for the gladiolus is "sword lily" -- and in German, this flower goes by the cognate name, Schwertlilie.

As for the plural, both gladioli and gladioluses are correct.

"During their argument over what movie to see, Henry and Millicent exchanged sharp words indeed, but all was forgiven when Henry showed up the next day with an armful of gladioli and tickets to the local high school's production of 'The Mikado.'"







1. (n.) A chunk or piece, especially of raw flesh.
2. (n.) A morsel.

This word is from Old French gobet," literally a "little mouthful." It's a relative of English gob, meaning a small mass. Both words are also related to French gober, meaning "gulp." (The same words are also the etymological kin of our word for a foolishly credulous person, gobemouche.)

"Oh, I always hate that part in shark movies where they show all those little gobbets floating around!"







Windy gibberish or jargon.

Remember Samuel Maverick, the Texan who bequeathed his name to the type of political candidate who stands apart from the herd, as it were?

His grandson, Maury Maverick, was a Texas congressman. In 1944, exasperated by his colleagues' affinity for bureaucratese, this Maverick penned a memo condemning such governmentspeak as gobbledygook. His inspiration for coining this word, he later said, was the idea of roosters "gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity."

"Gore said the name of the prize federal employees can win each month for writing clearly is the 'Gobbledygook Elimination Prize.' Federal employees with a knack for words will win a button with a turkey head with a slash through it."
-- From an article on about the Vice President's attempt to follow in Maverick's footsteps






(GAWB moosh)

Someone who believes any report or rumor, not matter how improbable.

This word is an adaptation of French gobes-mouche (from gober meaning "to gulp" and mouche, meaning "fly" (and a distant relative of our word for a much thinner, but similarly noisome insect, the mosquito).

"Conspiracy theorists, gobemouches first class and ever-growing in number, can be counted on to swallow every wild claim, no matter how unlikely."
-- Eugene Erlich, in "You've Got Ketchup on your Muu-Muu: An A-Z Guide to English Words from Around the World."








How'd the gorilla get its funny-sounding name? Around the fifth or sixth century B.C., a Carthaginian navigator named Hanno sailed along the coast of West Africa and later wrote about his travels. At one point in his journey, Hanno passed an island where he observed what he thought was "a tribe of hairy women." He reported that his African guides called them Gorillai. (Many historians speculate that what Hanno saw from a distance wasn't really a bunch of hairy women, but actual gorillas.)

More than 2000 years later, an American missionary and naturalist named Dr. T.S. Savage came upon these great apes in the wild. When he reported this discovery in a natural history journal in 1847, Savage remembered Hanno and his hairy women, and called these creatures gorillas.

"'Koko, the famous gorilla who is learning sign language, has invented many creative expressions of her own, such as referring to a zebra as a 'white tiger.'"







Dull, stupid, clumsy; lacking in intelligence or vitality.

This handy word is a variation of gaumless, the word gaum being a Scots dialect term that means "attention" and "understanding." Thus if you call someone either gaumless or gormless, you're saying that he or she is lacking in sense, dull-witted, and in other words, pretty much out to lunch.

"Not that she wasn't grateful, but she had to wonder why ther friends invariably fixed her up with the same type of date -- every last one of them gorgeous but gormless."







The gunk that collects in the corners of your eyes when you sleep.

For some reason, intrepid etymologists have traced this word back only as far as Old English gund, meaning "matter."

"Collin was never one to dilly dally in the morning: by the time he had rubbed the gound out of his eyes he was usually on his third Manhattan." -- from Depraved English, by Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea







Two hands placed together to form a bowl.

Or, the amount that can be contained in a pair of cupped hands. This "handy" word is of Scandinavian origin. (By the way, if you get tired of saying gowpen, you can always use yepsen, a linguistic relative that means the very same thing.)

"She looked around furtively, then gathered up a gowpen of carob-covered raisins."







High seriousness, sobriety.

We lifted this word directly from Latin, where gravitas means "weight" or "heaviness." As you might guess, it's a linguistic relative of that other weighty word, gravity.

"Bush had to feign substance, Gore style; Bush gravitas, Gore veritas; Bush familiarity with the English language, Gore a personal approach reasonably close to that of earthlings. -- Jake Tapper, summing up the presidential candidates' respective challenges in an article on






A football field.

In Middle English, a gridel was a set of parallel metal bars upon which foods were placed for broiling. This word is a descendant of Latin craticula, meaning "little lattice," the source also of English grill. Over time, gridel evolved into gridiron, and eventually the cooking device bequeathed its name to the playing field that resembles it.

"We bought a long extension cord for the TV, so we can watch the gridiron action while we're grilling out."







A bright, extravagantly lively person.

First recorded in the 1300s, the word grig originally referred to a "dwarf" or "diminuitive
person". (Much later, grig also somehow accumulated the additional meanings of a "small eel," a
"short-legged hen," and a "cricket.")

"That Brad is a bit of a grig, isn't he?"







1. Fantastically absurd or ugly; bizarre; spectacularly distorted in appearance or

2. A style of ornamentation featuring monstrous hybrid forms combining human
and animal figures.

In the 16th century, Italian archaeologists uncovered the ancient baths of the Emperor Titus in Rome, and found some very strange-looking sculptures. (The sculptures were similar to the weird paintings found there which, as it happens, inspired our word antic.)

In any case, the Italians began referring to such a bizarre sculpture as a grottesca, because these strange works were found in a grotta or "excavation." (And yes, grotta is indeed a relative of our word grotto).

Scholars in France soon borrowed the Italian grottesca, changing it to the more French- sounding grotesque. English speakers borrowed the word whole, and were soon applying it to just about anything simiarly bizarre-looking.

"Still, Tyson said he wanted to fight the recognized heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, even as he conceded he was not in good enough shape to take him on. That did not stop Tyson from unleashing a grotesque harangue aimed at Lewis." -- New York Times reporter Ronald Smothers on a recent diatribe by boxer Mike Tyson, which included such lilting phrases as: ''I want your heart; I want to eat your children. Praise be to Allah.''


(c) 1999-2006  Martha Barnette