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As a noun: the kingfisher bird. As an adjective: calm, peaceful, serene.

The ancient Greek goddess Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the wind, married a mortal. But when her husband was killed at sea, she too threw herself into the depths and drowned. Along with her husband, Alcyone was magically transformed into the birds now known as halcyons.

The gods took pity on the pair, declaring that during the week before and after the winter solstice, the seas would remain perfectly calm, so that the devoted pair to nest upon the waters and hatch their eggs. The phrase halcyon days now refers to any period of happy tranquility.

"Oh, for those halcyon days of youth!"



hands down

1. (adv.) Easily; unconditionally.

2. (adj.) Easy; certain. (When used as an adjective, it's hyphenated)


This expression derives from the world of horse racing, where a hands down victory occurs when a jockey's win is so assured that he drops his hands and relaxes his grip on the reins when nearing the finish line.

"Well, put it this way: If they held a contest for the title of Most Likely To Embarrass Himself on National Television, that guy would win hands down."




Sad, shamefaced, browbeaten, or intimidated.

The origin of hangdog apparently is grisly: It seems that in antiquity, dogs and other animals were sometimes convicted of crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. Centuries later, this reportedly happened in England as well. One report from 1595 notes that a dog was so executed "for inflicting a fatal injury on a child's finger." Shakespeare himself makes about a half dozen references to this practice.

Hangdog, then, is thought to allude either to the look on a doomed dog's face or to the characterstics associated with, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a despiciable or degraded fellow fit only to hang a dog, or to be hanged like a dog."

"Remember that moment in 'Moonstruck' when a hangdog Nicolas Cage tells Cher that he's in love with her, and she says, 'Snap out of it.'? Well, snap out of it."
-- Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, writing about certain liberal Democrats swooning over conservative GOP candidate John McCain.



happy as a clam

Extremely happy.

What's so happy about a bivalve mollusk, anyway? The reason this phrase seems nonsensical is that part of it has fallen away. The original phrase was happy as a clam at high tide--that is, when the high tide makes the critters safe from beachcombers.

(A less common phrase that means the same thing is happy as Larry. Its origin is uncertain, though some speculate that the Larry here is Lazarus, who was supposedly raised from the dead--and who, one assumes, would have been very happy indeed.)

"On the other hand, Uncle Ned has been happy as a clam ever since he discovered chat rooms."






A forerunner; something that indicates what is to come.

This word has military origins. It's from an old Germanic word, heriberga, or literally, "shelter for an army" -- a meaning that soon gave way to the more general sense of "a place of lodging or entertainment."

By the 14th century, the English had adopted a form of this word to indicate "someone sent in advance to secure lodgings for an army or royal entourage." By 1630, this sense had expanded to mean simply "forerunner," as when poet John Milton wrote:

"Now the bright morning star, day's harbinger, comes dancing from the east, and leads with her the flowery May."






To bully, harrass, intimidate


In the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector's a good soldier, but he's not a bully. He's a model citizen and devoted family man, as in the most touching scene of this otherwise grisly epic, when Hector's baby son is frightened by the big plume atop Daddy's helmet. In fact, there was a time when the English word hector meant simply "a valiant warrior."

But during the latter half of the seventeenth century, a gang of bullies roamed the streets of London, calling themselves the Hectors, perhaps likening themselves to this fabled warrior. In any case, by 1660, the verb hector had come to mean "to bluster, brag, or bully."

"Your employer will refrain from calling you at 11:30 at night, but not from sending an inquiring, hectoring, must-be-promptly-answered-as soon-as-you-log-on email. E-mail doesn't just collapse distance, it demolishes all boundaries. And that can be, depending on the moment, either a blessing or a curse." -- Andrew Leonard, writing about e-culture in Newsweek




(HURR-syne or HURR-sin)

1.Characteristic of or resembling a goat, usually in smell.


This word, from the Latin hircus, or "goat," most often describes a distinctively "goaty" smell. Because goats have a reputation for being lusty, hircine also has come to be used to describe such behavior.

"Alas, he was best described as hircine, and unfortunately in more ways than one."



hoi polloi

(hoy puh-LOY)

The masses; the common folk.

In ancient Greek, hoi polloi literally means "the many." It's a relative of all those poly- words like polygamy (many marriages) and polyglot (literally, many tongues).

Sticklers will argue that the expression the hoi polloi is redundant, because it literally means "the the many." But the use of the hoi polloi is so long established and widespread that many authorities aren't bothered by it. There is, however, a more important error involving this phrase: Some people, on the other hand, apparently confuse hoi polloi with hoi-toity, and use it to mean "the elite." That's the real mistake to avoid.

"Yes, I'm sure this exemption will go over big in certain circles, but what about the hoi polloi?"






Goose bumps; bristling due to fear or cold.

If you've used the phrase "goose bumps" too many times in one paragraph, you can always substitute horripilation, which derives from Latin horrere meaning "to tremble" and pilare, which means "to grow hair."

"If you like horripilation, you'll love 'The Sixth Sense.'"




Inducing sleep; pertaining to the period of drowsiness before sleep.

This word comes from the Greek words hypnos, or "sleep" (a linguistic cousin of hypnotize) and agogos, which means "leading" (like the demagogue who leads people).

"Another good reason for midday naps is that sometimes the best ideas arrive right in the middle of that hypnagogic state."





1. A pet name.

2. The use of pet names.

3. Baby talk between adults.

Hypocorism (note the accent on the second syllable) comes from the Greek hupokorizesthai, meaning "to call by endearing names." It derives ultimately to the Greek words koros and kore, which mean "boy" and "girl" respectively.

"All she would admit was that their hypocorisms for each other were, well, unusual to say the least."

(c) 1999-2005 Martha Barnette