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Occam's razor
(OCK-umz RAY-zur)

A scientific and philosophical principle that holds, among other things, that the simplest of competing theories is the best one.

William of Occam was a medieval monk from the town of Occam (also spelled Ockham) in England. He was a student of Duns Scotus, the same renowned scholar whose name, ironically, lives on in our word dunce.

Like many of his contemporaries, Occam maintained that of all proffered theories, the least complicated is likely the best. He also argued that when trying to explain the unknown, one should refer to something already known. (Being a philosopher, of course, his arguments were much more elaborate than that. But in the spirit of Occam, we'll pare away the rest and keep it simple.)

Occam's simplifying "razor" got a mention on a while back when scientists were trying to figure out what went wrong with the Mars Polar Lander just before it reached the red planet. Early speculation centered on the possibility that the spacecraft's cruise ring had failed to detach properly, causing the Lander to burn up while hurtling through the atmosphere:

"The place I think the accident investigation is going to have to look at first is the cruise ring separation," says John Pike, space analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "Occam's razor says to look for the simplest explanation."





The "pound" sign, "number sign," or "tictactoe sign."

Also spelled octothorpe, this name for the "#" symbol dates from the 1960s. The story goes that it was coined by employee at Bell Labs after the telephone company introduced the # key on then-new touch-tone phone systems. When instructing their first new client in the use of the new system, employee Don Macpherson supposedly dubbed that particular key the octothorp. He chose octo- because of the symbol's eight points, and added thorpe because at the time he belonged to a group trying to get the Olympic medals of the athlete Jim Thorpe returned from Sweden.

That's the story, anyway. But lacking firmer proof, the few dictionaries that even include this word fudge the issue, noting that its origin is "unknown." Another suggested origin involves the fact that thorpe is Old Norse for "farm" or "village": Some have suggested that octothorpe is so named because the # resembles eight fields around a village. Suffice to say, it's not often that you hear "Please enter your password, followed by the 'octothorp'."

"Hoping to impress her, Marvin took a deep drag on his stogie before adding, 'You know, I'm thinking of changing my name to 'The Guy Formerly Known As Marvin' and just signing my name with an octothorp.'"





An amorous glance; an ogle.

Oeillade is borrowed directly from that oh-so-romantic language, French. (Its pronunciation is tricky to render in print, but if you say the first syllable with a short "e" while pursing your lips as if to say "oo," you'll be pretty close.)

"Beg your pardon, but was that oeillade directed at moi?"





olla podrida

(AHL-uh puh-DREE-duh)

1. A spicy Spanish stew.
2. An inconrguous mixture; a miscellany.

Here's one of several foods that have joking names: literally, the Spanish expression olla podrida means "putrid pot." (Another example is malasado, a Hawaiian puff pastry whose name translates as "badly baked.")

Anyway, this term for a mishmash of edible ingredients has also come to refer to any type of miscellaneous mixture.

"Her philosophy is a spicy olla podrida of old-time religion, progressive politics, numerology, and Norman Vincent Peale."








Navel-gazing, presumably to help contemplation.

This word has been around since at least the 1920s. It comes from the Greek word for "navel," omphalos, (a linguistic cousin of the more familiar-looking Latin word, umbilicus). The skepsis in this word comes from the Greek "examination," which also led to our term for someone who tends to examine closely, skeptic.

"Ah, what I wouldn't give for a week at a spa -- all those daily massages, citrus-scented facials, low-fat gourmet meals, paraffin pedicures, and plenty of good, old-fashioned omphaloskepsis."








Pertaining to or suggesting dreams.

The Greek word for dream, oneiros, gives us this poetic word.

"The green light deepened, drowning the island of Malta and the island of Fausto and Elena hopelessly deeper in its oneiric chill." - Thomas Pynchon








A nail-biter.

It's from Greek onux, which means "fingernail," and phagos which means "eating."

(Interestingly, the Greek word for "nail" also gave us the word onyx, because some varieties of this stone--the kind often used for carving cameos--resemble the pink and white of a human fingernail.)

"Whenever the subject of life's little ironies came up, Marvin invariably brightened and seized the chance to point out that the very best manicurist in his hometown was an onychophagist."







One who begins to learn late in life.

Opsimathy (op-SIH-muh-thee), which means "learning acquired late in life," entered the English language sometime in the 17th century. Both opsimathy and opsimath derive from Greek opsimathein, meaning "to learn late."

Historically, however, these words most often were used in a derogatory sense -- a sort of snooty put-down suggesting that the opsimath had been lazy or uninterested in learning until only recently. Perhaps it's time to reclaim these words and instead use them to celebrate anyone determined to continue learning right on into his or her golden years.

"'You're never too old to be an opsimath,' he said optimistically."







1. Sonorous; marked by fullness, strength and clarity of sound.

2. Pompous; bombastic.

Orotund conjures a vivid picture: it's from Latin ore rotundo, which means "with well-tuned speech" -- but literally this phrase means, "with a round mouth."

Generally, when applied to the quality of someone's voice, orotund is a compliment. But when applied to someone's speaking style, it's often used contemptously.

"A call in the midst of the crowd, my own voice, orotund, sweeping and final." --Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass








1. The act of yawning.
2. The state of drowsiness, dullness, inattention.

It's from Latin root oscitare, which means "to yawn." Latin oscitare, in turn, is formed from two other words: os, meaning "mouth" (a relative of such words as oral) and citare meaning "to move."

If you're oscitant, then you're "yawning" or "gaping from drowsiness." And of course, as one 18th-century writer observed, oscitancy can be contagious:

"In the case of Oscitancy, when one Person has extended or dilated his Jaws, he has set the whole Company into the same Posture."






An armpit.

Oxter comes from Old English ocusta, meaning "armpit," and is thought to be a linguistic relative of such words as axis and axle.

"She certainly caused a stir the Oscars by flashing those unkempt oxters, but whether this will be a bona fide fashion trend remains to be seen."


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