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The repetition of a word or phrase, especially in immediate succession, for emphasis.
The rhetorical term palilogy (rhymes with triology) derives from the Greek palin meaning "again" and logia which means "speaking." (And yes, it's a cousin of palindrome.)
"One has only to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have A Dream' speech to realize that he was a master of palilogy."
A word, phrase, or sentence that's spelled the same backwards and forwards.
In its most literal sense, palindrome means "running back again."
The -drome is from Greek dromos, or "running" (which also gives us the name of that speedy desert runner, the dromedary). The palin means "again."
"I don't know about you, but I just can't decide whether my favorite palindrome is 'Sit on a pan, Otis!' or 'Go hang a salami -- I'm a lasagna hog'."
A small, unbound printed work.
It's one of the sexiest words in the English language. Here's why:
In the 12th century Europe, an erotic poem became enormously popular. Written in Latin, the poem was called Pamphilus, seu de Amore, which means "Pamphilus, or On Love." (All we know about the name Pamphilus in the title is that it's adapted from the Greek for "beloved by all.")
Within a few years, this poem's name morphed into Pamphilet, and eventually pamphlet. These steamy verses were printed on just a few sheets of paper, and eventually their popularity became so pervasive that by the 14th century, any small booklet or brochure also came to be known as a pamphlet.
"Jeremy thought it a very good omen indeed that the two of them had met while passing out pamphlets -- not to mention the fact that she'd scribbled her phone number on the back of one of them."
(puh-NASH or puh-NAHSH)
Dash, flamboyance, verve.
Panache was borrowed whole into English from French, where in its earliest sense, it meant "a plume of feathers," like those on a helmet or a fancy headdress. This notion of showy ornamentation expanded to refer more generally to "a grand manner, swagger, or flair."
"What she lacked in practice and piano lessons she tried to make up for with plenty of panache."
1. To act as a go-between in an amorous intrigue.
2. To cater to base interests.
These days we most often hear pander used in connection with politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator. In its earliest uses, however, pander referred to acting as a go-between between secret lovers, or even to procuring prostitutes.
The inspiration for this word is Pandarus, a character in a 14th-century Italian poem. A rather sleazy fellow, Pandarus agreed to act as a go-between for Troilus, a prince of ancient Troy who had a thing for his cousin. This story later formed the basis of a work by Chaucer and eventually for Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. In Much Ado About Nothing, it's noted that Troilus "was the first employer of panders."
""Mr. Gore is a master panderer who turned up at an MTV rally in jeans so weirdly tight that even Ted Koppel felt compelled to comment."--New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, commenting yet again on presidential candidates' attire.
The stretching that accompanies yawning.
The Latin word pandere meaning "to stretch" gave us this handy word (no relation to English pander).
"To guard against repetitive-strain injuries, all employees who use computers should engage in pandiculation at least once an hour."
Sudden, overwhelming fright.
You remember Pan, the horny guy in Greek myth who was half-man, half-goat. As the god of forests, fields, and flocks, he was notorious for striking sudden, unreasoning fear into the hearts of travelers camped in remote and desolate places. The Greeks blamed Pan for all those scary sounds that echoed across lonely valleys at night and spooked those camped in the woods.
They called such irrational fright panikon deima--literally, "Panic fear." Much later, this expression's French descendant, panique, found its way into English, where it was first used as an adjective (spelled many different ways), as in Panique affrights, pannick fear, and panic dread.
"I want to calm her panic when she's ill, cry in her arms when my life goes wrong, and argue over our different driving styles until we're in the grave." -- E. J. Graff, on wanting to marry her same-sex partner, in her splendid book What Is Marriage For? The Strange History of Our Most Intimate Institution.
1.An important (or merely self-important) person.
Irish actor Charles Macklin retired from the London stage in 1753 and opened a pub, where he often boasted that his memory was still so good that he could repeat any set of lines after hearing them only once. One evening writer and actor Samuel Foote took up the challenge, and penned several lines of nonsense that began: "So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop, 'What! No soap?' . . ." The lines ended with ". . . and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heel of their boots."
Well, even the great Macklin had to admit defeat--or didn't even try to repeat that nonsense, depending on whose account you believe. Anyway, Foote's made-up word panjandrum didn't enjoy wide use until a hundred years later, when Edward FitzGerald (famed for his translation of the Rubaiyat), applied it humorously to a self-important local official.
"So which of the panjandrums around here decided that handing out free tickets to a Barry Manilow concert was all that's needed to improve employee morale?"
An impressive, dazzling, or ostentatious array.
This poetic-sounding word has military roots: It's from Greek panoplia, a combination of the Greek words pan, meaning "all," and hopla, meaning "arms" or "armor." (In ancient Greece, heavily armed foot soldiers were known as hoplites.)
English speakers originally used panoply to denote "a full suit of armor." By the 19th century, however, it had acquired the additional sense of "any splendid enveloping or surrounding array," whether real or imagined.
"Hope you don't mind, but I've arranged a little getaway for us at a cabin where we can gaze out on a panoply of 200-year-old evergreens."
A colorful flower with velvety blossoms.
This flower's name derives from the French word pensée meaning "thought." It's so named for the way the blossoms of some varieties resemble a little face crinkled up in thought. Thus pansy is a relative of such thoughtful words as pensive and ponder.
(Interestingly, the German name for this flower is Stiefmutterchen. While speakers of French see a thoughtful frown in this blossom, Germans see the unforgiving scowl of a "little stepmother.")
"And there is pansies, that's for thoughts. . . " -- Ophelia, in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Reproduction resulting from an unfertilized egg -- occurring, for example, among certain insects.
Literally, parthenogenesis means "virgin birth," a compound of the Latin genesis, meaning "birth" or "generation," and Greek parthenos, meaning "virgin." (Incidentally, the ancient Greeks often referred to the virgin goddess Athena as Athena Parthenos, which is why the temple built in her honor on the Acropolis is called the Parthenon.)
Parthenogenesis was in the news a few years ago when Danish scientists discovered a completely new freshwater creature: Only 0.1 millimeter long, this microscopic animal is distinguished by a complicated set of jaws. It's only the fourth time in the past century that anyone's discovered an animal that doesn't fit into any of the previously established animal families:
"Limnognathia maerski, which reproduces through parthenogenesis, uses its jaws to scrape the bacteria and algae it feeds on from underwater moss growing in icy wells which freeze over during the long Arctic winter." -- From a wire story about the discovery.
A tropical, tendril-bearing blossom.
If you plan to say it with flowers, you might want to think twice about sending passionflowers. Unless, of course, you mean to send a blossom so named because it resembles instruments of torture.
Spanish conquistadors who happened upon this plant applied to it their own religious symbolism, believing that it symbolized the passion, or suffering, of Jesus. Its tendrils, they thought, resembled whips; its showy filaments, the crown of thorns. The Spaniards likened its leaves to spears, its stamens to hammers, its 10 sepals to the apostles at the crucifixion, and believed other parts resembled nails, flesh wounds and a halo. So they called it la flor de la pasion, or "passionflower."
"There's an old saying: 'A camel is a horse put together by a committee,' and I tend to think of the passionflower as sort of the botanical equivalent."
1. A large, ornate tent or canopy.
Here's a wonderful word with a "butterfly" inside.
Pavilion derives from the Latin papilio, a word the Romans originally used to mean "butterfly" or "moth." Later they applied it figuratively to a type of tent consisting of two great flaps that resembled the wings of such an inset. The Latin word for this type of temporary structure inspired our own word for more permanent ones. (And yes, that makes "pavilion" a relative of the French insect name, papillon.)
"What do you say we waltz on over to the edge of the pavilion and then take our own tour of the premises?"
An ancestral history or lineage.
Here's a word with an interesting, well, pedigree:
The French word grue denotes that leggy bird, the crane, and in Old French a "crane's foot" was a referred to as a pie de grue. In fact, picture a genealogical chart with its three-line diagrams indicating who + who begat whom, and you'll see why speakers of Old French started calling this /|\ figure a pie de grue --the linguistic ancestor of pedigree.
"Actually, we're not sure of his pedigree--but we're thinking maybe part chihuahua and part shar-pei?"
Riches or wealth, especially when regarded with contempt or acquired by shameful means.
Pelf is apparently from the Old French word pelfre, which means "booty," and may be a relative of "pilfer."
"Unfortunately, as she soon learned, Henry's entire philosophy could be summed up as 'me, my pelf, and I.'"
Next to last.
Many people, perhaps confusing this word with "pinnacle," misunderstand "penultimate" to mean something along the lines of "the very most ultimate." Actually, however, this word comes from Latin "paene," meaning "almost." (Latin "paene" also put the "pen" in "peninsula" - literally, an "almost island," from the Latin "insula," the source also of "insular.")
"No, the accent in the word 'syllable' is on the first syllable, not the penultimate."
To journey or travel.
A descendant of Latin "peregrinus," which means "foreigner," this word is a linguistic relative of the English word for another type of traveler, "pilgrim." "So, do you two have any plans to peregrinate this summer?"
To put off until the day after tomorrow; to keep postponing from day to day.
If you know that cras is the Latin word for "tomorrow," then it's easy to see where we get the word procrastinate.
To perendinate, on the other hand, means in its most literal sense to "put off something until the day after tomorrow." It comes from the Latin perendie -- literally, "on the day after tomorrow."
"Why no, sir, I haven't started that report yet, but I can assure you I'll start perendinating as soon as we get back from lunch!"
Light banter; frivolous discussion.
It's from the French persifler, meaning "to banter." The French word, in turn, derives ultimately from Latin sibilare, meaning "to whistle" -- a relative of sibilant.
"Lurene prided herself on being a charming dinner companion with a special talent for turning on the persiflage whenever the situation called for it."
The vertical groove between one's nose and upper lip.
The ancient Greeks' word for "love potion" was philtron, the source of English philter, which means the same thing.
Though no one's sure why, the Greeks also used philtron to denote the dent in one's upper lip. Some have suggested that it's because the shape of one's philtrum resembles the type of small vial used to carry such a potion. Another possibility is that it's the site on the body where such a potion was often applied. Or it may just be that the Greeks regarded the philtrum as an erogenous zone.
"Why, no," Vanessa said carefully, "I hadn't noticed it growing hotter in here," though her glistening philtrum clearly suggested otherwise.
Of little value or importance; petty, mean, trivial
In early 19th-century Louisiana, picayune designated a type of small coin, worth a little more than six cents. Picayune itself derives from French picaillon, the name for an old type of copper coin. Picaillon may in turn derive from an Old Provencal word, picar, meaning "to jingle or clink."
By 1892, "picayune" was well established as an English word for something of similarly scant value or charactized by pettiness. That year, for example, a Boston Journal writer asked:
"Do you want another picayune Congress with all its stupidity and folly?"
A source of inspiration.
In antiquity, the part of Greece called Pieria was known as the home of the nine Muses, those beautiful goddesses who hung out with Apollo and helped inspire mortals to musical and literary greatness.
According to tradition, a bubbling spring in that region would confer inspiration on anyone who drank from it. That image, in turn, inspired Alexander Pope to pen those immortal words:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."
A hair-splitting, unproductive argument.
Pilpul, in its original sense, is a rabbinical term for keen, highly analytical debate among Talmudic scholars, usually over some minute point. Pilpul comes from a similar-sounding Hebrew verb that means "to debate hotly" -- and may derive ultimately from a Hebrew word for "pepper."
According to Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, this word now refers more generally to "unproductive hair-splitting that is employed not so much to advance clarity or reveal meaning as to display one's own cleverness."
"If you two are finished with your pilpul, can we talk about something more important -- like what's for dinner?"
An aquatic mammal belonging to the order Pinnipedia, which includes seals and walruses.
This type of animal takes its name from the Latin pinna meaning "fin, wing, or feather," and the Latin stem ped- meaning "foot" (as in pedestrian and pedestal.)
"I'm afraid that the boss expects every one of us to perform like a trained pinniped."
An overabundance or excess.
In early 16th-century England, plethora was a medical term for "illness due to an unhealthy excess of blood or other humours." Today doctors still use this word to denote an overabundance of blood in one organ or part of the body. Over time, plethora also acquired its more abstract and familiar sense.
Plethora comes from Greek plethein, meaning "to become full" (Thus plethora is a linguistic relative of plethysmograph, the name of a scientific instrument that measures changes in size due to blood flow in fingers, legs, earlobes, and … well, elsewhere.)
"Wow, you weren't kidding when you said we'd find a veritable plethora of pulchritude here, were you?"
Excessive devotion to wealth.
The ancient Greek word "ploutos" means "wealth." Thus we have in English the words "plutocracy," meaning "rule of the wealthy" (as opposed to "democracy," which refers to rule of, by, and for "the people.") In the same way that "idolatry" involves worship of idols, "plutolatry" means "worship of wealth."
"Don't you think the wild popularity of this new quiz show is just another indication of our national plutolatry?"
The drinking of wine or other intoxicating brews.
Here's a word you don't see very often. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary cites only one example of its use, though it certainly deserves more.
So here's to poculation, which comes from the Latin poculari which means "to frequent the cup," from poculum, meaning "cup."
"Excuse me, but I'm afraid there's some static on this line - did you say `poculation' or `copulation'?"
A writer of inferior, shoddy, or insignificant poetry.
The Latin suffix -aster expresses the idea of "inferior" or "less than it pretends to be. Since the early 17th century, it's been added to our word "poet" to indicate a less-than-talented writer of verse.
(Another example of this suffix put to good use occurs in the little-used word politicaster, which, according to The Oxford English Dictionary means "a petty, feeble, or contemptible politician." Rather like a snollygoster.)
"Okay, Mom, maybe he is a poetaster -- but doesn't he have the world's cutest little goatee?"
A tropical American shrub, usually with bright red floral leaves surrounding its tiny, greenish-yellow flowers.
Joel Roberts Poinsett served as U.S. minister to Mexico during the 1820. An amateur botanist, Poinsett brought back a showy plant known to Mexicans as la flor de nochebuena, or "Christmas Eve flower." In Britain it was called the Mexican flameleaf, but thanks to Poinsett's tireless efforts to popularize it in the United States, this plant came to be known as the poinsettia.
(Incidentally, Poinsett was a fervent liberal who became notorious in several Latin American countries for meddling in their domestic affairs. For this reason, Mexicans coined the word poinsettismo to mean "high-handed, intrusive activity.")
"Yes, I know that colorful blossoms can brighten up an otherwise zestless salad, but trust me, I don't think Martha Stewart would advise you to add those poisonous poinsettia leaves."
Greyness or whiteness of the hair, especially if it's premature.
Poliosis comes from the Greek polios meaning "gray." The same Greek root colors the English word polio, a shortened form of poliomyelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord's "gray matter."
"Vanessa cleared her throat and tried again: 'I don't know about you,' she began, 'but I've always found poliosis terribly alluring.'"
Of or pertaining to the back of the knee.
It's from the Latin stem poplit-, which means “the back of the knee.”
“Vanessa never left home without first applying that popliteal pat of perfume, and . . . well, let’s just say her efforts were amply rewarded.”
Nonsense; rubbish; senseless chatter.
Prudes may think they're keeping their language clean by using poppycock instead of stronger terms, but they're in for a surprise.
Poppycock comes from Dutch pappekak, which literally means "soft feces." The pappe- in Dutch pappekak supposedly goes back to a Latin baby-talk word for "soft food," while the -kak derives from Latin cacare, meaning "to defecate" - and yes, it's a linguistic relative of English "caca." The first recorded use of poppycock was in 1865 when a writer noted:
"You won't be able to find such another pack of poppycock gabblers as the present Congress of the United States."
Why do we call it a potboiler? It's a relatively recent term, first appearing in English in 1864, and refers to a literary work written solely for money -- to, in other words, stock one's cooking pot and keep it boiling.
New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani used it a while back when writing about the three plot lines in Margaret Atwood's book, The Blind Assassin:
"The third, which apparently consists of chapters from a potboiler Laura wrote, recounts the furtive affair of a well-to-do woman and her ne'er-do-well boyfriend, who meet in grungy, borrowed apartments and seedy hotels under the constant threat of exposure."
1. A fall upon one's butt.
Exhibiting unusually mature qualities at an early age.
A combination of the Latin stem pre-, meaning "before," and coquere, "to cook or ripen," eventually led to English precocious, which, in its original sense, described plants that bore fruit or blossoms early in the season.
Today precocious more often describes youngsters who might be described as "early bloomers." (The coquere in precocious, by the way, is a relative of English cook.)
"It won't surprise you to learn that Vanessa has always been precocious."
Pertaining to the period before the biblical "Fall."
Remember the story of Adam and Eve, and that little lapse of theirs in the Garden? Our word lapse comes from Latin lapsus, meaning "a slip or fall." Prelapsarian, then, alludes to that time of innocence and grace before those two slipped up and nibbled that forbidden fruit.
Writing in GQ magazine, Guy Lawson used this word effectively when describing a boat trip to Rendezvous Island, near Belize:
If you pick apart preposterous, you can see it's actually quite picturesque: It's from Latin pre and posterus, or literally "before following behind" -- which is absurd indeed! (And yes, preposterous is also the etymological kin of posterior.)
"If I'd been honest with myself, I'd have admitted I hated dating--even the name was preposterous--but that wasn't the point." -- Katherine Russell Rich, in her witty, gripping memoir, The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer and Back
The inability to focus sharply on nearby objects, which sets in around middle age
As one writer noted in 1869, "Presbyopia or Long Sight is one of the first of the legion of troubles which advancing years bring upon all of us." Caused by decreasing elasticity of the lens in the eye, presbyopia gets its name from the Greek presbus, meaning "old man," and ops, meaning "eye." Someone afflicted with this annoying condition is called a presbyope.
(And yes, these words are etymological relatives of Presbyterian, a denomination distinguished by the fact that it is governed by councils of "elders.")
"One of the truly annoying things about presbyopia is that whenever I pick up something to read, it looks like I'm playing an invisible trombone."
Intended to enforce conformity in a way that's inflexible and arbitrary.
In Greek myth, Procrustes was a giant who ran a hotel of sorts, although his hospitality skills left something to be desired. Procrustes forced his guests to spend the night on an iron bed, and if they were too long for the bed, he lopped off their legs; if they were too short, he stretched them until they fit.
This old meanie's rigid, one-size-fits-all mentality lives on in our word procrustean.
"Uh-oh, what do you bet the boss will insist on another procrustean solution for this problem?"
Tediously lengthy; wordy.
The Latin source of this word, prolixus, literally means "poured forth." (In fact, it's an etymological relative of liquid.)
"One imagines JenniCam fans around the world feverishly parsing her words, in the same way Western scholars hunted for hidden meaning in Mao's prolix orations."--Thomas Nord, musing in the Louisville Courier-Journal about JenniCam.org, which offers real-time, real-life views of a young woman's daily life.
Changing, variable, shifting in shape or form; exhibiting considerable diversity.
Proteus was a wise Greek god who lived in a cave on the beach. He was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but those who wished to ask Proteus about the future had a hard time pinning him down-- literally -- for he also possessed the ability to change his shape at will. When Odysseus and his men tried to wrestle some information out of him, the shape-shifting Proteus changed into a lion, a leopard, a boar, fluid water, and finally a huge tree, before getting tired enough to give up and tell them what they needed to know.
"Meryl's protean talents have made her a star."
A political scientist specializing in the study of elections.
In ancient Greece, people sometimes cast votes using pebbles of various colors, depending on their choice. The Greek word for "pebble" was "psephos," the source of this fancy term for an electoral analyst. In the same way, a "psephocrat" is an "elected leader."
"I'm no psephologist, but I just can't imagine that his new earth-tone wardrobe is making that much of a difference, can you?"
A low whispering sound, such as the rustle of leaves.
A words that sounds like what it means, psithurism comes from the Greek psythurisma, which means "a whispering."
"One of the things I love about autumn is the psithurism that accompanies a walk in the woods."
Resembling, characteristic of, or pertaining to parrots.
This word, from the Latin psittacus, meaning "parrot," can refer literally to a parrot, or describe the parrot-like behavior of someone. (According the Oxford English Dictionary, a writer in 1938 used a related word when wryly observing, "Speaking without knowing is called 'psittacism,' but it is a practice not confined to parrots.")
"To run for office these days requires a psittacine willingness to repeat the same old phrases, again and again and again and again."
This useful bit of New Zealand slang derives directly from the Maori language, where pakaru means "broken."
"'What'll I do? My Palm Pilot's puckeroo!'"
In Middle English, "the pouke" referred to an evil, malicious spirit, and often specifically to the devil of Judaeo-Christian tradition. However, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare rehabilitated this goblin's image, portraying him as a merry trickster.
Someone who's puckish is similarly impish, as in the following lines from E.B. White's description of William Strunk, Jr., his mentor and collaborator on The Elements of Style:
"From every line there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache."
(PULL-krih-tood or PULL-krih-tyood)
Take a beginning Latin class and one of the first words you'll learn is pulcher, meaning "beautiful." It's the source of English pulchritude, which denotes physical beauty.
"In 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance, Variety reported: "When it comes to pep, pulchritude, punch and presentation, the Harlem places have Broadway's distanced."--Nina Siegal in the New York Times.
Dusty; resembling fine powder.
The only place I've seen this word is in a book by literary critic Italo Calvino. Perhaps Calvino's translator coined it himself, based on the Italian word pulviscolo, which means "fine dust." (It's a relative of pulverize.)
Pulviscular may not appear in English dictionaries -- yet -- but its use here was so lovely, and so apt, that we can only hope word-lovers everywhere will make sure that this evocative term enjoys wider use.
"A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off." -- Why Read The Classics? by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Cowardly; lacking courage or resolution; faint-hearted; timid.
A costly victory; a win that nevertheless entails staggering losses.
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