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Salisbury steak
(SAHLZ-ber-ee or SAHLZ-bree STAYK)

A patty of finely chopped beef mixed with eggs, milk, and other seasonings, which is then fried, boiled or baked.

Among those caught up in the health craze seizing America in the late 19th century was American physician James Henry Salisbury (1823-1905). An enthusiastic advocate of shredding all of one's food to make it more disgestible, Salisbury offered his patients this tasty prescription: eat shredded beef three times a day, and chase it with a cup of hot water.

During the Civil War, Salisbury also devised a so-called "meat cure" to combat frequent outbreaks of "camp diarrhea" among soldiers. Consisting of chopped beef and similar seasonings, this "cure" was later adapted into the modern meat dish, which now bears the well-intentioned doctor's name.

"Um . . . I think I just changed my mind about ordering the Salisbury steak."







An assortment; a mishmash or potpourri.

In its original sense, salmagundi means "a salad of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions arranged on lettuce and served with vinegar and oil." This word's origin is obscure, though some suspect it derives from an Old French word meaning "salted food."

As happened with the names over several other foods, salmagundi has also acquired the more general meaning of "a mixture, assortment." A fine example of this sense occurred in 1797, when one writer wryly observed:

"His mind was a sort of salmagundi."






Salisbury steak

(SAHLZ-ber-ee or SAHLZ-bree STAYK)

A patty of finely chopped beef mixed with eggs, milk, and other seasonings, which is then fried, boiled or baked.

Among those caught up in the health craze seizing America in the late 19th century was American physician James Henry Salisbury (1823-1905). An enthusiastic advocate of shredding all of one's food to make it more disgestible, Salisbury offered his patients this tasty prescription: eat shredded beef three times a day, and chase it with a cup of hot water.

During the Civil War, Salisbury also devised a so-called "meat cure" to combat frequent outbreaks of "camp diarrhea" among soldiers. Consisting of chopped beef and similar seasonings, this "cure" was later adapted into the modern meat dish, which now bears the well-intentioned doctor's name.

"Um . . . I think I just changed my mind about ordering the Salisbury steak."







An assortment; a mishmash or potpourri.

In its original sense, salmagundi means "a salad of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions arranged on lettuce and served with vinegar and oil." This word's origin is obscure, though some suspect it derives from an Old French word meaning "salted food."

As happened with the names over several other foods, salmagundi has also acquired the more general meaning of "a mixture, assortment." A fine example of this sense occurred in 1797, when one writer wryly observed:

"His mind was a sort of salmagundi."









1. An underground publishing system with the Soviet Union, for the private production and circulation of forbidden works.

2. Literature produced and distributed through such a system.

Pronounced a little differently in Russian (more like "suh-myizz-DAHT"), this word was first adapted into English in the 1960s. Samizdat is adapted from the Russian words sam, meaning "self," and izdatel'stvo meaning "publishing house." (Thus the word samizdat is an etymological relative of the term for a type of metal urn used in Russia to heat water for tea -- a samovar, a name that derives from words that literally mean "self boil.")

Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan used samizdat recently in a Wall Street Journal essay:

"Shut out of television and eager for news, conservatives have turned in the past 20 years to radio. And so now radio is conservative, and full of uproar. The Internet too is conservative, and full of information, of samizdat."







Scornfully derisive; characterized by bitter mocking.

The ancients believed that a certain plant native to the Mediterranean isle of Sardinia would cause terrible effects if eaten. Anyone unlucky enough to nibble a leaf of this deadly herb would suffer facial convulsions that resembled horrible laughter, then promptly expire. The Greeks called those death throes Sardonios gelos or "Sardinian laughter." This grisly image remains faintly visible in our word sardonic.

"The new buzz cut had its charms, of course, and the nose ring--well, she figured she could used to it--but it was Terry's sardonic wit, more than anything else, that Vanessa found so alluring."






1. Pertaining to a tailor, or to tailored clothes.
2. Having to do with clothes in general.

This word derives from the Latin word sartor, meaning "tailor." (Incidentally, the body's longest muscle, which is found in the thigh, is called the sartorius. It's so called because the sartorius is the muscle that allows a person to sit cross-legged, as tailors often do while working.)

This word turned up in pool coverage that New York Times reporter Frank Bruni provided his colleagues while they were all camped out in Austin awaiting the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. (During slow news days there, members of the media reportedly were so bored that they as they took to writing ever more elaborate pool reports to amuse each other.)

"The governor himself was clean-shaven, and had clearly accomplished that task with the requisite agility, as there was not an adhesive bandage anywhere on his face. He was now only 10 yards or so from the building, and he was moving fast -- so fast that a complete sartorial appraisal was not possible, though I'm sure there will be TV images played all day, and these will allow the interested to deconstruct his wardrobe."






1. A literary work that attacks folly with wit or irony.
2. Sarcasm, irony, or biting wit used to poke fun at folly or stupidity.

The drama festivals of ancient Rome often served up medleys of satirical verse. This mixture of various kinds of poetry was known as a lanx satura (which means "full dish" in Latin). This name was most likely an allusion to the tradition of piling a similarly eclectic mixture of foods on a plate before sacrificing it to the gods.

This use of the expression lanx satura, or "full plate" to denote a mixture of bitingly funny verses eventually led to our own word for any similarly sarcastic work, satire.

"Beaver College, aiming to shed a source of ridicule and boost enrollment, unveiled Monday a new school name that's seemingly satire-proof: Arcadia University." -- from an Associated Press wire story





Malicious enjoyment of other people's misfortunes.

This word comes from German Schade, meaning "damage" and Freude meaning "joy." In English, it's sometimes capitalized and sometimes not.

"That night, after Joel got kicked off the island, we all cheered wildly, slapped each other on the back, then raised our coconut shells in a moment of celebration and schadenfreude."





A parasite or moocher; someone who borrows with no intention of repaying, or who wheedles others into doing things for him.

This useful word first appeared in English in the 1890s. It's from Yiddish shnorer, meaning a "beggar" or "sponger." It's from an old German word, snurren, which means to "hum," and apparently refers to the fact that some beggars used to try to get attention by playing pipes.

J.D. Salinger used schnorrer in his 1962 novel Franny & Zooey: "I had lunch with him one day a couple of weeks ago. A real schnorrer, but sort of likable." Then there was the 1977 article in The New Yorker that included the thought-provoking line (and sorry I don't have any more of the context):

"Investigate your own pants, you schnorrer."






Sparkling, shining, dazzling.

This word comes from Latin scintilla, or "spark" -- the same "spark" or "tiny particle" found in the English phrase, not one scintilla. Latin scintilla also gave us another shiny English word, tinsel.

"When their conversation proved less than scintillating, Vanessa tried to impress her date by performing that little trick with the spoons."







A conceited, superficial pretender to knowledge.

Now here's a word that certainly deserves wider use. First appearing in the early 17th century, sciolist derives from the word Latin sciolus, meaning "one who knows little." (Interestingly, sciolus is the diminutive of scius, the Latin word for "knowing" -- and a relative of such words as science and omniscient.)

Other words in this family include sciolism, which means "superficial knowledge" and sciolistic, meaning "characteristic of a sciolist."

"Television talk shows have become a vast wasteland populated almost entirely by sciolists."









In nautical language, a scuttle is a hole cut out of ship in order to sink it. (That's why we speak of a project being scuttled, as in "They had to scuttle today's shuttle launch.")

Sailing ships once kept their drinking water in a butt, or "cask" on deck. In order to keep the water fresh, a small hole was cut out of it. For this reason, the cask called the scuttlebutt. Naturally, sailors would gather at the scuttlebutt not only to get a drink, but to gossip, much the way we do around the water cooler or coffee machine today. Eventually the name of the place where rumors were exchanged came to be applied to the rumors themselves.

"The scuttlebutt is that there's a photo of the candidate dancing nude on top of a bar, but no one's been able to find it."






A light, thin fabric with a striped, crinkled surface.

One of the most delicious words in all of English, seersucker comes ultimately from Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, "milk and sugar" -- a picturesque reference to the way its smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that resemble thin lines of sugar.

“We weren't quite sure what to make of the fact that Marvin showed up at that black-tie dinner in a seersucker suit .”








Good luck in making happy, unexpected discoveries.

Serendipity is a made-up word, and we have English author and historian Horace Walpole to thank for it. In 1754, Walpole wrote a letter claiming he'd coined this word, basing it on a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip." The reason, he said, was that the tale's heroes 'were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'"

Serendip, by the way, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.

"Why," Vanessa ventured, smoothing her little black dress and trying to sound surprised, "running into each other here like this is enough to make you believe in serendipity, isn't it?"






1. Characteristic of a long word.

2. Given to using long words.

Sesquipedalian comes from the Latin root sesqui-, which means "one and a half" (as in sesquicentennial, which refers to a period of "150 years"). The pedal in sesquipedalian comes from the Latin stem ped- meaning "foot" (as in pedal and pedestrian).

"As my sesquipedalian friend is fond of observing, 'The word sesquipedalian is rather sesquipedalian.'"








A mess.

Although today a shambles can be anything from a messy room or a disintegrating political career, this word originally had a more grisly meaning. It derives from Middle English shamel, which first referred to "a portable stall in a marketplace for the butchering and sale of meat." For some 300 years after that, the word shambles specifically meant "slaughterhouse."

"I'd invite you in," she fibbed, "but you see, I've been out of town, and the people who were housesitting for me turned this place into a complete shambles."







1. A custom, practice, or pronunciation that betrays someone as an outsider.

2. A catchword or slogan.

3. A truism repeated so often and mindlessly as to become nearly meaningless.

The Hebrew word shibboleth means either "an ear of corn" or a "torrent of water." But the word itself once served as a life-and-death verbal test.

According to Judges 12:6, whenever the Gileadites suspected that an enemy Ephramite was in their midst, they demanded that he pronounce the wordshibboleth. Ephraimites typically pronounced it "sibboleth," so anyone who said it without the "sh" sound was instantly identified and slain on the spot.

Shibboleth was initially used in English to mean a "telltale linguistic giveaway." This meaning later expanded to include the sense of "a catchword adopted by a particular group," and eventually, "a platitude or tired truism."

"But there are still some within our country who wrongly believe they can make a contribution to the cause of justice and peace by clinging to the shibboleths that have been proved to spell nothing but disaster." -- Nelson Mandela, in his speech accepting the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.







A beehive, particularly one made of twisted straw.

Trust me, someday you'll find yourself working a crossword puzzle with "beehive" as the clue, and you'll be oh-so-glad that you know that this word. Skep comes from an Old Norse word for "basket," and indeed, although you may be skeptical about the word skepful, it's a perfectly legitimate synonym for "a basketful."

"Bees like herbs, so plant some around your skep." -- From, which will tell you more than you ever imagined about skeps.






A small amount; a bit, a tad.

Skosh comes from the Japanese word sukoshi, which means "a little bit." This word was apparently picked up in the 1950s by U.S. soldiers on overseas tours of duty.

Today, skosh is sometimes used as an adjective meaning "little" or "few," as in "We had skosh time". It also appears in the the phrase skosh on, as in "I'm skosh on cash at the moment."

"Could I have just a skosh of cream in that, please?"





Trickery; dishonest or deceitful behavior.

This word is sexier than you might think: It's apparently an alteration of the Scots word sculduddery, which means "fornication" or "obscenity."

(Come to think of it, even this word's spelling is tricky, considering that it's also correctly rendered as skullduggery or sculduggery or even scullduggery.)

"Watergate was such a sensational piece of skulduggery."-- the London Times







A person who's untidy, boorish, or crude.

One story making the rounds these days is that slob derives from the Serbian name, Slobodan. Don't believe it.

It derives instead from Irish Gaelic slab, meaning "mud" -- specifically the soft oozing kind typically found at the edge of the sea. In English, slab may have morphed into slob partly due to the influence of the older, similar-sounding words slobber and slaver -- the latter being used as a verb meaning "to drool," and a noun meaning "gibberish or drivel".

In Serbo-Croatian, by the way, the name Slobodan derives from the noun slobada (sloh-BAH-dah), which, interestingly enough, means "freedom."

"But Darling, remember when you used to say that being a slob was one of my most endearing qualities?"







A mixture of smoke and haze.

You know about smog, a mixture of the words smoke and fog. Most dictionaries also include the handy word smaze, a combination of smoke and haze? While the word smog has been around since the early 1900s, smaze is of relatively recent vintage, dating back only to 1950s.

"I say, the smaze in this place never ceases to amaze."





1. A knife fight.
2. A large knife.

Say the word snickersnee and you can almost hear the blades scrape against each other. It's sometimes spelled snick and snee or snick-a-snee -- but any way you slice it, this expression derives from Dutch steken en snijden, which literally means "to thrust and cut."

"Oh, never shall I / Forget the cry, / Or the shriek that shrieked he, / As I gnashed my teeth, / When from its sheath / I drew my snickersnee!" -- Gilbert & Sullivan, "The Mikado."




snollygoster (also spelled snallygaster)


An unscrupulous but shrewd person, especially a politician.

In parts of rural America, parents sometimes kept unruly kids in line with warnings about the evil snallygaster, a nocturnal monster that preyed on chickens and naughty children. Part bird, part reptile, it struck with terrifying swiftness--hence the name snallygaster, from Pennsylvania Dutch words meaning "quick spirit," which eventually morphed into snollygoster.

"What a relief the old snollygoster can't run for another term!"







A game in which two teams of 11 players try to propel a ball into the opponents' goal without using their hands.

Various forms of soccer have been played for centuries, but the sport became official in 1863 when the London Football Association issued a formal set of rules for the game. It was therefore called association football, and later simply, assoc. Around the same time students at Oxford University were in the habit of playfully ending various words with "-er" or "-ers" ( brekkers for "breakfast," and rugger for "rugby"). So assoc soon became soccer.

"Hey, if my bod looked like that, I'd whip off my soccer jersey, too."





sockdolager (Also spelled sockdologer)


1. A decisive blow

2. Something exceptional in any respect.

Sockdolager can apply to several different things: a knock-out blow in a fight, a hard-hitting remark that wins an argument, or anything especially big or otherwise outstanding . No one's sure how the word sockdolager came to be, although it may be connected with the verb "to sock." It could be that it's one of several long, silly words coined or popularized in the mid-1800s, when Americans delighted in such funny-sounding mouthfuls as "hornswoggle" and "callithumpian."

A bit of historical trivia:

A form of the word sockdolager figured in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As an actor, John Wilkes Booth knew that the biggest laugh line in the play "Our American Cousin" would be, "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap!" So Booth waited until that line, and then as the audience roared, he fired his gun and fled.

"The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away . . . then 'rip' comes another flash and another sockdologer." -- Mark Twain






2. So-called or pretended.

English speakers borrowed this expression whole from the French, where it literally means "saying oneself."

Soi-disant is used to fine effect on a Berkeley-based website's page devoted to the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO, you may recall, made headlines a few years back when they bought a bunch of Barbies and GI Joes, switched their voiceboxes, then returned them to toy store shelves:

"So, for instance, the 'new' Barbie says "Eat lead, Cobra" and Joe now says "Let's plan our dream wedding". In this era when soi-disant Liberation Organizations of every stripe are spreading sadness and fear, isn't it good to hear of one group actually doing something practical?"






(SAHL-uh-sizz-uhm or SOHL-uh-sizz-um)

1. A nongrammatical usage or error.
2. A breach of etiquette.
3. An error, inconsistency, or impropriety.

The ancient Greeks colonized an area they called Soli, in what is now part of modern
Turkey. In antiquity, this colony's inhabitants supposedly spoke Greek, but to the
Athenians, their speech sounded uncouth, full of mispronounced words, slurred speech,
and whopping grammatical mistakes.

The Athenians referred to such speech as soloikismos (in other words, the speech "of
Soli"). This term found its way into Latin as soloecismus, and eventually into English
as solecism.

"'That's right, Matthew,' the teacher said approvingly, "'I could of been a contender' is a
fine example of a solecism."






To make a soft murmuring or rustling sound.

There are a couple of options for pronouncing this word. In either case, it refers to the type of gentle, soothing sound made by wind or water. As a verb, sough means to make such a sound.

"That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote."--Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre







To flood online mailboxes with unsolicited messages.

Offline, of course, Spam refers to tins of compressed meat. A few years ago, hackers began using spam as verb meaning "to crash a computer program by entering too much data" or to "flood newsgroups with irrelevant postings."

Apparently this use was inspired by the menu-reciting waiter in the immortal "Monty Python" sketch: "Well, there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg, bacon and Spam; egg, bacon, sausage, and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, egg, Spam Spam, bacon, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, egg, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy, and a fried egg on top of Spam."

Which pretty much sums up the feeling of being spammed electronically, don't you think?

"Gartner Group, a consultancy in Stamford, Conn., last year conducted a survey that showed that 84 percent of Internet users have received spam. Sixty-three percent of the recipients say they "dislike it a lot" 20 percent "dislike it somewhat" 14 percent are neutral, and only three percent like it, or say they have some use for it."
-- Infoworld, 1/24/2000






To cause a toad or frog to go flying into the air.

Now here's something you may need a word for sometime. The "spang" in this word apparently derives from a Scottish word meaning "to spring, leap, or throw." The "hew" is of uncertain origin. More generally, "spanghew" can also mean "to throw or jerk violently."

"Their furtive little lunchtime tete-a-tete was proceeding quite nicely - that is, until the moment when Marvin recognized his wife's voice across the restaurant and flew out of his chair as if he'd been spanghewed."







To move the body or limbs in a sprawling or struggling manner.

That's the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, anyway, which explains that spartle is a Scots dialect term, and a relative of Dutch and German words that describe the same kind of movement.

"Well, honey, it'd be a heck of a lot easier to diaper little Jimmy if he wouldn't spartle so much!"








You don't see this word very often in the sports pages. Sphairistic comes from the Greek sphairistikos which means for "playing ball." (It's a distant relative of sphere.)

In the early 1870s a retired British cavalryman, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, invented a game somewhat similar to badminton. In keeping with the nineteenth-century British love of classical civilization, he proudly dubbed this new game spharistike (pronounced "sfair-RIST-ik-ee") The Times of London explained in 1927: "The name 'sphairistike,' however, was impossible (if only because people would pronounce it as a word of three syllables to rhyme with 'pike'), and it was soon rechristened." It then became lawn tennis, which eventually shortened into tennis.

"Brian's sphairistic prowess is something to behold."







Otter droppings.

Well, who knows? Maybe someday you'll need an 8-letter word for what an otter leaves behind. (By the way, don't confuse spraints with fumets, which are left behind by deer, or crottels, which are left behind by bunnies.)

"No, no, no, I keep telling you -- those aren't spraints, they're fumets!"






Nonchalance, effortlessness.

Here's a lovely word that we've borrowed directly from Italian, where it means "ease of manner" or "studied carelessness." You'll be all the more impressive if you toss it off with a little sprezzatura yourself.

"Now then, try playing all those arpeggios again, this time with sprezzatura."







1. A watch that requires winding.
2. Something remarkable of its kind.
3. A rousing speech, especially a political one.

Back in Ye Olden Days, long before the birth of quartz-powered and digital watches, people had to use a separate little key to wind their pocket watches. Shortly the Civil War, watchmakers figured out how to make timepieces that could be wound using a permanently attached stem. These innovative stemwinders proved so popular that the name also came to apply to anything similarly outstanding or remarkable.("He's a stemwinder and go-getter," wrote one author in 1926.)

These days stemwinder is most often applied to an especially stirring political speech.

"After all the calls to unity, a stemwinder in the old tradition from Hubert Humphrey, appearances by Muskie and Kennedy, Sargent Shriver was formally nominated for Vice-President." -- Theodore White, in The Making of the President.






Having an extremely loud voice.

During the Greeks' siege of Troy, one herald stood out among all the others. His name was Stentor, and he's described in the Iliad as having "a voice of bronze" and a shout "as loud as the cry of fifty men." Stentor supposedly died during a vocal contest with Hermes, who served as herald for the Gods, but his name lives on in this English adjective.

"Then, after we'd all shifted our liripoops, we had to endure a rambling speech by a stentorian valedictorian."







1. The act of sneezing.

2. A sneeze.

This comes from Latin sternutatio, which means "a sneezing."

"According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest known bout of sternutation occurred when Donna Griffiths, an English schoolgirl, began sneezing on January 13, 1981 -- and, poor thing, didn't stop until 978 days later."





Shaped like a drop.

One of the most beautiful words in the English language, stilliform means "drop-shaped." It's from Latin stilla, "drop," and a relative of the drippy words distill (to "drip down") and instill, "to put in drop by drop" -- or as the OED puts it, "To introduce (some immaterial principle, notion, feeling, or quality) little by little into the mind, soul, heart, etc.; to cause to enter by degrees; to infuse slowly or gradually; to insinuate." Anyway, I like stilliform partly because those long, thin letters -- the t-i-l-l-i-f in the middle -- look kind of, well, drippy.

"Why no, there wasn't anything stilliform com





Stockholm syndrome

(STOCK-hohm SIN-drohm)

A process in which hostages bond with their captors.

In 1973, four bank employees in Stockholm, Sweden were taken hostage and held for 131 hours, during which they not only grew sympathetic to their two captors, but actually came to fear the police. Afterward, they praised the captors for having "given their lives back," and visited them in prison. A female hostage even went on to marry one of the hostage-takers.

Psychologists say this phenomenon, later dubbed the Stockholm syndrome, is a defense mechanism for coping with extreme fear and complete helplessness. A more recent example apparently occurred during the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet, when some passengers became friendly with one terrorist, sharing jokes, singing songs, and even exchanging gifts with him.

Nowadays, this expression is sometimes used more abstractly, as when Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg mused on what to report about the Iowa presidential primary:

"I could describe the 'Stockholm syndrome' on the Gore and Bradley press buses, and the scene in the Marriott bar last night."







A cheap cigar.

One of the first cigar-making factories in the U.S. was located in Conestoga, a village in southeastern Pennsylvania. A shortened form of this place's name, stogy, came to be applied to the product made there.

Less often, the word stogy refers to a coarse, broad shoe. (In either case, this word is sometimes spelled stogie.)

"Why yes, darling, that evening dress looks divine, but -- how to say this? -- the stogy really must go."






Sturm und Drang


Turmoil, tumult, upheaval.

Literally "storm and stress" in German, Sturm und Drang originally referred to a late 18th-century literary movement characterized by passionate emotion, stormy action, and works that often concern an individual's rebellion against society. The phrase is borrowed from the title of the drama Sturm und Drang by one Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger.

Jeff Goodell put this expression to good use a while back in a Rolling Stone profile of Steve Jobs:

"Friends say the Sturm und Drang of the past few years has humbled Jobs ever so slightly; he is a devoted family man now, and on weekends, he can often be seen Rollerblading with his wife and two kids through the streets of Palo Alto."







To thwart, stump, present an obstacle.

This word found its way into English through the game of golf. Traditionally, a stymie occurred on the putting green when one player's ball stood between an opponent's ball and the hole. Like golf itself, stymie comes from Scotland, although this word's very earliest origins are obscure.

"Yes, I can see how misplacing your car keys would stymie your efforts to get here on time, but would you mind telling me how in the world you managed to leave themin the refrigerator in the first place?"





sub rosa

(sub ROHZ-uh)

In secret, confidentially.

In Greek myth, Cupid was the son of Venus, a lusty goddess. In one myth, Cupid gave a
rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, in return for keeping quiet about Venus's many

That story is said to have inspired the ancient practice of hanging a rose at secret
meetings to remind participants that they were sworn to secrecy. This gave rise to the
Latin phrase sub rosa, or literally "under the rose."

For many years it was fashionable for plasterwork ceilings in dining rooms to feature a
rose motif, assuring guests that their host would hold their conversations in confidence.
And, beginning in the Middle Ages, a wood carving of a rose was placed the space over
confessional doors in Catholic churches -- a silent guarantee that any sins confessed
"under the rose" would remain secret.

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer that we discuss this sub rosa."





sui generis

(SOO-eye JEN-ur-iss, or SOO-ee GEH-neh-riss)


The Latin phrase sui generis literally means "of its own kind." English speakers adopted it intact.

"The Democrats of Capitol Hill are not the Democrats of Austin. Texas Democrats are more like Republicans. Congressional Democrats are sui generis." -- former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal





swan song

A farewell appearance, pronouncement, action, or work.

Many ancient Greeks believed that the swan, a bird that remains silent except for hissing when angry, would break that lifelong silence by singing a final song of unbelievable sweetness before the moment of its death. Apparently this tradition has no basis in fact, but the idea has been embraced in several cultures.

It's reflected, for example, in the German word Schwanenlied, which means the same thing. Apparently the German expression inspired the English equivalent, first used by Thomas Carlyle in 1831: "The Phoenix soars aloft . . .or, as now, she sinks, and with spheral swan-song immolates herself in flame."

"Boris Becker's Wimbledon swan song is showing signs of becoming an aria." -- Robin Finn, writing in the New York Times about Becker's surprising victories at the 1999 Wimbledon tournament.







Devoted to sensuality, pleasure, and luxurious living.

In the 8th century B.C., some Greeks set out to form a colony called Sybaris, located on the shores of southern Italy. The Sybarites grew so prosperous that their name soon became synonymous with a devotion to luxury and pursuit of pleasure. It didn't last long, though. Sybaris later proved an easy mark for invaders, who razed the city and diverted a river to cover the ruins.

"And so the two sybaritic septuagenarians stripped down to their Strumpfhosen and sank into the sumptuous (but waterless) tub - well, the young puppy of a clerk didn't know whether to avert his gaze or climb in with them, just to clinch the sale." - Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Disheveled Dictionary.







A self-serving flatterer; a parasite; a toady.

The Latin word sycophanta and its Greek source sykophantes both mean "an informer." When sycophant first appeared in English in the mid-16th century, it was often used in that sense as well. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the English word also soon came to connote a "fawning flatterer" or "yes-man."

What's even more of a puzzle, though, is the origin of the original Greek word sykophantes. It comes from sykon," the Greek word for "fig," and phainein, meaning "to show." No one's sure what the idea of "showing a fig" has to do with being "an informer." One theory is that it somehow refers to a time-honored obscene gesture that involves sticking the thumb between two fingers or into the mouth -- an action referred to in various languages as the fig. (This type of fig figures, for example, in Shakespeare's Henry V, where this obscene gesture is called either a figo or fig of Spain.)

It may be that the ancients somehow connected the contemptuous act of being a secret "informer" with this similarly contemptuous action -- that is, with making an obscene "fig" behind someone's back. But no one knows for sure.

By the way, the adjectival form of sycophant is sycophantic, which was used to fine effect recently by Jake Tapper in a Salon magazine story about the way that George P. Bush and Karenna Gore Schiff campaigned for their presidential-hopeful relatives:

"At events and rallies they shake every hand, make eye contact, smile blindingly, greet every question and comment -- no matter how inane or sycophantic -- with what looks remarkably like interest."







Pertaining to trees and forests; wooded.

In Roman myth, Silvanus was a god of trees, fields, and forests. His name inspired the word sylvan.

The source of the name Silvanus (and thus the word sylvan ) is Latin silva, which means "forest." Incidentally, sylvan is an etymological relative of such woodsy names as Sylvester and Sylvia, as well as Pennsylvania ("Penn's woods") named for the father of William Penn, the colony's founder.

"Faint was the air with the odorous breath of magnolia blossoms,
And with the heat of noon; and numberless sylvan islands,
Fragrant and thickly embowered with blossoming hedges of roses,
Near to whose shores they glided along, invited to slumber.
Soon by the fairest of these their weary oars were suspended."--
"Evangeline,"by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow






A meeting or conference to discuss one or more topics, especially one in which the participants make presentations to the other members.

Although today we think of a symposium as a formal meeting or conference, its sounds as though such gatherings were much more fun in antiquity. In Latin, the word symposium literally means "a drinking party." It derives from Greek symposion, which literally means "a drinking-with." (Thus the word symposium is a relative of such words as potion and potable.)

"I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to the symposium that comes after all the regularly scheduled ones tonight."







An instrument used to inject or draw out fluids.

This word has musical origins. Syringe comes from the Greek surinx, meaning "shepherd's pipe" (the kind you blow, not the kind you smoke) or "flute". This Greek root also produced the word for the tube-shaped organ that enables birds to sing: the English word syrinx, which of course also makes a darn good word if you're playing Scrabble.

"Just where are you going with that syringe?"


(c) 1999-2006  Martha Barnette