Martha Barnette - Buff Up Your Brain!
HomeLearn a New WordAbout MarthaOn the AirIn PrintIn PersonLinks


    Return to
Learn a New Word


A preparation, usually made from killed or weakened bacteria or viruses, that is administered to inoculate against a specific disease.

The late 18th-century physician Edward Jenner observed that women who worked as dairy maids rarely fell victim to the dreaded disease, smallpox. Suspecting that this was because they had been exposed to the cowpox virus, the British doctor made medical history by successfully using the cowpox virus to inoculate a patient against smallpox.

The medical term for the virus that causes cowpox is variola vaccinia. The variola, in Latin, means "pustule" or "pox," and the vacciniae means "of cows," deriving from Latin vacca, which means "cow" (and is a relative of the Spanish word for "cowboy," vaquero). In honor of Jenner's work with cowpox, the preventive preparation was soon called a vaccine.

Although Jenner is credited with this momentous discovery, Asian physicians had already applied the same principle, taking dried crusts from smallpox lesions and administering them to children. But while some of those children developed immunity, others became infected. Jenner took the process further, surmising that he could confer immunity to smallpox using a similar virus that wasn't nearly so dangerous. For more about Jenner, check out, "The World's Most Comprehensive Dictionary of Medical Eponyms."

"As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing do to the same. Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military." -- U.S. President George W. Bush, announcing a nationwide vaccination program to prevent smallpox.






(as a verb) To brag about. (as a noun) A boastful remark, or a speech of effusive self-praise.

Vaunt comes from Latin vanitare, which means "to talk frivolously" -- yet another word that derives from Latin vanus, meaning "empty."

"As for the much-vaunted hot sex between Tom and Nicole, there is none."

-- An obviously disappointed Charles Taylor, writing in Salon about the many reasons he disliked the Stanley Kubrick movie, "Eyes Wide Shut."







An alcohol-induced hangover.

You don't see this word every day, but researchers used it in the medical journal called Annals of Internal Medicine, in an article about the results of too much imbibing.

It's from the Norwegian kveis or "uneasiness following debauchery," and the Greek algia, which means "pain," as in the pain-reliever called an analgesic. Incidentally, the Norwegians have an even more colorful word for this condition: if you have a hangover in Norway, you're said to have toemmermenn, or literally, "lumberjacks" -- presumably some who are plying their trade bright and early inside your head.

"I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I just can't come in to work today, because I've been diagnosed with a terrible case of veisalgia."






1. Pertaining to or occurring in the spring.

2. Fresh, youthful.

Latin ver, which means "spring," inspired this word, as well as the name of the vernal equinox, which marks the beginning of spring. Incidentally, Latin prima vera, meaning "first (earliest) spring," comes the lovely English adjective primaveral, which applies to the same time of year. Latin ver also gave us pasta primavera, an Italian dish literally made "spring style" - that is, with garden-fresh veggies.

"Sir, wouldn't you think our learning experience would be greatly enhanced if we took full advantage of this lovely vernal weather by having class outside?"







Someone who specializes in the study of flags.

Vexillologist is from the Latin vexillum, which means "flag."

"Vexillologists and Civil War buffs will tell you that actually, the name 'Stars and Bars' refers not to the controversial flag most people associate with the Confederacy, but to a flag with altogether different design."






A diagonal mark separating words (such as "and/or"); a slash mark.

It's from the Latin virgula, meaning "little rod." (Similarly, if you describe something as virgulate, you're saying it's "rod-shaped.")

"Not that he's pretentious, mind you -- although he does have this annoying habit of pronouncing a webpage address with, for example, 'http-colon-virgule-virgule-www-dot-funwords-dot-com."






1. To weaken, impair, or spoil the quality of.
2. To corrupt or debase.
3. To make legally invalid.

Vitiate is from Latin vitium, meaning "blemish, defect, or fault." (The same linguistic root gives us another word involving depravity and corruption: vice.)

"Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie--for example, the taint of vanity, any attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance--will instantly vitiate the effect." -- William James, writing in The Varieties of Religious Experience.


(c) 1999-2006   Martha Barnette