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An employee or assistant who does just about everything.

Factotum comes the Latin fac ("to make or do," as in the benefactor who "does good") and totum ("everything") -- and is a relative of such words as total.

"I'd like you to meet Rodney, our office factotum."





(as a noun.) Someone marked by extreme, zealous, or unreasoning enthusiasm.

(as an adjective) Fanatical.

Long ago in ancient Rome, a general named Sulla received some helpful military advice from the goddess Bellona. In gratitude, Sulla directed that a temple be built for her, and imported some priests and priestesses from Asia Minor to establish rituals in her honor.

And what wild rites they were! Dressed in black, these holy ones regularly worked themselves into a religious frenzy -- the highlight of which involved ripping off their robes and gashing themselves with two-headed axes, spattering their own blood upon bystanders.

According to Roman belief, the goddess of that temple herself inspired those fits of religious ecstasy. The Latin word for "temple" is fanum,and for that reason, the Romans referred to such religious zeal as fanaticus -- the source of our own fanatic.

(In fact, you don't see it often, but the English word fane is a poetic synonym for "temple.") All of these "temple" words are the linguistic kin of yet another familiar English term.)

"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." -- Winston Churchill





A state of nervous irritability; the fidgets; the willies.

This word has been around since the 1830s. Nobody's quite sure where it came from, although some conjecture that it may be playfully adapted from the English term fantigue, meaning "fit of bad temper."

"Oh gosh, these marathon midafternoon meetings are such WOMBATS -- and they always give me the fantods!"





Inanely stupid; foolish, especially in an oblivious, complacent way.

The Latin source of this word is fatuus,which means "silly" or foolish." The noun fatuity is a handy word for "smug stupidity" or "utter foolishness."

"This glutinous hodgepodge of a book takes all the most glaring flaws of Mr. Ellis's recent work -- compulsive name-dropping, an obsession with designer clothing, a fascination with gratuitous, gruesome violence and a cast of interchangeable fatuous people -- and tries to pass them off as a novel." -- Michiko Kakutani, not saying nice things about Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama in The New York Times.





Weak, helpless, ineffectual, futile.

This word comes from Scotland (where its opposite, feckful, means "efficient, vigorous, powerful"). Feckless comes from the Scots dialect term feck, a shortened version of the word effect.

"The bouquets, the truffles, the wine, the fancy dinners all proved feckless--but then he discovered her secret weakness for paintings of dogs playing poker."





A freckle.

Need a synonym for freckle? You just might someday, and if so, there's always fernticle, a word that arose from an imagined resemblance between these spots of pigment and "little fern seeds."

"Oh, yYou can't miss him -- he's the one with all the fernticles."





1. A garland hung from two points and sagging slightly in the middle.

2. To drape with festoons.

A linguistic relative of feast, festival, and fiesta, the festive word festoon was adapted from Italian festone, meaning "a decoration for a feast." (Speaking of feasting, festoon is also a term used in modern dentistry to denote "the garlandlike area of the gums surrounding the necks of teeth.")

"And then we'll festoon Uncle Ned's living room with rainbow crepe paper before he gets home."





1. To hiss or sputter.

2. To fail or end feebly, especially after a promising beginning.

Fizzle is one of those words whose origins are more, well, earthy than you might

In a 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History, for example, it is noted that if donkeys
eat a certain plant, "they will fall a fizling and farting." Indeed in its earliest sense, as the
the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, fizzle meant "to break wind without
noise." By the 19th century, the dictionary notes, fizzle had taken on a more
respectable sense, namely, "to hiss or sputter (as a wet combustible or a fire-work)."

But the original sense of this word appears rooted in the obsolete word, fist, which
means "to break wind." (This kind of fist, however, is no relation to the similarly spelled English word
for a clenched hand.)

"For the life of him, Marvin couldn't figure out why each of his online romances seemed
to fizzle not long after the first-real time meeting."





The pendulous upper lips of certain dogs, such as bloodhounds.

The origin of flews is unknown, though somehow it seems more than apt.

"'No, no, I really do like your dog, but I was trying to avoid getting hit by what just flew from those flews."





The categorizing of something as worthless.

Whatever you think about Senator Jesse Helms, you have to admit he said a mouthful when using this word. Referring to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Helms deems worthless, the North Carolina senator reportedly said, "I note your distress at my floccinaucinihilipilification of the CTBT."

A legitimate word? Yes indeed. In fact, it's the longest in the Oxford English Dictionary's first edition. This word comes from the Latin flocci, nauci, and pili, all of which roughly translate as "worth very little," and nihil, meaning "nothing." By the way, at its most literal, the pili in floccinaucinihilipilification refers to "a hair, [and therefore] a trifle" -- making it a linguistic relative of the hair-remover called a depilatory. The nihil, or "nothing," in floccinaucinihilipilification appears in such words as nihilistic and annihilate.

It's a word that's apparently pretty popular around Washington these days. Sen. Helms said he learned the word from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and former presidential spokesman Mike McCurry has also been known to use it while briefing the press.

"I don't care if last night's ratatouille had you reaching for the Rolaids -- I'm shocked, shocked at your floccinaucinihilipilification of my cooking skills!"





A snowflake.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists only one instance of this word's use, in a manuscript produced around 1275. But flother sounds so light and delicate and flake-like that it certainly seems worth reviving.

"After all, no two flothers are alike."





Meaningless chatter; deceptive language.

This derisive word comes from the Welsh llymru, the name of a soft jelly made from sour oatmeal.

"Enough flummery, Jeeves -- what's your point?"





To talk or act foolishly; to waste time.

Consult several dictionaries, and you'll find all kinds of proposed sources for this word, from Latin futuere ("to have sex with") to footy (a Northern British dialectal term for "worthless" or "paltry.")

Alas, the Oxford English Dictionary's verdict on this word is simply this: "Of obscure origin."

"Darling, promise me you won't footle at the office party again this year."





An abnormal sensation that ants are crawling over one's skin.

The term formication derives from the Latin word formica, or "ant."

(In case you're wondering: There are no linguistic ants in your Formica kitchen countertop. Formica plastic laminate was invented in 1912 as a type of insulation for electrical wiring, and quickly replaced mica, the natural substance that had been used for this purpose. Its inventors called this new synthetic material Formica because it was a substitute for mica. Honest. Aching to know more? Visit the Formica company's website.)

"Do you suppose Salvador Dali painted those because he had a little problem with formication?"





1.Dazzling, flashing.

2. Thunderous, noisy, stunning.

The Latin word for "lightning" is fulgur, which gave us the French synonym foudre, as well as foudroyant -- literally, "striking with (or like) lightning." (Foudroyant is also used in medicine to describe a disease that strikes with sudden severity.)

"Well, I have absolutely no idea what that halftime extravaganza was all about--but you have to admit it certainly was foudroyant."





A shudder; a moment of intense excitement.

Frisson is borrowed directly from the French, where it means "a shiver" or "thrill." It's thought to be a linguistic descendant of the Latin word frigere, which means "to be cold."

"The moment that she realized the oeillade had indeed been directed her way, Vanessa felt a frisson of delight and nervously fingered her chignon."






To 'thunder'; to denounce scathingly.

Strictly speaking, the root of this word, Latin fulmen, means "lightning," not "thunder." In the Middle Ages, Latin fulminare was the technical term for a formal condemnation or censure by the pope or other church authority. Now, however, anyone is free to fulminate.

"First he fulminates against Tinky Winky, and now Lillith Fair - doesn't that poor fellow have anything better to do?"





A fly ball hit for fielding practice by a baseball player who tosses the ball up and hits it on its way down.

The origin of fungo is unknown - but then, isn't it nice to know there's a word for it?

"Uh-oh -- where'd my fungo go?"





Stealthy; surreptitious.

This word is quite picturesque when you realize that furtive dervies from Latin fur, meaning "thief."

"He walked very slowly and circumspectly, and there was something indescribably guilty and furtive in his whole appearance." -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in "The Hound of the Baskervilles"



Having a brownish-gray or dusky color.

Here's a good one for Hangman or Scrabble. Fuscous comes from Latin fuscus, meaning "dark, tawny, dusky."

"No, no, not the white one running around with the tennis ball in his mouth -- mine's the fuscous one over there by the hydrant."


(c) 1999-2006 Martha Barnette