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Dictionary » Merriam-Webster's
Free daily dose of word power from Merriam-Webster's experts

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 24, 2014 is:

fissiparous • \fih-SIP-uh-rus\  • adjective
1 : tending to break up into parts 2 : creating disunity or dissension : divisive

The election for class president had a fissiparous effect on the school as students took sides for their favorite candidate.

"In Calvinism: A History, D.G. Hart … shows how Protestantism's fissiparous nature has allowed it to adapt and, in some instances, transmogrify to fit local and personal needs." — From a book review by Michael P. Orsi in the Washington Times (Washington D.C.), December 12, 2013

Did you know?
When it first entered English in the 19th century, "fissiparous" was concerned with reproduction. In biology, a fissiparous organism is one that produces new individuals by fission; that is, by dividing into separate parts, each of which becomes a unique organism. (Most strains of bacteria do this.) Both "fissiparous" and "fission" trace back to Latin "findere" ("to split"). The second part of "fissiparous" is rooted in Latin "parere" ("to give birth to" or "to produce"). Other "parere" offspring refer to other forms of reproduction, including "oviparous" ("producing eggs that hatch outside the body") and "viviparous" ("producing living young instead of eggs"). By the end of the 19th century "fissiparous" had acquired a figurative meaning, describing something that breaks into parts or causes something else to break into parts.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 23, 2014 is:

bas-relief • \bah-rih-LEEF\  • noun
: sculptural relief in which the projection from the surrounding surface is slight and no part of the modeled form is undercut; also : sculpture executed in bas-relief

Jamal admired the bas-reliefs carved into the walls of the ancient Assyrian palace.

"Nearly 50 people … came to the unveiling on Friday afternoon and watched as Mayor Marina Khubesrian and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, pulled the covering off the bas-relief to reveal a father reading to his three daughters." — From an article by Zen Vuong in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California), March 22, 2014

Did you know?
The best way to understand the meaning of "bas-relief" is to see one—and the easiest way to do that is to pull one out of your pocket. Just take out a penny, nickel, or other coin and examine the raised images on it; they're all bas-reliefs. English speakers adopted "bas-relief" from French (where "bas" means "low" and "relief" means "raised work") during the mid-1600s. A few decades earlier, we also borrowed the synonymous "basso-relievo" from Italian. The French and Italian terms have common ancestors (and, in fact, the French word is likely a translation of the Italian), but English speakers apparently borrowed the two independently. "Bas-relief" is more prevalent in English today, although the Italian-derived term has not disappeared completely from the language.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 22, 2014 is:

cock-a-hoop • \kah-kuh-HOOP\  • adjective
1 : triumphantly boastful : exulting 2 : awry

The driver's pit crew was cock-a-hoop as they watched her cross the finish line to victory lane.

"The cock-a-hoop pride and sensitivity of these former colonials were mere annoyances, almost impossible to take seriously for a nation with a world war to win." — From Patricia Brady's 2011 book A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson

Did you know?
The adjective "cock-a-hoop" comes from a curious 16th- and 17th-century expression, "to set cock a hoop," which meant "to be festive" or "to drink or celebrate without restraint." Etymologists, however, are not entirely certain about the origin of that old expression. Although no one knows if it originally had any connection with the "rooster" sense of "cock," many people thought it did—and this perceived association influenced the current meaning of "cock-a-hoop." The cock is known for its triumphant crow, and "cock-a-hoop" is now used to refer to something triumphantly boastful.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 21, 2014 is:

minutia • \muh-NOO-shee-uh\  • noun
: a minute or minor detail

The self-help book said it was easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life and fail to notice important opportunities.

"Jackson, though, is smart enough to hire people to figure out salary caps and contract minutia." — From a column by Tim Dahlberg via the Associated Press, March 18, 2014

Did you know?
"Minutia" was borrowed into English in the late 18th century from the Latin plural noun "minutiae," meaning "trifles" or "details" and derived from the singular noun "minutia," meaning "smallness." In English, "minutia" is most often used in the plural as either "minutiae" or, on occasion, as simply "minutia" (as illustrated in our second example sentence). Latin "minutia," incidentally, comes from "minutus," an adjective meaning "small" that was created from the verb "minuere," meaning "to lessen." A familiar descendant of "minutus" is "minute."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 20, 2014 is:

cockamamy • \kah-kuh-MAY-mee\  • adjective
: ridiculous, incredible

Ted missed the meeting again, phoning the receptionist with some cockamamy excuse.

"Colin Farrell is good in this time-traveling romance, but it's tastefully cockamamie and increasingly gloppy." — From a movie listing in The Hartford Courant (Connecticut), February 20, 2014

Did you know?
By the look and sound of it, "cockamamy" (also spelled "cockamamie") seems like an arbitrarily coined nonsense word—but a reasonable explanation for its origin exists. Supposedly, "cockamamy" is an altered form of the term "decalcomania," which denotes a process of transferring pictures and designs from specially prepared paper to surfaces such as glass or porcelain. The word "decalcomania" comes from the combination of French "décalquer," meaning "to copy by tracing," and "-manie," meaning "mania." In the 1940s, painted strips of paper with images capable of being transferred to the skin were called "decals" or "cockamanies." They were naturally regarded by many as silly novelties. Hence, in time, the variant "cockamamie" came to be used as an adjective meaning "ridiculous."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 19, 2014 is:

oblige • \uh-BLYJE\  • verb
1 : to constrain by physical, moral, or legal force or by the exigencies of circumstance 2 a : to earn the gratitude of b : to do a favor for or do something as a favor

"The state's highest court Monday ruled that Long Island guitar-string maker D'Addario & Co. is not obliged to pay $227,000 in interest for reneging on a 2006 real estate deal." — From an article by Joe Ryan in Newsday (Long Island, New York), November 19, 2012

"He was already in Nashville and had left his warm jacket in Jackson. He asked if I could bring it to the airport, since we were on the same flight. I obliged, delivered the jacket and began a friendship that I treasure." — From an article by Dan Morris in the Jackson Sun (Tennessee), March 15, 2014

Did you know?
"Oblige" shares some similarities with its close relative "obligate," but there are also differences. "Oblige" derived via Middle English and Anglo-French from Latin "obligare" ("to bind to"), a combination of "ob-" ("to or toward") and "ligare" ("to bind"), whereas "obligate" descended directly from the past participle of "obligare." Both "oblige" and "obligate" are frequently used in their past participle forms to express a kind of legal or moral constraint. "Obligated" once meant "indebted for a service or favor," but today it typically means "required to do something because the law requires it or because it is the right thing to do." "Obliged" is now the preferred term for the sense that Southern author Flannery O'Connor used in a 1952 letter: "I would be much obliged if you would send me six copies."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 18, 2014 is:

lodestar • \LOHD-stahr\  • noun
: one that serves as an inspiration, model, or guide

When she started her own business, Melinda used her father's motto—"Trust your instincts"—as her lodestar.

"For a generation of computer programmers, astrophysicists and other scientists, Mr. Munroe and his online comic, xkcd, have been lodestars." — From an article by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, March 17, 2014

Did you know?
The literal, albeit archaic, meaning of "lodestar" is "a star that leads or guides" and it is a term that has been used especially in reference to the North Star. (The first half of the word derives from the Middle English word "lode," meaning "course.") Both the literal and the figurative sense ("an inspiration or guide") date back to the 14th century, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. The literal sense fell out of use in the 17th century, and so, for a while, did the figurative sense—but it appeared again 170 years later, when Sir Walter Scott used it in his 1813 poem The Bridal of Triermain.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 17, 2014 is:

oneiric • \oh-NYE-rik\  • adjective
: of or relating to dreams : dreamy

The paintings, filled with fantastical imagery conjured by the artist's imagination, have a compellingly oneiric quality.

"Most of the actors here are double and triple cast, and if they barely differentiate among their roles, that just adds to the oneiric effect." — From a theater review by Jeffrey Gantz in The Boston Globe, March 12, 2012

Did you know?
The notion of using the Greek noun "oneiros" (meaning "dream") to form the English adjective "oneiric" wasn't dreamed up until the mid-19th century. But back in the early 1600s, linguistic dreamers came up with a few "oneiros" spin-offs, giving English "oneirocriticism," "oneirocritical," and "oneirocritic" (each referring to dream interpreters or interpretation). The surge in "oneiros" derivatives at that time may have been fueled by the interest then among English-speaking scholars in Oneirocritica, a book about dream interpretation by 2nd-century Greek soothsayer Artemidorus Daldianus.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 16, 2014 is:

utopia • \yoo-TOH-pee-uh\  • noun
: an impractical scheme for social improvement

To some people, gated communities are visions of Utopia—safe, quiet, and out of the way.

"Peninsula Players has entertained generations of audiences since it was founded in 1935 by a brother-and-sister team, Caroline and Richard Fisher, who dreamed of an artistic utopia where actors, designers and technicians could focus on their craft while being surrounded by nature in a contemplative setting." — From an article in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, March 12, 2014

Did you know?
In 1516, English humanist Sir Thomas More published a book titled Utopia. It compared social and economic conditions in Europe with those of an ideal society on an imaginary island located off the coast of the Americas. More wanted to imply that the perfect conditions on his fictional island could never really exist, so he called it "Utopia," a name he created by combining the Greek words "ou" (meaning "no, not") and "topos" (meaning "place," a root used in our word "topography"). The earliest generic use of "utopia" was for an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. The current use of "utopia," referring to an ideal place or society, was inspired by More's description of Utopia's perfection.

»Walter Mitty 

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 15, 2014 is:

Walter Mitty • \WAWL-ter-MIT-ee\  • noun
: a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming

Alan is a Walter Mitty who loves to read travel books but rarely ventures beyond the limits of his own small town.

"Ralphie eventually has to resort to his own Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy to deal with his real-life predicament." — From an article by Bill Eggert in The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), December 14, 2013

Did you know?
The original Walter Mitty was created by humorist James Thurber in his famous story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." In Walter's real life, he is a reticent, henpecked proofreader befuddled by everyday life. But in his fantasies, Walter imagines himself as various daring and heroic characters. Thurber's popular story was first published in The New Yorker in 1939. "Walter Mitty" has since become the eponym for dreamers who imagine themselves in dramatic or heroic situations.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for April 14, 2014 is:

madeleine • \MAD-uh-lun\  • noun
1 : a small rich shell-shaped cake 2 : one that evokes a memory

"The evening started with wine and snacks, which included house-made charcuterie, cheese, and cornbread madeleines—the latter, I thought, a clever mashup of French and US traditions…." — From an article by Tom Philpott on, March 11, 2014 "Every year, the family gathered in the backyard to roast a whole pig in a pit. Between the smell and the smoke, it makes for my own 35-pound madeleine." — From an article by Ana Menéndez in Gourmet, September 2007

Did you know?
The madeleine is said to have been named after a 19th-century French cook named Madeleine Paumier, but it was the French author Marcel Proust who immortalized the pastry in his 1913 book Swann's Way, the first volume of his seven-part novel Remembrance of Things Past. In that work, a taste of tea-soaked cake evokes a surge of memory and nostalgia. As more and more readers chewed on the profound mnemonic power attributed to a mere morsel of cake, the word "madeleine" itself became a designation for anything that evokes a memory.

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