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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 December 20, 2014 is:

nurture • \NER-cher\  • verb
1 : to supply with nourishment 2 : to educate 3 : to further the development of : foster

The mayor pushed for tax credits for small businesses as a way to nurture economic growth.

"In the late 1970s, a program was launched at the National Marine Fisheries laboratory in Galveston to nurture hatchlings that would instinctively return to beaches on Padre Island." — Harvey Rice, Houston Chronicle, November 18, 2014

Did you know?
It's no coincidence that nurture is a synonym of nourish—both are derived from the Latin verb nutrire, meaning "to suckle" or "to nourish." The noun nurture first appeared in English in the 14th century, but the verb didn't arrive until the 15th century. Originally, the verb nurture meant "to feed or nourish." The sense meaning "to promote the development of" didn't come into being until the end of the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, is credited with first giving life to that sense in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): "Public spirit must be nurtured by private virtue." Other nutrire descendants in English include nutrient, nutritious, nutriment, nutrition, and, of course, nourishment.


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

syncretic • \sin-KRET-ik\  • adjective
: characterized or brought about by a combination of different forms of belief or practice

Dr. Portman practices a syncretic form of medicine, borrowing from both Eastern and Western medical traditions.

"Her CV cites disparate accomplishments as a scientist, writer, and artist—and teacher…. Moreover, her career arc represents a syncretic impulse that characterizes her general outlook on life." — Glen Martin, Forbes, November 4, 2014

Did you know?
Syncretic has its roots in an ancient alliance. It's a descendant of the Greek word synkrētismos, meaning "federation of Cretan cities"—syn- means "together, with," and Krēt- means "Cretan." The adjective first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, and the related noun syncretism debuted over 200 years earlier. Syncretic retains the idea of coalition and appears in such contexts as "syncretic religions," "syncretic societies," and even "syncretic music," all describing things influenced by two or more styles or traditions. The word also has a specific application in linguistics, where it refers to a fusion of inflectional forms.


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

oxymoron • \ahk-sih-MOR-ahn\  • noun
: a combination of contradictory or incongruous words; broadly : something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements

"That's an oxymoron!" said Joanne, when she heard the DJ describe the song as an "instant classic."

"A 'healthy snack' sounds like an oxymoron. The two words seem to be on opposite ends. But that does not have to be the case." — Karen Miller, The Boston Banner, October 23, 2014

Did you know?
The Greeks exhaustively classified the elements of rhetoric, or effective speech and writing, and gave the name oxymōron, literally "pointed foolishness," to the deliberate juxtaposing of seemingly contradictory words. The roots of oxymoron, oxys meaning "sharp" or "keen" and mōros meaning "foolish," are nearly antonyms themselves, making oxymoron nicely self-descriptive. Oxymoron originally applied to a meaningful paradox condensed into a couple of words, as in "precious bane," "lonely crowd," or "sweet sorrow." Today, however, oxymoron can also refer to unintentional contradictions, like "a plastic glass."


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

ergonomic • \er-guh-NAH-mik\  • adjective
1 : of or relating to the science of designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely 2 : designed or arranged for safe, comfortable, and efficient use

Clara hoped that the ergonomic arrangement of her new workstation would help reduce the daily aches in her elbow and wrist.

"Fender has been credited with design and manufacturing innovations that revolutionized the world of electric guitars and basses. The Stratocaster body introduced a curvy ergonomic design for ease of playing…." — Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2014

Did you know?
In 1969, a British publication assured the public that although the word ergonomics looked forbidding, "all it means is the science of making things fit people, instead of asking people to fit things." Ergonomic design as a field of study originated in the 19th century when a Polish author, Wojciech Jastrzebowski, wrote an article about the relation between human activity and the methods used to accomplish that activity. In the article, written in his native Polish, Jastrzebowski coined the word ergonomji, an efficient combination of the Greek ergo-, meaning "work," and nomos, meaning "law." British scientist K. F. H. Murrell is credited with creating the English word ergonomics in 1949, applying the -nomics ending to ergo- in imitation of economics. Earliest evidence of the adjective ergonomic dates to 1954.


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

réchauffé • \ray-shoh-FAY\  • noun
1 : something presented in a new form without change of substance : rehash 2 : a warmed-over dish of food

The day after the holiday, it was traditional to serve réchauffés and snacks rather than cook a full meal.

"[It] is a réchauffé, … lifted and stitched from 'The Gastronomical Me' and other books." — Victoria Glendinning, New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1991

Did you know?
We borrowed réchauffé in the early 19th century from the French; it is the past participle of their verb réchauffer, which means "to reheat." Nineteenth-century French speakers were using it figuratively to designate something that was already old hat—you might say, "warmed over." English speakers adopted that same meaning, which is still our most common. But within decades someone had apparently decided that leftovers would seem more appealing with a French name. The notion caught on. A recipe for "Réchauffé of Beef a la Jardiniere," for example, instructs the cook to reheat "yesterday's piece of meat" in a little water with some tomatoes added, and serve it on a platter with peas and carrots and potatoes. Réchauffé shares its root with another English word, chafing dish, the name of a receptacle for keeping food warm at the table.


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

incommensurable • \in-kuh-MEN-suh-ruh-bul\  • adjective
: not commensurable; broadly : lacking a basis of comparison in respect to a quality normally subject to comparison

The two theories are incommensurable, making any attempt at comparison across disciplines ridiculous.

"Camus' own predicament as an Algerian of European descent sympathetic to both sides of the Algerian War led him to recognize a collision of incommensurable truths and embrace classical moderation." — Steven G. Kellman, The Texas Observer, December 2013

Did you know?
Commensurable means "having a common measure" or "corresponding in size, extent, amount, or degree." Its antonym incommensurable generally refers to things that are unlike and incompatible, sharing no common ground (as in the "incommensurable theories" of the first example sentence), or to things that are very disproportionate, often to the point of defying comparison ("incommensurable crimes"). Both words entered English in the 1500s and were originally used (as they still can be) for numbers that have or don't have a common divisor. They came to English by way of Middle French and Late Latin, ultimately deriving from the Latin noun mensura, meaning "measure." Mensura is also an ancestor of commensurate (meaning "coextensive" or "proportionate") and incommensurate ("disproportionate" or "insufficient"), which overlap in meaning with commensurable and incommensurable but are not exact synonyms.


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

nabob • \NAY-bahb\  • noun
: a person of great wealth or importance

Those of us in coach had to wait while the nabobs in first class got seated ahead of us.

"Roughly 70 citizens had addresses on the hill. Many of those listed on the hill worked in the useful trades. The development of the hill as an exclusive neighborhood, as the city's nabobs had hoped, did not begin until the early 1880s." — Lawrence Kreisman, Seattle Times, November 7, 2014

Did you know?
In India's Mogul Empire, founded in the 16th century, provincial governors carried the Urdu title of nawab. In 1612, Captain Robert Coverte published a report of his "discovery" of "the Great Mogoll, a prince not till now knowne to our English nation." The Captain informed the English-speaking world that "An earle is called a Nawbob," thereby introducing the English version of the word. Nabob, as it thereafter came to be spelled, gained its extended sense of "a prominent person" in the late 18th century, when it was applied sarcastically to British officials of the East India Company returning home after amassing great wealth in Asia. The word was perhaps most famously used by Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a 1970 speech written by William Safire, when he referred to critical members of the news media as "nattering nabobs of negativism."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 13, 2014 is:

tractable • \TRAK-tuh-bul\  • adjective
1 : capable of being easily led, taught, or controlled 2 : easily handled, managed, or wrought

The couple had hoped to find a tractable and obedient dog that wouldn't cause too much trouble, but instead they got Rufus and their life has never been the same.

"But values have been steadily rising simply because it's such a good driver's car. It's incredibly tractable and usable—more so than any other car I can think of from that period, in fact." — Dylan Miles, quoted in Classic Driver, November 14, 2014

Did you know?
Obedient, docile, and amenable are synonyms of tractable, but those four words have slightly different shades of meaning. Tractable describes an individual whose character permits easy handling, while docile implies a predisposition to submit readily to authority. Obedient is often used to describe compliance with authority, although that compliance is not necessarily offered eagerly. Amenable, on the other hand, is usually used when one cooperates out of a desire to be agreeable. Tractable dates from the early 16th century and derives from the Latin verb tractare ("to handle" or "to treat"). Despite the resemblance, this root did not give us the noun tractor or verbs such as contract or attract—those all derive from a loosely related Latin verb trahere ("to draw or drag").


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 12, 2014 is:

flapdoodle • \FLAP-doo-dul\  • noun
: nonsense

"Not a trace of academic fustian! Not a line of flapdoodle! Not a hint of college professor! Here was sharp and shrewd judgment." — H. L. Mencken, The Smart Set, June 1917

"Chalk that up to the triumph—rare enough these days—of facts over flapdoodle." — Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2013

Did you know?
Combining the letters f, d, and l is a great formula for creating funny words—witness folderol, fiddlesticks, fandangle, flamdoodle, flummadiddle, and fiddledeedee. To ascribe pedigreed origins to any of those silly syllables would be fiddle-faddle. Flapdoodle certainly can't claim high-flown ancestors. Like many of its nonsensical fellows listed above, it most likely originated as an alteration of some other absurd word (fadoodle is a candidate), but its exact origins are unknown.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 11, 2014 is:

allege • \uh-LEJ\  • verb
1 : to assert without proof or before proving 2 : to bring forward as a reason or excuse

She alleges that her roommate stole hundreds of dollars from her.

"The Chicago lawsuit … alleges a two-decade-long campaign by the industry to persuade doctors to make the use of painkillers routine for chronic pain by obscuring the drugs' risks and misrepresenting their efficacy." — David Armstrong, Businessweek, November 14, 2014

Did you know?
These days, someone "alleges" something before presenting the evidence to prove it (or perhaps without evidence at all), but the word actually derives from the Middle English verb alleggen, meaning "to submit (something) in evidence or as justification." Alleggen, in turn, traces back to Anglo-French and probably ultimately to Latin allegare, meaning "to send as a representative" or "to offer as proof in support of a plea." Indeed, allege once referred to the actions of someone who came forward to testify in court; this sense isn't used anymore, but it led to the development of the current "assert without proof" sense.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 10, 2014 is:

calumny • \KAL-um-nee\  • noun
1 : a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation 2 : the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another's reputation

The notion that the mayor knew about the problem before the newspaper broke the story is nothing but calumny.

"Some say that showing respect for your opponent after heaping disrespect upon him … and having disrespect heaped upon you civilizes our politics. In truth, however, it degrades our politics. It says that anything goes—calumny and character assassination are all just part of the rough and tumble of campaigning.…" — Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2014

Did you know?
Calumny made an appearance in these famous words from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go." The word had been in the English language for a while, though, before Hamlet uttered it. It first entered English in the 15th century and comes from the Middle French word calomnie of the same meaning. Calomnie, in turn, derives from the Latin word calumnia, (meaning "false accusation," "false claim," or "trickery"), which itself traces to the Latin verb calvi, meaning "to deceive."

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