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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 November 28, 2014 is:

heterodox • \HET-uh-ruh-dahks\  • adjective
1 : contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion : unorthodox, unconventional 2 : holding unorthodox opinions or doctrines

A lifelong contrarian, Alexa was known for putting forth heterodox opinions in her weekly culture column.

"Levy is an intellectual descendant of the economist Hyman Minsky, a heterodox thinker who spent many years working at the Jerome Levy Economic Institute and whose theories were largely ignored by economists up until the latest financial crisis." — Chris Matthews, Fortune, October 28, 2014

Did you know?
"Orthodoxy ... is my doxy—heterodoxy is another man's doxy," quipped 18th-century bishop William Warburton. He was only punning, but it is true that individuals often see other people's ideas as unconventional while regarding their own as beyond reproach. The antonyms orthodox and heterodox developed from the same root, the Greek doxa, which means "opinion." Heterodox derives from doxa plus heter-, a combining form meaning "other" or "different"; orthodoxy pairs doxa with orth-, meaning "correct" or "straight."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 27, 2014 is:

nostrum • \NAHSS-trum\  • noun
: a usually questionable remedy or scheme : panacea

Critics predict the mayor's plan to revitalize the downtown area by offering tax breaks to businesses will prove a costly and ineffective nostrum.

"For example, the Internet will likely soon be overflowing with nostrums, essential oils, tree bark, eye of toad and essence of newt promising to prevent or cure Ebola. The FDA and FTC should be gathering their lawyers right now to get this claptrap off the web." — Arthur Leonard Caplan, Forbes, September 30, 2014

Did you know?
"Whether there was real efficacy in these nostrums, and whether their author himself had faith in them, is more than can safely be said," wrote 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, "but, at all events, the public believed in them." The word nostrum has often been linked to quack medicine and false hopes for miracle cures, but there's nothing deceitful about its etymology. It has been a part of English since at least 1602, and comes from the Latin noster, meaning "our" or "ours." Some think that specially prepared medicinal concoctions came to be called nostrums because their purveyors marketed them as "our own" remedy. In other words, the use of nostrum emphasized that such a potion was unique or exclusive to the pitchman peddling it.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 26, 2014 is:

crabwise • \KRAB-wyze\  • adverb
1 : sideways 2 : in a sidling or cautiously indirect manner

Rather than asking his parents for a car directly, Noah approached the matter crabwise, stressing how inconvenient it was for them to have to drive him everywhere.

"But personally, my bed … is just for sleeping in. It is actually … 6ft wide, and it is beautiful beyond words. No matter that I have to walk crabwise round the room in order to get in, out or dressed." — Lucy Mangan, The Guardian (London), January 4, 2011

Did you know?
There's no reason to be indirect when explaining the etymology of crabwise; we'll get right to the point. As you might guess, the meaning of that word is directly related to that sidling sea creature, the crab. If you live near the shore or have visited a beach near the sea, you have probably seen crabs scuttling along, often moving sideways and not taking what humans would consider the most direct route. The modern meanings of crabwise were definitely inspired by the crab's lateral or oblique approach to getting from one place to another. The word crept into English in the mid-19th century and has been sidling into our sentences ever since.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 25, 2014 is:

pelagic • \puh-LAJ-ik\  • adjective
: of, relating to, or living or occurring in the open sea : oceanic

She is studying to become a marine biologist specializing in pelagic plant life.

"During this time we also have the seasonal migration of pelagic fish from the northern Gulf waters to the Key West area." — Sam O'Briant, The News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida), September 21, 2014

Did you know?
Pelagic comes to us from Greek, via Latin. The Greek word pelagikos became pelagicus in Latin and then pelagic in English. (Pelagikos is derived from pelagos, the Greek word for the sea—it is also a source of archipelago—plus the adjectival suffix -ikos.) Pelagic first showed up in dictionaries in 1656; a definition from that time says that Pelagick (as it was then spelled) meant "of the Sea, or that liveth in the Sea." Over 350 years later, writers are still using pelagic with the same meaning, albeit less frequently than its more familiar synonym oceanic.

»Job's comforter 

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

Job's comforter • \JOHBZ-KUM-fer-ter\  • noun
: a person who discourages or depresses while seemingly giving comfort and consolation

Danny, a reliable Job's comforter, assured Shane that the girl who'd broken his heart had always been out of his league.

"It's a blessing for me, he said, that my joints are frozen solid with the arthritis, because if I tried to run around like I used to, my heart would give out sure. I told him he was a Job's comforter, what good is keeping my heart going like a watch that won't tell time if I can't get up and cook." — Ross Macdonald, The Ivory Grin, 1952

Did you know?
Poor Job. He's the biblical character who endures extraordinary afflictions in a test of his piety. He loses his possessions, his children, and his health. And then, to make matters worse, three friends show up to "comfort" him. These friends turn out to be no comfort at all. Instead, they say that the things that have been happening to him happen to all sinners—and point out a number of his faults. In the mid-18th century, English speakers began using the phrase "Job's comforter" for anyone who offers similarly unhelpful consolation.


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

recusant • \REK-yuh-zunt\  • adjective
: refusing to submit to authority

Elizabeth's recusant streak was apparent even in elementary school, where she would frequently challenge the rules put forth by her teachers.

"The third volume, covering the English Civil War and its aftermath, offers more of the same smoothly readable analysis.… Oliver Cromwell, with his Puritan grit and fear of recusant Catholicism, inevitably takes up much of the action." — Ian Thomson, The Independent (UK), October 22, 2014

Did you know?
In 1534, Henry VIII of England declared himself the head of the Church of England, separating it from the Roman Catholic Church, and the resultant furor led to increased attention on people's religious observances. A recusant was someone who (from about 1570-1791) refused to attend services of the Church of England, and therefore violated the laws of mandatory church attendance. The name derives from the Latin verb recusare, meaning "reject" or "oppose." The adjective recusant has been in use since the late 16th century. Originally, it meant "refusing to attend the services of the Church of England," but by the century's end, both the adjective and the noun were also being used generally to suggest resistance to authority of any form.


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

shrive • \SHRYVE\  • verb
1 : to administer the sacrament of reconciliation to 2 : to free from guilt

"Once every three months, Pancho took his savings and drove into Monterey to confess his sins, to do his penance, and be shriven and to get drunk, in the order named." — John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven, 1932

"Members of Congress, a generally spineless lot, like nothing better than to be shriven of responsibility for the edicts that come out of Washington." — editorial, The Eagle-Tribune (Andover, Massachusetts), January 30, 2014

Did you know?
We wouldn't want to give the history of shrive short shrift, so here's the whole story. It began when the Latin verb scribere (meaning "to write") found its way onto the tongues of certain Germanic peoples who brought it to Britain in the early Middle Ages. Because it was often used for laying down directions or rules in writing, 8th-century Old English speakers used their form of the term, scrīfan, to mean "to prescribe or impose." The Church adopted scrīfan to refer to the act of assigning penance to sinners and, later, to hearing confession and administering absolution. Today shrift, the noun form of shrive, makes up half of "short shrift," a phrase meaning "little or no consideration." Originally, "short shrift" was the barely adequate time for confession before an execution.

»golden handcuffs 

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

golden handcuffs • \GOHL-dun-HAND-kufs\  • noun
: special benefits offered to an employee as an inducement to continue service

It was in the company's interests to offer Janice a set of golden handcuffs in the form of company stock, since her connections and knowledge of industry secrets would not be easy to replace.

"Coffey quit Moore Capital at the age of 41 to spend more time with his family having previously made his name, and a reported $700 million fortune, at GLG, where he turned down a $250 million golden handcuffs deal to stay." — Jamie Dunkley, London Evening Standard, October 8, 2014

Did you know?
Chances are you've heard of a "golden handshake," which is a particularly tempting severance agreement offered to an employee in an effort to induce the person to retire early. People started getting "golden handshakes" (by that name) around 1960; by 1976, English speakers had also coined the accompanying "golden handcuffs" to describe a situation in which someone is offered a special inducement to stay. The expression turns up often in quasi-literal uses, such as "slapped golden handcuffs on" or "a shiny new set of golden handcuffs."


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

weal • \WEEL\  • noun
: a sound, healthy, or prosperous state : well-being

The president spoke of devotion to the common weal and the hope of creating a better country.

"'Higher healthcare costs'? No one could be for that, so the campaign [against it] looks like a flag-carrier for the public weal." — Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2014

Did you know?
Weal is most often used in contexts referring to the general good. One reads, for example, of the "public weal" or the "common weal." The latter of these led to the formation of the noun commonweal, a word that once referred to an organized political entity, such as a nation or state, but today usually means "the general welfare." The word commonwealth shares these meanings, but its situation is reversed; the "political entity" sense of commonwealth is still current, whereas the "general welfare" sense has become archaic. At one time, weal and wealth were also synonyms; both meant "riches" ("all his worldly weal") and "well-being." Both words stem from wela, the Old English word for "well-being," and are closely related to the Old English word for "well."


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

officious • \uh-FISH-us\  • adjective
1 : volunteering one's services where they are neither asked nor needed : meddlesome 2 : informal, unofficial

Staff members view the new consultant as an officious individual offering unwanted feedback, but she is simply doing her job.

"During an interview this week with Morris News, Saxby, a Republican, said he is frustrated by the delay but attributes it more to officious federal bureaucrats than to partisan gamesmanship." — Carla Caldwell, Atlanta Business Chronicle, April 2, 2014

Did you know?
Don't mistake officious for a rare synonym of official. Both words stem from the Latin noun officium (meaning "service" or "office"), but they have very different meanings. When the suffix -osus ("full of") was added to officium, Latin officiosus came into being, meaning "eager to serve, help, or perform a duty." When this adjective was borrowed into English in the 16th century as officious, it carried the same meaning. Early in the 17th century, however, officious began to develop a negative sense describing a person who offers unwanted help. This pejorative sense has driven out the original "eager to help" sense to become the predominant meaning of the word in modern English. Officious can also mean "of an informal or unauthorized nature," but that sense isn't especially common.


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

leitmotif • \LYTE-moh-teef\  • noun
1 : a melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation in a music drama 2 : a dominant recurring theme

The overcoming of obstacles and a love of theater are the two leitmotifs of her autobiography.

"'Collaboration' is the author's supporting theme, and he weaves it in throughout his anecdotes and character studies. Approached lazily, this kind of leitmotif would be more irritating than illuminating, but Isaacson fully commits." — James Norton, The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2014

Did you know?
The English word leitmotif (or leitmotiv, as it is also spelled) comes from the German Leitmotiv, meaning "leading motive" and formed from leiten ("to lead") and Motiv ("motive"). In its original sense, the word applies to opera music and was first used by writers interpreting the works of composer Richard Wagner, who was famous for associating a melody with a character or important dramatic element. Leitmotif is still commonly used with reference to music and musical drama but is now also used more broadly to refer to any recurring theme in the arts or in everyday life.

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