Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 21, 2017 is:
distaff \DISS-taff\ adjective
1 a : related through a mother
b : inherited or derived from the female parent
2 : female
"Lord Robert Walsingham de Vere St. Simon, second son of the Duke of Balmoral.… The Duke, his father, was at one time Secretary for Foreign Affairs. They inherit Plantagenet blood by direct descent, and Tudor on the distaff side." — Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," 1892
"One hint that the article was aimed more at the distaff side was in the second of 15 trends it listed, namely: 'Meet Workleisure: Athleisure is taking on the workplace.' The illustrations were of women, the brands mentioned were feminine lines and, well, that whole concept is just too burdensome to plan and too pricey for my closet." — Mike Tighe, The La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune, 29 Dec. 2016
Did you know?
The word distaff was first used for a short staff that held a bundle of fibers—of flax or wool, for example—ready to be spun into yarn or thread. Since spinning was a basic daily task customarily done by women, the distaff came to be the symbol for the work or domain of women. This symbolic use of the noun distaff dates back to the time of Chaucer and is found in several works by Shakespeare. Eventually distaff came to be used for the female branch of a family and then as an adjective, as in "the distaff side of the family."
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 20, 2017 is:
onus \OH-nuss\ noun
1 : burden
2 : a disagreeable necessity : obligation
3 : blame
4 : stigma
Management has made it clear that the onus is on employees to ask for further training if they don't understand the new procedures.
"I feel very fortunate that I never got into this business as a beauty queen. Even back in high school, the actors I idolized were the chameleons. That really took the onus off of what I looked like, and what a beautiful woman is supposed to look like." — Connie Britton, quoted in The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2016
Understanding the etymology of onus is not at all burdensome; it's as simple as knowing that English borrowed the word—spelling, meaning, and all—from Latin in the 17th century. We can also add that it's a distant relative of the Sanskrit word for "cart" (a vehicle that carries a burden). English isn't exactly loaded with derivatives of Latin onus, but the root did give us onerous ("troublesome") and exonerate ("to clear from accusation or blame"—thus, "to unburden"). Additionally, our legal language has onus probandi, which is often shortened to onus. It means "burden of proof"—that is, the obligation of proving a disputed assertion in a court of law.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 19, 2017 is:
bemuse \bih-MYOOZ\ verb
1 : to make confused : puzzle, bewilder
2 : to occupy the attention of : distract, absorb
3 : to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement
She had neither asked for nor expected her newfound celebrity, and was bemused by all the attention she was receiving.
"I have no interest in bemusing an audience or puzzling an audience. I don't think my plays are difficult. When they're spoken of in those terms, I'm always surprised." — Tom Stoppard, quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle, 10 Oct. 2016
In 1735, British poet Alexander Pope lamented, in rhyme, being besieged by "a parson much bemus'd in beer." The cleric in question was apparently one of a horde of would-be poets who plagued Pope with requests that he read their verses. Pope meant that the parson had found his muse—his inspiration—in beer. That use of bemused harks back to a 1705 letter in which Pope wrote of "Poets … irrecoverably Be-mus'd." In both letter and poem, Pope used bemused to allude to being inspired by or devoted to one of the Muses, the Greek sister goddesses of art, music, and literature. The lexicographers who followed him, however, interpreted "bemus'd in beer" as meaning "left confused by beer," and their confusion gave rise to the first modern sense of bemused above.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 18, 2017 is:
protean \PROH-tee-un\ adjective
1 : of or resembling Proteus in having a varied nature or ability to assume different forms
2 : displaying great diversity or variety : versatile
"Together, the paintings demonstrate Picasso's protean ability to slip into new visual languages to suit the occasion, his subject and his own whims." — Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo (New York) News, 13 Jan. 2017
"Love for Sale examines the shape-shifting undergone by popular music, from minstrelsy to hip-hop, and the equally protean ways in which it has reached the public, from printed notation sheets for do-it-yourself parlor revelry in days of yore to the streaming and downloading of our digital era." — Rayyan al-Shawaf, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 Jan. 2017
Proteus was the original master of disguise. According to Greek mythology, the grizzled old shepherd of Poseidon's sea creatures possessed the gift of prophecy but didn't like to share his knowledge. Proteus would escape those who wanted to question him by changing his shape. The only way to get a straight answer from him was to sneak up behind him during his midday nap and hold onto him (while he frantically changed from shape to shape) until he eventually revealed what he knew. The adjective protean describes anyone or anything that is as mutable and adaptable as the mythological sea-shepherd.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 17, 2017 is:
cachet \ka-SHAY\ noun
1 : a seal used especially as a mark of official approval
2 : a characteristic feature or quality conferring prestige; also : standing or estimation in the eyes of people : prestige
3 : a design, inscription, or advertisement printed or stamped on mail
"It's been 70 years and the Sweetheart City is still going strong with its official valentine card and cachet. The Loveland Chamber of Commerce unveiled the 2016 artwork Tuesday…." — Erin Udell, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, 6 Jan. 2016
"TV is enjoying a surge in critical prestige and has taken over some of the cultural cachet that used to be reserved for the movies." — Ryan Faughnder, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Jan. 2017
In the years before the French Revolution, a lettre de cachet was a letter, signed by both the French king and another officer, that was used to authorize a person's imprisonment. Documents such as these were usually made official by being marked with a seal pressed into soft wax. This seal was known in French as a cachet. The word was derived from the Middle French verb cacher, meaning "to press" or "to hide." The "seal" sense of cachet has been used in English since the mid-17th century, and in the 19th century the word started acquiring its extended senses, first referring to a feature or quality conferring prestige, and by century's end to prestige itself.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 16, 2017 is:
sward \SWORD\ noun
1 : a portion of ground covered with grass
2 : the grassy surface of land
"It was a blind and despairing rush by the collection of men in dusty and tattered blue, over a green sward and under a sapphire sky, toward a fence, dimly outlined in smoke, from behind which spluttered the fierce rifles of enemies." — Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895
"A few hundred yards upstream of the mill was a dam and a small lake. Along its east shore was Riverside Park with its gazebos and grassy swards and, come summer, flocks of picnickers." — Marc Hudson, The Journal Review (Crawfordsville, Indiana), 28 May 2016
Sward sprouted from the Old English sweard or swearth, meaning "skin" or "rind." It was originally used as a term for the skin of the body before being extended to another surface—that of the earth's. The word's specific grassy sense dates back more than 500 years, but it rarely crops up in contemporary writing. The term, however, has been planted in a number of old novels, such as in this quote from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles: "The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them...."
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 15, 2017 is:
voluble \VAHL-yuh-bul\ adjective
1 : easily rolling or turning : rotating
2 : characterized by ready or rapid speech : glib, fluent
Having worked as a teacher for almost twenty years, Pamela was voluble on the subject of education.
"At 78, the Dutch-born director is generous and voluble, feeling his way through conversation as if he, too, is curious about what he will say next. ('That's it, I'm cutting you off,' a hardened publicist told him, well after our interview was supposed to end.)" — Jeffrey Bloomer, Slate Magazine, 23 Nov. 2016
English has many terms for gabby types, but it's important to choose the right word to get across what kind of chatterbox you mean. Talkative usually implies a readiness to engage in talk or a disposition to enjoy conversation. Loquacious generally suggests the power to express oneself fluently, articulately, or glibly, but it can also mean "talking excessively." Garrulous is even stronger in its suggestion of excessive talkativeness; it is most often used for tedious, rambling talkers. Voluble is a word ultimately derived from the Latin verb volvere, meaning "to roll," that describes an individual who speaks easily and often—someone whose words smoothly roll off their tongue, so to speak.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 14, 2017 is:
billet-doux \bill-ee-DOO\ noun
: a love letter
While cleaning out her parents' basement, Amy stumbled upon a box containing billets-doux written by her dad to his high-school sweetheart—her mom.
"… when you stop to think about it the entire panoply of behaviours we consider as romantic, from sending little billets-doux, to developing a shared vocabulary of pet names, are … infantile. What's romance, then, but a kind of childish make-believe?" — Will Self, Prospect, 13 Oct. 2016
The first recorded use of the French word billet doux (literally, "sweet letter") in an English context occurs in John Dryden's 1673 play Marriage a-la-Mode. In the play, Dryden pokes fun at linguistic Francophiles in English society through the comic character Melanthe, who is described by her prospective lover Rodophil as follows: "No lady can be so curious of a new fashion as she is of a new French word; she's the very mint of the nation, and as fast as any bullion comes out of France, coins it immediately into our language." True to form, Melanthe describes Rodophil with the following words: "Let me die, but he's a fine man; he sings and dances en Français, and writes the billets doux to a miracle."
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 13, 2017 is:
transpontine \trans-PAHN-tyne\ adjective
1 : situated on the farther side of a bridge
2 : (British) situated on the south side of the Thames
Traffic on the Tobin Bridge was at a near standstill, and it took us twenty minutes to reach our transpontine destination in Charlestown.
"The moment Waterloo Bridge was planned across the Thames, a new theatre to serve the transpontine coach trade was inevitable." — Robert Gore-Langton, The Spectator (UK), 15 Nov. 2014
Usually the prefix trans-, meaning "across," allows for a reciprocal perspective. Whether you're in Europe or America, for example, transoceanic countries are countries across the ocean from where you are. But that's not the way it originally worked with transpontine. The pont- in transpontine is from the Latin pons, meaning "bridge," and the bridge in this case was, at first, any bridge that crossed the River Thames in the city of London. "Across the bridge" meant on one side of the river only—the south side. That's where the theaters that featured popular melodramas were located, and Victorian Londoners used transpontine to distinguish them from their more respectable cispontine ("situated on the nearer side of a bridge") counterparts north of the Thames.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 12, 2017 is:
weltanschauung \VELT-ahn-show-ung ("ow" as in "cow")\ noun
: (often capitalized Weltanschauung) a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint
"In my personal Weltanschauung, there is nothing wrong with arm hair, giant headphones are silly and skin-lightening products are creepy and grim. Others may grade them differently, but that's all part of the same thing too. As soon as you opt in to a belief system where any type of hair, skin or style is 'right' or 'wrong' … you are in the jaws." — Victoria Coren Mitchell, The Observer, 3 Apr. 2016
"Back in the 1960s, behavioral theorists wrote about a culture of poverty. Life below the poverty line has specific characteristics that produce a fairly consistent weltanschauung among the people who share it. That means that they have much in common that shapes their communities." — Hubert Kauffman, The Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine), 4 Dec. 2016
The German word Weltanschauung literally means "world view"; it combines Welt ("world") with Anschauung ("view"), which ultimately derives from the Middle High German verb schouwen ("to look at" or "to see"). When we first adopted it from German in the mid-19th century, weltanschauung referred to a philosophical view or apprehension of the universe, and this sense is still the most widely used. It can also describe a more general ideology or philosophy of life.