Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 21, 2017 is:
adversity \ad-VER-suh-tee\ noun
: a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune
The movie is about a group of determined mountain climbers who triumph in the face of adversity.
"In this way, [the movie] 'It' was meant to reflect how our childhood experiences and fears influence the people we become, and how our adult selves use that to deal with adversity." — Maria Sciullo, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 17 Sept. 2017
Did you know?
Adversity, mishap, misfortune, and mischance all suggest difficulty of one sort or another. Adversity particularly applies to a state of grave or persistent misfortune (as in "a childhood marked by great adversity"). Mishap suggests an often trivial instance of bad luck (as in "the usual mishaps of a family vacation"). Misfortune is the most common and the most general of the terms, often functioning as a simple synonym of "bad luck" (as in "having the misfortune to get a flat tire on the way to their wedding"). Mischance applies especially to a situation involving no more than slight inconvenience or minor annoyance (as in "a small mischance that befell us").
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 20, 2017 is:
knee-jerk \NEE-jerk\ adjective
: readily predictable : automatic; also : reacting in a readily predictable way
The letter to the editor asserted that the proposed institution of a curfew was a knee-jerk reaction to the problem of an uptick of nighttime crime in the city.
"The habitual or knee-jerk apologist runs a great risk of losing herself through all her apologies. She sees so many of the things she does as offenses or wrongs and takes responsibility for things that are not properly hers." — Peg O'Connor, Psychology Today, 23 June 2017
Around 1876, the sudden involuntary extension of the leg in response to a light blow just below the knee, which is also known as the patellar reflex, was given the refreshingly simple designation knee jerk. In the 1950s, knee-jerk became an adjective with a figurative sense that doesn't require any actual twitching. "As a salesman, I'm getting a bit weary of the knee-jerk association of a con artist with my professional calling," a correspondent once wrote to The New York Times Magazine. Knee-jerk often has a negative connotation. It usually denotes a too-hasty, impulsive, perhaps even irrational response that is often based on preconceived notions.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 19, 2017 is:
hew \HYOO\ verb
1 : to cut or fell with blows (as of an ax)
2 : to give form or shape to with or as if with an ax
3 : conform, adhere
"He is best known stateside for the … productions of 'Twelfth Night' and 'Richard III' that he brought to Broadway in 2013, which hewed as closely as possible to the staging choices made at the turn of the 17th century." — Eric Grode, The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2017
"Although the novel hews to the broad outlines of the Drumgold investigation, Lehr takes major liberties with the story, inventing plot twists, scenes, and characters…." — Malcolm Gay, The Boston Globe, 7 Sept. 2017
Hew is a strong, simple word of Anglo-Saxon descent. It can suggest actual ax-wielding, or it can be figurative: "If … our ambition hews and shapes [our] new relations, their virtue escapes, as strawberries lose their flavor in garden-beds" (Ralph Waldo Emerson). It's easy to see how the figurative "shape" sense of hew developed from the literal "hacking" sense, but what does chopping have to do with adhering and conforming? That sense first appeared in the late 1800s in the phrase "hew to the line." The "hew line" is a line marked along the length of a log indicating where to chop in order to shape a beam. "Hewing to the line," literally, is cutting along the mark—adhering to it—until the side of the log is squared.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 18, 2017 is:
malign \muh-LYNE\ verb
: to utter injuriously misleading or false reports about : speak evil of
The tech guru recalls how as a high schooler he was often maligned or simply ignored by the popular kids in his school.
"I am a contrarian on the Apple Watch, which I believe has been unfairly maligned by tech pundits. I love mine, and I get pretty frustrated by a lot of Apple products." — Nick Wingfield, The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2017
When a word's got mal- in it, it's no good. That prefix traces to the Latin word malus (which means "bad"), and it puts the negative vibes in both the verb and adjective forms of malign (from the Latin malignus, meaning "evil in nature") and a host of other English words. You can see it in malpractice (bad medical practice) and malady (a bad condition, such as a disease or illness, of the body or mind). A malefactor is someone guilty of bad deeds, and malice is a desire to cause injury, pain, or distress to another person. Other mal- formed words include malaise, malcontent, maladroit, malodorous, and malnourished.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 17, 2017 is:
euphony \YOO-fuh-nee\ noun
1 : pleasing or sweet sound; especially : the acoustic effect produced by words so formed or combined as to please the ear
2 : a harmonious succession of words having a pleasing sound
He awakened on a warm morning to the euphony of birdsong outside his window.
"After the war, 'A Shropshire Lad' travelled in the breast pockets of the generation who had taken up rambling and rediscovering the English countryside, even though—aside from a few place names, like Bredon Hill and Wenlock Edge, evidently chosen more for euphony than for anything else—it's not much of a geographic guide." — Charles McGrath, The New Yorker, 26 June 2017
Euphony was borrowed from French at the beginning of the 17th century; the French word (euphonie) derives from the Late Latin euphonia, which in turn traces back to the Greek adjective euphōnos, meaning "sweet-voiced" or "musical." Euphōnos was formed by combining the prefix eu- ("good") and phōnē ("voice"). In addition to its more commonly recognized senses, euphony also has a more specific meaning in the field of linguistics, where it can refer to the preference for words that are easy to pronounce. This preference may be the cause of an observed trend of people altering the pronunciation of certain words—apparently in favor of sound combinations that are more fluid and simpler to say out loud.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 16, 2017 is:
chary \CHAIR-ee\ adjective
1 : hesitant and vigilant about dangers and risks
2 : slow to grant, accept, or expend
"Alexander Graham Bell didn't expect his telephone to be widely used for prank calls. And Steve Jobs was chary of children using his iThings." — Hayley Krischer, The New York Times, 7 Sept. 2017
"An A-1 writer but also chary with spoken words, he told me: 'I don't own a computer. I write longhand. In notebooks. It's then typed up. Retyped until I feel I've got it.'" — Cindy Adams, The New York Post, 2 Aug. 2017
It was sorrow that bred the caution of chary. In Middle English chary meant "sorrowful," a sense that harks back to the word's Old English ancestor caru (an early form of care, and another term that originally meant "sorrow" or "grief"). In a sense switch that demonstrates that love can be both bitter and sweet, chary later came to mean "dear" or "cherished." That's how 16th-century English dramatist George Peele used it: "the chariest and the choicest queen, That ever did delight my royal eyes." Both sorrow and affection have largely faded from chary, however, and in Modern English the word is most often used as a synonym of either careful or sparing.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 15, 2017 is:
razzmatazz \raz-muh-TAZ\ noun
1 : a confusing or colorful often gaudy action or display : razzle-dazzle
2 : inflated, involved, and often deliberately ambiguous language : double-talk
3 : vim, zing
We were disappointed by the candidate's speech, which offered plenty of razzmatazz but little substance.
"The fireworks, the razzmatazz, the artifice do not add to the sense of occasion. Instead of augmenting the competition's charm, they detract from it." — Rory Smith, The New York Times, 28 May 2017
English speakers are fond of forming new words through reduplication of a base word, usually with just a slight change of sound. Think of okeydoke, fuddy-duddy, super-duper, roly-poly, fiddle-faddle, and dillydally. Another word is razzle-dazzle, formed by the reduplication of dazzle (itself a frequentative of daze). In the late-19th century, the spirit that prompted razzle-dazzle (one early meaning of which is "a state of confusion or hilarity") seems to have also inspired razzmatazz. The coiners of razzmatazz may also have had jazz in mind. Some of the earliest turn-of-the century uses of razzmatazz refer to rag-time or early jazz styles. By the mid-20th century, we'd come round to the "razzle-dazzle" sense, though we still haven't completely settled on the spelling. You might, for example, see razzamatazz.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 14, 2017 is:
palliate \PAL-ee-ayt\ verb
1 : to reduce the violence of (a disease); also : to ease (symptoms) without curing the underlying disease
2 : to cover by excuses and apologies
3 : to moderate the intensity of
"He had an ability to describe and champion technological innovation and global integration in a rhetoric that palliated fears of change." — Matthew Continetti, Commentary, 16 Nov. 2016
"I have held onto generations of them not just for the headaches I inherited but for bellyaches, cramps, the cold, a cold, the side effects of antimalarial pills, tennis elbow. I've found that a hot-water bottle excels at palliating less-specific aches, ones that don't answer to 'Where does it hurt?'" — Chantel Tattoli, The New York Times Magazine, 19 Jan. 2017
Long ago, the ancient Romans had a name for the cloak-like garb that was worn by the Greeks (distinguishing it from their own toga); the name was pallium. In the 15th century, English speakers modified the Late Latin word palliatus, which derives from pallium, to form palliate. Our term, used initially as both an adjective and a verb, never had the literal Latin sense referring to the cloak you wear, but it took on the figurative "cloak" of protection. Specifically, the verb palliate meant (as it still can mean) "to lessen the intensity of a disease." The related adjective palliative describes medical care that focuses on relieving pain or discomfort rather than administering a cure.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 13, 2017 is:
lagniappe \LAN-yap\ noun
: a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase; broadly : something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure
Our meal began with a lagniappe of pickled vegetables.
"Lagniappe—the unexpected surprises, the extras—are one of the reasons I love New Orleans.… I live, and travel, for the unexpected surprise. I may get lost, but there's usually an unexpected treat in that unplanned detour." — Jill Schensul, The Record (Bergen County, New Jersey), 19 Mar. 2017
"We picked up one excellent word," wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi (1883), "a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word—'lagniappe'.... It is Spanish—so they said." Twain encapsulates the history of lagniappe quite nicely. English speakers learned the word from French-speaking Louisianians, but they in turn had adapted it from the American Spanish word la ñapa. (What Twain didn't know is that the Spanish word is from Quechua, from the word yapa, meaning "something added.") Twain went on to describe how New Orleanians completed shop transactions by saying "Give me something for lagniappe," to which the shopkeeper would respond with "a bit of liquorice-root, … a cheap cigar or a spool of thread." It took a while for lagniappe to catch on throughout the country, but in time, New Yorkers and New Orleanians alike were familiar with this "excellent word."
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 12, 2017 is:
interdigitate \in-ter-DIJ-uh-tayt\ verb
: to become interlocked like the fingers of folded hands
A finger joint is formed when the "fingers" on the ends of two boards interdigitate for a secure fit.
"Forest and savanna interdigitate over a great front thousands of miles long and a half million square miles in area—half the size of the entire central African forest." — David Western, Discover, October 1986
It probably won't surprise you to learn that interdigitate comes from the prefix inter-, as in interlock, and the Latin word digitus, meaning "finger." Digitus also gave us digit, which is used in English today to refer to (among other things) the finger or toe of any animal. Interdigitate usually suggests an interlocking of things with fingerlike projections, such as muscle fibers or the teeth of an old-fashioned bear trap. The word can also be used figuratively to imply a smooth interweaving of disparate things, such as the blending of two cultures within a shared region.