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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 August 21, 2014 is:

ragamuffin • \RAG-uh-muf-in\  • noun
: a ragged often disreputable person; especially : a poorly clothed often dirty child

Tourists in the city were often surrounded by young ragamuffins begging to be allowed to do small services for an equally small donation.

"Miller shows remarkable range in her portrayal of Rose, who transforms from an underfoot ragamuffin to a confident vixen." — David N. Dunkle, The Patriot-News (Pennsylvania), July 18, 2014

Did you know?
If you’ve guessed that "rag" or "ragged" is related to "ragamuffin," you may be correct, but the origins of today's word are somewhat murky. In Middle English the term functioned both as a surname and generically to denote a ragged and sometimes stupid person, and in the Middle English alliterative poem Piers Plowman William Langland used the word to serve as the name of a demon. The "muffin" part of "ragamuffin" may have its origin in either of two Anglo-Norman words for a devil or scoundrel, but that too is uncertain. No matter its muddied history: the word has continued to develop in modern times. It can also refer to a type of music with rap lyrics and a reggae beat, a meaning that can be found at Merriam-Webster Unabridged.


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

flyblown • \FLY-blohn\  • adjective
1 a : not pure : tainted b : not bright and new : seedy c : trite, hackneyed 2 : infested with eggs or young larvae of a blowfly

"This is a mighty simple movie, with its flyblown wisdom spelled out." — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, November 2, 1987

"The landscape of 'The Rover' is an arid, flyblown sandpit. We see a guarded container car train with Chinese markings clank across the horizon…. A vastness of tarmac roads connects nasty clusters of buildings that don't add up to towns." — Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 20, 2014

Did you know?
One meaning of "blow" (used mostly, it seems, by 17th century entomologists) is "to deposit eggs or larvae on"—hence the blowfly, which lays its eggs on meat or wounds. "Flyblown" has its origins in the very unpleasant image of a blowfly's victim, and it's from this literal meaning that the more common senses come. Phrases such as "flyblown shack" and "flyblown restaurant" still suggest the actual presence of flies, if not necessarily their embryonic precursors.


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

demesne • \dih-MAYN\  • noun
1 : legal possession of land as one’s own 2 a : the land attached to a mansion b : landed property : estate c : region, territory 3 : realm, domain

Lewis and Clark were commissioned to explore the vast demesne of forests and plains that the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

"Just as no monarch can ever quite control her entire demesne, no sister can ever quite neutralize the mischief of younger brothers." — Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe, February 4, 2014

Did you know?
Why isn't "demesne" pronounced the way it's spelled? Our word actually began as "demayn" or "demeyn" in the 14th century, when it was borrowed from Anglo-French property law. At that time, the Anglo-French form was "demeine." Later, the Anglo-French spelling changed to "demesne," perhaps by association with another term from Anglo-French property law: "mesne," meaning "intermediate." ("Mesne" has entered English as a legal term as well.) According to rules of French pronunciation, the "s" was silent and the vowel was long. English speakers eventually followed suit, adopting the "demesne" spelling. Our word "domain" (which overlaps with the meaning of "demesne" in some applications) also comes from Anglo-French "demeine."


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

backstairs • \BAK-stairz\  • adjective
: secret, furtive; also : sordid, scandalous

The article accuses the influential Washington lobbyist of having been involved in a number of backstairs deals to limit regulation of financial institutions.

"During the protracted balloting—it went four rounds before Jackson was declared the winner—backstairs talks began, aimed at stopping Jackson, according to operatives." —Jeff E. Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), May 22, 2013

Did you know?
When Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, wrote in 1654 about leading someone "down a back-stairs," he wasn’t referring to anything scandalous. He simply meant "down a secondary set of stairs at the back of a house." Just over a decade earlier, however, Boyle’s contemporary, Sir Edward Dering, had used the phrase "going up the back-stairs" in a figurative way to suggest a means of approach that was not entirely honest and upfront. The figurative use likely arose from the simple notion that the stairs at the rear of a building are less visible and thus allow for a certain degree of sneakiness. By 1663, "backstairs" was also being used adjectivally to describe something done furtively, often with an underhanded or sinister connotation.

» crazy-quilt 

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

crazy-quilt • \KRAY-zee-KWILT\  • adjective
: resembling a patchwork quilt without a design : haphazard

"No one questioned her comings and goings; her crazy-quilt schedule was attributed to familial and civic duties." — Toni Cade Bambara, Those Bones Are Not My Child, 1999

"The crazy quilt nature of the music Miles Davis made at the Fillmore in 1970 is one of its best features. His rowdy players showed him other ways to bring the funk." — Kevin Whitehead, National Public Radio, May 16, 2014

Did you know?
A crazy quilt is a quilt with no perceivable design or pattern, lacking repeating motifs, and often made out of discarded scraps of cloth. Shortly after crazy quilts became popular in the late nineteenth century, the term "crazy quilt" found a place in English as a metaphor for things that appear random, unplanned, or out of order; for example, testimony in the 1896 Proceedings of the Illinois State Bar Association asserted that "We all know that as juries are instructed now, the instructions are a crazy-quilt—just a crazy-quilt, and nothing else." The adjective came about soon afterward. A more common term to describe crazy quilts, "patchwork," also describes something composed of ill-assorted, miscellaneous, or incongruous parts.


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

jink • \JINK\  • verb
: to move quickly or unexpectedly with sudden turns and shifts (as in dodging)

"Two fighters immediately launched missiles, and the American aircraft jinked up, then down to lose them." — Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising, 1986

"Robben jinked and juked his way down Holland’s right wing seemingly at will, leaving helpless defenders tackling air as he motored past them into open space." — Nicholas Nehamas and Jacob Feldman, The Miami Herald, July 14, 2014

Did you know?
The investigation into the origins of "jink" begins with documents from 18th century Scotland. Unfortunately, they contain no clear indication of how this shifty little word was formed. What can be said with certainty is that the word has always expressed a quick or unexpected motion. For instance, in two poems from 1785, Robert Burns uses the verb to indicate both the quick motion of a fiddler's elbow and the sudden disappearance of a cheat around a corner. In the 20th century, the verb caught on with air force pilots and rugby players, who began using it to describe their elusive maneuvers to dodge opponents and enemies. "Jink" can also be used as a noun meaning "a quick evasive turn" or, in its plural form, "pranks." (Etymologists are quite certain that the latter use is connected with the term "high jinks.")


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

rapport • \ra-POR\  • noun
: relation : especially : relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity

Once our daughter had developed a rapport with her piano teacher, she began to show some real enthusiasm for learning and practicing the piano.

"In general, the new superintendent will be responsible for promoting the individual identity of each of the parks, and building rapport with members of communities in which the historic sites are located." — Joe L. Hughes II, The Gaffney Ledger (South Carolina), July 11, 2014

Did you know?
One thing that may occur to you when considering today’s word is its resemblance to an even more common English word, "report." "Report" comes from the French verb "reporter" and "rapport" comes from the French "rapporter." Both verbs mean "to bring back" and can be traced back to the Latin verb "portare," meaning "to carry." "Rapporter" also has the additional sense of "to report," which influenced the original English meaning of "rapport" ("an act or instance of reporting"). That sense of "rapport" dropped out of regular use by the end of the 19th century.


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

aperçu • \ap-er-SOO\  • noun
1 : a brief survey or sketch : outline 2 : an immediate impression; especially : an intuitive insight

"On every other page, there's a nice apercu: breath is 'cooked air'; perfume is 'liquid memory'; when astronauts are weightless in their spaceship, they lose their sense of smell…." — Anatole Broyard, New York Times Book Review, 29 July 1990

"As a poet, Mr. Lehman has always been conversational in style, given to seemingly casual aperçus that take on a larger resonance…." — Sarah Douglas, New York Observer, October 29, 2013

Did you know?
In French, "aperçu" is the past participle of the verb "apercevoir" ("to perceive" or "to comprehend"), which in turn comes from Latin "percipere" ("to perceive"). (The same verb also gave us "apperceive," meaning "to have consciousness of oneself," and the noun "apperception," meaning "introspective self-consciousness" or "mental perception.") "Aperçu" in French is also a noun meaning "glimpse" or "outline, general idea." English speakers borrowed the noun "aperçu," meaning and all, in the early 19th century.


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

Janus-faced • \JAY-nus-fayst\  • adjective
: having two contrasting aspects; especially : duplicitous, two-faced

The dancers wore grotesque Janus-faced masks, flashing faces of terror and pleasure as they twirled about the stage.

"The helmsman decreased speed a fraction, steering the boat to mid-river. The surface was glassy and the reflections of the trees made it difficult to tell up from down. A Janus-faced river, Harry thought." — Ward Just, American Romantic, 2014

Did you know?
In Roman religion, Janus was the deity who presided over doors, gates, archways, and all beginnings, structural and temporal (the month of January is named for him). He is represented as having a single head with two faces looking in opposite directions. The shrine of Janus in the Roman Forum was a rectangular bronze structure with double doors at each end. Traditionally, the doors were left open in times of war and kept closed in times of peace. That open/closed dichotomy, along with the deity's two-faced head, confers duplicity and contrariness to the word "Janus," evinced in the meaning of the term "Janus-faced."


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

abscond • \ab-SKAHND\  • verb
: to depart secretly and hide oneself

Before anyone could catch on to the fact that Roger was embezzling funds from the company, he had absconded to Mexico with over $100,000.

"Turns out that if you get caught gatecrashing a White House state dinner with your wife, after which said wife absconds with the guitarist from Journey, who you wrongly accuse of kidnapping her, it tends to stick in people's minds." —Marianna Garvey, Brian Niemietz and Oli Coleman, The Daily News (New York), June 2, 2014

Did you know?
First appearing in English in the 16th century, "abscond" derives from Latin "abscondere," meaning "to hide away," a product of the prefix "ab-" and "condere," a verb meaning "to conceal." ("Condere" is also the root for "recondite," a word meaning "concealed" as well as "hard to understand" or "obscure.") In general usage, "abscond" refers to any act of running away and hiding (usually from the law and often with funds), but, in legal circles, the word is used specifically when someone who has already become the focus of a legal proceeding hides or takes off in order to evade the legal process (as in "absconded from parole").


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

wyvern • \WYE-vern\  • noun
: a mythical animal usually represented as a 2-legged winged creature resembling a dragon

Symbols commonly used in heraldry include a number of mythical creatures, among them the winged wyvern.

"Wyverns keep a silent watch over the people of Leicester from rooftops and steeples across the city. Their coiled, winged bodies, part serpent part dragon, have been entwined in our ancient history for hundreds of years." — Leicester Mercury (United Kingdom), June 13, 2014

Did you know?
Wyverns are often depicted as having the tail of a viper—a venomous snake—and that fact is reflected in the etymology of "wyvern": it comes ultimately from the Latin word "vipera," which means "viper." ("Vipera" is also, of course, the source of our word "viper.") The creature the wyvern most closely resembles, however, is the also-mythical dragon. "Dragon" is a much older word—it has been in use since the 13th century, while "wyvern" dates to the early 17th—but it too has snakes in its history. The word originally referred not to the lizard-like creature we imagine today but to a huge serpent.

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