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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 March 30, 2015 is:

amphibology • \am-fuh-BAH-luh-jee\  • noun
: a sentence or phrase that can be interpreted in more than one way

Still feeling some of the effects of her recent cold, Tara was bemused by the amphibology on the café's menu: "Try our soup—you won't get better."

"I have started an amphibology collection: my favourite to date is the garage that advertises its services with the words: 'Why go anywhere else to be robbed?'" — Jonathan Ford, Financial Times, July 27, 2012

Did you know?
A venerable old word in English, amphibology is from Greek amphibolos (via Late Latin and Latin). Amphibolos, from amphi- ("both") and ballein ("to throw"), literally means "encompassing" or "hitting at both ends"; figuratively it means "ambiguous." Amphibology is an equivocator's friend. An editor who has been sent an unsolicited manuscript to critique, for example, might reply, "I shall lose no time in reading your book." Or a dinner guest who feels the onset of heartburn might say something like, "Ah, that was a meal I shall not soon forget!" But amphibology’s ambiguity can be unintended and undesirable as well, as in "When Mom talked to Judy, she said she might call her back the next day." (Who said who might call whom back?)


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 29, 2015 is:

discomfit • \diss-KUM-fit\  • verb
1 : to frustrate the plans of : thwart 2 : to put into a state of perplexity and embarrassment : disconcert

Jacob was discomfited by his curious young son's forward, probing questions.

"For more than two decades, the work of this British artist has dazzled and discomfited, seduced and unsettled, gliding effortlessly between high and low, among cultures, ricocheting off different racial stereotypes and religious beliefs." — Roberta Smith, New York Times, October 31, 2014

Did you know?
Disconcerted by discomfit and discomfort? Here's a little usage history that might help. Several usage commentators have, in the past, tried to convince their readers that discomfit means "to rout" or "to completely defeat" and not "to discomfort, embarrass, or make uneasy." In its earliest uses discomfit did in fact mean "to defeat in battle," but that sense is now rare, and the extended sense, "to thwart," is also uncommon. Most of the recent commentaries agree that the sense "to discomfort or disconcert" has become thoroughly established and is the most prevalent meaning of the word. There is one major difference between discomfit and discomfort, though—discomfit is used almost exclusively as a verb, while discomfort is much more commonly used as a noun than a verb.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 28, 2015 is:

persiflage • \PER-suh-flahzh\  • noun
: frivolous bantering talk : light raillery

Since the final round ended sooner than expected, the quiz show host engaged in persiflage with the contestants until it was time to sign off.

"The pleasant research I did for this story—in which coffee is equated with romance—led me to discover the famous cafés of Turin…. As in Prague, Paris, or Vienna, they have for generations been arenas for aristocratic persiflage, intellectual gossip, even revolutionary ideas." — Andrea Lee, Gourmet, May 2004

Did you know?
Unwanted persiflage on television might provoke an impatient audience to hiss or boo, but from an etymological standpoint, no other reaction could be more appropriate. English speakers picked up persiflage from French in the 18th century. Its ancestor is the French verb persifler, which means "to banter" and was formed from the prefix per-, meaning "thoroughly," plus siffler, meaning "to whistle, hiss, or boo." Siffler in turn derived from the Latin verb sibilare, meaning "to whistle or hiss." By the way, sibilare is also the source of sibilant, a word linguists use to describe sounds like those made by "s" and "sh" in sash. That Latin root also underlies the verb sibilate, meaning "to hiss" or "to pronounce with or utter an initial sibilant."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 27, 2015 is:

quiescent • \kwy-ESS-unt\  • adjective
1 : marked by inactivity or repose : tranquilly at rest 2 : causing no trouble or symptoms

The alligator is deceptively quiescent on the sunny shore, watching its approaching prey, waiting for the moment to strike.

"Measles made a modest comeback around 1990, and then fell quiescent—until the recent outbreak of measles cases at Disneyland in California…." — Richard A. Epstein, Defining Ideas, February 2, 2015

Did you know?
Quiescent won't cause you any pain, and neither will its synonyms latent, dormant, and potential—at least not immediately. All four words mean "not now showing signs of activity or existence." Latent usually applies to something that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop, as in "a latent desire for success." Dormant implies a state of inactivity similar to sleep, as in "their passions lay dormant." Potential applies to what may or may not come to be. "A potential disaster" is a typical example. Quiescent, which traces to Latin quiescere (meaning "to become quiet" or "to rest"), often suggests a temporary cessation of activity, as in "a quiescent disease" or "a summer resort quiescent in wintertime."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 26, 2015 is:

verdigris • \VER-duh-greess\  • noun
: a green or bluish deposit formed on copper, brass, or bronze surfaces

"Metals gain a rich … verdigris over time, looking better with age and weathering." — Maureen Gilmer, Biloxi (Mississippi) Sun Herald, January 16, 2015

"They are covering up not only the verdigris that developed on the copper roof, but also years of wear and tear that caused the roof to leak." — Kyle Stokes, Indiana Public Media, September 16, 2013

Did you know?
"Green of Greece"—that is the literal translation of vert de Grece, the Anglo-French phrase from which the modern word verdigris descends. A coating of verdigris forms naturally on copper and copper alloys, such as brass and bronze, when those metals are exposed to air. (It can also be produced artificially.) The word verdigris has been associated with statuary and architecture, ancient and modern, since it was first used in the 14th century. Some American English speakers may find that they know it best from the greenish blue coating that covers the copper of the Statue of Liberty.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 25, 2015 is:

ulterior • \ul-TEER-ee-er\  • adjective
1 a : lying farther away : more remote b : situated on the farther side 2 : going beyond what is openly said or shown

"While their campaign does shed light on an important issue, their good intentions are undercut by their ulterior motive, which is to make a profit." — Robert Lees, The Highlander (University of California-Riverside), February 10, 2015

"Dreyer describes Seuss's personal collection of paintings and sculptures as 'secret art.' Geisel literally kept them in the closet … and his widow, Audrey Geisel, has never sold an original Seuss. She authorized high-quality lithograph prints so the public can see the ulterior side of her late husband." — Alexandria (Virginia) Times, December 6, 2011

Did you know?
Although now usually hitched to the front of the noun motive to refer to a hidden need or desire that inspires action, ulterior began its career as an adjective in the mid-17th century describing something occurring at a subsequent time. By the early 18th century it was being used to mean both "more distant" (literally and figuratively) and "situated on the farther side." The "hidden" sense with which we’re most familiar today followed quickly after those, with the word modifying nouns like purpose, design, and consequence. Ulterior comes directly from the Latin word for "farther" or "further," itself assumed to be the comparative form of ulter, meaning "situated beyond."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 24, 2015 is:

jackanapes • \JAK-uh-nayps\  • noun
1 : monkey, ape 2 a : an impudent or conceited fellow b : a saucy or mischievous child

Mrs. Hobson had her neighbor's son pegged as a disrespectful jackanapes and was therefore reluctant to hire him to shovel the driveway.

"If I were still the rambunctious little jackanapes I once was, I would have stayed in the room and played astronaut all day." — Christopher Muther, Boston Globe, August 16, 2014

Did you know?
William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk, was a well-regarded soldier and commander during the Hundred Years' War. It was during his dukedom (1448–1450), however, that England lost its possessions in northern France, and his popularity consequently suffered. The coat of arms for de la Pole's family sported an image of a collar and chain that, at the time, was commonly used for leashing pet monkeys, then known as jackanapes (a word whose precise origin is uncertain). By association, people gave the Duke the nickname "Jack Napis," and soon jackanapes took on a life of its own as a word for an impudent person and, later, a misbehaving child.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 23, 2015 is:

obstinate • \AHB-stuh-nut\  • adjective
1 : perversely adhering to an opinion, purpose, or course in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion 2 : not easily overcome or removed

As usual, Uncle Mitch remained obstinate in his opinion even though the facts were clearly stacked against him.

"The obstinate 55-year-old tenant who refused to vacate her crumbling East Harlem apartment building so that it could be renovated was evicted last month." — Jan Ransom, Daily News (New York), October 29, 2014

Did you know?
If you're obstinate, you're just plain stubborn. Obstinate, dogged, stubborn, and mulish all mean that someone is unwilling to change course or give up a belief or plan. Obstinate suggests an unreasonable persistence; it's often a negative word. Dogged implies that someone goes after something without ever tiring or quitting; it can be more positive. Stubborn indicates a resistance to change, which may or may not be admirable. Someone who displays a really unreasonable degree of stubbornness could accurately be described as mulish.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 22, 2015 is:

firebrand • \FYRE-brand\  • noun
1 : a piece of burning wood 2 : one that creates unrest or strife (as in aggressively promoting a cause) : agitator

She's an activist who views herself as a relentless firebrand willing to stand up for her beliefs even when they are not popular.

"Collins said Americans shouldn't just think of Malcolm X as a firebrand but should be inspired by him to understand and be vigilant about liberties for all." — Susanne Cervenka, USA Today, February 17, 2015

Did you know?
The original firebrands were incendiary indeed: they were pieces of wood set burning at the fire, perhaps for use as a light or a weapon. English speakers started brandishing those literal firebrands as long ago as the 13th century. (Robinson Crusoe held one high as he rushed into a cave on his deserted island and saw "by the light of the firebrand . . . lying on the ground a monstrous, frightful old he-goat.") But the burning embers of the wooden firebrand quickly sparked figurative uses for the term, too. By the early 14th century, firebrand was also being used for one doomed to burn in hell, and by 1382, English writers were using it for anyone who kindled mischief or inflamed passions.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 21, 2015 is:

expiate • \EK-spee-ayt\  • verb
1 : to extinguish the guilt incurred by 2 : to make amends for

Though the editorial characterizes the mayor's failure to disclose the details of the meeting as a lapse that cannot be expiated, most citizens seem ready to forgive all.

"The ethical ambiguity of Szuml's role as Sonderkommando—a 'gray zone,' as Primo Levi described it, victim verging on perpetrator—is expiated to a degree by an act of self-sacrifice." — Tova Reich, Washington Post, September 25, 2014

Did you know?
"Disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to expiate." That ominous biblical prophecy (Isaiah 47:11, RSV) shows that expiate was once involved in confronting the forces of evil as well as in assuaging guilt. The word derives from expiare, Latin for "to atone for," a root that in turn traces to the Latin term for "pious." Expiate originally referred to warding off evil by using sacred rites or to using sacred rites to cleanse or purify something. By the 17th century, Shakespeare (and others) were using it to mean "to put an end to": "But when in thee time's furrows I behold, / Then look I death my days should expiate" (Sonnet 22). Those senses have since become obsolete, and now only the "extinguish the guilt" and "make amends" senses remain in use.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 20, 2015 is:

zephyr • \ZEFF-er\  • noun
1 a : a breeze from the west b : a gentle breeze 2 : any of various lightweight fabrics and articles of clothing

"There was not even a zephyr stirring; the dead noonday heat had even stilled the songs of the birds." — Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, 1876

"Strangely enough, by the end of a Maine winter, a 32-degree breeze feels like a palm-scented zephyr from Bali." — Brett Willis, Portland (Maine) Press Herald, January 8, 2015

Did you know?
For centuries, poets have eulogized Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind, and his "swete breeth" (in the words of Geoffrey Chaucer). Zephyrus, the personified west wind, eventually evolved into zephyr, a word for a breeze that is westerly or gentle, or both. Breezy zephyr may have blown into English with the help of William Shakespeare, who used the word in his 1611 play Cymbeline: "Thou divine Nature, thou thyself thou blazon'st / In these two princely boys! They are as gentle / As zephyrs blowing below the violet." Today, zephyr is also the sobriquet of a lightweight fabric and the clothing that is made from it.

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