Rediscovering Words

Dictionary with index indents

WORDS are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
Rudyard Kipling

Some people have a way with words, and other people—ohh, uhh, not have way.
Steve Martin



James Murray the Scottish philologist who pioneered the Oxford English Dictionary

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (1837-1915), the Scottish lexicographer and philologist who was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death.

HERE we are exploring the world of words in three categories:

  • USEFUL WORDS WE DIDN’T KNOW—Words we might use if only we knew of their existence. These are words we might have heard, but aren’t quite sure how to use until we remind ourselves of the meaning. Or, perhaps, these words are uncharted ground for us—new discoveries. The challenge with these words is to actually use them at least once in the course of a week’s conversation.
  • WORDS WE THOUGHT WE KNEW, BUT … These might be words we were pronouncing wrong. Or, perhaps, words we confused with other words. These words might seem to be familiar faces, but we discover that we’re stumbling over them in some way.
  • WORDS WITH INTERESTING STORIES TO TELL—Words with histories or associations that surprise us and open creative windows, once we know the rest of these words’ stories.





quote-to-persevere-in-one-s-duty-and-be-silent-is-the-best-answer-to-calumny-george-washington-35-2-0287 (2)CALUMNY / CALUMINOUS

  • Nominee: Shauna Weil
  • Meaning: Calumny (Cal-um-nee) is slander (the Latin term for slander is calumnia). It’s the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone’s reputation.
  • Why it’s useful: The term helps us understand many passages from classic literature—and colonial America. George Washington regularly battled “calumny;” he often complained about the problem in his correspondence. Perhaps he picked up the term from Shakespeare, who liked to use it. In Hamlet’s famous rebuke of Ophelia (“Get thee to a nunnery!”), Hamlet also says to her: “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.” The early American pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who made his own share of caluminous attacks on opponents, had this sage advice for public figures: “Calumny is a vice of curious constitution; trying to kill it keeps it alive; leave it to itself and it will die a natural death.”
  • Web links: Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.


  • punctilious (1)Nominee: Benjamin Crumm
  • Why it’s useful: In one of my law school classes, we were reading about a case and someone criticized an attorney for being obsessed with every possible punctilio in court. It’s useful in describing people who are so hung up on the tiny points that they miss the larger issue.
  • Meaning: As a noun, a punctilio is “a minute detail of conduct in a ceremony or in observance of a code,” says Merriam-Webster. The Oxford English Dictionary says it also refers to “a nicety of behaviour, ceremony, or honour; a small or petty formality. Also: a hair-splitting or fastidious objection; a scruple.” Finally, the term can refer to a tiny moment in time, a single instant—a punctilio. The OED charts its usage back into the 1500s, often referring to people who were overly concerned with minute issues in court or in the church. One 1626 source cited in the OED, from a text concerning a church official: “The Bishop stood upon his punctilios.” Its origin is Italian for a trifling point: puntiglio.

Friend with more morphemesMORPHEME

  • Nominee: David Crumm
  • Why it’s useful: This century-old concept in analyzing language is very helpful in “taking apart” words and considering their precise meaning.
  • Meaning: A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit of meaning in a language. Every word is comprised of at least one morpheme, the key difference being: A “morpheme” may or may not stand alone—but a “word” always is freestanding. When a morpheme stands by itself, it is considered a “root” because it has a meaning of its own (e.g. the morpheme cat is a root). Other examples are unbreakable, made of three morphemes: un- (signifying “not”), -break- (the root in this case), and -able (“can be done”). The word pigs consists of two morphemes: pig- (the root) and -s (indication of the plural). The word werewolves’ consists of four morphemes: were- (“human”), -wolf- (the root), -es (plural), and the punctuation mark  (indicating possessive). The term morpheme first appeared in literature about the structure of language in the 1890s—but did not develop its more formal meaning until linguists began widely using it in the mid-20th century.
  • Web links: Wiktionary. Oxford English DictionaryWikipedia. American Heritage Dictionary.

The quick brown fox jumps set in typePANGRAM

  • Nominee: Walthers and David Crumm
  • Meaning and purpose: A pangram (Greek: παν γράμμα, pan gramma, “every letter”) or holoalphabetic sentence for a given alphabet is a sentence using every letter of the alphabet at least once. Pangrams have been used to display typefaces, test equipment, and develop skills in handwriting, calligraphy, and keyboarding.
  • Why it’s useful: As we discuss the nature of words, we began talking about ways that letters form words. We learned recently that the Scrabble Dictionary lists only 2 words that use all of the vowels, including “y,” just once and in alphabetical order: abstemiously, facetiously. Then, we looked at other ways an alphabetical array can be used in words and sentences—and ran across the pangram. Many students and bloggers have played with the pangram challenge.
  • The most famous pangram: The (or “A”) quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
  • Other pangrams: Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. AND By Jove, my quick study of lexicography won a prize. AND A quick movement of the enemy will jeopardize six gunboats.
  • Web link: Wikipedia on the fox/dog pangram.



Etna Paroxysmal Eruption

The term is also used to describe violent eruptions from volcanos like this “paroxysmal eruption” of Etna in 2011.


  • Nominee: David Crumm
  • The Puzzle—Pronunciation: Until a recent reference to the word’s correct pronunciation, I would emphasize the “ox” sound in the middle. It’s actually păr ək-sĭzəand there’s a secondary emphasis mid-word. Still, I was wrong for a long time. The opening păr sound should dominate.
  • Meaning: Dictionaries vary on the most common meaning of this term. However, they all agree it refers to a sudden attack or increase of symptoms of a disease such as pain, coughing, shaking, etc. And, it’s also used to describe a sudden strong feeling or expression of emotion that cannot be controlled. Which is most common usage? It’s a toss-up. But, we know it’s a useful word if you’re caring for someone who might be prone to such unfortunate spells due to illness or disability.
  • Web Links: Listen to the pronunciation at Merriam-Webster. Or, listen to the word at American Heritage.
calvin_hobbes_writing (1)

The Confusion: In this comic strip, Calvin could be describing an essay that is turgid, perhaps turbid, or maybe both. His motive here is turpid.


  • Nominee: David Crumm
  • The Puzzle—Confusingly similar: I rarely used the term turgid, even though I knew it refers generally to overblown use of language. And I wasn’t sure if “turbid” was a word. Then, I found a note in a magazine clarifying the difference. While learning more, I also wound up learning about “turpid,” as well.
  • Meaning: The note explained … Tubid (which refers to having the lees or sediment disturbed; roiled; muddy; thick; not clear) and turgid (which means swollen or distended or overblown, pompous or bombastic) are frequently mistaken for one another, and it’s no wonder. Not only do the two words differ by only a letter, they are often used in contexts where either word could fit. For example, a flooded stream can be simultaneously cloudy and swollen, and badly written prose might be both unclear and grandiloquent. Nevertheless, the distinction between these two words, however fine, is an important one for conveying exact shades of meaning, so it’s a good idea to keep them straight. Then, if you’re tempted to use “turpid,” perhaps out of further confusion, you should know that it means: foul; base; wicked; morally depraved.
Four Temperaments

The Four: Choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic temperaments


  • Nominee: Megan Walther
  • The Puzzle—Pronunciation: It appeared in our Mensa puzzle today and we discovered we had been mispronouncing it. Joel said it was “sangween,” I said “sangwhine,” and actually it is said “san-gwin” … Or, as some dictionaries show it: SAN-gwən or săng-gwĭn.
  • Meaning: Many of us might use this word to describe a person in a cheery mood, perhaps even in the midst of a crisis. In fact, the word’s primary meaning reflects the color of red blood. The term reaches back to ancient theories of bodily humors: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. This might also be known as the Four Temperaments. Referring to that principle, “Sanguine” is the name of a movement in the Four Temperaments symphony by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, written in 1901–1902. Oxford English Dictionary explains that a reddish-faced disposition was believed to be a sign of a sanguine mood. From OED: “In medieval and later physiology: Belonging to that one of the four ‘complexions’ which was supposed to be characterized by the predominance of the blood over the other three humours, and indicated by a ruddy countenance and a courageous, hopeful, and amorous disposition.”
  • Web links: American Heritage Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Oxford English Dictionary. Wikipedia disambiguation for the term. Wiktionary.





  • Nominee: Megan and Joel Walther
  • The Story: We heard this word used to describe Bob Dylan and we started talking about what it means, how it’s pronounced and its origins. We knew that it meant something that is widely variable, but we wanted to know more.
  • Etymology: From Ancient Greek Πρωτεύς ‎(Prōteús), the Greek warden of sea beasts, renowned for his ability to change shape.
  • Meaning: Webster says it means “able to change into many different forms or able to do many different things” or “displaying great diversity or variety.” Synonyms are “adaptable, all-around, versatile, universal.”
  • Famous quotes: Novelist and filmmaker Romain Gary, on deciding to create a new nom de plume for a whole new body of work as he approached age 60: “I was profoundly affected by the oldest protean temptation of man: that of multiplicity.” And: “The protean nature of the computer is such that it can act like a machine or like a language to be shaped and explored,” from Alan Kay, computer scientist and visionary.
  • Interesting: The most famous passage in ancient literature about Proteus is Homer’s Odyssey. In Book IV of that epic, we hear a story from Menelaos about his encounter with Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, who is essentially the keeper of the oceans and in particular the seals for Poseidon, the god of the seas. Menelaos wants to force Proteus to reveal some vital information, but he learns that he must trick Proteus by grabbing hold of him on shore and holding tight until Proteus shifts through some of his more frightening shapes. One English edition translates the climax of the story this way: Then we rushed upon him with a shout and seized him; on which he began at once with his old tricks, and changed himself first into a lion with a great mane; then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water, and then again directly he was a tree, but we stuck to him and never lost hold, till at last the cunning old creature became distressed, and said, “Which of the gods was it that hatched this plot with you for snaring me and seizing me against my will? What do you want?'”
  • Bob_Dylan_-_The_Freewheelin'_Bob_DylanAlso Interesting: Bob Dylan has been described as “protean” for more than 50 years. The liner notes to his 1963 album “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” say, in part: The irrepressible reality of Bob Dylan is a compound of spontaneity, candor, slicing wit and an uncommonly perceptive eye and ear for the way many of us constrict our capacity for living while a few of us don’t. Not yet twenty-two at the time of this albums release, Dylan is growing at a swift, experience-hungry rate. … Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dylan isn’t limited to one or two ways of feeling his music. He can be poignant and mocking, angry and exultant, reflective and whoopingly joyful. … This album, in sum, is the protean Bob Dylan as of the time of the recording.
  • Web links: Britannica on Proteus. Book IV of The Odyssey in English. Texts of classic Bob Dylan liner notes.




Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus Carolinensis) eager for dinner.


  • Nominee: Joel Walther
  • The Story: Our Farmer’s Almanac calendar informed us recently that the work “squirrel” comes from a Greek word that means “shadow tail.” A squirrel uses its tail to shade itself from the sun, as a cover to keep warm and even, when jumping, as a parachute before landing.
  • Etymology: Anglo-Norman esquirel, Old French esquireul, escureul, -ol, etc. (modern French écureuil), Spanish esquirol, medieval Latin (e)scurellus, scurellius, scuriolus, diminutives from popular Latin scūrius, for Latin sciūrus, from the Greek σκίουρος, that is σκιά “shade” + οὐρά “tail.”
  • Interesting: These squirrels are scatter-hoarders, creating many small hoards of food. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season. These squirrels have very accurate spatial memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used once the squirrel is within a few inches of the cache.
  • Web links: Oxford English Dictionary. Wictionary. Wikipedia index to resources on bushy-tailed squirrels.


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