peripatetic [adj. or n. pehr-uh-puh-TET-ick] Peripatetic may sound like something you don't want to catch, but it
actually refers to someone who moves around a lot. Near synonyms include itinerant, migrant, wandering, roving, and rambling. Example: "As the daughter of an Army officer, Emily had a peripatetic childhood."
Used precisely, peripatetic describes someone who is given to walking. It comes from the Greek peripatein which meant walking around. The Greek prefix peri- means around. The noun peripatetic refers to someone who walks, a pedestrian. Perhaps the most famous peripatetic is Aristotle. The Greek philosopher's followers would learn their lessons walking beside him as he paced the shady lanes of the garden at the Lyceum. His students came to be called peripatetikos.
pastiche [n. pass-TEESH or pahs-TEESH] A piece of literature, music, or art that consists of material from several different sources is a pastiche. A pastiche is usually done intentionally as an homage or it can be done as an exercise to learn the techniques of others. Pastiche is a French word for parody or literary imitation and was derived from the Italian pasticcio in the late 1800s. Pasticcio comes from the vulgar Latin pasticium, which derives from the Latin pasta (dough). Near synonyms include: medley, jumble, potpourri, and hodgepodge. Example: "His latest release is a pastiche of at least a dozen earlier recording artists."
bowdlerize [vt. BOHD-luh-rise or BAUD-luh-rise] To bowdlerize something is to condense it or edit it by omitting or modifying the parts that are considered vulgar, indecent, or unsuitable. Example: "The script the students were given had been bowderlized by the hypersensitive parents committee." The namesake of this word, Thomas Bowdler, was an English editor best known for his "The Family Shakespeare." He was trying to purify literature by releasing a sanitized version of William Shakespeare's works. The verb bowdlerize came into use in 1836. Near synonyms include: expurgate, clean up, edit out, and censor.
contretemps [n. KON-tru-tan] Accident, misadventure, mischance, mishap, and hitch are all near synonyms of contretemps. A contretemps is an unexpected mishap or unforeseen event that disrupts the normal course of things. This French word can also mean an argument, dispute, or disagreement. Example: "Jim and Rob had a little contretemps at the game last night and still are not speaking."
Contretemps is a French word made up of contre (against) and temps (time) which is derived from the Latin tempus. This noun has been describing embarrassing accidents and awkward clashes since the late 1600s. This word also has a specific meaning in dance terminology. It is a step danced on the unaccented portion of the beat, particularly in ballet.
cipher [n. SIGH-fur] Cipher originally meant zero or the symbol representing nothing. Today, this is just one of its many meanings. A cipher is a person who fills a place but has no real influence or worth. A near synonym would be nonentity. It is also a method of concealing the meaning of a message through a transformation -- like replacing each letter with the previous one in the alphabet. (For example, with this cipher "IBM" would change to "HAL".) This sense comes from encoding method, used in the early 16th century, in which letters are replaced with numbers. This noun can also mean a combination of letters or symbolic letters, such as the interwoven initials of a name. Example: "His cipher was embroidered on all of his clothes, his towels, and even his garage door." In use since the 14th century, cipher is taken from the Middle French cifre which was a variant on the Middle Latin cifra. This in turn was derived from the Arabic sifr (empty, zero).
febrile [adj. FEE-bryl or FEB-bryl] Febrile describes something that is marked by fever. A near synonym is feverish. In broader usage, febrile can describe someone who is especially nervous or excited as if by fever. Example: "Her febrile ranting had her mother worried that she would never recover from the bee sting." The noun fever (abnormally high body temperature) shares the same roots as febrile. Both words can be traced back to the Latin febris (fever). Fever is seen in English before 1000 but febrile didn't enter the language until the 1600s, via the French. A child's febrile seizures can frighten parents. Some facts: http://www.aafp.org/patientinfo/febrile.html.
ersatz [adj. UR-zats or UR-sats or ur-ZATS or ur-SATS] Walking around a flea market, you may be impressed by the prices on brand name purses or sunglasses, but these items are likely to be ersatz. Ersatz describes something that serves as a substitute or an imitation of the original. It is usually of inferior quality. Near synonyms include: counterfeit, phony, inauthentic, synthetic, or artificial.
Ersatz was borrowed from the German in the 1870s. It is a derivation of ersetzen (to replace) from the Old High Germanic irsezzan which combines ir- (out) and sezzan (to set).
enervate [vt. EH-nur-vate or adj. ih-NUR-vut] To enervate is to reduce the mental vigor or lessen the vitality of someone or something. Near synonyms of this verb include: unnerve and deplete. Example: "Carrie was enervated by the long hours and lack of sleep." The adjective enervate (note the different pronunciation!) means lacking in physical strength, mental strength, or strength of character. ("Enervated", from the verb, can also be used for this purpose.) Near synonyms of this sense include: spiritless and debilitated. Enervate is from the Latin enervatus past participle of enervare which is formed by the prefix e- and nervus (sinew). The adjective appeared first in 1603; the verb form followed shortly thereafter.
diurnal [adj. or n. di-UR-n'l] Diurnal refers to an everyday recurrence, like brushing your teeth, or to a daily cycle, such as the tides. It can also mean occurring or primarily active in the daytime. For example, diurnal flowers are those that open during the day and close at night. Diurnal has been in use in English since the 14th century. It comes from the Latin diurnalis (of the day), from diurnus (daily), from the root dies (day). Other contemporary words that share the Latin root dies: journal and diary (both accounts of day-to-day events), journey (a day's travel), dial (a face upon which some measurement is registered, originally a sundial), circadian (occurring in approximately 24-hour cycles), meridian (a great circle on the earth passing through the poles), and quotidian (occurring every day).
redolent [adj. reh-D'L-ent] Redolent is an adjective used to describe something that has or emits a fragrance, especially a pleasant one. Near synonyms include: aromatic and sweet-smelling. Something that prompts memories, evokes feelings or suggests a certain time, event, or place, can also be redolent. Example: "The living room was still redolent with the scent of her late father's pipe." This broader sense of the word was first recorded in the early 19th century. A word first used in Middle English, redolent was taken from the Latin redolent (via Middle French). It is a variant on redolere (to emit a scent). The Latin word olere is related to the contemporary English word odor (scent).
proselytize [v. PROS-uh-li-tize] To proselytize is to attempt to persuade someone to change their political or religious beliefs, or the way that they live their lives. Near synonyms include: reorient, recruit, inculcate, and win over. Proselytize is related to the noun proselyte (a new convert). Proselyte comes from the late Latin proselytus which is derived from the Greek proselytos (newcomer), a variant on the verb proserchesthai (to come, approach).
platitude [n. PLAT-ih-tood or PLAT-ih-tyood] A platitude is a boring, meaningless, and unoriginal remark. Often
meant to sound fresh or perceptive, it falls flat instead because of its triteness. Example: "The press on the campaign bus were tired of hearing the candidate's platitudes about the glory of patriotism." Platitude also means the quality of being flat or lacking in originality, particularly in speech or writing. Near synonyms of this sense include insipidity, dullness, and triteness.
Since it is ultimately derived from the vulgar Latin plattus (flat) it is no surprise that platitude has meant a flat remark in English since the early 1800s. It was borrowed from the French which literally meant flatness. The vulgar Latin Plattus (which may go back to the Greek platus for broad) is also the root of the English words plate, platter, platform, and plateau.
mawkish [adj. MAW-kish] A sappy television movie could be described as mawkish. Near synonyms include syrupy, cloying, mushy, and over-sentimental. Mawkish can also mean having an unpleasant taste. Near synonyms include sour and rancid. Both of these meanings are tamer versions of this adjective's literal meaning. The original word mawk is derived from the Middle English mawke (maggot), which developed from the Old Norse word mathkr of the same meaning.
verisimilitude Verisimilitude is the appearance of truth or reality. Near synonyms include credibility, likelihood, and probability. Example: "His testimony gave verisimilitude to her claim." Verisimilitude can also mean an accurate portrayal of reality in art or literature. A near synonym of this sense is realism. In the late 1500s, verisimilitude was taken from the Latin verisimilitudo. This was a variant on verisimilis from the Latin veri (a singular form of verum which meant truth) and similis (like).
brio [n. BRE-oh] First thing in the morning most of us lack brio. After breakfast or a cup of coffee, when we've perked up, this noun might be more applicable. Brio is verve or enthusiastic vigor. Example: "Despite his brio and wit, Alan was unable to charm the young salesclerk." This spirited word entered English in the 18th century from the Italian. Taken from the Spanish brio (energy, determination), it was likely derived from the Celtic brigos which was related to the Old Irish brig (power, strength, force). Near synonyms include: vim, pep, liveliness, sprightliness, and vivacity.
mordant [adj., n., vt. MORE-dnt] A mordant wit is a biting one. Someone who is mordant is sharply sarcastic, incisive, or cruel. Example: "His mordant humor made him an unusual clown, unwelcome at children's birthday parties." Mordant traces back to the 1400s. It entered Middle English from the Middle French mordre (to bite). This word has its roots in the Latin mordere of the same meaning. Mordere is also the root word for the English words morsel (a piece bitten off) and remorse (painful regret).
There are also noun and verb forms of mordant that have a specific usage in visual arts. A mordant is a substance used to fix the coloring matter when dyeing something. This noun also is an acid or other corrosive substance used in etching. To mordant is to treat something with a mordant.
acerbic [adj. ah-SUR-bik] Acerbic means sharp or nasty in temper, expression, or character. A harshly cruel person, especially one who is prone to making scathing or vitriolic comments, could be described as acerbic. Example: "His acerbic remarks prompted the others to vote him off the island." The adjective acerbic can also describe something that has a sour or astringent taste. Near synonyms of this sense include: acrid, bitter, and harsh. This word has been in use in English since the 1860s. It is from the Latin acerbus (unripe, bitterly harsh).
exegesis [n. ek-suh-GEE-sis] An exegesis is an explanation or interpretation of a text made after careful study. This exposition is meant to help determine the intended meaning of the original text. While the word exegesis used to apply mostly to the study of the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, academic writers now interpret all sorts of texts. Their reading or version of the source material is their exegesis. First used in English in the early 1600s, this noun is from Greek. Exegesis (interpretation) was related to exegeisthai (to show the way, interpret) from the word hegesthai (to guide).
lugubrious [adj. lu-GOO-bree-us or lu-GYOO-bree-us] If you were to see someone looking lugubrious you might suggest that they smile or at least stop and ask them "what is the matter?" Someone looking or acting lugubrious is mournful, dismal, or gloomy. Quite often their sorrow seems exaggerated or affected. Near synonyms of this adjective include: doleful, sorrowful, sad, and melancholy. Example: "His mother was starting to worry, he had been looking lugubrious ever since Esther broke up with him." Lugubrious has been describing gloomy countenances since the 16th century. The word is from the Latin lugubris (mournful) which is akin to the verb lugere (to mourn).
vapid [adj. VAP-id] Vapid means lacking in imagination or interest, or devoid of spirit or animation. Near synonyms include dull, boring, sterile, inane, and tedious. Example: "Even before the appetizer was served, Sue had grown tired of her date's vapid conversation." Vapid can also mean lacking in sharpness or flavor. Near synonyms of this sense include flat, tasteless, and stale. This word is from the Latin vapidus, which is akin to the Latin vapor (steam). It first appeared in English in the mid-17th century.
burlesque [n., adj., v. bur-LESK] A literary or dramatic piece that mocks the serious or ridicules the frivolous is burlesque. Burlesque relies on exaggerated treatment of its subject. Something silly may be treated with the utmost seriousness or a serious point may be mocked with ridiculous levity in burlesque. Near synonyms include farce, satire, caricature, parody, travesty, and mockery. Burlesque can also mean a stage show featuring comic scenes (usually relying on bawdy humor) and striptease. The word can be used as a noun (as above), as an adjective (involving ludicrous treatment of a solemn subject), or as a verb (to ridicule by mocking representation or imitation). Burlesque came to English via the French in the 17th century. The French word is derived from the Italian burlesco, from burla (jest, joke).
protean [adj. PRO-tee-un or pro-TEE-un] Protean means easily able to change shape or form. Near synonyms include versatile, changeable, polymorphous, and multiform. Example: "The comic book heroine never knew what she was up against when fighting her protean foe Silly Putty-man." In a theatrical sense, a protean actor is an extremely versatile person who can readily assume different characters. This adjective is particularly apt when an actor takes on varied roles within the same production.
Protean is capitalized when it refers specifically to the Greek god Proteus. This ancient sea god was noted for his ability to take on different forms. It was from his name that the word protean was derived. More about Proteus: http://www.hsa.brown.edu/~maicar/Proteus2.html.
frisson [free-SOHN] (noun): a brief moment of emotional excitement : shudder, thrill
Example sentence: When the roller-coaster reached the top of the first hill, a frisson of fear shot through Angie as she anticipated the thrilling and terrifying downward plunge.
quorum [KWOR-um] (noun) 1 : a select group 2 : the number (as a majority) of officers or members of a body that when duly assembled is legally competent to transact business
Example sentence: Two members of the city council were summoned back from vacation in order to make up the quorum needed for a vote on the emergency public works bill.
wanderlust [WAHN-der-lust] (noun): strong longing for or impulse toward wandering
Example sentence: Less than a year after Bob moved to New England, wanderlust set in again, and he decided to pack up his things and head out to the Southwest.
sui generis [soo-eye-JEN-uh-rus or soo-ee-JEN-uh-rus] (adjective): constituting a class alone : unique, peculiar
Example sentence: "No one before or since has had such a blend of wildness and vulnerability, such pretty-boy looks crossed with such rawness ... James Dean was sui generis." (Robert DiMatteo, Video Review, December 1990)
aggregate [AG-ruh-ghit] (noun): a mass or body of units or parts somewhat loosely associated with one another : also: the whole amount
Example sentence: "The aggregate of incriminating details unmistakably points towards a conviction," said the prosecuting attorney.
edacious [ih-DAY-shuss] (adjective) 1 : having a huge appetite: ravenous 2 : excessively eager : insatiable
Example sentence: Fiona, an edacious reader, completed a book every few days, and usually had her next one begun before she was finished with her last.
parsimonious [parh-sih-MOH-nee-uss] (adjective): careful with money or resources; especially : frugal to the point of stinginess
Example sentence: "Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money...." (C. Carr, The Village Voice, February 1, 1994)
histrionic [hiss-tree-AH-nick] (adjective) 1 : deliberately affected : theatrical 2 : of or relating to actors, acting, or the theater
Example sentence: The frustrated tourist launched into a histrionic account of his trip, shouting, moaning, waving his arms, and exaggerating every minor problem encountered along the way.
vespertine [VESS-per-tyne] (adjective)1 : of, relating to, or occurring in the evening 2 : active, flowering, or flourishing in the evening : crepuscular
Example sentence: A vespertine fog crept over the farm, concealing the outbuildings and the orchard and stranding the house in an inky ocean of darkness as the evening turned to night.
excoriate [eck-SKOR-ee-ayt] (verb)1 : to wear off the skin of : abrade 2 : to censure scathingly
Example sentence: "A day of arduous toil, that might excoriate a lady's palm, would make no sensible impression on that of a hardy ploughman." (Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey)
sub rosa [sub-ROH-zuh] (adverb): in confidence : secretly
Example sentence: Several military leaders were meeting sub rosa, plotting to overthrow the king.
augur [AW-gur] (verb) transitive senses 1 : to foretell especially from omens 2 : to give promise of : presage; intransitive sense : to predict the future especially from omens
Example sentence: Amelias's excellent first semester grades augured a successful college career.
bluestocking [BLOO-stock-ing] (noun): a woman having intellectual or literary interests
Example sentence: Times have changed since English critic William Hazlitt wrote in 1822, "I have an utter aversion to bluestockings. I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what 'an author' means."
hyperborean [hye-per-BOR-ee-un or hye-per-buh-REE-un] (adjective) 1 : of or relating to an xtreme northern region : frozen 2 : of or relating to any of the arctic peoples
Example sentence: "In the winter of '46-7 there came a hundred men of hyperborean extraction swoop down on to our pond one morning....they came and went every day... from and to some point of the polar regions, as it seemed to me, like a flock of arctic snow-birds.... " (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
ex parte [eks-PAR-tee] (adverb or adjective)1 : on or from one side or party only -- used of legal proceedings 2 : from a one-sided or partisan point of view
Example sentence: The report in the papers that the company's director was stepping down due to allegations of impropriety was not based on fact but on an ex parte communication from the director's opponents.
purloin [per-LOYN or PER-loyn] (verb): to appropriate wrongfully and often by a breach of trust
Example sentence: "He married Beryl Garcia, one of the beauties of Costa Rica, and, having purloined a considerable sum of public money, he changed his name to Vandeleur and fled to England . . . ." (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hound of the Baskervilles)
chthonic [THAH-nik (TH as in "think")] (adjective): of or relating to the underworld : infernal
Example sentence: Sharon compared entering her brother's basement bedroom to a descent into chthonic regions -- it was dark and odd-smelling, and she was a little frightened of what she might find there.
irascible [ir-RASS-uh-bull] (adjective): marked by hot temper and easily provoked anger
Example sentence: The boys knew they'd have to endure a tirade from their irascible coach if they were late to football practice again.
philippic [fuh-LIH-pik] (noun): a discourse or declamation full of bitter condemnation : tirade
Example sentence: I had been warned that mentioning the boss around Susan might trigger a lengthy philippic over her most recent unpleasant encounter with him.
taphephobia [taf-ee-FOH-bee-uh] (noun): fear of being buried alive
Example sentence: Ever since seeing his first horror film, our son has suffered from taphephobia.
Last updated July 11, 2002.