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Preview: Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Free daily dose of word power from Merriam-Webster's experts

Last Build Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Copyright: Copyright 2017


Fri, 18 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 18, 2017 is:

waif • \WAYF\  • noun

1 a : a piece of property found (as washed up by the sea) but unclaimed 

b : (plural) stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight

2 a : something found without an owner and especially by chance 

b : a stray person or animal; especially : a homeless child

3 : an extremely thin and usually young woman


At the center of the novel is a parentless waif who is befriended by the first mate of a ship she is hiding aboard.

"Parker, playing a souped-up version of her trademark crazy-eyed waif, reprises her role as Georgie Burns, a character whose lack of a filter suggests a personality disorder in search of a diagnosis." — Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2017

Did you know?

Waif itself is a stray, if we consider its first meaning the home from which it came. Tracing back to an Anglo-French adjective waif meaning "stray, unclaimed," the English noun waif referred in its earliest 14th century uses to unclaimed found items, such as those gone astray (think cattle) and those washed ashore (think jetsam), as well as to the king's (or lord's) right to such property. Stolen goods abandoned by a thief in flight eventually came to be referred to as waifs as well, as later did anything found without an owner and especially by chance. (It's interesting to note that the verb waive, used in modern English in phrases like "waive a fee" or "waive one's rights" comes from the same Anglo-French source as waif and was at one time used to mean "to throw away (stolen goods).") The emphasis on being found faded as waif came to be applied to any stray animal or person, and especially to a homeless child, and in the late 20th century the current most common meaning of "an extremely thin and usually young woman" developed.

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Thu, 17 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 17, 2017 is:

oppugn • \uh-PYOON\  • verb

1 : to fight against

2 : to call in question


"Carmel Valley speller Justin Song navigated the second and third rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee yesterday with a precision no one could oppugn." — Paul M. Krawzak, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 May 2008

"However, if [bicyclists] consider themselves excellent climbers, here's the real question: How fast can they ascend a hill or mountain? That's the real point to oppugn." — Ken Allen, The Morning Sentinel (Waterville, Maine), 16 Mar. 2013

Did you know?

Oppugn was first recorded in English in the 15th century. It came to Middle English from the Latin verb oppugnare, which in turn derived from the combination of ob-, meaning "against," and pugnare, meaning "to fight." Pugnare itself is descended from the same ancient word that gave Latin the word pugnus, meaning "fist." It's no surprise, then, that oppugn was adopted into English to refer to fighting against something or someone, either physically (as in "the dictatorship will oppugn all who oppose it") or verbally (as in "oppugn an argument"). Other descendants of pugnare in English include the equally aggressive pugnacious, impugn, repugnant, and the rare inexpugnable ("incapable of being subdued or overthrown").

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Wed, 16 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 16, 2017 is:

perfunctory • \per-FUNK-tuh-ree\  • adjective

1 : characterized by routine or superficiality : mechanical

2 : lacking in interest or enthusiasm


Clearly exhausted after a long day on her feet, our server gave us only a perfunctory greeting before taking our drink orders.

"Yet avoiding the heat altogether and watching Netflix from the confines of your cool couch—even while performing a perfunctory sit-up or two—is not the way to stay healthy and active this summer." — Leslie Barker, The Dallas Morning News, 13 June 2017

Did you know?

Perfunctory is a word whose origins are found entirely in Latin. It first appeared in English in the late 16th century and is derived from the Late Latin perfunctorius, meaning "done in a careless or superficial manner." (Perfunctorius was also borrowed for the synonymous, and now archaic, English adjective perfunctorious at around the same time.) Perfunctorius comes from the earlier Latin perfunctus, a past participle of perfungi, meaning "to accomplish" or "to get through with." That verb is formed by combining the prefix per-, meaning "through," with the verb fungi, meaning "to perform." Fungi can be found in the roots of such words as function, defunct, and fungible.

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Tue, 15 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 15, 2017 is:

lamster • \LAM-ster\  • noun

: a fugitive especially from the law


"After the Vivian Gordon furor died down, I began to think of going home. I needed money, I was bored with Miami, and tired of living the life of a lamster." — Polly Adler, A House Is Not a Home, 1953

"During his time as a lamster, Lepke was looked after by gangsters associated with a gang based in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn." — Marc Mappen, Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation, 2013

Did you know?

Lamsters as a class are probably as old as the law from which they flee, but the term lamster didn't sneak into our language until the early 1900s, less than ten years after the appearance of the earliest known evidence of the noun lam, meaning "sudden or hurried flight especially from the law" (as in the phrase "on the lam"). Both words have an old verb relation, though. Lam has meant "to beat soundly" or "to strike or thrash" since the late 16th century (and consequently gave us our verb lambaste), but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it developed another meaning: "to flee hastily." The origins of the verb are obscure, but etymologists suggest that it is Scandinavian in origin and akin to the Old Norse lemja, meaning "to thrash."

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Mon, 14 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 14, 2017 is:

bifurcate • \BYE-fer-kayt\  • verb

: to divide or cause to divide into two branches or parts


"If colleges don't begin to also focus on middle-income families, they will end up with campuses bifurcated by income that don't reflect the economic diversity of the United States." — Jeffrey J. Selingo, The Washington Post, 15 May 2017

"In the late 14th century [secretary] meant a 'person entrusted with secrets,' a trusted counselor, with some letter-writing and note-taking duties. The word has since bifurcated to refer either to the kind of secretary who nowadays prefers to be known as an executive assistant, thank you, or the kind who heads an executive department of the federal government." — Ruth Walker, The Christian Science Monitor, 8 June 2017

Did you know?

Yogi Berra, the baseball great who was noted for his head-scratching quotes, is purported to have said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Yogi's advice might not offer much help when making tough decisions in life, but perhaps it will help you remember today's word, bifurcate. A road that bifurcates splits in two like the one in Yogi's adage. Other things can bifurcate as well, such as an organization that splits into two factions. Bifurcate derives from the Latin bifurcus, meaning "two-pronged," a combination of the prefix bi- ("two") and the noun furca ("fork"). Furca, as you can probably tell, gave us our word fork.

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Sun, 13 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 13, 2017 is:

vermicular • \ver-MIK-yuh-ler\  • adjective

1 a : resembling a worm in form or motion

b : vermiculate

2 : of, relating to, or caused by worms


"The 36-by-60 inch panel includes a strange botanical form at far right, and layers of misty white, blue and orange oil color partially obscure vermicular forms that seem to burrow into the painting's 'atmosphere.'" — Marc Awodey, Seven Days (Burlington, Vermont), 7–14 Apr. 2010

"Born recyclers, worms transform the plant material they eat into vermicular compost, otherwise known as worm castings—a fancy name for worm poo—coveted by farmers to enrich their garden soil." — Debbie Hightower, The Thomasville (North Carolina) Times, 7 Nov. 2015

Did you know?

What does the word vermicular have in common with the pasta on your plate? If you're eating vermicelli (a spaghetti-like pasta made in long thin strings) the answer is vermis, a Latin noun meaning "worm." If you dig deep enough, you'll find that vermis is the root underlying not only vermicular and vermicelli, but also vermiculate, which can mean either "full of worms" or "tortuous." It is also the source of vermin and worm, both of which in their earliest usage referred, despite their vermicular etymology, to any creeping or crawling creature, including wingless insects and reptiles.

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Sat, 12 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 12, 2017 is:

temporize • \TEM-puh-ryze\  • verb

1 : to act to suit the time or occasion : to yield to current or dominant opinion

2 : to draw out discussions or negotiations so as to gain time


"The pontiff's recent declaration to that effect brought headlines but no action….  Francis wouldn't be the first leader who temporized before doing something that had to be done. Think of Lincoln, who vexed abolitionists by waiting two years after his election before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation." — Rich Barlow,, 5 June 2014

"Ostensibly, 'Dan in Real Life' is about how Dan and Marie … figure out how to deal with their mutual attraction, even as she's supposed to be on the arm of Dan's genial but dim brother Mitch …. Of course, this particular problem isn't beyond the purview of mature adults: You smolder, you ponder, you temporize, it gets messy, you deal." — Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post, 26 Oct. 2007

Did you know?

Temporize comes from the Medieval Latin verb temporizare ("to pass the time"), which itself comes from the Latin noun tempus, meaning "time." Tempus is also the root of such words as tempo, contemporary, and temporal. If you need to buy some time, you might resort to temporizing—but you probably won't win admiration for doing so. Temporize can have a somewhat negative connotation. For instance, a political leader faced with a difficult issue might temporize by talking vaguely about possible solutions without actually doing anything. The point of such temporizing is to avoid taking definite—and possibly unpopular—action, in hopes that the problem will somehow go away. But the effect is often just to make matters worse.

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Fri, 11 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 11, 2017 is:

Pandemonium • \pan-duh-MOH-nee-um\  • noun

1 : the capital of Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost

2 : the infernal regions : hell

3 : (not capitalized) a wild uproar : tumult


The power failure occurred during rush hour, and with none of the traffic lights working, pandemonium ensued as drivers struggled to get home.

"Czernowin's score includes eruptions of orchestral, vocal, and electronic pandemonium that evoke with unnerving immediacy the chaos of battle and its aftermath." — Alexander M. Ross, The New Yorker, 15 May 2017

Did you know?

When John Milton needed a name for the gathering place of all demons for Paradise Lost, he turned to the classics as any sensible 17th-century writer would. Pandæmonium, as the capital of Hell is known in the epic poem, combines the Greek prefix pan-, meaning "all," with the Late Latin daemonium, meaning "evil spirit." (Daemonium itself traces back to the far more innocuous Greek word daimōn, meaning "spirit, deity.")  Over time, Pandæmonium (or Pandemonium) came to designate all of hell and was used as well for earthbound dens of iniquity. By the late-18th century, the word implied a place or state of confusion or uproar, and from there, it didn't take long for pandemonium to become associated with states of utter disorder and wildness.

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Thu, 10 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 10, 2017 is:

élan • \ay-LAHN\  • noun

: vigorous spirit or enthusiasm


Jeremy told the story of his trip to Mexico with such élan that by the next week people were begging him to share it again.

"The Waldorf has long had a reputation for elegance and élan, a reputation that began when it opened in 1931 as the largest, tallest and most expensive hotel ever built...." — James Barron, The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

Once upon a time, English speakers did not have élan (the word, that is; we have always had the potential for vigorous spirit). We had, however, the verb elance, meaning "to throw," that was used for the launching of darts, javelins, and similar weaponry. Elance is derived from the Middle French (s')eslancer, meaning "to rush or dash" (that is, "to hurl oneself forth"). Elance enjoyed only a short flight in English, largely falling into disuse by the mid-1800s, around which time English speakers picked up élan, another French word that traces back, via the Middle French noun eslan ("dash, rush"), to (s')eslancer. We copied élan in form from the French, but we dispensed with the French sense of a literal "rush" or "dash," retaining the sense of enthusiastic animation that we sometimes characterize as dash.

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Wed, 09 Aug 2017 01:00:01 -0400

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for August 9, 2017 is:

garble • \GAR-bul\  • verb

1 : to sift impurities from

2 a : to alter or distort as to create a wrong impression or change the meaning

b : to introduce textual error into (a message) by inaccurate encipherment, transmission, or decipherment


The best man was nervous and garbled the inspirational quote at the end of his speech.

"Some calls are garbled, making it difficult for dispatchers to understand the caller." — Joe Wilson, quoted in The Cleveland Daily Banner, 5 June 2017

Did you know?

Garble developed from Late Latin cribellare, a verb meaning "to sift." Arabic speakers borrowed cribellare as gharbala, and the Arabic word passed into Old Italian as garbellare; both of these words also meant "to sift." When the word first entered Middle English as garbelen, its meaning stayed close to the original; it meant "to sort out the best." But that sort of sifting can cause a distortion, and in early Modern English garble came to mean "to distort the sound or meaning of."

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