Bon mot

My afflatus for today’s post comes from an aid for facundity. has assuaged my diffidence and allowed me to bedizen my writing with true magniloquence.

A simple wonder of email blasts is the pleasure of subscribing to Word for a Day. I have always aspired to expand my vocabulary, but it’s so much easier when my new electronic friend drops the word in my in-box.

It’s a quick presentation of language, with the word explained, used in context, and then, the most intriguing piece, its etymology.

It’s terribly useful for clearing up those words that we hear, more or less understand, and even use without ever having gotten around to looking up the meaning. (Perhaps I am alone in this particular sin.) I knew nefarious was a negative, but didn’t realize it was full-blown iniquity. I thought diffident was more like indifferent, rather than lacking confidence, and I had never gotten a grip on ersatz.

I was delighted to learn the existence of the word abulia—the loss of will to make decisions. I suffer from abulia occasionally, but feel comforted that there’s a term to describe it, suggesting others share my paralysis.

The etymology adds layers of meaning. We all know assuage, but it’s so powerful to think of its Latin root ad “towards” + suavis, “sweet.” And then there are the roots that I could never have guessed such as kismet, which comes, via Turkish, from the Arabic qismah, “portion, lot.”

I particularly love the words where the sound seems appropriate to the meaning. This week I learned that roistering is to make merry. It sounds boisterous and robust, as merrymaking should. I confess I have a judgmental side and now realize that I sometimes objurgate or criticize severely. Objurgation sounds judgmental, heavy, and threatening.

But there are some words I don’t like. Supererogatory means something superfluous and excessive. While the many syllables mimic the meaning, it’s just too difficult to pronounce. One ends up swallowing the middle “ero.” And temerarious feels to close to timid to mean almost the opposite—to be rash.

I will leave you with a couple of new favorites. Amanuensis—a servant or slave with handwriting duties. It feels historical, and was probably one of the better jobs back then, but it also sounds as precise and crisp as the handwriting should be. And there’s the delicious lubricious—slippery, smooth, lustful, lewd, and sexual. It’s like ancient Rome, innit?

24 responses to “Bon mot”

  1. Well, the flatulence of my comment comes from an aid to fecundity, so there.

    Fun way to start the day, Stella. Thanks.

  2. Also: I love the word supererogatory, though I don’t really use it that often. I like its cousin supernumerary, too, though it’s fallen quite out of general use. The term “amanuensis” outlived connotations of servitude: at the turn of the twentieth century it pretty much meant someone who took dictation, at least long form. Henry James employed amanuenses, for instance.

    Do people have favorite words they use like these? I was called out recently for using the word “irenic”: not for using it incorrectly, but for using a word that was obscure. Is it really that uncommon?

    I also had a phonecall from a reader of this site who wanted to know the origins of “w00t!”


  3. Dave says:

    “Supererogatory” is a very useful word in its first definition, “going beyond what is required.” But it turns out that not many people have studied metaethics in much depth at all, so it remains a bad word to pull out at a bar.

  4. Dave says:

    Speaking of words, “effete” has been coming up a lot lately in the context of political elitism. Here the WaPo says of “elitism” that “the word supposes something fundamentally effete and out of touch, a whiff of brie and latte.” Discerning the meaning by context, I’d guess that “effete” means something like “sophisticatedly faggy.”

    But that’s not what it means, according to Stella’s Word of the Day, at least in its primary, presumably much older meaning. In fact, I have a hard time seeing how you get from the primary meaning to the current meaning except out of ignorance — “effete” sounds like it means “faggy,” so let’s just use it that way.

    No bonus points for noting that elitist gays don’t reproduce.

  5. lane says:

    ? – brie and latte – ?


  6. brooke says:

    I love Word of the Day! I’ve been getting their updates for about 9 years. They recycle, the chumps. Is there a shortage of obscure/rare words? Some of my favorite words right now (all pretty common…): quotidian, effusive, remuneration, veritable, logorrhea.

    Words I think are consistently misused: terse, reticent. Terse is often conceived to have a negative connotation, whereas I don’t think it should. People often say ‘reticent’ when they mean reluctant, and I don’t think the two should be synonyms, even though most dictionaries list them as synonyms.

    I also love the etymology – for my 30th I had my folks buy me the unabridged compact edition of the OED, which is endlessly fun to browse but not always that useful for common usage. But interesting since it traces the words all the way back to the first known use in literature.

    On the topic of words, dictionaries, etymologies and such, has anyone/everyone read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester? I freaking love that book. It’s a wonderful (and sad) personal true story intertwined with the history of the development of the OED, and dictionaries in general. Fascinating.

    Thanks for a fun post Stella.

  7. brooke says:

    . Oopsie. Didn’t mean to link all of that text…

  8. “brie and latte” as “effete”: faggy and middle-class with hopelessly pedestrian taste in social food and drink?

  9. oops. does that make me elitist? and i ask that as someone who spent the 90s as a clinton supporter.

  10. rm says:

    bryan, I’ll go with context being the key in the obscurity argument. Using “irenic” is great in theory but I can imagine some places where you’d get a double take for breaking it out.

    people call you at home with questions about what they read on this site?!?

    no wonder you guys get paid the big bucks…

    stella, it’s funny the way different words will hit you-i’ve always found the word amanuesis in and of itself to be decidedly unsexy (see henry james use of, for example) but this is likely due to my overly cinematic imagination. it always sounded too merchant-ivory for me, i could practically see bonham-carter writing in an overly sunlit room with the vivaldi on the soundtrack.

    such repressed longing also did in the girl with the pearl earring for me as well. i know scarlett johansson is supposed to be kind of a big deal but i can never get her blank expression framed by whatever you call that dutch headgear (wimple?) out of my head and it has typecast her for me ever since. match point helped, mind you, but once you play someone named griet that’s it in my book.

    on the other hand, wong kar-wai gets a free pass in this department, no one can do romantic ennui quite like this guy. i know that nothing much happens in in the mood for love besides maggie cheung smoking a cigarette, in slow motion no less, and wearing those incredible cheongsams but that’s more than enough for me.

    but i guess if i think of amanuesis in terms of spader (once a steff, always a steff) breaking out the red pen (among other things) on ms. gyllenhaal in secretary then i definitely get the edge you found in the word.

    bonus points for anyone who, without looking it up, can remember his name (title, really) from the short story and/or the film?

  11. Dave says:

    people call you at home with questions about what they read on this site?!?

    Thanks for bringing that up, rm. It threw me, too. Are there really people who would rather place a phone call than run a simple Google search? Why are these people allowed on the internet at all?

  12. Rachel says:


  13. 11: watch it, punk. you’re talking about my mother-in-law. you know she could kick your ass (but won’t because she teh sweet. w00t, marlene!).

    [by the way, marlene: when people type “teh” instead of “the” in blog comments , the humor is supposed to be based in the idea that it’s an intentional typo. plus it usually precedes something you wouldn’t normally preface with a “the” anyway. it’s a lame convention, but we’re apparently stuck with it. for a few more months anyway.]

  14. Dave says:

    I’m just being elitist (adj: effete; smelling of brie and latte).

    Hi Marlene!

  15. don’t worry, dave, you’re probably still young enough to procreate.

  16. lane says:

    the combination of brie and latte just sounds awful doens’t it.

    BTW listen to FMU, friday at 5:55


  17. lane says:

    here it is

    “another one bites the dust”

  18. Tim says:

    Sesquepedalian is my favorite recently-learned word. It just so perfectly captures itself and the action it describes.

    Thanks for the vocabulary brush-up, Stella. As it happens, I’m working on getting together vocabulary-building resources for my students this week. Getting them to subscribe to Word-a-Day is a good idea.

  19. This makes me feel extremely smart after one day of constantly telling second-graders to sit down. Thanks for the uber-boost of where (it feels like) my intellect should be.

    You rock my socks, Stella.

  20. lane says:

    “you rock my socks”

    that’s cute

  21. PB says:

    Here is the problem with big words – which I adore and lust after like pretty humans – you have to not only know what they mean but how to pronounce them. And you have to toss them off without hesitation as if saying dirt or cat. If we could all treat words like clay or dance steps and sort of expect that we might have to mold or count a bit, helping each other along, it would be better. But no, pronounce lithe with a short “i” just once in your life and you are suspect forever. Yet I can’t help myself – I brave the dangers of sounding like an idiot because once you do learn how to say them – it is like music. I will look for reasons to say alchemetic and always get a little blushy afterward. And to hear you say words Stella, with proper English, must be even more lovely.

  22. Arg. I’m being cute again. And I thought it was extremely funny when I first heard the phrase.

    Pandora, I too get a little blushy right after successfully using big words. It’s the same feeling we had when we found we got a really good grade for something we thought would get a low grade. And we worked really hard on it, too.

  23. Stella says:

    Nice, Tim. If I’d known that word I could have used it in the title…

    Pandora – an English accent is handy for getting away with mispronunciations…people (outside TGW nation) assume I am correct.