The pretended refusal of something that is actually desired very much.

Experts in the art of rhetoric use accismus to refer to a statement that feigns disinterest. There's a famous instance of accismus early in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," when Caesar gives the impression that he's reluctant to accept the crown. A more everyday example might be: "Why no, I couldn't possibly have that last bite of your fallen chocolate souffle with hot fudge sauce." It's from the Greek akkismos, which means "coyness," or "affectation."

"Really now, Gerald, your accismus is hardly persuasive."




Sour, harsh, bitter.

Acerbic is from Latin acerbus, meaning "harsh." It's a relative of exacerbate, meaning "to embitter, aggravate, or make harsher."

"For four decades now, the alliteratively acerbic designer and self-appointed arbiter of taste has gleefully chronicled each year's fashion flops and tops." -- Martha Barnette (yes, yours truly) in an article in Salon magazine about my surreal afternoon with Mr. Blackwell, the "Worst Dressed List" guy.




1. To give a sketchy outline of.
2. To foreshadow vaguely.
3. To disclose only partially.

This word with multiple uses is from Latin adumbrare meaning "to shade or shadow." It's from Latin umbra, meaning "shadow" -- and yes, it's a linguistic relative of that other "shady" word, umbrella.

(Adumbrate can also mean to "overshadow," as in the case of a 17th century text that includes the line "The lustre of his good qualities is in some measure adumbrated by certain defects.")

"Mr. Smithers then proceeded to adumbrate a plan to expand employee benefits, but his speech was hardly enough to satisfy those who were hoping for specifics."




A strong creative impulse; divine inspiration.

This word comes from Latin afflare, meaning "to breathe on" or "to blow on." (Similarly, inspire comes from Latin for "to breathe in.") Louisa May Alcott used this word (and a variant spelling of divine) in Little Women when describing a writer's creative process:

"Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The devine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her 'vortex', hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent."



(uh-feesh-ee-uh-NAH-do or uh-fees-ee-uh-NAH-do)

A devotee, admirer, an enthusiastic fan.

From Spanish aficionar, which means "to inspire a liking for," this word is a relative of English affection.) Aficionado originally applied to devotees of bullfighting, but now applies to any type of ardent enthusiast.

"With the dwindling cigar market in mind, Marvin R. Shaken, the founder, editor, and publisher of Cigar Aficionado--a magazine for men who smoke cigars--has redesigned the monthly."--Alex Kuczynski, noting in The New York Times that the magazine's cover now features "Aficionado" in huge type and the once-prominent word "Cigar" in tiny letters.





That little plastic tip on the end of a shoelace.

This word for the little thingie that helps the lace go through an eyelet was adapted from aguillette, an Old French word for "needle." These words derive from the Latin word for "needle," acus, the source of another sharp word in English, acute.

"Then you stick the aglet through the eyelet -- and voila!"




A cat-lover.

In Greek, the word for "cat" is ailouros. An ailurophobe, on the other hand, has a morbid fear of felines.

"Funny how they insist on climbing into the lap of the only person in the room who's not an ailurophile."




A purple gemstone.

For some reason, the ancient Greeks believed that anyone who wore or possessed one of these purple stones could drink all night long and never become intoxicated. The amethyst's power to ward off in intoxication is reflected in its name: the Greek word amethystos literally means "not drunk" -- from the Greek stem a- meaning "not," and methystos meaning "drunk." (Greek methystos, by the way, is a distant linguistic relative of another boozy English word, mead.)

"At the last minute, Vanessa scooped up her amethyst bracelet and slipped it on as she stepped out the door, figuring that it couldn't hurt and, what the heck, it might help."




In a murderous rage; frenzied.

Sixteenth-century European explorers returned from the Indian Ocean returned with lurid tales of islanders flying into murderous rampages. The Malay language even had a word for it: amoq, or "in a homicidal rage." Portuguese explorers adopted this term as amouco, which eventually led to English run amok or run amuck.

It's unclear just why and to what extent these rampages occurred. In 1772, Captain James Cook explained: "To run amock is to get drunk with sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage." Some Europeans blamed fits of jealousy, while others mused that running amok must be an indigenous cultural trait.

Of course, these days running amok can happen anywhere, and often refers to more benign activities.

"Run amok with your favorite characters in a complete, 3-D re-creation of their town." - from promotional copy for "The Simpsons' Virtual Springfield" CD-ROM, which lets users launch water balloons from Bart's tree house, lob gummy bears at unsuspecting moviegoers, and take doughnut breaks with Homer at the local nuclear power plant.



1. (adj.) Subordinate or subsidiary.

2. (noun) Something that functions as an accessory, auxiliary, or adjunct.

If you know that in ancient Rome, a female slave or maidservant was called an ancilla, then it's easy to see how this word came about. (Some etymologists suggest that ancilla itself goes back to even older roots that literally mean "the one who circles around.")

"I do have other interests, but they're ancillary." -- Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, talking to reporters. According to Sports Illustrated, O'Neal is close friends with a retired English professor, and invariably greets the old prof with a request to learn a new word, which is how he learned ancillary.




Pertaining to the hours before dawn.

From Latin antelucanus, which means "before dawn," this word is a relative of such bright words as lucid and elucidate.

"She got some of her best thinking done during those antelucan reveries, although she certainly didn't mind the occasional interruptions for antelucan revelries."




A collection of selected writings, such as poems, short stories, or plays.

One of the loveliest words in the English language, anthology derives from the Greek for "a gathering of flowers" or "garland" - a "literary bouquet," in other words.

"She'd been terribly flattered by his thoughtful gift, an anthology of Walt Whitman poems."




1. The outermost point in an orbit.

2. The highest point; the apex.

Borrowed into English from French, apogee derives ultimately from Greek apogaion, literally "far from the earth." (The latter part of apogaion is the etymological kin of the earth goddess name, Gaia.)

"'Saturday Night Fever,' the movie released in 1977, marked the apogee of disco, a lucrative moment in pop that quickly generated a backlash, a record-business crash and a widespread repudiation."-- music critic Jon Pareles, in the New York Times.




Rustic or simple, in an idealized way.

The ancient Greek region of Arcadia was famous for rural tranquillity and simple, pastoral ways. The adjective deriving from its name is sometimes capitialized.

"Isn't it funny how all these new magazines that extol arcadian simplicity are also chock-full of advertisements extolling conspicious consumption?"




1. Of or pertaining to an uncle

2. Uncle-like, especially in benevolence or geniality.

This word comes from the Latin avunculus, which means "maternal uncle." The Romans considered one's maternal uncle to be a kind of benign, grandfatherly figure. (In fact, avunculus itself is a diminutive of Latin avus, which means "grandfather." The same root also produced the modern Spanish word for "grandfather,"abuelo.)

"Manipulative, avuncular and enigmatic, he created a presence in The X-Files before sacrificing himself for his protege in the final episode of the first season, 'The Erlenmeyer Flask.'" -- from the Fox network's official website for the X-files.

<Return to Archive