An item used to cast a vote.

It used to be that in Italy, people used to cast yea or nay votes by dropping either a little white ball or a black one into a box or urn. They referred to that "little ball" a ballotta. From this Italian word comes our own term, ballott.

"Then again, people laughed when they first learned that Jesse 'The Body' Ventura would be on the ballot."



banana problem

1. The situation that results when one is uncertain as to when a project is actually finished (and when, therefore to stop revising it.)

2. A condition sometimes afflicting websites, in which the webmaster adds so many bells and whistles that the whole thing is a mess.

Banana problem is of fairly recent vintage, but it's already turned up in the venerable New York Times. According to the New Hacker's Dictionary, this handy expression refers to the old joke about a youngster who said, "I know how to spell 'banana' . . . but I don't know when to stop."

"No, Charlie, the site looks great, but I'm afraid if you insist on adding the Dancing Mahirs AND that 12-minute video clip of yourself playing ping-pong, we're going to have a real banana problem on our hands."

ted unspeakably. So it's not hard to imagine that Bedlam would come to be associated with loud, crazed confusion, or that bedlam would become a synonym for it.

("Bethlehem," by the way, comes from two Hebrew words that mean "house of bread.")

"All I said was, 'Who wants a free Beanie Baby?' -- and then it was pure bedlam."




A leader or indicator of future trends.

A wether is "a castrated sheep," and since the 15th century, word bellwether has meant a flock's leading wether, which wears a bell around its neck to help the other sheep follow him.

Bellwether soon came to be applied contemptuously to human ringleaders, but over time this derogatory sense faded away.

"Stocks rose sharply yesterday, bolstered by a strong earnings report from the high-technology bellwether Intel and comments from Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, that indicated that interest rates would be rising only slightly." -- The New York Times




1. An outdoor toilet, an outhouse.

2. An indoor toilet.

Biffy and its variant, biff are most commonly heard in the Upper Midwest of the United States. They may be an alteration of the English term privy.

"Why do you suppose it is that women always seem to go to the biffy in twos?"




A novel principally concerned with the spiritual, moral, intellectual and psychological development of its main character.

A Bildungsroman is a type of novel often found in German literature, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain being a good example of the form. Bildungsroman (which is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) derives from German "Bildung," meaning "education", and roman, which means "novel."

"At the same time, it creates a sort of Bildungsroman portrait of the author as a young man whose idealism is tempered by 'raw ambition," a onetime altar boy turned politcal operative, whose messianic fervor on behalf of the candidate he helped get elected gradually gives way to disillusion and doubt."--Michiko Kakutani, reviewing George Stephanopoulous' memoir, All Too Human.



(bye-SEK-still or bye-SEK-style)

1. (adj.) Containing a leap day

2.(n.) A leap year

The Romans understood the need to add a day to their calendar every four years, but unlike us, they didn't add it to the end of their second month. Instead they put in an extra day at the point in the calendar that we call February 24th.

They called this extra day the bissextus, because of their odd way of counting days in a month: They called the first day of a month the calends. (Hence our word calendar.) Around the middle of the month came the ides" (as in "Beware the ides of March"). Late in the month, they began counting the days backwards from the calends of the next month. To create a leap year, the Romans stuck in an extra day right after February 23 (six days back), calling it the bissextus, or literally twice sixth.

"Gee, you'd think a software company with all that money and all those resources would make sure that its calendar program recognizes that this year is bissextile."




Language that is foul, vulgarly abusive, and coarse.

One of the gates to the old walled city of London was called Billings gate, which stood near London Bridge there on the Thames. A pier was built there in the sixteenth century, and it soon became a fishmarket. Supposedly the fishwives who carried on business there were notorious for their salty, rough, scolding language, and billingsgate soon came to mean exactly that kind of talk.

"He's a veritable geyser of billingsgate, which probably explains why they think he has a future in cable TV."




To speak or write pompously and windily.

Apparently inspired by blow, this word became widely used in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century, when people seemed to take a special delight in long, silly-sounding words like sockdolager and hornswoggle. The popularity of bloviate got a boost in the 1920s from President Warren G. Harding, who apparently found it quite useful when discussing politics.

"Oh, great. You mean we're going to have to sit here and listen to him bloviate for another half hour?"




Characterized by inappropriately elevated or grandiose language.

Many people assume that bombastic means "loud" or "booming," like a bomb. Actually, this word means "empty," "inflated" and "insubstantial." This word's roots go all the way back to ancient Greek word bombyx, meaning "silkworm," which was once commonly used to produce material suitable for padding. This gave rise to Old French bombace, a type of "cotton padding", which eventually inspired our word bombastic.

"Montgomery was known for writing bombastic memos, never using a one-syllable word when a five-syllable one would do."




An unnecessary activity or wasteful expenditure.

We may have the Boy Scouts to thank for this word -- or more specifically, a Rochester scoutmaster named Robert H. Link. The story goes that in 1925 Mr. Link coined boondoggle as a term for the braided leather lanyards that every young Scout was expected to make. Granted, boondoggling wasn't exactly the most useful skill for those youngsters to learn, but at least it kept them busy. Perhaps the scoutmaster borrowed the idea from American cowboys. They supposedly whiled away long hours on the lonesome range by braiding boondoggles from leather odds and ends, using them to decorate their saddles.

In any case, during the 1930s, critics of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal scornfully applied the term boondoggle to costly government projects that provided what they regarded as "make-work." Such programs, they argued, were a waste of time and money -- as pointless and inconsequential as boondoggles of the leather variety. Today boondoggle usually means "a useless or unecessary project or activity" or simply a "wasteful expenditure."

"They're insisting on a huge tax credit for a program to try to turn chicken manure into energy? What a boondoggle!"




Pertaining to rumblings in one's tummy or intestines.

The Greeks had a wonderful word for this sound: borborygmus, which is pronounced "bor-buh-RIG-muss." As you might guess, it's a fine example of onomatopoeia.

"All the toilets and waterpipes in the house had been suddenly seized with borborygmic convulsions." - from Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov




1. Having an abundance of trees, shrubs, or underbrush.
2. Pertaining to woods.

This woody word comes from Middle English bosk, meaning "bush." The word bosky also has been used colloquially to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary, puts it "somewhat worse for the drink, tipsy." This sense, the OED surmises, may derive from the fact that such a wooded place is "overshadowed" or "obscured" the way one's faculties can be obscured by too much drink.

"What do you say we ditch this company picnic and continue this fascinating discussion someplace a little more, well, bosky?"




Pertaining to lines of writing that run right to left, then left to right, etc.

Ever wonder why we read left to right, then whip back to the left side of the page before starting the next line? Not all ancient peoples wrote that way. Some used a style called boustrophedon--Greek for "ox-turning"--mimicking the pattern of an ox trudging back and forth in a field. Archaeologists have found boustrophedonic inscriptions in such places as Crete, Italy, India, Northern Europe, Central America, and Easter Island.

(The bous in boustrophedon, by the way, comes from the same linguistic root as bulimia -- literally "ox-hunger.")

Here's Ilana Stern's ditty about the challenges of writing boustrophedonic email:

"'You have planted a seed most demonic / Now I yearn to be boustrophedonic / But to turn like an ox / Is quite unorthodox /And damn hard in this mode electronic.'"




To remove or modify parts of a work to which one has (usually prudish) objections.

Retired physician and self-appointed literary critic Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) took it upon himself to tidy up the works of Shakespeare by removing those lines "which cannot with propriety be read in a family."

In his 1818 volume, The Family Shakespeare, he severely cut some speeches, omitted certain bawdy characters entirely and, in the case of expletives included the word "God," he routinely substituted the word "heaven." When it came to Othello, however, he threw in the editorial towel, conceding that the play was "unfortunately little suited to family reading."

However, his book did find a market: in its time, his watered-down version of Shakespeare became a bestseller. Today, anything from a book to a work of art can be similarly "bowdlerized," as exemplified by a line in the Los Angeles Times by writer Patt Morrison:

"A few neighbors of Caffe Michelangelo wanted the city to order the restaurant to bowdlerize its new 4-foot-high sign, which featured Michelangelo's nude statue of David rendered in full and faithful detail."




Enormous, huge.

In Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire "Gulliver's Travels," the fanciful country of Brobdingnag was inhabited by people twelve times the size of ordinary humans.

Writing in Smithsonian magazine, Robert Hendrickson used Brobdingnagianto fine effect a few years ago when describing someone blowing bubblegum:

"The bubble rose, rose higher. It was a big, beautiful bubble, a Brobdingnagian bubble, a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious bubble."



1. A sedative.
2. A boring, tiresome person.
3. A conventional or trite statement.
Since at least the mid-1800s, compounds made with bromine, especially potassium bromide, have been used as sedatives. Today bromide is also applied figuratively to anyone or anything soothing, trite, or otherwise sleep-inducing.

Bromide appeared recently in a Newsweek article describing the way presidential candidate George W. Bush's family rallies around him:

"Mother Barbara, who told Newsweek that she was watching the debates 'with one hand over my eyes,' sent him 'cheery' e-mail bromides like 'Just be natural.'"





An enthusiast; an aficionado.

As a reporter for the New York Sun observed in 1903, "The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic."

Indeed, around the turn of the last century, a group of New Yorkers were so caught up in the excitement of firefighting that they regularly volunteered to help out around firehouses and helped professional firefighters in battling blazes. Because these volunteer firefighters wore buff-colored coats, they came to be known as buffs. Later, the meaning of buff expanded to include any kind of enthusiast.

"Language buffs will enjoy the new online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary--or, should I say, well-heeled language buffs who can afford the $550 per year subscription fee."





Empty talk; nonsense.

During a Congressional debate in the early 19th century, U.S. lawmakers were treated to an unusually long-winded and irrelevant speech, even by Washington standards. The orator, Rep. Felix Walker of Buncombe County, North Carolina (home to Asheville and other mountain towns), later explained that his constituents expected him to give some kind of speech, so he wasn't so much talking to his colleagues as making a speech "for Buncombe."

Soon talking to Bunkum became a derisive term applied to similar political speeches. Eventually bunkum was shortened to bunk, and applied to any kind of claptrap.

"Anyone with half a brain will realize that Cameron's claims are pure bunk."




Something outrageously insignificant; a trifle.

Experts suspect that bupkes derives either the Russian for "small beans" or the Yiddish for "goat turd" - or perhaps a combination of both.

"I work my fingers to the bone, but they still pay me bupkes!"




Growing quickly; flourishing.

In its earliest, most literal sense burgeon meant "to put forth new buds or leaves." In fact, this word stems, as it were, from Old French burjon, which means "bud."

"Who'd have predicted that her prime-time chat with Barbara Walters would inspire a burgeoning interest in that particular shade of lipstick?"


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