A small, composite flower with a yellow center and white petals.

"When evening brings the merry folding hours, and sun-eyed daisies close their winking flowers . . ." As poet John Leyden observed in the early 19th century, some species of the daisy close their blossoms at night.

For this reason, speakers of Old English called this flower a daeges eage, or "day's eye." Eventually the name of this cheery little "eye of the day" was condensed into daisy.

"The French version of pulling petals off a daisy is much more dramatic than our own: 'Elle m'aime un peu . . . beaucoup . . . passionnement . . . a la folie . . . pas du tout!' or, 'She loves me a little . . . a lot . . . passionately . . . madly . . . not at all!'"





Need an opposite for widdershins"? There's always deasil. It comes from Scottish Gaelic, and is a relative of the Latin word dexter, which means "to the right" or "on the right side."

"That's it -- 'widdershins'!" exclaimed Wolfgang, before stopping, turning round, and walking deasil again.




To destroy or kill a large part of a group.

This term derives from a grisly practice among the ancient Roman military: To punish mutinous or cowardly troops, every tenth soldier from those units was routinely selected by lot to be killed by fellow soldiers. The verb for this practice was decimare, from Latin decimus, meaning "tenth" (and a relative of such words as decade and decimal). Strictly speaking, therefore, decimate means to "destroy one-tenth of a population." But its sense has expanded to encompass the idea of destroying a large part of a group - and increasingly, it's used to denote any kind of large-scale destruction.

"After a week of fighting, commanders said Russian warplanes, helicopters and artillery have begun to decimate the rebels." - Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times




To embezzle.

This fancy word meaning "to misappropriate funds or property" has agricultural origins. It comes from the Latin word falx, which means "sickle." (In fact, if you want to describe something as sickle-shaped, you can always say that it's falcate.)

Medieval Latin defalcare literally meant "to cut off with a sickle," as one would do in a field of grass. Gradually this word acquired the more general sense of "to lop off," or "to take away," and today its English descendant defalcate most often applies to the taking away of other green stuff - i.e., money.

"It's so difficult to believe he'd defalcate."




To throw something or someone out of a window.

Although these days you can defenestrate just about anything that'll fit through a window, this word first applied to history's most famous such tossing-out, which occurred in Prague in 1618.

Angry at a lack of religious freedom, Protestant insurgents broke up a meeting of royal officials in Hradcany, the Prague Castle, then went on to express their extreme displeasure by tossing two officials and their secretary out a window. Those thus defenestrated weren't seriously hurt, however. (Depending on which account you read, this is either because they were tossed out of a window that was relatively low, or landed in a moat, or perhaps both).

At any rate, this picturesque event became widely known as the Defenestration of Prague. It ignited the devastating Thirty Years' War, as Protestants from neighboring countries joined together in revolt against the Hapsburg Emperor Ferndinand II. Defenestrate comes from Latin fenestra, meaning "window," and is therefore a relative of words for "window" in several other languages, including French fenÍtre, German Fenster, and Italian finestra.

"Okay, but when you say you 'defenestrated' your PC, do you mean that you threw it out your window, or that you wiped your entire operating system off your hard drive?"




The stuff jeans are made of.

Denim is yet another fabric name that derives from the place it was first produced. In this case, it was manufactured in the south of France, in the town of Nimes. So fabric from Nimes was said to be "from Nimes," a name later ironed out into denim.

"We just had our antique couch recovered in denim and you'd be surprised at how good it looks."



Flitting about from one thing to another; disjointed, disconnected; not methodical.

In Roman times, a desultor was a circus entertainer who would leap from the back of one horse to another. This name derives from desilire, meaning "to leap down."

(Desultor shares a common linguistic ancestor with several other "leaping" words as somersault.)

"A desultory reader, Judith kept a huge stack of magazines by her bed, and it was not at all unusual for her to be perusing Allure one moment and Ferret World the next."




Something easy or requiring very little effort.

This word denotes an endeavor that might be described as "cakewalk." Its origin isn't clear, though it may come from the verb doddle, meaning "to totter or walk with short, unsteady steps." Doddle used as a noun appeared recently in a news story about Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a 56-year-old British explorer who plans to set out this Feb. 14 in hopes of being the first person ever to trek alone to the North Pole. Fiennes made a similar crossing of the Antarctic in 1993, but this journey will involve additional dangers, such as polar bears, which prompted a friend of Fiennes to observe:

"The Antarctic is a doddle compared with the Arctic."


dog days

(dahg days)

The hot, sultry period in late summer.

In Roman myth, the hunter Orion had a favorite dog that was rewarded at the end of his life by being turned into the bright star known as Sirius. The Romans therefore gave the star a nickname: Canicula or "little dog" (a relative of English canine). During late summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun, and the Romans believed that the presence of Canicula made the sun even hotter during that time. So they referred to those weeks as the dies caniculares, or "Dog-Star days" - the forerunner of our own term for this sweltering period.

dollars to doughnuts

Most assuredly; with certainty.

You usually hear this idiom used in the phrase as "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that . . ." But why doughnuts?

The idea behind this phrase is the bettor is so certain of being correct that he or she is willing to risk something valuable (i.e., dollars) against something virtually worthless. In the past, the same idea has been expressed in the phrases dollars to cobwebs and dollars to buttons. But, perhaps because of its deliciously alliterative quality, dollars to doughuts" eventually won out.

"Oh, I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts those aren't real!"




1. A wild fight or brawl.

2. A heated public quarrel or dispute.

Although Donnybrook is now a relatively quiet suburb of Dublin, the annual fair held there was once notorious as the site of knock-down, drag-out free-for-alls. In fact, brawls there eventually became such a problem that in the late 19th century, after almost 600 years in existence, the fair was finally shut down altogether.

"Who'd have ever thought that this election would shape up to be such a donnybrook?"




The clustering of politicians round a speaker during a televised event in order to fill the shot and give the appearance of support.

You've seen it on TV, but did you know there's a word for it? This picturesque term was inspired, of course, by the non-nutritious, ring-shaped cake.

"Make sure to be here at noon, because we'll need lots of doughnutting if Senator Buncombe gets a chance to give his speech."



(dray-KOH-nee-uhn, druh-KOH-nee-un)

Extremely severe; harsh; cruel.

Draco was an Athenian legislator, who in 621 B.C. received special authority to codify existing laws that had never been formally written down. Although his aim was to ensure a more uniform system of justice, the result was that he made those laws especially severe, such as mandating the death penalty even for trivial crimes.

Today "Draconian" is often, but not always, capitalized.

"A practice that could pass as a Draconian punishment for perjury, tongue piercing, has pushed its way into youth culture -- and the trend is alarming many dentists." -- The New York Times, reporting that the American Dental Association recently passed a resolution to oppose oral piercing, which it considers a public health hazard.




1. Inspiration, magic, 'fire."
2. Attractiveness due to personal charisma.

This useful word is borrowed directly from Spanish, where it originally meant "ghost" or "goblin."

"Still, the 'Wheel' producers, aided by Pat Sajak, have managed to convince TV viewers that Vanna possesses an abundance of duende and pulchritude."-- Man O. Dei, opining about the letter-turner's appeal in the Atlanta Inquirer


<Return to Archive