To wet or moisten.

It's from Latin madere, meaning "to be wet, to drip with."

"If you watch that movie, I'll be very surprised if you don't madefy a hanky or two."




To rejoice with an extravagant and boisterous public celebration.

One of the most famous events during the Boer War was the long siege against the British garrison at Mafeking (MAH-fih-king), a town in north central South Africa. The lifting of that 217-day siege on May 17, 1900 set off uproarious celebrations in the streets of London. Playing on the name of that South African town, the British coined mafficking as a jocular term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "extravagant demonstrations of exultation on occasions of national rejoicing." The verb maffick soon followed.

"So, I assume you plan to maffick on New Year's Eve?"



A shopping center, often enclosed.

In 17th-century England one popular game was "pall-mall," which entailed whacking a ball with a mallet to send it flying through a raised iron ring at one end of long alley. (The name pall-mall derives from French and Italian words meaning "ball" and "mallet.")

One well-known pall-mall alley in London came to be known simply as The Mall. The game's popularity died out, but the name of the alley stuck. Soon "mall" was applied to similar public promenades, and later to early "shopping malls" -- originally, store-lined streets closed to automobile traffic.

"But Mother, see, if you'd let me have my own car then you wouldn't have to drive me to the mall every day!"




A 26-mile, 385-yard footrace; any test of endurance.

You may already know that the race called a marathon commemorates the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, who ran all the way from the city of Marathon to Athens with news of an important Greek victory over the Persians.

But did you know that the name Marathon itself actually refers to a spice? In Greek, marathon means "fennel," and the Greek city of Marathon got its name from the fact that this anise-flavored plant grew there in abundance.

"How about if you bring the anisette, I'll make your favorite fish-with-fennel recipe, and then if we're still awake, we can have another marathon session of Monopoly."




1. Resembling marble.

2. Resembling a marble statue.

Here's a marvelous, multitasking word: An offspring of Latin marmor, meaning "marble," it means "resembling marble."

If you call something marmoreal, you're likening it to marble, whether in terms of its smoothness, hardness, coolness, or color. Marmoreal can also be used to describe something that has the cold, aloof appearance of a marble statue.

"It was one thing to have imagined them all this time, but quite another to behold those marmoreal shoulders when the chatoyant silk fell away at last."




1. A strict military disciplinarian

2. Any stickler who insists on rigid adherence to rules.

Colonel Jean Martinet, who formed France's first standing army, sought to instill military precision in his troops by putting them through terribly tedious, exacting drills. During a siege in 1672, Martinet was "accidentally" killed by his own troops, but his name lives on in our word for anyone similarly devoted to strictest rules, exacting discipline, and painstaking attention to detail. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently made good use of the word while musing once again about various presidential candidates' choice of attire:

"Elizabeth Dole tries to coordinate the color of suit and shoes to the stage where she speaks, but the attention is so minute it backfires and makes her seem a martinet."




Excessively or tearfully sentimental.

Tradition has it that the follower of Jesus known as Mary Magdalene was a former prostitute. Therefore she's often depicted in western art as a woman tearfully penitent about her past.

Maudlin is an alteration of Magdalene and a reference to her weepy expression. (In England, the names of Oxford's Magdalen College and Cambridge's Magdalene College are both pronounced "maudlin.")

"Just a little friendly advice: once again, Smithers has had a few too many juleps, so whatever you do, don't mention the ending of 'Old Yeller,' because it always makes him terribly maudlin."




A huge, stately tomb; a large, gloomy building.

Poor Queen Artemisia! In the fourth century B.C. she ruled over the small kingdom of Caria, in Asia Minor, along with her husband, King Mausolus - who, according to local custom, also happened to be her brother. When he died in 353 B.C., his sister-queen was inconsolable. In fact, Artemisia was so distraught that she had Mausolus cremated, and kept his ashes on hand to add to her drinks, a little bit at a time, until she used them all up and died of grief herself a couple of years later.

Before her death, however, she commissioned the greatest architects and sculptors around to build a spectacular monument to her late husband. Named after the dead king, this mausoleum became regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The building's ruins were excavated in the nineteenth century, and a statue of Mausolus recovered from that edifice now stands in the British Museum.

"Well yes, Marvin, the paisley draperies and nautical-themed lampshades are a nice touch, but to be honest, this place still looks like a mausoleum."





An expert or connoisseur.

Maven (sometimes spelled mavin) comes from Hebrew mevin, which means "understanding."

Until the 1960s, maven wasn't used widely in English. That's when TV ads for Vita Herring hit the airwaves, complete with a catchy jingle and enthusiastic recommendations from a herring connoisseur dubbed "The Beloved Herring Maven."

"Gary B. Larson, a proofreader and grammar maven in Seattle, says people who have switched to the foreign style are 'sellouts trying to be highfalutin'.'"--Jon G. Auerbach, in a Wall Street Journal article on ways of writing the day's date, and the growing number of American companies switching from the "month-first" to "day-first" style. (Early on, Auerbach notes, Americans commonly used the day-first style still favored in Europe. But in the late 18th century, they began reversing it as a small act of rebellion, "culminating in the emphatic 'July 4, 1776' affixed atop the Declaration of Independence.")




An independent; an individualist.

Samuel A. Maverick (1803-1870) was a New England lawyer who moved to Texas and later became mayor of San Antonio, and a member of the state legislature. After acquiring a herd of cattle in payment for a debt, he also became a rancher on a 385,000-acre spread.

Cattle roamed free back then, so ranchers branded them to avoid theft and disputes over ownership. But not Maverick. For some reason, he famously left his unbranded. Soon any unbranded animal was called a maverick, and before long it also applied to any politician who supposedly isn't "branded" by special interests.

Interestingly, Maverick's grandson also contributed another familiar word to our language.

"If I hear one more political commentator say the word 'maverick' during this election, I'm going to have a cow!"




1. Excessively sentimental. 2. Having a faint, sickly taste.

Although mawkish often describes something excessively sweet, this word originally referred to something far more icky: maggots.

The obsolete English mawk means "maggot," and mawkish applied both to a person who feels nauseated and to something "nauseating" or characterized by "a faint sickly taste." As happens with so many words, mawkish lost its early vividness, and now just means "feebly sentimental" or "faintly icky-tasting."

"Unfortunately, a mawkish greeting card was the very last thing she needed at that moment."




A drop of mucus at the end of the nose.

Here's one of those isn't-it-nice-to-know-there's-a-word-for-it words. "Meldrop" comes from an Old Norse term for "a drop or foam from a horse's mouth."

"Yes, Darling, your tie matches your suit just fine, but the meldrop has got to go."




Flowing with sweetness; smooth.

This deliciously descriptive word comes from the Latin mel, meaning "honey" and fluere, meaning "to flow." This sweet-sounding word is a linguistic cousin of the name Pamela, from the Greek for "all-honey," as well as Melissa, which was borrowed whole from the Greek, where it denotes that "honey-licking" creature, the bee.

"'How nice that we finally get to talk in real time!' she exclaimed in a voice so mellifluous he nearly dropped the phone."




1. A stench. 2. A foul, poisonous gas emanating from the earth.

In Roman myth, the goddess Mephitis had the task of preventing "pestilential exhalations" from the sewers and elsewhere. Her name lives on in our word mephitis, meaning "a poisonous stench " and mephitic (muh-FIHT-ik), which describes anything that smells like one. (Incidentally, the skunk's most distinctive characteristic is reflected in its scientific name: Mephitis mephitis.)

"Methinks there's a mephitis in our midst."




To command attention; to be riveting or hypnotic.

In the 1760s, the Austrian physician Dr. F. A. Mesmer became convinced that celestial bodies exerted some sort of force affecting the nervous systems of all creatures. Mesmer began to suspect the force was magnetism, and proceeded to try to cure his patients by stroking them with magnets. Eventually he ditched the magnets and instead tried to use what he called "animal magnetism": As soft music played in the background, he'd have patients stand in a circle and join hands. Then he'd move from one to the other, taking a few moments to stare intently into their eyes and touch them with his hand.

Some people claimed that Mesmer's methods had cured them, but a government commission investigated him and branded him a charlatan. Mesmer moved to Switzerland, where he died in obscurity in 1815. His hypnotic, spellbinding methods live on in the word mesmerize, sometimes spelled mesmerise.

"She seemed to be momentarily mesmerised by a complete inert soft surprise." - William Faulkner, in "The Hamlet."




A mishearing of song lyrics or popular phrases.

When author Siliva Wright was a child, she heard an old Scottish ballad called "The Bonnie Earl of Murray," which includes the line, "They hae slain the Earl o' Murray/And laid him on the green."

Alas, Wright misunderstood that line as "They hae slain the Earl o' Murray/And Lady Mondegreen." As a result, she spent years pitying poor Lady Mondegreen before she finally saw the lyrics in print. Writing about this in a 1954 Harper's magazine article, Wright coined the term mondegreen to denote such words misheard.

Mondegreen-spotting has become increasingly popular lately, spurred along by Gavin Edwards' book "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" (a mondegreen for Jimi Hendrix's line "Scuse me while I kiss the sky").

"I can't decide whether my favorite mondegreen is 'The girl with colitis goes by' from 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' or the time I thought the newscaster said to stay tuned for a report from 'our meaty urologist.'"





Bitingly sarcastic.

The Latin mordere, meaning "to bite," gave us this incisive word. Mordant is a close linguistic relative of that "little bite" we call a morsel, and that regretful feeling that "bites again" later on, remorse.

"Her witty, mordant and splendidly vinegary observations were informed by broad and eclectic reading." - George F. Will on the 1999 death of Washington Post editor and fellow columnist Meg Greenfield.


mosh pit

(mahsh pit)

Where moshing occurs.

What's moshing? Mosh, according to Merriam-Webster, means "to engage in uninhibited often frenzied activities (as intentional collision) with others near the stage at a rock concert." Of 1980s vintage, mosh is probably a variant of mash" or mush. Mosh pits became the site of another popular diversion at such concerts: stage-diving, in which a performer would leap from the stage into the mosh pit, and proceed to body-surf above the crowd, passed around by hundreds of hands.

During the 2000 Iowa presidential primary, filmmaker Michael Moore roamed the state with what he called a "portable mosh pit": 100 tightly packed college students in a flatbed truck. Moore promised to endorse the first presidential candidate willing to fling himself in. Amazingly, conservative Republican Alan Keyes took the bait and the plunge, and then told flabbergasted onlookers:

"Admittedly I was willing to fall into the mosh pit . . . Because I think that exemplifies the kind of trust in people that is the heart and soul of the Keyes campaign."



Stinky tobacco.

First appearing in English in the 17th century, mundungus is a joking adaptation from Spanish mondongo, meaning “tripe” – that is, the stomach lining of various animals sometimes cooked and served as (similarly odoriferous) food.

“It wasn’t that she minded hearing the same old jokes over and over again – why, she’d even come to appreciate that tiresome trick with the spoon – but she detested visiting Uncle Ned’s nonetheless, and solely because of the vile mundungus that saturated his whole apartment."


<Return to Archive