An assortment; a mishmash or potpourri.

In its original sense, salmagundi means "a salad of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions arranged on lettuce and served with vinegar and oil." This word's origin is obscure, though some suspect it derives from an Old French word meaning "salted food."

As happened with the names over several other foods, salmagundi has also acquired the more general meaning of "a mixture, assortment." A fine example of this sense occurred in 1797, when one writer wryly observed:

"His mind was a sort of salmagundi."




Scornfully derisive; characterized by bitter mocking.

The ancients believed that a certain plant native to the Mediterranean isle of Sardinia would cause terrible effects if eaten. Anyone unlucky enough to nibble a leaf of this deadly herb would suffer facial convulsions that resembled horrible laughter, then promptly expire. The Greeks called those death throes Sardonios gelos or "Sardinian laughter." This grisly image remains faintly visible in our word sardonic.

"The new buzz cut had its charms, of course, and the nose ring--well, she figured she could used to it--but it was Terry's sardonic wit, more than anything else, that Vanessa found so alluring."




Sparkling, shining, dazzling.

This word comes from Latin scintilla, or "spark" -- the same "spark" or "tiny particle" found in the English phrase, not one scintilla. Latin scintilla also gave us another shiny English word, tinsel.

"When their conversation proved less than scintillating, Vanessa tried to impress her date by performing that little trick with the spoons."




In nautical language, a scuttle is a hole cut out of ship in order to sink it. (That's why we speak of a project being scuttled, as in "They had to scuttle today's shuttle launch")

Sailing ships once kept their drinking water in a butt, or "cask" on deck. In order to keep the water fresh, a small hole was cut out of it. For this reason, the cask called the scuttlebutt. Naturally, sailors would gather at the scuttlebutt not only to get a drink, but to gossip, much the way we do around the water cooler or coffee machine today. Eventually the name of the place where rumors were exchanged came to be applied to the rumors themselves.

"The scuttlebutt is that there's a photo of the candidate dancing nude on top of a bar, but no one's been able to find it."



A light, thin fabric with a striped, crinkled surface.

One of the most delicious words in all of English, seersucker comes ultimately from Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, "milk and sugar" -- a picturesque reference to the way its smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that resemble thin lines of sugar.

“We weren't quite sure what to make of the fact that Marvin showed up at that black-tie dinner in a seersucker suit .”




The faculty of accidentally making happy, unexpected discoveries.

Serendipity is a made-up word, and we have English author and historian Horace Walpole to thank for it. In 1754, Walpole wrote a letter claiming he'd coined this word, basing it on a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip." The reason, he said, was that the tale's heroes 'were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'"

Serendip, by the way, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.

"Why," Vanessa ventured, smoothing her little black dress and trying to sound surprised, "running into each other here like this is enough to make you believe in serendipity, isn't it?"




1. Characteristic of a long word.

2. Given to using long words.

Sesquipedalian comes from the Latin root sesqui-, which means "one and a half" (as in sesquicentennial, which refers to a period of "150 years"). The pedal in sesquipedalian comes from the Latin stem ped- meaning "foot" (as in pedal and pedestrian).

"As my sesquipedalian friend is fond of observing, 'The word sesquipedalian is rather sesquipedalian.'"




A mess.

Although today a shambles can be anything from a messy room or a disintegrating political career, this word originally had a more grisly meaning. It derives from Middle English shamel, which first referred to "a portable stall in a marketplace for the butchering and sale of meat." For some 300 years after that, the word shambles specifically meant "slaughterhouse."

"'I'd invite you in, but um.. well, you see, I've been out of town, and the people who were housesitting for me turned this place into a complete shambles, ' she fibbed."




1. A custom, practice, or pronunciation that betrays someone as an outsider.
2. A catchword or slogan.
3. A truism repeated so often and mindlessly as to become nearly meaningless.

The Hebrew word shibboleth means either "an ear of corn" or a "torrent of water." But the word itself once served as a life-and-death verbal test.

According to Judges 12:6, whenever the Gileadites suspected that an enemy Ephramite was in their midst, they demanded that he pronounce the wordshibboleth. Ephraimites typically pronounced it "sibboleth," so anyone who said it without the "sh" sound was instantly identified and slain on the spot.

Shibboleth was initially used in English to mean a "telltale linguistic giveaway." This meaning later expanded to include the sense of "a catchword adopted by a particular group," and eventually, "a platitude or tired truism."

"But there are still some within our country who wrongly believe they can make a contribution to the cause of justice and peace by clinging to the shibboleths that have been proved to spell nothing but disaster." -- Nelson Mandela, in his speech accepting the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.




A small amount; a bit, a tad.

Skosh comes from the Japanese word sukoshi, which means "a little bit."

This word was apparently picked up in the 1950s by U.S. soldiers on overseas tours of duty. Today, skosh is sometimes used as an adjective meaning "little" or "few," as in "We had skosh time". It also appears in the the phrase skosh on, as in "I'm skosh on cash at the moment."

"Could I have just a skosh of cream in that, please?"




1. The act of sneezing.
2. A sneeze.

This comes from Latin sternutatio, which means "a sneezing."

"According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest known bout of sternutation occurred when Donna Griffiths, an English schoolgirl, began sneezing on January 13, 1981 -- and, poor thing, didn't stop until 978 days later."


snollygoster (also spelled snallygaster)


An unscrupulous but shrewd person, especially a politician.

In parts of rural America, parents sometimes kept unruly kids in line with warnings about the evil snallygaster, a nocturnal monster that preyed on chickens and naughty children. Part bird, part reptile, it struck with terrifying swiftness--hence the name snallygaster, from Pennsylvania Dutch words meaning "quick spirit," which eventually morphed into snollygoster.

"What a relief that the old snollygoster can't run for another term!"




A game in which two teams of 11 players try to propel a ball into the opponents' goal without using their hands.

Various forms of soccer have been played for centuries, but the sport became official in 1863 when the London Football Association issued a formal set of rules for the game. It was therefore called association football, and later simply, assoc. Around the same time students at Oxford University were in the habit of playfully ending various words with "-er" or "-ers" ( brekkers for "breakfast," and rugger for "rugby"). So assoc soon became soccer.

"Hey, if my bod looked like that, I'd whip off my soccer jersey, too."


sockdolager (Also spelled sockdologer)


1. A decisive blow 2. Something exceptional in any respect.

Sockdolager can apply to several different things: a knock-out blow in a fight, a hard-hitting remark that wins an argument, or anything especially big or otherwise outstanding . No one's sure how the word sockdolager came to be, although it may be connected with the verb "to sock." It could be that it's one of several long, silly words coined or popularized in mid-nineteenth century, when Americans seemed to delight in funny-sounding mouthfuls like "hornswoggle" and "callithumpian."

A bit of historical trivia:

A form of the word sockdolager figured in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As an actor, John Wilkes Booth knew that the biggest laugh line in the play "Our American Cousin" would be, "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap!" So Booth waited until that line, and then as the audience roared, he fired his gun and fled.

"The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away . . . then 'rip' comes another flash and another sockdologer." -- Mark Twain




To make a soft murmuring or rustling sound.

There are a couple of options for pronouncing this word. In either case, it refers to the type of gentle, soothing sound made by wind or water. As a verb, sough means to make such a sound.

"That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote."--Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre





To flood online mailboxes with unsolicited messages.

Offline, of course, Spam refers to tins of compressed meat. A few years ago, hackers began using spam as verb meaning "to crash a computer program by entering too much data" or to "flood newsgroups with irrelevant postings."

Apparently this use was inspired by the menu-reciting waiter in the immortal "Monty Python" sketch: "Well, there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg, bacon and Spam; egg, bacon, sausage, and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, egg, Spam Spam, bacon, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, egg, and Spam; Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy, and a fried egg on top of Spam."

Which pretty much sums up the feeling of being spammed electronically, don't you think?

"Gartner Group, a consultancy in Stamford, Conn., last year conducted a survey that showed that 84 percent of Internet users have received spam. Sixty-three percent of the recipients say they "dislike it a lot" 20 percent "dislike it somewhat" 14 percent are neutral, and only three percent like it, or say they have some use for it."
-- Infoworld, 1/24/2000




To cause a toad or frog to go flying into the air.

Now here's something you may need a word for sometime. The "spang" in this word apparently derives from a Scottish word meaning "to spring, leap, or throw." The "hew" is of uncertain origin. More generally, "spanghew" can also mean "to throw or jerk violently."

"Their furtive little lunchtime tete-a-tete was proceeding quite nicely - that is, until the moment when Marvin recognized his wife's voice across the restaurant and flew out of his chair as if he'd been spanghewed."




To move the body or limbs in a sprawling or struggling manner.

That's the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, anyway, which explains that spartle is a Scots dialect term, and a relative of Dutch and German words that describe the same kind of movement.

"Well, honey, it'd be a heck of a lot easier to diaper little Jimmy if he wouldn't spartle so much!"





You don't see this word very often in the sports pages. Sphairistic comes from the Greek sphairistikos which means for "playing ball." (It's a distant relative of sphere.)

In the early 1870s a retired British cavalryman, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, invented a game somewhat similar to badminton. In keeping with the nineteenth-century British love of classical civilization, he proudly dubbed this new game spharistike (pronounced "sfair-RIST-ik-ee") The Times of London explained in 1927: "The name 'sphairistike,' however, was impossible (if only because people would pronounce it as a word of three syllables to rhyme with 'pike'), and it was soon rechristened." It then became lawn tennis, which eventually shortened into tennis.

"Brian's sphairistic prowess is something to behold."




Otter droppings.

Well, who knows? Maybe someday you'll be doing a crossword puzzle and need an 8-letter word for what an otter leaves behind. (By the way, don't confuse spraints with fumets, which are left behind by deer, or crottels, which are left behind by bunnies.)

"No, no, no, I keep telling you -- those aren't spraints, they're fumets!"




Having an extremely loud voice.

During the Greeks' siege of Troy, one herald stood out among all the others. His name was Stentor, and he's described in the Iliad as having "a voice of bronze" and a shout "as loud as the cry of fifty men." Stentor supposedly died during a vocal contest with Hermes, who served as herald for the Gods, but his name lives on in this English adjective.

"Then, on top of all that, we had to endure a rambling speech by a stentorian valedictorian."

Stockholm syndrome

(STOCK-hohm SIN-drohm)

A process in which hostages bond with their captors.

In 1973, four bank employees in Stockholm, Sweden were taken hostage and held for 131 hours, during which they not only grew sympathetic to their two captors, but actually came to fear the police.Afterward, they praised the captors for having "given their lives back," and visited them in prison. A female hostage even went on to marry one of the hostage-takers.

Psychologists say this phenomenon, later dubbed the Stockholm syndrome, is a defense mechanism for coping with extreme fear and complete helplessness.A more recent example apparently occurred during the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet, when some passengers became friendly with one terrorist, sharing jokes, singing songs, and even exchanging gifts with him.

Nowadays, this expression is sometimes used more abstractly, as when Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg mused on what to report about the Iowa presidential primary:

"I could describe the 'Stockholm syndrome' on the Gore and Bradley press buses, and the scene in the Marriott bar last night."




To thwart, stump, present an obstacle.

This word found its way into English through the game of golf. Traditionally, a stymie occurred on the putting green when one player's ball stood between an opponent's ball and the hole. Like golf itself, stymie comes from Scotland, although this word's very earliest origins are obscure.

"Yes, I can see how misplacing your car keys would stymie your efforts to get here on time, but would you mind telling me how in the world you managed to leave themin the refrigerator in the first place?"




Devoted to sensuality, pleasure, and luxurious living.

In the 8th century B.C., some Greeks set out to form a colony called Sybaris, located on the shores of southern Italy. The Sybarites grew so prosperous that their name soon became synonymous with a devotion to luxury and pursuit of pleasure. It didn't last long, though. Sybaris later proved an easy mark for invaders, who razed the city and diverted a river to cover the ruins.

"And so the two sybaritic septuagenarians stripped down to their Strumpfhosen and sank into the sumptuous (but waterless) tub - well, the young puppy of a clerk didn't know whether to avert his gaze or climb in with them, just to clinch the sale." - Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Disheveled Dictionary.




Pertaining to trees and forests; wooded.

In Roman myth, Silvanus was a god of trees, fields, and forests. His name inspired the word sylvan.

The source of the name Silvanus (and thus the word sylvan ) is Latin silva, which means "forest." Incidentally, sylvan is an etymological relative of such woodsy names as Sylvester and Sylvia, as well as Pennsylvania ("Penn's woods") named for the father of William Penn, the colony's founder.

"Faint was the air with the odorous breath of magnolia blossoms,
And with the heat of noon; and numberless sylvan islands,
Fragrant and thickly embowered with blossoming hedges of roses,
Near to whose shores they glided along, invited to slumber.
Soon by the fairest of these their weary oars were suspended."--
"Evangeline,"by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow




An instrument used to inject or draw out fluids.

This word has musical origins. Syringe comes from the Greek surinx, meaning "shepherd's pipe" (the kind you blow, not the kind you smoke) or "flute". This Greek root also produced the word for the tube-shaped organ that enables birds to sing: the English word syrinx, which of course also makes a darn good word if you're playing Scrabble.

"Just where are you going with that syringe?"


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