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                                   Detailed Definitions of Words 
[Note:  Almost all of these words appear on my shorter word list of 3000 words, posted on this site on March 19, 2020. Also, this page is constantly being enlarged. I have scattered the essays among the first seven "pages." The seventh page has several words from the end of the alphabet].
Abacus—I have long entertained three misconceptions about this mechanism.  First, I thought it was clear to everyone, me included, that it originated in China. Yet, our first attestation of it in China is only to the second century BCE, though it is mentioned at least two millennia before that in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  The Chinese called it a 算盘 (suanpan) or “calculating tray.” The second misconception I entertained is that, from the beginning, an abacus was a rectangular, wooden object with beads that slid down wires. But the first appearance of the word in English, in the fourteenth century, described it as a board or tray strewn with sand in which numbers or letters could be traced and erased. So, it is unclear to me whether the entire structure was wooden (most likely) with sand strewn in the bottom to record calculations, which seems most possible, or whether something else is being described. Abacus is derived from the Greek abaks, which the Wikipedia article says means “without base,”though the OED is mum on that one, saying only that an abaks was a counting board sprinkled with sand or dust for drawing geometrical diagrams. My third misconception was that I thought the sole function of the abacus was to teach calculation, but a 1972 quotation talks about how this abacus or sand tray was used to teach children to write. They would use a wooden stick on the sand. So, it seems that the abacus historically had a wider range of meanings than simply a calculating tool. Everything I thought I knew about the abacus was wrong.  

Abaddon—is both a personal name in the Bible and a place of destruction. As a personal name, it is identical to Apollyon, or the Devil, in Revelation 9:11. That passage says, “They (the locusts) have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon." The King James Bible (1611) was the first to spell the name Abaddon; the Tyndale translation of 1526 rendered it Abadon. The word itself is derived from the biblical Hebrew verb abad, meaning“to destroy/perish.”The Greek verb behind Apollyon is apollumi, which also means to “destroy,”and the Latin Vulgate called the name Exterminans or “the Destroyer.”We are in the realm of serious destruction with this word. The Hebrew word abaddon appears five times in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures (and once more as abaddoh). Four of those references are to it as a place, seemingly the same as Sheol (e.g., Job 26:6; Proverbs 15:11) or Death (Job 28:22). One appearance in Job (28:22) is personified—where Abaddon says that wisdom is not in it. Some readers of the Bible, focusing on the fact that there are two different words—Sheol and Abaddon—have hypothesized that the latter is a deeper level of hell. A quotation from 1879 gives: “(wisdom) is not to be found in the world of the living nor in Abaddon, the lowest world of the dead." There really is not anything in the Biblical text that would warrant that conclusion. The word Abaddon has disappeared from serious theological inquiry, though the word has happily now found a home in science fiction and fantasy literature. From The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks), “I cannot play-King. Once sent to Abaddon they are beyond my power!  They are trapped!” With elegance like that, you know that this good word will soon bite the literary dust. 

Abatement—The OED has three separate entries for the verb “to abate.”The third is an obsolete technical meaning (relating to birds flapping their wings), and so we are left with two "abates," apparently derived from two different Middle French verbs.  One, derived most likely from embatre, means “to enter into/drive into". This word had a nice long run in the common law, ending more than a century ago, referring to a specific act of intrusion into an estate not belonging to the intruder. It meant “to take possession of land between the death of the owner and the accession of the heir, thereby keeping the legitimate heir out of possession.” Apparently this happened a lot, and a whole mini-area of law developed to deal with cases of how to get rid of the squatter or what rights the squatter might have if the legitimate heir never showed up to claim the estate. All of this would be fascinating in a course on the history of law, but we need to get to the current meaning of abate/abatement. Its contemporary meaning is derived from the other OED entry on abate

(from the French abater), meaning to cease or stop something.  For example, if we say that “the storm abated,”we mean that it becomes less intense or widespread.  “Nothing abated his crusading zeal.” Thus, an abatement in our day is a reduction or lessening.  It can refer either the process or amount by which something is decreased or deducted. A common occurrence would be, “The township put together a package of incentives worth nearly $1 million, including a five-year tax abatement.”​


Abattoir—derived ultimately from the Middle French abattre, to strike down or kill, an abattoir is a slaughterhouse or place where animals are killed for food.  The earliest English appearances of the term (in 1809 and 1840) were referring not to American or English versions of something French, but to a Parisian or other French abattoir.  Finally, in 1866 we have “abattoirs have recently been erected in London.”Usually the atmosphere around such a place could be described as “foul-smelling”or “putrid,”but a 1912 quotation, perhaps unaware of the irony of its use, speaks of “redolent abattoirs,”because redolent, at least in its original usage, meant “having or diffusing a pleasant smell, aroma, or scent."  Later, however, redolent developed the meaning of “smelling of.”The word abattoir continues to be an important one, what with “abattoir incinerators”and the awareness that abattoir waste is one of the environmental challenges of our day.  As long as people want meat to eat, we will have abattoirs.

Abaya—(also known as an Aba) is an outer garment for covering all but the face, hands and feet of Muslim women, especially in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of North Africa. The requirement goes back to the Prophet himself (Quran 33:59). The problem of how to spell words taken from other language families and coming into English is well-illustrated by this relatively simple word. The first use of it in English, according to the OED, was in 1810 where a western traveler talked about throwing “an old tattered Abbai over his shoulders.”An 1855 quotation calls it an abeih, while an appearance in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1922 spelled it abaiya. Now it is spelled as above. Interestingly, when I was young, the Quran was spelled Koran. One need only do a Google search under this term, then look for images, to see how stylish one can look in an Abaya today. One can get them in black, beige, and chiffon. There are special abayas for college women, called “College Girls Casual”as well as abayas for “plus sizes.”Perhaps as a concession to our times, there is one called an “Abaya Young Hoodie.”A more stylish one even has a buttoned front opening.   I saw them for the first time in profusion when I visited Saudi Arabia in January 1993.

Abecedarian—(accent on antepenult) is an adjective or noun, whose first appearance, around 1500, followed closely on the heels of the corresponding noun abecedary. One can see the meaning in the word itself; it is about the rudiments or, what we would say the a-b-c's of a task.  The problem with the word, at first glance, is that all the definitions of the word in the OED are either rare or obsolete.  Thus, at one time an abecedarian could have been: a) a person engaged in elementary education or who was inexperienced in something;  or b) relating to a characteristic of a person engaged in elementary things (“an abecedarian ignorance;”“to need abecedarian instructions”). Today it is usually used to refer to the rudiments of things (such as “abecedarian instruction”or “abecedarian training or approach”) but can also point to a novice in a task.  It also at one time referred to a sect of the Anabaptists which eschewed the importance of human learning. Finally, a reference to an “abecedarian poem/psalm”means that subsequent verses begin with the next letter of the alphabet. I like it most as the adjective, describing something rudimentary or elementary.

Aberration—deviation from a standard or norm. In order for this word to be effective, then, one needs two things:  (1) a pattern, standard, law or norm which is perceived or received as regular or normal or true and; (2) the action of deviating from that pattern. Such behavior can be termed aberrant behavior, but the act of so deviating is an aberration. The standard in view can often be a religious or ethical one. So, its first appearance in English (in 1588) had a writer, a Protestant no doubt, say, “Popery is an aberration of the Christian Church,”despite the fact that the Protestantism the writer no doubt embraced had been around only for a few decades by that time and the aberration had been around for 1500 years. But, as I have learned in my life, when truth is at stake and a writer feels s/he has it, anything else is an aberration at best and an abomination at worst. When the supposed standard or pattern was an ethical one, then the “other”was often described as someone who lived an aberrant life. The whole concept of sexual deviance, for example, grew up in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries as a way of classifying and distancing the “higher”culture of the writer from the “lower”culture of those who practiced these "aberrations." All of these intellectual moves of nineteenth-twentieth century scholars are now being subject to the most minute scrutiny of twenty-first century scholars. One of these efforts, using the word aberration, is from 2007:  “Native women were seen to epitomize sexual deviancy, aberration, and excess.” Horrors!

Abomination—a detestable thing. The word has a biblical air to it, referring in the first instance to practices of nations around ancient Israel which set up altars to their gods.  These would be abominable acts. The two Hebrew words standing behind such practices, as well as other rejected practices, were toebah and sheqets. Sometimes these abominations were committed in Israel, which tended to deflect allegiance from the True God to other sources of help.  When the word abomination made it into the Greek New Testament, the word was bdelugma, so that the famous “abomination of desolation”of Matthew 24:15 and other places was a bdelugma tes eremoseos. The word bdelugma appeared 6x in the New Testament, three of which are in Revelation, where the word is put in connection with other immoral acts (lying) or unclean things. Surprisingly, there is no cognate in English for bdelugma—I would have expected one. "Abomination" can now be used in the most secular of contexts to describe anything that the speaker/writer does not agree with.  One might have reference to the abominations of slavery or the fact that, to some people, horse racing is an abomination or that the reign of Franco in Spain was an abomination.  Since it takes more to shock us now, and since formerly shocking words have lost some of their shock value, the word has lost almost all of its, at one time, pungent power

Abracadabra—originally a word spoken to act as a charm against illness/evil or to assist in the performance of magic. Those who know the most languages usually have the most fun with this word, positing an origin in the Late Latin abracadabra or, going deeper, in the Aramaic word for demon or, even deeper, in some Biblical Hebrew words suggesting speaking (dabar) or blessing (barak). No one is sure of the etymology, but from the fourth century CE it was associated with magic. It therefore has no real “meaning,”and has on occasion been called “nonsense language”or “gibberish,” though it is gibberish that gives the impression of access to profound knowledge. It first entered into English in 1565 in the “charm against illness” meaning:  “May we not suspect there is. . .some piece of secret operation. . in the word abracadabra, to heal one of the fever?" But early on the word abracadabra was seen to be akin to an amulet worn around the neck to enable healing. From 1582: “[He] saith he healed 200 in one year of an ague by hanging abracadabra about their necks.”By the late eighteenth century the connection between abracadabra and magic was firmly fixed:  “The grimgribber [an obsolete word, meaning “one who speaks legal gibberish”] of Westminster Hall is a more fertile. . .source of imposture than the abracadabra of magicians.”Currently, abracadabra implicates both the world of magicians and those who want to give the impression of possessing arcane knowledge or power. “I was fed up with their mumbo jumbo and abracadabra.”

Abscess—a collection of pus or purulent matter, typically caused by a localized bacterial infection. Trying to understand the history of the word, however, leaves us nonplussed. All agree it is derived from the classical Latin abscessus, which means “departure, withdrawal, separation,”though the medical use of abscess means almost exactly the opposite—focusing on the congestion or gathering of pus under the skin. Thus, even the OED is left scratching its head and suggesting that the Latin noun, in its medical sense, may be formed after the Greek apostema, which is “a gathering of purulent matter.” But no one has convincingly explained how abscessus could remotely be related to apostema. Yet, a 1615 quotation shows that, at least in English, the words were related:  “The purulent matter of the chest is by nature evacuated. . .lastly by apostemation or abscess. Both apostem and apostemation are now considered obsolete by the OED. But abscess survived, and now can even be used figuratively, as the New Yorker used it in 2005, “It is a dente cariato, a rotten tooth—an abscess in Rome’s idea of its own perfection." Abscesses can appear on various body parts, and are often quite worrisome, especially if the medical regimens of draining or antibiotics prove unavailing. 

Absinthe—according to the OED it is a highly alcoholic (up to 72% alcohol) bitter aniseed-flavored drink, traditionally distilled with wine flavored from wormwood and other herbs. Called the “Green Fairy” (La Fée Verte) by its fans, absinthe was first invented by a Huguenot doctor Pierre Ordinaire at the end of the eighteenth century while traveling in Switzerland. It received its nickname at first because of its seemingly curative effects but when another Frenchman, Major Dubied, got hold of it, he saw its potential as an aperitif. Commercial production of the latter began in the early nineteenth century. Its popularity skyrocketed when it was selected as a fever preventative for French troops fighting in Algeria in the mid-1840s. When mixed with water it was thought to cure dysentery and kill germs. By the second half of the nineteenth century its popularity had risen so high that it became the favorite beverage of the working classes as well as the intellectuals.  Many artists and scholars were pictured with their glasses of the “Green Fairy” next to them. But its popularity began to threaten people, especially other alcohol makers who, in order to enhance their market share, began to weigh in on the harmful effects of absinthe, along with temperance crusaders and even some medical doctors. They pointed above all to one of the ingredients in wormwood, thujone, a colorless liquid with a menthol-like aroma. In high doses, thujone is fatal. Word started to get around that consumption of absinthe led not only to addiction and alcoholism but to derangement and even death. Why had Vincent Van Gogh, an absinthe drinker, cut off his ear?  Of course, because he had too much of the Green Fairy! Efforts to ban it were successful around the beginning of WWI.  Today it is legal in most of Europe, when wormwood content is rather small, but it still remains illegal to sell in liquor stores in the US. 

Abstemious—one who abstains, refrains or withholds, especially in matters of food or drink. Or, in the words of the OED, “moderate, not self-indulgent.” This abstemiousness may also relate moderation in various life habits. But I will quibble gently with the OED. Abstemious in my judgment, brings us more into the world of privation or lack than of  moderation. An abstemious life, in my judgment, is more akin to an eremitic rather than a coenobitic life.  Yet the OED seems to be on good grounds when quoting Boswell, the biographer of Johnson and one most renowned for good use of English, when he says: “Johnson, though he could be rigidly abstemious, was not a temperate man either in eating or drinking.”  He seems to be using abstemious and temperate (which emphasizes moderation) synonymously. Carlyle agrees: “Mother and father were assiduous, abstemious, frugal without stinginess”(i.e., they were moderate people). So, the debate is whether abstemious  is more akin to privation or moderation. Ah, perhaps that is a matter of judgment, too. One person's moderation is another person's privation. Other dictionaries emphasize that abstemious occupies the verbal space of “restraint.”I think that is a good compromise word. Restraining, refraining, even depriving oneself of various pleasures, rather than indulging moderately, seems to be at the heart of abstemious

Abutment—derived from the verb abut, whose origin is a bit hazy but, by the sixteenth century had two meanings. Abut, first of all, meant to “stick out/project into”as in a 1752 quotation, “She lay in a little room, that abutted out towards the garden.”  Such a room would reach out or stick out from the house in the direction of the garden. Or, from the twentieth century, “The rim of the chimney abutted out from the perpendicular.”But the other meaning of abut became much more popular, and it stands behind the contemporary meaning of abutment. Abut also means “to border on/end at,”such as a piece of property that abuts its neighboring property at an oak tree. So, Thomas Fuller in his famous 1650 Pisgah-sight of Palestine (famous because John Milton relied on it for his knowledge of Holy Land geography when writing Paradise Lost in the 1650s-1660s) could say, “The land allotted to him (i.e., Ishmael) ranged out so far, that the bounds and borders thereof abutted on all his kindred.” In our day abutment can be used synonymously with boundary. From Foreign Affairs (1933), “Manchuria is no more than the eastern abutment and ocean gateway of the far greater region of Mongolia.” Another current definition is popular—abutment as a lateral support at the base of an arch or span. “The first bridge was of timber with stone abutments.” Abutment has even made its way into dentistry to describe the anchoring tooth/teeth for a bridge. I think I will quiz my dentist the next time I see him. . .

Abysmally—derives from the English abyss, meaning the depths or primeval chaos before creation. The adjectival form is abysmal. Over time it lost its biblical or theological signification and came to mean anything of profound or mysterious depth. So, using abysmal as an example, one could have, from 1976, “his historic descent to the abysmal depths of the Atlantic Ocean. ”Yet, a figurative meaning of abyss, abysmal, abysmally soon emerged, to suggest a shocking deficiency or lack.  The North American Review (1847) could talk about the abysmal ignoranceof someone. Farrar, in his authoritative (at least for the time) 1879 Life & Work of St Paul, talked about “The government of Nero. . .presented a spectacle of awful cruelty and abysmal degradation." But abysmal is usually nowadays associated either with a characteristic of people you do not like (usually they are abysmally ignorant) or a practice of a government or employer you do not like (governments that practice abysmal cruelty or have an abysmal human rights records). Before leaving this word, something should be said about its original theological meaning. The Greek word abussos appears in Genesis 1:2 of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible completed in the third century BCE. It renders the Hebrew tehom, and the sentence reads, “The earth was without form and void (the Hebrew is the euphonious tohu vabohu) and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (tehom). The Latin Vulgate of Jerome rendered the last phrase as tenebrae super faciem abyssi. So, it is unquestionable that the Hebrew and Greek words underlying the English abyss/abysmally describe a primeval chaos before God said, “Let there be light.” The impression given is that this chaos or abussos disappeared with the appearance of light. Yet, if we look more precisely at the use of abussos in the New Testament, we see it appears 9x, and often is described as if it were a continuing or existing place. The demons beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss (Luke 8:31).  But, come to think of it, no one expects the demons to keep their theological categories straight. Yet Paul uses the word (Rom 10:7) to describe something that had a continuing existence. The other seven appearances are in Revelation, where it appears to describe a bottomless pit ready to receive bad people or spirits. Satan eventually gets tossed there (Rev 20:3), and the top is sealed right away so he cannot extricate himself and keep creating havoc on earth. All of this is in the deep background or, should we say, the abyss of our concept.   

Accessory—This word has a most fascinating history. It originated in the fifteenth century in the legal sphere to emphasize someone who had a minor or subordinate role in a crime, either by inciting or aiding the perpetrator (the principal). An example is from an eighteenth century legal dictionary,  “A man that gives aid, counsel or assistance unto any crime. . . is an accessory thereunto.”The word morphed over time to include anything subordinate or auxiliary, so that even in the world of art one might have (1859), “Accessories are those objects in a picture, auxiliary or accessorial to the general effect, but apart from the principal subject or figure.”We can see the language of law brooding in the background. Late in the nineteenth century, however, the burgeoning fashion industry decided they needed a word to describe the countless accoutrements used to make a person’s outfit complete. Surprisingly, the first quotations we have using the word accessory in this way describe men or are quotations from men’s magazines, such as the Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal, hardly the stuff of feminine interest.  Or, from 1896, “The many little golden chains . .. would have seemed vulgar to Mr. Brummell. For is it not to his fine scorn of accessories that we may trace that first aim of dandyism? One wonders how the words “fop, dandy, and clubman”ebbed or flowed with the early appearance of accessory. We wonder, also, when the word was taken over by the women’s fashion industry, pushing the men to the sides as they twiddled their mustaches and fiddled with their cuff links.

Accoutrement—The plural, accoutrements, is used as a general word to describe additional pieces of dress or equipment. Derived from a French word meaning “ornament, decoration or accessories,” it suggests the necessary or characteristic things that define or accompany a particular profession. In a military context, accoutrements are the outfit of a soldier apart from weapons and garments. Religious accoutrements, for example, may include everything from ornamented Eucharistic vestments of Eastern Orthodox clergy to tattoos or body painting of nonliterate tribal societies. Accoutrements of soldiers of the British army of a few centuries ago included canteens, waterbottles, haversacks, belts, pouches, musket and rifle slings. From 2000 we have:  “It was full of . . .easels, multi-colored palattes, brushes—all the alluring accoutrements of an artist’s life.”

Acetaminophen—One of the most popular over-the-counter medications for headaches, muscle aches, arthritis, toothaches, colds or fevers.  I am sure people have taken acetaminophen for many other conditions than these. Popularly known as Tylenol, acetaminophen is officially known as an analgesic and antipyretic drug. The former means that it reduces pain; the latter that it reduces fever. It got its name, only coined in 1957, from aceto or containing an acetyl group, amine, suggesting the presence of an NH2 group, combined with a non-acid radical, and phenyl, the hydrocarbon radical present in phenol and other derivatives of benzene. A 1980 article in Science News tells us that “Aspirin and acetaminophen act by reducing prostaglandin production at the injury site.” Once aspirin became associated with the deadly Reye’s syndrome in the late 1970s, acetaminophen rose in popularity as a safer analgesic. You do not have to know your chemistry to benefit from it, but knowing precisely what to call things that make up a drug is ultimately a liberating experience. Well-known in 2020 are the tendencies of large dosages of acetaminophen to cause intestinal permeability or even necrosis of the liver tissue. Nothing is fully safe. . .

Acreage—number of acres. An acre is perhaps the oldest measurement of land area in English. The OED cites “Old English” usages, with no dates for the texts, which indicates that the term predates the Norman Conquest of 1066. Old Dutch, Old High German, Old French, Old Saxon—you name it-- all had words sounding very similar to the word acre. Its two earliest meanings were either an area of land or as the name of a plot or piece of land.  An example of the latter, still in use in English, is “Long acre,” the name of a plot. When I was growing up in Connecticut, my grandparents bought some land which they called “Woodside Acres” in Stamford CT. Its second use is an actual measure of land. Originally, as the Old English text has it, it was the distance a yoke of oxen could plow in a day. By the time of Edward I (reigned 1272-1307), refined later under Edward III (1327-1377), it was defined statutorily to became 4840 square yards or 4047 square meters. In our day, where everything property-related is expressed in square feet, we could say that an acre is 43, 560 square feet. The most memorable uses of the terms acre/acreage for me, however, are literary and figurative.  Hart Crane in 1926 could talk about “Acres of man-sized leaping porpoises.” Perhaps the most famous sermon in American history (apart from Jonathan Edwards’“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,”) is Russell Conwell’s classic “Acres of Diamonds,” which contains advice and an exhortation to young men on how to get rich under the guise of a sermon preached about finding a “pearl of great price.”

Acquiesce is a verb that means“to agree to something,”especially tacitly.  Here the word origin gives us a picture. It is made up of two Latin words, the preposition ad, meaning towards, and quiescere, meaning “to be/become quiet, take rest, repose in.” Thus, to acquiesce means to “rest in” or "agree to" something that another wants you to do. The OED quickly adds, though, that this agreement or taking rest in something is done “typically with some reluctance.” Three prepositions are regularly used with it:  in, to, with, though the last is somewhat rare. One can acquiesce in a suggestion or request; one can also acquiesce to a suggestion. Interestingly, the first appearance of acquiesce with in and with to appeared two years apart, in 1613 and 1615. An example of the former, from 1672, “You are bound to acquiesce in his judgment, whatsoever may be your private opinion.” Or, “I acquiesce in the propriety of sending him a copy of my productions.” Using the preposition to, from 1801, “To acquiesce cheerfully to this species of self-devotement.” From 1898, “She acquiesced to his desire to be the bearer of glad tidings.” Vanity Fair used acquiesce with “to” in 2003, “Her husband. . .eventually had acquiesced to her desire to remodel the company.”

Acromegaly—Coined in 1886 from two Greek words meaning “of great height,” acromegaly is a disorder caused by over-secretion of growth hormone, most commonly a pituitary tumor, that leads to the development of giant bones and soft tissues, most noticeably in the hands, feet and face. An 1893 definition tried to make a distinction that does not seem to resonate today:  “Gigantism is a form of physiological excess, while acromegaly is a distinct morbid condition.”It is sometimes used synonymously with elephantiasis. One wonders whether this word was invented just at the time when circuses were becoming very popular in Europe and America—i.e., a word developed to help sell circus tickets. More precisely, if one studies the history of the modern circus, one sees that its first 100 years, from about 1770-1870, were characterized largely by three things:  skillful performers on ropes or with objects (e.g., jugglers), equestrian displays, introduction of exotic animals.  But the last category encouraged the showman P T Barnum, in the 1870s, to begin to introduce animal and human “oddities”to the show.  So, just about the time that these oddities were becoming popular, bingo, there appeared a word for the really tall guy—acromegaly. When I was growing up my father told me stories about the tallest man who ever lived—Robert Pershing Wadlow—who visited Madison Square Garden in New York City in the mid 1930s.  Wadlow, just under nine feet tall, died of an infection at age 22 in 1940. He became the “face”of acromegaly.

Acrylic—there is the biochemistry of acrylic, dating back to 1843, and then a series of consumer products now using it. I will spare the heavy details of biochemistry, other than to note its original definition: “When acid sulphate of glycerine is submitted to distillation, sulphurous acid, acroleine, and a new acid which very much resembles acetic acid (acrylic acid) are given off.” The name acrylic was given to this “new acid” because of the sharp (Latin is acris) odor it gave off. Now, about 180 years later, it is of use commercially because of its transparency and toughness. Perhaps the most influential early invention using acrylic acid is plexiglass, manufactured by the Rohm & Hass company in Darmstadt, Germany beginning in the mid-1930s. Since then, one might have acrylic lenses, nails, paint, security barriers, medical devices, LCD screens and even furniture. Because of its clarity, scratch resistance and its heat tolerance, it can also be used for windows or enclosures around exhibits. Many are the studies that show acrylic superiority to Polycarbonate or glass.  With respect to heat tolerance, acrylic is known as a “thermoplastic”which means that it can be heated to the melting point, cooled and then reheated again without significant degradation. This contrasts with “thermoset” plastics.  Acrylic gets my vote as one of the relatively unsung heroes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Acuminate—I just love looking at pictures of different shapes of leaves, with the technical term for the shape written underneath. Easily found online are pictures with the following descriptors: “cordiform, oblong, spatulate, oval, lanceolate, acicular, obovate, emarginate, ovoid, mucronate, asymmetrical and acuminate.” Time would fail us to tease out the differences among all of these, but an acuminate leaf is one that tapers or narrows to a point. Derived from the Latin acuminatus, or “sharp,” the word was first used to describe other things than leaves. For example, from 1646:  “The nightingale hath some disadvantage in the tongue; which is not acuminate and pointed as in the rest. . .” A 1661 translation of Juvenal’s Satires talked about an acuminate tiara for a king; an 1874 quotation talked about acuminate feathers on a bird.  Though it still can be used in zoology, increasingly the word seems to find its home in botany.  One might have, speaking of leaves,“Usually they are serrate, rounded at base, acute or acuminate.” Or, “The leaves are deciduous, arranged alternately, simple ovate with an acuminate tip. . .and a serrated margin.”

Addled—The noun addle goes back to Old English and was used to describe urine, foul water, slime or mire. A bit later, in the thirteenth century, it picked up an association with eggs, and came to mean a rotten or putrid egg. Shakespeare used it this way in Romeo & Juliet III.1.23, “Thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarreling.” When addle picked up the on the end 

around 1600, it retained its association with eggs, to describe a rotten one, but became especially associated with a person’s brain and meant a brain that was “muddled, unsound; having lost the ability to think clearly or rationally.”  In a 1652 screed against the dangers of atheism, an author could write, “Chimeras , hatched in the addled brains of mad men, poets and idolatrous pagans.” In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens could say, “vainly endeavoring to master some task. . .which, to the addled brain of the crushed boy of nineteen, was a sealed and hopeless mystery.” Though addled most often is connected directly with “mind”or “brain,”one also sees sentences such as, “You are talking like an addled romantic.” Unfortunately, however, in a sentence like the previous one, the word addled is usually dropped out in favor of hopeless. Our loss. 

Adductor—the word is almost always used in the phrase "adductor muscle,”and it describes any muscle that pulls a part of the body towards the median plane or midline. Derived from two Latin words meaning to “lead” (duco) and “toward” (ad), it first appeared with its opposite, abductor, in 1615. “As for example, every flexor or bending muscle hath a tensor or extending muscle; every adductor, that is, which moveth toward hath an abductor which moveth froward (i.e., away from). The three best known adductor muscles are in the hip:  the adductor magnus, adductor longus, the adductor brevis.  Adductor strain is a common case of medial leg and groin pain, especially among athletes. Injury happens because of tears of the muscle-tendon unit, due to forceful contraction of the muscles against resistance. The adductor longus is most commonly injured. Treatment of adductor injuries is usually conservative. Initially one uses ice and anti-inflammatory medication but, as symptoms improve, gentle stretching exercises are appropriate. Normally a full recovery is expected.  The body, especially around the hip and groin area, is enormously complex; learning about adductors gets us started.

Adjuvant—though its meaning from the Latin is clear enough (it is something that aids or helps another process), it first grew quite popular in theology before medicine wrested control of the word in the twentieth century. To use a theological paradox, the very process that often promised death (i.e., cancer) provided new life for the word, as adjuvant cancer therapies began to develop in the 1960s and now have become the standard of care in oncology. But first, its origin in theology and philosophy.  We have Aristotle to thank for his sophisticated explanation of causation or how things come to be. There is, first, a principal cause of a phenomenon but then often one or more auxiliary causes. A 1615 quotation brings this out:  “I do not say they are principal causes, but instrumental, adjuvant, secondary, inferior causes. Thus, adjuvant became a useful word to describe a lower or indirect level of causation.  Theologians just love that concept, since most believe that only “traces”of God can be seen or that God most often works through “secondary causes”in a person’life.  So, we have as early as 1590, “God can by his omnipotency turn the adjuvant & medial causes as he turneth the waters in the south.” That is, the wind is often the principal cause of the waters’“turning,” but God is the secondary, unseen, medial, adjuvant cause. This language persisted until the twentieth century. From 1960, “In the external temptation of Eve, the devil himself was the principal efficient cause, whereas the serpent was merely the instrumental or adjuvant cause.”But sometimes the secular world fought back, as can be seen in a 1922 quotation, “Coffee is something more than a beverage. It is one of the world’s greatest adjuvant foods.” As indicated, medicine gradually wrested adjuvant away from theology. Though thee are isolated uses of adjuvant or adjuvant therapy in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the concept of adjuvant therapy got off the ground.  This therapy, first developed in breast cancer research, argued that two things were needed to treat a patient suffering metastatic breast cancer:  first, she needed surgery to remove the cancer; second, she often needed a battery of adjuvant therapies, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, to prevent the recurrence of the cancer. Many were the fights among doctors in the 1960s and 1970s before a consensus was reached that both interventions were to be recommended in many cancer cases. Breast cancer blazed the trail; in the decades since then, an adjuvant therapy such as chemotherapy or radiation is often prescribed for colon, lung, pancreatic or prostate cancer. No one, by the way, uses adjuvant in theology anymore. . . 

Adventitious—something added from outside, incidental, foreign, dependent on external circumstances. Increasingly,adventitious suggests something happening by chance. It is derived from the simple Latin words ad (to/toward) and venire (to come). Antonyms would be planned or scheduled or indigenous. An early English appearance (1627) made the meaning clear:  “This decay in the creatures ariseth. . .from an adventitious and external cause.” Then, on a grimmer note, from 1756:  “Our Thames. . .is tainted with an infinite variety of adventitious bodies from the street. ”It can appear in the phrases "adventitious arrival" or "adventitious event." A more modern sentence, emphasizing the chancy nature of adventitious, is “It is by no means adventitious that this statement combines an ethical proposition with an economic prescription.”The word still appears frequently in the sciences, especially biology, to describe something not inherent in the object being described. “Although both mutants were isolated, each is morphologically distinct, suggesting adventitious genetic alterations.” Such an alteration, then, would not be considered as a normal growth pattern of something. My favorite appearance is in Tropic of Capricorn (Henry Miller, 1939):  “My adventures were always adventitious, always thrust on me, always endured rather than undertaken.”A specialized use of adventitious in law emphasizes a gift or inheritance that is not from an ancestor/parent. It is contrasted with profectitious, so that one might have, “A dowry is either profectitious ,that is, given by the woman’s father, or adventitious, given by some other person.”I am sure that less than .01% of lawyers know this distinction. 

Advowson—a term originally derived from the Latin “advocatus” or someone who “advocates” for another, but specifically meant to apply to the right of a patron, sponsor or lord of a manor to present a clergyman to a bishop for appointment to a vacant ecclesiastical position within his manor. Its origins are lost in the mists of early Byzantine Christianity.  This right of presentation is a property right and thus can be transferable by gift or inheritance or even sale.  Normally the right of advowson belonged to the lord of the local manor, where the church was located, who had previously incurred considerable expense in building and maintaining the church.  The bishop had the right to confirm the appointment.  Could a bishop refuse to consecrate one appointed to the parish church in the manor?  Probably, but why piss off your lords?  So we see that the issue of “big donors” perhaps controlling the so-called “independence of the clergy” had a long history, and the patron here no doubt used the parish church as the means for making sure that his manorial tenants, as well as the appointed clergyman, were faithful to him, as well as to God.  

Adze—is a tool similar to an axe, with a blade at right angles to the shaft and curving in towards it. Once you define the word, however, you realize you have entered into the wonderful world of adzes, which are defined by things like blade width, sweep or curvature, shape and handle length. Amusing confusion enters immediately when we meet the “foot adze,”which are designed to be used with two hands.  It seems it should rather be called the “two hand-adze”or something like that but, then again, you are supposed to swing them between your feet, being very careful of course not to strike anything of oneself in the process. Then, like ants, there are “carpenter’s adzes.” We have and “railroad adzes”and “gutter adzes”and many more. 

Aerate—Since the term, ultimately derived from the classical Latin aer, was invented in 1784 it has a pointed to a process that involves either the introduction of air or carbon dioxide into something by natural, mechanical or chemical means. So, if someone wanted to aerate their lawn, they might punch holes in the grass to allow water, air or other nutrients to penetrate the soil. We are told that the best time for aeration is the growing season, because the grass can more easily heal and fill in the holes after the time for aeration has concluded. One might aerate milk to remove odors; a pastry chef aerates cream by whipping it; aerating water or juice means that you carbonate it, leaving it in a fizzy state. It seemed that my mother was always trying to aerate my sneakers and basketball uniform after I had played nonstop for several hours; one also might want to aerate a room or building. In the twentieth century the word was introduced into baking, and now points to the process of lightening the texture of dough or bread by introducing carbon dioxide or other gases. 

Aerie—An aerie is not something that is either eerie or even necessarily airy, even though it is pronounced identically to the latter word. It comes from the Latin word that means the “nest of a bird of prey,” and it carried that meaning over into English when it entered in the sixteenth century. Traditionally it was spelled eyrie, as can be seen in Milton (Paradise Lost 7.424):  “The eagle and the stork on cliffs and cedar tops their eyries build.” The word is beloved of poets, with John Keats, in Endymion, writing,“Wherever beauty dwells, in gulf or aerie, mountains or deep dells.” I suppose, however, that Jesus would have befuddled his hearers if he had said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have their aeries.” By 1800 a figurative meaning had arisen, to describe a “human residence or retreat occupying an elevated position.” One has, “Above us, on (a) projection of rock, is an eyrie of a Tyrolese peasant.” I will never forget it because it is the word used by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to describe their local chapters. I know this because when I was a litigation attorney, our firm was arguing on behalf of a woman who wanted admittance into an aerie, historically a male-only club. On appeal, the court sided with our client, holding that the Oregon Public Accommodations Act forbade discrimination in membership policies on the basis of sex. The case was rather dull, as I recall, but I got a new word, aerie, from it!

Aerodynamics—The word was coined in 1835 to mean “the branch of science that deals with the properties of the air and other gases in motion” as well as the “interaction between a gas and objects moving through it.” But what really was the need for it, when you had aerology, which first appeared in 1735 and defined as:  “which treats of the Nature of the Atmosphere, or Region of Air, and all the Phœnomena thereto belonging.” Well, once aerodynamics entered the scene, aerology began to fade, like John the Baptist after Jesus’arrival. It actually morphed into meteorology, and has never had a decent burial.  But aerodynamics has soared in popularity. It is important in sports such as cycling, where “breakthroughs in aerodynamics will allow every fitness-minded cyclist to cut through the wind like a pencil point.”One has sail aerodynamics or aerodynamics of a paper airplane or kites or bumblebees. There have even been some studies on the aerodynamic efficiency of cows. Whenever one is interested in the laws of the air, or how objects pass through the air, the word aerodynamics is implicated. Naturally, the preachers have gotten into the act; one of them describes faith as a sort of “soaring”into the heavenly realms, and so he purports to describe the aerodynamics of faith.  Well, I suppose the language belongs to all comers.

Affectation—We do well to differentiate affectation and affection. The latter is a standard word for sincere and warm regard towards another person, while affectation, since its coinage in the sixteenth century, emphasized the artificial, studied, or ostentatious fondness for something. To have affection for something or someone is considered a good thing; to have an affectation, however, is to suggest an artificiality of manner or of putting on airs.  Traditionally the word affectation was followed by the preposition of, so that that the "seventeenth century affectation of Latin" meant a kind of studied or ostentatious display of it in conversation or writing. Well, one might just say suum cuique, but that would be a demonstration of such an affectation. A recent example of it so used is in Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), “He was dressed in the affectation of wealth.” Affectation has also been able to stand on its own feet. In language that betrays its author, Gibbon could write,  “His simplicity was not exempt from affectation” (i.e., an artificiality of manner).  Affectation, preceded by no, can be used powerfully today.  “There was no affectation or insincerity in her declaration.”Or, “His egotism is delightful; there is no affectation in it.”

Affenpinscher—the Germans have given us many breeds of dogs, including the Dobermann, the Rottweiler, the Dachsund, the Weimaraner, the Schnauzer and, of course, the Affenpinscher. Affenpinscher derives from the German words affe, which means "ape or "monkey" and pinscher, whose meaning is disputed. In any case, it is known as the “monkey-like terrier,”and is so named because his face might be mistaken for a monkey. The breed was developed not to be a police dog, as were Dobermann’s and Rottweiler’s, but to rid the kitchen of rodents and other pesky little critters. Though it is described by owners as “loyal, curious and famously amusing”and “fearless out of all proportion to its size”(about seven to ten pounds), it is only ranked 148thout of 195 breeds of dog in popularity by the American Kennel Club. The word affenpinscher first made it into English in 1906, a decade before Dobermann. Its OED description is “a breed of well-muscled, smooth-coated terrier in which the tail is customarily docked" OR a "breed of miniature terrier resembling the Dobermann but having a distinctive gait.” If we look at its function, as a small house dog, and its size, there is no mistaking it for the Dobermann.


Affluent—the word has been hijacked in our day in America by economics and by the almost universal quest for greater wealth. It is almost exclusively used today as a synonym of "wealthy" or “rich.” The greatest desire of many people is to be affluent or rich. Yet, the word is far richer than that. It is derived from the picture-creating Latin word affluens, a present participle meaning “abounding in, overflowing with, excessively full of, abundant, plentiful, rich, sumptuous, luxurious, prosperous, favorable.” It is a word emphasizing the process of something good “flowing” (fluo) “towards” (ad) you. For at least two hundred years, its only meaning in English was “abundant”or “plentiful” and was usually used, as might be expected, in theological contexts. A writer could speak in 1425 about the affluent grace of God. Secularly, a preface to a 1542 book entreats the reader:“trusting to your affluent goodness to take no displeasure with any contents of this book.” Likewise, a banquet could be affluent, as could an argument. Even in the eighteenth century, a translation of Homer’s Odyssey (XIX. 135) could talk about “affluent joys.” I wish this use would be recaptured in our day.  Instead, the word’s meaning, and our imagination, have constricted, and the word is almost exclusively used as “characterized by an abundance of money or possessions.” Affluent first appeared in this definition, according to the OED, in 1652, “I am fallen from an affluent estate, to deep indigence.” By the twentieth century it was far more common to see sentences like one in Time magazine from 1977:  “An almost stereotypically proper and affluent Northeastern suburb.”The phrase “affluent suburb”gets more than 240,000 results in a Google search.  This almost doubles the appearances of “affluent town”; “affluent parent” gets a “mere”80,000 results. Ah, an “affluent neighborhood” garners 300,000, but taking the prize is “affluent area”at 500,000 results. “Affluent grace”gets 478.  

Aficionado—As is evident from looking at the word, it is a borrowing from Spanish (first used in English in 1802), and in that language it has a long and distinguished history reaching back to the fifteenth century. The word literally means a “supporter, partisan, enthusiast, fan” but by the seventeenth century it became associated with an amateur practitioner of bullfighting.  That is how the word made it into English, in a work translated from Spanish in 1802. By 1811 Sporting Magazine could talk about a young man, “a well-known aficionado, or amateur of bull-killing.” That use of the term still persists today, but its little bark has nearly been capsized by the grand ship of aficionado as “fan”or “ardent devotee”of something.  One can also use it as the second word of a couplet, to produce phrases like an “Elvis aficionado”or a “boxing aficionado.” When used by itself, one often speaks of an aficionado of something, such as  in the 1959 statement, “I had a son who was an aficionado of railways”or in the contemporary “aficionado of fine wines.”What is left uncertain, however, is if this status of aficionado is granted a person based on knowledge or solely on interest? If the former, then aficionado is synonymous with connoisseur. But because we live in a culture (America 2020) which increasingly wants both expertise and quick information, without much critical assessment, to make decisive judgments, one might see the word aficionado as moving primarily toward the interest direction. I, for one, favor the knowledge-based definition.  

Agammaglobulinemia—Really requires too many words to describe fully here. The word globule was coined in 1831 in biochemistry to describe the substance that imparts a red color to blood.  Early in the twentieth century the definition expanded to mean a “protein belonging to a large and heterogeneous class characterized by solubility in neutral salt solutions but not in water.” This class was further divided, in the 1930s, into “alpha, beta, gamma globulins”on the basis of electrophoretic mobility. Electrophoresis is “the movement of charged particles in a fluid or gel under the influence of an electric field,” with gamma globulins moving slowest.  Isolation of these globulins was important, for by 1960 we have:  “gamma globulin has been considered to play a part in enhancing the effect of antibiotic therapy.” And by 2008 we have “Intravenous gamma globulin. . .is used in several different immunologically mediated disorders.” But when you prefix a word with an “a,” called in Greek the“alpha privative,”it reverses the meaning of the word that follows. Someone with agammaglobulinemia  is suffering from a condition that affects the immune system, occurring almost exclusively in males, because of the complete absence of this protein. First mentioned as a condition in 1952, it now is treated (but not cured) with immunoglobulin replacement therapy. 

Agapanthus—the African blue lily, a herbaceous perennial that has narrow, strap-like leaves and large umbels of blue, violet or white lily-like flowers. I like the word because of its origin from two Greek words, agape or“love”and anthus, “flower.”As a web site for flower lovers has it,  “These gorgeous blue flowers are world renowned and globally cultivated, prized as both a garden plant and cut flower.” I spent2007 and 2008 mastering the names of hundreds of plants and trees; agapanthus was, of course, one of them. Though we may enjoy its beauty, agapanthus has tended to confound taxonomists. First described by L’Heritier in 1788, agapanthus was initially placed in the Liliaceae family, but then moved to the Amaryllidaceae. Then, it moved to the Alliaceae alongside the genus Tulbaghia, but later moved back to the Amaryllidaceae, before finally being placed in its own family. Some flowers, like some people, just cannot seem to live with anyone. And that, despite it striking and alluring beauty. 

Ageism—prejudice or discrimination based on a someone’s age. If the nineteenth century was the century of invention of phobias, the twentieth was the century to coin "isms." Perhaps this was because the world was struggling to catch up to the fact that all kinds of different ideologies not only existed but were threatening to take over our world, especially in the twentieth century. Granted, one had socialism and communism from the nineteenth century but the twentieth century saw Nazism, sexism (in the modern meaning) and ageism. The word ageism was coined in 1969 in a Washington Post article that described a Chevy Chase (Md) man saying that he thought his neighbors suffered from age-ism. That same year the word entered the gerontological community when a leading publication talked about “a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook:  age discrimination or age-ism.” Already by 1977 Dr Alex Comfort was proclaiming that “ageism has had its day,”but anyone in the workforce in 2020 knows that it is alive and well-- despite passage of the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act. That act made it illegal to harass or discriminate against a person over 40 in the hiring process or work setting.  Right.  As a 2018 article said, “Ageism is rearing its ugly head in interviews and recruiting conversations amongst 40 and 50-year-olds.”Looks like it is here to stay.

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