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Word of the Week - The Grand Round-Up

Jan 2, 2010
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Is’t possible? And how time flies. It’s been six months since we started featuring Word of the Week in our weekly newsletters, and to mark the occasion, we’ve decided to collate all these multifarious entries into one resource. In this thread you’ll find all the words featured each week, optimistically organised into some sort of order, with an accompanying mini-essay. I hope you’ll find it useful – or at least a bit interesting.

Literary Matters: amphigory, eucatastrophe, laconic, literati, logophile, pastiche, thesaurus
Unusual Senses: bees, jet
Loanwords: andrapodismos, démerdeur, fernweh, iktsuarpok, inshallah, komorebi, máfan, rhionnach maoim
Being Cheeky: callipygian, canoodle, crapulence, natiform
Poké-Words: champion, glitch, tournament
Glorious Nouns: astrobleme, balneary, dandelion, grammaticaster, haar, Hallowe'en, holloway, panjandrum, treason, villain
Awesome Adjectives: aestival, antic, chatoyant, delectation, deosil, dreich, mellisonant, plangent, widdershins
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Literary Matters
Literary Matters
Words to do with writing


amphigory (n.): A nonsense verse; a rigmarole, with apparent meaning, which on further attention proves to be meaningless [Wiktionary]

His inspirational talk was an hour-long amphigory.

Amphigory is one of those words with an uncertain origin. From the French amphigouri, certainly, possibly constructed from the Greek amphí (Around, apart, etc), and gûros (Circle, ring). The essence of the idea is that an amphigory sounds clever and meaningful until you start to think about it, as opposed to gibberish which is obvious nonsense. Compare the idea of the Ice Cream Koan: a saying or riddle that sounds wise but really lacks substance.

A classic amphigory would be Lewis Carrol’s The Jabberwocky, quite possibly a work of deliberate parody. Terry Pratchett also alludes to the idea when he commented on his invented saying: ‘The big sea does not care which way the little fishes swim’. To quote from Pratchett himself, “It sounds wise, in a slightly stupid kind of way.”


What is the opposite of a catastrophe?

eucatastrophe (n.): a sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story: a happy ending. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Why, the eucatastrophe – the moment where apparently certain doom is averted, and a happy ending follows. Eucatastrophe doesn’t necessarily imply a deus ex machina, a contrived and unlikely plot device that essentially digs an author out of his own plot hole. The true eucatastrophe implies hope in the same way that the catastrophe implies despair.

Despite sounding like an ancient Greek coinage, eucatastrophe was actually coined by J.R.R. Tolkien from the Greek (“Well, good”) and catastrophe (The dramatic event that initiates the resolution of the plot). The ending of The Lord of the Rings is a great example of the concept in practice: a happy ending that none of the protagonists could expect to happen. The ending of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is another eucatastrophe, arguably more so for the people of Narnia than for the human protagonists.


laconic (adj.): (of a person, speech, or style of writing) using very few words. [Oxford English Dictionary]

His laconic explanations were usually to the point.

Laconic perhaps implies a certain kind of obtuseness, a refusal to elaborate even when needed. Or perhaps, from another perspective, it implies a grounded nature, getting right to the point with no pretentiousness. We get laconic from the Greek Lacōnikos: from Laconia, Sparta. Spartans were known for their terse speech, which they regarded as a virtue. They were also known for their laconic humour, dry and pithy witticisms that cut right to the point. Winston Churchill allegedly employed this type of humour when told by Lady Astor: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your tea!” to which the irascible bulldog replied: “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!” (It’s an old joke, which Churchill may conceivably have repeated, but certainly did not invent)


literati (n.): well-educated people who are interested in literature. [Oxford English Dictionary]

It was a best selling book that had been scorned by the literati.

Literati has always possessed elitist connotations – the word itself comes from the Latin literatus, “acquainted with letters”, a traditional prerequisite for elite status. Literati are those traditionally vested with the cultural authority to decide what ‘counts’ as literature; to rule on matters of what is good writing; and to decide the cultural canon of best authors. But with the ever-increasing influence of the internet, and the sheer impossibility of gatekeeping opinions, who are the literati? Opinions of professional critics carry less and less currency in this age. Are we all literati? Or is no-one?


logophile (n.) a lover of words [Oxford English Dictionary]

A logophile can never resist using a word like ‘logophile’.

Logophile is one of those ten-dollar words from the Greek, being composed of lógos, ‘word’ or ‘speech’, and phílos, ‘dear’ or ‘beloved’. Stephen Fry is one of the best-known logophiles today – in his own words, “a celebrant at the altar of language”. Using unusual words in fiction is sometimes looked at with suspicion, which I think is a shame. Indeed, you might say that Word of the Week is something of a manifesto for joyfully, freely, unashamedly, mining the world for all the vocabulary it has to offer.


pastiche (n.): 1. an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.
2. an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces imitating various sources. [Oxford English Dictionary]

The story was a playful pastiche of shipping fics.

The idea of a pastiche is a familiar one to fanfiction. Many fanfiction stories are essentially pastiches, especially if they stay close to the tone or plot of the canon, such as game rewrites. Since most Pokémon fanfiction blends ideas from a combination of the games, anime, and manga, most Pokémon fanfiction is also a multimedia pastiche.

In literary terms a pastiche is usually respectful. That’s not to say it can’t also be humorous, crossing the blurry lines into affectionate parody. And certainly Pokémon fandom has a long tradition of poking fun at the franchise and its now well-established tropes (Albeit with varying degrees of respectfulness).


thesaurus (n.): 1. a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts.
2. an erudite or loquacious dinosaur of the theropod suborder.

His thesaurus was battered from constant use.

In a place like this, how could we forget one of our most useful concepts? Our word comes from the Greek thesaurōs, meaning, rather pleasingly, storehouse, or treasury. To a logophile, this is especially apt, but to a writer, being able to browse through synonyms is invaluable. Roget’s Thesaurus (1852) popularised the word’s current meaning – the full title of the first edition read: “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to the Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition”.
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Unusual Senses
Unusual Senses
Words with unusual usages


bees (n.): Money, cash, coins, etc.

Have you got the bees to pay for it?

Whenever there’s an utterly bizarre slang term floating around the English language, there’s a good chance the Cockney dialect is to blame. Bees, and likewise sugar, owe their slang senses to rhyming slang: bees/sugar and honey = money. The Oxford English Dictionary records these usages as late 19th-century, 1892 for bees, a little earlier for sugar.


jet (v.): to go, walk, stroll; figuratively, to die.

“God forbid, wife, ye shall first jet.”
“I will not jet yet.”

The OED records just one use of jet as a synonyms for die, used by John Heywood in 1546. Perhaps Heywood was being playful with words. Perhaps he was hammering in a meaning just to make a rhyme work. Or perhaps his is the only surviving example of an unusual euphemism. We’ll probably never know, but it does show how the language of death has always been full of odd expressions, some of which only seem odd if you’ve never heard of them before. Even an Anglo-Saxon speaker would have had around forty expressions to choose from. He could have said gegan (gone), leoran (departed), gefeallan (fallen), geferan (gone on a journey), or gliddan (glided away).
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Words from another language


andrapodismos (n.): brutal, systematic murder with no pretence otherwise.

The Spartans carried out an andrapodismos on Plataea.

Whatever else the Ancient Greeks were, they weren’t shy about the horrors of ancient warfare. Might makes right, woe unto the vanquished; these were the typical Greek attitudes towards how the defeated side ought to be treated. According to Thucydides’ History of the Peleponnesian War, in 416 BC Athens sent a warning to the island of Melos: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

This warning preceded an andrapodismos – the systematic murder of all the adult men, the women and children sold into slavery. What makes this word stand out is how unashamed it is. There is neither pretence nor euphemism in andrapodismos, a word as brutal and shameless as the act itself.


démerdeur (n.): someone who has a talent for getting themselves out of trouble.

It was no surprise that he didn’t go to jail – the man was a true démerdeur.

Literally “a de-shitter”, or “one who gets themselves out of the shit”. There’s a big sense of the lovable rogue in this word, the kind of rascal that gets themselves into trouble and gets out of it again with just as much verve and panache. You’ve got to hand it to the French people – despite the vulgarity of the origin, “démerdeur” sounds as dashing as the démerdeur himself.


fernweh (n.): wanderlust (desire to travel, a longing for far-off places) [Wiktionary]

It was fernweh that drove him to the airport every evening, to watch the aeroplanes taking off one-by-one.

Literally ‘far-sickness’. If fernweh sounds romantic and little exciting, it shouldn’t. There’s a certain subtlety to the word, like many German words, which gets lost in a simple translation to ‘wanderlust’. Fernweh isn’t the drive to see the world in all its glorious strangeness, which is what wanderlust implies. Fernweh is the desire to be anywhere but here. Fernweh has a bleak, depressive edge to it, an assumption that this life is never going to be any good, so anywhere else will be better by default. It’s less about where one wants to be, than about where one wants to get away from.


iktsuarpok (n.): the feeling of anticipation while waiting for someone to arrive, often leading to intermittently going outside to check for them [Wiktionary]

The growing iktsuarpok in my limbs was driving me crazy.

is a loanword from the Inuit language Inuktitut, spoken in northern Canada. Rather wonderfully, it’s a concept that, once briefly explained, need no further elaboration. Perhaps it can also be applied to other forms of irrational impatience: to quote Tiffany Watt Smith “Might the restless checking of our phones, waiting for an expected response to a text or comment on a status update, be a type of iktsuarpok?”


inshallah: God willing, expressing the speaker’s wish for a given future event to occur, especially in a Muslim country or Islamic context.

To the devout Muslim, nothing happens unless God wishes it to. “I will sign the contract tomorrow, inshallah.” - you may intend to sign the contract tomorrow, but if God does not will it, then there’s nothing that can be done. In this sense, inshallah is not so different to the English expression ‘God willing’. But while ‘God willing’ is usually expressed with hope, ‘inshallah’ has a cynical second meaning. Inshallah can be used in an ironic, or sarcastic sense – as in, ‘the contract will only be signed if a miracle happens’, or ‘only God will make me sign this contract’.


komorebi [木漏れ日] (n.): sunlight filtering through trees. [Wiktionary]

They lounged for hours in the komorebi beneath the weeping willows.

Some words are difficult to translate entirely. The characters that make up this word shed some light: 木 “tree”, 漏れ “leaking/coming through”, and 日 “sun”. Komorebi could mean “sun-dappled shade”, or “sunbeams through leaves”, or perhaps even “chiaroscuro”, but none of these fully capture the connotations of the word. Komorebi is the fragile, intransigent beauty of the sun filtering through leaves, the patterns of the escaping sunbeams and shade.


máfan [麻烦] (adj.): trouble.

Can you walk the dog again today before work?”

Making a last minute vegan dinner is just too máfan.

Máfan is one of those words that demonstrates the concise elegance of Chinese, squashing a swell of resentful feeling down into two syllables. The simple translation of máfan into ‘trouble’ is not in itself a very useful one. To say “Máfan” in response to an annoying situation or a tiresome request, is to say “I can’t be bothered” - but crucially, with the implication that it’s not your fault. Máfan is an unreasonable level of trouble, an indicator that someone else is being altogether selfish. Not just “I can’t be bothered”, but “You shouldn’t expect me to be bothered”.

Máfan can be a complaint, but it can also be a description – this thing is máfan. Add on nĭ [你], ‘you’, and it becomes a polite acknowledgement that you’re about to ask for something máfan.

Rhionnach maoim

rhionnach maoim (n.): The shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.

The morning was full of rhionnach maoim before the rain settled in during the afternoon.

The languages of Britain have lost a lot of their words for the land and nature. Over the centuries dialects have run together like mercury. The modern Briton usually neither wants nor needs much of a vocabulary for nature, and so the old words are slowly being lost. Hebridean Gaelic is itself a dying language, but once the people of Scotland had a wide glossary of ultra-specific nouns for the landscape.

Rhionnach maoim speaks to this lost time, when describing the landscape was not unlike making a verbal map. The apparently flat and featureless moorland on an island such as Lewis could be described with a precision and almost forensic detail that comes from an intimate familiarity with, and interest in, the land.
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Being Cheeky
Being Cheeky
Words with a bit of fun


callipygian (adj): having well-shaped buttocks [Oxford English Dictionary].

“I offer the thought that Mrs. Obama … is as callipygian as Jennifer Lopez.” (Conrad Black, Canada National Post)

Callipygian – a word quietly gaining popularity, and perhaps the cheekiest of our cheeky words (Pun entirely intended). The word is a reference to the statue ‘The Venus Callipyge’, a Roman marble now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. I’ll let you judge the statue’s assets for yourself (The artwork features a prominent bare bum but is otherwise safe for work). Callipygian has a straightforward etymology: the Greek kallos, ‘beauty’, and pūge, ‘buttocks’.

What I love most about this word how egalitarian, how body-positive it is. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so too is a callipygian bum.


canoodle (v.): 1. kiss and cuddle amorously. [Oxford English Dictionary]
2. to cajole or persuade. [Wiktionary]

1. She was canoodling with her boyfriend.
2. He canoodled my husband into believin’ that the end of the world was comin’
(Charles Felton Pidgin)

Canoodle is a mysterious word: a word of several senses, and certainly it seems that no two sources quite agree on what amorous activities are considered canoodling. Some informal dictionaries disagree that it is necessarily amorous at all. The second sense dates to at least 1900, and it seems to be little-known today. According to the OED, canoodle is US coinage, though the etymology is unknown. Whatever the meaning, to canoodle is to be intimate, and isn’t that nice?

crapulence (n.): 1. sickness or indisposition caused by excessive eating or drinking.
2. intemperance; debauchery; excessive indulgence. [Wiktionary]

I was free to wallow in my own crapulence!

No, The Simpsons didn’t invent this one. Crapulence is related to crapulent (adj. relating to the drinking of alcohol or drunkenness, Oxford English Dictionary). Thanks to Mr Burns, the Urban Dictionary gives the definition as “Mean-spirited, mischievous, and/or immoral activity (Or the mindset that leads to it)”. Mr Burns’ usage, in context, could well be considered correct, though usually misinterpreted. But crapulence comes to us from the 17th century lexicon, from the Latin crapula – inebriation.


natiform (adj.): resembling or having the form of buttocks. [Wiktionary]

The natiform island rose coyly from a calm sea.

It’s an obscure word, apparently only ever used in a medical context and never in regard to the actual butt itself (Which is a shame). The OED unsurprisingly marks it as obsolete, but much like callipygian, natiform is ripe for unsophisticated sophistication. So much for the dignity of Latin, natiform coming from natis (Rump or buttock). Which leaves only one, vital, question … which is more literary: natiform or ass-shaped?
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Words with a Pokémon connection


champion (n.): 1. a person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition.
2. a person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.

(v.) [with object]: to vigorously support or defend the cause of:

(adj.): excellent [Oxford English Dictionary]

The winner of the tournament was declared the champion.

He is a champion for pokémon rights.

He constantly champions pokémon rights.

It’s a champion berry pie.

Literally, a champion is a winner. Figuratively, a champion is a supporter. Champion – from the Medieval Latin campio – is probably most familiar to us in the first sense, especially as the winner of a tournament. But a champion could also be someone who fought a duel on someone else’s behalf. During the Middle Ages men would sometimes hire others to represent them in any judicial duels they were called to fight in, and it’s this practice that gives us the figurative meanings – to champion someone or something.

In a very real sense, then, pokémon are a kind of champion. Trainers don’t really fight a battle themselves – their pokémon fight on their behalf. Legal disputes aren’t settled by pokémon battles, at least in the canon(s), but when we look into the etymology of champion, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to speculate that it may have happened.


glitch (n.) 1. a sudden, usually temporary malfunction or fault of equipment.
2. an unexpected setback. [Oxford English Dictionary]

They experienced a few glitches in putting their plan into action.

The etymology of glitch is oddly murky. It’s possible that the word may be derived from the Yiddish glitsh (Or possibly gletshn), a slippery area or skating rink. And certainly, the word does have a Yiddish ring to it. The OED Third Edition refuses to confirm or deny it, hedging its bets, but I hope it’s true.

It seems to have been popularised in the 1960s by the US space program; John Glenn defined it as “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current”. Time Magazine defined it as “a spaceman’s word for irritating disturbances”. Clearly glitch is a useful word to have, because it’s come to refer to any apparently causeless fault or problem.


tournament (n.) 1. (in a sport or game) a series of contests between a number of competitors, competing for an overall prize.
2. (in the Middle Ages) a sporting event in which two knights (or two groups of knights) jousted on horseback with blunted weapons, each trying to knock the other off, the winner receiving a prize. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Knights from all over the kingdom entered the tournament.

The idea of the tournament as a generic term for a competition dates from the mid-18th century, but tournament is at least 800 years old, entering English from the Old French tornoier, ‘to turn’. Originally the verb specifically meant ‘to joust’, but it came to refer to all kinds of martial competitions and games (Which were previously known as hastiludes, or ‘lance games’).

The tournament could and did feature all kind of hastiludes, including jousting, but also fighting mock battles known as the melee. In a way, a pokémon battle could be seen as a kind of martial art, whether you see the pokémon as the combatants or whether they’re weapons used by their trainers. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that pokémon training revolves so strongly around regional tournaments.
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Glorious Nouns
Glorious Nouns
Words with a wonderful name


astrobleme (n.): an eroded remnant of a large crater made by the impact of a meteorite or comet [Oxford English Dictionary]

His pilgrimage led him to the heart of the astrobleme.

Why would you want to use a term like “impact structure”, when you can use astrobleme? It’s not often that geological terminology manages to capture a sense of romance, of poetry, even. Literally meaning “star wound”, from the Greek ástron (star, celestial body), and blêma (wound from a missile), this is also quite a recent coinage, dating from the 1960s. What a wonderful coinage it is – precise, evocative, lyrical.


balneary (n.): 1. a room for bathing [Wiktionary]
2. of or relating to a bath, bathing, or bathroom [Merriam-Webster]

They all enjoyed going to the balneary on a Sunday morning.

She was an avid collector of balneary bric-a-brac: she had over a thousand sponges alone.

So many of our obscure words seem to come from Latin, and many of them don’t add a tremendous amount to the language. An exception can be made for balneary. Balneary is from the Latin balneum, in turn from the Greek balaneîon. Unlike Classical or Islamic civilisation, for example, Britain lacked a distinct culture of bathing and so never developed a specialised lexicon associated with it. Balneary fills a gap in English that sentō does in Japanese.


dandelion (n.): a widely distributed weed of the daisy family, with a rosette of leaves and large bright yellow flowers followed by globular heads of seeds with downy tufts [Oxford English Dictionary].

Dandelions were blooming all over the meadow.

The word dandelion has an unusual animal-based origin. Dandelion comes from the Medieval French dent de lion, or lion’s tooth, a rather imaginative description of the weed’s jagged leaves. Dandelion is the word most of us will be familiar with, but it’s also been known as puff-ball, witch’s gowan, milk witch, and wild endive. Ironically, in modern French dandelions are now known as pissenlit – the French version of an obsolete English name piss-a-bed.


grammaticaster (n.): a piddling grammarian. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable]

His reviews showed him to be little more than a grammaticaster.

The closest modern term would probably be ‘grammar-nazi’. And as synonyms go, it’s not a bad one. But while some people may call themselves grammar-nazis with pride, grammaticaster is inherently perjorative. The word comes from adding the Latin suffix aster (‘Little’, or ‘petty’) to grammatic/grammar. And so grammaticaster is less ‘grammar-nazi’, and more ‘Petty little grammar pedant’.


haar (n.): Coastal fog along the coast of North East England and Scotland bordering the North Sea. [Wiktionary]

A thick haar covered most of the town that morning.

Dialect words have a habit of dying out in the face of a global world, but some cling on against the odds. Haar is alive and well in the North East of England and Scotland, so much so that you can find recent usages in local newspapers. In Landscapes, Robert Macfarlane says that haar is also found in Cornish, which suggests it need not be a noun restricted to any particular area.

John Trotter Brockett (1829) writes it may be a Middle Dutch word, but I can’t help but be reminded of the usual suspects in the North East: the Vikings. Merriam-Webster at least partly agrees, associating it with Old Norse hārr: ‘grey’ or ‘hoary’.


Hallowe’en (n.): the night of 31st October, the eve of All Saints’ Day, often celebrated by children dressing up in frightening masks and costumes. Hallowe’en is thought to be associated with the Celtic festival Samhain, when ghosts and spirits were believed to be abroad.

The Oxford English Dictionary neatly summarises the history of Hallowe’en. Sometime during the Middle Ages in the British Isles, the old seasonal festival of Samhain became tangled up with All Saints’ Day, and the following All Souls’ Day on 2nd November. These Christian holidays were concerned with celebrating, and praying for, the dead – which explains why Hallowe’en is now the spookiest time of year.


Hola weġ - the sunken lane. The holloway is half a tunnel, so often made mysterious and fey when trees on either side lock their branches together, and the way becomes a tunnel half-earth and half-tree.

holloway (n.): A road or track that is significantly lower than the land on either side, not formed by recent engineering, but possibly of much greater age. [Wiktionary]

“So close was the latticework of leaves & branches & so high the eastern side of the holloway that light penetrated its depths only in lances.” (Macfarlane, Donwood, and Richards, Holloway)

Holloways are often ancient folk ways, paths used by ordinary people again and again, year after year, worn into soft rock by the pressure of thousands of feet. The holloway survives in Modern English in the odd places – in the names of streets that no longer have any trace of the way, in surnames whose origin is forgotten. And so in days of metalled roads and tarmac, the holloways are forgotten, hiding in plain sight.


panjandrum (n.): a person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence [Oxford English Dictionary]

Mr Pinn was a panjandrum of the theatre.

Panjandrum sounds like one of those words imported into English from India, but panjandrum was actually coined in 1775 as a nonsense word in The Great Panjandrum Himself, by Samuel Foote:

“And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top.”

This particular piece of gibberish was written by Foote as a test for the Irish actor Charles Macklin, who claimed he could repeat any text after hearing it just once. For some reason this word among the many other nonsense words stuck, especially when describing self-important or pretentious people.

Panjandrum also lent its name to an experimental rocket-propelled cart, designed by the British military for the assault on the Atlantic Wall. Essentially the design was a bomb on wheels, and a dangerously unstable one, at that. It’s possible the project was a deliberate red herring for the run up to the Normandy landings – either way, the Grand Panjandrum simply didn’t work.


treason (n.): the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to overthrow the sovereign or government. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Treason is a very old word, from the Old French traïson, and ultimately from the Latin tradere: to give up or surrender. The idea of treason is pretty much universal, but what it specifically means in law has varied greatly across history and across cultures. Treason has often been regarded as one of the worst crimes. In medieval English law, treason was punishable by hanging, drawing, and quartering (For men), burning at the stake (For women), or beheading (Customarily for royal or noble traitors). The medieval idea of treason was really betrayal against the monarch – the idea of treason against the state was tested in England with the First English Civil War.

In the United Kingdom today the Treason Act 1351 is still in effect, though as of 1973 you can’t be beheaded for it any more. The last person to be executed for treason in the UK was a Nazi propagandist named William Joyce at Wandsworth prison in 1946.


villain (n.): 1. (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.
2. Brit. informal: a criminal: the person or thing responsible for specified problems, harm, or damage. [Oxford English Dictionary]

I have played more good guys than villains.

Some people have been tricked by villains with false identity cards.

Villain, in the modern sense of the word, started life as a classist slur. A villain (From the Norman French villein), was what we would now call a peasant. But in the Middle Ages ‘peasants’ were many classes of people, all with their own status, and villeins were low in the social order. If you were talking to a yeoman and implied he was in the same class as a villein, he’d be just as insulted as a knight would be.

Knighthood developed a culture beyond merely being a warrior in the later Middle Ages. Knights thought of themselves as being literally morally better than those below them. Villeins were literally unchivalrous, as non-knights, but this also came to mean that they were thugs, prone to petty evil and criminality. To call someone a villain in the Middle Ages would have been a real insult (A modern equivalent might be to call someone ‘trailer trash’). But in the last hundred years or so the meaning of the word has softened somewhat. The cartoon villain gives us the modern sense of an antagonist, usually someone melodramatic, faintly incompetent, not to be taken very seriously.
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Awesome Adjectives
Awesome Adjectives
Words that deliciously describe


aestival (adj.): belonging to or appearing in summer. [Oxford English Dictionary]

The aestival sights of bikinis and boardshorts appear earlier every year.

Aestival is just the sort of adjective you don’t realise is all that useful till you hear of it. It appears to have entered the language through the Middle English vocabulary explosion, from the Latin aestivalis. Related words include vernal, hibernal, and the more familiar autumnal.


antic (adj.): grotesque or bizarre [Oxford English Dictionary]

Fetch me my rapier, boy. What dares the slave
Come hither, cover’d with an antic face

is a favourite word of that strange and troubled man, H.P. Lovecraft, though he most often uses it in a more recognisable form, ‘antique’. Antic derives from the Italian antico, ancient, though in a 16th century context it was used to mean ‘grotesque’ for some reason. Lovecraft loved to use obsolete or archaic words, and indeed it appears in Shakespeare more than once. The above quotation is from Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet gives a similar usage:

“As I perchance hereafter shall think meet,
To put an antic disposition on.”

In this case, Hamlet refers to his later (Possibly) feigned madness. Madness to his audience would be something obvious, and frightening, grotesque in a horror-movie sense of the word.


chatoyant (adj.): of iridescent, shimmering lustre, like a cat’s eye in the dark [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable]

The candlelight shone through the half-empty bottles like the chatoyant gleam of a predator.

is borrowed directly from French, chat of course meaning ‘cat’. The luminous, sometimes unnerving glow of a cat’s eye at night is caused by light bouncing off a reflective membrane at the back of the eye, called the tapetum lucidium. It’s a common adaptation in mammals, though one that we humans lack along with most of our primate cousins. In gemology, chatoyancy is an optical effect that causes a reflective, almost luminous sheen – very much like the eye of a cat.


delectation (n.): pleasure and delight [Oxford English Dictionary]

Delectation is usually a word used in a humorous sense, in parody or a deliberately grandiloquent way. It’s a gustatory, sensory word that connotes food, something exquisite to be savoured. And indeed delectation is related to delight – both words come to us through Old French from a usual offender, Latin. The Latin delectate gives us both words. In Old French it became both délectation and delit.


deosil (adv.): clockwise [Wiktionary]

She always walked deosil around the park

Unlike widdershins, deosil doesn’t have its roots in German, but Scottish Gaelic deiseil, which can also mean “southward”, “sunward”, “lucky” or “prepared”. In that way you can see the link with widdershins, or anticlockwise, as an unlucky direction. Supposedly these associations go back to Druidic culture, but deosil is probably best known to Wiccans, who give the spelling deosil instead of deasil.


dreich (adj): (especially of weather) dreary; bleak. [Oxford English Dictionary]

It looked a dreich, cold place as you rode by at night.

is best known among Scots, as a word almost onomatopoeic in its description of dismal weather. The Oxford English Dictionary gives it’s origin in Middle English, from the Old Norse drjúgr - ‘enduring’, or ‘lasting’. And this gives a clue to the subtler connotations of the word. Dreich is not merely bad weather. It’s not particularly violent, or spectacular. It’s the kind of dismal, dreary, bleak weather that looks set to go on. And on. And on …


mellisonant (adj.): sweet-sounding. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable]

Sometimes, they would sit and listen to the mellisonant singing of the blackbirds.

Some words almost sound like the concepts they describe – to my ear, mellisonant is one of those words. The etymology of the word has been tricky to hunt down. It partly comes from the Latin sonare (To sound). I wonder if it is at all related to mellifluous, where mel is Latin for ‘honey’. Whether this speculation is apt or not, mellisonant has a poetry of its own, which is reason enough to give it vocabulary space.


plangent (adj.): 1. (of a loud sound) loud and resonant, with a mournful tone. [Oxford English Dictionary]
2. Beating, dashing, as waves. [Wiktionary]

The church bell tolled plangently over the rooftops.

Plangent has a nice, deep, booming kind of sound to it, like banging on a thick sheet of steel. It is the sort of adjective that you didn’t know you needed in your vocabulary, but, once you know of it, you’ll always want to use it. Curiously, plangent comes from the Latin plangēns – to lament or mourn. More rarely, plangent can also be rhythmic pounding, as in Desire of Vastness (Clark Ashton Smith):

“What central sea with plume-plucked midnight strewn,
Plangent to what enormous plenilune
That lifts in silence, hinderless and stark?”


widdershins (or withershins) (adv.): in a direction contrary to the sun’s course, considered as unlucky; anticlockwise. [Oxford English Dictionary]

She incessantly ran widdershins around the park.

At first, widdershins just sounds like a funny way of saying anticlockwise. But the word appears to float like an iceberg hiding a mass of folk belief underneath. The word derives from the German widersinnes, wider, “against”, and sin,“direction”. Widdershins is to run in the opposite direction to the sun, an unnatural and unlucky direction to some early religions.

Remnants of that belief can be found in stories such as Childe Rowland, in which Roland and his sister are sent to Elfland after running widdershins around a church. Anticlockwise is often associated with the Devil in Christian folklore – an example would be the Devil’s Chair in the Avebury stone circle, said to have the power to summon the Devil if one runs around it anticlockwise 100 times.
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