Ted’s Wild Words

Posted September 25th, 2008 at 1:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Below are words and terms that I have highlighted and explained in Ted Landphair’s America postings.

Additionally, if unusual English words or phrases interest you, you’ll enjoy the weekly VOA feature “Wordmaster.” You can read and listen as Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble explore American English. And for news and feature programs written especially for English learners, check out VOA’s Special English site.

As for Ted’s Wild Words:

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


A-body. This is sort of backwoods-Pennsylvania shorthand for “anybody.” My mother would often mutter how hard it was for a-body to do this or that in the big city of Cleveland.

Above the Fray. One who stays above the fray remains cool and collected in the midst of turmoil. A “fray” is a fight that goes on and on. Some sources date the term to feudal times, when nobles, high in their castles, remained serenely unaffected by the squabbles of their vassals outside the gates below. When I hear the phrase, I think of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, watching the fierce fighting from atop a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hill in the U.S. Civil War. Lee is said to have remarked to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, [lest] we should grow too fond of it.”

Abscond. To run away quickly, usually with someone or something. Escaping prisoners are absconding, but they are really absconding if they take, say, the jailer’s keys with them.

Accouterments. From the French, as you might have guessed, this word describes the trappings or accessories that go with uniforms or dress.

Ad nauseam. To a sickening degree. There’s a direct relationship between something that goes on and on, ad nauseam, and nausea.

A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.

Alacrity. Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.

Alkali. A harsh mixture of soluble salts, often found in arid regions, that makes land unsuitable for agriculture.

Animus. Hatred bordering on active hostility. Wishing ill will on another.

Antebellum. Before a war, particularly the period before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.

Apogee. Informally, the word is used to mean the high point of something. Technically, it’s the point at which a moon or artificial satellite is at the most distant point in its orbit from the earth’s center.

Approbation. Warm congratulations and approval, especially from an official source such as your boss. Praise is nice. Approbation can mean a raise!

Audacity. Daring, of the kind where you find yourself saying, “Of all the nerve!”

Avatar. Lots of young people know this word well. Online, it stands for a computer representation of oneself – an alter ego that looks and acts much like a human. The word traces to Hindu mythology, in which a god comes to earth in human form.


Back 40. Undeveloped land next to a cultivated spread. The “40” refers to acres, though the actual size is often smaller or larger. Why 40 acres – about 16 hectares? The use of that figure may trace to the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed African-American slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Very few former slaves ever got such land or mules.

BB gun. An air gun, or one that fires small, round, metal projectiles called BBs using a spring. It’s sometimes said that “BB” was taken from industrial “ball bearing” pellets, but it actually originated from the size of lead shot used in some shotguns – BB was in between the B and BBB sizes. A number of companies have developed less-dangerous toy alternatives that employ plastic pellets.

Bedraggled. Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.

Beget. To produce children. Biblical references such as “Abraham begot Isaac” are examples.

Belly up. One who goes “belly up” has been financially ruined and forced out of business. The term likely originated at sea, where dead fish float upside down and sunken ships sometimes turn hull-upward in the briny deep. The term is not to be confused with “bellying up” to the bar, which is thought to relate to the notion that you are old enough to drink if your belt line reaches the bar.

Big-Box Stores. These are mega-stores, sometimes an entire square block in size, that sometimes carry an entire mall’s worth of products from fresh produce and meat to appliances and, in some states, even guns.

Bigger than a breadbox. The meaning is clear. The term is thought to have entered popular culture thanks to American television personality Steve Allen, who was a regular panelist on the show, “What’s My Line.” Trying to guess a line of products that the “mystery guest” might work with, he’d ask, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Bilious. Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.

Blotto. Intoxicated, soused, stoned, pie-eyed, sotted, drunk as a skunk – not that we’ve seen too many inebriated skunks. The derivation is unclear; perhaps it popped up after one too many people were blotted out on the highway.

Bonhomie. Friendliness, genial good cheer. It’s a quality that good-natured “hail fellows” (and gals) possess. The word, from the French, is pronounced “bohn-oh-MAY.”

Boot Scootin’ Boogie. A 1992 Brooks & Dunn country hit song, still popular in cowboy bars and dancehalls. Its lyrics instruct dancers to “heel, toe, docie do,” which takes its own explaining. Docie do, or properly do sa do, is a move, especially in squaredancing, in which the dancers turn back-to-back rather than face-to-face.

Bootlegging. Making or selling illegal whiskey. The name is said to derive from an early practice of hiding a contraband bottle in one’s boots. They must have been bigger boots than we wear today.

Borax. A crystalline chemical containing the element boron, often extracted for use in soaps and other cleaning agents.

Bucolic. Rustic, pastoral, countrified.

Bumpkin. Another disparaging word for an unsophisticated, dimwitted backwoodsman, often written as “country bumpkin.” Apparently the term originated with British settlers as a derisive term for the Dutch, for whom they had low regard. Boomken in Dutch means “a little tree.”

Bunk. Patently false information, akin to “hogwash” or bull excrement.

Burley. A light-colored, relatively mild tobacco, lower in nicotine than darker varieties. Burley tobacco is grown extensively in the mid-South state of Kentucky. Not to be confused with burly, which is an adjective describing men, primarily, who are brawny and strong. Burly lumberjacks often smoke burley cigs.

Bushed. Exhausted. Apparently the word traces to the Dutch word for woods or wilderness, traipsing around in which is indeed tiring.

Bustle. This has two quite different meanings. To bustle is to move briskly. As a noun, the concept is often paired with a word with which it rhymes. We speak of the “hustle and bustle” of a city. But as used in my posting, a bustle was a wire frame, or a pad, or even a bow, at the back of a woman’s skirt that accentuated its fullness.


Cacophony. This means a harsh or discordant note or interruption. But more broadly it has also come to refer to a really loud and disruptive clatter, as when reporters shouting questions, all at once, at a defendant emerging from a trial.

Calligraphy. Practiced and beautiful handwriting. Some people actually make a living by writing in delicate, florid longhand.

Candy dancer. A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

Capacious. Large in capacity.

Capitulate. To surrender under agreed-upon terms, usually after a long and honorable struggle.

Catch-22. A predicament in no option or solution really works. An example: You need a car for a certain job. But without a job, you don’t have money to buy a car. The term is taken from the name of a 1961 satirical novel by Joseph Heller

Catenary. If you take a string, hold an end in each hand, and let it drop freely, the string droops to form a shape called a “catenary.” If you could solidify the string and flip it upright, it would form a catenary arch like the Gateway Arch.

Chaparral. Scrubby desert land, dotted with low bushes.

Cheesy. Cheap. Poorly made. It derives from an Urdu word adapted by the British to mean showy. From there, the meaning declined even further to reflect something even more derogatory that has nothing at all to do with cheese.

Chest waders. Waterproof clothing that incorporates boots, pants, and a top held up by suspenders, all in one. Add a colorful flannel shirt, and you look backwoods but natty, all at once.

Chiggers. These are tiny parasitic bugs that lurk in the woods and weeds. They attach themselves to your skin, often around exposed ankles, and feed on the fluids in your skin cells. The enzyme that they inject causes little red welts that can itch for weeks on end.

Chipper. Cheerful, upbeat, self-confident. Chipper people break into a whistle from time to time. Those in a less buoyant mood can find them annoying.

Circumspectly. Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.

Codgers and Geezers. Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.

Colloquy. A conversation, especially a learned or formal one.

Color Commentator. The broadcast partner of a sports play-by-play announcer. The “color man” (or woman) is often an ex-athlete who can add depth and analysis to what’s happening in the game.

Conjure. To make things — even ghosts, spirits, and the devil — materialize, especially using chants or incantations. Magicians with this talent are sometimes called “conjurers.” We often stick an unnecessary “up” after this word, as in “conjuring up an excuse.”

Consternation. Frustration and confusion. It’s easy to be consternated by an overly wordy and tangled explanation of something.

Conundrum. A difficult problem or dilemma. Nobody seems to know the origin of this curious word. An online sleuth called “The Word Detective” concludes that the most reasonable theory “is that ‘conundrum’ originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word.”

Coolie. A derogatory slur for unskilled Asian ― especially Chinese ― laborers employed in mines and on the railroads of the early American West. The term was borrowed from British colonialists’ word for Indian servants.

Copse. This copse has nothing to do with robbers. It’s a shortened version of the word “coppice,” which is a grove or small thicket of trees.

Cornpone. A colorful synonym for cornbread, a simple bread made from cornmeal in a hot skillet. Poor mountaineers often had little beyond cornpone and a bit of bacon to eat. Lard or pork drippings served as the skillet oil. Because cornpone was associated with humble people living back in the “hills and hollows,” the term became yet another unflattering adjective, as in “cornpone humor.”

Covet. To long or wish for something, often enviously.

Crazy quilt. A patchwork cover sewn from irregular scraps. The term is often broadened to describe places ― even ideas ― cobbled from odd sources.

Crucible. In concrete terms, a crucible is a strong vessel, often made of porcelain, in which materials can be combined and melted, even at extremely hot temperatures. Metaphorically, one who is thrown into a crucible, say a roiling controversy, had better be ready for some heat as well.

Cotton gin. A machine that separates seeds and husks from sticky cotton fiber. “Gin” is short for “engine.”

Cubicle farm. A sarcastic reference to an array of small office workspaces, each surrounded by partitions to give their inhabitants the illusion of privacy. At VOA, we call one such arrangement in our large newsroom “Podland.”

Cumbersome. Awkward, unwieldy, hard to manipulate physically.

Cup of Joe. A cup of coffee. The term could relate to the average American – the “average Joe,” or perhaps it dates to World War I, when U.S. admiral Josephus Daniels broke with naval tradition by banning alcohol, including wine in the officers’ mess, aboard American ships. Thereafter coffee – deridingly called a ‘cup of Joe – was the strongest brew on board.

Dapper. Up to date in dress and manners. And there’s an extra quality to the word, too, a sort of jauntiness or even raffishness, reminiscent of the movie star Cary Grant. A dapper fellow – and the word is more often applied to men – is not just well appointed. He’s a sauve charmer.

Dawdle. To take one’s sweet old time!

Denizen. Strictly, this means any inhabitant of a place. But the word also gives special status to animals and those of mystical powers, as in “denizens of the deep” or “denizens of the fields.”

Depredations. The ravages left behind by plunderers or marauders.

Deprivation. Extreme poverty. A state in which one is deprived of even the basics of life. Be careful with this word. “Depravation,” spelled with the “a” instead of the “i,” means moral decay and degeneracy. That version is an offshoot of the word “depraved.”

Dirigibles. Slow-moving, lighter-than-air craft filled with a lifting gas and steered by rudders and small propellers. Those without skeletal frameworks are called “blimps.” Rigid, hydrogen-filled airships such as the massive Zeppelins of the mid-20th century all but disappeared following several terrible explosions. Today’s dirigibles are filled with inert helium gas.

Disillusionment and dissolution. The former means disenchantment. Even idealists can get disillusioned during hard times. The latter means decay or disintegration. Disillusionment can foster psychological and physical breakdowns.

Dither. A confused state. One who dithers is flustered, agitated, all a-twitter. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning “tremble.”

Dixie. There are many theories advanced about the origin of this nickname for the Deep South states. One is that it ties to the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, called the “Mason-Dixon” line, that is often used as the informal boundary between North and South. Another traces to $10 banknotes issued in French-speaking Louisiana prior to the Civil War. They were known as “dixes” or “dixies.”

Doddering. Feeble, even senile. The word is often combined with others, as in “you doddering old fool.”

Doozy. A doozy is something that is really difficult, or something that’s extraordinary or extreme.

Dork. This is not something you want to be called. A dork is a loser, an incompetent and even stupid person. Believe it or not, the word dates to the early 20th Century.

Doughboys. American infantrymen in World War I. There is debate about the origin of the term. One theory ascribes it to the doughy white clay that soldiers used to clean their white belts. Another states that it was other Allies’ derogatory term for U.S. forces, who were said to be “soft” for showing up late to the war. The term had been used (sparingly) in other conflicts and may also have had its origin in cavalrymen’s contempt for ordinary foot soldiers.

Dour. Brooding or glum. One with a dour disposition isn’t enjoying life at the moment. By the way, the word is pronounced “DOO-er,” not “DOW-er,” for reasons that escape me.

Dragoon. To obligate or bully one to do something, perhaps by force. Dragoons were French soldiers who sometimes compelled peasants to leave the farm and join the military.

Dyspeptic. Sour, morose, grouchy. Dyspepsia is a recognized medical ailment, involving stomach pain caused by ulcers or other conditions that certainly do not lighten the sufferer’s mood.

Embrace (or into the Arms) of Morpheus. Morpheus was the son of the Greek god of sleep. But it was a Roman, the poet Ovid, who gave him his own job, as the god of dreams. So it’s zzzz time when you fall into the arms of Morpheus.

Endemic. Present at all times in a country or people. Cheerfulness, for instance, seems to be endemic in the Caribbean Islands. The word also has a medical meaning, referring to the incidence of disease in a population.

Enervated. Depleted. Exhausted. Soil that has been planted with the same crops year after year, for instance, is often said to be enervated.

Eureka! Taken from a Greek word meaning “I have found it!,” supposedly exclaimed by the physicist Archimedes when he discovered a way to compute the density of solid objects. He measured how much water they displaced in his bathtub!

Excoriate. To scold someone scathingly. The word has a medical origin. It also refers to the wearing-away of one’s skin. Imagine taking sandpaper to your palm and you’ll appreciate how unpleasant it is to be excoriated.

Extant. Existing now. Lizards are extant. Dinosaurs are not, so far as I know.

Extol. To praise or laud someone’s virtues, sometimes lavishly.


Fen. A swampy bog or marsh.

Festooned. Lavishly decorated. The word traces to the noun festoon: a garland of leaves or flowers. So if you want to literally festoon something, string a pretty chain of petunias or pine branches along it.

Flimflam. A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.

Flocked. Flock is a small tuft of fiber, and flocked wallpaper containing flock is not flat as a result. It is decorated with colorful patterns of flocking that one can feel.

Flummoxed. Flustered, confused, perplexed by what’s going on around you.

Forbidding. Stark, rugged, even life-threatening.

Fourth Estate. The press. Britons of the 17th century referred to three “estates of the realm”: Lords Spirtual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons. Pointing to the press gallery in the House of Commons, the effusive Whig orator Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”

Frowziness. Shabbiness, down on its luck.

Frumpy. Decidedly unfashionable, even shabby. But people who look frumpy are not slovenly or unkempt, just drab and old-fashioned, almost amusingly “clueless” about their appearance. They are the opposite of “fashion statements.”

Fuddy-Duddy. A fuddy-duddy – usually referred to as an old fuddy-duddy, is an old-fashioned, stuffy, stuck-in-the-past dullard. Nobody can quite lock onto the term’s origin, but we know that a “dud” is a dull disappointment. A fuddy-duddy’s a bit like an old fogey, and neither is a compliment.

Fulminate. To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.


Gabbing. Chatting, sometimes incessantly. People who talk a lot – and have something worthwhile to say – are said to have the “gift of gab.”

Gad About. In the 19th Century, a gad-about was a person with nothing better to do than drop in on neighbors, just to pass the time. Gadding about today is viewed as a pleasant interval of shopping or just ambling along, taking in the sights.

Gambrel. This is a French word, roughly meaning “meat hook” and is often applied to the style of roofs, especially on barns. It reflects the abrupt change in pitch of the roof.

Gandy dancer. A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

Gargantuan. Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: “Godzilla Meets Gargantua.”

Gargoyle. A decorative, carved water spout resembling a grotesque dragon, famously mounted around the roofs of castles. This word as well as “gargle” come from the French gargouille, or “throat.”

Garrulous. Talkative, gabby, especially about trivial matters.

Geiger counter. You know the meaning of this word if you’ve seen one of those low-budget, black-and-white space-invader movies. It’s an instrument, full of dials, that gives off static sounds that grow more insistent closer to the radiation source. German physicist Hans Geiger and a colleague developed the instrument in 1907.

Genie. In popular fable, a genie is a powerful, often turban-wearing figure imprisoned in a bottle. Some lucky soul stumbles upon the bottle, rubs it, frees the delighted genie, and is granted one or more fabulous wishes. The origin of the word is less cheerful, however. In early African and Middle East cultures, genies were sinister spirits that took animal or human form.

Genteel. Civilized, refined, cultivated.

Gift of Gab. Ability to speak knowledgeably and informally, often for long periods of time.

Gig. As I’ve used the word in my story about Hawaiian entertainers, a “gig” is a job, often in some form of show business. The online “Word Detective” notes that “Every job is a ‘gig’ today. Calling your job a ‘gig’ is a way of saying ‘I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.’” “Gig” also has many other meanings. It’s a small spear used to snare fish, for instance, and it was once an object that spins, such as the child’s toy called a “whirligig.”

Glam. Newspaper tabloid slang for “glamorous.”

Glider. As used in my first blog, my kind of glider is not an unpowered airplane. It’s a porch swing that looks like a living-room couch, hanging from a low frame. But it doesn’t swing in an arc. It slides forward and backward gently without upsetting one’s stomach. Combine that lazy to-and-fro motion with comfy glider cushions and a summer breeze, and you have a mesmerizing invitation to take a nap!

Gossamer. As the noun, the word literally describes a fluttery film of cobwebs. More often, the adjective form describes a delicate, feather-light, even dreamy scene.

Grandiloquence. High-flown style; grandiose prose. Note that the word is not “grandeloquence.”

Gravy Train. When you’re on the gravy train, you have it made. Money is no problem, and you don’t have to work very hard. Gravy was long considered a luxury addition to meat or potatoes, and railroaders who pulled shifts on short, easy runs were said to be riding the gravy train.

Gringo. Latins’ disparaging term for English-speaking foreigners, especially Americans.

Green eyeshades. These are clear visors, first made of celluloid and then other plastics, worn — at least in the movies — by accountants, clerks, telegraphers, and copy editors. The term became an unflattering characterization of obsessively detail-oriented people and professions.

Gremlin. A mischievous fairy. The word also has a more modern application to electronic and mechanical devices that develop inexplicable glitches, blamed on mysterious gremlins or “bugs.”

Grudgingly. Extremely reluctantly. Doing something, going along with what’s asked of you, but with zero enthusiasm.

Guffaw. A boisterous laugh.

Gumshoe. Detectives and private investigators got this unflattering nickname in late 1800s, when they snuck around furtively in cheap boots or shoes whose soles were made of gummy rubber.


Hapless. Pathetic, deserving of pity.

Hardscrabble. This word almost defines itself. It’s an adjective referring to a place that’s difficult to work or make money from. And thus, those stuck there have a hardscrabble existence as well.

Haymow. A loft where hay or other grain is piled, ready to feed animals below. “Mow” as used here, by the way, rhymes with “plow,” not “toe.”

Hex signs. In the United States, hex signs are Pennsylvania Dutch folk art meant, despite their name, to bring farmers good luck, not cast a spell on their neighbors. They are intended, however, to ward off evil and others’ hexes and to “protect” the site from bad luck, which is one way of bringing good fortune.

Hidebound. Inflexible, stubbornly narrow-minded. The term may have morphed from the animal world, where the abnormally dry skin of a hidebound animal clings rigidly to the underlying flesh.

High Horse. One gets on his high horse to opine grandly on a topic, as if from a position of certitude. The word dates to the Middle Ages, when the tallest horses were used in battle. Apparently your lance would strike higher into your opponent’s mail. That’s not his stamped letters. Mail, or maille, was his armor.

Highbrow. Having or demonstrating culture, refinement, and taste.

Hippies. A youth subculture, originating in San Francisco in the 1960s. These “flower children” sang of peace and love, but much of their utopian innocence was lost when drugs infested the movement.

Hobnob. To associate or hang out with someone, especially of high social stature.

Hoity-Toity. Haughty, stuck-up, much like an earlier Wild Word: highfalutin’. An old English verb, hoit, referred to romping around noisily – another form of showing off.

The hole. Prison jargon for cells to which convicts are sentenced to solitary confinement.

Hologram. A three-dimensional image made from microscopic laser light waves that, when viewed, seem to make the image turn, twist or hover.  Thus, holograms are extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy.

Homesteader. An American pioneer who had been granted a parcel of land in return for settling the vast expanses of the American West.

Howitzer. A large, high-angle, muzzle-loaded artillery piece that fires shells high into the air but for short distances. Its name, from the Dutch, first referred to catapult-like siege guns of the 1700s.

Humongous. Really, really huge. The word is a deliberate exaggeration that offends linguists. The Web site World Wide Words quotes William Hartston, writing in the British newspaper The Independent, as calling it “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries.”

Hump Day. Wednesday, the middle day of the work week. It’s all downhill to a weekend after that!

Hushpuppies. These are bite-sized bits of deep-fried cornbread. They originated as scraps left over after a country chef prepared pans of cornbread. Supposedly, the family hound would whine to be tossed some of these treats, to which its mistress would scold – you guessed it – “Hush, puppy”!

Hyperbole. The use of exaggeration for emphasis. When one exclaims, for instance, that long-lost friends “look good enough to eat,” you’re not really a cannibal about to devour them. At least I hope not.


Ichthyology. The study of fishes. Ichthys is Greek for “fish.”

Ignominious. Shameful, disgraceful. Ignominy comes from the Latin, meaning “without a name.” Ignominious behavior brings one great discredit. Ignominious places are lowly, ruder or humbler than what might be expected.

Ilk. Of a kind or sort. A person of a certain ilk shares the qualities – or foibles – of others of that same ilk. Picky pedants cite a more arcane meaning having to do with baronial estate names, but the informal if imprecise definition above is in vogue today.

Impunity. Free from punishment. If you’re told that you can do something with impunity, you can go wild! You’ll not be arrested for it.

Inane. Idiotic and empty of substance.

In situ. In its full and natural setting. Someone commissioning a photograph of a gate, for instance, might ask that it be captured in situ, including the fence and landscape that surround the gate itself.

Insouciantly. Nonchalantly, in a lighthearted, carefree, or even careless manner. From the French for “not worrying.” People sometimes flaunt their insouciance, in the way many young Americans today, confronted with a serious situation, dismiss it with a casual, “Yeah, whatever.”

Intractable. Not easily convinced, managed, or fixed.

Ire. This is a little word packed with meaning. It refers to intense anger, bordering on rage, openly displayed. There’s fire when one shows ire.


Joe. No one’s certain, but calling your morning coffee, especially, a “cup of Joe” may go back to 1914, when a mean-spirited U.S. Navy admiral, Josephus Daniels, banned wine in officers’ quarters and stipulated that coffee would be the strongest libation allowed. Or maybe those wine-swilling officers had slurred the term “Cup of Java,” dating to the days when much coffee came from the Indonesian island.

Jot and tittle. Every minor detail. A jot is the little cross-mark on the lower-case “T,” and a tittle is the dot on a lower-case “I” or “J.” These are two words that never seem to be apart from each other. Just as one never sees a nook without a cranny, one always attends to every jot and tittle.

Juxtaposition. The alignment of two things, often words, side by side.


Kitcsch. Cheap, tasteless, often garish art and collectibles. The German or Yiddish word was first applied to really bad paintings, like bright, velvet depictions of jungle beasts or Elvis Presley.

Kleptomania. From the Greek, meaning an impulse to steal. The word is often applied to shoplifters who seem driven to lift items, even without an economic motive.

Kudzu. An aggressive vine that can completely cover abandoned structures and strangle trees and other plants. Kudzu was introduced from Japan as a decorative plant at the 1876 U.S. centennial fair in Philadelphia. Little did people know that the invasive species would become a nightmare as it ran rampant, especially in the hot, humid South.


Lament. As a noun, it means a pitiful cry, often uttered after terrible news is received. The verb means to mourn or greatly regret. One often laments having made a really bad decision.

Laurels. Awards or honors. Roman heroes were often crowned with stems of the laurel, or bay-leaf, bush. To “rest on one’s laurels” means that you are satisfied with your past achievements and not interested in working particularly hard to earn more.

Legerdemain. Skill and adroitness. The word is taken from the French, and from the world of magic and illusion, where it refers to sleight, or lightness, of hand.

Lode. A deposit of valuable ore confined to a particular location from which the mineral can be extracted.

Luau. A Hawaiian feast, originally named after one of the dishes served there: chicken wrapped in Taro leaves and baked in coconut milk. Guests who arrive are often greeted with leis – necklaces of flowers or shells. One of the traditions at touristy luaus, in addition to the strumming and singing of soft Hawaiian melodies, is the dangerous fire dance, borrowed from the Samoan Islands.

Luminaries. Prominent people or stars. Big shots. The bright lights, or luminescence, shine on these famous people.


Mangy. Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal’s coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.

Mesmerizing. Hypnotizing, usually without a hypnotist present! A really good lecture can be mesmerizing. So can a song or a repetitive motion. You’re not just interested in a mesmerizing performance or object, you’re locked in, spellbound. The term appeared in the nineteenth century in reference to the work of one Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician who developed a theory of animal magnetism that’s so strong, it can hypnotize people.

Mezuzah. A small scroll containing handwritten passages from Jewish sacred writings that is stored in a protective case and hung on a doorpost. The mezuzah serves as a reminder of God’s presence in the house.

Mien. One’s bearing – how you carry yourself. Thus we sometimes read about a person’s low mien (not a Chinese delicacy) or regal mien.

Missive. A letter or quick note. Does anybody write letters any more? This blog is a missive, but it’s not as quick as I’d like it to be.

Moonshine. Home-recipe distilled alcohol, concocted in secret apparatuses called “stills” back in the woods, hidden from federal agents or “revenuers.” Batches of this potent drink are often produced at night, illuminated only by the moon. According to some accounts, moonshine more often approaches the quality of paint thinner than elixir, and such stories as losing one’s hair after consuming impure moonshine are not exaggerated.

Moonshiners. The stealthy makers of illegal whiskey back in the woods, away from government “revenuers” who might want to tax their brew. These furtive distillers work most efficiently, naturally, by moonlight.

Morose. Gloomy, sullen, dejected.

Mosey. To amble or walk leisurely, at your pace. Sometimes, out in the country, you’ll hear people ask someone else to please “mosey on down.”

Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.


Nabob. Originally a Mogul high official, the term came to be associated with executives of the British East India Company and, later, of any highly placed – and perhaps a tad pompous – individuals.

Nary. Not one. Nary – or as we sometimes see it in Old English such as Christmas carol lyrics, ne’er – a sound was heard. Or, as it’s used in a popular cliché: nary a word was spoken.

Natch. Glib shorthand for “naturally.”

Nattering. Chattering, usually about things of little importance.

Nebbish. From Yiddish, this word describes an extremely meek, timid, and unremarkable person.

Newfangled. Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning “addicted to novelty.”

98-pound weakling. A scrawny man, especially when compared with a strapping bully who’s standing next to him on the beach. Body builder Charles Atlas had patented “97-pound weakling,” so those who copied the idea simply added a pound!

Non sequitur. This old Latin term refers to a statement that makes little or no sense in relation to the comments that came before it. Something like, “I took my dog for a walk where the straws were longer than usual,” for instance, would be a real head-scratcher. The walk and the straws have no apparent connection except, perhaps, in the dog owner’s mind.

Nonchalant. With blithe unconcern or indifference. Behaving matter-of-factly in a situation that might normally evoke extreme reactions.

Numismatic. Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.


Obelisk. This is a monument or even a gravestone in the shape of tall, rectangular column topped by a pyramid. Sort of a squarish pencil with the point at the top.

Obliterate. To completely destroy or do away with something.

Odyssey. A long and most eventful journey. The word is taken from the wanderings of Odysseus in Ancient Greece, who took ten years to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War ended.

Old Wives’ Tales. Another term for folklore, superstition, handed down orally over many years. The term refers to women in general, not just to married ones. In old English, wif means “woman.” Over generations, older women were the keepers of wisdom about home remedies, proper behavior, and such.

Oeuvre. A work, or life’s work, of art, music, or film. This word is often used somewhat pretentiously, since “one’s oeuvre” sounds terribly cultured.

Oxidize. To introduce oxygen to another chemical or metal, creating different substances called oxides. Oxidized iron in some rocks takes on a rusty hue. Some metal surfaces are deliberately oxidized as a preservation technique.

Oxymoron. Contradictory terms side by side. “Deafening silence,” for instance, makes no sense. How can silence be deafening?


Palliate. To the lessen the effect of something.  A “palliative” relieves pain without really curing the condition.

Panoply. A wide, and often impressive, array of something. A panoply of colors, for example. It’s pronounced “PAN-uh-plee.”

Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.

Parsimonious. Not just frugal but downright cheap. Tight with a dollar and not inclined to part with one.

Paucity. A scarcity. Usually people understand you better if you just say you don’t have very many of something.

Peccadillo. A small sin or indiscretion, not worth getting too worked up about.

Per se. From the Latin, meaning intrinsically, exactly. “It wasn’t fraud per se, but it had all the elements of it.”

Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.

Pilaster. I can never get my architectural terms straight, but I’ve learned that a pilaster is a column with a top (or capital) and a base like most columns, but one that protrudes only partially from a wall. It’s not free-standing, in other words, but part of the wall treatment. The word is pronounced “pih-LASS-ter.”

Pithy. To the point. Getting to the heart of the matter in a few words. The word comes from nature. Pith is the central core of a plant stalk. You may have heard of a “pith helmet” – the lightweight, bowl-like headgear that African explorers wear in the movies. It’s sometimes made from pith.

Pizzazz. An energetic personality. Flair. Pizzazz is an asset to television stars and infomercial hosts, but all that bubbliness can be annoying.

Plat map. A plan or chart of a piece of land that depicts architectural features such as homes and stores and schools. These maps are often huge and bound in what look like giant scrapbooks. Invaluable historical documents, plat maps show the progression of development in a neighborhood over the years.

Pokey. Slang for a prison or, more often, a jail where one is confined only for a short time. It was first used in the 1840s as an adjective, spelled “poky,” to describe confined accommodations. Sounds like a jail, all right.

Ponzi scheme. An age-old grifter’s con in which investors are convinced to send the schemer considerable sums of money on the promise of lavish returns. Handsome interest is indeed paid, using some of the money contributed by fresh, eager new investors. But the crook is keeping most of it. Ponzi schemes almost always collapse when not enough new investors can be found, or old ones are tipped off to trouble and try to pull out their money en masse. They quickly find that there’s no money at all.

Pork. In a political context, pork or “pork barrel” appropriations are a slice of fat off the government hog, directed specifically to a single state or congressional district. Shrewd members of Congress are skilled at directing projects such as new highways, bridges, and factories their constituents’ way. The pork is often quietly appended to totally unrelated bills that are so popular that they easily pass. Either the pork goes unnoticed or nobody says anything, since “everybody does it.” (Not really, but to critics, it seems that way.)

Posse. A group of citizens called together, usually by the local sheriff, for a common cause like chasing down desperados on the run. The word derives from the common English law posse comitatus, or the right to conscript male citizens 18 years and older to assist in keeping the peace.

P.R. Short for “public relations.” Many companies and famous people have an army of “p.r. men” (or women) to polish their images.

Prairie Schooners. Heavy pioneer wagons with arching wooden bows that supported billowing canvas covers that gave the wagons a vague shiplike appearance.

Pratfall. An often humiliating slip or fall, fast, onto one’s backside. “Prat” was an Old English term for one’s buttocks.

Prima Facie. From the Latin meaning “at first appearance” or examination. When one has a prima facie legal case, it means there’s apparent evidence of guilt that only strong refuting testimony could disprove.

Primordial. Primitive, primeval.

Props. A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you’re “giving props.”

Pyromaniac. One who compulsively starts fires; a firebug. The word derives from the word “pyre,” which refers to a roaring fire.


Quonset hut. A prefabricated structure made of galvanized iron that’s shaped like a huge pipe cut in half lengthwise. Strong but easily lifted by cranes, these huts have served as military housing and office space. The name comes from Quonset Point in the state of Rhode Island, where the first such structures were built in 1942.


Rack and Ruin. Utter decay. “Rack” is a variation of “wreck” or “wrack.” This is another phrase that always appears in this order. One doesn’t, for some reason, go to ruin and rack.

Railhead. The end of a railroad line and often the staging area for the shipment of materiel in war zones or livestock in remote areas. In the American West, cowboys sometimes had to drive cattle thousands of kilometers to reach a place where they could be loaded onto trains heading for eastern slaughterhouses and markets.

Rain check. A sports term. When a baseball game, especially, must be halted and then postponed because of inclement weather, patrons are issued a “rain check” entitling them to free admission when the game is replayed. I may regretfully decline a social invitation but ask for a rain check – a chance to enjoy another such opportunity down the road.

Rambunctious. Exuberant, noisy, a bit out of control, but not in a dangerous way. The word is often applied, affectionately, to an overactive child or puppy or kitten.

Ramshackle. Poorly constructed or maintained. A ramshackle structure is literally falling apart. Believe it or not, the word comes from the Icelandic, meaning “badly twisted.”

Rancor. Not just dislike or irritation but deep-seated ill-will and hostility. The term is related, in its derivation from Middle English, to the word “rancid,” so rancor is not a pleasant thing.

Rat on. To turn you in or inform on you. Sometimes communities try to encourage citizens to tell authorities about lawbreakers, but those who do can be regarded as “dirty rats,” or worse, on the street.

Raucous. Loud and disorderly, and often a bit lewd, as in some of the hootin’ and hollerin’ inside a western saloon when dusty cowhands reached town after a long cattle drive.

Raunchy. Crude, uncouth, vulgar. So-called “dirty” jokes are often raunchy, even obscene by civil standards.

Rectitude. Righteousness. The moral high ground taken as a matter of honor.

Red-headed stepchild. This wretch is always being severely beaten in a popular phrase. Stepchildren often get short-shrift when there are natural siblings around. Read the “Cinderella” story. As for why redheads get a double dose of trouble is not clear, except that they, too, are not as common in most families as are blonds and brunettes. No one is sure who first called attention to the plight of red-haired stepkids.

Refractive. Reflection bounces back light. Refraction bends it or changes its direction by passing it through a medium like glass.

Rest on One’s Laurels. To be so satisfied with your abilities and accomplishments that you stop trying to improve. In Roman times, victors in battle wore a head-ring of leaves (laurels). Those who rested upon those victories often lost the next battle.

Roustabout. An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.

Ruckus. A disturbance. We speak of “raising a ruckus,” meaning we’re going to raise our voices and make a great fuss until someone listens. This is also sometimes called “raising a stink.”

Rustler. A livestock thief.


Sally. To rush forward, as in a military maneuver. We sometimes add a word and speak of “sallying forth.” In fact, Sally Forth was whimsically borrowed as the name of the main character in a popular newspaper comic strip that debuted in 1982.

Saltbox. A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear.

Sardonic. Sarcastically, even snidely or sneeringly, humorous. William Morris’s Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins notes that the word may trace to a Sardinian plant, the sardane, which was so bitter that it caused convulsions or facial contortions in those who ate it.

Sarsparilla. A drink similar to modern-day root beer that derives its flavor from the roots of the prickly sarsparilla plant found throughout Latin America.

Schlep. From Yiddish: to tediously drag oneself someplace.

Scion. A descendant, often applied to male heirs. The word comes from nature, where a scion is a shoot off a twig.

Serape. A long, colorful shawl traditionally worn by Mexican men.

Shtick. A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a “bit.”

Skidoo. A slang term originating in the early 1900s, meaning “to leave quickly,” as a variation on the even older “skedaddle.” No one can say for sure where “23-skidoo,” in particular, came from. Wisegeek says it might have something to do with New York’s famous Flatiron Building on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Its pie shape supposedly kicked up such a breeze that dignified ladies passing by had to keep a good hold on their skirts. The police gave the “23-skidoo” to men who loitered nearby, waiting for a pretty woman and a good gust.

Skosh. A dab, a touch, a teeny bit. People often ask their tailors for a “skosh more room” around the waist, for instance, when getting fitted. This is one of a few English words borrowed from the Japanese, where sukoshi means “little.” Supposedly, United Nations troops heard the word while on leave in Japan during the Korean War of the early 1950s, and the word became part of military jargon.

Slather. To spread generously. Mayonnaise on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for instance.

Smidgen. A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”

Smithereens. This is a fun word to say. But where exactly do you end up when you get blasted to smithereens? “Smidder” was an old Irish word for a bit or a fragment. Perhaps an Englishman named Smith dropped a glass goblet, and it smashed to smithereens.

Smokey Bear. He is a brawny but gentle mascot of the U.S. National Park Service. In his trademark drill-sergeant hat, he sternly reminds campers, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Smooshed. A made-up word not in most dictionaries. It’s a descriptive variation of “smashed.”

Snarky. This is one of those new-age words you won’t find in most dictionaries, even though it derives from the century-old British word “snark,” meaning to nag or find fault with. A snarky remark is laced with snide disrespect. Now you’ll have to look up “snide”!

Snide. Sarcastic, in a snotty sort of way. Snide comments are often asides about someone else’s perceived inappropriate appearance or behavior.

Snippet. A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.

Sniveling. Whining and tearful. Another vocabulary-building word, obsequious, also fits someone who snivels.

Soap opera. Serialized radio, and later television, romantic dramas, aimed at a female audience and frequently sponsored by the makers of soap powders.

Sod houses. “Soddies,” as settlers on the Great Plains called these houses, were made from clumps of coarse bluestem grass in rich soil that were held together by their intricate web of roots and sliced into long strips with a “breaking plow.” Lacking enough trees for wood to build a complete house, pioneers stacked sod in rows to make the walls, then laid more strips atop precious boards that formed joists and the outlines of the attic. Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling. It caught most, but not all, of the dirt that sifted down onto the family below.

Sodom and Gomorrah. These were cities on the Jordan River that, according to the book of Genesis in the Bible, were destroyed by God, who rained down fire and brimstone to punish their inhabitants for their sinful, lascivious ways. The two cities are often lumped into one place when speaking of a “Sin City” of today.

Solicitous. Expressing care or concern. A solicitous person solicits information about you, your family, and your well-being.

Soubriquet. A familiar, rather than formal, name, often applied to a person. Thus, parents will call their son James “Jim,” and Jim often becomes “Jimmy.” It’s pronounced SOO’-bri-kay, after the French.

Speakeasy. This was an establishment, carefully guarded by a suspicious doorman, that served alcoholic drinks during the Prohibition period from 1923 to 1933, when such sales were banned. But the term goes back at least 30 years or more before that. Pirate hideouts carried the name, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman who sold liquor without a license is said to have advised her customers to “speak easy” if they wanted to buy some.

Specs. Specifications, as in the blueprints and other particular requirements for an engineering job.

Sphynx. In ancient Egypt, a sphynx was a tactile representation of a sun god, often in a lion’s shape and wearing a headdress of the pharaohs.

Spin doctor. “Spin” is the fashionable political term for putting one’s own, highly partisan, interpretation on events. You spin them to suit the best interests of your candidate or cause. And a maestro of spin is a “spin doctor.”

Spoon. As I’ve used it, this has nothing to do with an eating utensil, unless it’s affectionately caressing the cheek of a lover. Spooning is an old-fashioned word for amorous cuddling.

Spunky. Lively, spirited, plucky. The word is said to have devolved from an English and Scottish term for “spark.”

Steadfast. Holding firm in one’s stand or convictions.

Stetson. The brand name that has become almost a generic term for a western hat, just as the names “Coke,” “Xerox,” and “Scotch Tape” have come to stand for genres of products. Felt Stetson hats have broad brims that keep some of the sun and rain off a cowboy’s face and neck. Those with an especially high crown are sometimes called “ten-gallon [38-liter] hats” because they look like they can hold a whole lot of water. In fact, only three or so liters will fit in one.

Straight-arrow. Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a “straight shooter.”

Suffragist. A supporter of suffrage, or the right to vote, especially for women. Those who mocked the most radical, female supporters of women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century preferred to call them by the derogatory term “suffragettes.”

Supplications. Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.

Swashbuckling. Pirates are swashbucklers, and others can swashbuckle, too, thanks to the evolution of the word. The “swash” comes from an old word for tapping one’s foot on the ground, as fencers (and sword-wielding pirates) do when they attack. The “buckle” doesn’t fit around one’s pants; a “buckler” was a small shield, worn (by right-handers) on their left arms for protection. Somehow, this got all smished into a word describing the flamboyantly daring.

Switchback. One of the winding curves that enabled first railroad trains, and then cars, to make it up — and down — steep mountains by slowly zig-zagging around them.


Taciturn. This is a word that I learned a long time ago from a challenging little book called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It describes not just quiet behavior, but deliberate, calculating silence. Someone who is taciturn wants to say very little — and does. “The silent type,” we sometimes call taciturn people.

Tacky. Frumpy, dowdy, lowbrow, decidedly uncool. Wearing white socks to a formal dinner, for instance, is considered tacky and uncouth.

Tar Heel State. North Carolina’s nickname. Barefoot backwoodsmen there once made a lot of turpentine, which left behind oozy, black pitch that stuck to their heels (and soles and toes).

Tequila. One of several potent Mexican “mescal” liquors made from the fermented juice of the spiky-looking agave plant. Legend has it that you’ll find a worm in the highest-quality tequilas, but this is a marketing gimmick by certain brands.

Terrarium. A bowl, glass box, or other confined container in which to grow plants.

Tightfisted. Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.

Toddle. To walk with short, slightly unsteady steps. Infants and old folks toddle. And what do we say to an oldster who’s about to toddle off? Toodle-oo! Toodle, not toddle!

Tommy gun. A .45-caliber submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson, that became the weapon of choice of both gangsters and federal agents during the “roaring” 1920s.

Torpid. Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.

Tory. Tories were American colonists who supported the British side during the American Revolution. The name is taken from a British political party that was an opposition party to the Whigs.

Tough row to hoe. Often misquoted as a tough road to hoe, the expression, which ties to hard weeding in a cotton or vegetable patch, now means, more broadly, any difficult task.

Town Crier. In a tradition brought from Europe, criers, employed by the community, would walk the streets of early America, often at dusk, carrying lanterns or handbells, calling out public announcements. These would often begin, “Hear ye, hear ye,” or the more formal “oyez,” which is still used to bring many U.S. courtrooms to order.

Transcendentalist. One who practices transcendental meditation, or “TM.” Introduced in the 1950s by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – who for a time was the spiritual adviser to the Beatles – it involves seated contemplation, with one’s eyes closed, for twenty minutes a day. In the early 1970s, the people of little Fairfield, Iowa, were surprised to find a number of transcendentalists (many in eastern dress) in their midst. They had purchased the buildings of private Parsons College, which had gone out of business, and began setting up a transcendentalist university in the midst of Iowa corn country. Now called Maharishi University of Management, the school teaches students what it calls “pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.”

Traverse. To cross or pass through a place. The word’s root is the same as the root of “travel.”

Triangle Trade. Trade among three distant regions, notably this ungodly exchange of slaves from the late 17th to early 19th centuries: Caribbean merchants would ship sugar, tobacco, and cotton to mills in New England or Europe. Those owners would ship rum, manufactured goods, and textiles to Africa. And “slavers” would send captured tribesmen as human cargo to the New World.

Tumbleweed. A short Russian thistle shrub, common in many parts of the world, that dries and breaks away from its roots in autumn, then rolls like a ball in the wind across the plain. Tumbleweeds stick in barbed-wire fences and are sure to blow in front of your car when the dust kicks up, scaring you half to death. In one of their first hits, the Sons of the Pioneers western group sang that they belonged on the range, “drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”


Unfettered. Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.

Unremitting. Persistent, never-ending. To “remit” is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.

Unrequited. Unsatisfied. The word is most often applied to unfulfilled love.


Variegated. Multi-colored.

Vaudeville. A zany form of stage entertainment, popular in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. It featured comedians, dancers, magicians — even animal acts. The origin of the name is in doubt. Some say it’s taken from the French voix de ville, or “voice of the city.” Or it may have come from the Vau de Vire valley in France, known for its satirical songs.


Ward Heeler. A “machine” politician, part of a clique that controls a city or party for its own ends as much as to serve the public. The “heeler” part of the term refers to the legwork that menial party members are ordered to perform around town.

Well-heeled. Wealthy. People of means, of course, can afford fine footwear. Fine fighting cocks were also said to be well-heeled with deadly spurs.

Widow Walk (or Widow’s Walk). An observation platform above the roof of a house near the sea. It’s called “widow’s walk” because many a seafarer’s wife has paced on this platform, watching in vain for her sailor to return from a voyage.

Windfall. Unexpected good luck, especially of the monetary sort. If your long-lost uncle leaves you a million dollars, that’s a windfall! The term may have originated in an orchard. When the wind blows a pear off the tree, you don’t have to climb up and pick it.

Wistful. Yearning, wishful, usually in a dreamy sort of way.

Wolverine. A foul-tempered, musky-smelling, burrowing weasel after which both Michigan and its largest public university’s sports teams decided to nickname themselves. Wolverines don’t back down from a fight – a welcome trait in the state’s current economic morass.

Wry. The word derives from an Old English word for bent or twisted, and wry humor is similarly offbeat and, sometimes, a little contorted from the norm. Similarly, a person’s “wry smile” is a bit skewed from the norm.


Xanadu. A place of unimaginable beauty, first imagined by the poet Samuel T. Coleridge in Kubla Khan. In the movie classic “Citizen Kane,” a wealthy newspaper publisher, modeled after William Randolph Hearst, calls his fabulous Florida Estate “Xanadu.”


Yammer. To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.

Yellow journalism. An early name for sensationalized, even made-up, stories printed by viciously competitive newspapers in New York City in the late 1800s. The name was taken from a character, “the Yellow Kid,” who appeared in a popular comic strip in one of the papers.

Yeoman. As a noun, this refers to a free person who cultivates his own land. (There doesn’t appear to be a feminine “yeowoman.”) In the adjective form, yeoman work is hard, prodigious effort.

Yes siree, Bob. Yes, indeed, you’d better believe it! This phrase may have first been uttered by Gabby Hayes, the cranky Western-movie sidekick to singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Hayes also let out a few “no siree, Bobs,” even to cowpokes whose names were not “Bob.”

Yo-Yo. First made popular in the 1920s, Yo-Yos were toys in which two weighted pieces of wood or plastic, connected by an axle, were lowered, raised, and spun in creative ways by means of a string attached to the axle. To “yo-yo” is to constantly change direction, first in favor of, then against, something.

Yuppified. Appealing to “yuppies,” or young, “power suit”-wearing, Gucci-briefcase-carrying, upwardly mobile urban professionals. Yuppies were idealized in what is often looked back upon as the self-centered “me” decade of the 1980s. The term became widespread with the 1983 publication of The Yuppie Handbook, a sort of guide to conspicuous consumption and wealth. To say that a community has become “yuppified” is to observe that it has gone trendy, with upscale shops, restaurants, and spas.


Zigzag. To travel ahead making sharp turns in alternating directions. Lightning bolts are often depicted to make such jagged turns on their way to the ground.

Zinger. A “gotcha” or “ouch” line or retort. A zinger is pointed, like the tip of an arrow that’s humming toward an unsuspecting target. Often everyone in the room, except the zingee, laughs when a sharp zinger strikes home. (Don’t search for “zingee.” I made it up. But that’s how words like “zinger” get started.)

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


September 2008
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