Ted’s Wild Words

Posted July 30th, 2010 at 3:26 pm (UTC-4)

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.


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!


A goner.
A slang way of saying that something has disappeared and is gone.
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.
A resignation or renunciation of power. The word is most often used to describe the decision by a reigning monarch to voluntarily relinquish a throne.
Disgusting. Loathsome.
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."
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.
An expression of admiration. Praise. Accolades can also have a tangible component. Awards are accolades.
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 stern, often verbal, rebuke or criticism.
A gentle warning or piece of advice.
Texting shorthand for “And God knows what else.”
A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.
Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.
A step-by-step mathematical procedure that involves a common factor called a “divisor.” Algorithms can be used to find commonalities in non-mathematical situations as well.
A harsh mixture of soluble salts, often found in arid regions, that makes land unsuitable for agriculture.
An alley in a garden or park, formed by processions of trees on each side.
Relating to an allegory, or metaphorical story or saying. The saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” for instance, isn’t about fire at all.
The repetition of the first letters, especially consonants, in a string of words, often done deliberately for effect. One of the best-known examples is “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
A combination of two or more elements. The term is sometimes applied in business to the merger of companies.
Sea anemone — pronounced uh-NEMM-ih-nee — are fairly stationary, often quite colorful, sea predators that dwell on the ocean floor. Some look like plants, whose waving “leaves” reach out and grab prey.
Featuring animation by robotic creatures to mimic the movement of animals.
Hatred bordering on active hostility. Wishing ill will on another.
Something abnormal or out of the ordinary.
Belonging to a period prior to a war. “Ante” means “before.” “Antebellum” is most often used to describe homes, particularly fine ones, built in the early 19th century, before the U.S. Civil War. Curiously, while there is a rarely used word “post-bellum,” meaning after a war, there is no word “bellum” itself!
Giving human-like characteristics, even including human speech, to animals or inanimate objects such as trees.
Self-confidence and assurance.
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.
Dread, fear or anticipation of dire trouble ahead.
Warm congratulations and approval, especially from an official source such as your boss. Praise is nice. Approbation can mean a raise!
Something or someone that is the recognized example, or symbol, of a genre or motif. The Empire State Building in New York, for instance, is the archetypal skyscraper.
Behind in making payments. The word is usually coupled with “in,” as when the rent is “in arrears.”
A clever or cunning trick.
An act that is especially cruel, wicked, tasteless, or unforgivable.
Daring, of the kind where you find yourself saying, "Of all the nerve!"
To portend, or bode, something good or bad. The fact that someone does not return your phone calls, for instance, does not augur well for your relationship.
Auld lang syne.
Literally from Old English, this term means “the old long ago.” It was popularized in a poem by the Scot Robert Burns and, especially, by a melancholy tune sung at New Year’s Eve, whose words go, in part, “We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet/ for auld lang syne.”
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.
A hobby or secondary occupation, usually undertaken for fun rather than income.


Drunken revelry. The name comes from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and the wine harvest.
Back 40.
Rural parcels in America were often 40 acres [16 hectares] in size. The “back 40” was an uncultivated plot behind the house and plowed fields.
A small, unimportant thing or trifle. The name comes from the French, from the word for a short, lighthearted piece of music.
A stairway handrail and the posts that support it.
A large, brightly colored (often red) handkerchief, often carried by trainmen and other laborers.
A basket, often hooded and on wheels, used as a baby’s bed.
A sluggish stream feeding or fed by nearby swamps, particularly in U.S. Gulf Coast states.
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.
Beau ideal.
A person who represents the highest standard. An exemplar or role model.
Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.
To produce children. Biblical references such as "Abraham begot Isaac" are examples.
Begs the question.
This phrase, often misused, means that a statement that has just been made requires proof or further explanation. One is left begging for more information.
A pastry, pronounced “BEN-yay,” served in New Orleans, Louisiana, and other cities of French origin. It’s a square of dough that’s deep-fried like a donut, then doused in powdered sugar.
To misrepresent or give a false impression. Sometimes saying something that belies what’s really going on is unintentional.
Combative, quarrelsome, eager to start a fight.
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.
Intoxicated, drunk. A sot is a habitual drunkard.
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?"
Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.
To be barred from working in one’s field because of one’s association with activities such as alleged affiliation with a subversive group. During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War, for instance, many writers, singers, and other artists were banned from performing or publishing.
A version of “blackguard” — a villain, scoundrel or absolutely contemptible person.The term dates to 16th-century England, where blackguards were servants of low regard, up to no good.
To talk on and on, to the point that nothing you say has any impact.
Extremely happy, quietly joyous, blithe.
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.
Talking at excessive length, often about oneself.
Uniformed British police. The nickname was borrowed from that of future British prime minister Robert Peel, who founded what was the first professional police force in the world in 1829.
Boll weevil.
A beetle with a drill-like mouth that devastated southern cotton crops until it was brought under reasonable control through the use of pesticides and traps baited with natural sexual-attractant hormones called “pheromones.” The “boll” part of the insect’s name is taken from the cotton plant’s seed pod.
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."
A colloquial term, short for “boondocks,” which, in turn, refers to remote or isolated territory.
A crude, uncouth, really annoying person.
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.
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.
A crystalline chemical containing the element boron, often extracted for use in soaps and other cleaning agents.
To mess something up — carry out a plan or task carelessly or poorly.
Bounty hunter.
A private citizen who seeks to capture criminals in return for a bounty, or reward.
An intensely competitive card game favored by residents of the French-speaking parishes, or counties, of Louisiana.
Brass knuckles.
Metal weapons molded to fit over the four fingers that face forward in a fist — all those f’s in that alliteration came along by accident that were prominently featured in early movie gang fights.
Brass ring.
Something — often a long shot with severe odds against reaching it — that people strive for, sometimes forever and often with little success. The term goes all the way back to medieval days, when knights would try to spear a dangling ring with their lances. But more recently, brass rings were a feature of carousel rides at carnivals and county fairs. As the merry-go-round whirled, a chute barely within reach would dispense rings, one at a time. Most were iron, but one was brass. A passing rider who could snare the brass ring was awarded another ride for free.
The definition of this word depends on its pronunciation. A “braat” is a spoiled and temperamental child. A “brawt” is a German bratwurst sausage.
A movable pan or stand for holding hot coals. The term was a precursor to the more familiar “barbecue grill,” although the fire from braziers’ coals was also often used for light as well as heat.
A china cabinet or credenza whose center section projects into the room.
A rich fabric, often of gold or silver thread, with a raised pattern.
Chemically, combining the element bromine with another such as potassium or sodium, a bromide is a compound that was once widely used (and abused) as a tranquilizing sedative. The antacid product “Bromo-Seltzer,” later used to relieve upset stomachs and hangovers, was a powerful formulation of bromine and sodium until bromides were ordered removed from the U.S. market in 1975. All the while, the word “bromide” came to be used to describe everyday, soothing clichés. “All’s well that ends well” is a common bromide, for example.
Intimidated, often by rapid-fire questions or accusations. Witnesses in court are sometimes browbeaten if the judge doesn’t intervene. The origin of the word is uncertain, but it apparently began as a description of the beater, not the beaten. Specifically, the beater’s “knitted” (frowning) eyebrows.
A bear, especially a brown bear, including a grizzly. The name is Middle English and first appeared in the fable “The History of Reynard the Foxe,” in which the bear character was named “Bruin.”
An open, horse-drawn wagon with almost no amenities. Its driver sits in the open, on a flat, hard board, and it “bucks” plenty on unpaved roads.
Bucket list.
A list of things people want to do before they die, or “kick the bucket.” The term — which is often broadened to refer to any list of deeds one wants to accomplish — gained popularity with the release of a 2007 movie by that name, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as terminally ill cancer patients.
Rustic, restful.
A terribly unsophisticated country person; a rube.
A small house, usually of one story. The name derives from Hindi, in which it refers to a small house “in the Bengali style.”
Patently false information, akin to "hogwash" or bull excrement.
Often shortened to “bunk,” bunkum is utter nonsense, not worthy of consideration. According to many sources, the word traces to a windy speech by a United States congressman, who, when criticized about it, replied, “Gentlemen, I did not give this speech for you but for the people back in Buncombe County [North Carolina].”
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 cigarettes.
To polish or make something smooth and shiny. People even try to burnish their images.
Exhausted. Apparently the word traces to the Dutch word for woods or wilderness, traipsing around in which is indeed tiring.
Someone who attacks a wartime opponent by surprise. In old western movies, unsuspecting columns of settlers and cavalrymen were often bushwhacked by Indians or robbers.
A street entertainer who solicits donations from those who watch.
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.


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.
Partnership with another. The word is usually paired with “in.” One is “in cahoots” with another, often in some sort of conspiracy. The word is borrowed from the French cahute, or “cabin.” It is thought to have first appeared in English among fur trappers in the American Northwest, where they often lived in “cahoots” with their French trapper partners.
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.
Large in capacity.
To surrender under agreed-upon terms, usually after a long and honorable struggle.
Capsicum peppers.
For lack of a better word, these are chili peppers. The words “capsicum,” “chili,” “chille,” “chile,” and even “paprika” are interchangeable when it comes to the taste of hot peppers.
An ornamental inscription, often on a building or tomb, that looks like a scroll with rolled-up ends.
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
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.
Literally, a cauldron is a big pot, such as the one in which witches are said to boil their deadly potions. But the word has been expanded to mean a situation that is full of activity or heated emotion.
Abstaining from sexual relations, and sometimes marriage as well, often in keeping with deep religious beliefs.
Scrubby desert land, dotted with low bushes.
Gruesomely remindful of death. A “charnel house” is a building or large vault in which the bodies or bones of the dead are placed. Grisly murder scenes are also sometimes described as charnel houses.
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.
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.
Cheerful, jaunty, in upbeat humor. The term, originating from the Old English, related to one’s frisky moves more than to his outlook or state of mind. But since it’s logical to assume that one who trips merrily down the road is in a good mood, the meaning of the word soon broadened.
Although literally referring to one who chisels stone or wood, the word more often describes a thief, especially one who methodically chips away at the victim’s fortune.
To chuckle or laugh gleefully.
Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.
A fortress, particularly one like a castle high atop a medieval town.
A snail-shaped part of the human inner ear.
Codgers and Geezers.
Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.
In mathematics, this is the number before a variable. In the formula 25x + 5y = 100, for instance, 25 and 5 are both coefficients. Or so my math friends tell me.
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.
Con man (or woman).
Someone who tricks unsuspecting victims out of some of their money. “Con” is short for confidence; the swindler gains the victim’s confidence, then exploits it.
A food item made, sometimes without benefit of a recipe, from many ingredients.
A piece of meat, often duck, cooked in its own fat.
To combine something. Usually it’s not something physical but rather conceptual, as in conflating two arguments or ideas.
Confusing or surprising. Doing something unexpected.
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."
Scheming, conspiring to do something improper or illegal.
To declare something, such as the ground where heroes have fallen, as sacred. In Christianity, the term also refers to symbolically turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Frustration and confusion. It's easy to be consternated by an overly wordy and tangled explanation of something.
Occurring at the same time that another event is happening.
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."
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.
A derogatory or squeamish term for bugs, especially lice, as well as for imaginary critters that slovenly people are said to be carrying.
A small group of trees, often appearing in the midst of an otherwise barren location.
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."
A horn of plenty, from which spill such things as fruit, flowers, and corn.
Trite, banal, overly cute or sentimental.
Something, based in mathematics, that one assumes to be true based on earlier, proven statements that have been proved. An inference or deduction. If it’s a given that the world is round, for instance, then we don’t have to worry about approaching and falling off the “edge of the earth.”
To confirm or give supportive testimony regarding a story or event.
Cotton gin.
A machine that separates seeds and husks from sticky cotton fiber. "Gin" is short for "engine."
Cotton to.
To approve or like a lot. In early industrial days, to “cotton” or “cotton well” meant that fibers were going together smoothly. The term was broadened to indicate that people as well as threads were getting along well. You’ll hear the term as a negative in movie “westerns,” as in, “I don’t cotton to that kind of talk.”
Covered dish.
A name sometimes given to homemade, often fattening, casserole recipes that people bring to church picnics and “pot luck” dinners.
To long or wish for something, often enviously.
Cow chips.
Cattle droppings. Also often called “cow pies” or “cow patties.”
A narrow space or crevice. The word is customarily combined with another: nook, as in “He looked in every nook and cranny.”
Crazy quilt.
A patchwork cover sewn from irregular scraps. The term is often broadened to describe places ? even ideas ? cobbled from odd sources.
Inflammation of the larynx and trachea, producing labored breathing and, often, a hacking cough reminiscent of the bark of a seal.
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.
A belief that the ultra-low-temperature freezing of human or animal corpses could preserve them so that future medical advances might enable their revival and healing. Not to be confused with cryogenics, which is the study of phenomena that occur at very low temperatures.
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."
Pronounced “CULL-ih-nairy,” the word refers to matters of the kitchen or cooking. Chef-level work is called the “culinary art.”
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.
A coiled shape, often favored in architectural design.


A frivolous use of time. “Goofing around” rather than working.
A movable plate that regulates air flow in a furnace, fireplace, or stove.
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.
Intimidating and discouraging, often filled with fear.
Davy Jones’s locker.
Another name, or euphemism, for the sea bottom, the graveyard of dead sailors and sunken ships. In early sea lore, Davy Jones was the devil, or the evil spirit of the sea.
Davy Jones’s Locker.
Another name, or euphemism, for the sea bottom, the graveyard of dead sailors and sunken ships. In early sea lore, Davy Jones was the devil, or the evil spirit of the sea.
To move incredibly slowly, wasting time along the way.
One who dawdles, or ambles slowly and idly.
Naughty, morally decayed. The word can also apply to tame but “sinful” pleasures, such as enjoying a large cupcake fresh from the oven.
To depart, especially suddenly or secretly.
Once every 10 years, usually used in reference to the decennial census of the U.S. population.
To recite, eloquently.
The breakdown of words — at least those in Indo-European languages — into various noun, verb, and adjective forms, etc., often depending upon the ways in which the endings of those words change.
Proper behavior or manners.
Worn out, neglected, ruined.
To criticize something harshly or unfairly, to disparage something or someone.
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.”
Pronounced “day-new-MAW,” this French word refers to the final outcome of a long series of events. It is often used to describe the last part of the final act of a stage play.
The ravages left behind by plunderers or marauders.
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."
To pass to someone at a lower level, as in delegating authority to subordinates.
Unpredictable, risky, even dangerous.
A substitute for “devil” by those who are uncomfortable uttering anything to do with Satan. They prefer to say that something “scared the dickens” (or the daylight) out of them. The term has no apparent connection to British novelist Charles Dickens.
Someone who flits from subject to subject or activity to activity without putting a lot of effort into any of them.
A reduction in the size or importance of something. A diminishing.
Force or effort, as in, “through the sheer dint of hard work, she graduated from college.”
In electronics, a two-terminal component that passes electrical current in one direction between them.
A museum display or painting, often revolving, of scenes from life, such as battles and vast cityscapes.
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.
Written or spoken communication, often the back-and-forth kind, as in a debate.
Contempt. The verb form means that one scorns another or believes someone or something is beneath his consideration.
Showing contempt or lack of respect for someone or something.
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.
Marked by excess, such as showing the effects of too much drinking over too long a time.
A confused state. One who dithers is flustered, agitated, all a-twitter. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning "tremble."
Silly, balmy, more than slightly daft.
A popular name for the southern United States. “Dixie” was also an enormously popular informal anthem of the segregated South, having come from blackface “minstrel” shows. No one can say for sure how “Dixie” came to be a synonym for the Old South, but one theory ties it to $10 notes, or “dixes,” issued by a bank in French-speaking New Orleans, Louisiana.
Feeble, even senile. The word is often combined with others, as in "you doddering old fool."
A clumsy, flightless — and thus now-extinct, bird. Its inability to cope in a hostile world of predators has become a metaphor for human ineffectiveness and bungling as well.
Comic verse. An example: “Hogamus, higamus/ Men are polygamous.”
Mournful, sad, sorrowful. From the Latin dolere: “suffer” or “grieve.”
A doozy is something that is really difficult, or something that's extraordinary or extreme.
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.
Spoiling, acting uncritically toward another. A proud parent dotes on his or her child.
Double entendre.
A word or phrase that’s open to two quite different interpretations, one of them often naughty. This headline, for example: “Prostitutes appeal to priest.”
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.
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.
While the word literally applies to an elderly woman of high standing, it is often applied to once-glamorous, now fading buildings as well.
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.
A four-sided, spinning top, enjoyed by children during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Dressed to the nines.
This is thought to be a corruption of the Old English “to the eyne,” or eye. So you’re dressed to the eyes. “All dolled up” is another way of putting it.
Whimsical, lightly self-mocking.
Hard and menial work — the kind that goes on and on. If you know the story of Cinderella, scrubbing floors for her nasty stepmother, you’re picturing drudgery.
A dynamometer, which is a device that measures an engine’s power and torque.
Grouchy, irritable — sometimes in conjunction with chronic drinking.


Cheerful, energetic, enthusiastic.
A poem of mourning — not always sad, but almost always deeply thoughtful about the passing of someone or some thing.
Freeing someone from another’s control. While the word is most closely associated with the freeing of slaves from their masters, it is also used to describe such situations as the release of a young person from the dominating hand of his or her parents.
Extras added to make something more appealing.
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.
A speech or written words of tribute or admiration, much like a eulogy for someone departed.
Something built into a place or thing. Malaria, for instance, has been endemic to many parts of the world.
Depleted. Exhausted. Soil that has been planted with the same crops year after year, for instance, is often said to be enervated.
Hatred, ill will, or deep-seated antagonism for another.
A port where goods are imported and exported, duty-free.
The sudden and vivid realization of something. The term comes from the Christian bible’s story about the revelation of Jesus as the human son of God.
Therefore, or consequently, as in, “I am an American man. Ergo, I like sports.”
Designed to minimize discomfort and fatigue, and maximize efficiency, especially in the workplace.
To avoid or abstain from something.
A shield or shield-shaped emblem, often used to display a family’s coat of arms. The word is also often used metaphorically to represent a nation or family’s reputation.
An Acadian-French dish featuring seasoned shellfish or chicken over a bed of rice. The term comes from the French word for “smothered.”
A student of words.
The study of words and their origin, not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects.
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!
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.
The model of something. A fine example.
Existing now. Lizards are extant. Dinosaurs are not, so far as I know.
To praise the virtues of something or someone.
To take information from one situation and apply it to another, often erroneously. The fact that a form of cancer spreads wildly in mice does not necessarily mean that it will do so in humans, for example.
An elaborate festival or musical performance.


A made-up story.
Humorous, even flippant, treatment of serious subjects.
A dance party, specifically in French-speaking Louisiana, but the term can be used to describe any vigorous dance routine, with or without music.
Falling into the arms of Morpheus.
Falling asleep. In Greek mythology, Morpheus was the god of dreams.
Attentive to detail and concerned about cleanliness.
Fatty Arbuckle.
A derogatory expression, used — especially by older Americans who remember the silent-screen actor of that name — to describe obese individuals. Like Oliver Hardy of the Laurel and Hardy film duo, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made comedic hay out of his considerable girth.
Allegiance, faithfulness.
A notable accomplishment or exploit, often a physical one.
A swampy bog or marsh.
Richly adorned with decorations.
Foul, rank, stinking.
A conical, though flat-topped, red hat, worn in several Muslim countries and by members of fraternal organizations such as the Shriners.
Pronounced “Fy,” this is an exclamation of disgust or disapproval, usually paired with the word “on,” as in “Fie on you!”
Long-winded speeches, especially to deliberately prolong procedures in legislative sessions. Less often, the word also describes those who deliver such windy remarks.
Delicate, twisted, lacy metal artwork.
Five-and-Dime Store.
A retail outlet found in almost every American town and city, especially in the mid-20th Century, in which prices were as low a nickel (five cents) and a dime (10 cents).
To promote, shill for. A public-relations person or promotion executive who touts clients’ work is also called a flack.
A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.
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.
To disregard, show contempt for, or even mock accepted rules or custom. The word is often confused with “flaunt,” which refers to showing off, as in the famous expression, “If you got it, flaunt it.”
Something unexpected: usually a stroke of good luck.
Flustered, confused, perplexed by what's going on around you.
To fail, especially a test or academic subject in school.
A sudden, often unexpected, attack into enemy territory.
Stark, rugged, even life-threatening.
To prevent or obstruct something from happening through quick or decisive action.
Pitiful and sad, miserable — or appearing to be such.
Happening through good fortune or chance.
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."
Irritable, bad-tempered, as in perpetually squabbling political parties.
To worry, sometimes to the point of great anxiety.
Shabbiness, down on its luck.
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."
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.
Stuffy, old-fashioned, fussy. The term is more often used as a noun describing such a person. The Phrase Finder online site notes that the unusual term may have come from a couple of imaginary characters in an ongoing satire published in a Boston newspaper in the 1890s. Their names: Fuddy and Duddy.
Presenting something in a vague or confusing way in order to mislead, conceal the truth, or hide one’s actual ignorance of the subject.
The pivot on which something, such as a lever, balances.
To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.
A rapid-fire, overwhelming volley of shots.


An American soldier. The origin of the term is debated. Some say it traces to “government issue,” as in soldiers’ uniforms. Others say it refers to the “galvanized iron” objects common in early Army barracks, including trash cans, tables, and cutlery.
Grand Old Party, a nickname for the Republicans.
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.
Gad, or gad about.
To wander somewhat aimlessly. In fact, a person who does so, just for pleasure, is called a “gadabout.”
A blunder or embarrassing faux pas.
To flit from place to place, lightheartedly, in search of enjoyment or pleasure.
Sturdy, and ideally waterproof, winter overshoes. The word is of Dutch origin, and if you’re curious, one of these boots is indeed a “galosh.”
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 railroad worker. Not engineers and conductors, but those with the hot, sweaty construction and maintenance jobs outside, on the rails. The origin of the term is debated, but one explanation pegs it to the dance-like movements of workers manipulating heavy pry bars that, some say, were called “gandies.”
To stare in amazement, often with one’s mouth open.
Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: "Godzilla Meets Gargantua."
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."
Flashy, gaudy, loaded with ornamentation.
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.
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.
Civilized, refined, cultivated.
Upgraded to a class befitting the local “gentry”. The term is usually applied to neighborhoods that have changed, with prosperous people moving in and displacing poorer residents.
Unintelligible words strung together; nonsense talk.
Excited, often mirthful, sometimes to the point of dizziness.
Gift of Gab.
Ability to speak knowledgeably and informally, often for long periods of time.
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."
Covered in gold or gold color.
Very, very large. Way beyond enormous.
An all-purpose word that one can use to describe an object for which you don’t really have a name. Others are “whatchamacallit” and “doodad.”
Newspaper tabloid slang for "glamorous."
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!
Twilight — the time when the sun has set but there’s still some light in the sky.
A shapeless, gooey, gummy substance. Sometimes you spread it; sometimes you step in it.
Go bonkers.
To go nuts, to celebrate or act out wildly and crazily.
Goober peas.
Boiled peanuts — an old-time southern delicacy. So are peanuts dropped into an RC Cola, even though it leaves the soft drink flat and the peanuts soggy.
In the noun form, this refers to a “do-gooder,” a virtuous person. The term comes from an 1888 British children’s story by that name in which a well-behaved orphan girl is given a pair of shoes by a wealthy man, lives a stellar life in which she becomes a teacher, and is rewarded with wealth of her own. The term is now often used mockingly, as if “do-gooder” behavior is naïve and foolish.
A short, spiny, evergreen shrub common to Western Europe, especially Ireland and rural England. The word also refers to entire golf courses laden with these shrubs.
In the adjective form, this word refers to something delicate and fine, even flimsy. The noun is related to the material that spiders use to spin webs.
A person who loves good food, especially lots of it.
Gout chair.
A rolling chair similar to a wheelchair, in which someone suffering from gout can get about without straining inflamed, painful feet.
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.
Greasy Spoon.
A roadside or small-town restaurant of dubious quality, whose food may taste delicious but will leave you loosening your belt after the meal.
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.
A large plot of ground, covered in grass.
Outgoing, sociable, talkative.
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."
Latins' disparaging term for English-speaking foreigners, especially Americans.
Extremely reluctantly. Going along with what’s asked of you, but with zero enthusiasm.
A boisterous laugh.
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.
A stretcher on wheels, used to transport living patients and, on occasion, those who have passed away.
Made up in a flashy way that doesn’t always have the desired effect of making one more attractive. The origin of this curious term is uncertain. One theory associates it with an early 20th-century piece of fabric called a “gusset” that was sewn into people’s clothes to make them fit better. Another idea is that it traces to the Australian slang word “Augustus” that refers to a “dandy” — a man who is exceptionally concerned about his appearance.


A very, very short — just 17 syllable — form of poetry, developed in Japan.
Hail fellow well met.
An Old English expression describing one who is cheery, outgoing, offering others exuberant and friendly greetings.
Hail fellows well met.
A phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s “All hail, fellow, and well met” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It refers to an exuberant and affectionate greeting.
Calm, peaceful, better. The word is often combined with “days,” as in “Back in our halcyon days . . . .”
This is the upper part of a pig’s leg, of course, but it has also come to describe a person who outrageously overdramatizes stories. “Hamming it up” means the person is really adding flourishes. On stage, this is frowned upon, because the “ham” is stealing scenes from other actors. Two of the theories of the origin of this meaning: It traces to Hamlet, or it may refer to the ham fat that actors once used to remove their make-up.
A bed — sometimes one that swings — made of canvas or cloth mesh that is suspended from fixed structures by cords.
Disorganized, random, casual or even careless.
Pathetic, deserving of pity.
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.
A short, grumpy huff. An expression of disapproval or disdain.
We all know to what the noun form refers. As a verb, to “hawk” means to loudly promote one’s wares.
Selling something, such as pamphlets on the street or hot dogs in a stadium, from place to place in small quantities. This usually involves cries such as “beer here!” to attract attention.
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."
To verbally bully or badger.
Hem and haw.
To hesitate, especially when one is uncertain about how to answer a question, sometimes while making little noises such as “um” and “uh.” The term is said to be an “echoic” phrase, mirroring the sounds one makes while stammering.
Filled with heresy, espousing ideas that are radically different from accepted beliefs.
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.
Stubbornly narrow-minded. Stuck in one’s ways or attitudes.
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.
Having or demonstrating culture, refinement, and taste.
A covering, much more extensive than a simple veil, worn in public by many Muslim women. Sometimes the woman’s face is visible, and sometimes just her eyes.
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.
Aged, even ancient.
To hang out with, or have a give-and-take conversation with your pals.
A Navajo Indian dwelling built of earth and branches and covered by sod or mud.
Originally a British unit of measurement, a hogshead is a huge barrel that holds 235 liters (62 gallons) of liquid, such as wine. But it’s often used to store and transport a solid substance — tobacco — as well.
Nonsense. Written or verbal swill.
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.
Self-important, pompous, stuck up. Oddly enough, the word traces to the Old English verb “hoit,” which had just the opposite meaning, involving noisy romps around a room. Hoity-toity people avoid hoiting at all cost!
Wild exaggeration or artifice by a huckster, designed to impress, often to convince others to spend their money on something that is worthless or nowhere near the value described by the salesman.
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.
An American pioneer who had been granted a parcel of land in return for settling the vast expanses of the American West.
A third party who is blamed for the breakup of a marriage. This word should not be confused with “housewrecker,” which describes a demolition expert.
Nonsense or senseless talk, as in, especially, a bunch of hooey.
A slang term, often heard in B-grade detective movies, for a jail or prison. The word evolved from the Spanish "juzgado de guardia," or police court — usually a night court that was one quick step from a minimum of a night in jail.
The Midwest state of Indiana is called the "Hoosier State," and its residents, “Hoosiers.” Nobody is quite sure why. One story is that pioneer settlers were a little nervous opening the doors of their shacks and sod houses. "Who's Zher?" they would say. No wonder the state legislature instead prefers to call Indiana the “Crossroads of America."
A playground game on which children — or foolhardy adults — hop from square to square. It’s uncertain where the “scotch” part of the name came from, since the game was originally Roman and is played all over the world.
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.
A person or thing that’s really remarkable. The term was named after an exceptionally skilled American athlete and aviator, Arnold Humdinger. Skilled, except that he died trying to land his biplane on the summit of Mt. Everest.
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!
An old Scottish term referring to a crouched position. Sometimes the redundant term “hunkered down” is used.
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"!
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.


The study of fishes. Ichthys is Greek for "fish."
A peculiar trait or form of behavior.
Of low status or character. Lacking in nobility.
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.
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.
Instant message.
As a noun, this means an obligation or mood that influences future action, as when a nation feels it has a moral imperative to act. As an adjective, it means vital and urgent.
To collapse, or cause something to tumble inward.
A person who organizes large events such as concerts and fairs.
The common and best-understood meaning of this word involves trying to get others to admire and respect someone. Doing so makes a “good impression.” But the word also the action of forcing someone to serve in a nation’s armed forces, as when the British “impressed” U.S. merchant sailors prior to the War of 1812.
Freedom from, or without fear of, penalty or punishment. The word is usually paired with a “with.” He said it with complete impunity.
In cahoots.
In an often sneaky collusion or partnership with. “Cahoots” almost never appears alone, without its “in.”
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.
In spades.
In abundance. Many times over. The term originates from card games in which spades are the highest suit. Thus, you might not have just a winning hand but one “in spades.”
By accident, and certainly not deliberately. Sometimes an inadvertent gesture or comment that you never meant to do or say can have completely unintended consequences.
Idiotic and empty of substance.
Containing a filament that turns white-hot and gives off light when electric current passes through it.
Without pause; never-ending. The term is usually applied to something unpleasant, such as an incessant headache.
Not in communication, out of touch.
To accuse, especially to formally charge one with a crime.
A humiliating or degrading experience or remark.
Idle, slothful, lazy.
Generous, lenient, forgiving — sometimes to a fault. Indulgent parents, for instance, may soon find that they’ve raised a spoiled child.
Shorthand for the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. In the sporting world, “Indy” is universally recognized as a reference to the famed Indianapolis 500 open-wheel automobile race each May.
Ineffective and unable to produce desired effects. When describing an individual, it refers to an inability to handle one’s responsibilities or job.
Motionless. Lacking vigor.
Impossible to stop. Relentless.
A naïve, innocent girl or young woman — especially an actress who plays one.
A large block or bar of iron or steel, ready to be melted and formed into defined shapes.
Enchanting but dangerous or harmful. Ideas as well as actions can be insidious.
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."
Not easily convinced, managed, or fixed.
Ill-tempered. Grouchy, even hotheaded.
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.
Isosceles triangle.
A triangle with two equal sides and one of a different length.


A large cash prize, often one that accumulates over time. The origin of the term traces to the poker card game. In the game of jacks-or-better draw poker, the pot — the amount of money wagered on a particular hand that’s sitting in the middle of the table — cannot be won until one of the players has at least two jack face cards in his hand. At that point, it becomes a jackpot.
Jacquard card.
A punched card whose pattern corresponds to that of a fabric to be woven in a loom. The process is too complicated to further explain here.
A beat-up, often malfunctioning, old vehicle. A real junker and “clunker.” There are many theories, none of them authoritative, about this colorful word’s origin.
A spicy mélange of chicken, sausage, shellfish, peppers, onions, celery, rice — and sometimes, in Louisiana “Cajun Country,” alligator.
To discard or abandon something. Pilots of airplanes that are in trouble, for instance, often jettison fuel to reduce the danger of an explosion upon impact. The word, from the French, is also the origin of the word “jetsam,” as in “flotsam and jetsam.” Jetsam is discarded material floating on the water. Flotsam is the floating remnants of a crash or ship’s sinking.
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.
Joie de vivre.
The carefree enjoyment of life.
Jot and tittle.
Every minute detail or iota. A jot is something very slight, such as a quick addition to a written line. Thus we sometimes briefly “jot” something down. Tittles are the little accent marks, called “diacriticals,” over certain words, particularly in languages other than English.
Taken from the medieval sport involving lance-carrying knights on horseback, jousting is now mostly spirited verbal competition.
The alignment of two things, often words, side by side.


Something that changes patterns wildly. The name comes from the kaleidoscope, a tube-like toy containing colored glass and mirrors. When the holder twists the tube, the glass takes on new and sometimes amazing patterns, visible through the device’s eyehole.
Keep your nose to the grindstone.
Work hard, and pay attention. According to the informative waynesthisandthat.com Web site, the expression has a fascinating origin: “In the milling of flour in old mills, the fineness of the grind is determined by the separation between the two grinding stones. . . .The most diligent millers, who produced the finest flour, learned to close the gap down until they could just smell the flour browning, then ease the stones apart enough to prevent burning. . . . Hence the origin of the expression.”
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.
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.
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.


Terse, succinct. People of “few words” are said to be laconic.
Lame duck.
A political officeholder nearing the end of his or her term, thus said to be somewhat crippled and vulnerable to attacks from predatory opponents.
An expression of sorrow, grief, or strong regret.
A pantry or other place where food is stored.
This is a songbird, of course, but the word also refers to some spur-of-the-moment activity done just for fun.
To praise, even glorify.
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.
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.
A tiny, mischievous sprite in Irish folklore, often depicted by not-so-tiny men in kelly-green costumes.
Super-quick. The origin of the term is cloudy. It first appeared in the 1800s, along with other references to a quick lick or click of the tongue. It may well be the mere sound of the word, akin to the clickety-clack of a moving train, that brought about its creation.
Tiny island people about 15 cm (5 inches) tall in Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels fantasy.
Limbering up.
Warming up in preparation for strenuous exercise or, metaphorically, for some sort of performance, such as a concert.
A heavy, clattering machine that produces type from which newspapers, magazines, and the like are printed. Letters, created out of hot metal as directed by the linotype operator, appear in reverse order on lines, or “slugs,” of type.
A difficult and highly creative copy of a painting or photograph. Lithography involves drawing a mirrored image of the original, using greasy crayons, onto a smooth stone, upon which paper is laid and pressed to create the lithographic image.
Comfortable, often soft, shoes with a low, flat heel, good for loafing around in.
Idling, taking it easy, especially to avoid work.
Unwilling or reluctant. The word is usually paired with the preposition “to,” as in, “I am loath to pursue that subject.” The verb “loathe” has much stronger negative connotations.
A bit balmy or insane. The word comes from a Mexican weed that is said to have that effect on those who eat it.
A deposit of valuable ore confined to a particular location from which the mineral can be extracted.
To sit or stand in a lazy, supremely relaxed position. The term also sometimes connotes a droopiness, as when one’s head lolls to the side.
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.
Prominent people or stars. Big shots. The bright lights, or luminescence, shine on these famous people.
Something beautiful, often emotional, in music or literature.


A noisy blackbird, made famous by the two gabby cartoon magpies, Heckle and Jeckle. An overly talkative person is sometimes called a magpie as well.
Making the grade.
Measuring up to others’ expectations.
Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal's coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.
Mariachi bands.
Ensembles of musicians, often wearing glittering bullfighter-type outfits and oversized Mexican sombreros, that play exuberant string music, sometimes accompanied by trumpets. No one seems to know the true origin of the word. It’s been incorrectly traced to a French word for “marriage” from a time when Maximillian, a Frenchman, was emperor of Mexico. And to a more obscure Indian word for a kind of wood from which the platforms on which mariachi bands performed.
As a noun, a maul is a tool with a long handle and a sharp, pointed blade that’s heavier and wider than that of an axe. It’s used to split logs rather than just lop off branches or chop holes in wood. The verb form is more familiar. To maul something or someone is to beat or injure something badly.
A supersized house, out of proportion to others on the block.
A cone-shaped object, held against the mouth, that amplifies the human voice.
A mixture or medley, often in no apparent pattern.
Pronounced MAY-lay, this is a commotion, a confused scene, often involving a scuffle.
A valued souvenir that’s often a reminder of a family event or journey. The word is derived from Latin words meaning “remember.”
Enchanted, spellbound, almost to the point of being hypnotized.
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.
Detailed, careful, perhaps a bit fussy.
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.
Midas touch.
A reference to King Midas of Greek mythology, who turned everything he touched into gold.
One's bearing - how you carry yourself. Thus we sometimes read about a person's low mien (not a Chinese delicacy) or regal mien.
A person who makes hats, especially women’s chapeaus. The term appears to trace to references to makers of fancy goods in Milan, Italy.
A folk singer, particular a comic singer in elaborate song-and-dance productions that traveled the Deep South before and after the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Some were whites in “blackface,” pretending to be uncultured African Americans.
Mint julep.
A southern cocktail that Americans have come to associate with the Kentucky Derby horse race. It’s made from bourbon, sugary syrup, and mashed fresh mint. Supposedly, the drink was patterned after an Arabian concoction called the "julab," made of water and rose petals.
Mirth. Merriment, expressed in light, jolly laughter.
A person who behaves extremely badly or breaks the law.
A confused jumble. A hodgepodge.
A name that is wrongly applied. Lead pencils, for instance, contain no lead, and tin foil has no tin.
Hateful toward or disparaging of women.
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.
A wealthy business leader. A “big shot.”
To rot or decay. The word is sometimes spelled with a “u,” as in the lyrics to the mournful song, “John Brown’s Body”: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”
Moon pies.
A snack that’s especially popular in the South, consisting of two round graham-cracker cookies and a marshmallow filling, all covered in a flavored (usually chocolate) coating. This fattening treat was first served to coal miners near Chattanooga, Tennessee, during World War I.
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.
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.
Moral suasion.
Persuasion, not by force or even logic, but by the power of what is right and virtuous.
Geologically, a morass is a patch of soggy ground. Metaphorically, it’s a similarly engulfing or overwhelming situation from which one has difficulty escaping.
Gloomy, sullen, dejected.
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."
Mosey, or mosey along.
To dawdle or take one’s sweet old time about getting somewhere.
Though the word comes from the Arabic, this is a Greek baked dish consisting of eggplant, meat in layers, savory spices, and a topping of white sauce.
Determination, nerve. It takes real moxie, for instance, to get up and leave in the middle of your boss’s presentation.
Pronounced “muffa-LOTTA” for some reason, this is an Italian specialty sandwich that's especially popular in New Orleans, which, though originally French, had extensive Italian immigration. The sandwich, on a large, round loaf of bread, combines Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and flavorful, minced olive salad.
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.
While this word could refer to a metal shoe similar to a horseshoe, it also describes a kind of casual human shoe, closed in the front and completely open in the back.
Near-sighted. The term does not refer to a medical condition alone, but also to one’s tendency to pay attention to things that are close at hand rather than in the world at large.


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.
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.
At an early stage of development, or just coming into existence, as in “the nascent information-technology movement.”
Catchy short form of “naturally.”
Chattering, usually about things of little importance.
From Yiddish, this word describes an extremely meek, timid, and unremarkable person.
New York Minute.
An instant, or really, really quick. Faster than the New York cab driver behind you can honk his horn at you. That’s fast!
Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning "addicted to novelty."
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.
With blithe unconcern or indifference. Behaving matter-of-factly in a situation that might normally evoke extreme reactions.
Not associated with a particular sect or political group.
Nouvelle cuisine.
Fresh, light, usually French food, contrasted to classic French dishes that are buried in sauces.
Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.


An uncultured, uncouth, often clumsy fellow.
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.
Object lesson.
An action or event that serves as a model of what others should — or just as often should not — do.
To utterly destroy something — completely wipe it out.
The complete destruction of something. An annihilation.
A person in his or her 80s. The “octo” prefix also shows up in words such as octopus (eight legs) and the newer “octomom” — mother of eight.
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.
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.
A word of African origin that describes a flowering plant whose green seed pod is prized as a dish in the U.S. South. The slimy consistency of the pulp inside the pod is usually boiled out before okra is added to dishes such as gumbo.
Old fogey.
These words almost always appear together. There doesn’t appear to be such a thing as a “young fogey.” On old fogey is someone who’s hopelessly out of date, unfashionable, and quite set in his ways. (I say “his” because there don’t appear to be many female fogeys, either.)
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.
Threatening or menacing, as in “ominous clouds on the horizon.” The term comes from the same root as “omen.”
Lots. This term may have begun with a rhyme: oodles of noodles. There can be one noodle, but there doesn’t ever appear to be a single oodle, however.
Oriel window.
More commonly called a bay window, which protrudes outward from the surface of a building.
The study of birds.
A lavish display, especially of one’s wealth, to impress others.
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.
A combination of contradictory terms. “Light opera,” for instance, might be one of them.


P. R.
Short for "public relations." Many companies and famous people have an army of "p.r. men" (or women) to polish their images.
Literally, the word refers to an artist’s board, from which he or she brushes on colors. More broadly, it has come to mean an artist or architect’s range or field of interest.
To the lessen the effect of something. A "palliative" relieves pain without really curing the condition.
Gaunt, sickly-looking, peaked. That last word, by the way, is pronounced “PEEK-id” in this context.
A word of French origin that describes actions taken with great flair or exaggerated flourish.
Gratifying base or distasteful instincts or desires.
A wide, and often impressive, array of something. A panoply of colors, for example. It's pronounced "PAN-uh-plee."
Pronounced “PARR-uh-dime,” this word, favored in science and math circles, refers to a pattern or model of something. An archetype.
A wall-like barrier extending above the edges of the roof. Atop medieval castles, soldiers protected behind these walls hurled arrows and even boiling oil down on attackers.
An outcast. One who is shunned.
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.
A particular way of speaking in a certain job or profession. Sports “lingo,” for instance, is one kind of parlance.
Not just frugal but downright cheap. Tight with a dollar and not inclined to part with one.
A large group or pack.
Patience of Job.
Extraordinary, even superhuman, endurance. In the biblical story, though God allowed Satan to take Job’s family, fortune, and health, Job did not waver in his faith.
A shortage or scarcity of something.
To resound or ring loudly. The word usually describes the ringing of a bell. Note the spelling: peal, not peel.
A small sin or indiscretion, not worth getting too worked up about.
Bookish, overly concerned with obscure knowledge and showing off that knowledge.
A large water bird with a huge throat pouch that can expand to seize good-sized fish that the bird catches while diving beneath the water’s surface.
Confused, helter-skelter, in a big and disorderly rush. The term is derived from the French “pallemaille,” referring to a game involving a ball and mallet. The game was wild and confusing.
The name given to churches or believers in a highly personal, often emotional, form of worship that includes a literal belief in the Bible’s teachings. There is no specific Protestant denomination with this name, but there is a loose association among some congregations where Pentecostals’ fervent forms of worship are practiced.
Per se.
From the Latin, meaning intrinsically, exactly. "It wasn't fraud per se, but it had all the elements of it."
To leach into something, or strain through tiny, porous holes, much as water picks up the color and flavor of ground coffee beans before percolating downward into a pot below.
An adjective describing one who travels, or more accurately wanders, about, often restlessly.
Shortened from the less-familiar word “perquisites,” these are benefits, special favors, and luxuries that go with certain political or business positions. Company cars and first-class air travel, for instance, are sought-after executive perks.
Fussy and demanding about every little detail, often in a snotty or snobbish way.
In the days of horse-drawn carriages, phaetons were light, open conveyances, ideal for a fast trot. Phaeton automobiles that followed were fine touring cars.
Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you've had a phantasmic experience.
Sluggish, apathetic, hard to get moving.
An ancient cave or rock drawing.
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."
A small, insignificant person. The origin of the word is debated. “Pips” are little things, and the word may relate to the sound given off by a weak baby bird.
Spicy, pungent, savory, having a pleasant taste.
Concise and forceful. Pith is the substance beneath the surface of a plant, such as the “white part” of an orange under its skin, so “pithy” relates to getting to the heart of a matter. And a “pith helmet” — the kind that every respectable British explorer wore in the jungle in old movies — is made from a lightweight, corky pith from certain trees.
An energetic personality. Flair. Pizzazz is an asset to television stars and infomercial hosts, but all that bubbliness can be annoying.
Sadly, mournfully, somewhat pathetically. A hungry kitten might meow plaintively.
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.
A truly odd, and odd-looking, Australian animal with a duck-like bill and beaver-like tail. But even more distinctively, it is the only mammal that lays eggs.
Ordinary. The term traces to the plebes, or common people, as distinguished from wealthy patricians, in ancient Rome.
An excess of something, such as a plethora of candidates for an advertised job.
As used in this blog in verb form, ply means to travel between two places, often regularly. Ships ply a given trade route, for instance. One can also ply a trade, such as making two-ply toilet tissue.
The New Orleans term for a sandwich style that is called a “hoagie” or “submarine” in other parts of the country. It consists of a long, fresh roll, cut horizontally and stuffed with a variety of fillings, such roast beef, fried oysters, or lunch meats and cheese. Piquant Louisiana hot sauce is an almost-obligatory condiment.
Cowboy lingo, or language, for “partner.” Cowboys often rode in pairs on the dusty trail.
Pronounced “POYN-yant,” with the “g” silent, this describes something that is deeply felt, often tinged with sadness. A poignant moment in a drama, for instance, may require more than one handkerchief.
Slang for “jail,” perhaps a derivation of the old term “pogie poorhouse” — which doesn’t explain what “pogie” meant. Other terms for lockups: slammer, hoosegow, stir, pen (short for penitentiary), big house, joint, and clink.
Multilingual. The term often describes a gathering of people who are jabbering away in many languages.
To think about something deeply and seriously, or weigh it carefully before making a decision.
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.
A top official or executive, especially one who enjoys lording it over his or her subordinates. The term is borrowed from a character called the “Pooh-Bah” in the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, “The Mikado.”
Nonsense; drivel; meaningless talk with no substance whatever. The word traces to Dutch terms that, roughly translated, refer to “doll excrement,” in other words, something quite insubstantial.
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.)
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.
Prairie Schooners.
Heavy pioneer wagons with arching wooden bows that supported billowing canvas covers that gave the wagons a vague shiplike appearance.
An often humiliating slip or fall, fast, onto one's backside. "Prat" was an Old English term for one's buttocks.
To chatter or talk rather quickly and mindlessly.
Having developed certain skills or talents far beyond one’s years. A precocious child, for instance, might learn at a level far ahead of her classmates. That’s not always a good thing, for precocious children can sometimes be spoiled or defiant.
Absurd, senseless, ridiculous
Impressive beyond one’s actual talent, culture, or intellect. A pretentious person is a “show-off.”
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.
Aboriginal, existing from prehistoric times.
Fussy and excessively proper; fastidious to the extreme.
Remarkably great. Accomplished, as in, “He was a prodigious scholar” or athlete.
Productive, producing many things. The word comes from biology, referring to plants that produce much foliage or people who have many children.
A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you're "giving props."
Ordinary, unromantic, lacking in beauty or charm.
A recent convert to a religion or point of view who, in his or her enthusiasm, begins to try to recruit other believers as well.
A bulge or something that sticks out from a larger body.
So well known that it’s become a stereotype. Something that’s referred to in time-worn proverbs or fables. The proverbial fox in the henhouse, for example.
Cautious, safe, undertaken with great care.
About to reach, or having just reached, sexual maturity.
Belligerence, especially from a hard-bitten person who’s spoiling for a fight.
A member of a strict, highly structured Protestant community active in the 16th and 17th centuries in Britain and its New England colonies in America.
Professed or asserted. Something may be purported to be the case but bears checking to see if it is indeed true.
Proceeding with excessive wariness or caution. The term is borrowed from a pussycat’s deliberate and cautious inspection of a dangerous situation.
One who compulsively starts fires; a firebug. The word derives from the word "pyre," which refers to a roaring fire.


A phony or incompetent medical practitioner who dispenses useless treatments and potions.
Perfect, the epitome of something, as in “the quintessential southern mansion.”
Beyond idealistic and romantic, to the point of unrealistic foolishness. The word comes from the absurdly chivalrous hero Don Quixote in Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel “Don Quixote de La Mancha.”
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.
Radio jargon.
Here’s a list of terms that old-time radio disc jockeys, news- and salespeople would recognize: AIRCHECK. A recording of you at your best on the air, packaged to send to possible new employers. CART. A hard-plastic cartridge containing a continuous loop of audio tape on which you recorded station “jingles,” “spots” [commercials], or news and sports interview “bites.” CROSSFADE. To ease into a song as you’re simultaneously easing out of another. DUB. A copy of an audio tape. GM. General manager. HIT A POST A post is a hard break point in a show, one that cannot be delayed, such as the beginning of a network newscast at the top of the hour. Hitting it means finishing any music or conversation in time to hear the start of the newscast or commercial cleanly at the post. PBP. Play-by-play sports broadcast. PD. Program director — the fellow (almost all were men) who supervised the on-air “talent” and often had a prominent “drivetime gig” of his own. PLATTERS. Phonograph records, also referred to as “discs,” “vinyl” or (by renowned deejay Robert “Wolfman Jack” Smith) “stax of wax.” POT IT DOWN (or up). Adjust the volume using a control knob or slider on the audio “board.” RIP-'N'-READ. Rather than writing a news story yourself, you simply ripped a story off the wire-service printer and read it on air, often “cold,” having not even looked at it. This has produced some fabulous “bloopers,” or embarrassing on-air mistakes. SEGUE. Pronounced SEGG-way, this is a transition between songs or show elements. SLIP-CUE. Pressing down on a record on a turntable to keep it from spinning and playing, then releasing it at precisely the time you want the music to start. SPOT. A commercial advertisement. Trade deal. An agreement between a station and a sponsor in which an advertiser gets sponsorship air time, but instead of paying money provides the station or its star “talent” with free goods or services. VOICE TRACK. To lay down commercials and introductions to music, sometimes for a whole day or week, in one sitting. The voice track is then edited into the appropriate spots so that, to the listener, it sounds like the disc jockey is there live, introducing each record or spot.
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.
Noisy, rowdy, boisterous.
An earthen embankment, built as a fortification for defensive purposes.
Poorly constructed or maintained. A ramshackle structure is literally falling apart. Believe it or not, the word comes from the Icelandic, meaning "badly twisted."
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.
From the German, a beer hall in a home or restaurant’s basement.
Boisterous, disorderly.
Crude, uncouth, vulgar. So-called "dirty" jokes are often raunchy, even obscene by civil standards.
Delightful, captivating, entrancing.
Razzle-dazzle. Clever plays by a sports team, designed to outwit the opposition.
Solitary, preferring isolation from others.
Compensation for great harm or an injustice.
Moral virtue and correctness, especially of a cause.
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.
A small and usually temporary stronghold, often a place to which harassed forces retreat to regain their strength.
Reflection bounces back light. Refraction bends it or changes its direction by passing it through a medium like glass.
To repeat a statement, sometimes more than once.
A long, usually black, suit coat, worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
. A medicine or treatment for a medical condition.
Conversation punctuated by witty give and take.
Reunited with or returned to. The opposite, unrequited, as in “unrequited love,” is better known.
A sticky, flammable substance exuded by pine and fir trees. The word is usually pronounced “REZZ-in.” But the little white bag that is placed near the pitcher’s mound in baseball, which the pitcher rubs in his hand to improve his grip, is called the “ROZZ-in” bag.
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.
Not just quiet, but actually averse to talking.
Cutting back, curtailing expenses. This was originally a French military term, having to do with digging additional trenches or fortifications as a last-ditch — note the hidden meaning of that word, too — line of defense.
To give back. The term is often used in real estate, when a piece of property, having been given to an individual or community or state, proves not to be as useful as expected and is returned to the giver.
To add something not included when an item or structure was first built.
A daydream state, lost in one’s thoughts.
Common, widespread.
An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.
A simpleton from the country.
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."
To think long and hard about something. To ponder.
To sort through a pile or roomful of items, or perhaps a Dumpster trash bin, searching for something.
Aside from the usual meaning of a person or animal’s hindside, “rump” as an adjective describes a small part of a legislative body that does not have enough members to pass bills. Thus those in a “rump session” can discuss and argue but have little authority to do anything.
Run amok.
To rush about wildly, often attacking everything in your path. The word “amok” has Malaysian roots, referring to a state of madness and uncontrollable rage.
A livestock thief.


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.
Sally forth.
To head out suddenly and briskly. The term goes back to medieval Europe, when a “sally port” was a small, easily defended doorway in a castle, from which raiding parties could quickly dart to combat sieges.
A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear.
The discharge, all at once, of fire — usually artillery blasts.
Cheery, optimistic, taking a rosy view of events or the future.
Grimly and cynically mocking, often one’s own circumstances or fortunes.
A drink similar to modern-day root beer that derives its flavor from the roots of the prickly sarsparilla plant found throughout Latin America.
Walk or strut in an exaggerated, ostentatious manner.
Boldly, in a lively, perky way.
Saved my bacon.
This expression means that someone kept another from harm, or rescued him or her from an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation. It appears to have originated from early, rural America, when people sometimes quite literally saved others’ sides of bacon from fire or theft.
A fraudulent scheme or enterprise, designed to bilk unsuspecting “suckers” of their money.
Scarlet letter.
A mark of shame. The term traces to the letter A, once branded on the forehead of an accused adulterer. It was the name of a famous 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In addition to referring to animals that feed off carrion, this word applies to humans who collect items that others have discarded.
A coarse metamorphic rock. Under intense pressure and heat, schist can turn into smoother shale.
From Yiddish: to tediously drag oneself someplace.
From Yiddish, a less-than-ordinary, talentless, plodding person.
A lazy, lethargic person. Schlumps are also often schlubs! (clumsy and slovenly folks) as well. Both words migrated from the Yiddish language.
Overly sentimental, mushy, maudlin. Many of us like schmaltzy music, but we don’t often admit it.
To chat intimately and often animatedly with another person or small group. The word is of Yiddish origin.
The human nose — especially a big, bulbous one. The term is taken from the Yiddish word for “snout.”
The term is taken from biology, in which a scion is the offshoot of a plant. More often, the word describes the descendant — almost always male — of a prominent family.
A breakfast staple in parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware, especially. It combines bits of meat mixed and boiled with cornmeal, then fried.
Filth, sleaziness.
Seat of the Pants.
Derived from the expression “flying by the seat of his pants,” meaning to decide on a course of action quickly with little time for deliberation. The saying traces to the early days of aviation — especially accounts of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan’s 1938 flight from New York to Ireland without benefit of instruments or a radio. Problem was, he was supposed to fly the other way, across the continent to California.
To break away or withdraw from an organization or governmental alliance. The most famous secession in America occurred when ten southern states left the Union in the 1860s, triggering a great civil war.
Second line.
In New Orleans jazz music, this is a jaunty, syncopated rhythm, to which people dance in a sort of bouncy conga line, often twirling parasols to the music.
Thin, lightly puckered cloth used, especially, to make men’s and boys’ summer suits. The name comes from a Hindi corruption of a Persian phrase meaning “milk and sugar,” perhaps referring to the alternately rough and smooth texture of the cloth.
Senior prom.
A formal dance, or promenade, for students about to graduate from high school. Typically they are dressed in their finest — tuxedos and “prom dresses” — sometimes for the first time in their lives.
Tomblike, often dark and deathly quiet.
A long, colorful shawl traditionally worn by Mexican men.
150th, as in a sesquicentennial celebration or world's fair.
All of something; the whole thing. This word is almost always paired with the word “whole,” as in, “the whole shebang,” to underline the entirety of it all. The word’s origin is obscure, but it may trace to an 1862 Walt Whitman poem that described the campfires and “shebang enclosures” of Civil War soldiers.
A shortage or scarcity of something.
To wobble or vibrate, especially side to side.
A lively party, especially one that celebrates something. The term traces to the old word “shindy,” in which the party was more like a brawl — perhaps one in which lots of shins took a kick or two.
Shotgun house.
A deep and narrow simple house or cottage that got its nickname on the theory that one could fire a shotgun blast that would carry all the way from the front porch through the front room, bedroom, and kitchen — which would be lined up back-to-back.
A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a "bit."
To remove something, as in one’s clothes or the shucks (outer coverings) of corn or shellfish.
To depart in a hurried, even frenzied manner, often away from danger. The word has an unknown origin, although the “Words at Random” Web site speculates that it comes from the Irish word “sgedadol,” which means “scattered.”
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.
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.
To satisfy, especially as in quenching one’s thirst.
Exaggerated physical comedy, often involving pratfalls or pies to the face. Slapsticks were actual implements of early vaudeville comedy. They were paddles of sorts, made of two pieces that slapped together with an exaggerated clap when applied by one comedian to another. A “pratfall,” by the way, is a sensational, backward fall onto your buttocks, often deliberately for comic effect.
To spread generously. Mayonnaise on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for instance.
Sloppy, shabby, careless, halfhearted.
Smarter than your average bear.
This was the self-promoting saying of Yogi Bear, a cartoon character in two American television series, beginning in 1958. Yogi thought he was quite clever at devising ways to steal campers’ picnic baskets at Jellystone National Park — a takeoff on Yellowstone Park. Delivered in an affected manner borrowed from a human character in another TV show, “I’m smarter than your average bear” became a catchphrase in the popular culture.
A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”
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."
A made-up word not in most dictionaries. It's a descriptive variation of "smashed."
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"!
Sarcastic, in a snotty sort of way. Snide comments are often asides about someone else's perceived inappropriate appearance or behavior.
A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.
Whining and tearful. Another vocabulary-building word, obsequious, also fits someone who snivels.
Seasonal tourists who come and stay in warm resorts and temperate communities when the snow is flying back home.
A kind of smokeless, often flavored, tobacco made from ground leaves. The product is usually inhaled, or “snuffed,” through the nose.
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.
Expressing care or concern. A solicitous person solicits information about you, your family, and your well-being.
Exceedingly wise. The term invokes the name of the biblical King Solomon who, most famously, found a way to determine the real mother of a baby who had been switched with an infant that died. Confronting two claimants, he raised his sword and announced that he would bisect the baby and give half to each. The real mother screamed and begged him to spare the child, even if it meant awarding it to the pretender. Clearly, Solomon decreed, she was the rightful parent.
Pronounced “SOR-tee” in English, this French word means a sudden military attack, usually from what was originally a defensive position.
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.
A large number or volume all at once. An outburst, as in, a “spate of angry e-mails.”
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. Pirate hideouts once 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.
Specifications, as in the blueprints and other particular requirements for an engineering job.
Spelling bee.
A contest in which contestants, one at a time, are required to spell a difficult word. Those spelling it incorrectly are eliminated, until only one person, who spells the word that one other finalist missed, is left standing as champion. The energy and busyness of the hardworking honeybee inspired this term as well as “quilting bee,” “sewing bee,” and others.
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.
From Yiddish and pronounced “shpeel,” this is a long and energetic story, meant to persuade.
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."
Spitting image.
A perfect likeness. The exact origin of this odd term is uncertain, but one theory dates it to the early American South, where syrupy accents were sometimes misunderstood by visitors. It’s thought that a common expression back then, “He’s the very spirit of his father,” was mistaken as “the very spit of his father.”
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.
A nickname for the potato. As if often the case, there are many theories on the origin of this term. One is that it’s name for the “spudder,” a spade-like tool used to dig up potatoes.
Spirit, determination, pluck.
Lively, spirited, plucky. The word is said to have devolved from an English and Scottish term for "spark."
A person who takes occupancy of property he or she does not own. Some of America’s most famous squatters were those who “jumped the gun” on the great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and laid claim to land that didn’t belong to them.
A concertina or accordion, especially a small type favored in Louisiana’s French-speaking Acadiana region.
In addition to describing the literal position of one’s feet, this word also refers to one’s point of view on an issue or question.
Holding firm in one's stand or convictions.
Outstanding, of star quality. The star-related root of the world is similar to that in the word “constellation.”
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.
From the Dutch, this is a word for a short flight of steps leading up to a house. One finds neighbors lolling and watching their children at play in the streets from their stoops in blue-collar neighborhoods, especially, in older American cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans.
To move slowly, stray from a group, or lag behind. Stragglers arrive late to many events.
Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a "straight shooter."
Rigid, formal, prim and proper — even “up tight” in the current vernacular. You may know that a strait is a narrow body of water, a passage, and strait-laced as an adjective also comes from the concept of narrowing or tightening. Specifically, it traces to the excessive tightening of a corset in the days when it was fashionable for women to wear one.
The noun form of this word, referring to pranks or difficult maneuvers (executed by “stunt men” or women), is well known. The verb form, to stunt, refers to stopping or hindering something, as in “stunting the growth” of someone or something.
Moist and tasty. Full of juice.
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."
Haughty, arrogant, “putting on airs” of superiority.
More than is needed and, often, serving no useful purpose.
To supersede or take the place of something. You can be pretty sure, for instance, that a new superstar will come along and supplant a former sports hero.
Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.
The family name, as opposed to the “given” first and middle names in many European and American homes. The term is a modification of the old, English “sirename,” meaning the (last) name a man took from his father.
Secretly or without someone’s knowledge.
Dominion by one entity — often a nation — over another.
Cleaning with something such as a bandage in the case of a wound or with a mop when referring to a floor. On a boat, one swabs the deck.
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.
To cheat or defraud a person through deceit
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.


Tabula rasa.
A clean slate or fresh start. Something with no previous agenda or preconceived ideas. The term traces to Roman wax tablets, used for recording notes. When the notes were no longer needed, the wax could be melted, leaving a blank surface ready to record new thoughts.
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.
Common, lacking in taste or class.
Tallow. A solid, slick substance made from boiled animal fat. It is used to make candles and soap.
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).
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.
A bowl, glass box, or other confined container in which to grow plants.
The hole.
Prison jargon for cells to which convicts are sentenced to solitary confinement.
Throw in the towel.
Give up, quit, surrender. It’s a boxing term, referring to the point when a fighter is beaten and his trainer throws a towel into the ring to alert the referee that the bout must be stopped.
Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.
Long, thin strands of shiny metal, designed specifically to accentuate the glow of candles, originally, then lights, on a Christmas tree. In fancy Victorian homes, the tinsel was made of real silver, but it tarnished easily and fell out of favor. Modern tinsel is aluminum-based.
A flustered or greatly animated state. Sometimes we get “all a-tizzy” over something exciting.
To a T.
If something fits, or suits you, “to a T,” it means that the fit is perfect. Some sources say the term traces to the precise of use of T-squares by draftsmen. Others say the “T” once stood for “tittle,” as in paying attention to “every jot and tittle.” A tittle is a tiny amount or iota.
To boot.
Something additional, as in “We saw a show and got a discount to boot.” One story pegs the term’s origin to the Old American West. There, it is said, when a trade of goods was agreed upon but the value of one item was greater than the other, the owner of the more valuable item would throw in a little cash to even things up. The other person could take the money right “to boot” — slipping it into his cowboy boot.
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.
Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.
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.
Toss Your Cookies.
Throw up. Vomit.
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.
Beyond the normal, incomparable.
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."
Ornamental clothing or furnishings. The word is often used to describe handsome or fashionable adornments, as in the “trappings of success.”
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.
Short for trigonometry, which, I’m told — God knows I had to look this up — has to do with computing the length of the sides of triangles by knowing the triangle’s angles and measuring the length of one side. (Math brains: help me out here!)
A pleasant, fluttering sound such as the call of a wren or other songbird.
To shorten or lop off something.
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.”
A grayish-white metal, mined for use in electrical filaments and acid formulas, as well as other industrial purposes. Also called “wolfram,” it carries the chemical symbol “W.”


Commonplace, appearing everywhere. Cellphones are ubiquitous in modern life, for instance.
Offense, resentment, as in taking umbrage at a distasteful remark.
Strange or weird, almost supernatural, as in an uncanny ability to anticipate what someone else will do next.
Unverified. To corroborate is to confirm the accuracy of something, often strengthening the information with even more evidence.
Rising and then falling waves.
Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.
Never-ending, unyielding.
Persistent, never-ending. To "remit" is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.
Unsatisfied. The word is most often applied to unfulfilled love.
A street kid, usually dressed raggedly.


Someone with no fixed home who’s always on the go. A nomad.
Uncertainties and unpredictable occurrences, such as the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Valley girls.
Materialistic, self-centered, hedonistic, and often sexually promiscuous young women from Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, at least as depicted in a series of forgettable “beach blanket” and surfer movies of the 1980s. These girls were more interested in fun and fashion than anything serious in their lives, and so they fit two more Wild Words coined a bit earlier: “ditzy” and “airhead.”
Insipid. Bland. Empty of vigor.
An undesirable, often predatory, animal, especially as seen by the owners of animals on whom the varmints prey. In movie “westerns,” characters often complain about human varmints, such as scoundrels who are rustling cattle or stealing water, as well.
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.
Close to the real thing. Something that is a “veritable gold mine,” for instance, isn’t a mine, but it’s extremely valuable.
The verb form has little to do with the familiar nouns, referring to veterans or animal doctors (veterinarians). The verb describes the process of checking, verifying, or investigating the authenticity of something or someone. Many job candidates are carefully vetted before being hired.
Repulsive, disgusting, horribly unpleasant.
The appearance, especially the face, of an individual. Sometimes there’s a mystical or magical aspect to this word, as in the visage of a holy person.
A word used to describe deep, almost physical rather than intellectual, feelings or reactions. As it’s sometimes put, it describes a “gut feeling.”
Although this literally translates from the French as simply “voyagers,” it has a specific historical meaning, tied to the French boatmen who transported goods and people among forts and trading posts in early Canada and north-central America’s Great Lakes.


To gently flutter along in the air.
On Facebook, the column on which you place notes, blogs, reader comments, and photos is called a “wall.” Those contributions, therefore, are “wallposts” — often also spelled as two words.
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.
Wealthy. People of means, of course, can afford fine footwear. Fine fighting cocks were also said to be well-heeled with deadly spurs.
A large, often confusing, number of things in no particular order.
Whack job.
Disparaging slang for a mentally unstable person.
A young, enthusiastic, tenacious person, often in an employment setting. The term is said to have originated in America’s Old West, where snapping a whip while herding cattle was one of the easiest tasks for a cowboy to learn. Thus it was given to eager newcomers in the saddle.
Whole cloth.
Something made up or false. This term was originally positive, referring to cloth cut from fine, original fabric. Then so many 19th-century American tailors began advertising whole-cloth products that were actually patched or falsely stretched that the term took on a negative connotation.
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.
An oil prospector who drills exploratory wells.
A speaker who talks on and on, filling the air with overblown statements and promises.
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.
Wishful, longing, pensive. You sometimes think wistfully about a place that you loved and miss.
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.
A person who is exceptionally, perhaps obsessively, studious. Some government officials — even a recent president or two — have been called “policy wonks.”
Worcestershire sauce.
A spicy brown sauce, first bottled in Worcestershire, England, that contains vinegar, molasses, and — believe it or not — a touch of anchovy paste.
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.


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."


Y’at accent.
A speech pattern heard in blue-collar sections of the southern seaport city of New Orleans that sounds more like Brooklyn than Basin Street. The name is taken from the local greeting, “Where y’at? Meaning, “What’s goin’ on?”
To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.
The world has called Americans “Yankees” at least since World War One, when the song “Over There” proclaimed that “the Yanks are coming.” Northerners were “Yankees” during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The term has been around longest as a unflattering name for folks living in the New England states of the American Northeast, who are sometimes portrayed as crafty but hard-hearted in business.
Yanking Your Chain.
Deliberately provoking someone, often just to see the reaction.
Thread that’s been spun. Perhaps this is why a really good story, also carefully spun, is also called a yarn.
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.
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."
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.
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.
A circular, portable, tent-like structure favored for centuries by Central Asian nomads.


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.
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.)

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


May 2024
« Nov