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Word of the Week: Umbra

Word: umbra

Pronunciation: ƏM-brə

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object, especially the area on the earth or moon experiencing the total phase of an eclipse

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Today’s the big day of the total solar eclipse! If you’re in the United States, you’ll have a chance to see at least a partial eclipse from wherever you are, so be sure to check NASA’s timetable of viewing times for your location (or if you’re anywhere else in the world, be sure to catch NASA’s live stream)! In the meantime, here’s a new vocabulary word to celebrate this rare event! Most of us here in the U.S. will get to see part of the eclipse, but only the lucky few total eclipse viewing areas will be in the path of the “umbra”!

“Umbra” refers to the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object, typically the area on the moon or the Earth experiencing the total phase of an eclipse. The word arose in the late 16th century and was originally used to denote a ghost or phantom. This noun stems from the Latin noun umbra, meaning “shadow” or “shade”.

Aside from its primary meaning, “umbra” is a literary term for “shadow” or “darkness”, while in astronomy, it can also refer to “the dark central part of a sunspot”. You may remember the Latin root umbra from another word I’ve written about before, which also means “to overshadow”. If you’re writing about an eclipse or simply want to work a more literary word for “shadow” into your stories, “umbra” is a good word to include in your vocabulary!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Vituperate

Word: vituperate

Pronunciation: və-TYOO-pə-rayt / vy-T(Y)OO-pə-rayt

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: blame or insult (someone) in strong or violent language

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Time for another vocabulary word from the Elevate – Brain Training app! This is another word I picked up from the Association game, in which the player must match a given word to one of four possible synonyms. Though I failed to correctly match this word to the verb “insult”, I couldn’t blame myself for not knowing what it meant because I’d never heard it before. After all, it’s much simpler to “blame” someone angrily than to “vituperate” them!

To “vituperate” someone is to insult or blame them in violent or strong language. The word arose in the mid 16th century and comes from the Latin verb vituperare, meaning “to blame” or “to scold”. This verb comprises two roots: the noun vitium “fault” and the verb parare “to prepare”.

Interestingly, while “vituperate” sounds similar to “vitriolic“, these words actually have different roots, the former’s being “fault” and the latter’s being “acid”. Note that “vituperate” is considered archaic, so you may want to limit its use to more old-fashioned contexts, along with its noun form “vituperator”. If your characters often blame or insult each other in a highly hostile manner, “vituperate” may be a good word to consider for your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Gumption

Word: gumption

Pronunciation: GƏMP-sh(ə)n

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Jasper: What exactly has got into you?

Iris: I don’t know. But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling… gumption!

The Holiday (2006)

Anyone who identifies as a fan of romantic comedies must be familiar with The Holiday, a film that’s been hailed by many as a Christmas favorite since it came out just over a decade ago. In the above scene, Iris has just managed to fall out of love with her ex-boyfriend Jasper after he flies from England to Los Angeles to see her. When she finds out he’s still engaged (and probably has no intention of leaving his fiancé), she finally sees him for the dirtbag he is and gleefully kicks him out of the house. This last line she utters before slamming the door in his face is nothing short of epic; to finally take her heart and her life back from a man who doesn’t deserve them is a true act of “gumption”!

“Gumption” is an informal term for spirited or shrewd resourcefulness and initiative. The word arose in the early 18th century and is originally Scottish, meaning “common sense” or “drive”. The origin of this noun is uncertain, but it may stem from the Middle English noun gome “attention” and the Old Norse noun gaumr “heed”.

While its official definition references initiative and resourcefulness, more common synonyms for “gumption” include “nerve”, “wit”, and “imagination”. Note that it’s typically a colloquial word, so it works best in informal contexts such as dialogue, as does its equally informal adjective form “gumptious”. If you write characters full of spirit and determination, “gumption” may be just the word you need to add a touch of spunk to your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Shibboleth

Word: shibboleth

Pronunciation: SHI-bə-ləth

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Here’s another new word I learned from reading political articles. When defining the beliefs and principles of certain political parties, it’s easy to form stereotypes about how these groups think and behave. The problem is that once these stereotypes become common enough, we start using them to distinguish one group from the other, which can lead to some bitter and downright hostile arguments down the road. The lesson: it’s important to remember that we’re all human beings; our “shibboleths” shouldn’t define who we are!

A “shibboleth” is a belief, principle, or custom that distinguishes certain groups or classes of people, typically one that’s outdated or no longer important. The word arose in the mid 17th century and comes from the Hebrew noun šibbōleṯ, meaning “ear of corn”. The current sense of the word derives from a biblical account in which it was used as a test of nationality for its difficult pronunciation.

Though its modern use has nothing to do with its original definition, there’s an interesting story behind the word “shibboleth”: according to an account in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible, after the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle, the former used this word to identify fleeing survivors among the latter, whose dialect resulted in the mispronunciation “sibboleth”. Today, the word is used to define repeatedly cited yet incorrect sayings or customs that distinguish in-groups from out-groups. If your characters are divided by antiquated beliefs and principles, you can easily use their “shibboleths” to color your story!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Mulligan

Word: mulligan

Pronunciation: MƏ-li-ɡən

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: (in informal golf) an extra stroke allowed after a poor shot, not counted on the scorecard

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Today I’m shaking things up in my Word of the Week segment with an informal word used in games. Though it’s most commonly associated with golf, I first learned this word while playing the mobile version of my favorite collectible card game: Pokémon TCG. One of the rules of the game states that each player must have a basic Pokémon in their starting hand; if you don’t, you must shuffle your cards back into your deck and redraw your hand until you do. This practice is part of the long-standing game tradition of the “do-over”, otherwise known as taking a “mulligan”!

A “mulligan” in any game is a second chance to perform an action, typically after the first attempt fails through a mistake or bad luck. In golf specifically, it refers to a free extra stroke allowed after a bad shot and which doesn’t count against the player’s score. The word arose in the early 20th century and comes from the surname Mulligan.

The exact origin of the word “mulligan” as a golf term is uncertain, but the conflicting stories all agree it was named after a golf player whose last name was Mulligan. Aside from its meaning in games, “mulligan” can also mean “a stew made from odds and ends of food”. Note that this word is chiefly informal and of North American usage, so it will likely work best in dialogue and colloquial writing. If your characters often take advantage of free second chances in games, “mulligan” may be a useful word for your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Lilliputian

Word: Lilliputian

Pronunciation: li-lə-PYOO-sh(ə)n

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: trivial or very small

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

I shall personally see to it that the demented, drooling, slime-breathed little Lilliputian who owns this disgusting ribbon will never see the light of day again!
– Miss Trunchbull, Matilda (1996)

Continuing from last week’s theme of Gulliver’s Travels words, today’s Word of the Week entry features another adjective taken from Jonathan Swift’s most famous novel. In the above scene from the 1996 film Matilda, Miss Trunchbull has assembled Miss Honey’s class to accuse one of them of breaking into her house to terrorize her the night before. Her one clue to the culprit’s identity is the ribbon she found outside her house, and though she already knows it belongs to Matilda, she takes her time building up the fear in all the children with a particularly elaborate threat. Harsh as they are, at least one of her chosen words is accurate; compared to the towering Trunchbull, Matilda and her classmates are indeed “Lilliputian”!

Anything described as “Lilliputian” is very small or trivial. The word arose in the early 18th century and was created by Irish author Jonathan Swift for his novel Gulliver’s Travels. This word comes from the name of Swift’s fictional land Lilliput, which is populated by people six inches tall.

Though I first heard the word “Lilliputian” in Matilda years ago, I only recently learned what it means; until now, I assumed it was just another of the Trunchbull’s countless creative insults for children (it certainly sounds like one!). Like “Brobdingnagian”, “Lilliputian” also doubles as a noun (in this case, for a tiny person or thing) and should always be capitalized as it derives from a proper noun. If you write about trivial things or characters who are exceptionally small, “Lilliputian” may be a good word to consider for your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Brobdingnagian

Word: Brobdingnagian

Pronunciation: brahb-ding-NA-ɡee-ən

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: gigantic

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Raj: You said I could buy a desk.

Sheldon: This isn’t a desk. This is a Brobdingnagian monstrosity.

Raj: Is that the American idiom for giant, big-ass desk?

The Big Bang Theory (Season 4, Episode 4 – The Hot Troll Deviation)

If you’ve watched this episode of The Big Bang Theory, you probably visualized Raj’s comically huge desk while reading the above dialogue. During a workplace feud between Sheldon and Raj (who are working together), Raj decides to mess with Sheldon by buying himself a desk that takes up half their office. Sheldon then complains about its ridiculous size using an equally ridiculous word, and though it sounds unusual, it nonetheless captures the absurdity of the situation. Where all other adjectives fail, nothing says “comically gigantic” like “Brobdingnagian”!

Anything described as “Brobdingnagian” is gigantic in size. The word arose in the early 18th century and was invented by Irish author Jonathan Swift, who used it in his satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels. This word comes from the name of Swift’s fictional land Brobdingnag, which is occupied by giants.

Aside from its main use as an adjective, “Brobdingnagian” can also be used as a noun to refer to a giant person, as these were the colossal occupants of the aforementioned fictional land. Note that because it derives from a name, the word should always be capitalized. Its use is extremely rare (I’ve only ever heard it before on The Big Bang Theory), but it can certainly be used to humorous effect when describing something outstandingly enormous. If you write comedy full of giant people or things, “Brobdingnagian” may be an excellent word to use in your stories!

Sheldon: Help me move my desk.


Raj: No. It’s too Brobdingnagian.

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Oligarchy

Word: oligarchy

Pronunciation: AH-lə-ɡahr-kee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

It’s Independence Day in the US tomorrow, so why not take this opportunity to learn a new political word? Today’s Word of the Week is one I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and now that some might say it’s more relevant than ever, it’s a good time to finally add it to the list! We love to believe in the idea of democracy, a government of the people, but sometimes the reality seems more like a select few are calling all the shots. In a nation where the wants of the few outweigh the needs of the many, we can only be living in an “oligarchy”!

An “oligarchy” is a form of government in which a small group of people control an entire country, institution, or organization. The word arose in the late 15th century and comes from the Greek noun oligarkhía, meaning “rule of few”. This noun comprises the adjective olígos “few” and the noun arkhḗ “authority”.

Historically, an “oligarchy” has usually been characterized as tyrannical and oppressive in nature, with power belonging to minorities distinguished by such criteria as nobility, wealth, or religious influence. Aristotle first used the word synonymously with “rule by the rich”, a definition that many critics still use in reference to certain modern governments. If your stories are set in a fictional world ruled by a small but powerful group, you’ve definitely created an “oligarchy”!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Despot

Word: despot

Pronunciation: DES-pət

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a ruler or other person who holds absolute power, typically one who exercises it in a cruel or oppressive way

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

There are despots and dictators,
Political manipulators.
There are blue bloods with the intellects of fleas.
There are kings and petty tyrants
Who are so lacking in refinements,
They’d be better suited swinging from the trees!
– “Perfect World“, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that wacky Disney movie about a cool Mesoamerican emperor who gets turned into a llama? If you saw even the trailers for this film back in the year 2000, you may recall that Emperor Kuzco is so vain, he even has a servant whose only job is to sing him his own theme song (voiced by Tom Jones, no less)! To emphasize the emperor’s greatness, the opening lines of the song mention other types of not-so-great rulers who could never measure up to him. The irony? Given his extreme selfishness, Kuzco may very well be a “despot” himself!

A “despot” is a ruler with absolute power, which is typically exercised in an oppressive or cruel way. The word arose in the mid 16th century and traces back through the French noun despote and the Latin noun despota to the Greek noun despótēs, meaning “master”. This word was first used as a court title in the Byzantine empire, while the current sense dates back to the late 18th century.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word “despot” originally referred to petty Christian rulers under the Turkish empire after the conquest of Constantinople. While not originally pejorative, the word gradually took on a negative connotation throughout history, eventually becoming synonymous with such terms as “tyrant” and “dictator”. Notably, however, despotism is a distinct form of government with its own history, so take care when using these terms interchangeably in a historical context. If you write characters who are oppressive rulers with absolute power, “despot” may be an excellent word to include in your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Word of the Week: Gubernatorial

Word: gubernatorial

Pronunciation: ɡoo-bər-nə-TO-ree-əl

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: relating to a state governor or the office of state governor

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

George: What about candleholders?
Jerry: Too romantic.
George: Lingerie?
Jerry: Too sexual.
George: Waffle maker?
Jerry: Too domestic.
George: Bust of Nelson Rockefeller?
Jerry: Too gubernatorial.
Seinfeld (Season 2, Episode 9 – The Deal)

Despite its serious connotation, I first learned today’s Word of the Week from an episode of one of my favorite comedy shows, Seinfeld. After making his infamous “deal” with Elaine, Jerry learns the real challenge of maintaining a friends-with-benefits relationship when he tries and fails to find a birthday gift for her that won’t send the wrong message. This leads to the hilarious exchange above that ends with an exasperated George sarcastically suggesting the only item in the store with no romantic undertones, which Jerry still dismisses as “too political”. He does have a point: given that he was once the governor of New York, a bust of Nelson Rockefeller is indeed “gubernatorial”!

Anything defined as “gubernatorial” refers to a governor or the office of governor, particularly a state governor in the US. The word arose in the mid 18th century and comes from the Latin noun gubernator, meaning “governor”. This noun stems from the verb gubernare “to govern”, which in turn derives from the Greek verb kubernáō “to steer”.

For obvious reasons, the word “gubernatorial” comes up most often in the media during congressional election cycles. However, it’s important to note that while it may be confused for a general political word, this adjective refers specifically to the office of governor (the senate equivalent, for example, would be “senatorial”). If you write political fiction with characters who are or plan to be governors, “gubernatorial” may be a useful word for your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

About J.C. Wolfe

J.C. Wolfe is a fiction writer, biologist, and aspiring novelist of science fantasy and romance. A natural-born American and graduate in Marine Ecology from a university in Brazil, J.C. now writes for a living in California while spending free time blogging and penning stories and poetry.

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