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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?

Word of the Week: Paterfamilias

Word: paterfamilias

Pronunciation: pay-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs / pah-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the male head of a family or household

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Father’s Day is this Sunday, so it’s a good week to share an uncommon synonym for “father”! Following the vocabulary word I shared for Mother’s Day, today’s Word of the Week is its equally exotic-sounding male counterpart. While the former holiday is dedicated to female heads of families everywhere, this upcoming holiday is a chance to celebrate every “paterfamilias” in your life!

A “paterfamilias” is the male head of a household or family. The word comes from the Latin phrase pater familias, meaning “father of the household”. This phrase comprises the noun pater “father” and the noun familia “family”.

Historically, a “paterfamilias” was the patriarch of a Roman family, established as the oldest living male in the household. His duties included managing his estate, exercising authority over every other member of his extended family, and actively participating in Roman political and social life. Similar to “materfamilias”, the plural form of “paterfamilias” is “patresfamilias”. If you write characters who are fathers and/or male heads of their households (especially for historical fiction about Ancient Rome), “paterfamilias” 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: Palimpsest

Word: palimpsest

Pronunciation: PA-ləm(p)-sest

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Fun fact about me: I’m currently working from home as a freelance editor and proofreader. Recently, while researching the different types of editing, I came across an interesting word sometimes used for manuscripts that have been rewritten and revised a few times. Many authors can surely relate: when your writing has been so heavily edited that only traces of the original draft remain, you now have a “palimpsest” on your hands!

A “palimpsest” is a manuscript or other piece of writing material from which original writing has been erased to make way for new writing, but on which traces of the original work remain. The word arose in the mid 17th century and comes from the Greek adjective palímpsēstos, meaning “scraped again”. This adjective comprises two roots: the adverb pálin “again” and the verb psáō “to rub smooth”.

Note that while the word “palimpsest” usually refers to reused manuscript paper, it can also be used to mean “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form”. In the editing world, this can double as a definition for a written work that’s gone through enough revisions to change most of the rough draft. If you really want to get creative, you can try to find a use for the adjective form “palimpsestic”, which means “relating to palimpsests”. If you spend much of your time writing and rewriting manuscripts (or have your characters do the same), “palimpsest” is a good word to know!

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

Word of the Week: Venerable

Word: venerable

Pronunciation: VE-n(ə)r-ə-b(ə)l

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom, or character

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


It’s Memorial Day in the US, a time to remember and revere the brave men and women who have died while serving in the military, so for today’s Word of the Week, I felt it appropriate to feature a vocabulary word related to respect. I’ve used this word several times before to describe people and characters worthy of high esteem, which is why I consider it especially fitting for today. After all, there are few people more “venerable” than those willing to risk their lives for the love of their country!

A “venerable” person is someone who deserves great respect, particularly due to character, age, or wisdom. The word arose in late Middle English and comes from the Latin adjective venerabilis, meaning “respectable”. This adjective stems from the verb venerari, which means “to adore”.

In a more historical context, “venerable” is also used by the Catholic Church as “a title given to a deceased person who has attained a certain degree of sanctity but has not been fully beatified or canonized”, as well as by the Anglican Church as “a title given to an archdeacon”. Also worth noting is this adjective’s relation to the verb “venerate”, which means to “regard with great respect”. If you look up to certain people whose words and actions warrant reverence, you already have great inspiration for some “venerable” characters in your stories!

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

Word of the Week: Prelude

Word: prelude

Pronunciation: PRE-l(y)ood / PRAY-l(y)ood

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: an action or event serving as an introduction to something more important

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Here’s a relatively common word that every writer should know. Sometimes when writing fiction, you may want to set up the world of your story before diving into the plot. In this case, a short introduction might be a good option to help you set the tone for the rest of your work. For writers and musicians especially, the “prelude” is a handy tool to keep in your arsenal!

A “prelude” is an event or action that serves as an introduction to something more important. The word arose in the mid 16th century and traces back through the French noun prélude to the Latin verb praeludere, meaning “to play beforehand”. This verb consists of the preposition prae “before” and the verb ludere “to play”.

In the context of art, a “prelude” is an introduction to a piece of music or literary work, such as an orchestral opening to an opera act or an introductory part of a poem. The word can also be used as a verb to mean “serve as a prelude or introduction to”. If you need to introduce important events or you like to include opening pieces in your stories or poetry (or have your characters do the same), “prelude” is a good word to know!

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

Word of the Week: Materfamilias

Word: materfamilias

Pronunciation: may-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs / mah-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the female head of a family or household

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Happy belated Mother’s Day to those of you who celebrated this weekend! Here’s an interesting new word for mothers who run a household. I learned today’s vocabulary word after looking up synonyms for “mother”, and since I’d never seen or heard it before, I knew I had to write about it for my Word of the Week segment. If you celebrated Mother’s Day yesterday, chances are you either are or know a “materfamilias”!

A “materfamilias” is the female head of a household or family. The word comes from the Latin phrase mater familias, meaning “mother of the household”. This phrase comprises the noun mater “mother” and the noun familia “family”.

Fun fact: the plural form of this word is “matresfamilias”. Though I find it highly interesting for its Latin origin, I doubt I’d be able to find a place for the word “materfamilias” in any of my writing outside of poetry. Given how advanced and archaic it sounds, writers of historical nonfiction would likely find the most use for it, but it may also prove useful to fiction writers who tend to overuse the word “matriarch” in their stories. If you write main characters who are mothers and/or female heads of their households, “materfamilias” may be a good word to add to your vocabulary!

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

Word of the Week: Eucatastrophe

Word: eucatastrophe

Pronunciation: yoo-kə-TA-strə-fee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Here’s another word I picked up from Oxford Dictionaries‘ Word of the Day entries. Every author should be familiar with terms related to the craft of writing, even the more obscure examples. Today’s featured word is one such literary term, specifically a type of conflict resolution to bring a story to a favorable conclusion. When you need a happy ending for the direst situations, sometimes the only solution is a “eucatastrophe”!

A “eucatastrophe” is a favorable and sudden resolution of events in a story, resulting in a happy ending. The word is said to have been coined by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, who was known to use this device frequently in his fiction. Tolkien created this word by combining the Greek prefix eu- “good” with the noun “catastrophe” (in the sense “the denouement of a drama”), which comes from the Greek noun katastrophḗ “overturning”. This noun comprises the preposition katá “against” and the noun strophḗ “turning”.

As a literary device, the “eucatastrophe” has been subcategorized as a form of deus ex machina due to its common manifestation as a sudden resolution of an impossible problem, though Tolkien argued that this needn’t always be the case. A notable difference between these two devices is that the former stems entirely from an optimistic view of history and the world, that is, the idea that any course of events will naturally lean toward a positive outcome. Given its implausible nature, the “eucatastrophe” is probably most useful to fantasy and science fiction writers who favor happy endings. If your plots often call for a strong twist to save your characters from almost certain doom, you can definitely find good use for a “eucatastrophe” in your stories!

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

Word of the Week: Insidious

Word: insidious

Pronunciation: in-SI-dee-əs

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Bird Chorus: He’s a nasty bird!
Nigel: I’m insidious.
Bird Chorus: He’s ghastly!
Nigel: Oh, I’m hideous!
Bird Chorus: He was a real macaw!
Nigel: I’m a cockatoo!
Bird Chorus: An obscene bird!
Nigel: Yes, that bit’s true.
– “Pretty Bird“, Rio (2011)

Okay, maybe I’ve had a couple of Jemaine Clement songs stuck in my head recently (thanks, Moana), so I felt like sharing a vocabulary word from one of them. The above excerpt is from the full version of “Pretty Bird” from the 2011 film Rio, a song Nigel sings to reveal his backstory to Blu and Jewel and establish his status as the villain. This example may not show today’s featured word in its primary sense, but it’s still easy to understand in context; Nigel is indeed an “insidious” cockatoo!

To be “insidious” is to proceed in a subtle and gradual way with harmful effects. The word arose in the mid 16th century and comes from the Latin adjective insidiosus, meaning “cunning”. This adjective stems from the noun insidiae “ambush”, which derives from the verb insidere “to lie in wait”. This verb comprises two roots: the preposition in “in” and the verb sedere “to sit”.

Aside from its main definition, “insidious” can also be used as a synonym for “treacherous” or “crafty”. This is arguably its most common use in modern speech, though its primary meaning can be just as useful in more formal contexts (such as an “insidious” disease). Either way, you can be sure this adjective always has a negative connotation. If you write characters with a crafty nature or actions that cause harm over time, you may find a place for the word “insidious” in your stories!

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

Word of the Week: Terraform

Word: terraform

Pronunciation: TE-rə-form

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: transform a planet so as to resemble the earth, especially so that it can support human life

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Earth Day was this past weekend, but I’d still like to acknowledge the date one more time with a related vocabulary word. I learned today’s Word of the Week from watching my boyfriend play Elite: Dangerous, a space exploration game scaled to scientifically accurate proportions. Every once in a while, he discovers a water world on his travels through the galaxy, and scanning it will reveal, among other data, whether the planet can be modified to become habitable. These are naturally the most valuable planets when exchanging data for in-game credits; a world that humans could “terraform” would be the ultimate treasure of space!

To “terraform” a planet would be to transform it to resemble Earth, especially with the purpose of supporting human life. This word was coined in 1942 by the science fiction author Jack Williamson, who first used the term in his short story “Collision Orbit”, published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The verb comprises the Latin noun terra “earth” and the suffix -form “having the shape of”.

Given its hypothetical nature, the word “terraform” is especially popular in science fiction, but it does have a place in real science as well. The potential colonization of Mars, for example, is a subject that often ties in with the concept of “terraforming“, as altering the planet’s surface and climate would make it hospitable to human beings. The idea is so fascinating and has so many possibilities, it’s really no wonder that it’s such a popular subject in sci-fi stories and scientific debates alike! If you write science fiction about the transformation and colonization of extraterrestrial worlds, “terraform” is a must-use 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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