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Word of the Week: Hegemony

Word: hegemony

Pronunciation: hə-JE-mə-nee / HE-jə-moh-nee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


So funny story: the other day I stumbled upon a reminder to write a Word of the Week entry for today’s vocabulary word, but I neglected to add a note about where I first learned it. I want to say it’s another word I picked up from a game in the Elevate – Brain Training app, but it could just as easily have come from a recent political article. In any case, if it isn’t the latter, it very well could be soon; I wouldn’t be surprised if shifting perceptions of “hegemony” became the next hot topic of debate!

“Hegemony” is a form of dominance or leadership, typically of a state or social group over others. The word arose in the mid 16th century and comes from the Greek noun hēgemonía, meaning “leadership”. This noun stems from the noun hēgemṓn “leader”, which in turn derives from the verb hēgéomai “to lead”.

While “hegemony” refers specifically to political states or groups in formal contexts, it can just as frequently refer to the dominance of a certain social group over another, though it’s worth noting that this form of rule stipulates a level of consent from the subordinate group as opposed to dominance by pure force. If you want to expand this word’s use, you can also use the related noun “hegemon”, meaning “a supreme leader”. If your characters are divided into dominant and submissive groups on any scale, “hegemony” may be a good word to use in your stories!

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

Word of the Week: Parsimony

Word: parsimony

Pronunciation: PAHR-sə-moh-nee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition:

  1. extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources
  2. the scientific principle that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Fun fact: today’s Word of the Week features another word I learned through its secondary meaning in science. While studying phylogenetics in grad school, I learned about different approaches to building and analyzing evolutionary trees, one of which involves inferring the fewest possible changes in a species’ history. It’s easy to see why this scientific criterion is so popular; when it comes to tracing evolution, you can hardly get any simpler than “parsimony”!

“Parsimony” is an extreme unwillingness to use resources or spend money. In science, it refers to the principle that things are connected or behave in the simplest way. The word arose in late Middle English and comes from the Latin noun parsimonia, meaning “frugality”. This noun stems from the verb parcere, which means “to spare”.

When working this word into your fiction, note that its primary definition is synonymous with “cheapness” and “penny-pinching”, while its second definition is often used interchangeably with “Occam’s razor“, a similar principle which states that “in explaining a thing, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary”. If you’re looking for an adjective to describe people guilty of “parsimony”, you can also use “parsimonious” alongside such words as “miserly” and “selfish”. If your characters are extremely stingy (or happen to be evolutionary biologists), “parsimony” may be an excellent word to add to your stories!

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

Word of the Week: Penumbra

Word: penumbra

Pronunciation: pə-NƏM-brə

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Continuing from last week’s theme of the total solar eclipse, today’s Word of the Week features a related word also used as an astronomy term. While a small portion of the U.S. was in the path of the totality, most viewers were only able to see a partial eclipse at its peak. Still, the whole event was quite the experience, even for those of us who only got to view it from the “penumbra”!

“Penumbra” refers to the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object, typically by the moon or the Earth during an eclipse. The word arose in the mid 17th century and is a modern Latin noun meaning “partial shadow”. This noun comprises two roots: the adverb paene “almost” and the noun umbra “shadow”.

Similar to “umbra”, “penumbra” can also be used as a different astronomy term for “the less dark outer part of a sunspot, surrounding the dark core”. The word can also function as a figurative term for an area of uncertainty between mutually exclusive states or an area on the edge of something. If you’re writing about an eclipse or want to refer to any sort of shadowy area, “penumbra” is 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: 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?

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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