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?

What If? Writing Prompts: Mystery / Suspense V

Here’s a funny coincidence: I was recently looking through my archives of “What If?” Writing Prompts when I noticed that the last time I shared a set of mystery and suspense prompts was exactly a year ago tomorrow! So while I’m catching up on my blogging, I decided it would be fun to share a new batch of prompts in this genre, one year apart. See what mysterious stories you can create from these ideas, and feel free to add more of your own! Have fun!

What if… you discovered that your best friend was actually a spy for a hostile foreign power?

What if… you found strange messages in your private journals and notebooks that you don’t remember writing?

What if… you found alive and well a celebrity that the whole world thought was dead?

What if… an object in your house kept changing position even though you never touched it?

What if… a close friend or relative thought to have committed suicide left you a message in their will asking you to track down their killer?

Good luck writing some more mysterious and suspenseful stories!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

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?

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