Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

United States

Free daily dose of word power from Merriam-Webster's experts



Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 21, 2017 is:

distaff • \DISS-taff\  • adjective

1 a : related through a mother

b : inherited or derived from the female parent

2 : female


"Lord Robert Walsingham de Vere St. Simon, second son of the Duke of Balmoral.… The Duke, his father, was at one time Secretary for Foreign Affairs. They inherit Plantagenet blood by direct descent, and Tudor on the distaff side." — Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," 1892

"One hint that the article was aimed more at the distaff side was in the second of 15 trends it listed, namely: 'Meet Workleisure: Athleisure is taking on the workplace.' The illustrations were of women, the brands mentioned were feminine lines and, well, that whole concept is just too burdensome to plan and too pricey for my closet." — Mike Tighe, The La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune, 29 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

The word distaff was first used for a short staff that held a bundle of fibers—of flax or wool, for example—ready to be spun into yarn or thread. Since spinning was a basic daily task customarily done by women, the distaff came to be the symbol for the work or domain of women. This symbolic use of the noun distaff dates back to the time of Chaucer and is found in several works by Shakespeare. Eventually distaff came to be used for the female branch of a family and then as an adjective, as in "the distaff side of the family."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 20, 2017 is:

onus • \OH-nuss\  • noun

1 : burden

2 : a disagreeable necessity : obligation

3 : blame

4 : stigma


Management has made it clear that the onus is on employees to ask for further training if they don't understand the new procedures.

"I feel very fortunate that I never got into this business as a beauty queen. Even back in high school, the actors I idolized were the chameleons. That really took the onus off of what I looked like, and what a beautiful woman is supposed to look like." — Connie Britton, quoted in The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

Understanding the etymology of onus is not at all burdensome; it's as simple as knowing that English borrowed the word—spelling, meaning, and all—from Latin in the 17th century. We can also add that it's a distant relative of the Sanskrit word for "cart" (a vehicle that carries a burden). English isn't exactly loaded with derivatives of Latin onus, but the root did give us onerous ("troublesome") and exonerate ("to clear from accusation or blame"—thus, "to unburden"). Additionally, our legal language has onus probandi, which is often shortened to onus. It means "burden of proof"—that is, the obligation of proving a disputed assertion in a court of law.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 19, 2017 is:

bemuse • \bih-MYOOZ\  • verb

1 : to make confused : puzzle, bewilder

2 : to occupy the attention of : distract, absorb

3 : to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement


She had neither asked for nor expected her newfound celebrity, and was bemused by all the attention she was receiving.

"I have no interest in bemusing an audience or puzzling an audience. I don't think my plays are difficult. When they're spoken of in those terms, I'm always surprised." — Tom Stoppard, quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle, 10 Oct. 2016

Did you know?

In 1735, British poet Alexander Pope lamented, in rhyme, being besieged by "a parson much bemus'd in beer." The cleric in question was apparently one of a horde of would-be poets who plagued Pope with requests that he read their verses. Pope meant that the parson had found his muse—his inspiration—in beer. That use of bemused harks back to a 1705 letter in which Pope wrote of "Poets … irrecoverably Be-mus'd." In both letter and poem, Pope used bemused to allude to being inspired by or devoted to one of the Muses, the Greek sister goddesses of art, music, and literature. The lexicographers who followed him, however, interpreted "bemus'd in beer" as meaning "left confused by beer," and their confusion gave rise to the first modern sense of bemused above.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 18, 2017 is:

protean • \PROH-tee-un\  • adjective

1 : of or resembling Proteus in having a varied nature or ability to assume different forms

2 : displaying great diversity or variety : versatile


"Together, the paintings demonstrate Picasso's protean ability to slip into new visual languages to suit the occasion, his subject and his own whims." — Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo (New York) News, 13 Jan. 2017

"Love for Sale examines the shape-shifting undergone by popular music, from minstrelsy to hip-hop, and the equally protean ways in which it has reached the public, from printed notation sheets for do-it-yourself parlor revelry in days of yore to the streaming and downloading of our digital era." — Rayyan al-Shawaf, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 Jan. 2017

Did you know?

Proteus was the original master of disguise. According to Greek mythology, the grizzled old shepherd of Poseidon's sea creatures possessed the gift of prophecy but didn't like to share his knowledge. Proteus would escape those who wanted to question him by changing his shape. The only way to get a straight answer from him was to sneak up behind him during his midday nap and hold onto him (while he frantically changed from shape to shape) until he eventually revealed what he knew. The adjective protean describes anyone or anything that is as mutable and adaptable as the mythological sea-shepherd.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 17, 2017 is:

cachet • \ka-SHAY\  • noun

1 : a seal used especially as a mark of official approval

2 : a characteristic feature or quality conferring prestige; also : standing or estimation in the eyes of people : prestige

3 : a design, inscription, or advertisement printed or stamped on mail


"It's been 70 years and the Sweetheart City is still going strong with its official valentine card and cachet. The Loveland Chamber of Commerce unveiled the 2016 artwork Tuesday…." — Erin Udell, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, 6 Jan. 2016

"TV is enjoying a surge in critical prestige and has taken over some of the cultural cachet that used to be reserved for the movies." — Ryan Faughnder, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Jan. 2017

Did you know?

In the years before the French Revolution, a lettre de cachet was a letter, signed by both the French king and another officer, that was used to authorize a person's imprisonment. Documents such as these were usually made official by being marked with a seal pressed into soft wax. This seal was known in French as a cachet. The word was derived from the Middle French verb cacher, meaning "to press" or "to hide." The "seal" sense of cachet has been used in English since the mid-17th century, and in the 19th century the word started acquiring its extended senses, first referring to a feature or quality conferring prestige, and by century's end to prestige itself.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 16, 2017 is:

sward • \SWORD\  • noun

1 : a portion of ground covered with grass

2 : the grassy surface of land


"It was a blind and despairing rush by the collection of men in dusty and tattered blue, over a green sward and under a sapphire sky, toward a fence, dimly outlined in smoke, from behind which spluttered the fierce rifles of enemies." — Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895

"A few hundred yards upstream of the mill was a dam and a small lake. Along its east shore was Riverside Park with its gazebos and grassy swards and, come summer, flocks of picnickers." — Marc Hudson, The Journal Review (Crawfordsville, Indiana), 28 May 2016

Did you know?

Sward sprouted from the Old English sweard or swearth, meaning "skin" or "rind." It was originally used as a term for the skin of the body before being extended to another surface—that of the earth's. The word's specific grassy sense dates back more than 500 years, but it rarely crops up in contemporary writing. The term, however, has been planted in a number of old novels, such as in this quote from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles: "The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them...."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 15, 2017 is:

voluble • \VAHL-yuh-bul\  • adjective

1 : easily rolling or turning : rotating

2 : characterized by ready or rapid speech : glib, fluent


Having worked as a teacher for almost twenty years, Pamela was voluble on the subject of education.

"At 78, the Dutch-born director is generous and voluble, feeling his way through conversation as if he, too, is curious about what he will say next. ('That's it, I'm cutting you off,' a hardened publicist told him, well after our interview was supposed to end.)" — Jeffrey Bloomer, Slate Magazine, 23 Nov. 2016

Did you know?

English has many terms for gabby types, but it's important to choose the right word to get across what kind of chatterbox you mean. Talkative usually implies a readiness to engage in talk or a disposition to enjoy conversation. Loquacious generally suggests the power to express oneself fluently, articulately, or glibly, but it can also mean "talking excessively." Garrulous is even stronger in its suggestion of excessive talkativeness; it is most often used for tedious, rambling talkers. Voluble is a word ultimately derived from the Latin verb volvere, meaning "to roll," that  describes an individual who speaks easily and often—someone whose words smoothly roll off their tongue, so to speak.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 14, 2017 is:

billet-doux • \bill-ee-DOO\  • noun

: a love letter


While cleaning out her parents' basement, Amy stumbled upon a box containing billets-doux written by her dad to his high-school sweetheart—her mom.

"… when you stop to think about it the entire panoply of behaviours we consider as romantic, from sending little billets-doux, to developing a shared vocabulary of pet names, are … infantile. What's romance, then, but a kind of childish make-believe?" — Will Self, Prospect, 13 Oct. 2016

Did you know?

The first recorded use of the French word billet doux (literally, "sweet letter") in an English context occurs in John Dryden's 1673 play Marriage a-la-Mode. In the play, Dryden pokes fun at linguistic Francophiles in English society through the comic character Melanthe, who is described by her prospective lover Rodophil as follows: "No lady can be so curious of a new fashion as she is of a new French word; she's the very mint of the nation, and as fast as any bullion comes out of France, coins it immediately into our language." True to form, Melanthe describes Rodophil with the following words: "Let me die, but he's a fine man; he sings and dances en Français, and writes the billets doux to a miracle."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 13, 2017 is:

transpontine • \trans-PAHN-tyne\  • adjective

1 : situated on the farther side of a bridge

2 : (British) situated on the south side of the Thames


Traffic on the Tobin Bridge was at a near standstill, and it took us twenty minutes to reach our transpontine destination in Charlestown.

"The moment Waterloo Bridge was planned across the Thames, a new theatre to serve the transpontine coach trade was inevitable." — Robert Gore-Langton, The Spectator (UK), 15 Nov. 2014

Did you know?

Usually the prefix trans-, meaning "across," allows for a reciprocal perspective. Whether you're in Europe or America, for example, transoceanic countries are countries across the ocean from where you are. But that's not the way it originally worked with transpontine. The pont- in transpontine is from the Latin pons, meaning "bridge," and the bridge in this case was, at first, any bridge that crossed the River Thames in the city of London. "Across the bridge" meant on one side of the river only—the south side. That's where the theaters that featured popular melodramas were located, and Victorian Londoners used transpontine to distinguish them from their more respectable cispontine ("situated on the nearer side of a bridge") counterparts north of the Thames.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 12, 2017 is:

weltanschauung • \VELT-ahn-show-ung ("ow" as in "cow")\  • noun

: (often capitalized Weltanschauung) a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint


"In my personal Weltanschauung, there is nothing wrong with arm hair, giant headphones are silly and skin-lightening products are creepy and grim. Others may grade them differently, but that's all part of the same thing too. As soon as you opt in to a belief system where any type of hair, skin or style is 'right' or 'wrong' … you are in the jaws." — Victoria Coren Mitchell, The Observer, 3 Apr. 2016

"Back in the 1960s, behavioral theorists wrote about a culture of poverty. Life below the poverty line has specific characteristics that produce a fairly consistent weltanschauung among the people who share it. That means that they have much in common that shapes their communities." — Hubert Kauffman, The Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine), 4 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

The German word Weltanschauung literally means "world view"; it combines Welt ("world") with Anschauung ("view"), which ultimately derives from the Middle High German verb schouwen ("to look at" or "to see"). When we first adopted it from German in the mid-19th century, weltanschauung referred to a philosophical view or apprehension of the universe, and this sense is still the most widely used. It can also describe a more general ideology or philosophy of life.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 11, 2017 is:

ragtag • \RAG-tag\  • adjective

1 : ragged, unkempt

2 : composed of diverse often incongruous elements : motley


"Cyndi Lauper was one of the biggest stars of the '80's MTV era…. Her girlish voice and gleefully ragtag appearance became one of the most distinctive images of the time, which helped catapult her to stardom." — The Arizona Republic, 28 Sept. 2016

"[Howard] Shore was a core member of the show's small, ragtag team and not only composed the free-form jazz pieces that opened and closed the show … but also wrote songs and dramatic underscores, appeared in sketches and was in charge of booking musical guests." — Tim Greiving, The Washington Post, 1 Jan. 2017

Did you know?

Tag and rag was a relatively common expression in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was often used pejoratively to refer to members of the lower classes of society. By the 18th century, the phrase had been expanded to ragtag and bobtail. That expression could mean either "the lower classes" or "the entire lot of something" (as opposed to just the more desirable parts—the entire unit of an army, for example, not just its more capable soldiers). Something described as ragtag and bobtail, then, was usually common and unspectacular. Ragtag and bobtail was eventually shortened to ragtag, the adjective we know today, which can describe an odd mixture that is often hastily assembled or second-rate.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 10, 2017 is:

adjure • \uh-JOOR\  • verb

1 : to command solemnly under or as if under oath or penalty of a curse

2 : to urge or advise earnestly


The church has strong ties to the community and has long adjured its congregants to devote time to the aid of those less fortunate than themselves.

"… there is a hunger—in part perhaps because of public pressure—for general legislative reforms. Some are pushing for lawmakers to adjure outside income altogether, while others—including Cuomo—are seeking to cap it." — Matthew Hamilton, The Times-Union (Albany, New York), 23 Feb. 2016

Did you know?

Adjure and its synonyms entreat, importune, and implore all mean "to ask earnestly." Adjure implies advising as well as pleading, and is often accompanied by the invocation of something sacred ("in God's name, I adjure you to cease"). Entreat implies an effort to persuade or overcome resistance ("he gently entreated her to stay"). Importune goes further, adding a sense of annoying persistence in trying to break down resistance to a request ("importuning viewers for contributions"). Implore, on the other hand, suggests a great urgency or anguished appeal on the part of the speaker ("she implored the king to have mercy").


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 9, 2017 is:

peradventure • \PER-ud-ven-cher\  • noun

1 : doubt

2 : the possibility of a particular outcome in an uncertain situation : chance


"When Henry had his servant brought to him from Argentan more dead than alive, he suffered an Angevin fury. But he knew beyond peradventure that the rebellion had been reborn." — Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitane and the Four Kings, 1950

"For parties in terminal decline to consign themselves to howling at the moon for five years will guarantee beyond peradventure that when the next election comes round people will be truly fed up listening to the noise." — Brian Feeney, The Irish News, 11 May 2016

Did you know?

When Middle English speakers borrowed par aventure from Anglo-French (in which language it means, literally, "by chance"), it was as an adverb meaning "perhaps" or "possibly." Before long, the word was anglicized to peradventure, and turned into a noun as well. The adverb is now archaic, though Washington Irving and other writers were still using it in the 19th century. "If peradventure some straggling merchant ... should stop at his door with his cart load of tin ware....," writes Irving in A History of New York. The noun senses we use today tend to show up in the phrase "beyond peradventure" in contexts relating to proving or demonstrating something. The "chance" sense is usually used in the phrase "beyond peradventure of doubt."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 8, 2017 is:

carceral • \KAHR-suh-rul\  • adjective

: of, relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison


"The door opened, whining, rattling and groaning in keeping with all the rules of carceral counterpoint." — Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, 1959

"We are in the midst of a debate around criminal justice right now…. In the midst of such debates it is customary for pundits, politicians, and writers like me to sally forth with numbers to demonstrate the breadth and width of the great American carceral state." — Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 8 June 2015

Did you know?

Our earliest known evidence of carceral—an adjective borrowed directly from Late Latin—dates to the late 16th century, with evidence of incarcerate ("to imprison") appearing shortly thereafter; they're both ultimately from carcer, Latin for "prison." The English verb cancel is also linked to carcer via Latin cancelli, a word meaning "lattice" that likely developed from an alteration of carcer. Carceral is a word that is generally not found outside the confines of academic or legal contexts.  


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 7, 2017 is:

nexus • \NEK-sus\  • noun

1 : connection, link; also : a causal link

2 : a connected group or series

3 : center, focus


The new art exhibition is devoted to those artists whose work first began to form a nexus between high art and popular culture.

"Starting a weekly column about the nexus between media, technology, culture and politics in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign was like parachuting into a hail of machine-gun crossfire." — Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

Nexus is all about connections. The word comes from nectere, a Latin verb meaning "to bind." A number of other English words are related to nectere. The most obvious is connect, but annex (meaning "to attach as an addition," or more specifically "to incorporate into a political domain") is related as well. When nexus came into English in the 17th century, it meant "connection." Eventually, it took on the additional meaning "connected series" (as in "a nexus of relationships"). In the past few decades it has taken a third meaning: "center" (as in "the trade nexus of the region"), perhaps from the notion that a point in the center of an arrangement serves to join together the objects that surround it.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 6, 2017 is:

extremophile • \ik-STREE-muh-fyle\  • noun

: an organism that lives under extreme environmental conditions (as in a hot spring or ice cap)


"Beetles with antifreeze blood, ants that sprint on scorching sand and spiders that live high up Mount Everest. These incredible creatures are the extremophiles: animals that survive some of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth, and sometimes even further." — Christopher Brooks,, 26 Mar. 2016

"[Andrew] Czaja said research into extremophiles in general gives scientists confidence that life can exist anywhere where the appropriate building blocks, including a liquid medium (such as water) and a source of energy, exist." — Stephanie Margaret Bucklin, Astronomy Magazine, 8 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

No, an extremophile is not an enthusiast of extreme sports (though -phile does mean "one who loves or has an affinity for"). Rather, extremophiles are organisms—mostly microorganisms—that thrive in environments once considered uninhabitable, from places with high levels of toxicity and radiation to boiling-hot deep-sea volcanoes to Antarctic ice sheets. Scientists have even created a new biological domain to classify some of these extremophiles: Archaea (from Greek archaios, meaning "ancient"). These extremophiles may have a lot in common with the first organisms to appear on earth billions of years ago. If so, they can give us insight into how life on our planet may have arisen. They are also being studied to learn about possible life forms on other planets, where conditions are extreme compared to conditions on Earth.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 5, 2017 is:

luculent • \LOO-kyuh-lunt\  • adjective

: clear in thought or expression


The professor gave a luculent introduction to quantum mechanics. 

"These glimpses of the Crown-Prince, reflected on us in this manner, are not very luculent to the reader … but some features do gleam forth, good and not so good; which, with others coming, may coalesce into something conceivable." — Thomas Carlyle, The History of Frederick II of Prussia, 1858–1865

Did you know?

To shed light on the meaning of luculent, one need only look at its root—the Latin noun lux, meaning "light." The English word first appeared in the 15th century with the meaning "brilliant" or "shining," as in "a luculent flame." By the mid-16th century, the "clear in thought or expression" sense had begun to shine, and by that century's end another sense was flickering with the meaning "illustrious" or "resplendent," as in Ben Jonson's 1599 description of a "most debonair and luculent lady." Both the "illustrious" and the "emitting light" senses have fallen out of use, and even the "clear" sense is now rare. Today's writers seem to prefer another lux descendant with a similar meaning: lucid.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 4, 2017 is:

grandee • \grand-DEE\  • noun

: a man of elevated rank or station; especially : a Spanish or Portuguese nobleman of the first rank


After winning the golf tournament, the young player shook hands and posed for pictures with the grandees who had supplied the prize fund.

"People from around the nation and the world, who could not afford to live here full-time, increasingly come to California as tourists so they can live like Mediterranean grandees for a week or two." — Joel Kotkin, The San Bernardino (California) Sun, 4 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

In Medieval Spain and Portugal, the grandes ("great ones," from Latin grandis, meaning "great") were at the pinnacle of the ranks of rich and powerful nobles. A grandee (as it came to be spelled in English) could wear a hat in the presence of the king and queen—the height of privilege—and he alone could address a letter directly to royalty. (Even Christopher Columbus had to direct his reports of the to an important noble at court, who read them to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.) Today the term can still be applied to nobility, but it can also be used for anyone of importance and influence anywhere, such as the "pin-striped grandees of London's financial district."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 3, 2017 is:

abyssal • \uh-BISS-ul\  • adjective

1 : of or relating to the bottom waters of the ocean depths

2 : impossible to comprehend : unfathomable


"Since the accident, researchers from the Guangzhou Institute of Oceanology have mapped several deep eddies in the Xisha Trough, an area of abyssal ocean off Hainan." — David Hambling, The Guardian (UK), 29 Dec. 2016

"I'm referring to something that was revealed when the federal opposition parties were talking about a coalition government: The abyssal ignorance, even in parts of the media, about how our own parliamentary system works." — Josée Legault, The Gazette (Montreal), 26 Dec. 2008

Did you know?

Abyssal is a relatively rare word, though it's derived from the more prevalent noun, abyss. In contrast, the adjective abysmal is more common than its corresponding noun abysm. All four terms descend from the Late Latin word abyssus, which is in turn derived from the Greek abyssos ("bottomless"). Abyss and abysm are synonymous (both can refer to the mythical bottomless pit in old accounts of the universe or can be used more broadly in reference to any immeasurably deep gulf), but the adjectives abyssal and abysmal are not used identically. Abyssal can mean "incomprehensible" (as in "showed abyssal ignorance") but it's most often found in contexts referring to the bottom of the sea. Abysmal shares the oceanographic sense with abyssal, but it more frequently means "immeasurably great" or "absolutely wretched."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 2, 2017 is:

imprecate • \IM-prih-kayt\  • verb

: to invoke evil on : curse


"Mallory imprecated the weather when the ink froze in his fountain pen…." — Stanley Snaith, At Grips with Everest, 1938

"The people would pause, look out at the Missouri rolling past and quietly carrying down trees like doomed pinnaces, and the workers' sweating brows wrinkled, but I heard no one imprecate the river; each just went back to passing along stories and sandbags." — William Least Heat-Moon, River-Horse, 1999

Did you know?

It may surprise you to learn that a word that refers to wishing evil upon someone has its roots in praying, but imprecate ultimately derives from the Latin verb precari, meaning "to pray, ask, or entreat." Precari is also the ancestor of such English words as deprecate (which once meant "to pray against an evil," though that sense is now archaic), precatory ("expressing a wish") and even pray itself (which has deeper roots in the Latin noun for a request or entreaty, prex).

Video player is in betaClose