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


Occam's razor  

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 29, 2017 is:

Occam's razor • \AH-kumz-RAY-zer\  • noun

: a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities


Invoking Occam's razor, Randall concluded that the sill was wet most likely because someone left the window open during the storm.

"To even describe the plot is to make clear how phantasmagorical the whole idea is. Occam's razor applies here. Or, as medical students are taught, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras." — Paul Cassell, The Washington Post, 6 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

William of Occam (also spelled "Ockham") didn't invent the rule associated with his name. Others had espoused the "keep it simple" concept before that 14th-century philosopher and theologian embraced it, but no one wielded the principle (also known as the "law of parsimony") as relentlessly as he did. He used it to counter what he considered the fuzzy logic of his theological contemporaries, and his applications of it inspired 19th-century Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton to link Occam with the idea of cutting away extraneous material, giving us the modern name for the principle.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 28, 2017 is:

retrospective • \reh-truh-SPEK-tiv\  • adjective

1 a : contemplative of or relative to past events : characterized by, given to, or indulging in retrospection

b : being a generally comprehensive exhibition, compilation, or performance of the work of an artist over a span of years

2 : affecting things past : retroactive


The audit revealed that the organization owed retrospective taxes.

"The 1998 retrospective Ladies and Gentlemen—The Best of George Michael (Epic/Sony) is the album to receive the most attention in the late singer-songwriter's catalogue…." — Paul Sexton,, 30 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

"Look not mournfully into the past. It comes not back again," wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1839 novel Hyperion. But these days the past is trendy, old-fashioned is hip, and retrospective is as retro as it gets. A glance at the history of retrospective reveals that it traces back to the Latin retro- (meaning "back," "behind," or "backward") and specere (meaning "to look at"). Once you have retrospective behind you, you can also add its kin retrospect (which is used as a noun, an adjective, and a verb) and retrospection to your vocabulary, too. Retrospective can also be used as a noun, referring to an exhibition that "looks back" at artistic work created over a span of years.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 27, 2017 is:

sarcasm • \SAHR-kaz-um\  • noun

1 : a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain

2 a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

b : the use or language of sarcasm


"I'm seeing more and more of my friends coming to watch the races instead of being a part of them. And then, some of the girls that are racing against me are literally half my age. It's awesome. Don't know if you can hear my sarcasm—really awesome." — Lindsey Vonn, The Associated Press, 3 Nov. 2015

"Often, users on social media tend to portray complicated social and political issues as simple and obvious, at times employing sarcasm or satire to disparage those who disagree." — James Lee, The Daily Pennsylvanian (University of Pennsylvania), 12 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

If you've ever been hurt by a remark full of cutting sarcasm, you have some insight into the origins of the word. Sarcasm can be traced back to the Greek verb sarkazein, which initially meant "to tear flesh like a dog." Sarkazein eventually developed extended senses of "to bite one's lips in rage," "to gnash one's teeth," and "to sneer." The verb led to the Greek noun sarkasmos, ("a sneering or hurtful remark"), iterations of which passed through French and Late Latin before arriving in English as sarcasm in the 17th century. Even today sarcasm is often described as sharp, cutting, or wounding, reminiscent of the original meaning of the Greek verb.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 26, 2017 is:

perpend • \per-PEND\  • verb

1 : to reflect on carefully : ponder

2 : to be attentive : reflect


Perpend: it is easier to build on a good first impression than it is to repair a bad one.

"Okay folks, it looks like all is not lost. Electronic Arts is at least perpending their stance heading into the next-generation of console gaming and after originally writing off Nintendo's Wii U, they've now reneged on that stance and are reconsidering the Big 'N's offerings." — William Usher, Cinema Blend, 23 Aug. 2013

Did you know?

Perpend isn't used often these days, but when it does show up it is frequently imperative, as in "Perpend the following." As such, its use can be compared to the phrases "consider this" or "mark my words." Perpend arrived in English in the 15th century from the Latin verb perpendere, which in turn comes from pendere, meaning "to weigh." Appropriately, our English word essentially means "to weigh carefully in the mind." Pendere has several descendants in English, including append, compendium, expend, and suspend. Perpend can also be a noun meaning "a brick or large stone reaching through a wall" or "a wall built of such stones," but that perpend comes from a Middle French source and is unrelated to the verb.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 25, 2017 is:

unreconstructed • \un-ree-kun-STRUK-tud\  • adjective

: not reconciled to political, economic, or social change; also : holding stubbornly to a particular belief, view, place, or style


"When Jane Austen wrote 'Pride and Prejudice' in the early years of the 19th century, there was no heroic place for the unreconstructed nerd in the throbbing romantic novel." — Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune, 22 Nov. 2016

"Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors. Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead." — Thomas Pynchon, The New York Times, 28 Oct. 1984

Did you know?

The reorganization and reestablishment of the seceded states in the Union after the American Civil War is referred to as the Reconstruction. The earliest known use of unreconstructed is by a writer for the Boston, Massachusetts, publication The Liberator, who in 1865 used it to describe Southerners who were not reconciled to the outcome of the War and the changes enacted during the Reconstruction. The word immediately caught on and has been used to refer to intransigent or dyed-in-the-wool partisans ever since. The word is also used outside of political and social contexts, as when a person is described as "an unreconstructed rocker" or "an unreconstructed romantic."


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 24, 2017 is:

nightmare • \NYTE-mair\  • noun

1 : an evil spirit formerly thought to oppress people during sleep

2 : a frightening dream that usually awakens the sleeper

3 : something (such as an experience, situation, or object) having the monstrous character of a nightmare or producing a feeling of anxiety or terror


Since starting the new medication, John routinely experiences vivid dreams when he sleeps and even suffers from frequent nightmares.

"The dream of a stress-free, short-term rental in a balmy locale can easily become a nightmare without due diligence, according to real estate agents and Long Island snowbirds." — Cara S. Trager, Newsday, 19 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

Looking at nightmare, you might guess that it is a compound formed from night and mare. If so, your guess is correct. But while the night in nightmare makes sense, the mare part is less obvious. Most English speakers know mare as a word for a female horse or similar equine animal, but the mare of nightmare is a different word, an obsolete one referring to an evil spirit that was once thought to produce feelings of suffocation in people while they slept. By the 14th century the mare was also known as nightmare, and by the late 16th century nightmare was also being applied to the feelings of distress caused by the spirit, and then to frightening or unpleasant dreams.


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 23, 2017 is:

watershed • \WAW-ter-shed\  • noun

1 a : a dividing ridge between drainage areas

b : a region or area bounded peripherally by a divide and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse or body of water

2 : a crucial dividing point, line, or factor : turning point


"This year marked a watershed for contemporary classical music in the city. No greater proof was the Ear Taxi Festival, a Chicago-centric marathon of new music performance that, for six heady days in October, brought together some 500 local musicians to present roughly 100 recent classical works...." — John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, 22 Dec. 2016

"The Cienega Creek watershed contains some of the highest-quality riparian woodland, riverine and cienega wetland habitats in Arizona." — Jennifer McIntosh, The Arizona Daily Star, 29 Jan. 2017

Did you know?

Opinion on the literal geographic meaning of watershed is divided. On one side of the debate are those who think the word can only refer to a ridge of land separating rivers and streams flowing in one direction from those flowing in the opposite direction. That's the term's original meaning, one probably borrowed in the translation of the German Wasserscheide. On the other side of the argument are those who think watershed can also apply to the area through which such divided water flows. The latter sense is now far more common in America, but most Americans have apparently decided to leave the quarrel to geologists and geographers while they use the term in its figurative sense, "turning point."        


Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for March 22, 2017 is:

lief • \LEEF\  • adverb

: soon, gladly


"I'd as lief be in the tightening coils of a boa constrictor than be held by that man," declared Miss Jezebel.

"I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as / lief have been myself alone." — William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599

Did you know?

Lief began as lēof in Old English and has since appeared in many literary classics, first as an adjective and then as an adverb. It got its big break in the epic poem Beowulf as an adjective meaning "dear" or "beloved." The adverb first appeared in the 13th century, and in 1390, it was used in John Gower's collection of love stories, Confessio Amantis. Since that time, it has graced the pages of works by William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and D. H. Lawrence, among others. Today, the adjective is considered to be archaic and the adverb is used much less frequently than in days of yore. It still pops up now and then, however, in the phrases "had as lief," "would as lief," "had liefer," and "would liefer."


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

ameliorate • \uh-MEE-lee-uh-rayt\  • verb

1 : to make better or more tolerable

2 : to grow better : improve


Access to clean water would ameliorate living conditions within the village.

"There is one variable that many childhood experts agree can ameliorate the uncertainty in the lives of 'at risk' youths. A caring adult willing to take a few hours a week for a one-on-one relationship with a child or young adult can have an enormous impact on that child's life and future success." — Alice Dubenetsky, The Vermont Eagle, 18 Jan. 2017

Did you know?

Ameliorate traces back to melior, the Latin adjective meaning "better," and is a synonym of the verbs better and improve. When is it better to use ameliorate? If a situation is bad, ameliorate indicates that the conditions have been made more tolerable. Thus, one might refer to drugs that ameliorate the side effects of chemotherapy, a loss of wages ameliorated by unemployment benefits, or a harsh law ameliorated by special exceptions. Improve and better apply when something bad is being made better (as in "the weather improved" or "she bettered her lot in life"), and they should certainly be chosen over ameliorate when something good is getting better still ("he improved his successful program," "she bettered her impressive scores").


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

hackle • \HACK-ul\  • noun

1 a : one of the long narrow feathers on the neck or back of a bird

b : the neck plumage of the domestic fowl

2 : a comb or board with long metal teeth for dressing flax, hemp, or jute

3 a : (plural) hairs (as on a dog's neck and back) that can be erected

b : (plural) temper, dander


The rooster's colorful hackle quivered as it stretched out its neck and began to crow.

"So before you get your hackles up in response to local sales and gas proposals floated up in Helena, consider the significant benefits they could bring to our local cost of living." — The Bozeman (Montana) Daily Chronicle, 14 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

In its earliest uses in the 15th century, hackle denoted either a bird's neck plumage or an instrument used to comb out long fibers of flax, hemp, or jute. Apparently, some folks saw a resemblance between the neck feathers of domestic birds—which, on a male, become erect when the bird is defensive—and the prongs of the comb-like tool. In the 19th century, English speakers extended the word's use to both dogs and people. Like the bird's feathers, the erectile hairs on the back of a dog's neck stand up when the animal is agitated. With humans, use of the word hackles is usually figurative. When you raise someone's hackles, you make them angry or put them on the defensive.


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

chaffer • \CHAFF-er\  • verb

1 a : haggle, exchange, barter

b : to bargain for

2 : (British) to exchange small talk : chatter


"And while Levy and Toriki drank absinthe and chaffered over the pearl, Huru-Huru listened and heard the stupendous price of twenty-five thousand francs agreed upon." — Jack London, "The House of Mapuhi," 1909

"Travelers who had little money to start with frequently traded a stock of wares of their own along the way—leather goods or precious stones for example—or offered their labor here and there, sometimes taking several months or even years to finally work or chaffer their way as far as Egypt." — Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, 1986

Did you know?

The noun chaffer was originally used to refer to commercial trading. Chaffer (also spelled chaffare, cheffare, and cheapfare over the years) dates to the 1200s and was formed as a combination of Middle English chep, meaning "trade" or "bargaining," and fare, meaning "journey." The verb chaffer appeared in the 1300s and originally meant "to trade, buy, and sell." In time, both the verb and the noun were being applied to trade that involved haggling and negotiating.


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

furtive • \FER-tiv\  • adjective

1 a : done in a quiet and secretive way to avoid being noticed : surreptitious

b : expressive of stealth : sly

2 : obtained underhandedly


Julia and I exchanged furtive glances across the room when Edward asked who had rearranged his CD collection.

"… I create a hidden fortress for the cake at the back of the fridge and by this I mean shove quinoa and brussels sprouts in front of it thus saving it for furtive late night snacking." — Sherry Kuehl, The Kansas City Star, 28 Dec. 2016

Did you know?

Furtive has a shadowy history. It may have slipped into English directly from the Latin furtivus or it may have covered its tracks by arriving via the French furtif. We aren't even sure how long it has been a part of the English language. The earliest known written uses of furtive are from the early 1600s, but the derived furtively appears in written form as far back as 1490, suggesting that furtive may have been lurking about for a while. However furtive got into English, its root is the Latin fur, which is related to, and may come from, the Greek phōr (both words mean "thief"). When first used in English, furtive meant "done by stealth," and later also came to mean, less commonly, "stolen." Whichever meaning you choose, the elusive ancestry is particularly fitting, since a thief must be furtive to avoid getting caught in the act.


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

effulgence • \ih-FULL-junss\  • noun

: radiant splendor : brilliance


"There's plenty of conflict about who invented hummus or falafel … and where these dishes reach their dazzling effulgence, but the truth is there are common dishes and flavors to many of the cuisines found along the southern edge of the Mediterranean Sea." — Laura Reiley, The Tampa Bay Times, 6 July 2016

"The performance was riveting, demonstrating both her technical prowess and her clear understanding of line, movement, and energy. The work was exquisitely sculpted into an ever-growing effulgence that crept steadily forward toward a transfixing conclusion." — Wayne F. Anthony, The Blade (Toledo, Ohio), 4 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

Apparently, English speakers first took a shine to effulgence in the 17th century; that's when the word was first used in print in our language. Effulgence derives from the Latin verb fulgēre, which means "to shine." Fulgēre is also the root of fulgent, a synonym of radiant that English speakers have used since the 15th century. Another related word, refulgence, is about 30 years older than effulgence. Refulgence carries a meaning similar to effulgence but sometimes goes further by implying reflectivity, as in "the refulgence of the knight's gleaming armor."


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

decry • \dih-KRY\  • verb

1 : to depreciate (as a coin) officially or publicly

2 : to express strong disapproval of


Town officials were surprised by how roundly the changes to the town hall's hours were decried.

"He has previously spoken on behalf of music education and decried music piracy and the low royalty rates paid to artists whose songs are streamed online." — George Varga, The San Diego Union Tribune, 12 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

Decry, depreciate, disparage, and belittle all mean "to express a low opinion of something," but there are also some subtle differences in their use. Decry, which is a descendant of the Old French verb crier, meaning "to cry," implies open condemnation with intent to discredit ("he decried her defeatist attitude"). Depreciate implies that something is being represented as having less value than commonly believed ("critics depreciated his plays for being unabashedly sentimental"). Disparage implies depreciation by indirect means, such as slighting or harmful comparison ("she disparaged polo as a game for the rich"). Belittle usually suggests a contemptuous or envious attitude ("they belittled the achievements of others").


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

gadzookery • \gad-ZOO-kuh-ree\  • noun

: (British) the use of archaisms (as in a historical novel)


"Several other stories and verses that they jointly contributed to magazines are historical and melodramatic in tone, larded with archaic oaths and exclamations and general gadzookery." — Julia Briggs, A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1987

"Her spare prose and dialogue give a period flavour without the dread excesses of gadzookery." — David Langford, The Complete Critical Assembly, 2002

Did you know?

"Gadzooks . . . you astonish me!" cries Mr. Lenville in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. We won't accuse Dickens of gadzookery ("the bane of historical fiction," as historical novelist John Vernon once called it), because we assume people actually said gadzooks back in the 1830s. That mild oath is an old-fashioned euphemism, so it is thought, for "God's hooks" (a reference, supposedly, to the nails of the Crucifixion). Today's historical novelists must toe a fine line, avoiding anachronistic expressions while at the same time rejecting modern expressions such as okay and nice (the latter, in Shakespeare's day, suggesting one who was wanton or dissolute rather than pleasant, kind, or respectable).


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

besmirch • \bih-SMERCH\  • verb

: to cause harm or damage to : sully, soil


"Greenfield is not one of those biographers who set out to besmirch their subjects and deplore their lives, and for whom every detail is an indictment." — Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review, 25 June 2006

"But to many of us, golf is more than a game…. We occasionally curse its name, but will defend it to the death to any that besmirch it. In short, golf is our addiction." — Joel Beall, Golf Digest, 1 July 2016

Did you know?

Since the prefix be- in besmirch means "to make or cause to be," when you besmirch something, you cause it to have a smirch. What's a smirch? A smirch is a stain, and to smirch something is to stain it or make it dirty. By extension, the verb smirch came to mean "to bring discredit or disgrace on." Smirch and besmirch, then, mean essentially the same thing. We have William Shakespeare to thank for the variation in form. His uses of the term in Hamlet ("And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch the virtue of his will") and Henry V ("Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd with rainy marching in the painful field") are the first known appearances of besmirch in English.


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

irenic • \eye-REN-ik\  • adjective

: favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation


The former senator's irenic nature made her an ideal candidate to be a foreign ambassador.

"In a period when relations between religious traditions are characterized by suspicion and lack of understanding, Gregg's even-handed and irenic treatment of each religion's biblical interpretation provides a positive appreciation of each on its own terms and an invitation for each religion to consider rejoining with the others in an important conversation." — Luke Timothy Johnson, Commonweal, 17 June 2016

Did you know?

In Greek mythology, Eirene was one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons and natural order; in the Iliad the Horae are the custodians of the gates of Olympus. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the Horae were the daughters of Zeus and a Titaness named Themis, and their names indicate their function and relation to human life. Eirene was the goddess of peace. Her name is also the Greek word for "peace," and it gave rise to irenic and other peaceable terms including irenics (a theological term for advocacy of Christian unity), Irena (the genus name of two species of birds found in southern Asia and the Philippines), and the name Irene.

vade mecum  

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

vade mecum • \vay-dee-MEE-kum\  • noun

1 : a book for ready reference : manual

2 : something regularly carried about by a person


"Well into the 20th century, John Barlow's Ideal Handbook, the vade mecum of the rifleman, carried instructions for molding the Keene bullet." — Jim Foral, Gun Digest 2012, 2011

"How to Do Biography is not a prescriptive, do-it-by-the-numbers volume. It's more a vade mecum, a guidebook filled with general advice on issues that face all biographers." — James L. W. West III, The Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania), 26 Apr. 2009

Did you know?

Vade mecum (Latin for "go with me") has long been used of manuals or guidebooks sufficiently compact to be carried in a deep pocket, and it would sometimes appear in the title of such works, as with one of the earliest known uses of the phrase in the title of the 1629 volume Vade Mecum: A Manuall of Essayes Morrall, Theologicall. From the beginning, it has also been used for constant companions that are carried about by a person, such as gold, medications, and memorized gems of wisdom. But these days, vade mecum is primarily encountered in reference to works which are intended to serve as one-stop references or guides to a particular subject, whether or not such a work can actually be carried in one's pocket (a moot distinction, perhaps, in an age when such works can easily reside in a smartphone's memory).


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

minuscule • \MIN-uh-skyool\  • adjective

1 : written in or in the size or style of lowercase letters

2 : very small


The number of bugs in the latest version of the computer program is minuscule compared to the number that surfaced in the earlier version.

"What's essentially a minuscule contact lens that never has to be removed or cleaned is changing the way people address near vision challenges." — Kristi King,, 14 Feb. 2017

Did you know?

Minuscule derives from the Latin adjective minusculus, which means "rather small." The minuscule spelling is consistent with the word's etymology, but since the 19th century, people have also been spelling it miniscule, perhaps because they associate it with the combining form mini- and words such as minimal and minimum. Usage commentators generally consider the miniscule spelling an error, but it is widely used in reputable and carefully edited publications and is accepted as a legitimate variant in some dictionaries.


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

tattoo • \ta-TOO\  • noun

1 : a rapid rhythmic rapping

2 a : a call sounded shortly before taps as notice to go to quarters

b : outdoor military exercise given by troops as evening entertainment


The impatient man began beating a tattoo with his fingers on the countertop.

"As tennis fans, we spend our time watching the players' hands. But the professionals will tell you that matches are more often won with the feet, and this was the greatest contrast yesterday. Murray's size 12s tapped out a rapid tattoo on the turf … as he ran down countless lost causes." — Simon Briggs, The Daily Telegraph (London), 9 July 2016

Did you know?

Today's word has nothing to do with skin markings. That other tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tatau. Today's tattoo comes from the Dutch colloquialism "tap toe," which can be translated as "turn off the tap," though it was most often used to mean something like "Shut up! Cease!" The Dutch began using the word taptoe for a drum beat, and then English speakers borrowed the term (changing it slightly, to taptoo and, eventually, to tattoo). It was used especially by the military to name a drum beat (or possibly a bugle call) that signaled the day's end. This taptoo most likely led to our taps, a term for the final bugle call at night in the military.

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