Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
If ever there was a day for shocking expositions of startling synonymy, outrageous acts of antonymic acrobatics, or other types of lexical legerdemain, it’s tomorrow, January 18, 2019. Why tomorrow? Because tomorrow is the 240th anniversary of the birth (nascence, nativity, geniture) of Peter Mark Roget, the man whose name is synonymous with thesaurus, and each year his birthday is celebrated (observed, proclaimed, revered) as Thesaurus Day.
Are you ready?
We’re here to help with seven lesser-known synonyms of otherwise common concepts. See how many of these great words you can fold into your conversations tomorrow and in the days to come.
Borborygmus: Rumbly Tummy
This word for the rumbling sound your intestines make as gas passes through them is practically an onomatopoeia. It traces back to the Greek borboryzein “to rumble,” a word which might have been coined to imitate the sound of such digestive noises.
Hirsute: Hair Apparent
Hirsute, which means “hairy, furry, or bristly,” comes almost unchanged from its Latin root hirsutus, which means exactly the same thing. If you still have a lot of other hairy people you need to describe, add pilose to your vocabulary, too — it’s yet another word for “hairy.”
Lothario: The Original Don Juan
Lothario was the name of a character in Nicholas Rowe’s 1703 play The Fair Penitent. An unscrupulous womanizer, he seduces Calista, a married woman who becomes the fair penitent of the play’s title. The Lothario character was so popular that it became an archetype in English theatre, and the name Lothario became more and more generic (much like Casanova or Don Juan).
Today, lothario is another word for a philanderer, lecher, or womanizer.
Ort: A Crumby Synonym
Ort hasn’t changed much since it entered Middle English (from Middle Low German) in the 1400s. An ort is a scrap of food left over after a meal — not the kind you wrap up and put in the fridge to eat tomorrow, but the kind you shake off into the trash, rinse off in the sink, or let the family dog lick off the plate before it goes in the dishwasher.
Oxter: It’s the Pits
You’re more likely to see or hear the word oxter across the Pond in Ireland and Scotland. In a bad situation, you might find yourself “up to your oxters in flood water” or, more metaphorically, “up to your oxters in student debt.” Your oxter is your armpit.
Plectrum: Take Your Pick
From the Greek plektron “thing you strike with,” a plectrum is a thin, flat piece of material (often plastic) used to play a stringed musical instrument. You know it more commonly as a guitar pick, though musicians can use plectra (or plectrums) to play all sorts of instruments, from banjo and dulcimer to balalaika and bouzouki.
Zoilus: Ancient Internet Troll
The original Zoilus was a Greek rhetorician and philosopher from the 4th century B.C. He was a harsh critic of Homer, denouncing The Iliad and The Odyssey, written three centuries before Zoilus was born, as mere fables. So constant and belittling was his denigration of Homer that, in his late life, he came to be known as Homeromastix — “scourge of Homer.” Like with Scrooge and Einstein — and Lothario — his name over time came to signify a specific type of person, in this case one given to unjust criticism and tedious fault-finding.
In other words, an internet troll.
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