contretemps (KAHN tre-tahn) noun, An inopportune or embarrassing occurance, a mishap.
In other words, the description of half of all sit-com humor and slapstick as well as 90% of America's Funniest Home Videos. Can you say pratfall, crotch-hit, Freudian slip, or fart? How about Oops!? Of course, as Mel Brooks tells us, when it happens to you it's tragedy. When it happens to someone else it's comedy.
tonsure (TAHN shur) noun 1. The act of shaving the top or crown of the head, especially as a preliminary to becoming a priest or monk. 2. The part of a monk's head so shaven.
How the voluntary bald spot caught on is something of a mystery to me. Can't imagine it was to look cool or stylish, those things being eschewed by ascetics. Maybe it was supposed to make you look old and wise, when looking old and wise was a good thing. Then again, could have been a sort-of hair halo or something.
Whatever it was intended for, it seems to have gone out of style even for monks.
Catch any flak at work lately? As you might know, flak originally was anti-aircraft fire.
flak (flak) noun, 1. Anti-aircraft artillery. 2. The bursting shells from anti-aircraft artillery. 3. slang. Excessive criticism; abuse.
But where did the word come from? Is it onomatopoeia* like ack-ack, which is also anti-aircraft gunnery?
It comes from the Germans who like to make compound words ramming adjectives into nouns creating one big noun. For instance, in Germany a tank is a Panzerkampfwagen, which is an armored (panzer) fighting (kampf) vehicle (wagen). They take that another step and start lopping off bits into a shorter version. Which is how they got flak. Flieger (aircraft) abwher (defense) kanone (canon).
Which makes it a kind of Teutonic acronym. This German business of combining the starts of words is how they got the notoriuos...
Gestapo. Which comes from Secret (Geheime) State (Staats) Police (polizei). GEheimeSTAatsPOlizei.
*I'll get to onomatopoeia some other time.
quixotic (kwik SAH tik) adj. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds or unobtainable ideals; romantic without regard to practicality.
This is an eponym after Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha who was prone "to dream the impossible dream. To fight the unbeatable foe" as the lyrics go. Quixote is pronounced "kee HOE tay" but we don't say "kee HOE tik" for quixotic. Must be an Anglicizing of the Spanish original.
The story of Don Quixote is also where we get the phrase "tilting at windmills" which means the same thing as quixotic. Tilting in this instance means jousting, thrusting with a lance and not leaning or tipping. Hey, look it up for yourself.
Here's couple words whose senses overlap which suggests they're interchangeable. But not really, the pair have distinctive usages.
Historic is largely restricted to important events, unique contributions to history.
Historical, on the other hand more broadly applies to everyday things or events from the past.
Something historic is history-making, like Washington crossing the Delaware. Historical is like an old house from a bygone era, but nothing of note happened there. Maybe even a house from Colonial times, perhaps Washington even slept there, which doesn't quite qualify as historic. History might be made while you sleep, but rarely does sleeping make history.
This is why you get a plaque to hang on an old house from the local Historical Society and not the Historic Society. Should George Washington stop by for a nap, that's another story. Especially since he's been dead almost 200 years. Such an event might be historic or hysterical, depending on your point of view.
utopia (yoo TOE pee-ah) noun, 1. Any condition, place, or situation of social or political perfection. 2. Any idealistic goal or concept for social or political reform.
Utopia is a word from Greek roots coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his 1516 novel, Utopia. Which translates as "nowhere." (ou, not + topos, place) This should give you a good hint as why utopias are very hard to create. You can't have some-place that's no-place. Something not unlike the way Dorothy Parker once quipped, "there's no there there."
A toad eater was a charlatan's attendant who pretended to eat toads (thought to be poisonous) to prove the charlatan could expel the poison. This term evoled into the familiar...
toady (TOE dee) noun One who panders to the wealthy or influential; a servile flatterer. syn. -- sycophant.
I guess these days we'd call them a groupie or part of an entourage. Whether you could get a groupie to eat toads, I couldn't say. But I wouldn't put it past them.
Here's a word I'll toss in, not because it's so useful, but because it's so odd. I mean, how common is this?
formication (fore muh KAY shun) noun A spontaneous abnormal sensation of ants or other insects running over the skin.
Let's set the record straight on another word people like to misuse. Though really not all that often because it's obscure, but often enough in the rare instances it is used. That word is...
vomitorium. Wags and jokesters like to use it as if it means a room where you go to throw up, retch, puke, regurgitate... in other words vomit. Wrong. A vomitorium is a passageway. Vomit comes from Latin and is related to "discharge." A doorway or passageway is for the discharge of people from one place to another. This would be a vomitory (doorway) or a vomitorium (passageway, like a hall).
hoi polloi (hoy pe LOY) noun The common people viewed from a position of social or intellectual advantage or privilege.
This is another one of those terms I hear people being mixed up about, often thinking it means the elite, the upper class, the rich and powerful, the upper crust. But it means the opposite; the masses, the rabble, the ruck, the great unwashed, the many-headed, the plebs, the common folk, et al. I can only guess these people confuse hoi polloi as being somehow related to...
hoity-toity (hoy tee TOY tee) adj. Arrogant, pompous, pretentious.
In other words, snobbery and snobs. Who are often the elite, the upper crust, etc.
avuncular (ah VUNK you lar) adj. Of, like, or pertaining to an uncle.
This may have good or bad connotations depending how you feel about your uncle. Or whether your uncle is a great guy or something of a jerk. I think most people would think uncles leave a warm fuzzy feeling, but it could be cold and hairy instead.
callipygian (kal eh PIJ ee-en) adj. Having a beautifully proportioned buttocks.
zaftig (ZAF tig, ZAF tik) adj. slang Full-bosomed.
These are the words you might use in polite company rather than the vulgarisms you'd usually use. You know, when a caboose is on rails, ass refers to a pack animal, butts are cigarette remains, and back means the lumbar region. When melons are fruit, jugs are ewers, hooters are owls, boobs are fools, ta-tas are farewells in London, knockers alert you to visitors at the front door, the front porch is attached to the house and when it's built it's done by carpenters and not mother nature, and where boxes may be stacked.
irascible (ih RAS ih bul) adj. Easily provoked or angered.
This word is the formal equivalent of the everyday words and expressions testy, cranky, touchy, cantankerous, peevish, hot-headed, quick-tempered, thin-skinned or having a hair trigger or a short fuse. Which might be why you don't hear it very often. Who needs it when we have these more colorful versions. Like the related phrase "flying off the handle." Though when examined it's hard to figure out how such an expression came about. Can people actually fly off handles? Handles of what? It's rather nonsensical when you think about it.
I saw where Family Feud lumped donkey and mule together as a single answer. A donkey, an ass and a burro are the same, but a mule is something altogether different.
mule (myool) noun a sterile hybrid of a male ass and a female horse.
Compare that to the less common:
hinny (HIN ee) noun a sterile hybrid of a female ass and a male horse.
There are no sons and daughters of mules or hinnies. It's a dead end. They're bigger than donkeys and smaller than horses. What exactly the advantages are to these animals, I don't know. Perhaps being headstrong, as in stubborn as a mule. I have heard you can't ride a mule into battle, they won't co-operate. Whether that is a sign of intelligence on the mule's part, or a sign of a cavalry horse's bravery, I couldn't tell you.
Perhaps there's a joke somewhere in all this. What do you get when you cross a horse with an ass? A stubborn horse's ass. Not too good, sorry.
On the other hand, I will admit to a mistake I used to make, that a pony is a young horse. Not so. A young horse is a colt. A pony is a fully grown horse of a small breed, less than 14 hands tall. Though many folks, some cowboys for instance, call any horse you saddle up and ride a pony. And so, the Pony Express.
aspersion (a SPER zhun) noun 1. Slander, a calumnious report or remark. 2. The act of defaming or slandering.
How often have you heard anyone protest about someone "casting aspersions on their character"? Why is it aspersions always seem to be cast? Can they also be tossed, thrown, lobbed, floated or distributed in some other way? Is this casting like casting a shadow or casting for fish with a rod and reel? And why does it seem always to be plural, aspersions, rather than just one aspersion?
Actually there is a reason, but it goes to another meaning of the word. Which is: aspersion, n. 3. A sprinkling: especially, a baptism by sprinkling.
This means you can have an aspersion (sprinkling, casting) of aspersions (slanders, defamations) against someone's character. They just naturally go together, sort-of. I'm sure that's all crystal clear as mud. Though I rather imagine the reader would also like to know what calumnious means. I'll get to that some other time.