Word of the Day: Nonpareil

Today’s word of the day is appropriate, because all of you are readers nonpareil.

Nonpareil (nahn-puh-REL). Adjective. Having no equal; unrivalled, incomparable, peerless, unique.

Many of you might know this word from the candy which shares a name. We call them sprinkles, but I wish we used the Australian name–Hundreds and Thousands—because it is obviously so much better. I digress.

Sprinkles might be called nonpareils, but the word itself has a lot more to offer. It comes to us today from medieval poets, who used it to describe loves and kings, though not necessarily in that order. “[I] haue a nounparalle maystres,” The Duke of Orleans wrote in an English poem around the year 1450, for example: “The which hath hool my service & myn hert.

In another middle English poem, a French knight asks a bunch of Scottish knights about their king. One speaks up: “[I] sey for trouthe that he is Le nounpareil that euir [I] sawe or herde speke of.” Strong words.

Some time later, the word descended from the pages of poetry and made its way into the streets. In 1730, for example, you could go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of A treatise of buggs. By John Southall, maker of the nonpareil liquor for destroying buggs and nits. This isn’t a joke. You can read the book on Google Books.

Despite Mr. Southall’s best effort, nonpareil is still a wonderful word to describe things that are unequaled. Like all of you. I hope you all enjoy a weekend nonpareil.

Just watch out for “buggs.”

Word of the Day: Recondite

Truth is the best policy, they say, and in truth: with everything happening in the world, I forgot to think about any more Words-of-the-Day last week. Sorry about that.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to think of words quite recondite enough to share. Let’s remedy that this week with a word you’ll be proud to show off.

Recondite. (REK-un-dyte).Adjective. little known or understood; abstruse, obscure; profound.

This $2 word comes from the Latin word reconditus, which means the same thing; but if you look a little deeper, the root is actually condere, which can be translated as: “to put or bring together,” “to put up, store,” or “to conceal.” (1)

It’s that last one, that element of concealment, that makes recondite words so popular for words-of-the-day columns and so annoying to everyone who doesn’t know what they mean. Just look at this list of Merriam-Webster’s Words-of-the-Day from last month. Even Microsoft Word is a little chapfallen by this list. Spellcheck does not recognize the word rectitudinous and dutifully places a little red squiggly line underneath. Talk about recondite!

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day entries for part of March 2020

The word first came to English-speakers through an astronomer, John Bainbridge (2), waxing philosophic about the Great Comet of 1618:

“I hope this new Messenger from Heauen,” he wrote, “doth bring happie tidings of some munificent and liberall Patron…by whose gracious bountie the most recondite mysteries of this abstruse and diuine science shall at length be manifested.”

The Great Comet of 1618

That’s nice, but I think I prefer the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote:

“Humanly speaking, it is a more important matter to play the fiddle, even badly, than to write huge works upon recondite subjects.”

Have a great week! Don’t be afraid to share your suggestions for words—recondite or not—and I’ll credit you when I write them up.

(1) One of the standard Latin textbooks, by the way, teaches students that Latin was basically sung. So that’s ♫Con-de-re, like an opera singer.

(2) Bainbridge described himself as “Doctor of Physicke, and louer of the mathematicks.”

Word of the Day: Commensal

Today’s Word-of-the-Day is close to our hearts at DEP, I think, because it’s such an important part of the ecosystems we work so hard to protect. Today’s word is commensal.

There are two meanings to commensal, but I want to start with the one we’re most likely to use here.

Commensal. Biology. Applied to animals or plants which live as tenants of others (distinguished from parasitic).

It’s easiest to understand the concept if we apply an –ism to the end. Commensalism is a relationship in which one party benefits while the other is unaffected. It’s different from parasitism, in which one animal benefits at the expense of another; and it’s different from mutualism, in which both parties benefit.

So why is it important to our work at DEP? In two words: Gopher Tortoises.

I’ll let FWC tell the story using their website on the topic. There’s also a great fact sheet there and a neat flickr gallery of photos.

“The gopher tortoise’s presence is important to more than 350 species that benefit from the burrows gopher tortoises dig. Because gopher tortoises alter their environment in a way that benefits other species, they are recognized as a keystone species. Animals that obtain food, refuge, and other benefits from the burrows are known as gopher tortoise commensal species. A healthy and widespread gopher tortoise population is necessary for commensal species populations to exist.”

Some of these commensal species include: burrowing owls, indigo snakes, rattlesnakes, mice, and a host of insects. There’s a lot going on in those burrows!

Commensals in Gopher Tortoise Burrows

I didn’t know this before I started writing about commensals this afternoon, but this meaning comes from an earlier definition of commensal.

Commensal. Adjective. Eating at, or pertaining to, the same table.

People used the word this way for over 500 years before the biologists took it over. The first reference in written English comes from a middle-English text called the Testament of Love, in which one of the characters asks another, “O where hast thou bee so long commensal?”

Perhaps that’s what I’ll ask one of the Gopher Tortoise commensals the next time I see one in the woods.

Are you familiar with any other commensals? Does anyone have anything to share about Gopher Tortoises, the 350 species who live with them, or any other Florida commensals?

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

Word of the Day: Portmanteau

I’ve written a couple of these posts for work, but thought that others might like to read them, too.

Good morning!

Let’s try something different today to bring everyone a little closer together. Let’s talk about words.

With all the talk recently about telework, I’ve been thinking about the word portmanteau, which is today’s Word-of-the-Day.

What is a portmanteau? As my friend Jay would say: “I’m glad you asked.”

Portmanteau (pôrtˈmantō): Noun. A word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings. Also, more generally: a term or phrase which encompasses two or more meanings.

If you had brunch recently, you took part in a portmanteau (of the words breakfast and lunch, of course). If you’ve stayed in a motel, you stayed in a motor + hotel. Do you watch Netflix? That means you probably like Internet + flicks. How about Velcro? This one’s a little obscure, but every time you tear open Velcro, you’re actually using a portmanteau of the words velours (which is French for velvet) + crochet. Who knew?

So when and where did we start using the word portmanteau, which is actually a type of suitcase, to refer to new words made by jamming old words together?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Lewis Carroll gave us the word in the wonderfully weird little book Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice (whom you probably know from her trip to Wonderland)asks Humpty-Dumpty to explain the meaning of a poem. Here’s the first verse:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Like me, Alice is puzzled by this nonsense. Thankfully, Humpty-Dumpty is able to explain part of it. “Well, ‘slithy‘ means ‘lithe and slimy’,” he explains: “’Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

And with that, Lewis Carroll invented a new word. How about you? Can you think of any portmanteaus?

Through the Looking-Glass - Chapter 6
Humpty on his wall