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supercilious

supercilious

    MEANING   displaying arrogant pride, scorn, or indifference     ORIGIN   This word dates back to the first half of the 16th century. It is a borrowing from the Latin adjective superciliosus, meaning haughty, disdainful, and censorious, severe. This Latin word was in turn derived from the noun supercilium, meaning an eyebrow, […]

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to run amok

    MEANING   The adverb amok, also spelt amuck, is used in the phrase to run amok, which means to behave uncontrollably and disruptively.     ORIGIN   Via Spanish amuco and Portuguese amouco, amok is from a Malay word thus defined by Charles Payson Gurley Scott in The Malayan Words in English (1897): āmuḳ, […]

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galaxy

galaxy

  the Milky Way – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Steve Jurvetson       The noun galaxy appeared in Middle English in the sense of the Milky Way, the diffuse band of light stretching across the night sky that consists of millions of faint stars, nebulae, etc., within our Galaxy. The first known user of this word […]

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‘mob’

‘mob’

  Roger North, after Sir Peter Lely (1680) – image: National Portrait Gallery       MEANING   a riotous or disorderly crowd of people     ORIGIN   In the late 16th century, English borrowed from classical Latin the expression mobile vulgus, meaning the fickle crowd, the changeable common people. Around 1599, the English […]

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squirrel

squirrel

  photograph: Peter Trimming       The noun squirrel, which appeared in Middle English in forms such as squyrel and squerell, is from Anglo-Norman and Old French forms such as escuirel and escureul (Modern French écureuil), from the unattested Late Latin scuriolus, diminutive of an unattested altered form of the Latin word sciurus (biologists have retained the […]

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pilgrim

pilgrim

  Canterbury Cathedral     The Latin adjective pereger/-gris, composed of per, through, and ager/agri, a field, a land, literally meant who has gone through lands, hence who is on a journey, away from home. From this adjective was derived the adverb peregri, peregre, meaning abroad, and to, or from, foreign parts. This in turn […]

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jewel – bijou

jewel – bijou

  Horace Walpole (circa 1756-57), by Sir Joshua Reynolds image: National Portrait Gallery       The noun jewel, which dates back to the late 13th century, is from Old French and Anglo-Norman forms such as juel, jeuiel, jouel, joyel, etc. The plural forms were juaux, jeuiauls, jouaux, joyaulx, etc. This is why the modern […]

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jeopardy

jeopardy

  Jeopardy. This word is supposed to be derived from ‘j’ai perdu’, or ‘jeu perdu’. Skinner and Junius. Hazard; danger; Peril. A word not now in use. A Dictionary of the English Language (1785 edition), by Samuel Johnson (1709-84) There are two errors: the noun jeopardy is not from French j’ai perdu (I have lost) or jeu perdu […]

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on the horns of a dilemma

on the horns of a dilemma

  St Jerome in his study (1480), by Domenico Ghirlandaio         MEANING   faced with a decision involving equally unfavourable alternatives (also read Morton’s fork)     ORIGIN   In logic, the term dilemma denotes a form of argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two equally unfavourable alternatives. The Latin […]

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a stiff upper lip

a stiff upper lip

  first edition cover of Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), by the English author P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) – image: Goldsboro Books     MEANING   a quality of uncomplaining stoicism     ORIGIN   The word lip occurs in phrases referring to certain actions regarded as indicative of particular states of feeling. For example, […]

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