Word of the Day

Theme for April 2012

If you're a fan of crossword puzzles, you'll know what I mean when I say that there are certain words you just need to learn. I'm talking about obscure little words that you would rarely come across in your everyday experience, but which seem to turn up in the crossword grid time and time again. These words are known in the trade as crosswordese, and this month I'm going to introduce you to 30 of the most important of them.

Word of the Day for April 1

ETUI /ay.TWEE/ n. a little ornamental case for holding small jewellery or other useful items, especially those required for emergency sewing jobs

The word is occasionally spelled ETWEE, which is pronounced exactly the same way, but in my humble opinion lacks literary distinction ;-)

I kicked off April's Crosswordese theme with this one for a very good reason. No crossword solver, Scrabble player, or spelling bee contender can escape this little gem.

You see, crossword constructors are always on the lookout for words with a high vowel to consonant ratio, because there just aren't very many of them in the English language, and the grid always requires them. As a result, the ones that do exist in our lexicon occur with a much greater frequency than consonant-heavy words .

In Scrabble, players (well, the ones who know what they're doing at least!) are always trying to 'balance their racks', which means unloading surplus vowels in moves known as 'vowel dumps'. As a quick way to dump an E-U-I combo through an existing T on the board, ETUI is pretty cherished by this crowd.

And even in spelling bees, this charming little word gets a good workout. After all, if nobody told you how to pronounce this word, would you have worked it out? Probably not from its lineage: "French, from Old French estui, prison, from estuier, to guard, from Vulgar Latin estudiāre, from Latin stadium, study.." Sheesh!

Scott Firebaugh will certainly carry this one to his grave...

Scott is a multiple place-getter, and one-time winner, of the world's largest senior Spelling Bee, run by the AARP association in Wyoming every year. Now trust me, this guy knows virtually every word in Merriam Webster.

But compare the word he spelled correctly to become the 2010 AARP National Spelling Bee Champion, to the one that relegated him to second place in 2009, and I think you'll agree that you should never judge a word by its length ;-)

Word of the Day for April 2

ARETE /uh.RET/ n. a sharp narrow mountain ridge

Arête Küffner viewed from Bivourc de la Fourche

Usually, crossword constructors give straightforward clues for answers that are a bit obscure. So for this one, the clue is likely to be something like [Mountain ridge] or [Craggy crest]. Marginally less 'definitional' clues you might find include [Alpine feature], [Appalachian feature], or [Rocky prominence]. A bit trickier, depending on your personal stock of knowledge of course, is the clue [Glacier National Park's Garden Wall, e.g.].

Another thing crossword constructors like to do, by the way, is use secondary, less expected, meanings of words. In this case, ARETE might also refer to an old Greek word that related to 'virtue' ('knowledge' being the ultimate), and was often bound up in the context of 'achieving your very best'. That's why you'll occasionally see clues for this word like [Sum of one's virtues, to the Greek] or [Virtue to Aristotle].

It's a trap for beginners, but it won't snare you ;-)

Actually, in the Greek context, ARETE is pronounced differently to the 'mountain ridge'. Puzzle makers don't worry about pronunciations in their clues, though. Probably because that would take a lot of the fun out of it for them!

For the Scrabble players, today's word makes a nice alternative play to the rather mundane EATER.

P.S. I might make an occasional habit of tucking away Collins- (CSW-) only words in a footnote so North American Scrabblers can safely avoid them. In today's case, here's the footnote...

Collins allows another obscure anagram of ARETE, namely REATE#, which is a type of plant often more casually referred to as the 'Water-crowfoot'.

Word of the Day for April 3

OGEE /OH.jee or oh.JEE/ n. an architectural molding having an S-shaped cross-section

At last you have a name for those funny bendy bits in arches...

Ogee Arch


Ogee feature on window sil

and other fancy thingies...

Forestville Ogee Movement

Like most crosswordese, OGEE is generally clued straightforwardly with hints like [S-shaped molding], [Arch type], or [Molding shape]. But you will occasionally encounter a nasty, like Brendan Emmett Quigley's rather ambiguous [Distinctive profile].

While researching today's word, I also stumbled upon another couple of pieces of armory for the word gamer's arsenal.

First was OGIVE, which often refers to 'a pointed or Gothic arch' (adj. OGIVAL), and also shares a complex lineage with OGEE that I won't attempt to reproduce here.

Second was SIGMOID, which I finally got around to looking up today, and which is usually used to mean 'S-shaped'.

Word of the Day for April 4

EWER /YOO.ur/ n. a wide-mouthed jug traditionally used for carrying water, but now used more as an ornament


And here is a more famous one you might recognize...


I showed you that one for a reason. It is rather popular for crossword constructors to clue our word of the day as something like [America's Cup Trophy, e.g.] or the slightly less direct [Prize cup, maybe]

In years gone by, the ewer was a very popular object of paintings; especially of the so-called "Still Life" art form. That's why you'll also need to recognize it as a likely answer to clues like [Common still-life subject] or the slightly more demanding [Item in Cassatt's "Woman Bathing"].

What? You haven't heard of Cassatt's "Woman Bathing"? Me neither...

You can also see from that painting why the ewer is often clued as [Washstand vessel], [Basin accompanier], or [Ablutionary vessel]. (Although Scrabblers will probably associate the word ABLUTION with ABUTILON, its floral anagram, rather than the act of washing).

And speaking of women bathing, how charming is this little excerpt from Don't Cry Alone by Josephine Cox...

"In no time at all, the fire was blazing cheerfully, the curtains were drawn against the night, and Beth was pouring the water from the kettle into the bath; a spill of cold water from the ewer, then another drop from the kettle, and the water was just the right temperature, the warm steam rising nicely and filling the room with a comfortable warm smell."

Now that's not just defining a word; that's experiencing it!

Word of the Day for April 5

ETA /EE.tuh or AY.tuh/ n. the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet, often transliterated in English as the letter 'e'

Word of the Day ETA
eta in lower & upper case

Astronomers sometimes use eta to label the 7th star in a constellation, as in Eta Carinae, a fact which has been used once or twice in the New York Times crossword puzzle, so look out for that one.

More often though, you'll get clues like these: [Seventh letter, to Aristotle], [Zeta follower], [Third letter after delta], [Hellenic H], [Greek vowel]... which hopefully all make sense now.

Actually, if you're a fan of crossword puzzles, it's a good idea to learn the entire Greek alphabet.

I say that partly because many of the Greek letters get a good workout in the grid, but also because, as you can see above, the clues often expect you to know the order of each letter. But how can you know the order of each letter, without knowing the entire sequence?

I'm not sure if the following short video will help you out or not, because being a middle-aged prodigy I already knew the Greek alphabet before watching it. But at the very least, it's a little bit fun...

Didn't help you? Well, at least remember this today: eta is the 7th letter in the Greek alphabet.

TIP — Take a look at the symbol for lower case eta, η. See how it looks a wee-little bit like the number seven? If you mentally remove that first vertical stroke, maybe? Ok, it's a bit of a useless tip. But sometimes useless tips are the most useful...

"[Seventh letter]. Hmmmmmm.... Hey, remember when Word Buff tried to tell us that η looks like a 7? What crap. It looks nothing like a seven. Hey wait! That's it. ETA!"

Oops. Nearly forgot to throw the Scrabble players a morsel. Man this is a tough gig!

If you see ETA on the board, note that you can take advantage of the following hooks: BETA, FETA, GETA, META, SETA, and ZETA.

I'll let you look them up. For now I'll just mention in passing that if you took my advice earlier in this post you'd already know two of them!

P.S. Here's an example of a Collins-only (read: Not allowed in North American Scrabble) footnote I warned you about the other day.

First... There are two obscure Collins-only hooks for ETA: KETA (a Pacific salmon) and WETA (a grasshopper).

Second... Did you notice I gave two possible pronunciations of today's word? It turns out that these pronunciations have proper linguistic names. /AY.tuh/ is called the ETACISM and /EE.tuh/ is called the ITACISM.

I'm not sure how to use these words in a sentence, but I know how to lay them down on a Scrabble board and add 50 points to my total score. A Collins game, of course ;-)

Word of the Day for April 6

ERE /air/ adv. prep. conj. before, earlier, since etc.

In some cases, ERE has actually merged with the word it modifies to form a new compound word. The ones the Scrabble player will have to remember are...

ERELONG (before long or soon)
ERENOW (before this time)
EREWHILE (previously or some time ago)

Today's word is encountered most often nowadays in literary and/or archaic works, and is especially popular in poetry.

Below are 10 'fill in the blank' style clues from real New York Times crossword puzzles to show you the sorts of literary quotes you are expected to be familiar with during your breakfast solve.

However, now that I've already told you the answer to all of them, it's not exactly a challenge worthy of our stature. So to make it a bit more interesting, I've mixed up the sources for each quotation, and your job is to rearrange them correctly...

  • "____ thou and peace may meet": Shakespeare
  • "We shun it ____ it comes": Byron
  • "____ fancy you consult, consult your purse": Longfellow
  • "Maid of Athens, ____ We Part": Emily Dickinson
  • "____ upon my bed I lay me": Shelley
  • "Blood hath been shed ____ now": Benjamin Franklin
  • "A little ____ the mightiest Julius fell": Lowell
  • "I hope to see London once ____ I die": Macbeth
  • "I kissed thee ____ I killed thee": "Henry IV, Part 2"
  • "___ pales in Heaven the morning star": Othello

How did you go? I'll let you know the answers tomorrow!

P.S. For Scrabblers playing to Collins, you'll be happy to ere that today's word can also be used as a verb meaning 'to plough'.

TIP — A fun way to frustrate your novice Collins opponent is to play ERING declaring it to mean 'jewelry to ornament the ear'. Then watch your opponent's facial expression transform from supreme confidence, to confusion, to utter disgust as the inevitable challenge plays out.

Word of the Day for April 7

OLEO /OH.lee.owe or OWE.lee.owe/ n. a shortened colloquial form of oleomargarine preferred in the US (over margarine used in Britain and other parts of the world) which is a butter substitute made from vegetable oils

1950s DURKEE Oleomargarine Advertisement Vintage Illustration

Here are a few crossword clues today's word should help you solve...

  • Butter alternative
  • Marg : Brits :: ___ : Americans
  • It's not butter
  • Spread on the table
  • Promise, for one
And just in case you didn't understand that last one...

Deriving from the Latin OLEUM (plural OLEA), meaning 'oil', today's word has a few handy extensions. The most widely known of these are probably OLEOGRAPH (a picture produced in oils) and OLEORESIN (a mixture of oils and resin).

The reason I'm familiar with the latter is that my Scrabble program once responded to my opening play of OLE with the ever-so-slightly jaw-dropping...

Can you even begin to imagine finding that in a game?!

P.S. here are the answers to yesterday's puzzle...

  • "____ thou and peace may meet": Shelley
  • "We shun it ____ it comes": Emily Dickinson
  • "____ fancy you consult, consult your purse": Benjamin Franklin
  • "Maid of Athens, ____ We Part": Byron
  • "____ upon my bed I lay me": Longfellow
  • "Blood hath been shed ____ now": Macbeth
  • "A little ____ the mightiest Julius fell": Shak.
  • "I hope to see London once ____ I die": "Henry IV, Part 2"
  • "I kissed thee ____ I killed thee": Othello
  • "___ pales in Heaven the morning star": Lowell

Word of the Day for April 8

ALOE /AL.owe/ n. a genus of succulent flowering plants encompassing around 500 species

South African Winter Aloes

You've probably heard of aloe vera (literally 'true aloe'), because of its medicinal uses, but you may not have known that this was a single species among several hundred.

Indeed, I suspect it is really this most common aloe that crossword constructors are cluing time and time again with [Natural balm], [Shampoo ingredient], and [Soothing succulent].

BTW... Quite often dictionaries list a plant genus as capitalized and you may wonder how it makes its way into the Scrabble dictionary.

The thing is, it is a common practice (reflected in dictionaries) to allow a genus name to be uncapitalized when it is being used to refer to a generic member of a genus (i.e. to a generic species).

Here's an example that will teach you a high probably bingo word at the same time: An ALOETIC is a medicine made from several aloes.

See how the word aloes here is not referring to the genus itself, but rather to its members?

Funnily enough, today's word has only one anagram, and that was a word you learned just yesterday: OLEA, the plural of OLEUM (an old Latin word for 'oil').

P.S. For Collins players, you also get the adjective ALOED, which you can use to indicate the presence of aloes. So when you see that one, don't think it gives you permission to go around aloeing* yourself.

Word of the Day for April 9

EPEE /AY.pay or EP.ay/ n. a sword used for dueling and fencing


A few words you're likely to see in the same crossword clues as the epee include the FOIL and SABER/SABRE (the other two common swords used in fencing), the RAPIER (a cousin of these swords used for thrusting attacks), and the PISTE (the strip of ground on which a fencing competition takes place; pronounced /peest/).

In rare situations you might even encounter the PASSADO (a forward thrust movement) or the FLEURET (an alternative name for the foil).

Although the epee will usually be clued in a straightforward way (once you've learned the above lingo of course), some of the more playful clues I've encountered include...

  • It serves a duel purpose
  • Pointless event
  • Foil cousin
  • It may be waved at the Olympics
  • Passado poker

Of course, it always helps being told the answer in advance ;-)

If you see an epee on the board in a game of Scrabble or Words With Friends, don't hesitate to capitalize on the front hook opportunity of TEPEE (a conical shaped Native American tent), which can also be spelled TEEPEE or TIPI.

And don't forget that the person actually doing the fencing can garner you an easy 50 points too; the fencer is called an EPEEIST!

Word of the Day for April 10

ERN(E) /urn/ n. a predatory sea-bird, especially the white-tailed eagle

White tailed eagle

Today's word appears in crosswords in both variants, ern and erne, and is usually clued in a straightforward way, such as [Sea eagle], [Coastal bird], or [Cousin of the bald eagle].

It does, however, often pay to know that a bird of prey is sometimes referred to as a RAPTOR, as in [Raptor of the sea] or [Raptorial seabird].

While investigating this word I discovered a rather handsome Scrabbly extension you might enjoy: VELOCIRAPTOR (a fierce predatory dinosaur). Not bad huh?

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