Courtesy Flag2Continuing with this week’s theme of flags is today’s entry (actually, Tuesday’s entry – I have been experiencing some technical difficulties).

courtesy n. a small version of a host country’s national or maritime flag, flown as a sign of respect by a foreign ship while cruising in the host country’s waters; typically flown from the foremasthead of multi-masted ships, or from the starboard spreader of single-masted ships, or from the bow staff of ships with no mast.


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gonfalonI thought I would try something different.  Each day this week, I will be posting a Watchword of the Day that pertains to a selected subject.  This week’s subject is flags. In future weeks, I would like to post words that pertain to subjects that you, the reader, request.  So that’s an open invitation for you to make your requests – first come, first served.  It can be anything at all, such as “words relating to horse colors,” or “words ending in ‘ism’,” or “old Hebraic measurement words.” The more arcane, the better.  I’ll see what I can come up with.

gonfalon n. a flag or banner hung from a horizontal bar, often accompanied by streamers and tails.

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More on groups

home-aloneSpeaking of groups (see “Birds of a feather” below), there are a number of words that relate to a group of related words that deal with other words that are related in some distinct but different manner.  Confused?  Read on and all shall be revealed.


heteronym n. a word that is spelled the same as another but has a completely different pronunciation and definition.

homograph n. a word that has the same spelling as another but differs in its meaning and origin, and is sometimes pronounced differently.

homonym n. a word that is spelled and pronounced the same as another but has an entirely different meaning.

homophone n. a word that is pronounced the same as another and can be spelled the same or differently, but has a different meaning.

homealone n. a movie that was much better than the three sequels that followed. (Just making sure that you’re paying attention.)

So, let’s review.  A homonym is always a homograph and a heteronym is too, and a homophone can be a homograph if the two words in question are spelled alike.  Likewise, a homonym can also be a homophone if the two words are spelled alike, but a heteronym is never a homophone because they have different pronunciations.  And just why is it pronunciation and not pronounciation?  And why is it that sequels are almost never better than the first movie?

Heteronyms are probably the rarest of all the classes of words defined above.  Can you think of any?  Here’s one: lead, as in “lead an army into battle,” and lead, as in “don’t eat paint containing lead.”  You should probably just stay away from eating paint altogether.  Homonyms are easy to think of as there are literally thousands of examples.  There’s bear (to carry), and bear (the kind that bite). Homophones (when spelled differently) are rarer than homonyms (which are always spelled the same) but less rare than heteronyms. Bare and bear, and air and heir come to mind.  Led and lead (the element) also work.

Still confused?  Don’t worry.  There’s no test.

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Birds of a feather

flockI have amassed what I believe is quite possibly the world’s largest collection of words associated with animal groups.  As part of the work on my upcoming book on uncommon words, I have been accumulating terms in this category for more than a decade and I have yet to come across a list as comprehensive as the one I’ve put together.  But as they say, all this and about $3.50 will buy you a cup of latte at your favorite gourmet coffee shop.

It’s not that more is necessarily better, it’s just interesting to see all of the words that have come to be associated with different kinds of animals.  I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list (and I have to save some surprises for my book), but here are a few of my favorites.

Maybe you’ve heard of a murder of crows?  This once relatively unknown grouping was made more popular by a forgettable 1988 movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Staying with birds for a moment, a flock of geese is pretty boring, but there’s also a richness of martens, or a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks, or a drumming of grouse.  For the more exotic birds, there’s a flamboyance of flamingoes, although a group of flamingoes can also be referred to as a stand or when in flight, as a skein, and a group of peacocks is an ostentation. If a flock of geese is boring, a flock of geese flying in a V-formation is called a wedge, and strictly speaking, a gaggle of geese is only when they are standing on the ground, but when they’re in the water, they’re called a plump. One of my favorite bird groups is a wake of vultures.  Get it?

Okay, enough about birds.  Tired of hearing about swine flu?  A group of hogs can be called a passel or a drift. In the livestock category, there’s a tribe of goats, a rumination of cattle, and a troop of horses, although a group of racehorses are called a field. Whales aren’t just called a school or pod, but also can be referred to as a herd, gam, grind, mob, or run. You could probably guess this next one: a group of vipers is a nest. For African animals, there’s a crossing of zebras, a memory of elephants, a crash of rhinos, and a machination of monkeys, although monkey groupings  have several other terms, such as barrel. And let’s not forget a cackle of hyenas.  Had enough?

Groups of bison are called a thunder, there’s a mischief of moose, a bike of bees, a shiver of sharks, and a confusion of weasels.  Just a few more.  A group of swans are a regatta, leopards are a leap, and groups of frogs are an army. Even groups of gerbils have their own word – a horde.

Okay, that’s enough for now.  Did I fail to mention your favorite animal?  Let me know and I will tell you its grouping name or names.

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A penny for your thoughts

coin rolls

Continuing yesterday’s “There’s a Word for That?” theme of words with a French root that begin with R, comes today’s entry whose definition will be instantly recognizable but whose term might not be.  It comes to us from the French word for roll.

rouleau n. a roll of coins wrapped in a cylindrical paper form.

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circular drive

Today’s “There’s a Word for That?” word is:

ruelle n. [Fr.] a circular driveway at a private residence; from the French rue for street or ruelle for narrow lane.

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Give Peace a Chance

It seems to me that I’m hearing a lot more people arguing with each other these days, and I’m not just talking about the squabbling we hear out of Washington, or those big fights that are going on in places like Pakistan or disputeIraq.  I’m talking about the petty threaps and brabbles (e.g., arguments) between friends and in places like our kids’ schools.  Maybe it’s the economy.  Maybe it’s the long winter behind us.  But spring is upon us now and with it comes an opportunity to set aside our dissimilitudes and enjoy a regenesis from the warm weather.

Today’s common word is bicker, as to quarrel about petty matters. The word itself has an obscure history but probably comes to us from Middle Dutch in the 13th century from the word bicken which means to attack.  The word also has some pretty uncommon meanings.  The first is the noun form of the common definition above where bicker means a petty dispute or contention.  That one makes sense.  But bicker can also mean to sprint quickly over a short distance – maybe in reference to the person who is losing a bicker and wants to avoid escalation to a full-out brawl.  Closely associated with this last verbal definition is bicker as a verb meaning to quiver or vibrate.  Get mad enough during an argument and I’ve seen people begin to quiver all over.  These last two related noun definitions both come to us from the Scots and have no apparent connection with the common usage of bicker. In these definitions, bicker is both a wooden dish or bowl, especially one made of wooden staves and used for eating porridge, and a wooden drinking cup.  The etymology here is probably from the Middle English word biker which gives us the modern word beaker and can be associated with a cup or eating vessel.

So, let’s put aside our differences, realize that life’s too short as it is, kick back and imbibe your favorite drink, and just enjoy the silence.

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