adjective1 : tending to break up into parts 2 : creating disunity or dissension : divisive
The election for class president had a fissiparous effect on the school as students took sides for their favorite candidate.
“In Calvinism: A History, D.G. Hart … shows how Protestantism’s fissiparous nature has allowed it to adapt and, in some instances, transmogrify to fit local and personal needs.” — From a book review by Michael P. Orsi in the Washington Times (Washington D.C.), December 12, 2013
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When it first entered English in the 19th century, “fissiparous” was concerned with reproduction. In biology, a fissiparous organism is one that produces new individuals by fission; that is, by dividing into separate parts, each of which becomes a unique organism. (Most strains of bacteria do this.) Both “fissiparous” and “fission” trace back to Latin “findere” (“to split”). The second part of “fissiparous” is rooted in Latin “parere” (“to give birth to” or “to produce”). Other “parere” offspring refer to other forms of reproduction, including “oviparous” (“producing eggs that hatch outside the body”) and “viviparous” (“producing living young instead of eggs”). By the end of the 19th century “fissiparous” had acquired a figurative meaning, describing something that breaks into parts or causes something else to break into parts.
noun: sculptural relief in which the projection from the surrounding surface is slight and no part of the modeled form is undercut; also : sculpture executed in bas-relief
Jamal admired the bas-reliefs carved into the walls of the ancient Assyrian palace.
“Nearly 50 people … came to the unveiling on Friday afternoon and watched as Mayor Marina Khubesrian and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, pulled the covering off the bas-relief to reveal a father reading to his three daughters.” — From an article by Zen Vuong in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California), March 22, 2014
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The best way to understand the meaning of “bas-relief” is to see one—and the easiest way to do that is to pull one out of your pocket. Just take out a penny, nickel, or other coin and examine the raised images on it; they’re all bas-reliefs. English speakers adopted “bas-relief” from French (where “bas” means “low” and “relief” means “raised work”) during the mid-1600s. A few decades earlier, we also borrowed the synonymous “basso-relievo” from Italian. The French and Italian terms have common ancestors (and, in fact, the French word is likely a translation of the Italian), but English speakers apparently borrowed the two independently. “Bas-relief” is more prevalent in English today, although the Italian-derived term has not disappeared completely from the language.
The paintings, filled with fantastical imagery conjured by the artist’s imagination, have a compellingly oneiric quality.
“Most of the actors here are double and triple cast, and if they barely differentiate among their roles, that just adds to the oneiric effect.” — From a theater review by Jeffrey Gantz in The Boston Globe, March 12, 2012
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The notion of using the Greek noun “oneiros” (meaning “dream”) to form the English adjective “oneiric” wasn’t dreamed up until the mid-19th century. But back in the early 1600s, linguistic dreamers came up with a few “oneiros” spin-offs, giving English “oneirocriticism,” “oneirocritical,” and “oneirocritic” (each referring to dream interpreters or interpretation). The surge in “oneiros” derivatives at that time may have been fueled by the interest then among English-speaking scholars in Oneirocritica, a book about dream interpretation by 2nd-century Greek soothsayer Artemidorus Daldianus.
noun: an impractical scheme for social improvement
To some people, gated communities are visions of Utopia—safe, quiet, and out of the way.
“Peninsula Players has entertained generations of audiences since it was founded in 1935 by a brother-and-sister team, Caroline and Richard Fisher, who dreamed of an artistic utopia where actors, designers and technicians could focus on their craft while being surrounded by nature in a contemplative setting.” — From an article in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, March 12, 2014
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In 1516, English humanist Sir Thomas More published a book titled Utopia. It compared social and economic conditions in Europe with those of an ideal society on an imaginary island located off the coast of the Americas. More wanted to imply that the perfect conditions on his fictional island could never really exist, so he called it “Utopia,” a name he created by combining the Greek words “ou” (meaning “no, not”) and “topos” (meaning “place,” a root used in our word “topography”). The earliest generic use of “utopia” was for an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. The current use of “utopia,” referring to an ideal place or society, was inspired by More’s description of Utopia’s perfection.
Walter Mitty \WAWL-ter-MIT-ee\
noun: a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming
Alan is a Walter Mitty who loves to read travel books but rarely ventures beyond the limits of his own small town.
“Ralphie eventually has to resort to his own Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy to deal with his real-life predicament.” — From an article by Bill Eggert in The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), December 14, 2013
Did you know?
The original Walter Mitty was created by humorist James Thurber in his famous story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In Walter’s real life, he is a reticent, henpecked proofreader befuddled by everyday life. But in his fantasies, Walter imagines himself as various daring and heroic characters. Thurber’s popular story was first published in The New Yorker in 1939. “Walter Mitty” has since become the eponym for dreamers who imagine themselves in dramatic or heroic situations.
noun1 : a small rich shell-shaped cake 2 : one that evokes a memory
“The evening started with wine and snacks, which included house-made charcuterie, cheese, and cornbread madeleines—the latter, I thought, a clever mashup of French and US traditions….” — From an article by Tom Philpott on MotherJones.com, March 11, 2014 “Every year, the family gathered in the backyard to roast a whole pig in a pit. Between the smell and the smoke, it makes for my own 35-pound madeleine.” — From an article by Ana Menéndez in Gourmet, September 2007
Did you know?
The madeleine is said to have been named after a 19th-century French cook named Madeleine Paumier, but it was the French author Marcel Proust who immortalized the pastry in his 1913 book Swann’s Way, the first volume of his seven-part novel Remembrance of Things Past. In that work, a taste of tea-soaked cake evokes a surge of memory and nostalgia. As more and more readers chewed on the profound mnemonic power attributed to a mere morsel of cake, the word “madeleine” itself became a designation for anything that evokes a memory.
verb: to make (something, such as light rays) parallel
“Amazingly, some astrophysical jets—streams of charged particles collimated and accelerated over astronomical distances—also exhibit a helical structure.” — From an article by Mario Livio on The Huffington Post, November 20, 2013
“The higher cost and fixed eyepieces of the … binoculars are distinct disadvantages, but setup time is reduced—there’s no need to collimate optics or align tube assemblies.” — From a product review by Phil Harrington in Astronomy, February 2004
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One might expect a science-y word like “collimate” to have a straightforward etymology, but that’s not the case. “Collimate” comes from Latin “collimare,” a misreading of the Latin word “collineare,” meaning “to direct in a straight line.” The erroneous “collimare” appeared in some editions of the works of ancient Roman statesman Cicero and scholar Aulus Gellius. The error was propagated by later writers—most notably by astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler, who wrote in Latin. And so it was the spelling “collimate,” rather than “collineate,” that passed into English in the 19th century.