1. of or pertaining to rain; rainy.
2. Geology . occurring through the action of rain.

Swimming in the pluvial  waters, or inert and caked over by the torrid mud, he would have discovered what he would certainly have regarded as lowly, specially-modified, and degenerate relations of the active denizens of the ocean—the Dipnoi , or mud-fish.

Nothing enters her tomb save a little moisture, pluvial  in origin, and, it may be, certain mysterious effluvia of which we do not yet know the nature.

Origin: Pluvial  is from the Latin pluvia  meaning “rain, water.” It shares the Proto-Indo-European root pleu  meaning “to flow, to swim” with Pluto , the name of God of the underworld in classical mythology.

Persian dictionary


Wednesday Winner: Hemidemisemiquaver


Today’s word was selected by Martin Q. from Newark, England. Martin said he chose hemidemisemiquaver because “I like the sound of the word when spoken, and I think it shows how clever language is when a word is built up to explain its meaning.”

Submit your favorite word here and it could be chosen as one of our Word of the Day selections!

A New Hope for Tired Clichés

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cliche4Dictionaries vary in particulars about the definition of cliché, but they all agree that a cliché is not a good thing; you will not find a definition that assesses clichés appreciatively, and chances are that when you use the word, it is either to lament that you do not have at hand a better expression, or to suggest that someone else’s expression suffers from a want of originality or effort.

Despite the low regard in which we all hold clichés, we all use them, certainly in speech, if not in writing. Is there a contradiction here? Does it make sense for us to use expressions frequently that we are also ready to disparage as soon as we spot them? Clichés earn their name by the fact of their frequency, and their frequency is testament to the way in which we readily find uses for them. A cliché in its proper place does an effective job unobtrusively, very often with both significant semantic and pragmatic features. We only find them grating or unfortunate in contexts where something more powerful than a cliché is needed and we recognize that the speaker or writer has thrown away an opportunity to be creative, taking the path of least resistance instead, inserting an expression that is familiar, probably concise, and unfortunately dead on arrival.

Imagine the writer of a letter to the editor, perhaps undertaking the exercise of writing this sort of public letter for the first time: he or she probably has a couple of specific goals in mind. One is to maximize the possibility that the letter will be published. Another, related to this idea, is to sound convincing and authoritative. How might the novice letter writer achieve these two goals? One tack is to try making the letter to the editor sound as much like other published letters to the editor as possible. And how is this accomplished? By copying phrases wholesale from other published letters to editors. Thus is a small genre of cliché born.

clichebookHere are a few clichés I’ve scooped up from casual perusal of some letters to the editor online:

I read with great interest your article on…

I read your article on _______________ and I had to write/have to put in my two cents.

Your article should be required reading for women/members of congress/teenagers who drive (etc.).

I must take issue with your article on ______________.

Your article on ________________ brought tears to my eyes.

Your article on ______________ was right on target/was very welcome/could not have come at a better time.

Are all of these really clichés? Perhaps some of them are formulas, and that’s a distinction I treat in my book, It’s Been Said Before, an exploration of the power of clichés in the life of language. Without clichés, linguistic expression would certainly involve more effort. Clichés give us the liberty to slip in a ready-made phrase with the confidence that it will guide the reader or listener down the path that we have laid out for them. Without clichés we would miss the opportunity to find the point of common ground with our audience that comes from knowing they will recognize and identify with a commonplace way of expressing an idea. But if all writers and speakers did this just as often as was desirable, and no more, the idea of cliché and its attendant associations of overuse and ineffectiveness would never have arisen. However, clichés are usually the result of haste, lack of attention and care, and sometimes ignorance of the alternatives. I’ve tried to set out in my book some sensible guidelines for speakers and writers to recognize when they are slipping into cliché for the wrong reasons, and ways to avoid doing this.

To learn more about clichés, read It’s Been Said Before by Orin Hargraves.


1. mild and refreshing; soft; soothing: balmy weather .
2. having the qualities of balm; aromatic; fragrant: balmy leaves .
3. producing balm: balmy plants; a balmy shrub .
4. Informal . crazy; foolish; eccentric.

On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy  in his stomach.

Imagine now, while the curtain’s falling, that it’s a fine balmy  day and the smell of clams coming in from the bay.

Origin: Balmy  is the adjectival form of balm , which originally referred to an aromatic resin and came to mean anything that heals. Balmy  entered English in the late 1400s.

Persian dictionary

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” and Prescriptive Grammar

A still from Weird Al's "Word Crimes" video.

Weird Al Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, showcases his knowledge of grammar with the song “Word Crimes,” a parody of last summer’s controversial hit “Blurred Lines.” Among his peeves, Weird Al discusses the use of literallywhomcasual text speak, and apostrophes. Linguists view Weird Al’s new song as a teaching moment, though perhaps not of the variety that language enthusiasts might expect.

On Language Log, Ben Zimmer stresses that Weird Al’s song is an example of prescriptivism. describes prescriptive grammar  as “an approach to grammar that is concerned with establishing norms of correct and incorrect usage and formulating rules based on these norms to be followed by users of the language.” When Weird Al comedically corrects grammar and spelling, he, like your favorite middle school English teacher, is practicing prescriptivism.

Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, is defined as “an approach to grammar concerned with reporting the usage of language speakers without reference to proposed norms of correctness or advocacy of rules based on such norms.” Most of the people who actually write dictionary definitions and study linguistics these days fall into the descriptivist camp, and they tend to be a lot more progressive in terms of language change than people might imagine. They observe how language is actually being used, without trying to enforce any rules. That said, dictionary editors might offer guidance as to how words might come across if you use them in the form of labels, usage notes, or other supplementary materials (like this blog).

As linguist Gretchen McCulloch observed on The Toast, ”if kids didn’t talk a bit differently each generation we’d still be speaking Pre-Proto-Indo-European.” With that in mind, next time you hear one of Weird Al’s many language peeves in the wild, sit back and reflect upon the wonder of the ever-evolving English language.

Which of the “word crimes” featured in Weird Al’s song most annoy you? We’d love to hear where you fall on the prescriptivist to descriptivist spectrum.





Wednesday Winner: Polaris


Today’s Word of the Day was chosen by Debra A. from Philadelphia, PA. She said she chose Polaris because “it is not used very often, and because I think it’s a word everyone should know and use every day.”

Submit your favorite word here and it could be chosen as one of our Word of the Day selections!


1. Astronomy . the polestar or North Star, a star of the second magnitude situated close to the north pole of the heavens, in the constellation Ursa Minor: the outermost star in the handle of the Little Dipper.

2. a two-stage U.S. ballistic missile, usually fired from a submerged submarine.

How do you find it? There are so many satellites nowadays that I can’t find Polaris  anymore.

He sighted through the eyepiece and moved the index arm until Polaris  sat squarely on the wire.

Persian dictionary


a violent squall that blows in near-polar latitudes, as in the Strait of Magellan, Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands.

Outside, a new note has crept into the wind, a black williwaw  sound straight from the terrible wastes to the north.

There was a big williwaw  blowing and nothing was moving on the island. So I was a couple of days late in leaving…

Persian dictionary

Take Our College Slang Survey

college slang survey

Though summer vacation is still in high swing, we at have our heads in the books. Are you a current college student? Have you noticed any slang terms in circulation on campus to describe collegiate life? Do you and your classmates have particular words to refer to a really difficult test or an all-night study session? How about the cafeteria in your dorm, is it better known by another name? We want to hear about your college vernacular.

Fill out our brief college slang survey here.

We’ll be sharing some of our favorite answers soon! Stay tuned.


Wednesday Winner: Panegyric


Today’s Word of the Day was selected by Roger L. of Richland, WA. He chose this word because it is “uncommon, but often used in classic English novels; a word that we don’t hear much but seem to encounter enough times in print that we want to remember its meaning.”

Submit your favorite word here and it could be chosen as one of our Word of the Day selections!