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Zeitgeist & More: Words for Ideas Worth Thinking About

Top 10 Words for Useful & Intriguing Concepts


Definition:

the spirit of the time; the general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era

Example:

"Twitter provides an insight into the minute-by-minute zeitgeist of the internet." - Nicholas Pell, GoBankingrates.com, September 29, 2011

About the Word:

This German word (Zeit means "time"; Geist means "spirit") is usually associated with the philosopher who popularized it, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Definition:

A witty remark thought of too late, on the way home; the clever comment you wish you had delivered

Example:

"When he bragged about sleeping like a baby, I should have added the bit about waking up crying every two hours, but that's just esprit de l'escalier. At the time I just nodded and said nothing."

About the Word:

From the French for "staircase wit," this phrase was coined by 18th century encyclopedist Denis Diderot. As a simpler alternative to esprit de l'escalier, English speakers sometimes use escalator wit.

Definition:

enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others

Example:

"Although I know the schadenfreude of reading a lottery winner's tale of woe, I want to share a more positive perspective." - post on GetRichSlowly.org, September 4, 2011

About the Word:

The German Schaden means "damage"; Freude means "joy." As the Schadenfreude song from Avenue Q puts it: "And when I see how sad you are / It sort of makes me... / Happy!"

Definition:

the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it

Example:

"We won't discuss my opponent's past crimes."

About the Word:

Roman orator Cicero discussed this term, but apophasis has ancestry in Greek, where apophani means "to deny." This rhetorical device is a favorite of politicians and debaters.

Definition:

the logical mistake that one thing caused another just because it happened first

Example:

"Jen blamed the onset of her headache on the arrival of her in-laws, but that might just have been post hoc, ergo propter hoc."

About the Word:

This Latin phrase literally means "after this, therefore because of it." This error in logic is sometimes summed up as "correlation doesn't equal causation."

top-10-words-for-useful-intriguing-concepts-sisyphean
Photo: Wikimedia

Definition:

requiring continual and often ineffective effort

Example:

"Analysis: Greece's Sisyphean task to replace debt with growth" - Reuter's headline, October 3, 2011

About the Word:

According to Greco-Roman mythology, after King Sisyphus died he was condemned to an eternity in Hades straining to roll a heavy stone up a hill only to watch it roll back down again each time.

Definition:

something that ends or settles a matter; a decisive blow or answer

Example:

"Bobby Thompson's pennant-winning homer in 1951 is one of baseball's great sockdolagers."

About the Word:

It's unclear where sockdologer comes from, but it may be an alteration of doxology ("a short, often final hymn chanted in praise of God") influenced by the sock that means "punch."

Definition:

the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense or makes sense with only one

Examples:

  • "She lost her ticket and her temper."
  • [My cousin] roars around on a shocking old motor bike - mustache and dignity flying in the morning breeze..." - Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth

About the Word:

Zeugma comes from a Greek word meaning "to join." In ancient times, the city of Zeugma, which spanned the two sides of the Euphrates river in what is now part of southern Turkey, was a key trading link between the western Mediterranean and eastern Mesopotamia.

The Greek word zeugma was also applied to semantic structures that, like a physical bridge, connect two disparate words.

Definition:

a critic or teacher of music characterized by timid and excessive reliance on rules; more broadly, a pedant

Example:

"That beckmesser can't hear the genius because he's too busy criticizing."

About the Word:

The operatic character Sixtus Beckmesser made his stage (and linguistic) debut in Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner's Beckmesser was a nervous and narrow-minded clerk whose devotion to the rules made him both a pedant and a musical philistine.

Katzenjammer

Definition:

distress, depression, or confusion resembling that caused by a hangover; or, a discordant clamor

Example:

"Tired and hungry, he found the frenzy of the carnival less thrill than katzenjammer."

About the Word:

The German Katzen means "cats" and Jammer means "distress"; the early German sense of katzenjammer referred to a hangover.

The "discordant clamor" sense of Katzenjammer became popular thanks to the cartoon strip The Katzenjammer Kids, which first appeared in 1897 and featured two mischievous boys and the victims of their antics.




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