Trend Watch

Viral 'Vocabulary Size Test' Sends People to the Dictionary

Do you know what amorphous means? Fugacious? Querulous?

A vocabulary quiz that was widely shared on Facebook and other social media sites caused dictionary lookups to spike this week. The word that sent the greatest number of people scurrying to the dictionary was avulse; the meaning of this word then sent most of them scurrying away. Below are a handful of other words that tickled people’s curiosity.

Amorphous: having no definite form.
Amorphous is formed by adding the prefix a- (meaning “not” or “without”) to the Greek word morphē (“shape”). It shares this latter portion of its composition with such words as metamorphosis, morphology, and that old crowd-pleaser alphitomorphous (“resembling barley meal").

Baneful: productive of destruction or woe
Baneful is formed by combining the word bane with the adjective suffix -ful. This does not indicate that the word should properly mean “full of bane.” -Ful, when forming an adjective, can carry the meaning of “full of,” but it may also add the meanings “characterized by,” “having the qualities of,” or act in the same manner as the suffix -able (“capable of”).

Fugacious: lasting a short time
If you encountered fugacious on a vocabulary quiz and gave the wrong answer don’t feel bad; it’s not a particularly common word. It does share a Latin root with a word that is rather common: fugitive. Both of these words may be traced to the Latin word fugere, meaning “to run away.” With fugitive it is a person that is fleeing, and with fugacious it is time.

Incipient: beginning to come into being or to become apparent
For a long time it was thought that incipient was itself beginning to come into being in 1669, when the word was used as an adjective in William Simpson’s Hydrologia Chymica, in the lovely combination “incipient putrefaction.” However, recent research has turned up earlier use of the word: it appears in a book from 1587, apparently used to mean “beginning, inexperienced” (“yet this notwithstanding, fooles & incipient persons … will enterprise to smatter and to meddle to minister medicines.”)

Jejune: devoid of interest or significance
Jejune is not often used these days, but when it is the word is typically employed to mean “dull,” “inane,” or “vapid.” However, the earliest meaning of the word was “lacking food, hungry.” This now-obscure meaning makes sense when considering that the word comes from the Latin jejunus ("empty of food, hungry”).

Querulous: habitually complaining
English has a good number of words that are related to complaining, which is useful, as there are a good number of people who enjoy doing just that. Querulous is somewhat on the lesser-known end of the spectrum (it is encounter far less frequently than specimens such as cranky, fussy, and grouchy). It comes in part from the Latin word queri (“to complain”), and has a number of even less-known relatives in English, such as querulist (“a complainer”), querimoniously (“in a complaining manner”), and querulation (“the act of complaining about something").

For those of you whose appetites are merely whetted by these words, and would like to further quiz yourselves on vocabulary, we have a vocabulary quiz of our own.

Trend Watch tracks popular lookups to see what people are talking about. You can always see all Trend Watch articles here.

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