Words at Play

Vocabulary from the 2020 Best Picture Nominees

A look at the words vying for Oscar glory.


In the early 1900s, Ford became a household name for an affordable automobile manufactured by the eponymic Ford Motor Company, founded by American industrialist Henry Ford in 1903 (with financial assistance from others). In 1908, the company released the revolutionary Model T (a.k.a., the "Tin Lizzie" and the "flivver"). Centuries before, the word ford was a common word for a shallow and usually narrow part of a river or other body of water that one could cross by wading. That word goes back to Old English and is akin to Old Norse fjǫrthr, meaning "fjord." The Norwegian fjord crossed into English in the 17th century; it designates a narrow inlet of the sea between cliffs or steep slopes. 

Ferrari, the name of the well-known Italian sports car, is a family name. Enzo Ferrari was a race car driver turned entrepreneur who founded the company which designs and manufactures the automobile. The first race car completely designed by Ferrari himself was built in 1937. In the following decade, Ferrari began manufacturing race cars and then ventured into making luxury sports cars.

Ferrari is a relatively common surname and derives from Italian Ferraro, an occupational name for a smith or iron worker, from Italian ferro, forged from Latin ferrum—both words mean "iron."


Upon hearing the title of a film called The Irishman (or while watching it), other common, and maybe not-so-common names, for a person who is a native or an inhabitant of Ireland or is of Irish descent, such as the infrequently used but self-explanatory Irelander and Irisher, might come to mind.

A word like Celt might also be evoked. A Celt was a member of an early Indo-European people who spread over much of Europe from the British Isles and Spain to Asia Minor and who spoke one of the Celtic languages, which includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, and the essentially extinct languages Manx and Cornish. The Celtic language family is itself a member of a much larger one, Indo-European. Nowadays, Celt is applied to people whose ancestors were Celts, such as a Gael, Highland Scot, Irishman, Welshman, Cornishman, or Breton. The word is a 16th-century borrowing of French Celte, which itself is from Latin Celta, the singular of Celtae. The Latin name is derived from Greek Keltoi, and both the Latin and Greek words referred to the Gauls, the Celtic people who occupied the region that is now France and Belgium.

A student of Irish history and culture might know Hibernian, which derives from the Latin word for Ireland, Hibernia. The adjective Hibernian has been used in English to refer to Ireland or the Irish since the 1600s; later, the noun form appears as a name for a native or inhabitant of Ireland.

But drinking the old country's whiskey? This is a form of Hibernian solidarity I will display. Often lost behind the peat-smoke screen of Scotch, Irish whiskey is a venerable quaff with nearly as long a history as that of its neighbor to the east. Irish stillmen developed a spectrum of styles that includes barley single malts, grain whiskies and something called pure pot still, which uses malted and unmalted barley.
— Jack Bettridge, Wine Spectator, 31 Mar. 2009

Another name for an Irishman from antiquity is Milesian. Milesians are a legendary early Celtic people of Ireland said to have come from Spain centuries ago. Their name is preserved in history and literature.

Large and portly, he was also hale and fifty; with a complexion like an autumnal leaf—handsome blue eyes—fine teeth, and a racy Milesian brogue. In short, he was an Irishman; Father Murphy, by name….
— Herman Melville, Omoo, 1847

A few offensive terms might have arisen upon hearing "Irishman." We don't condone them, but they can't be ignored. Mick and mickey (also micky), nicknames for Michael, are usually used disparagingly for an Irishman. Their usage goes back to the 19th century. Similarly, Paddy, the nickname for Patrick, has been used contemptuously for an Irishman since the early 18th century; paddywhack as a slur for an Irishman follows. Why the words paddy and whack came together is unclear.


rabbit noun : any of various lagomorphs that are born furless, blind, and helpless, that are sometimes gregarious, and that include especially the cottontails of the New World and a small Old World mammal (Oryctolagus cuniculus) that is the source of various domestic breeds

We're giving an explanation of three words used in this definition of rabbit because, frankly, the etymological tale of rabbit needs a thorough combing (it's tangled). The modern name evolves from Middle English rabette and rabet, but after that there are too many assumptions about its conception and development to make for a rabbity, quick read. 

The word lagomorph in the definition ultimately derives from Greek lagṓs, meaning "hare," and morphē, "form," and refers to any of an order (Lagomorpha) of gnawing herbivorous mammals having two pairs of incisors in the upper jaw, one behind the other, and comprising rabbits, hares, and pikas. (In biology, an order is a category of taxonomic classification ranking above family and below class.)

Oryctolagus refers to a genus comprising the common European rabbits. The originator of the genus name had in mind Greek orýktēs ("digger") and lagṓs ("hare"), which doesn't quite work as a proper compound following Greco-Latin word formation rules—because the verbal adjective/participle oryktós means "formed by digging," not "digger." But overall the term has been working for quite some time, so why fix it?

Cuniculus is the Latin word for a rabbit or for a subterranean passage or an animal's burrow. Cuniculus is also the source of English coney. Coney isn't typically used to refer to a timid or ineffectual person or group but rabbit is (by association with the behavior traits of the wide-eyed critter). 

This isn't another surprise Marlins World Series run in progress. The 1997 Marlins had Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Gary Sheffield and a $50 million payroll. The 2003 team had Josh Beckett, Derrek Lee, Pudge Rodriguez and a $49 million payroll. These Marlins are a rabbit—destined to fade badly in the second half of the race as the better all-around horses take control. A look at their underlying statistical numbers reveals the kind of weaknesses that portend a steep fall.
— Dan Graziano, The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), 26 May 2008


Synonyms of joker are funnyman, jester, humorist, wag, among others. A joker is someone who tells or makes constant jokes to cause laughter. The jokes of the joker can become annoying or downright offensive; they can also be unexpected or unpredictable—much like the joker's "wild card" appearance in some card games. Rather unsurprisingly, joker began being played as a word referring to someone obnoxious, insignificant, or incompetent, or to something misleading, hidden, or not easily recognized that causes difficulty.

This word quiz is said to have originated in a joke. Daly, the manager of a Dublin play-house, wagered that he would make a word of no meaning to be the common talk of the city in twenty-four hours; in the course of that time the letters q, u, i, z, were chalked or pasted on the walls of Dublin, with such an effect that the wager was won. It came, therefore, to signify an odd fellow, or a joker; but it is only used in colloquial, or vulgar language.
The Ladies' Repository, October 1856


Little Women (or in full, Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Louisa May Alcott that was published in two parts in 1868 and 1869. In the novel, the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are raised in genteel poverty by their mother, Marmee, while their father serves as an army chaplain in the American Civil War. They befriend Theodore Lawrence (nicknamed "Laurie"), the lonely grandson of a rich old man next door. We don't want to be spoilers so we won't go into character and plot development—but Laurie admires Jo, the headstrong, willful, tomboyish young woman who the neighborhood ladies consider to be a "haughty, uninteresting creature," and who is the vital force of the family as well as the emotional center around which much of the story revolves.

What follows are some "adjective" quotations describing Jo, which only begin to paint a picture of her character.

Then he stayed away for three whole days, and made no sign, a proceeding which caused everybody to look sober, and Jo to become pensive, at first, and then—alas for romance—very cross.

Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking her bent head as her mother used to do. It was the best thing he could have done, far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken sympathy, and in the silence learned the sweet solace which affection administers to sorrow. Soon she dried the tears which had relieved her, and looked up with a grateful face. "Thank you, Teddy, I'm better now. I don't feel so forlorn, and will try to bear it if it comes."

Jo groaned and leaned both elbows on the table in a despondent attitude, but Amy spatted away energetically, and Beth, who sat at the other window, said, smiling, "Two pleasant things are going to happen right away. Marmee is coming down the street, and Laurie is tramping through the garden as if he had something nice to tell."

"Which lady here do you think prettiest?" said Sallie. "Margaret." "Which do you like best?" from Fred. "Jo, of course." "What silly questions you ask!" And Jo gave a disdainful shrug as the rest laughed at Laurie's matter-of-fact tone. "Try again.  Truth isn't a bad game," said Fred. "It's a very good one for you," retorted Jo in a low voice. Her turn came next.

"It's very bad poetry, but I felt it when I wrote it, one day when I was very lonely, and had a good cry on a rag bag.  I never thought it would go where it could tell tales," said Jo, tearing up the verses the Professor had treasured so long.

You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.

"I'll try and be what he loves to call me, 'a little woman' and not be rough and wild, but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else," said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South.


Here's the etymological marriage story. Broadly, marriage implies the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law. The word is derived from Anglo-French marier, meaning "to marry," which has Latin relations. Other etyma of English words that mean "to marry" are Latin nubere (etymologically wed to connubial, nubile, and nuptial) and Greek gameîn (linked to the chromosomal gamete and the fecund noun combining form -gamy).

-Gamy has been married to multiple prefixes to identify types of marriages. Its unions include bigamy (marriage with a person while still legally married to another), digamy (a second marriage), endogamy (marriage within a group), exogamy (marriage outside a group), hypergamy (marriage into a higher social group), monogamy (marriage to one mate at a time), and polygamy (marriage to more than one mate at the same time).


Hollywood, also called Tinseltown (tinsel meaning "something superficially attractive or glamorous but of little real worth"), is a district within the city of Los Angeles, California, that became famous for the motion-picture industry established there in the early 1900s. Hollywood proper was laid out as a real-estate subdivision in 1887. The iconic H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D sign originally said H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D-L-A-N-D and was installed as a real-estate advertisement.


Parasite derives (via Middle French and Latin) from Greek parasitos, a combination of the prefix para-, meaning "beside," and sitos, "grain, food." Hence, in Greek, parasitos can be interpreted as "one who eats at the table of another." Parasite begins appearing in English during the first half of the 16th century—and mostly in derogatory uses: originally, it denoted a person who lives off or gains favor with another through flattery and obsequiousness. Evidence of the word's familiar meaning referring to an organism that lives in, with, or on another organism dates to the early 18th century.

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