Selections from Words That Make a Difference and More Words That Make a Difference

Here is a sampling of the more than 1,200 entries in Words That Make a Difference. The words are respelled as they would be pronounced in a sentence, not as individual words.

adamant     A duh mint
unyielding: Greek, adamas, a hard stone or supposedly unbreakable substance (the same Greek root gives us diamond)

While video game enthusiasts often concede that some of the games sold in stores have violent content, they are adamant that the games do not encourage players to imitate what they see on screen. To them, fighting animated enemies is merely thrilling competition and no more harmful than football, professional wrestling or a cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote battles the Road Runner with anvils and dynamite.

eclectic       i KLEK tik
composed of material or ideas gathered from a variety of sources

Live artillery shells, a dead sea turtle half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, a drowned giraffe, antique crockery, pocketbooks, chemical sludge, raw sewage and about 5,000 cords of driftwood a year — the waters of New York Harbor yield a strange and eclectic bounty.

ephemeral      uh FE muh ruhl
short-lived; transitory

Visiting a remote lake for a few days is something like glimpsing the face of a lovely woman in a crowd: the encounter, albeit ephemeral, quickens the heart with wonder and delight.

intransigent      in TRAN zi juhnt
uncompromising; inflexible

Improvisation of that kind is what Mr. Matthau enjoys most about film acting. “When you get an intransigent director and writer who complain if you change a single comma, that is very unconducive to doing comedy. Shakespeare never described what happens in a scene. He just put the words down, like a good playwright, and then he died.”

klutz      kluts
a clumsy, graceless or awkward person: Yiddish, klots, a log or block of wood

Mr. Chappelle said he agreed that most comedians are troubled people. "A lot of comedy comes from pain and insecurity, and that's what drives you to the stage," he said. "You're loved and accepted up there onstage. Comedians are guys who couldn't get dates in high school." "I still feel a little bit like Clark Kent," he said. "When I was performing in Washington, at night women would sometimes throw themselves at me. I felt like Superman. But the next day in school I was like a bumbling klutz. Clark Kent."

obfuscate      AHB fuh skayt
to muddle; confuse; make unclear or obscure

If I seem hypersensitive to recipe obfuscations, it is probably because I was scarred at an early age, when my mother gave me a recipe for one of her coffeecakes. For baking time it said, “The longer it bakes, the better.” When I asked her if she meant an hour, a week, or a year, she answered, “A sane person can’t have a decent conversation with you.” To this day I have not made the cake, wondering just how much time I must set aside for its baking.

peripatetic      pe ruh puh TE tik
moving or traveling from place to place; not staying in one place for long; itinerant

Skeptics, be quiet. George Washington not only slept at the Roe Tavern in East Setauket, L.I., on April 22, 1790, he even gave it a review. “Tolerably decent, with obliging people in it,” was how the peripatetic overnight guest put it in his diary, according to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiques.

[This is one of more than a hundred sidelights on language that follow word entries in More Words That Make a Difference.]Peripatetic derives from the Greek word peripatein (to walk around) and was first applied to the philosophy or followers of Aristotle, who is said to have walked about as he taught his students in the outdoor covered walk (peripatos) of the Lyceum, a gymnasium in Athens. Aristotle’s system of philosophy came to be called the Peripatetic School.


posthumous      PAHS choo muhs
published or presented after the creator’s death

Sounding like a character in one of his autobiographical short stories, Mr. Saroyan called the Associated Press five days before his death to leave a posthumous statement: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

recluse      RE kloo:s
one who lives a secluded, solitary life

CORNISH, N.H., Oct. 23 – Not even a fire that consumed at least half his home on Tuesday could smoke out the reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of the classic novel of adolescent rebellion, “The Catcher in the Rye.” Mr. Salinger is almost equally famous for having elevated privacy to an art form.

velleity      vuh LEE uh tee
a wish, ambition, desire or promise accompanied by so little will that it is assured of never being acted upon; an impulse at the lowest level of volition

Croatia briefly mouthed velleities about inviting the Serbs to return.

virulent      VIR yoo: lint
actively poisonous or injurious; deadly

Joe Camel may be gone and the Marlboro Man may be breathing his last, but those crafty tobacco company executives are as committed as ever to their life’s work, which is the spread of their virulent product to as many people on the planet as possible.

Words That Make a Difference from Levenger Press, © 2000 Robert Greenman. Passages from The New York Times are reprinted with permission from The New York Times Company.

From More Words That Make a Difference, a selection from its more than 1,300 entries.

bask      bask
to enjoy a warm or pleasant feeling from being in a certain environment or situation

When you sit down to dinner with your disagreeable relations, or comrades who bask in their rectitude and compassion, you have a civic duty to annoy them.

Wendy Kaminer     September 1997

buttress      BUH tris
to support or reinforce; bolster

A parent who respects himself will feel no need to demand or command respect from his child, since he feels no need for the child’s respect to buttress his security as a parent or as a person. Secure in himself, he will not feel his authority threatened and will accept it when his child sometimes shows a lack of respect for him, as young children, in particular, are apt to do. The parent’s self-respect tells him that such displays arise from immaturity of judgment, which time and experience will eventually correct.

Bruno Bettelheim      November 1985

cad      kad
a man who is unprincipled and callous in his relations with women

There is the tale of the lady in Boston. She refused the attentions of a distinguished gentleman, so he took his revenge. He ordered his carriage and pair to stand outside the door of her house all night. In the morning the sober citizens, as they went to their offices, saw coachman and horses still waiting there. The lady lost her reputation. But that evening when the gentleman entered his club, he was cut. He had been a cad.

Gretchen Finletter      May 1947

[This is one of more than a hundred sidelights on language that follow word entries in More Words That Make a Difference.] Cad derives ultimately from the 15th-century French cadet, younger son. From that came the Scottish caddie, an errand boy, in the 18th century, and then, in the 19th century, a golfer’s assistant. From these neutral meanings, caddie shrank to cad, and its acquired perjorative senses: in the 1820s, a contemptuous term used by British university students for town boys, and in the 1830s a man of low manners. At the turn of the 20th century it took on its current meaning.

chagrin      shuh GRIN
embarrassment and annoyance caused by failure or disappointment

Edison was in many respects a typical Victorian man, with solid midwestern tastes. Like many of his contemporaries, he was sheltered from women in his youth, and he seems to have been genuinely chagrined to discover that his partner in marriage would not be his partner at the laboratory bench. Just over a month after marrying Mary Stilwell, the twenty-four-year-old Edison despaired in a notebook, “My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!”

Kathleen McAuliffe      December 1995

disinterested      dis IN tris tid
without selfish motives when considering an issue; fair-minded

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy      February 1964

doggerel      DAW guh ruhl
trivial, awkward, often comic verse characterized by a monotonous rhythm; any trivial or bad poetry

Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn’t sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has become my mantra.

I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I’m not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.

Studs Terkel      October 2001

droll      drohl
oddly amusingly; offbeat

Sojourner stayed several days with us, a welcome guest. Her conversation was so strong, simple, shrewd, and with such a droll flavoring of humor, that the Professor was wont to say of an evening, “Come, I am dull, can’t you get Sojourner up here to talk a little?” She would come up into the parlor, and sit among pictures and ornaments, in her simple stuff gown, with her heavy travelling shoes, the central object of attention both to parents and children, always ready to talk or to sing, and putting into the common flow of conversation the keen edge of some shrewd remark.

Harriet Beecher Stowe      April 1863

induce      in DOO:S
to bring about; persuade; prevail upon; influence

Manet once remarked to Monet, “As Renoir’s friend you ought to induce him to give up painting. You can see for yourself he’s not cut out for it. Sisley protested to Renoir, “You’re mad; what an idea to paint trees blue and the earth violet.”

Lee Simonson      May 1946

irresolute      i RE zuh loo:t
wavering in decision, purpose or opinion; undecided; uncertain

I have never ordered a dessert for lunch that I have not looked with envy and despair upon the superior one chosen by my companion. The donkey who starved to death irresolute between two bales of hay, not knowing which to attack first, I can understand like a brother.

Roger Lewis      December 1927

maxim      MAK suhm
a concisely expressed principle or rule of conduct; a statement of a general truth

In one of his letters, Thomas Jefferson remarked that in matters of religion “the maxim of civil government” should be reversed and we should rather say, “Divided we stand, united, we fall.” In this remark Jefferson was setting forth with classic terseness an idea that has come to be regarded as essentially American: the separation of Church and State.

Bernard Lewis      September 1990

propensity      pruh PEN suh tee
inclination; tendency

In all parts of the country that abound in woods of any description, we are sure to be greeted by the loud voice of the Blue Jay, one of the most conspicuous tenants of the forest. He has a beautiful outward appearance, under which he conceals an unamiable temper and a propensity to mischief.

Wilson Flagg      March 1859

raison d’être      RAY zawn DET ruh
reason for being; ground for existence

A most convincing proof of the joy-giving qualities of chamber-music is the attitude of the professional musician toward it. One rarely hears of the reporter haunting the police court during off hours, or of the mail-carrier indulging in a holiday walking-tour. But many a jaded teacher and slave of the orchestra finds his real raison d’être in playing chamber-music “for fun.”

Robert Haven Schauffler      April 1911

recoil      ri KOIL
to draw back suddenly as in fear, surprise or disgust

I believe that if chance had produced the helicopter for general use before the automobile was invented, people would recoil in dismay at the hazards of a Sunday drive on a modern highway in what would be, to them, a newfangled dangerous contraption.

Igor Sikorsky      September 1942

sacred cow      SAY krid KOW
anything treated as immune from criticism or change:an allusion to the fact that Hindus hold the cow sacred

So organized and so vociferous are dog lovers that dogs have become, so to speak, sacred cows. They stand on an equal basis with Mother and the Flag, just a little higher than clergymen and doctors. A man who would gladly put his mother on a leash or tie her to a tree will burst into weeping oratorical defense of his dog if he is asked to restrain it.

Robert Fontaine      December 1963

uxorious      uhk SAW ree uhs
dotingly or submissively fond of a wife; devotedly attached to a wife

Mr. Wilson has always been an uxorious man. A more real partnership than that which exists between him and Mrs. Wilson it would be difficult to find. The President will not budge without his wife. In France, the trip to the devastated regions had to be postponed because Mrs. Wilson had sustained a slight injury to her foot and could not go.

Charles H. Grasty      January 1920
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