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To tease or torment by displaying something appealing while keeping it out of reach.

You know what this word means, of course. But did you know it derives from the name of a mythological king?

In Greek tradition, good King Tantalus infuriated the gods by stealing their ambrosia and nectar -- the food and drink that conferred immortality -- and passing it along to mere mortals. To punish him, the gods forced poor Tantalus to spend eternity in a pool of water that receded when he reached down to drink from it. Over his head hung all kinds of luscious fruit, but whenever he tried to pluck some, it shrank away from his hand. Thus, to similarly withold something desired is to tantalize.

"The little girls of Avonlea school always pooled their lunches, and to eat three raspberry tarts all alone or even to share them only with one's best chum would have forever and ever branded as 'awful mean' the girl who did it. And yet, when the tarts were divided among ten girls you just got enough to tantalize you." -- Lucy Maud Montgomery, on the topic of tart-swapping in Anne of Green Gables (a book which for some reason is wildly popular in Japan).





1. Pavement made from layers of crushed stone, smoothed and coated with a tar binder.

2. To make an aircraft sit on a taxiway.

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836) was a Scotsman who served as general surveyor for all of England's highways. McAdam popularized a method of building roads that was a big improvement over traditional dirt roads. It involved spreading layers of small, broken stones over a gently sloping roadbed, then using the weight of passing traffic to crush the stones into uniform size. In McAdam's honor, this was called macadamizing.

Roadbuilders soon improved on this with tar-macadam, a method of smoothing the stones with a heavy roller, then adding tar to bind them. In 1903, Tarmac was registered as a proprietary name in the United States. Today we often hear it used generically, either as a noun or a verb.

"In fact, Gore and Bush have completely reversed accessibility standards -- Gore comes back on Air Force 2 just about daily to rap with reporters, while with the exception of a brief Friday-night availability on a Florida tarmac a few weeks ago, Bush is hermetically sealed, safe from anyone who would ask him to explain his record or proposals." -- Jake Tapper, in Salon.





Cheap and showy, gaudy. Of persons: low, mean, or base.

Like many women of her day, the seventh-century Anglian princess Etheldreda was betrothed against her wishes. So, understandably, she fled to the Isle of Ely in the middle of the river Ouse, just north of Cambridge, England.

There she established a religious house, served as its abbess, and eventually was canonized as St. Audrey. She died in 679 due to a throat tumor, which St. Audrey herself declared was divine punishment for the vanity of her youth, when she was overly fond of fine neckwear. In honor of St. Audrey, the townfolk of Ely held an annual fair, where merchants hawked frilly lace scarves they called St. Audrey's lace. Over time, this expression shortened to tawdry lace. Soon tacky imitations abounded, giving tawdry its later connotation of "cheap and pretentious."

"For years, tawdry stories and haggard photographs have chronicled his messy divorces, his lawsuit to stop distribution of a nude videotape and his stint at the Betty Ford Clinic after a car accident." -- The New York Times on "Fraiser" star Kelsey Grammer.





An inexpensive trinket, bauble, or ornament.

This handy term can be spelled several ways, including tsatske, tsatskeleh, chachka, and chotchke. It comes from Yiddish, and made its first recorded appearance in English during the 1960s.

I found this word especially useful a few years ago when writing an article for Salon about my visit to the International Wizard of Oz Club's special centennial convention:

"At the other end of the spectrum were the 'Ozzies' for whom true fandom means collecting tchotchkes and gewgaws and kitsch (oh my!). In fact, it was hard to turn around without running into Oz memorabilia or people scrambling to find more of it -- everything from "If I Only Had a Brain" T-shirts to 1940s Oz-themed peanut butter cans to a newly authorized pillbox featuring Dorothy and Toto. (A Judy Garland pillbox? Hello?)" (You can read the whole article here.)




1. To equivocate; to use evasions or ambiguities. 2.To change sides; desert one's party, principles, or cause.


This mouthful of a word has picturesque roots: It's from Latin tergum, which refers to the "back" and versare, which means "to turn." In its earliest sense, tergiversate meant to "turn one's back" on someone or something.

"What I can't figure out is why most people still seem so unfazed by his shameless tendency to tergiversate."






A bump or hollow in a road.

Why this silly name for a pothole or teeth-rattling bump in the road? The Oxford English Dictionary says this term was inspired by the fact that hitting one of these obstructions "causes persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour."

Thank-you-ma'am in this sense has been around since at least 1849. Oliver Wendell Holmes used it nicely in The Guardian Angel:

"Life's a road that's got a good many thank-you-ma'am's to go bumpin' over, says he."





To spruce up.

Originally spelled tidivate, this word is apparently a combination of "tidy" and some word like elevate, cultivate or renovate.

"The pied-a-terre she keeps in Rome includes a gigolo to press her pants, palpate her remote control, and titivate her terrazzo."
-- Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Disheveled Dictionary.





1. Someone who defers to others for self-serving purposes; a yes man, a servile flatterer, a fawning parasite, a humble dependent.

2. To act like a toady.

It was once widely believed throughout Europe that toads were poisonous. So when charlatans wanted to hawk their homemade cure-alls, they'd make an assistant eat (or pretend to eat) a toad. Afterward, the assistant would pretend to go into convulsions and drop dead, only to be miraculously revived by the charlatan. This forerunner of the infomercial proved convincing and profitable, at least for a while.

In the meantime, toadeater and toady came to apply to the sort of person so contemptibly subservient that he's willing to do something similarly disgusting at someone else's behest.

"Isabel looked up from her latest Harry Potter book just long enough to hiss, 'Don't you just hate how Wormtail never fails to toady to the evil Lord Voldemort?'"





A stylishly dressed person, especially one who is or desires to be among the upper class.

This chiefly British term first appeared in English in the mid-19th century. No one's sure of its origin, but many conjecture that toff is a variant of tuft, a reference to the gold tassel worn by titled students at Oxford and Cambridge.

Toff appeared recently in British newspaper coverage of Madonna's recent wedding to Guy Ritchie:

"One onlooker said: 'Madonna looked quite the English toff. She's obviously fallen in love with country life.'"






A state of chaos, disorder, and utter confusion.

This expression comes from a similar-sounding Hebrew phrase for "emptiness and desolation." In fact, it's the phrase used early in the book of Genesis, where the earth is described as being "without form and void." The modern English adaptation of this Hebrew phrase is spelled several ways, including tohu-bohu, tohu-vavohu, tohu-vabohu, and tohu and bohu.

"Charlie had been warned, of course, that substitute teaching would be a challenge, but never in his wildest dreams had he imagined walking in to confront such a terrible tohubohu."





Having whitish or tousled hair.

This adjective describes someone who has hair like tow, the substance defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "coarse broken flax or hemp fiber prepared for spinning."

Amy Reiter used it a while back in her "People" column in Salon:

"Boy George on Eminem? Scary thought. But the '80s icon says he actually admires the towheaded rapper."






The little flap of cartilage that projects over the hole in your ear.

Ever wonder about the name for this anatomical structure? Well, it takes its name from the ancient Greek word tragos, meaning "goat," because of the way that the hairs that grow there often resemble a billy-goat's whiskers.

"Boy, Uncle Ned's tragus really lives up to its name, doesn't it?"





1. Keen, incisive.

2. Clear-cut; distinct.

3. Vigorous; forcefully argued (as in "a trenchant analysis").

4. Cutting, caustic.

Keep in mind that a trench is something cut into the ground, and it's easy to remember that its linguistic relative, trenchant, refers to something "cutting" in a more abstract sense. Both words come from Old French trenchier, meaning "to cut."

"Edmund (who, as you know, rarely says anything) astonished everyone by responding with a trenchant remark that left us all cringing."





To be servile or submissive.

A truckle bed is so called because it rolls on small wheels or casters called truckles. Usually it's kept hidden under another bed until time to be rolled out. Truckle bed was first recorded in 1459; and the verb to truckle, that is "to sleep in the lower bed" first appears in 1613. A half-century or so later, truckle was being used in a more figurative to mean "take a subordinate or inferior position."

(Some people call such beds trundle beds, the trundle coming from an entirely different source -- the obsolete English word trendle, which, as it happens, also means "wheel.")

"The truckling tone of his marriage proposal left her flailing and cachinnating helplessly and wondering what he'd actually meant."
-- Karen Elizabeth Gordon, in The Disheveled Dictionary






1. Pugnacious, belligerent.

2. Savage, fierce, scathing.

3. Violent.

Truculent is from Latin trux, meaning "savage" or "fierce." Definitely not to be confused with truckling. (See above.)

"Religion is the natural reaction of the imagination when confronted by the difficulties in a truculent world." -- poet and philosopher George Santayana in the Atlantic Monthly, 1953.





Fuss, hullabaloo, uproar.

Originally, this Yiddish word of uncertain origin meant a "stew" or "casserole" usually containing sweetened vegetables and fruit. But this jumble of ingredients proved to be an irresistible metaphor for any confused situation or fuss. It's also spelled tzimmes.

"Why are you making such a tsimmes over everything?"




(TOO-lip or TYOO-lip)

A flower in the lily family.

The name of the tulip stems from its resemblance to a type of headwear -- namely, the turban. In the 1500s, Austria's ambassador visited Turkey and became enchanted with the unusual flowers there. The Turks' traditional name for this flower was lale, but the ambassador's interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for "turban," because of its shape.

When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which eventually wound up in English as tulip.

"I've got to get my tulips in the ground soon, but I can't decide whether to plant Abbas, Angeliques, or Blushing Brides."





A tall drinking glass.

Ever wonder why a drinking glass would have a name that makes it sound so very unstable? Well, in seventeenth-century England, tumblers were just that: cups with rounded or pointed bottoms, which made them fall over when they were set down. This encouraged imbibers to drink the whole thing in one big guzzle--and, of course, to order another round. Over time, the drinking vessel's shape changed, but its name stuck.

"Then, as if she needed any more confirmation that it was going to be a rotten day, her favorite Flintstones tumbler slipped out of her hand and crashed to the floor."





No, it's not what you might think. This bird word means "having the shape of a thrush." It comes from Latin turdus, meaning "thrush" and forma, "form."

(I wish I had included this animal term in my new book Dog Days & Dandelions, but I only recently learned of it from They also note that useful alternatives for this word are turdoid and turdine, and that if you're a true thrush-fancier, you'll of course want to keep yours in a specially constructed turdarium.)

"Nigel had spent a drizzly, disappointing morning peering through his binoculars and waiting in vain, when suddenly the sight of something turdiform set his little bird-lover's heart pounding."





If the turkey is a bird that's native to North America, why is it named after a country thousands of miles away? It turns out that turkey is one of many foods that received their names due to geographical mix-ups.

The British first applied the name turkey to another bird, the African guinea fowl, which was introduced into England in the sixteenth century by traders who, as it happened were from Turkey. Around the same time, Spaniards began bringing back real turkeys from New World, and soon English speakers were constantly confusing the gobbler with the guinea fowl.

"And then for our main course, we'll have wheat gluten molded into the shape of a turkey."






A dress jacket.

The story of tuxedo has many surprising twists and turns: It seems there was once a sub-group of the Delaware Nation scornfully known to other Indians as the P'tuksit. This name literally means "the wolf-footed ones," or "the round-footed ones." The name alludes to the fact that the P'tuksit Indians had a reputation for being "easily toppled" in war.

Later, English settlers moved into a part of New York State once inhabited by the P'tuksit and borrowed that name for the area, anglicizing it to Tucksito. The spelling went through several changes, finally stabilizing as Tuxedo.

Eventually this area was home to a wealthy New York resort called Tuxedo Park. There in 1886, an heir to the Lorillard tobacco fortune started a fashion craze by attending the country club's annual ball dressed in a formal dinner jacket minus the traditional tails. This new style quickly caught on and was named after the site of its debut.

"My, my the conductor looks great in that tuxedo - and her new haircut's lovely, too!"





Affectedly cute, or quaint; overly precious or nice.

Although twee is now a perfectly legitimate word, it originated in baby talk, deriving from the playful use of "tweet" for "sweet" -- as in "Awwwwww, now isn't that 'tweet'?

"You may have liked the movie, but I thought it was a bit twee."

(c) 1999-2005  Martha Barnette