Challenging Word of the Week (April 17)

Greetings word nerds! To follow through on my earlier threat of featuring a "challenging" word each and every week on this blog, I offer you the following term: apothegm. However, rather than just bring the word to your attention and then tell you what it means, I thought it might be fun to present it to you in the form of a quiz, so here goes:

Q: What is an apothegm? Is it:

A) A type of vascular tissue found in the leaves of deciduous trees

B) An aphorism or pithy, yet instructive, saying

C) A mathematical term for a perpendicular line from the center of a regular polygon to one of its sides

Before I tell you the answer, I'll remind you that these challenging words come to you from the website of the Butter Lamb Reference Library. The BLRL, in turn, borrows them from the book, 2000 Most Challenging and Obscure Words, by Norman W. Schur. 

So what makes a word challenging? Well, Mr. Schur puts it this way. "The majority [of these challenging words] ... owe their origin in the main to classical Latin and Greek, but there are perfectly good English words that might lurk around any corner of literature, waiting to jump out and perhaps puzzle you, and therefore challenge you"

Now you know.

So, without further delay, here is the answer to this week's challenging word is B. Here's the skinny from Mr. Schur:

Apothegm (AP uh them) n. An apothegm is an aphorism, a terse, pithy saying along instructive lines; an adage, a maxim, usually expressing a universal truth. It is from the Greek apophthegma (thing uttered), based on apo- (forth, from) plus phthengesthai (to speak). Some universally known apothegms: Man proposes, God disposes. Art is long, life is short. A bird in the hand... A stitch in time... A penny saved ... A fool and his money... One good turn.... There are those who prefer the spelling apophthegm with the extra ph-, closer to the original Greek. You may add that ph- if you wish, but don't leave out the g, or you'll get apothem, (which is pronounced the same way but is a horse of quite a different color: a perpendicular line from the center of a regular polygon to one of its sides; from the Greck apothema, based on the same apo- plus thema (something laid down ). From such tiny omissions do great consequences flow. 

Interesting! What's even more interesting, from a historical perspective, is the following, additional information added by the good people at Merriam-Webster. This comes from MW's definition of aphorism, which you can find on the MW website.

Aphorism was originally used in the world of medicine. Credit Hippocrates, the Greek physician regarded as the father of modern medicine, with influencing our use of the word. He used aphorismos (a Greek ancestor of aphorism meaning "definition" or "aphorism") in titling a book outlining his principles on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. That volume offered many examples that helped to define aphorism, beginning with the statement that starts the book's introduction: "Life is short, Art long, Occasion sudden and dangerous, Experience deceitful, and Judgment difficult." English speakers originally used the term mainly in the realm of the physical sciences but eventually broadened its use to cover principles in other fields.

Well, there you have it. Come back in about seven days for another challenging word of week! (Note: Maybe come back sooner, as there will be new content coming your way by the end of the week!)

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