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Today's Word



Sep 17, 2018
This week’s theme
Words that have many unrelated meanings

This week’s words

Columbine with Harlequin
Photo: Malene Thyssen/Wikimedia

Columbine flower
Photo: Mike

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with Anu Garg

Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts.”

He could just as well have been talking about words. A word in its time plays many parts.

Words are born -- we call it coining -- and they go on to play many parts. They play these under various parts of speech: consider the word “part”, for example. It can appear on the stage playing a noun role (a body part), as a verb (to part the seas), adjective (part owner), or an adverb (to pay part in kind). If you ask nicely, it might even play other parts of speech it’s not trained in. And that’s not counting multiple roles it plays in each of these parts of speech.

That’s all well and good, but all those meanings listed above are similar. What’s more interesting is when a word plays parts that are wildly different -- giving us meanings that show little connection to each other. This week we’ve picked five such words.



noun:1. A servant girl.
 2. A saucy sweetheart.
 3. Any of various plants of the genus Aquilegia.
adjective:Of or relating to a dove, in innocence, gentleness, color, etc.

For noun 1, 2: After Colombina, a stock character in commedia dell’arte, the mistress of Harlequin. From Italian colombina (small dove, a guileless woman). Earliest documented use: 1723.
For noun 3: From the resemblance of an inverted flower to five doves. Earliest documented use: 1325.
For adjective: From Latin columba (dove, pigeon). Earliest documented use: 1656.

“She was suddenly confronted by a mental image of the Duke dressed in rags, bowing and dancing with a queen or a columbine and it made her smile.”
Mary Nichols; The Incomparable Countess; Mills & Boon; 2012.

“She has all the serpentine wisdom and columbine innocence so recommended in the Scriptures in her looks and actions.”
Henry Colburn; The American in Paris - Volume 2; 1838.

You have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. -Ken Kesey, novelist (17 Sep 1935-2001)

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