The Words of April 2012

Fourteen “Words of the Day” from the last month.

Part 1 — Dictionary.com (Definitions and Origins. Date of First Known Use in English Taken from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, except where noted)

4/3: Zeitgeber [TSAHYT-gey-ber] (noun) an environmental cue, as the length of daylight, that helps to regulate the cycles of an organism’s biological clock. Origin: Zeitgeber comes directly from the German word which literally means “time-giver.” It entered into English in the 1970s. First Known Use: 1964

4/9: Cumshaw [KUHM-shaw] (noun) a present; gratuity; tip. Origin: Cumshaw stems from the Chinese word gân xiè meaning “grateful thanks.” First Known Use: 1839

4/11: Tony [TOH-nee] (adjective) high-toned; stylish. Origin: An Americanism, tony entered the language in the 1870s. Its precise origin is unclear, but it is related to the word tone meaning “a particular quality or way of sounding.” First Known Use: 1877

4/17: Xenophilia [zen-uh-FIL-ee-uh] (noun) an attraction to foreign peoples, cultures, or customs. Origin: The opposite of xenophobia, xenophilia has the same Greek roots. It literally means “attracted to strangers.” It first appeared in English in the 1920s and was used heavily after the Second World War. First Known Use: 1955-60 (Dictionary.com)

4/21: Hsien [shyuhn] (noun) one of a group of benevolent spirits promoting good in the world. Origin: Hsien stems from the Chinese word xiān meaning “hermit, wizard.” It came into English in the 1960s. First Known Use: 1965-70 (Dictionary.com)

4/24: Fard [fahrd] (verb) to apply cosmetics. Origin: Fard comes from the Old Low Franconian word farwiđon meaning “to dye or color.” In the Old French it became farder meaning “to apply makeup.” First Known Use: 15th century

4/30: Aphotic [ey-FOH-tik] (adjective) lightless; dark. Origin: Coined in the early 1900s, aphotic comes from the Greek word photic meaning “light,” as in the word photo, and the prefix a- meaning “not.” First Known Use: c. 1900


The word zeitgeber has a very specific meaning in the field of biology. Wordsmith attributes the coinage of the word to the German scientist Jürgen Aschoff in 1954. Naturally, the most important zeitgeber is the alternation of light and dark; many creatures, us included, use that cycle to govern sleeping patterns. Other zeitgebers include the Earth’s magnetic field, temperatures, and eating/drinking patterns (the last two taken from the Wikipedia article). Zeitgeber is a formidable German word that relates to an interesting area of study.

Cumshaw was apparently taken by British sailors from Chinese beggars during the First Opium War. There’s nothing wrong with the word “tip,” or “gratuity” if you’re feeling fancy. But cumshaw feels a little bit racist to me.

I love the word tony because it’s such a simple word, familiar due to the homonymic proper noun, but still sounding impressive when used as an adjective. This is perfectly fitting given the word’s definition; the word itself sounds elegant and aristocratic when used this way. So it wouldn’t sound right coming from the mouth of a blue-collar worker, who, paradoxically, could very well be named Tony. Instead, it feels right to use it for the upper classes talking about each other or themselves.

So far I’ve been unable to flesh out the statement in the Dictionary.com entry for xenophilia that the word “was used heavily after the Second World War.” It’s intriguing to speculate that the age of mass communication has made the concept common enough to enter the language. This word has a much softer definition than xenophobia, it seems to me. People can be interested in foreign customs to varying degrees, but the fullest expression of love would make those customs no longer foreign. To have xenophilia is to continue to acknowledge differences. Xenophobia is the hatred of cultures different from one’s own. The opposite of that would be to hate one’s own society and prefer any other culture just because it’s different, which is simply ignorant. I think a much more interesting concept is the love of specific cultures: Anglophilia, Francophilia, Sinophilia, etc. The true opposite of xenophobia would be the desire to leave one’s own culture and join another.

Hsien seems to be one of the strangest choices yet for a Word of the Day. I haven’t been able to find any real evidence that it’s become part of the English language. It’s an important concept in Chinese philosophy and mythology, and for that reason I’m glad to learn about it. But even for English, notorious as it is for snatching words from many other languages and incorporating them into itself, I don’t think hsien quite fits yet. Of course, as with all of the challenging words we discuss here, any writers reading this are encouraged to take up the challenge to find an interesting and effective use for this word. In fact, that really is the best way to make hsien an “English” word. But the main obstacle is how much this word seems to be tied in with Chinese culture. The definition, the spelling, the pronunciation — no, I don’t think we can have it.

Fard, as it’s been passed down to us, has a most unfortunate sound. This is a perfectly adequate reason to keep the word from being used. On the other hand, there don’t seem to be any synonyms for this word. So, it has to be a toss-up: economy of syllables vs. avoiding a word that sounds like “fart.”

Etymologically, aphotic simply means “without light.” The word is mostly used, however, to refer to the underwater region where not enough light reaches for photosynthesis to occur. The darkness and depth of the aphotic zone make it probably the most difficult part of the planet to study, but there are some fascinating-looking creatures that live down there.

Part 2 — Urban Dictionary

4/3: Phone-yawn (verb) the act of taking out a cell phone from one’s pocket or purse, resulting in other people in the vicinity taking out and checking their phones as well. Definition contributed in 2011

4/9: Egg Salad Monday (noun) the day after Easter Sunday when everyone has a surplus of hardboiled eggs. These eggs are often used up by making egg salad. Definition contributed in 2009

4/11: IJS (abbreviation) I’m Just Saying: used to add emphasis, or express irony. Can also be used to express sarcasm. Can be used on the back of almost any sentence, IJS. Definition contributed in 2006

4/17: First world injury (noun) an injury most likely to occur in an advanced first world country due to the high standard of living. Definition contributed in 2012

4/21: Vehicular hypochondria (noun) a severe mental disability in which sufferers chronically experience acute anxiety attacks related to the welfare of their vehicles. A typical vehicular hypochondriac may face bouts of depression and paranoia stemming from the false belief that his/her car is malfunctioning when it is in fact operating in perfect order. Definition contributed in 2010

4/24: Yolo (acronym) You Only Live Once! Definition contributed in 2004

4/30: iPause (noun) the period of time between when the light turns green and the driver in the front of the line of cars looks up from his iPod or iPhone and pulls away from the light. This is usually preceded by the person behind them honking their horn. Definition contributed in 2012


The implication in the phone-yawn definition, of course, is that the act of taking out one’s cell phone is contagious, like a yawn. I might not even realize I need to yawn, but seeing someone else do so will trigger something in me. As for phones, I don’t think I’ve experienced this phenomenon, but I certainly wouldn’t deny that it can happen.

Egg Salad Monday is like any other post-holiday day. There will be leftovers that need to be finished off before they go bad.

I don’t think the abbreviation IJS is going to catch on particularly well. It’s not like “I’m just saying” is especially long anyway. But it’s really the phrase itself that the definition is about. In my experience, “I’m just saying” is a defense mechanism, and a very poor one at that, linguistically. It essentially means, “Here’s a thought. If you dislike this thought, just pretend I didn’t really mean anything by it. The words somehow escaped from me, and they convey the truth somehow, so I’m glad they’re out in the open now, but those words aren’t something I’m going to be willing to own up to if I’m ever called on to do that.” See? By comparison, “I’m just saying” is all the abbreviation you need.

Now, first world injury is a phrase that I would like to see catch on. The phrase “first world problems” already has, and I enjoy that one very much, as it keeps me thankful for the bounties of the world I’ve inherited. First world injury would be an even more specific way to mock people whose definition of suffering is ridiculously mild. Signing so many checks that one gets carpal tunnel syndrome (which happened on an episode of Seinfeld) would be a great example; so would any accident related to distraction while using a cell phone. The danger is that this kind of thinking can get pretty mean-spirited, or even envious. It’s one thing to make fun of someone for complaining about how long it takes an iPhone to charge; it’s slightly different to make fun of someone who has an eighty-inch TV fall on him. Okay, that might have been a bad example.

Vehicular hypochondria is a mouthful, which is a shame because the idea is quite good. The vicissitudes of a vehicle’s operation leave plenty of room for doubt, and every car breaks down eventually. So I don’t think it’s exactly fair to characterize this as “a severe mental disability.” But I love the example mentioned in the Urban Dictionary entry; namely, the fear that the “Check Engine” light spells certain doom for the car. That light is the perfect example for something that could be serious but almost certainly isn’t.

Urban Dictionary cites the word yolo as existing all the way back in 2004, but it feels like the word has only recently started to spread, mostly through Twitter and the Drake song “The Motto.” While the term is ostensibly another way of saying “seize the day,” the Style Blog of the Washington Post reported on how the word is mostly used to defend stupid, dangerous behavior. Generational iconoclast that I am, I’m going to side with Ian Fleming and start using the word yolt instead.

An iPause could very easily instigate a first world injury. This is another case where I think the definition is nicely observant, but the word itself doesn’t work especially well. Besides, the pause between the light going green and someone realizing that the light has gone green is probably as old as traffic lights themselves. There are many other possible distractions. Still, I myself have used red lights as an opportunity to skip to the next song on my iPod. But is that as bad as attempting to do so while in motion, veering into oncoming traffic and dying? I think not.

Though she suffered from vehicular hypochondria and would never risk even an iPause at an intersection, her friend’s “yolo” attitude — contagious as a phone-yawn — finally convinced her to fard on the way to work. The resulting first world injury totaled her tony vehicle, sending her into an aphotic depression. She only got what she deserved, though. IJS.

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