Short shrift

The idiom short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment.1 Shrift comes from the archaic verb shrive, meaning to impose a penance upon. In its original form short shrift referred to a brief period of penance granted to a person condemned to death so he or she could be cured of immorality … [Read more...]


For a person, to be mealy-mouthed is to tend to say things in indirect, evasive, or deceptive ways. A mealy-mouthed statement is one that is indirect or evasive. The word is usually meant negatively; when people speak in mealy-mouthed ways, we tend to think they're afraid to speak plainly, are … [Read more...]


Fly-by-night was originally a noun referring to one who goes out at night,1 usually for some wicked or mischievous purpose. It later gained a slang sense, referring to someone who gets out of a bill or a debt by fleeing in the middle of the night. From this derives the modern sense: today, … [Read more...]

Memento mori

A memento mori is something, especially an object, that serves as a reminder of mortality. Memento mori tend to be ominous or frightening items; for example, skulls and representations of skulls have traditionally served as memento mori. But the term can also denote less ominous things, such as a … [Read more...]

Affective vs. effective

Affective is an adjective meaning influenced by emotions or arousing emotions. It is roughly synonymous with emotional. It's used mainly in psychology, where affective disorders are conditions characterized by emotional problems or mood disturbances, though it does appear occasionally outside … [Read more...]

Chafe vs. chaff

To chafe is to irritate by rubbing. For example, a poorly made shoe might chafe your ankle. The word is often metaphorical; for instance, you might be chafed by a bothersome coworker who talks too much. Also, chafe sometimes becomes intransitive, taking the preposition at (or sometimes under), so … [Read more...]

Touch and go

Situations that are touch and go are risky or precarious, have a significant chance of failure, and often require great effort or skill from those involved in order to avoid disaster. For instance, emergency medical situations in which positive outcomes are not assured are often described as touch … [Read more...]

Scavenger, scavenge

Scavenger works as both (1) a noun referring to one who collects discarded or unused items, and (2) a verb meaning to collect discarded or unused items. In today's English, however, the verb usually gives way to the shorter scavenge, which began as a backformation from scavenger but is now a fully … [Read more...]

Murderers’ row

Murderers' Row (Murderers' is originally plural and possessive) was coined in 1918 to describe an especially intimidating section of the New York Yankees' batting lineup, and it was reprised in the late 1920s to describe the lineup that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Today, murderers' row is … [Read more...]

Litmus test

Litmus is a substance, made of lichen-based dyes, that is absorbed in paper and used to test acidity. Blue litmus turns red when exposed to acidic materials, and red litmus turns blue when exposed to nonacidic materials. This is the origin of litmus test in its figurative sense---i.e., a test that … [Read more...]

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