Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Words I Learned From Elsewhere

Welcome to the miscellany bin. This post holds all the words that I’ve learned from various places, ones whose categories couldn’t gather enough critical mass to merit a post of their own.

  • auto da fe: The ceremony accompanying the Spanish Inquisition’s execution of a heretic.
    [This one comes courtesy of Mel Brooks’ History Of The World, Part 1, in which there’s a rousing musical number about the Spanish Inquisition: “Auto da fe, what’s an auto da fe? / It’s what you oughtn’t ta do, but you do anyway!”]
  • ewer: A pitcher.
    [I owe my knowledge of this — and several other entries in this list — to crossword puzzles. If you get (basically) the same clue for a word from one puzzle to another for long enough, you learn it!]
  • indemnity: Compensation for a loss, e.g. the payout on a life insurance policy.
    [This one comes from a movie as well, in fact a movie title: Double Indemnity. In addition to being an absolutely great film, it’s a word teacher as well. Thanks, Billy Wilder!]
  • oleo: Margarine.
    [It’s another crossword puzzle special, a word for margarine that I have never heard or seen used outside of a crossword puzzle.]
  • olio: A mixture or collection; a hodge-podge.
    [Or, as it’s known in my mind, the crossword puzzle one that isn’t margarine.]
  • sword of Damocles: A constantly impending jeopardy. Based on a legendary Greek courtier who learned the joylessness of a ruler’s life when he was allowed all the king’s privileges but noticed a sword hanging over his head suspended by a single horsehair.
    [For whatever odd reason, two of my three movie vocabulary words come from songs sung in a movie. This one is from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which Rocky sings, “The sword of Damocles is hangin’ over my head / And I’ve got the feeling someone’s gonna be cuttin’ the thread!”]
  • tableau: A theatrical depiction of a still picture, performed by silent, motionless actors.
    [I learned this word from a stage play, The Fantasticks, which makes a big point of the fact that its first act ends in a tableau, and its second act begins with the same tableau.]
  • verbatim: Word for word.
    [It’s not often that I learn a new word from a computer component (although computer people are constantly repurposing words in ways that wrench them away from their original meanings.) However, in the 7th grade or so, I started noticing these 5 1/4″ floppy disks in envelopes that read “VERBATIM VERBATIM VERBATIM.” Some friendly teacher clued me into the fact that it was an actual word, not just a nonsense company name, and when I looked it up I decided that it was a pretty clever name for a magnetic media company.]
  • windfall: An unexpected gain or bonus.
    [I was quite the board game enthusiast growing up, so much so that I had a closetful of them, and even when I couldn’t find anybody to play with me, I’d set up a board anyway and run through a game with imaginary opponents. One of the games in that closet was Parker Brothers’ Pay Day, a money management game. One of the events that could happen in that game was a windfall, my first introduction to that all-too-infrequently-encountered term.]


Words I Learned From Television


Word Power: The Top 5


  1. jrw

    Hey, I think I learned verbatim the same way.

    Also, I expected this “all the rest of the words I learned somewhere else” to be about 50,000 entries long.

    • Ha! Yeah, I consciously decided to not include a “books” category, because even though there were a bunch that reminded me of specific books or authors, it felt a bit out of place with the others. The point, for me, was to think about vocabulary-building benefits from places that aren’t generally thought of as having such benefits.

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