This dictionary contains words and expressions that have their origin in mythological characters and events, for example, common words such as ocean and museum and expressions such Achilles heel and Pandora's box.

Pronunciations are in US English (IPA and DCR) from New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


Achilles heel | əˈkɪliz hil

A weakness that seems small and insignificant but which makes somebody or something fatally vulnerable.

Early 19th century. The Greek hero Achilles was made invulnerable by being dipped in the river Styx by his mother as a baby. Holding him by his heel, this was the only part of his body which was not touched by the water and thus his only vulnerable spot.

“By his verbal artifices, he only discloses his own Achilles' heel.”

L.D. Bronstein (tr). Trotsky's Life xxv, 262 [1930].

“Ah, beer, my one weakness. My Achilles heel, if you will.”

Homer J. Simpson. So It's Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show [episode 9F17, 1993]

Adonis | əˈdɑnəs

An extremely handsome young man.

Late 16th century. From Adonis, a handsome youth who was loved by the goddess Aphrodite. She warned him to avoid savage creatures but he ignores her warning and is killed by a wild boar that gashes his thigh. His blood becomes the windflower, the anemone.

“Two such Adonises talking so sweetly of our reciprocal passion!”

Tucker. The Light of Nature Pursued I, 457 [1765].

aegis | ˈiʤɪs

Under the aegis (ægis) of somebody or something refers to the support or protection of somebody or something, such as auspices, control, patronage or sponsorship.

Early 17th century. The aegis was the shield, made of goatskin, of Zeus and later of Athena (aigis).

“They were sheltered by the ægis of the laws.”

Thirlwall. Greece III, xviii, 83 [1836].

aeolian harp | iːˈəʊlɪən hɑrp

The aeolian harp (æolian harp) is a box-shaped musical instrument with strings that run across, which, when strung, vibrate when the wind blows over them. It is also called a wind harp.

The name comes from Aeolus, the god of the winds, which in turn comes from the Greek aiolos, "fast moving."

Amazon | æməˌzɑnˈæməzən

A tall, physically strong woman.

Late Middle English. In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of women warriors who lived in Scythia and who sided with Troy during the Trojan war.

“Belike she minds to play the Amazon.”

Shakespeare. Henry VI, iv. i, 106 [1593].

ambrosia | æmˈbroʊziə

Something that tastes or smells delicious.

Mid 16th century. In Greek mythology ambrosia is the food of the gods. It made those who ate it immortal.

“Now Melibœus... drinkes Nectar, eates diuine Ambrosia.”

T. Watson. Poems [1590].

“To feed his appetite with that ambrosia due and proper to a prince.”

Massinger. Picture iii. v [1629].

aphrodisiac | ˈˌæfrəˈdɪziˌæk

A substance to arouse sexual desire.

Early 18th century. The word comes from the Greek aphrodisiakos and relates to the goddess of love Aphrodite.

“Aphrodisiacks, things that excite Lust or Venery.”

Glossographia Anglicana Nova [1719].

“Truffles are no longer regarded as aphrodisiacs”

M.C. Cooke. Fungi, 103 [1874].

Apollonian | ˈˌæpəˈˌloʊniən

Calm, balanced, orderly; pertaining to or resembling the characteristics of Apollo.

Early 17th century. It refers to Apollo who was also a god of balance, harmony, and rationality. The opposite word is Dionysian.

“Every Apollonian limb is clothed with speed, and might, and manliness.”

P.B. Shelley. Hymn to Mercury, lxiii [1822].

apple of discord | ˈæpəl əv ˈdɪsˌkɔ(ə)rd

Any action of subject of disagreement and dissension.

Around 1400. The golden apple that Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, threw into the assembly of the gods. The apples bore the inscription "For the fairest," and was contended for by the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.

“This great and wealthy church constantly formed an apple of discord.”

E.A. Freeman. History of the Norman Conquest I, iv, 195 [1867].

arachnid | əˈraknɪd

Also arachnoid. Any member of a large class of eight-legged organisms that includes mites, scorpions, and spiders. Arachnids have four pairs of legs and the body has two segments.

Mid 19th century. In Greek mythology, Arachne was a skilful weaver who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Because of her challenge and presumptuousness of her choice of subjects (she chose to portray the failings and the errors of the gods), Athena destroyed Arachne's loom and canvas. Furthermore, she made Arachne feel ashamed but this ran so deep that Arachne hanged herself. Athena took pity on her and transformed her into a spider, forever weaving.

“There can be little doubt that it [scorpion] is the most ancient type of Arachnid.”

Geikie. Nature No. 627. 3 [1881].

Arcadia | ɑːˈkeɪdɪə

An imagined place of rural bliss in which people are believed to live a perfect life of rustic simplicity.

Late 19th century. It refers to Arcadia, a mountainous district in the Peloponnese. In classical literature, it is the rural paradise which is used as the setting for Greek and Roman poetry.

“The wits even of Rome are united into a rural group of nymphs and swains under the appellation of modern Arcadians.”

Goldsmith. Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, iv [1759].

Argus, argus-eyed | ˈɑːgəs

An extremely alert person who sees everything. A watchful person.

The giant Argus possessed a hundred eyes and was sent by Hera to watch over Io, the lover Zeus.

“All Creatures, from the Mole to the most Argus-like above ground.”

B. Gerbier. Counsel Gija [1663].

Atlantean | ætlænˈtiən

Pertaining to, or having the supporting strength of, Atlas. Strong.

Mid 17th century. It refers to Atlas, who supported the heavens on his shoulders.

“With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest Monarchies.”

Milton. Paradise Lost II, 306 [1667].

Augean | ɔˈʤiən

Filthy, disgustingly dirty, squalid.

Late 16th century. King Augeas owned stables which had not been cleaned in three decades. Heracles' seventh labor was to clean them in one day.

“To purge this Augean oxstall from foule sinne.”

John Marston. The Scourge of Villanie III. Proem 210 [1599].

aurora | əˈrɔrə

The dawn, the rising-light of the morning.

15th century. From the personified goddess of the dawn Aurora.

“On the thyrd nyght after, nygh the rysyng of aurora.”

W. Caxton. The Golden Legend 430/4 [1483].


bacchanal | ˈbɑkənɑl

A noisy drunken celebration, a drunken party.

Mid 16th century. It is related to Bacchus or the worship of Bacchus, from the Latin bacchanalis, "of Bacchus."

“Unto whom was yearely celebrated the feast bacchanal.”

Nicolls. Thucydides, 50 (R.) [1550].

behemoth | bɪˈhiməθ

A huge or monstrous creature; something enormous, especially a big and powerful company.

1350–1400. Late Middle English: from Hebrew bĕhēmōṯ, intensive plural of bĕhēmāh, "beast." In the Bible, the Behemoth is a land-dwelling beast having mythic proportions and supernatural characteristics. (Job 40:15-24).

“Whom the Hebrues call Bemoth that doth in latin playne expresse
A beast rude full of cursednesse.”

John Lydgate. Troy Book, II. xvii [1430].

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

The phrase refers to be careful of possible treachery from somebody who appears to be kind.

The fall of Troy was accomplished by a ruse of the Greeks. They left a huge horse behind when they retreated. The Trojans took the gift inside the city but at night, a select band of Greeks emerged from the horse and opened the city's gates and let the Greek army inside.

“Equo ne credite, Teucri! Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.”
“Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans [Greeks], even when bringing gifts.”

Virgil. Aeneid, ii, 49.

boreal | ˈbɔriəl

Pertaining to the north wind, or used to describe a region that has a northern temperate climate.

Late 15th century. From Boreas, the Greek god of the North Wind.

“Foure flodes...Ebbynge & flowynge in the see boriall.”

J. Harding. Chronicle ccxl, note [1470].

“Such a boreal month as this March.”

R. Wild. Declaration for Liberty of Conscience. 7 [1672].


calliope | kəˈlaɪəpi

A steam organ usually found in fairgrounds or circuses.

Mid 19th century. The word comes from Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, via Latin from the Greek Kalliopē, "beautiful voiced."

“The whistle sounds, and the calliope shrieks out 'Dixie' incessantly.”

Sir William H. Russell. Diary in India I, 269 [1863].

Cassandra | kəˈsændrə

A person whose warnings or impending disaster are ignored.

Early 17th century. After Cassandra, the daughter of king Priam of Troy, who had the gift of prophecy but who was condemned never to be believed.

“The cawing of the crow, ...Cassandra-like, prognosticating woe.”

H.W. Longfellow. Tales of Wayside Inn, 191 [1863].

catamite | ˈkædəˌmaɪt

An archaic term for a boy who is kept for homosexual practices.

1585–95. From Latin catamitus, via Etruscan catmite, from Greek Ganumēdēs. Ganymede was a beautiful youth who was carried off by Zeus to become the cupbearer for the gods.

centaur | ˈsɛnˌtɔ(ə)r

An unnatural hybrid creation; an intimite union of two diverse natures.

14th century. In Greek mythology, the centaurs were a race of beings with the head, arms and torso of a man and the lower body of a horse. Via Latin (centaurus) from the Greek kentauros.

“Make our selves rather the Bastards, or the Centaurs of their spirituall fornications.”

Milton. Animadversion [1641].

cereal | ˈsɪriəl

Any plant of the grass family yielding an edible grain, as wheat, rye, oats, rice, sorghum, millet, or corn.

1590–1600 From Latin cerealis, pertaining to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The application of the name to breakfast food was in 1899.

chthonic | ˈθɑnɪk

Of the underworld, or relating to the underworld.

Late 19th century. The word comes from the Greek khthon, "earth."

“The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.”

C. F. Keary. Outlines of Primitive Belief v, 215 [1882].

cyclopean | ˌsaɪkləˈpiən

Gigantic, vast; or, a type of ancient masonry made with massive, undressed stones (a cyclopean war); or, resembling a Cyclops, i.e. a cyclopean eye.

1635–45. The word refers to the great size of the Cyclopes, or resembling one. From Latin cyclopeus, from Greek Kyklopeios, from Kyklopes (Cyclops).


Dionysian | ˌdaɪəˈnɪsiən

Something which involves drunkenness and sexual activity; pertaining to or resembling Dionysus. In philosophy, it also means "not rational." The opposite word is Apollonian: balanced, orderly.

The term comes from Dionysus, the god of wine.

“The Dionysian festivals were the great carnivals of antiquity.”

T. Mitchell Aristophanes. I. p. xxiii [1822].


echo | ˈɛkoʊ

A repeated sound that is caused by the reflection of sound waves from a surface.

1300-50. The Greek nymph Echo was punished by Hera, by not being able to speak before anybody else has spoken, nor to be silent when somebody else has spoken. Middle English: from Old French or Latin, from Greek ēkhō, related to ēkhē, "a sound."

“Sublimity is the echo of great mind.”

Longinus. On The Sublime, sct. 9.

Elysian Fields | əˈlɪʒ(i)ən fildz

A place or state of supreme happiness and bliss. Also called Elysium.

Ca. 1590. In classical mythology, the Elysian Fields (Elysium) were the abode of the dead, a peaceful and beautiful region. Via Latin from Greek Elusion (pedion), "(plain) of the blessed."

“I am dead: dead, but in the Elysian fields.”

Benjamin Disraeli (referring to his elevation to the House of Lords).


fauna | ˈfɔnə

All the animal life of a given place or time, especially when distinguished from the plant life (flora).

1765–75. From Neo-Latin, special use of Latin Fauna, a rural goddess of the Romans.

flora | ˈflɔrə

All the plant life of a given place or time.

1655–65. From New Latin, from Latin Flōra, the Roman goddess of flowers, from flōs, "flower."

Friday | ˈfraɪˌdeɪ, ˈfraɪdi

The sixth day of the week.

Old English Frīgedæg, "Frigg's day," from Frigg, the wife of Odin and first among the goddesses.

fury | ˈfjuri

Violent anger, frenzied rage, fierce passion.

Via Old French furie from Latin furia, from furere, "to rage." The Furies were the avenging goddesses who mercilessly punished wrongdoers.

“Anoy, smert, drede, fury and eek siknesse.”

Geoffrey Chaucer. Troylus IV, 817 (845) [c1374].

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

William Congreve. The Mourning Bride [1697].


gargantuan | ɡɑrˈɡæntʃ(əw)ən

Something that is tremendously large in amount, number, or size.

Late 16th century. The name comes from Gargantua, the name of the giant hero of Rabelais' tale Gargantua.

“Bogue's small venture stood a poor chance against enterprise of this gargantuan scale.”

G. Curwen. A History of Booksellers, 276) [1893].

Goliath | ɡəˈlaɪəθ

A gigantic or overpowering opponent or competitor; a giant.

Late 16th century. The name comes from Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior who was slain by David in the Bible (1 Samuel 17).

“These Goliaths of the forest.”

J. G. Strutt. Sylva Britannica, 4 [1830].

“The Goliath-like stature and the Herculean chest of Charlemagne himself.”

Lord Lindsay. Christian Art I, 137 [1847].


halcyon | ˈhælsiən

Calm, peaceful, tranquil; denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful: the halcyon days of youth.

1350–1400. In classical mythology, a mythical bird (associated with the king fisher) said to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming winds and waves into calmness. Late Middle English (in the mythological sense): via Latin from Greek halkuōn, pseudo-etymological variant of alkuōn "kingfisher." See Alcyone.

Herculean | ˈˌhərkjəˈˌliən

Requiring a great deal of effort, resources, or strength.

Late 16th century. From the mythical hero Hercules (Heracles), noted for his great strength.

“A Herculean task, to which not one life but many must needs be devoted.”

F.H.A. Scrivener. Lectures on the Texts of the New Testament, 13 [1875].

hermetic | hərˈmɛdɪk

Completely sealed, airtight.

Mid 17th century. From modern Latin hermeticus, from the Greek god Hermes Trismegistus, who was the patron deity of alchemist and who supposedly invented the process of making a glass tube airtight using a secret seal.

Homeric laughter | hoʊˈmɛrɪk ˈlæftər

Loud roars of laughter, specifically of the Greek gods as described in Homer's epic poems.

In Homer's Iliad the gods laughed at the cripple god Hephaestus.

“And laughter unquenchable arose among the blessed gods, as they saw Hephaestus puffing through the palace.”

Homer. Iliad, i 599.

hymeneal | ˈhīmənl

Of or pertaining to marriage (literary).

1595–1605. From Latin hymenaeus, from Greek humenaios, "wedding song," from Hymen, the god of marriage.

hyperborean | ˌhaɪpərˈbɔriən

Of or relating to the extreme north.

Late Middle English, from late Latin hyperboreanus, from Greek huperboreos, from huper, "beyond" + boreas "north wind." The Hyperboreans were a people who lived in the extreme north, in a land of perpetual sunshine and abundance.

hypnotic | hɪpˈnɑdɪk

Relating to, involving, or producing sleep or hypnosis.

Early 17th century. Via French hypnotique from the Greek hupnōtikos ("putting to sleep"), from hupnoun ("to put to sleep)", from hupnos ("sleep"). See Hypnos.

“The droning voice of a heavy reader on a dull subject, is often a most effectual hypnotic.”

William Carpenter. Principles of Mental Physiology ii. xv., 576 [1879].


insomnia | ɪnˈsɑmniə

The inability to fall asleep, or to remain asleep for some time.

Early 17th century. From the Latin word insomnis, "sleepless," from the god of sleep, Somnus.

“I am so afflicted with the insomnium of this eternal night, that I rise at any time between midnight and noon.”

E.K. Kane. Arctic Explorations I, xiv, 156 [1856].


jeroboam | ˌʤɛrəˈboʊəm

A wine bottle with a capacity four times larger than that of an ordinary bottle.

Early 19th century. Named after Jeroboam, a king of Israel, "who made Israel to sin."

Jezebel | ˈʤɛzəˌbɛl

A shameless or immoral woman.

From Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, wife of Ahab, who was denounced by Elijah for introducing the worship of Baal into Israel.

juggernaut | ˈʤəɡərˌnɔt

A juggernaut is a crushing, relentlessly destructive force.

Mid 19th century. From Jagannātha "protector of the world," an avatar of the Hindu god Krishna. Each year, his statue is pulled through the town of Puri (Orissa State, India) on a huge wooden wagon. It used to be said, apocryphally, that worshipers threw themselves underneath the wheels of the wagon in religious ecstasy and were crushed to death. Hence the word juggernaut came to be used metaphorically for a crushing, relentlessly destructive force.

Junoesque | ˌʤunoʊˈɛskz

(Of a woman) imposingly tall and shapely.

1885–90. Having stately bearing and regal beauty like the Roman goddess Juno.


There are no terms starting with K yet.


lethal | ˈliθəl

Deadly, fatal.

Late 16th century. From Latin lethalis, from lethalis, a variant ( (influenced by Greek lethe, "oblivion") of letum, "death." See Lethe, one of the rivers of the underworld.

leviathan | ləˈvaɪəθən

A very large aquatic creature, especially a whale; or a thing that is very large or powerful, especially an oceangoing ship.

1382. Middle English levyathan from late Latin leviathan, from Hebrew liwyāṯān. In the Bible, the Leviathan is a sea monster associated with the forces of chaos and evil (Job 3:8).


martial | ˈmɑrʃəl

Typical of or suitable for soldiers, the military life, or war.

14th century. From Latin martialis, from Mars, the Roman god of war.

“Ne veyn delit, ... or torney Marcial, ... Ne made me to Rewe on youre distresse.”

Geoffrey Chaucer. Troylus IV [c1374].

“His martial achievements remain engraved on a pillar of flint.”

Samual Johnson. The Idler No. 96 [1760].

mentor | ˈmɛnˌtɔ(ə)r

An experienced and trusted adviser, usually one who trains and councils new employees or students.

Mid 18th century. In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor is the advisor of a young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus.

“Your real statesman is first of all, and chief of all, a great human being, with an eye for all the great fields on which men like himself struggle, with unflagging, pathetic hope, toward better things.... He is a guide, a counselor, a mentor, a servant, a friend of mankind.”

Woodrow Wilson. Presidential address, December 27, 1910, American Political Science Association.

mercury | ˈmərkjəri

A heavy, silvery-white poisonous metallic element, liquid at room temperature and used in thermometers.

1300–50. From the Roman god Mercurius (Mercury), the god of tradesmen and thieves, and messenger of the gods. From Middle English Mercurie < Medieval Latin, Latin Mercurius, akin to merx, "goods."

methuselah | məˈθ(j)uz(ə)lə

A wine bottle that is eight times the standard size.

1930s. The name comes from the Biblical patriarch Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah.

mnemonic | nəˈmɑnɪk

A system such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something.

1753. Via medieval Latin from Greek mnēmonikos, from mnēmōn, "mindful." See Mnemosyne.

Monday | ˈmənˌdeɪ, ˈməndi

The second day of the week (or the first day of the traditional working week).

The name comes from the Old English mōnandæg, which in turn comes from the prehistoric Germanic translation of Latin lunae dies, "day of the moon." See Luna.

morphine | ˈmɔrˌfin

A bitter crystalline alkaloid extracted from opium, the soluble salts of which are used in medicine as an analgesic, a light anesthetic, or a sedative. Also called morphia.

Ca. 1820–30. From French morphine or German Morphin, alluding to Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep.

mosaic | moʊˈzeɪɪk

A picture made with small colored pieces (tiles).

14th century. The word comes via Old French from the Latin musa, from the Greek mousa, and refers to the decorations of medieval shrines dedicated to the Muses.

“The vaults beneath the mosaic stone, Contain'd the dead of ages gone.”

Lord Byron. Siege of Corinth xxxi [1816].

Mother Hubbard | ˈməðər ˌhəbərd

A long loose-fitting, shapeless dress.

Late 16th century. Mother Hubbard, a nursery rhyme character, was depicted wearing such a dress.

Muse | mjuz

Somebody who inspires an artist, especially a poet.

14th century. Directly or via French from the Latin musa, from the Greek mousa. The Muses where the nine sisters who inspired and presided over the various different arts (poetry, dance, comedy, etc.).

“The stately mansion built by that attenuated but majestic Muse Mrs. Montagu.”

Athenæum, 19 Aug 1905, 233/2.

museum | mjuˈziəm

A building or institution where objects of artistic, historical, or scientific importance a kept and put on display.

Early 17th century. From the Greek mouseion, "place of the Muses." See Muses.

“Museum, a Study or Library; also a College or Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men.”

Phillips (ed. Kersey). Phillip's Dictionary [1706].

“I have seen the British Museum; which is a noble collection.”

T. Smollett. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 2 June, Letters ii [1771].

music | ˈmjuzɪk

Sounds produced by voices or instruments and which are arranged or played in order.

13th century. Via the French musique from the Greek mousikē, "art of the Muse, music." See Muses.

“The science of Musique, That techeth upon Armonie, A man to make melodie.”

Gower. Confessio Amantis III, 90 [c. 1390].

myrmidon | ˈmərmədɑn

A faithful follower who obeys orders unquestioningly.

Mid 17th century. In Greek mythology, the Myrmidons were a people created from ants who lived in Phthia, Thessaly. Achilles, their king, led them to the Trojan War. The word comes from the Latin Myrmidones from the Greek Murmidones from murmèkes, "ants."

“Achilles cam thenne faste saylande
With alle his gode Mirmydanes.”

The Laud Troy, ln. 4597 [c1400].


narcissism | nɑrˈsɪsəs

An excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one's physical appearance.

Early 19th century. Narcissus was a beautiful youth who spurned the nymph Echo and who was made to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. Via Latin from the Greek name Narkissos + -ism.

“Narcissus weeps to find that his Image does not return his love.”

Mason Cooley. City Aphorisms, Second Selection.

nebuchadnezzar | ˌnɛbjəkədˈnɛzər

A very large wine bottle, the equivalent in capacity of twenty regular bottles.

Early 20th century. From the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 630-562 BCE).

nectar | ˈnɛktər

An enjoyable or much appreciated drink.

Mid 16th century. In Greek mythology nectar is the drink of the gods, sustaining their immortality and beauty. From Greek nektar, "drink of the gods."

“Now Melibœus... drinkes Nectar, eates diuine Ambrosia.”

T. Watson. Poems [1590].


ocean | ˈoʊʃən

A large expanse of salt water.

13th century. Via Old French via Latin oceanus, from the Greek ōkeanos, the river that surrounds the Earth and its god. See Oceanus.

“The ocean, is that generall collection of all waters, which environeth the world on every side.”

J. Swan. Speculum Mundi vi. 2, 187 [1635].

odyssey | ˈɒdˈəsˈi

A long series of travels and adventures.

Late 19th century. From the Greek epic poem Odyssey (Greek: Odusseia) written by Homer (ca. eight century BCE). It describes Odysseus' ten-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

“He is on this odyssey of rebellion now, though we do not know precisely among what people, or at what Court.”

Daily News, 10 October 1889, 4/7.


Pandora's box | pænˈdɔrə's bɑks

Something that produces many unforseen and/or uncontrollable ills or difficulties.

In Greek mythology, the jar, later referred to as a box, that was given to Pandora and which, when opened, allowed a multitude of evils to escape.

panic | ˈpænɪk

Fear or anxiety that comes on suddenly and which is overpowering and uncontrollable.

Early 17th century. The word comes from the French panique and Latin panicus ("terrified") and ultimately from the Greek Pan, a nature-god whose appearance induced irrational fear.

“Ran cow and calf and family of hogs, In panique horror of pursuing dogs.”

J. Dryden. Fables, Cock & Fox, 731 [1700].

phobia | ˈfoʊbiə

A persistent, abnormal, or irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid the feared stimulus.

1780–90. From Phobos, the Greek personification of fear.

priapism | ˈpraɪəˌpɪzəm

Persistent, usually painful erection of the penis, especially as a consequence of disease and not related to sexual arousal.

1580–90. From Late Latin priapismus, ultimately from Priapus, a Greek god of fertility, the male procreative power, who was depicted with oversized genitals.

“When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States His laughter tinkled among the teacups. I thought of Fragilion, that shy figure among the birch-trees, And of Priapus in the shrubbery Gaping at the lady in the swing.”

T.S. Eliot. Mr. Apollinax [1920].

Procrustean | proʊˈkrəstiən

Enforcing conformity by using any and all means, including violence: a fixed Procrustean rule.

Mid 19th century. The word comes from Procrustes, a legendary robber who his victims on an iron bed. If they were too short, he would stretch them until they fit; if they were too long, he would chop off any part to make them fit.

“For which they have cut and dried procrustean remedies ready to hand.”

Toulmin Smith. Parish 118 [1857].

protean | ˈproʊdiən, proʊˈtiən

The tendency or ability to change frequently or easily; extremely variable.

Late 16th century. From Proteus, a minor Greek sea god who had the ability to rapidly change shape.

python | ˈpaɪˌθɑn, ˈpaɪθən

A large heavy-bodied nonvenomous constrictor snake.

Late 16th century. Via Latin from Greek Puthōn, Python, the giant serpent killed by Apollo.


There are no terms starting with Q yet.


rehoboam | riːəˈboʊəm

A wine bottle that is about six times the standard size.

Late 19th century. The name comes from Rehoboam, son of Solomon, the first king of a separate Judah.


Saturday | ˈsædərˌdeɪ, ˈsædərdi

The seventh day of the week.

Pre 12th century. The name is a translation of Latin Saturni dies, "day of Saturn," the Roman god of agriculture.

Scylla and Charybdis | ˈsɪlə ænd kəˈrɪbdɪs

To "be between Scylla and Charybdis" refers to be faced with the necessity of choosing between two equally unpleasant things, or the danger of running into one evil in seeking to avoid its opposite.

In Greek mythology, Scylla was a rock on the Italian side of the Strait of Messina, personified as a sea monster. It faced Charybdis, a dangerous whirlpool on the coast of Sicily, also personified as a sea monster.

“Alas, the poor father in avoiding Charybdis had run against Scylla.”

H. Kingsley. Hillyars & Burtons iii [1865].

siren | ˈsaɪrən

A device that emits a loud wailing sound and which is used as a warning signal.

1300–50. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were female nymphs who lured ships onto the rocks with their singing. From Middle English sereyn < Old French sereine < Late Latin Sīrēna < Latin Sīrēn < Greek Seirḗn.

Sisyphean | ˌsɪsəˈfiən

Of, relating to, or suggestive of the labors of Sisyphus; a task that can never be completed.

1635. Latin Sisypheius, based on Greek Sisuphos + -an. See Sisyphus.

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”

Simone de Beauvoir.

stentor | ˈstɛntɔr

Somebody with a loud and powerful voice.

Early 17th century. The name comes from Stentor, a Greek herald in the Trojan War. According to Homer, Stentor's voice was a loud as that of fifty men combined.

“Laughing like a stentor, Kit gradually backed to the door, and roared himself out.”

Charles Dickens. Old Curiosity Shop i [1840].

Stygian | ˈstɪʤiən

Of, or relating to river Styx. Dark, gloomy, as in the Stygian crypt (literary).

1560–70. From Latin Stygius, from Greek Stugios, from Stux Styx; related to stugein "to hate." See Styx, one of the rivers of the underworld.

“A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

ames I of England, James VI of Scotland. A Counter-blaste to Tobacco [1604)].

Sunday | ˈsənˌdeɪ, ˈsəndi

The first day of the week.

The name comes from the Old English sunnandæg, "day of the sun." It is a translation of the Latin dies solis.

syringe | səˈrɪnʤ

A medical instrument used to inject fluids into the body or draw them from it.

1375–1425. Late Middle English, from medieval Latin syringa, from Greek syrinx, "pipe." The nymph Syrinx was transformed into reeds to protect her chastity, and Pan used these to make the first panpipe.


tantalize | ˈtæn(t)lˌaɪz

To tease people by letting them see something they desire, but not letting them have it.

Late 16th century. Tantalus, the king of Sipylus, was uniquely favored among mortals since he was invited to share the food of the gods. However, he abused the guest-host relationship and was punished by being "tantalized" with hunger and thirst in Tartarus: he was immersed up to his neck in water, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away; luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it the winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

“Our Richard II was starved at Pomfret Castle by being tantalized.”

Trapp. Commentary on John. vi, 55 [1646].

terpsichorean | tɜːrpsɪkəˈriːən

Pertaining to, or of the nature of dancing.

Early 19th century. The name comes from the Greek terpsikhorē,"delighting in dance," (terpein, "delight" and khoros, "dance"). The Muse of choral songs and dance was called Terpsichore.

“An entirely new view of the Terpsichorean art.”

Charles Dickens. Out Mutual Friend i, xi [1865].

Thursday | ˈθərzdi, ˈθərzˌdeɪ

The fifth day of the week.

Old English Þuresdæg or Þunresdæg, "day of thunder," from the god of thunder Thor. It is the translation of late Latin Jovis dies, "day of Jupiter," the Roman god of thunder.

titanic | taɪˈtænɪk

Gigantic; of enormous size and strength.

1650–60. From Greek titanikos, from Titan. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the older gods who were overthrown by the Olympian gods.

Trojan horse | ˈtroʊʤən hɔrs

1. A concealed strategem: somebody or something meant to destroy or undermine an enemy or rival while concealed within [an organization].
2. A destructive computer program: a piece of software which contains a hidden function designed to cause damage to other software or which allows a third-party to steal information.

During the Trojan War, the Greeks, unable to breach Troy's wall, left a huge wooden horse at the gates of the city when they withdrew. The Trojans were convinced that it was a gift to the goddess Athena and dragged it inside their city. The horse, however, was hollow and contained a number of Greek soldiers inside. At night, they climbed down from the horse, opened the gates, and let the Greek army in. The wooden horse effectively led to Troy's destruction.

“He cannot so easily introduce his Trojan horse within these walls [seating of contested members in Mississipi House]. I, for one, will hurl a spear against its hollow sides.”

S.S. Prentiss in G.L. Prentiss Memoir of S.S. Prentiss i, viii, 188 [1858].

Tuesday | (j)uzdi, ˈt(j)uzˌdeɪ

The third day of the week.

From the Old English Tīwesdæg, "Tiu's day," from Tīw, the Germanic god of war. This in turn comes from Latin Martis dies "day of Mars," the Roman god of war.


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volcano | vɑlˈkeɪnoʊ

A mountain or hill, typically conical, that is formed from volcanic material ejected from a vent in a central crater.

1605–15. Italian, from Latin Vulcanus, the Roman god.


Wednesday | ˈwɛnzdi, ˈwɛnzˌdeɪ

The fourth day of the week.

ca. 950. From the Old English Wōdnesdæg,"Wōden's day," the chief deity of the Germanic peoples, modelled on Odin. Ultimately a translation of Latin Mercurii dies, "day of Mercury."

“On an Wodnes dei.”

O.E. Chron. an. 1123 (Laud MS.) [c1123].

“Mr. Teylle wil be with you apon Wensdaye week.”

Thomas Wright. Queen Elizabeth I. 4 [1838].


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zephyr | ˈzɛfər

A pleasent, gentle breeze; a mild, warming wind.

Early 17th century. The word derives from the Greek zephuros, "west wind." Zephyrus was the personification of the west wind which was always mild and gentle in character.

“They are as gentle As Zephires blowing below the Violet, Not wagging his sweet head.”

Shakespeare. Cymbeline IV, ii, 172 [c.1610].

“The zephyrs breathed softly from the south.”

M.B. Betham-Edwards. Disarmed x [1883].