• portent •
Pronunciation: por-tent • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. An omen, a foreshadowing, a sign of a momentous coming event, as the portents of a storm. 2. A thing or person of great or unexpected importance, a wonder, marvel, or a prodigy, as a musical portent who can play all the instruments in an orchestra—at the same time.
Notes: Today's Good Word is the noun of the verb portend. It is a rare in that it is derived from the verb by simply replacing the [d] with a [t]. Actually, these two sounds are identical except that [d] is voiced, uttered while vibrating the vocal cords, and [t] is voiceless—no vocal cord activity. The adjective for this noun is portentous, not to be confused with portentious "pompous, pretentious". You may always use portentful to be safe.
In Play: If you stop to think about it, we really see a lot of portents in our lives: "Maggie's glare was a portent of an evening of unpleasantness for Malcolm after the party." We also see quite a few of the other kinds of portents: "Marlow thinks that an educated professional athlete is something of a portent today, in the age of athletic teams with graduation rates below 20%."
Word History: Today's word is Latin portentum "a portent, sign, omen, monster, marvelous tale" without the neuter ending -um. It turns up in Italian and Spanish as portento. This noun comes from the verb portendere "to foretell," originally meaning "to stretch forward," based on por- (a variant of pro-) "forth, forward" + tendere "to stretch, extend". (We extend our thanks to Tim Ward for his suggestion of today's Good Word and hope it is a portent of more to come.)
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- Grand Panjandrum
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