• meretricious •
Pronunciation: me-rê-tri-shês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Superficial or superficially showy, shallowly attractive but without substance or real merit.
Notes: You might be surprised to find that today's pejorative word is related to merit (see Word History). This word is otherwise rather isolated except for its rather pedestrian adverb, meretriciously, and a commonplace noun meretriciousness.
In Play: Because of the historical association of this word with ladies of the evening (which Russians call "night butterflies"), the superficiality critical to its meaning often implies gaudiness: "M. T. Coffer could never resist the meretricious glitter and gaiety of the Las Vegas casinos." That is not necessarily the case, however: "Ida Goodtime always makes a meretricious offer to help clean up after a party but then mysteriously disappears."
Word History: Today's Good Word is the English make-over of Latin meretricius "prostitutional" from the noun meretrix (meretric-s) "prostitute". This noun is derived from the verb merere "to earn, deserve", the past participle of which is meritus "earned, deserved", the source of English merit. This participle was also used in the Old French terre-merite "saffron", from Medieval Latin terra merita, literally "earth-deserved". Middle English borrowed this phrase as a single word, termeryte which remains in English to this day as turmeric, often misspelled and mispronounced as tumeric.
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