• percolate •
Pronunciation: pêr-kê-layt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: 1. To seep downward through a granular substance or material, as rainwater percolates through the soil. 2. To prepare (coffee) in a percolator.
Notes: The advent of the coffee percolator was almost the downfall of today's word. Because the bubbling coffee in the glass knob on the lid of the percolator attracted so much attention, it was easy to think that the verb percolate means to bubble upwards. No, no, no! The name percolator came from the fact that the boiling water filtered down through the coffee grounds once it reached the top. Now that we make coffee by different means, let's give this verb back its meaning.
In Play: I have always thought that the "trickle-down" theory, the assumption that some of the money accumulated by the wealthy will trickle down to those who actually need it, should be called the Economic Percolation Theory. That would help us keep the meaning straight. The important thing to remember is that the movement is generally a downward filtering action: "Rumors percolating from the president's office have it that we are in for a shake-up at the top."
Word History: Today's word is an adopted daughter from the Latin verb percolare, derived from per- "through" + colare "to strain, filter". Colare comes from colum "a strainer, sieve", the same root that gave us colander via Old Provençal colador "strainer". We don't know how colum came to be in the Latin language, but we do know quite a bit about the prefix. It shows up as a preposition in Sanskrit as pari "around, about, through", in Greek as peri "around, about, beyond", and in the Russian prefix pere- "through," Lithuanian per "through," and German as the prefix ver-. English inherited the O-form, which percolated down to Modern English as for and fore-.