• gnomon •
Pronunciation: no-mên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. An upright arm that projects a shadow and is used as an indicator or measure, as on a sundial. 2. An L-shaped figure created by removing a smaller parallelogram from a larger one from one of its corners. 3. (Facetiously) The nose.
Notes: You might think we will have no use for this word; after all, we all have electronic clocks and watches. But sundials are still a common garden decoration, and many have lost their whatchamacallits. Now we have a word for the whatchamacallit: gnomon. It comes with three adjectives, gnomonic, with or without the meaningless extension -al, gnomonical. Another adjective that should come in handy when appraising sundials is gnomonless.
In Play: The most common gnomon is the one on the sundial: "I would take this sundial, but its gnomon seems to be missing." In other words, it is gnomonless. In his memoirs, published in 1803, Charles Lee Lewes wrote the following: ". . . [g]iving him at the same time, a blow that demolished the gnomon of poor Roger's face." The OED cites four examples of this use of the word.
Word History: Today's Good Word is Latin gnomon "interpreter, pointer". The Romans picked up this word from the Greeks, who derived it from gignoskein "to know". In fact, the original Proto-Indo-European word came to English as know. It is also present in myriad words borrowed from Latin: cognition, cogent, recognize. I know you are wondering about its relation to gnome. Well, there are two words spelled gnome. One means "proverb, maxim, aphorism"; I'm sure you can see the connection between this sense and "know". The other sense is a mystery. It was first used by the 16th century scientist Paracelsus. He used it to refer to a genus of small people who moved through the earth unobstructed, as fish, through water and birds, through air. Our best guess is that he made the word up. (Today's Good Word was suggested by Jerry B. Lincecum last year—the gnomon on my sundial is missing).