• plaintive •
Pronunciation: playn-tiv • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Melancholy, mournful, expressing grief or sadness.
Notes: The trick with today's word is not to confuse it with plaintiff "complainant in a court case". They were once one and the same, but they drifted apart once English borrowed them. The English word is built on the noun plaint "mourning, lamentation", also borrowed from French. The adverb and noun are straightforward enough: plaintively and plaintiveness.
In Play: Plaintive is a word of soft beauty: "The plaintive song of a nightingale outside the window made the cafe the perfect setting for Matt Tremony's proposal." Today's word first and foremost signifies a sad beauty, like the blues: "Bertha D. Blues, mother of the Blues Brothers, sang a plaintive song of her childhood, of a history piled high with regrets."
Word History: Today's Good Word is from Old French plaintif "complaining" based on the noun plainte "a complaint; a lament". French inherited this word from Latin planctus "lamentation, wailing, beating of the breast", the past participle stem of plangere "to lament, to strike". (Part of ancient complaints was beating of the breast.) This word reached English by way of its Germanic ancestors as fling "to throw". Without the Fickle N, it came to be Latin plaga "a blow, a stroke", which Old French turned into plague. It had already come to mean "illness" in post-Classical Latin. English at this point treated itself to the word. (Lest we make Gene DuBose plaintive, let's thank him for his suggestion of today's lovely Good Word.)