• plastic •
Pronunciation: plæs-tik • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Malleable, soft, pliable, molding easily, as a plastic clay. 2. Adaptive, able to adapt to new or changing conditions, as a plastic imagination. 3. Made of the synthetic material, plastic, as a plastic umbrella. 4. Synthetic, artificial, not real or sincere, mechanical, as a plastic smile.
Notes: Today we are focusing on the adjectival senses of this word; it also functions as a noun referring to a synthetic material made of polymerized compounds. The adjective refers not only to softness and pliability, but also the ability to assume a shape, as in a mold, and hold it. But the noun itself is now used as an adjective referring to things that are like the material plastic, artificial and unnatural.
In Play: Remember that plastic refers to things that are adjustable to various shapes: "I have a very plastic work schedule today, so it will be easy for me to adjust it to yours." But now it also refers to things that are unnatural and phony: "The plastic life of Las Vegas was more than Diane Ammick could endure, so she built herself a McMansion in Beverly Hills."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes to us from Latin plasticus, a word the Romans borrowed from Greek plastikos "plastic, pliable". This word is an adjective based on plastos "molded", from plassein "to mold". The Greek word was inherited from its ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European, where pol- (sometimes pel-, sometimes just pl-) meant "to flatten, spread". The same root trickled down to the Slavic languages, where it ended up as Russian polye "field", a root in the name of Leo Tolstoy's estate Yasnaya Polyana. In the Germanic languages (Dutch, English, German, etc.), it became Dutch veld, German Feld and English field. In fact, the word Poland originated as a word meaning "people of the plains, flatlands". Of course, plain(s) and plane were borrowed from Latin planus "flat", another word from pol/pel/pl-. (Today we thank the plastic mind of Eric Berntson for this very Good Word.)