• lithe •
Pronunciation: laidh • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Gracefully slender; supple, flexible, easily bent or flexed, as a lithe willow withe. 2. Graceful, moving and bending supply and gracefully, as a lithe dancer.
Notes: Perhaps the best example of something lithe is a withe, a switch or supple branch from a tree, such as a willow. Withe, however, is pronounced in radically different ways: either as [with] or [widh] (hard or soft TH). The comparative and superlative forms of today's word are lither and lithest, and the noun is litheness. This Good Word has a synonymous variant, lithesome which, for some reason known only to my ear, I prefer: 'a lithesome dancer lilting fragilely across the stage'.
In Play: When you think of subtle flexibility, today's Good Word should come to mind: "Amanda was as lithe slipping in and out of conferences at the office as she was in moving across a dance floor." Not surprisingly, the meaning of this word is itself quite lithe, making it easily adjusted to a wide range of situations: "Phillipa Bird was accustomed to uttering phrases so lithe they could fit any position on an issue."
Word History: Today's Good Word is another of those words with a Fickle N, an [n] that comes and goes for reasons that still escape us. The original PIE root was something like len-t- "soft". Old English líðe "mild, flexible" eschewed the [n] while German kept it in lind "gentle, soothing, dulcet". Latin also retained the [n] in its adjective lentus "pliant, flexible" and Russian kept the [n] while dropping the [t], producing in len' "slowness, laziness". (Today we thank Christine Casalini, a writer/editor in Boston, Massachusetts, for reminding us of this very lovely English word that slips so lithely across our tongues.)