• contretemps •
kawn-trê-tawN • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A disruption, an inopportune interruption, an unforeseen and unwanted imposition.
Notes: Today's Good Word is singular even though it ends on a silent S. In fact, the last syllable is still pronounced with a nasalized consonant (just pronounce [aw] with your nasal passages open). For the plural, you can add a [z] to the end of the pronunciation, but the spelling is never changed.
In Play: Outside fencing and dancing, where this word has specialized meanings, contretemps indicates an unpleasant interruption: "Slipping in the mud as he rounded second base was a contretemps that cost Casey his triple and a sprained ankle." Here is how the plural is handled in speaking and writing: "The fire and the earthquake were two contretemps the theater could not survive".
Word History: Today's Good Word is so fresh from French that it hasn't been adapted to English. Contretemps is the French word for "setback, mishap". Its original meaning is "offbeat", as the offbeat in a musical rhythm, so it is composed of contre "against" + temps "time, timing". Contre is the descendant of Latin contra, a word now referring to guerrillas friendly to the US. The same root turns up in English counter and contrary. Temps is the remains of Latin tempus, temporis "time", found in several English words, including temporary. (At this point we should offer gratitude to Lew Jury for suggesting today's word before some contretemps prevents us.)
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