Printable Version
Pronunciation: -bê-rinth Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A maze, specifically a maze of connected passages, most of which have dead ends but with one complex combination of passages leading to an exit. 2. The inner ear, made up of a labyrinth of canals, vestibules, and the cochlea. 3. Anything bewildering and confusing.

Notes: Be careful spelling this word for it contains two traps. First, it has a Y and an I—in that order—which are easily transposed in writing this word. Second, this word often falls victim to syncope, the omission of the Y altogether. Remember to pronounce this syllable as indicated above and to write it in the right place. The adjective for this word is one of the more beautiful inhabitants of the English vocabulary: labyrinthine. Use it as often as you can; it is a pleasant conversational decoration.

In Play: Where am I?As the third definition above shows, any bewildering or confusing set of circumstances qualifies as a figurative labyrinth: "The labyrinth of rules, regulations, documentation, and interviews required to get a visa was so discouraging that Miles Overland decided to stay home and watch some video travelogues." However, it is even more pleasurable to use the adjective to this Good Word: "Having to maneuver the labyrinthine gnarl of halls and passageways in the courthouse was punishment enough for any noncapital crime you might commit."

Word History: The history of today's Good Word, appropriately enough, is as mystifying as a labyrinth itself. English simply docked the E on French labyrinthe, a reduction of Latin labyrinthus, borrowed from Greek labyrinthos "maze, large building with intricate passages". The best guess (and it is just a guess) is that the Greek word came from a Carian or Lydian word labrys "double-edged axe", the symbol of royal power at the time. This would be a logical name for the Minoan Palace on Crete, whose many passages would have encouraged the meaning of this word to drift over to "maze". (Our note of gratitude to Jackie Strauss for suggesting today's lovely word will be anything but labyrinthine: Thank you, Jackie.")

Dr. Goodword,

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