Printable Version
Pronunciation: me-rê-tri-shês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Gaudy, vulgarly showy but without real value. 2. Ostensibly plausible but false, as a meretricious argument, cleverly deceptive.

Notes: The sense of today's word is barely a hop away from its original reference to ladies of the night, specifically to their flamboyant dress and the deceptive advertising it represents. The adverb is formed the usual way: meretriciously.

In Play: Here is a smidgen of a conversation overheard recently at the local gala winter ball: "I can't believe that outfit Maud Lynn Dresser is wearing to the Snow Ball! Even for her it is outlandishly meretricious." "Yes, I know. And her explanation, that it reflects her royal ancestry, is as meretricious as the outfit itself." "Well, at least she is consistent."

Word History: This word made its way into English from Latin meretrix (meretric-s) "prostitute". Meretrix is a noun derived from merere "to earn, deserve", so the concept of the working girl goes way back. The same stem appears in merit, borrowed from Latin meritum "earned, deserved", the past participle of merere. You are less likely to have guessed that today's word shares a root with turmeric. Turmeric, pronounced [têr-mêr-ik], the name of an anti-inflammatory curry powder, began its life as Latin terra merita "earth of merit". In Old French it became terre-merite "saffron", was borrowed as Old English tarmaret, and ended up in Modern English, of course, as turmeric. Currently in the US, this word is being converted by folk etymology into tumeric, without the R, probably by analogy with tumor, which is pronounced the same.

Dr. Goodword,

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