Printable Version
Pronunciation: or-fên Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A child or young animal whose parents are dead. 2. Anything that is alone in its class or unconnected to similar objects, as a product that is an orphan. 3. The first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page. (The last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of the next page is a widow.)

Notes: Today's word may be used freely as an adjective as well as a noun: 'an orphan product', 'an orphan technology'. It may also be used as a verb, meaning "to make an orphan", as 'to be orphaned early in childhood'. We haven't quite decided what to call the status of orphans: orphanhood, orphandom, and orphancy have all been used as late as the 1990s. The place where orphans are cared for is, of course, an orphanage.

In Play: Verdelle Woods, who suggested today's fascinating word (thank you, Verdelle), wondered why this term is used only for children: if both your parents pass away when you are 60, could you not be a 60-year-old orphan? In all its meanings, today's word implies a lack of support or nurturing, which limits its reference to the helpless: "Abel Lamb keeps a pet zoo in his back yard for the orphan animals he finds." However, it can refer to a merely isolated object: "I don't like to take the last piece of anything at the table but I never leave an orphan deviled egg behind."

Word History: Today's Good Word is an English remake of Late Latin orphanus "parentless child", which Latin borrowed from Greek orphanos "orphaned, fatherless" from orphos "bereft". Orphos is a direct descendant of PIE orbho- "bereft of a father, deprived status", based on the PIE root orbh- "to change allegiance or status". The vowel and the R underwent metathesis (switched places) in the Slavic languages. So, in Czech we find robot from Czech robota "drudgery", taken from Old Church Slavonic rabota "slavery" from rabê "slave". In Russian the same word became rabota "work". In German there was no metathesis, but the suffix -heit was added to give Arbeit, which apparently also passed through the stage of meaning "slave" to become the word for "work".

Dr. Goodword,

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