Today I Learned…

…an excellent word.  Sfumato is from the Italian sfumare — to evaporate — and describes a painting technique developed and perfected by Leonardo da Vinci.  Sfumato involves using many very thin, delicate coats of paint blended together to give the illusion of form.

I came upon this word in the context of an article entitled “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci,” which applies a more philosophical meaning to the word — the ability to embrace ambiguity and paradox.  The author suggests that you learn this ability through thought exercises; think about being in the ambiguous situation of having applied for a job but not knowing whether you got it or not — or think about how your happiest and saddest moments are related.  There are many other steps and concepts outlined in the article, most of which I think are extremely worthwhile to attempt and emulate.  Check it out.

Today I Learned…

…where the term “wise-acre” comes from, and it’s not a polite euphemism for wise-ass as you may have thought.  According to wiktionary, the term descends from the Middle Dutch wijssegger, meaning soothsayer.  It is defined as one who feigns knowledge or cleverness; an insolent upstart.

Urban Dictionary currently has a definition of “wise-acre” with 7 thumbs up and 2 down as follows:

Wise-acre is essentially synonymous with the terms jerk and jackass. One defining feature is that a wise-acre enjoys comedy more than anything, and therefore an insult comic or a practical joker would be called wise-acres. It has fallen into disuse recently, but it’s still there.

I’m not sure that I’m a big fan of this definition — I think it misses out on the closeness to the term “wise-ass” that is implied.  There’s no link to the sarcastic nature which is, I think, almost part and parcel with the label.

.o0(Thanks to Kevin at work today who, besides looking like a 70’s baseball card, called me a wise-acre today which prompted me to look up its etymology.)

Today I Learned…

…that I’ve been using some words incorrectly, and you probably have been too.

The difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated” is simply put as this: someone who is “nauseous” is one who makes people around em “nauseated.”  Someone who is “nauseated” is sick to their stomach.

Thanks to Kevin at work for that one.

Yesterday I Learned… (whoops!)

…what the word inchoate means.  From

  1. not yet completed or fully developed; rudimentary.
  2. just begun; incipient.
  3. not organized; lacking order: an inchoate mass of ideas on the subject.

…Stupid GRE.  I guess my math score on the real test last fall may have been a fluke.  I have an inchoate grasp of GRE math skills.

Today I Learned…

…a new word.  An epizootic is an epidemic outbreak of a disease confined to a particular animal population, often with the implication that it could jump to humans but has not yet.  What a fantastic word.

I learned this word on a fantastic podcast called the Discovery News Friday Feedbag — you should check it out if you’re a science nerd.  Like me.  Here is a link to the xml feed.  Listen to it!

Today I Learned…

…a new word. Simply enough, bescumber means “to spray with poo.” Several other words that more or less mean the same thing include: bedung, beray, immerd, sharny, and shitten.

Also see: neatorama.

***Special Double-Shot!***

Today I Learned…

…a new word.  Zugzwang, which is German for “compulsion to move.”  It originally comes from chess, but now applies to any situation in which you are forced to do something when not doing anything is a more advantageous decision.  Generally in chess it refers to having no move that does not worsen your position — i.e. going from a drawn position to a loss or a winning position to a draw or a loss.  I found this word on this post on Nate Silver’s electoral polling blog,, one of my favorites.  If you’re a political junkie, or enjoy the kind of statistical analysis Nate does for Baseball Prospectus, it’s a fantastic one.

…I also learned a cool fact about medical research.  In 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and died shortly thereafter.  Without her knowledge, her doctor took a sample of her cellular matter.  Those cells were later found to have the ability to reproduce indefinitely outside of the body — which is not normally possible.  Ms. Lacks’ cells are the only known case of cell immortality in medical history, and her line, known now as HeLa cells, have been completely invaluable to medical research.  They were used to create the cure for polio by Jonas Salk, and are found in almost every laboratory.

Further Reading…