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The 50 Most-Looked-Up Words from NYTimes.com

The New York Times has an online feature that allows users to get dictionary definitions of words within feature articles. Just double-click a word, a question mark appears, click that, and you get a definition. Now they've crunched the numbers and revealed the 50 most-looked-up words of 2010 so far. You can see the top 20 above, but there's a catch -- one of those words was coined by a mischievous writer at the Times. Can you figure out which one it is?

From the article analyzing the results:

We all have blind spots in our vocabulary. Going through the list without benefit of context, I'll admit — somewhat reluctantly — that there were at least two words for which I couldn't formulate coherent definitions: "démarche" ("a line of action; move or countermove") and "cynosure" ("a person or thing that is a center of attention or interest"). I might have been able to puzzle them out in context, but standing alone, they stumped me.

For some reason "cynosure" (which can be pronounced with a short or long vowel sound in the first syllable) seems to be crosswired in my brain with the completely unrelated "sinecure" ("an office or position providing income but requiring little work").

Perhaps the Greek roots would help me figure out "cynosure"? No, not this time: it comes from the Greek for "dog's tail." So how did it acquire its current meaning? Apparently "the Dog's Tail" is what we now call the Little Dipper, the constellation that includes the North Star. Thus the "center of attention or interest."

Read the rest for more analysis. You can check out the Top 50 as a Google Spreadsheet or a PDF.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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