Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.
December 4th, 2014
Episode 35 of 681 episodes
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 04, 2014 is: caitiff \KAY-tif\ adjective : cowardly, despicable Examples: "Oh, horrible wretch! a murderer! unmanly murderer!a defenceless woman smothered by caitiff hands!" Edward Bulwer-Lytton, What Will He Do With It?, 1858 " the Vichy cabinet accepted the German offer of air support from Sicily and Sardinia. This caitiff decision enabled the Germans to take the quick, decisive action of occupying airfields in Tunisia, with all its costly consequences upon our campaign." Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, 1950 Did you know? Caitiff is pretty rare in contemporary use, but it has functioned since the 14th century as an adjective and also as a noun meaning "a base, cowardly, or despicable person" (as in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: "O thou caitiff! O thou varlet! O thou wicked Hannibal!"). Both the adjective and the noun evolved from the Anglo-French adjective caitif, meaning "wretched, despicable." The French word in turn derived from the Latin captivus, meaning "captive"the shift from "captive" to "wretched" being perhaps prompted by the perception of captives as wretched and worthy of scorn.