Sunday, February 7, 2016

7-Letter Sunday: RETAINS

At first glance, retains is a rather boring word. It basically means to have, to keep, to hold onto. You can retain a deed to a property, a fact in your head, or a lawyer by paying him a fee (called, of course, a retainer). In this photo, the wall retains the soil behind it:

It originates in the Latin re (back) + tenere (to hold). That led to the old French retenir and then in turn to Middle English reteynen, which became our word, retain.

For Scrabble fans, though, retains is a bit magical, for two reasons. First, it's one of the easier 7-letter words to find on your rack, since all of its letters are very common ones. If you find yourself with a rack full of low-scoring letters, take a quick glance to see if RETAINS is lurking.

Second, it has the most anagrams of any 7-letter Scrabble word -- eight other words! This gives you lots of options to maximize your score when playing these letters, or to get a bingo on the board at all when things start to crowd up.

Thus, it's good to take a look at the anagrams of RETAINS. Most competitive Scrabble players know these by heart:

  • ANESTRI - periods of sexual dormancy; plural of ANESTRUS
  • ANTSIER - comparative of ANTSY; even more jittery or hyper
  • NASTIER - even more mean or hostile
  • RATINES - RATINE is a heavy, loosely woven fabric; RATINES is the plural
  • RETINAS - the RETINA is a part of the eye; RETINAS is the plural
  • RETSINA - an alcoholic drink in Greece; a resin-flavored wine

    Athens :: Retsina Malmatina by tomislavmedak, on Flickr
    "Athens :: Retsina Malmatina" (CC BY 2.0) by  tomislavmedak 
  • STAINER - a person or a thing that stains
  • STEARIN - the solid part of an animal or vegetable fat

This is an excellent list to retain in your memory!

Short Word Saturday: LIMB

Well, that little hiatus went longer than I meant to! But some weeks will be like that. I really want to post here every day, but I refuse to beat myself up or give up on this blog if I miss that goal.

Today's word, limb, is one of those that gets more and more interesting as you dig deeper into its meanings. Let's start with the obvious: a limb is something that branches off from a main body. People have limbs--their arms and legs. Tree limbs are branches on the tree, normally the larger branches that support smaller branches of their own.

A lesser known definition of limb is that of a margin or outer limit. In astronomy, limb means the apparent edge of a star or other celestial object. In this picture posted to Flickr by Nasa, the caption describes it as showing a filament snake seen in the "sun's south-east limb" or on the edge of the lower left quadrant.

In botany, certain kinds of flowers, like elderberry flowers or hibiscus, have petals that fuse together to form a sort of tube at the base of the flower, flaring outward at the upper edge. That area that flares outward is also called the limb -- the outer boundary of the flower.

Limb is also a verb, meaning to remove limbs (generally of a tree). "Limbed" is interesting, as it can be both a verb (he limbed the tree after felling it) or an adjective (a many-limbed tree).

Now, where limb really gets fun is in the number of words that can be formed from it in Scrabble. There is LIMBATE, which means having an edge of a different color, deriving from the meaning of limb as boundary. Similar you have the word LIMBUS, which means a distinctive border (a limbate flower would by definition have a limbus!). Even more fun, limbus has two plural variations, LIMBUSES and LIMBI.

You also have a LIMBIC system within your brain, a group of structures that govern much of your emotional life. It is named because it is located in the limbus, or border area, between the cerebral area and the brain stem.

Next comes a series of words that relate to limb as an appendage. There are the verb forms of LIMBED and LIMBING and the adjective LIMBY, meaning something with many branches. This leads to a comparative (LIMBIER) and superlative (LIMBIEST), as well as an opposite, LIMBLESS, for the state of being without limbs at all.

Finally, there are words you can build from LIMB that don't relate to either definition. These include:

  • LIMBA - a species of tree found in Africa
  • LIMBECK - a variation of alembic, a type of ale
  • LIMBER - flexible (also LIMBERER, LIMBEREST, and LIMBERLY) or the act of making something flexible (limber up before a gymnastics class), which gives us LIMBERS, LIMBERED, and LIMBERING
  • LIMBO - a place of suspension or neglect (left in limbo while waiting for management to make a decision)
So many words and meanings in four little letters!