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.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for December 1, 2023 is: bifurcate \BYE-fer-kayt\ verb
When something bifurcates, it divides into two branches or parts; to bifurcate something is to divide it into two branches or parts.
// The stream bifurcated into two narrow winding channels.
// When a highway bifurcates a forest, it also splits the habitats of animal populations that may have a difficult time making it across safely to the other side.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bifurcate)
"Over time, the English ... became more powerful, spreading from Virginia to Maryland to Carolina (not yet bifurcated) ..." — Scott W. Stern, The New Republic, 26 June 2023
Did you know?
Yogi Berra, the baseball great who was noted for his head-scratching quotes, is purported to have said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Berra's advice might not offer much help when you're making tough decisions in life, but perhaps it will help you remember bifurcate. A road that bifurcates splits in two, like the one in Berra's [adage](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adage). Other things can bifurcate (or be bifurcated) as well, such as an organization that splits, or is split, into two factions. Bifurcate comes from the Latin adjective bifurcus, meaning "two-pronged," a combination of the prefix bi- ("two") and the noun furca ("fork"). Furca, as you may have guessed, is also an ancestor of [fork](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fork), which refers to the handy utensil that can (in a pinch) help us—as Berra might say—to cut our pizza in four pieces when we're not hungry enough to eat six.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 30, 2023 is: felicitous \fih-LISS-uh-tus\ adjective
Felicitous is an adjective most often used in formal speech and writing to describe something that is very well expressed or suited for some purpose or situation. It can also be used as a synonym for pleasant or delightful.
// She had not been asked ahead of time to speak at the event, but she managed some felicitous remarks nonetheless.
// That the cousins happened to be on the same flight was a felicitous coincidence—they had no idea the other would even be traveling at that time.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/felicitous)
“The secret to Finnish contentment has long been debated. But Finns credit their happiness to five essential factors: wellness, a seasonal diet, strong connections to nature, an appreciation for the arts, and the friendly local atmosphere. Travelers on the hunt for happiness can get a glimpse of these felicitous lifestyle features on a visit to Finland.” — Rebecca Ann Hughes, Forbes, 27 Apr. 2023
Did you know?
Before a mouse named Mickey ruled the animation scene, there was Felix—a wily black cat who is often regarded as the first cartoon star, and who became an [international sensation](https://www.britannica.com/biography/Otto-Messmer) in the early 20th century for films such as Felix in Hollywood (1923) and Comicalamities (1928). “Felix,” you might say, was a felicitous—that is, [apt](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apt)—name for the happy, [Chaplinesque](https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlie-Chaplin) feline. Felix, after all, is a Latin word meaning “happy” or “fruitful,” and the ancestor of the English adjective felicitous, which can mean both “pleasant and delightful,” and “very well suited or expressed.” With regard to the “apt” sense of felicitous, it’s important to note that it is most often applied to someone’s actions or expressions (as in “a felicitous phrase”). In other words, no matter how fitting someone’s choice of pants may be for, say, the world premiere of a new animated movie, it would not be fitting to say “they arrived at the theater wearing felicitous pants.”
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 29, 2023 is: detritus \dih-TRYE-tus\ noun
Detritus refers to debris—that is, the pieces that remain when something breaks, falls apart, or is destroyed.
// On her trip to Central America, she was fascinated by how much people have learned from the detritus of ancient civilizations.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/detritus)
“[Artist, Fiona] Connor’s one-to-one scale version of the sidewalk squares required a single concrete pour in her studio before she got to work painstakingly recreating the cracks, fissures, graffiti, blackened chewing gum debris, stamps and metal plates common to L.A. sidewalks. She is chronicling the detritus of urban life, the echoes of the city’s past evident in the patches, and nature’s attempt at reclamation all visible in the humble squares of concrete and asphalt.” — Marissa Gluck, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Aug. 2023
Did you know?
If you use detritus in speech, remember to stress the second syllable, as you do in the words [arthritis](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arthritis) and [bronchitis](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bronchitis). Once you've mastered its meaning and pronunciation, you’ll find that detritus is a term—originally a geology term referring to loose material, such as broken rock fragments, resulting from disintegration—that can be applied in many situations. After the first hard freeze of fall, gardens are littered with the detritus of summer’s plants and produce: stalks, leaves, vines, and maybe even an abandoned hand trowel. As a flood-swollen river retreats to its banks, it leaves detritus—debris gathered by the raging waters—in its wake. The detritus of civilization may include junkyards and abandoned buildings, while mental detritus may include all kinds of useless trivia. (We’re not saying it qualifies as such, but detritus comes from the Latin root deterere, meaning “to wear away, impair.”)
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 28, 2023 is: kinetic \kuh-NET-ik\ adjective
Kinetic has several meanings that all have to do with movement. In physics, kinetic means "of or relating to the motion of material bodies and the forces associated with them"; kinetic energy, for example, is energy associated with motion. More generally, kinetic can be used synonymously with [active](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/active) and [lively](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lively) as well as [dynamic](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dynamic) and [energizing](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/energizing). And [kinetic art](http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kinetic%20art) is art (such as sculpture or assemblage) that has mechanical parts which can be set in motion.
// The novel's plot is kinetic and fast-paced, and its effect on the reader is much like that of caffeine.
// The loft district is the locus of the city's kinetic arts scene.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kinetic)
"To study the behavior of elusive animals, scientists routinely tag them with GPS location trackers. But such devices' battery capacity limits how long they operate. ... So biologist Rasmus Worsøe Havmøller of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues turned to another abundant power source: kinetic energy generated by an animal's movements. Their kinetic tracker, which Havmøller's team recently tested on domestic dogs, a wild pony and a European bison, could theoretically survive for the entire life span of an active animal." — Rachel Crowell, Scientific American, 9 Sept. 2023
Did you know?
Ever watch a top spin? Or see one pool ball collide with another and send it across the felt? When you do, you’re witnessing kinetic energy—the energy of something in motion. [Kinetics](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kinetics) is a branch of science that deals with the effects of forces upon the motions of material bodies, and something described as kinetic has to do with the motion of material bodies and the forces associated with them. Both words were adopted in the 19th century from the Greek word kinētikos (meaning "of motion") for use in the field of physics, but the adjective kinetic proved too apt for broader application, and by the 1930s it was being used to describe people and things full of literal and figurative energy as well.
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 27, 2023 is: culprit \KUL-prit\ noun
Culprit refers to a person who has committed a crime or done something wrong. Culprit can also refer to the source or cause of a problem.
// The break-in was witnessed by several neighbors, and the culprit was quickly apprehended.
// Our bread-baking effort was disappointing; the bread failed to rise, and apparently old yeast was the culprit.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culprit)
“A severe housing shortage is the main culprit for steep housing costs. The US is short of anywhere between an estimated 1.5 million and 5.5 million homes. High interest rates are scaring off both would-be buyers and sellers and slowing rates of homebuilding.” — Eliza Relman, Business Insider, 1 Oct. 2023
Did you know?
We would be culpable—that is, deserving of blame—if we didn’t clearly explain the origin of culprit. Yes, it is related to [culpable](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culpable), which itself comes (via Middle English and Anglo-French) from the Latin verb culpare, meaning “to blame.” But the etymology of culprit is not so straightforward. In Anglo-French, culpable meant “guilty,” and this was abbreviated “cul.” in legal briefs and texts. Culprit was formed by combining this abbreviation with the Anglo-French word prest or prit, meaning “ready”; literally, a culprit was one who was ready to be proven guilty. The word was eventually adopted into English and used to refer to someone who is accused of a wrongdoing. The word has since taken on an additional meaning: “the source or cause of a problem.”
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for November 26, 2023 is: olfactory \ahl-FAK-tuh-ree\ adjective
Olfactory describes things that have to do with the sense of smell.
// Few can deny the olfactory pleasures of fresh-baked bread, sea breezes, and apple blossoms—all scents with the power to trigger intense nostalgia.
[See the entry >](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/olfactory)
“Dogs are uniquely positioned to collect data that helps humans track and preserve endangered species—and find invasive species—because of their exceptional sense of smell. Dogs have millions more olfactory receptor cells than humans.” — Sydney Page, The Washington Post, 9 Sept. 2023
Did you know?
No, olfactory is not a noun meaning “a place that makes scents”; for that, you want [perfumery](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perfumery), which makes more sense. Olfactory is instead an adjective used to describe things related to one’s sense of smell, that which lets you detect fruit with your [snoot](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/snoot), a leek with your beak, [Shiraz](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shiraz) with your [schnozz](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/schnozz). Olfactory comes from the Latin word olfacere (“to smell”), which in turn combines two verbs, olēre (“to give off a smell”) and facere (“to do”). It often appears in scientific contexts (as in “olfactory nerves,” the nerves that pass from the nose to the brain and contain the receptors that make smelling possible), but it is occasionally used in less technical writing and speech. The pleasant smell of hot mulled cider, for example, might be considered an “olfactory delight,” depending on the spices and your own sensibilities, of course. As they say, the nose knows.