Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Litany

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The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is litany. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

Litany refers to a usually lengthy recitation or enumeration of something, such as a set of complaints, names, or questions. It can also be used to refer to a sizeable series or set, which may or may not be spoken aloud, as when a drug has “a litany of possible side effects.”

// Among the television critic’s litany of complaints about the new series is the anachronistic costume design.

LITANY in Context

“As soon as Mahershala Ali, the previous year’s supporting-actor winner for ‘Green Book,’ escorted her behind the curtain, [Laura] Dern made a straight line to the thank-you cam to rattle off a litany of names.” — Anthony Breznican, Vanity Fair, 23 Apr. 2021

Did You Know?

How do we love the word litany? Let us count the ways. We love its original 13th century meaning, still in use today, referring to a call-and-response prayer in which a series of lines are spoken alternately by a leader and a congregation. We love how litany has developed in the intervening centuries three figurative senses, and we love each of these as well: first, a sense meaning “repetitive chant”; next, the “lengthy recitation” sense owing to the repetitious—and sometimes interminable—nature of the original litany; and finally, an even broader sense referring to any sizeable series or set. Though litanies of this third sort tend to be unpleasant, we choose today to think of the loveliness found in the idea of “a litany of sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

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