Merriam Webster Word of the Day: Crucible

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

What It Means

Crucible refers to a place or situation that forces someone or something to change. Most commonly found in formal and literary writing, it can also mean “a difficult test or challenge.” Its original meaning, still in use, is “a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted.”

// Her rock-solid songwriting skills were forged in the crucible of the Nashville music scene.

// After years of intense daily archery training, she is ready to face the crucible of the Olympics.

CRUCIBLE in Context

“Fungi have helped trees adapt on a millennial scale. They could be crucial to helping trees adapt in the climate crisis. ‘In difficult times, organisms find new symbiotic relationships in order to expand their reach,’ said Dr. [Cosmo] Sheldrake, the biologist. ‘Crisis is the crucible of new relationships.’” — Somini Sengupta, The New York Times, 27 July 2022

Did You Know?

Unless you’re studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in school, it may not be crucial to learn the story behind crucible, but it can’t hurt! Crucible looks like it should be closely related to the Latin combining form cruc- (“cross”); however, unlike crucial, it isn’t. It was forged instead from the Medieval Latin crucibulum, a noun for an earthen pot used to melt metals, and in English it first referred to a vessel made of a very heat-resistant material (such as porcelain) used for melting a substance that requires a high degree of heat. It’s possible that the resemblance between cruc- and crucible encouraged people to start using crucible to mean “a severe trial,” as that sense is synonymous with one meaning of cross, but the idea of simmering in a literal crucible also sounds plenty severe. The newest sense of crucible (“a situation in which great changes take place,” as in “forged in the crucible of war”) recalls the fire and heat required to transform some solids into liquids.

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