Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Portend

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

What It Means

Portend is usually used in formal and literary contexts as a verb meaning “to give a sign or warning that something is going to happen.” The “something” in question is often, though not always, considered bad or unpleasant.

// Many superstitious people believe that breaking a mirror portends trouble.

// The old saying about a halo around the moon portending rain has some truth to it: the halo is caused by cirrus clouds drifting 20,000 feet or more above the Earth, and high cirrus clouds often precede stormy weather.

PORTEND in Context

“While readers may at times wish [author Robert] Hardman’s own views were presented more directly, he ultimately makes a clear argument that the United Kingdom—however loosely united it is these days—is unlikely to do away with the monarchy, even if the end of the Elizabethan era portends significant changes.” — Autumn Brewington, The Washington Post, 12 Sept. 2022

Did You Know?

It may seem like a stretch to say that portend, beloved verb of seerssoothsayers, and meteorologists alike, is related to tendon—the word we use to refer to the dense white fibrous tissue that helps us, well, stretch—but it’s likely true. Portend comes from the Latin verb portendere (“to predict or foretell”), which in turn developed as a combination of the prefix por- (“forward”) and the verb tendere (“to stretch”). Tendere is thought to have led to tendon, among other words. So you might imagine portend as having a literal meaning of “stretching forward to predict.” In any event, the history of the word surely showcases the flexibility of our language.

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