What is the difference between ‘lithe’ and ‘agile’?

(G. Venkatesh, Madurai)

First, let us deal with the pronunciation of ‘lithe’. The ‘li’ is pronounced like the word ‘lie’ and the following ‘the’ sounds like the ‘th’ in ‘this’ and ‘that’. ‘Lithe’ comes from the Latin ‘lentus’ meaning ‘flexible’ or ‘pliant’. The word is normally used in English to talk about someone’s physique; when you say that a person is lithe, you are suggesting that the individual is slim and moves about in a graceful manner. Like a dancer or a gymnast, he has a very flexible body. The word ‘agile’, on the other hand, suggests that the person can move quickly and easily. Unlike someone who is lithe, an agile individual need not necessarily be slim. A heavyset individual can be deceptively quick in his movements. ‘Agile’ can also be used to refer to one’s mental faculty. If you say that someone has an agile mind, it means that the person is quick on the uptake, and is capable of solving problems on his own.

*Her lithe body was the envy of all dancers.

What is the meaning and origin of ‘soft pedal something’?

(Meena Tiwari, Delhi)

Whenever the media report on a scandal, what is it that our politicians do? The party spokesperson appears on the various news channels and tells the viewers that the media are making a mountain out of a molehill. This individual attempts to downplay the scandal. ‘Soft pedalling’ is the attempt to make something seem less important or less serious than what it actually is. You take pains to cover up the unpleasant aspects of something.

*Is it possible to soft-pedal the Prime Minister’s blunder?

The expression comes from the world of music. I understand that one of the foot pedals in a piano is called the ‘soft-pedal’. Pressing the soft pedal enables the pianist to alter the tone quality; the notes sound a lot softer.

How is the word ‘pusillanimous’ pronounced?

(Aditya Krishnan, Thiruvananthapuram)

The first syllable ‘pu’ rhymes with the words ‘few’, ‘due’ and ‘cue’, while the following ‘i’ is like the ‘i’ in ‘bit’, ‘kit’ and ‘hit’. The ‘a’ in the third syllable sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘fact’, ‘pact’ and ‘tact’, and the final ‘ou’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The word is pronounced ‘pyuu-si-LA-ni-mes’ with the stress on the third syllable. When you refer to someone as being ‘pusillanimous’, you mean that he is a coward; he is too timid to stand up to anyone or take any decisions. The word is mostly used to show disapproval.

*Our country has been saddled with pusillanimous leaders.

*The pusillanimous CEO refused to take action against the marketing manager.

What is the meaning of ‘floor it’?

(J. Anjali, Chennai)

This is an expression that is mostly used in informal contexts. When you tell the driver of a car to ‘floor it’, what you would like him to do is to push the accelerator all the way down to the floor of the car. In other words, you would like him to drive at top speed.

*When the robber noticed he was being followed, he floored it.

*We have plenty of time. There is no need to floor it.


“I have nothing to declare except my genius.”Oscar Wilde