Category Archives: Words

Word Oddities

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWith more than a million words, the English language is full of fascinating oddities — words that have truly unique characteristics. Below is a list of some of the fascinating word oddities lurking in your English dictionary:

SWIMS is the longest word that reads the same way right-side up and upside down.

Princes is the only plural word that can be turned into a singular word by adding an “s.” Princes becomes princess. 

There is only one common word that has five vowels in a row: queueing

There is only one common word that has three dotted letters in a row: hijinks

The only word that has three consecutive doubled letters: bookkeeper

Words that are pronounced exactly the same but do not share any letters: ewe, you; eye, I; ox, auks; oh/eau (as in “eau de cologne”)

The only words that begin and end with “und”: underground and underfund

The only words the end in “gry”: angry and hungry

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Read related posts: Rare Anatomy Words
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Weird Words

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAlthough the English language contains over a million words, the printed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) only defines about 750,000 of them. Of course one of the joys of owning the OED is that the entire English language (or at least most of it) can be held in yours hands. One way to expand your vocabulary quickly is by serendipity — looking at the words around your target words. A dictionary should never be read cover to cover (unless, of course, you are Ammon Shea, who read the entire OED in one year), but it should be browsed or explored from time to time. And it is by serendipity, that one might encounter some of the most wonderful and weird words. Astonish and amaze your friends by using them soon in a text or email. Here are some of the fascinating weird words in the dictionary.

absquatulate: to leave abruptly

anfractuous: circuitous

argute: shrewd

Barmecide: imaginary and thus disappointing

blatherskite: a person who talks a lot and doesn’t make a lot of sense; i.e., Trump

cacoethes: the urge to do something inadvisable

chiliad: a thousand things or 1,000 years

colporteur: a person who sells bibles

criticaster: an incompetent critic

doryphore: a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic of other people

emacity: fondess for buying things

eucatastrophe: the happy ending to a story

gasconade: extravagant boasting, e.g., Trump

humdudgeion: an imaginary illness

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Read related posts: How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
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For further reading:


What is a Ghost Word?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA ghost word is definitely scary — especially if you are a lexicographer. Why? Because, at bottom, a ghost word is essentially a euphemism for a royal lexicographic f**k-up. More politely, a ghost word is a word published in a dictionary that is meaningless because it originated from an egregious mistake, eg, a typo, misreading, mispronunciation, or misinterpretation. Oops!

The term ghost word was coined by philologist Walter William Skeat in 1886. As president of the Philological Society, Skeat wanted to nip this lexicographical disaster in the bud; in a speech he highlighted this embarrassing professional blunder: “Of all the work which the Society has at various times undertaken, none has ever had so much interest for us, collectively, as the New English Dictionary. Dr. Murray [the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 to 1915] , as you will remember, wrote on one occasion a most able article, in order to justify himself in omitting from the Dictionary the word abacot, defined by Webster as “the cap of state formerly used by English kings, wrought into the figure of two crowns”. It was rightly and wisely rejected by our Editor on the ground that there is no such word, the alleged form being due to a complete mistake … due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors… I propose, therefore, to bring under your notice a few more words of the abacot type; words which will come under our Editor’s notice in course of time, and which I have little doubt that he will reject. As it is convenient to have a short name for words of this character, I shall take leave to call them “ghost-words.”I only allow the title of ghost-words to such words, or rather forms, as have no meaning whatever.” And thus, the ghost word was born.

Related to the ghost word, is the term Nihilartikel (a mixed language portmanteau, Latin and German, literally translated, “nothing article) that is a fictitious word that is deliberately published in a dictionary to catch a plagiarist. The term was first used in German articles in the early 2000. (Those who grew up in the era of maps, may be familiar with Rand-McNally maps. They would include fake streets, known as trapstreets in cartography jargon,  in their maps in order to catch ruthless competitors who copied and sold their maps illegally.) A Nihelartikel is also known as a trap word or Mountweazel, named after a phony entry in the New Columbia Encyclopedia (1975) about a non-existent person named Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a supposed fountain designer who became a photographer. The original fake news, as it were.

Here are some of the notable ghost words that have made it into some of the most venerated dictionaries:

dord: Perhaps the most famous of all ghost words. It was first included in Webster’s International Dictionary (second edition) in 1934. The definition was indicated as “density.” It wasn’t until five years later that an eagle-eye editor realized that the entry for dord did not have an etymology. He checked the dictionary’s extensive files and found the original paper slip; it read: “D or d, cont/ density” which was referring to abbreviations that began with the letter “D.” However, a typesetter interpreted this as “dord” with the definition of “density.” (Back then words were often written with spaces in between the letters so that lexicographers could insert pronunciation marks.) The ghost word was finally removed from the dictionary in 1947.

abacot: This ghost word made its appearance in Superman’s Glossarium published in 1664, based on the appearance of the word in the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles published in 1587. This ghost word then appeared in many other English dictionaries. As Skeat mentioned in his speech, three centuries later, James Murray discovered that the word was an egregious misprint of the world bycoket, a cap or head-dress. By then, abacot was firmly entrenched in the English lexicon, with a meaning expanded to include “cap of state,” “made like a double crown,” or “worn by ancient Kings of England.”

esquivalience: This ghost word is a deliberately fake word placed by the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) to catch other dictionary makers who want to steal their content. The definition was: the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.” A perfect word for the Trump administration, no? The word was invented by editor Christine Lindberg, who confessed in an interview that she used it regularly: “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”

feamyng: This ghost word supposedly is a collective noun for ferrets. Lexicographer Dmitri Bormann discovered that the word is the result of a long chain of bonehead typos: from BUSYNESS to BESYNESS to FESYNES to FESNYNG to FEAMYNG.

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Read related posts:
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For further reading: Beyond Language: Adventures in Words and Thoughts by Dmitri Borgmann

Words for Word Nerds

alex atkins bookshelf wordsDo you love words? Do you enjoy reading even when the story doesn’t have a plot? Then you should meet a kindred spirit — Barbara Ann Kipfer, a self-confessed word-nerd. She has spent the past three decades reading dictionaries as a hobby as well as in her capacity as a professional lexicographer; Kipfer explains: “I have read dictionaries, etymology books, tomes on usage and grammar, books of unusual or old words, word trivia, and vocabulary books — for fun!.. It is a delightful hobby [to write down] what I find to be truly interesting definitions, fascinating origins or histories, details of usage, surprising trivia, useful synonyms, or unexpected connections between words.” The result of her endeavors is the endlessly delightful and fascinating book, Word Nerd. Here are some delicious morsels from Kipfer’s lexical smorgasbord. Bon appétit!

atrament: a synonym for ink

bariolage: a synonym for medley

coeval: a person of roughly the same age

dasypygal: having hairy buttocks

excubation: the act of watching all night

fremescence: the murmuring of a dissatisfied crowd

gargalesthesia: the feeling caused by tickling

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Read related posts: Rare Anatomy Words
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For further reading: Word Nerd: More Than 17,000 Fascinating Facts About Words by Barbara Ann Kipfer

What is an Isoliteral or an Isosyllabic?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBoth the isoliteral and the isosyllabic are rhetorical devices, related to the rhopalic. In rhetoric, a rhopalic is a sentence in which each successive word is one syllable or one letter longer than the previous one. It is derived from the Greek word rhopalikos, meaning “a tapered cudgel or club.” Here are two examples of rhopalics:

A lucid manager organize unregenerate, uncooperative antiphrohibitionists’ incomprehensibility.

I am not sure angry people readily perceive happiness everywhere surrounding unencumbered, unpretentious schoolchildren.

An isoliteral, in contrast to the rhopalic, is a sentence constructed of words that have the same number of letters. Here is an example of an isoliteral:

Three letter words: Mom may run far and buy ham, pea pie, hot tea, and jam, but not rum, gin, rye, egg nog, ale, and pop.

Four letter words: Five very nice tiny cats purr, then meet with four huge, ugly, mean dogs that bark, just when dusk goes dark.

An isosyllabic, as you may have surmised by now, is a sentence constructed of words with the same number of syllables. Here is an example of an isosyllabic:

One syllable words: Sure, I had real work on hand, but it was not that hard. My goal: learn what makes film stars tick — tough job, yes, but you know me — up to the task.

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Read related posts: What is a Pangram?
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What Do You Call a Word with Capitals in the Middle?
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For further reading: Words Gone Wild by Jim Bernhard

Charles Dickens and the Suspended Quotation

alex atkins bookshelf literatureOne of the distinct characteristics of Charles Dickens’ writing is the use of the suspended quotation. “What is a suspended quotation?” you ask suspensefully. A fine question, dear reader. A suspended quotation is an extended interruption (at least five words) by a narrator of a character’s speech. In the hands of a masterful storyteller, the suspended quotations can serve one of several purposes: (1) describe body language, like gestures and facial contortions; (2) describe demeanor or intonation; (3) describe a character’s physical features; (4) describe a character’s typical behaviors; or (5) reveal the narrator’s strong presence and compelling insights. Here are some examples of suspended quotations (in italic):

From Dombey and Son: “I am proud to see,” said Mr. Carker, with a servile stooping of his neck, which the revelations making by his eyes and teeth proclaim to be a lie, “I am proud to see that my humble offering is graced by Mrs. Dombey’s hand…’

From Our Mutual Friend: “Uncle,” he said daily, laying his hand upon the old man’s shoulder, “what shall I send you home from Barbados?”

From Hard Times: “I certainly, sir,” returned Mrs. Sparsit, with a dignity serenely mournful, “was familiar with the Italian Opera at a very early age.”

From Hard Times: “It is much to be regretted,” said Mrs. Sparsit, making her nose more Roman and her eyebrows more Coriolanian in the strength of her severity, “that the united masters allow of any such class-combinations.’

From Hard Times: “You will understand, Mr. Harthouse,” she returned, after some indecision: she had been more or less uncertain, and troubled throughout the conversation, and yet had in the main preserved her self-contained manner; “you will understand…” 

In his study of Dickens’ novels, Dickens and the Suspended Quotation (1981), Mark Lambert counted all the instances of suspended quotations in each of the novels. Lambert discovered that the number of suspended quotations Dickens used decrease over time in his later novels. Here are the number of suspended quotations in each novel:

Barnaby Rudge: 37.2

Old Curiosity Shop: 35.4

Oliver Twist: 31.2

Dombey and Son: 31

Martin Chuzzlewit: 30

Nicholas Nickleby: 28.8

David Copperfield: 25.6

Pickwick Papers: 24.4

Little Dorrit: 21.8

Great Expectations: 21.3

Bleak House: 21

Hard Times: 20

Our Mutual Friend: 19

Tale of Two Cities: 17.4

Edwin Drood: 13.8

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Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
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For further reading: Dickens and the Suspended Quotation by Mark Lambert
The Routledge Handbook of Stylistics by Michael Burke

Words You Didn’t Realize Were Named After People

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA word named after a person (real or fictional) is called an eponym (from the Greek eponumos, meaning “giving one’s name to someone or something”). Some are fairly obvious, such as sandwich (named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), quixotic (from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes), or machiavellian (named after Niccolo Machiavelli). However, some eponyms have become so common, that the connection to the person has been lost over time. Here are some words you may not have realized are named after actual people.

boycott: named after Charles Boycott, a British land agent.

bowdlerize: named after English physician, philanthropist, and prude Thomas Bowdler.

decibel: named after Scottish scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell who invented the first practical telephone.

diesel: named after German inventor and mechanical engineer Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel.

dunce cap: named after 13th-century philosopher John Duns Scotus. A follower of Duns was known as a “dunce.”

gerrymandering: named after Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts.

jumbo: named after a huge elephant who lived in the London Zoo for years, purchased by P.T. Barnum for his traveling circus.

masochism: named after Austrian writer, Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote Venus in Furs.

mausoleum: named after Mausolus, a ruler of Caria, a part of the Greek Empire, from 377 to 353 BC. When he died, his widow erected a monumental shrine in his honor, known as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, that is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

maverick: named after Samuel Maverick, a Texan lawyer, politician, and land baron.

mirandize: named after Ernesto A. Miranda, a laborer convicted (and later overturned, of course) of kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery.

nicotine: named after Jean Nicot de Villemain, the French ambassador to Portugal who sent tobacco and seeds from Portugal to France in the mid 1500s. The intent was for the tobacco plants to be used to ward off the plague.

sadism: named after the Marqui de Sade, a French aristocrat, philosopher, politician, and writer of erotic works.

saxophone: named after Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musical instrument designer.

shrapnel: named after British officer and inventor Major General Henry Shrapnel.

silhouette: named after Etienne de Silhouette, the finance minister of France during the Seven Years’ War.

uzi: named after military weapons designer, Major Uziel Gal of the Israeli Defense Forces following the Arab-Israeli War (1948).

vandal: named after an East Germanic tribe, characterized as barbarians, that sacked and looted Rome in the early 5th century.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Rare Anatomy Words
Words Oddities: Fun with Vowels
What Rhymes with Orange

For further reading: Human Words by Robert Hendrickson

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