Category Archives: Words

Favorite Words of Dictionary Editors

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeter Gilliver is a diehard word lover with the perfect job: he is an associate editor with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and author of The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilliver and his fellow editors at the OED certainly have a lot to say about words — they are a very opinionated lot. As lexicographers one of the questions they get asked all the time is: what is your favorite word? A number of them will groan or roll their eyes, and state emphatically: “I don’t have a favorite word!” Poppycock. Any one who collects or loves something always has at least one or two favorites (in a survey, even parents admitted that they had a favorite child, but would NEVER admit it to their kids). So put your lexicographic pretensions aside and cough it up!  Gilliver was able to coax some answers from some of the editors; here are some highlights.

“A favorite word of mine is geoduck, because the pronunciation is at such variance with the spelling and consequently demonstrates the basic flaw in syllabification.”

“Inflammable is the first word I remember asking “why” about as a child: why does it mean the same as flammable, when you”d expect it to mean the opposite?”

“As a non-English speaker, I find awesome an awesome word. I don”t have in my mother tongue a direct translation – impresonante is the closest translation, but it is not exactly the same.”

“Bollocks is a word with a glorious ring to it, which can be incredibly comforting to use in stressful situations; it also has a wonderful versatility: able to mean anything from the very best (“the dog”s bollocks”) to the very worst (“complete, total and utter bollocks”). Given its somewhat risqué literal meaning, it carries with it a cheekily subversive charm: able to shock, but not too much.”

“My favorite word in English is numpty, because it somehow conveys exactly what it is. I first heard it when I moved up to Scotland over twenty years ago; now it seems to be fairly widespread in English English, too.”

“I”ve had terrible trouble trying to decide what my favorite word is this week.  In the end, I”ve gone for stravaig. I like the sound of it and the idea it captures of wandering around without purpose but with enjoyment. “

“I first saw the word moribund in an article written by a colleague of mine. I”m just surprised at how such state or situation as a whole could be compressed and expressed by just one word.”

“It took me many years to realize what my favorite words really were, after flirting with a few others in my youth. The words I love are those that describe the English landscape—fell, beck, gill, tarn, crag, dale (with fell being my favorite if I had to choose). I like their simplicity and the fact that they provide a link to our surroundings that has endured for generations—1000 years in some cases. When I”m sitting in an office looking at a computer, thinking of these words makes me happy—they represent escape and freedom.”

“My favorite word is suboptimal, because it is a nice euphemism for something that is far away from being good.”

“My favorite word is one I use with my speech and language therapy students as an example of a “rule-breaker”. I recently had the pleasure of editing the entry for the word spleuchan, which is the only word I”ve ever come across whose British English pronunciation feasibly starts with four consonant sounds (/s/, /p/, /l/, /j/), and hence counters every textbook on English syllable structure. I retain a particular appreciation for smew.”

“Counterintuitive. I love its higgledy-piggledy/oom-pa-pa rhythm; and I love its suggestion that what you think is probably wrong. (For me, it so often is.)”

“I wouldn”t necessarily say it”s my favourite, but the word I seem to notice more than any other is inexorable—for some reason it always seems to trip me up a bit whenever it appears in anything I”m reading, so I find myself thinking vaguely fond thoughts of recognition whenever I come across it.”

“As a non-native English speaker, I like the word scratch. Just because of how it sounds, really.”

“I”m in the “don”t have one” camp. I do, however, have an “official” one for use in response to this very question: echt (italics essential). I like to make people happy.”

“I couldn”t pick a single “favourite” as there are too many that I like an awful lot—all for different reasons. It all depends on my mood. However, one that I”m currently extremely keen on is the transitive verb exeleutherostomize: it has a fantastic rhythm when spoken, that fact of its being extremely close to the original Greek appeals greatly to me (as a Classicist), and I think its meaning (“to say (something) freely”) is one that has carried significant political weight across a number of centuries. I also really like the fact that I don”t think it is has any particularly close synonyms—its meaning is quite unique!”

“Short answer: lineage. Long answer: My favourite word is in fact Dutch—schanskorven. It”s a horribly ugly phenomenon, cages with stones piled up to create “decorative” walls, but the word is just beautiful. I also love beschoeiing and bewegwijzering. For English, a close runner-up is longevity, because its pronunciation is utterly unexpected (at least for a foreigner like me), and because it”s a concept for which we don”t have a word in Dutch, and it”s always nice to find new words that elegantly express something you thought you needed more than one word for. However, its pronunciation is slightly uncomfortable.”

“Having been asked this question quite a lot, I decided many years ago that I needed a standard response, so I selected ombrifuge as my favorite word of choice. It sounds nice and it has a useful but neglected application.”

“I can’t say I really have a single, definitive favorite – but one that”s always stuck with me (since I was a child and had no idea what it meant!) is kerfuffle. When I was small I imagined that it was some kind of furry, loveable creature, a bit like a powder puff but with legs and a face.”

“I really like the word petrichor (“A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions”), because (1) I like the thing it signifies very much (2) there aren”t many nouns referring to specific smells I don”t think (3) the word itself sounds very fantasy-fiction-y (4) I think it”s a good name for a cat.”

Read related posts: Words Invented by Book Lovers
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What is the Longest Word in English?
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What is a Rhopalic?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn 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 some 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.

I am not very happy acting pleased whenever prominent scientists overmagnify intellectual enlightenment, stoutheartedly outvociferating ultrareactionary retrogressionists, characteristically unsupernaturalizing transubstantiatively philosophicoreligious incomprehensiblenesses anthropomorphologically. Pathologicopsychological!

I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.

I am the only dummy player, perhaps, planning maneuvers calculated brilliantly, nevertheless outstandingly pachydermatous, notwithstanding unconstitutional unprofessionalism.

Read related posts: What is a Pangram?
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Words for Collectors 2

Unusual Color Names

For further reading: Words Gone Wild by Jim Bernhard

Obscure Poetic Terms

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEvery trade, every craft, every industry has a language of its own. Although the specialized language (known as jargon) of any particular craft may sound like gibberish to an outsider or a beginner, to a seasoned practitioner, those terms are like a second language; moreover, it is what binds the artist to his creative work. For the poet who labors with words and all their nuances, there are hundreds of beautiful but obscure poetic terms. Here is a sampling:

The insertion of one or more unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line where the poetical meter would normally require a stressed syllable. Here is an example from William Blake’s The Tiger:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

A term that describes the repetition of a word for emphasis; for example: “Never, never, never!”

A poem or song that celebrates a marriage.

Eye rhyme
Two words that look similar but sound different; for example: “come and home,” “daughter and laughter.”

Headless line
Note that the unit of measure in a line of verse is a foot; many poems use the same number and type of feet in each line. A headless line is when a line is one syllable short of the usual pattern and that syllable is missing from the beginning of the first foot of the line.

Words that are not arranged in their normal order, used for emphasis or style. Here is an example from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall…”

Gerard Manley Hopkins developed the idea of “sprung poetry,” which consists of metrical feet counted only by their stressed syllables (as opposed to counting feet by identifying both stressed and unstressed syllables. A rove-over is when a foot begins at the end of one line and ends on the next line.

A type of poetry that intermingles languages for humorous effect.

The rhetorical repetition of the same word or root word. Here is an example from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Maud A Monodrama:
Seal’d her mine from her first sweet breath.
Mine, mine by a right, from birth till death.
Mine, mine–our fathers have sworn.

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There’s a Word for That: Epeolatry

For further reading: The Poet’s Dictionary by William Packard

Words That Sound Naughty But Are Not

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you grew up in the 60s, you might recall the hilarious comedy album, National Lampoon’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, released in 1977. The album contained 27 short comedy sketches featuring the voice talents of John Belushi, Richard Belzer, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest. One skit, titled “Confession,” was very memorable. During confession, a parishioner and a priest engage in a war of words, specifically slang synonyms for vagina. (You’ll have to listen to the full confession to hear how they got on that subject.) At each turn, the words get more offensive. Finally, the parishioner uses a term, rhino-clit, that apparently crosses some line of decency for the priest; he is immediately appalled: “That’s disgusting! That’s terrible! Nice mouth! You kiss your mother with that mouth? You eat with that mouth? Garbage mouth!” (The skit ends with the two of them exchanging slang synonyms for garbage mouth.)

The “Confession” comedy sketch underscores the fact that there are some words in the English language that are taboo because they are so crude and offensive. Clearly, as the parishioner learned there are some words that should never be spoken in polite society. But leave it to those fun-loving, mischievous folks at to mine the dictionary to find words that may sound naughty or disgusting, but actually are completely proper and devoid of salaciousness. Here is their list of titillating — excuse me, I mean, scintillating — words that sound dirty but are actually anodyne. Feel free to use them in any business or formal situation without eliciting gasps of shock or disgust.

carnificial: of or related to a butcher or executioner

copula: in linguistics, a linking verb

Diptych: in art, two painted or carved surfaces that are hinged together

erotetic: in linguistics, denotes subject matter pertaining to an interrogative, like rhetorical questions

futtock: the curved timber used in a ship’s frame

invaginate: to put into a sheath (eg, a sword)

macerate: to soften food by soaking it in liquid (Oreo cookie anyone?)

manal: an adjective describing or related to the hand

masticate: to chew

penetrance: in genetics, how a particular gene is expressed

pusillanimous: lacking courage

sextile: in astronomy, the position of tow heavenly bodies that are 60 degrees from one another

succulometer: a device that measures the moisture content of a vegetable

thallus: a blobby plant that lacks leaves, stems, and roots

titivate: to smake smart or spruce

tittle: the dot above the lowercase “i”

uranic: of or relating to astronomy; in chemistry, containing uranium

Uranus: the seventh planet from the sun

vagitus: a newborn baby’s first cry

For further reading: An Alphabet of Rare Words
Rare Anatomy Words
Words for Collectors
Words for Collectors 2
Wittiest Comebacks of All Time
Top Ten Insults Using Archaic Words
Top Ten Literary Insults
There’s A Word for That: Espirit de l’escalier

For further reading:

What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn the United States, postsecondary institutions call themselves colleges or universities — and sometimes they exist in the same city or state. For example, in Boston, you can attend Boston College or Boston University; in Georgia, you can attend Georgia College or University of Georgia. Both colleges and universities can be public or private. So what’s the difference? Why do some call themselves “college” and others “university”? The short answer is that there is very little difference between the two — the terms can be used interchangeably. Most higher education institutions use the term that simply honors their tradition, which is, of course, sacred ground for academics. Consequently, there is nothing to stop colleges from changing their names to universities or vice versa; for example, in early 2017, Lynchburg College officially changed its name to University of Lynchburg.

Interestingly, in America, the generic term for higher education is “college”; so students go to college. In Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, the generic term is “university”; thus, students go to university. In terms of etymology, both terms are almost identical: university is derived from the Latin universitas, meaning society or community; it is a shortened form of the term universitas magistrorum et scholarium (translated, community of masters and scholars). Similarly, college is based on the Latin collegium meaning “community or society.” 

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Words That Don’t Exist for Feelings That Do

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEver experience dyscommunicata? You know, when you are feeling something but can’t find the precise word or words to describe it. Join the club — specifically Eden Sher’s club. Sher is an actress and voiceover artist that spent most of her life frustrated that she could not describe her feelings with words, resorting to loud, emotional outbursts. Although acting turned out to be wonderful therapy for this malady, it wasn’t enough. It was when she discovered writing shortly after a bad breakup that she decided to deal with her dyscommunicata productively. After exploring her “extensive personal inventory of highly irrational feelings” she realized she could write a dictionary of words that do not exist for feelings that do — an emotionary. Here are some highlights from this brilliant reference work for modern times:

Adrenaflate: to mistake intensity for love.

Ambiviculty: the anxiety of having to make a decision.

Anticipation: anxiety for an impending fight.

Blatharsis: the sensation of having a revelatory cathartic moment, only to realize later that it did not mean anything.

Departophobia: the anxiety of having to say goodby.

Illogimote: to feel in a way that contradicts or undermines one’s intellectual understanding of something.

Sadisfaction: the triumph of being wronged by others.

Solopsess: to harbor emotions about an embarrassing event that everyone else has forgotten.

Unimflate: to disappoint someone by not having the reaction that they had hoped to evoke from you.

Vindesperation: the immediate urge to redeem oneself after realizing what one should have said or done a moment too late.

Read related posts: Words Invented by Book Lovers
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Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
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For further reading: The Emotionary by Eden Sher

What Do You Call Someone Who Collects Comic Books?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA close cousin of the bibliophile, a collector of books, is the pannapictagraphist, a collector of comic books (also known as comic magazines or simply comics). Comics are instantly recognizable for their unique format and paper quality, featuring colorful artwork and handwritten text inside speech and thought bubbles. Although the Japanese introduced the first comic books in the late 1700s, the first comic book in the United States, Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, was published in 1933 by Dell Publishing. It originally sold for ten cents. Just like a famous painting, a rare comic book is a great investment. Consider that the most valuable comic book in the world is Detective Comics No. 27 (May 1939) that is the first to feature Batman. In 1939 it sold for ten cents. Today it is worth $3.08 million! Holy cow, Batman!

You cannot talk about comic books without mentioning the king of comics, Bob Bretall, a computer programmer living in Mission Viejo, California, who is the poster boy of pannapictagraphists. Bretall, now 55, owns more than 101,822 comic books — and that is not counting duplicates and thousands of superhero memorabilia. With great purchasing power comes responsibility. His passion began 47 years ago (he was eight years old) when he bought the Amazing Spider-Man #88 [The Arms of Doctor Octopus, September 1970] with story by the legendary Stan Lee and artwork by John Romita. That comic book is worth about $5,000 today. Decades later, Spider-Man remains his favorite superhero: “Spider-Man will always have that spot as my favourite even though I no longer read new Spider-Man comics coming out today.” Lucky for Bretall, he has a very patient and understanding wife; he explains “My wife has always been supportive, she doesn’t read comics, but helps me catalog and maintain the collection. My kids, nieces and nephews, and their friends generally think the collection is pretty cool.” Bretall collects and reads about 115 comics a month. Most of them are stored in his family’s three-car garage.

And what is the value of Bretall’s tremendous comic book collection? It’s anybody’s guess. In many interviews, Bretall shies away from providing a valuation. At a minimum it is worth $5 million. He has consistently expressed in interviews that he never plans to sell the incredible comic book collection; he plans to pass it on to his kids. Let’s just hope that they value it as much as he does…

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