Category Archives: Words

The Most Beautiful Words in the English Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWilfred Funk, Jr. (1883-1965) was the son of Isaac Kaufmann Funk, founder of Funk & Wagnalls that published very popular sets of encyclopedias and dictionaries in the mid 1900s. Funk was literally a man of letters (and words): he was president of Funk & Wagnalls, founder of his own book publishing company, founder and editor of The Literary Digest, wrote poetry, wrote several books on vocabulary and etymology, and wrote the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” column for Reader’s Digest. That’s a lot of writing and words — perhaps that what Lipps Inc were talking about when they asked, “Won’t you take me to Funkytown?” [An American disco song from the 1979 album Mouth to Mouth that you either love or loathe. Caution: this song can become a long-lasting earworm, so listen at your own peril. You’ve been warned! On a related note, fans of NBC’s Parenthood, will recall that the Bravermans added an entirely new meaning to funky town [S4E2]…)

In 1932, to publicize the publication of one of Funk & Wagnalls new dictionaries, Funk published a list of what he considered, after a “thorough sifting of thousands of words” the ten most beautiful words (in his words, “beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letter”) in the English language. (Incidentally, there is a word for that: euphonious — a euphonious word is a beautifully- sounding word; interestingly, euphonious is itself… euphonious.) Here is Funk’s list of the top ten most beautiful words in the English language:


But a top ten list is so restrictive. Funk was in a bit of a… well, funk. To break out of it, he subsequently published a more extensive list of the most beautiful words in the English language in a column for Reader’s Digest:


What do you consider to be the most beautiful words in the English language? Let’s talk about it, talk about it…

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:  What is the Most Beautiful-Sounding Word in English?
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
How Many Words Does the Average Person Speak in a Lifetime?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Common Latin Abbreviations
Words Invented by Dickens


A Book of Boners Illustrated by Dr. Seuss

alex atkins bookshelf booksSay what? Dr. Seuss illustrated a book of boners? That’s right — Dr. Seuss, early in his career, illustrated a book of boners. (Hey — you have to break into the business somehow.) But wait — before your prurient mind races along too far down one path amidst muffled chuckles, let’s clarify what a boner is in the context of the mid 1900s. To a lexicographer, or an epeolatrist (a fancy word for word lover or word enthusiast), a boner is a stupid or silly mistake that is amusing (today, they are referred to as “bloopers” or simply “dumbass mistakes”). Secondarily, the definition is that other thing you first thought of. Insert blushing emoji here.

Returning to the first definition, boners especially when read out loud are as Southerners say “dang funny!” And that’s what prompted Alexander Abingdon in 1931 to publish a collection of funny boners in a little book, titled appropriately Boners, illustrated by Dr. Seuss for Viking Press. The subtitle of the book read: “Being a collection of schoolboy wisdom, or knowledge as it is sometimes written, compiled from classroom and examination papers.” Alrighty, then.

The book was an instant bestseller, rising quickly to the top of the publishing charts. Clearly, the public was eager for more boners. Abingdon was pumped — he didn’t have to work too long and hard to extend that first collection of boners. He simply went around a school, from teacher to teacher, asking: “If I show you mine, will you show me yours?” Accordingly, Viking Press obliged by disseminating several sequels: More Boners and Still More Boners were published in 1931; Prize Boners for 1932 was published in 1932; Bigger & Better Boners, illustrated by George Maas, was published in 1952. It if weren’t exhausting enough to read all those boner books back to back, Blue Ribbon Books of New York published The Omnibus Boners in 1931, 1940, and 1942. Basta with the boners!

But that wasn’t the end of boners. More than six decades later, Viking Press published a newly redesigned and retitled version of the original Boners. But this time, the editors had a bone to pick with the title. They sensed that the cultural shifts since the 1930 had ushered in more political-correct, priggish, and rigid sensibilities. Thus, the public would not stand for such a salacious title, especially one illustrated by Dr. Seuss that might confuse children and adolescents (“how is it possible that the pen that drew Cindy Lou Who, Horton, or the Cat in the Hat, also drew a boner?” Yikes!). Fortunately, the esteemed editors had the good sense to publish it with the following innocuous — and less ambiguous — title: Herrings Go About the Sea in Shawls. And to be crystal clear, they added the subtitle: “…and other classic howlers from classrooms and examination papers compiled by Alexander Abingdon.”

Here are some samplings from the original Boners. To borrow a phrase from Sean Spicer, former beleaguered White House press secretary, “You can’t make this shit up”:

Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies, and errors.

Epics describe the brave deeds of men called epicures.

Homer wrote the Oddity.

In conclusion we may say that Shylock was greedy, malicious, and indeed, entirely viscous.

Cassius was a vile selfish man who was always doing his best to make his own ends meet.

An epitaph is a short sarcastic poem.

In Christianity a man can only have one wife. This is called Monotony.

Solomon had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

The inhabitants of Moscow are called Mosquitoes.

The chief occupation of the inhabitants of Perth is dying.

Water is composed of two gins. Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin, Hydrogin is gin and water.

Read related posts: Bloopers in English: Signs
Bloopers in English: Excuse Notes Written to Teachers

What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading: Herrings Go About the Sea in Shawls by Alexander Abingdon
The Revenge of Anguished English: More Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language by Richard Lederer



There’s a Word for That: Qualtagh

atkins-bookshelf-wordsQualtagh (or Quaaltagh) comes from Manx (or Max Gaelic), an ancient Celtic language that is spoken on the Isle of Man. Literally translated the word means “someone who meets or is met.” It is derived from the root word, quaail, meaning “to meet.” The word has three meanings: 1. the custom of going from door to door at Christmas or on New Year’s day, making a request for food or other gifts in the form of a song. The custom is also known as “first footing” and in Scotland, “first fit.” 2. The first person to enter a house on New Year’s Day; the caller is also referred to as a “first footer.” 3. The first person one meets after leaving home, particularly on a special occasion.

The word is pronounced “KWAL tek” or “KWAL tex.” Manx, known for its very idiosyncratic spellings, is considered an extinct first language. As of 2015, it is spoken by only 1,800 out of 80,398 residents of the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea, midway between Ireland and Great Britain.

In Northern English and Scottish folklore, the first foot or qualtagh brings either good or bad fortune for the coming year depending on their attributes. Although the qualtagh may be a resident of the house, he or she should not be in the house when the clock strikes midnight. Charles Kightly, author of Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, elaborates on some other requirements of the first-footer who brings good luck: “The caller should be male, preferably of dark coloring… Nor should the visitor arrive empty-handed. A piece of coal for the fire, a loaf for the table, and a glass of whisky for the head of the house are traditional gifts. The first footer enters by the front door and leaves by the back door.”

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

For further reading: The Folklore of World Holidays (Second Edition) by Robert Griffin and Ann Shurgin
The Oxford Companion to the Year by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly

Word of the Year 2017

alex atkins bookshelf words“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: last’s year words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the past year. Each year, editors of major dictionaries review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. They develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.”

For 2017 Word of the Year, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected youthquake. Youthquake is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” Surprisingly, the word is not new. It was coined back in 1965 by Diana Vreeland, then editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. The word is a portmanteau of youth and quake, based on the word earthquake. Words that made the shortlist included: antifa, broflake, gorpcore, kompromat, milkshake duck, newsjacking, unicorn, and white fragility.

For 2017 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected feminism. Feminism is defined as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Words that made the shortlist included: complicit, recuse, empathy, dotard, syzygy, gyro, federalism, hurricane, and gaffe.

For 2017 Word of the Year, the editors of selected complicit. Complicit is defined as “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” And as the drama on the political stage unfolded this past year, we learned that as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake remarked, “silence can equal complicity” — a variation of the famous quote attributed to Irish political philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or consider an even more dramatic quote attributed to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the famous epic poem The Inferno: “The hottest [or darkest] places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

For 2017 Word of the Year, Bookshelf has selected Trumpian. Trumpian is defined as resembling the style, rhetoric, and philosophy of Donald Trump; a person who denies reality or verifiable facts and presents “alternative facts”; a pathological liar; a person who possesses some or all of the following traits: avaricious, belligerent, boastful, bombastic, capricious, demagogic, dictatorial, hypocritical, impulsive, intimidating, misogynistic, narcissistic, perfidious, petulant, pretentious, reckless, self-righteous, self-destructive, thin-skinned, undisciplined, untrustworthy, vain, and vengeful.

In choosing Trumpian as word of the year, there is no denying that President Donald Trump, through his incessant tweeting and the resulting news and social media coverage, has dominated the news throughout the year. Although Trump leaped onto the political stage only two years ago, there is something oddly familiar about him, as if he stepped out of a Dickens novel. Indeed, the man is so overwhelmingly Dickensian — a jumble of odd characteristics (the large frame with small hands, the jutting eyebrows, steely eyes, the pursed lips revealing clenched overbleached teeth, orange complexion, and the dramatic combover that turns into a golden jagged sail at the slightest breeze), idiosyncrasies, distinctive hand gestures, and cadence that provide great fodder for parody and ridicule by actors, comedians, editorial cartoonists, and pundits. And just like some of Dickens’ greatest characters (think Fagin, Scrooge, Havisham, Marley, Pickwick, Podsnap, and Uriah Heep), Trump, through his actions and words, has unwittingly defined his own word — Trumpian. The word will undoubtedly endure far longer than his rocky and controversial administration.


Read related posts:
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
Words Related to Trump

For further reading:


The Most Common Christmas Phobias

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEveryone knows at least one person who is obsessed with Christmas — and judging by all the internet radio stations that play Christmas music year round, there’s plenty of them around the world. Surprisingly, no print or online dictionary contains an established word for obsession with Christmas. Several online forum or crowdsourced dictionaries (i.e., Urban Dictionary, Uncyclopedia) have suggested the following words: yulephile, yuletidephile, Christmasphile, and Christougenniatikophile. There is, however, an official word for fear of Christmas, Christougenniatikophobia. Unofficial words for the fear of Christmas include: yuletidephobia and Christmasphobia. And what do you call someone who hates Christmas? That’s an easy one: Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are many Christmas-related phobias which might explain why so many people have to resort to spiking the egg-nog and drinking to get through the holidays. Here are the most common Christmas phobias:

cherophobia: fear of having fun
chionophobia: fear of snow
Christougenniatiko dentrophobia: fear of Christmas trees
decidophonia: the fear of making decisions
doronphonia: fear of opening gifts
heortophobia: fear of holidays
hodophonia: fear of traveling
katagelophobia: the fear of ridicule or being embarrassed
macrophobia: fear of long waits
nogophobia: fear of egg nog
ocholophonia: fear of crowds or long lines
pognophobia: fear of beards
santaphobia: fear of Santa Claus
simbosiophobia: fear of parties
syngenesophobia: fear of relatives
tarandophobia: fear of reindeer

Psychologists note that there is a form of anxiety, which they simply call gift-giving anxiety, that is a real problem during the holidays. Gift-giving anxiety is a form of social anxiety where the individual feels a level of anxiety based on the need for approval and the fear of being negatively judged (the recipient doesn’t like the gift, or the gift is not expensive enough, or they already have the item, etc.).

Another fear, particularly among naughty children, is the fear of not getting a Christmas present (or perhaps getting a lump of coal). One could argue that athazagoraphobia (fear of being forgotten or ignored) is the appropriate word, but it is not specific enough. Therefore, I invite the Bookshelf community to suggest a word for this. 

Read related posts: Life Lessons from Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia

The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

For further reading:

There’s a Word for That: Zarf

atkins-bookshelf-wordsZarf sounds like something you do after a really bad hangover; however, it is quite innocuous and more commonplace than you might imagine. In fact, you probably use a zarf every day and you don’t even know it. A zarf, for you coffee lovers out there, is a holder for a coffee cup without a handle designed to prevent you from burning your hands. The word is derived from the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic word for “container.”

In 13th century Turkey, where coffee was first introduced, coffee was served in a fincan, a cup without a handle, placed inside a zarf, typically made of metal (silver, gold, copper, or brass), ivory, or wood featuring intricate ornamental artwork  The really elegant ones featured very detailed engravings and precious stones. Today, most coffee is served in a zarf made of paper, called paper zarfs, or referred to in more generic terms like coffee cup sleeves, coffee sleeves, or cup holders. So the next time you order a coffee, since they tend to be a bumptious lot, test your barista’s knowledge of their produce and nonchalantly ask for an extra zarf for your coffee — and photograph his or her reaction, and post it with #zarf.

Read related posts: The Mayonnaise Jar and Cups of Coffee
There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier

There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

There’s A German Word for That

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBen Schott begins his fascinating word book, Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, with this quotation from Charles Follen: “The German language is sufficiently copious and productive, to furnish native words for any idea that can be expressed at all.” German, like English, can create long compound words from many parts of speech; however, the difference is that English words tend to be short and hyphenated (eg, “fact-check”) while German words tend to long and combined without any hyphens or spaces (eg, “Trittbrettunsterblichkeit”, which translated means “immortality achieved by riding on someone’s coattails.”) But it is German’s basic structure that encourages words to be formed by combining several words together without any connectors. A German reader simply  breaks down each part to derive its figurative or literal meaning. For example, in English you would write, “the card from the automat of the steam-powered ship traveling on the Rhine.” However, in German, you would simply write “Rheindampfschiffautomatenkarte.” Here are some of the wonderful German words that do not have any single-word translations in English:

brillenbrillianz: the sudden clarity when you put glasses on

ludwigssyndrom: finding an indecipherable note in your own handwriting

inteimbereichsverkrampfung: reluctance to enter cold water, felt progressively at each erogenous zone

deppenfabrerbeaugung: the urge to turn back and glare at the bad driver you just passed

saukopfsulzensehnsucht: shameful love of bad food

leetretung: stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there

tageslcihtspealschock: being startled when walking into broad daylight after leaving a dark movie theatre

schlussselszenenadlerauge: knowing from memory where a specific passage is located in a book

buchadlerauge: knowing from memory where a specific book can be found on a shelf

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia

There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

For further reading: Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition by Ben Schott

%d bloggers like this: