Category Archives: Words

My Favorite Words – Julia Glass


Julia Glass is an American novelist and freelance journalist and editor. Glass is best known for Three Junes, her debut novel that won a National Book Award for Fiction (2002), and The Widower’s Tale (2010). Glass discusses her favorite word, widdershins, drawn from the world of folklore:

As a child, I was a robust consumer of folklore from every conceivable culture. One of my favorite books was a volume of Joseph Jacobs’ fairy tales, with commentary by W. H. Auden (though his name did not impress me then). The best and most haunting tale in the book was “Childe Rowland,” which begins when three boys are playing ball with their sister on a church lawn and she vanishes into thin air. The brothers­ — who will, this being a fairy tale, set out on serial quests to rescue their sister — discover that she’s been abducted by a sorcerer because she ran around the church widdershins: in the opposite direction to the sun (that is, counterclockwise).

From the moment I read that word aloud, I fell in love with it; I’ve used it more than once, though very selectively, in my fiction. To this day, it evokes mischief, superstition, and black magic, yet also the dire solemnity of saving a loved one from peril. (It also summons up a grisly illustration from the book: the youngest brother, the ultimate hero, in the necessary act of beheading an innocent horseherd.) During an extremely painful period of loss and grief in my midthirties, I remember thinking that it felt as if my life had gone widdershins. Just now, pulling that book off a shelf and paging through it for the first time in a few years, I dipped into Auden’s charming afterword and learned that a Scottish synonym for widdershins is wrang-gaites — and that the opposite of widdershins is deiseal. How many rich, delicious words the world contains, and how fortunate I am to be in the business of using them!

Read related posts: My Favorite Words – Robert Ludlum
My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester
My Favorite Words – Steven Pinker

My Favorite Words – David Foster Wallace

For further reading: Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Frumkes, Marion Street Press (2011)

What is an Isogram?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt sounds like something you would encounter in geometry; however, an isogram is a word without any repeating letters. For example, the word isogram is well, an isogram. Word lovers and word puzzle enthusiasts challenge one another to find the longest isogram. The longest one contains 17 letters, subdermatoglyphic, meaning of or pertaining to the layer of skin beneath the fingertips. Below are some of the longest isograms that appear in dictionaries:

17 Letters:

16 Letters:

15 letters:

Read related posts: What is a Pangram?
What Do You Call a Word with Capitals in the Middle?
Words for Collectors
Words for Collectors 2

Unusual Color Names

Ten Tips for Writing Clearly

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn his recently published book, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, legendary British author and editor Sir Harold Evans argues that clarity and concision are the greatest virtues of a writer. And he should know — he has impeccable credentials. Not only did he write two best-selling history books, The American Century and They Made America, Evans was also the editor of many highly respected publications, like the Sunday Times, US News and World Report, The Week, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reuters. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also president and publisher of Random House for several years. Based on seven decades of experience, Evans presents a chapter entitled “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear.” “[Keep] ten shortcuts [with all due respect, perhaps “tips” or “rules” would be more appropriate here] in mind when you write and edit,” Evans advises, “[the ten tips] are mainly intended to help a writer convert meaning, and stages of meaning; help an editor engage with piles of dross to produce concise, direct English any reasonably literate person can understand; and help a reader unravel spaghetti… I weighted the ten injections for conciseness and clarity, rather than literary effect, because windiness is the prevailing affliction.” Here are the ten tips or rules:

1. Get moving: avoid passive voice; cast sentences in the active voice.

2. Be specific: eschew abstract words in favor of specific words.

3. Ration adjectives, raze adverbs: ask yourself: is the adjective really necessary to define the subject of the sentence? Does the adverb really enhance the verb or adjective?

4. Cut the fat, check the figures: avoid verbosity; write as concisely as possible.

5. Organize for clarity: use parallel structure to put things that belong together.

6. Be positive: write assertive sentences; even a negative should be expressed in a positive form.

7. Don’t be a bore: eschew monotony by implementing different sentence structures.

8. Put people first: make sentence bear directly on the reader.

9. The pesky prepositions: use prepositions appropriately — they are the workhorses that link nouns; they tell us when, where, why, and how.

10. Down with monologophobia (fear of using the same word twice in a sentence or successive sentences): do not develop other nouns when a pronoun will work just fine.

Best Writing Advice from Famous Writers
The Best Advice for Writers
Best Advice for Writers: P.D. James
Best Books for Writers

For further reading: Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans 

Amusing Musings on Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs word lover Richard Lederer pointed out in one of his books, the English language is crazy. Lederer observes, “to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can take place in broad daylight while morning sickness and daydreaming can take place at night, tomboys are girls and midwives can be men, hours — especially happy hours and rush hours — often last longer than sixty minutes, quicksand works very slowly, boxing rings are square, silverware and glasses can be made of plastic and tablecloths of paper… and most bathrooms don’t have any baths in them.” You get the idea.

Lederer’s book inspired Josh White Jr.’s song “English is Crazy” (most people are familiar with folk singer Pete Seeger’s version, plays on banjo). Of course, Lederer’s waggish observations are not lost on comedians who mine the vast English lexicon for words and phrases that make you scratch your head and utter “WTF.” Two of the most brilliant comedians who placed the English language under the comedy microscope are George Carlin and Stephen Wright. Here are some of the most amusing musings on the English language, many from Carlin and Wright.

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.

How can a fat chance and slim chance be the same thing?

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where is the self-help section?” She said that if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

If a deaf kid swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap?

If a turtle loses its shell is it naked or homeless?

If con is the opposite of pro, is congress the opposite of progress?

If flying is so safe, why is the airport called ‘terminal’?

If people can have triplets and quadruplets why not singlets and doublets?

If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?

I went to a restaurant that “serves breakfast at any time” so I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.

Is Atheism a non-prophet organization?

Is it true that cannibals don’t eat clowns because they taste funny?

Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do “practice?”

I saw a sign that said “Coming soon — a 24-hour restaurant.” Why would they open and close it so quickly?

I went to a general store. They wouldn’t let me buy anything specifically.

The reason the mainstream is thought of as a stream is because of its shallowness.

What’s another word for thesaurus?

Where do forest rangers go to “get away from it all?”

Why are there braille signs at the drive-through windows at the bank?

Why is that when stars are out, they’re visible, but when the lights are out, they’re invisible?

Why are they called apartments when they are all stuck together?

Why are boxing rings square?

Why do we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway?

Why is it that night falls but never breaks and day breaks but never falls?

Why don’t you ever see the headline, “Psychic Wins Lottery”?

Why is “abbreviated” such a long word?

Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavor and dishwashing liquid made with real lemons?

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?

Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?

Why isn’t phonetics spelled phonetically?

Would a fly that loses its wings be called a “walk?”

Read related posts: The English Language is Crazy
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of George Carlin
Top Ten Puns

For further reading: Brain Droppings by George Carlin
Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Languageby Richard Lederer
Lederer on Language: A Celebration of English, Good Grammar, and Wordplay by Richard Lederer

Naughtiest Town Names in America

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNames are fascinating, aren’t they? Who hasn’t read an article about a town, say Intercouse, Pennsylvania, and wondered how people would respond if you told them that you were from Intercourse (after all, in one sense, aren’t we all?). Hey, it could be worse. You could be from Balltown, Iowa; Dickshooter, Idaho; Wiener, Arkansas; or Sugar Tit, South Carolina. There’s no shortage of these…

America, of course, was founded by people who were independent, resourceful, hard-working, and some times a bit idiosyncratic — as revealed by the naughty or perverse (or at the very least, sexually-suggestive) names that they chose for their towns. There are more than 3 million placenames in America — names for villages, towns, cities, mountains, rivers, and so forth. Some of these places are tiny, some are ghost towns — but they do have a formal place name that could be considered lewd or obscene. A list of the naughtiest town names in America is largely due to the fact that west of the thirteen original colonies, most towns were named by individuals with little education, and no official authority. Early pioneers just happened to be there and if they wanted a post office to receive mail, they needed a name for their town or village — regardless of how it might be perceived by moralists. They gathered in local establishment, like a school, church or market and voted on a name. Here are some of the naughtiest names of towns in America:

ALABAMA: Ballplay, Boar Tush, Smut Eye

ALASKA: Clam Gulch, Covenant Life, Kokhanok, Manley Hot Springs, Mary’s Igloo, North Pole

ARIZONA: Cyclopic, Kaka, Parker Strip, Show Low, Three Way

ARKANSAS: Bald Knob, Biggers, Blue Ball, Boeuf, Corning, Flippin, Greasy Corner, Pea Ridge, Romance, Toad Suck, Weiner

CALIFORNIA: Bush, Chubbuck, Clam Beach, Fort Dick, Hooker, Johnsondale, Johnsons, Old Fig Garden, Peters, Prunedale, Raisin City, Ragged Point, Ragtown, Rough and Ready, Shafter, Woody

COLORADO: Atwood, Beaver Creek, Delores, Hotchkiss, Johnson Village, Lay, Loveland, Lubers, Slagger, Wetmore, Woodrow, Woody Creek

CONNECTICUT: Happyland, Moosup, Seymour, Essex

DELAWARE: Blue Ball, Bunting, Cave Colony, Cocked Hat, Cowgills Corner, Hoars Addition, Midnight Thicket, Swallow Hill

FLORIDA: Briny Breezes, Bunker Donation, Chattahoochee, Fluffy Landing, Miccosukee, Needmore, Wildwood

GEORGIA: Balls Ferry, Boneville, Butts, Cumming, Experiment, Faceville, Flippen, Gumlog, Hardup, Lumpkin, Pyles Marsh

HAWAII: Honaunau-Napoopoo

IDAHO: Athol, Bone, Cream Can Junction, Dickshooter, Dingle, Hand Place, Headquarters, Player Place, Slickpoo, Wickahoney

ILLINOIS: Bone Gap, Boody, Breeds, Bush, Chicken Bristle, Chittyville, Diswood, Dongola, Ficklin, Honey Bend, Kumler, La Fox, Lick Creek, Love, Shobonier

INDIANA: Beaver City, French Lick, Effingham, Floyds Knobs, Friendswood, Gnaw Bone, Rocky Ripple, Spurgeon

IOWA: Balltown, Beaverdale, Cumming, Fertile, Hard Scratch, Inwood, Manly, Sac City

KANSAS: Deerhead, Dry Wood, Skiddy

KENTUCKY: Bald Knob, Beaver Dam, Beaverlick, Bigbone, Broad Bottom, Co-Operative, Girdler, Knob Lick, Load, Morehead, Mud Lick, Sugar Tit

LOUISIANA: Dry Prong, Grosse Tete, Grand Cane, Hardwood, Lucky

MAINE: Bangor, Owls Head, Schoodic, Shady Nook

MARYLAND: Blue Ball Village, Bushwood, Cockeysville, Crapo, Dames Quarter, Loveville

MASSACHUSETTS: Felchville, Mashpee, Woods Hole

MICHIGAN: Climax, Colon, Dick, Felch, Green Bush, Romeo, Sac Bay

MINNESOTA: Ball Bluff, Ball Club, Balsam, Beaver, Big Woods, Burnsville, Bush Landing, Chokio, Clappers, Climax, Comstock, Cumming, Embarrass, Erhard, Goldenrod, Good Thunder, Johnson, Kiester, Makinem, Moorhead, Remer, Sexton, Underwood, Whipholt

MISSISSIPPI: Biggersville, Buckatunna, Hushpuckena, Leakesville, Purvis, Saukum, Shivers, Splunge, Sweatman, Woodville

MISSOURI: Conception, Conception Junction, Cooter, Corning, Fidelity, Ginger Blue, Knob Noster, Licking, Loose Creek, Number Eight, Pilot Knob, Tightwad, Wide Ford, Wien, Wood

MONTANA: Big Sag, Comertown

NEBRASKA: Beaver City, Colon, Comstock, Dix, Lodgepole, Ough, Purple Cane, Valentine

NEVADA: Coyote Hole, Jackpot, Lovelock, Pahrump, Parker Strip, Sugar Bunker

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Effingham, Merrimack

NEW JERSEY: Antrim, Bay Head, Buttzville, Manahawkin, Nutley, Ramtown, Ringwood, Spotswood, Succasunna, Tuckahoe

NEW MEXICO: Bluit, Crown Point, Faywood, Loving, Lovington, Pie Town, Truth or Consequences

NEW YORK: Atwood, Ausable Chasm, Baiting Hollow, Ballston, Butternuts, Climax, Conewango, Conquest, Corning, Croton-On-Hudson, Cumminsville, Coxsackie, Feura Bush, Fort Johnson, Glen Head, Johnson, Johnson City, Kringsbush, Mannsville, Porcaville, Pound Ridge, Rathbone, Rockwood, Rodman, Sugarbush

NORTH CAROLINA: Aho, Blowing Rock, Butters, Climax, Coinjock, Engelhard, Forbush, Hobucken, Hookerton, Lizard Lick, Love Valley, Low Gap, Mann’s Harbor, Nags Head, Pee Dee, Rhodiss, Roughhedge, Stumpy Point

NORTH DAKOTA: Cummings, Spiritwood

OHIO: Ballville, Corning, Dry Run, Kunkle, Knockemstiff, Laings, Licking View, Long Bottom, Mack, Pee Pee Township, Plumwood, Seaman, Shadyside, Spunky Puddle, Trotwood

OKLAHOMA: Beaver, Bowlegs, Bushyhead, Dripping Springs, Greasy, Hooker, Jumbo, Loving, Olustee, Pump Back

OREGON: Ballston, Beaverton, Bridal Veil, Butteville, Climax, Drain, Wankers Corner, Woodburn

PENNSYLVANIA: Big Beaver, Blue Ball, Black Lick, Coplay, Hopwood, Hop Bottom, Intercourse, Lickdale, New Beaver, Rough and Ready, Virginville, Youngwood

RHODE ISLAND: Cranston, Woonsocket

SOUTH CAROLINA: Fingerville, Ninety Six, Sugar Tit, Thicketty

SOUTH DAKOTA: Beaver Crossing, Black Pipe, Bonesteel, Castlewood, Hooker, Rumpus Ridge, Swett

TENNESSEE: Ballplay, Big Barren Creek, Bumpus Mills, Finger, Flippin, Guys, Lick Skillet, Nutbush, Rockwood, Shackle Island, Sweet Lips, Wartburg

TEXAS: Bangs, Bleakwood, Camp Wood, Cumby, Cumings, Comstock, Dickens, Ding Dong, Friendswood, Glaze City, Greatwood, Jean-Loving, Kinkler, Latex, Leakey, Lovelady, Rockwood, Snook, Spearman, Tool

UTAH: Beaver, Beaver Dam, Honeyville, Koosharem, Nibley, Shivwits, Teasdale, Virgin, Whipup, Wildwood

VERMONT: Antrim, Cozy Corner, Essex, Hancock, Shaftsbury, Woodford

VIRGINIA: Allison Gap, Assawoman, Bloxom, Brightwood, Bumpass, Fancy Gap, Onancock, Pound, Short Pump, Tuckahoe

WASHINGTON: Babcock, Bangor, Baring, Big Bottom, Chimacum, Chuckanut, Chumstick, Humptulips, Kooskooskie, Packwood

WEST VIRGINIA: Bald Knob, Beech Bottom, Big Chimney, Big Sandy, Brohard, Cloverlick, Concepcion, Cougar, Cougar Valley, Cucumber, Droop, Floe, Johnson Crossroads, Knobs, Lick Creek, Longpole, Mercers Bottom, Nutterville, Organ Cave, Pickle Street, Pinch, Pipestern, Rimel, Romance, Sandlick, Stony Bottom, Wood

WISCONSIN: Breed, Cheat Lake, Dickeyville, Clam Falls, Imalone, Longwood, Sextonville, Spooner, Spread Eagle, Tainter

WYOMING: Goshen Hole, Hoback, McNutt, Meeteetse, Miner’s Delight, Ten Sleep, Teton Village

Read related posts: Unusual Town Names in America
Funniest Town Names in America

For further reading:
A Place Called Peculiar: Stories About Unusual American Place-Names by Frank Gallant

Weird Phobias You Didn’t Even Know Existed

alex atkins bookshelf wordsLet’s face it, people are incredibly idiosyncratic creatures. Assemble a large group of people and you will find many of them share a common phobia, like nomophobia (fear of being without a mobile phone or not having mobile phone coverage), acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), or mysophobia (aka “germaphobes,” fear of germs). But that is just the tip of the anxiety disorder iceberg. Beneath the surface of this giant iceberg are dozens of truly weird and rare phobias — or seemingly common phobias that you didn’t even know had a name. Next time, you are with a group of people see if they have any of these:

abibliophobia: fear of running out of things to read

allodoxaphobia: fear of opinions

anuptaphobia: fear of being single

aulophobia: fear of flutes

consecotaleophobia: fear of chopsticks

coulrophobia: fear of clowns

deipnophobia: fear of dinner parties

ephebiphobia: fear of youth

genuphobia: fear of knees

hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia: fear of the number 666

ithyphallophobia: fear of an erect penis

monologophobia: fear of using a word more than once in a single paragraph or sentence.

ombrophobia: fear of rain

omphalophobia: fear of belly buttons

oneirogmophobia: fear of wet dreams

papaphobia: fear of the pope

peladophobia: fear of bald people

philophobia: fear of falling in love

phobophobia: fear of phobias

pogonophobia: fear of beards

porphyrophobia: fear of the color purple

sciaphobia: fear of shadows

scriptophobia: fear of writing in public

samhnainophobia: fear of Halloween

selenophobia: fear of the moon

sesquipedalophobia: fear of long words

triskaidekaphobia: fear of the number 13

trypophobia: fear of holes

turophobia: fear of cheese

uranophobia: fear of heaven

venustraphobia: fear of beautiful women

xanthophobia: fear of the color yellow

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: Nomophobia

For further reading:

What is a Malaphor?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA malaphor is a mixed idiom or mixed metaphor (or to use the more formal term, catachresis). It is a portmanteau word formed by combining malapropism (the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding word; for example “butt naked” rather than “buck naked” or “for all intensive purposes” rather than “for all intents and purposes” ) and metaphor (a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; for example: “walking on thin ice”). A malapropism is also known as an eggcorn, a word coined by Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist (based on the misuse of “egg corn” instead of “acorn”). Most often, people muddle idioms in speech and since spellcheckers don’t catch these pesky things, they slip into text and print. Here are some common malaphors sure to delight:

A loose tongue spoils the broth.

Don’t judge a book before it’s hatched.

Every cloud has a silver spoon in its mouth.

From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.

Going to hell in a hen basket.

He is a little green behind the ears.

He received a decease and desist order.

He was watching me like I was a hawk.

He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.

He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.

He’s like a duck out of water.

He’s not the one with his ass in a noose.

I can read him like the back of my book.

I have a lot of black sheep in my closet.

I hope he gets his curve ball straightened out.

I shot the wind out of his saddle.

It sticks out like a sore throat.

It will be a walk in the cake.

It’s all moth-eared.

It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.

It’s like looking for a needle in a hayride.

It’s not rocket surgery.

It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye.

It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.

I wouldn’t be caught dead there with a ten-foot pole.

I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.

I’ll get it by hook or ladder.

People are dying like hotcakes.

Take a flying hike.

That train has left the frying pan.

The crutch of the matter.

The fan is gonna hit the roof.

These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.

They’re diabolically opposed.

Until the cows come home to roost.

Until the pigs freeze over.

We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.

We have to get all our ducks on the same page.

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

You can’t change the spots on an old dog.

You can’t teach a leopard new spots.

You can’t go in there cold turkey with egg on your face.

You could have knocked me over with a fender.

Read related posts: Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English Language?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
What Rhymes with Orange?

For further reading: Going to Hell in a Hen Basket: An Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms by Robert Rubin

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