As a professional writer, words are my livelihood, my bread and butter, my stock in trade (and so, apparently, are clichés!). People often ask me if I ever get bored with writing, and my answer is always the same: with well over half a million words in the English language, there are
going to be new words to wield in new ways. With that in mind, this page is a celebration of the diversity, malleability, and, well, weirdness of the world of words. Here are a few of my favourite members of the lexicon and why they turn my crank.
- Pleasant sounding, especially a pleasant sounding word.
- From the ancient Greek word euphonos, meaning "sweet-voiced":
eu-, good + phone, sound.
- As you'll see, many of the words on this list are among my
favourites for no other reason than sheer euphony. Words such
as hullabaloo, demonomania, and flibbertigibbet
just roll off the tongue irresistably. You'll also see that I'm
fascinated by harsh, non-euphonious words such as crepuscular
- 1. A large leather suitcase that opens into two hinged compartments.
- 2. A word formed by merging parts of two different words.
- From the French word portemanteau, meaning "coat
- The mundane meaning of portmanteau -- a large leather suitcase
-- isn't what interests me here. Instead, I prefer the second
meaning: a word formed by merging parts of two different words.
This usage of portmanteau comes from Lewis Carroll, in Through
the Looking Glass. Alice is puzzling over the meaning of some
of the words in the poem Jabberwocky, and asks Humpty Dumpty for
help. Here's what he has to say about the word slithy:
- "Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy.'...You
it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings
packed up into one word."
- Other portmanteau words are chortle
(a blend of "chuckle" and "snort"; this is
another Jabberwockian word), brunch ("breakfast" and
"lunch"), telex ("teleprinter" and "exchange"),
and contrail ("condensation" and "trail").
- The formation or use of words that imitate the sounds associated
with the objects or actions they refer to.
- From the Greek word onomatopoios, coiner of names:
onomat-, name + poiein, to make.
- Words are formed in many different ways (see reduplicate, below), but one of the most fascinating
to me is the tendency to create words that reflect the sound an
object makes. This so-called onomatopoeic approach has produced
dozens of English words, including splash, buzz, murmur, meow,
chirp, hiss, sizzle, and cock-a-doodle-do. See also flibbertigibbet, below.
- Full of foul matter; laden or polluted with filth; fetid.
- From the Latin word faeculentus, from faec-,
- This is a term that sounds as disgusting as its meaning, and
it's definitely not a word to wield lightly! There's no half way
with this one: if you describe something as "feculent,"
then you're assigning it the bottom rung of the aesthetics ladder.
The alliterative possibilities are intriguing, though: feculent,
foul, filthy, fetid, fecal.
- One inclined to stay in bed out of laziness.
- A word that probably needs no commentary (not that that will
stop me). "Slugabed" is the perfect description for
someone too lazy, too slothful, too sluggardly to drag
themselves out of bed. As far as I know, the word was coined by
Shakespeare and first used in Romeo and Juliet. In Act V, Scene
IV, the nurse comes to wake Juliet from her "unnatural sleep"
- Why lamb!--why lady!--fie, you slugabed!
- At least Juliet had an excuse!
- Anecdotal dotage; that advanced age where all one does is
relate stories about "the good, old days."
- This word really means "anecdotes considered as a whole."
But I stumbled across it in the dictionary today, and the "anecdotal
dotage" idea just sort of leaped out at me. However, I've subsequently discoverd that The Oxford English Dictionary not only lists this sense of the word and defines it, succinctly, as "garrulous old age" but it has a citation that dates all the way back to 1835!
- The delusion of being possessed by an evil spirit.
- I like this one for no other reason than it's just a lot of fun to say out loud!
- A snorting, joyful laugh or chuckle.
- Chortle is a portmanteau word (also
known as a blend) that combines the words "chuckle"
and "snort." It was coined by Lewis Carroll in the nonsense
poem Jabberwocky, which appeared
in the book Through the Looking-Glass (1872):
- "And, hast though slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.
- Immense; enormous.
- This sizable adjective comes from Brobdingnag, a country in
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, where everything
was enormous. It's the adjective of choice when more prosaic modifiers
such as huge, colossal, and mammoth just
won't cut the verbal mustard.
- Excessive indulgence, or the sickness resulting from same.
- I first heard this word on The Simpsons. Montgomery Burns,
Springfield's incompetently evil tycoon was convalescing after
getting shot. While explaining what happened to the police, he said the following:
"With Smithers out of the way, I was free to wallow in my own crapulence."
- A roof spout in the form of a grotesque or fantastic creature
projecting from a gutter to carry rainwater clear of the wall.
- From the Old French word gargouille, throat.
I love Gothic architecture, so I think my fascination with gargoyles (which are most closely associated with Gothic structures) isn't too surprising. What does surprise me is the origin of the word: the Old French gargouille, meaning "throat." I guess that's because I always figured gargoyles were either purely ornamental or served to ward off evil. (That's why they're always grotesque figures facing outwards: the idea is to scare off any demon or devilish imp who may happen along.) I forgot they originally also had the more mundane chore of draining rainwater away from a wall. It seems reasonable, then, to speculate that the draining water made a gurgling sound, much like liquid being gargled in a throat. And, in fact, the words gargoyle and gargle share the same root. For more on gargoyles, check out this Gargoyles page.
- 1. To repeat over and over; to redouble.
- 2. To form a new word by doubling all or part of a word.
- From the Latin word reduplicare: re-, again
+ duplicare-, duplicate.
- Meaning #2 is what interests me here. Reduplication is one
of the many ways that new words are formed (check out
onomatopoeia, above). It's the origin of
such classics as goody-goody, fiddle- faddle, wishy-washy,
and riff-raff. A special case is called rhyming reduplication,
where two words that rhyme are combined, as in teeny-weeny,
bow-wow, and super-duper. (See also hullabaloo.)
- Of or like twilight; dim.
- This anti-euphonic word must rank right
up there as one of the ugliest in the English language. Just saying
it out loud is enough to give me the willies. Strange, then, that
its rough exterior gives way to a rather benign meaning. What
a waste! With that hard "c" at the beginning and that
"pus" in the middle, I can't help thinking this word
would be better suited to some revolting medical condition.
- When, on a night crepuscular,
I met a mugger muscular,
Who said "My you're minuscular,"
I burst something corpuscular.
- A consonant, such as f or v, produced with a continuous airflow
through the mouth.
- This word sounds like an adjective that means something along
the lines of "lurchingly nervous." Instead, it's one
of the many nouns linguists use to describe language sounds. In
English, there are seven fricatives in all: f, h, s, sh, th, v,
and z. It's somehow reassuring to me that the word "fricative"
itself has its own small fricative population.
- Inevitable or unavoidable.
- From the Latin word ineluctabilis, inevitable: in-,
not + ex-, out + luctari, to struggle.
- Like calumny, below, the appeal of this term is an unusual
letter combination: luct. Say this combo out loud and pay
attention to your tongue: the tip touches the front of your palate
for the "l," retreats to let the "u" through,
then the back of the tongue rises up to the back of the palate
for the "c," and finally the tip of the tongue returns
to the front palate to belt out the "t." What action!
Few English words can boast this roller coaster ride. The only
other one I can think of is reluctant (and all its ancillary
forms). Fluctuate has the same letter quartet but, of course,
the pronunciation is different (and not quite as satisfying).
- A false, slanderous statement.
- From the Latin word calumnia, trickery, or deception.
- I think this word strikes my fancy because of the semi-unusual
"mn" combination. It's both awkward and smooth at the
same time. Here are a few other "mn" words I like: Agamemnon,
Clytemnestra, alumni, chimney, columnar, indemnity, all "omni-"
words (such as omnipresent and omnivore), and somnambulist.
- A silly, scatterbrained person.
- The origin of this word is obscure.
- My Oxford English Dictionary speculates that this word is
an onomatopoeic representation of idle, trivial chatter. Sounds
reasonable to me. I first came across this word (I think) while
reading Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. Muriel Pritchett
(if you didn't read the book, she was Geena Davis' character in
the movie) spent most of her time rambling on aimlessly, and she
used flibbertigibbet to describe herself (accurately!).
Proving its versatility, this word has also appeared in Shakespeare's King Lear ("the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet")
as well as in the lyrics to the song "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound of Music:
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find the word that means Maria?
A flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown.
Here are a few other words along the same lines: scatterbrains, birdbrain,
featherbrain, dingbat, rattlehead, giddy-head, babbler, burbler,
- Foolish or nonsensical behaviour.
- From the noun tom-fool, a half-wit.
- I like using words that are a bit old-fashioned and anachronistic,
but not so antediluvian that they're obsolete ("antediluvian"
is a good example; see also hullabaloo). "Tomfoolery" is a perfect representation of the species.
It's recognizable enough that most people understand what you
mean, but it's just out-of-date enough (and silly sounding) to
elicit a smile.
- Producing conformity by ruthless or arbitrary means.
- From the Greek word prokroustes, stretcher.
- In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a giant said to be the
son of Poseidon. He lived beside the road and would offer hospitality
to passing travelers. His "hospitality," however, consisted
of fastening each person to a bed and "adjusting" the
unfortunate soul so they fit: he'd stretch short people and lop
off chunks of tall people. Nice fellow! (He received his comeuppance
in the end, though: the hero Theseus gave him a taste of his own
medicine.) These days, the term "procrustean" is used
to describe anything that requires a grim or arbitrary conformity.
"Windows 95 frees us from DOS's procrustean file naming conventions."
- I first saw this word in Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher,
- Autological words are words that describe themselves. Here
are some examples: short, multi-syllabic, noun, written, visible,
black, adjectival, linear, misspelt, UPPERCASE, lowercase, italicized,
bold, terse, numberless, and sdrawkcab.
The opposite of autological is heterological: "non-self-descriptive."
Here are some heterological words: long, mono-syllabic, verb,
oral, invisible, red, preposition, circular, misspelled, fat,
truncated, unpronounceable, vowelless, question, backwards.
And now for the big question: is the word "heterological"
heterological? Let's see: if it's not, then it's self-descriptive,
which means "heterological" describes heterological.
So if it's not, it is. Hmm. Let's try it the other way: if it
is, then it's non-self-descriptive, which means "heterological"
doesn't describe heterological. So if it is, it's not. Whoa!
- 1. An image or representation of something.
- 2. Something having merely the form or appearance of a certain
thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.
- From the Latin word simulacrum: simulare, to
simulate + crum, noun suffix.
- My interest in this word stems from the title of a Harper's
article from a couple of years ago: "Mmm, mmm. Simulacrum"
(it was an article on the aesthetics of the barbecue, believe
it or not). I've had that phrase lodged in my brain ever since,
and it comes to mind whenever I hear someone say "hmm"
or "ummm" or any variation on the "mmm" theme.
Ah, what a waste it is to lose one's mind...
- A great noise or commotion; a hubbub.
- From the obsolete phrase halloo-balloo.
- This is a fun word to use in conversation, and it's perfect
if you need an unusual synonym for "noise" or "commotion."
It's just obscure enough that it doesn't get overused, but it's
not so obscure that most people won't recognize it and chuckle
to themselves. Hullabaloo began its life as the word halloo,
meaning to urge or incite with shouts. Then, by a process called
rhyming reduplication ,
the balloo part was added to form halloo-balloo,
which eventually morphed in hullabaloo.