I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As is the perfidious habit of the writer, here are 26 words in reverse alphabetical order that you will probably never use in conversation. If you do happen to blurt one or two out at a dinner party be forewarned you might not be popular. “Oh what happened to you? Swallow a dictionary?”
Zwodder is “a drowsy and stupid state of body or mind” (wordsandphrasesfromthepast.com). The morning after the night before perhaps? The word seems to have first appeared in Western England in 1825 and it may have descended from the Middle Dutch word “Swadderen,” meaning the lethargy that follows alcohol consumption.
Yex is to belch or hiccup (hiccough if you’re English). Its usage seems to have peaked in 1719 with a tiny burp of popularity in 1894. The folks at Collins Dictionary keep track of these things.
X is the bane of all people who set out to list something by the letters of the alphabet; only 0.037% of English words start with it. Let’s get it over with. Xertz means to gulp down greedily. This video is not pretty.
Velitation is a skirmish. For those who can remember that far back, it’s the sort of word sports commentator Howard Cosell would use when describing a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier, although the fights were more robust than a skirmish. Cosell said of himself “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There’s no question that I’m all of those things.”
Inny or outy, both are Umbiliciform; that is they are shaped like a navel. Castelfranco Emilia is a town between Bologna and Modena in Italy. Legend has it that Venus stayed in an inn there. The innkeeper was knocked over by her beauty and spied on her through a keyhole. The only visible part of Venus was her belly button. In a swoon, the innkeeper rushed to his kitchen where he created a pasta in the image of Venus’s navel. It is called tortellini.
Tittynope is not you might have thought. Sorry. It is a small quantity of something left over. It might be the dregs of beer left behind in a mug, which is an irreverent thing to do. Or, the fatty part of a lamb chop.
To snudge is to stroll about as if deep in thought, or giving the impression of being terribly busy when in fact doing nothing. The clipboard was invented specifically for such people.
Rabelaisian is clearly a description of anybody reading this collection of words. The folks at Vocabulary.com say that “To be truly Rabelaisian, a piece of writing should also be sharp and smart, exuberant and exciting, and aimed at a highly educated, literate audience.” The word comes from the 16th century French writer François Rabelais who had a massive vocabulary and great literary skill. He was also given to phrases bawdy enough to get his books banned.
The Holy Grail for Scrabble players is a word with a Q in it that isn’t followed by a U. One Scrabble dictionary lists a surprising 70 such beasts. So, here comes Qabalistic―having a hidden or secret meaning. Anyone who can pull that word off in a game will leave an opponent in tears and swearing never to play anything more challenging than Snakes and Ladders.
Potoooooooo was a famous 18th century racehorse owned by Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon. According to one story, his lordship decided to call his foal “Potato” and instructed a stable boy to paint this name on his stall. Whether through mischief or miscommunication, the lad painted “Potoooooooo.” Pot followed by eight Os.
There are 99 15-letter words that start with O. This is about none of them. An Odditorium is a place where strange things are exhibited. This might include the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina which is where the Charlotte Bobcats of the National Basketball Association played. In the 2011-12 season they set the league’s record for futility with a winning percentage of .106 and they finished the season with a 23-game losing streak. Then, the team did what all businesses with a terrible product on their hands do; they changed their name to the Charlotte Hornets. They still lose more games than they win.
In the 18th century, a nobbler was employed in some British churches. His job was to patrol the congregation with a stick and, if he spotted someone not paying attention, to whack them over the head. As sermons in those days could drone on for two or three hours the services of a nobbler were in great demand.
The sinuses and nose brew up about a litre of mucus a day and some of it may end up dangling from the end of your nose in what is known as a meldrop. Sadly, the word was taken out of the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1934.
For the word lewstery or lustree we need to turn to An Exmoor Scolding: In the Property & Scolding of Exmoor Language Between Two Sisters Wilmot Moreman & Thomasin Moreman as They Were Spinning. The book is of 1771 vintage and is sadly now out of print. Anyway, to lewstery or to lustree is “to bustle and stir about like a lusty wench.”
Why did the Kellogg people put a rooster on their boxes of Corn Flakes? Okay it’s a breakfast food and roosters welcome the dawn with their pesky crowing. But there’s more to it than that. The Welsh word for a rooster ceiliog, which sounds something like Kellogg. The fictional bird’s name is Cornelius; get it?
Every child except those living in deserts has jillicked; that is they have made a stone skip across water. The word originates in Newfoundland. Every year on Easdale Island, near Oban in Argyll, Scotland the world championship for this event is held. Judging by the video it doesn’t attract a huge crowd. It works a lot better if you wait for the water to freeze.
So, the marriage didn’t work out. It happens. And, now you’re short of cash. You can impignorate that expensive engagement ring; it’s kind of a grim reminder of happier times anyway. Impignorate is a fancy word for pawning something of value. Sorry. Can’t be upbeat all the time.
Marcia Maidana resurrected a little-used word in her 2017 book Awaken: Shadows of a Forgotten Past, when she wrote the phrase “… a horripilation of dread tingled down my spine.” And, what do you know; the exact same phrase pops up in The Summer of Katya written in 1983 by Rodney Whitaker under the pen name Trevanian. Oh, almost forgot, the point of this is explaining obscure words. Horripilation is when the hairs on your body stand up because of cold or fright i.e. goose bumps.
Groke. Have you ever sat at the dinner table and become aware that eyes are staring at you? More accurately, they are staring at the t-bone steak. They are the eyes of Rover, the family dog. Thanks to Mark Forsyth of The Guardian we know that to groke is “… is to gaze at somebody while they’re eating in the hope that they’ll give you some of their food.” It’s an old Scots word.
A finger-post is a directional sign pointing to a destination; it is much used in the United Kingdom. However, an earlier meaning comes from the 18th century when it was used as a slang term for a hypocritical vicar. The English lexicographer Francis Grose, defines the word as “A parson: so called, because he points out a way to others which he never goes himself (BBC Culture).”
Eosophobia is a dread of dawn, probably because that’s when that bloody cockerel Cornelius starts squawking his head off.
Doodle sack is an Old English word for bagpipes. Agony-bags is another, testifying to the instrument’s popularity almost everywhere outside of Scotland. Definition of a gentleman: Someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to.
To chork is to make a noise that sounds as though your shoes are waterlogged. More recently, the word has been hijacked to describe an implement that is a cross between a chopstick and a fork. Frankly, the second definition seems a lot more use than the first.
A biblioklept is a person who steals books. Fun Fact: The most frequently stolen book is The Bible even though it's available free from many outlets. What’s that bit about “Thou shalt not steal?”
And, finally, we come to the letter A and the writer is faced with a dilemma. Should he go with acanthous, arcanna, or addorsed? Decisions, decisions. Abulia comes to the rescue; it’s the inability to make decisions.
- Numbers in English have an interesting quirk; each one borrows a letter from the one before it. One and two share an O, two and three share a T, and so on. It goes on for ever.
- The poet W.H. Auden wrote the longest palindrome about another poet: “T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: Gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.” Of course, it doesn’t make any sense and one wonders if his time might have been better spent, like cleaning out the eaves troughs.
- According to the BBC program Quite Interesting “90 percent of everything written in English uses just 1,000 words.”
A deluge of dictionaries, a glut of glossaries, and a vast volume of vocabularies.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Diana Grant from United Kingdom on June 07, 2018:
I was shocked at how few of these words I knew, bearing in mind that people say I have a good vocabulary and aweigh with words! I once won a Scrabble contest at our local library, but would certainly have spelt it kaballah and not qabala. The young man I beat was actually much better than me, because he knew loads of little words and foreign words which had been incorporated into English. He won every time we played after that.
Anyway, I really enjoyed your article and, yes, the word pantechnicon is still used in the UK....well, I knew what it was, but I'm old.
Ann Carr from SW England on May 30, 2018:
Occasionally, though I haven't heard it for a long time! It tends to refer to articulated vehicles more but I think it's a word that is disappearing - not a bad one to lose!!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 30, 2018:
Thanks Ann. There are thousands of perfectly good words that have gone out of use. But, English is a living language so we mustn't grumble.
Are furniture vans still called pantechnicons in the U.K. as they were when I was a child?
Ann Carr from SW England on May 30, 2018:
This is so entertaining. Any writer must be a lover of words and I like the humour in your presentation.
For a brilliant book on the subject of words, described as a 'word hoard', try 'Landmarks' by Robert Macfarlane, which is a collection of vocabulary connected to British landscapes, most of which have gone out of circulation but deserve to be revived. Many are single words each of which takes the place of a complicated phrase, e.g. 'smeuse', a Sussex word to describe the small hole at the base of a hedge through which animals regularly pass.
Thanks for the education and the entertaining read.