At various moments in its life, a word will hop languages, change meanings, travel through sinister moments and land in pleasant ones. But no matter how many times it’s superimposed, and how far it gets from its original source, a word doesn’t let go of its memories easily. Here are 11 modern English words with socially insensitive origins.
1. Hysteria (n.) – a wild, irrational eruption of fear or emotion
Hysteria begins in the womb, or so thought the medical scholars of the 1610s, who named the condition after the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb.” Those who’ve studied the Victorian era, or read The Awakening in high school, may know that the go-to prognosis of the time for just about every female’s symptom from the occasional hissy fit to chronic seizures was a pesky wayfaring uterus. The condition was thought to be caused by sexual frustration and cured by intercourse or pelvic massage, the latter often performed by physicians and midwives. When doctors finally got fed up with the tedious task in the late 19th century, the personal vibrator was created to take their place. Read More…
|Beleaguer||To exhaust with attacks.|
|Brood||To think alone.|
|Bucolic||In a lovely rural setting.|
|Bungalow||A small, cozy cottage.|
|Chatoyant||Like a cat’s eye.|
|Conflate||To blend together.|
|Cynosure||A focal point of admiration.|
|Dalliance||A brief love affair.|
|Demure||Shy and reserved.|
|Denouement||The resolution of a mystery.|
|Elision||Dropping a sound or syllable in a word.|
|Elixir||A good potion.|
|Eloquence||Beauty and persuasion in speech.|
|Embrocation||Rubbing on a lotion.|
|Epiphany||A sudden revelation.|
|Erstwhile||At one time, for a time.|
|Ethereal||Gaseous, invisible but detectable.|
|Evanescent||Vanishing quickly, lasting a very short time.|
|Forbearance||Withholding response to provocation.|
|Gambol||To skip or leap about joyfully.|
|Gossamer||The finest piece of thread, a spider’s silk|
|Halcyon||Happy, sunny, care-free.|
|Harbinger||Messenger with news of the future.|
|Imbrication||Overlapping and forming a regular pattern.|
|Imbroglio||An altercation or complicated situation.|
|Imbue||To infuse, instill.|
|Incipient||Beginning, in an early stage.|
|Ingénue||A naïve young woman.|
|Inglenook||A cozy nook by the hearth.|
|Inure||To become jaded.|
|Labyrinthine||Twisting and turning.|
|Lagniappe||A special kind of gift.|
|Lagoon||A small gulf or inlet.|
|Lilt||To move musically or lively.|
|Lissome||Slender and graceful.|
|Lithe||Slender and flexible.|
|Moiety||One of two equal parts.|
|Mondegreen||A slip of the ear.|
|Nemesis||An unconquerable archenemy.|
|Offing||The sea between the horizon and the offshore.|
|Onomatopoeia||A word that sounds like its meaning.|
|Palimpsest||A manuscript written over earlier ones.|
|Panacea||A solution for all problems|
|Panoply||A complete set.|
|Pastiche||An art work combining materials from various sources.|
|Petrichor||The smell of earth after rain.|
|Plethora||A large quantity.|
|Pyrrhic||Successful with heavy losses.|
|Ratatouille||A spicy French stew.|
|Ravel||To knit or unknit.|
|Riparian||By the bank of a stream.|
|Ripple||A very small wave.|
|Scintilla||A spark or very small thing.|
|Seraglio||Rich, luxurious oriental palace or harem.|
|Serendipity||Finding something nice while looking for something else.|
|Summery||Light, delicate or warm and sunny.|
|Susquehanna||A river in Pennsylvania.|
|Talisman||A good luck charm.|
|Umbrella||Protection from sun or rain.|
|Vestigial||In trace amounts.|
|Abibliophobia||The fear of running out of reading material.|
|Absquatulate||To leave or abscond with something.|
|Allegator||Some who alleges.|
|Anencephalous||Lacking a brain.|
|Argle-bargle||A loud row or quarrel.|
|Batrachomyomachy||Making a mountain out of a molehill.|
|Billingsgate||Loud, raucous profanity.|
|Bloviate||To speak pompously or brag.|
|Blunderbuss||A gun with a flared muzzle or disorganized activity.|
|Borborygm||A rumbling of the stomach.|
|Boustrophedon||A back and forth pattern.|
|Bowyang||A strap that holds the pants legs in place.|
|Callipygian||Having an attractive rear end or nice buns.|
|Canoodle||To hug and kiss.|
|Cockalorum||A small, haughty man.|
|Collop||A slice of meat or fold of flab.|
|Collywobbles||Butterflies in the stomach.|
|Comeuppance||Just reward, just deserts.|
|Crapulence||Discomfort from eating or drinking too much.|
|Crudivore||An eater of raw food.|
|Donnybrook||An melee, a riot.|
|Doozy||Something really great.|
|Dudgeon||A bad mood, a huff.|
|Ecdysiast||An exotic dancer, a stripper.|
|Eructation||A burp, belch.|
|Fartlek||An athletic training regime.|
|Filibuster||Refusal to give up the floor in a debate to prevent a vote.|
|Firkin||A quarter barrel or small cask.|
|Formication||The sense of ants crawling on your skin.|
|Fuddy-duddy||An old-fashioned, mild-mannered person.|
|Furbelow||A fringe or ruffle.|
|Furphy||A portable water-container.|
|Gaberlunzie||A wandering beggar.|
|Gardyloo!||A warning shouted before throwing water from above.|
|Gastromancy||Telling fortune from the rumblings of the stomach.|
|Gazump||To buy something already promised to someone else.|
|Gobemouche||A highly gullible person.|
|Gongoozle||To stare at, kibitz.|
|Goombah||An older friend who protects you.|
|Hemidemisemiquaver||A musical timing of 1/64.|
|Hobbledehoy||An awkward or ill-mannered young boy.|
|Hocus-pocus||Deceitful sleight of hand.|
|Hoosegow||A jail or prison.|
|Hootenanny||A country or folk music get-together.|
|Jackanapes||A rapscallion, hooligan.|
|Klutz||An awkward, stupid person.|
|La-di-da||An interjection indicating that something is pretentious.|
|Lagopodous||Like a rabbit’s foot.|
|Lickety-split||As fast as possible.|
|Lickspittle||A servile person, a toady.|
|Lollygag||To move slowly, fall behind.|
|Maverick||A loner, someone outside the box.|
|Mollycoddle||To treat too leniently.|
|Mugwump||An independent politician who does not follow any party.|
|Mumpsimus||An outdated and unreasonable position on an issue.|
|Namby-pamby||Weak, with no backbone.|
|Nincompoop||A foolish person.|
|Ornery||Mean, nasty, grumpy.|
|Pandiculation||A full body stretch.|
|Panjandrum||Someone who thinks himself high and mighty.|
|Pettifogger||A person who tries to befuddle others with his speech.|
|Pratfall||A fall on one’s rear.|
|Quean||A disreputable woman.|
|Rambunctious||Aggressive, hard to control.|
|Rigmarole||Nonsense, unnecessary complexity.|
|Shenanigan||A prank, mischief.|
|Sialoquent||Spitting while speaking.|
|Skedaddle||To hurry somewhere.|
|Skullduggery||No good, underhanded dealing.|
|Slangwhanger||A loud abusive speaker or obnoxious writer.|
|Smellfungus||A perpetual pessimist.|
|Snickersnee||A long knife.|
|Snollygoster||A person who can’t be trusted.|
|Snool||A servile person.|
|Tatterdemalion||A child in rags.|
|Troglodyte||Someone or something that lives in a cave.|
|Turdiform||Having the form of a lark.|
|Unremacadamized||Having not been repaved with macadam.|
|Vomitory||An exit or outlet.|
|Wabbit||Exhausted, tired, worn out.|
|Widdershins||In a contrary or counterclockwise direction.|
|Yahoo||A rube, a country bumpkin.|
|@||The “at” sign.|
Crutch words are words that we slip into sentences in order to give ourselves more time to think, or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning of a statement.
Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).
To paraphrase Krusty the Clown, comedy isn’t dirty words—it’s words that sound dirty, like mukluk. He’s right, of course. Some words really do sound like they mean something quite different from their otherwise entirely innocent definition (a mukluk is an Inuit sealskin boot, in case you were wondering), and no matter how clean-minded you might be, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow or a wry smile whenever someone says something like cockchafer or sexangle. Here are 50 words that might sound rude, but really aren’t. Honest.
If you read that as “a-hole,” then think again. Aholehole is pronounced “ah-holy-holy,” and is the name of a species of Hawaiian flagtail fish native to the central Pacific.
Aktashite is a rare mineral used commercially as an ore of arsenic, copper, and mercury. It takes its name from the village of Aktash in eastern Russia, where it was first discovered in 1968. The final –ite , incidentally, is the same mineralogical suffix as in words like graphite and kryptonite.
While exploring the coast of Virginia in 1606, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) wrote in his journal of a creature known to local tribes as the assapanick . By “spreading their legs, and so stretching the largeness of their skins,” he wrote, “they have been seen to fly 30 or 40 yards.” Assapanick is another name for the flying squirrel.
Assart is an old medieval English legal term for an area of forested land that has been converted into arable land for growing crops. It can also be used as a verb meaning “to deforest,” preparing wooded land for farming.
Derived from bastón, the Spanish word for a cane or walking stick, bastinado is an old 16th century word for a thrashing or caning, especially on the soles of the feet.
As well as being the name of a former shipping port in northern Tasmania, boobyalla is also an Aborigine name for the wattlebird, one of a family of honeyeaters native to much of Australia.
In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson described a bum-bailiff as “a bailiff of the meanest kind,” and in particular, “one that is employed in arrests.”
To bumfiddle means to pollute or spoil something, in particular by scribbling or drawing on a document to make it invalid. A bumfiddler is someone who does precisely that.
Like the aholehole, the bummalo is another tropical fish, in this case a southeast Asian lizardfish. When listed on Indian menus it goes by the slightly more appetizing name of “Bombay duck.”
According to a Tudor dictionary published in 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “wyl disclose anye light secreate”—in other words, it’s a gossip or blabbermouth.
Cockapert is an Elizabethan name for “a saucy fellow” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it can also be used as an adjective meaning “impudent” or “smart-alecky.”
A cock-bell can be a small handbell, a type of wildflower that grows in the spring, and an old English dialect word for an icicle. In any case, it’s derived from coque, the French word for a seashell.
The cockchafer is a large beetle native to Europe and western Asia. The origin of its name is a mystery, but one theory claims the beetles are so characteristically aggressive that they can be made to fight one another like cockerels.
Standing little more than a foot tall at the shoulder, the dik-dik is one of the smallest antelopes in all of Africa. Their name is apparently an imitation of their alarm call.
A dreamhole is a small slit or opening made in the wall of a building to let in sunlight or fresh air. It was also once used to refer to holes in watchtowers used by lookouts and guards, or to openings left in the walls of church towers to amplify the sounds of the bells.
According to one 19th century glossary of industrial slang, a fanny-blower or fanner was “used in the scissor-grinding industry,” and comprised “a wheel with vanes, fixed onto a rotating shaft, enclosed in a case or chamber to create a blast of air.” In other words, it’s a fan.
Fartlek is a form of athletic training in which intervals of intensive and much less strenuous exercise are alternated in one long continuous workout. It literally means “speed-play” in Swedish.
Fuk was an old Middle English word for a sail, and in particular the foremost sail on a ship. A fukmast, ultimately, is a ship’s foremast, while the fuksheet or fuksail is the sail attached to the ship’s fukmast.
To grope a gull is an old Tudor English expression meaning “to take advantage of someone,” or “to swindle an unsuspecting victim”—and a gullgroper does just that.
Taking its name from an Arabic word meaning “blustering” or “blowing,” a haboob is a dry wind that blows across deserts, dustbowls, and other arid regions often at great speed, forming vast sandstorms as it goes. Haboobs are typically caused by the collapse of a cold front of air, which blasts dust and sediment up from the desert floor as it falls.
The Oxford English Dictionary calls a humpenscrump “a musical instrument of rude construction.” Alongside others like humstrum, celestinette and wind-broach, it was originally another name for the hurdy-gurdy.
Invagination is simply the process of putting something inside something else (and in particular, a sword into a scabbard), or else is the proper name for turning something inside out. The opposite is called evagination.
Jaculation is the act of throwing or jostling something around, while to jaculate means “to rush or jolt forward suddenly.”
A jerkinhead is a roof that is only partly gabled (i.e., only forms part of a triangle beneath its eaves) and is instead levelled or squared off at the top, forming a flattened area known as a “hip.” Jerkinheads are also known as “half-hipped” or “clipped-gable” roofs.
As well as being an old nickname for a walking stick or truncheon, knobstick is an old 19th century slang word for a workman who breaks a strike, or for a person hired to take the place of a striking employee.
Like the haboob, the kumbang is another hot, arid wind, in this case one that blows seasonally in the lowlands of western Indonesia.
Lobcock is an old Tudor English word for an idiot or an unsophisticated, clownish bumpkin. Lobcocked is an equally ancient adjective meaning “boorish” or “naïve.”
A nestle-cock is the last bird to hatch from a clutch of eggs. It dates from the early 1600s, when it was also used as a nickname for an overly spoilt or pampered child.
Nicker-pecker is an old English dialect name for the European green woodpecker, the largest woodpecker native to Great Britain. In this context nicker is probably a derivative of nick, meaning a small cut or scratch.
In early 19th century English, boxers were nicknamed nobbers, a name apparently derived from the earlier use of nobber as a slang name for a punch or blow to the head.
Nodgecock, like lobcock, is another Tudor word for a fool or simpleton. It likely derives from an even earlier word, noddypoll, for someone who senselessly nods their head in agreement with any idea, no matter how good or bad it might be.
Pakapoo is a 19th century Australian word for a lottery or raffle. It apparently derives from a Cantonese phrase, baahk gáap piu, literally meaning “white pigeon ticket”—the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that in the original form of the game, a white dove might have been trained to select the winning ticket from all of the entries.
Definitely not what it sounds like, peniaphobia is actually the fear of poverty.
Penistone (pronounced “pen-is-tun”, before you ask) is the name of a picturesque market town in Yorkshire, England, which has given its name to both a type of coarse woollen fabric and a type of locally produced sandstone.
The Scots word pershittie means “prim,” or “overly meticulous.” It’s one of a family of late 18th–early 19th century Scots words all of similar meaning, including perjinkity, perskeety, and, most familiar of all, pernickety.
Pissalat is a condiment popular in southern French cookery made from puréed anchovies and olive oil, mixed with garlic, pepper, and herbs. It’s used to make a type of open bread tart called a pissaladière, which is flavoured with onions and black olives.
Pissasphalt is a thick semi-liquid form of bitumen, similar to tar. The first part of the name is the Greek word for pitch, pissa.
Poonga oil is obtained from the seeds of the Indian beech tree, Pongamia pinnata, and is widely used across southern India as everything from a skin treatment to a replacement for diesel in engines and generators.
Spelled with one T, a sackbut is an early Renaissance brass instrument similar to a trombone. Spelled with two Ts, a sack-butt is a wine barrel.
The adjective sexagesimal means “relating to the number 60,” while anything that proceeds sexagesimally does so in sets of 60 at a time. A sexagesm, ultimately, is one-sixtieth of something.
Both sexangle and the equally indelicate sexagon are simply old 17th century names for what is otherwise known as a hexagon, a plane geometric shape with six sides. The prefix sexa– is derived from the Latin word for “six” rather than its Greek equivalent, heks.
Dating back to the Middle English period, foil is an old-fashioned name for a leaf or petal, which is retained in the names of plants like the bird’s-foot trefoil, a type of clover, and the creeping cinquefoil, a low-growing weed of the rose family. A sexfoil is ultimately a six-leaved plant or flower, or a similarly-shaped architectural design or ornament incorporating six leaves or lobes.
The shittah is a type of acacia tree native to Arabia and north-east Africa that is mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah as one of the trees that God “will plant in the wilderness” of Israel, alongside the cedar, pine, and myrtle. Its name was adopted into English from Hebrew in the early Middle Ages, but it can probably be traced all the way back to an Ancient Egyptian word for a thorn-tree.
Billcock , brook-ouzel, oar-cock, velvet runner, grey-skit, and skiddy-cock are all old English dialect names for the water rail, a small and notoriously elusive wading bird found in the wetlands of Europe, Asia, and north Africa. The name skiddy-cock is thought to be derived from skit, an old 17th century word meaning “to act shyly,” or “to move rapidly and quickly”—but it could just as probably be derived from an even older 15th century word, skitter, meaning “to produce watery excrement.”
In 19th century English, a slagger was a workman in a blast furnace whose job it was to siphon off the stony waste material, or slag, that is produced when raw metals and ores are melted at high temperatures. Even earlier than that, in 16th century English, slagger was a verb, variously used to mean “to loiter” or “creep,” or “to stumble” or “walk awkwardly.”
Staying with furnaces, a tease-hole is simply the opening in a glassmaker’s furnace through which the fuel is added.
Sheep farmers in some rural parts of Britain once had their own traditional counting systems, many of which are particularly ancient and predate even the Norman and Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. Most of these counting systems vanished during the Industrial Revolution, but several remain in use locally and have become fossilised in local rhymes, sayings and folk songs. Tether was an old Lake District name for the number three, while dick was the number ten; tetheradick, ultimately, was a count of 13.
Tit-bore—or tit-bore-tat-bore, in full—is an old 17th century Scots name for a game of peekaboo. It was once also called hitty-titty, as was, incidentally, hide and go seek.
The tit-tyrants are a family of eight species of flycatcher native to the Andes Mountains and the westernmost rainforests of South America. One of the species, the ash-breasted tit-tyrant, is one of the world’s most endangered birds with fewer than 1000 individuals left in a handful of remote, high-altitude sites in Peru and Bolivia.
Wankapin, or water chinquapin, is another name for the American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, a flowering plant native to Central American wetlands. The lotus was apparently introduced to what is now the southern United States by native tribes who would use the plant’s tubers and seeds (known as “alligator corn”) as a source of food.