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Words for Word Nerds

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.

Twenty-six words with which to amuse and amaze, although at the risk of being labelled a boring know-it-all.

Apocope. We do this all the time without knowing it had a name. It refers to shortening a word, so that fabulous becomes fab, or curio comes from curiosity.

Biblioklept. The book thief, biblioklept, is absolutely the worst kind of shoplifter. CNN reports that “According to experts, the Bible is the most commonly stolen book.” Amazing, because you can get one free from thousands of places.

Cacafuego. We’ve all be subjected to many of these since a certain inauguration in the United States in January 2017. The English pinched the word from the Spanish in the 1600s who coined it to mean a “fire-pooper.” The English translation is a boastful braggart. This entry comes with a two-for-one bonus because cachinnation, raucous laughter, is what follows statements such as acing a test that involves remembering “Person, man, woman, camera, TV.”

Dorephore. The British writer and politician Sir Harold Nicolson gave this word to the English language. As was the habit of the English he stole the word from someone else, this time the French. In la langue française it describes a potato beetle that is a pest. In 1952, Sir Harold explained that a dorephore is a “questing prig, who derives intense satisfaction from pointing out the errors of others.” A dorephore is the kind of person who would ignore the observation that “My life is a constant struggle between wanting to correct peoples’ grammar and wanting to have friends.”

Elucubrate. All of us who scratch out a living as writers know this only too well. It means to work by candlelight, as we produce our prose wrapped in threadbare blankets, our mittened fingers struggling to hold a pencil, with failed manuscripts stuffed into the gaps in the garret window frames to keep out the worst of the wintry air, and scribble to the guttering flame.

Fuliginous. In 1661, the diarist John Evelyn dipped into a dead language for a word to describe London’s foul air. He pulled out “fuligo,” which means soot in Latin. He wrote that London’s “Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour . . . corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their bodies . . .”

Guttersnipe. In the Elizabethan era, a “snipe” was a disreputable person. In the 1850s, “gutter” was added to describe the kind of shady person hawking stocks on a street corner. Latterly, it came to mean a street urchin.

Hunky-Dory. Everything is fine, excellent even. But, how did the word for a buff, shirtless male and a fishing boat get married together to create a-okay? The combination seems to have appeared in America in the mid-1860s. One salty theory has the word as a corruption of a street in Yokohama, Japan. Honcho dori was a place where establishments staffed by women were set up to entertain sailors. Less interesting is the fact that “Hunk” comes from the Dutch word for home, goal, or safe place. How dory got patched onto it is a mystery.

Infandous. The headline in The New York Times in 2009 read “Canada Bars ‘Infandous’ British Politician, Journalists reached for dictionaries.” Surely, it was a typo and was supposed to be “infamous.” Not at all said a Canadian government official who dragged the word out of the waste heap of disused English words. It means unspeakably horrible, abominable, and disgusting. Having been pulled back from obscurity, it is now the title of a book by Elana K. Arnold.

Jobation. God sent Satan to visit all kinds of misfortune on poor old Job, but of course God loved him; Job, not Satan. So, a jobation is the delivery of a castigation and rebuke for some transgression or other.

Kakistocracy. In 1876, the American poet James Russell Lowell wrote “What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?” The man was clearly a gifted clairvoyant. He retrieved “kakistocracy” from an 1829 novel in which it was described as government by the least competent people in a society.

Listicle. A new entry into the English lexicon and you have one right now before your eyes. A listicle is an article that lists stuff such as “Eight Celebrities Who Have an Extra Toe.” (See sniglets in Bonus Factoids below).

Misosophy. A hatred of knowledge and wisdom. If you’ve made it this far through this frivolity, you are clearly not a misosophist.

Nexility. The art of delivering a short and concise speech. How often have we all wished for this? Abraham Lincoln’s 271-word Gettysburg Address is a classic example of nexility. But, he was just the supporting act for Edward Everett’s 13,607-word oration that droned on for two hours and that no one remembers today.

Oleaginous. In May 2018, conservative columnist George F. Will reintroduced many to this word in describing the U.S. Vice-President: “The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure.” The word means “oily” but when applied to a person it means smarmy, unctuous, and fawning.

Pettyfogging. In January 2020, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts introduced the world to an old word. At the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Roberts resurrected that word “pettifogging” in reminding House of Representatives members not to use trivial arguments. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pettifogging means “to quibble over insignificant details,” or “engage in legal chicanery.”

Quillon. A sword isn’t much use without the cross piece at the hilt to stop an opponent’s blade sliding down yours and taking off a few fingers. The cross piece is called a quillon and, although in use for centuries, didn’t get its own name until late in the Victorian era when fighting with swords had faded into history.

Rannygazoo. This was a favourite word, with a variety of spellings, among Washington journalists in the 1890s. It describes “Nonsense, deception; foolishness” (Oxford Lexico). If ever a word needed to be revived, as the next one has, this is it.

Snollygoster. A 19th-century word that describes a person without principles, usually applied to a politician. It was removed from Webster’s Dictionary in 2003 as it was thought to be obsolete. However, it was brought back by Webster in 2017, the year Donald Trump was inaugurated President of the United States. Coincidence?

Tripotage. We just don’t to shake ourselves loose from this guy. Tripotage a word borrowed from French and it means underhand dealing, jiggery-pokery, and shady activity.

Usageaster. Dictionaries may be copying from one another because they all say the word means “A self-appointed authority on language usage.” We all just love this person.

Vigorish. This is an American slang word that has its roots in Yiddish. It means an excessive rate of interest charged by a loan shark or what banks add to the unpaid balance on a credit card. In the world of bookmakers it’s referred to as vig or juice, and is added to the wager placed.

Widdershins. No. Not the lower leg of someone whose husband has died. (Cue the well-deserved groans). It actually means something moving in the wrong direction, like the balance in your chequebook.

And, we come to the letter dreaded by compilers of fripperies such as this, forcing a plunge into some obscure science discipline. So here comes Xylose, which the Free Dictionary tells us is “A crystalline monosaccharide, C5H10O5, that is a component of most hemicelluloses in plants. Also called wood sugar.” Aren’t you glad you know that?

Yonks. Only Brits, or people from some Commonwealth countries, know this word. It’s quite new and first appeared in the 1950s and means “a long time.” Nobody has been able to trace its origin, but one suggestion is that it sprang from a spoonerism; the speaker intending to say “Donkey’s years,” meaning a long time, tripped over his tongue and said “Yonkey’s dears.”

Zorbing. (See video below). Not recommended for those with heart or breathing problems, those who have bones in their bodies, or those who have spouses, children, or parents. Suitable only for males between the ages of 18 and 24 who are invincible and immortal, until they are not.

Bonus Factoids

Comedian Rich Hall created “Sniglets” to describe the combining of parts of other words to create a new and humourous word. They might also be called daffynations. So;

  • Pubnacious―Angry outburst in a tavern after several beers;
  • Solopreneur―A business person who works alone;
  • Animousity―clicking a screen pointer rapidly to speed up page loading;
  • Egosurf―Putting your own name into a search engine;
  • Intaxication―Elation caused by receiving a tax refund;
  • Furndents―Depression left in carpets by the legs of furniture.


Delicious dictionaries, lovely lexicons, and glorious glossaries.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 13, 2020:

Rupert, thank you for improving my vocabulary enormously. Love, love, love some of these words. The "bonus factoids" were fantactical.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 13, 2020:

Let them make sense.

Emmyboy from Nigeria on October 13, 2020:


Very interesting!

Didn't know these words existed.

I'll try and find a way to work them into my vocabulary now.

Thanks for sharing.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 12, 2020:

Rupert, very curious, and interesting. But thanks for sharing.