To start with I found an amazing etymological podcast called The Allusionist by Helen Zaltzman. She has some great episodes on cursing [NSFW], Mountweazels (fictional words used in dictionaries for copyright purposes), portmanteaus (combination words like “brunch”) and eponyms (words named after people). She also had a great TED talk on how the letter i got a dot on top of it.
Old words that come from Rhetoric
- Abecedarian — The word means “alphabetical” but don’t the letters line up so nicely?
- Battologia — The meaningless repetition of words or ideas. To me, it sounds like using words as a battering ram.
- Zeugma — Using more than one meaning for a single word in a sentence like the phrase “Last week John lost his wallet and his life.”
My Favorite Words With an “S” Sound
- Capsaicin — The stuff that makes chili peppers spicy
- Corpus — A collection of written texts.
- Feckless — Irresponsible. I liked this word before the Samantha Bee controversy.
- Insouciant — Showing a casual lack of concern; indifferent.
- Screed — A long piece of writing, especially one that is boring or expresses an unreasonably strong opinion.
- Sibilant — The speech sounds produced by forcing air through a constricted passage (as ‘f’, ‘s’, ‘z’, or ‘th’ in both ‘thin’ and ‘then’). I also like a similar word plosive which is stopping the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, followed by a sudden release of air (e.g, t, k, and p).
- Sphygmomanometer — A blood pressure cuff.
My Favorite Pompous, High Falutin Words
- Bloviate — Talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way.
- Ebullient — Cheerful and full of energy.
- Stentorian — Loud, powerful, booming, suitable for giving speeches to large crowds.
- Treacle — Cloying sentimentality or flattery.
- Unctuous — Excessively or ingratiatingly flattering; oily.
There’s a great young people’s book that I love called What a Wonderful Word. It’s a short collection of 24 untranslatable words from around the world. Some of those words are included below I posted more about the book here.
- Poronkusema (Finnish) — The distance a reindeer can walk before needing to use the toilet. Normally less than 5 miles.
- Murr-Ma (Wagiman, an indigenous Australian language) —To walk through the water, searching for something with only your feet.
- Abbiocco (Italian) — Drowsiness from eating a big meal
- Gluggavedur (Icelandic) — Weather that looks beautiful while you’re inside, but is much too cold when you step outside.
- Talaka (Belarusian) — The act of working cooperatively, as when assisting someone in their house or field without expecting payment other than a good meal shared at the end of the day.
- Nakama (Japanese) — Friends who are like family
- Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese) —The act of running your fingers through someone’s hair
- Mencolek (Indonesian) — The act of tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them.
- Pelinti (Buli, a Ghanian language) — To move food that is too hot around your mouth as you wait for it to cool down.
- Pochemuchka (Russian) — A child who asks “why?” all the time; a person who asks too many questions. I totally was that kid. My dad had a friend who actually limited to 3 questions a day. I don’t remember the types of questions but I was a very curious kid. When I got older I found that as adults we don’t ask enough questions and need to dig deeper to understand why things happen so we can fix them and build products to meet customers’ needs.
Other Words Too Good to Leave Out
- Nepreryvka — In the early 20th century the Soviet union eliminated weekends and implemented a continuous 5 day work week eliminating weekends.
- Tsundoku — The Japanese word for acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.
- Velben Goods — Demand for most products increases as the price goes down. Velben goods are more demanded as prices go up, like in designer handbags.
- Exceptional Working Day — Sometimes countries will create special holidays, like to honor the death of a president. This is the opposite, when the government decides people should work on a weekend. I’ve seen this happen in India when they needed to open the banks to clear payments and in China so that they could give people the whole week off for Chinese New Year.
My Favorite Names of Real People
- David Dollar — Former employee of the U.S. Treasury.
- Catarina Fake — Co-Founder of Flickr. That’s her real name.
- Robert Lowth — I loathe Robert Lowth. This is the man who came up with the silly English grammar rules like don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Lowth had a misguided notion that English was basically Latin that had lost its way.
- Hugo Munsterberg — The academic advisor to William Marston, creator of Wonder Woman. In the audiobook for A Secret History of Wonder Woman, I can’t help but feel that the author, Jill Lepore, giggles every time she says Munsterberg’s name.
- Sol Price — Founder of Price Club which later merged with Costco.
- Ignaz Semmelweis — Early pioneer of antiseptic procedures who was vilified for his belief that germs cause disease. I just love the way his Hungarian name sounds.
- M. T. Lott — A shell company that was used when assembling parcels to create Walt Disney World.
- Thomas Crapper — A plumbing magnate who holds many toilet related plumbing patents. His Wikipedia page says that the word “crap” predates Mr. Crapper but that’s hard to believe. Wallace Reyburn’s biography of Mr. Crapper is Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper.
- Otto Titzling – A fictional character said to have created the bra and immortalized by Bette Midler in Beaches. The name and story were created by Wallace Reyburn in the satire Bust-up: The uplifting tale of Otto Titzling and the development of the bra. Reyburn must have gotten the idea to do the fictitious biography after writing about the life of Mr. Crapper.