I love words. I wrote about how looking at various different words, I can see the contours of our common human experience. It’s amazing to find a word in Japanese or Russian that totally describes something that I’ve always been looking for. There’s something magical when you finally have a name for it! Here are some of my favorite British/Irish Words, old words, words with an “s” sound, high falulin words, weird names of real people, the Allusionist Podcast, foreign words, and some other words.
- Tartle (Scottish) — To hesitate while introducing or meeting someone because you have forgotten their name
- Feckin eejit — I had originally thought that this was just the way a Irish person said fucking idiot. However, after asking a friend, he said, no it’s entirely different. A feckin eejit is just a person who habitually does stupid things (and as this shirt says: Idiot. Fool. A person frequently involved in foolish acts often used affectionately). He explained that a fucking idiot is a person who cut you off on the road. A feckin eejit is a person who can never figure out how to get to your house.
- Gobshite (Irish) — Someone who can’t stop talking nonsense. Everything out of their mouth is just complete garbage.
- Sleeveen (Irish) — A person with a very slimy demeanor. Very similar to a snake. A person with a very slimy demeanor very similar to a snake. It reminds me of the Harry Potter House Slytherin.
- Sgrìob (Gaelic) — The itchiness on the upper lip that comes before taking a sip of whiskey
- Bumfodder (English) — Bumfodder is something so worthless that it would be more useful for wiping your butt.
- I found some of these in the entertaining The Little Book of Lost Words: Collywobbles, Snollygosters, and 86 Other Surprisingly Useful Terms Worth Resurrecting.
- Blowing a Raspberry — I particularly like the etymology on this one. Blowing a raspberry makes a fart sound. It’s called a raspberry because it is a form of rhyming slang for fart in “raspberry tart.” It’s the only time I’ve used rhyming slang in my everyday language. (Added 2021)
- Marshmallow — The yummy surgery candy, is actually derived from old ancient food. In Egyptians considered it a sacred food eaten by royalty. It was made from a plant called a mallow that grew in the marsh — so they got the name marshmallow.
- 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.”
- Balderdash… ballyhoo… bamboozle… brouhaha — How to talk like C. Montgomery Burns
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.
Pompous, High Falutin Words
- Bloviate — Talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way.
- Ebullient — Cheerful and full of energy.
- Perspicacious — Highly perceptive and shrewd.
- Stentorian — Loud, powerful, booming, suitable for giving speeches to large crowds.
- Treacle — Cloying sentimentality or flattery.
- Unctuous — Excessively or ingratiatingly flattering; oily.
Names of Real People
- The Best of Weird Names
- The Strange Name Movie has so many wonderful names like Tim Burr, Howard Schmuck, and a troop of Ronald McDonalds.
- Saturday Night Live did some skits on funny sounding names in Superspreader Event and Earthquake News Report.
- Killer? Murder? Many Find They Can Live With It by Mike Royko.
- Inspired by the headline Terry Boot replaces Peter Foot at Shoe Zone, Jimmy Kimmel found a number of people whose jobs and names match pretty well
- 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 campaign to get doctors to wash their hands. I just love the way his Hungarian name sounds. Radiolab has a podcast of the Semmelweis story.
- M. T. Lott — A shell company that was used when assembling parcels to create Walt Disney World.
- Potoooooooo — An 18th-century thoroughbred racehorse. When the owner told the stable boy to call the horse “potatoes” he wrote out all 8 O’s.
- 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. You can still buy toilets from Thomas Crapper, The Original Name in Bathrooms.
- 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.
- Then there’s the politicians like Senator Mike Crapo from Idaho and Senator Dick Swett from New Hampshire.
The Allusionist Podcast
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.
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. I also found two other books on the topic: the beautiful book Lost in Translation (Maria Popova’s review) and Other Wordly. Lost in Translation has some wonderful illustrations (e.g., for Pochemuchka that I link to below.)
- 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
- 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
- Fika (Swedish) — Gathering together to talk and take a break from everyday routines, usually drinking coffee and eating pastries—either at home or at a cafe—for hours on end
- Kummerspeck (German) — Literally “grief bacon,” it refers to the weight gained from stress eating
- Jayus (Indonesian) — A joke so bad that you cannot help but laugh
- Trepverter (Yiddish) — A witty riposte or comeback thought of only when it is too late to use. Literally, “staircase words.” An entire episode of Seinfeld was based on this concept
- Akihi (Hawaiian) — Listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them
- Drachenfutter (German) — The fit a husband gives his wife when he’s trying to make up for bad behavior. Literally “dragon fodder”
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit) — The act of repeatedly going outside to keep checking if anyone else is coming
- Luftmensch (Yiddish) — Someone who is a bit of a dreamer. Literally “head in the clouds”
- Kabelsalat (German) — The mess of tangled wires or computer cables. Literally “cable salad”
- Tsundoku — The Japanese word for acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them
Other Concepts Too Good to Leave Out
- Competence Porn — TV shows or movies about people doing difficult jobs well. Examples are Sherlock Holmes or The West Wing. Coined by John Rodgers in 2009. (Added 1/2021)
- Epistemic Trespass is when people who are experts in one field opine and judge another. This was a big problem when people espoused incorrect COVID-19 advice without having expertise. Here’s a good interview with Nathan Ballantyne who coined the term.
- Exceptional Working Day — Sometimes countries will create special holidays, like to honor the death of a president. This is the opposite situation. 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
- Nepreryvka — In the early 20th century the Soviet union eliminated weekends and implemented a continuous 5 day work week eliminating weekends
- Sparkeponyfarts — The feeling that a writer gets when they feel like they should be able to beautifully clarify a beautiful and profound thought but just can’t. From my friend Shana’s poem Treason
- 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
- Whataboutism — This is one of the most important words in political communications playbook. It’s actually one of Russia’s favorite propaganda tricks