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An A to Z of Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure Words

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.

These 26 words take us on an extraordinary linguistic journey from A to Z.

These 26 words take us on an extraordinary linguistic journey from A to Z.

Being a word snob is a thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it. Here, then, are 26 pretentious words with which to dazzle and annoy adversaries. Use them at your own peril.

26 Annoyingly Odd Vocabulary Words

1. Ablutomania is a compulsion to keep washing oneself. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computers, had the opposite condition. He believed that, as a vegan, he had no body odour and didn’t need to bathe. His co-workers at Atari felt differently and, after they fielded multiple complaints about Jobs’ fragrance, management put him on the night shift.

2. Blivet is something that is completely useless. The word may have come out of slang used by American servicemen in the Second World War as a contraction of blip and rivet. It’s often described as ten pounds of horse poop in a five-pound bag. Suggestions for examples of blivets may be made in the comments at the bottom of this page, but please refrain from suggesting politicians—that’s far too obvious.

3. Cruciferous refers to a class of vegetables that includes, cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and everybody’s favourite, Brussels sprouts.

4. Doctiloquent is an adjective that means spoken learnedly. The exact opposite might be something like this from a South Carolina political rally on July 21, 2015: “Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world . . .”

5. Empasm is “A perfumed powder to be sprinkled on the body to mask the odor of sweat” (Webster). It’s said to be obsolete and, suddenly, we are back with Steve Jobs’ co-workers wishing he would apply some.

6. Flageolet sounds like something a dominatrix might wield, but it’s a wind instrument from what’s called the “flipple flute family.” There is also a variety of bean called flageolet that is highly prized in France for use in stews and salads. It’s quite possible here to set a new world record in the highly unlikely connections between the bean and flute definitions. Among pre-adolescent boys, beans are greatly valued as sources of gas, and the author has heard them referred to as the “musical fruit.”

7. Goldbricking started out its life as an innocent description of a brick-sized piece of gold, but in October 1879, it changed its nature completely. Mr. N.D. Clark, a banker, became a victim of a scam by being conned into advancing $10,000 against the acquisition of a 52-pound brick of gold. But, of course, only the visible part of the brick was gold, and the rest was worthless. Others pulled off the same swindle, and it became known as “selling a gold brick.” The word has further morphed into describing the occupation of someone who is a lazy malingerer who refuses to do an honest day’s work.

8. Herf is what cigar aficionados do when they gather to puff away on their favourite stogies. The word seems to have emerged in Texas in the 1980s and first referred to drawing in the cheeks to suck on a tightly, hand-rolled cigar. Now, it means a meeting of cigar smokers.

9. Illachrymable refers to the inability to cry, even over such massively catastrophic events as spilling beer.

10. Jirble means to spill a liquid because of trembling hands. Boo hoo. Well, hot dang! Look what showed up under the letter “J.”

11. Kakidrosis is the medical term for smelly sweat. Looks like there’s a bit of a Steve Jobs theme developing here . . .

12. Labretifery is a word that started life in the 1880s when Dr. William Healey coined it to describe body piercing practiced by the Inuit in Alaska. The word faded into obscurity, but it’s back in fashion today.

13. Myrmidon is someone who blindly follows a powerful person no matter how rebarbative (see below) that leader might be.

14. Notabilia refers to “Things worthy of note” (Merriam-Webster). That is what is currently before your eyes.

15. Omnishambles is a brand new(ish) word that first appeared in 2009 in a British television political satire. It describes a decision-making process that invariably chooses the worst possible option. (See myrmidon above).

16. Paradiastole is “The reframing of a vice as a virtue” (definitions.com). This is the world of spin doctors in which a “bald-faced lie” becomes an “alternative fact.”

17. Quockerwodger. For people who put together listy things like this, certain letters present a real problem and the temptation is to jump right over them and pretend they aren’t there. Q is one such obstacle, as it appears only once out of every 510 words in English. You’re welcome. Any guesses about quockerwodger? No? It means “a wooden puppet on a string” (World Wide Word). The word has also come to describe a politician who is manipulated by another; a Russian president pulling the strings of another world leader perhaps?

18. Rebarbative means unpleasant, unattractive, repellent, and a whole bunch of other words. No need to belabour the point by naming individuals.

19. Sialoquent is a person to keep your distance from because it means someone who spits while they talk. It’s an occupational hazard among actors because projecting the voice usually involves considerable spray. So, try not to sit in the first couple of rows.

20. Thrasonical means highly boastful. Think of statements like “I have the best words,” “I’m a very stable genius,” and “I am the chosen one.”

21. Urimancy is the art of fortune-telling by studying urine, which, if the predicted outcome is bad, may give rise to the comment “That really pisses me off.”

22. Verbigeration is a mental health condition described by Polish-American psychiatrist Bernard Glueck in 1916 as the uttering of “a senseless word salad.” It usually involves the frequent repetition of words and phrases typical of election campaigns.

23. Whifflers. A list such as this would hardly be complete without dropping in on the Bard of Avon, the creator of some 1,700 words (although there’s some debate about the total number). In Henry V, Part One we get:

The deep-mouth’d Sea,

Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King,

Seems to prepare his way.

Whifflers were, in the Shakespearean sense, soldiers wielding staves and swords to clear a path for the monarch. A modern equivalent might be the use of tear gas and flash/bangs to clear a path through Washington’s Lafayette Park.

24. Xeric. Even more difficult than Q, is finding words starting with X. The BBC program Quite Interesting says “There is a variety of carrot beginning with every letter of the alphabet except X.” So it’s no good turning to Daucus carota for help. So, here we have “xeric,” meaning very dry conditions; in other words a place where carrots will not grow.

25. Yarborough refers to a hand of playing cards containing no face cards, or cards above nine.

26. Zemblanity means the opposite of serendipity. The Scottish novelist William Boyd felt the world needed an opposite, so late in the 20th century, he invented zemblanity. In essence, the word perfectly sums up the result of U.S. state governors opening up their economies in the midst of a deadly virus pandemic and hoping the number of infections would not increase. However, just about everybody with an opposable thumb could see a spike in illness would be the result. It was an “unpleasant unsurprise,” or zamblanity.

Bonus Factoids

  • There are only two English words that start and end with “und”—underfund and underground.
  • “Barf” is Persian for snow; that’s good to know.
  • In 25 languages as diverse as Arabic, Italian, and Norwegian, there is a fruit known as “ananas.” Only in English is it called a pineapple because, of course, it has nothing to do with pines nor apples.
  • Each "A" in “Australia” is pronounced differently.

Source

The information in this article was garnered from a gathering of glossaries, a diverse array of dictionaries, loads of lexicons, and countless compilations.

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

Comments

Ann Carr from SW England on July 01, 2020:

There's a clever one made up by Macfarlane's son, referring to water building up before it passes over a rock - 'current bum'!

I like 'bumfuzzle', it's onomatopoeic.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 01, 2020:

Hi Ann. There's a rich vein still to be mined. You might also like:

Bumfuzzle - being confused and perplexed

Cattywampus - disarray

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 01, 2020:

Hi Rodric. Thanks for your comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 01, 2020:

Hi John. In my youth I used to hang out with some Aussies living in Kangaroo Canyon, Earls Court, London. Sometimes you'd hear their native land pronounced something like Orstrilya.

Ann Carr from SW England on July 01, 2020:

I love this collection of words! I knew flageolet was a bean, from my days in France but didn't know the rest.

I think my favourite is 'quockerwodger'; it's a great one to say!

You might like Robert Macfarlane's book called 'Landmarks' - each section is followed by a glossary of words taken from each type of landscape he visits and some of those are wonderful (I've done a hub about it.)

Great hub!

Ann

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on June 30, 2020:

Oh, I like you. Thus is an awesome collection. Some of these words are familiar to me. I found your writing witty, though I do support Trump--to a significantly lesser degree.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 30, 2020:

Pineapple..an apple like fruit that grows on a pine tree, right? This was a fun read and very entertaining, Rupert. I loved the Steve Jobs references (May he RIP) and the politician who shall remain nameless.

From the country with the three different sounding “A’s” well done.