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26 Strange, Obscure, and Wonderful Words from A to Z

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 unusual words can add color and character to your vocabulary.

These unusual words can add color and character to your vocabulary.

Below are 26 words with which to amuse and amaze friends and family (albeit at the risk of being labelled a boring know-it-all). Take a gander, learn something new, and expand your vocabulary with these wonderfully weird words, all of which were mined by the author from a variety of delicious dictionaries, lovely lexicons, and glorious glossaries.

1. Apocope

We do this all the time without knowing it had a name. It refers to shortening a word—like when fabulous becomes fab or curiosity becomes curio.

2. Biblioklept

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

3. Cacafuego

We’ve all been subjected to many of these since a certain inauguration in the United States in January 2017. The English pinched the word from the Spanish, 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, or raucous laughter, is what follows statements about acing a test that involves remembering “Person, man, woman, camera, TV.”

4. 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.”

5. Elucubrate

Those 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 as we scribble to the guttering flame.

The fulignous air in many major cities across the globe is the direct result of human pollution.

The fulignous air in many major cities across the globe is the direct result of human pollution.

6. 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 . . .”

7. Guttersnipe

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

8. Hunky-Dory

Everything is fine, excellent even! But, how did a word for a buff, shirtless male and a word for a fishing boat get married together to mean “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 remains a mystery.

9. Infandous

A 2009 New York Times 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.

10. Jobation

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

11. 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.

Some might describe the United States under its 45th president as a kakistocracy.

Some might describe the United States under its 45th president as a kakistocracy.

12. Listicle

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

13. Misosophy

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

14. Nexility

Nexility is 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.

15. Oleaginous

In May 2018, conservative columnist George F. Will reintroduced many to this word when describing the former 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.

16. Pettyfogging

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

17. Quillon

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

A sword's quillion prevents enemy blades from sliding toward any fingers that might be wrapped around its handle.

A sword's quillion prevents enemy blades from sliding toward any fingers that might be wrapped around its handle.

18. 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 been), this is it.

19. Snollygoster

This 19th-century word describes a person without principles. It's 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?

20. Tripotage

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

Slight-of-hand magicians engage in tripotage to fool and delight their audiences.

Slight-of-hand magicians engage in tripotage to fool and delight their audiences.

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. Widdershins

No, this is 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.

24. Xylose

So, 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?

25. Yonks

Only Brits and people from certain Commonwealth countries know this word. It’s quite new, first having 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.”

26. Zorbing

See the video below. This sport is not recommended for those with heart or breathing problems, those who have bones in their bodies, or those who have spouses, children, or parents. It is 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. Here are a few:

  • 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

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

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:

Wow!

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.