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Frog Tossing & More: Words You May Hardly Believe

Top 10 Words with Bizarre Meanings


Definition:

to flourish a sword in sword dancing so as to produce a whistling sound

About the Word:

Whiffling may have its origin in the efforts of ancients to clear the dance area of evil spirits. Not every dance area, of course: sword dance areas.

Sword dances - traditional folk dances featuring men and swords - have a long and glorious history. These days, you can see (and hear) whiffling in the circular "guerrilla" dances of Turkey and the Balkans and in the Balkan "rusalia" fertility dance.

By the way, the trademark "Wiffle Ball" omits the h.

Definition:

to throw violently into the air; especially, to throw (a frog) into the air from the end of a stick

About the Word:

Although it originally involved an unsavory pastime in which sticks were used to hurl frogs into the air, this word has had other meanings as well. For example, one 19th century report refers to a particular horse's insistence on "spang-hewing" its riders.

(Spang, by the way, is a verb in its own right. It's mostly used in Scotland and means "throw" or "jump.")

Definition:

divination by means of the movements of an ax placed on a post

About the Word:

An ancient means of determining guilt, axinomancy involved balancing an ax on a post, and reading a list of names aloud. If the ax moved at a particular name, that person was deemed guilty.

In another (equally strange) version, a marble was placed on a red-hot ax; the motion of the marble signaled guilt.

top-10-words-with-bizarre-meanings-breeches-part
Photo: Wikipedia

Definition:

a theatrical role that is regularly or frequently played by an actress in male costume

About the Word:

Men, not women, traditionally wear breeches (a type of short pants), but women, not men, fill the breeches part.

In Shakespeare's day, male actors played the roles of women; by the mid-17th century, after the Puritan ban on theater had ended, women were playing female parts. The notion of the breeches part reintroduced novelty as women donned pants to play traditionally male roles. A modern-day breeches part is the role of Peter Pan.

Definition:

thorough chewing of food until it becomes like porridge

About the Word:

Poltophagy was an offshoot of Fletcherism, a health fad of the Victorian era. Nutritionist Horace Fletcher advocated chewing each mouthful 30+ times before swallowing as a method of maximizing health. Adherents of poltophagy were not distracted from dinner conversation by chew-counts, but they nonetheless had their mouths full for much of the meal.

The word poltophagy was coined by a doctor who drew upon the Greek word poltos for his coinage, with the misunderstanding that poltos meant "masticated" or "finely divided." Poltos, though, means "porridge," and this etymology has stuck to the modern word.

Definition:

a writing composed of words not having a certain letter

About the Word:

Lipo- means "lacking; without," and gram comes from gramma, meaning "letter."

The most challenging lipogram - a decidedly constrained form of writing - excludes E, the most common letter in English. In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 words without using the letter "E." Below is a lipogram version of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" lacking the letter O (from Peter Blinn, curiousnotions.com):

Mary had a little lamb
The bleached and chalky kind.
And everywhere she went, the lamb
Was rarely left behind.

Definition:

a person employed to scare off crows

About the Word:

Keeping the crows away was once enough of a task to merit its own occupation name; in the first act of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio scoffed at the idea of Romeo and his buddies "scaring the ladies like a crowkeeper."

It was the technology of the scarecrow, presumably, that made the crowkeeper obsolete.

Definition:

an imaginary large four-legged beast with legs on one side longer than on the other for walking on hillsides

About the Word:

Described as a "near relative of the Whang-Doodle and a distant cousin of the Snipe," the gyascutus made its first appearance in American newspapers in the 1840s, and has played a minor role in American folklore since then. In one tale, a pair of the critters clung to each other for support as they wended their way to western territories; in other stories, the lopsided gyascutus would topple off hillsides and be unable to stand up again.

The gyascutus (that name - the origin of which is unknown - gives a nod to Latin taxonomy) goes by many other names. One modern incarnation, the Sidehill Gouger, appears in a video game of that name.

Definition:

a word or form occurring only once in a document or collection of writings

About the Word:

As obscure as this concept may seem to be, hapax legomenon (from the Greek "something said only once") has proven quite useful to biblical scholars and those studying ancient writings. Each hapax legomenon is especially difficult to interpret because contextual clues are, by definition, limited.

Mytacism

Definition:

excessive or wrong use of the sound of the letter m

About the Word:

Roman grammarians seeking to classify vitia ("errors in language") borrowed this term from the Greek mytakismos (my refers to the letter mu).

The ancients' interest in categorizing errors gave modern speech therapists and linguists a few other terms for speech errors: rhotacism ("defective pronunciation of the letter r"); iotacism ("excessive use of the letter I or iota or a too frequent repetition of its sounds"); and the more familiar lisp ("imperfect pronunciation of the sibilants /s/ and /z/").




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