Word Matters Podcast

A Collection of Obscure Words for People Who Annoy You

Word Matters, Episode 12

If there's one activity that has bonded English users throughout the centuries, it is the creation of new words to describe those who are unpleasant or otherwise disagreeable. Here's Ammon Shea with some forgotten words you might need when dealing with annoying people.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clip)

AMMON SHEA, HOST: We will never have a dearth of annoying people.

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on this special edition of Word Matters: obscure words for annoying people. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. As people who write dictionaries, we want very much to be of use. We want our work to help you better understand and describe the world around you. That is why in this next segment, editor Ammon Shea will present a collection of terms, the utility of which cannot be overstated, for they are obscure words for annoying people.

AMMON: We are talking about obscure words in the English language, a subject which for many people holds an endless degree of fascination. Since we are lexicographers, it's sometimes nice if we can provide obscure words which may be of use and applicability in people's everyday life. And so today for our installment of obscure words, I thought we would talk a little bit about obscure words for annoying people.

EMILY: Because there are always plenty of those.

AMMON: We will never have a dearth of annoying people. One of the first ones that comes to mind is for words dealing with kind of flatterers or suck ups, and we have a large, large number of words for this, we have sycophant, lick-spittle, pickthank, greasehorn, prenuer. One of my favorites is whillywha, which is not spelled the way it sounds. It's W-H-I-L-L-Y-W-H-A, which is a lovely Scottish word which describes not just a flatterer, but a deceitful flatter. But I think of all the flatterer words, my favorite is toad-eater. What I like about toad-eater is the original meaning of the word was quite literal, and in the 17th century, apparently it was the term for an assistant to a medical charlatan and the toad-eater would eat, or pretend to eat, a poisoned toad and fall down and swoon or something, and then their cohort would cure them of this element.

EMILY: Ammon, I thought you were suggesting that these are words that have applicability in modern life.

AMMON: That's true. And then toad-eater, that was in the early 17th century.

EMILY: Just who do you know?

AMMON: Tell me that you've never eaten a toad in your life. Well then toad-eater by the early 19th century kind of got shortened to toady, and toady and toad-eater now have taken on rather than this obscure medical meaning now just means somebody who flatters unnecessarily. This is a word which everybody will be familiar with which is ultracrepidarian. An ultracrepidarian is somebody who offers advice outside of their area of expertise.

EMILY: That's interesting. Crepidary, what's the etymology there?

AMMON: Etymology, it's one of those rare ones where it actually has an interesting etymology. Most times when you hear somebody say, "This word has a great etymology," they're either lying or making it up or just misinformed, but this one, it comes from the Latin phrase ultra crepidam, meaning beyond the sole, and ostensibly this word came from a story from long, long ago in which there was a famous Greek painter, Apelles, who one day heard a shoemaker criticizing the way he had rendered a foot in his painting, and Apelles said something very mean, cutting, and righteous to them about don't look beyond your shoe or something like that and this story was twisted and told again and again, and that ended up giving birth to ultracrepidarian.

EMILY: Interesting. And now if that were to happen, we would end up with a phrase like stay in your lane.

Ammon Shea: Yes, exactly. So 500 years from now, there's going to be some wonderful looking word stay-in lane-icism or something like that and people will be talking about how this came about. A lot of our kind of lovely insults do come from ancient times. There's Zoilus, which is not just a critic, but it's a bitter and usually enviously carping critic. So it's a really mean term for a critic. This came from the Greek rhetorician critic who was notable in the fourth century, Zoilus, for the severity of his criticisms of Homer's poetry. So we that.

EMILY: Haters going to hate.

AMMON: Yeah, haters are always going to hate. And those haters a lot of times, or even if they're not haters, these ancient haters or ancient figures give rise to terms in modern times, Jehu was a king in ancient Israel who was known for his daring chariot driving, but in modern use, and when I say modern I mean 19th century more or less, his name started to be used as a word for a reckless driver. We have a similar word came up in the early 20th century, which never really made into any dictionaries, which was a jay-driver, which was actually the predecessor of the word jaywalker and a jay-driver was a word for a driver who drove on the wrong side of the road. That did not come from an ancient figure though.

EMILY: Since we're there, tell the story of jaywalker.

AMMON: Well, as far as I can tell, both these words, jay-driver and jaywalker, came up in Kansas City and our earliest evidence for jay-driver is about 1905, and jaywalker came up the following year. And so jay-driver was first, it was somebody who drove on the wrong side of the road, or just ignored other safety features of driving.

EMILY: What's jay?

AMMON: Jay is just an unthinking person. So it was kind of a ninny, so to speak. And so jay-driver then gave rise to jaywalker, and I'm not sure why jay-driver never really stuck around, but jaywalker has really stuck with us.

EMILY: Hasn't jay-driver fallen by the wayside and jaywalker really caught on in the language, in part because the cars have won?

AMMON: Yeah, I think that is a pretty reasonable explanation.

EMILY: We're not going to blame the cars, we're going to blame the walkers.

AMMON: Right. I think that makes sense. If we're looking at other kind of obscure words for people we would rather not be around today, there is a very peculiar one which for some reason hasn't caught the public's attention, which is funker, and it's spelled just like one who funks, and it's what it is. And there is a kind of now obsolete sense of funk, which was too subject to offensive smell or smoke, or to smoke a pipe. And so a funker, which is no longer in widespread use I should say, is one who subjects others to tobacco smoke. And so as we become increasingly dissatisfied with being subjected to tobacco smoke, this is perhaps a word which is applicable in everyday life.

EMILY: Right. But it seems like it kind of missed its time.

AMMON: Funk is now hopelessly polysemous, it's not going to go back to this specific sense. So you lost your shot, funker.

EMILY: I always wonder when I hear a word like that when was it most popular, and what does that mean about what was happening in the lives of English speakers at that time?

AMMON: Right. Was everybody smoking pipes?

EMILY: Right.

AMMON: Yeah.

EMILY: Because there was a time in history when a lot of people were.

AMMON: Sure, right.

EMILY: The age of the funkers.

AMMON: Well, another word for somebody who you might not want to sit next to at dinner is cachinnator. Cachinnate means laugh loudly or immoderately, and so a cachinnator is somebody you just wish they wouldn't laugh quite that much. And that's kind of specific, and so maybe people don't really mind loud laughter, some of us might not really want to listen to that kind of braying cackle all the time, but cachinnation is the word for kind of immoderate laughter.

EMILY: And I think cachinnation is a slightly more widely used word than cachinnator.

AMMON: It is, right, yeah. Definitely. In a similar sense to that, many of us know the word cumber or cumbersome, which means burdensome or troublesome, and many of us also know the word cumber, which means to hinder or encumber by being in the way, or to trouble or harass. But what most of us aren't familiar with, and I think should be, is cumberworld, which is a worthless person or thing, one that cumbers the world.


AMMON: Which is really, I think...

EMILY: It's harsh.

AMMON: It is. It covers everything. It's not just saying, "I don't like the way you laugh," or, "You smell bad," or, "Please don't smoke near me," or, "You're in love with your own opinions like a philodox." It's saying, "You needlessly cumber this world," and there's no coming back from that.

EMILY: Yeah. I'm glad that one isn't really...

AMMON: Don't bring that one back. It's too mean.

EMILY: Yeah.

(music break)

EMILY: We'll have more obscure words from Merriam-Webster editor Ammon Shea in future episodes. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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