Word Matters Podcast

A Collection of Obscure Words That You Might Find Useful

Word Matters, episode 3

Few parts of the English language fascinate its users more than obscure and obsolete words. Today, our in-house collector of errant words Ammon Shea brings us a few words that may have been lost to history, but perhaps might be worth picking up and dusting off.

Download the episode here.


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

(teaser clip)

AMMON SHEA, HOST: Our language is full of words which are hugely, hugely useful, and which never really caught on.

(segment intro)

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on this special edition of Word Matters, useful words that have been lost in time. 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.

(music break)

EMILY: English has been around for about a thousand years. In that span, it has become a behemoth of a language with a current lexicon reasonably assessed at approaching, or even exceeding, a million words. But what about the thousands of words it jettisoned along the way? Next up, we’re joined by our obscure word expert Ammon Shea, who has some lost words you might want to dust off and throw into a conversation some time.

AMMON: People like to find that there’s a word for something that they didn’t know there was a word for, and that’s also great, but a lot of times you feel like people get stuck on words like philtrum, the little, you know, groove above your lip, or ferrule, the little metal bit at the end of a pencil. I always felt like there are words which are potentially, I wouldn’t say more useful, but potentially if you can believe it more interesting than the word for a little metal bit on the end of a pencil. These are some of my favorite kind of useful-slash-useless words, and I think top of that list is this word which, by the way, I cannot pronounce because I’ve never had the opportunity to say it out loud in conversation. It’s ucalegon. U-C-A-L-E-G-O-N. And this word, it means “a neighbor whose house is on fire.” We don’t mean this in a mean way. I mean that it is useful in a purely descriptive way, I hope, in the unfortunate event that your neighbor’s house is on fire you will now know the word for that. Ucalegon was, he was a Trojan councilor, he was one of Priam’s councilors and when the city of Troy was sacked by the Greeks his house was unfortunately right next to the city walls and ended up catching on fire. And so he was written about by Virgil and a number of other poets subsequent to that, and at some point several hundred years ago people started using his name as a figurative word for somebody whose house is on fire. This word never really caught on. I think the only dictionary that I ever saw it in was our second edition of Webster’s Unabridged 1934. They took it out for the 1961 edition, probably because nobody was really using this word, so...

EMILY: Did it appear in poetry?

AMMON: It did appear occasionally in poetry and it appeared in a translation of Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and you see it once in a while from several hundred years ago. But it’s a good warning that if you don’t use these words, sometimes they might disappear, so if you have a favorite obscure word, start using it.

EMILY: I agree, yes. And I happen to be partial to both philtrum and ferrule, just for the record. I especially like to teach small children that this is called a philtrum.

AMMON: They are fine words. This is a word that you probably shouldn’t teach small children, but one of my favorites is… we all know the word sympathy, and many of us have sympathy for people, as well we should, but sometimes we don’t have sympathy for people and we may even need an antonym, which is a lack of sympathy, and dyspathy is actually defined as “a lack of sympathy.” And this is useful because most people would kind of default to antipathy, which kind of works but in most cases antipathy really means a strong feeling of dislike, or a marked aversion to somebody. And dyspathy is not actually that; it’s just the opposite. It’s a lack of sympathy.

EMILY: Do you have a theory as to why this word has not really become very current in the language?

AMMON: I don’t have any theories about words. (laughs) I don’t have theories about why words do or don’t work. I mean our language is full of words which are hugely, hugely useful, and which never really caught on.

EMILY: Yet I think that a phrase, “lack of sympathy,” is a very common phrase. And for some reason English speakers have not chosen to go with a more succinct way of saying it. Instead there is this pull toward "lack of sympathy" as opposed to dyspathy.

AMMON: I mean you’ve raised an excellent point though, which is that the phrase "lack of sympathy" actually fills that need. So one of the things that comes up with obscure words is that they express something which we can otherwise express. By defining the word you are showing that we are aware of this concept. They may not be so useful that they needed to be used, like deipsnosophist, which is a person who is skilled in small talk or table talk. It’s sometimes defined as “a skilled dinner companion.” I don’t know if that’s so needed but it’s kinda nice to know, as is abligurition, which we have never defined, unfortunately, but Nathan Bailey in the mid-18th century, a great lexicographer, had I thought a kinda charming definition which is “prodigal spending on belly cheer,” which is I think another way of saying spending too much money on food or drink.

EMILY: See that word seems like it is ripe for revival. It really does.

AMMON: It does. And we have a huge number of words dealing with not just food in that way but more specifically dealing with drink. And even more specifically dealing with drinking of alcoholic beverages, which seem entirely applicable to I guess every day and age. So we have words like compotator, one who drinks with another. A compotation is another word for drinking together with somebody.

EMILY: Compotation, that’s different from computation?

AMMON: Yeah. Right.

EMILY: Like you can’t be a compotational linguist.

AMMON: (laughing) You could be a compotational linguist. In fact many of the linguists I know are entirely compotational.

EMILY: Compotational, computation, computution…

AMMON: Yeah they can mix those together.

EMILY: Yeah I can’t even say it now.

AMMON: We have pot-valiant, which is one of my favorite drinking words. It refers to being bold or courageous under the influence of alcohol. It’s the technical way or fancy way of describing liquid courage, and should not be confused with barleyhood, which is another one of our definitions from Webster’s Second which was taken out, which is “bad temper caused by drinking.”

EMILY: Barleyhood?

AMMON: Barleyhood. Which is sometimes rendered as barlichood, depending on which dialect.

EMILY: How do you spell that chood part?

AMMON: Barlichood is B-A-R-L-I-C-H-O-O-D. And the one we had in our 1934 dictionary was barleyhood, spelled just like it sounds.

EMILY: Interesting.

AMMON: Right? And none of our dictionaries or any other modern dictionary that I know of aside of the OED defines debacchate, which was defined first in 1623 as “to revile one after the manner of drunkards.” So I hope you’ve never been debacchated.

EMILY: We should make it clear that if these words were to experience a resurgence in use, we would absolutely consider them for entry. So there is no reason to shun these words or to not just throw them into your regular discourse.

AMMON: Absolutely. If you’re writing a book right now you might want to think about using these. In fact Charlotte Brewer, who is a great academic over in the United Kingdom, once gave a talk that I heard about how the poet Auden, he was friends with Robert Burchfield who was editing the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-20th century, and Auden had this really kind of disagreeable habit which was that he would go look through the OED and he would find words which hadn’t been used for a long time and then he would use them in his poems. And then when they were published he would give them to Burchfield. And he was the only one who’d used them in the last 250 years, which really kind of bumped him up the ladder in terms of the likelihood of being cited. I’m sure Auden would have been cited many, many times in the OED nonetheless, but he really kind of gamed the system and so you should feel free, listeners, to do that as well. Some of these words are still current. We do most of us know the word ultimatum, which is a final proposition, command, or demand. But what’s kind of fallen by the wayside is penultimatum, which is kind of the demand you make before the ultimatum. It’s a demand or proposal approaching an ultimatum.

EMILY: I feel like I make those with my children.

AMMON: Yes. We are all familiar with…

EMILY: Penultimatum. “There will be consequences!”

AMMON: Right. And then I think if we go back further into our dictionaries, we had an entry in Webster’s 1864 which I don’t think lasted much past that, which is polypragmaty and was defined as “the state of being overengaged with business or matters.” So for those people who find themselves spending too much time at work, you now have a fancy word with which to describe your lack of home life.

EMILY: I like that one too. I’m partial to all of these. They’re fun words.

AMMON: They’re all fun words. And really what more can you ask of language?

(music break)

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 is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. 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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