A Collection of Obscure Words That Are Pretty Much Useless
Sometimes, a word falls out of use through no fault of its own. Other times, the blame lands squarely on the word's shoulders. Here's Ammon Shea with a special batch of words that were just too specific or too unnecessary to live.
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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)
(teaser clip) AMMON SHEA, HOST: It would be nice to have a selection of obscure words which are kind of aggressively useless.
EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on this special edition of Word Matters: obscure words of the useless variety. 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. Sometimes a perfectly good word will, through no fault of its own, fall out of use. Other times, a word gets tossed because it’s a victim of its own specificity or because it doesn’t actually do anything. Today we’re joined by editor Ammon Shea with some highly obscure and ultimately rather useless words.
AMMON: The other day we were talking about obscure words and how many people have this fascination with obscure words in English, and we did an episode where we tried to bring to light some of the lesser-known obscure words which might be useful in everyday life. And as we did that I also was thinking it would be nice to have a selection of obscure words which are kind of aggressively useless. Words which have almost no likelihood of being applicable, we hope, in your everyday life. Because they are beauties in and of themselves.
EMILY: Words for words’ sake.
AMMON: Exactly. Words for words’ sake. And if we start with the A’s, one of my favorites is anatiferous, which is defined as “producing geese.”
EMILY: Can you give us an example of something that would be anatiferous?
AMMON: Well, no. I can’t.
EMILY: What is geese-producing? The eggs? These goose eggs?
AMMON: Well, I think it was Lout, in a dictionary in the 17th century, he was one of the first to define it. And as far as I can tell, it was this theory that barnacles would grow on trees and then the barnacles would fall into the water and then these became geese. And this kind of gave rise somehow to the word anatiferous. Now we should point out that Samuel Johnson in the 18th-century defined anatiferous as “producing ducks.” And we disagree with that strongly. We’ve always defined it as “producing geese.”
EMILY: Interesting. So this is a word that is reflective of a cosmology that we have now abandoned, this idea that creatures will spring from…
EMILY: … from things other than eggs or seeds.
AMMON: Right. And a lot of peculiar words having to do with birds, many of which have fallen by the wayside.
EMILY: Are there any that have to do with, there used to be an understanding that mice grew from rags; a pile of rags was a source of mice.
AMMON: No, I have never come across this.
EMILY: I bet there’s a word out there, Ammon.
AMMON: There must be.
EMILY: Maybe you can find it.
AMMON: I’ll take a look. We have a lot of other kind of odd bird words. Another lovely one is peristeronic, which we define as “of or relating to pigeons,” which particularly if you live in an urban area you might well find that applicable. I have to admit in this case, although I’m a huge fan of our definitional style, I do like that the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, I think it’s a little more poetically, as “suggestive of pigeons.” Because “suggestive of pigeons” just has a really kind of nice ring to it. We also use “suggestive” in our definitional language pretty frequently. We define cabbagey as “suggestive of a cabbage” and avuncular is “suggestive of an uncle,” so the OED doesn’t get all the poetic glory in this, but avuncular also reminds me that many of our listeners know the word avuncular, which means “suggestive of an uncle, especially in kindliness or geniality.” And people have occasionally asked is there a similar word for aunt, and there is: it’s materteral, which is “suggestive or resembling an aunt,” particularly a maternal aunt.
EMILY: It doesn’t have the same rolling off the tongue.
AMMON: No, it doesn’t. I think that’s one of the reasons it never really caught on.
EMILY: Can you say it again?
AMMON: Well I can, but I’m probably mispronouncing it: materteral. M-A-T-E-R-T-E-R-A-L.
EMILY: Yeah, that’s just not an easy word.
AMMON: It’s a hard sell, you know? It’s kind of like remunerative, it’s you know, everybody wants to say "renumerate." Looking at antiferous, these 17th century lexicographers who came up with these insane words reminded me of Henry Cockeram, who was a wonderful, though not exactly precise lexicographer, in the early 17th century had a number of these kind of animal words which are really peculiar. And Cockeram was, he was the undisputed master of defining words pertaining to crying out like some creature. He had words like desticate, which was “to cry like a rat”; pupillate, “cry like a peacock”; glaucitate, “cry like a whelp”; glacitate, to cry like a gander”; cucubate, “to cry like an owl”; crociate, “to cry like a raven”; and my person favorite bubulcitate, “to cry like a cow boy.” And that’s cow boy in two words, not like a modern sense of cowboy.
EMILY: Wow. Did he have one for foxes?
AMMON: He did not have one for crying like a fox, but he did have vulpeculated, which means “robbed by a fox.”
EMILY: Ah. But still you know the song “What does the fox say?”
AMMON: Yeah, he didn’t have any foreknowledge of that.
EMILY: I appreciate though his desire to really give human language to these cries of various animals.
AMMON: You say that now, but if you look through Cockeram you start to question that appreciation for some of his creations. (laughs) They may not all have been his creations, but there is some speculation that Cockeram in fact made up some of these words. Bubulcitate, to cry like a cow boy, should not be confused with the very similar-sounding bulbitate, which is a regrettable word. There’s really no polite way of defining it other than to say it means “to defacate in one’s pants.” And Cockeram had a real strength in words of this nature.
EMILY: I want both of those words in a sentence, though.
AMMON: (laughs) I can make you take that back with the next word, which actually didn’t come from Cockeram but since we’re moving into this kind of unfortunate territory and we are describing words which we really hope will never be applicable in your everyday life, jumentous is one of the most peculiar English words because it means “of urine, resembling that of a horse in odor.” So if you ever need a truly odd example of how the English language works.
EMILY: Or if you’re a horsey person, or a large animal veterinarian, for example.
AMMON: Yeah, that’s true. We do have a real wealth of words relating to animal odors. For instance we have several words: hircinous and rammish, which mean “smelling like a goat”; caprylic, which means “suggestive of an animal in rank pungeancy.” We have a huge number of really peculiar kind of smell words, and I think there’s a good reason why most of these kind of fell by the wayside, because they’re really not that pleasant to think about sometimes.
EMILY: Well maybe also our experiences are now more often removed from animals than they were formerly. At some point when these words were in use, people were in more frequent contact with animals than most of us are now, I imagine.
AMMON: That is true, but that doesn’t explain why we have not held onto nidorosity, which is, it’s a meat burp. There’s no other way to kind of put that politely. Samuel Johnson defined it as “eructation,” which means burp, “with the taste of undigested roast meat.”
EMILY: Can you say it again, please?
AMMON: Nidorosity. Nidor is the smell of cooked meat, nidorous means “smelling like burning animal matter.” I think some of us wish that we were far removed from this in today’s day and age, but I think we’re not actually.
EMILY: We just pretend it doesn’t exist.
AMMON: Yeah. We just pretend that nidorosities are not just part of our everyday life. And we hope that it continues to be so. If we are gonna talk about food words though, I think we might as well have a nicer one, which is jentacular. Which means “pertaining to breakfast.” And somehow, we’ve given up on jentacular. It never really made the cut.
EMILY: Yeah, I feel like that could really be brought in. There are all these restaurants that, breakfast places could use jentacular.
AMMON: They could use jentacular.
AMMON: It’s J-E-N-T-A-C-U-L-A-R.
EMILY: There really are a dearth of good J words also, I think, in common use.
EMILY: So this is a word that’s got a lot going for it, I think.
AMMON: Yeah. Jentacular, it’s perfect. For other obscure words, I wouldn’t call it useless but they’re not coming up that often, but I was just thinking about this one today. Psithurism. Spelled with a P. It is defined as “a whispering sound, as of wind among leaves.”
EMILY: That is a nice one.
AMMON: It’s such a pretty word. We should leave jumentous and nidorosity behind and let’s just all think about psithurism.
EMILY: Fine with me.
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 email@example.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 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.