Words at Play

The Vocabulary Test From Hell

Do you know these words from a 1915 vocabulary quiz?


In 1917, Fred M. Gerlach published a book with the innocuous title of Vocabulary Studies. This slim volume was based on a series of quizzes Gerlach had given to students in an effort to determine their vocabulary size.

The words which follow are taken directly from a quiz Gerlach gave to high school and college students in Colorado circa 1915. The instructions for this section were “Give a working definition for each of the following words with which you are familiar.”

As we don't know the results of the quiz, we cannot accurately judge whether you're smarter than an early 20th century high school student. It does seems certain, however, that this quiz was either much more difficult than it needed to be, or that the students in question had substantially different vocabularies than most students (or adults) have today.

Definition: counterfeit fighting or argument

Skiamachy is the synonym for shadow-boxing that you never knew you needed. It comes in part from the Latin sciamachia, a word which is given an explanation in a description of Roman physical education in an 1873 issue of The Cornhill Magazine: “One of the most extraordinary sports was the Sciamachia, or fighting with one’s shadow. This was accomplished with hands and feet, and was practiced by those of little courage, or of delicate health, to prepare themselves for a more real encounter.”

“And very justly, too,” rejoined my classical friend, “but this skiomachy is not fair towards Miss Onslow.”
The Life of a Collegian, 1853

Definition: the action of enjoying oneself 

One can never have too many words at hand for any of the various stages of happiness, and yet, when one begins to examine the obscured portions of our vocabulary it quickly becomes apparent that we’ve left behind all sorts of potentially useful words in this field. In addition to joyance, we have words for “the excitement associated with a successful beginning” (fleshment), the action of “to make happy” (both felicitate and happify), and “shouting together with joy” (conjubilant).

I’ve a passion for woman, and music, and joyance, And from children I reap more delight than annoyance….
The Odd Fellows’ Magazine of the Manchester Unity of the Independent Order, Jul., 1841

Definition: a thing desired

Desiderate may function as a verb (“to entertain or express a wish to have or attain”), an adjective (“desirable”), or as a noun. You are unlikely to encounter any of these varieties, outside of malicious spelling bees and vocabulary quizzes. The word comes from the same source as its cousin desideratum, which is the Latin word desiderare (“to long for”).

For where we deliver up any thing as a desiderate, so it be a matter of merit; and the reason thereof may seem somewhat obscure.
—Francis Bacon, Of the Advancement and Proficience of Learning, 1640

Definition: foolish

The first meaning of Abderian was “of or belonging to the ancient city of Abdera or to its inhabitants”; it later took on the extended meaning of “foolish.” Abdera was a city in ancient Thrace, and some have held that the inhabitants there were not as bright as their neighbors, leading to this term being used as a pejorative.

Abdera is but one of a number of cities or neighborhoods that have lent their name to words for undesirable traits: boeotian (“a boorish opponent of art and letters”) come from Boeotia; sybaritic (“marked by or given to luxury or voluptuous living”) comes from the ancient Greek city of Sybaris; and billingsgate (“coarsely abusive language”) comes from the name of the fish market in London, where crude language purportedly abounded.

I have myself been a witness to this experience on the part of moribund patients. Infidels, atheists, and skeptics, who are filled with doubts, sneers, floutings, and Abderian laughter….
—F. Bradnack, Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal, July, 1890

Definition: having a howling sound; wailing

Ululant is the more-obscure adjectival form of ululate (“to utter a loud mournful usually protracted and rhythmical sound”) and ululation, the verb and noun (which are themselves both still fairly obscure. All of these come from the Latin ululatus, which is the past participle of ululare, (which in Latin means “to howl, wail” and is of imitative origin).

The clergy, he confessed, were not what he wished the to be, but they were better than Quakers, naked and ululant.
—Andrew Lang, Walton’s Angler, 1896

Definition: horrible sounding

Horrisonous does happen to have a number of synonyms, which range from the mildly to the extremely obscure (such as cacophonous, ineuphonious, and the ever-handy unlistenable), but if you’re going to put together a really devilish vocabulary test, this is the one to pick. It is formed by combining the Latin horrēre (“to bristle, shiver, shudder”) and -sonus (“sounding”).

The bare relation (although we know it to be a facinerious pseudology) is so horrisonous, it has stunned me, until I am now illachrymable.
—Catherine Cuthbertson, Santo Sebastiano, Vol. II, 1820

Definition: a mania for holding public office

Empleomania appears to have entered our language in the middle of the 19th century, borrowed from the Spanish word of the same spelling. Of all the manias our language has been blessed with (and there are many many such words, including dromomania, “an exaggerated desire to wander,” and ergomania, “excessive devotion to work”), this is one of the oddest, and most obscure.

It is easier to understand the empleomania of England than the kindred crazes of Spain and the United States. In England a Government desk is irremovable.
—George Augustus Sala, From Waterloo to the Peninsula: Four Months’ Hard Labor in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Spain, 1867

Definition: beat, scourge

Swinge (which rhymes with cringe, in the unlikely event that you ever need to say this word out loud), has been flailing about in our language for over a thousand years. When encountered in a modern dictionary it is typically marked as archaic or dialectal. It should be noted that neither of these words mean that swinge is in any way a bad word; archaic simply means that it has the characteristics of language used long ago (but survives in some specialized use), and dialectal means that the word in question is somehow “of, belonging to, or characteristic of a dialect.

St. George, that swing’d the dragon, and e’er since sits on his horseback at mine hostess’ door, teach us some fence!
—William Shakespeare, King John, 1623

Definition: Beautiful, comely, graceful, elegant

Venust comes from the Latin word venustus (meaning “attractive, charming”), and appears to have been in use in English since the beginning of the 17th century (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Gavin Douglas at that time contains the strangely alliterative line “The variant vestur of the venust vaill”). The word is striking in that, much like pulchritude, venust does not much resemble its own definition.

Ah beauty! (said I) is it possible to resist thy attraction? or to shut our eyes against so fair an object? Can thy venust exhibitions be seen by any, without passion for thy possession?
—Anon., Eliana, A New Romance, 1661

Biduous
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Definition: lasting for a period of two days

Biduous has managed to cleverly escape the fate that befell biweekly (that word came to mean both “every two weeks” and “twice a week”), although it did so by being so obscure that very few people use it at all. Which seems rather a pity, as it would be useful to have a commonly understood word for this length of time.

Brown records a great number of infrequent and very rare words, words such as biduous, estuous and fastuous....
—Göran Kjellmer, “’-Uous’ and ‘-ious’: On instability in the English suffix system,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 1989




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