English Is Seldom at a Loss for Words

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In vocabulary, English is the richest modern language. It is constantly surprising even to those word gatherers among us who spend much time exploring dictionaries, especially the larger and older lexicons that harbor thousands of neglected words -- words that may be a bit dusty but are none the worse for disuse.

"Shaped like a stirrup" -- could there possibly be a word for that?

There is: stapediform. Or for having the sides reversed, as in a mirror image? (Haven't many of us wondered about this left-right reversal while applying makeup or shaving?) The answer is heterochiral. (Specular is the adjective for pertaining to a mirror or mirrors.) Then there are words for various shapes, like ovoid for egg-shaped, which is fairly common in usage. But what if the object is egg-shaped with the wider end up? Then it's obovoid. Similarly, obconic means conical with the pointed end down and pear-shaped upside down is obpyriform.

There is actually a word, griffinage, that is defined as the state of being a white person newly arrived in the Far East! (Griffonage -- one letter different in spelling -- means a scribble or illegible handwriting.) There's even a word, amphoric, meaning like the sound made when blowing across the lip of an empty bottle; and a term, spanipelagic, describing creatures dwelling in deep water but coming at times to the surface.

Other improbable but actual, dictionary-certified words worthy of mention are adoxography, good writing on a minor subject; bardocucullated, wearing a cowled cloak; perfuncturate, to do halfheartedly; scaff, to beg for food in a contemptible way; tacenda, matters or things that shouldn't be mentioned; ventifact, a stone rounded off by the wind; agathism, the belief that things tend to work out for the better; assentation, rote or insincere agreement; quomodocunquize, to make money in any conceivable way; naufrageous, in danger of shipwreck (naufragous is causing shipwreck); macarism or confelicity, joy or pleasure in another's happiness; borborygm, a growling in the stomach; laquearian, armed with a noose; filipendulous, hanging by a thread; eumoirous, lucky in being happily innocent and good; tarassis, male hysteria; and charientism, an insult that is artfully veiled.

In politics, couldn't we use the rarely heard or seen words empleomania, a craving for holding public office; and emptitious, corruptible or capable of being bought?

Do you ever feel a bit put off at attending an event or going to a museum where there is a "suggested contribution"? There is the term dation, which means giving that is not voluntary.

If you had to guess what lateritious, infuscate, and murrey mean, you'd probably be wrong. They're all particular colors: brick red, having a brownish tinge, and purplish black or mulberry, respectively.

Out for a hike in your local woods? What does one call the material on a forest floor? The simple, useful word for decaying leaves, twigs, and other organic matter underfoot is duff. Two terms that seem straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien (but are not) are krummholz and its synonym, elfinwood: an alpine forest having stunted trees.

We all know the word hill, but, more specifically, a narrow or oval hill is a drumlin; a small and rounded hill is a knoll, hillock, hummock, monticule, monticle, mound, or (British) barrow; a rounded solitary hill usually with steep sides is a knob; a hill with a broad top is a loma; and a hill steep on one side but with a gentle slope on the other is a cuesta. Who says a hill is just a hill?

A chasm formed by receding ice is a randkluft. An oddly shaped (by erosion) rock column is a hoodoo -- think Monument Valley -- and a single rock or boulder carried by a glacier to where it lies is an erratic.

English also has an abundance of synonyms, many not so familiar. (A relatively unknown synonym for the word synonym is poecilonym). To sunbathe, for example, is to apricate. A synonym for kissing is suaviation. We all know the word swastika. (The swastika was a positive symbol -- of good luck -- before the advent of Germany's infamous Third Reich.) But how many know it's also called a gammadion, fylfot, or crux gammata? Or that for the medical symbol called a caduceus (a winged staff with two entwined snakes) there is a far less known synonym -- kerykeion?

When it comes to beards and hair, a more obscure synonym for a Vandyke is pickdevant; and an old word for hairpiece is postiche.

But more obscure terms can be handy when one wants to be discreet (not to say deceptive or veiled) or somewhat droll in what one means.

Take the case of a guy on a dating website describing himself as being unconventionally handsome and stating that he is ventripotent, exophthalmic, and trochocephalic as well as opisthognathic. Don't be surprised when he turns out to be pot-bellied and bug-eyed with a huge round head and a projecting upper jaw.
David Grambs and Ellen S. Levine are co-authors of The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations (expanded second edition).

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