15 Great English Words You Probably Won’t Have Learned
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
I recently had the misfortune of babysitting for some French children whose capacity for wickedness and violence I would not have thought possible from a pair of eight-year-olds.
While they were taking a rare break from pushing each other down the stairs, trying to drown their cat and emptying the contents of their mum’s jewellery box into the bottom of a shoe cupboard, they decided to do ‘hilarious imitations’ of me speaking (or rather, sobbing) English down the phone to my mum, which sounded something like this: ‘bwoaar bwoar bleeeeeerp twurp flooooooar’.
And though I’d never really thought about it before, I realised that the English language is actually inherently quite comical: not melodious, like French or Welsh, rhythmic like Spanish or husky and rasping like Russian, but jerky, inconsistent, made up of thousands of different elements that jarr and jangle. (N.B. I didn’t quite finish thinking this, because I’d only just got to the word ‘actually’ when I received a blinding blow around the ear from a Barbie doll and a screamed demand to concentrate on the game at hand). Luckily, I didn’t actually have to finish formulating this thought because a few days later, when the concussion had eventually started to recede, I read a far more poetic and elegant expression of it than I could ever manage:
The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.(Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled p.65)
In this article, I’ve collected some of my favourite English words that express this capacity for contrasts and extremes that Fry describes: some graceful, almost musical, Latinate or French-sounding; others made up of harsh Germanic guttural sounds, awkward and odd. A few you may have heard of, while some are strange and dusty with neglect. And undoubtedly you’ll have a few great words of your own to add to the list: please do so in the ‘Comments’ section below!
Definition: Sentimental in an exaggerated or false way
Synonyms: Sentimental, cloying, sickly, saccharine, mushy, maudlin.
History: This wonderfully expressive, almost visual word derives from the Middle English word mawk, meaning ‘maggot’. First recorded in 1668, the word initially meant simply ‘queasy’, but that sense has since faded to be replaced with the word’s modern definition of over-sentimentality.
A famous occurrence: It was in this latter sense that John Keats famously used the word in a letter of 1818: “I hate a mawkish popularity”.
Definition: Vain, excessively self-admiring
Synonyms: Conceited, vain, self-regarding, egotistical, arrogant, cocky
History: This word derives from the Latin noun ‘narcissus’, which refers to the family of flower to which the daffodil belongs, but is connected with the characteristic of vanity by ancient legend. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (3.370) tells the story of a beautiful youth named Narcissus, who was out hunting in the woods when he fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. The young man was unable to draw himself away from his reflection and wasted away at the side of the pool. Ovid says that where Narcissus died, the flower sprang up that bears his name.
A famous occurrence: “I wonder if the course of narcissism through the ages had been any different if Narcissus had peered into a cesspool. He probably did.” (Frank O’Hara)
Definition: Something coarse or indecent in the language it uses; or, as the early lexicographer Samuel Johnson put it: ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon can warrant’.
Synonyms: Defamatory, indecent, lewd, offending, obscene, insulting, slanderous
History: A fairly straightforward descendent of the Latin scurrilis, ‘buffoon-like’.
A famous occurrence: “Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country – and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians.” (Charles Krauthammer)
Definition: The purest, most typical or refined example of its kind.
Synonyms: Typical, stereotypical, archetypal, classic, consummate
History: Though it refers to something remarkable in its refinement, perfection or typicality, the meaning of this word is now quite everyday. Its origin, however, is mystical. ‘Quintessential’ is composed of two Latin words, quintus and essentia, meaning ‘fifth’ and ‘essence’ respectively, plus an adjectival ending. In classical and medieval philosophy, the ‘fifth essence’ was held to be a substance that existed in addition to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water – an almost magical substance from which the heavenly and divine bodies were composed, and which existed in tiny quantities in all earthly things.
A famous occurrence: The unhappy prince Hamlet explains his weariness with the world: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Hamlet 3.2)
Definition: Not straight, crooked, or awry
Synonyms: Awry, off-centre, crooked, aslant, askance
History: From the old North French word eskiuer, meaning to shy away from or avoid. The word also exists in verb form, in the word ‘skew’, meaning to warp something or make it crooked, or to knock it off-centre.
A famous occurrence: “Harry fell asleep, his glasses askew and his mouth wide open.” (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Definition: Calm, quiet, peaceful or undisturbed (usually accompanied by ‘days’)
Synonyms: Serene, calm, pleasant, balmy, tranquil, peaceful
History: In modern English, this word is only really used in the phrase ‘halcyon days’, referring to a peaceful or joyful time which has now passed. The phrase has a fascinating and romantic history: in ancient mythology, the halcyon bird was a magical one that bred in the depths of winter in a nest floating on the sea. To protect its young, the bird cast a spell over the wind and waves so that the sea was calm for fourteen days and the bird could brood.
A famous occurrence:
“Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and the blissful halcyon days!”
(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV)
Definition: When a happy and unexpected discovery occurs by accident
Synonyms: Coincidence, luck, providence, kismet, chance
History: The word was formerly rare, but its usage has increased dramatically in the twentieth century. It was coined by Horace Walpole, an English antiquarian, art historian and Whig politician, in 1794. The word comes from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, and Walpole said in a letter that he had based it on the title of a story, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes, according to Walpole “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.
Definition: A half-shadow, or the edge of a shadow
Synonyms: Errr… there aren’t really any.
History: You probably won’t find yourself using this word when you pop into the shops to buy a carton of milk, but both its sound and the mysteriousness of the phenomenon it describes meant I just had to include it on this list. A combination of two Latin words, paene meaning ‘nearly’ and umbra meaning ‘shade’, the word carries both the physical meaning outlined above, as well as a more figurative sense: it can be used to refer to a faint intimation of something unpleasant, or the peripheral regions around an object, place or idea.
A famous occurrence: Thomas Hardy seems to draw on both of these meanings in Far from the Madding Crowd: “He fancied that he had felt himself in the penumbra of a very deep sadness when touching that slight and fragile creature”.
Definition: A person dependent upon a drug or another substance
Synonyms: Junkie, devotee, dependent, aficionado, fan,
History: OK, so you probably knew the word already, but its fascinating history meant I had to include it on this list. ‘Addict’ is from the past participle of the Latin verb addicere, which means to deliver, award, yield, make over or sell. The Latin word was most commonly used to refer to slaves given to soldiers as payment after battles, who had literally been ‘awarded’ and were therefore addictis. The word’s signification soon widened to mean anyone who was dependent on anything at all.
Definition: Not quite either warm or cool, usually referring to a liquid.
History: From two Middle English words meaning the same thing! Lheuk or leuk and warm both carried meanings similar to the modern day ‘warm’, but strangely, when combined in a single word, were weakened to mean something closer to ‘tepid’, ‘warmish’ or ‘cool’. Huh!
Definition: Assurance, confidence, self-possession or coolness
Synonyms: Composure, cool, ease, self-possession
History: The modern English word ‘aplomb’ has roots that snake through a number of French words and phrases, including the phrase à plomb, which means the physical state of being poised upright, or balanced.
Definition: Harmonious, measured, ordered or balanced in character
Synonyms: Beautiful, well-balanced, well-proportioned, harmonious, ordered
History: As the mythology buffs among you might have guessed, the word ‘Apollonian’ literally denotes something that shares the characteristics of the Greek sun-god, Apollo. Apollo, a son of Zeus, was the god of reason and the rational- under this umbrella came things like music, philosophy, maths and rhetoric which were ordered and regulated by logical rules. In almost polar opposition to Apollo was his brother Dionysus, a god who was thought to come from the mountains of the East and who represented all things wild and chaotic: wine and wine-making, lust, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. In depictions of the gods, Apollo is almost always tall, hairless and masculine, while Dionysus often has long hair, and is accompanied by animals or grapes that indicate his wild nature. In modern English, the opposite of the ordered, reasoned beauty known as Apollonian is thus ‘Dionysiac’: wild, impossible to tame and associated with different types of madness or release.
Definition: Showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome; perverse
Synonyms: Bad tempered, irritable, crabby, argumentative, aggressive
History: The OED locates the origins of the word in Wiltshire, and theorises that it is formed on Middle English words like contak or conteke meaning quarrelling or contention.
A famous occurrence: “The more ugly, older, more cantankerous, more ill and poorer I become, the more I try to make amends by making my colours more vibrant, more balanced and beaming.” (Vincent Van Gogh).
Definition: Misty, dim, murky, obscure or dark
Synonyms: See above
History: Another word that doesn’t come up much in day-to-day conversations about homework or what you’re having for dinner, but which is wonderful-sounding and could be used to great effect in an essay or a piece of creative writing. The word’s etymology is fairly simple: it’s from the Latin caligo, meaning ‘mist’; but its possibilities stretch far beyond this purely physical meaning. The word can also carry a moral connotation, as in Nicholas Caussin’s claim that ‘(some) men… precipitate themselves into… caliginous observations’ or can be used to create a sense of unease or foreboding, as in William Cowper’s translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, in Vol. 2, Book XIII of which he narrates, “The goddess enter’d deep the cave caliginous”.
Definition: A woman or girl untidy or slovenly in person, habits and surroundings.
Synonyms: Floozy, harlot, hussy, tramp
History: From the dialect verb slatter, whose origins are unclear but which means to spill, splash or splatter awkwardly, to slop or to waste. N.B. I’ve included this on the basis of its comic value and pleasing sound, but it’s probably not one to be tossed around too freely!
A famous occurrence: “Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv’d a Slattern, Yet dy’d a Princess, acting in St. Cathar’n.” (John Dryden, Royal Martyr)