The Phrontistery

Books by Stephen Chrisomalis
Numerical Notation: A Comparative History Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger


Forthright's Favourite Words


I've often been consulted by those wishing to express their love for a particular word, such as defenestration, sesquipedalian, syzygy or aglet. While these are all fine choices, I've chosen fifty of my favourites from the International House of Logorrhea and put them here, with pronunciation, etymology and full definitions. Some of the criteria that I use to find a really great rare word are:

  1. it has to be pretty rare (less than five occurrences per 1 million words of text);
  2. it should be very euphonious (it has to sound good);
  3. it should be of use in a modern context, if not necessarily usable on a daily basis;
  4. it should not have a simple one-word synonym;
  5. it should not be so long and complex to be useless in conversation.

The majority of the words are nouns (most rare words are), though there are also verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Most are derived from Greek or Latin, though with a smattering of French, Italian, Arabic and, of course, native English terms.

Aegrotat 'ee-gro-tat, n (Latin aegrotat, he or she is sick, 3rd person singular of aegrotare, from aeger, sick)
A medical certificate of illness excusing student's sickness. Rarely used today except in Britain, and then only in the context of degrees and courses considered as passed by a student too ill to finish the appropriate material. Aegrotat is the only surviving remnant of the Latin verb aegrotare.
Almacantar al-me-'kan-ter, n (Arabic almuqantarat, the sundials)
A circle of altitude, parallel to the horizon. An astronomical term, used to describe imaginary lines in the sky by which an astronomer determines the height of a star in the sky relative to the horizon. Many Arabic loanwords to English begin with the prefix "al", which in Arabic simply means "the".
Amphigory am-'fi-ge-ree, n (French amphigouri, of unknown origin)
A nonsense verse. Specifically, a poem designed to look and sound good, but which has no meaning upon closer reading. The term 'amphigory' could be applied to large segments of modern poetry, except that its authors probably actually believe that what they are writing is something other than a meaningless trifle.
Barathrum ba-'rath-rum, n (Latin, from Greek barathron)
An abyss; an insatiable person. The second meaning, probably more popular than the first, derives from the metaphor of a bottomless pit, which characterises the stomach of some people, such as my brother.
Boustrophedon boo-strof-'ee-don, adj and adv (Greek, from bous ox and strophe a turning)
Of writing, alternating left to right then right to left. Not a word with a great deal of utility, unless you study ancient inscriptions, but very descriptive. I like the metaphor of an ox ploughing the field back and forth from one direction to the other.
Cancrizans 'kang-kri-zanz, adj (Latin cancrizare to move backwards, like a crab)
Moving backwards; especially, of a musical canon, repeating the theme backwards. While sometimes used in the general sense, cancrizans is most commonly used to refer to a particular type of baroque composition known as a crab canon, the most well-known of which is by Bach and is part of his Musical Offering - one of my favourite pieces of music.
Carfax 'kar-faks, n (Latin quadrifurcus, four-forked)
A place where four roads meet; an intersection of main roads at the center of a town. Despite its appearance, it has nothing to do with cars or faxes, but is an anglicisation of the older Latin term. Now largely forgotten except in a few place names in the UK, but there's no other word to represent the main intersection in a town.
Colophon 'kol-e-fon, n (Latin, from Greek kolophon, summit, finishing touch)
A publisher's emblem or inscription, usually found at the beginning of a book. Everyone has seen these insignia, which once were very elaborate but have been downplayed by modern publishers. It used to be that the colophon of a book also listed the author's name and the date and place of publication.
Delenda de-'len-da, n pl (Latin, neuter plural of gerundive of delere, to delete)
Things to be deleted or destroyed. The term is best known from the Latin phrase "Delenda est Carthago", or "Carthage must be destroyed", spoken by Cato the Elder in 157 B.C. after perceiving that Carthage might pose a threat to the Roman Republic. In this age of censors and shredders, delenda is rare, but most definitely not at risk of being deleted from dictionaries.
Diaglyph 'die-a-glif, n (Greek, dia through, and glyphein to carve)
A figure etched or engraved into a flat surface of a gem, stone or other object. Used in contrast with cameo, which is carved in relief, with the figure jutting out from the flat base. Synonymous with intaglio, a term derived from Italian, and perhaps somewhat more common.
Enchiridion en-kie-'rid-ee-on, n (Greek, from en in and cheir hand)
A book carried in the hand for reference, especially one used for music or theology. Etymologically, it's a book that is meant to be able to be carried in one's hand, which today probably encompasses most books, but, ironically enough, not all 'handbooks'. What a strange language we have ...
Episemon ep-i-'say-mon, n (Greek, a badge, from epi, on, and sema, a sign)
A badge or characteristic device - in this sense, it is synonymous with and etymologically identical to the Latin-derived insignia. However, episemon also means one of three obsolete Greek letters (vau, qoppa and sampi) used solely in the Greek alphabetical numeral system. I just had to put something in this list related to my academic work on numerals.
Famulus 'fam-yoo-lus, n (Latin, a servant)
A private secretary or attendant. Used especially to describe an assistant to a magician or scholar. I particularly like this word not only because it sounds more refined than 'lackey' or 'Hey, you', but because of its applicability to graduate students in a modern context.
Farrago fe-'rah-go, n (Latin farrago, mixed fodder, from far, grain)
A confused mass of objects or people; any disordered mixture. This is an excellent term to describe the chaos evident in a crowd, jumble sale, or any drawer in my home. It's not just a mess, but adds the extra context of confusion and clutter.
Galimatias gal-i-'may-shi-us, n (French, gibberish)
Nonsense; a confused mixture of unrelated things. This very cordial-sounding word is extraordinarily useful in contexts where one wishes to inform someone that their ideas are bafflingly ridiculous and incoherent without seeming overly impolite. It combines the senses of 'incoherent' and 'ridiculous' into a unique and useful term.
Growlery 'growl-er-ee, n (English; cf. Dutch grollen, to grumble)
A retreat for times of ill humour. This term has largely become obsolete, which is strange, given that so many people seem to have a place to go when they are in a bad mood - a place to be alone and think. It's similar in meaning to the Latin-derived sanctum sanctorum, with the added connotation that the individual in question is going to the place to be alone while upset.
Haecceity hek-'see-i-tee, n (Latin, from haec, this)
The aspect of existence on which individuality depends; the hereness and nowness of reality. First coined by the philosopher Duns Scotus, haecceity is that sense one gets of being in the present tense, the pure experience of a single moment in time. No other word has such subtle connotations. In addition, it sounds and looks very interesting.
Hecatomb 'hek-a-toam, n (Greek hekatombe, from hekaton one hundred and bous ox)
A large sacrifice or slaughter; the killing of one hundred animals or people. Hecatomb, like decimate, is a word for killing involving the number to be killed, but has now come to mean a more general slaughter of many people. Not only does it sound appropriately ominous and grave, but, in this age, it seems all too likely that it may remain useful in the future.
Imbroglio im-'broal-yo, n (Italian, confusion, from imbrogliare to confuse, embroil)
An intricate, confusing or disturbing situation; a confused mass or heap. Imbroglio is close to predicament in meaning, only with a remarkable sound (especially its Italian soft 'g') and the added connotation of confusion and entanglement. It is to be preferred enormously over the anglicised 'embroilment'.
Incunabulum in-ku-'nab-u-lum, n (Latin incunabula, swaddling-clothes, from in in, and cunae a cradle)
An early printed book; an early version or stage; the cradle or birthplace of something. While initially (and still occasionally) used today to refer to the books printed at the dawn of the printing press (prior to 1500), it can also be used in other, more general senses, with great usefulness today. For instance, we might call Project Gutenberg an incunabulum of the Internet.
Jeremiad jer-i-'my-ad, n (From Jeremiah, reputed author of the Book of Lamentations)
A lamentation or prolonged complaint; an angry or cautionary harangue. Poor Jeremiah! He writes one complaining letter to God, whines about the state of the world, gets it published in the most popular book of all time, and his name is forever attached to the concept of complaining and lamenting one's fate. I think there's a moral message in there somewhere, but I haven't figured out yet what it is.
Kenspeckle 'ken-spek-l, adj (Scottish English, from Old Norse kennispeki power of recognition)
Easily recognizable or distinguishable; conspicuous. This word sounds very interesting, and is all the more remarkable because it is etymologically unrelated to the similar-sounding and synonymous conspicuous (Latin con, an intensive, and specere, to look). Kenspeckle is mostly used in Scotland and northern England these days; perhaps it should enjoy greater currency.
Liripipe 'lir-i-pipe, n (Late Latin liripipium; ultimate origin unknown)
The long tail of a graduate’s hood; a part or lesson committed to memory. Liripipe is one of those mysterious words for things that you never knew had a name. In its first sense, it is only useful to amaze your friends at graduation ceremonies, where many older-style hooded gowns have them. The second sense is perhaps more useful, but also used only rarely today.
Lucubration loo-ku-'bray-shun, n (Latin lucubrare, from lux light)
Study or composition lasting late into the night. This is a fantastic word for the activities of 'night owls' such as myself, without synonym or parallel and having a striking sound. Though it's mostly used facetiously today, I see no reason why lucubration should not be restored to its proper glory. Let's all help take back the night!
Mascaron 'mas-ke-ron, n (French masque, a mask, from Italian maschera)
A grotesque face on a door-knocker. Everyone's seen and used them, but I'll bet you didn't know there was a word for this. Not only does it have a remarkable sound, but it's the sort of thing that really ought to have a word. Related to mask, mascaron may ultimately derive from the Arabic maskharah, a jester or man in masquerade.
Miasma mi-'az-me, n (Greek, pollution, from miainein to stain, pollute)
Foul vapours emitted from rotting matter; unwholesome air or atmosphere. I can safely predict, with the current state of the environment, that miasma may become a much more common word in the next fifty years as it becomes a more common state of affairs. It has an appropriately gaseous and foul-sounding name, adding to its linguistic appeal.
Mumpsimus 'mump-si-mes, n (A blunder for Latin sumpsimus, we have received)
A view stubbornly held even when shown to be wrong; one holding such a view. In an old story, it's said that an ignorant priest, knowing the sound of the Latin Mass but not speaking the language, said the meaningless 'mumpsimus' instead of 'sumpsimus'. When corrected, he is said to have replied, "I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus". This learned joke has lasted five centuries in the form of this fine-sounding word.
Nepenthe ni-'pen-thee, n (Greek, from ne- not, and penthos grief)
Something, such as a drink or a drug, capable of making one forget suffering. First mentioned in Homer's Odyssey as a potion capable of erasing all bad memories. By extension, the use of nepenthe today largely reflects the reputed powers of alcohol to get rid of the memory of one's woes. Whether or not this actually works (other than temporarily), the word is marvellous.
Omphaloskepsis om-fe-lo-'skep-sis, n (Greek, from omphalos navel and skepsis query, doubt)
Navel-gazing. This extraordinarily rare word is not normally used literally, but instead to refer to the sort of introspective self-analysis all too common in academia and pop psychology. A favourite pastime of postmodern philosophers, especially when used facetiously to refer to the habit of mentally considering everything while ignoring the real world.
Orphrey 'or-free, n (Old French orfreis, from Latin auriphrygium Phrygian gold)
Gold or other rich embroidery, especially that found on clerical vestments. I admit that there isn't that much use for this word today, given that most priests don't have highly embroidered vestments anymore. Nevertheless, the fine sound of this word suggests that it needs to be revived and possibly expanded in meaning.
Panopticon pan-'op-ti-kon, n (Greek, pan- all and optikon for seeing)
A prison where all inmates can be watched from one point; an exhibition room. The panopticon was an idea of Jeremy Bentham. If a single guard post is erected in the middle of a circular prison, all cells can be seen from that point. Unfortunately, the idea never caught on, though the word was used to apply to a royal exhibition in London roughly organized on such a scheme.
Peccavi pek-'ah-vee, n (Latin peccavi I have sinned)
An admission of sin or guilt. Not only is this word's meaning unique, and its sound very interesting, but it gave rise to the most witty multilingual pun of all time. In 1843, when Sir Charles Napier sent a preliminary dispatch of a single word: "peccavi". The reason: his military victory and conquest of the province of Sind (now in Pakistan). His message: "I have Sind".
Phrontistery 'fron-tis-te-ree, n (Greek phrontisterion, from phrontistes a thinker, from phroneein to think)
A thinking-place; a place for study. I simply had to include 'phrontistery' on this list. It was first used by Aristophanes to apply to the school of Socrates, and was somewhat mocking in tone. A peculiar (and under-used) term, I hope to reclaim it for thinking people everywhere. No other term is synonymous, and its intellectual if pompous sound merely adds to its charm.
Pilgarlick pil-'gar-lik, n (English, peel + garlic)
A poor wretch; used whimsically and self-pityingly to refer to oneself. Originally, pilgarlick was used to refer to a bald or balding person (hence its etymology, one's bald head looking like peeled garlic). Since then, it has come to be used mostly in self-reference, when one is lamenting one's lot in life. There truly needs to be a term like this in common use.
Quincunx 'kwin-kunks, n (Latin quincunx, from quinque five, and uncia a twelfth part)
An arrangement of five things with four at the corners of a square and one in the middle. The unique meaning and peculiar sound of this word, coupled with the fact that it is a pattern seen on cards and dice, are the reasons for it making my list. Such a symbol was at one time used for the Roman fraction 5/12, thus explaining its etymology.
Redivivus red-i-'vee-vus, adj (Latin, from red- again, and vivus alive)
Resuscitated, come to life again. There are plenty of words to describe coming back to life (renaissance, resurrection), but none so pleasant-sounding as this one. Used largely in literary and formal contexts, it is taken straight from the Latin term of the same meaning. It is, I think, an ideal term to be used in place of 'renaissance' to refer to things newly restored to popularity.
Rhadamanthine rad-e-'man-thine, adj (Greek, from Rhadamanthos, a judge of the lower world)
Like a stern judge; rigorously just and severe. Sometimes found capitalised, this word means not only conservatism but also strict legalism and harsh punishment, thus reflecting the attitudes of many judges today just as it did in ancient Greece. Rhadamanthos was (with Minos and Aeakos), one of the three judges in the underworld to whom one would plead one's case after death on the basis of one's character and deeds. Good luck!
Selcouth 'sel-kooth, adj (Old English sel(d)cuth, from seldan seldom, and cuth, known)
Strange; unfamiliar; marvellous. Combining the sense of strangeness with that of wonder, selcouth is a fantastic self-referential word, being both marvellous and (to most English speakers) entirely unfamiliar. No word is really synonymous with it, and it reflects very well the sense of wonder and amazement at seeing something truly new and unusual. Enjoy it!
Sisyphean sis-i-'fee-an, adj (Greek, from Sisyphus, king of Corinth)
Laborious, endless and futile. This term, sometimes capitalised, derives from the story of the legendary king Sisyphus, who was condemned after his death to perpetually roll a huge stone to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back each time he neared his goal. Sisyphean is a marvelous adjective to describe much of the work done in the world today.
Skeuomorph 'skyoo-e-morf, n (Greek skeuos vessel, tool, and morphe, shape)
A retained but no longer functional stylistic feature. This term was originally used in architecture and archaeology to refer to a feature whose origin was functional, but whose only vestige was as a decorative ornament. It is of great use today as imitation seams, supports and other things are applied to bits of plastic that came directly out of a mould.
Spatchcock 'spach-kok, v or n (English, probably from dispatch and cock)
To insert into a text too hurriedly or inappropriately; a fowl stuffed and cooked immediately after killing. This is probably my favourite word of all time. Though there's little use for it any more as a noun, the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.
Tantivy tan-'tiv-ee, adv (Imitation, either of a hunting-horn or horses' hooves)
At full gallop; headlong. Tantivy is most often used today as an adverb, but can also be used as a noun (a hunting-cry), an adjective (swift, speedy) and an interjection (the sound of the horn or of horses' hooves). Its remarkable range of meanings seems all the more remarkable in that no one really knows the origins of this peculiar but mellifluous word.
Tintinnabulate tin-ti-'nab-you-late, v (Latin tintinnabulum a bell, from tinnire to jingle)
To ring (as a bell); to tinkle. This fantastic word describes the sound of bells ringing just as well for us as it did in Roman times. When it is used today, it is usually facetiously, with the rather less satisfactory if shorter choices ring, tinkle and jingle serving day-to-day functions. A real shame, given the remarkable sound of this fine word.
Tregetour 'trej-e-ter, n (Old French tresgetour, from tresgeter, from Latin trans across and jetere to throw)
A juggler, trickster or deceiver. Originally used to describe a type of jester or juggler, tregetour, though now archaic, eventually came to mean someone who uses cunning tricks to deceive others (sometimes but not limited to stage performances). A useful poetic word for a magician, but also a more pleasant-sounding name for a huckster or con man.
Ultracrepidate ul-tre-'krep-i-date, v (Latin, from ultra, beyond, and crepida, sandal)
To criticize beyond sphere of one’s knowledge. This very interesting-sounding and useful word for a common practice has a very interesting etymology. In a Roman story, a cobbler criticised the sandals in a painting by the painter Apelles, and then complained about further parts of the work, to which Apelles is said to have replied, "Ne sutor ultra crepidam", or, roughly, "The cobbler must not go beyond the sandal". As true today as it was then.
Vilipend 'vil-i-pend, v (Latin vilis, worthless and pendere to weigh)
To despise; to make light of; to disparage mockingly. Related to vile and vilification, vilipend is a word that implies disparagement, slander or criticism, but usually with a fairly light and mocking tone. A particularly good term to refer to a certain style of literary and academic mockery - and God knows there are enough people out there who need to be vilipended.
Widdershins 'wid-er-shinz, adv (Low German weddersins)
Counterclockwise; in the contrary direction. You might ask why I'd include this obsolete adverb (used only facetiously and in some Scottish dialects), when it has a perfectly good synonym. To this, I point out that the day may soon come when clocks with hands are obsolete, at which point we may need to revive this word to alleviate the confusion. Also spelled and pronounced withershins.
Xenium 'zee-ni-um, n (Greek xenos guest, host, stranger)
A gift made to a guest or ambassador; any compulsory gift. As I'm writing, the Christmas season approaches, reminding me of the necessity of a word to reflect a gift you're obliged to give rather than one you really want to. Whenever you go to the wedding of a stranger or an enemy, think of this word and smile. My gift of 'xenium' to you is most definitely desired.
Yare yair, adj (Old English gearu or gearo, ready, prompt)
Marked by quickness and agility; nimble; prepared; easily handled. It's basically obsolete anymore, but this fantastic short little gem is very useful. It reflects the sense of preparedness and mental quickness one feels from time to time - the feeling that one is ready to face the world and its challenges, and that anything is possible. Try it, use it - I think you'll like it.
Zetetic ze-'tet-ik, adj or n (Greek zetetikos, from zeteein to seek)
Proceeding by inquiry; a search or investigation; a skeptical seeker of knowledge. A term originally used to refer to Pyrrhonists, a group of ancient Greek skeptics, it has come to mean both the process of inquiry and one who so proceeds. A zetetic is thus a sort of intellectual agnostic who, while seeking greater truths, is always wary of falsehood.


I hope you have found this site to be useful. If you have any corrections, additions, or comments, please contact me. Please note that I am not able to respond to all requests. Please consult a major dictionary before e-mailing your query. All material on this page © 1996-2013 Stephen Chrisomalis. Links to this page may be made without permission.

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