Who is Erin McKean?
MSNBC.com calls her "the queen and rock star among lexicographers."
Her name is Erin McKean, and she’s the Editor in Chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries. She’s also the editor of Verbatim: the Language Quarterly and is probably the world’s leading expert on weird and wonderful words. This passion for the oddest and least-accessible corners of the English language has resulted in her new book Totally Weird and Wonderful Words.
We asked her to explain exactly what makes a word weird and/or wonderful, and here’s what she told us:
It would be convenient to say that it’s as ineffable as what makes art Art, but that’s not quite true. Words are weird because they have odd sounds, or an abundance of syllables, or a completely gratuitous k, j, q, z, or x. Words are weird because they mean something weird.
There are plenty of words that are weird without being the least bit wonderful—nectocalyx is orthographically weird, but meaning as it does ‘the swimming-bell that forms the natatory organ in many hydrozoans’ it is sadly lacking on the wonder scale.
Every day Erin offers her legion of fans—and yes, they are legion—her Weird and Wonderful Word of the Day. You can subscribe here and get words like this delivered to your in-box fresh each morning:
myomancy [mye-uh-man-see]: divination by the movements of mice. Modern scientists probably study the movements of mice as much or more than the ancient myomancers did, and for ends that are not dissimilar
snollygoster [snah-lee-gahs-ter]: a dishonest politician
spanghew [spang-hyoo]; to cause a frog or toad to fly into the air.
chamade [shuh-mahd]: a signal inviting someone to a parley (usually a drumbeat or a trumpet sounding). Now perhaps useful to those who carry beepers. "Sorry, have to go, it’s a chamade."
Vofuhreffekt [vor-fyur-ef-ket]: a German word, literally ‘presentation effect’ which describes a problem, usually with a computer, that doesn’t happen when other people try to replicate it (such as, say, the Help Desk guy you called for).