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Totally Weird and Wonderful Words


Erin McKean, a frequent OUP blogger and editor of Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, is back to expand your vocabulary in ways you never imagined. Coined “America’s Lexicographical Sweetheart” by Neal Conan on NPR, McKean’s posts, much like the books she edits, are witty and entertaining. Without further ado, we bring you Erin’s nannicocks ( “an obsolete and rare word” p140).

Ever since I started keeping an eye out for unusual words, new or obsolete, I’ve been happily surprised by just how many of them there are. It seems as if almost every day I run across another one (the days immediately following my turning in a Weird and Wonderful Words manuscript being, of course, the most productive).

I tend to keep these words in a couple of different places — written in a memo on my Treo phone (for ones I’ve found while reading on airplanes); saved to my Furl web bookmarks (this is especially useful for ones found when looking in OED Online for something else completely); or scribbled in my Moleskine notebook (this necessitates being able to read my own handwriting, later).

Here, then, is a quick list of some of the weird-and-wonderful-word “finds” of the last couple of weeks. (None of these are in the new book, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, but if I had found them earlier, they would have been!)

  • arseverse a spell written on a door to protect a house from burning.
  • crepitaculum [krep ih TAK yoo lum] this is the technical term for the rattle of a rattlesnake. Of course, by the time you’ve said “I think I perceive a crepitaculum” it’s probably way too late. From a Latin word meaning ‘rattle.’
  • crepemous [krep mows] this is listed in several nineteenth-century books of archaic and obsolete words as “a term of endearment”. There’s no indication of its etymology or as to why it should be used so fondly.
  • dandilly [DAN dih lee] a Scots word for a spoiled person, or for someone who is indulged too much. Possibly from ‘dandle’.
  • diurnary [dye UR nuh ree] an official attached to a prince, whose job it is to keep a running record (or diary) of whatever that prince did, ate, ordered, etc., every day. From a Latin word meaning ‘journalist’.
  • mund [mund] an obsolete word for the palm of the hand, especially when used as a measure of length.
  • pow-penny a payment given at a funeral or memorial service, especially to a herald.
  • squamify [SKWAW muh fy] to cover with scales. The citation for this term in the OED is “Until he became covered with scales from the squammifying power of the sea.”

If you come across any good specimens, do send them to me!

Erin McKean is the Editor in Chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries. Her passion for the oddest and least-accessible corners of the English language has resulted in her new book Totally Weird and Wonderful Words. Want to learn more? Check out Stacking the Deck for Dictionaries or Who Is Erin McKean?.

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    Bob Winegar

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