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Words we’re thankful for

Here at the Oxford Dictionaries we’re constantly awed and impressed by the breadth and depth of the English language. As this is a great week to be appreciative, we’ve asked some fellow language-lovers which word they’re most thankful for. From quark to quotidian, ych a fi to robot, here’s what they said:

Thanksgiving postcard. NYPL Digital Collection.

Of incredible value to the crime writer or anybody else wishing to build suspense into a landscape, stillicide is the falling of water, especially in drops, or a succession of drops. Inexplicably underused — every day brings a new way to employ it.
Zadie Smith, author*

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We should obviously be thankful for quarks, without them the universe would be a dull place, but we should also be grateful for the word, quark, which has a playfulness and far-reaching allusion not always found in scientific coinages.

When Murray Gell-Mann came up with a new model for understanding sub-atomic particles he needed a new word to describe his new little tiny things. He liked the sound of kwork (to rhyme with fork) so that’s what he called them, he was just a bit unsure about the spelling. While pondering the issue he picked up Finnegans Wake and came upon this:

Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

Joyce’s word jumped out at Gell-Mann and gave him his spelling. He used it when he reported his ideas in the journal Physics Letters (1 Feb. 1964) and gave as his source, in a footnote, Finnegan’s Wake. (Not Finnegans Wake, you’ll notice: even Nobel winning professors sometimes get their apostrophes wrong.)

Most people now pronounce the name of Murray’s particle to rhyme with bark and mark, the same way they pronounce the German cheese. Quark, the low-fat curd, is unrelated etymologically to quark, the subatomic particle, but it may have contributed to ongoing confusion about whether or not the world is made of cheese.
Robert Hughes, Science Researcher, Oxford English Dictionary

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How about ENGLISH — because by implication you could argue it includes all the others?
Inge Milfull, Senior Assistant Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

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feckless, effete
A totally great adjective. One reason that the slippage in the meaning of effete is OK is that we can use feckless to express what effete used to mean (‘depleted of vitality, washed out, exhausted’). Feckless primarily means ‘deficient in efficacy, lacking vigor or determination, feeble’; but it can also mean ‘careless, profligate, irresponsible.’ The word appears most often now in connection with wastoid youths, bloated bureaucracies — anyone who’s culpable for his own haplessness. The great thing about using feckless is that it lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean; you just sound witty and classy. The word’s also fun to use because of the soft-e assonance and the k sound—and the triply assonant noun form — fecklessness — is even more fun.
David Foster Wallace, author and lecturer *

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moider and mither
May I have two — they’re hard to unpick. I’m thankful for the verbs moider and mither. My mother was first gen. Irish brought up in Lancashire and used moider (moither) and mither interchangeably to mean anything from ‘being befuddled’ to ‘being pestered’ (usually by us). Maybe that’s why it often sounded more like murder than mither, although that could just be the accent. From a young age, both these verbs got muddled further in my mind with the word mother so that now whenever I hear anyone use either verb I think of my mother — in the nicest way possible of course.
Barbara Whitfield, Research Assistant, Oxford English Dictionary

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I’m thankful for the word challenge because I find it a useful substitute for a variety of more negative words: problem, difficulty, obstacle, issue, hassle, bother… A challenge implies a test; it implies that it’s something I can meet, something that I can rise to. Using it helps me to think positively: I can win. Challenge? Accepted.
Malie Lalor, Senior Marketing Manager, Oxford Dictionaries

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I love the word handless (or haunless) in the sense ‘clumsy/incompetent with one’s hands/unable to do simple tasks’, which has been used in English since the 15th c. but is now mainly restricted to Scottish and Irish English — a loss to the rest of the English-speaking world, I think! The sense ‘clumsy’ can be expressed by other words — many, naturally, relating to hands, such as butter-fingered and ham-fisted. The sense ‘unable to do simple tasks’, however, — in, for example, ‘He’s that handless he can’t even make a cup of tea’ or ‘Where are the beans? Find them yourself, you handless idiot’ — doesn’t have any exact equivalents. There’s unhandy but, as the direct antonym of handy, it’s mainly used of people who can’t do manual tasks like putting up shelves. And there are loose synonyms like inept, incompetent, and useless, but these are more general and don’t have quite the same scornful, rolling-your-eyes-in-frustration tone to them as handless.
Kate Wild, Assistant Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

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There is in the English language no better word for talking about hangovers.
David Auburn, playwright *

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Words containing the letters ‘umb’
Ever since I found in my childhood paintbox a small square of reddish-brown watercolor pigment labeled burnt umber, I have been enchanted with the wonderfully euphonious catalog of words that revolve around the letters umb, and which generally have something to do with the Latin for shadow. To be sure, cucumber (like its ancestor cowcumber, a form which we are haughtily informed no well-taught person still uses) has no connection, and the verb cumber, meaning ‘to hinder,’ has only the most tenuous link, via an Old French term connected to cumulus, which defines a cloud that, among other attributes, spreads an unusually large and dark shadow below it. In my shadowland of fine-sounding words we find umbrella, penumbra, sombrero, somber, the Italian province of Umbria — the land of shadows — and here, adumbrate, which sounds more euphonious than all the rest, and in my view should be used as often as possible whenever you want to sketch or outline or otherwise prefigure or, of course, foreshadow something. When the edge of a thundercloud passes across the sun and you look up and draw your sweater around your shoulder and shudder — the chill you feel at that moment nicely adumbrates the storm to come.
Simon Winchester, author, journalist and broadcaster *

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A non-ordinary word to describe ordinariness: it refers to the daily, the mundane, the well-known. Your commute becomes a little more interesting if it is described as “quotidian” instead of “daily.”
Alexandra Horowitz, author *

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conjunctions, nevertheless
My favourite class of word is the conjunction, since with a conjunction a sentence need never be finished. In addition, anything that anyone else says can be contradicted. However I am most thankful most for the adverb nevertheless, since with this powerful word, talk and argument can go on for ever, with no closure and resolution. It is a cleverly constructed word, with a stress pattern that seems to empathize the repeated hoof-beats of those repeated ɛ sounds. Nevertheless, by tomorrow I may have changed my mind.
Giles Goodland, Senior Editorial Researcher, Oxford English Dictionary

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I have always thought of quirky to be the opposite of normal. To me, quirky has a whimsical, adventurous, daring, fearless quality about it. It doesn’t care what other people think, quirky just does its own thing and is all the more interesting for it.
Julia Callaway, Marketing Assistant, Oxford Dictionaries

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Appendix: ‘On the word robot’

By Karel Čapek

A reference by Professor Chudoba to the Oxford Dictionary’s account of how the word robot and its derivatives caught on in English reminded me about an old debt. For the author of the play RUR didn’t think up the word, he merely brought it to life.

This is it how it happened: in an unguarded moment the author in question was struck by the idea for the play. He rushed with it still fresh in his mind straight to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing at his easel, painting away, brush bustling over the canvas.

‘Hey, Josef,’ began the author, ‘I might have an idea for a play.’

‘What sort?’ mumbled the painter (he really did mumble, because he had a paintbrush in his mouth).

The author told him as briefly as he could.

‘Well, write it, then,’ said the painter, without even taking the brush out of his mouth or pausing over his canvas. It was indifference to the point of insult.

‘The thing is,’ said the author, ‘I don’t know what to call the artificial workers. I could call them laboriers, but that just sounds a bit wooden.’

‘Call them robots, then,’ mumbled the artist with the paintbrush in his mouth, still painting away.

And that was it. That’s how the word robot was born; may it hereby be attributed to its real creator.

[NB. Professor F. Chudoba (1878–1941), mentioned in the opening line, was a Czech scholar of English Literature.]

(From the newspaper Lidové noviny, 24 December 1933)

Čapek’s article available in Czech.

Shortly before the end of my schooldays I joined a book club for the sole reason that the introductory offer allowed me to buy the Compact OED — the photographically reduced version of the first edition which many of you will be familiar with — for some ridiculously low price. Of course, when my purchase arrived, I had great fun browsing its pages; and I distinctly remember that during one such browsing session I came across the entry for the word owsell. It was a short entry, with just a single illustrative quotation, and the eye might easily pass over it (especially when scanning those pages of extremely small print without using the magnifying glass that came with the edition — something I don’t suppose I could do so easily nowadays!); but it caught my eye. And all it said was: ‘Etymology and sense obscure.’ It took a moment for the significance of this to sink in, but yes: here was a word that the Dictionary’s editors had decided to include even though they didn’t know what it meant. Wow, I thought. This is some dictionary.

To be honest I didn’t really know much about the OED at the time, but discovering that it included words like owsell — and it’s by no means the only word included whose meaning is unknown — increased my respect for it considerably. It was certainly a vivid illustration of the kind of comprehensiveness that the Dictionary aimed at. And it was through serendipitous discoveries like these that my Compact OED fed my fascination with words… and, in a small way, contributed to my becoming a lexicographer. It’s certainly a word to be thankful for.

Its meaning, by the way, is still unknown. OED Online provides a revised entry for owsell has been revised, but although the etymology is longer, it does no more than point out that the word ouzel (a kind of bird), while occasionally taking the spelling owsell in the early modern period, can’t really be made to fit the one quotation we have. Which, by the way, is from the obscure book A Sixe-folde Politician (1609) by the almost equally obscure writer Sir John Melton, and which reads as follows: ‘Neither the touch of conscience, nor the sense..of any religion, euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and owsell of perdition.’ If you know what it means, do let us know.
Peter Gilliver, Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

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Not for any real reason other than it sounds exactly as it should. Especially for a word that originates from an exhibition of optical illusions and means ‘a sequence of real or imaginary images like that seen in a dream’.
Hannah Wright, Marketing Executive, Oxford Dictionaries

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The word robot is such a well-established part of our language and popular culture, it’s incredible to think that if it hadn’t been for one Czech cubist painter, it might never have existed at all.

Robot, in the sense of ‘android’, was first used by the Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890-1938) in his 1920 play RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Thanks to the success of the play, which was immediately translated from Czech into dozens of languages, the word robot was soon being used by writers all over the world.

But as Čapek himself acknowledged in an article written many years later (translated to the left), the word robot wasn’t actually his invention. It had been coined, almost accidentally, by his brother, the writer and artist Josef Čapek (1887-1945).

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘forced labour’ or (by extension) ‘drudgery’. Karel Čapek’s original name for the mass-produced workers in his play was laboři (singular laboř), from the classical Latin labor. This was a new coinage in Czech (unlike ‘labourer’ in English) and there is no neat way of translating it — laborier, laboror, labroron, or even laborian.

None of these words has the same ring to it as robot: it’s hard to imagine anyone going to see a play called Rossum’s Universal Laborons. Would Asimov ever have written I, Laborier? And what kind of Hollywood mogul would have backed the movie LaboroCop?

As Čapek’s play suggests, the day may come when robots turn against their masters and humanity breathes its last. But in the meantime, let’s give thanks for the word robot — and for the genius of the Čapek brothers.
Patrick Phillips, Assistant Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

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How about you? Which word are you most thankful for? Share it with us in the comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.
* Starred excerpts taken with permission from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

Recent Comments

  1. Tom Edwards

    Re:”euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and owsell of perdition”.

    It should be:

    “euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and downfall of perdition”.

    That much is obvious.

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