11 Words That Don't Mean What They Sound Like

Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay
Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay / Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay

From bodkin to noisome to pulchritude, you might be surprised to find out the true meanings of these words.

1. Bodkin

Bodkin sounds like it must mean "little body." Didn’t Hamlet say something about a “bare bodkin”? He did. But he was talking about taking the “not to be” option, ending his suffering with a bodkin, or dagger. The origin of the word—which dates back to at least 1386, according to the Oxford English Dictionary—is unknown.

2. Crapulous

This word sounds cruddy. After all, if Bart Simpson uses craptacular to mean the opposite of spectacular, crapulous must be the opposite of fabulous, right?

Wrong. Crapulous means "characterized by gross excess in drinking or eating" or "hung over." It comes from the Latin crapula, "inebriation," and the Greek kraipalē, "drunken headache."

3. Crepuscular

Crepuscular refers not to an oozing skin ailment, but to twilight or to creatures active at twilight, like rabbits and deer. It dates back to the mid-17th century and comes from the Latin crepusculum, meaning "twilight."

4. Formication

This word may sound sexy, but it means "an abnormal sensation as of ants creeping over the skin." It comes from the Latin formīcāre, meaning "to crawl like ants."

5. Funambulist

While a funambulist sounds like it should be the driver of an ambulance decorated with happy faces, it’s actually a tightrope walker. The word is derived from the Latin fūnambul-usfūn-is, meaning "rope," plus ambul-āre, "to walk," plus the -ist suffix, "designating a person who practices some art or method."

6. Fungible

Fungible sounds like it describes a squishy, spongy fungus, but it’s a legal term describing goods or money that can replace or be replaced by equivalent items. It comes from the medieval Latin fungibilis, from fungi, meaning "perform, enjoy," with the same sense as fungi vice, "serve in place of." It’s not related to fungus.

7. Noisome

Despite what it might sound like, this word doesn’t mean noisy, but stinky or otherwise disagreeable or offensive. It comes from the obsolete, late Middle English word noy, a shortened form of annoy, plus -some, an adjective-forming suffix.

8. Nugatory

Nugatory sounds creamy and delicious, but it actually means unimportant, of no value or useless; futile. The word, which dates back to the early 1600s, is derived from the Latin nugatorius; from nugari, to trifle"; and from nugae, or "jests."

9. Pulchritude

This word sounds like the ineptness exhibited by a lurching klutz, but it’s actually a highfalutin word for "beauty." It comes from the Latin pulchritūdō, or "beauty," by way of Middle French.

10. Plethora

Plethora may sound like an ancient Greek musical instrument, but it means an excess of something. When it entered English in the mid-16th century, it was a medical term for an excess of a bodily fluid, particularly blood. Although modern medicos have largely given up leech therapy, plethora is still used to mean an excessive volume of blood. It comes to us via late Latin, from the Greek plēthōrē, and from plēthein, meaning "be full."

11. Callipygian

This word might call to mind a bird with a suntan and a laid-back attitude, but it means "having shapely buttocks." It comes from the Greek kallipūgos, which was used to describe a famous statue of Venus, and from kallos, or "beauty," and pūgē, or "buttocks," plus -ian.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary Online, New Oxford American Dictionary (Second Ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth ed.)