25 Smart Words You Should Be Using But Aren’t

iStock
iStock

Over its lengthy history, the English language has amassed the largest vocabulary of any comparable language on the planet. That’s great when it comes to picking precisely the right word for a very specific situation, but not so great when you think about the countless words that are lying ignored in the murkier corners of the dictionary, being overlooked in favor of their more familiar synonyms and equivalents. So in the interest of improving your vocabulary (and scoring a few smart points along the way) why not try ditching the familiar for the unfamiliar, and dropping one of these 25 fantastically obscure phrases into a conversation?

1. ABLOCATE

Photo of a for hire sign
iStock

Dating from the 17th century, to ablocate something is to hire it out. For obvious reasons, it literally means “to put in a different place.”

2. AGELASTIC

Unhappy person with bag over head
iStock

Derived from a Greek word meaning “laughter”, someone who is agelastic literally never laughs. Or, put another way, they’re extremely miserable.

3. APRICATION

Photo of woman sunbathing
iStock

The early lexicographer Henry Cockeram defined aprication as “a baking in the sun” in his 1623 English Dictionarie. Derived from a Latin word literally meaning “exposed,” it’s basically a fancy alternative to “sunbathing.”

4. BRACHYLOGICAL

Photo of kid speaking through a megaphone
iStock

Brachylogy is brevity of speech, which makes someone who is brachylogical a succinct, terse, straight-to-the-point speaker.

5. BUCCULA

A man with a double chin
iStock

Instead of saying "double chin," say buccula. It sounds a lot more complimentary and literally means “little cheek.”

6. CALAMISTRATION

Woman using curling iron to curl her hair
iStock

In Latin, a calamistrum was a curling iron, which makes calamistration the act or process of curling your hair and calamistrate—a word dating from the mid 1600s in English—the verb for precisely that.

7. DEOSCULATION

A couple kissing
iStock

They’re not the most romantic of words, but both osculation and deosculation are 17th-century words for kissing.

8. DECEMNOVENARIAN

Photo of a woman dressed in Victorian style clothing
iStock

The word decemnovenarian is derived from the Latin word for the number 19, and so literally means “characteristic of the 19th century”—or more loosely, “outdated” or “old-fashioned.”

9. ECHINATE

Photo of a cute hedgehog
iStock

Your hairbrush might be echinate, and so too might a hedgehog—for good reason. Although it’s usually used more generally of anything covered in prickly spikes or points, echinate literally means “hedgehog-like.”

10. ÉCLAIRCISSEMENT

Photo of a young girl understanding a difficult concept
iStock

English has picked up some very smart-sounding words from French over the years, including the noun éclaircissement, which has been used to mean “a clearing up of that which is obscure or unknown” since the late 1600s. More generally, it's an enlightening explanation of something seemingly inexplicable.

11. FACINOROUS

Photo of a woman casting a devilish shadow
iStock

Derived from a Latin word for an evil deed, the adjective facinorous dates from the mid 16th century in English and refers to anything or anyone atrociously, heinously evil or bad.

12. FRITINIENCY

Photo of a bird chirping in a field
iStock

The Latin word fritinnire meant, onomatopoeically, “twittering” or “chirping.” And derived from that, fritiniency is a 17th-century word for the chirruping sounds made by birds or insects.

13. INFUCATION

Photo of two women putting on makeup
iStock

To fucate is to paint or color something. Derived from there, infucation is a 17th-century word for the process of applying makeup—or, as one 1658 English dictionary put it, the “laying on of drugs or artificial colors upon the face."

14. LAODICEAN

Photo of man shrugging his shoulders
iStock

Derived from the name of an ancient region of the eastern Mediterranean (whose inhabitants, according to the Book of Revelation, were singled out for their indifference or lukewarm interest in Christianity), a Laodicean is someone who holds no particular opinion or interest, especially in contentious subject like politics or religion; as an adjective, it means “indifferent” or “uninterested."

15. MALVERSATION

Photo of man crossing his fingers behind his back while taking an oath
iStock

To malverse is to act corruptly in an elected office or position of trust, and malversation—originally a Scottish legal term—is the act of doing precisely that.

16. NIMBOSE

Photo of clouds gathering
iStock

Nimbus (as in words like cumulonimbus and nimbostratus) was the Latin word for “cloud,” which lies at the root of a handful of weather-related words like nimbosity (meaning “storminess” or “cloudiness”) and nimbose, which means “stormy” or “overcast."

17. PENELOPIZING

Photo of a woman wasting time at work throwing paper airplanes
iStock

If you know your classic literature, you’ll know that Penelope was the faithful wife of Odysseus in The Odyssey by Homer (more on him in a moment), who spent her time waiting for her husband’s return by working on a never-ending tapestry. With Odysseus presumed dead, Penelope managed to put off all her potential suitors by explaining that she would only begin to consider their marriage proposals once her embroidery was completed—but every night, she would secretly unpick her day’s work so that she remained busy until Odysseus finally returned. From that story of pure fidelity, the name Penelope came to be used allusively in English of any enduringly faithful partner, while the verb penelopize came to be used variously to mean “to make one’s work fill up the time available,” “to procrastinate” or “put off a decision,” and “to deliberately waste one’s time."

18. PERVICACIOUS

Photo of a stubborn young boy
iStock

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to convince someone of your point” or “to demonstrate without doubt,” someone who is pervicacious is extremely obstinate or stubborn.

19. PRODROMUS

Photo of a runner crossing the finish line
iStock

That “drom” in the middle of prodromus—which is the same root as words like velodrome and hippodrome (which is literally a race course)—derives from a Greek word meaning “running.” That makes a prodromus literally a “forerunner,” or just something that comes before something else. Today, it's most often used in the natural sciences in reference to "a prelimary publication or introductory work."

20. PRODITORIOUS

Photo of a computer hacker
iStock

A proditor is a traitor, which makes someone who is proditorious untrustworthy or disloyal.

21. ROCAMBOLESQUE

Group of men in animal costumes
iStock

Rocambole was the name of a flashy fictional adventurer created by a 19th-century French writer named Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. The stories in which Rocambole appears grew ever more outlandish as the series continued, and ultimately gave rise to the word rocambolesque, meaning “utterly extraordinary” or “too bizarre to be believable."

22. SOMNILOQUY

Photo of a man walking and talking in his sleep at the office
iStock

Derived from the same roots as words like insomnia and soliloquy, somniloquy is a more formal word for sleep talking. Sleepwalking, incidentally, is somnambulism, while to somniate is to dream and something that is somnifacient puts you to sleep.

23. TEMPORICIDE

Photo of a toy soldier aiming at an alarm clock
iStock

A derivative of the Latin word for “kill” or “cut,” the suffix cide is found at the end of all kinds of words in English, from the familiar (homicide, suicide) to the rare (ceticide, “the killing of whales”), and to the downright bizarre (coquicide, “the killing of a cook”). At the rarer end of the scale is temporicide, a term coined as relatively recently as 1851 for the figurative “killing of time."

24. XYRESIC

Photo of a sharp razor blade
iStock

Derived from the Ancient Greek word for a razor, xyresic literally means “razor-sharp”—or, more figuratively, “cutting” or “keen."

25. ZOILISM

Photo of a judgmental woman
iStock

Zoilus was a 4th-century BC Greek grammarian and philosopher, who was known to be one of the harshest critics of Homer. Homer may have been the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but his work was not viewed in particularly high regard by Zoilus, who wrote extensively on the shortcomings and loopholes he found in Homer's writings. It was this unending, near-constant nitpicking of the author's work that not only earned Zoilus the nickname “Homeromastix” (literally, “Homer-whipper”) in his lifetime, but also eventually gave the English language the brilliant word zoilism—meaning “fault-finding” or “unfair, overly fastidious criticism.”

    Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

    Five rooms of one's own.
    Five rooms of one's own.
    Allwood/Amazon

    If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

    As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

    You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

    The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

    Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

    Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

    Intrigued? Find out more here.

    [h/t Simplemost]

    This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

    Why Do We Say ‘Spill the Beans’?

    This is a Greek tragedy.
    This is a Greek tragedy.
    anthony_taylor/iStock via Getty Images

    Though superfans of The Office may claim otherwise, the phrase spill the beans did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped a massive bucket of chili at work during episode 26 of season five. In fact, people supposedly started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago.

    According to Bloomsbury International, one voting method in ancient Greece involved (uncooked) beans. If you were voting yes on a certain matter, you’d place a white bean in the jar; if you were voting no, you’d use your black bean. The jar wasn’t transparent, and since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally knocked it over mid-vote was literally spilling the beans—and figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

    While we don’t know for sure that the phrase spill the beans really does date all the way back to ancient times, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” at least since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest known reference of it is from a letter written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara sometime before his death in 1545 (the word spill appears in Edward Hellowes’s 1577 translation of the letter).

    Writers started to pair spill with beans during the 20th century. The first known mention is from Thomas K. Holmes’s 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

    In short, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were an ideal food to describe spilling secrets. As for whether you’re imagining hard, raw beans like the Greeks used or the tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, we’ll leave that up to you.

    [h/t Bloomsbury International]