50 Words That Sound Dirty But Actually Aren't

iStock/AntonioGuillem
iStock/AntonioGuillem

To paraphrase Krusty the Clown, comedy isn’t dirty words—it’s words that sound dirty, like mukluk. He’s right, of course. Some words really do sound like they mean something quite different from their otherwise entirely innocent definition (a mukluk is an Inuit sealskin boot, in case you were wondering), and no matter how clean-minded you might be, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow or a wry smile whenever someone says something like cockchafer or sexangle. Here are 50 words that might sound rude, but really aren’t. Honest.

1. Aholehole

If you read that as "a-hole," then think again. Aholehole is pronounced “ah-holy-holy,” and is the name of a species of Hawaiian flagtail fish native to the central Pacific.

2. Aktashite

Aktashite is a rare mineral used commercially as an ore of arsenic, copper, and mercury. It takes its name from the village of Aktash in eastern Russia, where it was first discovered in 1968. The final –ite, incidentally, is the same mineralogical suffix as in words like graphite and kryptonite.

3. Assapanick

While exploring the coast of Virginia in 1606, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) wrote in his journal of a creature known to local tribes as the assapanick. By "spreading their legs, and so stretching the largeness of their skins," he wrote, "they have been seen to fly 30 or 40 yards." Assapanick is another name for the flying squirrel.

4. Assart

Assart is an old medieval English legal term for an area of forested land that has been converted into arable land for growing crops. It can also be used as a verb meaning "to deforest," or preparing wooded land for farming.

5. Bastinado

Derived from bastón, the Spanish word for a cane or walking stick, bastinado is an old 16th century word for a thrashing or caning, especially on the soles of the feet.

6. Boobyalla

As well as being the name of a former shipping port in northern Tasmania, boobyalla is also an Aborigine name for the wattlebird, one of a family of honeyeaters native to much of Australia.

7. Bum-bailiff

In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson described a bum-bailiff as "a bailiff of the meanest kind," and in particular, "one that is employed in arrests."

8. Bumfiddler

To bumfiddle means to pollute or spoil something, in particular by scribbling or drawing on a document to make it invalid. A bumfiddler is someone who does precisely that.

9. Bummalo

Like the aholehole, the bummalo is another tropical fish, in this case a southeast Asian lizardfish. When listed on Indian menus, it goes by the slightly more appetizing name of “Bombay duck.”

10. Clatterfart

According to a Tudor dictionary published in 1552, a clatterfart is someone who "wyl disclose anye light secreate"—in other words, it’s a gossip or blabbermouth.

11. Cockapert

Cockapert is an Elizabethan name for "a saucy fellow" according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it can also be used as an adjective meaning "impudent" or "smart-alecky."

12. Cock-bell

A cock-bell can be a small handbell, a type of wildflower that grows in the spring, and an old English dialect word for an icicle. In any case, it’s derived from coque, the French word for a seashell.

13. Cockchafer

The cockchafer is a large beetle native to Europe and western Asia. The origin of its name is a mystery, but one theory claims the beetles are so characteristically aggressive that they can be made to fight one another like cockerels.

14. Dik-dik

Standing little more than a foot tall at the shoulder, the dik-dik is one of the smallest antelopes in all of Africa. Their name is apparently an imitation of their alarm call.

15. Dreamhole

A dreamhole is a small slit or opening made in the wall of a building to let in sunlight or fresh air. It was also once used to refer to holes in watchtowers used by lookouts and guards, or to openings left in the walls of church towers to amplify the sounds of the bells.

16. Fanny-Blower

According to one 19th-century glossary of industrial slang, a fanny-blower or fanner was "used in the scissor-grinding industry," and comprised "a wheel with vanes, fixed onto a rotating shaft, enclosed in a case or chamber to create a blast of air." In other words, it’s a fan.

17. Fartlek

Fartlek is a form of athletic training in which intervals of intensive and much less strenuous exercise are alternated in one long continuous workout. It literally means "speed-play" in Swedish.

18. Fuksheet

Fuk was an old Middle English word for a sail, and in particular the foremost sail on a ship. A fukmast, ultimately, is a ship’s foremast, while the fuksheet or fuksail is the sail attached to the ship’s fukmast.

19. Gullgroper

To grope a gull is an old Tudor English expression meaning "to take advantage of someone," or "to swindle an unsuspecting victim"—and a gullgroper does just that.

20. Haboob

Taking its name from an Arabic word meaning "blustering" or "blowing," a haboob is a dry wind that blows across deserts, dustbowls, and other arid regions often at great speed, forming vast sandstorms as it goes. Haboobs are typically caused by the collapse of a cold front of air, which blasts dust and sediment up from the desert floor as it falls.

21. Humpenscrump

The Oxford English Dictionary calls a humpenscrump "a musical instrument of rude construction." Alongside others like humstrum, celestinette and wind-broach, it was originally another name for the hurdy-gurdy.

22. Invagination

Invagination is simply the process of putting something inside something else (and in particular, a sword into a scabbard), or else is the proper name for turning something inside out. The opposite is called evagination.

23. Jaculate

Jaculation is the act of throwing or jostling something around, while to jaculate means "to rush or jolt forward suddenly."

24. Jerkinhead

A jerkinhead is a roof that is only partly gabled (i.e., only forms part of a triangle beneath its eaves) and is instead levelled or squared off at the top, forming a flattened area known as a hip. Jerkinheads are also known as "half-hipped" or "clipped-gable" roofs.

25. Knobstick

As well as being an old nickname for a walking stick or truncheon, knobstick is an old 19th-century slang word for a workman who breaks a strike, or for a person hired to take the place of a striking employee.

26. Kumbang

Like the haboob, the kumbang is another hot, arid wind, in this case one that blows seasonally in the lowlands of western Indonesia.

27. Lobcocked

Lobcock is an old Tudor English word for an idiot or an unsophisticated, clownish bumpkin. Lobcocked is an equally ancient adjective meaning "boorish" or "naïve."

28. Nestle-Cock

A nestle-cock is the last bird to hatch from a clutch of eggs. It dates from the early 1600s, when it was also used as a nickname for an overly spoilt or pampered child.

29. Nicker-Pecker

Nicker-pecker is an old English dialect name for the European green woodpecker, the largest woodpecker native to Great Britain. In this context nicker is probably a derivative of nick, meaning a small cut or scratch.

30. Nobber

In early 19th century English, boxers were nicknamed nobbers, a name apparently derived from the earlier use of nobber as a slang term for a punch or blow to the head.

31. Nodgecock

Nodgecock, like lobcock, is another Tudor word for a fool or simpleton. It likely derives from an even earlier word, noddypoll, for someone who senselessly nods their head in agreement with any idea, no matter how good or bad it might be.

32. Pakapoo

Pakapoo is a 19th-century Australian word for a lottery or raffle. It apparently derives from a Cantonese phrase, baahk gáap piu, literally meaning "white pigeon ticket"—the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that in the original form of the game, a white dove might have been trained to select the winning ticket from all of the entries.

33. Peniaphobia

Definitely not what it sounds like, peniaphobia is actually the fear of poverty.

34. Penistone

Penistone (pronounced “pen-is-tun,” before you ask) is the name of a picturesque market town in Yorkshire, England, which has given its name to both a type of coarse woolen fabric and a type of locally produced sandstone.

35. Pershittie

The Scots word pershittie means "prim," or "overly meticulous." It’s one of a family of late 18th–early 19th century Scots words all of similar meaning, including perjinkity, perskeety, and, most familiar of all, pernickety.

36. Pissaladière

Pissalat is a condiment popular in southern French cookery made from puréed anchovies and olive oil, mixed with garlic, pepper, and herbs. It’s used to make a type of open bread tart called a pissaladière, which is flavored with onions and black olives.

37. Pissasphalt

Pissasphalt is a thick semi-liquid form of bitumen, similar to tar. The first part of the name is the Greek word for pitch, pissa.

38. Poonga

Poonga oil is obtained from the seeds of the Indian beech tree, Pongamia pinnata, and is widely used across southern India as everything from a skin treatment to a replacement for diesel in engines and generators.

39. Sack-Butt

Spelled with one t, a sackbut is an early Renaissance brass instrument similar to a trombone. Spelled with two ts, a sack-butt is a wine barrel.

40. Sexagesm

The adjective sexagesimal means "relating to the number 60," while anything that proceeds sexagesimally does so in sets of 60 at a time. A sexagesm, ultimately, is one-sixtieth of something.

41. Sexangle

Both sexangle and the equally indelicate sexagon are simply 17th-century names for what is otherwise known as a hexagon, a plane geometric shape with six sides. The prefix sexa– is derived from the Latin word for "six" rather than its Greek equivalent, heks.

42. Sexfoiled

Dating back to the Middle English period, foil is an old-fashioned name for a leaf or petal, which is retained in the names of plants like the bird’s-foot trefoil, a type of clover, and the creeping cinquefoil, a low-growing weed of the rose family. A sexfoil is ultimately a six-leaved plant or flower, or a similarly shaped architectural design or ornament incorporating six leaves or lobes.

43. Shittah

The shittah is a type of acacia tree native to Arabia and north-east Africa that is mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah as one of the trees that God "will plant in the wilderness" of Israel, alongside the cedar, pine, and myrtle. Its name was adopted into English from Hebrew in the early Middle Ages, but it can probably be traced all the way back to an Ancient Egyptian word for a thorn-tree.

44. Skiddy-Cock

Billcock, brook-ouzel, oar-cock, velvet runner, grey-skit, and skiddy-cock are all old English dialect names for the water rail, a small and notoriously elusive wading bird found in the wetlands of Europe, Asia, and north Africa. The name skiddy-cock is thought to be derived from skit, a 17th-century word meaning "to act shyly," or "to move rapidly and quickly"—but it could just as probably be derived from an even older 15th century word, skitter, meaning "to produce watery excrement."

45. Slagger

In 19th century English, a slagger was a workman in a blast furnace whose job it was to siphon off the stony waste material, or slag, that is produced when raw metals and ores are melted at high temperatures. Even earlier than that, in 16th century English, slagger was a verb, variously used to mean "to loiter" or "creep," or "to stumble" or "walk awkwardly."

46. Tease-Hole

Staying with furnaces, a tease-hole is simply the opening in a glassmaker’s furnace through which the fuel is added.

47. Tetheradick

Sheep farmers in some rural parts of Britain once had their own traditional counting systems, many of which are particularly ancient and predate even the Norman and Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. Most of these counting systems vanished during the Industrial Revolution, but several remain in use locally and have become fossilized in local rhymes, sayings and folk songs. Tether was an old Lake District name for the number three, while dick was the number ten; tetheradick, ultimately, was a count of 13.

48. Tit-Bore

Tit-bore—or tit-bore-tat-bore in full—is a 17th-century Scots name for a game of peekaboo. It was once also called hitty-titty, as was, incidentally, hide and go seek.

49. Tit-Tyrant

The tit-tyrants are a family of eight species of flycatcher native to the Andes Mountains and the westernmost rainforests of South America. One of the species, the ash-breasted tit-tyrant, is one of the world’s most endangered birds, with fewer than 1000 individuals left in a handful of remote, high-altitude sites in Peru and Bolivia.

50. Wankapin

Wankapin, or water chinquapin, is another name for the American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, a flowering plant native to Central American wetlands. The lotus was apparently introduced to what is now the southern United States by native tribes who would use the plant’s tubers and seeds (known as "alligator corn") as a source of food.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

Merriam-Webster Declares They Its Word of the Year

artisteer/iStock via Getty Images
artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year is one that you probably use about a dozen times a day: they.

It’s been a big year for the gender-neutral pronoun, whose definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was expanded to include its use as a singular nonbinary pronoun in September.

CNN notes that searches for they on the Merriam-Webster site have increased 313 percent over last year’s data, but the Word of the Year isn’t determined by growth alone. As Merriam-Webster senior editor and lexicographer Emily Brewster explained on WRSI, a word also needs to have considerable search spikes throughout the year in order to qualify.

“That says to us that a word is significant for that particular year; that it has some kind of important association with the actual year,” she said.

And they definitely had several landmark search spikes in 2019. According to CNN, look-ups peaked when nonbinary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week in January, when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal disclosed that her child was gender-nonconforming in April, and during Pride celebrations around the world in June (this year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots). Many major style guides, including the Associated Press, have recognized they as an accepted singular pronoun in the past few years.

In addition to the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also published their top 10 most-searched terms, which paint an intriguing portrait of 2019 in review. There were political terms like quid pro quo, impeach, and clemency, the word the—which spiked after The Ohio State University tried to trademark it in August—and the enigmatic word camp, which baffled many a fashion blogger as the theme of the Met Gala in May.

[h/t CNN]

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