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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to being the name of a former shipping port in northern Tasmania, boobyalla is also a name for the wattlebird, one of a family of honeyeaters native to much of Australia, that according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “a borrowing from Tasmanian Aboriginal.”
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.”
One possible meaning of bumfiddle is “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. (But there are dirty meanings of the word, too.)
Like the aholehole, the bummalo is another tropical fish, in this case a southeast Asian lizardfish. When listed on Indian menus, it goes by “Bombay duck.”
According to a Tudor dictionary published in 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “wyl disclose anye light secreate”—in other words, a gossip or blabbermouth.
Cockapert is an Elizabethan name for “a saucy fellow,” according to the OED, but it can also be used as an adjective meaning “impudent” or “smart-alecky.”
The word cock-bell refer to 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.
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.
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.
A dreamhole is an 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.
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.
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.
Fuk was an old Middle English word for a sail, specifically the foremost sail on a ship. The word fukmast referred to a ship’s foremast, while fuksheet or fuksail were used for the sail attached to the ship’s fukmast.
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.
Taking its name from an Arabic word meaning “blustering” or “blowing,” haboob refers to 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.
The OED defines humpenscrump as “a musical instrument of rude construction.” It was originally another name for the hurdy-gurdy, as were humstrum, celestinette, and wind-broach.
Invagination is simply the process of putting something inside something else (in particular, a sword into a scabbard). It’s also the proper name for turning something inside out. The opposite is called “evagination.”
Jaculation is the act of throwing or jostling something around; jaculate means “to rush or jolt forward suddenly.”
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.
In addition to 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. (These days, we call them “scabs.”)
A kumbang is another hot, arid wind, in this case one that blows seasonally in the lowlands of western Indonesia.
Lobcock is an old Tudor English word for an unsophisticated, clownish bumpkin. Lobcocked is an equally ancient adjective meaning “boorish” or “naïve.”
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.
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.”
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.
Nodgecock is another Tudor word for a foolish person. It likely derives from an even earlier word, noddypoll, for someone who nods their head in agreement with any idea, no matter how good or bad it might be.
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.
The word peniaphobia definitely doesn’t mean what it sounds like—it’s actually the fear of poverty.
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.
The Scots word pershittie means “prim“ or “overly meticulous.” It’s one of a family of late 18th- to early 19th-century Scots words all of similar meaning, including perjinkity, perskeety, and, most familiar of all, pernickety.
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.
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.
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.
When it’s spelled with one t, the word sackbut refers to an early Renaissance brass instrument similar to a trombone. When sack-butt has two ts, however, it’s a word for a wine barrel.
The adjective sexagesimal means “relating to the number 60,” and anything that proceeds sexagesimally does so in sets of 60 at a time. So the word sexagesm means “one-sixtieth of something.”
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.
Foil is an old-fashioned name for a leaf or petal dating back to the Middle English period; it’s 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. The word sexfoil refers to a six-leaved plant or flower, or a similarly shaped architectural design or ornament incorporating six leaves or lobes.
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.
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.”
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.”
A teasehole is the opening in a glassmaker’s furnace through which the fuel is added.
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 3, while dick was the number 10; tetheradick, ultimately, was a count of 13.
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.
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.
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 has been updated for 2023.
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