Ever seen a Latin inscription that uses words like jvdicivm (rather than judicium, “judgment”), vinvm (rather than vinum, “wine”), or vocivvs (rather than vocivus, “empty”)? That’s because, historically, V used to be used to represent both the “v” sound we still use it for today, and the vowel sound we now represent as a U. All that started to change in the early Middle Ages, when a trend emerged to only use angular V at the beginnings of words, and a rounded V (or, in other words, a U) in the middles or ends of words, regardless of the sound involved. So while love became loue, upon became vpon, have became haue, under became vnder, and so on.
Unfortunately for V, that meant that U took the lion’s share of the use (or rather, the vse), and earned it much more importance in English than it ever previously had. Not only that, but because you’re much more likely to come across a “u” sound inside a word than at the beginning of it, by the time the two finally began to be considered as separate letters in the 17th century, it was U that took the more commonly used vowel sound, while V took the relatively rarer v sound. Even today, you can still expect V to account for only 1 percent of all the English you’ll use, and the letter is at the start of just over 0.5 percent of the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 V words listed here.
An 18th century word from the far north of Scotland meaning “a stream of filthy water.”
The French for “going-and-coming” was borrowed into English during the First World War to describe a to-ing and fro-ing, chopping-and-changing movement or pattern, or a bandying, back-and-forth discussion.
A prank or unscrupulous trick designed to deceive someone—in other words, one that might be played by a vagabond.
The singing of mating birds in the spring is valentining.
An 18th-century Yorkshire dialect word for a random assortment of things.
A Vandemonian is an inhabitant of Tasmania, which was originally named Van Diemen’s Land by the Europeans who arrived there in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th century, it was being used by British courts as one of the many Australian sites to which convicts and criminals were transported as punishment. As a result, the Victorian slang term vandemonianism came to be used to refer to rowdy, disorderly behavior.
An old Scots dialect word for a sudden and heavy shower of rain.
Named in honor of the Flemish artist Sir Anthony Van Dyck, a Vandyke is both a type of ruff collar and the name of a style of beard combining an elaborate moustache and goatee. Based on how stylish both of those were (or are, depending on your fashion sense), you can also use Vandyke as a verb meaning “to dress flamboyantly.”
Empty, blathering chatter.
To vapulate someone is to strike or flog them, so if something feels or appears vapulatory, then it resembles a sound thrashing.
The little metal hoop that a gate hook sits inside? That’s the vartiwell.
Vates was the Latin word for a seer or soothsayer. Derived from that, to vaticinate means to speak like a prophet or to foresee the future, while a vaticiny is a prediction or prophecy.
Derived from French, vauntparler is a 16th-century word for someone who speaks on someone else’s behalf …
… while vauntsquare is a 16th-century word meaning “to perfectly face the front.”
Also spelled feague, a veague is a teasing child.
The process of carrying something from one place to another. Anything described as vectarious does precisely that. Both words are derived from the same root as words like convection and vector.
A petty fight or squabble.
To venenate something is to envenom it—or, in other words, to render it poisonous.
While verbigeration is clichéd, repetitive writing or language, the verb to verbigerate is to senselessly or involuntarily or senselessly or involuntarily repeat the same thing over and over again and over and over again and again.
An old 17th-century word meaning “extremely modest.” The root form verecund, meaning “bashful” or “meek,” comes from a Latin word for “reverence” or “fear.”
No prizes for guessing that this was borrowed into English from German—it’s another name for what’s otherwise known as the “alienation effect” or “distancing effect,” a theatrical term used to refer to a playwright deliberately distancing the events on stage from their audience, usually by including constant reminders that they’re merely watching a performance into the play. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht is credited with inventing this unusual technique, and is by far its most famous exponent. He would often project captions onto the stage and even go so far as to have actors step in and out of character mid-performance. (Feel free just to call it the “V-effect,” by the way …)
If you’re veriloquous or veriloquent, then you speak the truth. (Honestly.)
A South African-origin word used to describe someone who is narrow-minded or extremely conservative in their views. It literally means “cramped” in Afrikaans.
Literally meaning “spring-lust,” vernalagnia is the proper name for “spring fever”—an increase in a person’s spirits or romantic feelings when the weather improves after winter. Or, as one 19th-century dictionary defined it, “the listless feeling caused by the first sudden increase of temperature in spring."
As well as being the name of a part of a church, vestry is an old Cornish English word for the smiling of children in their sleep.
Probably a pun on vincens, a Latin word meaning “victorious” or “conquering,” vincent is a Tudor-period word for the duped player in a crooked game of cards or bowls. Vincent’s Law is an equally old nickname for the art of cheating at games.
If you’re vinerous or vansome, then you’re hard to please.
Anything that enlivens or gives life is vivific. The process involved is called vivification.
Need a technical term for being buried alive? No? Well, too bad, now you have one anyway. And being burned alive? That’s vivicombustion.
Vizard is a Tudor-period word for a mask, so if you’re vizarded, you’re disguised, and if you’re vizardless, then you’re unmasked or overt. In the 17th century, a vizard-mask was a woman who “disguised herself” in public—or, in other words, a sex worker.
Coined by Shakespeare to refer to a waiting room or entranceway.
Volage is an old Scots word meaning “to talk ostentatiously,” and derived from it is volisher, another word for a boastful show-off.
An old southwest English dialect word meaning “at random” or “haphazardly.” It’s probably derived from a local pronunciation of nolens volens, a Latin expression essentially meaning “whether willing or unwilling.”
An old Irish word for a zealously pious person.
Nineteenth-century slang for an indistinct speaker.
If the weather looks voxy, then it looks uncertain or changeable.
An old southwest English word meaning “to hit someone with your elbow.”
A 16th-century word meaning “to wound.” An animal depicted as wounded on a coat of arms is said to be vulnerated.
Derived from the Latin word for “fox,” vulpes, to vulpinate, is to wilily cheat or deceive someone.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.