If you had to take a guess at the 10 least-used letters of the English alphabet, chances are you wouldn’t rank B down among the Zs, Qs, Xs, and Js. And on the one hand, you’d be right—nearly 5 percent of all the words in a dictionary are listed under the second letter of the alphabet. But when B isn’t the first letter of a word, it’s actually quite rare: Take an average page of written English text, and you can expect it to account for less than 1.5 percent of it, making B the seventh least-used English letter overall. So why not give B a boost with these brilliantly bizarre words?
Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’s controversial 1922 satire Babbitt tells the story of fictional Midwest businessman George F. Babbitt, who achieves the perfect American middle-class life but soon finds total conformity and social expectation oddly discomforting. The novel inspired a handful of words that have since entered the language including Babbittism or Babbittry, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.”
If you’re babblative, then you’re prone to babble or chatter. Likewise, babblement or babblery is gossiping, prattling conversation, while a babble-merchant is an unstoppably talkative person.
Because it’s usually a less direct route, any side road or backstreet can also be called a back-double.
Derived from spang, an old Scots word for a sudden jolt or kick, a backspang is essentially a sting in the tail—a bad turn of events or a sudden detrimental change of mind at the very last minute. It’s used in relation to someone going back on their word, after a deal has been struck.
Jargon-filled talk that sets out to clarify something but ends up only confusing things? That’s bafflegab.
As well as being a name for a thief who specializes in stealing luggage from trains, in 19th-century slang a baggage-smasher was a porter at a railway station.
A 16th-century word for the hoi polloi or rabble.
In linguistics, a bahuvrihi is essentially a compound word in which the first part (A) describes the second (B), so that, according to Merriam-Webster, the entire word (A + B) fits the template “a B that is A.” Words like highbrow, white-collar, Bluebeard, Bigfoot, and sabretooth are all examples, as is the word bahuvrihi itself: It literally means “much rice” in Sanskrit, but is used as a nickname for a notably wealthy man.
That courtly display of kissing someone’s hand on meeting them is called a baisemain.
A 17th-century word—derived from the Latin for “to prattle”—for a foolish or nonsensical person.
To stammer or stutter. Pronounced “bal-byoosh-ee-ate,” incidentally, not “bal-byoot-ee-ate."
Any fictitious or fantastic place—where a story that seems too good to be true might be supposed to have taken place—is a Ballambangjang. The name first appeared in the language in 19th-century nautical slang in reference to the “Straits of Ballambangjang,” a fictitious sea strait in southeast Asia (based on the real-life seas off Balambangan island near Borneo) that sailors alleged to be “so narrow, and the rocks on each side so crowded with trees inhabited by monkeys, that the ship’s yards cannot be squared on account of the monkey’s tails getting jammed into and choking up the brace blocks.”
This and bamblustercated are 19th century American slang words essentially meaning “stupefied,” “confounded,” or “embarrassed.”
A form of claustrophobia: If you don’t like traveling on underground rail systems, then you’re bathysiderodromophobic. Other B fears include bathophobia (the fear of depth), belonephobia (needles), batrachophobia (reptiles), blennophobia (slime) and both bacteriophobia (the fear of bacteria), and bacillophobia (microbes).
To battologize is to annoy someone by repeating the same thing over and over again. And again. And again.
A court jester—and so, figuratively, a foolish, empty-headed person.
A word for an unfaithful lover, invented by Shakespeare. As was …
Another Shakespearean invention, meaning “foolish” or “slow-brained.”
In Tudor English, a grand feast or excellent food was belly-cheer …
A 17th-century word for “outrageous drinking.”
Senseless chatter or prattling talk. A “very common” word in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
If you’re crazy about books, then you’re a bibliomaniac. In which case you probably best stay away from bibliokleptomaniacs, who are equally crazy about stealing books.
If you read that as “big lot,” try again—a “bi-glot” is someone who speaks two languages. Bonus fact: More than 50 percent of the world’s population is bilingual, so if you can only speak one language you’re in a global minority.
Empty flattery is blandiloquy, or blandiloquence.
An old Scots dialect word for anything thin and watery.
In 17th-century slang, a blowse or blowsabella was a slatternly, untidily-attired woman, or more specifically, “a woman whose hair is disheveled, and hanging about her face.”
An old name for a letter of the alphabet, derived from the Old English word bócstæf.
Anything described as botuliform (which includes the bacterium that causes botulism, hence the name) is shaped like a sausage.
To prudishly remove all the risqué or questionable material from a text is to bowdlerize it. The word derives from 18th-19th century English physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who with the help of his sister published The Family Shakespeare in 1807, an edition of 24 of Shakespeare’s plays amended for what were seen at the time as the more sensitive minds of women and children. For example, Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damn’d spot!” as she tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, became “Out, crimson spot!”
An adjective describing anything slow-moving, or with impaired movement.
An old northern English dialect word for the bridge of the nose.
Rats, mice, spiders, house martins and swallows, foxes and raccoons are all broticoles—namely, organisms that like to live alongside humans, or around our houses and buildings.
34. Brutum Fulmen
An empty or ineffective threat or action is a brutum fulmen—it means “senseless thunderbolt” in Latin.
The medical name for grinding your teeth.
A Scots word meaning “to coo like a pigeon.”
An old English dialect word for a great deal of fuss over a trivial matter.
To bullyrag or ballarag someone is to intimidate or badger them, particularly with abusive language.
A flashily dressed woman in 1930s slang, so-called because of “her habit of making great play with her buttocks and of causing her dress to swish as if it were a wind-agitated curtain.”
The proper word for describing something that tastes or looks buttery.
A version of this article ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.