40 Brilliant Words That Begin With the Letter B

iStock/koya79
iStock/koya79

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?

1. BABBITTISM

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.”

2. BABBLATIVE

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.

3. BACK-DOUBLE

Because it’s usually a less direct route, any side road or backstreet can also be called a back-double.

4. BACKSPANG

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.

5. BAFFLEGAB

Jargon-filled talk that sets out to clarify something but ends up only confusing things? That’s bafflegab.

6. BAGGAGE-SMASHER

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.

7. BAGGAGERY

A 16th-century word for the hoi polloi or rabble.

8. BAHUVRIHI

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.

9. BAISEMAIN

That courtly display of kissing someone’s hand on meeting them is called a baisemain.

10. BALATROON

A 17th-century word—derived from the Latin for “to prattle”—for a foolish or nonsensical person.

11. BALBUTIATE

To stammer or stutter. Pronounced “bal-byoosh-ee-ate,” incidentally, not “bal-byoot-ee-ate."

12. BALLAMBANGJANG

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.”

13. BAMBSQUABBLED

This and bamblustercated are 19th century American slang words essentially meaning “stupefied,” “confounded,” or “embarrassed.”

14. BATHYSIDERODROMOPHOBIA

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).

15. BATTOLOGIZE

To battologize is to annoy someone by repeating the same thing over and over again. And again. And again.

16. BAUBLE-BEARER

A court jester—and so, figuratively, a foolish, empty-headed person.

17. BED-SWERVER

A word for an unfaithful lover, invented by Shakespeare. As was …

18. BEEF-WITTED

Another Shakespearean invention, meaning “foolish” or “slow-brained.”

19. BELLY-CHEER

In Tudor English, a grand feast or excellent food was belly-cheer

20. BELLY-GOD

… while a belly-god or belly-slave is a particularly gluttonous person.

21. BIBACITY

A 17th-century word for “outrageous drinking.”

22. BIBBLE-BABBLE

Senseless chatter or prattling talk. A “very common” word in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

23. BIBLIOMANIA

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.

24. BIGLOT

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.

25. BLANDILOQUY

Empty flattery is blandiloquy, or blandiloquence.

26. BLITTERO

An old Scots dialect word for anything thin and watery.

27. BLOWSABELLA

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.”

28. BOOKSTAFF

An old name for a letter of the alphabet, derived from the Old English word bócstæf.

29. BOTULIFORM

Anything described as botuliform (which includes the bacterium that causes botulism, hence the name) is shaped like a sausage.

30. BOWDLERIZE

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!”

31. BRADYKINETIC

An adjective describing anything slow-moving, or with impaired movement.

32. BRATTLE-BRIG

An old northern English dialect word for the bridge of the nose.

33. BROTICOLE

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.

35. BRUXISM

Is the medical name for grinding your teeth.

36. BUCKARTIE-BOO

A Scots word meaning “to coo like a pigeon.”

37. BULL-SQUITTER

An old English dialect word for a great deal of fuss over a trivial matter.

38. BULLYRAG

To bullyrag or ballarag someone is to intimidate or badger them, particularly with abusive language.

39. BUM-CURTAIN

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.”

40. BUTYRACEOUS

The proper word for describing something that tastes or looks buttery.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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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