M is one of the earliest traceable letters in our entire alphabet. Its familiar up-and-down shape is thought to be descended (via the Roman, Greek, Etruscan, and Phoenician alphabets) from a wave-shaped hieroglyph representing the Ancient Egyptian word for “water”—which makes our humble letter M more than 5000 years old.
Nowadays, in English, M marks the halfway point of the alphabet, and likewise typically features around halfway-down letter frequency lists; you can expect M to account for around 2.5 percent of any page of English text, and for around 4 percent of the words in a standard dictionary to be listed under it—including the 40 marvelously magniloquent M-words listed here.
The earliest record of the word macaroni in English dates back to 1616 (when it was used in a play by Ben Jonson), although it’s thought that it originally referred to gnocchi, not pasta. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that macaroni as we know it was first recorded in a 1673 travel guide that described it as “paste made into strings like pack-thread or thongs of whit-leather which if greater they [the Italians] call Macaroni, if lesser Vermicelli.” Either way, by the mid-1700s the popularity of macaroni and other continental dishes among the young, foppish gentlemen of London led to the word macaroni being associated with flamboyant, cosmopolitan tastes. “The Macaroni Club” was the nickname for a London society whose members were vain, dandyish young men returning from The Grand Tour of Europe. The macaroni wig was a flamboyant hairpiece popular among 18th century gentlemen (which is the macaroni mentioned in “Yankee Doodle”). The adjective macaronyish, ultimately, means “dandified,” “over-the-top,” or “fancy.”
If something or someone is macropodine, then it resembles a kangaroo. It literally means “big-footed.”
A macule or macula is a tiny blemish or spot. Likewise, something that is maculiferous is spotted, scarred, or blemished, and maculation is the act of staining or spotting something.
Magniloquence or magniloquy is lofty, pompous, self-aggrandizing speech, and so if you’re magniloquent or magniloquous, then you’re given to over-speaking, bragging, or talking pompously.
To hold something in very high esteem.
The adjective maieutic (“may-yoo-tik”) literally means “obstetric” or “pertaining to childbirth,” but the term was also used by Socrates to describe the philosophical process of opening someone’s mind, to the point at which they become fully conscious of an idea or thought that they had, until then, been entirely unaware of. Maieutics (as well as being another word for midwifery) is ultimately the process of “giving birth” to new ideas.
To malaxate is to soften something by kneading it.
The process of memorizing a speech.
That’s the medical name for excessive underarm sweating, should you need to know it.
If you’re maungy, then you’re in an ill-tempered, peevish mood—the kind of mood when even the things that usually cheer you up just aren’t doing it for you.
You can use mayhem as a verb, meaning “to harm or inflict injury on someone.” The word mayhem itself is a variation of maim and was originally a legal term meaning “to injure someone so as to impair their capacity for self-defense.”
An old slang name for your stomach, also called your meat-safe. As savage as a meat-axe is a 19th century expression meaning “extremely hungry.”
If you’re megalophonous, then you have a loud voice. The opposite is malacophonous, meaning “soft-voiced.”
Also known as megalopsychia, megalopsychy is another name for magnanimity, or a benevolent, high-minded character. It literally means “great-souled.”
To be in the merlygrubs is an old Yorkshire dialect expression essentially meaning “to be out of sorts,” or “to feel not quite yourself.” According to one explanation, the merlygrubs are “an internal ailment which evidences itself by contortions of the features.”
An 18th-century English word for a drinking party held in a pub on Christmas Eve.
A mithridate is a cure-all or universal antidote, or any medicinal preparation with seemingly endless healing or restorative powers. It derives from the name of Mithridates VI, a 1st century BCE king of the ancient kingdom of Pontus, who was supposedly so fearful of being poisoned (as his father and predecessor Mithridates V had been before him) that, over many years, he deliberately administered ever-increasing amounts of poison and antidotes to himself to gradually build up a natural immunity to them all—a process now known as mithridatism. His plan apparently worked, but unfortunately had disastrous consequences: After his kingdom fell to the Romans around 66 BCE, Mithridates and his family decided to commit suicide rather than be captured and executed by the Roman general Pompey, and so he, his wife, and their two daughters all drank vials of poison. By this point, however, Mithridates was so immune to the poison’s effects that he survived, and having watched his entire family die around him, was left with little option but to ask one of his own guards to kill him.
A Scots dialect word for a random assortment of mismatching things.
“A cant word formed from maze by reduplication,” according to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, mizmaze is another word for a maze or labyrinth, but can be used figuratively to mean “an intricate or complicated situation.”
Worth remembering this one—mnemotechny is the process of improving your memory. A mnemotechnist is someone who does just that, or someone with an impressive ability to recall things.
The enormous stone statues on Easter Island have a name: They’re moai, a Rapa Nui word meaning “image.” Bonus fact: Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t just heads. Most have disproportionately large heads with smaller bodies beneath, while others only appear to be a disembodied head because the rest of their body is buried in the earth.
The Scots dialect word mocher can be used variously to mean “to busy yourself with trifling matters,” “to look busy while accomplishing nothing,” or “to work in the dark.” It’s thought to come from mog, an earlier dialect word for a slow, awkward, or clumsy movement.
Another word for a laughing-stock, or the butt of the joke.
To deceive someone with words or flattery.
To toss your head disdainfully is to mollop. It’s likely related to mollat, a 16th-century word for a spiked or studded bit placed in an unruly horse’s mouth to help control it.
Monkery is a 17th-century word for the countryside. It’s thought to derive from a word from Shelta, a language combining both Gaelic and English elements, spoken by the Irish traveller community.
Moozy or mosey is an old dialect word describing fruits or vegetables that don’t taste as they should, either because they’re sour or sharp, or because they’re hard or tough-textured; the word also refers to crops that have been frostbitten. A man who is moozy-faced, incidentally, is just beginning to show the earliest growth of a beard.
To mounge is to chew, but the word can also be used in a figurative sense, meaning “to idle while there’s work to be done.”
If you’re muck-struck, then you’re utterly astonished. Mazed, clumsed, and sparrow-blasted all mean the same thing.
Someone who has no problem with getting dirty, or a child who likes to play in mud.
Victorian slang for a tea party.
A 17th-century nickname for a priest. A mumble-crust is a toothless old man, and a mumble-news is a gossiper.
A murgeon is an over-the-top gesture or facial expression. Someone who overuses gesturing or pulls faces while talking is a murgeon-maker.
So-called from the murmuring sound their wings make in flight, a flock of starlings or similar birds is called a murmuration.
A strong, unpleasant smell or stench.
Because mushrooms often appear to grow incredibly quickly—and seemingly from nowhere—a mushroom-hall is any hastily built building or structure. Originally, the term referred to a house or building constructed to establish a hasty claim to a plot of land.
Derived from a Scandinavian word for rain, a muskerin is a short, drizzly rain shower.
If you’re mysophobic, then you’re a clean freak—mysophobia is the fear of dirt. Other M phobias include musophobia (mice), microphobia (anything small), mastigophobia (being hit or beaten), melissophobia (bees), and merinthophobia (being tied up or restrained).
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.