The letter C is a modern-day descendent of the Ancient Greek letter gamma, and as such originally represented a “g” sound rather than “k.” The Romans, however, confused everything; they typically used their letter C to represent both “g” and “k” sounds, avoiding the letter K (which was descended from the Greek kappa) almost entirely. Having one letter to represent multiple sounds proved confusing, and so Roman scribes invented a new letter, G, to represent “g,” which freed C to represent the “k” sound. So when the Roman alphabet was introduced to England, C was originally used for all instances of the “k” sound—as in cyng (Old English “king”), sticca (“stick”), lician (“like”), cneow (“knee”), and cniht (“knight”).
Just as things were starting to settle down, along came William the Conqueror. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the English language adopted a number of words from French in which the Latin letter C was now being used to represent a “s” sound, like city, citizen, and circle. Old English speakers were now facing the same problem that the Romans had had, as their letter C was being used for two entirely different sounds. Ultimately, C typically came to be used in all the “s”-sounding words (known as “soft-C”), while the Greek K was rescued from the linguistic scrapheap and began to be used for the “hard-C” words.
This all means that C isn’t used as much today as it was in Old English [PDF], but you can still expect it to account for around 2.5 percent of a page of written English, and it accounts for 3.5 percent of all the words in a dictionary—including the 40 clever C-words collected and collated here.
Also called a cabby-lab, cabby-labby is an old Scots dialect word for a noisy quarrel or disagreement in which everyone involved is speaking at the same time. Should you ever need to, you can also use cabby-labby as a verb, meaning “to argue” or “to disagree.”
Borrowed into English in the 1600s, a cacafuego or cacafugo is a blustering, swaggering boaster. It literally means “fire-pooper” in Spanish.
Derived from Latin, cachinnation is loud or raucous laughter, and to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or immoderately. Something that is cachinnatory, incidentally, makes you cachinnate.
Cacology literally means “evil-speaking,” and is used to refer to a poor choice of words or noticeably bad language. Likewise, a caconym is an ill-fitting or unpleasant name; a cachotechny is a poorly constructed device or work of art; and a cacotype is either a printing error, or a libelously insulting printed description or account.
Because the Cain of Cain and Abel is supposed to have had red hair, Shakespeare coined the term Cain-colored in The Merry Wives of Windsor to describe someone with a fair, reddish-colored beard.
A formal word for the process of curling your hair.
Derived from the same root as calorie, if something is calid then it’s warm, and so calidity is simply another name for warmth or heat. A caliduct is a pipe for conducting hot air or heated water, as in a radiator.
Someone who thinks that they’re more beautiful than they really are is a callomaniac. Someone who is calophantic, likewise, pretends to be better than they really are.
Derived from the French for “cameo,” a camaïeu is a monochrome work of art, particularly one in which the color used is not one found in whatever is being portrayed (like a black-and-white image of a bright green apple, or a blue-and-white portrait of a person). By extension, the term camaïeu can also be used metaphorically to refer to any dull or predictable literary work.
Whereas goats themselves have long been considered symbols of lecherousness and libidinousness, goats’ horns are, for some reason, considered a symbol of unfaithfulness and infidelity. One explanation suggests that goats are such proverbially foolish animals that they’re utterly unaware that they even have horns at all—just as the partner of an unfaithful lover is utterly unaware of their other half’s infidelity. Another theory points to the celebratory “horns” given to Roman soldiers returning home from successes on far-flung battlefields—only to find that they’ve been away from home so long that their wives have left them and moved on. Whatever the reason behind it, the association between goats’ horns and unfaithfulness is the origin of the word capricornify, which means “to cheat on your lover,” or, oppositely, “to be cuckolded or cheated on.”
The adjective chthonian is usually used to mean “pertaining to the Underworld,” but the derived term catachthonian, or catachthonic, is simply another word for “underground” or “subterranean.”
If the room you’re in feels like a catacomb, then it’s catacumbal.
Cataphasis—a Greek word literally meaning “affirmation”—is a rhetorical device in which someone draws attention to a person’s bad points by ostensibly glossing over them; unlike other rhetorical devices that do the same thing (known as paralipsis), in a cataphasis the speaker makes it abundantly clear that the bad points in question absolutely exist, as in “I’m not going to mention the fact that he got fired for misconduct yesterday …” or, “but let’s not start talking about how she capricornifies everyone she’s ever gone out with …” If you’re the person being alluded to in the cataphasis, of course, you might want to consider responding with a …
… which is another rhetorical term, referring to a speech or pronouncement in which someone threatens revenge.
So-named because they’re supposed to walk so closely behind the person they admire, a catch-fart is an ingratiating, toadying sycophant.
Derived from the French number quatre, cater is a 16th century word for the four on a die or in a pack of cards. Derived from that, to cater means to walk or move along a diagonal path, while to position something caterwise or cater-cornered means to place it diagonally.
The chabble is the slight undulation on the surface of the sea, or of a liquid in a large vessel.
An old Yorkshire dialect nickname for weak tea.
The smaller and lesser-known partner of the word myriad is chiliad. So while a myriad is literally a group of 10,000, a chiliad is a group of 1000. A chiliagon, ultimately, is a shape with 1000 sides; a chiliarch is the leader of 1000 men; and a chiliarchy is a government or ruling body formed from 1000 individual members.
A medical name for snow-blindness, an affliction of the eyes caused by the reflection of sunlight on snow or ice.
A 19th century word meaning “to nibble” or “to gnaw.”
A 17th-century word for a circuitous, long-winded route or way of doing something.
An 18th-century Scots dialect word for a bitter disappointment, or for a sound thrashing or beating. It’s thought to literally mean “claw-my-head” and oddly is unrelated to …
… which is another old Scots dialect word variously used to mean “a rowdy crowd of people,” “worthless trivialities,” or “complete nonsense.” No one is quite sure where clamjamphrie comes from, but one theory claims that it might once have been a contemptuous nickname for a Highland clan.
Also called a climb-shelf, a climb-tack is a cat that likes to explore high shelves or hard-to-reach places. Metaphorically, it’s a naughty or mischievous child.
Also known as dysania, clinomania is an obsessive desire to stay in bed or a total inability to get up in the morning. It’s etymologically related to …
… which is the fear of going to bed. Other C-phobias include chromophobia (the fear of brightly-colored things), cheimaphobia (the cold), cryophobia (ice), cyberphobia (computers), cynophobia (dogs), and cneidophobia (insect stings).
An old English dialect word for a freezing cold winter’s day. The wrong kind of day to be …
If you’re coldrife then you’re susceptible to the cold, although the word can also be used figuratively to mean “spiritless” or “in need of cheering up.”
Nineteenth century American slang for whisky.
The handle of a spade.
An old dialect word (pronounced so that the roch part rhymes with loch) meaning “to work or cook in a disorganized or unsanitary manner.”
Another Shakespearean invention, this time from Henry IV Part 2, meaning “pretending to be unwell.”
It mightn’t sound like it, but creepmouse was a 16th-century term of endearment, in particular for a young child or baby.
Probably a corruption of crooked and prickles, croochie-proochles is an old Scots dialect word for a feeling of discomfort that comes from sitting in a constricted, cramped position for too long.
An old English dialect word meaning “to recover from a severe illness.”
As well as being another name for a late-season lamb, a cuckoo-lamb is a child born to older parents.
An old Yorkshire word for alcohol, particularly when it’s been warmed or sweetened.
All those loose feathers and bits of fluff that come out of pillows and cushions? That’s the culf.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.