40 Clever Words That Begin With the Letter C

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iStock/bgblue

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.

1. CABBY-LABBY

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.”

2. CACAFUEGO

Borrowed into English in the 1600s, a cacafuego or cacafugo is a blustering, swaggering boaster. It literally means “fire-pooper” in Spanish.

3. CACHINNATE

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.

4. CACOLOGY

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.

5. CAIN-COLORED

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.

6. CALAMISTRATION

A formal word for the process of curling your hair.

7. CALIDITY

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.

8. CALLOMANIA

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.

9. CAMAIEU

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.

10. CAPRICORNIFY

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.”

11. CATACHTHONIAN

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.”

12. CATACUMBAL

If the room you’re in feels like a catacomb, then it’s catacumbal.

13. CATAPHASIS

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 …

14. CATAPLEXIS

… which is another rhetorical term, referring to a speech or pronouncement in which someone threatens revenge.

15. CATCH-FART

So-named because they’re supposed to walk so closely behind the person they admire, a catch-fart is an ingratiating, toadying sycophant.

16. CATERWISE

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.

17. CHABBLE

The chabble is the slight undulation on the surface of the sea, or of a liquid in a large vessel.

18. CHATTER-WATER

An old Yorkshire dialect nickname for weak tea.

19. CHILIAD

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.

20. CHIONABLEPSIA

A medical name for snow-blindness, an affliction of the eyes caused by the reflection of sunlight on snow or ice.

21. CHUMBLE

A 19th century word meaning “to nibble” or “to gnaw.”

22. CIRCUMBENDIBUS

A 17th-century word for a circuitous, long-winded route or way of doing something.

23. CLAMIHEWIT

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 …

24. CLAMJAMPHRIE

… 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.

25. CLIMB-TACK

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.

26. CLINOMANIA

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 …

27. CLINOPHOBIA

… 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).

28. COCKAPENTIE

Probably derived from cock-a-bendy, an old Scots word for an effeminate or priggish young man, a cockapentie is a man whose pride and shallowness compels him to live far beyond his means.

29. COLDBLOW

An old English dialect word for a freezing cold winter’s day. The wrong kind of day to be …

30. COLDRIFE

... 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.”

31. CORN-JUICE

19th century American slang for whisky.

32. COSP

The handle of a spade.

33. COTHROCH

An old dialect word (pronounced so that the roch part rhymes with loch) meaning “to work or cook in a disorganized or unsanitary manner.”

34. CRAFTY-SICK

Another Shakespearean invention, this time from Henry IV Part 2, meaning “pretending to be unwell.”

35. CREEPMOUSE

It mightn’t sound like it, but creepmouse was a 16th-century term of endearment, in particular for a young child or baby.

36. CROOCHIE-PROOCHLES

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.

37. CRUTLE

An old English dialect word meaning “to recover from a severe illness.”

38. CUCKOO-LAMB

As well as being another name for a late-season lamb, a cuckoo-lamb is a child born to older parents.

39. CUDDLE-ME-BUFF

An old Yorkshire word for alcohol, particularly when it’s been warmed or sweetened.

40. CULF

All those loose feathers and bits of fluff that come out of pillows and cushions? That’s the culf.

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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