It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.
Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth (Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.
Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here.
An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.
Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.
An astute or especially skilled worker.
If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.
A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.
To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.
To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.
An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.
An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”
A quick-witted, lively young man.
A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”
An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”
As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “beating a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.
Eighteenth-century slang for a failed idea.
To walk about, or to stray away from home.
If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).
A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”
To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.
To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.
Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.
In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.
Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.
The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.
Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.
An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).
An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.
To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.
To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.
A do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”
When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.
A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”
Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.
"A giddy girl," according to The Dialect of Leeds and its Neighbourhood.
An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.
In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.
A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.
39. Dutch Concert
The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.
To dwindle or pine away.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.