Our humble letter H is a modern-day descendent of an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that was supposed to have once represented a series of fence posts (which is what gave H its crossbar-shaped appearance). From Ancient Egypt, H was borrowed via the Semitic alphabets of the Middle East into Ancient Greek, where it became known as heta and originally represented a rough “h” sound. In Greek, however, the “h” sound steadily disappeared, so that the Greek letter H became known as eta rather than heta, and it eventually ended up representing a long “eh” sound rather than a “h.” Even today, there’s no “h” sound in modern Greek.
By the time that Ancient Greek began losing its “h,” the Latin alphabet had already adopted the letter H, and it’s from there that it eventually ended up being used in English. Nowadays, H is one of our most frequently-used letters (largely thanks to its appearance in high-frequency words like the, that, there, and they) to the extent that it typically accounts for around 5 percent of any page of given text, and 4 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 handy H-words harbored here.
An old Scots word for anything that is a source of annoyance, followed by …
… another Scots dialect word for rash, impulsive behavior, probably derived from an earlier word, glab, meaning “to snatch impetuously.”
To hesitate or stammer in speech.
Hate the sight of blood? Then you’re haemophobic. Other H-phobias include hygrophobia (hatred of humid or damp conditions), homichlophobia (fog), hippophobia (horses), and hypegiaphobia (the hatred of having responsibilities).
When politicians use convoluted, deliberately obscurant language to disguise or divert away from what they’re actually talking about, that’s Haigspeak. The term dates back to the early 1980s and refers General Al Haig, who served as United States Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan from 1981 to '82. Haig became known for his fractured, verbose, and often befuddling speeches—which were so distinctive that one British ambassador to Washington even offered a prize for the best rendering of the Gettysburg Address in “Haigspeak.”
In Ancient Greek myth, the halcyon was a legendary bird said to build its floating nest far out in the middle of the sea, and during the two weeks the female halcyon sat on her nest brooding her eggs—usually said to be from mid-December onwards—it was believed that there would be a prolonged period of fine, dry, calm weather. This period became known as the halcyon days, a phrase still in use today to refer to any time of total happiness or contentment. Nowadays, the myth of the halcyon is attached to the kingfisher: It might not nest in the middle of the sea (far from it in fact, as kingfishers usually nest in deep muddy tunnels excavated into riverbanks), but anything described as halcyonine is nevertheless said to resemble—or be as brightly colored as—a kingfisher.
An old American slang word for a wife with a lazy husband.
A written description of the sea.
As well as being another word for a strong grasp, handfast can be used to mean a binding contract or agreement, or a handshake to secure a deal. Shakespeare used the expression to be in handfast to mean “to be under arrest.”
Handsel is an ancient English word (the earliest record of which dates back to the mid-10th century) used in a number of different ways, most of which carry some sense of placing something in someone’s hands. In simple terms, a handsel is just a gift or a reward, but specifically it refers to a gift given for good luck at New Year, or at the start of something new, such as when moving into a new home or starting a new job.
Handsel can also be used to mean a down-payment or first installment, the money made by the first sale of a business or a working day, or the first results of any new endeavor or interest. You can also use it as a verb, meaning “to give a gift,” “to be the first customer of a business,” or “to celebrate or inaugurate something new.” To do something for good handsel likewise means doing it for good luck, and Handsel Monday is an old nickname for the first Monday of a New Year, when handsel gifts were once traditionally exchanged.
In 18th century slang, if you had a hang-gallows look then you looked like you were up to no good—in other words, you looked like someone who would eventually be hanged.
Adopted into English from Dutch in the 17th century, a Hans-in-Kelder is an unborn baby still in its mother’s womb. Also known by its equivalent English translation Jack in the cellar, more often than not Hans-in-Kelder was used as a toast to an expectant mother.
As a verb, hap can be used to mean “to cover” or “enswathe,” which makes happing a 17th century word for bed sheets.
Derived from Greek, haptics is the name of the science behind the sense of touch. It’s involved in the study of haptotropism, which is the growth or movement of plants (or parts of plants) in response to what they touch, like the tendrils of grasping creepers and vines—or, in extreme cases, exploding cucumbers.
When you weigh something out and it’s just slightly short of the quantity you need, that’s a hard-weight.
A word for trickery or deceit.
Derived from the Greek word for the number seven, a hebdomad is a week. If something occurs hebdomadally, then it occurs once every seven days.
To hebetate something is to make it blunt or dulled. Something that is hebetative does precisely that.
If something is hederaceous then it resembles ivy, whereas if you’re hederigerent then you’re dressed with or bedecked in ivy. If something is hordaceous, incidentally, then it resembles barley, while anything that is horeiform is shaped like a barleycorn.
Spiky, or covered in prickles. Bonus H-fact: A baby hedgehog is called a hoglet.
In the sense of something of very little value, hempstring was a Tudor English word for a worthless or disreputable person.
No surprises here—that’s an old 19th-century nickname for an egg.
An old word for hesitancy or doubtfulness.
A Tudor period word for a mixed herd or flock of both male and female animals. It literally means “he-deer and she-deer.”
A Shakespearean invention describing anyone especially proud or haughty.
A 17th century word for a theater critic, derived from the Greek for “scourge of actors.” The word itself was originally popularized in the title of an unforgiving critique of England’s actors, actresses, and theaters published by a Puritan lawyer and pamphleteer named William Prynne in the early 1630s. Unfortunately for Prynne, the anti-thespian opinions he outlined in his Histriomastix were taken as a slight against Henrietta Maria, wife of the reigning King Charles I, who was known to have dabbled in theater alongside her duties as queen consort. As a result, Prynne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, fined a staggering £5000, was pilloried, had both his ears cut off, and was branded with the letters SL (meaning “seditious libeler”) on both sides of his face.
Presumably derived from a local pronunciation of “hither and thither” (that is, “here and there”), hitherum-ditherum is an old Scots dialect word for the perfect weather for drying clothes outside—in other words, a day when the wind seems to blow from all directions.
As a verb, honest can be used to mean “to honor or bestow dignity on,” and derived from that an honestation is any honorable or positive quality or attribute.
Anything that occurs horally happens every hour. Likewise, anything that is semihoral lasts half an hour, and anything sesquihoral lasts an hour and a half.
To get the better of or to bamboozle someone is to hornswoggle them.
Derived from the Greek for “hour-shower,” horodix is essentially a formal 17th century word for clock.
If you’re horrescent, then you’re shuddering with fear. Something that is horriferous, likewise, induces horror or terror, while …
… is the medical name for goose-bumps. It’s also known as piloerection.
An adjective used to describe anything that sounds awful.
A 16th century insult aimed at “a large coarse-looking woman,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A 16th-century word describing anyone swaggeringly arrogant.
A Scots dialect word for a sulky mood.
Derived from the Greek word for “wood,” hylomania is an obsessive desire to own material things.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.