Our humble letter R has one of the lengthiest and most complicated histories of all the letters of the alphabet, as its shape and appearance have been influenced by almost every ancient civilization with which it has come into contact. Its story begins around 5000 years ago with its earliest ancestor, an Egyptian hieroglyph representing a left-facing head. From Ancient Egypt, this head-in-profile symbol was taken on by the Phoenicians, who simplified it to a straightforward three-stroke character, resh, that looked like a pointed, left-facing P. Next came the Ancient Greeks, who adopted resh but reversed it to form their letter rho or P. The Etruscans then took on the Greek letter P, but, inspired by some Western Greek writings and inscriptions, began adding a short curled tail beneath the loop. This Etruscan variant of rho failed to catch on back in Greece, but by the time the Latin alphabet developed in what is now Italy, this form had become almost standard; around 2300 years ago, the Romans began lengthening this curled tail to form the Roman letter R, which has remained unchanged ever since.
Today, R is the eighth-most frequently used letter (and third-most frequently used consonant) in our alphabet, accounting for roughly 6 percent of all written English and 4 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 rollicking R-words recorded here.
Rabbitry is the name for a place where rabbits are bred and reared, as well as a word that was used from the 1920s to 1930s for a poor performance by an athlete or team. It’s derived from the slightly earlier use of rabbit to mean a novice or inexperienced player (particularly at cricket), which is itself based on the idea of someone being as timid or as ineffectual as a rabbit. Likewise, a rabbit-sucker (that is, literally a suckling rabbit) was a 16th-century word for an innocent fool.
A long-lost 15th- to 16th-century word meaning “to put right,” or “to undertake a restoration or repair.”
An old Scots dialect word for a sudden knock or jolt.
A word invented by the 19th century writer Sir Walter Scott for “disconnected mutterings.”
An old English dialect word for a rash, impetuous person. It literally means “unravelled head.”
Rafty or raughty is an old English dialect word describing misty, damp weather. Derived from that, a raftiness is a stale, fusty, tainted atmosphere.
An 18th-century slang word for a rich man, apparently “generally used in conversation to avoid direct mention of names,” according to Slang and Its Analogues.
An old 19th-century slang word for an umbrella.
Borrowed into English from French, a raisonneur is literally a “reasoner,” although it’s usually used to refer to someone whose incessant reasoning and unbendingly logical way of thinking annoy everyone else (and in its native French was originally used as another word for a lawyer). More recently however, the term raisonneur has been used to refer to a fictional character who is used to express or represent a writer’s views or opinions.
Also called a rakehelonian or a rakeshame, a rake-hell is a very disreputable character—the kind of person you would only come across if you “raked Hell” for all its worst inhabitants.
Ramfeezled is an old 18th century word variously used to mean something like “worn out,” “confused,” “muddled,” or “stupefied.” Derived from that, ramfeezlement is an old Scots word used to mean either a noisy quarrel or dispute, or a feeling of fatigue or total exhaustion. It’s probably related to …
… which is another old Scots or Irish dialect word, meaning “rude,” “ill-tempered,” or “boorish.”
Rana was the Latin word for “frog,” making anything described as ranarian, raniform or ranid frog-like. A ranarium, incidentally, is a tank for breeding or keeping frogs.
If something is just beginning to go bad or taste rancid, then it’s rancescent.
The superlative form of a Latin word meaning “rare,” rarissima is used in English to mean extremely rare books, documents, or manuscripts.
Derived from a Latin word meaning “to refurbish” or “to put back together,” to reconcinnate something is to repair it.
To recribrate something is to sift or sieve it again, while…
… to recrisple it is to recurl it.
Derived from a Latin word meaning “raw” (from which the word crude is also descended), if something recrudesces then it recurs or restarts, especially after a brief respite or break, and a recrudescence is a period or outbreak of precisely that. Similarly, a recrescence, derived from another Latin word meaning “to grow,” is a regeneration or regrowth of something that has been lost.
The verb on which the adjective recumbent is based is recumb, which literally means “to recline” or “to lie back and rest.”
The proper word for retracing your steps.
To flush or rinse through with water.
The French verb relâcher literally means “to loosen,” or “to make less effort than before,” while the derivative relâche was once used to refer to a ship lying or waiting in port either before or after a long journey. From there, relâche was borrowed into English in the late 18th century to mean “a brief period of rest.”
A word probably coined by Shakespeare to mean “stiff or sluggish because you have been inactive for too long.”
Both reticulouse and reticulated (as in “reticulated python”) mean “net-like”—which, in the python’s case, refers to the net-like pattern on its scales.
Knowing something about the past that you could only have known by some kind of supernatural means is called retrocognition. It’s a term that has become more widespread through the increased popularity of dream interpretation, mediumship, and past-life regression—in which a person placed into a deep hypnotic sleep is apparently able to reveal knowledge or experience of places and people from history that they could not possibly have acquired themselves.
When a newly-coined word forces an existing word to change in order to be differentiated from it, then the changed word becomes known as a retronym. Telephones, for instance, have had to become known as landlines to differentiate them from mobile phones, while the phrase acoustic guitar did not exist until after the electric guitar was invented.
Rhabdos was a Greek word for a rod or wand, making rhabdomancy a formal word for water divining. Rhabdosophy, meanwhile, is the proper word for gesturing with a stick or rod (or any rod-like implement, like a pen or a baton) while talking to better convey what you’re talking about. It’s related to …
… also known as the fear of magic. Another R-phobia is rhytiphobia, which is “a morbid fear of getting wrinkles.”
Derived from the French word for laughter, if you’re riant then you’re constantly smiling or always seem to be in a bright, cheerful mood. A bright, cheerful mood itself, incidentally, is a riancy.
An old Scots dialect word for an intricate, complicated design, probably based on the earlier words rigmarie (a small coin or trinket), and whigmaleerie (a trivial ornament or gewgaw).
If you’re rixosous, then you’re quarrelsome or prone to arguing, while a noisy quarrel or argument is a rixation.
34. Roast-Meat Clothes
Eighteenth-century slang for your best clothes—which would typically have been worn on a Sunday, when roast meat would be served.
An onomatopoeic word coined by James Joyce to mean “to coo like a dove.” He probably based it on its older French equivalent, roucouler.
An old English dialect word meaning “to bask by the fire,” or “to scorch something in a flame.”
A ruckle is a wrinkle or crease, so something described using the 18th century word rucklety-tucklety is crumpled or gathered up.
An old Yorkshire dialect word for someone with messy hair.
An old English dialect word—used as “from head to toe” might be today—meaning “entirely” or “completely.”
A 17th-century word meaning “to shine or glisten.”
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.