Despite their similar sound and appearance, the letters M and N are actually unrelated: M likely comes from an Egyptian hieroglyph representing a wave, while N probably began life as a vaguely N-shaped snake. From there, N has found its way into English via Ancient Greek and Latin, and is today one of our most frequently used letters. You can expect it to account for around 7 percent of all the language you’ll use, and around one in every 30 of the words in a standard dictionary—including the words listed here.
Ever met someone who has the same name as you? Well, they’re your nameling.
An old English dialect word meaning “to play or fool around when you should be working”—or, perhaps as a result of that, “to change your employment frequently,” or “to do irregular work.”
An old dialect word for an inquisitive, prying person.
4. Narrowdale Noon
Despite the name, Narrowdale noon is an old English nickname for one o’clock in the afternoon: Narrowdale is in England’s Peak District, and is said to sit beside a “narrow dale” with such steep sides that the light from the sun never reaches the bottom at all throughout the winter. When the sun finally does return to the valley in the summer, even then it never crests the tops of the surrounding hills until later in the afternoon—1 p.m., rather than midday. Saying that something will take place at Narrowdale noon, incidentally, implies that it’s still a long way off, while to put something off until Narrowdale noon means to defer it indefinitely.
An old slang word for insolent, impertinent talk or behavior.
Derived from Latin, natation is the proper name for swimming. Similarly, if you’re natatile, then you’re able to swim, while anything that’s natant is swimming or floating on the surface of a liquid—the supernatant part of a ship is all that is above the water when it’s afloat.
Should you ever need a word meaning “to cause a shipwreck,” then here it is. And if you need this, then you might also need a word for a shipwrecked person, in which case you’re looking for naufrague.
If you’re neargoing or nearbegoing, then you’re tightfisted and ungenerous.
An old Scots dialect adjective describing someone who always works at a leisurely, easy-going pace.
If you hate the sight of broken glass, then you’re nelophobic. Other N-fears include nyctophobia (fear of the night or darkness), neophobia (a dislike for anything new or unfamiliar), and nephophobia (the fear of clouds).
Coined in the 1930s, nemesism is an old psychological term used to describe anger or frustration directed solely towards yourself—the kind of behavior that could literally bring about your nemesis. Bonus fact: The word nemesis itself is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge.
An area of land described as nemorous or nemorose is covered in woodland. If you’re nemorivagant, then you like to wander through the woods.
A formal word for a newlywed.
A neoptolemus is a new or young soldier, or a new recruit. The word itself literally means “new warrior,” and initially ended up in English as it was the name of the son of Achilles in Greek mythology.
The Latin word nexus (which is also used in English) literally means a bond or a tying together, and derived from that, the adjective nexible describes anything that is able to be bound or tied.
Nexility is another word for conciseness or short, brusque speech—in the sense of someone tying many different points or words together in one single unit.
Also known as a nicebect or a nycibecetour, nicebecetur is an old Tudor-period word for a dainty or fashionable young woman. No one is entirely sure where it came from (nor, for that matter, precisely how it was pronounced) but one theory is that it is somehow related to nesebek, the name of a type of medieval pastry.
When an animal builds a nest—or, figuratively, when you make a comfy or cozy place for yourself—then it nidulates.
Niffer is an English dialect word meaning “to barter” or “to exchange.” A nifferment, ultimately, is a deal or trade, while to do something niffer for niffer is to do tit-for-tat, one thing for another.
A 16th-century word for a miser, also called a nip-farthing or a nip-squeeze.
An old 17th-century word for a tiny quantity or “nip” of liquor, although sometimes said to be equal to 1/8 of a pint.
Noctiluca (without the L) literally means “night-shiner,” and as a result is the Latin word for a glow-worm, an old poetic nickname for the Moon, and also the name of a family of bioluminescent jellyfish. The related adjective noctilucal means “phosphorescent” or “glow-in-the-dark,” while noctilucent clouds are a meteorological phenomenon found in cold climates caused by masses of frozen water vapor appearing to “glow” at twilight.
A 17th-century word for moonlight.
Wandering around at night.
Noddypoll is one of a number of similar words for fools or simpletons, alongside hoddy-noddy, Tom-noddy, nodgecock, nodgecomb, and nodcock. In all of these, nod– is a shortened form of noddy, which has been used as another word for a fool (probably in the sense of someone unthinkingly nodding their head) since the 15th century. Poll is an old word for the scalp or crown of the head.
To daydream or to sit around in a dull, stupefied state is to nodge. As a verb, you can also use it to mean “to jog along at a leisurely pace.”
Nodos was the Latin word for a knot (and is the root of words like node and nodule), and so something described as nodose or nodosous is knotty or tangled.
If you’re noitled, then you’re drunk. It’s probably derived from an old Scots dialect word, knoited, meaning “knocked” or “stupefied.”
The Latin phrase nole me tangere (originally a quote from the New Testament) essentially means “do not touch me,” and because of that, it’s been used as a euphemistic name for various infectious diseases since medieval times. As a noun, however, noli-me-tangere dropped into use in English slang in the late 1500s as another name for a repellent, unpleasant person.
A term coined by Shakespeare to describe anywhere full or angles or corners.
A little nook? That’s a nooklet.
An old American slang word for a dishonest banker or moneylender.
Belonging to the same family of words as the likes of paternal, maternal, and fraternal, the adjective novercal means “relating to or acting as a stepmother.”
Derived from Latin, nugae (pronounced “nyoodgy” or “noogie”) are trifles or trivialities; a single triviality would be a nuga. The word is more often than not used to refer to nagging, trivial issues or problems that, despite being relatively unimportant, are nevertheless difficult and time-consuming to put right—in which case, they’re also known by the Latin term nugae difficiles.
Nugacious is an adjective describing anything that is trivial or of little significance.
Nugaemania is an obsession over pointless, trifling issues.
Derived, like null and nullify, from a Latin word meaning “no” or “not any,” if something exists nowhere then it’s nullibiquitous.
Nullifidian is another word for an atheist or non-believer (literally meaning “no-faith”).
A nulligravida is a woman who has never been pregnant.
An old Scots dialect word for a bit of back-and-forth maneuvering.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.