As odd as it might sound, the letter T was originally X-shaped. Its earliest ancestor was probably an X-shaped Egyptian hieroglyph, which in turn became the X-shaped Phoenician letter taw. Over time, this X steadily straightened, becoming more of a + shape, before the Ancient Greeks knocked the top off to create their T-shaped letter tau. And it’s from tau, via Latin, that T has ended up in English.
T is now one of the English language’s most frequently used letters, and on average it will account for just under 10 percent of all the language you’ll use. Thanks to its appearance in a number of high-frequency words like the, this, that, then, and to, you can expect as much as 16 percent of all the words on any page of English text to be T-words, while around one in every 20 of the words in a standard dictionary will be listed under T—including the 40 terrific T-words below.
Tace (pronounced “tay-see”) means “be silent” in Latin, but is used in English both as a verb and as an exclamation used to silence someone. In the 17th century, there was also an expression tace is Latin for candle—which isn’t true, but the phrase was used to mean “keep what we’re talking about secret.” How the phrase came about is unclear, but one theory is that because the candle represents light, keeping something tace means keeping it “in the dark”; another theory claims that throwing a candle onto a theatrical stage was once used as a signal to stop the show and close the curtain immediately.
An old medical term describing anything that kills quickly, such as venom or poison, Come across anything tachythanatous, and you’ll likely need a tachyiater—a medication or medical practitioner that heals quickly.
An old Cornish word meaning “slightly drunk.”
An old English dialect word for a noisy, playful child.
An old Scots word—originally used in reference to a game of marbles—for a shot in which a player bends down and hurls the ball from between their legs.
To hesitate in recognizing someone is to tartle.
A formal word for a bullfight. Likewise, a taurobole is a bull-killer, a tauroboly is the ritual sacrifice of a bull, anything tauricornous has horns like a bull, and anything tauriform is shaped like a bull.
An old slang word describing a painting or artwork of poor quality.
An old English dialect word for a telegram.
A liar, gossiper, or tell-tale.
Octopus, squid, and cuttlefish are all tentaculiferous—as they all have tentacles.
The Latin word for your back, tergum, is the origin of a handful of rare English words, including the verb tergiversate, meaning “to turn your back on something,” or “to desert your duties.” Likewise if you’re tergiversant, then you’re acting shiftily or evasively—in other words, you look like you’re about to tergiversate.
Thalassocracy is the rule of the sea, used either in a political sense referring to which countries and which rulers have the rights to which areas of water, or in a figurative or mythological sense referring to gods or legendary rulers of the sea itself. A thalassocrat, ultimately, is someone who has precisely that power.
An adjective describing anything or anyone who feeds predominantly on fresh veggies.
Thesaurus literally means “treasury” or “horde,” and in archaeological contexts the word is still sometimes used to refer to the part of an ancient building or temple where its treasures were kept. The verb thesaurize relates back to this literal meaning of thesaurus, and means “to hoard treasure.”
A thoke is a lie-in or a nap, so if you’re thoky then you’re sluggish or idle.
An old Scots dialect word, probably combining throat and throttle to mean “to swallow.”
An old Scots dialect word meaning “to play truant.” A truant himself or herself would be a throosh-the-school.
A word from the early 1900s used to describe either a clumsy person or something that has been marked with grubby finger prints.
A thunderplump is a heavy, stormy shower of rain, while the enormous spots of rain that precede a thunderstorm are the thunder-drops. They’re both very different from …
… which is a slang name for a chamber pot.
To thunder-smite someone is to utterly confuse or confound them.
23. Tib’s Eve
In 18th-century English, saying that something will happen on Tib’s Eve or on St. Tib’s Day was used to imply that it will never come to pass, like “in a month of Sundays” or “once in a blue moon” might be used today. The root of the phrase is the fact that there isn’t actually a St. Tib (a pet form of Isobel), for the simple reason that the name Tib or Tibb has been used as a nickname for a sex worker since the mid-1500s. That being said, a genuine Tibb’s Eve festival—which takes its name from the fact that the date was made up—has been celebrated on 23 December in parts of Canada since the mid 1900s.
An 18th-century word for a foolish person or simpleton.
No one knows why, but tisty-tosty! was an exclamation of triumph or victory in 16th-century English, and by the late 1500s it had come to be used as a byword for a swashbuckler or a brash, swaggering man—in other words, the kind of person who would use the expression “tisty-tosty!”
An old Yorkshire slang word for being tipsy or slightly drunk.
A 19th-century slang word for a candle, probably derived from “tallow.” To tolly up once meant to keep a candle lit after the lights had gone out.
Late 18th-century slang for chewing.
An old American slang word meaning “to walk off” or “to skulk away,” probably derived from a corruption of “turtle.”
An old English dialect word, also spelled towry-row or towry-lowry, for a sudden uproar or explosion of noise.
There is a whole host of unpleasant and unusual T-phobias in the dictionary, of which toxiphobia, the fear of being poisoned, is just one. Others include taphephobia (the fear of being buried alive), thanatophobia (fear of death), traumatophobia (injury), and teratophobia (the fear of giving birth to a monster).
Borrowed into English from French in the late 18th century, tripotage is another word for shady, underhand dealings.
To dance or leap for joy, or to stamp your feet in triumph or celebration, is to tripudiate. It derives from the Greek for “three feet,” and probably originally referred to a dance move or traditional ritual in which a person’s feet would strike the ground three times in a row.
To trootle is to walk in slow or short steps, like a child learning to walk.
There’s an old legend that claims the walls of the city of Troy were arranged in such a confusing pattern that anyone who entered and didn’t know the city well wouldn’t be able to find their way back out again. Based on that, the name Troy-town eventually came to be used as another word for a turf or hedge maze, and describing somewhere as “like Troy-town” meant that it was a confused mess or muddle, or an impenetrable network of roads and backstreets.
Derived from a Latin word meaning “to cut to pieces,” trucidation is a rare 18th-century word meaning “to murder” or “to kill especially cruelly.”
To pound or bruise something.
A Scots word meaning “to confuse” or “to put into disorder.”
An old English dialect word for a young child.
An old American slang word meaning “unfair” or “immoral.”
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.