Turn an uppercase A on its side so that its closed top is pointing to the left and you might be able to see where the letter itself originated. Its earliest ancestor was probably an Egyptian hieroglyph representing an ox’s head, and the ox’s two horns are what gave our letter A what is now its two pointed legs. The Phoenicians then took on this Egyptian ox symbol and simplified it enormously (into their vaguely triangular letter aleph, which resembled a modern letter A that had fallen on its side) before the Greeks got hold of that and turned it into their initial letter, alpha. And it’s from there, via Latin, that A ended up in English.
Today, A is usually said to be the third-most frequently used letter in the English alphabet (behind E and either T or S, depending on which sample you use). You can expect it to account for roughly 8 percent of all the language on a typical page of English text, as well as almost the same amount of words in a standard dictionary—including the 39 amazing A words amassed here.
Derived from a Greek word meaning “bread,” abarcy is insatiableness. And if you’re abarstic, then you have an insatiable appetite.
Anyone who learns or teaches the alphabet is an abecedarian, a word appropriately derived from the first three letters of the alphabet. In fact, abecedarian was spelled “ABCdarian” in 17th century English. And similarly …
... an abecedary is a special type of acrostic poem, in which each line begins with a different letter of the alphabet from A through Z.
To ride away on a horse is to abequitate, whereas to adequitate is to ride a horse alongside someone else.
No one is entirely sure why, but the name Abraham came to have all kinds of negative connotations in English slang, beginning during the Tudor period and lasting right through to the Victorian era. So Abraham suit was another word for what we would call false pretenses, an Abraham-man or Abraham-cove was someone who feigned illness or insanity to illicit sympathy—and doing precisely that was to sham Abraham.
Victorian slang for knee-length trousers.
If you’re abrodietical then you’re extremely dainty, picky, or delicate.
Refusing (or pretending to refuse) something that you actually really want is called accismus. It derives from a Greek word meaning “coyness” or “feigned indifference.”
An acersecomic person is someone who has never cut their hair.
An old English dialect word describing a creature that’s lying on its back and can’t get up.
The acnestis is the part of your back between the shoulder blades, which you can’t quite reach to scratch. It derives from the Ancient Greek word for “spine”—which was also the Greek word for a cheese grater.
When the day advesperates, it approaches the evening.
An agelast (pronounced “adge-el-ast,” so the first syllable rhymes with badge) is someone who never laughs. And if you’re agelastic, then you’re miserable or morose.
The quality of not appearing to grow old is called agerasia, derived from a Greek word for “eternal youth.”
An old northern English dialect word meaning “to cut unevenly.”
If you’re along-straight, then you’re lying at your full length.
If you’re altiloquious or altiloquent, then you’re talking loudly or, more figuratively, talking about lofty, important subjects.
The boredom and restlessness that comes from being unwell or from being confined to bed through illness or while recovering from an injury is called alysm.
Also called ochophobia, if you have amaxophobia then you’re terrified of driving or being driven in motor vehicles. Other little-known A phobias include apiphobia (fear of bees), acrophobia (sharpness or sharp objects), algophobia (pain), acarophobia (mites), astraphobia (lightning) and …
… which is a specific form of claustrophobia involving narrow places.
Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo corporation; the mho, daraf, and yrneh units; and the Canadian town of Adanac are all examples of ananyms—words and names created by reversing the letters of an existing word. The word yob, meaning a hooligan or lout, is also supposed to be an ananym coined in the 19th century when “backslang” (i.e. reversing words to form new ones) was a popular linguistic trend.
An old word from the far north of Scotland meaning “to row a boat slowly,” followed by …
… another old Scots word for an accident for misfortune.
The Latin diminutive-forming suffix -unculus (as in homunculus) is the root of a number of English words referring to small size or puniness, including carbuncle, which literally means “a little piece of coal,” and portiuncle, an old Tudor-period word for a small stretch or portion of land. Likewise, an anonymuncule, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a petty anonymous writer.”
When you repeat a clause or phrase but reverse the order of some of its words—like “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”—then that’s antimetabole. As a figure of speech, it’s an example of a specific type of rhetorical device known as a chiasmus, in which certain elements of a sentence are reversed and repeated to given a rhythmically effective criss-crossed pattern; for that reason, chiasmus derives from the X-shaped letter of the Greek alphabet, chi.
Antipelargy is a 17th-century word for the reciprocal love felt between children and their parents. It derives from the Greek word for the stork, pelargos, which is traditionally said to be a very affectionate bird.
When a plant or tree encounters an obstacle as it grows and has to work its way around it, that’s aphercotropism. It’s the same phenomenon that accounts for potato shoots being able to work their way around obstacle courses in search of light, and for tree roots and trunks growing into often quite astounding shapes.
A good word for the political season: When a speaker promises to address a point, but then goes off on some long digression and never actually addresses it, that’s called apoplanesis. It literally means “leading astray.”
To apricate is to bask in the sun, while apricity is the warmth of the sun, in particular in the otherwise cold winter months.
Someone who likes to drink water rather than alcohol is an aquabib, while …
… is an old English dialect word for an icicle.
To argle-bargle is to quarrel or dispute—and an arglebargler is someone who does just that.
An old naval slang word for the perfect weather conditions for beginning a journey.
A fairly uncomplimentary Scots dialect word for a zit—or a “hot pimple,” as the Scottish National Dictionary puts it.
Another way of saying “head over heels.”
An old English dialect word for a lazy person who does nothing but lounge in front of the fire.
If you’re aspectabund then you have an extremely expressive face.
Literally meaning “little ash-covered person,” an assypod is an untidy woman.
An autogolpe (pronounced “gol-pay”) or autocoup is a coup instigated by an elected leader, to ensure absolute contract of a region or country.
A hagiography is a description or account of the life of a saint, which makes an autohagiography an autobiography that flatters its subject, or makes them out to be a better person than they really are.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.