As odd as it might sound, the letter S began life as a W-shaped letter of the Phoenician alphabet known as shin, which was used to represent a “sh” sound. From there, shin was rotated 90 degrees and borrowed into Ancient Greek as their letter sigma, Σ, but as the Greeks had no “sh” sound in their language, it was they who gave sigma—and ultimately S—the “s” sound we still use it for today.
The four straight lines used to write out a Σ steadily simplified over time into essentially a back-to-front Z shape, until the curved form of S we have today was adopted into English from Latin more than 1000 years ago. Nowadays, S is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, and both begins and ends more words than any other; you can expect as much as 10 percent of a standard dictionary to be listed under S, including the 40 superlative S-words set out here.
A saccade is a twitching, jerking movement, particularly of the eyeball. And if you’re saccadic, then you’re restless and fidgety.
No one quite knows why, but sallivocus is an old name for a punch made from or containing equal parts wine and spirits.
In 18th century France, the sans-culottes were the lower classes of society, whose gradual radicalization and unwillingness to accept the poor quality of life imposed on them by the ruling classes eventually paved the way to the French Revolution. Sans-culottes literally means “without culottes,” a reference to the fashionable silk knee-breeches worn by the high society. The term has spawned a number of derivatives in the language, including sansculottism, meaning “radicalization” or “revolutionism,” sansculottic, meaning “improperly attired,” and sansculottize, meaning “to make or become more republican.”
A sarcastic person or writer? That’s a sarcast.
As well as being an old synonym for sardonic, the 17th-century adjective sardonian is used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to describe someone who “flatters with deadly intent.” Etymologically, the word is related to the Latin name of a plant (no one is quite sure which) native to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, which was supposed to kill by causing uncontrollable laughter, or grotesque facial convulsions that were supposed to resemble insincere or scornful grinning.
Coined by the ever critical George Bernard Shaw in 1895 and based on the name of the French dramatist Victorien Sardou, the term Sardoodledom refers to stagey, contrived, melodramatic theater and drama.
Derived from the German for “sleeping coat,” schlafrock is an old word for a robe or dressing gown.
Scared of what might be lurking in the shadows? Then you’re sciophobic. Similarly ...
… if you’re scared of the dark, then you’re scotophobic.
Probably derived from an earlier word, scruze, meaning “to squeeze,” the 18th-century verb scrouge means “to crowd someone,” or “to encroach on someone’s personal space.” Worth remembering in the COVID-19 era.
The prefix sesqui– is derived from a Latin word meaning “one-and-a-half,” or “half as much again.” Ultimately anything described as sesquihoral lasts an hour and a half, a sesquidecumen is a group of 15 people or things, and a sesquicentenary is a 150th anniversary. And …
… the adjective sesquipedalian is used to describe noticeably long words. It literally means “a foot-and-a-half long.”
A 17th-century word meaning “to move uneasily,” or “to fidget.”
Anything that you use to hold a door or a window open is a set-ope.
Probably derived from the older use of the word shab to mean “an unpleasant or lowly person,” the verb shab means “to get rid off someone,” or “to push someone out of your way.”
If you’ve ever needed a specific word meaning “to catch a ball,” here it is.
Shot is an old word for a bill or bar tab, which makes a shot-clog, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “an unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the shot for the rest.”
Know someone who spits when they talk? They’re sialoquent, or a sialoquist.
An old English dialect word meaning “to breathe through the nose when you’ve got a cold.”
The lines of snow left along roads after the rest of the snow has thawed are the snow-bones.
An 18th-century nickname for a meteor.
If you’re solivagant then you like to wander or travel around alone.
Somnus was the Latin word for “sleep,” and a somnium was a dream. Derived from that, to somniate is to dream about something or someone; a somnificator is someone so dull they send you to sleep; and if you’re somniloquacious then you’re prone to talk in your sleep.
An 18th-century word for a heavy thud or an awkward fall.
An old Scots dialect word meaning “to hum under your breath.”
Derived from the same root as solder, the word sowther is used to mean “to unite” or “to fuse together”—or, figuratively, “to patch up after a disagreement.”
To spacier is to walk or stroll slowly, whereas …
… to stride or walk energetically is to spad.
To shake or knock something violently is to spanwhengle it, while…
Spong is an old English dialect word for a narrow stretch of land, of a small gap or opening in something. Derived from that, a hot-spong is a sudden burst of warm sunshine caused by the sun breaking through a small gap in a cloud.
Ever blundered into somewhere you really shouldn’t have gone? Then you’ve stampled.
A wild uproar or commotion.
An old northern English word meaning “to walk in a clumsy or awkward manner.”
As a verb, startle can be used to mean “to run around busily or wildly,” and stertle is an old dialect variation of that. Saying that a woman had or was in a stertling-fit was an old way of saying that she was desperate to be married.
If you’re strackle-brained, you can’t help but make a mess of any task given to you.
Besides the obvious, you can also use the word strap to mean “to toil or labor as hard as possible,” and based on that, a strapper is an extremely hard worker. A strapping-master, meanwhile, is an old London slang word for a colleague or employee who always seems to work up a sweat.
To claim something or to behave extremely arrogantly is to super-arrogate.
Derived partly from French and partly from Italian, supercherie is another word for trickery or deceit. Originally, it meant an attack made on someone who is already at a disadvantage.
To spend your money on beer is to swallack.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.