The history of the letter E can be traced all the way back to an Egyptian hieroglyphic that probably depicted a praying or celebrating man, with the open horizontal lines of an E being the modern-day descendants of his arms or legs. Over time, this original pictogram simplified massively: The Phoenicians adopted it and made it into nothing more than a slanted, back-to-front, slightly elongated E-shape, which they used to represent their letter he. This in turn was rotated, truncated, and straightened up to form the Greek letter epsilon, E, and it’s from there (via Latin) that E as we know it ended up in English.
E is the most frequently used letter in the English language—in fact, it’s held the top spot in the English language ever since the Old English period [PDF]. It’s nearly 57 times more common than the least-used letter, Q, and is the most-used letter in a host of other languages, including French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Latin. E accounts for around 11 percent of all the language you’ll ever use. Not only that, but you can expect it to begin just under 4 percent of all the words in a dictionary—including the 40 extra-special E-words explained here.
An old Scots dialect word meaning “to argue” or “to thrash out a bargain,” eaggle-baggle is derived from a local pronunciation of argle-bargle.
2. Earnest Money
The cash used to secure a deal or a bargain? That’s earnest money.
An 18th-century euphemism for a grave. To take an earth-bath meant to be buried. Coffins, meanwhile, were nicknamed eternity-boxes.
An old Scots dialect word for someone who can’t be relied upon. It literally means “east-west”—namely, someone who is inconstant, or changes like the wind.
An old English dialect word meaning “easygoing” or “laid back.”
A 17th-century word meaning “to shake violently.” Not to be confused with embrangle, which means “to confuse” or “to entangle.”
We might use ebullience to mean “enthusiasm” or “liveliness,” but it literally means “boiling” or “boiling hot.” Derived from the same root, to ebullate is to boil, while the formation of bubbles in a boiling liquid is called ebullism.
Nineteenth-century slang for very tight trousers. Tight shoes were known as excruciators.
An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pointless argument. Likewise, an egg-battle is someone who pushes other people to quarrel or argue.
An old Scots word meaning “the act of wasting time in bad company.”
Derived from the image of someone “crooking” (i.e. bending) their elbow to raise their hand to their mouth, an elbow-crooker is a drunk or a hard drinker.
An elbow-shaker is a prolific gambler, derived from the image of someone shaking dice.
If something is elenge, then it’s remote, isolated, or lonely.
Derived from a French word meaning “praise,” elozable means susceptible to flattery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Whereas elsewhere means “somewhere else,” elsewhat means “something else.” It’s one of a number of else words to have long fallen out of use in English, including elsewards (“heading towards somewhere else”), elsewhen (“at another time”), elsewhence (“from somewhere else”), and elsehow (“in some other way”).
To elt is simply to press or knead something, but elting-moulds are the ridges of Earth formed when a field is plowed.
Elucubrate literally means “to work by candlelight,” but it’s typically used in a looser sense meaning “to work late into the night." In other words, “to burn the midnight oil.” Someone who does just that is an elucubrator, while the work that you end up producing is an elucubration.
An embusqué is someone who tries to avoid military service, and in particular, someone who takes a clerical job just to avoid joining up. The word is derived from a French word meaning “to ambush,” in the figurative sense of someone hiding in plain sight.
This is the proper word—originally used only in reference to crystallography—for a mirror image or reflection.
As well as meaning simply “to get dark,” the verb endarken can also be used to mean “to obscure” or “to cast a shadow over” something.
The opposite of being divinely inspired is endemoniasm—namely, inspiration from a demon, or from the Devil himself.
If you’re endoloured, then you’re consumed by grief.
If something is ensnarled, then it’s tangled up in knots.
An 18th-century word meaning “familiar to, or common to, everyone.”
If you hate insects, you’re entomophobic. It’s one of a number of E-phobias in the language, including eophobia (fear of the dawn), epistolophobia (the hatred of receiving mail), eisoptrophobia (the fear of mirrors or reflections), and enetophobia (hatred of pins).
When someone stops what they’re saying to go back and change a word to an even stronger one (as in, “I’m very happy—no, ecstatic—to be here”), that’s called epanorthosis. It derived from a Greek word meaning “correction.”
Literally meaning “explain in detail,” an epexegesis is an additional clarifying comment, often tagged onto the end of a more detailed or ambiguous sentence. That is to say, it’s the kind of sentence that often begins, “that is to say.”
An isosceles triangle would be an example of an equicrural shape: It literally means “equal-sized legs.”
The substance that makes leaves green is of course chlorophyll, but the pigment that takes over in the autumn and makes leaves look red is erythrophyll.
Derived from Ancient Greek and mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, the word eutrapely or eutrapelia originally referred to ease of conversation, repartee, or someone’s ability to talk to anyone on any subject. By the time it first began to appear in English in the 16th century however, eutrapely had become a more general term meaning “courtesy,” “urbanity,” or “sophistication.”
To move evenendways is to move in an unfaltering straight line, from one place to another.
While to calcate is to stamp with your heel, to exculcate, derived from the same root, is to trample or tread something down.
The word explode originally meant “to jeer a performer off the stage,” but the collective hissing and booing of a dissatisfied audience is called exsibilation.
An extranean is a stranger, or someone who does not belong to your family or friends despite being in close proximity to you. The term once referred to pupils who join the school a year later, typically from another school or area.
To wander about with no particular purpose is to extravage.
Eye-water is just another name for eye lotion or eye-wash, but in 18th-century English it came to refer to weak or watered-down alcohol.
In addition to being something surprising or remarkable, an eye-opener was a very strong alcoholic drink in Victorian slang.
A Tudor-period word for an employee (originally a maid or servant) who is only hard working when they’re being observed by their boss.
A 19th-century slang word for an eyelash.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.