‘Tableclothwise,’ ‘Parrotwise,’ and 10 Other ‘-Wise’ Words That Never Caught On

These nonce words—terms coined for a particular occasion and then rarely, if ever, used again—deserve a comeback.
Sunil / 500px/Getty Images (peacock), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

You think you’ve seen every category of words … then you find this batch, including such oddities as tableclothwise and rabbitwise. Who knew English could adverb like that?

These terms, mainly adverbs, are also mainly nonce words—words coined for one occasion and then likely never used again. But thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), these rarities have been preserved, like mutant dinosaurs with gills in the fossil record. Just like weird fossils, these terms all have value in showing the full record of English—if you like looking at language historywise.

1. Three-corneredwise 

Ever need to say “triangularly”? Then you’ll want to know this rare word, used as far back as 1580.

2. Moon-wise

You can use the word ‘moon-wise’ to describe anyone who knows a lot about Earth’s satellite. / JASPER JACOBS/GettyImages

Most of these words are adverbs with the meaning “in the manner of X,” but a few are adjectives meaning “knowledgeable about X.” The term moon-wise, which has been around since the mid-1500s, fits in the latter category and applies to anyone who knows a lot about that big rock in the sky that affects tides, makes werewolves, and attracts astronauts. The moon also had its own directional word.

3. Devil-wise

To behave devil-wise is to be devil-like, though not necessarily devil-may-care. This term has been around since at least 1601. A 1910 use from Alice Dudeney’s A Large Room is suggestive of a devil’s ability to vanish: “Even before she drank, which at last she did, Sir Walter seemed to recede, devil-wise, into smoke.”

4. Strumpet-wise

Strumpet is a 14th-century term for a sex worker that forms the basis for the colorful adverb strumpet-wise. The term has been around since at least 1653, and it appears in sultry fashion in The Kingdom Of Melchior, a 1949 book by A. Hamilton: “The beauty of some strange lands comes boldly to the stranger and, strumpet-wise, seduces his affections.”

5. Tableclothwise

White Tablecloth; The
‘Tableclothwise’ means “in the manner of a tablecloth.” / Francis G. Mayer/GettyImages

Few would think the manner of a tablecloth could inspire any additional words, but few would be wrong, as they so often are. In Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap, from 1891, this passage makes the prosaic tablecloth poetic: “Clouds of tawny dust … flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again.” That’s tablecloth-tacular.

6. Round-dealing-wise

Are you fair and straightforward and not crooked as a bag of snakes? Then you tend to do things round-dealing-wise, as an OED example from 1674 puts it—a term meaning “In a plain and honest manner.” Bridge salesmen seldom do anything round-dealing-wise.

7. Panoramawise

This grand term debuted in the early 1800s and has shown up from time to time over the years. In 1998—not exactly ancient times—an Edmonton Times article boastfully used the term: “Panorama-wise, Banff has nothing on us as far as the spectacular mountain views.”

8. Rabbit-wise

Rabbit running in the grass
‘Rabbit-wise’ can be used to describe someone acting like a rabbit. / Sofie Heylen/500px/Getty Images

This adverb, which is at least as old as 1844, could easily apply to hopping or breeding. But in a 1911 use from Katherine Mansfield’s In German Pension, the term is used dining-wise: “He was eating salad—taking a whole lettuce leaf on his fork and absorbing it slowly, rabbit-wise—a fascinating process to watch.” If you say so.

9. Sinisterwise

The snaky adjective sinisterwise reveals the lengthy history of sinister denoting leftness. It’s common knowledge that the left-handed have been considered somehow bad or wrong, which maybe the battiest prejudice in a world full to the belfry. But who knew left and sinister could be so synonymous? One quotation of several in the OED, dating from the 1600s, contains a definition. A1999 Usenet group post describes: “a line that goes sinisterwise (toward the left), bending across the shield from the middle to the edge.”

10. Parrotwise

Spring At Kew Gardens, London
The word ‘parrot-wise’ has nothing to do with bright colors or fashion. / Chris Jackson/GettyImages

This first of two avian terms is not about fashion—despite the parrot’s pretty plumage—but usually about repeating things in the fashion of a parrot. The first known use, by travel writer Karl Philipp Moritz in 1795, is timelessly true, describing “Those venal praters, who ten times a day, parrot-wise, repeat over the same dull lesson they have got by heart.” A 2000 example from India’s Statesman discusses issues that are sadly also timeless: “It is not enough for Mr Vajpayee to just repeat parrotwise that there won't be peace talks until Pakistan stops the terrorism.”

11. Peacockwise

This term—which has been around since the 1500s—is all about fashion, playing on the peacock’s proclivity to spread its multicolored wings flamboyantly. That said, an 1895 example from Scribner’s Magazine is rather gross: “They watched it lying in the form of a fish … and the head was lost, the tail spread peacockwise and evaporated slowly in that likeness.”

12. Historywise

This term has been used far more than most on this list, and has had a few shades of meaning. A 1948 use from a Congressional hearing has the sense of “in terms of history”: “It is very difficult, historywise, in terms of getting funds for health programs unless recognition is taken of the fact that a problem is of a certain size and there is an opportunity to match the appropriations to that size.” But this word can also refer to something told as a narrative, as in a John Dove’s 1746 criticism of the Bible: “The New Testament is wrote History-wise, without one new Institution, Precept, or Idea in it.” So doing something historywise can refer to method or matter, but it’s a cool word either way.