80 Weird Words and Phrases

If you’ve ever needed a word for a piece of bread eaten just after a bath, you’re in luck.
Which ones will you start using in conversation?
Which ones will you start using in conversation? / Foxys Graphic/Shutterstock (speech bubbles). Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

It’s often said that English has more words than any other language. That’s a difficult statistic to corroborate, not least because not every language has words in the way we would recognize them (and, for that matter, no one can really tell you for sure what a word actually is). But with more than half a million entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) alone as a starting point, it’s fair to say English is on the heftier side.

Not all those hundreds of thousands of words are exactly everyday words, of course, because far outside our standard dictionaries and glossaries lie countless niche and unusual words that (despite their evident usefulness) remain largely underused and unremembered. Some are just plain bizarre (think bamblustercate, or smellfungus). Others are more extraordinary thanks to their niche meanings and uses (like deaconing, or a rampike). Read on for 80 of the English language’s weirdest weird words.

1. Comflogisticate

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Comflogisticate is a verb meaning “to utterly confuse someone,” or “to embarrass or somehow show a person up.” It was coined in the early 1800s as part of a faddy trend for inventing new nonsense words with a little Latin-sounding pizazz. Similar words that showed up around that time included flusticate (“to confuse”), conflabberate (“to upset”), and bamblustercate (variously used to mean “to embarrass,” “to confuse,” or according to one definition at least, “to hoax in a blustering manner.”) The latter is an example of a nonce word—a term coined for a very specific purpose, and likely used only once.

2. Smeerp

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The term smeerp refers to a word invented by a sci-fi or fantasy author just to give their writing a sense of otherworldliness. It was coined by Hugo Award winner James Blish, author of A Case of Conscience, who once decried science fiction writers’ tendency “to call a rabbit a smeerp” in their stories, just to make them seem all the more bizarre and distant from real life.

3. Thunder-plump

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A thunder-plump is a heavy and sudden rainstorm.

4. Kittle-pitchering

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In 18th-century English, kittle-pitchering was a word for the method of stopping someone from telling a long and boring story by constantly interrupting them with questions and contradictory statements. Where the word comes from is a mystery, but kittle or kittlish, which date to the 16th century, mean “ticklish” or “annoying”—so perhaps the implication here is that the constant stream of interruptions is difficult to deal with.

5. Deacon

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If you’ve ever read Little Women, you’re likely familiar with deacon, which refers to the practice of carefully arranging the produce in a shop or market stall so that the best is on the top, hiding the poorer quality merchandise on the bottom. Where that sense of the word comes from is a little unclear, but it is perhaps linked to a 19th-century American proverb that warned “all deacons are good, but there is odds in deacons”—in other words, even among the best things, there are often some things better than others.

6. and 7. Bishop and Bishop’s-finger

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Speaking of words derived from clergymen, the molten pool of wax that forms around the flame of a candle is called the “bishop,” and a bishop’s-finger is a fingerpost, or one of those forked signposts you see on street corners that point in multiple directions. Bishops (and other high-ranking clergymen, for that matter) were often made the butt of jokes about pious hypocrisy, and both bishop’s-finger and the sense of bishop above apparently allude to their supposed propensity for double standards. The signpost points the right way to go, but never actually goes that way itself—while the pool of wax around a candle sits far enough from the flame to avoid being burned up, but just close enough to take its heat and light.

8. Snaste

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And on the subject of candles, the burnt part of a candle wick is called the “snaste” …

9. Pricket

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… while the spike in the bottom of a candlestick that helps to hold the candle upright is called the “pricket.”

10. Malneirophrenia

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The awful feeling that you have when you wake up from a nightmare or an unpleasant dream is called “malneirophrenia.”

11. Euneirophrenia

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The opposite—i.e. a good mood or state of mind sparked by a decidedly pleasant dream—is euneirophrenia.

12. Lollockin-cheer

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Lollockin-cheer is a 19th-century dialect word from the southwest corner of England for an especially comfortable chair. It probably comes from the dialect verb, lollock, that means “to idle or lounge around.”

13. Spanghew

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To spanghew something is to hurl it in the air. But according to a handful of early definitions, it once referred specifically to the act of batting a frog into the air using a stick.

14. Vestry

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Another bizarre (but rather more pleasant) entry from the English Dialect Dictionary is the word vestry. This sense has nothing to do with churches—it’s actually defined as “the smiling of infants in their sleep.”

15. Punt

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The indentation in the bottom of a wine bottle is called the “punt (or in glass-blower’s parlance, the “kickup”). When you’ve drunk enough of the wine to see the top of the punt above the surface of the wine left inside, it was once said that you had “drunk out of the island.”

16. Comet-wine

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Comet-wine is wine made from grapes grown in a year or season when comets were readily visible in the night sky. This supposedly made the wine especially fine and flavorful.

17. Chevelure

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These days, we’d call  the nebulous mist that can be seen around the head of a comet  a “coma,” but it was once also known as the chevelure—a word of French origin that literally means “a head of hair.”

18. Cockernony

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A woman’s hair gathered up into a bun or under a headband or snood is a style called a “cockernony.” The word comes from Scots, and was popularized in the 1800s through the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

19. Smellfungus

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Another curious word we owe to an author is smellfungus, an 18th-century word for a habitual nit-picking faultfinder. The name was invented by the writer Laurence Sterne, who used it for a character in his partly fictionalized 1768 book Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy to take a satirical swipe at fellow novelist Tobias Smollett.

Two years before that, Smollett had published a travelogue, Travels Through France and Italy, recounting a trip he and his wife had taken across Europe. Despite visiting the likes of Paris, Florence, and Rome, Smollett remained largely unimpressed by the whole thing, dismissing the Pantheon as “a huge cockpit,” the San Lorenzo chapel “a monument to ill taste,” and the Vatican full of “relicks of pretended saints” and “ill-proportioned spires.” When he published his thoughts on his return home in 1766, Smollett’s uncompromising opinions caused controversy [PDF] among Britain’s learned classes—and made him a prime target for satire.

Partway through their journeys, Smollett and Sterne met in the south of France. It’s debatable how well the pair got along, but when Sterne published Sentimental Journey in 1768, he took the opportunity to lampoon Smollett’s nit-picking by introducing an equally dour figure he called “Smelfungus” [sic]:

“The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome, and so on; but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.”

20. Gomble

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A ball of snow or ice that forms in an animal’s hair or that sticks to your clothes while walking is called a “gomble”

21. Degombling

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… which makes the word for the act of brushing accumulations of snow off your feet degombling. (And you can thank Antarctic research scientists for that one.)

22. Nifle-pin

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A nifle-pin isn’t a pin—in fact, it doesn’t exist at all. Saying that you were “hunting” or “going for a nifle-pin” was an expression once used in dialect English as a pretend chore, intended to cover up the fact that you were in fact doing nothing. So a nifle-pin is a makeshift excuse for idleness, or being caught not doing what you were supposed to.

23. Joan’s Silver Pin

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In 19th-century English, Joan’s silver pin was a term used for a visibly very expensive or beautiful item kept in an otherwise squalid or dirty house. The name was later given to a type of poppy, too, probably because it is so frequently found flowering amount patches of weeds.

24. Sarculate

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Speaking of weeds, the verb sarculate means “to remove weeds from your garden” …

25. Bawtry Salad

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… while Bawtry salad is a term used for the mishmash of loose weeds, grasses, and reeds that flow down river channels and get caught around bridges and banks. It takes its name from the town of Bawtry on the River Trent in Yorkshire, England, where it was apparently once common for farmers to sweep cuttings, weeds, and other plant matter from their land and their drainage canals into the local river, causing problems further downstream.

26. Winterbourne

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A winterbourne is a stream that only flows during wintertime, commonly found in areas of chalkland where the ground is especially porous.

27. Dextrosinistral

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If you’re dextrosinistral, you’re naturally left-handed but have been taught to use your right hand when writing.

28. Meurtrière

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The long, narrow openings in the wall of a castle out of which archers shot their arrows can be called a meurtrière (other terms include loopholes, or less imaginatively, arrow-slits). Proving just how effective a defensive mechanism these were, meurtrière literally means “murderess” in French.

29. Nemesism

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Derived from the same root as nemesis, the word nemesism refers to frustration or annoyance against yourself, driven by your own frustrations.

30. Mithridatium

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Mithridates IV of Pontius was a legendary ruler of Pontus in Anatolia who managed to make himself immune to many poisons by gradually ingesting non-lethal doses of them. This process is now called mithridatism, while a mithridatium (or mithridate) is a universal cure or antidote.

31. Panchreston

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Like mithridatium, panchreston—which is derived from a Greek word meaning “useful for everything”—is also a word for a panacea or cure-all, but in the sense of something that is meant to apply to or work on everything. In rhetorical terms, a panchreston is an explanation or solution to a problem that, in practice, proves far too vague or overreaching to be of practical use.

32. Denticulation

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The tooth-like perforation around a postage stamp is called the “denticulation” …

33. Xanthodont

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…while a xanthodont is a creature (or for that matter, a person) with yellow teeth. (Xantho is a term of chemistry meaning “of a yellow color.”)

34. Strucken

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Strucken is a Scots and North Country English word meaning “stricken, tormented.” For that reason, a strucken (or stricken) hour is an hour of work or business that seems to go by impossibly and frustratingly slowly …

35. Wheady-mile

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… while a wheady-mile is a mile of a journey that seems longer than it truly is.

36. Chine

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Chine (a dialect form of chain) is a word for a string of bubbles on the surface of a river or body of water that indicate where an otter is swimming.

37. Rudder

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An otter’s tail, meanwhile, is called a “rudder.” 

38., 39., and 40. Stern, Wreath, and Single

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A hound’s tail is its stern, a boar’s tail is a wreath, and a deer’s tail is its single.

41. And 42. Brush and Chape

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A fox’s tail  is more familiarly known as a brush, and the white spot at the end of a fox’s tail is called the “chape.”

43. Tod-Stripe

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Tod refers to a fox, too—or, in figurative terms, a playful child. So tod’s-bird refers to a mischievous child, while a tod-track is a fox’s footprint, and a tod-stripe is a strip of woodland frequented by foxes.

44. Sardonian

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The inhabitants of ancient Sardinia were apparently so known for their bitter humor that we use the word sardonic in their honor. Derived from the same source (but carrying a far fiercer implication) is the word sardonian, describing someone who flatters or uses coaxing, wheedling language with deadly intent.

45. Laodicean

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Another part of the ancient world that has ended up in the dictionary is Laodicea, a city in Asia Minor now located in southwest Turkey. In the Book of Revelation, the church of Laodicea is singled out for the apathy of its worshipers, who were “neither cold nor hot … but just lukewarm.” For that reason, the adjective laodicean has come to describe someone with an indifferent attitude to important matters.

46. Crowstone

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The topmost brick at the gable end of a house is called the “crowstone.”

47. Chin-music

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Chin-music is either the sound of children crying, or noisy chatter or gossip.

48. Dusty-miller

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A dusty-miller is a pollen-covered honeybee.

49. Stall-learning

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When you stand in a bookstore casually browsing the shelves, the bits and pieces of random knowledge you pick up from the pages you flick through has been known as stall-learning since the 1600s.

50. Index-learning

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Index-learning, on the other hand, is only a superficial knowledge of a subject—just the kind of understanding that might be gleaned from reading the index of a book, rather than the book itself.

51. Sesquihoral

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While the Latin prefix semi– is used in English to denote a half measure, the prefix sesqui– is used to make words implying some sense of one and a half. So something that is sesquihoral lasts precisely 90 minutes, or one-and-a-half hours.

52. Chrysography

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Derived from a Greek word for wealth, the word chrysography is refers to golden lettering. The same root is the origin of a handful of other obscure words, like chrysology (the “science” of accumulating money) and chrysopoetic (the production of gold).

53. Panification

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The production of bread is called “panification”

54. Kissing-crust

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… and when you bake bread in the oven and two or more neighboring rolls or loaves expand and touch one another, the soft white point where they meet is called the “kissing-crust.”

55. Chitterie-chatterie

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Should you ever need it, chitterie-chatterie is a Scots word for a piece of bread eaten right after you’ve taken a bath. 

56. Knickpoint

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A knickpoint is a sudden change in the steepness of a river channel. Usually, it results in a waterfall or a rapids.

57. Resistentialism

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When you find your charger cable inexplicably tangled, or your keys aren’t in the pocket you thought they were as you approach your door, that’s resistentialism—the belief that inanimate objects can exhibit spitefulness towards humans. A pun on existentialism (the philosophy of the individual person as a free and self-determining agent), resistentialism was coined by the English humorist and journalist Paul Jennings in a satirical essay published in The Spectator in 1948. “Resistentialism derives its name from its central thesis that Things (res) resist (résister) men,” he wrote.

58. Thesaurize

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Despite appearances, the word thesaurus comes from the same Latin and Greek roots as treasure—which means to thesaurize is not to look up words in a thesaurus, but to hoard wealth.

59. Rampike

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A rampike is a dead tree that is still somehow standing…

60. Ramage

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… while the collective branches of a tree together—or the collective sounds of birds twittering in the treetops—is known as ramage.

61. Messagate

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In Scots, the word messagate refers to a path leading through a cornfield. It’s derived from messa, referring to a church mass, and gata, meaning “gate”; the word’s original meaning referred to a path leading to a church, but it gained a broader meaning in the early 1900s.

62. Micromania

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The opposite of megalomania is micromania—an extreme tendency to belittle yourself or your achievements.

63. Pronoia

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The opposite of paranoia is pronoia—the delusional belief that everyone around you is a friend and supportive of what you think and do.

64. Banker’s Dozen

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While a dozen is 12 and a baker’s dozen is 13, a banker’s dozen is 11. The term, which dates back to the 1800s, either alludes to bankers always taking their cut of deals, or else is a play on an equally old term, banker’s hours, for a shorter-than-normal working day.

65. Overmused

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If you’re overmused, you’re exhausted from thinking or mulling things over too much.

66. Cobra Effect

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German has an excellent word, Verschlimmbesserung (literally, a “degenerating improvement”) for an intended solution that only proves to make something worse. Unlike a lot of German words, though, this is one for which English has a clear equivalent: the cobra effect.

This alludes to a (probably apocryphal) tale from the days of British colonial rule in India, when the British placed a bounty on venomous snakes, rewarding cobra corpses with cash. In practice, though, that system led to astute locals intentionally breeding the snakes in huge numbers to earn ever larger cash rewards. Ultimately, the system the British had imposed to see off the snakes led to a boom in their population—and in doing so gave us a term for a solution that only serves to make matters worse.

67. Trilemma

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Speaking of problems, if a dilemma is a tricky choice between two options, then a three-way dilemma is a trilemma.

68. Andabatism

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Any situation in which you can’t see a clear solution or path ahead is known as an andabatism; the word is derived from the name of a type of gladiator who used to fight while wearing a blindfold.

69. Coventry

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Coventry is a word that means “to mutilate or cut off the nose.” It derives from a grisly event in 1670, when a British parliamentarian named Sir John Coventry was attacked by a group of royalist sympathizers after he had made scurrilous comments about King Charles II’s personal life in the Houses of Parliament. Sir John’s nose was slit down to the bone in the attack, and in response, parliament put in place the Coventry Act, which made it a capital offense to “unlawfully cut out or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off a nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any Subject of His Majesty.”

70. Palouser

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In addition to being a word for an makeshift lamp or lantern, palouser is also an especially beautiful sunset. In both contexts, it derives from the region around the Palouse River in Idaho and Washington.

71. Stupple

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A stupple is a row of steppingstones.

72. Wrangle-tree

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The crossbar across an old chimney that is used to hang pots and pans over a fire can be called the “wrangle-tree.”

73. Pin Basket

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Because a pin cushion was a traditional gift for a new mother, in 18th- and 19th-century slang, the youngest child in a family was known as the pin basket.

74. Simmerlunt

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Partly derived from an Old Scots word for a slow-burning matchstick, simmerlunt is an early-morning summertime mist or dew.

75. Witworm

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A word credited to the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, witworm refers to someone whose wittiness ruins or depends on someone else’s cleverness, like a worm gnawing away at it.

76. Paralipsis

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 “Let’s not mention the fact he’s lost his job and his marriage has failed.” When you end up drawing attention to something by explicitly stating you don’t want to draw attention to it (kind of like what happens in the Streisand Effect) that’s a turn of phrase known as paralipsis. Appropriately enough, it derives from Greek roots and literally means “to leave to one side.”

77. Cataphasis

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And when your paralipsis has the effect of overtly confirming something bad about someone you’re talking about—“I won’t dwell on the fact he’s boring and has a horrible personality”—that’s cataphasis.

78. Come-o’-will

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Come-o’-will is a word from Scots for something that seems to take matters into its own hands, like a plant that unexpectedly grows somewhere, or a cat that spontaneously attaches itself to your household. 

79. Dissimulation

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Dissimulation is the act of dissimulating—or in other words, disguising, tricking, or deceiving. The word has also been used of a close-flying flock of small birds (probably in the sense of them attempting to confuse a potential predator) since medieval times.

80. Gulchcup

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A gulchcup is someone who drains a drink down to its very last drop.