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10 Things You Didn’t Know Had Names

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From the first person you greet in the morning to that earthy smell that permeates the air after it rains, the English language is full of very specific words. Here are 10 of them.

1. PETRICHOR

You know how it smells after it rains? That clean, greenish smell when rain lands on dry ground? That’s petrichor, from the Greek petra (stone) and ichor (the blood of Greek gods and goddesses). The term was coined by two Australian researchers in 1964—though it's probably a familiar word to fans of Doctor Whoit was once used as a password to open the TARDIS's control room (you can even buy a perfume inspired by this delicious scent).

2. CHANKING

As a noun, chanking is the food that you spit out, like an olive pit. As a verb, it means to eat noisily.

3. ARMSAYES

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If you’ve put your shirt on backwards, you have your arms in the wrong armsayes (you know them better as armholes).

4. QUALTAGH

When you walked out your door this morning, who was the first person you greeted? Your neighbor? Your boss? Whoever it was, that person is your qualtagh. Traditionally, the word was used to define the first person you greeted in the new year.

5. ZARF

Originally, a zarf was a metal chalice meant to prevent the heat from your coffee from burning your fingers. The name for the fancy cup holder has morphed into the modern-day cardboard sleeve that comes wrapped around your morning cup of joe.

6. GLABELLA


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People with expressive faces often end up with wrinkles in their glabella—the space between the eyebrows.

7. NEF

The word nef is fairly esoteric, which only seems appropriate given the ornamental, silver or gold, ship-shaped stand it describes.

8. ROORBACK

Libel is one thing, but a damaging lie made publicly known for political effect—usually in reference to a candidate who is running for office—is a roorback.

9. BADINAGE


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Playful, joking banter can be called badinage. (It can also be used as a verb meaning to playfully banter with or tease someone.)

10. FEAT

You know the words lock and tendril, but did you know the similar feat? Aside from being an act requiring great strength, it describes a dangling curl of hair.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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