15 Obscure Words for Everyday Feelings And Emotions

iStock.com/Milkos
iStock.com/Milkos

Given that it runs to more than a quarter of a million words, there’s a good chance that the English language will probably have the word you’re looking for. But when it comes to describing hard-to-describe feelings and emotions, much is made of the English language’s shortcomings: We either have to turn to foreign languages to describe situations like coming up with a perfect comeback when the moment has passed (esprit de l’escalier—thank you French), or else use resources like the brilliant, but sadly entirely fictitious, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows or Meaning of Liff.

But so vast is the English language that words for feelings and emotions, and to describe the human condition, have actually found their way into the dictionary. So there’s no need to call that comeback esprit de l’escalier, because the word afterwit has been in use in English since the late 16th century. And here are 15 more obscure English words to describe feelings that are otherwise indescribable.

1. Croochie-Proochles

The superb Scots dialect word croochie-proochles means the feeling of discomfort or fidgetiness that comes from sitting in a cramped position (like, say, on an airplane).

2. Nikhedonia

You’re playing a game, and you suddenly realize that you’ve got it in the bag. Or you’re watching your favorite team play and, after a close-fought match, you see that they’re surely going to win. That’s nikhedoniathe feeling of excitement or elation that comes from anticipating success.

3. Alysm

Alysm is the feeling of restlessness or frustrated boredom that comes from being unwell. When you’re desperate to get on with your day but you’re so under the weather that you can’t bring yourself to get out of bed? That’s alysm.

4. Shivviness

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something, or else a loose thread sticking out of a piece of fabric. And derived from that, shivviness is an old Yorkshire dialect word for the feeling of discomfort that comes from wearing new underwear—a word that surely needs to be more widely known.

5. Déjà-visité

Yes, strictly speaking this isn’t an English word, but like the more familiar déjà-vu before it, we have nevertheless had the foresight to borrow déjà-visité from French and add it to our dictionaries—it’s just not used as often as its more familiar cousin. It describes the peculiar sensation of knowing your way around somewhere you’ve never been before.

6. Presque-Vu

One more term we’ve borrowed from French is presque-vu. It literally means “almost seen,” and refers to that sensation of forgetting or not being able to remember something, but feeling that you could remember it any minute.

7. Gwenders

That tingling feeling you get in your fingers when they’re cold? That’s gwenders.

8. Misslieness

The Scots dialect word misslieness means “the feeling of solitariness that comes from missing something or someone you love.”

9. Euneirophrenia and 10. Malneirophrenia

Oneiros was the Greek word for a dream, and derived from that the English language has adopted a handful of obscure terms like oneirocriticism (the interpretation of dreams), oneirodynia (a night’s sleep disturbed by nightmares), and this pair. Euneirophrenia is the feeling of contentment that comes from waking up from a pleasant dream, while malneirophrenia is the feeling of unease or unhappiness that comes from waking up from a nightmare.

11. Lonesome-Fret

That feeling of restlessness or unease that comes from being on your own too long is lonesome-fret, an 18th/19th century dialect word defined as “ennui from lonesomeness” by the English Dialect Dictionary.

12. Fat-Sorrow

Sorrow alleviated by riches”—or, put another way, sadness alleviated by material things—is fat-sorrow. It’s a term best remembered from the old adage that “fat sorrow is better than lean sorrow.”

13. Horror Vacui

The dislike some people have of leaving an empty space anywhere—like on a wall or in furnishing a room—is called horror vacui, a Latin term originally adopted into English in the mid-19th century to refer to the tendency of some artists to fill every square inch of their paintings or artworks with detail.

14. Crapulence

When the word hangover just won’t do it justice, there’s crapulence. As the OED defines it, crapulence is a feeling of “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

15. Huckmuck

According to the English Dialect Dictionary, the confusion that comes from things not being in their right place—like when you’ve moved everything around while you’re cleaning your house—is called huckmuck.

This list first appeared in 2017.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER