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25 Smart Words You Should Be Using But Aren’t

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Over its lengthy history, the English language has amassed the largest vocabulary of any comparable language on the planet. That’s great when it comes to picking precisely the right word for a very specific situation, but not so great when you think about the countless words that are lying ignored in the murkier corners of the dictionary, being overlooked in favor of their more familiar synonyms and equivalents. So in the interest of improving your vocabulary (and scoring a few smart points along the way) why not try ditching the familiar for the unfamiliar, and dropping one of these 25 fantastically obscure phrases into a conversation?

1. ABLOCATE

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Dating from the 17th century, to ablocate something is to hire it out. For obvious reasons, it literally means “to put in a different place.”

2. AGELASTIC

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Derived from a Greek word meaning “laughter”, someone who is agelastic literally never laughs. Or, put another way, they’re extremely miserable.

3. APRICATION

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The early lexicographer Henry Cockeram defined aprication as “a baking in the sun” in his 1623 English Dictionarie. Derived from a Latin word literally meaning “exposed,” it’s basically a fancy alternative to “sunbathing.”

4. BRACHYLOGICAL

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Brachylogy is brevity of speech, which makes someone who is brachylogical a succinct, terse, straight-to-the-point speaker.

5. BUCCULA

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Instead of saying "double chin," say buccula. It sounds a lot more complimentary and literally means “little cheek.”

6. CALAMISTRATION

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In Latin, a calamistrum was a curling iron, which makes calamistration the act or process of curling your hair and calamistrate—a word dating from the mid 1600s in English—the verb for precisely that.

7. DEOSCULATION

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They’re not the most romantic of words, but both osculation and deosculation are 17th-century words for kissing.

8. DECEMNOVENARIAN

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The word decemnovenarian is derived from the Latin word for the number 19, and so literally means “characteristic of the 19th century”—or more loosely, “outdated” or “old-fashioned.”

9. ECHINATE

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Your hairbrush might be echinate, and so too might a hedgehog—for good reason. Although it’s usually used more generally of anything covered in prickly spikes or points, echinate literally means “hedgehog-like.”

10. ÉCLAIRCISSEMENT

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English has picked up some very smart-sounding words from French over the years, including the noun éclaircissement, which has been used to mean “a clearing up of that which is obscure or unknown” since the late 1600s. More generally, it's an enlightening explanation of something seemingly inexplicable.

11. FACINOROUS

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Derived from a Latin word for an evil deed, the adjective facinorous dates from the mid 16th century in English and refers to anything or anyone atrociously, heinously evil or bad.

12. FRITINIENCY

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The Latin word fritinnire meant, onomatopoeically, “twittering” or “chirping.” And derived from that, fritiniency is a 17th-century word for the chirruping sounds made by birds or insects.

13. INFUCATION

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To fucate is to paint or color something. Derived from there, infucation is a 17th-century word for the process of applying makeup—or, as one 1658 English dictionary put it, the “laying on of drugs or artificial colors upon the face."

14. LAODICEAN

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Derived from the name of an ancient region of the eastern Mediterranean (whose inhabitants, according to the Book of Revelation, were singled out for their indifference or lukewarm interest in Christianity), a Laodicean is someone who holds no particular opinion or interest, especially in contentious subject like politics or religion; as an adjective, it means “indifferent” or “uninterested."

15. MALVERSATION

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To malverse is to act corruptly in an elected office or position of trust, and malversation—originally a Scottish legal term—is the act of doing precisely that.

16. NIMBOSE

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Nimbus (as in words like cumulonimbus and nimbostratus) was the Latin word for “cloud,” which lies at the root of a handful of weather-related words like nimbosity (meaning “storminess” or “cloudiness”) and nimbose, which means “stormy” or “overcast."

17. PENELOPIZING

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If you know your classic literature, you’ll know that Penelope was the faithful wife of Odysseus in The Odyssey by Homer (more on him in a moment), who spent her time waiting for her husband’s return by working on a never-ending tapestry. With Odysseus presumed dead, Penelope managed to put off all her potential suitors by explaining that she would only begin to consider their marriage proposals once her embroidery was completed—but every night, she would secretly unpick her day’s work so that she remained busy until Odysseus finally returned. From that story of pure fidelity, the name Penelope came to be used allusively in English of any enduringly faithful partner, while the verb penelopize came to be used variously to mean “to make one’s work fill up the time available,” “to procrastinate” or “put off a decision,” and “to deliberately waste one’s time."

18. PERVICACIOUS

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Derived from a Latin word meaning “to convince someone of your point” or “to demonstrate without doubt,” someone who is pervicacious is extremely obstinate or stubborn.

19. PRODROMUS

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That “drom” in the middle of prodromus—which is the same root as words like velodrome and hippodrome (which is literally a race course)—derives from a Greek word meaning “running.” That makes a prodromus literally a “forerunner,” or just something that comes before something else. Today, it's most often used in the natural sciences in reference to "a prelimary publication or introductory work."

20. PRODITORIOUS

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A proditor is a traitor, which makes someone who is proditorious untrustworthy or disloyal.

21. ROCAMBOLESQUE

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Rocambole was the name of a flashy fictional adventurer created by a 19th-century French writer named Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. The stories in which Rocambole appears grew ever more outlandish as the series continued, and ultimately gave rise to the word rocambolesque, meaning “utterly extraordinary” or “too bizarre to be believable."

22. SOMNILOQUY

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Derived from the same roots as words like insomnia and soliloquy, somniloquy is a more formal word for sleep talking. Sleepwalking, incidentally, is somnambulism, while to somniate is to dream and something that is somnifacient puts you to sleep.

23. TEMPORICIDE

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A derivative of the Latin word for “kill” or “cut,” the suffix cide is found at the end of all kinds of words in English, from the familiar (homicide, suicide) to the rare (ceticide, “the killing of whales”), and to the downright bizarre (coquicide, “the killing of a cook”). At the rarer end of the scale is temporicide, a term coined as relatively recently as 1851 for the figurative “killing of time."

24. XYRESIC

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Derived from the Ancient Greek word for a razor, xyresic literally means “razor-sharp”—or, more figuratively, “cutting” or “keen."

25. ZOILISM

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Zoilus was a 4th-century BC Greek grammarian and philosopher, who was known to be one of the harshest critics of Homer. Homer may have been the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but his work was not viewed in particularly high regard by Zoilus, who wrote extensively on the shortcomings and loopholes he found in Homer's writings. It was this unending, near-constant nitpicking of the author's work that not only earned Zoilus the nickname “Homeromastix” (literally, “Homer-whipper”) in his lifetime, but also eventually gave the English language the brilliant word zoilism—meaning “fault-finding” or “unfair, overly fastidious criticism.”

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    Words
    15 Wintry Words for Snowy Weather Across the United States
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    While the “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” debate remains up in the (cold, cold) air, we do know—thanks in large part to the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—that Americans have no lack of idioms for the chilly white stuff. Here are 15 of them from all over the United States.

    1. CAT’S TRACK

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    When there’s a light fall of snow, you can call it cat’s track, a term used in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. A resident from the Badger State says, “If there is enough snow to track a cat, there has been a snowfall.” Conversely, not much snow can be described as “not enough snow to track a cat.”

    2. SKIFT

    A little girl rubbing her nose on the carrot nose of a snowman while snow falls.
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    Skift refers to a light fall of snow, according to DARE, as well as a “thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water.” The use of the term is widespread across the U.S. except in the Northeast, South, and Southwest.

    3. SKIMP

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    If someone in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, or north-central Arkansas says, “Watch out for that skimp,” better take heed. They’re talking about a thin layer of ice or snow. Skimp can also be a verb meaning to freeze in a thin coating.

    4. GOOSE DOWN

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    Get a light snow in Alabama? You can call it goose down.

    5. GOOSEFEATHERS

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    In Vermont, large, soft flakes of snow might be referred to as goosefeathers.

    6. THE OLD WOMAN IS PICKING HER GEESE

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    This colorful idiom for “It’s snowing” is especially used in the Appalachians, along with “The old woman’s a-losin’ her feathers.” Meanwhile, in Kentucky, you might hear Aunt Dinah’s picking her geese.

    7. SCUTCH

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    Another term for a light dusting or flurry of snow, this time in Delaware. Scutch might come from scuds, a word of Scottish origin meaning ale or beer.

    8. SNOW SQUALL

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    Why say snow shower when you can say snow squall? This chiefly Northeast saying refers to “a sudden snowstorm of short duration.” Its earliest recorded usage in American English is from 1775.

    9. FLOUR-SIFTER SNOW

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    The next time you’re in Montana surrounded by small-flaked snow, you can say, “We’ve got some flour-sifter snow!”

    10. CORN SNOW

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    You know it and you hate it: that granular, kernel-like snow that’s the result of repeated thawing and freezing. The term corn snow is used in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oregon.

    11. HOMINY SNOW

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    If grits are more up your alley, there’s hominy snow, a saying native to the South Midland states. The word hominy, referring to a kind of boiled ground corn, is Native American in origin, possibly coming from the Algonquian uskatahomen, “parched corn.”

    12. GRAMPEL

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    This term in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon for a snow pellet that’s “somewhat like hail” is probably a variant on graupel, “soft hail.” Graupel is German in origin and comes from graupel wetter, which translates literally as “sleet weather.”

    13. SNIRT

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    While it might sound like a cross between a snort and a snicker, this Upper Midwest term actually refers to a mix of windblown snow and dirt. The moniker itself is a blend too, namely of the words—you guessed it—snow and dirt.

    14. SPOSH

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    Back in the day, New Englanders called slush sposh, which also referred to mud. The word is probably imitative in origin and might be influenced by words like slush, slosh, and splash.

    15. POST-HOLING

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    Ever walk in snow so deep you sink with every step? That’s post-holing or post-holing it, a saying in Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and northwest Massachusetts. The post here refers to a fence post and hole to the hole created to secure it in the ground. Now we just need a word for sinking up to your knee when you step off a curb into slush that you’ve mistaken for ice.

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    Big Questions
    Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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    Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

    Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

    The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

    In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

    The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

    It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

    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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