50 Words That Sound Dirty But Actually Aren't

iStock/AntonioGuillem
iStock/AntonioGuillem

To paraphrase Krusty the Clown, comedy isn’t dirty words—it’s words that sound dirty, like mukluk. He’s right, of course. Some words really do sound like they mean something quite different from their otherwise entirely innocent definition (a mukluk is an Inuit sealskin boot, in case you were wondering), and no matter how clean-minded you might be, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow or a wry smile whenever someone says something like cockchafer or sexangle. Here are 50 words that might sound rude, but really aren’t. Honest.

1. Aholehole

If you read that as "a-hole," then think again. Aholehole is pronounced “ah-holy-holy,” and is the name of a species of Hawaiian flagtail fish native to the central Pacific.

2. Aktashite

Aktashite is a rare mineral used commercially as an ore of arsenic, copper, and mercury. It takes its name from the village of Aktash in eastern Russia, where it was first discovered in 1968. The final –ite, incidentally, is the same mineralogical suffix as in words like graphite and kryptonite.

3. Assapanick

While exploring the coast of Virginia in 1606, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) wrote in his journal of a creature known to local tribes as the assapanick. By "spreading their legs, and so stretching the largeness of their skins," he wrote, "they have been seen to fly 30 or 40 yards." Assapanick is another name for the flying squirrel.

4. Assart

Assart is an old medieval English legal term for an area of forested land that has been converted into arable land for growing crops. It can also be used as a verb meaning "to deforest," or preparing wooded land for farming.

5. Bastinado

Derived from bastón, the Spanish word for a cane or walking stick, bastinado is an old 16th century word for a thrashing or caning, especially on the soles of the feet.

6. Boobyalla

As well as being the name of a former shipping port in northern Tasmania, boobyalla is also an Aborigine name for the wattlebird, one of a family of honeyeaters native to much of Australia.

7. Bum-bailiff

In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson described a bum-bailiff as "a bailiff of the meanest kind," and in particular, "one that is employed in arrests."

8. Bumfiddler

To bumfiddle means to pollute or spoil something, in particular by scribbling or drawing on a document to make it invalid. A bumfiddler is someone who does precisely that.

9. Bummalo

Like the aholehole, the bummalo is another tropical fish, in this case a southeast Asian lizardfish. When listed on Indian menus, it goes by the slightly more appetizing name of “Bombay duck.”

10. Clatterfart

According to a Tudor dictionary published in 1552, a clatterfart is someone who "wyl disclose anye light secreate"—in other words, it’s a gossip or blabbermouth.

11. Cockapert

Cockapert is an Elizabethan name for "a saucy fellow" according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it can also be used as an adjective meaning "impudent" or "smart-alecky."

12. Cock-bell

A cock-bell can be a small handbell, a type of wildflower that grows in the spring, and an old English dialect word for an icicle. In any case, it’s derived from coque, the French word for a seashell.

13. Cockchafer

The cockchafer is a large beetle native to Europe and western Asia. The origin of its name is a mystery, but one theory claims the beetles are so characteristically aggressive that they can be made to fight one another like cockerels.

14. Dik-dik

Standing little more than a foot tall at the shoulder, the dik-dik is one of the smallest antelopes in all of Africa. Their name is apparently an imitation of their alarm call.

15. Dreamhole

A dreamhole is a small slit or opening made in the wall of a building to let in sunlight or fresh air. It was also once used to refer to holes in watchtowers used by lookouts and guards, or to openings left in the walls of church towers to amplify the sounds of the bells.

16. Fanny-Blower

According to one 19th-century glossary of industrial slang, a fanny-blower or fanner was "used in the scissor-grinding industry," and comprised "a wheel with vanes, fixed onto a rotating shaft, enclosed in a case or chamber to create a blast of air." In other words, it’s a fan.

17. Fartlek

Fartlek is a form of athletic training in which intervals of intensive and much less strenuous exercise are alternated in one long continuous workout. It literally means "speed-play" in Swedish.

18. Fuksheet

Fuk was an old Middle English word for a sail, and in particular the foremost sail on a ship. A fukmast, ultimately, is a ship’s foremast, while the fuksheet or fuksail is the sail attached to the ship’s fukmast.

19. Gullgroper

To grope a gull is an old Tudor English expression meaning "to take advantage of someone," or "to swindle an unsuspecting victim"—and a gullgroper does just that.

20. Haboob

Taking its name from an Arabic word meaning "blustering" or "blowing," a haboob is a dry wind that blows across deserts, dustbowls, and other arid regions often at great speed, forming vast sandstorms as it goes. Haboobs are typically caused by the collapse of a cold front of air, which blasts dust and sediment up from the desert floor as it falls.

21. Humpenscrump

The Oxford English Dictionary calls a humpenscrump "a musical instrument of rude construction." Alongside others like humstrum, celestinette and wind-broach, it was originally another name for the hurdy-gurdy.

22. Invagination

Invagination is simply the process of putting something inside something else (and in particular, a sword into a scabbard), or else is the proper name for turning something inside out. The opposite is called evagination.

23. Jaculate

Jaculation is the act of throwing or jostling something around, while to jaculate means "to rush or jolt forward suddenly."

24. Jerkinhead

A jerkinhead is a roof that is only partly gabled (i.e., only forms part of a triangle beneath its eaves) and is instead levelled or squared off at the top, forming a flattened area known as a hip. Jerkinheads are also known as "half-hipped" or "clipped-gable" roofs.

25. Knobstick

As well as being an old nickname for a walking stick or truncheon, knobstick is an old 19th-century slang word for a workman who breaks a strike, or for a person hired to take the place of a striking employee.

26. Kumbang

Like the haboob, the kumbang is another hot, arid wind, in this case one that blows seasonally in the lowlands of western Indonesia.

27. Lobcocked

Lobcock is an old Tudor English word for an idiot or an unsophisticated, clownish bumpkin. Lobcocked is an equally ancient adjective meaning "boorish" or "naïve."

28. Nestle-Cock

A nestle-cock is the last bird to hatch from a clutch of eggs. It dates from the early 1600s, when it was also used as a nickname for an overly spoilt or pampered child.

29. Nicker-Pecker

Nicker-pecker is an old English dialect name for the European green woodpecker, the largest woodpecker native to Great Britain. In this context nicker is probably a derivative of nick, meaning a small cut or scratch.

30. Nobber

In early 19th century English, boxers were nicknamed nobbers, a name apparently derived from the earlier use of nobber as a slang term for a punch or blow to the head.

31. Nodgecock

Nodgecock, like lobcock, is another Tudor word for a fool or simpleton. It likely derives from an even earlier word, noddypoll, for someone who senselessly nods their head in agreement with any idea, no matter how good or bad it might be.

32. Pakapoo

Pakapoo is a 19th-century Australian word for a lottery or raffle. It apparently derives from a Cantonese phrase, baahk gáap piu, literally meaning "white pigeon ticket"—the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that in the original form of the game, a white dove might have been trained to select the winning ticket from all of the entries.

33. Peniaphobia

Definitely not what it sounds like, peniaphobia is actually the fear of poverty.

34. Penistone

Penistone (pronounced “pen-is-tun,” before you ask) is the name of a picturesque market town in Yorkshire, England, which has given its name to both a type of coarse woolen fabric and a type of locally produced sandstone.

35. Pershittie

The Scots word pershittie means "prim," or "overly meticulous." It’s one of a family of late 18th–early 19th century Scots words all of similar meaning, including perjinkity, perskeety, and, most familiar of all, pernickety.

36. Pissaladière

Pissalat is a condiment popular in southern French cookery made from puréed anchovies and olive oil, mixed with garlic, pepper, and herbs. It’s used to make a type of open bread tart called a pissaladière, which is flavored with onions and black olives.

37. Pissasphalt

Pissasphalt is a thick semi-liquid form of bitumen, similar to tar. The first part of the name is the Greek word for pitch, pissa.

38. Poonga

Poonga oil is obtained from the seeds of the Indian beech tree, Pongamia pinnata, and is widely used across southern India as everything from a skin treatment to a replacement for diesel in engines and generators.

39. Sack-Butt

Spelled with one t, a sackbut is an early Renaissance brass instrument similar to a trombone. Spelled with two ts, a sack-butt is a wine barrel.

40. Sexagesm

The adjective sexagesimal means "relating to the number 60," while anything that proceeds sexagesimally does so in sets of 60 at a time. A sexagesm, ultimately, is one-sixtieth of something.

41. Sexangle

Both sexangle and the equally indelicate sexagon are simply 17th-century names for what is otherwise known as a hexagon, a plane geometric shape with six sides. The prefix sexa– is derived from the Latin word for "six" rather than its Greek equivalent, heks.

42. Sexfoiled

Dating back to the Middle English period, foil is an old-fashioned name for a leaf or petal, which is retained in the names of plants like the bird’s-foot trefoil, a type of clover, and the creeping cinquefoil, a low-growing weed of the rose family. A sexfoil is ultimately a six-leaved plant or flower, or a similarly shaped architectural design or ornament incorporating six leaves or lobes.

43. Shittah

The shittah is a type of acacia tree native to Arabia and north-east Africa that is mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah as one of the trees that God "will plant in the wilderness" of Israel, alongside the cedar, pine, and myrtle. Its name was adopted into English from Hebrew in the early Middle Ages, but it can probably be traced all the way back to an Ancient Egyptian word for a thorn-tree.

44. Skiddy-Cock

Billcock, brook-ouzel, oar-cock, velvet runner, grey-skit, and skiddy-cock are all old English dialect names for the water rail, a small and notoriously elusive wading bird found in the wetlands of Europe, Asia, and north Africa. The name skiddy-cock is thought to be derived from skit, a 17th-century word meaning "to act shyly," or "to move rapidly and quickly"—but it could just as probably be derived from an even older 15th century word, skitter, meaning "to produce watery excrement."

45. Slagger

In 19th century English, a slagger was a workman in a blast furnace whose job it was to siphon off the stony waste material, or slag, that is produced when raw metals and ores are melted at high temperatures. Even earlier than that, in 16th century English, slagger was a verb, variously used to mean "to loiter" or "creep," or "to stumble" or "walk awkwardly."

46. Tease-Hole

Staying with furnaces, a tease-hole is simply the opening in a glassmaker’s furnace through which the fuel is added.

47. Tetheradick

Sheep farmers in some rural parts of Britain once had their own traditional counting systems, many of which are particularly ancient and predate even the Norman and Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. Most of these counting systems vanished during the Industrial Revolution, but several remain in use locally and have become fossilized in local rhymes, sayings and folk songs. Tether was an old Lake District name for the number three, while dick was the number ten; tetheradick, ultimately, was a count of 13.

48. Tit-Bore

Tit-bore—or tit-bore-tat-bore in full—is a 17th-century Scots name for a game of peekaboo. It was once also called hitty-titty, as was, incidentally, hide and go seek.

49. Tit-Tyrant

The tit-tyrants are a family of eight species of flycatcher native to the Andes Mountains and the westernmost rainforests of South America. One of the species, the ash-breasted tit-tyrant, is one of the world’s most endangered birds, with fewer than 1000 individuals left in a handful of remote, high-altitude sites in Peru and Bolivia.

50. Wankapin

Wankapin, or water chinquapin, is another name for the American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, a flowering plant native to Central American wetlands. The lotus was apparently introduced to what is now the southern United States by native tribes who would use the plant’s tubers and seeds (known as "alligator corn") as a source of food.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Can You Match the Untranslatable Nordic Word to Its Meaning?

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