40 Brilliant Words That Begin With the Letter B

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iStock/koya79

If you had to take a guess at the 10 least-used letters of the English alphabet, chances are you wouldn’t rank B down among the Zs, Qs, Xs, and Js. And on the one hand, you’d be right—nearly 5 percent of all the words in a dictionary are listed under the second letter of the alphabet. But when B isn’t the first letter of a word, it’s actually quite rare: take an average page of written English text, and you can expect it to account for less than 1.5 percent of it, making B the seventh least-used English letter overall. So why not give B a boost with these brilliantly bizarre words?

1. BABBITTISM

Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’s controversial 1922 satire Babbitt tells the story of fictional Midwest businessman George F. Babbitt, who achieves the perfect American middle-class life but soon finds total conformity and social expectation oddly discomforting. The novel inspired a handful of words that have since entered the language including Babbittism or Babbittry, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.”

2. BABBLATIVE

If you’re babblative, then you’re prone to babble or chatter. Likewise, babblement or babblery is gossiping, prattling conversation, while a babble-merchant is an unstoppably talkative person.

3. BACK-DOUBLE

Because it’s usually a less direct route, any side road or backstreet can also be called a back-double.

4. BACKSPANG

Derived from spang, an old Scots word for a sudden jolt or kick, a backspang is essentially a sting in the tail—a bad turn of events or a sudden detrimental change of mind at the very last minute. It’s used in relation to someone going back on their word, after a deal has been struck.

5. BAFFLEGAB

Jargon-filled talk that sets out to clarify something but ends up only confusing things? That’s bafflegab.

6. BAGGAGE-SMASHER

As well as being a name for a thief who specializes in stealing luggage from trains, in 19th-century slang a baggage-smasher was a porter at a railway station.

7. BAGGAGERY

A 16th-century word for the hoi polloi or rabble.

8. BAHUVRIHI

In linguistics, a bahuvrihi is essentially a compound word in which the first part (A) describes the second (B), so that, according to Merriam-Webster, the entire word (A + B) fits the template “a B that is A.” Words like highbrow, white-collar, Bluebeard, Bigfoot, and sabretooth are all examples, as is the word bahuvrihi itself: it literally means “much rice” in Sanskrit, but is used as a nickname for a notably wealthy man.

9. BAISEMAIN

That courtly display of kissing someone’s hand on meeting them is called a baisemain.

10. BALATROON

A 17th-century word—derived from the Latin for “to prattle”—for a foolish or nonsensical person.

11. BALBUTIATE

To stammer or stutter. Pronounced “bal-byoosh-ee-ate,” incidentally, not “bal-byoot-ee-ate."

12. BALLAMBANGJANG

Any fictitious or fantastic place—where a story that seems too good to be true might be supposed to have taken place—is a Ballambangjang. The name first appeared in the language in 19th-century nautical slang in reference to the “Straits of Ballambangjang,” a fictitious sea strait in southeast Asia (based on the real-life seas off Balambangan island near Borneo) that sailors alleged to be “so narrow, and the rocks on each side so crowded with trees inhabited by monkeys, that the ship’s yards cannot be squared on account of the monkey’s tails getting jammed into and choking up the brace blocks.”

13. BAMBSQUABBLED

This and bamblustercated are 19th century American slang words essentially meaning “stupefied,” “confounded,” or “embarrassed.”

14. BATHYSIDERODROMOPHOBIA

A form of claustrophobia: if you don’t like traveling on underground rail systems, then you’re bathysiderodromophobic. Other B fears include bathophobia (the fear of depth), belonephobia (needles), batrachophobia (reptiles), blennophobia (slime) and both bacteriophobia (the fear of bacteria) and bacillophobia (microbes).

15. BATTOLOGIZE

To battologize is to annoy someone by repeating the same thing over and over again. And again. And again.

16. BAUBLE-BEARER

A court jester—and so, figuratively, a foolish, empty-headed person.

17. BED-SWERVER

A word for an unfaithful lover, invented by Shakespeare. As was …

18. BEEF-WITTED

Another Shakespearean invention, meaning “foolish” or “slow-brained.”

19. BELLY-CHEER

In Tudor English, a grand feast or excellent food was belly-cheer

20. BELLY-GOD

… while a belly-god or belly-slave is a particularly gluttonous person.

21. BIBACITY

A 17th-century word for “outrageous drinking.”

22. BIBBLE-BABBLE

Senseless chatter or prattling talk. A “very common” word in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

23. BIBLIOMANIA

If you’re crazy about books, then you’re a bibliomaniac. In which case you probably best stay away from bibliokleptomaniacs, who are equally crazy about stealing books.

24. BIGLOT

If you read that as “big lot,” try again—a “bi-glot” is someone who speaks two languages. Bonus fact: more than 50 percent of the world’s population is bilingual, so if you can only speak one language you’re in a global minority.

25. BLANDILOQUY

Empty flattery is blandiloquy, or blandiloquence.

26. BLITTERO

An old Scots dialect word for anything thin and watery.

27. BLOWSABELLA

In 17th-century slang, a blowse or blowsabella was a slatternly, untidily-attired woman, or more specifically, “a woman whose hair is disheveled, and hanging about her face.”

28. BOOKSTAFF

An old name for a letter of the alphabet, derived from the Old English word bócstæf.

29. BOTULIFORM

Anything described as botuliform (which includes the bacterium that causes botulism, hence the name) is shaped like a sausage.

30. BOWDLERIZE

To prudishly remove all the risqué or questionable material from a text is to bowdlerize it. The word derives from 18th-19th century English physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who with the help of his sister published The Family Shakespeare in 1807, an edition of 24 of Shakespeare’s plays amended for what were seen at the time as the more sensitive minds of women and children. For example, Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damn’d spot!” as she tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, became “Out, crimson spot!”

31. BRADYKINETIC

An adjective describing anything slow-moving, or with impaired movement.

32. BRATTLE-BRIG

An old northern English dialect word for the bridge of the nose.

33. BROTICOLE

Rats, mice, spiders, house martins and swallows, foxes and raccoons are all broticoles—namely, organisms that like to live alongside humans, or around our houses and buildings.

34. BRUTUM FULMEN

An empty or ineffective threat or action is a brutum fulmen—it means “senseless thunderbolt” in Latin.

35. BRUXISM

Is the medical name for grinding your teeth.

36. BUCKARTIE-BOO

A Scots word meaning “to coo like a pigeon.”

37. BULL-SQUITTER

An old English dialect word for a great deal of fuss over a trivial matter.

38. BULLYRAG

To bullyrag or ballarag someone is to intimidate or badger them, particularly with abusive language.

39. BUM-CURTAIN

A flashily dressed woman in 1930s slang, so-called because of “her habit of making great play with her buttocks and of causing her dress to swish as if it were a wind-agitated curtain.”

40. BUTYRACEOUS

The proper word for describing something that tastes or looks buttery.

This article originally ran in 2016.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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