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.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

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iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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

11 Lesser-Known Animal Phobias

iStock.com/Scacciamosche
iStock.com/Scacciamosche

He’s dealt with elaborate booby traps, KGB agents, and a face-melting artifact, but to Indiana Jones, nothing’s more unsettling than snakes. Many people can relate. Ophidiophobia—or “the persistent and irrational fear of snakes”—affects roughly 1 to 5 percent of the global population. So does the clinical fear of spiders, also known as arachnophobia. But did you know that some people feel just as uncomfortable around chickens? From puppy-induced panic to equine terror, here are 11 lesser-known animal phobias.

1. Lepidopterophobia

Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman is unfazed by spiders or snakes, but she can’t escape her lepidopterophobia, or fear of butterflies. As a young girl, the Australian actress once scaled a fence just so she could avoid a butterfly perched nearby. “I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things,” Kidman once said, “but I just don’t like the feel of butterflies’ bodies.” (The Independent reported that she tried to break her phobia by spending time in a museum butterfly cage. “It didn’t work,” the actress said.) Kidman and her fellow lepidopterophobes may refuse to leave windows open in the summertime, lest a stray monarch come fluttering into their home.

2. Batrachophobia

A giant river toad
iStock.com/reptiles4all

No, frogs can’t give you warts. That urban legend—and others like it—may explain some cases of batrachophobia, a deep-seated fear of amphibians, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. It’s thought that the condition might also be linked to an overarching disdain for slimy things. By the way, if you specifically don’t like toads, then you could have a case of what’s known as bufonophobia.

3. Entomophobia

Entomophobia is a family of fears related to insects that includes lepidopterophobia, the previously mentioned butterfly-related dread. Another phobia within this group is isopterophobia, the fear of wood-eating insects like termites. Then we have myrmecophobia (the fear of ants) and apiphobia (the fear of bees or bee stings). Of course we can’t leave out katsaridaphobia, or the debilitating fear of cockroaches. “Cockroaches tap into this sort of evolutionary aversion we have to greasy, smelly, slimy things,” Jeff Lockwood, an author and professor of natural sciences at the University of Wyoming, told the BBC. “Plus, they’re defiant little bastards.”

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was terrified of grasshoppers. “I am 37 years old,” he wrote in 1941, “and the fright which grasshoppers cause me has not diminished since adolescence ... If possible, I would say it has become greater.” He went on to say that if a grasshopper ever landed on him while he was standing “on the edge of a precipice,” he’d instinctively jump to his death.

4. Ornithophobia

Traumatic childhood experiences involving birds—like, say, getting chased by a goose—can give birth to a lifelong fear of feathered critters. For Lucille Ball, they always reminded her of her father's untimely death when she was just a toddler: As her mother was delivering the horrible news, a couple of sparrows gathered by the kitchen windowsill.

“I’ve been superstitious about birds ever since,” Ball wrote in her autobiography. “I don’t have a thing about live birds, but pictures of birds get me. I won’t buy anything with a print of a bird, and I won’t stay in a hotel room with bird pictures or any bird wallpaper.”

5. Ailurophobia

Tabby cat against a gray background
iStock.com/Sergeeva

Lucy van Pelt (sort of) mentions ailurophobia in A Charlie Brown Christmas, although she bungles the nomenclature and tells Charlie Brown, "If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophasia." (The -phasia suffix generally refers to speech disorders, such as aphasia.) That being said, the fear of cats is a phenomenon that goes by many names, including gatophobia and felinophobia.

Rumor has it that Napoleon Bonaparte and lots of other famous conquerors were terrified of kitties. In Bonaparte’s case, the allegations are probably false; according to historian Katharine MacDonogh, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.” She thinks this myth reflects the long-standing cultural belief that our feline friends wield supernatural insights. “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence,” MacDonogh wrote in her book Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance.

6. Alektorophobia

Chickens, hens, and roosters put alektorophobes on edge. A rare type of ornithophobia, this fowl-based fear is no laughing matter. One 2018 case study reported on a 32-year-old man who would experience heart palpitations, a sudden dryness of the mouth, and uncomfortable feelings in his chest upon seeing a neighbor’s hen. It was ultimately determined that the man's phobia was the result of a frightening childhood encounter he’d had with a rooster.

7. Ostraconophobia

“I have a lobster phobia, I don’t know why. I just don’t like them,” NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin told the press in 2017. “I cannot eat dinner if someone beside me is eating lobster.” The admission came just after Hamlin had won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Why did that matter? Because the event took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where race-winners are customarily rewarded with giant, live lobsters. But when somebody approached Hamlin with a 44-pounder, he tried to flee the stage. Ostraconophobia, or fear of shellfish, can also manifest itself as a fear of crabs or oysters. The majority of people who deal with this phobia develop it after getting sick from the shellfish that makes them feel uneasy.

8. Ichthyophobia

Piranha fish on black background
iStock.com/bluepeter

Ichthyophobia is a bit of an umbrella term that covers an irrational disdain of fish in a variety of situations. It can refer to the fear of being around live fish, the fear of eating dead ones, or the fear of touching them. A common version of that first anxiety is galeophobia, the widespread fear of sharks. And then there are those who are disturbed (and sometimes even physically sickened) by the sight or smell of fishy entrees; these ichthyophobes may take pains to avoid supermarkets with large seafood aisles.

9. Musophobia

Among the British adults who participated in a 2017 phobia survey, more than 25 percent reported that they were afraid of mice. By comparison, only 24 percent said they dreaded sharp needles or airplanes. In addition to disliking mice, musophobes are often afraid of other rodents, such as hamsters and rats.

10. Equinophobia

Sigmund Freud once wrote a case study on a boy who was terrified of horses. At age 4, Herbert Graf—referred to as “Little Hans” in the paper—had seen an overloaded work horse crumble to the ground in a heap. Following the traumatic incident, Hans became easily spooked while in the presence of horses; just the sound of clopping hooves was enough to trigger his anxiety. As a result, Hans often refused to leave the house.

Little Hans eventually overcame his fears, but equinophobia is still with us today. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry developed it after being bitten by a pony at a petting zoo when he was a child. Unfortunately for Berry, one of the Chiefs’s mascots is a live pinto horse named Warpaint. As former teammate Derrick Johnson told NFL Films, “He’s always watching for the horse, making sure the horse doesn’t look at him or do something crazy.” Berry has taken steps to overcome his horse phobia, though; in fact, he has even worked up the courage to (briefly) pet Warpaint.

11. Cynophobia

Pug wrapped in a pink blanket
iStock.com/Alexandr Zhenzhirov

If you’re afraid of snakes, at least you’ll (probably) never have to worry about some coworker bringing his pet anaconda into the office. Cynophobes aren’t so lucky. Defined as the “fear of dogs,” cynophobia is an especially challenging animal phobia to have because, well, puppers are everywhere. Cynophobic people may go out of their way to avoid parks and tend to feel uncomfortable in neighborhoods where loud pooches reside.

As with ornithophobia, the fear of canines often stems from a traumatic childhood event. Therapists have found that, for many patients, the best way to overcome this aversion is through controlled exposure; spending quality time with a well-trained dog under a supervisor’s watchful eye can work wonders.

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