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40 Wonderful W-Words To Widen Your Vocabulary

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W is called “double-U” because it was once precisely that. Originally, the ancient Germanic languages of Europe didn’t have a letter to adequately represent their “w” sound (the labio-velar approximant, if you want to get technical), and so instead it was represented by two consecutive letter Us or Vs. Eventually, these two ran together into one single character, W, which has remained in use to this day. It's this history that gives W the longest name of any letter of the English language—and also means that the acronym www uniquely contains three times more syllables than it does letters.

Today the letter W accounts for just under 2 percent of all English language writing, but thanks to the high frequency of words like was, will, with, were, which, would, who, what, wherewhen, and why, you can expect W to be the first letter of roughly one in every twenty of the words you use every day. And that’s without adding any of these to your vocabulary…

1. WAG-FEATHER

An old slang name for a foolish, swaggering, braggish person, which goes well with…

2. WAG-PASTY

…this old Tudor word for a “mischievous rogue,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

3. WALLYDRAG

The youngest or last-hatched bird in a brood is the wallydrag or wally-draigle. Figuratively, you can also use this one to mean a thin or meager-looking person, or as a nickname for someone who always appears shabbily or untidily dressed.

4. WAMBLE-CROPPED

An old 16th century dialect word that spread to the US in the 19th century, if you’re wamble-cropped then you’re sick to your stomach. As a verb, wamble means “to feel nauseated,” or, figuratively, “to turn over and over."

5. WARDAY

A warday (pronounced so that “war” rhymes with “bar,” not “core”) is simply a weekday. The war– part is probably a contraction of “work.”

6. WARP

The unassuming word warp might just be one of the most bizarrely useful words in the English language. As well as meaning “to bend or distort out of shape,” the OED lists another 30 different definitions of the verb warp, including “to put on or take off a garment hastily,” “to sprinkle or scatter something across a surface,” both “to fling open a gate” and “to open a door wide,” “to float through the air,” “to deflect or divert something from its usual route or course,” “to move or work slowly on your hands and knees,” and “to suddenly place someone in great distress.”

7. WARZLEMENT

An old dialect word for sycophantic flattery or wheedling, persuading language.

8. WASHAMOUTH

An old dialect word used both for someone who habitually speaks before thinking, or who frequently uses bad language.

9. WASTEGOOD

A 16th century word for a spendthrift.

10. WATCH-BIRTH

An old 18th century nickname for a midwife. Bonus fact: midwives were also once nicknamed “rabbit-catchers.”

11. WATER-STANDING

Coined by Shakespeare in Henry VI: Part 3, the adjective water-standing means “flooded with tears.”

12. WEATHER-BREEDER

A cloudless sky might sound like perfect weather, but old folklore claims that a sky without a cloud in sight is actually an omen of heavy rain to come. As a result, a perfectly clear blue sky was once known as a weather-breeder, in the sense that it probably means that there’s a storm brewing.

13. WELL-A-FINE

Well-a-day is an old expression of woe or sorrow, but well-a-fine was essentially an 18th century equivalent of “what do you know!” or “that’s all well and good!”

14. WET-HAND

An old northern English nickname for a drunkard.

15. WHANGSBY

Whang is an old English dialect word meaning “to beat” or “thrash,” and derived from that, a whangsby is anything that is particularly tough or hard-wearing.

16. WHEEL-HORSE

Back at a time when horses were widely used for transport and to power machinery, a leader was a horse positioned in front of whatever contraption it was pulling or powering, while a wheel-horse was positioned among the machinery itself, typically between the shafts of two rotating wheels. As it was understandably believed that the leader had the better deal of the two, the 18th century word wheel-horse eventually came to be used figuratively to refer to anyone who works the hardest or bears the greatest burden in any particular enterprise or activity.

17. WHEEPLE

An old Scots dialect word used to mean “to whistle feebly or tunelessly.”

18. WHEERIEMIGO

Another Scots word, this time for any bizarre or fanciful contraption or device. Brilliantly, you can also use this one as a verb, meaning “to work in an insignificant manner.” A wheeriorum, incidentally, is any strange-looking object the function of which isn’t immediately clear.

19. WHEEZLE-RUNG

It’s worth remembering the next time you go camping that a stick used to lift a pot of boiling water from a fire is a wheezle-rung.

20. WHEFF

An old English dialect word for a noise made by a dog that’s part way between a bark and a snarl. However that might sound.

21. WHELKY

As well as being the name of a type of marine snail, whelk is an old English word for a pimple or pustule. So if you’re whelky, then you have a spotty complexion.

22. WHEMMLE

To whemmle something is to turn it upside down, in particular while you’re looking for something, or else to use as a cover or lid. So placing an upturned plate over a bowl of food is properly called whemmling.

23. WHIFFLE

To whiffle is to flicker or flutter through the air. Derived from that, a whiffler (as well as being another word for a tobacco-smoker) is someone who “whiffles” a sword or similar implement so as to clear a path through a crowd for a procession following behind them.

24. WHIP-BELLY

An 18th century slang nickname for weak or spoiled beer or liquor. A whip-belly rot was a bad stomach following a night of heavy drinking.

25. WINDY-WALLETS

An old nickname once used in Scotland for an incessant chatterer, or for someone who habitually tells exaggerated or unlikely stories.

26. WINGLE

To walk a staggering, zigzagging route. Possibly after too much whip-belly.

27. WITCHKNOT

Knots and tats in hair are supposedly tied there by witches, according to old English folklore, in which case they’re known as witchknots. Tats in a horse's mane or tail hair, incidentally, are witches’ stirrups.

28. WITHERSHINS

An 18th century word meaning “counter-clockwise,” or “in the opposite direction to normal.”

29. WITNESS-TREE

A tree used as a geographical marker, such as on a route or to mark a boundary, is a witness-tree.

30. WITTICASTER

A poor-quality comedian or joke-teller.

31. WONDERMONGER

A 17th century word for someone who works or deals in wonders.

32. WOSTLE

An old Yorkshire word meaning “to take refreshment at an inn.” Sometimes followed by the whip-belly rot.

33. WRISTLET

The loose elasticated loop that helps keep a glove on a hand? That’s the wristlet.

34. WRITATIVE

If you’re writative, then you love or are inclined to write. Just so long as you don’t write a writation—which is an 18th century word for a poorly written text.

35. WRIZZLED

Something that’s wrizzled is creased or corrugated, or shriveled up. It’s probably derived from an even earlier word, writhled, which meant much the same thing.

36. WRONGHEAD

Someone who always seems to come up with bizarre ideas or irrational, ill-informed judgments is a wronghead.

37. WRONGO

1930s slang for a counterfeit coin, or a disreputable or dishonest person.

38. WUNDERKAMMER

Literally a “wonder-chamber” in German, Wunderkammer is another name for a “cabinet of curiosities”—a miscellaneous collection of bizarre objects or novelties. Wunderkammers were extremely popular in Europe after the end of the Renaissance and became a handy way for the enlightened and educated to display their varied interests and breadth of knowledge. After his death in 1753, one noted English naturalist and collector of curios, Sir Hans Sloane, bequeathed his Wunderkammer to the British nation; it eventually became The British Museum.

39. WUTHER

As Emily Brontë herself explained in her 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.” Also spelled whither or whudder, wuther first appeared in the language in the mid-1400s, when it originally meant “to move with great force.” It’s likely descended from an even earlier Scandinavian word, meaning “to move or knock back and forth.”

40. WYLIECOAT

An old Tudor period word for a waistcoat, or any similar garment worn underneath other clothes.

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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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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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