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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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Something Something Soup Something
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This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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Something Something Soup Something

Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

[h/t Waypoint]

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Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

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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