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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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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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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