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40 Peculiar P-Words To Pep Up Your Vocabulary

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As well as being used an abbreviation of post, pulse, page, pence and (in some countries at least) peso, the letter P is also the chemical symbol for phosphorus, a symbol representing pressure, poise, power and momentum in different branches of science, a particular branch of the Celtic languages in a linguistics, an indication to play softly in a piece of classical music, a function in statistical mathematics, and a designation of the clarity of a video or television screen (in which case—as in the p of 1080p—it stands for “progressive scan”). Despite all of these uses, however, P is on average one of the least-used letters of the alphabet, accounting for roughly two percent of any page of English text. So why not push P’s profile, by partaking in a few of these perfectly passable P words?

1. PABULUM

Pabulum is a Latin word meaning “fodder” or “nourishment,” which can be used in English to refer to any foodstuff that supports or nourishes. Derived from the same root, pabulation is the proper name for the process of feeding yourself, and if something is pabular or pabulous, then it’s nourishing or wholesome.

2. PACATION

The act of soothing or calming something, derived from the Latin word for “peace,” pax.

3. PACTOLIAN

The Pactolus is a river in western Turkey that was renowned throughout Ancient Greece and Lydia for its supposedly gold-rich waters and golden sands. Derived from that, the adjective Pactolian can be used either to describe somewhere covered in rich, golden sands, or else something notably lavish or lucrative.

4. PADDYNODDY

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a lengthy and long-winded story that goes nowhere and might not even be true.

5. PAEDONYMIC

If something is paedonymic, then it’s named after your child.

6. PAILLETTE

Derived from paille, a French word for a husk or piece of grain, a paillette is a single decorative piece of reflective foil or glitter.

7. PALPABRIZE

To palpabrize someone is to flatter them. It comes from a 16th century word, palp, meaning “to caress.”

8. PANCHRESTON

Derived from the Greek for “useful for everything,” a panchreston is a cure-all or panacea. Likewise, a panpharmacon is a universal medicine or remedy.

9. PANDATION

When something shrinks, stretches, or bends under a heavy weight, that’s called pandation. Whereas…

10. PANDICULATION

…is the proper word for stretching and yawning when you wake up in the morning.

11. PANIFICATION

A formal name for the process of making bread.

12. PANOMPHEAN

Panomphaeus is an old Latin epithet for the Roman god Jupiter, which essentially means “the entire voice of a god.” The corresponding adjective panomphean can be used just to mean “Jupiter-like” or “jovial,” but more specifically describes either someone who appears to hear everything, or else any word that appears universally understood by speakers of different languages.

13. PANTAGRUELIAN

Derived from Pantagruel, the name of an insatiable giant in the title of a work by François Rabelais, if something is pantagruelian, then it’s exceptionally large or has a voracious appetite.

14. PANTOGLOT

A pantoglot is someone who can speak all languages. We’re looking at you, C3P0.

15. PANTOMNESIC

If you’re pantomnesic, then you seem to remember everything.

16. PARBREAKING

A 16th century word for belching or vomiting.

17. PASTE-AND-SCISSORS

Victorian journalists’ slang for throwaway, filler material.

18. PAUCILOQUY

Derived from paucus, a Latin word meaning “few”; if you’re pauciloquent, then you use very few words. Similarly, if you’re paucidentate then you don’t have many teeth.

19. PEDIPULATE

To pedipulate something is to move or knead it with your feet.

20. PEELIE-WALLY

A Scots dialect word meaning “sickly-looking” or “weak and feeble.” Peelie is probably derived from “pale,” while the wally is thought to come from an old exclamation of sorrow or woe.

21. PENSICULATIVE

A 17th century adjective meaning “in deep consideration of something.”

22. PERFABRICATE

In some contexts (like pervade or perforate) the prefix per– is used to mean “entirely,” “thoroughly,” or “all the way.” Consequently, to perfabricate something is to see its construction through to completion—while to permute something is to change it completely, and to pervigilate something is to watch it diligently.

23. PERHIEMATE

The perfect word for January—to perhiemate is to spend the winter somewhere.

24. PERVOO

Derived from an old Scots word referring to a bird that deserts its nest, to pervoo is to abandon a group of friends or to stop socializing with someone.

25. PHEESE

An old American slang word for any fretful, unsettled, irritable feeling.

26. PILCROW

That paragraph sign, ¶, that looks like a reverse P? That’s a pilcrow.

27. PINACIPHOBIA

If you have this, then this probably isn’t the right place to find out—also called katastichophobia, pinaciphobia is the fear of lists. Other P phobias include pteronophobia (feathers), phasmophobia (ghosts), pyrophobia (fire), pediculophobia (lice and mites), and photophobia, which is used to refer to the dislike some creatures, like cockroaches, have for light. Panophobia or pantophobia, incidentally, is the fear of everything; phobophobia is the fear of fear itself.

28. PITCHERINGS

According to one local English dialect dictionary, if a young man who’s just started a new relationship happens to bump into one of his friends while he’s out with his new girlfriend, the friend can ask for pitcherings—a small sum of money, intended to be spent on drink for himself to toast the couple’s new relationship.

29. PITCHPOLE

As well as meaning “to turn head over heels” or “to somersault,” to pitchpole is to sell something for twice its cost.

30. PITT’S-PICTURE

An attempt to raise tax revenues based on the relative value of a home—and, ultimately, the prosperity of the homeowner—the Window Tax was a tax levied on homes in England from 1696 until it was finally repealed in 1851. Initially, a flat fee of 2 shillings (£12/$17) per house was applied to all homes across England, but that rose to 4 shillings (£24/$35) if the house had between 10-20 windows, and 8 shillings (£48/$70) if there were more than 20. When these already controversial prices were increased by Prime Minister Pitt the Elder in 1784 (to offset a vast loss in national income caused by a massive reduction of the tax on tea), many homeowners drastically opted to remove the windows in their properties to dodge the fee; a Pitt’s-picture, in 18th-19th century slang, is simply a bricked-up window.

31. PIZZLO

Probably derived from an old Scandinavian word for a knot in a sheep’s fleece, a pizzlo is a tangled confusion or muddle.

32. POGONOPHOBIA

If you’re pogonophobic, then you hate beards. The process of growing or shaving a beard is called pogonotrophy or pogonotomy, while a pogonology is a written treatise or description of a beard.

33. POKER-TALK

19th century slang for gossip. Literally, it refers to a gossiping conversation had by a fireplace (i.e. where the poker is kept).

34. POOSK

An old Scots word, variously meaning “to hunt for something” or “to pick through something looking for something else,” or else “to fidget” or “to potter about doing odd jobs.”

35. POT-OF-WINE

An old euphemistic nickname for a bribe.

36. PRICK-ME-DAINTY

As a verb, prick has been used since the Middle English period to mean “to dress in fine clothes,” or “to be showily overdressed.” Presumably derived from that, prick-me-dainty is a 16th century word—possibly originally from Scots English—for a particularly fussy or affectedly prim and proper person.

37. PUGGLED

As well as meaning “slightly drunk,” puggled can also mean “astounded” or “utterly confused.” In both cases, it’s perhaps derived via English military slang from pagal, a Hindustani word meaning “furious.”

38. PULPIT-THUMPER

A 17th century word for a particularly enthusiastic clergyman or preacher.

39. PURWHEEGNAL

An old Scots dialect word for a stench.

40. PYSMA

In Ancient Greek, a pysma was any question that required a detailed explanation rather than a straightforward yes/no answer. The term is still used in rhetoric today to refer to a figure of speech in which someone asks a chain of difficult questions, typically with the intention of belittling or picking holes in someone else’s idea or suggestion.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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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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