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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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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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