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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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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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