One of the earliest ancestors of our humble letter F was a Phoenician letter, waw, which was assimilated into the early Greek alphabet more than 2500 years ago. It’s thought that the Phoenicians used their letter waw to represent an array of different sounds—including “u,” “v,” and “w”—and as a result, when they adopted it the ever-ingenious Greeks cleverly divided its use in two. On the one hand, the Greek letter upsilon (Y) took over the “u” and “v” sounds, while another letter, digamma (F), took over the “w” sound. Unfortunately, “w” (or rather, the labio-velar approximant, if you want to get technical) wasn’t the most widely-used sound in Ancient Greek, and digamma soon fell out of use. But it was salvaged from the linguistic scrapheap by the Romans, whose Latin letter V took over where upsilon left off, leaving F to represent a newly-emerging softer “v” sound—“f.”
The letter F has remained in use in the Roman alphabet ever since, and now accounts for on average around 2.5 percent of any page of written English—a figure boosted by its appearance in high-frequency words like for, if, from and of (the only English word in which F is pronounced “v”). You can also expect it to begin around 3 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary, including the 40 fantastic F-words listed here…
A Latin word for “cleverness” or “skillfulness,” facetiae came to be used to refer to a collection of witty sayings in 16th century English. But things took a turn for the worse in Victorian slang, when facetiae came to be used as a euphemism for pornographic literature.
An 18th century word for a forged signature.
Also known as fallaciloquence, falsiloquence is another word for lying, deceitful speech. Fatiloquence or fatiloquy is another word for soothsaying or predicting the future, while if you’re flexiloquent then you like to deliberately use ambiguous language to confuse people.
Fames was the Latin word for “hunger,” and it’s from there that both famelic (an adjective meaning “pertaining to being hungry”) and famelicose (an 18th century word meaning “often very hungry”) are derived.
Famble was a 16th century word for a hand (probably originally derived from a slang mispronunciation of “fumble”), and from there the English language has gained a number of equally handy fam– words: on its own, a fam was a gold ring in 18th century English; gloves were nicknamed fam-snatchers in 19th century slang; among Victorian criminals, to fam-squeeze someone was to throttle them with your bare hands; and to famgrasp is to shake hands in agreement.
Derived from a Latin word meaning “to carry,” to famigerate is to report news from abroad.
An old cowboy slang nickname for whisky.
As well as being another word for an ostentatious fanfare, fanfaronade is a 17th century word for arrogant, self-aggrandizing language. Likewise, a fanfaron is an arrogant boaster.
Victorian slang for a dentist.
If someone is fedifragous then they’ve broken a promise or pledge, or they’re faithless or disloyal. A fedifraction, likewise, is a breach of an oath or a broken promise.
A Shakespearism, used in Henry VI: Part 2 to mean “hanging around waiting to do something bad.”
Fescennia was a city in Etruria, an ancient region of northern and central Italy occupied by the Etruscan civilization more than 2,500 years ago. As the Roman Empire expanded outwards from Rome, it’s thought that a number of local Etruscan songs and poems were adopted into Roman culture in the process. These “Fescennine verses” as they were known were originally sung at harvest time or at large celebrations like weddings, but steadily they became less celebratory and ever more coarse and raucous. Ultimately, the adjective fescennine has ended up being used to describe anything obscene, lewd, or licentious.
A noisy uproar or exclamation.
An old English dialect word for someone who lounges around in front of the fire all day. A dog that does precisely that is a fire-spannel.
To fondle or caress someone is to firkytoodle them. It probably derives from an earlier work, firk, meaning “to beat.”
To fidget or move around distractedly is to firtle, as is to look busy despite doing very little.
Like flimflam, a flam is a fanciful or whimsical idea—and anything flambuginous is “flam-like.”
An old Scots dialect word for a gaudily over-dressed woman. Derives from flamfew, a 16th century word for anything useless or trifling.
Flapdoodle is a 19th century slang word for nonsense or humbug, and so a flapdoodler is someone who talks rubbish.
Appropriately enough, a flaunt-tant is a showy array of highfalutin words or language.
Because they caned unruly pupils’ behinds, schoolteachers were nicknamed flaybottomists in 18th century slang. Much more pleasant nicknames for teachers include haberdasher of pronouns and knight of grammar.
Alongside flickermouse and flinder-mouse, flitter-mouse is a Tudor-period word for a bat.
Floccus (literally “a wisp”), naucum (“a trifle”), nihil (“nothing”) and pilus (“a hair”) are all Latin words that can be essentially interpreted as meaning “very little,” or “nothing at all.” The nonsense word floccinaucinihilipilification—apparently coined by students studying Latin at England’s famous Eton College—brings all four of them together in one noun, meaning “the act of estimating something as worthless.” Often considered one of the longest words in the English language and one of the longest words in most dictionaries, floccinaucinihilipilification is related etymologically to the 16th century verb…
…which similarly means “to regard as insignificant.”
An old word from the far north of Scotland for a sudden haste or hurry.
An Irish dialect word for being left-handed.
An old Yorkshire dialect word for a state of unrest or agitation, or, by extension, a profuse sweating.
Flunter is an old English dialect word for a loose fragment or piece of something, or for the untidy tail-end of something, like the unraveled end of a rope or piece of string. Derived from that, the flunter-drawer is that untidy, shambolic drawer in which you keep all your odds and ends.
An astoundingly appropriate-sounding old Cornish dialect word for diarrhea.
A pickpocket or cheat.
Derived from folly, if you’re folliful then you like to play pranks.
In the 19th century, loose curls of hair or bonnet-ribbons that hung down a lady’s back or over her shoulders were nicknamed follow-me-lads. There’s an old myth that claims single girls would deliberately leave their hair trailing or their bonnets untied as a signal to any potential suitors that they were looking for love, but sadly it seems the word inspired the myth, not the other way around.
No surprises for guessing that if you’re fordrunken, then you’re drunk.
Someone who knows something before it takes place. If you’re fat-witted, incidentally, then you’re foolish or slow-thinking.
A “humorously pedantic” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) Latin-origin word for a pair of scissors. Derived from that, if something is forficate then it’s shaped like a pair of scissors, while…
…to forficulate is to experience a creeping, tingling sensation. It derives from forficula, the Latin word for an earwig (which also derives from forfex), and so literally means “to have a sensation like an insect crawling over your body.”
A Scots dialect word meaning “exhausted,” or “wearied by work.”
The glowing phosphorescence emitted by a dying ember is a fox-fire. Although it only survives in some local American dialects today, the word fox-fire dates back to mid-1400s.
A 19th century word for a weasel or ferret—and so, metaphorically, a nickname for someone with a thin face.
A Scots dialect word for just enough liquor to make someone feel slightly intoxicated.