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40 Fantastic F-Words To Further Your Vocabulary

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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…

1. FACETIAE

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.

2. FAKEMENT

An 18th century word for a forged signature.

3. FALSILOQUENCE

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.

4. FAMELICOSE

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. 

5. FAMGRASP

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.

6. FAMIGERATE

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to carry,” to famigerate is to report news from abroad.

7. FAMILY-DISTURBANCE

An old cowboy slang nickname for whisky.

8. FANFARONADE

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.

9. FANG-FAKER

Victorian slang for a dentist.

10. FEDIFRAGOUS

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.

11. FELL-LURKING

A Shakespearism, used in Henry VI: Part 2 to mean “hanging around waiting to do something bad.”

12. FESCENNINE

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.

13. FILLYLOO

A noisy uproar or exclamation.

14. FIRE-SCORDEL

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.

15. FIRKYTOODLE

To fondle or caress someone is to firkytoodle them. It probably derives from an earlier work, firk, meaning “to beat.”

16. FIRTLE

To fidget or move around distractedly is to firtle, as is to look busy despite doing very little.

17. FLAMBUGINOUS

Like flimflam, a flam is a fanciful or whimsical idea—and anything flambuginous is “flam-like.”

18. FLAMFOO

An old Scots dialect word for a gaudily over-dressed woman. Derives from flamfew, a 16th century word for anything useless or trifling.

19. FLAPDOODLER

Flapdoodle is a 19th century slang word for nonsense or humbug, and so a flapdoodler is someone who talks rubbish.

20. FLAUNT-TANT

Appropriately enough, a flaunt-tant is a showy array of highfalutin words or language.

21. FLAYBOTTOMIST

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.

22. FLITTER-MOUSE

Alongside flickermouse and flinder-mouse, flitter-mouse is a Tudor-period word for a bat.

23. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

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 floccinaucinihilipilificationapparently 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…

24. FLOCCIPEND

…which similarly means “to regard as insignificant.” 

25. FLUCKADRIFT

An old word from the far north of Scotland for a sudden haste or hurry.

26. FLUG-FISTED

An Irish dialect word for being left-handed. 

27. FLUMMATY-GUMPTION

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a state of unrest or agitation, or, by extension, a profuse sweating.

28. FLUNTER-DRAWER

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.

29. FLURRY-GO-NIMBLE

An astoundingly appropriate-sounding old Cornish dialect word for diarrhea.

30. FOISTER

A pickpocket or cheat.

31. FOLLIFUL

Derived from folly, if you’re folliful then you like to play pranks.

32. FOLLOW-ME-LADS

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.

33. FORDRUNKEN

No surprises for guessing that if you’re fordrunken, then you’re drunk.

34. FORE-WITTER

Someone who knows something before it takes place. If you’re fat-witted, incidentally, then you’re foolish or slow-thinking.

35. FORFEX

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…

36. FORFICULATE

…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.”

37. FORTRAVAILED

A Scots dialect word meaning “exhausted,” or “wearied by work.”

38. FOX-FIRE

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.

39. FUTRAT

A 19th century word for a weasel or ferret—and so, metaphorically, a nickname for someone with a thin face.

40. FUZZLE

A Scots dialect word for just enough liquor to make someone feel slightly intoxicated.

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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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