40 Highfalutin H-Words To Heighten Your Vocabulary


Our humble letter H is a modern-day descendent of an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that was supposed to have once represented a series of fence posts (which is what gave H its crossbar-shaped appearance). From Ancient Egypt, H was borrowed via the Semitic alphabets of the Middle East into Ancient Greek, where it became known as heta and originally represented a rough “h” sound. In Greek, however, the “h” sound steadily disappeared, so that the Greek letter H became known as eta rather than heta, and it eventually ended up representing a long “eh” sound rather than a “h”. Even today, there’s no “h” sound in modern Greek.

By the time that Ancient Greek began losing its “h,” the Latin alphabet had already adopted the letter H, and it’s from there that it eventually ended up being used in English. Nowadays, H is one of our most frequently-used letters (largely thanks to its appearance in high-frequency words like the, that, there, and they) to the extent that it typically accounts for around 5 percent of any page of given text, and 4 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 handy H-words harbored here.


An old Scots word for anything that is a source of annoyance, followed by…


…another Scots dialect word for rash, impulsive behavior, probably derived from an earlier word, glab, meaning “to snatch impetuously.”


To hesitate or stammer in speech.


Hate the sight of blood? Then you’re haemophobic. Other H-phobias include hygrophobia (hatred of humid or damp conditions), homichlophobia (fog), hippophobia (horses), and hypegiaphobia (the hatred of having responsibilities).


When politicians use convoluted, deliberately obscurant language to disguise or divert away from what they’re actually talking about, that’s Haigspeak. The term dates back to the early 1980s and refers General Al Haig, who served as United States Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan from 1981 to '82. Haig became known for his fractured, verbose, and often mentally befuddling speeches—which were so distinctive that one British ambassador to Washington even offered a prize for the best rendering of the Gettysburg Address in “Haigspeak.”


In Ancient Greek myth, the halcyon was a legendary bird said to build its floating nest far out in the middle of the sea, and during the two weeks the female halcyon sat on her nest brooding her eggs—usually said to be from mid-December onwards—it was believed that there would be a prolonged period of fine, dry, calm weather. This period became known as the halcyon days, a phrase still in use today to refer to any time of total happiness or contentment. Nowadays, the myth of the halcyon is attached to the kingfisher: It might not nest in the middle of the sea (far from it in fact, as kingfishers usually nest in deep muddy tunnels excavated into riverbanks), but anything described as halcyonine is nevertheless said to resemble—or be as brightly colored as—a kingfisher.


An old American slang word for a wife with a lazy husband.


A written description of the sea.


As well as being another word for a strong grasp, handfast can be used to mean a binding contract or agreement, or a handshake to secure a deal. Shakespeare used the expression to be in handfast to mean “to be under arrest.”


Handsel is an ancient English word (the earliest record of which dates back to the mid 10th century) used in a number of different senses, most of which carry some sense of placing something in someone’s hands. In simple terms, a handsel is just a gift or a reward, but specifically it refers to a gift given for good luck at New Year, or at the start of something new, such as when moving into a new home or starting a new job. Handsel can also be used to mean a down-payment or first installment, the money made by the first sale of a business or a working day, or the first results of any new endeavor or interest. You can also use it as a verb, meaning “to give a gift,” “to be the first customer of a business,” or “to celebrate or inaugurate something new,” to do something for good handsel likewise means doing it for good luck, and Handsel Monday is an old nickname for the first Monday of a New Year, when handsel gifts were once traditionally exchanged.


In 18th century slang, if you had a hang-gallows look then you looked like you were up to no good—in other words, you looked like someone who would eventually be hanged.


Adopted into English from Dutch in the 17th century, a Hans-in-Kelder is an unborn baby still in its mother’s womb. Also known by its equivalent English translation Jack in the cellar, more often than not Hans-in-Kelder was used as a toast to an expectant mother.


As a verb, hap can be used to mean “to cover” or “enswathe,” which makes happing a 17th century word for bed sheets.


Derived from Greek, haptics is the name of the science behind the sense of touch. It’s involved in the study of haptotropism, which is the growth or movement of plants (or parts of plants) in response to what they touch, like the tendrils of grasping creepers and vines—or, in extreme cases, exploding cucumbers.


A 15th century word for sternness or cruelty.


When you weigh something out and it’s just slightly short of the quantity you need, that’s a hard-weight.


Derived from the Greek word for the number seven, a hebdomad is a week. If something occurs hebdomadally, then it occurs once every seven days.


To hebetate something is to make it blunt or dulled. Something that is hebetative does precisely that.


If something is hederaceous then it resembles ivy, whereas if you’re hederigerent then you’re dressed with or bedecked in ivy. If something is hordaceous, incidentally, then it resembles barley, while anything that is horeiform is shaped like a barleycorn.


Spiky, or covered in prickles. Bonus H-fact: a baby hedgehog is called a hoglet.


A confused jumble.


In the sense of something of very little value, hempstring was a Tudor English word for a worthless or disreputable person.


No surprises here—that’s an old 19th century nickname for an egg.


An old word for hesitancy or doubtfulness.


A Tudor period word for a mixed herd or flock of both male and female animals. It literally means “he-deer and she-deer.”


To spend the winter somewhere.


A Shakespearean invention describing anyone especially proud or haughty.


A 17th century word for a theater critic, derived from the Greek for “scourge of actors.” The word itself was originally popularized in the title of an unforgiving critique of England’s actors, actresses, and theaters published by a Puritan lawyer and pamphleteer named William Prynne in the early 1630s. Unfortunately for Prynne, the anti-thespian opinions he outlined in his Histriomastix were taken as a slight against Henrietta Maria, wife of the reigning King Charles I, who was known to have dabbled in theater alongside her duties as queen consort. As a result, Prynne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, fined a staggering £5,000 (equivalent to more than £400,000/$570,000 today), was pilloried, had both his ears cut off, and was branded with the letters SL (meaning “seditious libeler”) on both sides of his face.


Presumably derived from a local pronunciation of “hither and thither” (that is, “here and there”), hitherum-ditherum is an old Scots dialect word for the perfect weather for drying clothes outside—in other words, a day when the wind seems to blow from all directions.


As a verb, honest can be used to mean “to honor or bestow dignity on,” and derived from that an honestation is any honorable or positive quality or attribute.


Anything that occurs horally happens every hour. Likewise, anything that is semihoral lasts half an hour, and anything sesquihoral lasts an hour and a half.


To get the better of or to bamboozle someone is to hornswoggle them.


Derived from the Greek for “hour-shower,” horodix is essentially a formal 17th century word for clock.


If you’re horrescent, then you’re shuddering with fear. Something that is horriferous, likewise, induces horror or terror, while…


…is the medical name for goose-bumps. It’s also known as piloerection.


An adjective used to describe anything that sounds awful.


A 16th century insult aimed at “a large coarse-looking woman,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.


A 16th century word describing anyone swaggeringly arrogant.


A Scots dialect word for a sulky mood.


Derived from the Greek word for “wood,” hylomania is an obsessive desire to own material things.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.


The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.


According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.


History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.


Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.


The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."


Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”


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