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40 Highfalutin H-Words To Heighten Your Vocabulary

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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.

1. HABBERCOCK

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

2. HABBER-GLABBER

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

3. HACKSLAVER

To hesitate or stammer in speech.

4. HAEMOPHOBIA

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).

5. HAIGSPEAK

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.”

6. HALCYONINE

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.

7. HALF-WIDOW

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

8. HALIOGRAPHY

A written description of the sea.

9. HANDFAST

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.”

10. HANDSEL

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.

11. HANG-GALLOWS

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.

12. HANS-IN-KELDER

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.

13. HAPPING

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

14. HAPTICS

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.

15. HARAGEOUSNESS

A 15th century word for sternness or cruelty.

16. HARD-WEIGHT

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

17. HEBDOMAD

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.

18. HEBETATE

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

19. HEDERACEOUS

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.

20. HEDGEHOGGED

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

21. HEDLEY-MEDLEY

A confused jumble.

22. HEMPSTRING

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

23. HEN-FRUIT

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

24. HESITUDE

An old word for hesitancy or doubtfulness.

25. HIDDER-AND-SHIDDER

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

26. HIEMATE

To spend the winter somewhere.

27. HIGH-STOMACHED

A Shakespearean invention describing anyone especially proud or haughty.

28. HISTRIOMASTIX

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.

29. HITHERUM-DITHERUM

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.

30. HONESTATION

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.

31. HORALLY

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.

32. HORNSWOGGLE

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

33. HORODIX

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

34. HORRESCENT

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

35. HORRIPILATION

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

36. HORRISONANT

An adjective used to describe anything that sounds awful.

37. HORSE-GODMOTHER

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

38. HUFTY-TUFTY

A 16th century word describing anyone swaggeringly arrogant.

39. HUMSTRUM

A Scots dialect word for a sulky mood.

40. HYLOMANIA

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

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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