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14 Old Words for Stinky Stuff That We Should Bring Back

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Let’s face it: Some stuff stinks—literally. Unfortunately, there aren’t many common words for the smelly and skunky. Fortunately, the vast history of English has more than a few options for describing the non-musical kind of funkiness. Please consider reviving some of these aromatic words the next time you catch a bad whiff.


This word has been used in a straightforward way for anything stinky since the late 1500s, but since the 20th century, it’s mainly been a play on adorable. Odorable is likely coined again and again by writers unaware of the word’s history. Much like adorkable, this somewhat contrived word is directly correlated with, as George Carlin called them, "involuntary personal protein spills" (a.k.a. vomiting).


This rare 1800s word has an extremely specific meaning: cimicine things smell like bugs


The self-defining word scenty has had a surpassingly long life: It’s been around since the 1700s. So has stenchy, which turned up in John Dyer’s 1757 poem “The Fleece”: “In dusty towns, Where stenchy vapours often blot the sun.” As for nosy, these days nosiness doesn’t have much to do with the function of a nose; nosy people just can’t keep their smeller out of other people’s affairs. But nosy has had a bunch of meanings over the years, describing prominent proboscises and terrible smells. The latter sense turned up occasionally in the 1800s. Nosy can also refer to someone easily bothered by strong smells, as in this 1894 Daily News use quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): “It is a great compliment to the management to state that the most nosey visitor has no legitimate ground for offence from organic causes.”


These three words for the stale-smelling were used in the 1600s. Frowish faded from use, but frowsy continued to be used. A 1773 letter by Benjamin Franklin obliquely referred to “the frouzy, corrupt air from animal substances.” A variation with a similar spelling and meaning is frowsty. These words are possibly related to the next term, which rhymes with musty and has the same meaning.


Since the 1300s, this word has referred to people, places, and things that lack freshness. Fusty has been successful enough to spawn variations such as fustily, fustiness, fusticate, and fustified. A very rare term is fusty-rusty, which can describe talk or writing that’s as stale as a herd of dust bunnies.


Though osmic looks like a typo of cosmic, it’s a legitimate word referring to the sense of smell itself. In 1912’s A System of Psychology, Knight Dunlap wrote, “Some persons are osmically as keen as the lower animals.”


The first part of the OED definition of this word is too good not to quote: “Resembling or characteristic of a he-goat.” The two main he-goat-ish features referenced by this word are lasciviousness and what barnyard scholars call “goat stench.” These meanings were present in the 1500s, but by the 1800s, buckish had taken on a non-odorish meaning of foppish or dandy-like. That sense can be seen in an 1870 Daily News article: “The fashionable old gentlemen who appear to flourish and look buckish to a far greater age.” Incidentally, he-goat appears in nine OED definitions. What a world.


Around since the 1700s, this word can mean several senses of gassy, including petrol-scented.


As in so many areas of life, bad smells tend to get more attention than good smells—or smells that are downright suave. However, here’s a needlessly obscure word for smells that are sweet. A 1657 medical text describes medications “made more odoriferous, and suaveolent.” You can also refer to a fragrance or smell as suavolence.


This may be my new favorite word: It’s a rarity that turned up here and there in the 1800s. Breathe in the malodorous smell of this 1863 OED example: “The August sun begins to make the Thames cacodorous.” H.L. Mencken’s A Book of Burlesques contains a vivid use: “To the damp funeral smell of the flowers at the altar, there has been added the cacodorous scents of forty or fifty different brands of talcum and rice powder.” Yum?

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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