11 Rare Old Words for the Heinous and Villainous


Whether you’re watching a movie or reading the news, it’s hard to avoid villainous, heinous, wicked behavior—but we all could use a few new words for the diabolical. Fortunately, there are plenty of older words ready for a revival. Please consider using the following out-of-fashion terms the next time you talk about the deplorable deeds of Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil, or that guy down the street who always walks his dog without a leash.


The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition leaves little to the imagination: “Extremely wicked or immoral; grossly criminal; vile, atrocious, heinous; infamous.” This Latin borrowing was big in the 1700s but has faded in use since then, though it has spawned a few amusing derivatives. In George Borrow’s 1841 book The Zincali, he writes that Constantine the Great “condemned to death those who should practise such facinorousness.”


Mixship is a rare, old word for a villainous deed. If mixship seems opaque, that’s because it sprang from an Old English sense of mix that disappeared a long time ago: mix was a word for dung or other filth. So calling something a mixship was like saying “What a total pile of crap!” or “That’s BS” today.


Back in the 1500s, repudious was first used as a word for anything rejection-worthy, in particular the vile and villainous.


As far back as the early 1600s, a skelm was a villain or other rascal. The word comes from a German term that could refer to various awful things and beings, including the devil and a pestilence. By the 1600s, the term was also being used as an adjective, like in a 1673 mention by English poet John Dryden of the “Skellum English.”


Derf is an adjective and adverb that first referred to boldness around 1200, but by the 1400s, it had taken on a sense of boldness that is evil. Not much has been described as derf for a few centuries, and a comeback is unlikely. Anything rhyming with Nerf doesn’t sound very evil or bold.


Gallows is well-known as a noun, but began appearing as an adjective in the 1400s for miscreants presumed to deserve it. The contemporary equivalent would be a coinage like lethal-injection-y.


This term, first found in the late 1700s, is equal parts wickedness and mischief. John Palmer, in his 1798 novel Like Master Like Man, used the term in a sense that suggested incorrigibility: “So prone to mischief, that his supposed aunt declared, ‘it was beyond her to manage him—he was a nineted one’.” The etymology is uncertain, but it could be a variation of benighted, which has a wonderful OED definition: “Overtaken by the darkness of the night; affected by the night.” That definition could also apply to Batman.


The OED traces this word back to the Bible, and it’s fitting it may have originated in a book concerned with sin—it refers to people who are guilty. A 1796 book called An Apology for the Bible contains this memorable sentence: “You will have annihilated in the minds of the flagitious all their fears of future punishment.” 


Since the days of Old English, someone nitheful has been wicked.


The slightly euphemistic word mislived provides a subtle way of saying, “Wow, are they ever vile and wrong and offensive.” This term has been used in relation to wicked behavior since the 1400s and turns up in Chaucer. A career criminal is very likely a mislived miscreant. A similarly understated word is unperfect, which has had many senses but referred to sinful wickedness from the late 1300s on.

Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters

According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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