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12 Words For The Insufferably Vain

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Vanity is more visible than ever in these selfie-saturated days, but being a preening peacock or conceited coxcomb has never been out of style. There are many older, out-of-use words for people who can only be pried away from a mirror with the jaws of life. So please use these words next time you have to describe a self-obsessed huff-snuff.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines this rhyming word as “a conceited fellow who gives himself airs and is quick to take offence; a braggart, hector.” The idea is that the person is huffing and snuffing in an exaggerated fashion with their nose in the air, outraged by any affront to their precious person. Like all reduplicative words—including namby-pamby and higgledy-piggledyhuff-snuff is awesome.


A glass-gazing ninnyhammer is always looking in a mirror. Shakespeare used the term in damning fashion in King Lear, describing: “A whorson glassegazing superfinicall rogue.” Ouch.


This word has had several meanings, mostly related to the weather, but in the late 1800s airish joined words such as blowhard and bloviate in the gaseous lexicon of invective. Mark Twain used the term in an 1874 letter, writing “I shall be as uppish & airish as any third-rate actor whose name is not made loud enough in the bills.” That’s about as uppy and airy as it gets.


The image of a nose in the air is hard to beat when it comes conceit, but this type of conceit is specific: It has to do with an overestimation of one’s intelligence. But this word has some other meanings that are less insulting. A nose-wise person sometimes simply has a quick wit. Other times they have a superior sense of smell.


No less than Shakespeare used this term—in Hamlet—via the memorable noun phrase “a very very pajock.” This word for a peacock or popinjay isn’t used much, but it’s usually an allusion to Shakespeare. Back in 1954, C. S. Lewis asked a very good question: “Have we no more gravity among us than to be so chafed by the taunt of a pajock?”


A Scottish word, the jaunty term vaunty has been around since the 1700s, describing vain varlets and boastful buffoons. Vaunty springs from an out-of-use sense of vaunt as a verb meaning to brag, and it’s related to vaunted.


Though skipjack sounds like an unreliable lumberjack, it has a slightly less rugged meaning that is worth quoting the OED in full: “A pert shallow-brained fellow; a puppy, a whipper-snapper; a conceited fop or dandy.” (Fun fact: Puppy has sometimes been a word for an attention hog. Novelist Frances Burney used the term in a 1775 letter: “He is conceited, self-sufficient, and puppyish.”)


This is a term from the U.S. south for someone who has gotten not only too big for their britches, but too big for the whole britches store, figuratively. The biggity are big-headed.


Speaking of major-league melons, Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists this vivid variation of the idiom “have a big head.” This massive slang dictionary includes an 1886 use in The Policeman’s Lantern by James Greenwood: “Strange how some men get their skulls swelled when they get on the force.”


This term plays on older meaning of side as referring to arrogance and general full-of-yourself-ness. People would say an arrogant jerk was putting on side. From there, you could say the vain or puffed-up are sidey.


This sibling of whipper-snapper has a slightly different sense. Both words are dismissive of youths, but snipper-snapper also has a suggestion of conceitedness, as seen in a definition in an 1854 glossary compiled by A.E. Baker: “Snipper-snapper, a small, insignificant, effeminate, self-conceited young man.” This term is apparently a little older than whipper-snapper, but it hasn’t fared as well in the Darwinian lexical race.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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The Evolution of "Two" in the Indo-European Language Family
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The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.

This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.


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