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9 Old Words for Ignorance

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Next time you feel the urge to make your sparring partner aware of his lack of knowledge, soften the blow with one of these old-timey terms for ignorance.

1. LACK-LATIN

This is one of many words that began with a literal meaning that shifted to the figurative. If a person was a lack-latin—or, to use the full insult, Sir John Lack-Latin—Latin was Greek to them. Back in the 1500s, that meant they were a bit of a dum-dum, so this word became a synonym for lackwit, numbskull, and doofus.

2. BENIGHTED

Anyone roaming around after dark is benighted in the literal sense, which has been around since at least the 1500s. By the following century, the meaning had broadened, as meanings tend to do. The figurative definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, says someone who is benighted is “Involved in intellectual or moral darkness.” This use by the poet John Milton in 1637 is ominous: “He that hides a darke soule, and foule thoughts Benighted walks under the mid-day Sun.” An example from 1865 in the Pall Mall Gazette is more ignorance-centric: “Respectable old Russell Whigs, on whom charges of moral corruption operate much more powerfully than charges of intellectual benightedness.”

3. UNIRRADIATED

Speaking of light-out terms for ignorance, here’s one similar to unenlightened, blinded, and in the dark. Animals, who don’t follow human politics or sports with much enthusiasm, are thought of as ignorant in this sense, as seen in an OED example from 1914: “An animal life, a life unirradiated by hope or aspiration or sentiment or by the striving for beauty.”

4. BOOKLESS

Since the 1500s, this sad, sad word has been literal, meaning a place or person with no books. In our current electronic wonderland, literal booklessness has multiplied. But since the 1700s, bookless has also meant ignorant of books or not well-read.

5. LORELESS

This similar (and rare) word describes someone who is utterly lacking in lore—or, more specifically, knowledge, facts, data, info, etc. Loreless was spotted occasionally in the 1300s and rarely since. It turned up in 1836 in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, in a description of “The poetry of his loreless soul.”

6. FLATTY

Not all ignorance is bad. Sometimes calling out a person for their lack of knowledge is complimentary, depending on who’s doing the calling: For example, a flatty is ignorant of the ways and means of criminality, especially being a thief. The term is apparently related to flatfoot, a word for a police officer; Green’s Dictionary of Slang records it as also meaning a clueless cop.

7. INCOGNOSCENT

This variation of incognizant is rare but wonderful. It appeared in G.H. Taylor’s The Excursion of a Village Curate in 1827, in a sentence that doesn’t exactly show respect to an elder: “I pardon you, my choleric incognoscent octogenarian.”

8. MUMPSIMUS

Most words have origins that are vague at best, but not mumpsimus. According to the OED, this word came to be “apparently in allusion to the story (1516 in Erasmus) of an illiterate English priest, who when corrected for reading ‘quod ore mumpsimus’ in the Mass, replied, ‘I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.’” So someone who is a mumpsimus isn't just ignorant; they're obstinately ignorant.

9. ULTRACREPIDARIAN

Ultracrepidarian types can be damned smart and quite knowledgeable about something. But they have a bad habit of blabbing about matters outside their area of expertise. As philologist Fitzedward Hall put it in an 1872 example: “His assumption of judicial assessorship, as a critic of English, is, therefore, to borrow a word from Hazlitt, altogether ultra-crepidarian.” In other words, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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