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14 Secret Words for Conspiracies

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Conspiracy theories are everywhere these days. Here are a few old words you can use to describe them while adjusting your tinfoil hat.

1. COMPLOTMENT

This absurd-sounding term has been around since at least the late 1500s. It arises from the now equally obscure word complot, which is used a few times in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Complotting is conspiring: You can plot on your own, but to complot, you need to be in cahoots with cohorts. A use in a 1594 book by John Dickenson captures the deceptive flavor of this term, describing “Complotted practises of bloud and reuenge.”

2. TRINKETING

Trinkets are doodads and tchotchkes, but to trinket is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To have clandestine communications or underhand dealings with; to intrigue with; to act in an underhand way, prevaricate.” The etymology is a mystery, but it might be related to trick. This sense has been around since the 1600s, and you can smell outrage (and sexism) in this use from Walter Scott’s 1821 book Kenilworth: A Romance: “A woman, who trinkets and traffics with my worst foes!”

3. CLANDESTINITY

This word for a clandestine state of affairs has been around since the 1600s. Here’s a fact that should appeal to conspiracy buffs: You can’t spell clandestinity without destiny. Spooky, right?

4. CABALLING

Like so many nouns, cabal has been verbed. An 1866 use from Cornhill Magazine will give you new appreciation for the duplicity and intrigue of convents: “That petty partisanship and caballing which are the curse of convents.”

5. HUGGER-MUGGER

Reduplicative words rule, but this one rules in secrecy. Since the 1500s, to be in hugger-mugger has meant to be shrouded in secrecy. Alternate spellings include hocker-mocker and huckermucker. This word can also be an adjective, especially in the phrase “hugger-mugger doings,” which are never innocent. Hugger-mugger can also be a verb with a few shhh-y meanings. An 1862 use from the New York Tribune describes “Listening to key-hole revelations, and hugger-muggering with disappointed politicians.” In 1898, a Daily News article describes the motivation behind many cover-ups: “For two years the City Corporation tried to hugger-mugger this nasty little incident out of sight.”

6. HUDDER-MUDDER

The parent of hugger-mugger is probably hudder-mudder, which has the same meaning and appeared a little earlier—in the 1400s. In a 1545 book by Roger Ascham, the sneaky meaning is invoked along with yet another alternate spelling: “It hydes it not, it lurkes not in corners and hudder mother.” Sorry, Mom.

7. COLLOGUE

Several senses of this word have been around since the 1600s, and one of them involves calamitous collusion. In James Heath’s 1663 book Flagellum, he described vile varmints who “never ceased plotting and conspiring, now colloguing with this party, then with that.” Iago and Loki are two classic colloguers.

8. CAMARILLA

This is a Spanish word for a little room—but in English, that little room or chamber can hold big, massive, gargantuan secrets, because a camarilla can also be a cabal. In R. M. Beverley’s 1839 book Heresy of a Human Priesthood, he describes “a camarilla of priests, who, with closed doors, make all the laws by which the society is regulated.” In any era, that’s kooky talk.

9. CLANCULAR

This is a synonym and close relative of clandestine found since the early 1600s. OED examples describe “whisperings and clancular suggestions” and “Proceedings ... not close or clancular, but frank and open.” If you enjoy the spy drama The Americans, you like watching clancular shenanigans.

10., 11., AND 12. DERN, DERNHEAD, AND DERNSHIP

As far back as Old English, anything described as dern was hidden, concealed, and secretive. To keep something dern was to keep it under wraps. This meaning spawned words for secrecy such as dernhead and dernship.

13. AND 14. SCUGGERY AND SCUG

Scuggery has the ring of something foul, and that stench is the scent of secrecy. Sadly, this word has never been very common, but it does have a parent found in the 1500s: scug referred to shadows or other concealment, so scuggery became the goings-on in those shadows. Scug could also be a type of pretense. Scottish author and minister Alexander Shields used the term in a 1688 lecture: “Some did boast of their pretended Performances, and do make them a scugg to hide their Knavery with.” This word deserves a revival. There are more knaves than ever these days, and they can make a scug out of anything.

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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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