Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, takes readers inside the English language with her witty and sly Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Lovers of language will find dives into etymologies, a celebration of the contentiousness of grammar, and a whole host of strange, wonderful words. Stamper shares seven of her favorite words.
If few people give much thought to dictionaries themselves, then they give almost no thought to how those dictionaries came to be, or who created them. There are, in fact, people who write dictionaries—people whose job is, as Noah Webster put it, “to collect, define, and arrange, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language.” Those people devote themselves to weighing the grist of the language every day: working out exactly how to describe the difference between “measly” and “teeny,” agonizing over what part of speech the “how” in “How come?” is, spending late nights at the office hammering out definitions for the word “take.” These folks are called “lexicographers,” and in the course of their work elbows-deep in the roiling muck of English, they discover that this flexible, inventive language has some delights squirrelled away into its darker and less-frequented corners. Enjoy these seven words you should find every opportunity to use, and maybe you, too, will fall in love with this vibrant, wild whore of a language.
1. Defenestration - While not a word that you’re likely to use often, “defenestration” is nonetheless dazzling. First, this uncommon noun refers to the act of throwing someone or something out of a window, and that sort of specificity is just the thing to delight word lovers. But even better is “defenestration’s” origin. The word was coined in the 1600s to describe an event in Prague where a group of Protestants, upset that the new (and very Catholic) Emperor of Bohemia was trying to infringe upon their religious freedom, tried two governors who had been helping the Emperor, and then threw the guilty parties from the window of Prague Castle. The word used to describe the window-chucking was “defenestration,” from the Latin de-, meaning “out of,” and fenestra, meaning “window.” The best part: this event, which started the Thirty Years’ War, is now known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, and there are plenty who claim there is a Third Defenestration of Prague as well. Stay away from windows in Bohemia.
2. Lickspittle - There are countless words in English for a person who is given to fawning, self-serving flattery of others, and they are all vivid: “brownnoser,” “bootlicker,” “apple-polisher.” Try for a little variety and use “lickspittle” instead. “Lickspittle” is what’s called a “cutthroat compound,” which is a noun that’s made up of a verb and the thing upon which the verb acts. A “pickpocket” is someone who picks pockets; a “scarecrow” is something that scares crows; and so a “lickspittle” is someone who licks the spittle of others. Gross! And beautifully evocative. Use it as a highfalutin substitute for “brownnoser.”
3. Sesquipedalian - Sometimes you want a good, long word to describe the use of good, long words, and the word you want in such situations is “sesquipedalian.” It means “given to using long words,” and it has the added benefit of making its object sound very erudite while also gently poking fun at them. The earliest uses of the word were not exactly complimentary—one quotation from Smollett’s 1756 Critical Review notes that an author’s “sesquipedalian length of words serves to embarrass more than necessary”—and modern uses are relatively rare. The word was evidently cobbled together by a lexicographer, Thomas Blount, who included it in his 1656 Glossographia and modeled it on a quotation from the Latin poet Horace, who used the phrase sesquipedalia verba, or literally “foot-and-a-half-long words,” in his Ars Poetica.
4. Salmagundi - English has many words that mean “mixture,” but none is as fun to say as “salmagundi.” (The stress is on the penultimate syllable, and the word rhymes with “fundie.”) The original salmagundi was a salad that usually included chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and vegetables, and you’ll still see this salmagundi on menus around the English-speaking world. But by the mid-1700s, “salmagundi” was also being used with an extended meaning to refer to any jumble or mixture. One typical (and still-applicable) example of this use shows up in Mary Robinson’s 1797 book Walsingham: “His mind was a sort of salmagundi.” The word has an exotic bouquet, great mouthfeel—everything you want in a fancy and obscure word for a disordered mess. If “salmagundi” doesn’t quite suit, you can choose from any number of synonyms for “jumble” that happen to be taken from food: “hodgepodge,” “olla podrida,” “alphabet soup,” or just plain “stew.”
5. Retronym - One occupational hazard of being a lexicographer is that people assume that (a) there is a word for everything, and (b) you know that word. Most of the time, (a) is true and (b) is not, but “retronym” is one case where both (a) and (b) are happily true. A retronym is a word or phrase that we use to refer to an earlier and now less-usual version of something: “film camera,” “paper book,” and “snail mail” are all retronyms. Most retronyms are caused by a change in technology, but don’t think this is a new thing: “handwritten” is a retronym that came into use in the late 1500s, about 100 years after the printing press came to England.
6. Pumpernickel - Even words for the most mundane things are full of surprises. “Pumpernickel,” the word for the dark rye bread, was stolen from German into English in the early 1700s when English travelers to Westphalia encountered the hearty loaf. The German name for this bread, which was said to be well-nigh indigestible, is a compound of the German noun Nickel, which means “goblin,” and the verb pumpern, which means “to break wind.” In plain English, “pumpernickel” literally means “fart goblin” in German; learn this tidbit and be the life of your next party.
7. Jawn - Some words fly under the radar: definitely used in print, but not in quite enough widely read print to merit entry into a dictionary. “Jawn” is one such word. It’s peculiar to Philadelphia where it serves as a colorful substitute for the word “thing.” The first time I ever heard this word was in a Philly bookstore, where one guy described Game of Thrones to his compatriot by saying it was “some kind of medieval porno jawn,” and I fell utterly and completely in love (with “jawn,” not with the guy). “Jawn” is gloriously flexible, referring to people (“she’s his side-jawn”), places (“Pat’s or Geno’s? Nah, avoid that jawn and go to Jim’s Roast Pork”), things (“hand me that jawn?”), ideas (“that’s some socialist jawn”), and situations (the best and most Philly-centric protest sign I’ve ever seen: “This Jawn Is Outta Pocket,” meaning “this situation is out of control”). It’s even got a plural form, which is “jawn” (“them jawn is nice”). It’s an alteration of the slang word “joint,” which can also mean “thing,” and Philly natives complain that non-native yahoos like me are ruining “jawn” by adopting it, but that doesn’t diminish my love for “jawn” (and the language that accommodates it) one bit.