Words at Play

13 Bizarre Things That Somehow Have Words

Featuring sword dances, frog-tossing, and the letter 'M'

top 10 words with bizarre meanings whiffle

Definition - to flourish a sword in sword dancing so as to produce a whistling sound

Sword dances - traditional folk dances featuring men and swords - have a long and glorious history. These days, you can see (and hear) whiffling in the circular "guerrilla" dances of Turkey and the Balkans and in the Balkan "rusalia" fertility dance. In case you were wondering, the trademark "Wiffle Ball" omits the h.

The word whiffler, although closely resembling whiffle, is fairly distinct. It has meanings such as “a person who frequently changes opinions or course,” and “a person who uses shifts and evasions in argument”; the origin of this whiffler is from an obsolete word for “battle-ax,” wifle.

On page 9 we see a good technical term, “whiffling”—the sound made by flashing swords. Eagerly we read on and are told that war dances grew out of herdsmen’s need for new land.
— Gertrude P. Kurath, Midwest Folklore, Fall 1955

MORE TO EXPLORE: The Noisy History of 'Saber-rattling'


Definition - to throw violently into the air; especially, to throw (a frog) into the air from the end of a stick

This is a brief note, before getting into the particulars of this word, alerting all of our readers to the fact that while we may define words on the subject of frog-tossing, we are very much opposed to the practice of such. Please do not be mean to frogs.

Although it originally involved an unsavory pastime in which sticks were used to hurl frogs into the air, spanghew has had other meanings as well. For example, one 19th century report refers to a particular horse's insistence on "spang-hewing" its riders. (Spang, by the way, is a verb in its own right. It's mostly used in Scotland and means "throw" or “jump.")

I am not, in the noble vernacular of Newcastle, going to set myself seriously to spanghew a paddock, but we sometimes hear the same hackneyed phrase about anonymous correspondents used by persons much better entitled to charitable correction.
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette (Sunderland, Eng.), 6 Dec. 1877

top 10 words with bizarre meanings axinomancy

Definition - divination by means of the movements of an ax placed on a post

Anyone who doubts that the human race is getting better at this whole business of life need only take a few minutes to look over some of the ways our forebears had of figuring out what to do in the future. Our ancestors used such methods of prognostication as coscinomancy (“divination by the mode of sieve and shears”), hepatoscopy (“divination by inspecting the liver of animals”), and the ever-reliable spatulamancy (“divination by means of an animal's shoulder blade”).

Another ancient means of determining guilt, axinomancy involved balancing an ax on a post, and reading a list of names aloud. If the ax moved at a particular name, that person was deemed guilty. In another (equally strange) version, a marble was placed on a red-hot ax; the motion of the marble signaled guilt.

Some Divined by Sieve and Shears; hence Coscinomancy.
This kind of Divination is (as 'tis said) much in use now in the Northern parts, by the frequenters of Horse Courses and Foot Races.
Some Divined by an Ax; hence Axinomancy.
Some Divined by Lots; hence Cleromancy.
— Thomas Lawson, Dagon’s Fall Before the Ark, 1679

top 10 words with bizarre meanings breeches part
Photo: Wikipedia

Definition - a theatrical role that is regularly or frequently played by an actress in male costume

Men, not women, have traditionally worn breeches (a type of short pants) throughout history, but it is women, not men, who fill the breeches part. In Shakespeare's day, male actors played the roles of women; by the mid-17th century, after the Puritan ban on theater had ended, women were playing female parts. The notion of the breeches part reintroduced novelty as women donned pants to play traditionally male roles. A modern-day breeches part is the role of Peter Pan.

Last Summer Mr. Colman jun. engaged her at the Haymarket Theatre, for the purpose of sustaining a breeches part, in his Play of The Battle of Hexham, which she performed admirably.
— Joseph Haslewood, The Secret History of the Green Rooms, 1790

top 10 words with bizarre meanings poltophagy

Definition - thorough chewing of food until it becomes like porridge

Poltophagy was an offshoot of Fletcherism, a health fad of the Victorian era. Nutritionist Horace Fletcher advocated chewing each mouthful 30+ times before swallowing as a method of maximizing health. Adherents of poltophagy were not distracted from dinner conversation by chew-counts, but they nonetheless had their mouths full for much of the meal.

The word poltophagy was coined by a doctor who drew upon the Greek word poltos for his invention, with the misunderstanding that poltos meant "masticated" or "finely divided." Poltos, though, means "porridge," and this etymology has stuck to the modern word.

The exclusive use of this means of swallowing is only possible with finely divided food—I have called this way of taking food poltophagy (poltos, masticated, finely divided), and the other, psomophagy (psomos, biting, tearing).
The Dental Register, 15 Sept. 1910


Definition - “The comfort which one hath of his wife.” (Henry Cockeram, The English Dictionarie, 1623)

Many times, when one stumbles across an English word which relates in some way to the characteristics or actions of a wife, the word is perhaps not so pleasant as one might wish. We have words for the lecture a wife gives to her spouse (curtain lecture) or the excessive fondness or submissiveness for a wife (uxoriousness), but a dearth of words such as levament. The word is, alas, not common enough that you will find it in many dictionaries, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, even if only to remind yourself of its existence on those occasions when you find yourself taking comfort in your wife. We know of no correlate word for the comfort which one has of one’s husband.

top 10 words with bizarre meanings crowkeeper

Definition - a person employed to scare off crows

Keeping the crows away was once enough of a task to merit its own occupation name; in the first act of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio scoffed at the idea of Romeo and his buddies "scaring the ladies like a crowkeeper.”

The date is out of such prolixitie,
Weele haue no Cupid, hood winkt with a skarfe,
Bearing a Tartars painted Bow of lath,
Skaring the Ladies like a Crow-keeper.
But let them measure vs by what they will,
Weele measure them a Measure, and be gone.
— William Shakespeare, The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, 1623

Crows have contributed a large number of figurative words and phrases to our language, including such as crowhop (“a short quick jump (as that of a startled crow)”), crows-feet, and the practice of eating crow.

MORE TO EXPLORE: You Won't Believe These 10 Words Come From Birds

top 10 words with bizarre meanings gyascutus

Definition - an imaginary large four-legged beast with legs on one side longer than on the other for walking on hillsides

Described as a "near relative of the Whang-Doodle and a distant cousin of the Snipe," the gyascutus made its first appearance in American newspapers in the 1840s, and has played a minor role in American folklore since then. In one tale, a pair of the critters clung to each other for support as they wended their way to western territories; in other stories, the lopsided gyascutus would topple off hillsides and be unable to stand up again.

Many of the earliest appearance of the gyacutus (pluralized as gyascutuses, if you ever meet more than one) come in accounts of Yankee con men who go about the South, swindling people through charging admission to a showing of this fabled creature. One of the con men dresses as the beast, and at some point in the show (after having loudly commented on its ferocity) his confederate will burst into the room shouting “Ladies and gentlemen! Take care of yourselves!! The gyascutus is loose!!!”, prompting general mayhem, and an end to the viewing.

Agent—We have, madam, six elephants, but these constitute a comparitively unimportant part of the show.—We have living specimens of bipeds and quadrupeds who tramped over the earth not only in the antedeluvian, but also in the pliocene and post miocene period, embracing the megatherium with six legs and two tails; icthyosarus, with legs and three tails; the gyascutus, with no eyes, two noses, and four tails; the plesiosarus, resembling Satan in shape, which spits fire and breathes sulphurous fumes; the whangdoodle, with one eye and five tails, and many other species too dumerous for enumeration. We also have a pious lawyer.
Old Lady—Well I declare.
Nebraska Advertiser (Auburn, NE), 6 Jul. 1865


Definition - the dry stalk of various hollow-stemmed plants (such as cow parsnip)

If you’ve ever eaten parsley, celery, dill, or fennel, to name just a few foodstuffs, you’ve eaten a kex. Although the definition of kex in our unabridged dictionary refers solely to the stalk, the “various hollow-stemmed plants” in question have traditionally been umbellifers, i.e. members of the carrot family, and according to The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, kex can mean both the stalk and “the whole umbelliferous plant.” Nota bene: not all umbellifers are edible; just ask Socrates.

But faith, if ‘twas I, I should be as dry as a kex wi’ travelling so far.
— Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 1891

stack of old books

Definition - a word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus

Although it may seem odd that this term has a plural (hapax legomena), it is not illogical. For there may be multiple hapax legomena in any single work. The word (from the Greek "something said only once") has proven quite useful to biblical scholars and those studying ancient writings. Each hapax legomenon is especially difficult to interpret because contextual clues are, by definition, limited.

Prof. Butler has taken the trouble to hunt out, in the concordances and by considerable personal investigation, the hapax legomena in Shakespeare, and estimates that they foot up to the the astonishing total of about 6500—showing that the great master discarded, after once using, more different words than would fill and enrich the English Bible.
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), 31 Dec. 1879

wild hog

Definition - an officer whose duty is to impound hogs

You might think being a hogreeve would be a thankless job. Unlikely! Just imagine the praise you’d be showered with after delivering a devious Duroc, a pie-pilfering Piétrain, or a crafty Kunekune to its anxious owner. It being New England and all (the elected position of hogreeve was specific to the region), you might even be invited inside for some scrod and baked beans. Kidding aside, the occupation of hogreeve was, it seems, far from lucrative, proving that bringing home the bacon doesn’t always mean bringing home the bacon.

The largely self-taught [composer William] Billings was a well-known Bostonian, but forever struggled to translate his celebrity into prosperity. He ran singing schools while working as a tanner and, later, the Boston city hogreeve, responsible for rounding up stray pigs.
— Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe, 29 Oct. 2017

top 10 words with bizarre meanings mytacism

Definition - excessive or wrong use of the sound of the letter m

We’re not going to say that you cannot apply this word to those people who insist on making some grand exhalation of delight (“MMMMMMmmm!”) every time they take a bite of something tasty, but this is not the use for which the word was initially intended. Roman grammarians seeking to classify vitia ("errors in language") borrowed this term from the Greek mytakismos (my refers to the letter mu).

The ancients' interest in categorizing errors gave modern speech therapists and linguists a few other terms for speech errors: rhotacism ("defective pronunciation of the letter r"); iotacism ("excessive use of the letter I or iota or a too frequent repetition of its sounds"); and the more familiar lisp ("imperfect pronunciation of the sibilants /s/ and /z/").

The general failure to relate mytacism to the discussion of the final -m is an indication and consequence of the fact that its nature is poorly understood. Mytacism involves at least three problems, and at least two of them still lack a credible answer.
— Martti Nyman, Mytacism in Latin Phonology (in Glotta: Zeitschrift fur Griechische und Lateinische Sprache), 1 Jan. 1977

cavity in rock

Definition - a small unfilled cavity in a lode or in rock

The word vug as invoked by geologists is not to be confused with the Vug under the rug from Dr. Seuss’s There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, which, frankly, still terrifies us. You could have a vug under your rug, however, if your floor is bare rock that contains a small, tectonically produced, crystal-lined fissure. The word is a modification of fugo, meaning cave, akin to Old Cornish’s vooga.

Now in Paterson, Deffeyes searched the roadcut vugs (as the minute caves are actually called) looking for zeolites. Some vugs were large enough to suggest the holes that lobsters hide in.
—John McPhee, Basin and Range, 1981

top 10 surprising food words headcheese

Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, headcheese tastes nothing like cheddar. Learn the meanings of surprisingly odd food names.

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