Fiction Writer’s Compendium: Rare English Words

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E. M. Forster once said, “English literature is a flying fish.” Logos has gone fishing and below provides the bounty of our catch.


adscititious — additional

absquatulate — to leave somewhere abruptly

anfractuous — winding or circuitous

anguilliform — resembling an eel

apple-knocker — (US informal) an ignorant or unsophisticated person

argle-bargle — copious but meaningless talk or writing

argute — shrewd

astrobleme — an eroded remnant of a large, ancient crater made by the impact of a meteorite or comet

barn burner — (N. Amer.) a very exciting or dramatic event, especially a sports contest; first used in relation to an exceptionally good hand at bridge

benthos — the flora and fauna on the bottom of a sea or lake

bergschrund — a type of crevasse

bezoar — a small hard, solid mass which may form in the stomachs of animals such as goats or sheep

bibliopole — a person who buys and sells books, especially rare ones

bilboes — an iron bar with sliding shackles, used to fasten prisoners’ ankles

bindlestiff — (N. Amer.) a tramp

bingle — (Austral. informal) a collision

blatherskite — a person who talks at great length without making much sense

bobsy-die — a great deal of fuss or trouble

boffola — (N. Amer. informal) a joke that gets a loud or hearty laugh

boilover — (Austral. informal) a surprise result in a sporting event

borborygmus — a rumbling or gurgling noise in the intestines

borborygmus — a rumbling or gurgling noise in the intestines

bruxism — involuntary and habitual grinding of the teeth

bumbo — a drink of rum, sugar, water, and nutmeg

burnsides — a moustache in combination with whiskers on the cheeks but no beard on the chin

cacoethes — an urge to do something inadvisable

callipygian — having shapely buttocks

callithumpian — like a discordant band or a noisy parade

camisado — a military attack carried out at night

canorous — melodious or resonant

cantillate — to chant or intone a passage of religious text

carphology — convulsive or involuntary movements made by delirious patients, such as plucking at the bedclothes

catoptromancy — foretelling the future by means of a mirror

cereology — the study or investigation of crop circles

chad — a piece of waste paper produced by punching a hole

chalkdown — (S. African informal) a teachers’ strike

chiliad — a thousand things or a thousand years

claggy — (Brit. dialect) sticky or able to form sticky lumps

clepsydra — an early clock using the flow of water into or out of a container

colporteur — a person who peddles books, newspapers, or other writings

commensalism — an association between two organisms in which one benefits from the relationship and the other derives neither harm nor benefit

comminatory — threatening, punitive, or vengeful

concinnity — elegance or neatness of literary or artistic style

coprolalia — the involuntary repetitive use of obscene language

coriaceous — like leather

couthy — (Scottish; of a person) warm and friendly; (of a place) cosy and comfortable

criticaster — a minor or incompetent critic

crottle — a lichen used in Scotland to make a brownish dye for wool

croze — a groove at the end of a cask or barrel in which the head is fixed

cudbear — a purple or violet powder used for dyeing, made from lichen

cupreous — of or like copper

cyanic — blue; azure

dariole — a small round metal mould used in French cooking for an individual sweet or savoury dish

deasil — clockwise or in the direction of the sun’s course

decubitus — (Medicine) the posture of someone who is lying down or lying in bed

deedy — industrious or effective

defervescence — (Medicine) the lessening of a fever

deglutition — the action or process of swallowing

degust — to taste food or drink carefully, so as to fully appreciate it

deipnosophist — a person skilled in the art of dining and dinner-table conversation

dight — clothed or equipped; to make something ready for use

disembogue — to emerge or pour out (used of a river or stream)

disenthral — to set someone free from enslavement

divagate — to stray or digress

divaricate — to stretch or spread apart

donkey engine — a small auxiliary engine on a ship

donkeyman — a man working in a ship’s engine room

doryphore — a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic of others

douceur — a financial inducement or bribe

draff — dregs or refuse

dumbsize — to reduce the staff numbers of a company to such low levels that work can no longer be carried out effectively

dwaal — (S. African) a dreamy, dazed, or absent-minded state

ecdysiast — a striptease performer

edacious — that which is fond of eating

emacity — fondness for buying things

ensorcell — to enchant or fascinate someone

entomophagy — the eating of insects, especially by people

erf — (S. African) a plot of land

ergometer — an apparatus which measures energy expended during physical exercise

erubescent — reddening or blushing

eucatastrophe — a happy ending to a story

eviternity — eternal existence or everlasting duration

exequies — funeral rites

exsanguine — bloodless or anaemic

extramundane — outside or beyond the physical world

flews — the thick pendulous lips of a bloodhound or similar dog

floccinaucinihilipilification — the action or habit of estimating something as worthless

flocculent — having or resembling tufts of wool

forehanded — (chiefly N. Amer.) prudent or thrifty

frondeur — a political rebel

fugacious — transient or fleeting

funambulist — a tightrope walker

furuncle — a boil

fuscous — dark and sombre in colour

futz — to waste time or busy oneself aimlessly

gaberlunzie — (Scottish archaic) a beggar

gaita — a kind of bagpipe played in northern Spain and Portugal

gallus — (Scottish) bold or daring

gasconade — extravagant boasting

glabrous — (of skin) hairless or (of a leaf) having no down

glaikit — (Scottish & N. English) stupid, foolish, or thoughtless

gnathic — having to do with the jaws

gobemouche — a gullible or credulous listener

guddle — (Scottish) to fish with one’s hands by groping under the stones or banks of a stream

habile — deft or skilful

haruspex — a religious official in ancient Rome who inspected the entrails of sacrificial animals in order to foretell the future

hirquiticke — “one past fourteene yeeres of age, beginning to bee moved with Venus delight” (Henry Cockeram, An English Dictionary, 1623)

hoddy-noddy — a foolish person

hodiernal — of today

howff — (Scottish) a favourite meeting place or haunt, especially a pub

humdudgeon — an imaginary illness

hwyl — a stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy which is associated with the Welsh people

illywhacker — (Austral. informal) a small-time confidence trickster

incrassate — thickened in form or consistency

incunabula — books printed before 1501

ingurgitate — to swallow something greedily

inspissate — to thicken or congeal

inunct — to apply ointment to someone or something

jumbuck — (Austral. informal) a sheep

jumentous — resembling horse’s urine

keek — (Scottish) to peep surreptitiously

kenspeckle — (Scottish) conspicuous or easily recognizable

kinnikinnick — substance consisting of dried sumac leaves and willow or dogwood bark, smoked by North American Indians

kylie — (Austral.) a boomerang

labaruma — banner or flag bearing symbolic motifs

logomachy — an argument about words

lollygag — to spend time in an aimless or lazy way

luculent — (of speech or writing) clearly expressed

macushla — Irish an affectionate form of address

meacock — a coward or effeminate person

merkin — artificial covering of hair for the pubic area

merrythought — a bird’s wishbone

mim — (Scottish) modest or demure in an affected or priggish way

mimsy — rather feeble and prim or over-restrained (coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass)

minacious — menacing or threatening

misogamy — the hatred of marriage

mistigris — joker or other extra card played as a wild card in some versions of poker

mollitious — luxurious or sensuous

monkey’s wedding — (S. African) simultaneous rain and sunshine

mouse potato — a person who spends large amounts of their leisure or working time on a computer

mudlark — person who scavenges in riverside mud at low tide for anything of value

muktuk — the skin and blubber of a whale, eaten by the Inuit people

nacarat — a bright orange-red colour

nagware — computer software which is free for a trial period and thereafter frequently reminds the user to pay for it

natation — swimming

noctambulist — a sleepwalker

noyade — an execution carried out by drowning

nugacity — triviality or frivolity

nympholepsy — passion or rapture aroused in men by beautiful young girls

obnubilate — to darken, dim, or obscure something

ogdoad — a group or set of eight

omophagy — the eating of raw food, especially meat

omphalos — the centre or hub of something

onolatry — the worship of donkeys

operose — involving or displaying a lot of effort

opsimath — a person who begins to learn or study late in life

orectic — having to do with desire or appetite

orrery — a clockwork model of the solar system, or the sun, earth, and moon

ortanique — a cross between an orange and a tangerine

otalgia — earache

paludal — living or occurring in a marshy habitat

panurgic — able or ready to do anything

parapente — aerofoil parachute, used for gliding

parapha — flourish after a signature

patulous — (of the boughs of a tree, for example) spreading

pavonine — to do with or resembling a peacock

pedicular — to do with lice

peely-wally — (Scottish) looking pale and unwell

peever — (Scottish) hopscotch

periapt — an item worn as a charm or amulet

petcock — a small valve in a steam engine or boiler, used for drainage or for reducing pressure

peterman — a person who breaks open and robs safes

pettitoes — pig’s trotters, especially as food

piacular — making or requiring atonement

pilgarlic — a bald-headed man, or a person regarded with mild contempt

pinguid — resembling fat; oily or greasy

piscatorial — connected with fishermen or fishing

pleurodynia — severe pain in the muscles between the ribs or in the diaphragm

plew — a beaver skin

pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis — an invented term said to mean ‘a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust’

pogey — (Canadian informal) unemployment or welfare benefit

pollex — (Anatomy) the thumb

pooter — a suction bottle for collecting insects and other small invertebrates

portolan — a book containing sailing directions with hand-drawn charts and descriptions of harbours and coasts

posology — branch of medicine concerned with the size and frequency of doses of a medicine or a drug

possident — a possessor, i.e. a person who owns something

pother — a commotion or fuss

pre-loved — second-hand

presenteeism — the compulsion to spend longer at work than is required or to continue working despite illness

previse — to foresee or predict an event

probang  — a strip of flexible material with a sponge or tuft at the end, used to remove a foreign body from the throat or to apply medication to it

prosopagnosia — an inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, typically as a result of brain damage

puddle jumper — a small, light aircraft which is fast and highly manoeuvrable and used for short trips

puddysticks — (S. African) children’s word very easy

pyknic — a technical description of a stocky physique with a rounded body and head, thickset trunk, and a tendency to fat

pyroclastic — relating to fragments of rock erupted by a volcano

ragtop — a convertible car with a soft roof

ratite — (of a bird such as the ostrich or emu) unable to fly because of having a flat breastbone, to which no flight muscles are attached

rawky — foggy, damp, and cold

razzia — a raid carried out by Moors in North Africa

rebirthing — a form of therapy involving controlled breathing and intended to simulate the trauma of being born

resurrection man — a person who, in past times, illicitly exhumed corpses from burial grounds and sold them to anatomists for dissection

retiform — resembling a net

rhinoplasty — plastic surgery performed on the nose

rubiginous — rust-coloured

rubricate — to add elaborate capital letters (typically red ones) or other decorations to a manuscript

rude boy — Jamaican a lawless or rebellious unemployed urban youth who likes ska or reggae music

rug rat — (N. Amer.) a child

rumpot — (N. Amer.) a habitual or heavy drinker

sangoma — a traditional healer or witch doctor in southern Africa

sarmie — (S. African informal) a sandwich

saucier — a sauce chef

saudade — a feeling of longing or melancholy that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament

scofflaw — a person who flouts the law

screenager — a person in their teens or twenties who has an aptitude for using computers and the Internet

scrippage — one’s baggage and personal belongings

selkie — (Scottish) a mythical sea creature like a seal in water but human on land

serac — a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier

sesquipedalian — (of a word) having many syllables or (of a piece of writing) using many long words

shallop — a light sailing boat used chiefly for coastal fishing

shamal — a hot, dry north-westerly wind that blows across the Persian Gulf in summer and causes sandstorms

shavetail — (US military slang) a newly commissioned officer, or any inexperienced person

shippon — (Brit. dialect) a cattle shed

shofar — a ram’s-horn trumpet used in Jewish religious ceremonies and, in ancient times, to sound a battle signal

skanky — (N. Amer. informal) revolting

skelf — (Scottish) a splinter or sliver of wood

skimmington — a kind of procession once undertaken to make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband

skycap — a porter at an airport

snakebitten — (N. Amer. informal) unlucky or doomed to misfortune

snollygoster — a shrewd or unprincipled person

sockdolager — (US informal) a heavy blow

solander — a protective box made in the form of a book, for holding items such as botanical specimens, maps, and colour plates

soucouyant — a kind of witch, in eastern Caribbean folklore, who is believed to shed her skin by night and suck the blood of her victims

soul case — (N. Amer. & W. Indian) the human body

soul catcher — a hollowed bone tube used by a North American Indian medicine man to keep a sick person’s soul safe while they are sick

spaghettification — the process by which (in some theories) an object would be stretched and ripped apart by gravitational forces on falling into a black hole

spitchcock — an eel, split and then grilled or fried

splanchnic — having to do with the the viscera or internal organs, especially those of the abdomen

spurrier — a person who makes spurs

stercoraceous — consisting of or resembling dung or faeces

sternutator — something that causes sneezing

stiction — the frictional force which hinders an object from being moved while in contact with another

strappado — a punishment or torture in which the victim was hoisted in the air on a rope and then allowed to fall almost to the ground before being stopped with an abrupt jerk

strigil — an instrument with a curved blade used by ancient Greeks and Romans to scrape sweat and dirt from the skin in a hot-air bath or after exercise

struthious — having to do with or resembling an ostrich

studmuffin — (N. Amer. humorous) a sexually attractive, muscular man

stylite — a early Christian ascetic who lived standing on top of a pillar

subfusc — the dark formal clothing worn for examinations and ceremonial or formal occasions at some universities.

submontane — passing under or through mountains, or situated on the lower slopes of a mountain range

succuss — to shake something vigorously, especially a homeopathic remedy

sudd — an area of floating vegetation that impedes navigation in a stretch of the White Nile

suedehead — a youth like a skinhead but with slightly longer hair and smarter clothes

sun-grazing — (of a comet) having an orbit which passes close to the sun

superbious — proud and overbearing

superette — (N. Amer.) a small supermarket

taniwha — a mythical monster which, according to Maori legend, lives in very deep water

tappen — the plug by which the rectum of a bear is closed during hibernation

tellurian — of or inhabiting the earth, or an inhabitant of the earth

testudo — a device used in siege warfare in ancient Rome, consisting of a wheeled screen with an arched roof (literally a ‘tortoise’)

thalassic — relating to the sea

thaumatrope — a scientific toy devised in the 19th century. It consisted of a disc with a different picture on each of its two sides: when the disc was rotated rapidly about a diameter, these pictures appeared to combine into one image.

thirstland — (S. African) a desert or large arid area

thrutch — (N. English) a narrow gorge or ravine

thurifer — a person carrying a censer, or thurible, of burning incense during religious ceremonies

tigon — the hybrid off spring of a male tiger and a lioness (the offspring of a male lion and a tigress being a liger)

tokoloshe — in African folklore, a mischievous and lascivious hairy water sprite

toplofty — (N. Amer. informal) haughty and arrogant

transpicuous — transparent

triskaidekaphobia — extreme superstition about the number thirteen

triskelion — a Celtic symbol consisting of three radiating legs or curved lines, such as the emblem of the Isle of Man

turbary — the legal right to cut turf or peat for fuel on common ground or on another person’s ground

umbriferous — shady

uncinate — (of a part of the body) having a hooked shape

uniped — a person or animal with only one foot or leg

uroboros — a circular symbol depicting a snake (or a dragon) swallowing its tail, intended as an emblem of wholeness or infinity

vagarious — erratic and unpredictable in behaviour or direction

velleity — a wish or inclination which is not strong enough to lead one to take action

verjuice — a sour juice obtained from crab apples or unripe grapes

vicinal — neighbouring or adjacent

vidiot — (N. Amer. informal) a habitual, undiscriminating watcher of television or videotapes

vomitous — (N. Amer.) nauseating or repulsive

wabbit — (Scottish) exhausted or slightly unwell

waitron — (N. Amer.) a waiter or waitress

wakeboarding — the sport of riding on a short, wide board while being towed behind a motor boat

wayzgoose — an annual summer party and outing that used to be held by a printing house for all its employees

winebibber — a heavy drinker

wish book — (N. Amer. informal) a mail-order catalogue

wittol — a man who knows of and tolerates his wife’s infidelity

woopie — an affluent retired person able to pursue an active lifestyle (from the initials of well-off older person)

wowser — (chiefly Austral./NZ) a puritanical, prudish person or a killjoy

xenology — the scientific study of extraterrestrial phenomena

ylem — (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

zetetic — proceeding by inquiry or investigation

zoolatry — the worship of animals

zopissa — a medicinal preparation made from wax and pitch scraped from the sides of ships

zorro — a South American kind of fox

Zyrian — a former term for Komi, a language spoken in an area of Russia west of the Urals

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