Gandalf does his bit to encourage exam revision. (Image credit: YouTube)
It’s World Dictionary Day this Sunday, which commemorates the birthday of great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Born in Connecticut on 16 October 1758, it was Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—published in 1828, when he was 80 years old—that cemented his place in linguistic history, in part due to its exhaustive size (it defined 70,000 words, more than any dictionary in history), and in part due to its lasting impact on our language (many of the spelling reforms Webster introduced still divide British and American English to this day).
But to celebrate World Dictionary Day here at HH, we’re not looking at our usual mix of the obscure and bizarre—in fact, quite the opposite.
Typewriter. Four. Happenchance. Monday. This week we looked at ten fairly straightforward words that are a lot more interesting than they might first appear:
As the old adage goes, anything can be interesting when viewed in the right way. Actually, is that an old adage or did we just make that up? Is there such a thing as a new adage? Who knows? Who cares? We digress.
The fact is that word trivia precisely like this crops up every now and then on the HH feed:
(And—shameless plug alert—if you like those, there’s plenty more were that came from in the HH fact book, Word Drops.)
But besides dollop, eight and spoonfeed, some other words that could have made this list include strengths (the English language’s longest common monosyllabic word), bookkeeper (which contains three pairs of double letters) and asthma, which is the longest word beginning and ending with a vowel with no vowels in between (a title for which it ties with the much less familiar isthmi, the plural of isthmus).
Tsktsks, representative of sounds of disagreement, is the longest word with no vowels. Hijinks is the only English word spelled with three dots or ‘tittles’ in a row. Excluding chemical names, the nine Ss used to spell possessionlessnesses comprise the most repetitions of a single letter inside an English word, while overnumerousnesses is the longest word with no ascenders or descenders, climbing above or hanging below the line. And in the word archetypical, a record-setting five letters are in precisely the same position as they are in the alphabet: A is first, C is third, E is fifth, I is ninth, and L is twelfth.
Trivia like this—which falls under the umbrella term of ‘recreational linguistics’, or ‘logology’—can be taken to extraordinary lengths, especially when the letters of the alphabet are given their numerical values. One example of that is dollar words, whose numerical values total 100, like buzzy or gobbledegook. And another is the linguistic quirk that makes wizard one of the most interesting words of all.
If each half of the alphabet is given a numerical value counting up to and then down from 13 (so A = 1 and Z = 1, B = 2 and Y = 2, and so on), wizard produces the pattern 4 9 1 1 9 4, which makes it one of the longest numerically symmetrical words in the English language. Hovels and evolve are two more six-letter words that exhibit this bizarre (and admittedly fairly niche) phenomenon, alongside a bevy of four-letter examples including vole, grit and wold. But what makes wizard so noteworthy is that it also includes Z, one of the rarest letters of the alphabet. It’s magic, isn’t it?