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Weird and Wonderful Words

Weird Words? Is this not (I hear you asking) a breach of my copyright? Actually I’m a part of the genesis of this book. The original British version was for a while given away with copies of the New Oxford Dictionary of English; its editors in Oxford, being short of both time and money, mined my Weird Words section for inspiration in creating it.

The cover of Weird and Wonderful Words

Erin McKean has expanded and varied their selection and Roz Chast has added some delightful illustrations; I also wrote the webliography (a word for the online equivalent of a bibliography that might well be in the book itself) that appears in the current issue of Verbatim, which Erin McKean edits in her spare time from her day job as a Senior Editor in the North American Dictionary Program (she also edited a collection of pieces from that journal).

So readers will recognise a few of the words from the large set in my Weird Words archive, but there are hundreds more for your delectation, each of which has a sentence or two of explanation: apocrisiary (a person appointed to give answers); bablatrice (a female babbler), elaqueate (to free from a noose or other entanglement); jiffle (to fidget or shuffle), ochlophobia (an extreme or irrational fear of crowds), otacust (a spy or eavesdropper), pollinctor (a person who prepares a dead body for cremation or embalming), and siagonology (the study of jawbones). Here’s the complete entry for a seasonal example that’s longer than most:

qualtagh, the first person you meet after leaving your house on some special occasion. Also, the first person entering a house on New Year’s Day (often called a first foot). The new year’s qualtagh, for luck, is supposed to be a dark-haired man. A red-headed or female qualtagh is unlucky. Other things to bring luck to the house on New Year’s Day include serving black-eyed peas, having the qualtagh bring shortbread and whiskey (sounds fine for any day of the year), and sweeping all the garbage in the house out through the front door before midnight on New Year’s Eve (so that any of the misfortune of the past year is gone, not to return).

Ms McKean even includes some instructions for creating your own weird words, which contains a table of suitable prefixes and suffixes.

Don’t assume that because I seem to have been a kind of honorary midwife to this book, and that my fingerprints may still be lightly discerned on parts of it, that I am uncritically puffing it. If you like my Weird Words section, you will certainly enjoy browsing through this list of oddities. One for the holiday book list?

[Erin McKean [ed], Weird and Wonderful Words, published by Oxford University Press, New York; hardback, pp132; ISBN 0-19-515905-5; publisher’s price in US $16.95; in UK £9.99.]

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Page created 14 Dec 2002