Erinaceous /ɛ.rɪˈneɪ.ʃəs/ Adj. Hedgehog-like.
Yes, erinaceous is a word that describes something that is similar to a hedgehog. It comes from the Latin word for hedgehog, ērināceus, and I think it is delightful that English has this word. You know, just in case there’s something in our lives which we can only describe as resembling a hedgehog.
Sure, you say, it could just mean spiky, bristly, prickly, or oddly cute. But it doesn’t.
It’s not just the spikiness of a hedgehog that it describes; it’s the entire hedgehogness. So, off the top of my head, this word could apply to; porcupines (“It was erinacious in appearance, but actually of the rodent family“), echidnae (“I thought it was erinaceous until it laid an egg right in front of me!“) and pin-cushions (“Grandma your pin cushion is somewhat erinaceous“). Oh, and hedgehogs, but that’s pretty tautological.
So basically we have an adjective here that has a very limited descriptive range. When using this word, and being pedantic (I can’t imagine a non-pedantic person using this word), you will always have to qualify your statements. You will find somewhat erinaceous, relatively erinaceous and fairly erinaceous but the only truly erinaceous thing in the world is a hedgehog. And there’s no point stating the obvious to the point of redundancy. The only other application is describing erinaceous art, I guess. And who goes around painting pictures of hedgehogs?
This is a word that has one very specific meaning. And that’s a rarity in English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, but if different senses of each word were counted then this number would triple. Meaning that, on average, each word in the English language (and these statistics exclude inflections, technical and regional words) has an average of three meanings or senses.
But not erinaceous, the most specific word in the English language.
I once tried to learn German, but not in a classroom environment. This meant that I was learning it, around the age of 13 through to 18, from various German exchange students that I knew. Of course this is a horrible way to learn any language. You have very limited exposure and an (or in my case many) untrained “teacher(s)” and this led to me learning three things:
1. Very basic nouns and verbs
2. Very basic phrases
3. Intricate curse-words and insults
And let’s be honest, it’s mainly the latter. It was, however, the curse-words that sparked my love for German and the huge variety of words they have that English simply does not have any equivalent for. The example I’m thinking of is Standgebläse /ʃdɑːndgɛblæzɛ/ and you can find its definition here because I’d like to keep this a little PG at least. So here are a few German words that I’ve picked for their morphological complexity, because I like the way it’s all just smashed together. Before I start I’d like to thank Kathi for her help with the phonology of this entry. Danke, Kathi, du bist einfach unglaublich.
Kummerspeck /ˈkʊmɐʃbæg/ Noun. Literally means “grief bacon” and I find that hilarious. Its proper definition is ‘fat which comes about from emotional gluttony’. “Frau Müller put on so much Kummerspeck when her dog died.”
Neidbau /naɪ̯dbaʊ̯/ Noun. A word which literally means “spite house” this is the kind of structure that is built solely to annoy one’s neighbours. “Let’s build a Neidbau to block Herr Schmidt’s view of the lake.”
Tantenverführer /’tantɛnfeʁfyɐ/ Noun. Now this is interesting because it literally means “aunt-seducer” but the implication is that of someone who has suspiciously good manners. I’m curious as to why Germans are so concerned about good-mannered boys seducing their aunts. “Little Krause is such a Tantenverführer, I wonder what he wants.”
Umweltverschmutzung /ʊmvɛltfɐʃmʊʦʊŋ/ Noun. Pollution, but it puts it so harshly that it makes you pay attention when all we hear about today is global warming and smog-coated cities because what it really says is to dirty the world. And that is deep man. “I’m so glad Stuttgart isn’t covered in Umweltverschmutzung like Berlin.”
Brustwarze /bʀʊstvaʁʦə/ Noun. “Breast warts” because Germans like to be oh so romantic when they’re talking about nipples. “Oh Fräulein Naumann’s Brustwarzen are so pretty.”
Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel /ʃvaŋɐʃaftsfeʁˈhyːtʊŋsˈmɪtl/ Noun. A word this long must have a complicated meaning. It’s got to be something crazy, something only the Germans could think up… Nope. That’s ‘pregnancy aversion remedy’ or as we English speakers call it; Contraceptives. “Oh no! I forgot to take my Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel.”
But if you thought that was long you’re in for a treat here:
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz /ʀɪndflaɪ̯ʃeti:keti:ʁʊŋsyːbɐˈvaχʊŋsaʊ̯fɡaːbənyːbɐˈtʁaːgʊŋsɡeˈzɛʦ/ Noun. Possibly the longest German word, certainly that I could find, and absolute proof that Germans love their compound words. This wee beauty is the law governing “beef labeling regulation and delegation of supervision.” Whatever that means. “Herr Lehmann, you did it wrong! Now we might be sued because of the Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.”
Of course this seems stupid to us but if you understood German then you have everything you need to define your word right there, in the word itself. Sounds a lot easier to me than figuring out what erinaceous means.
Presque Vu /pʁɛsk vy/ Noun
I learnt this word a very long time ago and then I forgot it. The definition is not being able to recall a word from memory, possibly combined with some partial recollection, with the added feeling of a very imminent epiphany.
Having once known this word but subsequently forgetting it became very annoying whenever someone, myself or whoever I was talking to, experienced that feeling of having a word at the forefront of one’s mind – knowing it’s there but also realising you’ll never remember it in time to be able to use it – and all you can say is “It’s on the tip of my tongue.. I’ve almost got it.. It starts with M…” and I’d think to myself (having forgotten the word but not that I knew it, once upon a time) “I know the word that describes that feeling exactly. It’s …” and there it was again in a vicious cycle of irony.
And thankfully, two years ago, that pain ended. But more than that, when I read the term “presque vue” every presque vu feeling I ever had trying to remember the phenomenon was fulfilled instantly. It was an epiphany party on the tip of my tongue and there was only one word on the guest list; presque vu.
Presque vu, somewhat obviously, comes from French. It doesn’t translate as “tip of the tongue” though, not by a long shot. Its literal translation is “almost seen” which I think far better describes the feeling than the linguagraphical [I just made that up] description of this very psychological phenomenon. It’s a feeling with a lot of depth; it can be great or small but always irksome and never welcome. It’s a feeling which has no bias in who it harasses; young, old, male, female, Asian, American or Uzbekistanian it really doesn’t matter, even people who sign report this phenomenon as “at the tip of their fingers”. The feeling itself was first described by William James though he never actually coined it as such. It was likely he wanted to and he knew exactly what he would call it but when he was writing Principles of Psychology he just couldn’t quite think of it.
Gauche /ɡəʊʃ/ Adj.
You probably already know that left-handed people die seven years younger than their right handed counterparts. Did you also know they’re more likely to suffer from PTSD? That they’re more inhibited? And that even though they only make up roughly 10% of the population they account for 20% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia?
It sucks to be left-handed.
Our transport system, our writing system, our everyday implements are all anti-sinister. Sinister. That is seriously an accepted description of being left-handed, it comes from the Latin sinestra meaning left hand which was, over time, adopted into Middle-English to mean ‘unlucky’ and then that evolved into ‘evil’. But it also retained the whole left-handed side of the deal too. Which is why I’m glad I’m not left-handed. And it’s also why I find the word gauche so interesting.
Gauche (awkwardly trying to pronounce that in your head? Rhymes with the middle syllable of a-troc-ious) has two meanings. The first is left or, more specifically, left-handed. The second, and here’s the punchline, is ‘awkward’. Straight away this word kicks left-handed people in the teeth and as you delve deeper it gets worse. Nowadays the word is typically used to refer to awkwardness of a social nature; a simple faux-pas like asking your colleague how their wife is. Two weeks after they’ve been served with divorce papers. But it comes from French where before it meant socially inept it literally meant to veer or turn while you walked (gauchir) and before that its roots were in blatant trampling and clumsiness.
Its meaning is also in its pronunciation. English speaking tongues aren’t supposed to put those sounds together yet we’ve just plucked it straight from the French, no attempt to transliterate (read: bastardize) as we usually do with our borrowed words. At first glance I pronounced it ‘gorsh’. And by that I mean every time I read it I have to correct myself.
Gauche is the kind of word that is built solely on centuries of prejudice against those born just a little different from us. The left hand has been associated with the Devil since the days when the Devil was a whole range of mischievous spirits in Roman mythology just tearing shit up for fun. Like having two left feet makes you somehow a worse dancer than someone with two right feet. That is how ingrained in our culture the right-side-bias is.
And this word proves it beyond measure.
Of all the interesting and amazing words that I enjoy there seems to be a prevalence for words that start with ‘P’. This in mind, here’s numero duos.
Petrichor /ˈpɛtɹɪkɔ(ə)ɹ/ Noun.
The etymology of this word is fairly easy, as far as unusual words go. Petra- (or petros) is Greek for stone and –Ichor refers to the mythological ‘blood’, if you like, of the Ancient Greek gods. The word was first published by Australian scientists Bear and Thomas in 1964 and refers to the smell that is emitted after raining.
Wikipedia will tell you exactly how and why it happens but that’s not what interests me here. What I enjoy about this word is that the phenomenon is so often referred to but more often than not the word itself is never actually used. I grew up with my parents and grandparents always claiming they could “smell rain”. As it happens this smell can occur both before (from accumulating moisture in humid conditions) and after (from the washing of oils from the ground by precipitation) a heavy or long-awaited rain. And I always thought they were just making it up. Having a good guess at the weather and a joke at the same time. That is until I found this word about two years ago, hiding in the depths of English, apparently known to quite a few but kept as a diamond might be by a miser.
And it’s beautiful. The word seems to form on your lips and then move back into your mouth before turning around again to float forth into the word. I love the sound of it, the feel of it and, now that I can recognize it, I love the smell of it too. It’s like freshly cut grass but with more depth, or some crazy hippy mix of every nice smelling incense, ever. It smells exactly how you feel after a well deserved shower. It’s crisp and yet warm and inviting.
I feel the same about the word itself. Bear and Thomas were poetically brilliant in naming it. Petrichor. To combine that very real, very concrete (excuse the pun) petra with the mythological essence flowing through the veins of Olympians. It reminds me of the Roman concept of numens, the spiritual life-forces which they believed lived in all natural objects. Like somehow the rain has washed clean their hosts and nourished them and we can smell their essence emanating and growing.
Petrichor is no longer such a rarity in English. It made it to Reddit, Google will bring up a myriad of sites to define it for you, the more courageous individuals will even use it in everyday language. That, in and of itself, is great. It’s English evolving. Not in the sense that this word has just been coined, it hasn’t, but because it is becoming more common you could say it’s gaining more authority as a word. You might use poppysmic and have your friends think you’re making shit up but petrichor? That’s going to be ringing bells in everyone’s vocabulary very soon.
Poppysmic /po’pizmik/ Adj.
I like this word for a lot of reasons. It is arguably the rarest word in English, having first been recorded by James Joyce in the stage directions of Ulysses where he directs the character Florry to “[whisper] lovewords murmur, liplapping loudly, poppysmic plopslop”. As much as I would love to tell you that I found this beautiful word whilst casually perusing Ulysses on a stormy Saturday afternoon that would be a lie. I have a far more fond memory of discovery when it comes to poppysmic and that is why it is my first entry here.
I was dating a girl (who happens to now be my girlfriend and the love of my life) and she told me about a movie she’d seen where a character wrote rare words in obscure places. From memory the purpose of this conversation was to confirm whether or not I, in my expert linguistic opinion, knew if poppysmic was a real word. She then, however, got coy and wouldn’t tell me the word nor the movie. Unperturbed I did a bit of hunting around on the internet (with barely a clue to start with) and found both the movie (Love Happens) and the etymology and definition of this very intriguing lexeme. It seems that Ulysses, Love Happens and a Belfast Telegraph review of said movie are the only pieces of literature to ever have featured this gem.
It came in to English by the French popisme and before that the Latin poppysma. What I love about this is apparently the Romans used the term to describe a sound made by smacking one’s lips in a taut sort of kissing manner, particularly during sex, that signified enjoyment. The image of some toga-adorned Caesar-like character doing this befuddles me every time it comes to mind. Why is it that they chose that particular way to express themselves? Was moaning, swearing to Jupiter and Venus and the odd grunt too barbaric? Were they perhaps too eager in blowing kisses to their sexual partners? I can’t seem to avoid these questions when confronted with the etymology.
And nowadays of course the closest we have to this is somewhat unsettling given its origin. The clucking, kiss kiss sound you make to call over a cat or encourage a horse? Poppysmic.
Think of that next time you’re enticing Mittens to come and sit on your lap.
The cherry on top for me is the onomatopoeic nature of the word. That sharp ‘pop’ your lips make forming the sound of the voiceless bilabial stop /p/, not once but twice, could easily be described as poppysmic.
To be honest I don’t see why this word is so rare – here’s hoping it’s about to see a comeback.