Skip To Content

    29 Obscure Words That Everybody Needs To Know

    It is ridiculous that you are on the internet and don't know what "ultracrepidarian" means.

    1. Crepuscular

    Brocken Inaglory / Creative Commons / Via

    Of or relating to twilight. One of those words that sounds like it should mean what it means.

    2. Tmesis

    BBC / Via

    Cutting a word in two and sticking another word in the middle – and the other word is usually a swear. As in "abso-fucking-lutely". From the Greek tmēsis, "cutting".

    3. Petrichor


    "The pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell." A beautiful word for an everyday sensation. Coined by two Australian researchers, IJ Bear and RG Thomas, in 1964.

    4. Umami

    Hanna Barbera / Via

    Our tongues can detect five different tastes. You know four of them: salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. But the fifth, "umami", is more obscure. It's the meaty, savoury taste that makes things like Marmite and gravy so moreish – more scientifically, it's the taste of a chemical group called glutamates. The word comes from the Japanese for "deliciousness".

    5. Nebbish

    20th Century Fox / Via

    A noun meaning someone, usually a man, who is feeble and scared of stuff: "a timid, meek, or ineffectual person". A poindexter.

    6. Schwa

    Warner Bros / Via

    The flat, unstressed vowel sound that isn't really represented by any of the available vowels. It's the sound of the "ar" in "standard", the "e" in "moment", and, for that matter, the "a" and "e" in "a vowel".

    7. Skeuomorph

    Microsoft / Via

    Something designed to look as though it does the job it is supposed to do. Apple is famous for this: making the Notepad app look like a real paper notepad, making the delete tool look like a real rubbish bin. It doesn't have to be visual: The fake shutter-click noise of digital cameras is a skeuomorph.

    8. Lucubration

    Pocket Books

    The product of laborious study. The implication, usually, is that the person whose lucubration it is has indeed worked long and hard through the night – but it's still not very good. From lucubrare, Latin for "to work by lamplight".

    9. Ultracrepidarian

    Channel 4 / Via

    "One who gives opinions on something beyond his or her knowledge". See also: everybody on the internet. Make a note of this one.

    10. Zeugma

    Sony Pictures / Via

    The rhetorical device of using a word in more than one of its senses at the same time. For instance: "She stole his heart, and his wallet": "stole" is being used in the metaphorical sense when referring to "heart", and the entirely literal one when referring to his wallet.

    11. Chiasmus

    Giphy / Via

    Another rhetorical device: that of repeating some of the words you've used in reverse order. John F Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country," and Byron's "Pleasure is a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" are both examples of chiasmus.

    12. Nesh

    Disney / Via

    An adjective meaning "more than usually susceptible to the cold". An English dialect term found in Lancashire, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, the East Midlands, and Shropshire. If you really hate the winter, this might be the word for you.

    13. Eisenbahnscheinbewegung

    "Lößnitzgrundbahn 991777-4" by Michael Gäbler. Licensed under CC BY-SA http://3.0 / Via

    A word invented by Ben Schott, which means "the false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart". Has yet to make it into any dictionaries, since probably no actual human being has ever used the word, but it should do.

    14. Steatopygous

    20th Century Fox / Via

    The state of having a large amount of fat around one's bottom. See also "callipygous", being possessed of a beautiful bottom.

    15. Oenophile

    MGM / Via

    A lover of wine. Not to be confused with an "alcoholic".

    16. Yonic

    Getty Images/Goodshoot RF Jupiterimages

    "In the shape of a vulva or a vagina." Analogous to "phallic", but much less widely known, for some reason.

    17. Flahoolick

    Disney / Via

    Free with money, generous, full of largesse, an exuberant spender. From flaithulach, Irish Gaelic for "very generous".

    18. Hiraeth

    "Loneliness" by Hans Thoma. Public domain / Via

    A Welsh word with no direct English translation that means something like: "A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past." One imagines Tom Jones feeling this for the valleys while sipping champagne in his LA mansion. Related to the Portuguese concept of saudade.

    19. Synecdoche

    ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

    "A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part". You use a part to refer to the whole when you say something like "more mouths to feed" (you've really got whole humans to feed); you use a whole to refer to the part when you say things like "Germany has won the World Cup" (only the German football team has won the World Cup, not the whole of Germany).

    20. Persiflage

    Taken from "Oscar Wilde, Volume 1 (of 2): His Life and Confessions" by Frank Harris. Public domain / Via

    Frivolous, light-hearted talk. A useful word, because it makes you sound like Oscar Wilde and lets you avoid ever describing your witty repartée as "banter".

    21. Palimpsest

    The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a Greek palimpsest from the 5th century. Public domain / Via

    An old document which has had the original writing scraped off so that new words can be written over it. Now usually used in a metaphorical sense: The geological record is a palimpsest of the ages of the Earth; someone's face is a palimpsest revealing the pains of their life. From the Greek palimpsēstos, "scraped again".

    22. Aeolist

    REUTERS © Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

    23. Chthonic

    Getty Images/iStockphoto irin717

    Of or relating to the underworld, or, more prosaically, to things that are underground.

    24. Panglossian

    Frontispiece and first page of chapter one of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al of Voltaire's Candide, printed by John Newbery, 1762. Public domain / Via

    "Characterised by or given to extreme optimism, especially in the face of unrelieved hardship or adversity." Like the guy singing "Always look on the bright side of life" as he's getting crucified at the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian.

    From Dr Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's Candide and a parody of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who claimed that this is the best of all possible worlds.

    25. Zugzwang

    Getty Images/iStockphoto serggn

    A German word meaning "compulsion to move", relating to chess: When it's your move, but there is no move you can make which won't make your situation worse. In real life, it's sort of like when you clearly have to say something, but there is nothing you can say which won't make you look like an idiot or a freak. In this scene in Friends, Ross has put himself in Zugzwang.

    26. Paralipsis

    ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

    The rhetorical device of pretending that the point you're about to make is so obvious that you don't need to make it. "Your trousers are ridiculous, and I'm not even going to mention the hat." And yet you have just mentioned the hat. "I'm not going to make excuses and say that we hadn't had enough time to prepare for the match." And yet you did just say that. That is paralipsis.

    27. Prolix

    REUTERS © Fred Prouser / Reuters

    Of a person "given to speaking or writing at great or tedious length". Or of a piece of writing or speech of great, boring, and probably unnecessary length.

    28. Hygge

    Getty Images/iStockphoto Elenathewise

    This is a Danish word with no direct translation, but it seems to mean something like that feeling when there are a few of you in a room playing board games at Christmas, and it's freezing cold outside and you can hear the drumming of bitter rain on the window, but it's warm and cosy in the room and there's an open fire roaring and you have mulled wine and biscuits and everyone's having a good time. It's a sort of combination of cosiness and companionship and happiness and warmth, and it would be a lovely word to get into English.

    29. Dunandunate

    Getty Images/iStockphoto Vladimir Nikulin

    A word that, sadly, has not made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but is relevant here: It is a verb meaning "to overuse a word or phrase that has been recently added to one's vocabulary", or "to learn a word and then use it incessantly".

    With thanks to Twitterers @superglaze, @mckelvie, @jayelsmithers, @stephentall, @alexadwilson, @misselliemae, @owensdamien, @floperry, @sprawld, @greg_jenner, @alenmattich, @kayaburgess, @frozenwarning, @mattheweyre, @guywalters, @rosbif65, @mumblingnerd, @ebenmarks, @olivernmoody, @silascurrie, @grant_rob, @nickw84, @camslates, @dhothersall, @pompei79, @youngvulgarian, @paulrowlands, @wooloz, @johnthejack, @mooseallain, @thisnorthernboy, @baronwr, @schroedinger99, @hwallop, @lucyjones, @andywilletts, @torquilmacneil