Language is as alive as you are. Morphing and evolving, shedding old expressions, growing into new ones, able to convey and conceal meaning with the very same tool: words. From helping you win at trivia night to recognising fake news and avoiding global panic, the following rare words each carry a message worth remembering.
**Hint: click a word’s pronunciation to hear how it’s said**
What it means: More than just an acronym for Alcoholics Anonymous, as a word in its own right, aa (sometimes written a’a or ʻaʻā) refers to rough and chunky lava flow.
How to pronounce: ah-ah
Why it’s useful: Aa is the first word in the Oxford English dictionary and, when spelled in its simplest form, the first palindrome too (appearing the same forwards as backwards). This gives it strong potential for making an appearance at pub trivia nights.
What it means: Blushing.
How to pronounce: er-uh-bess-nt
Why it’s useful: The word perfectly describes Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to accidentally revealing his non-humanity.
What it means: A newly invented word (e.g. “askhole’: a person who constantly hits you up for advice and then does the opposite of what you suggest).
How to pronounce: knee-ol-lo-gizm
Why it’s useful: If anyone ever accuses you of making up words, you can point out that neologisms are an essential part of the formation and evolution of language.
What it means: Free and fearless speech.
How to pronounce: pa-ree-si-ya
Why it’s useful: More than just free speech, parrhesia involves plain and simple expression of only that which you know to be true. These truths are spoken with the intention of achieving a greater purpose, even when there is personal risk involved. And the words must be shared freely, not under any kind of coercion. This radical honesty is the ultimate freedom of expression, making it ethical and powerful but scary as hell.
What it means: This monster is a synonym for the word “silicosis” which is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica. The word, as completely unnecessary as the word “completely” is in this sentence, was invented by the president of America’s National Puzzler’s League back in 1935. Its job since then? Populating puzzle books.
How to pronounce: Nyu-man-ultra-microscopic-sili-co-volcano-cony-osis
Why it’s useful: At 45 letters long, this is now the longest accepted word in the Oxford English dictionary. While it won’t fit on a scrabble board, it’s another good one to know for trivia nights. Before its acceptance, the longest word in the dictionary was floccinaucinihilipilification (flock-sin-aw-sin-eye-ul-i-pil-if-i-kay-shun): the assessment of something as meaningless.
What it means: The opposite of absenteeism, presenteeism is the practice of spending excessive time at work, usually due to job insecurity.
How to pronounce: prezn-tea-izm
Why it’s useful: While the counterproductiveness of absenteeism is obvious, presenteeism isn’t such a known phenomenon. It can, however, be just as detrimental. It’s worth knowing the extremities so you have a happy middle path to aim for.
What it means: False wisdom.
How to pronounce: sue-doss-o-fee
Why it’s useful: In a world full of fake news and content marketing masquerading as genuine advice, it’s worth being able to tell the difference between truth and pseudosophy.
What it means: Mechanical speech or writing.
How to pronounce: sit-uh-siz-m
Why it’s useful: In English, “hi, how are you?” is often asked in passing, with no time for anything other than an equally psittacistic “good thanks” response. This mechanical speech isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be confusing for people from other cultures who don’t use this question mechanically. Awareness of when you’re engaging in psittacism can help you build more meaningful communication with people.
What it means: A sesquipedalian word contains many syllables. A sesquipedalian person is fond of using such words.
How to pronounce: sess-quip-id-alien
Why it’s useful: Sesquipedalian is most certainly sesquipedalian, making the word self-descriptive, or autological (if you feel like giving yourself a case of brainception, consider whether the word autological is autological). This self-descriptiveness makes sesquipedalian charmingly hypocritical when used as an accusation as it instantly makes you guilty of it yourself.
What it means: A pair of connected opposites, planetary alignment
How to pronounce: siz-zi-gee
Why it’s useful: Syzygy appears to be a word comprised wholly of consonants. This trick (also featured in the word “rhythm”) is made possible by the letter y. The linguistic equivalent of Wesley Snipes in Blade, y is a daywalker, able to function as both vowel and consonant.
What’s most interesting about syzygy is the global panic it brewed up in the early eighties. On 10 March 1982, every planet in our solar system swung around to the same side of the sun: a kind of syzygy. Two scientists convinced the media we were all going to die. Here’s how it played out:
Even in isolation, words have power. Strung together into sentences, speeches and books, they can be world-changers.