English language/Strange words

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An overview of strange words in English is a difficult one, as there is no firm standard whereby to judge if a word has entered the language (particularly with regard to foreign words and neologisms---newly invented words) or departed the language through disuse.

For the purposes of this article, any word which has appeared in a recognised general English dictionary published in the 20th century or later is considered a candidate. The dictionaries included as reference sources for this article are:

  • OED - The Oxford English Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)
  • WNID - Webster's New International Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)
  • MWCD - Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)
  • OSPD - The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)
  • TMD - The Macquarie Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)
  • RHUD - Random House Unabridged Dictionary (any post-1900 edition)

Strange spellings

Most people are aware that the letter y can serve as both a consonant and a vowel. However, cwm (pronounced "koom", defined as a steep-walled hollow on a hillside) is a rare case of a word using w as a vowel, as is crwth (pronounced "krooth", a type of stringed instrument). Both words are in MWCD. They derive from the Welsh use of w as a vowel. The word cwm is commonly applied to Welsh place names; cwms of glacial origin are a common feature of Welsh geography.

Uncopyrightable, with fifteen letters, is the longest word in English in which no letter is used more than once.

Nonsense words

In the introduction to this article, it was noted that only words found in a recognised dictionary would be recorded. This unfortunately compels us to include the word DORD, which was only a typographical error, yet it managed to persist through five reprints of WNID, from 1934 to 1939. The original entry was supposed to read "D" or "d" correctly meaning the alternative notations used for density in physics. The typsetter misunderstood the directions and hence "dord" was born.

Strange pairs or groups of words

EWE and YOU are a pair of words with identical pronunciations that have no letters in common. Another example is the pair, EYE and I. However such word pairs are often dependent on the accent of the speaker. For instance Americans might well believe that A and EH form such a pair whereas other English speakers might not.

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, can be pronounced at least nine different ways.

Pronunciation -- Example -- Comment
"UFF" tough, enough
"OFF" cough
"OW" bough, slough
"OH" though, dough
"OR" thought Pronounced "AW" in American English
"OO" through
"UH" thorough Pronounced "OH" in American English
"UP" hiccough British, US spelling is "hiccup"
"OKH" lough an alternate spelling for "loch"

The original pronunciation in all cases was the last one. However the kh sound has disappeared from most modern English dialects. As it faded, different speakers replaced it by different near equivalents in different words. Thus the present confusion resulted.

Tough, though, through, and thorough are all formed by adding an additional letter each time, yet in some dialects of English none of them rhyme with each other.

Al, Ala, Alan, Alana are names all formed by adding an additional letter each time, ideal for a family of four.

Words of Foreign origin

I think this section belongs in Etymology, but I'll move it later

The entire history of English involves absorptions from other languages, and this process continues today. However, it is very hard to decide when a word stops being "foreign" and starts being English. Everyone would accept that "ballet" (French), "ketchup" (Cantonese) and "safari" (Swahili) are (now) English words, what is less certain is the status of words such as "zeitgeist".


Sometimes names are mispronounced badly when transferred into English. For instance a name which has been treated strangely by English speakers is the name Caitlin. Since this is a Gaelic name it is spelled using Gaelic conventions. Most English speakers are ignorant of these conventions and apply English ones. The result is that a name which should be pronounced Kathleen ends up being pronounced Kate-Linn. Other Gaelic names, such as Sinead, or Sine, suffer from similar misunderstanding.