40 Brilliant Words That Begin With the Letter B

iStock/koya79
iStock/koya79

If you had to take a guess at the 10 least-used letters of the English alphabet, chances are you wouldn’t rank B down among the Zs, Qs, Xs, and Js. And on the one hand, you’d be right—nearly 5 percent of all the words in a dictionary are listed under the second letter of the alphabet. But when B isn’t the first letter of a word, it’s actually quite rare: take an average page of written English text, and you can expect it to account for less than 1.5 percent of it, making B the seventh least-used English letter overall. So why not give B a boost with these brilliantly bizarre words?

1. BABBITTISM

Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’s controversial 1922 satire Babbitt tells the story of fictional Midwest businessman George F. Babbitt, who achieves the perfect American middle-class life but soon finds total conformity and social expectation oddly discomforting. The novel inspired a handful of words that have since entered the language including Babbittism or Babbittry, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.”

2. BABBLATIVE

If you’re babblative, then you’re prone to babble or chatter. Likewise, babblement or babblery is gossiping, prattling conversation, while a babble-merchant is an unstoppably talkative person.

3. BACK-DOUBLE

Because it’s usually a less direct route, any side road or backstreet can also be called a back-double.

4. BACKSPANG

Derived from spang, an old Scots word for a sudden jolt or kick, a backspang is essentially a sting in the tail—a bad turn of events or a sudden detrimental change of mind at the very last minute. It’s used in relation to someone going back on their word, after a deal has been struck.

5. BAFFLEGAB

Jargon-filled talk that sets out to clarify something but ends up only confusing things? That’s bafflegab.

6. BAGGAGE-SMASHER

As well as being a name for a thief who specializes in stealing luggage from trains, in 19th-century slang a baggage-smasher was a porter at a railway station.

7. BAGGAGERY

A 16th-century word for the hoi polloi or rabble.

8. BAHUVRIHI

In linguistics, a bahuvrihi is essentially a compound word in which the first part (A) describes the second (B), so that, according to Merriam-Webster, the entire word (A + B) fits the template “a B that is A.” Words like highbrow, white-collar, Bluebeard, Bigfoot, and sabretooth are all examples, as is the word bahuvrihi itself: it literally means “much rice” in Sanskrit, but is used as a nickname for a notably wealthy man.

9. BAISEMAIN

That courtly display of kissing someone’s hand on meeting them is called a baisemain.

10. BALATROON

A 17th-century word—derived from the Latin for “to prattle”—for a foolish or nonsensical person.

11. BALBUTIATE

To stammer or stutter. Pronounced “bal-byoosh-ee-ate,” incidentally, not “bal-byoot-ee-ate."

12. BALLAMBANGJANG

Any fictitious or fantastic place—where a story that seems too good to be true might be supposed to have taken place—is a Ballambangjang. The name first appeared in the language in 19th-century nautical slang in reference to the “Straits of Ballambangjang,” a fictitious sea strait in southeast Asia (based on the real-life seas off Balambangan island near Borneo) that sailors alleged to be “so narrow, and the rocks on each side so crowded with trees inhabited by monkeys, that the ship’s yards cannot be squared on account of the monkey’s tails getting jammed into and choking up the brace blocks.”

13. BAMBSQUABBLED

This and bamblustercated are 19th century American slang words essentially meaning “stupefied,” “confounded,” or “embarrassed.”

14. BATHYSIDERODROMOPHOBIA

A form of claustrophobia: if you don’t like traveling on underground rail systems, then you’re bathysiderodromophobic. Other B fears include bathophobia (the fear of depth), belonephobia (needles), batrachophobia (reptiles), blennophobia (slime) and both bacteriophobia (the fear of bacteria) and bacillophobia (microbes).

15. BATTOLOGIZE

To battologize is to annoy someone by repeating the same thing over and over again. And again. And again.

16. BAUBLE-BEARER

A court jester—and so, figuratively, a foolish, empty-headed person.

17. BED-SWERVER

A word for an unfaithful lover, invented by Shakespeare. As was …

18. BEEF-WITTED

Another Shakespearean invention, meaning “foolish” or “slow-brained.”

19. BELLY-CHEER

In Tudor English, a grand feast or excellent food was belly-cheer

20. BELLY-GOD

… while a belly-god or belly-slave is a particularly gluttonous person.

21. BIBACITY

A 17th-century word for “outrageous drinking.”

22. BIBBLE-BABBLE

Senseless chatter or prattling talk. A “very common” word in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

23. BIBLIOMANIA

If you’re crazy about books, then you’re a bibliomaniac. In which case you probably best stay away from bibliokleptomaniacs, who are equally crazy about stealing books.

24. BIGLOT

If you read that as “big lot,” try again—a “bi-glot” is someone who speaks two languages. Bonus fact: more than 50 percent of the world’s population is bilingual, so if you can only speak one language you’re in a global minority.

25. BLANDILOQUY

Empty flattery is blandiloquy, or blandiloquence.

26. BLITTERO

An old Scots dialect word for anything thin and watery.

27. BLOWSABELLA

In 17th-century slang, a blowse or blowsabella was a slatternly, untidily-attired woman, or more specifically, “a woman whose hair is disheveled, and hanging about her face.”

28. BOOKSTAFF

An old name for a letter of the alphabet, derived from the Old English word bócstæf.

29. BOTULIFORM

Anything described as botuliform (which includes the bacterium that causes botulism, hence the name) is shaped like a sausage.

30. BOWDLERIZE

To prudishly remove all the risqué or questionable material from a text is to bowdlerize it. The word derives from 18th-19th century English physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who with the help of his sister published The Family Shakespeare in 1807, an edition of 24 of Shakespeare’s plays amended for what were seen at the time as the more sensitive minds of women and children. For example, Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damn’d spot!” as she tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, became “Out, crimson spot!”

31. BRADYKINETIC

An adjective describing anything slow-moving, or with impaired movement.

32. BRATTLE-BRIG

An old northern English dialect word for the bridge of the nose.

33. BROTICOLE

Rats, mice, spiders, house martins and swallows, foxes and raccoons are all broticoles—namely, organisms that like to live alongside humans, or around our houses and buildings.

34. BRUTUM FULMEN

An empty or ineffective threat or action is a brutum fulmen—it means “senseless thunderbolt” in Latin.

35. BRUXISM

Is the medical name for grinding your teeth.

36. BUCKARTIE-BOO

A Scots word meaning “to coo like a pigeon.”

37. BULL-SQUITTER

An old English dialect word for a great deal of fuss over a trivial matter.

38. BULLYRAG

To bullyrag or ballarag someone is to intimidate or badger them, particularly with abusive language.

39. BUM-CURTAIN

A flashily dressed woman in 1930s slang, so-called because of “her habit of making great play with her buttocks and of causing her dress to swish as if it were a wind-agitated curtain.”

40. BUTYRACEOUS

The proper word for describing something that tastes or looks buttery.

This article originally ran in 2016.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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