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10 English Words With Unexpected Definitions

By Edited Jul 13, 2016 9 9

English is full of peculiar and misleading words that look like they mean one thing, when they really mean something completely different.  Here are 10 such words that might baffle you at first glance.

agelast: noun
The combination of age + last looks like it should mean a person who ages last, or at least something to do with aging or being last.  Oddly though, this word of Greek origin means a person who never laughs.  The word root is gela-, meaning laugh; the prefix of a- means the opposite.

enervate: verb
This word sounds like energize and invigorate, which leads many people to believe it has a similar meaning.  In fact, it means something nearly opposite, to take away someone's energy and vigor.  As in, "Running to catch the bus left me  enervated."


fungible: adjective
Though not as obscure as other strange English words in this list, fungible looks deceptively like fungus and edible, which might put you in the mind of edible fungi.  This word is actually an economic term meaning replaceable or exchangeable for another of its kind.  Currency is a fungible commodity; you can use any $20 bill to pay for a $20 item.

jumentous: adjective
This word has no easily recognized roots that might give you a clue as to its meaning.  It does have a nice ring to it, like momentous, which could make you think it means something positive.  Alas, jumentous is neither a compliment nor cause for celebration; it means smelling like a horse, donkey, or other beast of burden.

lamprophony: noun
There's no trace of lamps, pros, or phonies in this word's definition.  If you know that -phony means sound, you might guess that lamprophony is the sound of lampreys.  (Do they even make noise?) But no, lamprophony turns out to be a rather boring word that means clear enunciation.  (The Greek root lampro- means clear or distinct.)

protean: adjective
This word is looks like protein but is pronounced pro-tee-an.  It means highly changeable or able to assume many different forms.   An amoeba is a protean creature.  Someone who works as an actor, writer, electrician, and diving instructor in his life has a protean career arc.  The word is derived from the Greek sea deity Proteus, who could change his form.

pyknic: adjective
This word looks like a disastrous attempt to spell picnic, but like most of the bizarre English words in this list, its spelling is misleading and its origin is Greek.  In this case, pykn- means thickness of the body.  Somebody with a pyknic physique has large, broad abdomen and chest.  Something that could arise from over-indulging in picnics.

restive: adjective
Don't be fooled by the root word rest.  Rather than meaning restful, restive actually means restless. It can also mean disobediently stubborn or recalcitrant.

tortuous: adjective
With an extra letter r this word becomes torturous, which has an obvious meaning.  But tortuous  is based on the Latin root tort- meaning twisting.  A tortuous mountain trail has many sharp turns and corners. A movie with a tortuous plot has many twists.  Sometimes hiking a tortuous trail and watching a tortuous movie can also be torturous.

zenzizenzizenzic: adjective
This word has the most z's of any other word in English.  It's first and only recorded use in a natural context is in The Whetstone of Wit, a math text written by Robert Recorde in 1557.  Since then it has only made appearances on lists of bizarre words, such as this one.  The origin of the root word zenzic is Germanic from Latin and means squared.  Zenzi-zenzi-zenzic means the square of a square of a square--i.e., the eight power.  256 is a zenzizenzizenzic number since 256 = 2^8.




Jan 23, 2012 4:36am
Quite a few mouthfuls here. I found your article to be entertaining and informative too. Nice one!
Jan 30, 2012 5:32am
This article has some fabulous literary facts, I love finding out where the basis of an unusual word has come from.
Jan 30, 2012 11:51am
Very informative list of unusual words!
Jan 30, 2012 12:12pm
I tried to say that last one and ended up losing a tooth....great list.
Jan 30, 2012 6:53pm
More than one of these words tends to show up on the GRE. I actually knew a few of them but not many. Words are awesome!
Mar 6, 2012 6:48pm
Fascinating stuff. I guess you'd be tough Scrabble opponent.
Mar 4, 2014 6:52am
I love etymology, and this was a GREAT list! Thumb's up!
Mar 4, 2014 7:30am
In the eye care field, retinal blood vessels are sometimes described as tortuous. (Which also tortured the ophthalmologist who had to figure out why). I'd definitely be fooled if someone told me I was " jumentous" - I'd take it as a compliment. Thank you for the education (and some words I can now use on the unsuspecting . . . just kidding).
Feb 25, 2015 12:22am
I just came across this article. A fantastic selection! It seems that the weirdest English words are bound to have a Greek root. Although they do make sense in Greek, in English they're just plain weird! Thank you for the article!
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