Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Strange New Words by KM Rockwood

Or new to me anyhow.

I’m always interested in exploring words that are unfamilar to me. Sometimes I manage to make them part of my working vocabulary, and sometimes I just gaze at them in awe, knowing that they may have a place in someone else’s lexicon, but not mine.

Particularly intriguing is the occasional word which, when I encounter it, makes me realize there has been a hole in my vocabulary, and this word fills it.

My most recent find along that line is “velleity.” Somehow I had never encountered it, but I immediately knew this was a word for which I had been searching my entire life, although I had not been aware of it.

“Velleity” (in case you’re as ignorant about it as I was) is a wish or inclination not strong enough to actually lead to action. As in, “I had planned to start my new chapter this afternoon, but I recognized my velleity and instead retreated to the porch with a glass of iced tea and a book.”

The first known use of the word was in 1610. It is derived from the Latin stem of “velleitas,” which translates as “desire.”

Another word which fits my procrastinatious (is that a word?) tendencies is “omphaloskepsis,” which means, literally, “navel gazing.”

It can mean actual contemplation of or meditation upon one’s navel, or, figuratively, ratiocination (another fun word! But that one wasn’t entirely new to me) to the point of self-absorption.  

From the Greek, “omphal├│s” means “navel” and “sk├ępsis” means “perception, reflection.”

Miriam-Webster gives a date of 1925 for the first recorded use. Aldous Huxley used it in his novel “Those Barren Leaves,” which was released in 1925.

While I may very well make “velleity” my own, I can’t say the same about “omphaloskepsis.” It doesn’t roll off my tongue (I had to find a pronunciation guide before I could even read it to myself silently) and strikes me as pretentious, even when I’m just addressing myself.

Should the need arise, I’ll stick to the more common “contemplating one’s navel” or “navel gazing.”

Sometimes an unfamiliar word positively screams its meaning. An example of that is “tubbable.”

“Tubbable” made its first appearance in 1916 in Good Housekeeping magazine, in reference to a robe which could be washed repeatedly without damaging the fabric.

It’s made up of “tub” (as in washtub”) and “-able,” a suffix which means “possible, capable of, suitable for, or causing.”

Need I explain that it means “suitable for washing in a tub or washing machine”?

“Mumpsimus” refers to a bigoted adherence to an erroneous but customary tradition.

Its rumored origin goes back to an illiterate 16th century priest who mistakenly prayed in Latin, “quod in ore mumpsimus” instead of the correct “quod in ore sumpsimus,” which translates to “which we have taken into the mouth” and is a reference to the Eucharist. When he was corrected, he indignantly replied, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.”

I’m afraid to contemplate how often I may have mumpsimus tendencies, although I certainly don’t maintain that the earth is flat or that angry gods cause volcanoes to erupt.

The word “mondegreen” is of similar, if more recent, origin.

In 1954, Sylvia Write said, “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain 
the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The correct fourth line is, "And laid him on the green". Wright explained the need for a new term:

The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

Two personal examples I recall are from popular music. For years, I wondered about a description of a lovely location which was incongruously decorated with “rest rooms.” Eventually I figured out it was really “brush strokes.”

And I know I’m not the only one to have been puzzled by the entombed “long tall woman in a black chest,” when in actuality, she was wearing a “black dress.”

Have you encountered any interesting new words lately?






Sylvia Wright (1954). "The Death of Lady Mondegreen". Harper's Magazine. 209 (1254): 48–51. Reprinted in: Sylvia Wright (1957). Get Away From Me With Those Christmas Gifts. McGraw Hill. Contains the essays "The Death of Lady Mondegreen" and "The Quest of Lady Mondegreen".



  1. Very interesting vocaulary choices. If only I thought I'd remember them. Sadly, I hear a new word, think "Oh, I must remember that," the promptly forget all about it.

  2. I'm with Mark on this: I hear or read a new word, look it up, and promptly forget it. I seem to add to my vocabulary only new modern terms that I need for daily use. My vocabulary is on the downward slope.

  3. When I was teaching, we used to say that in order to "own" a vocabulary word, a student must encounter it at least seven times, with five of them being active use (hence the exercise, "Write a sentence using..."

  4. It's so much fun to encounter new words! But I'm like Mark and Jim—I rarely remember them. And if I see them in writing and don't know how to pronounce them, they're dead to me. :)

  5. Great blog! Yes, I've encountered new words lately, but alas, don't remember them.

  6. Interesting post. There are some words that no matter how many times I look up the definition, I just can’t remember them.

  7. I haven't found any new words lately, but I'm going to work Tubbable into my books. Whether or not a dog is tubbable, liking getting a bath or not liking getting a bath.

    Darlene Dziomba

  8. A fun post. I must admit I haven't added any new words to my vocabulary. Yet, when I'm writing some old expressions come to mind and I always wonder where they've come from.

  9. I receive new words daily in my email box. I am using them in my MG novel as a trope. My MC was assigned vocabulary journal homework and when he writes them down (and I use as chapter headings) he finds they relate to his musings about his family mystery. This technique was also used by Agatha-winning Richie Narvaez. I didn't steal it. One of the words Montegreen hasn't fit...yet. Thanks, Kathleen.