#49: Favorite Words Of 2016

Here you go. Photo by Heather.

Hi hi, my dear fellows,

In the last letter, I put out a call for favorite words you learned in 2016. I hoped they’d make a nice handful of marbles for us to have in our pockets for this new year, which only yesterday taught me the word ‘kompromat.’ :-(.

Here are the words in the order in which they flowed into my inbox. It was a fun few email days. One word came from the mom of an old friend, and then later another from the old friend himself, and both their words were taken from V.S. Pritchett. Then there was ‘petrichor,’ which was a new word to me, and then, a little later, ‘petrichor’ again, as if to make sure I remembered it. Things like that. All in all, some pretty delightful marbles here! Many thanks for them (and thanks again to Laura Olin’s Everything Changes for the model).


“Akasha” (as in Akashic Records and… Kashi granola? I don’t really know what else) is a Sanskrit word for “ether.” I’d never heard the noun form or known its etymology until this week.


I got it wrong on the SATs and had to look it up afterwards 🙂 — Liz E.


Divulgent; otiose!


A garden-variety word, but one I’ve been using more and more to describe motives that previously I would have colored as “stupid” or “stubborn” or “wrong-headed.” Those judging adjectives come too easily when casting aspersions on someone (a character or a person or a group of people) with whom I disagree. I’ve been alarmed at the omnipresent and facile lobbing of insults this year. I like ‘envy’ because it is understandable, a quality we all shun but we also all cop to having felt. It is a universal sin, more empathic than the only-someone-else-can-have-it sin of wrong-headed stubborn stupidity.

The word reintroduced itself to me earlier this year in one simple, astounding sentence from Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendor.” The book — which is a history of one year in 19th Century Viennese politics — is otherwise written with baroque abandon. But at one point he stopped, sat me down, looked me in my reader’s eye, and said, “Envy is a form of ignorance.”

And now it is all around me. The word has become alive. I try not to flog it with overuse. — Carina M.


Abderitic is a neologism coined by Immanuel Kant in his essay “Is the human race constantly progressing?”

He argues there are three potential futures for humanity.

“The human race exists either in continual retrogression toward wickedness, or in perpetual progression toward improvement in its moral destination, or in eternal stagnation in its present stage of moral worth among creatures.”

“The first we can call moral terrorism, and the second eudaemonism …, but the third we can term abderitism because, since a true stagnation in matters of morality is not possible, a perpetually changing upward tendency and an equally frequent and profound relapse (an eternal oscillation, as it were) amounts to nothing more than if the subject had remained in the same place, standing still.” — David D.

David D. also pointed to gynepunk, as his “new to me” word and “microbenevolence” as one he coined himself this year.


I am torn between two words:

indelible: making marks that cannot be removed; not able to be forgotten
avuncular: of or relating to an uncle; kind or friendly like an uncle

Most likely both came from Brain Pickings, one of my favorite places on the web. —Jamey J.


My favorite obscure word is “petrichor.” I like it for its sound as well as its meaning, which is the special green-planty smell that hangs in the air shortly after it starts raining after a long dry spell. I noticed and loved that smell all through my childhood and was astonished to learn that not only had someone else noticed it too, they had even given it a name that is actually a real word in the dictionary. I can’t remember when or where I first learned the word petrichor — probably around the age of ten or eleven — but I soon completely forgot it. I remembered the smell of course, and the fact that it had a beautiful name, but not the word itself, and I had no idea how to look it up.

Many years later when I was talking about cool words with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, I asked him if he knew the name of the smell of fresh rain, and right away he chimed, “oh, petrichor!” No wonder I married him. — Maggie L.


My favorite new word of the year is sesquipedalian. I get the A.Word.A.Day email, and I often have “I didn’t know there was a word for that!” moments with it. In this case, I was just tickled to learn a new, longer word for polysyllabic. — Marcia


I wanted to share the word ‘liminal’ which means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I think I learned it when someone posted the definition on Facebook, but Iearned it at a really perfect time as I was going through a huge stressful transition and knowing that a word existed that described the time I was in was incredibly helpful. I felt like, “I’m not in this alone, there’s a WORD for it so other people have also had this experience!” — Abigail W.


“codswallop” has to take the cake for 2016. — Marco R.


Chiffon – “Here, help yourself to a slice of the chiffon pumpkin pie I made last night.”

If all the new words I learned this year were introduced in the context of a delicious dessert, it would have been harder to pick my favorite. — Edward L.


I hate to admit to loving my kindle but hard copies are expensive in Buenos Aires and digital, old literature is cheap so last year I read 12 thousand kindle pages of Anthony Trollope for $1.99 and was in heaven. Now and approaching a new year — which should be an agony of a year for all of us — and for $2.99, I am reading all of V. S. Pritchett. For relief and refuge from the Brits, I read the poets in hard copy, all my favorites. If my mood is sloping down I find that writing down my observations is a lifesaver.

Anyway, Pritchett uses the word bandy a lot, as an adjective and with a touch of my index finger I decided to check out its meaning although I thought I knew how to use it (Great Uncle Arthur was a stunted and bandy man, with a dark, sallow and strong……) . Lo and behold I found that it meant to have a clumsy, bow legged walk and I thought of Rumpelstiltskin and how at age 70 I am still learning to let my hair down. I think that the use of bandy as a verb must surely be related.

I miss using my beat up dictionary which is close by but the finger is so easy. — Maryanne M.


My favorite new word learned this year is “petrichor”, which describes the earthy scent that rises when rain falls on dry soil. Love that scent, and love that it has a name. — Kelly R.


There are so many words in English that are new to me — embarrassment of choice. So I will give you a Dutch word that always comes to my mind at the end of your newsletter: GAAF

You will notice the G that replaces the C. In Dutch it means something like ‘in good order’ or ‘whole’—but as an exclamation it has the joyous meaning of “I like this really” or “well done.” — Henk S.

[Editor’s note: This delights me.]


I’ve become a little obsessed with the word “gonzo” – I kept seeing it pop up in online essays and journalism over the summer. On the one hand, it has such a nice sound, a little unhinged and dangerous. On the other, I think it’s associated with my least favorite type of masculinity: boorish and solipsistic and hedonist (i.e. Hunter S. Thompson). But what should that be? I think part of my goal for 2017 is to cultivate a feminist gonzo aesthetic in my writing. — Haylie S.


I came across it for the first and only time reading Pritchett a few days ago. Here is a bit of the text from the short story “Things As They Are”:

“‘Two months,’ [in reference to an apparently short-lived marriage] sighed Mrs Forster, and her eyes opened and closed amorously in a grey glister and then sleepily half closed.”

I love a word like this that is simultaneously familiar and exotic sounding. Not a big dick piece of sesquipedalia, but something that sounds like you should know it already. “Imbrue” is like that, I feel. Anyway glister is a synonym for glimmer glint glisten coruscate sparkle etc. “…her eyes opened amorously in a grey glister” made my toe shoot up in my boot, as it were. — RQ


Murine: “relating to mice” — the mouse equivalent of feline. Came from an Economist article on laboratory mice.

I also learned the excellent German phrase “die Kuh vom Eis holen”, to get the cow off the ice, which means “to avert/salvage a ridiculous/embarrassing/potentially disastrous situation”. Someone used it in a business meeting! — Lucy B.


But I do have my word, which is one of Clary’s newfound words she enjoyed, along with “flume,” which I already knew. The word is “desuetude,” and means a state of disuse. Doesn’t have the cocky fun of working oneself into a swivet, but things do regularly fall into desuetude and it’s fun to say. — LeBrun F.

[Editor’s note: LeBrun F. is my mom! And the Clary she’s referring to is a character in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which we’ve both been reading and, if you haven’t read yet, you should be reading too.]


Ok, I just got a new word the other day and I felt foolish for not knowing. We went to a brunch party at a favorite bookshop, my husband came up to my best friend and I (both librarians) and asked quietly what is “PITE” he was embarrassed that he didn’t know, but neither of us did. “where did you see it?” I asked, he pointed to the food table. All the food was covered in tin foil but usually they just have bagels so we figured it was bagels. So then we looked it up and found out it is the plural of PITA. Which wasn’t exactly what we wanted for brunch so we left. But on the upside, I won the raffle! — Sara Q.


So here is the word I learned this year: harridan.

It was used a few months ago in an email sent to me by a work colleague, who is known for his verbosity (and a pretty wicked sense of humor so I knew his message was in jest). I had reminded him that he had a missed a deadline, which he acknowledged. He then assured me, “I will file it this afternoon, you HARRIDAN.”

I confess that I did not know the meaning of that word, but google soon informed me that it means “a strict, bossy, belligerent old woman.”

I immediately replied that I may be strict and bossy and, yes, occasionally belligerent but that I AM NOT OLD. So there. — LR


My word is “nettled” as in “irritated, vexed, provoked.”

i was reminded of it when my therapist had me study a list of words that describe states of anger from the OED as an exercise in, uh, i guess, anger literacy? so useful! such a nettling year! — JC

And how!

I’d also like to point you today to Zadie Smith’s essay “On Optimism and Despair,” if you haven’t already read it (and, really, even if you have), as essential reading right now.

I’m traveling a lot over the next few weeks (including to the Women’s March on Washington!) so the next letter from me will be Feb. 9. Also I should have some news then about Black Cardigan Edit that I’m excited to share.

Until then,
chin up, much love, and may all your cows stay off the ice,

p.s. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter and would like to, go here.

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit