English words with uncommon properties

From Academic Kids

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.


Strange spellings

Most people are aware that the letter y can serve as both a consonant and a vowel. w can also be an orthographic vowel, since how is pronounced /hau/ (with w representing the second half of the diphthong.)

However, cwm (pronounced "koom", defined as a steep-walled hollow on a hillside) is a rare case of a word using w to represent a nucleus vowel, as is crwth (pronounced "krooth", a type of stringed instrument). Both words are in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 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. It is also used to describe features in the Himalaya.

Arguably, however, both these examples may belong in 'Words of Foreign Origin', as they are actual words in the Welsh language which have been absorbed into English. See coombe as the south-west English equivalent of cwm.

Combinations of letters

There is only one common word in English that has five vowel letters in a row: queueing (2 vowel sounds).

The place-name Knightsbridge has six consonant letters in a row (with four consonant sounds), as do the compound words latchstring and catchphrase and the word "borschts". Twelfthstreet has seven in a row; it is normally two words but is sometimes used as one, as in a song title.

There are several words that feature all five vowels in alphabetical order, including abstemious, abstentious, facetious, arsenious, and (the shortest, at eight letters) caesious. Considering y as a vowel, the suffix -ly can be added to the first three. Thus the shortest word containing six unique vowels in alphabetical order is facetiously (11). Subcontinental has the reverse order of five vowels.

The shortest word containing the five regular vowels is eunoia, at six letters, followed by sequoia at seven; but neither has them in alphabetical order.

The longest word with one vowel is strengths, packing six consonant sounds into a single syllable. The words psychorhythms (13), polyrhythms (11) and rhythmless (10) are longer, but each clearly uses the letter y as a vowel.

Bookkeeper has three consecutive doubled letters.

Despite the assertions of a well-known email prank, modern English does not have three words ending in -gry. Angry and hungry are the only ones. (See external links for discussion.)

Dreamt is the only English word that ends in -amt. In American English, which prefers dreamed, there are none.

Aa, a type of lava, consists entirely of a doubled vowel. The word is of Hawaiian origin.


Words in which no letter is used more than once are called isograms (though its use in this sense is slang restricted to those who enjoy recreational linguistics, and not commonly found in dictionaries). Uncopyrightable, with fifteen letters, is the longest common isogram in English. Dermatoglyphics shares the distinction but is a less well-known word; subdermatoglyphic is two letters longer but even more obscure — it has only one report of alleged live use, and supposedly means "of or pertaining to the patterns on the lower skin layers".

Abnormal 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.

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

The one-syllable word are, with the addition of one letter, becomes area, a word with three syllables.

The word stewardesses is the longest word spelt solely with the left hand when typing properly using a QWERTY keyboard.

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, is commonly pronounced at least ten different ways. Ough is in fact a word in its own right; it is an exclamation of disgust similar to "ugh".

Pron. IPA Example Comment
"UFF" ] tough, enough
"OFF" ] or ] cough, trough Trough is pronounced like 'troth' by some speakers of American English
"OW" ] bough
"OH" ] though, dough
"AW" ] thought
"OO" ] through, slough Slough is pronounced as 'slew' or to rhyme with "bough" or to rhyme with "tough" in American English, in British English it rhymes with "bough" or "tough"
"UH" ] thorough, borough Both pronouced as 'OH' in American English
"UP" ] hiccough Variant spelling of "hiccup", though the latter form is recommended in both British and US
"UFF" ] wough Compare "wuff"
"UKH" ] sough In some words in Scottish English; otherwise pronounced 'UFF' or 'OW'
"OHKH" ] jough, turlough Manx and Irish respectively
"OCK" ] hough More commonly spelled "hock" from the 20th Century onwards
"OKH" ] lough A lake; Irish analogue of Scottish "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.

The "ough"s in the English place name Loughborough are pronounced differently to each other, resulting in Luffburruh.

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

Long words

Main article: Longest word in English.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which some might argue does not formally belong to the English language, definitely belongs to English culture today. It was popularized by a song from Walt Disney's movie Mary Poppins, 1964. It had not been used in the original book by Pamela Travers. The origins are unclear, but claimed to significantly predate the movie (which was also a base for a copyright infringement lawsuit against the song publishers). See the Supercali... external link.

There are other long words known, such as antidisestablishmentarianism, listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, which held the #1 place for quite a long time. Today books for curious kids mention pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis to be the Number One. However chemical nomenclature of organic compounds may easily beat any present or future record. The word trichloroethyleneglycerophosphate gives the idea. One may easily concoct a name of thousands of letters in this way; see the What does antidisestablishmentarianism mean? external link.

Longest one-syllable word

Main article: List of the longest English words with one syllable.

The longest one-syllable word in the English language is either squirrelled, scraunched, or one of several 9-letter words. The first two words may be pronounced using more than one syllable in some dialects. Strengths is the longest with only one vowel.

Words of foreign origin

Main article: Foreign language influences in English.

The entire history of English involves influence and loanwords from other languages, and this process continues today. However, there is a gray area between foreign words and words accepted as English. Everyone would accept that the formerly foreign ballet (French), ketchup (Malay) and safari (Swahili) are now English words. The status of words such as zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, and schadenfreude is less clear-cut. The Oxford English Dictionary calls such words "resident aliens".

Unrhymable words

In the most common form of rhyme, words rhyme if they end in identically or nearly-identically sounding syllables, and match in stress. If a word has an unusual or unique ending syllable and no other word has a stress pattern to match, it does not rhyme. Excluding disputed loan words, whose foreign sounds make them obviously difficult, unrhymable English words include chimney, depth, month, orange, pint, purple, silver, and wasp. Of these, orange is arguably the one most famous for being unrhymable.

Note that some words rhyme if we allow prefixed derivatives of them (like empurple or desilver), but this is not commonly considered proper rhyme.

The most common way to concoct a "rhyme" for such words — usually in humorous poetry — is to rhyme it with the first syllable of a word that is split over two lines. An example is rhyming orange with car eng/ine, noted by Douglas Hofstadter. Likewise, Stephen Sondheim rhymed silver with "will, ver-/bosity, and time", and Willard R. Espy managed the couplet "I might distil Ver-/ona's silver".

Words with large numbers of meanings

Scanning the Oxford English Dictionary reveals an astounding 76 definitions of the word run. The top ten words with large numbers of meanings are:

  1. run (76)
  2. set (63)
  3. point (49)
  4. strike (48)
  5. light (47)
  6. round (46)
  7. cast (45)
  8. draw (45)
  9. touch (45)
  10. rise (44)

Related articles

External links


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