Weird Words

Front The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition

It’s said that the English language might possibly have more words in it than any other comparable world language. People are always qualifying things and I have no idea what might be meant by comparable. Unless they mean a marginally (qualifier) related language like German or Dutch.

In any case, most accounts put the number of words in the English language at approximately 171,476 words in current use. The Oxford English Dictionary also contains over 47,000 listings for obsolete words. It seems a shame that words should become obsolete. Well, thinking about it for a moment, possibly it’s a good thing.

Most experts agree that the average English speaker has a working vocabulary of about 20,000 words and a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 words. It was not clear if they meant 20,000 in addition to the first 20,000 for a total of 40,000 or if they meant an additional 40,000. In any case, that’s a lot of words.

Vocabulary that is passive consists of words that the speaker knows but never has a cause to use. I find that to be sad. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could use all the words we know? Or maybe that’s not such a good idea either. Could get awkward.

I love words. I absolutely adore them in all their convoluted meanings, soundings, origins, and spellings. As far as I’m concerned, the weirder the word the better. I hope to make this something of a series with lots of weird words to describe and talk about in the future. There might even be a weird phrase or two, as in “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” How did that ever come about?


“That smells like a horse’s patoot,” is a phrase that I became very familiar with. I was deeply involved with horses for a few years. I groomed them and mucked their stalls. I went over every inch of them. I rubbed their bellies and foreheads. I had my hands in their mouths (well inside their lips, but outside of their teeth, thank goodness) and found the very soft skin on the undersides of their tales.

I learned that horses have some very odd names for some of their parts (actually humans have given them these names, I’m sure that if the horses had a choice they would be far more practical in the naming). For example I offer stifle (the knee of the hind leg, on the front leg its just “knee,” go figure), pastern (if you’re talking about the hind leg it refers to the toe, which is not the toenail or hoof, but a single toe bone just above the hoof, and if you’re talking about the front leg it is like a finger bone) and hock (which is analogous to the ankle). Oh and the knee of the front leg is actually analogous to the human wrist. Horses are put together very strangely.

I’ve seen the undersides of their hooves and looked in their ears, but no one ever said to me while pointing to the pertinent part, “And this is the horse’s patoot.” Well, some of you more well-read and erudite individuals may all ready know what this means. I had a good guess (I was a fan of M.A.S.H.), but I wasn’t certain that what I thought it was, is what it is. Apparently it’s another way of referring to a horse’s behind, butt, backside, rear end.

You can’t spend any significant amount of time around horses and not come into contact with manure. They make it all the time. It’s what they do. A horse would stand and eat all day long if you let it. Statistics say that the average horse will take in about 15 pounds of food each day and excrete about 45 pounds of solid waste. Sounds a bit bass akwards until you take into consideration that they can also drink anywhere from five to 15 gallons of water a day and that one gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. They produce prodigious amounts of urine as well.

The manure that they deposit in their stalls must be removed (mucked out) and I found it is easiest to do this when it has first dried a bit. The manure they leave in the pasture is left to dry completely, and while it doesn’t smell as strongly as the fresh kind, it does retain the manure smell. It gets powdered by the trampling of the horses and rises as dust in the air. I learned very quickly not to lick my lips after a long day with the horses.

There is also the issue of intestinal gas. Horses fart even more than they poop. Being as short as I am, I would frequently find myself (and my nose) at a horse’s anus level. I came to the conclusion that horses have a very wicked and well developed sense of humor. Why else would they seem to save their farts for when I was grooming the back ends of them? I would try to move when I saw their tales go up, but was not always quick enough.

I’m fairly certain that after having spent a day at the stables (my husband, Bernd, has been kind enough to tell me so) that I smelled like manure. If someone had said to me that I smelled like a horse’s patoot, I wouldn’t have argued with them. It was probably true.


As a child, I would love to sit and read through my mother’s dictionary of the English Language. I still do this from time to time (not my mother’s, I have one of my own), but not with the same robust enthusiasm I had for it as a child. So it was many years ago that I came across two of my favorite words. One of them is zygodactyl and the other is the word that I once used to name my small business, syzygy. I let that website go when it was costing me more to maintain than it earned.

Looking at the word syzygy, it’s obvious (well it is, isn’t it?) why that would be one of my favorite words. Technically, there are no vowels in it. And it has a certain symmetry to it that is compelling; at least to someone who loves words and their etymology.

But zygodactyl caught my attention for two reasons:  (1) any word with the letter “z” in it fascinated me as a child, and (2) its definition. As a child I loved birds more than just about anything else, except maybe dogs and horses. Most birds have four toes on each foot. The majority of them have three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing back. Parrots and Budgerigars and many of the tree-climbing birds have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing back. These birds are zygodactyl. As a child, I delighted in telling anyone who would listen (and many who were not really interested) about our parakeet and his funny zygodactyl feet.

Zygodactyl comes from Greek roots (most really odd words seem to, but I suppose they are not odd to the Greeks). Zygo refers to a yoke or a pair, and dactyl is simply a finger, toe or other similar structure.

The last word in my mother’s dictionary was zyzzyva (sounds dirty doesn’t it), which is any of a number of tropical American weevils which are often destructive to plants. I might have considered this word to be even more amazing than syzygy because of the preponderance of “Z’s,” but it has one actual vowel and so lost that potentially lauded distinction.

By now you are probably wondering what syzygy means. Even if you are not, I will tell you. That’s just the way I am; always a delight and full of fun and interesting facts. It is an astronomical term that refers to when three celestial bodies form a straight line with each other. This is as when the sun and earth and moon line up to create an eclipse.

As for patoot, I’ve been unable to find it in any of my many dictionaries and its origins are unclear, as may be the point of this article. But I did manage to get quite a few good words into it, didn’t I?

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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