Do You Know the Meaning of These Obscure Words?

Torrance Grey

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About This Quiz

You'll love this quiz if you use obscure words to impress your friends with the depth and breadth of your vocabulary, or simply to learn a new and unfamiliar word for fun and interest. Or mayhap you enjoy Shakespeare's work and love old English phrases. For whatever reason you enjoy obscure words, it is easier to intuit their meaning in context, than on their own. However, if you know root words, prefixes, and suffixes, you may do surprisingly well on this quiz. For instance, "colloquy" is another word for "conversation." It is related to the better-known term "soliloquy." But as the prefix indicates, a "colloquy" is with another person, and a "soliloquy" is solo --like Hamlet's famous speech. 

What is wonderful about the English language is that it is dynamic, ever-growing and ever-changing. Our society creates new words all the time for modern products, concepts and situations. Where else would "e-mail" come from or the commonly understood and accepted terms, including "e-book", "e-cash", and "e-commerce"? From new medical and environmental developments to technological advances, words help us describe our world. Challenge your cohorts to see which one of you can showcase your knowledge of English's backbencher words fastest. Take the quiz anon!


Something with "eurythmy" has good ____.

"Eurythmy" can refer to a building, a musical composition, an artistic piece, or more. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart adopted it for their stage name: The Eurhythmics.

What is a "cohort"?

"Cohort" hasn't really dropped out of favor that much. It used to mean "a tenth of a Roman legion," and survives as a term for a colleague or supporter.

If something is a "misnomer," it is poorly _____.

"Misnomer" started life as a term from something that is mis-named. But it's broadened to mean "misunderstood," as many people learned when Trump used it that way in January 2018. (Merriam-Webster, who supported Obama on "enormity," also backed Trump up here).

"Froward" means _______.

"Froward" is the long-unused opposite of "toward." So it can mean "away from," but also used to mean "willful" or deliberately doing the opposite of what is desired.

When someone uses the expression "all told," what does "told" mean?

"Tell" in early modern English meant "count." In 'Hamlet,' one of the guards sees the king's ghost walking "as long as one might tell a hundred," meaning the amount of time it might take to count to a hundred.

What is an agendum?

It's true, we usually say that a meeting has "an agenda." But the strictest of word snobs would point out that that means the meeting has more than one list of things to cover -- because in Latin, "agenda" is plural.

What is the best definition of "mayhap"?

"Mayhap" is an old-fashioned term meaning "perhaps." You find it in Shakespeare's work and, more broadly, Elizabethan English.

A "colloquy" is a fancy term for a ______.

"Colloquy" is related to the better-known term "soliloquy." But as the first syllables indicate, a "co-lloquy" is with another person, and a "soliloquy" is solo -- like Hamlet's famous speech.

What does "meet" mean (when it doesn't mean "encounter in person")?

You'll still hear this one in certain church liturgies (a call-and-response part of the service). For example, "Let us call upon the Lord" would be followed by "It is meet and right so to do."

To "glister" means to _______.

Though rarely used in conversation, this one remains famous because of its use in "The Merchant of Venice." The famous line from the poem-within-a-play is "All that glisters is not gold."

Instead of "anon," we would now probably say ____.

This is another Shakespeare staple."Anon" means "soon," "right away," or sometimes, "I'm coming!"

Where would you find a "penult"?

A "penult" is the next-to-last syllable of a word. An "antepenult" is the syllable before that. These terms are used when you're learning where to put the emphasis in a word.

What is a "temblor"?

"Temblor" is just a highfalutin' word for earthquake. No one really uses it in conversation, but newspaper writers rely on it as a synonym when they're writing stories about recent geological upheavals.

What did "pale" mean when it used to be a noun?

This meaning survives in two places in modern English. One is the expression "beyond the pale," which means "beyond the boundary of good taste." The second is the word "palings," the timbers that hold up a pier at the ocean.

The best meaning of "junta" is ______.

"Junta" comes from Spanish and became well-known in the 1980s and 90s, in news coverage of Latin American governments overthrown by small groups of powerful military leaders. Eventually it made its way into coverage of non-Latin American countries, with descriptions of "juntas" in former Soviet republics.

The word for excessive or nonstop talking is _______.

"Logorrhea" uses the same suffix as "diarrhea," because both refer to a flow that won't seem to stop. In psychology, when a patient speaks hurriedly and excessively, it's often known as "pressured speech."

The word "sooth" generally means ______.

This is why a fortune-teller used to be called a "soothsayer" -- they were said to see the future "truly," as opposed to people who could only guess at it. Don't confuse it with "soothe," which means to comfort.

The best definition of "doughty" is _______.

"Doughty" is all over early modern English, usually in descriptions of knights and warriors. Some writers use it nowadays to be slightly tongue-in-cheek when describing bravery.

Who are the "hoi polloi"?

"Hoi polloi" is a Greek borrowing. It means average or common people.

If someone yells "Gardyloo!", what are you supposed to do?

"Gardyloo" was the English corruption of the French "Garde a l'eau!" or "Look out for the water!" People in upper-story windows used it when they tossed out graywater from washing dishes or cooking. Indoor plumbing has rendered it unnecessary.

Which of these signs is an "octothorpe?"

This humble sign has three names: the rare "octothorpe," the common "pound sign," and the 21st-century "hashtag."

If a bird is a passerine, it has ______.

Passerines are perching birds; they have claw-like toes. This differentiates them from birds like ducks, which have webbed feet.

"Folderol" means ______.

"Folderol" is a word for silliness or nonsense. It's probably derived from a meaningless refrain in old songs: "Fol-de-rol, fol-de-rol."

What kind of insect is a "pismire"?

This one's obscure indeed -- but some people might know it because of Thomas Harris's bestselling book, "Red Dragon." The killer in that book uses it to describe a tabloid reporter whom he deems insignificant.

What does "cozen" mean?

Again, this is a word pulled out of dusty obscurity by Thomas Harris. In "The Silence of the Lambs," Clarice Starling is put off by a TV news reporter's "cozening manner." (Harris seems to have loved archaic words and hated reporters).

What part of speech is "contumely"?

"Contumely" means "verbal abuse or scorn." English has several words that end in "-ly" that aren't adverbs. They include "lovely," "homely," and "timely," which are all primarily adjectives.

What is "conturbation"?

"Conturbation" means "disturbance or turmoil." Like many of the words in this quiz, it's rarely used nowadays.

If you have the "ague," what do you have?

"Ague" is an older English term for a fever, usually accompanied by chills. In a poem, Lord Byron complained of having it after swimming the Hellespont.

In the strictest sense, "enormity" means _____

President Obama was criticized for using this word to mean "great size," when language purists point out it means "cruelty" or "evil." But Obama was only using the meaning that's become fairly common in recent decades.

What would you probably do with "bibelots"?

"Bibelots" are otherwise known as trinkets, gewgaws, or knick-knacks. Some of us do avoid them, but many others collect them.

"Dipsomania" is an old-fashioned term for what?

Few fields have updated their terminology as much as psychology. "Dipsomania" became "alcoholism," and is now more often diagnosed as "alcohol abuse disorder."

Without an apostrophe, "cant" means _____.

"Cant" refers to platitudes that many people say, but few people act on. This includes vows to "move to Canada" when an opposition-party candidate is elected president.

"Emanent" means _______.

"Emanent" is a rarely-used variation on the verb "emanate," meaning "to come or stem from." Don't confuse it with "imminent," meaning "about to happen," or "eminent," meaning "highly thought of."

If you've had an episode of "enuresis," you'll need to change your ________.

"Enuresis" is a medical term for "bedwetting." It's derived from the Greek word for "urine."

What on earth is a "chrestomathy"?

The literary critic and satirist H. L. Mencken dusted off this old term when he called one of his collections "A Mencken Chrestomathy." %0D%0DSpeaking of eminent wordsmiths, we'd like to give a shoutout here to Charles Harrington Elster, whose book "What In the Word?" helped us find some rare words for this quiz. And also to the folks at Merriam-Webster, whose site is a joy for any logophile to visit!

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