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List of unusual English words

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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.

Table of contents

Strange spellings

Most people are aware that the letter y can serve as both a consonant and a vowel. However, cwm (pronounced "koom", defined as a steep-walled hollow on a hillside) is a rare case of a word using w as a vowel, as is crwth (pronounced "krooth", a type of stringed instrument). Both words are in MWCD. 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.

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 in the local forms of English. See 'coombe' as the south-west English equivalent of 'cwm'.

Uncopyrightable, with fifteen letters, is the longest word in English in which no letter is used more than once.

Combinations of letters

There is only one common word in English that has five vowels in a row: "queueing".

The word "knightsbridge" has six consonants in a row, as does "latchstring".

There are several words that feature all five vowels in alphabetical order, including "facetious" and "abstemious".

Strange 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.

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, can be pronounced at least nine different ways.

PronunciationExampleComment
"UFF" tough, enough
"OFF" cough
"OW" bough, slough
"OH" though, dough
"OR" thought Pronounced "AW" (as in 'awe') in American English
"OO" through
"UH" thorough Pronounced "OH" in American English
"UP" hiccough variant spelling of "hiccup", though the latter form is recommended in both British and US
"OKH" lough an alternate spelling for "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.

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

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

Words of foreign origin

The entire history of English involves absorptions from other languages, and this process continues today. However, it is very hard to decide when a word stops being "foreign" and starts being English. Everyone would accept that "ballet" (French), "ketchup" (Cantonese) and "safari" (Swahili) are [now] English words, what is less certain is the status of words such as "zeitgeist".

Names

Sometimes names are mispronounced badly when transferred into English. For instance a name which has been treated strangely by English speakers is the name Caitlin. Since this is a Gaelic name it is spelled using Gaelic conventions. Most English speakers are ignorant of these conventions and apply English ones. The result is that a name which should be pronounced Kathleen ends up being pronounced Kate-Linn. Other Gaelic names, such as Sinead, or Sine, suffer from similar misunderstanding. Probably most foreign names are mispronounced when they are transferred into English.

See also: English language



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