While meditating on my own writing the other day, I was struck by the realization that I use numerous vocabulary words that I categorically never utter aloud, such as “categorically.” Who am I trying to impress? I think many years in the education system spent trying to wow teachers and professors with my big ol’ brain has turned me into a pretentious, fraudulent wordsmith. For your consideration, here are some of my favorite words to pepper into my own writing that I absolutely never say, and hopefully you’ll have a laugh at my expense and learn a new word or two in the process. All definitions and pronunciations are via dictionary.com.
Incorrigible [ in-kawr-i-juh-buhl ]
An adjective that means “not corrigible; bad beyond correction or reform,” saying this word just sounds like you’re saying that someone can be encouraged, which is nonsense. I know for myself and likely many others, the first time I heard this word was when Oscar from “The Office” said it, yet I had no idea he didn’t say “encourageable,” which isn’t even a word. Thanks Oscar.
Nihility [ nahy-hil-i-tee ]
This noun means “nothingness, nonexistence.” It’s not often used in this form, and for good reason. This is the kind of word you need to practice saying slowly at first, like a musician working on some tough scales. Nihilism had its day in “The Big Lebowski,” but anyone who feels completely comfortable saying this word out loud is just lying to themselves.
Obfuscate [ ob-fuh-skeyt ]
Fancy vocabulary words are supposed to improve your writing, but I’ll never forgive myself for using this verb that means “to confuse, bewilder or stupefy” in a review I wrote of the game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” When all I was really saying was that something was being hidden or obscured, I opted to use “obfuscate” in my assessment of a baby game about a town of cute animals. I can’t think of a less tonally appropriate time to flex the thesaurus, but I did it anyway.
Prurient [ proor-ee-uhnt ]
The first syllable of this adjective that means “having, inclined to have or characterized by lascivious or lustful thoughts, desires, etc.” is just so painfully awkward to say. There’s no way to not say this word and go way too hard on that syllable and sound like a fool in the process.
Posthumous [ pos-chuh-muhs ]
My problem with this adjective that means “arising, occurring or continuing after one’s death” is that the pronunciation obfuscates the otherwise obvious definition of the word. See what I did there? Everyone loves a callback, even with vocabulary words, right? If we just pronounced this word like two words, saying “post” and then “humous,” the meaning would be pretty obvious. The real pronunciation, however, sounds like some weird hummus-pasta hybrid that you’d buy out of somebody’s van.
Catafalque [ kat–uh-fawk ]
I can’t get over just how aesthetically pleasing this word is to look at, but saying it is another story entirely. A noun that means “a raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state,” I honestly don’t know when you would actually need to say this word, which is its saving grace. It can be relegated to flavor text in a fantasy role-playing game where it can really be appreciated.
Capricious [ kuh–prish–uhs ]
The fact that this word has no direct connection to being a Capricorn feels like linguistic gaslighting. Instead it’s an adjective that means “subject to, led by or indicative of a sudden, odd notion or unpredictable change; erratic.” I like my vocabulary words to mean what they appear to. I don’t even know who to be mad at for this. Webster? God?
Vampiric [ vam-pir-ik ]
I don’t need to define this adjective, you know exactly what it means. This is genuinely one of my favorite vocabulary words of all time, so I had to put it on this list. It only makes it on here because of how unabashedly nerdy you’d sound if you said it out loud. Don’t be ashamed, shout it from the rooftops. I’m vampiric and I’m proud!
Lubricious [ loo-brish-uhs ]
This one really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It also satisfies what capricious failed to, which is that it actually means what you might hope it means. It is an adjective that means “arousing or expressive of sexual desire; lustful; lecherous.” The only problem is that if you ever said this aloud, like during sex for example, I can only imagine the looks you’ll get. Still, you can use this word to really lube up your writing. I’m sorry, but I just had to do it.
Heterogenous [ het-uh–roj–uh-nuhs ]
I intentionally avoided scientific terms for this list because there are just far too many, but I had to make one exception. This adjective that means “having its source or origin outside the organism; having a foreign origin” is a word most of us have heard in our biology classes. I simply can’t get over how it really just sounds like it means “smart straight person.” Thanks Mendel.
Palimpsest [ pal-imp-sest ]
If you’re pronouncing each of these vocabulary words as you go along you may have noticed my problem with this word, that it sounds far too similar to one of the English language’s most disgusting words, incest. The real meaning of this noun is far more elegant than that, which is “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” The potential metaphors here are numerous, but all it makes me think of is kissing cousins.
Omniscience [ om-nish–uhns ]
I’ve never wanted a word to by hyphenated so badly in my life. Omni-science is so much more fun to me. The real pronunciation does flow pretty well, but it doesn’t really sounds like it means anything. It would be terribly ironic to hear this word spoken without knowing its definition, as it is a noun that means “infinite knowledge.” That’s awkward.
Penultimate [ pi-nuhl-tuh-mit ]
I am absolutely convinced that this adjective only exists to make list writers feel smart, as it really just means “next to the last.” Why do we need a word for that? Why doesn’t this word really just mean “a really sweet writing utensil?” It’s just wasteful.
Allegory [ al–uh-gawr-ee ]
The penultimate entry on this list of vocabulary words is as High School as they come. This noun means “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.” If you’ve blocked this word from memory then you’re not alone, but just know that your freshman year English teacher is rolling over in their graves, whether they currently reside in one or not. Somebody get them a catafalque!
Pyrrhic [ pir-ik ]
This word has several definitions, but my favorite is “of, relating to or resembling Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, or his costly victory.” It’s such a striking word to read, but all the mystery is removed when it’s spoken. You might say that uttering any one of these words is a pyrrhic victory. You’ve said something smart, but at what cost?