100 Whimsical Words

By Mark Nichol

The English language can be maddening to native speakers and learners alike, but is also delightfully rich, especially for those who seek to convey a lighthearted tone in their writing. Here are 100 words it’s difficult to employ without smiling. Though their meanings may be obscure, they each present a challenge — I mean an opportunity — for you to paint a vivid word picture. Imbue your musings with mirth by incorporating these terms:

absquatulate: to flee, abscond
abstemious: restrained in consumption of food and alcohol
balderdash: nonsense
ballyhoo: commotion, hype
bindle stiff: hobo
bodacious: remarkable, voluptuous
borborygmus: sound of intestinal gas
cahoots (in the expression “in cahoots with”): scheming
callipygian: possessing a shapely derriere
cantankerous: irritating, difficult
carbuncle: pustule
caterwaul: to wail or protest noisily
cattywampus: in disarray
cockamamie (also cockamamie): ridiculous
comeuppance: just deserts
concupiscent: possessed of erotic desire
copacetic (also copasetic, copesetic): satisfactory
curmudgeon: ill-tempered (and often old) person
debauchery: sensual gratification
doohickey: gadget or attachment
effluvium: unpleasant smell
factotum: all-around servant or attendant
farrago: confused mixture
festoon: to decorate; dangling decorative chains
finagle: to trick
fisticuffs: fighting with fists
flabbergasted: dumbfounded
flagitious: villainous
flibbertigibbet: flighty person
flummoxed: confused
foible: fault
folderol: nonsense
foofaraw: flash, frills
fusty: moldy, musty, old-fashioned
gallimaufry: mixture, jumble
gallivant: to jaunt or carouse
gobbledygook: nonsense, indecipherable writing
haberdasher: men’s clothier; provider of sundries
harridan: shrewish woman
higgledy-piggledy: in a disorganized or confused manner
high jinks (also hijinks): boisterous antics
hodgepodge: mixture, jumble
hokum: nonsense
hoodwink: to deceive
hoosegow: jail
hornswoggle: to dupe or hoax
hortatory: advisory
hullabaloo: uproar
ignoramus: dunce
imbroglio: confused predicament
jackanapes: impudent or mischievous person
jiggery-pokery: deceit
kerfuffle: disturbance
lackadaisical: bereft of energy or enthusiasm
loggerheads (in the expression “at loggerheads”): quarrelsome
lollygag: to meander, delay
loquacious: talkative
louche: disreputable
lugubrious: mournful, dismal
malarkey (also malarky): nonsense
maleficence: evil
mendacious: deceptive
oaf: clumsy or stupid person
obfuscate: confuse, obscure
obloquy: condemning or abusive language, or the state of being subject to such
obsequious: flattering
orotund: sonorous, or pompous
osculate: to kiss
paroxysm: convulsion or outburst
peccadillo: minor offense
periwinkle: light purplish blue; creeping plant; aquatic snail
perspicacious: astute
pettifogger: quibbler; disreputable lawyer
poltroon: cowardly, coward
prognosticate: to predict
pusillanimous: cowardly
raffish: vulgar
ragamuffin: dirty, disheveled person
rambunctious: unruly
resplendent: brilliantly glowing
ribaldry: crude or coarse behavior
rigmarole (also rigamarole): confused talk; complicated procedure
ruckus: disturbance
scalawag: scamp
scofflaw: lawbreaker
shenanigans: tricks or mischief
skedaddle: flee
skulduggery: devious behavior
spiffy: stylish
squelch: to suppress or silence; act of silencing; sucking sound
subterfuge: deception, or deceptive ploy
supercilious: haughty
swashbuckler: cocky adventurer; story about the same
sylph: lithe woman
tatterdemalion: raggedly dressed person; looking disreputable or decayed
termagant: shrewish woman
whirligig: whirling toy; merry-go-round; dizzying course of events
widdershins (also withershins): counterclockwise, contrary
willy-nilly: by force, haphazardly

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36 Responses to “100 Whimsical Words”

  • Stephen

    This is generally a good and fun list. I especially like the words I hadn’t heard before, like cattywampus. Borborygmus is great since I don’t think there’s another word for the same thing.

    But I don’t like bindle stiff. It sounds horrible. Surely a stiff is a slang term for a corpse?

  • Robert

    Just “desserts”

    Otherwise, a great list. There are many I already use, and lots more I have never heard before.

  • Jason

    These are wonderful lists but your definition of “obsequious” seems odd to me. “Flattering” sounds like it could used a compliment (or at least neutral) but I’ve never heard the word used in any way that wasn’t an insult. Even the OED lists synonyms like sycophantic, servile and ingratiating.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for sharing this list! I also like dangnabit 🙂

  • The Good Writing Blog

    A lovely list. I can’t help smiling on hearing such gems as “cahoots,” “comeuppance” and “skulduggery.”

    Dave

  • Sue Dodd

    What a great list! It’s so nice to see words of more than two syllables used on the internet and indeed promoted for writing. So much these days seems to come from poor Gen Y who seems to think that it’s acceptable for “great” to be written “gr8”. One of my favourite words is obstreperous, which I constantly tell my eight year old that she is. 🙂

  • Roberta B.

    Fun list! A number of these words have their origins in foreign languages (maybe another topic for another time). I’ll take issue with one:
    comeuppance – It could mean “just desserts” in the sarcastic sense (it’s hard to imply sarcasm in the written form). However, it more accurately might mean a well-deserved rebuke rather than “just desserts” as a reward.
    You left off one word we can’t say or use anymore due to the speech police – niggardly. Not what is sounds like, but meaning begrudgingly cheap or miserly. This one made news here in the US several years ago when an “illiterate” school board took issue, not because of its harsh description, but because it sounded too much like another offensive term. What happened to vocabulary lists (and reasoning, for that matter) as a teaching tool?!
    @Rebecca: “dagnabbit!” would be an expletive – specifically one of those words which transposes sounds and letters in place of cursing or swearing.

  • John White

    Call me an old borborygmus, but I’m not sure these words will fly in the technology white papers for which my clients turn to me. Nevertheless, I’ll try to get some mileage out of them at the dinner table tonight to see whom I can flummox.

  • Deborah H

    A terrific list, Mark.

    I looked for (Great!) Googly-Moogly—-just to see how you would spell it! I hope it’s not a derivative of something bad, because I love to use it with my granddaughter. It always makes her laugh.

  • Meredith

    I enjoyed this list quite a bit. I might also hazard to add two favorites – agathokakological and aggrandize 🙂

  • Simon

    Wonderful list here. Much smiling went on as I read it.

    I once had a competition with a mate to see who could send out the most nonsensical email at work. We fired in a few of these words, added in some technical (but mostly unused) jargon and season it with as much legal terminology as was possible. Then we waited to see what the response would be….

    Alas it was a simple “thanks for your email, we are looking into your comments and will revert ASAP”. No reverting came ASAP or otherwise.

    On a more serious note it is useful to see a list like this because it is handy to know what we can write to make our readers smile. I post about serious matters but I don’t want to be serious 100% of the time. Some of these words will simply lift the mood slightly.

    Thanks.

  • Clarence

    I enjoyed the word list, but aren’t we missing one word? I count 99.

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    My guess is that the “stiff” part of bindlestiff suggests the condition derived from continually sleeping on hard ground and/or out in the cold.

  • Mark Nichol

    Robert:

    Actually, deserts is correct — something I learned not too many years ago. It is related to deserve and has nothing to do with after-dinner treats.

  • Mark Nichol

    Clarence:

    You win the prize; I must have miscounted. My vote for the hundredth word is befuddle.

  • Mark Nichol

    Deborah:

    I’d never heard of that term, so I looked it up. It seems to derive from the blues, where it was (you guessed it) an expression of admiration for women, but it’s also been used in dialogue in children’s programs, so it’s apparently been sufficiently sanitized for everyday use.

  • Kathryn

    Stephen & Mark– The noun “stiff” has a rich load of slang meanings. One, certainly, is “corpse”; Wentworth & Flexner’s 1960 Dictionary of American Slang dates that meaning to at least as early as 1859. However, it also means (and I quote W&F) “[a]n average or common man, esp. a manual laborer, factory worker or other man emplyed for strength or skill rather than intelligence; a fellow, a guy,” which it dates to as early as 1900, with “hobo” identified as having evolved from that meaning. And, actually, I see that Webster’s Third New International includes both “hobo” and “blue collar worker” in its definitions of the noun “stiff.’

  • Stephen

    Kathryn> Cool, thanks! I’d heard the term ‘working stiff’ before, but didn’t connect the two. I guess bindlestiff is a nicer phrase than I initially thought.

  • Michael

    Lovely!

    Can I recommend Ammon Shea’s ‘Reading the OED’ as worthwhile source of delightful, if a little archaic and seldom-used words, e.g.,

    Balter (v.) To dance clumsily.
    Bully-scribbler (n.) A bullying writer.
    Bemissionary (v.) To annoy with missionaries. (A favourite of mine.)
    Felicificability (n.) Capacity for happiness.
    Goat-drunk (adj.) Made lascivious by alcohol.
    Gobemouche (n.) One who believes anything, no matter how absurd.
    Grinagog (n.) A person who is constantly grinning.
    Mafflard (n.) A stuttering or blundering fool.
    Miskissing (n.) Kissing that is wrong.
    Osculable (adj.) Able to be kissed.
    Pissuprest (n.) The holding in of urine.
    Rapin (n.) An unruly art student.
    Ruffing (n.) The stomping of feet as a form of applause.
    Sardonian (n.) One who flatters with deadly intent.
    Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.
    Umbriphilous (adj.) Fond of the shade.
    Vocabularian (n.) One who pays too much attention to words.
    Wine-knight (n.) One who drinks valiantly.
    Yuky (adj.) Itchy; also, itching with curiousity.

    And I couldn’t finish without an Australian slang-word: Drongo (n.) A silly or stupid person. (q.v. Galah)

  • Carolina Valdez

    Need to be careful when using these words in a piece of writing. You don’t want to send your readers to the dictionary too often. LOL

  • Fiona McGier

    Bloviate: to speak at length about nothing much, giving your opinion, usually loudly. Ie, radio yakkers.

    My favorite tee shirt says: “Eschew Obfuscation”–I gave it to my brother, and he wears it to MENSA meetings
    (Shun the act of making things more complicated than they need to be)

  • =Tamar

    I must be old. Most of those words are perfectly normal to me.

  • Mark Nichol

    =Tamar:

    Normal? No. Common? Not sufficiently, for my taste. They are unusually vivid, evocative words that are also unusually rare, considering how much meaning they pack into (generally) one word.

  • Michael

    Mark: I don’t have any data, but I would venture to say that around a third to a half of the words on your list are in fairly common usage—in Australia at least.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    Then Australia has a much richer vocabulary than the United States does, not to mention that it is superior in every other way. But you already know that.

  • Michael

    Mark: Not true. You have Bruce Springsteen and Tabasco sauce. two very estimable assets.

    Seriously though, I wouldn’t have thought words like ‘cahoots’, ‘foible’ or ‘squelch’ (amongst others) all that rare in North America either.

  • Michael

    Sorry Mark, I don’t mean to be disagreeable, I’m just curious. There are also real practical implications for non-US writers writing for a US audience if indeed these words are used rarely.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    You disagree, but you’re not disagreeable.

    These and other words are remarkably rare in popular usage, enough so that seeing or hearing them elicits from me a smile of delight. Unfortunately, the vast hoard of traditional dialect-based vocabulary in American English is increasingly devalued as quaint or debased and is being subsumed by a miserly budget of generic or coarse words.

  • Michael

    Mark:

    That is sad—for the world at least as much as the United States.

  • Ginger

    Many of these words are commonly used in my hometown of Haleyville, Alabama. And, I’m sorry Deborah H, but it’s good giggly wiggly, not great googly moogly. 🙂

  • Mark Nichol

    Ginger:

    >Many of these words are commonly used in my hometown of Haleyville, Alabama.

    That’s good to hear.

    >And, I’m sorry Deborah H, but it’s good giggly wiggly, not great googly moogly.

    Actually, it’s both, and others — many nonsense expressions have a number of variants.

  • Ginger

    >And, I’m sorry Deborah H, but it’s good giggly wiggly, not great googly moogly.

    >Actually, it’s both, and others — many nonsense expressions have a number of variants.

    Yes, many others. I also agree with your observation that we are losing our beautiful dialect based words.

  • John Wiswell

    I use at least ten of these words semi-regularly, but that’s in part because none of my fellow Americans do. I adore the list and am actually penning a story now that uses all 100 of them. I’ll post a link in a few days if you’re interested.

  • John Wiswell

    Just in case people want to see all 100 in the same small story:

    http://johnwiswell.blogspot.com/2011/03/bathroom-monologue-three-bindle-stiffs.html

  • Ginger

    Good giggly wiggly! Thanks for the fun read, John!

  • Carli

    I’m Welsh, and I see 29 of these I can confidently say I hear or read frequently. I used three yesterday – ruckus, cahoots and fisticuffs, and now that I put that in writing yesterday sounds quite fraught and violent!

    Thank you for a rather inspired and comprehensive list nevertheless.

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