20 Words for That Certain Something

By Mark Nichol

Some people have it, and some people don’t. But what, exactly, is it? Here’s a list of words describing a special quality that sets certain people apart from others, and their meanings:

1. Brio: vivaciousness (Italian, “fire, life,” perhaps from the word for vigor from a form of French)
2. Charisma: charm or personal magnetism (from the Greek word meaning “favor”)
3. Chutzpah: admirable or excessive self-confidence; this word and ginger are the only ones on this list that have both positive and negative connotations (from Hebrew by way of Yiddish; several other spellings are used, but this one is the most common)
4. Duende: charm (from Spanish dialect, meaning “ghost”)
5. Élan: enthusiasm (from the French word eslan, meaning “rush,” with the same Latin root from which lance is derived)
6. Esprit: vivacious wit (French, from the Latin term spiritus, “spirit”)
7. Flair: style, or talent or tendency (from the French word meaning “odor” or “scent,” ultimately from Latin flagrare, an alteration of fragrare, from which fragrance is derived)
8. Ginger: spirit, or temper (from the Latin term zingiberis, for the root used as a spice and a medicine, derived from the Sanskrit word srngaveram)
9. Gumption: initiative (from a Scottish word meaning “shrewdness,” perhaps from a Germanic term meaning “attention”)
10. Gusto: enthusiasm (the Italian word for “taste,” from the Latin term gustus)
11. Je ne sais quoi: a quality not easily described or expressed (a French phrase that means literally “I know not what”)
12. Knack: intuitive capacity or knowledge (originally meant “trick”; perhaps from the onomatopoeic word akin to knock)
13. Mettle: vigor, stamina (from an alternate spelling of metal)
14. Moxie: energy, enthusiasm, courage (from the brand name of a soft drink; early on, such beverages were often touted, long before the advent of energy drinks, as providing pep)
15. Panache: flamboyance; originally, a decorative plume of feathers on a helmet (from the Latin term pinnaculum, meaning “small wing,” by way of Italian and French)
16. Pizzazz: glamour, vitality (unknown etymology)
17. Savoir faire: self-assuredness, talent for knowing how to conduct oneself (from the French term savoir-faire, meaning “knowing how to do,” from the Latin words sapere, meaning “know,” and facere, meaning “do”)
18. Savoir vivre: knowledge of appropriate behavior (from the French word savoir-vivre, “knowing how to live,” from the Latin terms sapere, meaning “know,” and vivre, meaning “live”)
19. Spunk: courage, pluck (from the Gaelic word spong, meaning “tinder,” ultimately derived from the Latin term spongia, from which sponge is also derived)
20. Verve: vivacity, energy, enthusiasm (ultimately from the Latin term verbum, meaning “word,” because of the early sense of “flair for speaking or writing”)

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5 Responses to “20 Words for That Certain Something”

  • Rachel Cooper

    Lovely list! It’s pizazz, though. 🙂 (Pizzazz is a bistro that sells pizza.)

  • Barbara Scott Emmett

    Careful when using spunk for British readers! It now generally means something entirely different. 🙂

  • Stefano

    You can find it spelled as pizzazz, pizazz, pazzazz, pazazz, or even pzazz.

    By the way, Mark, another good one is “oomph”!

  • Deborah H

    Charisma is the je ne sais quoi that women with large bosoms have.

  • Justin C

    One that is growing in popularity among the younger generation is “swag”, generally referring to either a particularly stylish accessory, or the self-confidence and bravado required to pull off such an accessory. Still highly informal!

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