Universal Mentors Association

Can You Guess These 10 Wacky Words From the Scripps Spelling Bee?


In music, this type of “leaning” grace note clashes with the melody just enough to create dissonance, then sweet resolution. It is famous for its capacity to give you goosebumps: Imagine Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, or the opening of Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

The word is derived from “appoggiare,” an Italian verb meaning “to lean,” which in turn comes from the Greek root “pod,” meaning “feet,” along with “podium,” “pedestal” and “podiatrist” — providers of support.

Hundreds of Italian loanwords exist in English, especially in fields like classical music or haute cuisine.

This term was the Scripps Bee’s winning word in 2005, clinched by the 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap, who reported feeling “pure happiness” when he recited that victorious final “a” — tension, then release.

In the early 1990s, the British psychologist John Sloboda asked music aficionados to think of their favorite tear-jerking musical moments. Out of the 20 identified phrases, 18 featured an appoggiatura.

This whimsical adjective meaning “utopian” is derived from a nonsense noun that is an anagram of “nowhere.”

The noun is the title of an 1872 novel by Samuel Butler. Satirizing Victorian society, the British author concocted the word to describe a fantasyland that deifies physical health and treats illness as a criminal offense.

The word trickled from literary obscurity into the popular lexicon thanks in large part to a Southern California grocery chain whose name also comes from the Butler book. That store has developed an almost cultlike following for its $22 almond butter and its smoothie collab with Hailey Bieber.

How does a niche fictional reference become a “real” word? Frequently, it’s when the term “speaks to a pocket of experience that people were previously missing from the language,” said Yee-Lum Mak, a rhetoric scholar and the author of “Other-Wordly.”

Not every corner of American culture thirsts for an expression meaning “wellness utopia,” but for a certain dialect of Los Angeles English, “erewhonian” satisfies a lexical gap.

This adjective denotes foxiness. It emerged in the early 17th century by way of a few Latin variations, all relating to foxes or their cunning qualities.

When the Swedish botanist (and homo sapien) Carl Linnaeus invented the binomial nomenclature system for classifying organisms in 1735, he used this word’s Latin root “vulpes” as the genus for “true foxes.”

Many early books about biology and medicine were written in Latin. Much of that terminology has been preserved (think “larva” or “rhinoplasty”), which is why scientists sometimes sound like they’re speaking a foreign language: They are.

This word shares its foxy root with the name of the Pokémon character Vulpix, a squash-hued fox with a bushy tail and fiery superpowers.

And if you’re a fan of The Times’s own Spelling Bee game, you may remember “vulpine” as the pangram from April 23, 2023.

In astronomy, it’s when three or more celestial bodies configure in a perfect line (the Earth, sun and moon during a solar eclipse, for example). But in poetry, it describes a kind of consonant repetition — like alliteration, but not limited to the beginnings of words — or a fusion of words for rhythmic effect.

The shortest English word to feature three y’s, it is most likely a compound of the Greek prefix “syn-,” meaning “together with,” and “zygon,” meaning “yoke.”

Also descending from “zygon” are “zygote,” the product of two reproductive cells coming together, and “zygomatic bone,” a.k.a. the cheekbone.

But among top spellers, “syzygy” is beloved for its particularity: It’s one of those singular English words that’s almost impossible to spell if you don’t already know it.

Defined by Merriam-Webster as “careless handwriting: a crude or illegible scrawl,” this word is a semantic cousin of “graffiti.”

Entering English via the French verb “griffonner,” meaning “to scrawl,” its Middle French ancestors included “grifouner” (to scribble), “griffon” (stylus) and the suffix “-age” (meaning “the act of,” as in “tutelage” or “sabotage”).

“This word makes me think of a griffin trying to hold a pen and having a hard time,” said Ms. Mak, the rhetoric scholar, referring to the Greek mythological creature with an eagle’s head and wings and the body of a lion. The two terms may not be entirely unrelated: “Griffe” is the French word for “claw,” and writing with talons does sound tricky.

Still, charming as the word itself may seem, griffonage may have deadly consequences.

A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study found that medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and both physicians and ethics researchers have suggested that doctors’ notoriously illegible handwriting may contribute.

“This is a fun example of a word that accurately describes itself,” said Evan O’Dorney, the 2007 Scripps champion. It’s a piece of zany made-up language whose definition is “zany made-up language” — a nonsense word that means “nonsense words.”

Lewis Carroll invented the term for his 1871 novel “Through the Looking-Glass”; it appears in a poem full of polysyllabic whimsy about a fearsome, serpentine beast.

This is technically a nonce word: a lexical item invented for one-time, special-occasion use (and which may or may not eventually take a seat at the table of everyday English).

Carroll’s nonce legacy is illustrious. In addition to this word, we also have him to thank for coining the noun “snark” and the verb “chortle.”

Jabberwocky” enjoyed a pop-culture renaissance in the mid-2000s thanks to Jabbawockeez, a San Diego hip-hop dance group that won the first season of “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008.

There’s something about this playful term that seems to suggest its definition: a jumbled mixture. Synonyms include “ragbag” and “mishmash.”

Its earlier variations referred specifically to food: a stew consisting of meat, vegetables and other miscellaneous ingredients. One Medieval recipe called for chopped goose, wine, water, onions and herbs.

In Middle English, the word was spelled “hochepoche,” derived from the root “hotch” meaning “to shake.”

“Hodgepodge” is also closely related to a legal term, which dates back to the 13th century and frequently comes up when handling wills, trusts and divorces.

In estate law, that linguistic cousin, “hotchpot,” means “mixture of property” and refers to the process of combining and redistributing properties so all the beneficiaries receive their fair share — much like dishing out a stew, but with a lot more paperwork.

A flamboyant style of art and decoration, born of the 17th century’s French Baroque movement (the Palace of Versailles is a prime example), but incorporating more asymmetry and a softer, pastel-leaning palette.

The word might look Italian, but it actually comes from the French “rocaille,” which means “rock” or “shell” and describes the lavish botanical decoration that was used (to excess, some might argue) in parts of Europe in the 1700s.

Since the 19th century, English conversationalists have used the term to mean “dated” or “out of fashion,” its humorous phonetic bounce poking fun at the bygone aesthetic’s gaudiness.

It appears in the title and chorus of a 2010 Arcade Fire song, which starts, “Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids,” and continues “Using great big words that they don’t understand.”

A verb meaning to produce a long, oscillating cry that can signal a range of powerful emotions, from grief to ecstasy.

Much like an onomatopoeia, this is a word whose sound reflects its content. “It’s one of those great imitative terms in English, like ‘tintinnabulation,’ a tinkling sound, and ‘borborygmus,’ an intestinal gurgle,” said the lexicographer Kory Stamper.

The vocalization features in cultural celebrations across the world, including Mizrahi Jewish henna ceremonies, Hindu temple rituals and weddings in the Middle East and North Africa, where it’s often produced by women in the form of a high-pitched, joyous “Lililili!”

It also appears as a hunting signal in the 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” and as a spine-chilling war cry in the 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia.”

And in 2022, when Morocco’s men’s soccer team made it to the World Cup semifinals, you could hear people rapturously ululate around the globe, from the streets of Casablanca to the stadium in Qatar.

From the Yiddish term for “wooden block,” this word was brought to the U.S. by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and by the mid-20th century it had become mainstream American slang, along with other delightful loanwords including “schmuck,” “schlep,” “mensch” and “oy vey.”

The Center for Applied Linguistics estimates that, before the Holocaust, about 11 million people spoke Yiddish worldwide. Now, fewer than a million people do, a tiny fraction of them as their native tongue.

Percussive and monosyllabic, this term is phonetically as fun to say as a curse word. And though it’s technically an insult for a clumsy person (a kind of “blockhead”), it’s more endearing than vulgar.

Children of the 1990s may recall the publishing company named after this word, which paired colorful crafts with how-to books on topics as varied as cat’s cradle, magic and blues harmonica.

As bee words go, “klutz” is pretty mainstream. But in general, K-words are some of the hardest to spell, according to competitors. “In our experience, the G’s, K’s and M’s have the highest concentration of zingers,” said Evan O’Dorney, the one-time Scripps champ.


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