In the past day, I’ve come across a surprising number of bizarre words in the English language.

Ylem: The primordial matter of the universe, prior to the formation of the elements.

From Greek υλη, originally meaning “wood;” it was adapted by Aristotle to refer to matter in general, and entered English as Ylem sometime in the 13th century or so, with the above meaning. That was soon replaced by hyle , used to refer to matter in general, which is mostly obsolete but used in adjectives like hylic (of or pertaining to matter) and names of philosophic ideas like hylism , the belief that all the properties of the universe are simply those of matter, and not e.g. of any divine force. A few years ago, Big Bang cosmologists needed a good word for the state of matter prior to baryogenesis (the formation of strongly interacting matter like protons, and thus elements) and someone came across the old word and revived it. Which is how it ended up in the New York Times crossword this past Sunday.

Bathykolpian: See previous post.

Acronychal: (And no, there isn’t a missing ‘h’ after the first ‘c;’ this word derives from ακρονικος, “nightfall”) Happening in the evening or at nightfall.

The word is used mostly in astronomy, along with cosmical (happening at sunrise) and heliacal, pertaining to or near the sun – especially used for when the time of a star’s rising moves to just at sunrise or sunset after a period where it was obscured because it happened during the day. Acronychal has a slightly more familiar Latinate synonym, vespertine, and a related term crepuscular, for things that happen at twilight or dawn.

Acrophony: The use of a word starting with a letter for the letter itself, as in “alpha, bravo, charlie…”

Bezoar and Alexipharmic: Two words for an antidote against poison.

The first comes from Persian pad-zahr and the second from Greek αλεξειν “to ward off” (the origin of the similar woman’s name Alexis. I wonder if that was meant to make it harder for them to get dates?) and φαρμακος, a drug or poison. Readers of Gaiman will probably recognize bezoars from one of their varieties, a trichinobezoar, better known as a hairball; the trichinobezoars of certain creatures have long been used as an ingredient in magical antipoisons, probably by causing the victim to lose their lunch.

Borborygmus: A rumbling in the guts, or in other places down below. Yes, our language has strange onomatopoetic words for more or less everything, too.

Financephalograph: I just can’t do justice to this one. See here for the history of this rather odd device.

Flocculate: To form lumpy or fluffy masses. (From Lat. “floccus,” wool) Really, it doesn’t mean anything rude.

Hypernym and Hyponym: Not really as unusual as the rest, but nice words anyway – the first means “a more general term” and the latter “a more specific term.” The relation is like that of “dog” to “husky.” Useful in the discussion of ontology and the ordering of conceptual meanings in the language.

Yes, I realize this is a pretty random thing to be posting. But I’m taking this morning off from work, and it’s rather refreshing to sit in a coffee shop in the sunlight and write about utter nonsense.

Published in: on January 19, 2004 at 12:00  Comments (8)  


  1. sit in a coffee shop in the sunlight
    *looks out window into bleak grey sky*

  2. Close enough. 🙂

  3. Sunny or no, it’s an en-light-ening post.

  4. Flocculate is actually still in general use in the scientific community for describing the result of some chemical reactions/procedures. I believe I’ve used it myself.

  5. Excellent. 🙂 It sounds like a useful word – I can imagine various processes that it would describe fairly well.

  6. Before clicking on the link, I though “financephalograph” might be a device to measure how much spending was taking place in order to compensate for certain masculine deficiencies. Where does the “phalo” part of that word come from, anyway?

  7. large-scale water purifacation plants (city water plants) use large things called flocculators. They add a chemical to the water which acts like a soap, and attracts particles in the water to the molecules of the chemical. Then as the clumps of particles get large enough, they precipitate out, and fall to the bottom of the tank, creating a thick, fluffy mass.
    The tank has what looks like tank-treads running as wipers, and push all the precipitated junk to the deep end of the tank, where it’s collected and pumped off and disposed of.
    This is one of the earlier filtration methods, to get the “big junk” out of the water. Later it’s ran through a sand/gravel filter (just like an aquarium or a pool, except about 10-100x larger, and there’s a lot of them) to do the fine filtration.

  8. The best information I can find (here) says that the word was coined, not by the inventor, but by the magazine Punch, which called it a “finance phalograph” – I’m guessing by incorrect analogy to “encephalograph.”

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