Weird Facts about the English Language

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that the Oxford English Dictionary would have a FAQ page, with all the weird and wonderful questions that people ask about the English language, but it didn’t. So when I stumbled on the Ask Oxford FAQ page, it was a rather sad, but nonetheless fascinating read. Check out some of these beauties:

Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?

The usual rules of English spelling outlaw triple letters. Hyphens are inserted into words such as bee-eater, bell-like, chaff-flower, cretaceo-oolitic, cross-section, egg-glass, joss-stick, off-flavour, hostess-ship, puff-fish, toll-lodge, and zoo-organic.

A person who flees is a fleer, and a person who sees is a seer (though to avoid confusion with seer meaning `foreteller’, the forms see-er and seeĆ«r have been used).

Nevertheless, we have encountered curious forms such as crosssection, and the complete Oxford English Dictionary does contain instances of frillless, bossship, countessship, duchessship, governessship, and princessship, and the county name Rossshire.

Graphic representations of noises, such as brrr, shhh, and zzz, do not really count as proper words.

The only other word with a triple letter is the invented word Amerikkkan, which is intended to symbolize the racist aspect of American society by including the initials of the Ku Klux Klan.

Does bimonthly mean ‘twice a month’ or ‘every two months’? – This is a personal favourite of mine, in that it annoys me… a lot!

I’m afraid it means both! But in the publishing industry, it is used fairly consistently to mean ‘every two months’. The same ambiguity affects biweekly and biyearly. If you want to be absolutely clear, use a phrase such as ‘twice a week’ or ‘every two years’.

How do you describe a person who does not eat meat, but eats fish?

The word demi-vegetarian appears in our file with the sense ‘a person who eats fish but not meat’, but this is not obvious as the meaning of the term, and some self-styled ‘demi-vegetarians’ may eat poultry and avoid only red meat.

The invented terms pesco-vegetarian and pescatarian are increasingly common, and clearer in meaning. The most practical option is usually to state a person’s eating preferences in an explicit phrase.

Is there a word which describes the fear of Friday the 13th?

The word you are looking for is triskaidekaphobia. The literal meaning is ‘superstition about the number thirteen’, but it is also used by extension to describe ‘fear of Friday the 13th’.

Is there an eight letter word with five vowels in a row?

There is one word which qualifies: queueing

What is the opposite of exceed?

There is no established opposite to the word exceed, and it is quite often suggested that one is needed. We are gathering evidence of the word deceed ‘be less than’, but it has not yet reached our dictionaries.

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