Vocabulary ROCKS! N is for. . .

Vocabulary ROCKS! N is for. . .

Continuing the quest to cover the alphabet! That may prove impossible due to the vast number of words in the English language, but I can try to find a few fascinating examples. For a list of all my archived posts covering the topic: VOCABULARY


nacreous (NAY-kree-uss)

Pearly; iridescent like mother-of-pearl.

The pearly inner surface of a mollusk shell is sometimes called nacre, a word that some etymologists believe derives from the Arabic for "small drum" — possibly a reference to the hollowed-out shell after it is vacated by the mollusk.


Contrary to the similarity in spelling and pronunciation, the word niggardly has NO connection to a certain forbidden N-word. However, between being a bit old-fashioned and the aforementioned similarities, niggardly is generally avoided. A shame, I believe, as the word is perfectly fine and quite descriptive, but also because the hesitation is a sad commentary on how ultra-sensitive and frankly ridiculous some people can be over language.

David Howard (Head of the Office of Public Advocate in Washington, DC) discovered this in 1999 when an uproar ensued after he said, “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money,” during a budget discussion with a black colleague. The quote below is another example—

It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as “niggardly.” Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved — having felt the word hanging in the air a bit — to say “parsimonious” from then on. [Christopher Hitchens, “The Pernicious Effects of Banning Words,” Slate.com, Dec. 4, 2006]

Niggardly is an adverb created by adding the -ly to the root word niggard, which means, “a miser or stingy person” and dates to the late 14th-century. In fact, the OED definition of stingy is “niggardly, penurious, extremely tight-fisted.” The root word is found spelled with numerous variations —nigard, nygard, nygart— and is of uncertain origin, although the even earlier nig (c.1300) meaning simply “stingy,” is likely of Scandinavian/Old Norse origin.

What IS absolutely certain is the distinction from the N-word, which is unquestionably derived from the French negré and Spanish negro, both from the Latin niger, meaning “black.” So, when the proper situation arises, be brave and use niggardly!


Again a word of mysterious origins, despite it being very modern. Also spelled nurd, the earliest appearance of nerd in print is credited to Dr. Seuss in his 1950 If I Ran the Zoo

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Katroo And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, A Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker too!

What is unknown is whether Dr. Seuss had heard the word somewhere or was simply making up another nonsense word, as he was famous for. Around the same time, nerd arose within teen culture to describe a “dull, unattractive, or offensive person.” While it may seem logical to connect the teen slang to Seuss due to the timing, historians can find no evidence of a connection, and the idea of teenagers latching onto a nonsense word in a children’s book is highly unlikely. More plausible is a connection to the word nert, a 1940s slang word for “a stupid or crazy person,” yet even this is mere speculation. In truth, speculation is rampant when it comes to origins for the word nerd, and I simply can’t cover them all here. If interested, click to WorldWideWords/nerd

Whatever the origin, the prominence of nerd amongst 1950s teenagers was fast becoming so well established that the second known appearance in print was in the October 8, 1951 issue of Newsweek

Nerds and Scurves: In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.

Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine, stars of Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

As is typical especially with slang, definitions and usage of nerd have varied over time, yet the basic sense of an unfortunately awkward, doltish, poorly dressed, geeky intelligent youth has remained. Thanks to the classic teen movie Revenge of the Nerds in 1984, the term was somewhat redeemed, and with avowed nerds like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates growing up to practically rule the world, being labeled a nerd can be a badge of honor!


This one surprised me a bit since I was certain of the origin. Indeed, the term narc either as a noun or a verb is connected to the world of narcotics law enforcement. Narc and the associated narco originated in the 1950s to refer to a law enforcement agent who investigates illegal drug use, and also to those who inform police of such activity. However, rather than a simple clipping of the word “narcotic” it probably derived from a word that already existed.

Nark —also a verb meaning “to act as a police informer” or as a noun meaning “a police informer”— dates to the mid-1800s in England, probably from the Romani nak, meaning “nose.” The use of the term nose for a spy or informer is older still. In the 1789 edition of Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life by George Parker, a “nose” is defined as “a snitch.” This connection is nebulous, but does make sense and although etymologists cannot be certain, most sources note this as a likely origin.

Narc (2002). RIP the fabulous Ray Liotta.

In any case, nark was commonly applied to a police informer, but also as a term for a generally unpleasant, bad person, even to indicate a thief or miser. Spelling variations include knark (a slang term to this day in Danish for narcotics) and nard. The latter appeared in Ducange Anglicus’s 1859 The Vulgar Tongue

NARD, n. A person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.

Some believe Anglicus misspelled narc, as nard is not found in any other source, but it is worth mentioning. Narc continued in use over the subsequent decades as a slang in the UK and Australia, however the term never crossed the pond to the US with any regularity. For this reason, the modern term narc as used in the US is both original slang dating to the 1950s and of an older British origin. What is unclear is if those early Americans who coined the word narc were influenced by the older but still very common British slang word, or if it was a sheer coincidence. That mystery will likely never be solved.


Originally meaning a “simpleton or fool,” the word ninny dates to the Elizabethan Era. The first known print appearance was in 1593, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. As with just about every word originating in the far past, the meanings shifted in small degrees.

Ninny is universally agreed by etymologists to be a modification of “an innocent” through a process called “metanalysis.” In select instances such as this example, the “n” of the “an” was grafted onto the noun, producing “a ninnocent,” or “a ninny.” In the 14th century, the descriptive term “innocent” for a person who is pure (such as a child) evolved to mean, as the OED notes: “One wanting in ordinary knowledge or intelligence; a simpleton, a silly fellow; a half-wit, an idiot.” Therefore, by the 16th century, being called a ninny was clearly not a compliment!

Today, being labeled a ninny still has the negative connotation of being uninformed, stupid, or just plain wrong, but it is often softened and playfully applied to mean laughably silly and naive.


nudiustertian (noo-dih-uhss-TER-shee-un)

Pertaining to the day before yesterday.

This is an anglicized version of the Latin phrase nunc dies tertius est or "now it is the third day."







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cindie snyder

Cool! I have never heard some of those words before!

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