Six ugly words in English

An image of 'ugly toys' - what about ugly words?

On a recent absent-minded surf of the web, I came across Wordie. Wordie is the kind of site after my own heart. Its tagline is “Like Flickr but without the photos”. Wordie allows you to make lists of words and people can add, comment or vote on them. An hour or so wasted there yielded the following little gem of a list: ugly words that had been cited by users of the site. I list them here, along with definitions from the Macmillan Dictionary (I used their site to get these quickly, of COURSE I knew the meanings of all of them before!)

harangue – to speak to someone in a loud angry way for a long time, in orderto criticize them or to try to change their opinion It DOES look kind of ugly when I see it written down actually.

2. subpoena an official legal document that says you must come to a court oflaw to give information I bet this one is in there because 1) people hate getting these and 2) it looks like murder to spell, I doubt I could spell this one correctly.

3. quaff to drink something quickly or with a lot of enjoyment I don’t understand, I really LIKE this word! Maybe it’s the double ‘f’ at the end…

4. unctuous seeming to be interested, friendly, or full of praise, but in a way that is unpleasant because it is not sincere. Yes, this feels ugly both in meaning and in form. I think it’s the consonant cluster at the beginning.

5. visceral relating to basic emotions that you feel strongly and automatically I agree this is an ugly word to spell and feels ugly in my mouth when I say it.

6. onus – if the onus is on someone to do something, it is their responsibility or duty to do it. I can only think of one reason someone would nominate this as an ugly word, and that’s because it looks like the word ‘anus’. Otherwise, I don’t see anything ugly at all about it.

I don’t know if I would share these with students, but it could make an interesting question. I often ask students to list what they say are their favourite or most beautiful words but I hadn’t thought of asking the reverse. Of course all of this is subjective, but these things can help people remember words and are always good for people who enjoy language.

What do you think? What are your own “ugly” words in English and why? Post a comment.

Published in: on September 11, 2009 at 10:53 am  Comments (35)  
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35 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m with you on “quaff”. It’s a fantastic word.

    Not sure if it’s ugly, but one which has a really really challenging consonant cluster is twelfth (also fifth, sixth, etc, but 12th is the worst one).

    My least favourite word, and one which I would definitely call ugly is “winningest”. I recognise that it gets used (mostly in the US), but I really don’t have to like it.

    • Ugh. Winningest sounds to me like something a five year old says! Feels too long. Thanks for the support on quaff though!

  2. Just the other day in class I used the word sychophant to describe someone (obviously not in the class/connected with the class – was simply a part of a conversation) and my students immediately caught on to it – what’s that they said, a sick what.. and then I tried to spell it… took several goes and luckily we’ve got the internet in our classroom.

    Why didn’t you say brown-noser or apple polisher like usual? they asked.

    Because sychophant sounds uglier. I said.

    Brown-noser and apple-polisher are just jokes whereas calling someone a sychophant means I really don’t like ‘um.

    It was interesting because until they asked I didn’t even realize that about the word.

    Sometimes talking about the ways, the reasons we use words leads not only into teaching the vocabulary but also into our own discovery of the association our minds have with them.

    Nice post, you’re back in blog business, Lind-say!


  3. What an interesting post! Must try this out with my next group of students. My ugliest word has to be sycophantic: “an insulting word for someone who praises rich or powerful people in order to gain an advantage”. I had to look up the spelling and the meaning the first time I ever heard this ages ago and it has always stuck in my mind, for some reason. The fact it rhymes with “psycho” makes it sound a bad word, I reckon.

  4. This is so weird! I just pressed publish on my post and then saw Karenne’s post on the same word. It’s a real coincidence out of all the words in the English language, we both chose sycophant!!

    • That IS strange. You’re both right though, sycophant is a kind of ugly word. Sycophantic too… I feel I’m sneering when I say it.

      • Oh, I am in the same box here with you too as regards the word sycophant. I absolutely abhor it! It reminds of sick, sickly, and the minute I heard it I memorized it as a gross one 🙂

        Coffin, yes, homonym with coughin’


  5. Great post. Sorry to lower the tone but mine would be ‘diarrhoea’. I’ll never be able to spell it (I had to look it up before making this post) and well, it’s just horrible, isn’t it?

    What about a 6 expressions/things people say list soon? Can I get my absolute must in now?
    ‘I’m loving’ as in I’m really loving your new outfit.
    Hate it!


  6. Quaff an ugly word never! I’d like to enter ‘like’ as an ugly word on the simple grounds it is so wrong used, like most of like the time like and it drives me like nuts 🙂

  7. I wouldn’t be me if your post didn’t make me think of some joke or something funny.
    Reading your post and the comments, I remembered a movie – Witches (1990), starring Angelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.
    The plot: A young boy, recently orphaned, is taken to England by his grandmother. At a hotel in which they are staying, a group of witches have gathered to prepare a plot to rid the world of all children.
    The memory and its connection to Dirty Words: the Grand High Witch cannot pronounce the word “children” without a painful and nauseous grimace, making us see how sick it makes her to just utter the word. The actress even plays the spasm one has before throwing up, which makes her look even funnier considering that almost everybody likes children and there’s probably not one person in the world who would react like that to children, least to pronouncing the word.

  8. i think “coffin” is ugly…it makes you growl and wouf while saying it…sounds like a grosse hickup

    • Yes… the word “coffin” can also sound like “coughing” which makes you think of doubling up and hacking all over the place. Ugly thoughts.

  9. I don’t want to be a party-pooper (is that an ugly word) but these kinds of lists are often used to hype the publication of a new dictionary (“what are your ten favorite words in English?” etc). Inevitably the words that are most favoured are words like “mother”, “love” “rainbow” etc. I.e. words with positive connotations, and nothing to do with the form of the word at all. So, really, the question is not about words as such, but about concepts: “What is the ugliest idea that is encoded in a word?” In fact, it would be difficult to draw up objective formal criteria for word ugliness, apart perhaps for consonant clusters (which would make “twelfth” and “strengths” – and even “Clandfield” – very ugly!) or “tongue-twister-ness” – I always stumble over “patented” for example – but does that really make it ugly – or just awkward?

    • Thanks Scott. I don’t think you’re being a party pooper at all, and as I said this is a very subjective thing that does have as much to do with connotation as anything. That’s the curse of these internet lists (bit like lists of influential people for example!) As for patented, it doesn’t feel awkward to me, but I agree with you that Clandfield isn’t the most pretty of last names. Thornbury is much nicer. Want to swap?

      • “Lindsay Thornbury” – too many -ees. But “Scott Clandfield” – that has a nice ring, if somewhat invented-sounding. Shall we try it out for a bit? Say a month or two? Does that mean I get your royalty cheque? 😉

  10. I actually think ‘tefl’ is a rather ugly word, myself. It’s probably those two consonants at the end, which appear to be in need of a vowel between them to render them clearly pronouncable. The fact that the word (OK, it’s really an acronym) has not caught on outside of EFL (notice I avoided ‘tefl’ there) appears to be a point in my favour.

    Can I rest my case now?

    • I agree with you. Can’t stand TEFL said as a word. But, as Scott said this could be to do with the negative connotations I sometimes have with TEFL (as opposed to ELT, or EFL which feels more neutral).

      Tefl, when said as a word, kind of rhymes with offal too… brrrr

  11. hate hate hate the word pamphlet (just soooo wrong)

  12. Have to agree with Sandy on the ugly acronymns that become words (eg. TEFLers) and I’d add to that list all the demographic groups ones like Yuppies and Dinky. Fortunately on their way out, I think? Yesterday, I saw a new one which has a different flavour so perhaps not as ugly as a word in itself “Nettle”= ” Not Enough Time To Enjoy Life” but pretty ugly as a concept and label though!
    Spotted that on another blog
    which like your blog here Lindsay always makes me smile.

    I started following Schott on Twitter and the sudden appearance of one word tweets like “Greycationers” really makes you think there are indeed lots of weird words out there from gross ugly to wonderfully cute -to please all sorts hey?
    Great post!

  13. What’s in a name? A Thornbury by any other name would smell as sweet…

    I like the idea of well-known names in the world of T.E.F.L (not said as a word) exchanging family names – I think I would definitely go to a talk given by either Lindsay Thornbury (who sounds like a prima ballerina) or Scott Clandfield (more like a Formula 1 driver).

    It reminded me of my brother Geoff (much on my mind anyway, as today is his 50th wedding anniversary), who had a long career as film critic on his local parish magazine in the suburb of Manchester where he lives.

    His pen-name was Burt Heston, which does sound like someone from Manchesterm as a result of which, everyone thought it was a real name. However, the origins were a bit more starry.

    The spelling of ‘Burt’ may give away the fact that the pen-name was composed of the first and last names of his wife’s favourite film stars.

    Needless to say, he had decided that Charlton Lancaster was a non-starter.

    Whose family name would I like to have for a year… hmm…


    Ken Garton-Sprenger

  14. Lindsay

    Here are more than six:

    fecundity, foment, mawkish, perverse /mistaken for pervert/ curmudgeon, excoriation, ignoble, obfuscate, phlegmatic /knowing what phlegm means/, prevaricate

    I teach GRE verbal, btw and for some reason some words sounds horrible to me and are ellusive even I absorb and acquire new words easily


  15. Btw, I am now reading the above post on TEFL. I cannot stand the word TEFL either ! I hate it, to say the least! 😦
    I love ELT, ESOL and not sure why There is something in the ‘ring’ of it.

    Even in my own mother tongue there are words which I adore and some which I even mind other people using and God forbid, I would never use some.


  16. […] comment Go to comments On Friday, Lindsay Clandfield’s blog ‘six things’ was discussing ‘ugly words’. His original post was based on something he found here and by the end of the day many EFLers […]

  17. Yes, TEFL rings a little of words like “offal” and “awful” or even “terror + awful”, doesn’t it. Can’t say TESOL sounds any better either, though I won’t say what they word potentially rhymes with…

    Like some others here, I much prefer ELT (or EFL). ELT sounds like a profession/vocation, whereas TEFL sounds more like an industry – and a sometimes sordid one at that!

  18. Although perhaps there is a certain degree of subjectivity to all this, I suggest that ‘agog’ blows the rest of the words put forward by the eejits above clean out of the water. I claim all and any prizes going.

    Or am I just…
    “in a state of desire; in a state of imagination; heated with the notion of some enjoyment; longing” [Johnson], c.1400, from O.Fr. en gogues “in jest, good humor, joyfulness,” from gogue “fun,” of unknown origin.

    ‘Eejit’ is pretty good too.

  19. pickle, dilemma and squat.

  20. ‘Ugly’ is a very ugly word 😦


  21. Here is another one :
    a ‘gargoyle’ is also an ugly words which even belies its meaning


  22. haha, fantastic list 🙂

  23. MOIST! wtf! such an ugly word! make me wanna barf on a platypus!

  24. I never liked the sound “cloon” (clumsy + loon + goon?), so I cringe whenever I hear about actor George Clooney. His last name sounds like an adjective for when you feel goofy and out-of-sorts. “I don’t think I’ll go with you today. I’m feeling a bit clooney.”

    • Podlet, you made my day.

      Hm, my favourite word is floccinaucinihilipilification, and my least favourite is testosterone, which I can never say in a single breath. For some mysterious reason I have to stretch every single freaking syllable.

      • Not that we use the T word in a teaching situation very often , right? Other than an intimate context 😦 and unless we teach biology 🙂 or the like


  25. Dear Podlet

    but I am sure that NO woman on Earth minds or ever thinks about his surname :). From what I ve gathered while talking to my women mates, his name and surname altogether undoubtedly puts a yearning smile on women’s faces 🙂


  26. This list is AMAZING! I’d like to add my own list here. Many of these words make me shudder (I’d say they make me quiver, but the word “quiver” belongs on the list).

    Beef, meal, meat, yeast, lump, chunk, plod, feet, plump, crevice, cornice, cream (and, even worse, creamy), tasty, milk (especially when pronounced “melk”).

    And here’s the kicker: PORK.

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