Minim crotchet what?!! Surprise existence of non-slang vocabulary
April 17, 2020 6:56 AM   Subscribe

If you are a English language reader and speaker, has there been a non-slang, non-obscure word you encountered as an adult that completely astounded you by its existence. I'm in my early forties and just came across the existence of semibreve, minim and crotchet in an Irish music academy's explanation of whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. What!? It's been a week and I'm still reeling as to their existence.

Obviously this kind of shock/surprise about a commonly used vocabulary word is more likely across Englishes, rather than within any given variety of English (even across different dialects within the same English since the unfamiliar words tend to be vernacular language and slang). I assume this is also a feature of specific terminology. Discussions of the NHS on Twitter don't tend to include musical notes.

Has this happened to you? As someone who fancies myself a well-read person, who has certainly read Irish and English writers, but am flabbergasted to the existence of a whole different set of words for musical notes in circulation in Ireland and the UK.
posted by spamandkimchi to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: p.s. In looking semibreve up again for this Ask, found out about quaver for eighth note!!! I feel there's no way I got through my high school required readings of the Brontes, Austen and Shakespeare without at least encountering these words, but they are so unfamiliar to me.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:57 AM on April 17, 2020

The word "rort" was new to me when I first heard it about 10 years ago (in my late twenties). I think it's only really used in Australia, but it's not slang. You'd see it in a formal newspaper article, for example. It's a useful word.

My husband, who has a very large vocabulary - I've never known him not to know a word before - claimed a couple of weeks ago that he had never heard the word "credenza" before and had no idea what it meant. Because he is very humble like that, he also spent a while arguing that therefore it could not possibly be a real word.
posted by lollusc at 7:04 AM on April 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

Are we allowed words we thought existed and turned out not to? I guess that might turn this into a different ask. But I, a journalist, thought until well into my 30s that there was a word - moreless - which turns out not to exist. I have always thought that it was a standard variation on “more or less”, so I am moreless happy with things. I was only disabused of the notion when I used it in an email to a friend and got the piss ripped. I’m still not sure I believe it.

(On preview: Have just been away to look up both rort and credenza...)
posted by penguin pie at 7:13 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I remember thinking and saying that "Temblor" must be a typo in a newspaper headline in 1994.
posted by jclarkin at 7:15 AM on April 17, 2020 [5 favorites]


I was in my upper twenties/lower thirties when I finally "heard" this word and asked about it, and confronted the three other people that this wasn't a word/commonly used. A dictionary convinced me of the word's existence, but throughout the next year+ I kept coming across it in books/tv/movies.

The worst, was for movies that I'd seen many times before where the word was used. And I was confronted with that my brain just silently patched over it each time. E.G. I saw the movie The Usual Suspects at least 5 times in my younger 20's, and copacetic is plainly used.

Anytime that copacetic is used in media my wife (who was one of the three other people witnessing my discovery of this word) will turn to grin at me. Brains are weird, and not to be trusted.
posted by nobeagle at 7:21 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I knew copacetic, but thought it was slang invented fairly recently. Turns out to be much older. Interesting. This is quite a cromulent question.
posted by jclarkin at 7:27 AM on April 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

I was in my thirties before I ever encountered the word "convoluted". Turned out to be a damn useful word, too.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:37 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

found out about quaver for eighth note!

Prepare to have your mind blown... scroll down to the end of the "Notes and rests" section of the Wikipedia article on musical notation...

(I loved learning the note names in school Music lessons.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:37 AM on April 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

To answer the actual question though, I would swear the word "doctrinaire" appeared out of nowhere a few years ago in the British press... and yet, look at the graph in this Collins Dictionary entry for it. Somehow, despite being a voracious reader from a very early age, I made it well into my thirties without ever coming across this perfectly useful word that's been around for nearly two centuries.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:47 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have noticed the growth of overwhelm used as a noun in the past few years and was convinced it was simply wrong. Apparently not. I do not like it. I am not alone. But apparently it has a history of being used as a noun. Sigh.

Perhaps a more appropriate answer is the phrase minced oath, which a friend told me about a few years ago. Had never heard of it before. I consider its existence delightful and wish I had heard of it much earlier.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:00 AM on April 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

In the early 80s, I started studying for the SATs by trying to memorize the Barron's book of vocabulary, so I have to say, I'm often shocked when a word exists that I've never heard before. When that letter misattributed to Tommy Lee started circulating on the socials (granted, by Tommy Lee), I was a bit gobsmacked to find myself having to look up casuistry.

I must admit, however, that even at my advanced age , I find that I will use a word I've known for half a century, have it questioned, and then realize that it's Yiddish and not English.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Not me, but my husband was 100% certain that my use of the word FOIST was slang or just plain wrong. He was certain there was no such word.
posted by hydra77 at 8:17 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Callipygian has exploded onto my awareness in the last few years. I don't know if it featured in some piece of pop culture or something but I see it being used all over and I'm always, "How the heck did I never know this word"? First time I read it I assumed it was made up by the author.

Sesquipedalian (not the shocking bit) and specifically its prefix sesqui- (one and a half) was new to me recently but also sesquicentennial has been popping up - apparently stuff in my location is starting to get 150 years old - and everyone just knows what it means. I always feel like I just learned the prefix bi- or something.
posted by Mitheral at 9:01 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lour. I heard this word for the first time on Robert Forster's new-ish album Inferno...great record! he sings "i can scoff and lour" ..& i was like.."what'd he just say? lour? that cant be a word.." it weirdly blew my mind for awhile..and i liked it!
posted by The_Auditor at 9:09 AM on April 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just read an article about the proper way to “don” and “doff” your cloth mask, and had to reread it like three times before I understood that those words must be opposites, and that the author just assumed people would understand such bizarre usage. Or am I the one with the language problem?!
posted by oxisos at 9:19 AM on April 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

I would doff my hat to you, oxisos, if only I had a hat and were not soaking in my bathtub.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

When I get out of the tub I will don my bathrobe because a towel never stays in place. There are so very many English words that it is impossible to know them all. What a pleasure to read this thread and learn new ones. At least it has been for me. Where has lour been all my life? That’s a great word!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:27 AM on April 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

How about a word that is common but had a meaning that I knew nothing about?

blaze, n. A marker for a trail, particularly one cut into a tree

I've used the word trailblazer for years without knowing its origin, and I was surprised to find hardcore hikers using "blaze" casually.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:23 AM on April 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

I thought for ages that my dad had just made up "discombobulated," but nope, it's a real word.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:24 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

My Architectural History professor in college had a bunch of terms that could have just as easily been made up or actual architectural terms. It was hard to tell. I remember that both of these were on tests, but only one is real:

A "Catslide Roof" is a slanted roof that ends near the ground (or at least, much nearer the ground than the rest of the house's roof). I thought it was a joke when I first heard it, but recently I found out it's a real thing.

He also called windows in round towers "Beautiful Princess Windows", and swore that that was the real architectural term for them, but unfortunately that must have been a joke. I still call them that, though.

Oh! And these are "Dentils" as in "Dentals" as in "teeth". Sometimes it's delightfully obvious.
posted by Gray Duck at 11:07 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I recently stumbled on "outwith". It's a preposition meaning something like "outside of", I guess only used in Scotland nowadays.
posted by xris at 11:45 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Within the past few years, I learned about inflection points (times of significant change in a situation) in epidemiology. This surprised me, since I'd always thought of inflection specifically as a change in voice modulation, not a statistical observation.
posted by wicked_sassy at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've had this experience many times just reading MetaFilter over the years. Sadly, I didn't record them so I can't remember most of them. One that I do remember is "twee". Never heard it before I saw it used here.
posted by CathyG at 12:56 PM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I learned "crore" (Indian English for "ten million") here on MetaFilter sometime in the past few years. Comes in handy in Scrabble.
posted by Daily Alice at 1:29 PM on April 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Just today, in my real live actual day job as a technical editor, I learned that the "footlambert," "nit" (divided into millinits), and "barn" are real live actual units of measurement.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:39 PM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I thought for ages that my dad had just made up "discombobulated," but nope, it's a real word.

Milwaukee's airport has a designated recombobulation area so that you can sit to put on your shoes and otherwise get your things together after going through security.
posted by bile and syntax at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2020 [18 favorites]

... but throughout the next year+ I kept coming across it in books/tv/movies

That would be an example of the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:41 PM on April 17, 2020

Like so many other home-bound people-of-privilege, I've embraced sourdough baking and recently learned the work "levain," whose distinction from "a whole lotta starter" is difficult to pin down.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:50 PM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Haha spamandkimchi, have you come across hemi-demi-semiquavers yet?

Like folks above I don't find words I don't know very often these days but due to a nice rec from filthy light thief on the blue, serac and culm are now in my vocabulary.
posted by glasseyes at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm not quite sure if this word fits what you are asking for in your question:

including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.
"her tastes are pretty catholic"

Of course I had seen the word Catholic before, but I had not come across this meaning until one day a friend told me they had "catholic tastes in" a thing. Catholic is obviously a very common word, but I think it's pretty uncommon in this meaning -- not sure if that suits your criteria of non-obscure word.

posted by yohko at 4:45 PM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I thought of another one that may fit.

Start with the vowel mnemonic:

A E I O U and sometimes Y

But it really should be A E I O U and sometimes Y and very rarely W.

Because the word I'm referring to is Cwm.
posted by jclarkin at 5:04 PM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Somehow I gave a miss to "solipsism" until my 30s, despite two degrees in theology and several years teaching philosophy. What a great word!

"Of course I had seen the word Catholic before, but I had not come across this meaning until one day a friend told me they had "catholic tastes in" a thing. Catholic is obviously a very common word, but I think it's pretty uncommon in this meaning -- not sure if that suits your criteria of non-obscure word."

If you were Catholic, they'd teach you in CCD that catholic-with-a-small-C means universal, because it appears in the Nicene Creed in the Catholic missal as "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" and kids are always asking where the capitalization went!

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:07 PM on April 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

I learned the word gravamen just yesterday. But that's not what I came to talk to you about.

Semibreve sounds like an utterly perverse name for a whole note, doesn't it? Breve means 'short'! Semi- makes it half! How can half a short thing be a whole note??

Thus wondering some years ago, I looked it up. It's like this. In nascent medieval music notation, there were two written durations: longa and breve, long and short. These didn't have fixed durations in actual time, and performers could place a finer interpretation on them -- the same as today. But the paucity of notation stifled composers, and their answer was to divide the breve into two semibreves. Now they could write quick li'l virtuosic runs of notes! This was the cool new thing! Soon enough, the semibreve was widely adopted, even for writing normie music that was decidedly not twice as fast as the old folks' plainsong. Since the longa and breve had no fixed values to begin with, inflation could happen, and did. The semibreve became the new de facto short note, supplanting the breve, which became the new long note. The original longa fell out of use as it now represented a comically long foghorn of a note. This left composers back where they had started... so they divided the semibreve into two minims, as in minimum, 'the smallest possible'. Now there's a name that stands athwart history yelling stop! The minim is the ancestor of today's half note. You can guess the rest.
posted by aws17576 at 8:43 PM on April 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

Thank you, jclarkin. Now I have discovered the existence and definitions of both cwn and cirque. Who knew? You knew! Now I do, too.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:26 AM on April 18, 2020

I wasn't an adult, I was around 16, and AFI introduced me to a lot of words, somnambulant is the firs one I can recall.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:33 AM on April 18, 2020

Response by poster: I'm glad others have had this fun and confusion of learning a word and going "how could this possibly be a real word??!" 😮 Thank you aws17576 for the history lesson. 🤓

Part of my discombobulation has been my general unquestioned certainty since reaching my 20s that I know lots of English vocabulary, not all, but certainly most non-specialist vocabulary in general use in North America. Words like crore are neat, but haven't damaged my vocabulary ego as I know that I haven't read that much Indian literature or news media so when I did encounter it in a documentary film, I was not bewildered by its existence. As a teenager, I spent some time cramming vocabulary into my brain because of standardized tests. So I remember my horror when, while taking said standardized test, I encountered the word tyro and had no idea what it meant. Of course I trotted home and immediately looked it up in the unabridged dictionary. A beginner in learning! Hardly! (It's a useful word for Boggle and crossword puzzles too, along with the spelling variant tiro).
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2020

I think I can promise you that if you keep your eyes peeled, you can look forward to this sort of fun at least into your 70s if not longer (barring unforeseen disasters). Can't think offhand of the words I have discovered this year; I should probably keep a notebook.
posted by lagomorph at 9:06 AM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Within the past few years, I learned about inflection points

...which in calculus is defined to be a value where the rate of change of the rate of change is changing from positive to negative (or vice versa): in more math jargon, where the first derivative has a maximum or minimum (that is, where the second derivative is zero and changes sign).

There’s been more discussion of functions and their properties (and log graphs) in the last month than I ever hope to see again. I guess it’s good that I can tell all my calculus students “see! This does too have applications!” But honestly, I coulda skipped it.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:16 AM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

If nothing else, this thread will up your scrabble game. Culm, lour, cwm, crore (mentioned above, but also lakhs), rort and certainly others I've missed are all legal in scrabble.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:45 AM on April 18, 2020

Surely cwm is Welsh though? Lour, like lower -> lowering, is English though mostly seen now in Northern dialects and Scots. But Welsh is so completely different from English you can't as an English speaker take a guess at a Welsh word and have any probability of being correct in the way you even can with Italian or French. Crore and lakh are Hindi and they are not in common use in Uk though many Hindi words have entered English and become so naturalised people often don't know their origins: Pajamas, bungalow, bandana, cushy etc. Have Welsh words done the same? Is cwm the same as combe, meaning a little valley? Because if it does then combe is the english word for Welsh cwm.
posted by glasseyes at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2020

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