Usually, when we go to look up a word in the dictionary, be it online or in that big old hardcover tome, we expect to find the same old thing. You know: the correct pronunciation of the word, some etymology and, of course, a definition or two (or sometimes, depending on the word, 10 or 20).

Just the facts, ma’am. That’s what the vast majority of us have expected from our dictionaries for years, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. Well, it turns out that the vast majority of us have been greatly underestimating those zany lexicographers, especially the wild and crazy bunch at Merriam-Webster.

What follows is a small sample of what you’ll find at the “Words at Play” section of  Merriam-Webster’s website. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Page one of the section contains 25 entries and, on the day I recently looked, it began with the “Great Big List of Beautiful and Useless Words, Vol. 1.” The list contains 50 words that are, as advertised, both beautiful and useless, such as: “cacography” (bad handwiting), “filipendulous” (suspended by, or strung upon a thread) and “flingee” (one at whom anything is flung).

The page also offers up the “Word-O-Meter for June,” which informs us of facts including: The “increase in lookups of ‘insurrection’ compared with May: 163%,” and “The increase in lookups of LGBTQIA (is): 596%,” and the “Initial letter with the largest number of entries in the dictionary (is): S.”

Following the Word-O-Meter comes the offering “9 Other Words for Beautiful,” three of which are: “formosity” (beauty or a thing of beauty), “lovesome” (charming, winsome or lovely) and “venust” (beautiful, graceful or elegant).


“The Words of the Week — June 24” is next. Among its examples are lookups for: “holiday,” especially as it applies to the one proposed for the federal gas tax, and “abject” (very bad or severe), as it pertains to the failure to act by the police in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Among the examples under the heading “Words Worth Knowing,” we learn that the obsolete word “makebate” might once again be relevant since it describes “one who excites contention and quarrels.”

If you’ve ever wondered “Should I use ‘affect’ or ‘effect?’” then the offering “‘Affect’ vs. ‘Effect'” is for you. It assures us that “affect” (to produce an effect upon) is usually a verb while “effect” (a change that results from something) is usually a noun. I like the mnemonic device, RAVEN, which reminds me to Remember, Affect is a Verb, Effect is a Noun. Usually.

Now that they’ve straightened out those two words, the folks at Merriam-Webster give us “‘Ingenious’ vs. ‘Ingenuous’ More Than a Typo,” which quickly explains that “ingenious” means having an aptitude for inventing or discovery,” while “ingenuous” is showing childlike simplicity and candidness.

And finally, as if to prove that they can be as childish as the rest of us, the folks at Merriam-Webster present “Look, This is a List of Fart Words.” Really. After quickly explaining that the word is “often vulgar,” they explain that “fart” has been a verb since the 13th century and a noun since the 15th.

“Fizzle” (to break wind quietly), they say, comes from Middle English “fist,” and that the definition of “flatuosity” is “flatulence.” Seems like the unnecessary use of two extra syllables to me. Even though I’ve gotten only about a third of the way through the first page of “Words at Play,” this seems like a good place to stop and clear the air (or maybe open a window).

If this little sampling has whetted your appetite for more fun with words, I urge you to go to and take a look at what else they have in store for you. I also hope that you’re either retired or on vacation because there are 86 more pages. Happy reading.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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