Illustration by Andy Smith

These are just some of our favourite words

It’s fascinating, what words people pick as their favourites. But just as interesting are the stories behind their choice
June 11, 2024

As someone who makes dictionaries, I am often asked for my favourite word. I should have a stock answer. Perhaps something humorous, like cacklefart (an egg), or romantic, like apricity (the warmth of sunshine in winter). To be honest, most lexicographers do not have a favourite word. As a colleague at the Oxford English Dictionary once explained: “It would be like asking a parent to name a favourite child.”

But I love hearing about the favourite words of others, especially when they come with personal stories. The artist Grayson Perry explained to me that he favours the word pervert: “I am part of the establishment now, but I had always wondered how they looked at my work. Grayson Perry, the pervert they couldn’t ban!” Some activists choose words which they want to reclaim: queer, hag, nerd. For the ethnographer Sarah Thornton, it’s the word tits, which—as she reclaims in the title of her latest book, Tits Up!—is “a man’s word which I encourage women to use”.

For the actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry, it’s the old English word trundle because, as he told me, “it’s just so damned English and rather friendly sounding, too”. But for others it’s a word’s foreignness and the fact that English lacks an equivalent expression that makes it especially attractive. For example, hygge, from Danish, means the feeling of contentment from enjoying simple pleasures; and gigil, from Tagalog, an official language of the Philippines, means the irresistible urge to squeeze someone (or something) you find adorable.

Some people choose words that hold positive connotations for them, such as the word home for farmer and movie executive, Robert Laycock. For others it is the opposite: they want words to react against. Diaphobia, fear of dialogue, is chosen by the psychotherapist Philippa Perry because, at its heart, the word relates to the fear of being influenced by the other: “An exchange becomes about winning and losing, rather than sharing ideas and revelations.”

The favourite word of the novelist Richard Mason is absquatulate: “I was always told it meant slipping away from a party without saying goodbye, but Google tells me it also means making off with someone’s money—which is not how I use it!” Mellifluous, pleasant-sounding words are often chosen as favourites: flother (a single snowflake) and croodle (the coo of a dove). As are archaic words such as asunder, betwixt, and fulsome, the latter of which is a personal favourite of Bodley Librarian, Richard Ovenden.

For many, it is the dexterity of a word that makes it attractive. The writer Jeanette Winterson loves the word toast, because “it does so much: a noun; a verb; a description of the Tory Party; the celebration we’ll be having on 5th July; and also the winter-warmer-jolly-toasty-by-the-fire feel in thick socks.”