More Words You Always Have to Look Up

man in blank yellow t-shirt pointing at himself

If you actually look up the word hubris when you encounter it, you are demonstrating a quality that is the precise opposite of hubris, which means “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”

Being curious naturally leads to learning, and it also requires enough awareness to acknowledge what we don’t know. Hubris is often used when someone’s excessive confidence leads to an error—when things don’t go their way because they didn’t pay attention to some important detail. Hubris is more than just a failure, it’s a failure that is the result of this specific kind of mistake.

confident and hopeful young woman stands on the beach

The first uses of sanguine in English had to do with the color red and what that color is frequently associated with: blood. In the Middle Ages, when sanguine entered English from French, it was one of the “four humors” that described a person’s temperament; a sanguine person had the ruddy (reddish) complexion of a healthy, active, and optimistic person.

Today, sanguine means “confident and hopeful,” as in “they are sanguine about the company’s future” or “she has a sanguine disposition.”

male public defender presenting case making passionate speech to judge jury

If you think that militate looks a bit like military, you’ve noticed the family resemblance. These two words come from the same Latin root, meaning “soldier.” The verb militate has been used to mean “to wage war” or “to serve as a soldier,” but today is used to convey a war of ideas rather than violence: to “militate against” something is to prevent it from happening, as in “there were several factors militating against success” or “his lack of experience militates against being hired.”

Militate also resembles mitigate, and the words are sometimes confused, so remember that militate means “to have weight or effect” on something whereas mitigate means “to make (something) less severe or painful.”

unfocused image of a man yelling in rage

Inchoate is a fancy word meaning “vague” or “incoherent,” as in “a badly formed intellectual argument with inchoate ideas.” It can also mean “unfocused,” as in “inchoate rage.”

Inchoate is also a word that is more frequently encountered when reading rather than speaking, so its pronunciation may be unfamiliar to many—especially since English spelling conventions allow for different possibilities. The usual pronunciation of inchoate is /in-KOH-ut/.

lone hiker walking on ben lomond mountain

If you have moved around to different places frequently, you can describe your life as being peripatetic. This word comes from the Greek verb meaning “to walk up and down” and was used to describe the way that Greek philosopher Aristotle would teach his students: by walking up and down the length of his school in Athens as the students followed along and listened.

Today peripatetic is most often used to describe frequent travel connected to work, as in “she had a peripatetic career as a journalist.”

three bored and aimless children sit on a bench

If you only have an aimless or unfocused plan to do something, it could be said that you have a desultory plan. Desultory is pronounced /DESS-ull-tor-ee/ and means “marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose.” It is used when ideas are unconnected in any solid or constructive way.

This word has a more colorful etymology than most: if being without focus can be likened to jumping from idea to idea, then the meaning of the Latin ancestor of desultory gives a vivid image of that jumping, because it means “of a circus rider who leaps from horse to horse without stopping.” The second syllable of desultory, -sult-, comes from the same root as the last syllable of somersault, the Latin word for “leap” or “jump.”

man holding sign reading the end is near

If you remember that you need to look up prescient when you find it in your reading, you have already experienced the state of being prescient: the word means “having foresight.” It often refers to predicting what will happen before it does, as in “she was prescient about the outcome of the election.”

Prescient comes from the Latin verb meaning “to know,” the same root that gives us science, and with the prefix pre-, the literal meaning of prescient is “to know before.”

uncontrollable pupils in classroom acting out frustrated teacher tearing a hair out

Obstreperous is one of those Latin-based words that, perhaps because it sounds fancy, serves as a kind of euphemism for “noisy and unruly.” It comes from the Latin word meaning “to make a noise against” or “to shout at,” and though the word is often associated with protests, it also brings the shade of meaning that the noisiness is inappropriate or excessive but stops well short of violence.

beagle falling asleep on sofa

Soporific means “causing to fall asleep” and is used both literally, as in “this medication has a soporific effect” and figuratively, as in “the mayor gave a soporific speech.” In its figurative sense, soporific means “boring,” but using this word shows that you have a vocabulary that is wide awake.

When used as a noun, soporific means something, such as a sleeping pill, that you take to help you fall asleep.

 tailor measuring material or textiles for fashionable clothing

Bespoke is a word that started out referring to tailored clothing: a bespoke suit is one that was custom-made for one particular client. In recent years, the word has branched out to mean anything that is customized or made for the specific needs, size, or taste of a specific customer. We now hear of “bespoke software” or “a bespoke luxury car” or “a bespoke bicycle” (meaning one that is custom-made, whether or not the wheels have spokes).

Since this word has left its narrow original meaning, it has often come to refer to things that are not mass-produced or prefab.