Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

The reader is in­vited to pon­der the sen­tence “Unso­cia­ble house­maid dis­cour­ages face­tious be­hav­iour”. What is un­usual about it? What prop­erty do the words have that is shared by rel­a­tively few other words?

The an­swer, of course, is that each word con­tains the five vow­els A, E, I, O and U ex­actly once. Most peo­ple know that face­tious and ab­stemious are the two most common English words con­tain­ing the five vow­els in their nat­u­ral or­der; fewer are aware that un­ori­en­tal is the most common English word con­tain­ing the five vow­els in re­verse or­der.

Lan­guage ex­pert and re­searcher the late Dmitri Borgmann listed ad­di­tional words with the vow­els in nat­u­ral and re­verse or­der, and also ex­am­ined the prob­lem of find­ing the short­est pos­si­ble word con­tain­ing all five vow­els (se­quoia) – a re­mark­able feat for a pre­com­puter data­base era. One last­ing re­gret is that the plu­ral of se­quoia isn’t se­quoiae, which would have made it a uniquely el­e­gant word to have five vow­els in a row (the ac­tual plu­ral is a staid se­quoias).

If one ad­mits y as a sixth vowel, it is easy to find an English word con­tain­ing all six vow­els in nat­u­ral or­der (face­tiously), but the re­verse prob­lem is much harder.

Per­haps the best so­lu­tion is given by Alan Wachtel in the Novem­ber 1968 Word Ways; he sug­gested Yu­loidea (an ob­so­lete name for the su­per­fam­ily of mil­li­pede).

Here are other words in the dic­tio­nary whose un­usual fea­tures are wor­thy of record­ing as foot­notes to their in­di­vid­ual en­tries:

aegilops the long­est word in the English lan­guage to have all of its let­ters in strict al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der;

smith­ery con­tains no fewer than sev­en­teen dif­fer­ent pro­nouns: he, her, hers, him, his, I, it, its, me, my, she, their, theirs, them, they, thy, ye;

tri­en­ni­ally: ev­ery al­ter­nate let­ter forms a com­pletely dif­fer­ent word; the odd-num­bered let­ters form tinily, the even-num­bered let­ters form re­nal;

un­com­pli­men­tary; the long­est of three English words that con­tain all five vow­els, once only and in re­verse al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der (the oth­ers be­ing sub­con­ti­nen­tal and un­no­tice­ably);

zoosporous is one of the long­est words to be com­posed solely of let­ters of the sec­ond half of the al­pha­bet, M to Z.

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