Written Rambles The Ugliest Words in the English Language Tyler Vendetti

As it turns out, what makes a word beautiful is one of the Internet’s favorite discussion topics. It’s right up there with kitten GIFs, celebrity breakdowns, and whether or not zombies are scientifically possible. One topic that seems to have been demoted to an afterthought, though, is the existence of ugly words. I’ve written before about the grossest words in the English language as well as the ones that inspire butterfly farms to pop up in your stomach, but ugly words are an entirely different beast. Words that are phonetically ugly don’t necessarily have to possess “gross” connotations like “moist” or “curdle.” Rather, words that are considered “ugly” generally share a number of characteristics. According to Robert Wolverton, Classics professor at Mississippi State, words that are of Germanic origin are more likely to be considered ugly than those that come from Latin or French, as are words with only one syllable. Also, words with consonants like “l” or “m” (aka popular consonants aka the first letters that you offer in a game of hangman) are typically more euphonious than ones including “j”, “g”, “f”, “p”, “v”, or “w.”

Some of the following words abide by such rules. Some of them are just wildly unpopular among Internet folk and myself. Take them or leave them (but actually, just leave them).

Crepuscular (adj.): like twilight

From the Latin word crepusculum, crepuscular refers to “dusk” or something that becomes active in low lighting situations like bats, vampires, or girls that like to go clubbing in dimly lit venues. Not only does crepuscular have the word “pus” wedged right in the middle (please excuse me while I vomit), but it stresses its middle syllable instead of its first, which is supposedly another indicator of linguistic ugliness.

Treachery (n.): betrayal

Around the 1940s, the National Association of Teachers of Speech conducted a survey in order to find the ugliest words in the English language. Among their choices was “treachery,” which comes from the “vulgar Latin” word triccare meaning trick. I might agree with their nominee, if only because saying “treachery” aloud too many times makes me feel like I’m stuttering, and I have enough problems speaking as it is.

Harangue (v.): to address someone loudly and forcefully

Though harangue derives from two of the prettiest romance languages (Italian and French), its unnatural pronunciation brings to mind images of orangutans more than anything else. (They’re pronounced similarly, I’m not just weird.) Although, orangutans are bossy and loud too, so it’s not too far off from the actual definition.

Haranguing.

Gripe (v.): to grumble or complaint about something

Not an obvious choice for “ugliest word in existence,” gripe makes the list for being monosyllabic and starting with the less popular consonant “g.” It also has elements of the Old High German word “grifan” meaning “to grasp,” so it fits almost all of the main “ugly” rules. It’s only redeeming factor is that, when said aloud, it can sound like an Australian trying to say “grape,” which is always a plus.

Cacophony (n.):  unpleasant, jarring noise

Saying this word in my head is the linguistic equivalent of hearing a knife scrape against a porcelain plate or watching a person crack the spine of a new book. I can only imagine that the inventor of this word was inspired by a nearby stranger having a coughing fit because I see no other explanation as to why “caco” needs to be in there, other than the fact that, you know, it’s a legitimate suffix that adds some level of meaning to the word. Details, shmetails.

Unctuous (adj.): oily; fatty; excessively ingratiating

Maybe it’s the jarring “ct” combination in the middle. Maybe I have a bad history with uncles that resurfaces when I see this term on paper (UNCLE-tuous). Maybe I subconsciously want to create an alliterative combination by labeling unctuous as ugly. Maybe I heard someone say they thought this word was unflattering for no other reason than they just didn’t like it. I don’t know, but all of those reasons seem valid, so I’ve included it in this list.

Fructify (v.): to make productive

I deem this word ugly solely because it looks like a poorly planned portmanteau of rectify and fruit, neither of which really fit the definition. Plus, it has two “f”s in it, which, statistically, means people are more likely to hate it.

Nobody can truly prove that Germanic words are truly more repulsive than French or Italian ones, nor can they say that words with “l” or “m” are innately more pretty than ones with “g” or “c” because everyone has their own preference when it comes to language and sounds. Though people have learned, through surveys and other research methods, that certain combinations are preferred more than others, that doesn’t necessarily mean those “rules” are set in stone. So I ask: what words do you think are the “ugliest” and why? Do you disagree with any of my picks?

Featured image via AltaLang.com. Info via AmandaOnWriting.com, WordsGoneWild.com, and David Crystal’s article Phonaesthetically Speaking.

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  1. This is actually kind of weird. It sounds like art criticism from a daltonic person, or like a child pointing at a zebra and going like: “oow look, it’s like a Dalmatian, but with stripes not spots!”. This goes way beyond subjective perception and individual taste… That “fructify” is perceived as coming from “rectify” via an arbitrary conflation with “fruit” shows that the author is utterly blind to the underlying pattern (a whole family of latin words expressing the act of making A into B), which makes her reaction non interesting, just random (is “beautify” more beautiful or does “rectify” spoil it again with its lurid hints of “rectum”?). Idem for “crepuscular”, which is actually one of the most poetic words in any known language (for example there is a crepuscular movement in Italian poetry). The emphasis on “pus” is totally arbitrary, it doesn’t even correspond to any meaningful segmentation of the word. Judging words by their aesthetic value is funny and entertaining, but not when it goes against the grain of the way words exist and function at a basic level. This version of it is like going “ew, zebras are the ugliest dogs”. The one meaningful category the author brings to bear (germanic vs latin roots) is made irrelevant, as the shortlist is almost entirely made up of words of Latin or Greek origin. Not funny, just embarrassing

  2. You say that ugly words tend to come from germanic but yet none of these are.

  3. I feel exactly the same way about ‘cacophony’! And I think fructify is not my new least favourite word.

  4. Bill Hader putting on a poor Aussie accent would say grape in a similar tone to gripe maybe. Most of us say grape the same as English or American speakers. Maybe some country folk would draw out the A sound a little but other then on American TV I’ve never heard anyone say it like that =)

    Love the article though. Cacophony has always been a favorite!

  5. Love this! Another fantastic article

  6. I have to disagree with your position on “cacophony”.

    • Me too, I love cacophony! I also like treachery because it’s one of the great words that sounds like what it means. It has a theatricality to it.

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