Even after all these decades of wide reading and fanatical dictionary-consulting, I still run across words heretofore unknown to me, and a correspondent just sent me a fine one: facinorous ‘extremely wicked’ [which, it turns out, I learned last year but had already forgotten!]. It’s from Latin facinus ‘bad deed,’ and you can remember both its meaning and its pronunciation by reflecting that it has “sinner” in the middle. My correspondent writes: “I learned this word in grade school, from a Pogo book. Bun Rab and Beauregard, in their fireman roles, ran over a picnic and pushed Pogo’s face into a plate of moosh. He got up and yelled at them, ‘Facinorous runagates!’ I think it was years later that I actually looked up the word.” Any word that has the imprimatur of Pogo is ipso facto an excellent word.
The same correspondent passed along a bit of doggerel by H. C. Bunner called “Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe” that features a striking pronunciation of the great German poet’s name:

I have a bookcase which is what
Many much better men have not.
There are no books inside, for books,
I am afraid, might spoil its looks.
But I’ve three busts, all second-hand,
Upon the top. You understand
I could not put them underneath—
Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe.

You can read the whole thing here. Thanks, Philip!


  1. Today I ran into homoeoprophoron, which means alliteration in the bad sense, i.e. overdone or pointless. Silva Rhetoricae exemplifies it with a cool line from Ennius, O Tite tute Tati tibi tanta tyranne tulisti ‘O you Titus Tatius the tyrant, such great things [i.e. troubles] you have brought on yourself!’ The translation of this from the Italian Wikipedia is cool too: “O Tito Tazio, tiranno, tu stesso ti attirasti atrocità tanto tremende!”

  2. I’ll have to make an effort to keep in mind that this word is uncommon. The Portuguese cognate “facínora” is widespread.

  3. @John: James Ellroy’s fiction introduced me to pioneer scandal magazine Confidential (& its brethen), the style of which employed copious amounts of delicious homoeoprophoron. A shame I can’t find an online archive.

  4. As in Portuguese, in Spanish “facineroso” is very common. Not a long time ago, I used to think it was a lunfardo (slang) word.

  5. I’ve been reading my way through the LH archives for a couple of years now, and my comment on ‘facinorous’ arose from your mention of it in http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003893.php .
    I’m up to August 2010 now. I recently hit http://languagehat.com/archives/2010_08.php with its discussion of ‘most’. Last millennium in an IBM-internal newsgroup/forum I learned that many people used ‘most’ pronominally to mean ‘more than 50%’. I was surprised not just at a usage that seemed bizarre to me, but also that I had gone for more than fifty years without realizing it existed. I ended up printing out the discussion and sending it to Merriam-Webster; never got a reply, though, and the latest Collegiate shows no sign of recognizing the two meanings.
    And http://languagehat.com/archives/003958.php , which like a number of earlier threads wandered into fart territory. Specifically, that many languages distinguish between loud and silent-but-deadly farting, including Proto-Indo-European. Nobody seems ever to have mentioned that one of the languages with reflexes of both PIE roots is French, as in vesse-de-loup ‘wolf’s fart’, a kind of mushroom, and pet-de-nonne ‘nun’s fart’, a kind of pastry.
    Which is relevant to this thread because of one of my favorite dictionary discoveries, which I quote from the MW New International, 3rd ed.:
    vespetro . . . [F vespétro, fr. vesser to break wind noiselessly + péter to break wind + roter to belch] : a liqueur consisting of brandy flavored with anise, fennel, coriander, and angelica and sweetened with sugar
    My favorite words tend to have odd meanings, like ‘nosarian’ (one who argues that there is no limit to the possible largeness of a nose) or ‘Ucalegon’ (a neighbor whose house is on fire; I know two people who have had occasion to use this word), or lovely sounds, like ‘Estes Kefauver’. This is the only one where the appeal is in the etymology.

  6. And the best part? It’s actually not conspicuous. Thanks again, Mr. Hat!

  7. my comment on ‘facinorous’ arose from your mention of it in http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003893.php
    *bangs head on desk*

  8. There’s a Goethe Street in Chicago, I’ve heard, which is locally pronounced Go-eethy.

  9. And this puts a new light on the title page of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, which mentions Giles’ “mira facinora.” I never realized the word had negative connotations. Are we to render it as “wonderful carryings-on”?

  10. In Italian, the adjective facinoroso (“unruly”, “rowdy”, “violent”) and the noun facinoroso (“troublemaker”, “rioter”) are also commonly used, but mainly in formal contexts.

  11. Bunner’s editor, Brander Matthews, suggests in this essay (p.194) that the poem originated in response to an attempt by Joaquin Miller to rhyme Goethe and teeth without the excuse of humorous intent.

    Another copy of verses
    had its origin in the allegation that a cer-
    tain songster of the Sierras had written
    a poem in which the name of the author
    of ‘Faust’ was made to rhyme with the
    unpoetic word teeth. The American hu-
    morist unhesitatingly mispronounced the
    names Moliere and Goethe, and wrote
    these stanzas on ‘Shake, Mulleary and

    Several other sources suggest that this poetic faux pas may have haunted Miller for years. I have been unable to find the poem in which he did it though.

  12. Rodger C.: It’s pronounced in varying ways, as my mother (native German, Germanist, grad student at UChicago) discovered half a century ago when she collected street-car conductors’ pronunciations of it. The most common was Geety, the most grotesque Go-eeth, she told me.

  13. @John Cowan: Thanks. @Ian Preston: Ironic in view of the fact that Miller was a German-American in a day when bilingualism was still common. Maybe he was automatically applying childhood rules for anglicizing German names.

  14. @Rodger C: Maybe it’s a literary myth. If so it’s a widespread one but it’s noticeable that none of the many sources mocking him for doing it appear to quote the lines where he perpetrated the supposed “howler”. No online collection of his poems that I could find contains such a rhyme either. Is the poem too obscure to be easily found or did he expunge it from his collections out of embarrassment? Or is it an unsupported story that has spread because it fitted a certain sniffiness about his literary merit? (I note that Matthews only refers to an “allegation”.) I don’t know enough about him to judge how likely these alternatives are.

  15. Dave Lovely says

    When I lived in Chicago in the mid-90s, I used to take a bus that ran past Goethe Street. There was a particular driver I remember who would make a point of yelling out the names of the stops. So, as Goethe Street drew near, there would be a cry of “Goethe!”. He favoured making it rhyme with “oath”.

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