by Kathy Wolfe

We all have heard some inappropriate four-letter words, but how about these unusual four-letter words? This week, Tidbits opens the dictionary to find some curious and unfamiliar ones.

The Latin word “surdus” meaning “unheard, noiseless, or silent,” gives us the word “surd,” which is defined as an unsounded consonant. This would be the “k” in “knife” and “knot,” the “s” in “debris,” or the “t” in “whistle.”

Anil is a much easier way of saying “indigofera suffruiticosa,” a flowering shrub found in tropical areas that is the source of deep-blue indigo dye. It’s a member of the pea family.

•    The word “naïf” has a similar meaning as “naïve.” A naif lacks worldly experience, is unsophisticated and inexperienced, and might be described as a greenhorn. The word “waif” has its origins in the Old French word “guaif,” meaning “stray beast,” and refers to a person who has been taken out their original surroundings, perhaps by hardship. A homeless or orphaned child is often described as a waif, as are street urchins or runaways.

    Farmers might attempt to fertilize their fields by allowing the excrement of cattle and sheep to remain on the field. That dung is known as “tath.”

    How about “pith”? This word has several meanings, including the soft, spongy tissue in the stems of plants, or in the shaft of a feather or hair. It also refers to the stringy white stuff found between the skin of an orange and its fruit. Pith is also the essential or central part of something, such as the pith of someone’s life or work, the quintessence, core, or significance. The word can also stand for a person’s strength, vitality, grit, and vigor. In the Old English language, another four-letter word, “thew,” was paired with pith. Thew referred to muscle or sinew, and when speaking of men of great strength, the phrase “These were men of pith and thew” was common.    As a verb, to pith an animal is to kill it by piercing or severing its spinal cord.

Pelf refers to wealth or riches that have been dishonestly acquired. Some call this shameful gain filthy lucre. The word has its origins in the Old French word “pelfre,” which translates “stolen goods.” We also get our word “pilfer,” to steal, from the same root.

    The word phut has a number of meanings. If you “go phut,” you feel useless, like a nothing. The word also indicates a light thud, a dull sound, like a tennis ball against the racket, or the sound made by the impact of a bullet. In the Bible, Phut is the name of a group of people who lived between Egypt and Canaan, described as mercenaries in the armies of Egypt and Tyre.   

Metals and minerals that have been heated leave behind a crumbly, ashy substance. It’s an oxide known as calx.   

Crazy, frenzied, batty, bonkers, wacky, and crackers can all refer to someone who is called “loco.” But in the world of music, “loco” has nothing to do with someone who is mentally irregular. It means to play “as written” after having played a section an octave higher or lower. In other words, “return to the proper pitch.”

    Israel’s King Jehu ruled in the ninth century B.C., and was noted for driving chariots fast and furiously. In the 1600s, the word “jehu” came to mean a fast or reckless coachman. Today, we use the term to denote reckless drivers, especially cabbies.   

    Graduation attire includes a gown and a cap, also known as a mortarboard. Typically, the cap features a tassel of various colors. However, in the case of English university graduates who are noblemen or titled, the tassel is gold and it’s known as a tuft.

The card game of faro involves players placing bets against the dealer on the order that certain cards will come up when taken one at a time from the top of the deck. With origins in late 17th-century France, it spread to North America in the 19th century, and was the most popular gambling game, played in every Old West gambling hall from 1825 to 1915. The game of poker overtook faro in popularity by most gamblers.

Emporium, bazaar, farmers’ market, flea market … these are all synonyms for the unusual word “souq,” which is a street market where people buy and sell goods.

• If you’re experiencing chills, sweating, shivering, shaking, pains in the bones or joints, or a violent fever, you might be suffering from the ague. The term is frequently associated with malaria.

    Coir is the fiber found in the husk of a coconut, between the hard outer coat and the internal shell. This strong cellulose fiber is used in the creation of rope, fishing nets, floor mats, brushes, mattresses, and upholstery. The word comes from the Malayali, India language, translated from their word for “rope.”

    The iris genus of flowering plants contains nearly 300 species of these beautiful blossoms. The flower takes its name from the Greek goddess, Iris, who was the mythological goddess of the rainbow. Iris was also the messenger who served nectar to the gods and goddesses. In human anatomy, the iris is the pigmented part of the eye between the cornea and the lens. It’s responsible for regulating the amount of light entering the eye, and controls the size of the pupil.

    A person might doff his hat when he or she encounters a friend. It means to tip or remove it as a sign of greeting or acknowledgment.

•    The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol used in art and writing. It’s viewed as the “key of life,” in the shape of a cross except that the vertical upper bar is replaced by a teardrop-shaped loop. It’s been the Egyptian symbol of life since the 29th century BC.

    Gyve is an old-English term to denote a shackle or fetter, particularly around the leg.

Kame is a topographical word, denoting a glacial landform. It’s formed by sand and gravel that accumulate in a depression on a retreating glacier, creating an oddly-shaped mound.