12 Wonderful Words from TED


It’s TED time again!

You might know the germ of Wordnik started with Erin McKean’s 2007 TED talk, “The joy of lexicography.” In it, Erin discusses a new kind of dictionary, one not bound by paper but as big as technology allows — big enough to hold all the words.

And not just “real” words because, as Erin says, if you love a word (even made-up ones, and really, if you think about it, all words are made up) it becomes real.

In Erin’s talk are lots of nifty terms, such as clickiness, serendipity, polysemy (“the greedy habit some words have of taking more than one meaning for themselves”), and of course her favorite, erinaceous.

But not only lexicographers’ talks are full of great words. We’ve rounded up 12 of our favorites from TED, some dictionaried, some un-dictionaried, all loved and all real.


“And some people fall smack in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and we call these people ambiverts. And I often think that they have the best of all worlds.”

Susan Cain, “The power of introverts,” TED, March 2012

An ambivert is someone with both introvert and an extrovert characteristics.

The word ambivert comes from ambiversion, which was coined by sociologist Kimball Young in 1927. The prefix ambi means “on both sides,” and also gives us words like ambiguous, ambivalent, and ambidextrous. The ideas of introversion and extroversion in psychology were introduced by C.G. Jung in 1918.

In her TED talk, Susan Cain makes the clarification between introversion and shyness, saying that “shyness is about fear of social judgment,” while introversion is more about how one responds to stimulation. While extroverts “crave large amounts of stimulation,” introverts crave “quieter, more low-key environments.”


“These rules, which Gordon discovered last year, are similar to protocols that control traffic on the Internet—the Anternet, as she calls it.”

Ed Yong, “How The ‘Anternet’ Succeeds by Showing Restraint,” National Geographic, May 15, 2013

Anternet, a blend of ant and internet, is a word coined by Deborah Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University. It describes the way “ants modulate foraging,” which is “remarkably similar to the algorithm the internet uses to control the flow of data.”


“But the best feeling is this biophilia that E.O. Wilson talks about, where humans have this sense of awe and wonder in front of untamed nature, of raw nature.”

Enric Sala, “Glimpses of a pristine ocean,” TED, May 2010

Biophilia meaning “the love of nature and all living things” was first used by biologist E. O. Wilson in 1979, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). An earlier meaning, “the biological drive towards self-preservation; love of life,” is from 1892.

For more love words, check out this list.


“And today, as a cruciverbalist — 23 [Scrabble] points — and an illusion designer, I create that chaos. I test your ability to solve.”

David Kwong, “Two nerdy obsessions meet — and it’s magic,” TED, July 2014

A cruciverbalist is a constructor of crossword puzzles as well as a crossword enthusiast. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the constructor meaning is from 1990 while the enthusiast meaning is from 1971, says the OED.

The word comes from the Latin crux, “cross,” and verbum, “word.”

Lazarus effect

“Now, funnily enough, this is also Joseph after six months on antiretroviral treatment. Not for nothing do we call it the Lazarus Effect.”

Elizabeth Pisani, “Sex, drugs, and HIV — let’s get rational,” TED, April 2010

The Lazarus effect in this context refers to “the dramatic beneficial changes that antiretroviral drugs…can bring to HIV/AIDS patients.” Lazarus of course refers to, in the New Testament, the brother of Mary and Martha who was brought back to life by Jesus.

linguistic exogamy

“They have a curious language and marriage rule which is called ‘linguistic exogamy:’ you must marry someone who speaks a different language.”

Wade Davis, “Dreams from endangered cultures,” TED, January 2007

Exogamy refers to “the custom of marrying outside the tribe, family, clan, or other social unit,” perhaps to avoid inbreeding and congenital diseases, while endogamy is, you guessed it, marrying within a tribe or group.

In his TED talk, anthropologist Wade Davis is referring to the Barasana in the Northwest Amazon.

nuptial gift

“While they’re mating, the male is busy giving the female not just his sperm but also a nutrient-filled package called a nuptial gift.”

Sara Lewis, “The love and lies of fireflies,” TED, July 2014

The nuptial gift is passed to the female firefly from the male during what’s called courtship feeding. In her talk, Sara Lewis says that “what makes this gift so valuable is that it’s packed with protein that the female will use to provision her eggs,” and that female fireflies “use male flash signals to try to predict which males have the biggest gifts to offer.”

Other creatures that engage in nuptial gift-giving are certain arachnids, certain crickets, and the great grey shrike a raptor-like bird, for which the proffered present is killed prey.


“Nobody understands this better than semi-anonymous French ‘photograffeur’ JR, whose epic global art project, Inside Out, has seen over 160,000 people take part in more than 108 countries.”

Amy Dawson, “French guerilla ‘photograffeur’ JR is changing perceptions with his art, one project at a time,” Metro, October 16, 2013

Semi-anonymous street artist JR refers to himself as a photograffeur, part-photographer, part-graffiti artist, because instead of spray paint, he tags buildings and other public spaces with photos. The word photograffeur is a blend of photo and graffeur, French for “graffiti artist.”

JR took home the 2011 TED prize, which awarded him $100,000 to “change the world,” which he’s doing one giant wheatpaste photograph at a time.


Praxeology is the study of human choice, action and decision making.”

Rory Sutherland, “Perspective is everything,” TED, May 2012

The idea of praxeology as a part of economic theory was developed by Austrian philosopher and economist, Ludwig Von Mises. In his talk, Rory Sutherland says that Von Mises believed that economics was just a subset of psychology and referred to economics as “the study of human praxeology under conditions of scarcity.”

Praxeology contains the Greek praxis, “practice, action, doing.” Other praxis words include echopraxia, the involuntary repetition of others, and parapraxis, more commonly known as the Freudian slip.


“This sudden loss of the ability to recognize faces actually happens to people. It’s called prosopagnosia, and it results from damage to a particular part of the brain.”

Nancy Kanwisher, “A neural portrait of the human mind,” TED, October 2014

Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, is usually acquired, as Nancy Kanwisher describes, as a result of brain damage, but it can also be congenital, manifesting in up to 2.5% of the population.

The term is from about 1950, and comes from the Greek prosopon, “face,” and agnosia, “ignorance.”


“If you ever aren’t sure if you attended the very best party or bought the very best computer, just settle for ‘good enough.’ People who do this are called ‘satisficers,’ and they’re consistently happier, he’s found, than are ‘maximizers,’ people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option.”

Olga Khazan, “The Power of ‘Good Enough,’” The Atlantic, March 10, 2015

The idea of satisficing originally came from psychologist Herbert Simon in the early 1950s. The word is a blend of satisfy and suffice, and is about being satisfied with good enough, as psychologist (and TED talker) Barry Schwartz puts it, instead of always being concerned with having “the best.”

synthetic happiness

“I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.”

Dan Gilbert, “The surprising science of happiness,” TED, September 2006

Psychologist Dan Gilbert describes natural happiness as the feeling we have “when we get what we wanted,” while synthetic happiness is “what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

In other words, synthetic happiness is happiness we’ve chosen to have, despite — and in some cases, even because of — a seemingly negative outcome.

[Photo via Flickr: CC BY 2.0 by Neil Hunt]

Wordnik News & Reminders

Happy New Year, everyone! We wanted to give you a roundup of the latest Wordnik news and reminders about some of our fun features and products.

We rang in 2012 with a profile in The New York Times, Wordnik’s Online Dictionary, No Arbiters Please, while our President and CEO, Joe Hyrkin, was interviewed by IdeaMensch. Last month we launched the Wordnik-powered financial dictionary for SmartMoney.com of The Wall Street Journal (check out our blog post for more details).

Wordnik was highlighted in GigaOM’s NoSQL’s great, but bring your A game, while our special all-Glee edition of Word Soup, was featured at WetPaint.

Also, Wordnik is still hiring! Check out our jobs page for open positions and to apply.

To remind you, every weekend Erin McKean pens The Wall Street Journal feature, “The Week in Words,” a field guide to unusual words in that week’s WSJ issue. The latest installment rounds up 2011’s most interesting linguistic trends.

Did you get a Nook over the holidays? If so, you might be interested in their Word of the Day app, powered by Wordnik. And if your word nerd wishlist went unfulfilled, treat yourself to these Pocket Posh Word Power dictionaries.

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup

Greetings, fellow wordniks! It’s time again for our weekly language blog roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news.

Earlier this week, The New York Times rounded up their 50 most looked-up words from January 1 through July 14 of this year.  Topping the list is panegyric, “a eulogy, written or spoken, in praise of some person or achievement; a formal or elaborate encomium.” Words that also appeared on the NY Times’ 2009 and 2010 lists are inchoate, opprobrium, and hubris.

Also in the Times this week was Ben Zimmer with a piece about forensic linguistics, used to help prove the authorship of texts, while Fast Company reported on a study on the detection of gender patterns in Twitter.

The Boston Globe discussed the banning of Creole in Haitian schools.  Meanwhile, over in Manchester, England, a department store has “banned staff from using words they believe sound ‘too Mancunian‘” when speaking with customers, such as hiya, see ya, and cheers, and demanding they use only hello, goodbye, and thank youMark Nichol at Daily Writing Tips considered some other taboo words, while Slate defended a speech tic that, um, some think should be banished as well.

Meanwhile, the debate over “irritating” Americanisms continued with part two of a post from Lynneguist, some words from Grant Barrett of A Way With Words, and some thoughts from Stan Carey.

The prolific Mr. Carey also had posts on the expression open kimono, and the ongoing fuss over the word ongoing. Lynneguist, aka Lynne Murphy, posted at Macmillan Dictionary blog on how Americans might want to handle small talk in the UK.

Robert Lane Greene at Johnson taught us how to do a bad southern accent (“Sookie!”), how to use mixed metaphors badly, and how to use them well. From Grammar Monkeys we learned how to correct others’ grammar with a smile, while the Yale Grammatical Diversity project is seeking to document the “syntactic diversity found in varieties of English spoken in North America.”

Our own Erin McKean wrote about why dictionaries make good novels; the A.V. Club listed 11 movies that give language a twist (“Well, smurf me with a chainsaw” is going on my tombstone), and fiction writer Jennifer Egan turns a list into a story, or a story into a list (what’s the diff, we like them both).

Arnold Zwicky explores boldly going, discusses a few unsatisfactory portmanteaus, and how even euphemistic exclamations can be offensive to some.  The Virtual Linguist took a look at the British saying, as you do; a lot of words for toilet; and slang initiatives in Wales and ScotlandThe Dialect Blog wondered why so many fantasy movies and shows are done with British accents, and mused on animal accents and vowel shifts.  K International examined the translation of movies, as well as languages in New Guinea that have fallen silent.

Fritinancy reviewed the names of fake chicken (or chikn?) products.  Every Station gave us some words from London’s Victorian underground (just a few of our favorites dollymop, lushington, and gonoph).  Mental Floss detailed 15 words for which there is no English equivalent  (though we’d argue that for number eight, the Turkish gumusservi, “moonlight shining on water,” there is one: moonglade).  Gothamist let us know that Scrabble street signs will be back in Queens, New York this fall.

Finally we wanted to congratulate Sue Fondrie for writing 2011’s worst sentence in English and winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction annual bad writing contest. Without further ado, here is Ms. Fondrie’s winning entry:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Ah, those bloody, sparrow-like pieces of memories, I know them so well. (“Sookie!”)

Till next week!

Wordnik News

Just wanted to give everyone a heads up on the latest in Wordnik news.

First up, this Sunday morning Wordnik founder Erin McKean will be appearing on Press:Here, an NBC show broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area which features stories on Silicon Valley’s technology industry.  Erin will be talking about redefining the dictionary, “good” and “bad” words, what makes a word, and (of course) Wordnik. Can’t wait till Sunday or not in the Bay Area? Watch the clip here.

Next up, Erin’s TED book, Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook, is now available.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and is “a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.”  Erin’s book takes a “revealing look at a torrent of new words and phrases—in science, politics, social life—that reveal our changing societies.”  It’s available on Amazon for the Kindle, and on iBooks.

Finally, Wordnik is powering a new weekend feature in The Wall Street Journal, “The Week in Words,” a field guide to unusual words in that week’s WSJ issue.  Here’s last week’s column and this week’s.

Flowing into the river of English …

From this week’s “THE WORD” column in The Boston Globe, by Wordnik founder Erin McKean, about words related to the Mississippi River flooding:

The spillway (“a path designed to take away overflow safely”) was opened because the waters of the Mississippi are cresting at record highs, with a flow rate of 625,000 cubic feet per second, leading to worries that the river would overtop the levees that hold it back. The amount of water that the Army Corps of Engineers expects to flow past the barriers is the inundation estimate. Should the levees fail, especially on the west bank of the river, the Mississippi could leave the path it takes now — the one on which massive industries and the city of New Orleans both depend — and be captured by the Atchafalaya River, which offers it a faster, steeper shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico.

Read the whole column here.

Tag Questions Are Useful, Amirite?

From this week’s “THE WORD” column in The Boston Globe, by Wordnik founder Erin McKean:

You know what tag questions are, don’t you? Tag questions are those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence — like that don’t you? — that grease the conversational wheels. Linguists see these questions as coming in two different flavors: the kind that ask for information or confirmation (“you’ve got the tickets, right?”), called “modal” tags, and the kind that try to connect with the hearer’s feelings, softening a statement or opening the door for more conversation, called “affective” tags (“that was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it?”).

Since they help keep information flowing, you’d think that tag questions would be appreciated for their importance to the language, or at least held up as a useful communications tool, but in fact, they’re almost ignored, and occasionally even mocked.

Read the full column here.

What’s missing from your personal dictionary?

From this week’s “THE WORD” column in The Boston Globe, by Wordnik founder Erin McKean:

You can get an intriguing look at our cultural obsessions by surveying the words supposedly expunged from the personal dictionaries of famous people. There’s Pope Benedict XVI: On the occasion of his first visit to the United States in 2008, The New York Times’ Pope blog said that “political correctness is not in his dictionary.” There’s Chairman Mao: “The word regret was not in his dictionary,” according to “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” by Li Zhisui, who was Mao’s private physician for more than 20 years. And P.T. Barnum, in his “Struggles and Triumphs: Forty Years’ Recollections,” chastises his manager and son-in-law for being less than enthusiastic about some of Barnum’s plans with “have I not told you often enough, the word can’t is not in my dictionary?”

Read the full column here.