pulchritude /’pʊlkɹɪˌt(j)u:d/

Here’s a quick test for you: Try saying the following words aloud and see if you can guess what they mean – assuming you don’t know already.

(a) windfucker

(b) gayholer

(c) niggard

If you say them loud enough in a crowded place, the odds are that someone is going to be mightily offended. However, feel free to point out to the newly insulted that they can easily help themselves become less stressed by going to a library and looking at a dictionary. For the more challenged, you might need to explain that a “library” is a large building where things called “books” are housed, and that a “book” is sort of like a Kindle but with paper and no need for re-charging. For the younger person, you might like to tell them that libraries are a bit like the Internet but with much less gossip and porn.

Windfucker is synonym for a kestrel, which was used as early as 1599, and giving rise to a variation, windhover, in the late 1600’s.

Falco tinnunculus or Windfucker

A gayholer is jailer or prison guard, first attested in the 13th century as one of a number of possible spellings for the name of, “one who has charge of a jail or of the prisoners in it. (OED, Vol. XIII, p.181).

A niggard is someone who is mean, stingy, or miserly, and probably comes from early Scandinavian forms such as Old Icelandic hnoggr or Swedish njugg, which also mean stingy, along with the suffix –ard, a noun-forming element.

All of these have something in common: They all sound worse than what they are. This comes about because they actually sound like other words that are deemed “bad,” but do not come from the same roots.

Now, unless someone can let me know, there doesn’t seem to be a word that means “a word that sounds bad” as opposed to a word that IS bad i.e. a pejorative or a swear word. If I were one of the architects of Babel, I’d use the word cacophonym to label such lexical items.

Cacophonym comes from the Greek κακο meaning bad, along with φωνοσ meaning sound or voice, topped with the suffix ὂνομα or name. The more etymologically minded among you will note that this neologism is like cacophony with an “m” added. Full marks for that one.

However, this post is not about an invented word but an example of an invented word – and that word is pulchritude. On first hearing, it doesn’t sound like something you’d either want to have or want to wish on someone else. It is packed with hard sounds and reminiscent of some form of disease or skin condition. Ugh.

The truth is that this is simply another example of a cacophonym (/kʌˈkɒfʌnɪm/) because it’s actually a wonderful thing to have or wish on someone else. Pulchritude is simply another word for beauty way back in 1926, it was used to describe a new contest in Galveston, Texas, called The International Pageant of Pulchritude, which eventually became the Miss Universe competition.

Int. Pageant of Pulchritude, 1928

As you might expect, the word is a lot older than Galveston. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first citation dated 1460 in a collection of poems entitled Knyghthode & Bataile:

Themanuel, this Lord of Sabaoth,
Hath ostis angelik that multitude,
That noon of hem, nor persone erthly, woote
Their numbir or vertue or pulcritude;
Our chiualers of hem similitude
Take as thei may, but truely ? fer is,
As gemmys are ymagyned to sterrys.

Clearly the writer had limited access to a spell checker, but woot for the angelic hosts, eh?

The Middle French pulcritude or pulchritude is derived from the classical Latin pulcritudo meaning beauty and attractiveness. This in turn comes from the base form pulcher (and pulcer) meaning beautiful, along with the suffix –ious, which magically turns a word into another one meaning “full of” – in this case, pulchrious (or pulchrous)for “full of beauty.” In his 1547 book, The pryncyples of astronomye in manner a prognosticayon to the worldes end,” Andrew Border wrote that “Venus is a pulcrus planet.”

The adjective form pulchritudinous seems to have been an American invention, appearing in print in an 1877 edition of Puck magazine:

Fanny Davenport, the pulchritudinous and unpoetic, will play Shaksperian [sic] comedy… at Booth’s Theatre next week.

The word, although uncommon, is certainly not dead. In an article dated March 31st, 2010, Time.com published as article on the Parisian Art Deco hotel, Hotel Lutetia, entitled Hundred Years of Pulchritude at the Lutetia, where they talk about the beauty of the old hostelry. Furthermore, a quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) illustrates 33 instances of the word being used from 1990 to 2009, such as:

Postnap, the kids are on the couch, watching Disney’s Pocahontas-a fine example of feminine pulchritude by any standard, cartoon or otherwise, especially to a guy whose last night out with his wife, sans children, was roughly twenty-one months previous, a Saturday. (Mike Sagar, Esquire, 2006, Vol. 146, Iss.1, p.125)


And as well as being a current, all be it at a relatively low-frequency occurrence, the internet (or the Mother of All Lies, as some of us like to call it) has it as the collective name for a group of peacocks; a pulchritude of peacocks. However, it’s difficult to know how recent this is as there appear to be no actual references to where this originated, and neither the COCA nor the OED have any examples. It’s therefore tempting to conclude that it is a relatively new usage of pulchritude, used in something of either a humorous or ironic manner.

White Peacocks

Whatever its age, it still remains such a good example of a cacophonym that if you’re ever tempted to feel the need to impress you date with your vast vocabulary, I’d recommend that you avoid using this word to “whisper sweet nothings.” Save it for dinner parties, pub quizzes, and drunken nights out.


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Filed under Etymology, Humor, Vocabulary, Word Origins

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