Conduct Human Experiments of the Word Kind

bring back obscure words, get people to say strange words,

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have provided their informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

Over the summer he worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed one habit: avid reading.

He used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results are now in. His experiment was a resounding success. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.


You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary.)


Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Yes, you get people to say funny words.


1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,”  and “tarnation.”)


This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you might choose to insist it is back in style. Or you might use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging this Human Experiments of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance the world as we know it.


See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.


Have you gotten subjects to saying funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind!

13 thoughts on “Conduct Human Experiments of the Word Kind

  1. I still get good-natured mocking when I use words like nary and hence around my well educated family. I continue to use large words around my kids, usually with a simpler translation following. But sadly my daily vocabulary isn’t what it used to be. I find that reading older literature is helpful in this regard. But I do miss being around other adults who use more unusual words in conversation.


    • My kids have noticed that they have to consciously tone down the complexity of words they use around others. People actually stop and say, “that’s not a word” over terms we consider quite ordinary, like “conundrum” and “volition” and “besmirch.” Keep using interesting words!


  2. What a great idea 🙂 Dagnabbit isn’t that unusual a word where I come from, but I can think of many I’d like to play with in this experiment, I might have to give it a go! 🙂


  3. A few years ago I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and I was introduced to the wonderful word ‘diasticutis’, a colloquial term for one’s rump. I fell in love with the word and proceeded to use it at every opportunity and whaddya know!?! Two friends started using it and I hope it spreads from there. (Just like my own diasticutis.)


  4. Oh! so funny 🙂 My grandfather used to say “dagnabbit” all the time. I haven’t heard it since he passed. He was also fond of saying “I’ll chuck it in a rut!” while playing pinochle with my dad and uncles when he had a lousy hand. Thanks for the blast from the past!


  5. I am replying on this a bit late, but my son has only recently shared this site with me. At any rate, I have done this experiment (at first by accident, then, as a quirk of humor, on purpose). One of my favorites was a saying I used to hear from a man I worked with years ago in a shipping and receiving warehouse. He is 11 years older than me and from south Georgia. He had several sayings I thought were, well, quaint. My favorite was: “Good-googly moogly!” I have had a few students pick that up.


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