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Unspellable words? Impossible!

Oscar Wilde’s phrase ‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’ points us to the un- words, an unexhausted yet unassuming and unexplored group of words which stand as a challenge to Napoleon. The Emperor once said ‘the word impossible is not in my dictionary’.

Dictionaries have got a lot better since Napoleon’s day and impossible is certainly in any dictionary worth its salt. On this site, you’ll find it between impossibility and impossibly. The un- words provide many examples which could be used to describe someone’s Waterloo – unclimbable, ungraspable, unbeatable are just three.

The un- word which strikes terror into the heart of a lexicographer bent on linguistic domination is unspellable. Of course words which are difficult to spell are our bread and butter: most people first fall into the delights of dictionary delving while they’re trying to find a word with a tricky spelling. ‘Difficult’ is fine, but ‘impossible’ presents a problem! Does there really exist an unspellable word? Trying to imagine it, like trying to picture infinity, or four dimensions, is a route to madness. The inspiration of most dictionaries – a sequence of words in the language arranged in perfect alphabetical order – collapses if you grant even the possibility that there exists a single word which cannot be spelled.

Seeking to avoid madness we can look at the OED entry for unspellable to read the examples that are quoted there. The quotation by Mark Twain ‘A Spanish saddle,..furnished with the ungainly sole-leather covering with the unspellable name’ gives us cause for relief. We find that the word is a straightforward example of nineteenth century hyperbole. It describes words that, whilst they are jolly hard to spell, are not literally impossible: foreign words which are difficult to transliterate. So the OED’s aim to record every word remains unputdownable. The dictionary on this site does not include the word unspellable, which is not surprising since the Oxford English Corpus reports only a handful of examples of the word.

As well as his description of fox-hunting quoted at the beginning of this piece, Oscar Wilde also said ‘One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards’. With unspellable OED plays with our sanity, but it plays fairly.