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Ittibitium, borborygmus, and Ba humbugi – 14 wonderful science words you’ve never heard of

In Word of Mouth, Michael Rosen and guests point the microscope at the language of science, from the florid writings of the 17th century to modernist poetry and school experiments.

One thing is for sure, the lexicon of science is full of delightfully unusual names and phrases. Here are 14 weird and wonderful words from the world of physics, biology and chemistry. Eureka!

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1. Ba humbugi

Ba is a genus of land snail, named after the Ba District in Fiji. The American malacologist (someone who studies... molluscs) behind the title obviously had a sense of humour: he then named a species of snail within the mollusc family Ba humbugi, a nod to fictional miser Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous catchphrase.

2. Borborygmus

If you’re prone to tummy rumbles and a growling gut then this is one for you. A borborygmus is a grumbling or gurgling noise made by fluid and gas moving in the intestines.

3. Gluon

A gluon is a hypothetical, neutral, massless, subatomic particle believed to transmit the force that binds quarks (elementary particles) together in a hadron (a composite particle made of two or more quarks). In other words, it “glues” them together.

4. Obdormition

That feeling of numbness when an arm or leg has “gone to sleep” – is scientifically known as obdormition. Who knew? While we’re on the matter, the “pins and needles” you feel when the limb comes back to life is officially termed paresthesia.

5. Catacoustics

You may be disappointed to hear that this doesn’t have anything to do with musical felines. It’s the science of reflected sounds. In other words, echoes.

6. Horripilation

We know them as goose bumps, but your hairs standing up on end due to the cold, a scary story or the theme song to Titanic is scientifically known by another moniker. If you watch a horror film you may experience horripilation.

7. Kwashiorkor

Kwashiorkor sounds more like the name of a comic book character than a disease, but it’s actually a severe form of malnutrition, caused by a lack of protein and essential nutrients.

The unpleasant condition, which is most common in children in developing countries, causes swelling under the skin.

8. Abyssal

What could be more atmospheric than the word abyssal? This term describes the deepest, darkest, watery depths of our oceans – anything between 3000 and 6000m down.

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9. Zoosemiotics

Zoosemiotics is a term used for the study of animal communication. We’re not talking texts or phone calls, but the signs used between creatures.

10. Otorhinolaryngologist

An otorhinolaryngologist isn’t a doctor who specialises in angsty rhinos, as the name might suggest, but one who deals with all conditions ear, nose and throat related. And it’s quite a mouthful.

11. Petrichor

Have you ever tried and failed to describe that not altogether unpleasant aroma that often accompanies the first rain after a long dry spell? Well, believe it or not, there’s actually a word for it. The word petrichor describes this distinctive smell, which is thought to be caused by oils that are released into the soil by plants during dry weather.

12. Krypton

Krypton isn’t just Superman’s fictional home planet. It’s also a real chemical element – a gas that occurs in trace amounts in our atmosphere. Its name comes from the Ancient Greek for “hidden one” – because Krypton is colourless, odourless and tasteless.

13. Magnetopause

The region surrounding a planet in which charged particles are controlled by the planet's magnetic field is known as the magnetosphere. The magnetopause is the outer boundary of this area, where magnetosphere meets interplanetary space!

14. Ittibitium

We started on snails, so we’ll end on snails… There is a category of small sea snails called Bittium. So, what did scientists name a genus of even tinier marine gastropod molluscs? Ittibittium of course.

More fun with words on Radio 4