Scrabble players may be familiar with the rare cluster of vowel-only words in the dictionary, but if you’ve ever gotten into a mid-game spat as to what exactly "aa," "ae," "ai," "oe," and "eau" mean, now’s your chance to defend these unique, pint-sized words. Who knows, you may even find a way to drop one into a sentence to really dazzle (or confuse) your friends.
"Aa" is a geological term referring to basaltic lava that forms rough, jagged masses with a light, frothy texture. It comes from Hawaii — land of the volcano — where it is pronounced "AH-ah."
"Ae" comes from the opposite side of the globe, courtesy of Scotland, where it refers to the number one.
"Ai" is commonly affiliated with the modern-day acronym for Artificial Intelligence, but in actuality, it’s just another name for our favorite slow-moving animal, the three-toed sloth. The name came from the sound of its cry (ai-ai!), but it's pronounced a bit softer — "AH-ee."
The etymology is a little foggy on this one. Some sources claim "oe" is a Scots word for grandchild. If you have an "r" on your rack, you could play "ieroe," meaning great-child. But the Scrabble dictionary defines "oe" as "a whirlwind off the Faeroe islands." Either way, if you're stuck with vowels, "oe" is a great word to have in your back pocket.
"Eau" also brings some international flair as one of many French words we’ve adopted into English. "Eau" — commonly l’eau — means water in French, but in English, "eau" typically refers to a watery solution, such as perfume or liquor.
Why Do We Have These Vowel-Only Words?
Compared to other languages around the world, English has very few vowel-only words. (For the record, "a" and "I," two of the shortest words around, also count!)
The reason for their rarity comes down to the origin. English is well-known for its adoption and evolution of words from languages all around the world. All of the short, vowel-only words above come from somewhat archaic sources, or are specialty words unique to their culture. We don’t encounter three-toed sloths often in our daily lives, but Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, from whom the word was derived, may be more familiar with the creature and its special cries.
On the flip side, English words without vowels are still rare, but they probably appear in your regular vocabulary more often. "Tsk tsk," "nth" (as in nth degree), and "psst" are a few better-known examples. "Psst" falls in with a number of onomatopoetic expressions without vowels, such as "brr," "hmm," or "shh." But fair warning, Scrabble champs — you might not find those expressions in the OED, aka the logophile gospel.
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