10 of the hardest words to spell in English

10 of the hardest words to spell in English

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated July 29, 2022

Whether you’re a learner or a native speaker, you’re probably well aware that the rules of English spelling sometimes make very little sense. If you’re not a natural-born speller, this can be grounds for a massive headache. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of how one sound is spelled, a rhyming word pops up with an entirely different spelling—take “meat” and “greet” for example—and your world comes crumbling down. Below, we’ll take you through ten of the hardest English words to spell, discussing what they mean, why they’re so challenging and how you can use them in a sentence.

  1. Nauseous
  2. Dilate
  3. Fuchsia
  4. Minuscule
  5. Ingenious
  6. Sacrilegious 
  7. Orangutan
  8. Paraphernalia
  9. Epitome
  10. Slough

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1. Nauseous

What it means: Having the feeling that you’re going to vomit

Why it’s hard: Starting off our list of most difficult words to spell is “nauseous.” Despite looking like it might be pronounced “NAW-see-us,” this word is actually pronounced “NAW-shus.” Everyday words that contain a “sh” sound in the middle more commonly use a “ti” as in “cautious” (“CAW-shus”—which rhymes with “nauseous”) or “nation” (“NAY-shun”), so this “eous” business might trip you up. Why can’t it be “nautious”?

How to use it: “I can’t go on sailboats. The swaying up and down always makes me feel nauseous.”

2. Dilate

What it means: To become or make something wider or larger

Why it’s hard: For some reason, many English speakers pronounce this as a three-syllable word, “DI-a-late”—but that’s not it. Don’t be tempted to add that extra “a” in there!

How to use it: “Your pupils dilate to let in more light so you can see when it’s dark.”

3. Fuchsia

What it means: A vibrant red-purple color

Why it’s hard: The spelling of this word, which is pronounced “FEW-sha,” makes no sense—it looks like it says “FEWCH-sia” or “FUCH-see-uh.” Why isn’t it just “fucia”? 

How to use it: “You’ll see me. I’ll be standing outside the coffee shop wearing a bright fuchsia dress.”

4. Minuscule

What it means: Very small

Why it’s hard: You might associate this word with “mini,” derived from “miniature,” another word that refers to something tiny. So it would be understandable if you wanted to spell this one “miniscule.” But that’s not the case! Make sure you spell this one with a “u.” 

How to use it: “Even if you can only save a minuscule amount of money every day, it can add up in the long run.”

5. Ingenious

What it means: Extremely clever; a very smart idea

Why it’s hard: Why does “ingenious” contain an “o” when “genius” doesn’t? This may surprise you, but the two words don’t share the same roots! Their meanings may seem similar, but “ingenious” doesn’t actually describe a genius-level idea. Once you can get your head around that, you’ll have an easier time remembering the spelling of this word.

How to use it: “Using two pancakes in place of sandwich bread? Ingenious!”

6. Sacrilegious 

What it means: Disrespectful toward something holy or sacred—this word is sometimes used humorously

Why it’s hard: Because it’s connected to the idea of anti-holiness, many people hear the word “religious” in this one; therefore, they want to spell it “sacreligious.” However, this word actually comes from the noun “sacrilege,” and has no “religious” roots.

How to use it: “You’re Canadian and you don’t like maple syrup? That’s sacrilegious!”

7. Orangutan

What it means: A large ape with brownish-red hair

Why it’s hard: Is this a typo? Why wouldn’t there be a “g” at the end of this word? Well, contrary to popular belief, this animal is not called an “orangutang.” We’re not sure exactly where that pronunciation came from, but it’s quite widespread—and so is the misspelling of the word.

How to use it: “Did you know that orangutans spend almost their whole lives in trees?”

8. Paraphernalia

What it means: Particular objects needed for a certain activity

Why it’s hard: If you don’t think this one belongs on our list of the hardest words to spell in the English language, maybe you’re spelling it wrong! Many people mistakenly pronounce this word “para-fa-NEEL-ia” leaving the second “r” silent and changing the second-last “a” (a long “a” sound) to a long “e” instead. As a result, you might be tempted to write “paraphenelia.” 

How to use it: “The trunk of my car is such a mess—all of my workout paraphernalia is in there.”

9. Epitome

What it means: The best example of something; a perfect representation

Why it’s hard: If you’ve only ever heard this word before and have never seen it written, you may have thought it was spelled “epitomy”—after all, it ends with a long “e” sound, so using a “y” seems like the logical choice. But, just like the word anemone, that final sound is represented by the letter “e.” This is far less common than using a “y,” and is, therefore, a little confusing. 

How to use it: “My ex-boyfriend is the epitome of selfishness.” 

10. Slough

What it means: 1. To shed something (e.g., skin) 2. A wet, swampy area

Why it’s hard: We chose this word to end our list because, no matter what the definition, the spelling could be so much more straightforward than it is. If you’re referring to the first definition, the act of shedding, “slough” is pronounced “sluff.” The swampy definition, however, is commonly pronounced “slew” in American English, but also sometimes rhymes with “wow.” Who decided that two words that are pronounced completely differently should share this unintuitive spelling?


English spelling: The epitome of confusion

If this list of the hardest English words to spell has your head spinning, you’re not alone; lots of others feel the same way. We suggest having some fun by memorizing these words, challenging your friends to a spell-off and impressing everyone with your skills!

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.

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