One of the intriguing things about languages is that they eventually develop vocabularies comprehensive enough to describe themselves, often down to their smallest units and components. Which means that, in addition to drawing a distinction between nouns, verbs, and adjectives, we can talk about things like synonyms (happy, content) and antonyms (happy, sad); homophones (oar, ore, or) and homographs (bass the guitar, bass the fish); and digraphs (two letters with a single sound, like sh or ch), diphthongs (two vowel sounds in a single syllable, like “kah-oow” for cow), and ligatures (two letters joined as a single character, like Æ).
Because English is a vast and grandiloquent language, straightforward examples like these are just the tip of a linguistic iceberg. In fact, there are dozens of little-known and little-used words referring to other words, describing their form, their origin, or their use. So next time you spot piripiri on a menu, or you’re trying to lip-read a conversation about “Ben’s men’s pens,” you’ll know exactly how to refer to it.
An anacronym is an acronym that has become so naturalized in the language that the phrase it originally stood for has now largely been forgotten. So “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” is better known as scuba, and “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” is laser. And Thomas A. Swift’s electric rifle? That’s a taser.
An ananym is word coined by reversing the letters of an existing word, like yob from “boy,” emordnilap from “palindrome” (more on those later), and mho from “ohm.” Ananymic words are relatively rare, and you’re much more likely to come across them as proper nouns (like Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo company) or in fiction (like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon).
Also known as a contronym or a Janus word (after a dual-faced god in Roman mythology), an auto-antonym is a word that can be its own opposite. So dusting a house implies removing a fine powder, while dusting for fingerprints involves applying a fine powder.
You’ve probably seen lists of these in airports or hotels, on ATMs or travel documents, or if you’ve ever tried to change the language settings of a webpage or cellphone: An autoglossonym is the name of a language written in that language, like English, Français, Español, or Deutsch.
5. and 6. Autology and Heterology
An autological word is word that describes itself. So short is short. Common isn’t rare. Unhyphenated doesn’t have a hyphen. Polysyllabic has more than one syllable. Pronounceable is perfectly pronounceable. And sesquipedalian is unquestionably sesquipedalian.
The opposite is a heterological word. So long isn’t long (in fact it’s shorter than short). Hyphenated is unhyphenated. Symmetrical is asymmetrical. Monosyllabic is polysyllabic. And there’s nothing at all wrong with misspelled.
A backronym is a word or phrase mistakenly believed to be an acronym, which then becomes the subject of a “back-formed” (and completely untrue) etymology. So posh doesn’t stand for “port out, starboard home,” and golf doesn’t stand for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” Nor does Adidas stand for “all day I dream about sport,” and SOS doesn’t mean “save our souls,” but is simply a memorable combination of dots and dashes (•••---•••) in Morse code.
A capitonym is a word whose meaning changes depending on whether it is capitalized or not, like Turkey and turkey, Polish and polish, or August and august. Most capitonyms are entirely coincidental and the two words in question are unrelated, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the difference between the two is much more subtle, like moon (any natural satellite) and Moon (our natural satellite, from which all others are named), or sun (a star at the centre of a solar system) and Sun (our star).
A demonym is a word referring to or describing an inhabitant of a place, like New Zealander or Parisian. In English, most demonyms behave fairly predictably and are formed using a suffix like –an (American), –ian (Canadian), –er (New Yorker), or –ese (Japanese) added to a place name. There are plenty of irregularities, though, like Neapolitan (Naples), Glaswegian (Glasgow), Damascene (Damascus), Guamanian (Guam), and Monagasque (Monaco).
If a palindrome is a word or phrase that spells the same backwards as forwards, then an emordnilap is a word that spells a completely different word when it is reversed. So brag becomes grab, reward becomes drawer, stressed becomes desserts, and so on. Emordnilap itself is an emordnilap of course, but it’s also an ananym and an autological word.
11. and 12. Endonym and Exonym
An endonym is a word that the speakers of a language or the inhabitants of a particular region use to refer to themselves, their hometown, or their surroundings. The opposite is an exonym (or xenonym), which is an outside equivalent or foreign translation of a local name. So London is an endonym if you’re a Londoner, while the French name Londres would be an exonym. Sometimes endonyms overtake exonyms and become the official name for a location regardless of language, as is the case with Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Myanmar (Burma), and Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock).
13. and 14. Holonymy and Meronymy
In linguistics, the concepts of holonymy and meronymy refer to the relationship between parts and wholes—the “whole” is the holonym, and the “part” is the meronym. So a word like house is a holonym that encompasses a group of meronyms like bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, doors, floors, and walls. Body is a holonym for meronyms like arm, leg, head, stomach, foot, and so on.
A holophrase is a single word used to sum up a full phrase or idea, like bouncebackability, ungetatable, or unputdownable. It takes its name from a linguistic phenomenon called holophrasis, whereby whole thoughts or sets of ideas are communicated by a single word or (as with babies first learning to speak) a single sound.
According to a 1914 dictionary, a homœosemant is a word that has almost similar meaning to another, but not quite. Also known as “semi-synonyms,” homœosematic words basically account for the ever-so-slight differences in meaning between sets of related words, like ask, question, probe, enquire, interview, and interrogate.
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often (but not always) different spellings, like dough and doe, or maze and maize. Homophenes, however, are words that look the same as they are pronounced, and so can prove problematic to lip-readers—try covering your ears and getting someone to say the words Ben, men, and pen and you’ll soon get the idea.
18. and 19. Hypernym and Hyponym
A hypernym is essentially an “umbrella” term, under which a number of more specific words known as hyponyms can be listed. Unlike holonyms and meronyms, which deal with parts of a whole, hypernyms work like categories into which the subordinate hyponyms can be grouped. So animal is a hypernym incorporating hyponyms like mammal, fish, and bird. In turn, mammal serves as a hypernym for another set of hyponyms, like dog, cat, and mouse. And dog is a hypernym for words like spaniel, collie, terrier, and so on.
20., 21., and 22. Oxytone, Paroxytone, and Proparoxytone
An oxytone is a word with stress on its final syllable, like guiTAR. A paroxytone has its stress on the second to last syllable, like piANo. And a proparoxytone emphasizes the syllable before that, like acCORdion. Originally used in reference to Ancient Greek, terms like these are used in English to account for the differences between homographic words like CONduct as in “good conduct” (a paroxytone), and conDUCT as in “to conduct an orchestra” (an oxytone).
Coined by the journalist Frank Mankiewicz in the early 1980s, a retronym is a word that comes into being whenever a newer word or invention surpasses an older one, which then has to be renamed. So after electric guitars were invented, earlier non-electric guitars came to be known by the retronym acoustic guitars. The same thing happened with landline telephones, analog clocks, field hockey, rugby union, silent films, 2D films, the French franc, British English, and the First World War, which until the outbreak of the Second World War was known simply as “The Great War.”
A tautonym is a word made up of two (or more) identical, repeated parts. Normally this only applies to the scientific names of animals and plants, like the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) or the western lowland mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), but it can also be used to describe words like goody-goody, tutu, piripiri, bye-bye, and cha-cha-cha.
A troponym is a word (more often than not a verb) that provides a more detailed description of something than a more general word can. That might sound like the definition of an adverb (like happily or slowly), but troponyms are more like a cross between hyponyms and homœosemants in that they are used to provide a slightly different, slightly more specific account than a more general synonym might. As such, troponyms are hugely important to creative writers, who want to provide as accurate and evocative a description as possible. Take a simple sentence like “She walked into the room,” for instance, and then substitute walk with strut, march, stumble, creep, flounce, stagger or jump, and you’ll soon see how important they are.
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.