15 Fascinating Linguistics Terms You Didn’t Learn in School

Cutthroat compounds are less bloodthirsty than they sound.
Spoilers for this article without context.
Spoilers for this article without context. / (Snowman) Elin Artois/fStop/Getty Images; (Kangaroo) CSA-Archive/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Scarecrow) filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Speech bubbles) rambo182/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Background) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Grade school English teachers do their best to send you off into the world with at least a cursory understanding of how language works. Maybe you can tell your dependent clauses from your independent ones and your transitive verbs from your intransitive ones. Maybe you’re even pretty savvy at distinguishing between basic rhetorical devices—hyperbole versus oxymoron, simile versus metaphor, and that sort of thing.

But unless you majored in linguistics in college or routinely spend your free time reading grammar blogs, there’s a whole world of words to describe language mechanics that you’re probably not aware of. Here are 15 of our favorites, from formal terms like amphiboly to colloquial ones like snowclone.


Amphiboly, or amphibology, occurs when a sentence or phrase’s grammatical structure lends itself to multiple interpretations. There are countless ways this kind of ambiguity can happen. Maybe the placement of a prepositional phrase makes it unclear what that phrase is modifying, as Groucho Marx exploited in this classic joke: “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.”

Or maybe it’s not obvious which part of speech a certain word is functioning as, which happens fairly often (and sometimes to hilarious effect) in headlines. In “Eye Drops Off Shelves,” for example, drops is a noun—but the headline takes on a different meaning if you mistake it for a verb. (Ambiguous headlines are their own subset of amphiboly, colloquially called “crash blossoms.”)


We usually think of word formation as taking a root word and adding affixes (like prefixes and suffixes) so the resulting word is longer than what you had before. From friend, you can make friendly, friendship, and befriend. But it doesn’t always work that way: Back-formation is the process of creating a new word by removing affixes. 

English is full of surprising back-formations. Burglar, for example, didn’t arise from burgle. Burglar came first, and people then created burgle as a verb to describe what a burglar does. And legislate isn’t the stem for legislation, legislator, or legislative; all three actually predate it.

Cutthroat compound

Plenty of compound words include the subject (also known as the head) within the compound itself. Watermelons are melons, bluebirds are birds, and bedrooms are rooms. But there are also exocentric compounds, in which the head isn’t part of the actual term. A specific class of these compounds involves an action (verb) being performed on an object (noun). A cutthroat, for example, isn’t an actual cut throat; it’s a person who cuts a throat, literally or figuratively. Scarecrows scare crows, daredevils dare the devil, and so on.

Though they’re formally called “agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds,” historical linguist Brianne Hughes gave them a much catchier nickname: cutthroat compounds. And while they’re not super common in English, you might start noticing them in unexpected places. Technically, William Shakespeare’s surname counts as a cutthroat compound: “one who shakes a spear.”


People dressed as Rugrats Angelica and Tommy in a car with the top down
Dysphemism in action. / Kevin Winter/GettyImages

You’ve probably heard of euphemisms: expressions that use “agreeable or inoffensive” language in place of terms “that may offend or suggest something unpleasant,” per Merriam-Webster. Pass away is a euphemism for “die,” and do it is a euphemism for “have sex.”

Dysphemisms are the exact opposite of that: expressions that intentionally use harsh language to describe something more or less innocuous. Rug rat is a dysphemism for a “young child who’s still crawling on the carpet,” for example, and ambulance chaser is a dysphemism for “personal injury attorney.”


Eggcorns are misheard expressions that actually make sense—e.g. deep-seeded instead of the technically correct version, deep-seated, and free reign rather than free rein. The term, coined by linguist Geoff Pullum, is a nod to acorn’s history of being misheard as eggcorn

Epenthesis and Syncope

You might find it irksome that so many people pronounce realtor as “REEL-uh-ter” instead of “REEL-ter,” but they’re not disregarding letter order for no reason. It’s not uncommon for us to add an extra sound (often, but not always, a vowel sound) to a word to make it easier to pronounce—a phenomenon known as epenthesis. Athlete is another example: “ATH-uh-leet” rolls off the tongue better than “ATH-leet.” Some linguists even consider the “n” sound in the article an to be epenthetic: It neutralizes the difficulty of uttering two vowel sounds back to back, as we’d otherwise have to when talking about, say, a archer shooting a arrow at a apple.

We drop sounds to make words easier to pronounce, too. This type of contraction within a single word is called a “syncope”—you can find examples in vegetable, whose second “e” sound is often omitted, and family, widely pronounced “FAM-lee.” (Syncope typically refers to dropped vowels, but some linguists do also use it for dropped consonants. The dropped-sound phenomenon overall is known as deletion.)

Kangaroo word

kangaroo joey in its mother's pouch
'Roo' isn't technically a joey word for 'kangaroo.' / Lea Scaddan/Moment/Getty Images

Recreational linguists have a name for words that contain their own synonyms: kangaroo words (because kangaroos carry their joeys in pouches). Rambunctious harbors raucous, respite has rest, and there’s ruin in destruction. In order to count as a true kangaroo word, the letters of the joey word must be ordered correctly in the parent word—i.e. you can’t do any unscrambling. You do have to remove letters from between the letters of the joey word, though; if there aren’t any, it doesn’t count. (E.g. belated and late and action and act are disqualified.)


A cousin of the eggcorn is the mondegreen, “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing especially of something recited or sung,” per Merriam-Webster. Mondegreen is a mondegreen: Sylvia Wright coined the term in a 1954 Harper’s Magazine article in reference to Lady Mondegreen, a mishearing of “laid him on the green” from the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray.”

One of the most famous modern mondegreens is ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” (The actual lyric is “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”) And Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” gave us All the lonely Starbucks lovers, which is really “Got a long list of ex-lovers.”

Nonce word 

A nonce word is a word that was coined for one occasion only. They’re not uncommon in linguistics studies on language acquisition, as researchers need to use words that participants won’t already be familiar with. (Psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason memorably made up wug, gutch, and many other nonce words for this purpose.) Sometimes, people create nonce words to fill the need for a term that simply doesn’t exist, like puzz to describe the puzzle fuzz you find in the bottom of a puzzle box. But other times, writers are just making up words for fun—looking at you, Lewis Carroll.

Some nonce words do end up filtering into the general lexicon, at which point they lose their nonce-word status. (But it’s hard to identify exactly how common a nonce word needs to become in order for it to stop being a nonce word.) Carroll is an interesting case because some of his nonce words did catch on, like chortle, while others are still nonces (e.g. slithy, a portmanteau of lithe and slimy).

RAS syndrome

five different-colored ATMs in a row
It's just 'ATM.' / Prasit photo/Moment/Getty Images

Since PIN stands for personal identification number, saying “PIN number” is redundant. The same goes for the phrase ATM machine, as ATM stands for automated teller machine. In 2001, New Scientist gave this variety of redundancy its own tongue-in-cheek title: RAS syndrome, for redundant acronym syndrome syndrome. Even DC Comics is an example of RAS syndrome—DC stands for Detective Comics. (Strictly speaking, though, DC and ATM are initialisms, not acronyms. A more apt title would be redundant abbreviation syndrome syndrome.)


Rebracketing occurs when we break up a word into different parts than were used when putting it together, a concept much easier to understand through real-world examples. Take hamburger: The term comprises Hamburg, the city in Germany, and the suffix -er. But as hamburgers gained popularity, people inadvertently rebracketed it as ham and burger—and burger became its own customizable term (cheeseburger, bacon burger, veggie burger, etc.).

Alcoholic is another excellent example: It’s a fusion of alcohol and -ic, but we rebracketed it as alco- and -holic, appropriating -holic as a suffix to refer to other (mainly unofficial) addictions, e.g. chocoholic and workaholic. Blog is technically the result of rebracketing, too—it began as weblog (web and log), but we shifted the b from web onto log in shortening it.


Snowclones, as Geoff Pullum described them in 2004, are “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists.” In other words, they’re clichés that you can customize for whatever you’re writing (or saying) by swapping out a couple operative words—like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” wherein you can fill in be and be with whatever verb you want. X is the new Y and In space, no one can hear you X (from Alien’s tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream”) are a couple other examples. The term snowclone, coined by economics professor Glen Whitman, is a nod to another snowclone: X have [a number of] words for Y, after the complicated but common claim that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow


illustration of William Archibald Spooner hunched over a book at a tall desk
An 1898 illustration of Spilliam Archibald Wooner. / Print Collector/GettyImages

A spoonerism is a phrase in which phonemes of two words have been switched, e.g. half-warmed fish instead of half-formed wish and blushing crow instead of crushing blow. They’re named for British clergyman William Archibald Spooner, who gained a reputation for absent-mindedness and lexical errors while serving as the warden of New College, Oxford, in the early 20th century [PDF]. It’s unclear how many spoonerisms Spooner actually uttered, but it’s probably less than what’s been attributed to him.


Tmesis involves shoehorning a whole nother word between two parts of a word or phrase—like abso-freakin’-lutely. Knowing where exactly to insert the word is one of those grammar rules that most native English speakers follow without even realizing it: As James Harbeck explained for The Week in 2015, it goes “right before a stressed syllable, usually the syllable with the strongest stress, and most often the last stressed syllable.”

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