25 Words For Other Words


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. So as well as 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).

English being as vast and grandiloquent a language as it is of course, 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.

1. Anacronym

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’ll be a taser.

2. Ananym

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).

3. Auto-antonym

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.

4. Autoglossonym

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. Autology and 6. 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.

7. Backronym

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.

8. Capitonym

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 entirely 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).

9. Demonym

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).

10. Emordnilap

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. Endonym and 12. 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 (Ayer’s Rock).

13. Holonymy and 14. 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 and foot, and so on.

15. Holophrase

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.

16. Homoeosemant

According to a 1914 dictionary, a homoeosemant is a word that has almost similar meaning to another, but not quite. Also known as “semi-synonyms,” homoeosematic words basically account for the ever so slight differences in meaning between sets of related words, like ask, question, probe, enquire, interview, and interrogate.

17. Homophene

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. Hypernym and 19. 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, and terrier, and so on.

20. Oxytone, 21. Paroxytone, AND 22. Proparoxtone

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 proparoxtone on 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).

23. Retronym

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.”

24. Tautonym

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.

25. Troponym

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 homoeosemants 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 writers of fiction, 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.

This piece originally ran in 2014.

15 Unique Illnesses You Can Only Come Down With in German


The German language is so perfectly suited for these syndromes, coming down with them in any other language just won’t do.

1. Kevinismus

At some point in the last couple of decades, parents in Germany started coming down with Kevinismus—a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin. Kids with these names reportedly tend to be less successful in school and in life, although some researchers have suggested this could be due to a combination of teachers’ prejudices toward the names and the lower social status of parents who choose names like Kevin.

2. Föhnkrankheit

Föhn is the name for a specific wind that cools air as it draws up one side of a mountain, and then warms it as it compresses coming down the other side. These winds are believed to cause headaches and other feelings of illness. Many a 19th century German lady took to her fainting couch with a cold compress, suffering from Föhnkrankheit.

3. Kreislaufzusammenbruch

Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”

4. Hörsturz

Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least five people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.

5. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit or “early year tiredness” can be translated as “spring fatigue.” Is it from the change in the weather? Changing sunlight patterns? Hormone imbalance? Allergies? As afflictions go, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is much less fun than our “spring fever,” which is instead associated with increased vim, vigor, pep, and randiness.

6. Fernweh

Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is the longing for travel, or getting out there beyond the horizon, or what you might call wanderlust.

7. Putzfimmel

Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

8. Werthersfieber

An old-fashioned type of miserable lovesickness that was named “Werther’s fever” for the hero of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Poor young Werther suffers for the love of a peasant girl who is already married. Death is his only way out. A generation of sensitive young men brought made Werthersfieber quite fashionable in the late 18th century.

9. Ostalgie

Ostalgie is nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany (ost means East). If you miss your old Trabant and those weekly visits from the secret police, you may have Ostalgie.

10. Zeitkrankheit

Zeitkrankheit is “time sickness” or “illness of the times.” It’s a general term for whatever the damaging mindset or preoccupations of a certain era are.

11. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz or “world pain,” is a sadness brought on by a realization that the world cannot be the way you wish it would be. It’s more emotional than pessimism, and more painful than ennui.

12. Ichschmerz

Ichschmerz is like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world. Which is probably what Weltschmerz really boils down to most of the time.

13. Lebensmüdigkeit

Lebensmüdigkeit translates as despair or world-weariness, but it also more literally means “life tiredness.” When someone does something stupidly dangerous, you might sarcastically ask, “What are you doing? Are you lebensmüde?!”

14. Zivilisationskrankheit

Zivilisationskrankheit, or “civilization sickness” is a problem caused by living in the modern world. Stress, obesity, eating disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diseases like type 2 diabetes are all examples.

15. Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik or “gate closing panic” is the anxiety-inducing awareness that as time goes on, life’s opportunities just keep getting fewer and fewer and there’s no way to know which ones you should be taking before they close forever. It’s a Zivilisationskrankheit that may result in Weltschmerz, Ichschmerz, or Lebensmüdigkeit.

This list first ran in 2015.

15 Obscure Words for Everyday Feelings And Emotions


Given that it runs to more than a quarter of a million words, there’s a good chance that the English language will probably have the word you’re looking for. But when it comes to describing hard-to-describe feelings and emotions, much is made of the English language’s shortcomings: We either have to turn to foreign languages to describe situations like coming up with a perfect comeback when the moment has passed (esprit de l’escalier—thank you French), or else use resources like the brilliant, but sadly entirely fictitious, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows or Meaning of Liff.

But so vast is the English language that words for feelings and emotions, and to describe the human condition, have actually found their way into the dictionary. So there’s no need to call that comeback esprit de l’escalier, because the word afterwit has been in use in English since the late 16th century. And here are 15 more obscure English words to describe feelings that are otherwise indescribable.

1. Croochie-Proochles

The superb Scots dialect word croochie-proochles means the feeling of discomfort or fidgetiness that comes from sitting in a cramped position (like, say, on an airplane).

2. Nikhedonia

You’re playing a game, and you suddenly realize that you’ve got it in the bag. Or you’re watching your favorite team play and, after a close-fought match, you see that they’re surely going to win. That’s nikhedoniathe feeling of excitement or elation that comes from anticipating success.

3. Alysm

Alysm is the feeling of restlessness or frustrated boredom that comes from being unwell. When you’re desperate to get on with your day but you’re so under the weather that you can’t bring yourself to get out of bed? That’s alysm.

4. Shivviness

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something, or else a loose thread sticking out of a piece of fabric. And derived from that, shivviness is an old Yorkshire dialect word for the feeling of discomfort that comes from wearing new underwear—a word that surely needs to be more widely known.

5. Déjà-visité

Yes, strictly speaking this isn’t an English word, but like the more familiar déjà-vu before it, we have nevertheless had the foresight to borrow déjà-visité from French and add it to our dictionaries—it’s just not used as often as its more familiar cousin. It describes the peculiar sensation of knowing your way around somewhere you’ve never been before.

6. Presque-Vu

One more term we’ve borrowed from French is presque-vu. It literally means “almost seen,” and refers to that sensation of forgetting or not being able to remember something, but feeling that you could remember it any minute.

7. Gwenders

That tingling feeling you get in your fingers when they’re cold? That’s gwenders.

8. Misslieness

The Scots dialect word misslieness means “the feeling of solitariness that comes from missing something or someone you love.”

9. Euneirophrenia and 10. Malneirophrenia

Oneiros was the Greek word for a dream, and derived from that the English language has adopted a handful of obscure terms like oneirocriticism (the interpretation of dreams), oneirodynia (a night’s sleep disturbed by nightmares), and this pair. Euneirophrenia is the feeling of contentment that comes from waking up from a pleasant dream, while malneirophrenia is the feeling of unease or unhappiness that comes from waking up from a nightmare.

11. Lonesome-Fret

That feeling of restlessness or unease that comes from being on your own too long is lonesome-fret, an 18th/19th century dialect word defined as “ennui from lonesomeness” by the English Dialect Dictionary.

12. Fat-Sorrow

Sorrow alleviated by riches”—or, put another way, sadness alleviated by material things—is fat-sorrow. It’s a term best remembered from the old adage that “fat sorrow is better than lean sorrow.”

13. Horror Vacui

The dislike some people have of leaving an empty space anywhere—like on a wall or in furnishing a room—is called horror vacui, a Latin term originally adopted into English in the mid-19th century to refer to the tendency of some artists to fill every square inch of their paintings or artworks with detail.

14. Crapulence

When the word hangover just won’t do it justice, there’s crapulence. As the OED defines it, crapulence is a feeling of “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

15. Huckmuck

According to the English Dialect Dictionary, the confusion that comes from things not being in their right place—like when you’ve moved everything around while you’re cleaning your house—is called huckmuck.

This list first appeared in 2017.