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25 Words For Other Words

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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. AUTOANTONYM

Also known as a contronym or a Janus word (after a dual-faced god in Roman mythology), an autoantonym 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 & 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 rare isn’t rare. 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 & 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. HOLONYM and 14. MERONYM

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

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 & 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. PAROXTONE, AND 22. 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 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, analogue clocks, field hockey, rugby union, silent films, 2D films, the French franc, British English, George Bush Sr., 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. 

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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