25 Words For Other Words

iStock.com/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock.com/Bychykhin_Olexandr

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.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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