I’ve always been fascinated by baby names and the meanings behind them, not because I’m particularly maternal (I hold babies like I am holding a bomb rigged to go off at any second) but because I like seeing how their origins match up to the person they were assigned to. For example, you may meet a girl named Sophie, a French name meaning “wisdom,” who can’t figure out why driving to Hawaii isn’t feasible, or a boy named Paul, meaning “small,” who towers over the rest of your classmates. How great would it be, though, if your name fit the meaning it represented? How great would it be if “Tyler” actually meant “awkward college student obsessed with cats and coffee” instead of “tile-maker”?
While there may not be names that are so specific, there is a category of words that boasts such a self-referential status. Autological words are words that possess the property or properties they describe. “Noun,” for example, is autological because the word itself is a noun. But because no one wants to read about four-letter words that you learn in elementary school, I’ve come up with a (hopefully) more interesting list:
1) Sibilant (adj.): making or characterized by a hissing sound
Unless you have some superpower that allows you to bypass normal speech patterns, saying the word “sibilant” involves a slight hiss sound, as you could probably guess from a word starting with “s”. While I could point out that you were born with a very lame superpower, I won’t because I’m saving up my cynicism for Monday morning.
2) Abecedarian (adj): arranged alphabetically
Though abecedarian can mean “a person who learns the alphabet,” it can also refer to something that is arranged alphabetically. Abecedarian is almost abecedarian, if you ignore the stray “e”s (and, well, all the other letters). ABeCeDarian. All together now! A, B, C, D, E, F, G…
3) Twee (adj): sickeningly sweet or cute
Twee reminds me of a toddler trying to say the word “three” while holding up four fingers right after you asked for their age, a mistake so adorable, you can’t help but throw back your head and smile, right before the camera pans to a picture of a birthday cake for kids, on sale at Carvel for just $4.99! (That was a free shout-out, Carvel, but I would gladly accept a free cake for my services.)
4) Recherché (adj.): overrefined; rare
We have a saying in my family: if a restaurant’s name is in French, we can’t afford it. Now, perhaps that stems from overblown stereotypes about the French being “fancy” but that won’t stop me from associating anything French-sounding, like recherché, as refined (read: expensive) or even overrefined.
5) Grandiloquent (adj.): extravagant in language or manner
If you don’t read this word and immediately imagine a round, probably conniving business man from the 1920s with a top hat, a twirly mustache, and a spectacle, then you’re probably pretty normal because my mind is a little unusual. To cut to the chase, grandiloquent, in my opinion, sounds “extravagant” in itself, so it is autological.
6) Sesquipedalian (adj.): polysyllabic
I won’t write too much about this one because I already mentioned it in a previous article but it’s one of my favorite words so I can’t pass up an opportunity to share it with the world again.
7) Eggcorn (n.): a word or phrase that is a seemingly logical alteration of another word or phrase that sounds similar and has been misheard or misinterpreted
Coined in 2003 by linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum and “officialized” as a word by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, eggcorn describes the word you’ve been singing in that Katy Perry song in lieu of the word she’s actually singing (“Sunkissing, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicleeee”). Pullum figured, if there wasn’t a word for the phenomena already, why not use an “eggcorn” to describe “eggcorns”? And so, he chose this word, which sprang from a misuse of “acorn.”
8) Euphonious (adj.): pleasing to the ear
There are some word constructions that are more pleasing to the ear. Words with a high frequency of “m”s and “l”s and which are sesquipedalian (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) tend to produce more “melodic” or smooth sounds while words with “harsh” consonants like “k” produce the opposite effect. Despite its lack of “nice” letters, euphonious still sounds pretty (at least, compared to its opposite, cacophonous) so it is also autological.
9) Plosive (adj.): denoting a consonant that is produced by stopping the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, followed by a sudden release of air
Say the word plosive. Did you close your mouth and then release a little bubble of air? Re-read the definition and proceed to laugh forever.
10) Semordnilap (n.): word or phrase that spells a different word or phrase backward
While a palindrome is a word or phrase that can be interpreted the same way when reversed, a semordnilap is a word or phrase that spells a different (legitimate) word backwards. Now here’s the punchline: what is semordnilap spelled backwards?
While, yes, some of these words are a stretch, many show how interesting the English language can be. What other “autological” words do you know of? Which ones on here are your favorite or least favorite?