12 unusual words that describe words

Like many other word groupies, I love to collect words. I keep a running list of my favorite ones in the notes application on my smartphone. And though I may never be in a situation to legitimately say or write any of these words, I keep them all the same. Lately, I’ve been interested in words about words. We all know about acronyms and euphemisms, but what about an ananyms and dysphemisms?

Below are some of my favorite words about words and examples of their use.

Ananym – A type of anagram, formed by reversing letters of another word. For example, an “emirp” is a prime number that results in a different prime number when its digits are reversed.

Antiphrasis – The humorous or ironic use of a word or phrase in a way that’s contrary to its normal meaning. For example, naming a Chihuahua Goliath or calling a bald man Curly.

Antonomasia — The substitution of a personal name for a common noun to describe a member of a group. Examples include calling an office worker “Dilbert” or a traitor a “Benedict Arnold.”

Backronym — A backward acronym, constructed by taking an existing word and creating a new phrase using the letters in the word. For example, the rating system used to assess newborns—the Apgar score—was devised and named after Virginia Apgar. Ten years later, the backronym APGAR was introduced as a mnemonic aid: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration.

Charactonym — A name of a fictional character that suggests the personality traits of that character. Charles Dickens was a master at creating charactonyms. My favorite is Mr. M’Choakumchild, the unpleasant schoolmaster from Hard Times.

Contranym — A word with two opposite meanings. For example, “oversight” can mean an error or mistake or it can mean watchful care.

Dysphemism — The substitution of a harsher or offensive term in place of a relatively neutral term. Referring to genetically modified food as “frankenfood” is an example of a dyphemism.

Malapropism — The humorous misuse of a word by confusing it with a similar-sounding word. William Shakespeare used malapropisms frequently. From The Merchant of Venice, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” (Should be apprehended and suspicious.)

Metaplasm — A change in a word created by adding, omitting, inverting, or transposing its letters, syllables, or sounds. Examples include “rithmetic” for arithmetic, “libary” for library, and “nucular” for nuclear.

Pangram — A sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. We all know, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But how about: “Pack my box with the five dozen liquor jugs,” or, “The five boxing wizards jump quickly”?

Pleonasm — The use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis. Examples include “free gift,” “advance planning,” “please RSVP.”

Syllepsis — A figure of speech in which one word is applied in two different senses. My favorite example of syllepsis comes from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. “Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.”

Readers, any other favorite words about words?

A version of this story first appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

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