Tag Archives: vocabulary

Word Nymph’s ’nym words

Yesterday’s auto-antonym is just one in a large class. We already know about synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, pseudonyms, and acronyms. As of yesterday, we can also name a few auto-antonyms, or contranyms.

Did you know there are literally dozens of other ’nyms?

Just a few examples:

Aptronym. An aptronym is a name that describes or aptly suits its owner. German Psychiatry Professor Jules Angst. BBC Meteorologist Sara Blizzard. Here in the Washington area we have a podiatrist named Dr. Ronald Footer and, believe it or not, an OB/GYN, Dr. Harry Beaver.

Capitonym. A capitonym is a word that changes meanings when it is capitalized—Lent and lent, Polish and polish, Job and job, May and may and on and on.

Toponym. Toponyms take on their names based on where they originated. Examples include champagne, cashmere, and perhaps the two most famous, hamburger and frankfurter.

There’s another one I plan to share another time because it’s just too fun to lump in with other ’nyms. It’s the oronym. I’d describe the oronym as a cross between a homonym and a mondegreen. I’ll show you why later.

In the meantime, are there other ’nyms you’d like to explore or share?


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I have always had sympathy for those learning English as a second language. In fact, there was a time when I planned to be an ESL teacher because I thought I could help take some of the pain out of learning our difficult language.

We seem to have more exceptions than rules. We spell words alike but pronounce them differently, we spell them differently but pronounce them the same and we offer cutesy ways of remembering rules when, in fact, those usually come with a little Gotcha.

We have already talked extensively about homonyms, which present some of the most frustrating challenges.

There is another class of words that must drive new English speakers to insanity because, essentially, they are their own opposites. These are the auto-antonyms, also called contranyms.

Imagine you are learning a second language. You are working hard to commit new vocabulary words to memory. Just when you learn a word, along with its proper context, you hear or read it used and it appears to mean the opposite of what you had learned it meant.

The first one I ever noticed was “sanction,” which means both to condone and to punish. Another is “oversight,” which involves both throughly overseeing something to ensure no errors are made, and missing an error altogether by not looking closely enough.

How about “dust?” One dusts to remove dust but also dusts by sprinkling dust on something, e.g., in order to detect fingerprints or garnish a dish of food.

A “rock” is something stable, that does not move, but a rock is also a back-and-forth motion.

I am a native speaker of English but I was perplexed to learn, after years of sitting in business meetings in which issues were “tabled,” or taken off the table, that, in international trade negotiations, to “table” means to put something, typically an offer, on the table.

Here’s a goofy one:  “left.” When a person has left, he is gone, no longer there. When a person is left, he is still there. The same with objects: three cookies were left on the plate.

“Presently” means both now and later. Presently, I am at my desk, but I will meet you at the restaurant presently.

At the risk of appearing political, it seems we are quick to demand that visitors learn our language and become fluent in it practically overnight. It’s reasonable to ask people to try their best to speak English within our borders but, before we lose our patience, perhaps we should first consider the oddities and complexities they must also grasp. Maybe we could all become ESL teachers, or at least tutors, when opportunity presents. We can start by tutoring ourselves on this exhaustive list of auto-antonyms, published by Florida State University.

For now though, let’s wind up this discussion. (But does that mean we are beginning or ending it?)


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To finish out Word Nymph’s Enhance Your Vocabulary Week, the following word has been plucked from one of her favorite sources, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich.

Friday’s, and our final, selection is:

Brummagem: cheap and showy but inferior and worthless.

Can you use it in a sentence three times today? If so, it’s yours.

There are still more good words from The Highly Selective Dictionary than time allows me to share this week. So if you see new words sprinkled into future posts, don’t think me bombastic, just look them up–and use them three times.

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After reflecting on the importance of vocabulary enhancement, Word Nymph has declared this Enhance Your Vocabulary Week.

She has consulted one of her favorite sources, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich and is pleased to share Thursday’s selection, which has two definitions:

Maenad:  1. a riotous or frenzied woman; 2. a Bacchante–a priestess of Bacchus–in classical mythology, the god of wine

Can you use it in a sentence three times today? If so, it’s yours.  If you have a little time, or if mythology strikes your fancy, look up maenad and see how the two definitions come together. How did they come up with this stuff?

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Learn it, use it, own it

My parents home schooled my brothers and me—on top of the six-plus hours a day we spent in school. 

For example, they believed we should constantly expand our vocabularies, and my father created a process for making this happen. Periodically he went though the dictionary, picked out words he thought we should know, wrote out the words and their definitions on index cards, bundled them and placed them for our use in the, ahem, restroom. Don’t just sit there; learn something.

Those old index cards are still in the family, but not in my house. I still like to learn new vocabulary words, but I prefer a softer chair. As an aside, I also enjoy teaching new words to kids. Want to get a teenage boy to learn a new word? Ask him if he likes to masticate at the dinner table.

A few years ago, a friend gave me The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich. You’d like this book because it is written as a direct affront to something you and I have complained about. It’s what Ehrlich calls “the poisonous effects wrought by the forces of linguistic darkness—aided by permissive lexicographers who blithely acquiesce to the depredations of unrestrained language butchers.”

What he’s referring to essentially is what happens when is a word is misused so often it ends up being added as a new definition to an existing dictionary entry. Ehrlich explains that the so-called “functionally illiterate” take the new use as acceptable, giving them license to say, “Well, it’s in the dictionary, so it’s OK to use.” He also notes how this happens with mispronunciation as well.

If you too are frustrated with what is happening, then The Highly Selective Dictionary is for you. Unlike most dictionaries, this contains only the most interesting words and concise definitions. I recently pulled my copy off the shelf and thumbed through it, noticing that I had highlighted passages and words I liked, for what purpose I couldn’t tell you.

As we set upon Back to School season, I thought it might be fun—or at least instructive—for us all to learn some new words. Who’s in? How about we devote the coming week to becoming extraordinarily literate? You might not find this as fun as last week’s Name that Weed contest but, hey, I try to offer a little something for everyone.

Each day for the next few days, I will give you a word from this Dictionary. If you use it in a sentence three times, it belongs to you. Isn’t that a momily?

Rest assured, no index cards will be harmed.

Please take tomorrow off with me and rest up for the fun. Also feel free to send in your favorites.


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Remember the tweens?

At the risk of seeming like Austin Powers, what decade is this?

No, I haven’t just emerged from a cryogenic time chamber, but I do find myself wondering what to call this and the next nine years. We’ve passed the aughts; that was a little weird but we got through it.

There doesn’t seem to be a uniform convention for describing this decade and that bothers me. This baby is eight months old; isn’t it time we named it?

Some say it’s the teens, or twenty-teens. But considering it’s not yet 2013, aren’t we really in the tweens?

I just saw a TV commercial for a car dealership advertising markdowns on “all oh-ten models.”

I thought perhaps we might be in the 2010s, or simply, “the tens.” But oh-tens? I guess technically ‘010 could be considered correct.

As a nostalgia-holic, I like reminiscing about sixties culture, seventies music, eighties fashion (wince) and so forth, so I’d really like a simple word that can be spelled out, just in case I need to reminisce later. 

Any ideas for what to put in the tens column?

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The Office

A project I have been working on has led to some interesting reading about demographics.

I read an article over the weekend that pointed out that, for the first time in U.S. history, four generations are working side by side in the workplace.  In “The Multigenerational Workforce: Managing and Motivating Multiple Generations in the Legal Workplace,” Sally Kane draws out the distinctions among the so-called Traditionalists, born before 1945, the Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y, in terms of how they tend to function in the workplace.

The article suggests that, largely because generations view the role of  technologies differently, the groups may also relate to their colleagues differently in meetings and in one-on-one interaction.

Obviously, Traditionalists have witnessed the most change over their career spans.  Presuming they entered the workforce in the late 1960s, they worked through cultural and technological revolutions the GenXers and Millennials may have only read about or seen on screen.  In the last 40 years, they have adapted to new workplace devices and vocabularies and, I dare say, have done so pretty well.

Technically a Baby Boomer, I began my career in 1983 at a high-tech trade association.  I was working in a leading edge industry that presumably used cutting edge technologies and forward thinking business concepts.  I worked hard to learn the lingo and became just proficient enough to stay employed in the industry for the next 20 years.

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but I realize now how many of the words we spoke and tools we used must be inconceivable to today’s young professional. Likewise, the collection of gadgets so indispensible to today’s office worker were as unforeseen to the workers of yesteryear as the practice of team-building.

If indeed such a wide gap exists, as the article suggests, in the interpersonal relations among the generations, perhaps I can be helpful in forging some understanding by explaining some commonplace terms from the early 1980s office.

Facsimile machine.  It wasn’t called a fax or used as a verb for years to come.  It was used only when time was of the essence; in my office, that was about twice a year.  We sent and received facsimiles by inserting a telephone receiver into a foam-padded cradle attached to a large roller in which we manually fed single pages.  The machine emitted a horrendous odor when receiving.

Message pad.  These were pink and were headed with the words, While You Were Out.  The answering machine came into existence a bit later.

Word processor.  As in, “please let me know when you are finished with the word processor, so I can use it next.”

Ashtray.  If you don’t know what this is, visit the Smithsonian; they probably have one on display.

Slides.  Little tiny cardboard frames encasing celluloid images shown on a carousel projector.

Transparencies.  Plastic sheets containing words written or images drawn with colored markers, shown on an overhead projector.

In Box.  It was a real box into which your mail was placed, before it was known as “snail mail.”

Out Box.  A lot could be known about you, depending on whether yours was above or below your In Box.

Christmas bonus.  Christmas was what they used to call Holiday, but bonus?  That one’s a little fuzzy.

Did I forget anything?


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