10 Words for Categories of Words

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Antonym, homonym, pseudonym. Do nyms make you numb? Here’s a handy guide to words, familiar or unfamiliar, for classes of words:

Acronym: An abbreviation, pronounced as a word, consisting of the initial letters of a multiword name or expression. It can consist entirely of uppercase letters (NASA) –thought British English has adopted an initial-cap style, which is employed in American English for longer acronyms like Nasdaq — or lowercase letters (radar); the latter are also known as anacronyms.

Anepronym: A trademarked brand name now used generically, such as aspirin or kleenex.

Antonym: A word distinguished from another with an opposite meaning, such as large, as compared to small. There’s also a class of words called autoantonyms, contranyms, or contronyms, single words with contrasting meanings, like oversight, which can mean either “responsibility for” or “failure to be responsible for.”

Eponym: A proper or common name deriving from another name, as San Francisco (in honor of St. Francis) or many scientific terms, such as watt (named after James Watt) and volt (from Allesandro Volta).

Heteronym: A word spelled the same way for different meanings, such as wear (to clothe oneself) as opposed to wear (to atrophy); sometimes, as in this case, however, they have the same origin. A heteronym can be pronounced differently depending on meaning, such as bass, the musical instrument, and bass, the fish; this type of word is also called a heterophone.

Homonym: A word pronounced or spelled the same but different in meaning, like hi and high (also called homophones). Bass, referred to above, is both a heteronym and a homonym. (Does that make it a binym or a duonym?) The homonym sow, which can mean a female animal such as a pig or can refer to planting seeds, is also a homograph, meaning that not only its pronunciation but also its origin and definition can differ.

Metonym: A term that identifies something by its association: Articles about Microsoft often used to refer to the company metonymically as Redmond, the city in Washington State where its headquarters are located, just as Washington stands in for the U.S. government.

Pseudonym: A name adopted by an author, such as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s use of Lewis Carroll. In a literary context, this is often referred to as a nom de plume (“name of the pen”). A related term is nom de guerre (“name of war”), originally in reference to French Foreign Legion enlistees who masked their identities but since then employed by guerrilla fighters to avoid reprisals against their families. Other examples of pseudonyms include stage names (performing arts), ring names (professional wrestling), and handles (computer hacking, or CB or ham radio operation).

Synonym: A word with the same meaning as another, such as small, as compared to little.

Toponym: A place name, whether it retains capitalization, or is lowercased in generic usage, such as burgundy.

Dozens of other -nym words exist — many for, as you might imagine, obscure classes of words.

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11 thoughts on “10 Words for Categories of Words”

  1. Are you sure that your definition of ‘heteronym’, ‘homonym’ and related words is correct?

    I thought the definitions were as follows:
    *Homographs: Same spelling, different meanings.
    *Heteronyms: Same spelling, different meaning, different pronunciations (subset of homographs).
    *Homophones: Same pronunciation, different meaning.
    *Homonyms: Same spelling, same pronunciation, different meanings (i.e. a homonym is both a homograph and a homophone).

    There are also heterographs, which have the same pronunciation but different spellings and different meanings.

  2. The definition of anepronym interested me. I didn’t know what the words were called, but I have kept a casual mental list of such words:
    Kleins – side cutting lineman’s pliers
    Channellocks – slip joint pliers
    Crescent wrench – adjustable open end wrench
    Allen wrench
    Band Aid
    Pop Tart
    Dixie cup
    Tabasco sauce
    Skill saw – circular saw

  3. Excellent list. Please, please, let’s not procreate any more terms of dubious parentage, though.

    it is best practice not to form compounds from a mixture of Greek and Latin elements. Though several of these have crept into the language, that’s not an excuse for compounding the felony!

    ‘dionym’ (if you must!), not binym or duonym
    ‘autoantonym’ and not under any pretext ‘contranym’, or ‘contronym’.

    And they are not -nym words: the root is -onym, from Greek -onymos, which derives from Doric Greek ‘onyma’, a name.

    The decline in Classical language education should make us the more rather than less careful to look things up and be sure we know what we are doing with words of Latin and Greek origin.

  4. … entirely of uppercase letters (NASA) –though(t) British English …

    Don’t you just hate words that are misspelled can still get through the spell-checker. Sorry for being a nit-picker.

  5. Stephen:

    Here’s what my good friend Merriam-Webster says (emphasis mine):
    Homograph: one of two or more words spelled alike but different in meaning or derivation or pronunciation
    Heteronym: one of two or more homographs that differ in pronunciation and meaning
    Homophone: one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling
    Homonym: one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning

    My wording is consistent with those definitions. Thanks for the note about heterograph, which I did not mean to leave out in the cold, watching all its friends mingle inside.

  6. Tony:

    Relax. I deliberately used the neologism nym, not the linguistic element -onym, to facilitate wordplay. And my licentious liaison of Greek and Roman elements was also in the spirit of good fun. Thank you for the etymological elucidation, but don’t blame me for the downfall of Western civilization.

  7. John:

    I don’t hate the words, but I hate it when I do that. (“Everybody stand back. I’m a professional. . . . Oops.”) No apologies necessary, and thanks are in order.

  8. Mark: Your wording is not consistent with the definition of homonym you just quoted. The definition agrees to the one I mentioned. Did you mean ‘or’ instead of ‘and’?

  9. Anepronym is interesting. I didn’t know there was a word for that.

    Does that word only apply to words that have lost their trademark status and are now properly lower cased, like aspirin or cellophane, or does it also apply to words that are still enforceable trademarks but are just popularly used for the generic, like Kleenex and Xerox?


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