Paronyms and Paranyms

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Thanks to a question from an ESL learner, I discovered the word paronym.

The OED offers three definitions of paronym in the context of word types:

1. A word which is derived from another word or from a word with the same root, and having a related or similar meaning, (e.g. childhood and childish); a derivative or cognate word.

2. A word from one language which translates into another with only minor changes in form, or with no change at all; a word formed by adaptation of a foreign word.

3. A word similar in sound or appearance to another; especially, a near homonym.

The ESL student was looking for a list of words like these:


I usually call such words “words commonly confused” or—in headline-speak—“Confused Words.”

Like other nouns that denote semantic terms, paronym is made up of a Greek element, par- (“altered”), plus the suffix -onym (“name” or “word”).

Note: The word-forming element par- can also be rendered “alongside, beyond; contrary; irregular, and abnormal.”

The earliest citation for paronym in the sense of “a near homonym” is 1867. The other uses also emerge in the second half of the 19th century.

In the course of researching the meaning of paronym, I discovered that it has a paronym of its own: paranym.

Lance Hogben (a zoologist who wrote popular books on language) used the word paranym in 1963 in sense of “a near synonym,” but the OED notes that this use is “rare” and fails to cite any other examples. A different, more useful definition is this one:

paranym: A euphemistic word or phrase whose literal sense is contrary to the reality of what it refers to, used especially to disguise or misrepresent the truth about something.

Here’s the earliest OED citation for this use:

A newspaper columnist has recently been collecting what he calls ‘paranyms’—words whose meaning is generally the opposite of that intended by the speaker…The writer Brian Aldiss thereupon contributed an example he had found in the New Testament: ‘“everlasting life”; in other words “death”’. The Listener, 1976.

Whereas I find words like synonym, antonym, homonym and heteronym extremely useful because they are easily defined and well known, I won’t be using paronym because it has more than one meaning.

Paranym, on the other hand, appeals to me. In these times of political correctness, we can use a word that means “A euphemistic word or phrase whose literal sense is contrary to the reality of what it refers to.” It’s a worthy companion to Stephen Colbert’s truthiness:

Act or quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than those known to be true.

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1 thought on “Paronyms and Paranyms”

  1. I could see paronym in the sense of “a near homonym” being applicable to something like, “weather and whether are paronyms”. Paronyms, as in NOT HOMONYMS. Like that.

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