After a lively discussion in the office about how the sounds of certain words make us cringe (moist anyone?) and others are music to our ears (my personal favorite: tabernacle; other office suggestions: mellifluous, resplendent and epiphany), I decided to investigate more examples. In doing so, I hit the jackpot: a word about words!
As a language lover, I’ve always delighted in discovering new terms. But there’s something extra special—something downright magical—about discovering a new word that describes words. So what’s the term for the study of how speech sounds? Phonaesthetics.
I ate the term up. I said it over and over again (fun fact: it sounds better in a British accent). I went home and looked up more examples of beautiful/disgusting sounding words, and when that wasn’t enough, I soon found myself digging around for more magical discoveries—more words about words, and I am compelled to share my favorites with fellow language lovers:
ambigram: a word that, if viewed upside down, is still the same word. Typeface certainly changes the game here. In fact, many artists alter certain letter styling to create ambigrams. The most straightforward example I could find, if you ignore the dot—the tittle—over the i, is swims.
contronym: a word with two meanings that are opposite of each other. One of the most recent examples is literally. Many dictionaries now include both the original “in actual meaning” definition as well as the colloquial use of “in effect.”
crutch word: maybe the least exciting of the bunch, but it is definitely the most common. Honestly, crutch words are basically like the extra words that we essentially tend to unnecessarily add in because in a weird way they don’t actually provide like further meaning to the sentence.
eponym: the fancy term for a brand name that has entered common usage. Pass me a Kleenex (because a facial tissue just won’t do).
minced oath: a euphemism for a less appropriate term. Like what the heck in place of, well, you know.
mondegreen: the term for what we’re all guilty of: mishearing the lyrics of a song. My poor cousin will never live down when he thought Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was “Livin’ to Be the Lifeguard.”
portmanteau: a word that combines multiple words. I unofficially coin these all the time. When you’re getting a drink at Starbucks that’s inside of a Target? You’re at a Tarbucks! More legitimate examples include smog, spork and telemarketing.
syllepsis: the act of using one word to apply to two words differently, e.g., As he pondered the recent stock market crash, the man was deep in thought and debt.
I could go on, but that could literally take forever.
Did You Know?
The word portmanteau, which also means a large carrying bag, actually is a portmanteau. The term comes from combining the French words porter, to carry and manteaux, mantle. Is there a word to describe a word that is an example of itself? Of course there is: autological. The best example of an autological word is the word . . . word.