The secret of nym

By Phil Plait | June 23, 2012 7:00 am

I’m a writer, and writers love words.

We like playing with them. Writing them, rearranging then, substituting for them, playing around with rhyme and cadence and structure. It’s why I love doing crossword puzzles, and especially why I love puns — layering double meanings into just a few words is an intellectual challenge as well as an exercise in humor.

So I was thinking about words recently, looking for a synonym of a word, when I realized something:

The antonym of "synonym" is "antonym", and the antonym of "antonym" is "synonym"… but "synonym" has no synonym.

And by that, I mean a word that specifically is a synonym for "synonym". Thesaurus.com, for example, listed the word "equivalent", but that’s more generic; "synonym" refers specifically to words. Even synonym.com came up short:

This strikes me as not just odd but also hilariously ironic. It’s like abbreviation being such a long word, or onomatopoeia sounding nothing like its meaning.

How can we not have another word for "synonym"? Are we that impoverished for words?

And that got me thinking. I rolled the word synonym around on my tongue, thinking of similar words. Then I started thing about words that sounded like "synonym". Of course I thought about homophones — two words that sound alike but have different meanings, like blue and blew (if they are spelled the same then they are also homonyms) — and heteronyms — two words that are spelled the same but mean different things when pronounced differently, like the metal lead or being in front to lead a parade.

Clearly, though, "synonym" has neither a homophone or a heteronym. But there are words that sound similar to it, like "cinnamon".

But then I wondered, is there a word for those? Two words that sound similar, but not exactly alike? I searched and couldn’t find one, though I did find this highly amusing page listing all sorts of terms for related words. These are so-called nym words, like antonym, homonym, exonym, and several others I had never heard of but will delight in using in the future.

Well! This situation cannot stand. We need a word for this. Thinking about it, I came up with one: contaphonym.

The prefix conta is for "near" or "close". Phon means "sound", and the good ol’ nym means "word". My reasoning should be obvious (although I’ll note that the "phon" part is in there only for clarity; "contanym" sounds too much like "contranym", ironically*).

So then: "cinnamon" is a contaphonym of "synonym".

Making up a word is called a neologism. I claim this one! A search on the word comes up completely empty on Google, so it seems like a legitimate claim on my part.

Now you may argue: Given that there is no word for this, might that not be indicative of a lack of a need for this word? My answer would be Socratic: When has that ever stopped language? It’s fluid, and has many rules we don’t need (one day I will write about ending quotation marks and the chaos they cause, I swear).

As for my motivation, why, it’s in my very name! That’s just how Phil wants to play it.

[Note: By a funny coincidence, after I wrote this post but before I actually posted it, Rifftrax/MST3K /All-Around-Nice-Guy Bill Corbett tweeted a similar joke. Great minds etc. etc.]


* A contranym is a single word that has two opposite meanings, like cleave.

MORE ABOUT: contaphonym, neologism

Comments (77)

  1. Johanna

    You got me all excited that you were going to post about “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.” I love that book. ;)

  2. There is an english word for “words that sound like each other but not the same”: paronym (http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/paronymterm.htm) not a native english speaker, but these words are all the same in spanish (sinónimo, antónimo) but we don’t have one for heteronym because in spanish you pretty much can’t have them except in very very rare cases.

  3. Trikester

    I trust you subscribe to A Word A Day (AWAD)!

  4. Chris

    Phil, do you have a prescription for those brownies? :-D

    And let us never forget http://xkcd.com/739/

  5. Stefan Krastanov

    I can’t wait seing this discussed on LanguageLog…

  6. soma

    The synonym for synonym is “rose”.

  7. Alex

    Well doctor. That seems like a perfectly cromulent word!

  8. Dan
  9. Al

    How is that different from a homophone?

  10. Mattia

    A shorter synonim for “abbreviation” would be “leptonym”

  11. Peter Ellis

    The word you’re looking for is “assonant”

  12. Allow me to come up with the first synonym for contaphonym. Before I read your word, I had thought up my own: similnym (sim-ill-nym). Its etymology is a bit simpler: similar-nym.

    And assonant is a contaphonym (or similnym) of astronaut. With a decidedly dirty connotation.

  13. Tim Gaede

    Quasinym?
    Equinym?

  14. Richard Burian

    Great article! There is a word used in linguistics already to talk about this, but it’s not a “nym” word, so you should try and make your word official. I believe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimal_pair will explain the rest.

    @Peter Ellis: Assonance is used in poetry, it’s a literary device. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assonance It’s not necessarily the same thing Phil is talking about.

  15. Ariel

    Wouldn’t be better “contaphone”? “Homophone” doesn’t end in -nym.

  16. ctj

    let’s stop this floccinaucinihilipilificatory exercise and get back to the astronomy!

  17. Marina Stern

    But it lacks truthiness.

  18. J Mittleman

    Which raises the question of whether there is a contaphonym for contaphonym. If not, we have to invent one. Quantaphonym: A word that differs in sound by the change of exactly one phoneme, like book and took. And happily, contaphonym and quantaphonym are quantaphonyms as well.

  19. Ian Dodd

    The cinematographer David Watkin (“Out of Africa”, “Moonstruck”) wrote a biography titled “Why is There Only One Word for Thesaurus?”.

  20. Joe Alvord

    I always wondered what the name of words spelled the same, but different pronounciations caused different meanings. Now I know…heteronyms. There aren’t many that I’ve found, but my favorite is unionized. Un-ion-ized (no ions here) and Union-ized (unions here).

  21. Well. First of all, there is a technical term for words that sound alike: homophone. It can be used as a noun as well as an adjective: “flue” and “flew” are homophones. The prefix conta- is not used as a matter of course to produce new words, and looks too much like “contra” (which is, but with the opposite sense) not to be misunderstood.

    Second, as for synonym not having a synonym, that’s not really very surprising. Few word pairs are really true 100% synonyms. There’s nearly all the time some sense or context or nuance of meaning in which one fits and the other doesn’t. Synonyms are situational: In *this particular* sentence, you could substitute X for Y because the two words can be used synonymously. Furthermore, the more specialized and technical a word, the less likely it is for there to exist a synonym. “Synonym” is such a word with a specialized technical sense.

  22. At the risk of being a total dweeb, have you considered “paraphonym” instead of “contaphonym?” It ought to mean the same thing, but it keeps everything vaguely Greekish, instead of mixing Latin and Greek. It trips off the tongue a little bit easier, I think. It more or less sidles up next to an already established -nym term, “paronym,” without quite infringing upon its turf. It also sidles up next to another interesting term, “paraphony,” used in electronic music to describe cases where musical voices exist in a place of technical vagueness where they’re distinct and yet not entirely independent.

  23. Ian Crosby

    Might I suggest “paraphone” or “quasiphone” for a word sounding almost the same, in line with the standard usage “homophone” for a word sounding exactly the same. I don’t think the prefix “con(ta)” really connotes what you are trying to convey, and the “nym” at the end is kind of unnecessary and clunky.

  24. ashcom

    .” .'” .” ” ‘.” “. ???????” …”!

  25. Dan, a Malapropism would be the use of one of these words, mainly unintentionally, for comedic effect, rather than the word itself.

  26. Dragonchild

    Also on thesaurus.com:
    “No results found for ninja”

  27. Jay29

    I love reading your blog posts, Dr. Fill Plate, even when they’re not about astronomy!

  28. It’s like abbreviation being such a long word, or onomatopoeia sounding nothing like its meaning.

    “Sesquipedalianism”, on the other hand…

  29. J Mittleman

    I collect words that describe themselves: sesquipedalianism is a fine example. Others are terse, noun, abecedarianism, verbify, and so on. The best of them is pentasyllabic.

  30. Matt

    contaphonym doesn’t roll of the tongue for me, ‘contanym’ seems enough, and has the bonus that it sounds remarkably like ‘contranym’ which of course means something different

  31. Georg

    contaphonym

    Well ok,
    but synphonym would ring positive vibrations…..
    Georg

  32. kurt_eh

    And while we’re at it, why isn’t palindrome a palindrome?

  33. I really like Marvin Long’s suggestion of “paraphonym” for this — the meaning is a little more obvious, and as an extra bonus, the softer sounds are more in tune with the concept.

  34. Georg

    Palindrom
    is a site for car races in Alaska, isn’t it?
    Georg

  35. Nicholas

    “monosyllabic” isn’t monosyllabic

  36. Eden Keeper

    Considering how such words are often used both pun-o-nym and pun-o-phone could be synonyms for contaphonym.

  37. Chris

    It’s not bad astronomy, it’s not astronomy at all.

  38. Jess

    That’s all very well, but what’s the ‘correct’ pronunciation?

    contaPHONym or conTAPHonym?

    Not that I want to start a controversy!

  39. Karsten

    I would call it “equal”. For example, banana equals banana.

  40. JB of Brisbane

    I was taught words like lead (chemical symbol Pb) and lead (as in to lead a dog) were homonyms, not heteronyms. Did something change in English grammar between 1974 and now, much like the designation of Pluto as a planet? Or have I got it wrong?
    BTW @Chris #38, it’s Phil’s blog, and he’ll blog what he damn well likes.

  41. Peter B

    Chris @ #38 said: “It’s not bad astronomy, it’s not astronomy at all.”

    Well spotted. :-)

  42. kat wagner

    Fill Plate man, he has a Full Plate.

  43. rod99

    I have long since lost the actual quote but something like
    “Contrary to popular opinion, English is not rich in synonyms but poor. What it does have is lots of words that mean slightly different things.”

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @20. Ian Dodd :

    The cinematographer David Watkin (“Out of Africa”, “Moonstruck”) wrote a biography titled “Why is There Only One Word for Thesaurus?”.

    Actually, I think onomasticon is another word for thesaurus! ;-)

    .. heteronyms — two words that are spelled the same but mean different things when pronounced differently, like the metal lead or being in front to lead a parade.

    Lead is also the term for an strip of open water between ice floes / pack ice too and what you walk a dog (or sometimes a cat or other domesticated mammal) on as well. Albeit the pronunication shifts somewhat.

    Neat article – and neologism. Cheers.

  45. Infinite123Lifer

    After 40 comments I thought for sure someone might have mentioned this little bit:

    I find this whole article extremely . . . darn it I don’t know the word, however this whole article from the guy who brings you all this . . .

    Click to:

    galactinate, ensithenate, ensolarnate, recombinate, enmusculate, encronosenate, doubletransitenate, cythereanate, enmasgrandenate, encalderenate, ensmaugenate, komodenate, hephaestenate, penumbrenate, psilocybinate, englobulenate, enstupefyenate

    and don’t forget these bad boys:

    blackbodyenate, liftoffenate, chainedmaidenate, breathtakenate, closeencountersoofthethridkindenate, coronalmassejectenate, bigbangenate,

    and of course a word that is not a word that might as well be a word here on my little portion of the internet during my perusification (well, everyone else is doing it), the ever glorious:

    embiggen.

    All that and just in the last 50 days!!!I would have gone back further but it seemed like madness :)

    Dr. Plait, you go with your Bad self bro :) just don’t go too far, that’s how you wind up on a myriad of medication saying words nobody understands over and over to inanimate objects. When you make up words you start using them. When you start using them people question what your doing. When people question what your doing they think your nuts. When they think your nuts you wind up in a sanitarium. Don’t wind up in a sanitarium! :) jk, I got luv4ya and everything you do here!

    “So then: “cinnamon” is a contaphonym of “synonym”.

    Making up a word is called a neologism. I claim this one!”

    Are you claiming contaphonym or are you claiming to be a neologist? :)

  46. Infinite123Lifer

    Dr Plait:………. Doctor can you help me?

    Medical Dr:….. What seems to be the problem?

    Dr. Plait:………. No matter what I do I just cannot stop making up words

    Medical Dr:….. Well, that doesn’t seem to be such a big deal

    Dr Plait:……….. No Doctor you don’t understand. Things have gotten out of hand, I, I, I just make em up for real now

    Medical Dr:….. Oh, I see now, we can treat this, it might be difficult but definitely treatable

    Dr Plait:……….. Thank the galaxies Doctor I thought I was doomed. What treatment could you possibly prescribe?

    Medical Dr:….. Well, we don’t have a word for it yet, but that’s where you come in

  47. JimR

    Would wordplay such as this improve a Turing Test? Some of the loops posted, might even defeat a Borg.

  48. Serious bit:

    I don’t really think there’s such a thing as true synonymy. We could imagine a sentence X that had constituent word Y and there another word Z such that substitution in X of Y with Z does not affect the (immediate) meaning of the utterance; however I would suggest it would be very hard to find a word Y such that its substitution with Z could occur in any context. We could call this token-synonymy vs type-synonymy. I would happily stick my neck out and claim that the latter certainly does not exist (in linguistic terms, it would be blocked).

    But even the former, token-synonymy is questionable. It would take an impossible pedant to pick out differences between “I was frightened” and “I was scared”; but the former is Germanic in origin, whereas the latter is Latinate (via Norse). Now whilst the individual token utterances make little difference to the referential import of the utterance, overall we make (especially in the UK, maybe less so over there) unconscious class and educational judgements about people depending on the levels of Latinate vocabulary items they use. So sociolinguistically even these apparently indistinguishable utterances would be taken as data points in an overall set of observations from which your interlocutor would be making social judgements.

    A more technical rejection of synonymy can be extracted from Quine’s classic article “Two dogmas of empiricism” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2181906)

    On the there-should-be-a-nym-for:

    I want a nym for words that appear to be antonyms but are actually synonyms (all the preceding notwithstanding). Flammable and inflammable.

    My current-favourite nym:

    Auto-antonyms (also called contronyms): words that have two opposing meanings, such as the bugbear of language-is-going-to-the-dogs prescriptivists, “literally,” which is literally all the time used to mean “figuratively” instead of, literally, “literally.”

    @Infinter123Lifer: my favourite is “click to brobdingnagianate.”

  49. tmac57

    The English language can be confusing.So many whirred sounds have vary different meanings.

  50. Gus

    Anyone interested in the (mis)use of the English Language must the visit http://www.justanyone.com/allanguish.html where therein lies the discussion of the Anguish Languish. It is very funny and really clever.

  51. RoboSpy

    Is there a name for pairs of words that can be either antonyms or synonyms, depending on the context in which they are used? Like hot and cool, or suck and blow.

  52. Jenn D.

    Inflammable and flammable always annoy me. They are, in fact synonyms, but look like antonyms. Is there a word for that – other an “English!”

  53. Donovan

    There are actually no true synonyms for any words. There are meanings that come very close, but don’t quite have the same feel, so to speak. Think about “yell, scream, and exclaim”, for instance. Sure, they all mean to speak loudly, but each one offers their own emotion to the sentence. Some words, like dog and canine, would be defined in the same way. But we use them in very different circumstances.

    Even using phrases that have the same words and mean the same thing “mean” something different. “There is a chair.” “A chair is there.” The former is usually an invitation to sit, while the latter is more of an empty statement that requires more context.

    Our language is incredibly fluid beyond just the adaptability to new words.

  54. Bob_In_Wales

    Loan-word is a calque. Calque is a loan-word.

    And why is there only one Monopolies Commission?

  55. Jockaira

    There is a chair
    A chair is there
    Is there a chair
    A chair there is
    Is a chair there
    There a chair is

    I can’t take anymore of this…I have to sit down

    Where is the chair

  56. Autumn

    From Strunk and White, “Only use the word ‘flammable’ if you are concerned with the safety of children and the illiterate.”

  57. Jess Tauber

    Phil, I’m worried for you- if you’re not careful you will be linguisticified, and then who will there be to save you? The Dark Lord, He Who Must Not Be Named (hint, his name begins with N.)? In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was… well, we all know how that ended up.

    There are languages out there where meaning and form is so tightly linked that you can break down many words into individual phonemes and distinctive features, and they are still meaningful. Almost all the meanings are physical/mechanical in nature in these forms, so they are like little algebraic formulae. The connection is iconic, not symbolic- they use the geometry of the phonology itself to map meaning.

    Such words are the closest languages get to the flavor of the genetic code in DNA/RNA, where translated protein products’ amino acid side chain properties, or angles of rotation in the peptide chain, are defined by features of the codons.

  58. David C.

    after 3 hours trying to get back to sleep, and not being able to, I have just read Phil’s post, and 58 comments, NOW I believe you guys have helped me, my brain is fried, thanks ;D

  59. Hubert Rady

    Another great post in a great blog!
    May I recommend http://www.worldwidewords.org , a site run by Michael Quinion.
    He also has an excellent weekly newsletter for us wordophiles as well.

  60. DIMITRIS X

    Well it´s maybe confunsing for you but for us (Greeks) all these words looks fine because
    antonym, synonym , omonymous, eteronymus, neologism,paraphone, homophone, monosylabic, polysylabic,onomatopoeia,paronym all of which refered in comments and a thousand other words are absolutely and only Greek words.
    When i started learn English it was realy fun to find out how many Greek words you are using and sure that helped me a lot to (somehow) learn your language .
    And dont forget the word ASTRONOMY ( ΑΣΤΡΟΝΟΜΙΑ in Greek ).

  61. Bill3

    I’m not entirely sure the words Phil comes up with really count as neologisms. How about a synonym for neologism, a “simulacranym”.

    (Simulacrum – a slight, unreal or superficial likeness or semblance.)

    They’re not new made up words, they just bear a slight, unreal resemblance to new words. :)

  62. Callida Daemonem

    Phil, I am now looking forward to reading your column about punctuation rules with great interest. Besides the serial comma, the question of end-of-sentence punctuation in quotes or parenthesis is one area I tend to follow my own rules (if only because the “correct” rules are such a hash as to be trouble with a capital “T”).

  63. Lab Rat Jason

    True or false: “Nothing rhymes with orange.”

  64. @Jay Mittleman June 23rd, 2012 at 9:33 a.m.: Quantaphonym: A word that differs in sound by the change of exactly one phoneme, like book and took. And happily, contaphonym and quantaphonym are quantaphonyms as well.

    I beg to differ: The difference is that “quantaphonym” *inserts an additional phoneme*
    contaphonym begins with /k/
    quantophonym begins with /kw/

    No, a better example can be found in the contrast between the first lines of
    * Cat Faber’s song “Under the Gripping Beast” (http://www.echoschildren.org/CDlyrics/BEAST.HTML):
    *: “For a journal bound in leather fine…” /’ǰɚnəl/
    * and my filk of it (filk.cracksandshards.com/
    *: “For a colonel bound in leather fine…” /’kɚnəl/

  65. Chris Winter

    avid C wrote: “after 3 hours trying to get back to sleep, and not being able to, I have just read Phil’s post, and 58 comments, NOW I believe you guys have helped me, my brain is fried, thanks.”

    If it happens again, just read this through to the end:

    http://www.chris-winter.com/Erudition/Reviews/D_Weeks/Urquhart.html

    You’ll sleep.

    ;-)

  66. Chris Winter

    Ian Dodd wrote: “The cinematographer David Watkin (“Out of Africa”, “Moonstruck”) wrote a biography titled “Why is There Only One Word for Thesaurus?”.”

    Hang on; I’ll dig out my Roget’s and check that…

  67. Chris Winter

    I was delighted to find, in that list of -nym words, Aptronym — meaning a proper name that sounds like its owner’s profession. Way back when CompuServe was in flower, I met there a man named Denzel Dyer, a German, who in due course mentioned that he was a dye chemist. And of course there was presidential spokesman Larry Speakes.

  68. Okay there are a lot of comments, so maybe someone covered this… The reason English has synonyms at all is that English is an amalgam of so many languages… Germanic, French, with borrowings from Greek and Latin and just about everything else. Most other languages don’t have this.
    Most other languages don’t have synonyms.
    Therefore, most other languages don’t have unique words for ‘synonym’
    therefore there was no other word in another language absorbed into English to serve as a synonym for synonym.

    Language-geeky enough for you?
    :)

  69. Matt B.

    @19 J Mittleman – Quantaphonym: That’s what linguists call a minimal pair.

  70. Ryan

    But is there a word for two words that have different sounds, different spellings, and unrelated meanings? Like dog and potato?

  71. Matt B.

    By etymology, the word “cognomen” should be a synonym of “synonym” (with morphemes meaning “with” and “name”), but it means something completely different.

    BTW, “abbreviation” is such a long word so that you can abbreviate it. Otherwise, people would be asking, “Why does ‘abbreviation’ have no abbreviation?” :)

  72. Nigel Depledge

    Joe Alvord (21) said:

    I always wondered what the name of words spelled the same, but different pronounciations caused different meanings. Now I know…heteronyms. There aren’t many that I’ve found, but my favorite is unionized. Un-ion-ized (no ions here) and Union-ized (unions here).

    Well, in addition to the lead / lead example the BA cites, there are also:
    read (present tense) / read (past tense);
    bow (a genuflection or the pointy end of a ship, which are homophones as it happens) / bow (the mediaevel weapon);
    sow (to plant seeds) / sow (a female pig);
    row (to propel a boat with oars) / row (to argue or the sound of argument).
    and probably many dozens of others that I cannot recall in just the couple of minutes I’ve spent composing this comment.

    Several of these heteronyms are illustrated by this verse:
    The quarrelsome oarsmen were rowing,
    The great violinist was bowing,
    But how is the sage
    To tell from the page:
    Was it pigs or seeds that were sowing?

  73. Nigel Depledge

    Lab Rat Jason (64) said:

    True or false: “Nothing rhymes with orange.”

    This was a question on QI a couple of years ago. Apparently, there is one word that rhymes with “orange” but I cannot recall what it was.

  74. Nigel Depledge

    Elwyne (69) said:

    Okay there are a lot of comments, so maybe someone covered this… The reason English has synonyms at all is that English is an amalgam of so many languages… Germanic, French, with borrowings from Greek and Latin and just about everything else. Most other languages don’t have this.

    English does more interesting things than merely this.

    For example, craft and skill were once (respectively) the Anglo-Saxon and Norse words for the same thing.

    Now these two words mean rather different things. Their meaning has diverged and the two words have developed independent utility, allowing modern English to express a distinction that neither Anglo-Saxon nor Norse could express.

    Now consider the related adjectives crafty and skillful. These also used to mean the same thing, but their meaning has diverged to a greater extent. Skillful has almost exclusively positive connotations, whereas crafty carried mostly negative connotations.

    In a similar fashion, words that are apparent synonyms can express very fine distinctions and can colour a sentence with a great variety of emotional and contextual overtones. Consider strike versus hit versus smite.

  75. Gio Zeno

    From Wiki on Grelling’s paradox:
    Suppose one interprets the adjectives “autological” and “heterological” as follows:

    An adjective is autological if and only if it describes itself. For example “short” is autological, since the word “short” is short. “English,” “unhyphenated” and “pentasyllabic” are also autological.
    An adjective is heterological if it does not describe itself. Hence “long” is a heterological word, as are “abbreviated” and “monosyllabic”.

    All adjectives, it would seem, must be either autological or heterological, for each adjective either describes itself, or it doesn’t. The Grelling–Nelson paradox arises when we consider the adjective “heterological”. One can ask: Is “heterological” a heterological word? If the answer is ‘no’, “heterological” is autological. This leads to a contradiction. In this case, “heterological” does not describe itself: it must be a heterological word. If the answer is ‘yes’, “heterological” is heterological. This again leads to a contradiction, because if the word “heterological” describes itself, it is autological.

  76. suz

    Phil, you might like the posts on eggcorns on LanguageLog, a satirical version of contaphonym, so to speak.

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