Autological Words

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Think of the word “long.” 

Now, think of the word “elongated.”  “Long” is within it, and the two words are pretty much synonymous. 

Consider this, then: The word “elongated” is “long,” but longer. It’s been elongated. 

The word describes itself, making it an “autological” word. “Auto” meaning “self” and “logical,” in this case, meaning something like “true.” An autological word is true to itself or true to its meaning.

For example, “longer” is longer than “long,” so it fits the category, too—it’s autological.

'Longer' is longer than 'long,' so it fits the category—it’s autological.

Are you following along? 

Sometimes, autological words can be confused with onomatopoetic words—the “sound effects” words that convey the sounds they represent like “bang,” “boom,” “crash,” “zap” and so on.  

Those are not truly autological; the words are not themselves the things they stand for—anymore than a photograph of a fish is an actual fish. They are just evocative representations of sounds.

There is a bit of dovetailing between the two categories, however, if we consider some words as they are spoken aloud.

“Fluid” is indeed fluid; it flows. “Fluid.” As you speak the long U sound—and as it flows into the next vowel, a short I—the air flows out of your mouth and between your lips. “Floooooo-iiiid.”

Another is “languid.” It almost begs the speaker to slow down, take time to savor the soft consonants, especially the “ng” diphthong.  A diphthong is a combination of consonants creating yet another sound, such as “ph,” “th” and “ng.”

Wait a minute. The word “diphthong” has all three of those. It’s not itself a diphthong, so it’s not autological, but we think it deserves honorable mention.  Plus, it’s fun to say: diphthong, diphthong …

Anyway.  

The word “lingual,” beyond referring to languages, relates to the tongue. As you say “lingual,” your tongue plays a major role. The two L’s at the beginning and end, with the “ng” in the middle, give the tongue a workout. “Lingual” might be the most lingual word in the English language.

Plosives—hard consonants such as P, K and T—can contribute to a word’s autological standing: Think of “brusque,” which has a terse, staccato quality.  (“Staccato” is another.) Likewise, “structural” is formidable—structurally speaking, and “strength” has eight letters, seven of them consonants. It’s potent.

Now “bland,” with its soft consonants and just a short A as its lone vowel, is, well, rather ho-hum. 

A word such as “tiny” would certainly qualify as autological, because it is, in fact, tiny. It has two syllables and four little letters—two of them, the T and the I are thin. (Ask anyone who’s written a headline for a print publication, and they will extol the value of skinny letters in making words fit into tight space.)

A word such as 'tiny' would certainly qualify as autological, because it is, in fact, tiny.

“Bit” is another example. Not the past tense of “bite,” mind you, but a little bit, a tiny bit, an itty-bitty bit. Short and sweet.

At the other end of the spectrum we have “polysyllabic,” meaning composed of multiple syllables, just as the word “polysyllabic” is. Its more precise sibling is “pentasyllabic,” denoting something of five syllables—no more and no less—and if you count, you find that it has five syllables: “pen-ta-syl-lab-ic.”

That’s a bit gaudy. One might even say it’s “ostentatious,” which is an ostentatious way of saying “gaudy.” Well, what do you know?  There’s another example. That could be considered “vainglorious,” which describes an entity that is so vain about being glorious that it warrants having the two conjoined.

Hey, what about “conjoined”? That’s the word “joined” joined with the prefix “con,” meaning “together.” So, it’s joined together—as opposed to being joined “apart,” we must assume. 

Let’s consider “indescribable.” We can define it, but only using negatives—what it’s not. It’s an adjective describing something that defies description. Doesn’t that make it somewhat … indescribable? Wow. That borders on being metaphysical—and possibly abstruse.

Well, there’s another. The first time or two you see or hear that word, “abstruse,” it will almost certainly be confusing—until you learn that it means “confusing.” Still, it’s an abstruse way of saying so.

Here’s a set of homonyms (sound-alike words), in which one is autological, but only when paired with its partner. The word “discreet,” ending in “-eet," means “prudent, “judicious,” or “circumspect." The word “discrete,” ending in “-ete,” means something different. It means “different or distinct.” So, “discrete” (“-ete”) is discrete from “discreet” (“-eet”).

That is, of course, quite a distinctive example.

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There are two particular nouns that are sort of anti-autological—that is, they don’t live up to their own designations: “anagram” and “palindrome.” Both have to do with altering the letters within a word or phrase.

An “anagram” is a word whose letters can be scrambled to form another word—such as “large,” “glare,” “regal,” and “lager.” (Scrabble aficionados know the value of anagramming to find multiple options for their tiles.) The trouble with “anagram” is that it has no anagram, not in one word, anyway. The closest we can come to using all seven letters is the two-word combination “a ragman.”  

A palindrome is more complex; it’s a word or phrase that reads the same forward and backward, such as “Mom,” “deed,” and “Madam, I’m Adam.” (Sometimes you have to shift or ignore the punctuation.) In any case, the word “palindrome” is not a palindrome. If read backward, it would be “em-ord-nil-ap.” Hmmm. How about if we took either half of the word, and mirrored it? What do you think of “palinilap,” or maybe, “emordrome”? Maybe not.

A while ago, we cited a campaign by a Canadian boy named Levi Budd to coin the word “levidrome” to describe a series of letters that spells one word forward and a different word backward, such as “maps” and “spam.” 

Well, Charles Harringon Elster, author of the book “Word Workout,” wrote in to remind us that ‘levidrome’ is not the first attempt at naming such words. "Semordnilap” has been in use for decades. It’s “palindromes” spelled backward, making it our final example of an autological word.

Rob Reinalda is a Robinson Prize laureate for excellence in editing and is the founder of Word Czar Media.