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What’s in a -NYM?

Understanding language means understanding the language behind language

An illustration of a stick family

The Greek Family at the Heart of English


Under the command of King Henry VIII, the first of the English Grammars we still use today were written in the 16th century. Their purpose was not educative. They were not intended to improve the lives of the masses. Known more for wife-murdering, religion-inventing, and mass-slaughtering than social ideology, Henry's desire to give language an agreed structure had little to do with ‘levelling up’.


Henry VIII was an egotist. His decisions were driven by his need to prove superiority. War showed his strength. Grammar would show his intelligence.


For this reason, the equally wieldy Latin Grammar was used as a basis for our own. Latin was a language for writing, not communicating. As the language of the Bible, it carried an authority, as though chosen by God herself. Borrowing the rules of Latin, English – and Henry – could also borrow some of this Godlike superiority.


Latin itself derived much from the more widely-spoken Ancient Greek. There wasn’t anywhere else to look for inspiration. As English Grammars continued to be written in Latin until the end of the 17th century – many by Danes and Germans – the terms created (to explain the rules created) came from the original Greek words.


Years may have passed since then. Common language usage may have changed. But most of the original words remain the same. Meaning the words we use... to describe the words we use... bear little relation to the words we use. (Can I use 'words we use' any more times?)


These words now exist only in and of themselves. Bearing little relation to commonly used language means we have a rather ironic and illogical situation. Before you can understand the language, you need to understand the language of the language.


From Acronym to Paranym:

The Top 10 Words of Words


Ancient Greek contains many new words that take the definitions of a suffix and prefix to make a new uber-definition. They're like word jigsaws. Jigsaws that look very alike.


Let's take the suffix -NYM.


-NYM means 'word'. So it's hardly surprising to note the ubiquity of -NYM in terms related to language. Think of -NYM as the surname to a massive cross-generational family of -NYMs.

With their forenames, each refers to a different part of language. Some of the family you will know. Others may be strangers. I don't know exactly how many there are in the entire Family -NYM but let's get started by looking at the NYM Top 10.


(Note: Inclusion in this Top 10 is subjective but based on common sense. The respective position of each word is on prevalence of the term, rather than scope or use of the words they describe.)


PARANYM


A word or phrase with the same meaning as another, that can be substituted to convey a more positive, polite tone.


Not one of the most common -nyms, but in very common usage. They are sort of synonyms... but not as precise. They overlap closely with euphemisms.


But the linguistic structure of a paranym tries to convey the opposite of the true meaning. It hides more than it reveals. Para is from the Greek for alongside.

PARANYM

IN PLACE OF

Spend a penny

Urinate

Departed

Dead

Interrogate

Torture

Sleep with

F**k

Make love

F**k

PARONYM


Words of similar meaning, with the same origin and having the same root or stem.


Only one letter difference with the lesser known paranym, but it changes the meaning completely. Paro means derivative and paronyms derive from the same origin. Not spelled exactly the same, not quite sounding the same, but, you know, almost.


They are the linguistic brothers from another mother. If the homonym is to be grammar's bride, the paronym will forever remain the bridesmaid.

WORD

IS A PARONYM OF

Affect: to act on and cause a change in

Effect: a distinctive impression

Promise: a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified (eg)

Premise: something assumed or taken for granted (eg)

Excise: to remove by (eg)

Exercise: to bring to bear (eg)

Informative: imparting knowledge

Informational: relating to or characterized by facts about something

Ingenious: having or showing an unusual aptitude for discovering, inventing

Ingenuous: showing innocent or childlike simplicity and candidness

The number 8

METONYM


A word used to refer to something else, that has close associations with that word.


These figures of speech are widely used, though the term for them is less widely known. Meto is from the Greek for change, though as a literal definition "change of words" is more helpful after the fact than it is as a memory jogger.


Perhaps surprisingly, the word has been in use longer than the more prevalent antonym.

METONYM

IS USED TO MEAN

Crown

The Royal Estate

Number 10

The British Prime Minister or Government

Hollywood

The entire film industry

Pen

The written word

The number 7

HYPERNYM (or HYPERONYM)


A broad term for a group of elements, or category.


Although we may think of hyper to mean something energetic, it comes from the Greek for over. Literally, an 'overword', a hypernym must always refer to a group of other things.

HYPERNYM

Flower

Colour

Vehicle

Food

The number 6

HYPONYM


A specific element that can also be named by the broader category term in which it sits.


As the Greek antonym to hyper, hypo means under. These are the words sitting under the hypernyms.


Hyponyms that fall under the same hypernym are known as co-hyponyms. Co-hyponyms are otherwise not related.

HYPONYM

BELONGING TO HYPERNYM

Rose, daisy

Flower

Red, blue

Colour

Car, bus

Vehicle

Bread, fish

Food

Further to this, hyponyms are often also hypernyms when they create their own subcategories. From the above examples, red would be a hypernym for, say cerise or pink. Fish would have the hyponyms, cod, and plaice.


The number 5

ANTAGONYM

or AUT(O)-ANTONYM

or CONTRA(O)NYM


A single word that has multiple - opposing or nearly opposing - definitions.


It’s unclear why there are so many synonyms for this group of words. As well as the five listed here (including the spelling variants), there are several non -nym words. They are often referred to as Janus words. Janus is a Roman god depicted as having two-faces.


If these words just had the same spelling, same pronunciation and different meanings, they would be homonyms. But the meanings they have are contradictory. And nobody ever thought that may lead to confusion. What? Did the linguists of old jsut get bored?

CONTRANYM

MEANING 1

OPPOSING MEANING

Fast

Moving very quickly

Staying vey still

Bill

A payment

An invoice for payment

Dust

To add small particles

To remove small particles

Literally

With complete accuracy

Figuratively, metaporically

The number 4

HOMONYM


Two words that look and sound the same but have a different meaning.


You will often see homonyms more broadly defined. They include words that have either spelling or pronunciation the same, or both).


There is a great deal of overlap and disagreement between this definition and the definition of its brethren. To help clarify, we have included those definitions below and used the purest definition for each. Hopefully it helps a little.

HOMONYM

MULTIPLE MEANINGS

Can

He can drink that can of fizzy pop.

Bear

Bear with me while I get food for the bear.

Bank

Bank on him checking his bank balance when he sees boats for sale on the river's bank.

Bow

The archer tied a small bow around his bow and arrow.

HOMOPHONE

Different meaning, different spelling, but sound the same.

HOMOPHONE 1

HOMOPHONE 2

I can hear...

(perceive the sound)

...from here.

(this place)

It's too much...

(a higher degree than is desirable)

...to expect of us two.

(more than one, less than three.

Plus the infinitive of expect)

He knew...

(had awareness of)

...the ring was new.

(existed for the first time)

They couldn't bear...

(endure)

...to be bare.

(without clothes)

HOMOGRAPH (also known as HETERONYM)

Different meaning and spelled the same, but sound different.

HOMOGRAPH

MEANING 1

MEANING 2

Bass

Lowest pitch in voice or instrument

(sounds like 'face')

A freshwater fish

(sounds like 'mass')

Minute

Very very small

(sounds like 'my newt')

Sixty seconds

(sounds like 'bin it')

Bow

Bend the upper body as a sign or respect

(sounds like 'cow')

Of legs that curve outwards

(sounds like 'no')

Content

Satisfied, pleased

(stress is on the second syllable - conTENT)

​Items or information found within something else

(stress in on the first syllable - KAHNtent)

The number 3

ANTONYM


Two different words that mean the opposite of each other.


Despite what we might think, not every word has an opposite. Due to this lesser need, the word antonym didn't came into use until about 350 years after its sibling, synonym.

WORD

IS AN ANTONYM OF

Hot

Cold

Fast

Slow

Good

Bad

Open

Shut

The number 2

ACRONYM


A speakable word formed from the initials, or parts, of a compound phrase.


To be a true acronym, the word must be pronounceable as a normal world. Though this isn't always adhered to.


A series of letters - such as NHS or BMW - is not an acronym. It is an initialism.


A shortened word - like appt or inc - is not an acronym. It is an abbreviation.


As always, there are oddities. The work OK (as written here) is both an initialism and an acronym. It originates from the jokey phrase "oll korrect" and the two letters said together is now an acceptable word all of its own.

ACRONYM

ORIGINATES FROM

NATO

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Scuba

self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

UNICEF

United Nations (International) Children's (Emergency) Fund.

TARDIS

​Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.

The number 1

SYNONYM


Words that have the same or nearly the same meaning, irrespective of spelling and pronunciation.


In the family -nym, the synonym must surely be the Granddaddy.


Defined literally as ‘together words’, the word 'synonym' is as commonly used as the words it describes. It also describes things that aren’t literally the same. “The Tory Party is synonymous with scandal” isn’t technically correct but the metaphor works.


It also says something about the language we use and its endless complexity. For synonyms to be so common, there needs to be an abundance of duplication. Words we don’t really need, but we’ve written rules for, nonetheless.

SYNONYM

​Really? I don’t think you need an example of words that have the same meaning. Just think of any two words that, you know, mean the same.

The Need for -NYM


Is it important to know these terms? Will they help you communicate? Or do they all deserve to stay in the past?


Arguably no.


And no.


And probably.


The point is that, for now, they do exist. And others will use them to feel superior, to admonish or correct you. Sure you can ignore them. But now you have a quick reference point to check. So you can put these people in their place if you so wish.


And while these terms do exist, there's no harm in knowing them. Having a simple way to check the background without getting lost in a forest of Google.


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