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.)



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.



Spend a penny






Sleep with


Make love



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.



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


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.




The Royal Estate

Number 10

The British Prime Minister or Government


The entire film industry


The written word