The secret of nym

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June 23 2012 7:00 AM

The secret of nym

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.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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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.


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