My good friend Andy and I recently found ourselves on the subject of words that refer to themselves. I first recall encountering such a word when I was about twelve years old. Leafing through Webster’s Dictionary, I came upon the wonderful word “logomachy”. It’s the sort of word you could imagine people fighting over, with one person saying “oh, there is no such word”, and someone else insisting that the word indeed exists. Eventually of course they resort to looking it up, only to encounter this definition:

Pronunciation: \lō-ˈgä-mə-kē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek logomachia, from log- + machesthai to fight
Date: 1569
1 : a dispute over or about words

For the person who had gallantly defended this word’s existence, could victory possibly be more sweet?

There are plenty of examples in literature of such metonymic word usage. From Roald Dahl’s delightfully sly use of the word “epexegetically” in his wonderful short story “The Great Grammatizator”, which I I talked about a while back, to the decision by the music group REM to name one of their albums “Eponymous” — possibly the most clever album title in the history of pop music.

Yet, as my friend Andy and I discussed, there are words that let you down. “Palindrome” is, sadly, not a palindrome. And no anagrams have yet been found for “anagram”. “Onomatopoeia” is not onomatopoetic, except by the most tortured interpretation of that word.

And so it is a delight when one comes upon words that are satisfyingly self-referential. “Noun” and “adjective” work as examples of themselves, although “verb” does not. The word “short” is self-descriptive, in a way that “miniscule” and “monosyllabic” are not.

The word “grandiloquent” is, well, grandiloquent. And I’ve always particularly adored the word “gargantuan”. Just saying it out loud makes the whole world seem somehow roomier (go ahead, try it). As opposed to the word “cramped”, a word that is all too self-descriptive.

“Mellifluous” describes itself rather perfectly. As do “abstruse”, “recondite” and “sesquipedalian”, although these last three are somewhat overly lexiphanic (you could look it up).

Word to the max.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *