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What's in a -Nym?


Word Count - Writers Talk About Writing

What's in a -Nym?

May 8, 2013

By Mike Pope

There are all sorts of words in English based on the "-onym" word part, which derives from a Greek word that means "name". Probably everyone knows these: There are some "-onym" words that might be a little more obscure.

An "eponym" ("upon" + "name") is a word or name that's derived from a person: "Alexandria" (for Alexander the Great), "Machiavellian", "Alzheimer's disease", "sandwich", "boycott", "silhouette".

Orin Hargraves recently wrote about "meronym" ("part" + "name"), a word in which a part stands for the whole ("heads" to mean "people"), and "metonym" ("after", "with" + "name"), a similar word in which one word is used to represent a related concept ("the crown" to mean "the monarch"). Even if you've never seen it before, you can probably guess that "cryptonym" ("hidden" + "name") refers to a secret name or codename.

Biology gives us the "tautonym" ([the] "same" + "name"), a scientific name in which the genus and species are the same, like "Bison bison" and "Gorilla gorilla". The word "tautonym" is also sometimes used to refer to words that are made up of repetitive sounds, like "tutu", "bonbon", and "hubba-hubba".

Speaking of language, lexicography gives us the "paronym" ("beside" + "name"), a word that shares a stem with another word, like "wise" / "wisdom" and "female" / "feminine".

In geography, a "toponym" ("place" + "name") is a word for a place. Examples include "Seattle", which was named for a local Native American chief; "France", named by the Romans after the inhabitants, the Franks; and "Mauna Loa", a volcano whose name means "Long Mountain" in Hawaiian.

A comparatively recent addition to the -onym club is "demonym" ("people" + "name"), which is a name used for the inhabitants of a particular place — "Californian", "Hoosier", "Liverpudlian", "Nazarene".

These are all useful, but some naming terms seem like they're more for fun. For example, there's "contranym" or "contronym" ("against" + "name"), which is also referred to as an "autoantonym" ("self" + "against" + "name"). This is a word with two meanings that are opposites. For example, "to sanction" can mean both "to condemn" and "to permit"; "oversight" can refer both to "supervision" and "neglect". Fans of the Amelia Bedelia series of children's books might remember that when she was asked to "dust the furniture", instead of "undusting" it, she dusted it with dusting powder — another "contranym"!
A "retronym" ("backward" + "name") is a word that had to be invented to distinguish an older technology from a newer one, like "acoustic guitar", "analog clock", "brick-and-mortar store", and "snail mail".

Something that struck me about all these terms is how true they are to their classical roots. The "-onym" part is Greek, of course. Most of the prefixes I listed are Greek ("syno-", "anto-", "topo-", "demo-", etc.), with just a few from Latin ("contra-", "apt-"). But we English speakers, we are nothing if not inventive with our word parts. The "-onym" stem is, as linguists say, "productive" — we continue to use it to create new terms. And since we are primarily familiar with English, we're happy to combine "-onym" with whatever word seem useful in the moment, whether it's of classical or English origin.

A wonderful English-based name is a "backronym", a form of "acronym" where the phrase it stands for was deliberately constructed so the "acronym" would form a word. Commonly cited examples are "SAD" ("seasonal affective disorder") and "MADD" ("Mothers Against Drunk Driving"). As Ben Zimmer pointed out not long ago, people who name legislative bills seem especially fond of "backronyms", with resulting laws like the "USA PATRIOT Act" and the "DREAM Act".

My current favorite among these "-onyms" is "capitonym": words whose meanings are distinguished only by the use of capitalization, like "turkey" / "Turkey", "catholic" / "Catholic", and "march" / "March". Some "capitonyms" even change pronunciation based on the capitalization, like "august" / "August" and "polish" / "Polish". As listed in Wikipedia, an apparently unknown author has written some doggerel verse that highlights a few capitonymic pairs. Here's one of those poems:

Herb's Herbs

An herb store owner, name of Herb, Moved to a rainier Mount Rainier. It would have been so nice in Nice, And even tangier in Tangier.
After this survey of "-nonymous" terms, maybe you're ready for a challenge. A while back, my friends and I had some fun cataloging what people call themselves who work for a company. At Microsoft, they're "Microsofties"; at Amazon, they're "Amazonians". Google employees call themselves "Googlers", Yahoo employees are "Yahoos", and Nordstrom folks are "Nordies". Here's the challenge: what kind of "-onym" term can we invent to describe this type of name?

Erstellt: 2016-02