Autological words or homological words are words that happen to express a property that they themselves possess. Like ‘noun’ also is a noun, or ‘English’ is actually English, these examples of recursive meaning within a word can be quite fun to think about.
The opposite of an autological word would be a heterological word, meaning one that doesn’t apply to itself. For example, the word ‘long’ isn’t a long word itself, and ‘monosyllabic’ has more than one syllable.
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While all these cases aren't terribly meaningful or relevant to linguists, it is still very interesting from the perspective of logic and philosophy to the point where some philosophers have detected - and named - a curious paradox that arises from this classification. The Grelling-Nelson paradox describes a semantic paradox around the word ‘heterological’, given the previous definitions of these concepts.
The actual paradox arises when one tries to answer the question: “Is ‘heterological’ a heterological word itself? Before reading further, try to make the math in your head, and you will soon find that giving a straight answer is almost impossible without modifying the original definitions of ‘heterological’ and ‘autological’.
The thing is, if you answer ‘no’, then ‘heterological’ becomes autological. And this leads to a contradiction since, in this case, it is not describing itself - becoming heterological again! If, on the other hand, wary of the consequences of the previous case, you answer ‘yes’, we are again in a deep mess, since it must then be heterological (i.e. not descriptive of itself), necessarily becoming autological.
Some fun with autology
But before this starts giving you a headache, we are not here to rummage into borderline mathematical problems within the logical structure of modern English, so don’t worry! Autological words can be a lot of fun on their own, even without pesky paradoxes popping up. Here are some examples.
At least in this spelling.
This is a real word present in the English dictionary, in case you are wondering. Humorously popularized by The Simpsons, embiggened is quite a fun example, since it is a sort of ungainly enlargement of itself.
This could very much depend on context, but ‘interesting’ derives from the Anglo-Norman word ‘interesse’, and a blend of an older Latin word that referred to something important and an Old French expression relating to damage or loss. So, interesting is a somewhat interesting word by itself, at least if you like etymologies. Arguably, one could also say that it is a heterological word, since ‘interesting’ is the go-to word for most people when they don’t really have anything interesting to say about something.
Not for you maybe, but ‘pronounceable’ is a difficult word to pronounce for many people, particularly for people that aren’t native speakers of English.
Ever heard of this one before? Don’t worry, me neither. Lexiphanic means something - or someone - that uses pretentious or bombastic language.
In this list! Ha!
Unless you need to go grab your glasses…
A boring, run-of-the-mill word, ‘common’ very much describes itself.
Could we give ‘unhyphenated’ a hyphen just for the sake of ruining this self-descriptive madness? Maybe. But it wouldn’t make too much sense. ‘Hyphenated’, on the other hand, is heterological, as it fails to describe itself.
I love this one. If you don’t get it, count the syllables! ‘Multisyllabic’ is also a related autological word.
A long, unnecessary word that literally means ‘a long word’. It also derives from the Latin root ‘sēsquipedālis’, which means ‘a foot and a half long’.
Lots of vowels in this one, so… it passes the autological test.
Who even conceived this word? Just like the literary monster, this word is exactly what it means, a combination of two other words, or a portmanteau (that just happens to be autological too!).
In the context of this list. Don’t worry, we are almost at the end.
Funnily enough, this word also happens to be a buzzword. It may be even more popular than the supposed real buzzwords it refers to.
If you loved autological words, check out our other articles! At Dictionary Scoop we explore all language-related topics and trivia, from words with strange properties like the ones in this list to untranslatable ones, or the history and etymology behind many English words.