A lot of nyms, and a bit of nimbyism

Pictured: a European Seahorse, one of an exclusive group of creatures with a tautonymous Latin name


There is no such thing as a synonym, says the poet. Whether you describe something as big, large, enormous, massive or humungous would completely alter the connotation, not to mention the rhyme structure.

Language teachers respectfully disagree and use synonyms all the time, constantly, continuously, incessantly, to explain, clarify, elucidate, expound... You get the idea.

Most of us are familiar with synonyms and their opposite number, antonyms, but there is a wonderful array of other words of the same family that might amuse you, or one day give you an answer in the pub quiz miscellany round.

Let’s continue with another one that looks familiar, but which can be problematic:


An acronym is a word formed by combining the initial letters of a multipart name, such as NATO from North Atlantic Treaty Organization or by combining the initial letters or parts of a series of words, such as radar from radio detecting and ranging. The RSPB and NHS are not acronyms but initialisms.

These are both types of abbreviations, as is Rob for Robert. Not sure if there’s an official –nym word for this third type of abbreviation, which really just means “shortening”.

Ah yes, nimbyism: Not In My Back Yard-ism – so this is an acronym.


If you are cack-handed you do things clumsily, in a bad way. If you are responsible for naming something, especially in the field of taxonomy, and you get it wrong, you have used a caconym. The Brontosaurus is a classic example of this. It was the result of two rival palaeontologists trying to out-do each other with how many fossilised dinosaurs they could dig up and classify, and in his haste, one of them put the head of a diplodocus on the body of an apatosaurus and announced the name of a new species. Classic caconym.


This leads us onto malonyms, which is the official way to say Malapropisms. Famously, Mrs Malaprop was a character in Sheridan’s The Rivals, and got her words muddled with comedic effect. It is of course much funnier when someone, preferably a high-ranking politician, makes a verbal gaffe in real life. For example...

George W. Bush: “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.” (hostage)

Dan Quayle: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” (bonding)

When boxer Mike Tyson came off worse in a match in 2002, he was asked where he might go from here. Tyson replied, “I might just fade into Bolivian.” We suppose he meant “oblivion”.

Or from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing:

- Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons. (apprehended / suspicious)


A retronym is a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used on its own needs to be distinguished from a new development, such as acoustic guitar in response to the invention of the electric guitar; or analogue watch in contrast to digital watch.

It is also the term given to the post-dated attribution of meaning to an existing word. There is a well-known but erroneous theory that the word ‘posh’ is an acronym derived from the phrase Port out, starboard home. This could be described as retronymous as this theory of the word’s etymological roots is much newer than the word itself.


Easy one. A cryptonym is just a code name or secret name.


A word derived from the name of a real or mythical person, or place as for example Constantinople from Emperor Constantine. The words atlas, denim, and Turing machine are all eponyms.


In one of our classes recently, the question was raised as to why we all don’t just call places by their actual names – the names by which they are locally known. Well, there is a word for the re-naming of foreign places to make them easier to pronounce or even for political reasons: exonyms.

Londres is the French exonym of London.

Milan and Mailand are the English and German exonyms for Milano;

Germany, Allemagne, Niemcy are various names for Deutschland.

And so on.

The next section is a little confusing as there are several words that overlap with each other somewhat. These are the main ones:

Heteronyms, homonyms, homographs, homophones

These are all to do with words which either sound the same but are spelled differently, or vice versa, and/or have different or the same meanings. It can get confusing. I think a diagram is called for:


Back on firmer ground: Metonyms are words that denote a concept, relying on a common understanding.

For example: “Number 10 said today that Brexit is to be reversed.”

We understand Number 10 to mean the British government, in the same way that the Crown refers to the royal family, and the White House the American government. On a smaller scale, the bottle is a metonym for alcoholic drinks, and plastic is a metonym for the use of credit cards.


A fictitious name, an alias, especially a pen name.


A toponym is just a fancy way of saying a place name. As in:

“The exact location has always remained a mystery, however, and the toponym is mired in controversy.”


“In my opinion, I think that PIN numbers are a great new innovation.” Did you spot the three examples of tautology in this sentence? Well, there are tautonyms as well, and they are quite entertaining:

They are found solely in the world of zoology, and occur when the genus and the species name are the same. A bit like Magnus Magnusson. Which reminds me, I missed one: Magnusson – son of Magnus - is a patronym.

Some are easy, (Gorilla gorilla, Lynx lynx, Bison bison...) and some are misleading – Puffinus puffinus is not a puffin but a Manx shearwater. Using your knowledge of other languages, can you match up the animal/bird/fish to the correct tautonyms? (Answers at the bottom of the page)

As I was researching this I became acquainted with the Anableps anableps, the Latin name for a fish commonly known as the largescale four-eyes. Simply too good not to mention!

This post was written by Andrew Wenger, Director and lead teacher at SameSky Languages.

We are in setting up new classes at intermediate and advanced level for English as a foreign language. If you or anyone you know is interested in joining one of these classes, or studying French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese or Mandarin, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Answers to the tautonyms quiz:

1. buzzard

2. elk

3. eel

4. roe deer

5. corncrake

6. Whooper swan

7. fat dormouse

8. wolverine

9. European seahorse

10. honeyguide (bird)

11. otter badger

12. partridge

13. Manx shearwater

14. guitarfish

15. red deer

16. fallow deer

17. pine marten

18. grass snake

19. porpoise

20. black rat

21. wren

22. red fox

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