Musings on Nyms and Phobias

Once again inspired by something sent by a friend and blog subscriber, I would like today to address the whole sorry business of nyms. Yes, that's right, I said nyms. (If you read the previous blog post, you know that we are actively encouraging word-spawning.)

We will begin with the most interesting, a nym of which I had never heard: the contranym.

Contranyms are single words that are their own opposites. They contain within themselves their own contradictory meanings. I suggested to my friend that these self-contained little creatures remind me of the hermaphroditic earthworm (an animal of which I am inordinately fond) that contains within itself both sexes (but which does not, because of modesty and also genetics, mate with itself). He (the friend, not the male half of the worm) did not see the connection.

Here are some contranyms.

- Apology: a statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one

- Bolt: to secure, or to flee

- Bound: heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

- Cleave: to adhere, or to separate

- Dust: to add fine particles, or to remove them

- Fast: quick, or stuck, or made stable

- Left: remained, or departed

- Peer: a person of the nobility, or an equal

- Refrain: to desist from doing something, or to repeat

- Sanction: to approve, or to boycott

- Splice: to join, or to separate

- Weather: to withstand, or to wear away

Huh. I like these a lot. They are quite a bit more interesting than the three nyms that we learned in school, the familiar:

synonyms, words with similar meanings - big, large, yada yada

antonyms, words with opposite meanings - big, little. Yawn. Not nearly as cute as those clever little devils, the contranyms

homonyms. Now I learned in school that homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings - two, to, too. There, their they're. Blue and blew. Etc.

But it turns out that, like so many things we learned in school, it's more complicated than this. There are, in fact, homonyms, homophones and homographs. The simplest explanation is this:

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Two, to and too fit here, as do more interesting examples like feted and fetid, or liken and lichen. (Just for fun: I liken this to the fact that he, too, ate the fetid lichen as the two of them feted the midnight moon.)

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but are different in meaning and sometimes in pronunciation. Examples are quail (the bird) and quail (to cower); the bow of a ship and the bow that shoots arrows. (The quail quailed as I aimed my bow at the ship's bow.)

Homonyms may, in fact, refer to either of these, meaning that homonyms can be homophones or homographs. I find this unfair and confusing.

Perhaps the reason we were not taught this murky distinction during our early years was because of our tender sensibilities. Then later (I speculate) in high school or in an early university grammar course, some of us did learn about the graphs, phones and nyms distinction, and this caused some people a kind of trauma. It is possible that this splitting of the homonym, which we thought to be one of three simple nyms, into graphs and phones, caused a kind of intellectual and emotional overload that has led to the modern scourge of homophobia (fear of homonyms). Just writing this blog made me experience mild anxiety.

Let us dig deeper. Perhaps there are other grammar-related phobias, unrecognized, and thus untreated. There may, for instance, be sufferers from synophbia, fear of synonyms. Now, things being what they are, synophobia turns out to be a homophone of the word, Sinophobia, which means, Heaven forbid, fear and hatred of the Chinese. It might also sound like it means fear of sin, which technically falls under theophobia, fear of God or religion. The whole thing is a grammatical and psychological morass.

And what about antophobia, a grammatical fear of opposites (another as yet unrecognized condition)? This could possibly be confused with anthrophobia (or anthropophobia), fear of people, or even be mistaken to mean fear of ants (which would fall under the category of fear of insects, entomophobia).

The term grammarphobia, fear of grammar, has in fact been coined. All of the above certainly fall under that heading. (If I had coined the term, I would have called it grammaphobia, which sounds more elegant, but which could be mistakenly understood to be fear of grandmothers.)

In closing, I would like to suggest an additional category of language phobias for grammarians and psychiatrists to explore and develop: fear of parts of speech. I myself suffer from pronophobia, fear of pronouns, given the minefield that pronoun use has become (see a previous blog post on this topic).

And while literary historians have not yet researched this (English majors searching for a dissertation topic, take note), it is possible that Mark Twain suffered from adjectophobia, fear of adjectives. Twain wrote: "If you catch an adjective, kill it."

This may be a criticism by Twain of overly flowery writing, but I believe that it could signal something deeper, Twain's undiagnosed adjectophobia. We may never know for sure.

Till next time.

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