Dec 18, 2023


Words! Words! Words!

#language • 881 words

One day I'd like to write an ode to all of these words, to say why they are special to me. For now, it's just a list.

1. isomorphic

(adj) When two things have the same (usually exact same) underlying structure Note: this is jargon from mathematics but useful in other contexts

2. autological

(adj) A word that describes itself; usually when a word corresponds to a category in which that word itself falls. The word is self-referential.

E.g. the word "common" is common. The word "English" is an English word. "Twelve-letter" has twelve letters. See Wiktionary for more examples.

The antonym of autological is heterological. Fun question: is "heterological" heterological, and is "autological" autological? (Yeah, people have spent a lot of time thinking about this. It reminds me of Russell's paradox — if S is "the set of all sets that do not contain themselves," S cannot contain itself because otherwise it would not contain itself, so therefore it must not contain itself, but then... wait... hold on...)

3. esoteric

(adj) Something reserved for the 'specially-initiated,' or known only by some very specific group.

This might be my most-used word on this list — it's a very useful label!

One common example is religious esoteric mysticism (e.g. Jewish Kabbalah), wherein secret messages or ideas embedded in a holy text/teaching are revealed only to the select few people who enter the esoteric order. The knowledge, in this case, is esoteric, because it is reserved only for the special few disciples who are taught it.

Other examples of esoteric knowledge might be the nuances of a country's legal system, or a certain... specific, and somewhat uncommon word.

(esoteric is autological!)

4. aphorism

(noun) Something short that says a lot.

5. polysemy

(noun) The state of a word having multiple distinct but related meanings. (A word is "polysemic" or "polysemantic.")

For example, there are multiple meanings to the word "free" — free software that you don't have to pay for, a free person from imprisonment or oppression, free speech.

If you believe (later) Wittgenstein, well, basically every word is infinitely polysemic because the nuances of its use — the surrounding context, intentions, expected outcomes — can be described with infinite specificity.

(...I think, but I don't have any philosophy professors lingering around so I may have made autodidactic errors. If you think this is a misreading of Language-games, I post contact info for a reason!)

6. dysphemism

(noun) Describes the opposite of a euphemism — dysphemism describes the usage of a more vulgar or offensive expression to replace a more formal, neutral, or polite phrasing.

For example, saying "boneyard" instead of "cemetery," or "bullshit" instead of "lies."

Whether a usage is dysphemic depends a lot on context — the same word can be dysphemic in one context and euphemistic in another! I like thinking about the evolution of language and slang in particular, and dysphemism is an interesting part of informal speech as well as a method of expressing emotions in language (in this case like distaste or anger). Be aware though — its definition and study also encompasses extremely offensive words like epithets and slurs. I've come across some pretty shocking language contained in articles about dysphemism (including the Wikipedia); just be aware that that's something you might see if you read more on this one.

7. typology

(noun) A systematic categorization or organization.

For example, a political typology categorizes people's beliefs into distinct ideologies.

I think the human "rage for order" — the desire for things to make sense, to be comprehensible — is fundamental. It drives science, philosophy, literary studies; one way to look at language is that it is a typology for the world.

(Though I'll admit this is playing a bit loose with the definition, I think this is an interesting enough connection to merit a more expansive view of the word.)

8. syncretism

(noun) Combining multiple 'schools of thought' — religions, scientific disciplines, ideologies.

Religious syncretism produces interesting results, as does scientific syncretism.

(I like having a more broad term encompassing "interdisciplinary.")

9. facile

(adj) Simplistic or superficial. (Facile is polysemic; it also means "easy to comprehend or do.")

I just like this word better than its synonyms. Something about it feels more appropriate to me.

10. amaurotic

(adj) Regarding a condition of blindness without any perceptible change in the appearance of the eye.

This is, well, medical jargon, but its metaphorical usage is useful, and I've seen it used in that sense (though have since lost the example I found it in).

For example, a formerly knowledgeable organization that subtly decays until it's no longer a useful source of knowledge might be described as amaurotic. It's become blind, but that's not obvious from the outside.

11. superogatory

(adj) Doing more than is required by duty.

This is a word that's especially useful when talking about ethics from an anti-realist perspective, or offering provocative arguments: why follow a systematic moral system? Why not just do what seems right according to general principles, and then if they lead you to insane conclusions, just... stop? (See this post by Joe Carlsmith for a deeper discussion of this point. That post is where my interest in this word came from. It's also available as an audio version.)

12. logorrheic

Literally me

This word is just so... visceral. So perfect in the associations it brings to mind. It's simultaneously accurate and metaphorically vivid. I will not specify further.