Playing with your words!

One of the unexpected perks of writing this blog is being contacted by fellow puzzlers. Some send me links and “Have you seen this?” messages, while others ask questions about puzzles and games that make for terrific blog post ideas.

In the last year or so, there has been an increase in actual puzzles. Whether a puzzle goes viral and gets shared around Facebook or they encounter it somewhere and ask for help solving it, it’s fun and a little humbling to represent the puzzle community as a (fairly minor) authority on puzzles.

Of course, I suspect some of those people are trying to stump me. And that’s okay too.

Recently, I received a message with the following brain teaser:

What’s common between the following set of words (Tiny, Noun, English, Polysyllabic, Sesquipedalian)?
Also, what’s common between these words (Verb, German, Misspelled, Hyphenated, and Monosyllabic)?

As a puzzle fan and a word nerd, I quickly realized that wordplay was afoot!

The first set of words are all autonyms (also known as autological words or homological words). They describe themselves. Tiny is a small word, Noun is a noun, etc.

It can be fun to go hunting for autonyms. How about real, pentasyllabic, mellifluous, self-explanatory, or grandiloquent?

There are lots of wordplay possibilities here. The fear of long words is called hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which seems a bit cruel. Also, lethologica is the inability to remember the correct word for a given concept or item. But that’s a hard word to remember, so it’s quite possible to have lethologica lethologica.

It’s rare to see wordplay like this in crosswords, but you do see it on occasion. For instance, if you see the clue “Civic center?,” it might take you a second to come up with the answer VEE.

As for the second set of words, they’re the opposite of autonyms, since they don’t describe themselves. Verb isn’t a verb, Misspelled isn’t misspelled, Monosyllabic isn’t single-syllabled, etc. These words are called heterological words.

And these words work their way into common wordplay with ease. Who hasn’t received a forward or seen a Facebook post asking, “Why is ‘abbreviated’ so long?” Because it’s heterological.

You could ask “Why isn’t ‘alphabetical’ alphabetical?” Well, it would be if we spelled it “aaabcehillpt.” Similarly, “backwards” would be backwards if we spelled it “sdrawkcab” and “vowelless” would be vowelless if we spelled it “vwllss.” That makes heterological words autological.

There’s even a paradox that applies to this specific word: the Grelling-Nelson paradox.

It’s both simple and brain-melting all at once. If “heterological” is heterological, then it describes itself, which makes it autological, which is a contradiction. But if “heterological” is not heterological, then by default, it is autological, which it can’t be since it doesn’t describe itself, so again, contradiction.

That makes your head hurt. It’s like a wordy version of the Barber paradox.

In a small town, the barber shaves all those, and only those, who do not shave themselves.” So if he shaves himself, he doesn’t. And if he doesn’t, he does.

Thanks, paradoxes, but I think I’ll stick with autonyms for now. They make life easier.


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