Heterological Words and the Ineffable Gap Between You and Me

words on a building - illustration for heterological words article

I’ve always been annoyed by certain counterintuitive words, words that demonstrate the opposite of their meaning. Words should be easy to grasp once you learn their definition, but some words seem to want to confuse you. The word “hyphenated” has no hyphen. The word “long” is shorter than “short.” The word “backwards” isn’t spelled in reverse. How irritating!

As a writer, I am obsessed with word choice. When you are working to communicate an idea, you have to consider a word’s definition, its connotation, if it fits the emotional qualities of the scene and a character’s personality, and if your readers will readily understand its intended meaning. To me, counterintuitive words like these are frustrating because they are reminders of the inevitable imprecision of language.

The Limits of Language

Words like these that do not accurately describe themselves are called heterological. The opposite, a word that does describe itself, is autological or homological. As a small word, the word “big” is heterological, but the much larger “gargantuan” is autological.

When I learned these terms, my first reaction was to wonder why heterological words even exist. A word’s job is to describe things. Shouldn’t its first duty be to describe itself? Instinctively, a word that doesn’t live up to its definition feels like a failure, like a lazy athlete or a doctor who chain smokes. However, this flaw often has nothing to do with the individual words. In many cases, it’s a limitation of language itself.

A word like “long” could become autological if we decided to spell it “looooooooong” instead. However, many words are unavoidably heterological, especially nouns. For example, the word “pancake” is not a pancake. It’s not even a food. It’s a word. The map is not the territory, and a painting of a pipe is not a pipe.

Language will always be an imperfect tool. There will always be a distance between signs and the thing signified. That distance inevitably limits our ability to communicate, and to connect with each other.

No matter how much work I put into a piece or how far my skills develop, I will never be able to perfectly describe the ideas in my head. The scene I put on paper will never carry the exact emotion for you that it does for me. I could describe every freckle on a character’s face and the exact angle of their nose, but it will never be enough to paint my precise mental picture of them in your mind.

Until we evolve telepathy, there will always be an invisible distance between the writer’s mind and the reader’s. Heterological words are a reminder of that gap, and the constant work needed to bridge it. No matter how imperfect language may be, building that bridge is worth the work, if it means I get to connect with you.

Examples of Heterological Words:

Most nouns are heterological, but there is nothing to do about that. There’s no way to make the word “bacon” into bacon. Many adjectives are likewise unavoidably heterological, like “carcinogenic,” “violent,” and “nubile.”

The words on this list are a bit more interesting because they could be “fixed” to be homological. The word “diminutive” could become diminutive if we simply started spelling it “dim.” The fact that they could be homological is what makes them so annoyingly counterintuitive. Many people have expressed annoyance over “phonetic” not being spelled the way it sounds, but I don’t believe anyone is bothered by the fact that the word “monkey” isn’t actually a banana-chomping animal.

  • Abbreviated – It’s a full word, not an abbreviation.
  • Adverb – Actually a noun.
  • Alphabetical – Not spelled alphabetically, but is placed in alphabetical order on this list.
  • Backwards – Not spelled in reverse.
  • Big – Actually a quite tiny word. It’s even tinier than tiny.
  • Conciseness – Longer than concision.
  • Diminutive – Not a small word.
  • Excluded – A heterological word at least in this context, as it has been included on this list.
  • Extended – No extra letters have been added.
  • Gap – Gap is in this list, but there is no gap in this list.
  • Hyphenated – Not hyphenated.
  • Ineffable – A word meaning “too great or extreme to be described in words,” which as you can see, I have just done.
  • Invisible – No, I see it. It’s right over there.
  • Language names – French is not a French word, German is not a German word, Spanish is not a Spanish word, and so on.
  • Long – Long is actually shorter than short.
  • Minuscule – Actually a fairly big word. It’s bigger than big, huger than huge, and larger than large.
  • Misspelled – Misspelled is spelled correctly.
  • Monosyllabic – Actually a polysyllabic word.
  • Palindrome – Not a palindrome.
  • Phonetic – Not spelled fonetickally.
  • Plural – Only one word.
  • Pulchritudinous – A very ugly word that means beautiful.
  • Quotidian – A word that means “everyday” that is very seldom used.
  • Rare – Unlike quotidian, rare is a quite common word.
  • Refulgent – An ugly word that means beautiful.
  • Unwritten – Actually, it’s written right there.
  • Useless – Actually quite useful. My father used it when I told him I wanted to become a writer.

On a related note, I’ve seen a few articles on heterological words that include “verb,” arguing that the word verb is actually a noun. However, Merriam-Webster says that “verb” has been used as a verb for nearly a century. Used in this way, “to verb” means to use a word as a verb, especially a noun. It seems that so many people have “verbed” nouns that even verb has been verbed!

What do you think?  Are contradictory words like these annoying? What other heterological words would you add to this list?  

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