Word Stories - January 4, 2021 - 3 min

Words That Like to Talk About Themselves

Autological words are words that describe themselves—as opposed to all the heterological words that don’t. The adjective pentasyllabic is autological, for example, since it has five syllables. Monosyllabic, on the other hand, is heterological, since it has far more than one. People who love words and puzzles might want to take a moment here to ask themselves if the adjective heterological is heterological or not. If it describes itself, it must not be heterological. But if it doesn’t describe itself, then it must be. In which case it must not be. While the puzzle fans are puzzling, maybe the rest of us can just read on, to enjoy talking about a few words that like to talk about themselves.


The word word is too old to assign a beginning to. The etymological trail recedes into the origins of the English language itself, to the long-lost Germanic root that also gave German the word Wort. The first written attestation of “worde” in English is found in the Catholic Homilies of Ælfric of Eynsham (around 990), carrying meanings that are still current today: words are things you can say or write down, and it’s important to follow through when you give somebody your word.

Over the centuries, word has taken on a great variety of weighty meanings, reflecting the human tendency to see words as important, powerful, and even quasi-magical. The ancient Greek habit of talking about “the Word” (Logos) as a kind of rational creative force at the heart of the cosmos was, for example, famously baptized into Christian culture as the belief that “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). This idea that words can do things is reflected in the way word was used for centuries as a verb: a wordsmith like Thomas Goffe could therefore hope to “word away” his troubles (Raging Turke, 1631). We only treat word as a verb today, though, when we discuss the way something is worded - another usage that goes back to the 17th century. This abiding interest in how things are worded reflects the timeless importance of words and their use. Most of us quickly lose patience with a mess of misused and mangled words, for example - the kind of thing classified under the colourful psychiatric term word salad (G. S. Hall, Adolescence, 1904).


It may look like a peculiar misspelling of a common bird’s name, but the origins of pidgin are entirely unrelated to those of pigeon. A pidgin is a simplified language that bridges two or more natural languages. The term developed out of the way 19th-century Chinese traders pronounced the word business, and it soon came to describe the creative quasi-English these traders and their European counterparts used to communicate. Eventually, the word pidgin evolved to mean any artificial language developed for the sake of doing business.

The earliest written attestations all mean business, and spell the word like the bird. The missionary Robert Morrison, for example, wrote about Cantonese locals taking care of pigeon (1807). Over time, though, the spelling pidgin became dominant. At the turn of the century, people unwilling to get involved in somebody else’s business excused themselves by saying, “that’s not my pidgin” (Sydney Bulletin, 1902). The word first appears in print with a linguistic connotation in the mid-19th century, also spelled pigeon (Galaxy Magazine, 1869). Before too long, though, pidgin also appears in print describing the phenomenon of hybrid trade languages (R. L. Stevenson, In South Seas, 1896). These historical developments transformed the rough-and-ready approximate pronunciation of “business” into a full-fledged autological English word. As the quasi-English offspring of international business, the word pidgin is (like the word word) an example of itself.


The word sesquipedalian is used to describe long words, particularly those that are needlessly long. The ultimate source of the sesquipedalian word sesquipedalian is the Latin poet Horace (65-8 BCE) who combined sesqui, a prefix meaning “one and a half more”, with pes, meaning “foot”. In The Art of Poetry, he advised against showing off with sesquipedalia verba.

The mocking adjective was borrowed by English writers who wanted to join Horace in laughing at the “puzling sesquepedalian words” that pedantic people love to toss around (Confused Characters of Conceited Coxcombs, 1661).

In time, the anglicized adjective gave rise to an anglicized noun. An English writer might complain, for example, about the annoyances of “hard names and sesquipedalians” (Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, 1830). The adjective was also extended to include the kind of person who might use words a foot and a half long: “Towards the end of her letter Miss Jenkyns used to become quite sesquipedalian” (E. C. Gaskell, Cranford, 1853).

Over the years, the word sesquipedalian sometimes drifted further into simply meaning “big”, with odd results. In his novel Barchester Towers (1857), Anthony Trollope uses the word sesquipedalian to describe an unusually tall manservant. The problem with this description is obvious: “a foot and half” is not very tall, as menservants go. Presumably, Trollope just thought the big word sounded impressive. He was seduced into trying to spice up his writing with a long, unhelpful word—a sesquipedalian word. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Horace laughing.

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