The Grammarphobia Blog

Onymously speaking

Q: We all know about synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. And we recently added retronyms to the list. But what do we call the onymous term for a word like “cleave” that has two opposite meanings?

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they’re sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

We’ve written about them several times on our blog, including postings in 2007, 2008, and 2010. But this gives us a chance to discuss the combining term that has given us all those onymous words. (Yes, “onymous” is a word—more about this later.)

In English, “-onym” is a combining form derived from onyma, Greek for name or word.

Its ultimate source is the Indo-European root -nomen, which has given us “name,” “noun,” “nominate,” and many other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The first of the “-onym” words to enter English was “synonym,” which showed up in the late 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Synonym” originally referred to identical ideas expressed in different ways. Now, of course, it refers to a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another.

As for your other “-onym” words, “homonym” (a word that sounds the same as another but means something different) showed up in the late 1500s, and “antonym” (a word that means the opposite of another) appeared in the mid-1800s.

The newest of these linguistic critters, “retronym,” which arrived on the scene in the 1980s, refers to a new name coined to differentiate the original form of something from a more recent version.

For instance, the retronym “acoustic guitar” was coined to distinguish the older instrument from the new “electric guitar.”

Other retronyms include “analog watch” (as opposed to a digital one), “conventional oven” (versus a microwave), and “skirt suit” (as opposed to a pantsuit).

No, we haven’t forgotten “onymous,” an adjective that first appeared in the late 1700s, according to the OED, and means having a name—that is, the opposite of “anonymous.”

Here’s an onymous example from an 1802 letter by the English poet Robert Southey to the writer Grosvenor Charles Bedford:

“I shall have a house in the loveliest part of South Wales, in a vale between high mountains; and an onymous house too, Grosvenor, and one that is down in the map of Glamorganshire, and its name is Maes Gwyn.”

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