Q: “Word” is a word, so it’s an instance of itself. And “noun” is a noun. Since “noun phrase” is itself a noun phrase, it’s a third example. Can you think of any other terms like these? And is there a name for the phenomenon?
A: You’re talking about terms that describe themselves. Like the word “short,” which itself is short. And “unhyphenated,” which has no hyphen. Also “adjectival,” an adjective that’s accordingly adjectival. And “prefixed,” with “pre-” as its own prefix.
Words like these are called “autological” or, less commonly, “homological.”
Most words aren’t, as you put it, instances of themselves. The word “fat,” for instance, isn’t fat; as words go, it’s on the lean side. The word “big” isn’t big; it’s small. And the word “shrinking” isn’t shrinking; it’s the same size as always.
So, to use your examples, “word” is autological because it’s a word; “noun” is autological because it’s a noun; and “noun phrase” is autological because it’s a noun phrase.
The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”
The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”
As we suggested above, most words are heterological—their meanings don’t apply to them. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1940: “‘Long’ is heterological because it is not a long word.”
Because autological words are rarer, they’re more interesting, and it follows that they have a devoted fan base. Just google “autological words” and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.
The linguist Arika Okrent has written about them on the Mental Floss website. In an article published on Sept. 27, 2013, she notes that most words “have a rather abstract connection to the things they describe. The word ‘yellow’ is not actually yellow. The word ‘square’ is not a square.”
“But some words do embody the properties they denote,” she writes. “We call them autological words, and they are a self-centered, self-referential bunch.” (We’ve used many of her examples here.)
For some reason, it’s difficult to come up with many autological nouns. The noun “buzzword” is sometimes called autological, since it’s an instance of a buzzword—but we aren’t hearing it much lately, so perhaps it’s losing its buzz and someday will no longer qualify.
Autological adjectives are more plentiful. For example, the word “terse” is terse, “erudite” (scholarly) is erudite, and “twee” (sickeningly sweet) has itself become twee.
Along these same lines, “magniloquent” (highfalutin) is magniloquent, “readable” is readable, “recherché” (affected) is recherché.
Similarly, “sesquipedalian” (which describes a long word) is sesquipedalian; “polysyllabic” is polysyllabic; “descriptive” is descriptive, and “common” is common.
Finally, “useful” is useful, which is how we hope you find this post.