self-describing words and not: autological / heterological

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self-describing words and not: autological / heterological

Post by Archived Topic » Sun Nov 14, 2004 4:37 pm

So that the multitudes of generations to come will be able to locate this discussion I am reposting it and including the words ‘autological’ and ‘heterological’ in the title.

SELF-DESCRIBING WORDS: Does anybody know of a word for words that are an example of themselves? The word 'noun' is a noun, the word 'word' is a word, the word 'grandiloquent' is quite grandiloquent and 'sesquipedalian' is definitely sesquipedalian.
Submitted by Nicklas Chapman (London - England)


The word is "autological", Nicklas. The 'opposite' is "heterological", but now we're moving into the logic of sets - is "heterological" heterological - a famous paradox.
Response from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)

Nicklas, SELF-DESCRIBING WORDS are called AUTOLOGICAL WORDS (autologs) – words having the property they denote, words that describe themselves. The opposite of an autological word is heterological word (heterologs) – a word not having the property it denotes. You wont find ‘autological’ and ‘heterological’ in most dictionaries although they did first appear in 1926 and are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (see quote below). And Douglas Hofstadter's discussed ‘autological in his 1979 book ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach.’

Some further examples of AUTOLOGS are (in addition to your good ones of ‘noun, ‘grandiloquent,’ and ‘sesquipedalian’): English, polysyllabic, pentasyllabic, unhyphenated, understandable, visible, terse, descriptive, intelligible, unambiguous, pronounceable, readable, written, common, meaningful, definable, describable, repeatable, translatable, classifiable, memorizable, forgettable, unphonetic, unique, real, existent, post-Renaissance, Latinate, finite, avoidable, sibilant, asexual, numberless, harmless, uninspiring, unabbreviated, abecedarian, wee, antonym, thing, concept, abbr., unabbreviated, inoffensive, one, letters, nonpalindromic, UPPERCASE, CAPITALIZED.

Some examples of HETEROLOGS are: Italian, French, capitalized, long, tentacled, mono-syllabic, verb, oral, invisible, red, preposition, circular, misspelled, fat, truncated, unpronounceable, vowelless, question, backwards.

An interesting question to ask is if ‘autological’ is itself autological and if ‘heterological’ is itself heterological. If you assume that you know what ‘auto’ and ‘logical’ mean, so that you know that the word means self-sensical, then it could be considered autological. ‘Heterological,’ on the other hand is a bit more problematic. If you assume that it is not heterological, then it is not self-descriptive, which would mean that it is. So if it isn’t, it is! – and that’s a problem. If you go the other way and assume that it is heterological, then it is non-self-descriptive, which tells you that heterological doesn’t describe heterological, which means that it isn’t. So if it is, it isn’t! – and that’s also a problem! Sort of reminds one of an Escher staircase painting, doesn’t it?
<1926 “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short’, AUTOLOGICAL; others HETEROLOGICAL.”—‘Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society,’ F. P. Ramsey, XXV. page 358>
(Oxford English Dictionary, The Word Spy,

Ken G – June 22, 2004
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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