Nym Words: Sufferin’ Suffixes

Words with the suffix “–nym” pop up regularly. Some are common, but many of the 46 words with this suffix are not. “Nym” derives from the Greek word for name or word.

Don’t include obscure –nym words in your writing just to show off; that just confuses the reader. Writers who incorporate -nym words should use them correctly. If you encounter one you don’t understand, take the time to look it up rather than ignore or “read through” the word.

Grammar School Learning

You probably learned three basic –nym words in elementary school:

  • Synonym: A word with the same meaning as another word. The way to avoid the boring repetition of a word is to substitute the synonyms you find in a thesaurus.

  • Antonym: A word with the opposite meaning of another word. A thesaurus can help with this as well.

  • Homonym: A word that sounds the same as another word. Commonly, we are talking about the words writers perennially confuse, such as their, there and they’re or rain, rein and reign. A strict grammarian will tell you that these word groups are actually “homophones”; to be a true homonym, the word is both pronounced and spelled the same.

The Latest Restaurant, or Memoir, or Whatever

When Monique’s Restaurant opened, the reviewer may have said it was “eponymously named.” This phrase comes up a lot in reviews. Have you ever wondered what it means?

A name that identifies a thing is an eponym. It was Monique who opened that restaurant. Think “Salk vaccine.” Phillip Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” references the fictional protagonist Alexander Portnoy. Portnoy’s name is an eponym.

Crime and Punishment

You might have realized you were reading a character’s patronymic surname the first time you read a Russian novel like Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The main character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Rodion is the son of Roman. A Russian female’s patronymic looks different: Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov is the daughter of Ivan. A patronym reflects the name of one’s father. Pater is Greek for father.

Common examples of patronymic surnames include Johnson, O’Reilly and MacDonald.

It Might Be Just an Abbreviation

An acronym is a special type of abbreviation, one that can be pronounced as a word. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is called by an acronym. We don’t call our domestic intelligence and security organization “Fibby.” Rather, we refer to the FBI by its initialism (another type of abbreviation), pronouncing each letter. Don’t call every abbreviation an acronym.

Dust the Desk — and the Crop

Contronyms are just weird. They are words that have opposing meanings. You know, like “sanctions.” Contronym may also be spelled as contranym. Autantonym means the same thing.

Break It Down

If you come across an unfamiliar –nym word, you have the best chance of deciphering it by breaking down the syllables:

  • Cryptonym: A secret word or code name.

  • Hypernym: An umbrella term with many subordinates, a category. Hyper means over.

  • Mononym: A single name for a person, such as Prince. The opposite is a polynym.

  • Xenonym: A name for people that they don’t use for themselves, such as the early explorers calling Native Americans Indians or us referring to people as German when they call themselves Deutsche. The first part of the word xenonym is probably familiar to you from the more common xenophobe.

Jack Be Nym-ble

Of these examples, acronym is probably the most misused. Know your -nym words, but don’t overdo it, or you may find yourself wishing you had written anonymously.

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