Ask An Editor: What do you call a word that sounds like its meaning, but is not an onomatopoeia?
In which a professional book editor delves into the weird side wings of grammar academics
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to start reposting them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On April 16th, 2021, redditor sandsstrom asked:
I'm looking for an adjective that describes words that sound like their meaning. For example: “moist” – your mouth just feels moist saying it. Or, “Phlegm” – just saying it creates more phlegm! What do you call these words? (Yes I've tried searching this online but struggle to define it) [Further comments on the page made it clear that the original poster was not referring to the term 'onomatopoeia.']
You're actually talking about a surprisingly dense wing of grammar academics, a subject that wasn't even considered worthy of discussion until the 1930s, and currently has no “easy words” to express the idea, since most of the people talking about the subject these days are professors writing academic papers. Check out the following related Wikipedia pages for more, and various ideas of how you might express this as a simple adjective:
Phonestheme: The unproven theory that there exists a type of word that is partly an onomatopoeia, and partly a formally structured piece of grammar. For example, the letters “sl” start a whole lot of words that mean frictionless motion — slide, slick, sleek, slobber, slug, slur, etc. With this you might say that the word you want to describe is “a phonesthemic word.”
Reduplication: When a word is repeated but just a little differently the second time, often to invoke a physical feeling — hanky-panky, hocus-pocus, razzle-dazzle, boogie-woogie. With this you might say that the word you want to describe is “a reduplicated word.”
Iconism: When a set of words that mean a similar physical activity all vaguely sound alike, thus making you think of the activity based just on the sounds of the words alone — stamp, stomp, tamp, tramp, tromp, step. With this you might say that the word you want to describe is “an iconistic word.”
Phonaesthetics: The academic study of words that for some undefinable reason evoke an emotional response in many humans just from their sound alone, even though they logically shouldn't. Wikipedia mentions positive examples like glitter and flutter, and negative examples like sleazy and slug. With this you might say that the word you want to describe is “a phonaesthetic word.”
I hope you find this as interesting as I did when I was researching it tonight!
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