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40 Words About Words: How Many Do You Know?

With an MFA in fiction writing and 20+ years of college teaching, I am an authority on English composition, literature, and online learning.

Words about words

Words about words

Why Words?

Encompassing possibly as many as one million words, the English language is the largest known language. English contains so many words that some are part of our metalanguage- or words about the written word. My readers are the smartest on the planet, but how many of these words do you know?

What’s Metalanguage?

The Free Dictionary defines metalanguage as “a language or vocabulary used to describe or analyze language.” So, in any situation involving language or thinking, the words about words listed here are some of the most important words to know.

Greater Utility Through Subtle Variation

One of the ways English became the biggest and best language is through outright word and phrase theft. English is the most thieving language around. In its long-living history (language is alive because it moves, changes, and grows with us), English users have never hesitated to commandeer any handy word found, eventually subsuming so many foreign words and phrases that we hardly speak pure English at all now, if we ever did.

Just think about how many words and phrases you know that simply do not come from English. Notably, during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, so many French words superseded the Old English ones that our spoken language literally began to sound different, losing some of its guttural, Germanic sounds and replacing it with softer French sounds. That's a lot of replacing.


Set a timer and write for 10 minutes listing all words and phrases about words that you can recall. We pardon your spelling in advance.

Why Do We Care?

Some theorists believe that we English language speakers think smarter and bigger because we possess such a nuanced and varied language. Many of our words have an entire idea attached to them. Many ideas, some posit, equate to more intelligence and better ideas.

And how about our synonyms? You may have found yourself vexed by the many English words that express nearly the same idea but with small differences. English not only has several words that express roughly the same idea, but more importantly, each of those words carries its own subtle shade of the meaning.

For instance, let’s examine the word “hobo,” which often means “one who wanders from place to place without a permanent home or a means of livelihood” (

Hobo has sister words, or synonyms, such as bum, vagrant, migrant worker, dosser, vagabond, drifter, wanderer and floater. All these words possess distinct meanings of their own, of course, but may also be used as a substitute for one another. Imagine how much easier, smoother, and more nuanced this makes our spoken words.

Words About Words

  1. Acronym: a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term. Dithyramb: a usually short poem in an inspired wild irregular strain.
  2. Adumbrate: to foreshadow vaguely: intimate, hint at.
  3. Aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage.
  4. Apothegm: a terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim.
  5. Ambage: a style that involves indirect ways of expressing things.
  6. Amanuensis: one employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript.
  7. Annunciation: a formal public statement.
  8. Argy-bargy: A lively or disputatious discussion.
  9. Diatribe: a bitter, abusive denunciation.
  10. Dithyramb: a wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing.
  11. Drollery: a quaint and amusing jest.
  12. Ethos: the disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement. Later used by Aristotle to develop the idea of the ethical appeal in argument.
  13. Escritoire: a writing table; a desk.
  14. Euphemism: a mild, indirect, or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive:
  15. Farcical: broadly or extravagantly humorous; resembling farce.
  16. Gadzookery: (British) the use of archaisms (as in a historical novel).
  17. Hamartia: a tragic flaw leading to downfall.
  18. Hyperbole: extravagant exaggeration.
  19. Ineffable: incapable of being expressed.
  20. Kafkaesque: of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality
  21. Laconic: using or involving the use of a minimum of words: concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious.
  22. Logomachy: a dispute over or about words.
  23. Logos: among the Sophists, the topics of rational argument or the arguments themselves were called logos. Later, Aristotle used the idea to develop the logical appeal which uses claim and support, observation and conclusion, as well as the logical acts of inference, proof and reasoning.
  24. Luculent: clear in thought or expression.
  25. Meme: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.
  26. Mince: to moderate or restrain (words) for the sake of politeness and decorum, euphemize.
  27. Neologism: A new word, expression, or usage.
  28. Offprint: a reproduction of or an excerpt from an article that was originally contained in a larger publication.
  29. Pathos: a quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow. Also later used by Aristotle to devise the emotional appeal in argument.
  30. Pasquinade: a satire or lampoon, especially one that ridicules a specific person, traditionally written and posted in a public place.
  31. Periphrasis: a style that involves indirect ways of expressing things.
  32. Plagiary: one who plagiarizes words.
  33. Postulate: demand, claim.
  34. Prosody: the study of the metrical structure of verse.
  35. Rebus: a representation of syllables or words by means of pictures or symbols; also: a riddle made up of such pictures or symbols.
  36. Riddle: a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed.
  37. Ruralism: a rural idiom or expression.
  38. Sarcasm: a cutting, often ironic remark intended to express contempt or ridicule.
  39. Sophistry: A plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.
  40. Ultima: is the last syllable of a word.

Practice In Two Weeks

Set another timer for 15 minutes and try to write down all of the words featured in this article. Then go ahead and fill in as many of the definitions as you remember. This kind of homework is called spaced practice and is one of the most effective study methods.

Please Note

We know our tribe, so we know that the kind of folks who could recognize all the slack in this article's word categorization schema are the same kind of folks who are reading this now. We did have some fun, here, admittedly. But our stance is that if a word, strictly speaking, refers to, say, literature rather than linguistics, we still believe it fits under our words about words umbrella.

Beloved Reader, if you disagree, write us an informative, sportsmanlike comment explaining your opinion, and we will be most obliged to you. If you agree with our categorization schema, then add a word or two you think would fit into our article in the comments section, and we will appreciate that, too.

As always, we have enjoyed writing to you.

Works Consulted

Albert C. Baugh, Cable, Thomas. A History of the English Language. London: Routledge, 2017. Print. 15 September 2017. Web site. 15 September 2017.

Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2017. Print. 15 September 2017. Website. 15 September 2017.

Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1999. Print. 6 september 2017. Website. 6 september 2017.

Webster's New World Dictionary. New York: Warner, 2016. Print. 15 September 2017. Website. 15 September 2017.


Richard Green (author) from New Mexico on October 01, 2017:

Thank you, Flourish, for the new word, epistrophe. I didn't know it, but I do it in my writing. I am glad you only knew 19 of the words because I was worried that my words might be too common. I will add epistrope to my ongoing list. Thanks!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 30, 2017:

Epistrophe is an interesting one to me. It refers to the purposeful repetition of a word in a sentence such as Abraham Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, and for the people." I knew only 19 of the list of 40.