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Four words that seem to be mocking themselves

John Murray

Language has created many onomatopoeic words over the years, meaning ones that sound like the noise they describe. Examples might include the splashing of water, the quacking of a duck or the crackling of a dodgy phone line. It doesn’t take an etymologist to work out the origin of these words.

Other times though, the words used to describe things seem so implausible and ridiculous, you would wonder what sort of brain could possibly  come up with them. Here are four words that seem to be less about describing, and more about lampooning:

1. Onomatopoeia

Let’s start with onomatopoeia itself, a word that many a wisecracker has quipped “sounds nothing like what it describes”.

You could reply by questioning what “the use of words resembling the sounds they describe” does sound like. It’s a hard question to answer, but it probably wouldn’t be a six-syllable word containing eight vowels and four consonants.

The unusual word comes from the Greek for “name I make”, and certainly has made a name for itself. It’s a word most people have heard even if they don’t know what it means.

2. Lisp

This seems a very cruel one.

A ‘lisp’ is a speech impediment that means a person has difficulty producing sibilant sounds, meaning ones made by passing air through the teeth. These include the ‘z’ in ‘zebra’, the ‘sh’ in ‘sheep’ and the ‘j’ in ‘jug’. Most notable though is the ‘s’ in… well… ‘lisp’.

It’s a very old word, going back to the Middle English ‘wlispen’, but whoever coined it was clearly not very sympathetic towards those inflicted with lisps.

3. Dyslexia

Similarly to lisps, people with difficulty spelling could have been given an easier task than writing the learning difficulty that affects them.

Having said that, dyslexia is an often misunderstood condition and isn’t simply an inability to spell words. Indeed, many dyslexic people are very quick readers who are able to take in information by skim reading.

4. Sesquipedalia

This has got to be my favourite! ‘Sesquipedalia’ is, believe it or not, a name for very long words.

So next time you hear somebody using long-winded phrases and a specialist vocabulary, be sure to tell them that they have a ‘sesquipedalian’ style of speech. Extra points for keeping a straight face while you do it!

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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