Self-referring words and paradoxes


One of the wonders of language is the fact that some words do not only describe an object or a situation, but in certain cases, also say something about themselves. These are known as “self-referring” words or sentences. Among others, we can identify the words “term”, “noun” and “word” itself as self-referring words.

But if we go a step further, we discover that there are words that not only describe themselves, but also contain a paradox in the way they are constituted. That is, they are words that carry a logical contradiction or raise an idea that contradicts the meaning of the word itself. Since giving it a lot of theoretical thought can give us a headache, we have compiled our favourite examples in this article. Can you think of any other examples?

1. Polysyllabic
This one was easy. It is a word with more than 3 syllables, which means words of more than three syllables (and yes, po-ly-sy-lla-bic has 5!).

2. Proparoxytone
It is a linguistic term for a word with a stress on the antepenultimate or third-to-last syllable. By the way… It is pronounced pro-par-OX-y-tone.

3. Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia
The fear of long words, which, ironically, is so ridiculously long that even people without hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia may get overwhelmed by it.

This word is comprised of words meaning large and monstrous: “Hippopoto” refers to “something very large”, “monstro” stands for something that is huge or terrifying and “sesquippedalio” is derived from the Latin word “sesquippedali” meaning “measuring a foot and a half long”.

4. Aibohphobia
This one is also part of the group of fictional and humorous phobias, and it is described as the fear of palindromes (words that are spelled the same both forward and backward). Now try to read Aibohphobia forward and backward and… Yes! It just happens to be a palindrome!

5. Semordnilap
And, speaking of palindromes, take a look of the word “Semordnilap”. Its meaning is the following: words that, read backwards, make sense but have a different meaning from the original. But if you pay attention to the word, it is just “palindromes” spelled backwards. Which means that semordnilap is itself a semordnilap.

5. RAS Syndrome
RAS Syndrome describes the phenomena of repeating the last word in an acronym, such as ATM Machine (Automated Teller Machine Machine) or PIN Number (Personal Identification Number Number).
The name itself is indicative of the problem: “Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome” is not something anyone would say out loud. Yet acronyms are often misused this way!


Written by Marta Guillén Martínez – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She holds a Degree in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Alicante, Spain and she did her European Voluntary Service on communication and european youth mobility in Milan, Italy. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian.