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The Top 10: Words That Describe Themselves

The A to Z of autological words, from awkward to zesty

John Rentoul
Saturday 27 August 2016 11:39 BST
Languid: Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-73
Languid: Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-73

I did Words That Are the Opposite of Their Meaning (such as monosyllabic, misspelled) a while ago, but this is slightly different. It started with Moose Allain, who commented: “‏When you write the word awkward you realise it suits its meaning.” Alex ‏asked which one: the adjective, uncomfortable, out of place; or the noun, a secure wing in Tolkien’s little discussed Middle-earth health service institutions?

1. Languid. Thanks to Lisa Markwell, for whom I shall peel a grape.

2. Spindly. Dylan Beattie asked if I ever think that plinth is a really plinthy sort of word. No, but I do think spindly, which he also nominated, is spindly.

3. Curt.

4. Intertwined. Suggested by Kirsty Major. It makes perfect sense to me. I also like meander.

5. Grandiloquent. Humbly put forward for the honour of inclusion in this compendium by Peter Russell.

6. Turgid. Nominated by Anthony Ingleton, who also suggested viscous.

7. Pentasyllabic. Neat, by Russell Smith.

8. Autological. Haggard Hawks Words reminds us that this means “words that describe themselves”.

9. ‏bed. Made by Mike Brown.

10. Cantankerous, sly, smooth, zesty. I’ll take them all, from Tom Freeman.

There is always one, and this week it is Martin Rosenbaum, who offers “non-self-descriptive”: “if it does describe itself, it doesn’t; but if it doesn’t, then it does...”

Finally, an honourable mention for Simon, who nominated abbrev, even though its not a real word.

Next week: Most Obscure Titles of Politicians’ Memoirs, such as Porridge and Passion by Jonathan Aitken

Coming soon: Invented Languages, such as Elvish, Klingon and Esperanto

Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top Tens, From Politics to Pop, is available as an e-book for £3.79. Your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, in the comments please, or to me on Twitter, or by email to

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