What’s the word for a word that sends you to the dictionary?


Sanguine. Bathos. Calming. You know these words, but do you really know them? Just like the timid and the palimpsest. Clear and elongated. Bucolic and sequestration. Welcome to the slippery realm of lapsonyms, those words that require a trip in the dictionary.

What do you call a word that sends you to the dictionary?Credit:Bonnie Sauvage

And not your first check either. Since this is the problem with the lapsonyms; their definitions fail to capture no matter how often you try. Kathryn Schulz, writer of New Yorker, coined the word in 2015, a neologism that has suitably escaped the mainstream traction.

The lapsonym of Schulz was insignificant, synonymous with jejune – mine black beast. More elegant than Teflon, jejune never seems to stick, which is only suitable for a word meaning “lacking in interest or meaning, ie insignificant”. Maybe that’s how I will remember the two words now.

Forgiving is another blind spot, due to the somersaults the verb has to perform in those doorstops that MPs give. You know the scenario. There’s the finance minister in front of the media, saying they don’t approve of the behavior of fund managers, and you wonder if this remark is a rebuke or a defense.

William Safire, another talkative New Yorker, believed that the widespread abuse of apologies only fueled the problem. Most people assume that to tolerate means to approve, as opposed to forgiveness, its true definition. The point is, you can put up with Harry for slapping that crybaby Hugo in Slap her, which is not the same as supporting its action. There is a difference.

To confuse the issue, forgive is often phrased in the negative, like our example of a doorstop, the verb forced to obey one’s shadow. We end up wondering if the minister forgives but does not approve. Or disapproving, but forgiving. Or neither. I’ll have to watch it again.

Aver is another common name, according to my recent Twitter poll. The word means to affirm with confidence, although it lacks a letter of hesitation. This accidental kinship may well epitomize the source of the confusion, just as a word for pardon (excuse) is a pairing of two versions of the scam: con and done. Or edgy, synonymous with sap, is often biased to mean animated because of its semi-energetic openness.

Technical terms are distinguished from general lapsonyms. No one expects you to discover the nuances of syzygy or blockchain whenever such ideas are discussed. Of course, we know the terms. We see them as a silhouette, if not their grainy detail. We know their lockers. But if you need to consult a dictionary, looking for a clearer meaning, it is only for lack of specialized training. Or short my excuse anyway.

Compare that with improve or sinecure, lambent or eponymous: words you come across in books and articles, crosswords and captions. Words you should know because you’ve checked their meanings a dozen times before, but they still laugh, frolicking past your memory bank.

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