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When I was a child, pretty much every children's magazine I subscribed to used to publish those little word-chain games where you had to get from one word to another — often an antonym — by replacing one letter at a time. To simplify (or complicate) things a little, you were allowed to take only a certain number of steps. So, for example, you had to build a word chain from "cold" to "warm":

c o l d
_ _ _ _
_ _ _ _
_ _ _ _
w a r m

and one possible solution would be:

c o l d
c o r d
w o r d
w a r d
w a r m

Now, I have two questions:

  • What is the English term for a word that differs from another word by just a single letter, the length of both words being the same?
  • What is the term for such a word if the length doesn't matter? (Say, "band"-"brand", or "warm"-"war".)

In Russian, the answer to the first question is "метаграмма", which I would translate, or rather transliterate, as "metagramm(e)" (obviously, of Greek origin). However, searching Wikipedia — or, in fact, the entire Web — for the term "metagramm(e)" doesn't seem to return any meaningful results.

As to the second question, I can't answer it in any language I am familiar with.

Can anyone offer any hints?

share|improve this question
The games are called Word Golf and Word Ladder, respectively, but I don't know if the terms you are asking for exist in English. – mmyers Aug 19 '10 at 19:02
@mmyers: I think Word golf is the right answer; you should write it as an answer. – kiamlaluno Aug 19 '10 at 19:06
Related concepts from information theory are the Hamming and Damerau-Levenshtein distances. Orthographic neighbors have a Hamming distance of 1. – outis Jul 31 '13 at 17:31
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I was able to find the answer myself, thanks to help from Chris.

The answer to the first question is "orthographic neighbor", introduced by Coltheart, Davelaar, Jonasson and Besner in 1977, or "substitution neighbor" in more recent research. The answer to the second question is "addition/deletion neighbor".

Googling for these terms returns hundreds of relevant results, mostly papers such as:

Some great reading there.

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For your first question: You could use the term "minimal pair".

As the wikipedia article on this term correctly states, its main use is in phonology. Nevertheless, since the underlying principle is the same, it should be okay to use for written words, too. I have also seen it put to use for whole sentences, where the difference is "a word at some position".

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I'd rather one didn't use minimal pair to describe such a pair of words. That phase is happily understood by many in the realm of phonetics to have a specific and useful meaning. (ie word pairs that differ by 1 sound) – Chris Aug 20 '10 at 8:05
Agree with Chris that 'minimal pair' may not be the best term here. Look at the words "cold" and "cord"-they differ only in one letter but two sounds: the vowel sounds also! – Manjima Aug 20 '10 at 8:48
In the realm of phonetics, "cold" and "cord" are not minimal pairs. This would be more obvious if you were writing in IPA. The way that I pronounce "cold" in fact only has three letters! – Icode4food Aug 22 '10 at 1:05

I've see pairs of words that differ by 1 letter referred to as a word chain. A technical term for them seems to be orthographic pairs.

share|improve this answer
+1, almost there, though searching for "orthographic pair" returns ambiguous results. Many researchers use it to refer to different spellings of the same word, such as "paglia/palia" and "genio/gegno" in Italian, "アヴォガド ロ数" vs "アボガド ロ数" in Japanese. Others do use it to refer to different words with similar spelling, providing examples such as "мер/мэр" in Russian or "nervous/nerdous" in English. – RegDwigнt Aug 20 '10 at 11:10
I found it. The term is "orthographic neighbor", introduced by Coltheart, Davelaar, Jonasson, and Besner in 1977, or the more precise "substitution neighbor" in recent research. The answer to my second question is "addition/deletion neighbor". See e.g. here or here. Since I was only able to find that out by evaluating your suggestion "orthographic pair", it appears to me that the right thing to do would be to edit your answer accordingly rather than post an answer of my own. – RegDwigнt Aug 20 '10 at 11:17
@RegDwight: could you post that as an answer? Alternatively could Chris edit his answer? – delete Aug 21 '10 at 4:25
@RegDwight Feel free to post the answer you found. – Chris Aug 21 '10 at 15:38
Done. Thanks again. – RegDwigнt Aug 21 '10 at 19:01

Lewis Carroll apparently originated the word ladders game and called it "doublets."

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Sadly, that term means something completely different nowadays, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublet_(linguistics)#Examples_in_English – RegDwigнt Aug 21 '10 at 9:17
Well, it meant something different before his time, too. I think it's not a very good name for this; word ladders is much better. – moioci Aug 21 '10 at 14:56
It's similar to riddle popular in Poland, in which 2 words in short poem are missing, and you know only how many letters do they have and that they differ by just one letter. It's called Metagram. I'm suprised, there's no such word in English. – Danubian Sailor Jan 22 '14 at 9:44

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