Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There are a few words that can possess an oxymoronic or paradoxical meaning that tend to defeat the entire purpose of the word. The most obvious example:

This sentence is indescribable.

Specifically, words such as "indescribable." The paradox is that the description of something as "indescribable" means it now the opposite of "indescribable" but I am not interested in the paradox itself. I want to know what to call the word "indescribable" in the sense that word defeats its own purpose. By using the word it becomes inaccurate. Other examples seem hard to find, but this is close:

(spoken) How quiet!

In this case, "quiet" also makes itself suddenly inaccurate. The paradoxical nature is again obvious but what I am trying to find would be more akin to "self-referential meaninglessness" or "a word that makes itself inaccurate."

share|improve this question
    
Have you ever read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid? I loaned my copy out so I can't look it up, but he got into a discussion of a very similar concept...in his case he was trying to illustrate self-reference as part of artificial intelligence. If I recall correctly, he wound up making up his own words for the idea. –  JeffSahol May 3 '11 at 4:31
    
@Jeff: I am part way through GEB. Strangely, the question I really wanted to ask is probably much closer to the loops in GEB than what could be found in English. But those would be more relevant for Linguistics, not English. –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 12:54

6 Answers 6

Paradox is actually the word you want, though specifically a logical paradox.

From the article:

  1. Self reference – An example is "This statement is false", a form of the Liar paradox. The statement is referring to itself. Another example of self reference is the question of whether the barber shaves himself in the Barber paradox. One more example would be "Is the answer to this question no?" In this case, if you replied no, you would be stating that the answer is not no. If you reply yes, you are stating that it is no, because you said yes. But because you answered yes the answer is not no. However you could reply "It isn't." indicating a negative response without saying the word "no".
  2. Contradiction – "This statement is false"—the statement cannot be false and true at the same time.
  3. Vicious circularity or infinite regress – "This statement is false"—if the statement is true, then the statement is false, thereby making the statement true. Another example of vicious circularity is the following group of statements:

    "The following sentence is true."
    "The previous sentence is false."
    

You really can't get much more accurate than the actual definition, paradoxical is probably the best word to use.

share|improve this answer
    
The self-reference part is similar but the point isn't quite the same. There isn't a problem in logic, here. The problem is purely in the meaning of the word. The sentences themselves could be seen as paradoxes but nothing about the word quiet implies paradox. The examples you have quoted here are nothing like the examples I used. Namely, yours involve logic; mine do not. Contradiction is probably much closer to what I was looking for. –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 12:49
    
@MrHen "This sentence is indescribable" does not seem any different than saying "This set is a set which cannot be described". A contradiction involves logic because it requires assigning degrees of truth to statements. –  Apprentice Queue Mar 26 '12 at 6:34
    
@ApprenticeQueue: The point of the question was to find a description that had nothing to do with a paradoxal truth claim. The issue at hard is a sense of alteration through description -- not an impossible or deceiving logic puzzle. It is similar but there is a distinction; I was looking for a term that described this distinction. If you know of one better than the checked answer please add it in an answer. –  MrHen Mar 30 '12 at 20:42

There's a makey-up word, heterological.

see http://www.segerman.org/autological.html

share|improve this answer
    
This isn't what "heterological" means. Poster asked about words whose meanings prevent the words' truthful use, not that simply don't describe themselves. "Monosyllabic" is not monosyllabic, but there's no contradiction in calling "meow" monosyllabic. –  Mechanical snail May 30 '12 at 10:17

maybe Contronyms or Antagonyms or Auto-antonyms?

Many words have several definitions, like bill. But in some cases those definitions are conflicting. With bill, for example, in one instance it refers to a debt and in another an asset. These are called auto-antonyms. (They are also called “contronyms,” “antagonyms,” “self-antonyms,” “self-contradicting words,” and “janus words.”)

share|improve this answer

If words could be hypocritical, I think indescribable would qualify.

share|improve this answer
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I found it:

contradict

  • deny the truth of (a statement), esp. by asserting the opposite

  • assert the opposite of a statement made by (someone)

self-contradiction

  • the act, state, or fact of contradicting oneself

So a word that defeats its own purpose or definition would be a self-contradicting word. The act of using such a word changes the situation to contradict its own definition.

share|improve this answer
    
Don't you think it's somewhat abusive to ask a question, answer the question, and then choose your own answer as the best? –  Apprentice Queue Mar 26 '12 at 6:39
2  
@ApprenticeQueue: No. The Stack Exchange network does not consider this abuse. I do not get reputation for doing so and, in this case, this was the answer I considered most correct. People had 24 hours to find a more suitable answer but did not. –  MrHen Mar 30 '12 at 20:35

Koan.

Another example:

nothing at all

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.