As onomatopoeia means words that sound like what they mean, is there a word which means words that sound contrary to what they mean? Pulchritude is an example of such a word.

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    I suppose they'd be a subset of heterological words, that is words that are the opposite to what they describe. I don't know of a term specifically relating to sound though. There's also a greater degree of subjective opinion in saying "pulchritude is ugly" than in saying "bang sounds like a bang".
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:05
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    While some may find it hard to believe that "pulchritude" could mean anything beautiful, the sound of a word is really in the ear of the beholder. I read a study a while back that polled people on which English word sounded most beautiful and "diarrhea" came in first. If you didn't know what it meant, I guess you could say that the word "sounds" pleasant - but I don't know what you could possibly call that phenomena. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:30
  • @Kristina, since I have read a study affirming that "money" is the most beautiful word, could you tell me where on the earth you have read that claim?
    – user19148
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:51
  • @Carlo_R., I believe I read it in a newspaper many years ago. I cannot come up with that precise study but there are so many references to "a study" where diarrhea was voted the most beautiful word, I became suspicious and Snoped it. It was not debunked in Snopes so alas, the source is unknown to me. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 19:13
  • "Money is the most beautiful word" almost certainly does not refer to its beauty as a sound in isolation from considering its meaning. I'd hazard (entirely an opinion) that words such as Nefertiti or Hiawatha * would be gentler on the ear and so "more beautiful" and that words such as Phalanx, Ajax, VAX, ... which use the classic "power" letters (A, J, X ?) would be more striking. * Both are non-English in primary use so perhaps heard differently to "usual" words. ... -> Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 2:02

3 Answers 3


You're shifting the definition here. "Onomatopoeia" means creating words that sound like the thing or the action that they describe. To the best of my knowledge, this is only used in the literal sense, e.g. we talk about the "buzzing" of a bee to describe a sound that at least resembles the sound "buzz". But in the example you give, you're talking about a subjective evaluation of the idea that a sound brings to your mind. That is, I have never heard anyone say that, for example, "philosophy" is a case of onomatopoeia because the word "philosophy" sounds long and impressive and has a tone that brings deep thought to his mind. That's just not what onomatopoeia means.

The vast majority of words in English are not onomatopoeic. The word "zebra" sounds nothing like the sound made by a zebra; the phrase "internal combusion engine" sounds nothing like the sound made by such an engine; the word "surprise" sounds nothing like the noises made by people who are surprised; etc etc. I guess you could call such words "non-onomatopoeic", I don't know of any specific word. I'm not exactly sure what an "opposite" sound would be. Perhaps you could say that "boss" is a very soft word for creatures who can often be shrill, or that "politician" sounds rather stacato and active for creatures whose talk is usually pretty dull and monotonous. :-)

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    That's correct. Onomatopoiea is restricted to words that describe sounds, like ping, buzz, ululate or meow. There is, however, a term for the relation between a word's sound and its meaning, which is Phonosemantics. Pulchritude is a formal word, based on a Latin word, and it doesn't have much in the way of phonosemantics about it; that's mostly restricted to short words like the KL-words. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:28
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    @GreenAsJade As I said above, "onomatopoeia" refers to words for a sound that sound like that sound, like "buzz" for the sound of a bee, or to words for animals or objects where the word sounds like a sound made by that thing, like "cuckoo" as a name for a type of bird. Only a very tiny number of such words exist in English. This is not at all the same as saying that a word "sounds pretty" or "sounds ugly". We could debate how closely "moo" really resembles the sound a cow makes, but it is clearly at least generally in the right direction. But if I say that the word "aardvark" ...
    – Jay
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 13:34
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    ... sounds beautiful to me, on what basis would you say I'm right or wrong? That's a totally subjective evaluation. Or to put it another way, pulchritude -- not the word, but the thing itself -- does not have a sound. I can make recordings of cows mooing and of people saying the word "moo" and compare them. I cannot make recordings of pulchritude to compare to people saying the word "pulchritude". The idea of your subjective opinion that the word pulchritude does not sound pretty has nothing to do with onomatopoeia. That's not to say that you can't discuss the idea, but whatever that idea ...
    – Jay
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 13:39
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    ... is, it is not onomatopoeia. Like if I someone said that the fact that birds can fly is an example of rocketry, I would say no, it's not. I am not denying that birds fly, I am saying that their flight is not rocketry.
    – Jay
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 13:41
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    Where words that sound/seem the opposite of what they mean are concerned "nonplussed" has always been my favorite. One would think it means "not unduly disturbed" when in fact it means "surprised and confused".
    – Misneac
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 17:41

Although your examples were not the right ones, according to your description, you are probably talking about one of the following:

  1. Phantonym: An informal term for a word that looks as if it means one thing but actually means quite another. For example, unisex.


  2. Antagonym: word that can mean the opposite of itself. Antagonym are also known as contranyms or autoantonyms. For example, "To overlook" can mean "to inspect" or "to fail to notice."



According to Wikipedia:

"A phantonym is a word that sounds to mean one thing, but in fact means another."

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