29

Certain words you hear in English are only ever heard in a single context. For example, skirl is used to describe the sound a bagpipe makes. Etymonline generously says the word is "rarely" heard outside that context, but I can't recall ever hearing it used for anything else. I imagine one could use it figuratively to describe another godawful high-pitched screech (sorry, bagpipe lovers), but there's no other bona fide usage for it.

What I want to know is stated in the title of the question: Is there a term for these one-off words? I'm sure there must be, but I can't think of what it might be.

Edit: Judging from some of the head-scratching comments I've received, there seems to be some confusion. Perhaps I did not make my meaning clear. I'm not looking for a word to describe the single instance of skirl. I'm asking about a class of words like skirl. I know there exist other examples of words that are only ever used in one context, but I can't think of any others at the moment.

  • 1
    @Arjun J Rao: If you're curious about that, perhaps you could ask it as an independent question. – Robusto Jan 30 '11 at 2:27
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    Additionally... Oi! Don't diss the bagpipes! :-p – Orbling Jan 30 '11 at 2:53
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    Such a word would be so specific and limited in its use that it would be able to be used to describe itself. – Kosmonaut Jan 30 '11 at 3:15
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    @Arjun & Kosmonaut: We have the term 'onomatopoeia' to describe a small subset of words, why shouldn't there be a similar word to describe the subset that Robusto described? – oosterwal Jan 30 '11 at 3:27
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    @oosterwal: I hate to be a pedant—okay, I don't—but the correct form would be mononym then. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 30 '11 at 5:24
30

It's a "stormy petrel." The idea, as described on the linked page, is that (for example) you never (or, at least, rarely) find a petrel that's not stormy. Similarly, "all shrift is short," and lots of other examples. One of the ones there is in fact "every skirl is of bagpipes."

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    Bravo! Great link, too. – Robusto Jan 30 '11 at 12:34
  • +1 However, note that now even the stormy petrel is not actually necessarily stormy anymore which implies that it is not even a stormy petrel anymore, since it can have, at least, two meanings (one is a bird and another a class of words). Similarly, for every instance of the other petrels I bet you will find a poem and a poet that used it without its storm, letting it imply its literal or metaphorical sense. – Unreason May 18 '11 at 9:15
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    Nice idea, but stormy petrel is a really bad term for it, since petrel is the name of a family of birds, including the black-capped petrel (www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3911), the snow petrel, and several others – Tim Lymington supports Monica Dec 12 '11 at 11:36
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    @TimLymington: yeah, the author of that page mentions that "there is such a thing as a petrel which isn't stormy, but the term was a catchy one so it stuck." – Alex Dec 12 '11 at 16:29
  • Let me see -- "stormy petrel" is a word? Am I missing something here? I mean, if phrases are to be candidates, there sure must be any number of them. – Kris Sep 18 '12 at 11:27
13

Closely related are fossil words, which have no meaning outside of a certain set phrase. "Bated" survives only in "bated breath", for example.

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    Accessible via docstoc.com/docs/123195596/… , Section 5.1.3 lists cranberry collocations which include either a fossil word, or a loan word not used otherwise in English, together with other word/s. One group of cranberry collocations "contains lexemes which are unique to the FEI [fixed expression/s and/including idiom/s] but homographic with other independent items", such as to boot (boot only occurs with this sense in this expression). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 17 '12 at 9:00
  • Hamlet thought he was dueling Laertes with bated points, but only his was ... – Robusto Dec 14 '16 at 1:32
12

There are several terms for closely related concepts:

  • A nonce word is a word that somebody made up for a localized purpose. Apart from fossilized words, those nonce words that caught on are probably the major part of this group.

  • A cranberry morpheme is a morpheme that has no meaning on its own, and exists only as part of one or a small number of words. (It's named after the "cran" of "cranberry".) A fossil word is similarly a word that is used only in a small number of phrases (but whose state is specifically due to the original meaning's obsolescence).

  • A hapax legomenon (of a particular corpus) is a word that appears exactly once.

6

There is no clear word or term that conveys words that have a single meaning or are only used in a single context. The nearest match is the word unequivocal:

having only one possible meaning or interpretation.

3

In the first part of your question, you have asked if there is a term for words that have a single meaning. I think the answer is "monosemy" which refers to the fact of having only a single meaning.

According to Oxford Living Dictionaries it means:

The property of having only one meaning.

2

This conversation may have rather run its course a while ago... but a friend of mine (author Patrick Woodrow) and some of his friends had a game called 'Dependencies' which was about identifying exactly these kinds of words. We've added to the list periodically over the years - it includes words such as 'shrift', mentioned above - as well as others like 'spick', 'champing', 'abetted', 'kibosh', 'betide', 'madding' etc. No doubt a number of these would fall under the fossil words referred to above too. Best wishes, Ed

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    Thirty white horses on a red hill. First they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still. – MetaEd Aug 30 '13 at 3:44
  • Yeah, I read The Hobbit too. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 30 '13 at 5:45
-3

By analogy with prime numbers, this subset of words could be called "prime words", for they can only be described by one of them and its own definition. It would be a neat connection between words and numbers.

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