I remember learning a specific name for words whose meaning depends on the time or location of their use, but as this was when I was in middle school (about 10 years ago), I can't remember what exactly that name is.

My teacher gave the example of here, which means "Chicago" when spoken by a person in Chicago, "Egypt" when spoken by a person in Egypt, etc. There are also time equivalents, such as now (the meaning of which is constantly changing), soon, today, yesterday, and tomorrow. As I'm writing this, today refers to April 14, 2015; yesterday refers to April 13, 2015; and tomorrow refers to April 15, 2015. However, on any other date, those words would mean different things.

I thought that these might be called relative words since their meaning is relative to the circumstances of their use, but when I searched for that phrase, it seems to have a much broader meaning, referring to any "word that does not have an exact definition." This could be words like big, small, short, tall, dumb, smart, etc.—You are tall compared to a mouse, but you are not tall compared to an elephant.

I remember that the word I learned was specific to words whose meaning altered according to place and time, so I'm looking for something more specific than relative word.

  • 1
    This random Yahoo! answer gives the answer "Temporal". I'm not sure if that's the word, but seems to fit the examples you've given.
    – VampDuc
    Apr 14, 2015 at 16:56
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    They're deictic. See 'This month' vs 'next month'. Apr 14, 2015 at 16:57
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    @Edwin: I can usually remember what deitic means when I see it in context, but I couldn't reliably pull it out of the hat if asked to "name that word". I think this is a good question - well presented, with what I would call a definitive answer. And I'm not sure it would be entirely kosher to closevote against John's answer in your link, since deitic only arises incidentally, and that question is closed anyway. So I think you should post an answer we can upvote instead of the comment. Apr 14, 2015 at 17:39
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    I feel, based on all answers & comments, "Relative" is too restricted, "Contextual" is too wide, while "Deictic" is the exact fit. The noun form is "Deixis". So @EdwinAshworth should add his comment as an answer.
    – Prem
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:03
  • I've had time to check for duplicates now. Apr 14, 2015 at 18:12

2 Answers 2


The more specific term is deixis (the phenomenon) and such words are deictic.

From Wikipedia:

In linguistics, deixis refers to words and phrases that cannot be fully understood without additional contextual information. Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is fixed but their denotational meaning varies depending on time and/or place. Words or phrases that require contextual information to convey any meaning – for example, English pronouns – are deictic....

This has been mentioned here before, and there have been discussions about problems in labelling say distal locative situations ("Is this Jill speaking?"). And John Lawler's answer to 'What part of speech does “here” have in “I am here”?' is priceless and worth repeating:

... you're not playing with a full deck, if you take your definitions of "part of speech" from English books. They're hopeless; pay no attention to them.

Here is a proximal deictic locative predicate in the sentence - I am here.

It does not modify the verb am.

It does not modify anything, in fact.

(Be) here is the Predicate in the sentence.

The logical form is - HERE (I)

The am is indeed an auxiliary verb, meaning, like the Spanish auxiliary estar, 'be located (at)'.

Executive Summary: Calling something an "adverb" is a confession of ignorance.

  • Yes, that's exactly it!
    – Nicole
    Apr 14, 2015 at 19:48
  • I have this guilty feeling that John didn't get this many upvotes for the answer I've merely quoted. But then imitation ... Apr 14, 2015 at 22:08
  • Keep in mind you're being upvoted for the quote and your description of deixis.
    – Nicole
    Apr 15, 2015 at 13:34

I would call them contextual.

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