Weird Wordplay: Things That Make You Go “Hmm”

By Bill Henk — According to Webster’s dictionary, there’s no such thing as a hmmonym.  But I beg to differ. Hmmonyms most definitely exist  in language, and I can prove it. Just keep reading.

In fairness, dictionary companies don’t yet  acknowledge the term, probably because I  just now made it up.  This is a literary tactic we bloggers sometimes use for dramatic effect called blatant dishonesty.

(Note to Readers:  The closest you’ll get to even the root word “Hmm” in the dictionary would be HMO, Hmong, and H.M.S.).

So, What is a Hmmonym anyway?

Actually some of the word play I’ll share here derives from the real terms “auto-antonyms” and “contronyms” (which are synonyms of each other by the way).  Both refer to the same word carrying different meanings that are completely or nearly opposite.  So you know, another inventive and dishonest guy out there in cyberspace made up his own word for this relationship — “antagonyms” — which strikes me as being pretty clever.

In my linguistic world, though, a hmmonym can also be broader in scope.  I define the term as word and concept relationships, expressed in the form of a question, that seem to be either backwardironic, contradictory, or counter-intuitive enough to compel individuals to think, “Hmm.”

Although the definition might seem fuzzy, there is no mistaking a hmmonym when you encounter one.  It may take a while to recognize the misdirection,  irony, contradiction, or seeming illogic, but the insight will almost always impress you.   The element of surprise makes hmmonyms interesting and enjoyable as wordplay.  The bottom line is that I think teachers and students can have some fun with hmmonyms — finding new ones or creating ones of their own — so I decided blogging about them was fair game for our education blog.

Putting an End to the Suspense

Since there’s nothing quite like examples to illustrate meaning, I won’t keep you dangling any longer.    Here’s a list of Hmmonyms I’ve cobbled together primarily by drawing from the wisdom of others including some comedians like Steven Wright and George Carlin as well as various websites:

  • Why do the phrases  “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
  • Why call them “tug” boats if they push their loads?
  • Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?
  • Why are spectators put in “stands” when the structures are made for sitting?
  • Doesn’t “expecting the unexpected” make the unexpected expected?
  • How is it that a “wise man” and a “wise guy” are nearly opposite?
  • Why does “slow down” and “slow up” mean the same thing?
  • Why do “overlook” and “oversee” carry completely different meanings?
  • Why do we put suits in garment bags and garments in a suitcase?
  • Why is the third hand on a watch or clock called the second hand?

  • Shouldn’t “abbreviated” be a short word?
  • Is it a good thing or a bad thing to receive a citation?
  • Why wash bath towels if we’re clean when we use them?
  • Why do they call it a “TV set” when you only have one?
  • Why does adding the prefix “in” to “valuable” make a word that means priceless instead of worthless?
  • How can something taste awfully good?
  • If you’re the last one left, aren’t you the only one who hasn’t left?
  • When you clip paper, are you putting it together or taking it apart?
  • Would you think it’s hysterical if you became hysterical?
  • When you say you could care less, aren’t you really saying “you could NOT care less?”
  • How did “all downhill from here,” which originally meant slipping in quality, come to mean a good thing?
  • When you’re going for curls in your hair, aren’t you really getting a “temp” and not a “perm?”
  • How young can you be and still be considered as dying of old age?
  • When is a room not at room temperature?
  • How tall can you be and still be short?
  • How wide can something be, yet be narrow?
  • What hair color do they put on the driver’s licenses of bald men?
  • How is it possible to have a “civil” war?
  • Why is it that night falls, but day breaks?
  • What’s another word for thesaurus?

Hope you enjoyed this wordplay, faithful readers.  Truth be told, just a few of the examples are original.  I can only take credit for the new term ‘hmmonym” and doing a little revising.   But I will say that these are fun to try to think up, and invite you to try.  So, if you can think of any more hmmonyms, please share them.  

Who knows?  Maybe one day they’ll take a rightful place among synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms.

In the meantime, it’s time for me to wind up.  Or is it wind down?

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