Call for information

I’m posting this in the hope that one or more of my Loyal Readers will be able to help me with a small difficulty. I’m looking for a word. More precisely, I’m looking to see if there is a word.

I want to find out whether there is a specific technical term for the kind of name whose literal meaning is the complete opposite of the thing it actually refers to. I don’t mean an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms, I mean things like these:

  • The Australian habit of calling redheads ‘Blue’.
  • The Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire observed, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
  • Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’, which produced nothing but lies.
  • ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ almost anywhere you find it, but especially as applied to the comic-opera régime of North Korea, an unconstitutional hereditary monarchy in which the people count for nothing.

I have a sort of vague intimation that there is a term for these kinds of names, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is. It may be Latin or Greek in origin, a whatsitation or thingumanym. (I may adopt thingumanym anyway, as a kind of meta-name for ‘some particular class of words that hasn’t got a name, but you know the ones I mean in this context’.)

So, what’s the proper word for these thingumanyms? Anyone? Bueller?


  1. A quick check discloses a surprising number of terms for words that have two different and directly contradictory meanings — see first paragraph of Wikipedia page on “auto-antonyms” — but I don’t see anything for the narrower sense you’re asking about here.

    Casting back to discussions of 1984 nomenclature, it’s also one of the many, many situations in which people use irony/ironic, but that’s even less useful.

  2. Or like “intellectual property”, which is neither? 😛

    Seriously, I have no idea. TVTropes has the Ironic Name trope. Beyond that, I don’t know.

  3. A Janus-word? Like ravel or cleave?

    Wikipedia has an article, along with some alternate names that aren’t so 4th wall breaking if you need it for The Grey Death.

  4. sheenyglass says

    Antiphrasis may be applicable, at least for the Australian example. I don’t know if it applies to the Ministry of Truth and the various Democratic Republics of Autocracy, as I think its use requires the audience understand that reality is the opposite of its literal meaning. By contrast those propagandistic euphemisms are intended to actively mislead.

    • Ah! We have a winner! Antiphrasis is just the word I wanted. When it’s done in the interest of telling outright lies, it probably wants a suitably disapproving adjective, but the noun will still do well enough. (In the case of the ‘Democratic Republics’, actions speak louder than words, so most of the audience does in fact understand. Those labels are taken seriously only by those for whom actions do not speak at all.)

      Thank you, sheenyglass!

      • sheenyglass says

        No probalo – a little poking around on wikipedia is the least I can do to repay you for your excellent essays! Your prose is really top notch. (btw the page on “figures of speech” has saved my butt many a time –

        “Those labels are taken seriously only by those for whom actions do not speak at all.”

        So true. Reminds me of Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, which, despite the seemingly tongue-in-cheek title, is actually a serious and worthwhile treatment of the issue.

        It was somewhat popular a few years ago, but in case you haven’t read it, the core argument basically that the liar cares about what is true and states the opposite, while the BS’er speaks without regard for whether their statements are true or not. So BS is a more pernicious habit than dishonesty because it erodes not just your ability to tell the truth, but your ability to even consider the truth.

        • Thank you!

          I’ve not only read ‘On Bullshit’, but bought Frankfurt’s book The Importance of What We Care About, which contains it. (The other essays in the book are not nearly as interesting, alas, except for the title piece.) It did much to inform my thinking about the Sarumans of this world – the people, as Gimli said, whose words stand on their heads. All too often, it’s because they can no longer tell which way is up.

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