Five “Word Words” Beginning with P

Like specialists in any field, linguists and lexicographers hoard their own lingo, though hardly under lock and key. In their prodigious pile of words, one pick of prominence is palindrome, which pushed me to peek at the parade of philological peculiarities in primers of linguistic terms.* Herewith definitions of palindrome and four other finds under P.


From the Greek palindromos (“running back again”), palindrome is the term for a word, phrase, sentence, or number that reads the same backwards and forward; see an example of each below. A tip: The easiest way to read a palindrome backwards is to write it down and then hold it up to a mirror.

  • Racecar
  • A man, a plan, a canal: Panama
  • Are we not drawn onward to new era?
  • 1991

It’s no wonder the palindrome has inspired legions of keen crossword puzzlers and word game aficionados to come up with their own palindromic creations – a painstaking but enjoyable challenge.


This is the word for a sentence using all 26 letters of the English alphabet. Anyone who ever took typing lessons in the old days could tell you the most common example is The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, which dates all the way back to the 1880s – a time when typewriters were considered newfangled.

Three more pangrams:

  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.
  • The public was amazed to view the quickness and dexterity of the juggler.
  • Grumpy wizards make toxic brew for the evil Queen and the Jack.

Ensuring that fingers will rapidly find their way to every letter on the keyboard isn’t a pangram’s sole use. Pangrams enable typographers and graphic designers to compare the letters in various typefaces, and designers press them into service as so-called dummy text when laying out pages. In case enquiring minds want to know, dummy text also is called dummy copy, replacement text, placeholder text, and greeking.


The palin (“back again”) of palindrome shows up again in palinode: a poem written for the purpose of retracting something the poet chose to say in a previous work. In the earliest known example, sixth-century BC poet Stesichorus trashed Helen of Sparta (known to history as Helen of Troy) for secretly aiding the entry of the Greek-built Trojan Horse into the walled city of Troy. His “I take it all back” poem, titled The Palinode and addressed directly to Helen, even severed her tie to Troy:

            The story is not true.
            You never sailed in the beached ships.
            You never went to Troy.

Stesichorus was only earliest poet to recant his words in an ode or sonnet or song. Chaucer did it, Shakespeare did it, and centuries later the American humorous poet Ogden Nash did it as a follow-up to his most quoted verse, the seven-word Reflections on Ice-Breaking:

            Is dandy
            But liquor
            Is quicker.

Nash made clear in his palinode that Reflections was in no way drawn from personal experience:

            Nothing makes me sicker
            Than liquor,
            And candy
            Is too expandy.


From the Greek palimpsestos ( “scraped again”), palimpsest (PAL-imp-SEST) was the name for parchment or any other writing surface used after earlier writing had been partially or completely erased; it was common practice in medieval days to use writing surfaces more than once, largely because paper was scarce and expensive. Modern science has brought some of these ancient writings to ghostly life with the aid of ultraviolet light filters and various chemicals.

Palimpsest also lives on as a metaphor for layers more or less hidden beneath a surface. In reviewing the nonfiction book The Canadians in the March 1985 New York Times Book Review, noted author Margaret Atwood penned this example: “Canada, like any country, is a palimpsest, an overlay of classes and generations.”


If you’ve been searching for the word meaning “the repetition of conjunctions in close succession, the purpose of which is to emphasize the number of like items in a sentence,” you’ve found it! (Should you ever voice it, it’s pronounced poly-SIN-deh-tuhn.) The workhorse conjunction in the following example of polysyndetonic syntax is and.

In the corner of Maggie’s worktable was an oversize mug filled with wooden pencils and mechanical pencils and ballpoints and felt-tip pens and fountain pens and markers of three different sizes – a colorful bouquet of writing implements.

This Greek word also has an antonym: asyndeton, which, not surprisingly, means the deletion of a conjunction. Writers sometimes use asyndetons for effect: As slight as the difference may be, to many ears “The letter left Richard puzzled, angry, saddened” sounds a bit more literary than “The letter left Richard puzzled, angry, and saddened.”

*This P-word profusion is an example of overdone alliteration – the repetition of identical initial sounds in two or more neighboring words. Taken to the extreme, alliteration comes off as, well, precious. Used in moderation, it enlivens a sentence. For instance, when writing of fruits and vegetables, “Be they peaches or pears, spinach or Swiss chard, cantaloupes or carrots, fresh fruits and vegetables have no equals in the kitchen pantry…” is more engaging than a string of randomly chosen and inserted pieces of produce.

One Response to Five “Word Words” Beginning with P

  • Erik Kowal says:

    There’s a lengthy list of English-language pangrams on Wikipedia:

    A couple of of my favourites from the list:

    Kvetching, flummoxed by job, W. zaps Iraq.

    The quick onyx goblin jumps over the lazy dwarf.

    “Who am taking the ebonics quiz?”, the prof jovially axed.

    The jay, pig, fox, zebra and my wolves quack!

    Or how about “Waxy and quivering, jocks fumble the pizza”?

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