The Seven Deadly Nyms

Virtuous searching takes more than hard work and clean thinking -- you must keep constant vigilance against the seven deadly nyms that can play the devil with your search results.

When was the last time you thought -- really thought -- about how you choose the words you enter into search engine query boxes? Did you know there are literally hundreds of words that are virtually guaranteed to produce the worst possible results, no matter how good the search engine?

Most experienced searchers are familiar with "stop words," or words that many search engines completely ignore. The engines ignore stop words because they are common words that typically modify other words and carry no meaning themselves, such as "the," "who," "it" and so on.

Though using stop words in your queries can cause problems, there are far more insidious culprits that you should avoid like the plague. These words are the class of search terms I call the "seven deadly nyms."

The first deadly nym is a set of words called contronyms, or Janus words. A contronym is a single word that has multiple meanings that contradict the others. Some common contronyms include:

Fast - moving quickly vs. firmly stuck in place
Hysterical - overwhelmed with fear vs. outrageously funny
Root - establish something new vs. dig out completely

The second deadly nym is a group of words known as heteronyms. Heteronyms are similar to antagonyms, with a subtle difference. Heteronyms are words that are spelled identically but have different meanings when pronounced differently (bow, desert, object, refuse).

Heteronyms can sometimes be the result of melioration, or the acquisition of a positive meaning by a word that's traditionally had a negative meaning. "Bad" is an example. In its original sense, bad means nasty, spoiled, broken, etc. But pronounced "baad" it takes on the slang meaning that's just the opposite: good, cool, or fashionable.

A particularly insidious example of a melioration is the word "factoid," which means "A piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition," according to

Watch out for the opposite of heteronyms: polyonyms. These are different words have the same meaning (Jupiter, Zeus, Oden). Depending on what you're looking for, you might miss some important information if you use only one variant of a polyonym. For best results, find and use them all.

For the spelling-challenged, homonyms are the most pernicious deadly nym. Homonyms are words that have the same sound but a completely different meaning (to, too, two). Some homonyms are also contronyms -- words that are spelled and pronounced like another word but have a different origin and meaning.

The fifth deadly nym: capitonym, a word that changes pronunciation and meaning when it is capitalized. Capitonyms are commonly words that become proper nouns when capitalized: amber is a yellow, orange, or brownish-yellow fossil resin; Amber is the eighth-grade softball team captain. You polish silver with ammonia and silicon, though you'd never dream of applying the same to a polish sausage.

Next up: caconyms. A caconym is an erroneous name, especially in taxonomic classification. While caconyms might be useful for tracking down archaic or outdated usage, you're likely to end up with inaccurate information if you use them in search queries.

The seventh deadly nym is the obscure but lethal exonym, especially if you're searching for non-local information. An exonym is a place name that foreigners use instead of the name that natives use (Cologne:Koln; Florence: Firenze; Morocco:Maroc). Beyond provoking a chuckle from locals, using exonyms as search terms will likely net results biased toward foreign information, which may not be as accurate as home-grown content.

The next time you're tempted to nym, think before you type. Abstain from nyms and you'll likely end up choosing far better query terms and be blessed with the fruits of virtuous search.

What Are Stop Words?
Some search engines don't record extremely common words in order to save space or to speed up searches. These are known as "stop words."

Seven Stupid Searching Mistakes
SearchDay, Mar. 27, 2002
In the lighthearted spirit of the popular books for "idiots" and "dummies," here's a look at seven common blunders that are virtually guaranteed to deliver useless, nonsensical, or completely worthless search results.

Swish-e Stopword list
A list of the stop words ignored by the open source Swish-e search engine, most of which are likely ignored by most major search engines as well.

Antagonyms (contronyms)˜cellis/antagonym.html
The Heteronym Homepage˜cellis/heteronym.html
Two pages from Charles N. Ellis, M.D., a professor at the University of Michegan Medical Center and an avid logomaniac, describing contronyms (he calls them antagonyms) and heteronyms, with numerous examples.

A list of words ending in "-nym." Unlike the deadly nyms, words in most of these nyms make perfectly good search terms.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.