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noun [countable]

one of two or more words supplied by pressing a particular combination of keys on a mobile phone that uses predictive text (=a technology that guesses a word before the user has finished typing it)

'Anyone who has ever used a mobile phone with predictive text messaging will know the feeling. You type what you think will be one word … and it comes out as another … common examples include "if" (producing "he") and "bus" ("cup"). That second one is especially annoying: "bus" is a far more common text word than "cup," so why does keying in the sequence 287 produce the latter? These words have a name: they are textonyms.'

Prospect 22nd March 2007

Like a huge percentage of the 21st century population, I'm a big fan of texting. I like its immediacy, the idea that you can communicate with someone right in the moment, but when pushed for time can avoid a full-blown conversation or a more time-consuming e-mail. Being a late adopter though, I've committed my fair share of faux pas. Anxious to thank a good friend for the delicious meal she'd cooked, for example, I once sent her a text in haste, and was later mortified to discover that I'd thanked her for: the lovely neck … Yes, more than once, I'm afraid to say, I've fallen prey to the pitfalls of the textonym.

sometimes … textonyms have a logical connection – for instance the words eat and fat are textonyms, as are kiss and lips

The textonym is a familiar concept to anyone who texts on a regular basis. If you have predictive texting enabled on your mobile, a system which cuts down the number of key presses by anticipating what word you intended and completing it automatically, then you open up yourself to the possibility of being supplied with a word which is different to the one you actually wanted. So, going back to the scenario I mentioned above, this means that pressing keys 6 3 2 5 could supply neck instead of meal. Meal and neck are therefore said to be textonyms.

More common examples of textonyms include go and in (4 6), if and he (4 3), and home, gone and good (4 6 6 3). On occasion, they have the potential to lead to a significant level of misunderstanding – asking someone Are you good? rather than Are you home?, for example, could elicit a very different reaction! Even more risky perhaps, is the fact that the word selected is produced by exactly the same sequence of key presses as the word rejected. But sometimes, rather intriguingly and entirely coincidentally, textonyms have a logical connection – for instance the words eat and fat are textonyms, as are kiss and lips.

With no logical connection at all, the words book and cool are among the most often talked about textonyms, because there's evidence to suggest that they've been adopted in teenage idiolect as actual synonyms, sometimes even within general discourse. This means that a question like: Do you like my new phone? could be met with the response: Book. (i.e. 'cool').

Background – textonym

The word textonym is a blend of the word text (in its mobile phone use as both a verb and countable noun), and suffix -onym (from the Greek onoma meaning 'name', compare synonym, antonym etc). The verb use of text first appeared in 1999, gaining currency in British English partly because a year earlier it became possible to send messages between the four main mobile networks – Vodafone, Orange, O2 and T-Mobile. The noun text is of course hundreds of years older, dating back to the 14th century and based on Latin texere (meaning 'weave').

An alternative term for textonym is the rather more cumbersome expression homonumeric word (i.e. homo- = 'same' + numeric = 'number'). A textonym can also be technically described as a paragram, which is a more general term referring to word play in which one or more letters of a word are changed.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 29th January 2013.

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