Words that contain their synonyms within them

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on language

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 17 Nov 2022, 7:44 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Nov 2022, 7:45 PM

One of the delights of the English language is the unexpected discoveries it permits — and for me, “kangaroo words” turned out to be just that. As every child knows, kangaroos carry their young, known as joeys, in a body pouch. The phrase kangaroo word, therefore, describes a word that contains all the letters of a synonym, called a joey word, within itself.

One more catch: the synonym must also appear in such a way within the kangaroo word so that the letters appear in the same order in both words. To take a simple example, the word action is a kangaroo word containing the joey word act. In a more complicated example, the word “masculine” contains its synonym “male”, even though here, the letters of the joey word are separated within the kangaroo word, albeit in the right order. Similarly, the kangaroo word chicken contains the joey word hen.

Got it? Thus, the word inflammable contains the joey word “flammable”, which means the same thing; joviality includes joy within itself; regulate includes rule, indolent contains idle, and encourage carries its joey, urge. Each, in other words, includes its own synonym. Similarly pinioned contains pinned and rotund includes round. There can also be a twin kangaroo — a kangaroo word that contains two joey words: container, for instance, includes both tin and can; perambulate contains both ramble and amble! The writer Richard Lederer put it brilliantly: “When you deteriorate, you rot and die. A routine is both rote and a rut. Brooding inside loneliness are both loss and oneness. A chariot is a car and a cart. A charitable foundation is both a fund and a font. Within the boundaries of a municipality reside city and unity, while a community includes county and city.”

Twin kangaroos are rewarding indeed — but even better, a grand kangaroo is a kangaroo word which has two joeys, one of which is in the pouch of the other. For instance, alone is a grand kangaroo since it contains the word lone, which itself includes its own synonym, one. Complaisant includes compliant and pliant; expurgate contains purge and pure, and frangible has both fragile and frail. Even grander still, the word ‘feasted’ has triplet joeys, ‘fed,’ ‘eat,’ and ‘ate.’ Then there can also be kangaroo phrases — a malignant action contains its synonym phrase, a malign act. But remember always the general rule: the synonym or joey within a kangaroo word should be the same part of speech as the kangaroo word, and its letters should appear in the same order.

It’s amusing to sit down and think of such kangaroo words — for instance, ‘curtail’ has the joey ‘cut’, ‘calumnies’ contains ‘lies’, a ‘devilish’ person is ‘evil, ‘respite’ gives you ‘rest,’ ‘splotch’ contains ‘spot,’ ‘instructor’ carries ‘tutor’ and ‘destruction’ involves ‘ruin’. Cast your eyes down the alphabet and you’ll find something for almost every letter: take P,Q,R,S and you’ll find after observe (see), there’s plagiarist (liar), quieten (quit), rambunctious (raucous), and supervisor (superior).

Kangaroo words were originally popularised as a word game by Ben O’Dell in a short article for The American Magazine, volume 151, published in 1956 and later reprinted in Reader’s Digest. A kangaroo word is also called by some linguists as a marsupial or swallow word, but “kangaroo word” sounds so much more amusing that these pretentious alternatives are not much in use.

It gets to be even more fun when you consider that there are also anti-kangaroo words — words that contain their opposites, or antonyms, while following the same rules. For example: covert includes overt, and animosity “carries” the “joey” of amity! The word communicative contains its antonym mute, female’s opposite is male, pest has pet and wonderful’s antonym is woeful. When you fabricate something, you know it’s not a fact, but the latter is a joey of the former. To exacerbate something is the opposite of taking steps to abate it. When you feast you don’t fast, a true friend can’t be a fiend, a courteous person is never curt and a prurient interest is never pure! But these are all anti-kangaroo words, which carry their antonyms within themselves. Can you think of other examples of words which include their opposites? Send them to me!



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