Oct 08, 2013

Contradicting Oneself: Not Just a Woman

written by Jeanette Koenig​

I remember years ago receiving one of those e-mail forwards that contained a list of clever factoids. One of them claimed that “sanction” is the only word in the English language that is the opposite of itself. I thought about it, and yes, “sanction” can mean “to allow”; it can also mean “to punish,” though in this second meaning I’ve really only heard the word used as a noun: “to apply sanctions.” Still, it’s an interesting thought, and it certainly led to confusion in Czech class once when our pocket dictionaries with one-word definitions caused us to choose a Czech word that was the complete opposite of what we meant.

A while later, while standing in line for the ride “The Tower of Terror” at Disney World, my mother commented to one of the employees that the dilapidated hotel, which formed the background for the attraction, needed dusting. The employee responded in a hollow tone that he would put down some more dust just as soon as he could.

I was delighted. Another word that was the opposite of itself! “Dust” can mean “to remove dust,” but can just as easily mean “to apply dust” (as in “dusting crops”). I filed the word away and made a mental note to be on the lookout for more. It came recently with a family argument about the meaning of the word “cleave.” My father insisted it meant “adhere,” as in the Bible passage where it talks about a man cleaving to his wife. The rest of us maintained that it meant “split,” as in “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain,” “meat cleaver,” and of course, “Uncleftish Beholding.” The dictionary showed that both meanings were correct.

I did an internet search, and as it turns out, there are quite a few words that are opposites of themselves. There is no official term for this phenomenon; one site calls them “autoantonyms,” another calls them “contronyms,” and still another calls them “antagonyms.” My favorite term is “Janus words,” since they really are two-faced.

There are a number of causes for Janus words. Sometimes you have to dig into the word’s etymology to find the reason. In the case of “cleave,” the different meanings stem from the fact that two antonyms were similar enough in Old English (“clifian, to adhere” and “cleofan, to split”) that over time, sound changes in the language caused them to become homonyms.

The confusion with “sanction” comes from semantic shift; that is, the meaning of a word gradually begins to edge away from its original over time. “Sanction” originally meant “to confirm or enact a law,” from the Latin “sanctionem, act of decreeing or ordaining.” By 1797 it meant “to permit authoritatively.” However, usage slid into another direction as well. By 1919, international diplomacy used the term in the sense of the “part of clause of a law which spells out the penalty for breaking it.”

Syntactic shift is the culprit for words like “dust”: nouns change into verbs all the time. Nouns that denote something that is intrinsic to an object yield verbs that imply removing it. Thus, when you peal a banana, you remove the peal. If the noun is not intrinsic to the object, the verb form will imply adding the noun. So when you paint a chair, you add paint instead of removing it. “Dust” can go either way, so dusting furniture and dusting crops yield different actions with the dust.

Then there are words that reflect cultural differences in idioms and slang. “Tabling an agenda item” means opposite things in American and British English. The slang meaning of “bomb” can mean it is something extremely good or extremely bad, depending on whether it is preceded by “a” or “the.”

Check out some of the links I cited for more examples, and then think about it the next time you casually use words such as “bill,” “buckle,” “rent,” “lease,” “oversight,” “temper,” “weather,” “seed,” etc. You might be contradicting yourself!

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