Monday, December 21, 2015

25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Judith B Herman
filed under: Words


Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, 'Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression' or does it mean, 'Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default'? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”

13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).

14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense ‘to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping,’ which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. Bitch, as reader Shawn Ravenfire pointed out, can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

One of these things is not like the other

While playing around with the article on contranyms (which is a word with two opposite or contradictory meanings), I found a lot of interesting images. Many, like the Word Hippo, were obviously meant to teach grammar and vocabulary to young children. But I noticed an interesting thing here. Many of the images don't reflect up-to-date attitudes - but do the educators even realize that, or notice it?

These pictures each have two images on them, and they are meant to portray or at least illustrate words which have opposite meanings. I'm the first to say that gender is gender, except that it's not any more (does the name Kaitlyn Jenner mean anything to you?). So how can "girl" and "boy" be opposites, which they are supposed to be in this illustration? This is hairsplitting, but maybe not: the boy is looking at, maybe staring at the girl, who looks glassy-eyed and stares straight ahead.

"Brave" seems to mean "nasty" in this picture. "Cowardly" is either "afraid" or "startled", which would be pretty natural if a nasty old bird was waving his nasty old wings at you with a mean, angry expression on his face. Neither one of these illustrations is representative of the actual word. Like the rest of us, kids pick up about 80% of their knowledge from visual images. This may be picky, or maybe not: the bird is pink and looks like a female. Cowardly?

This one is pretty loaded with cultural significance, too. "Beautiful" is depicted by an obviously female, pink primping bird, wearing June Cleaver pearls and a bow on her head. This is the most stereotypical view of beauty I have ever seen, since the word can mean so many things. "Ugly" can also mean many things, but an angry-looking bird with ruffled feathers and scars may have just won a cage match with a predator. I'd put him in the "brave" category, myself. But don't we always try to teach children that beauty comes from the inside? My vote goes to the guy on the right. (Again,note the very obvious gender split.)

And THIS is loaded in so many ways, I don't know where to start. "Strong" means "on steroids", apparently, as pumped-up as Schwarzenegger in the 1970s. The musclebound guy is on top, of course - where else would he be? - and looks fierce and smug at the same time, with those angry black eyebrows, the same ones that show up on those "brave" and "ugly" male birds. And his eyes look like two black holes.

I feel sorry for "Weak". His head is flat, for one thing, but he looks scared and almost apologetic. He's ashamed of his body because it makes him "weak", at least relative to the strong guy. But it's what's inside that counts, isn't it?

But this one REALLY bugs me. "Young" is not only looking in the opposite direction of "Old" - she's pointing that way. "Old" is sort of looking that way too, but her arms are as crooked as Grandpa McCoy's, her whole body looking bent and rickety. Her hair is in a grey '80s perm and she wears black-rimmed, unfashionable glasses and a dull-maroon, biblike thing, perhaps to shield her from dribbling. I HATE portrayals of people my age - yes, my age - that look like this, just as I loathe the phrase "little old lady", which no one else seems to object to.

You might say I'm nitpicking. I can hear the "oh, come ON"s from here, the "can't we say anything these days?" -  but added all together, there's something happening here. A subtle or not-so-subtle prejudice is coming through. These "things"/people are NOT "opposites" and don't portray opposites, but that's what kids are being taught. Visual images shoot right to the back of the brain and stick there. Cowardly, ugly, weak, old - not very desirable states, not according to these images anyway. The only totally positive one is the opposite of  "girl", which is, of course, "boy". The unspoken assumption here is that we should all want to be one of those.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Dudamel in action: I must be in love

Dudamel! (or: where has this man BEEN all my life?)

Dudamel in 2012

Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez (born January 26, 1981) is a Venezuelan conductor and violinist. He is the music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Background information

Birth name  Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez

Born  January 26, 1981 (age 34)

Barquisimeto, Lara,Venezuela

Genres  Classical

Occupation(s)  Composer, conductor

Instruments  Violin

Years active   1999–present

Associated acts

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra


So now I find out about Dudamel, and I am simply overwhelmed. Where has this man BEEN all my life? I am not sure. He is the proverbial bundle of joy, and as it turns out is a huge celebrity in the classical music field. Celebritude never impressed me much in any field, but if there is an area that needs big celebrities, it's this one.

I keep hearing that the days of the classical concert hall are numbered. The average opera-goer is 48 years old, and younger ones are not coming up through the ranks. This man conducts with a zeal I have simply never seen. I did see Leonard Bernstein in 1967 during our Centennial, and I'll never forget his balletics on the podium. But Bernstein was a dark, angsty figure tangled in his own neuroses. This guy - well, the only other figure in classical music I can compare him to is Itzak Perlman, whom I've also seen perform (twice!), filling the concert hall with happiness and sharing his contagious joy.

I haven't even begun to scratch the surface here. There are dozens of Dudamel YouTube videos, and here the guy is only 34 years old, a baby in conducting terms. He's already been at it a long time. Even his name is exotic, like something you can eat, bechamel or caramel, or bechamel followed by caramel. (It's also a bit like Gargamel, the villian in the Smurf cartoons.) No doubt his detractors see him as overexuberant, not serious enough, but to me he looks like a badly-needed injection of energy and presence, accessibility, in a field that has prized insularity and snobbitude for far too long.

Classical music can't afford to be elitist any more. Sometimes, as with Winston Churchill, the right person steps up at the crucial moment. This man with all the names (reminding me of  that great silent screen hero/sheik, Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla) might just be the one to do it. He goes on Ellen and Conan and who-knows-who-else, even Sesame Street, spreading the joy and opening the door.

The gifs I made were a delight to me, because he's obviously so digging the music that he can hardly restrain himself from dancing. Sometimes he literally dances, and when he conducts a piece like An American in Paris, I can't help but think that Gershwin, who was known to tap dance while waiting for an elevator, would like his approach just fine.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!