Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Mary, Mary, Quite Contranym

3 years ago

Hello again!

*mad cheering from packed auditorium*

So you’re probably –

*more cheering and thrown underwear*

*stands there helpless, trying to speak, smiles ruefully, small bow*

*cheering eventually dies down*

So it’s been –

*renewed cheering and screaming*

Okay, so straight up, this column’s probably got like a hundred regular readers at most, so no packed screaming rooms or unsanitary underwear-hurling, but it is back after quite a long silence, and I’d like to thank you for your patience, and apologise, and it’s all just been a hugely mad time, and I am (hopefully) back, baby.

Public-relations-coordinator-extraordinaire Rob Power has plans for the blog, one of which includes Word Nerd being back as a monthly thing, so I’ll be keeping this column to a slightly less manic schedule than last year, but hopefully will be able to keep it up for longer.

At any rate, let’s start with something fun.

YOU KNOW Synonym Is An Antonym Of “Antonym,” RIGHT?

Okay, so you may remember my literally column last summer, covering probably my single biggest grudge (not the supposed misuse of the literally, but everyone’s obsession with the supposed misuse of the word literally). You may even remember me saying that one of the dumbest things people say about this usage is that it “means the opposite of what it’s supposed to.” It doesn’t, of course, as I covered last year, but...

So what if it did?

Apparently you can’t have a word wandering around in the English language with simultaneous opposing meanings because it would cause “widespread confusion” and make it impossible to use the words unambiguously, but aside from the fact that I have totally never encountered that problem, there are dozens of English words that do exactly that.

SO DID YOU KNOW Poecilonym* Is A Synonym Of “Synonym”?

Presenting contranyms,† a special category of words – nouns, adjectives and verbs – that are their own antonyms, whether due to distortion, convergence, drift over time or just quirks of usage. In almost every instance, the intended sense is completely obvious when used (if it weren’t, you can imagine speakers would eventually reject a usage and it would drift into linguistic history); but in some cases you genuinely need a larger context.

There are languages you can imagine not tolerating this sort of thing – there are any number of languages, in fact, where it never happens – but English, mad poet of tongues (and tongue of mad poets) that it is, revels in them.

OR, HEY! Synecdoche Is A Synecdoche Of “Metonym”!

There are shitloads of these things, but a few of my favourites are below.

Verbing Nouns

The most common contranyms start out as nouns and then become verbs that mean either “to add [thing]” or “to remove [thing].” Whichever way the verb works in its first appearance, sooner or later someone gets the idea of using it the other way, and generally both senses stick.

Thus one can trim a tree with secateurs or tinsel, dust with icing sugar or a damp cloth, clip your dog’s claws or clip on his leash, and seed a lawn or a tomato. There are dozens of these damn things.

Latin Confusions

A few contranyms seem to date all the way back to their Greek and Latin roots, and largely occur because the original had a broader sense that we narrowed down in English, and it turned out could be narrowed down in different ways.

Consult refers to asking someone for advice and being asked for it. The confusion seems to stem from the fact it originally referred to a collective act; that is, we come together to take council, and thus, both the advisor and the advisee are consulting. Sanction is an amazing contranym that refers to granting approval or withdrawing support. Its original sense was of a significant spiritual act (consider sanctify). It came to refer to a formal act, with divine and/or legal weight; a connotation that followed it into English and informs both its modern senses. Apology, bizarrely, refers to a statement of regret and to a formal self-justification. Both senses rely on the Latin and Greek uses of apologia as “a speech in one’s (legal) defence,” which could certainly be either contrite or self-justifying as needed.

Drifting Parts of Speech

Many of the most interesting contranyms arise from grammatical variation; words start off being used entirely legitimately, but speaking habits change (or people just get lazy), and later generations misunderstand what they’re hearing, and new senses appear. Most examples of these go back centuries, but some are extremely modern...

Left refers both to something that has gone and to something that remains (eg. “there were ten of us at this party, but four of us left, and now there are six of us left”). This one comes from a drift in usage of the reflexive form of the verb to leave. If I take one apple and leave two, then two apples have been left (obviously); over the years, we’ve come to look at the bowl and say there “are two left,” and left drifted from its origins as a reflexive verb to something more like an adjective.

Fast, wonderfully, refers to moving very quickly and being absolutely secure (eg. “stuck fast” or “fasten this rope”). The sense of “firm” or “secure” is the older usage; it seems to have first been used as an adverb for emphasis (much as we now use hard in “work hard and play hard”) and then drifted into use as an adjective.

Peer refers to someone of an equal status to oneself, or to someone of very high status; slightly cheaty, but in context it can certainly be contradictory. Of course, the latter use (generally referring to members of the British House of Lords) is derived from the fact that peers presumably only consider other peers their peers...

Quantum refers to something that’s about as small as anything can get, or about as big as you can imagine. Quite a modern one, this one, down to distortion through figurative use. A quantum leap, in physics, is an instantaneous change between two states (where there is no intermediate state, ie. it is the smallest possible change), usually with an associated release of energy; as a figure of speech it suggests an abrupt, profound change, but in common usage – thanks in part to the word “leap” – it has also come to suggest a very big change.

Custom brilliantly means both “traditional and universal,” and “unique and specific.” Of course, the confusion disappears when you realise the latter sense comes from something being custom to oneself (eg. “I had the tailor cut the suit according to my custom rather than buy one off the peg”). But the original context has faded over time.

Converging Words

And of course some contranyms were never the same words to begin with! Like cleave, which used to be two Old English words, clÄ“ofan (to split or sever) and cleofian (to cling or adhere), whose spellings ended up coming together over the years. Any number of homonyms have formed this way, but in a few special cases they’ve found their antonyms and created inadvertent contranyms like this one.

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.

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*This is the most beautiful word in all languages.

†Also known as auto-antonyms, which while slightly clunkier, has the virtues of being slightly more fun to say and sounding like the title of an ’eighties TV show about a grammatically correct talking car.