Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Self-contradicting Words

Imagine that the word for "yes" is "yes," but the word for "no" is "yes." Communication would depend on context and tone. We'd have to say, "Well, that was a very negative-sounding yes" or "a very positive-sounding" one.

As it turns out, we do have a number of words that can take opposite meanings. Here is a small collection of them.
  1. quite: In England, this means "completely, exactly." In North America, it means "somewhat, approximately, not extremely."
    "Yes, you are quite [completely] correct"
    "The movie wasn't great, but was quite [moderately] good."
  2. sanction: By the dictionary, this means "to approve." In common use now in news stories, it means "to punish."
    "Henry II did not sanction [approve] the killing of Thomas Becket."
    "Henry II did not sanction [punish] the killers of Thomas Becket."
    (Both statements may be true).
  3. liege: It means, “Sovereign; independent; having authority or right to allegiance” or, in other words, a lord. It also means “serving an independent sovereign or master” or, in other words, a subordinate. (One can work around the ambiguity by calling the first the liege lord and the second the liege man).
  4. dinner: The second meal of the day. The third meal of the day. It depends, it seems, on which is the bigger of the two.
  5. fearful: It means "inspiring fear or awe" or "full of fear," either frightening or frightened, causing fear or feeling fear.
    "The fearful [frightening] noise frightened me."
    "The frightening noise made me fearful [full of fear]."
  6. hopefully: Originally, this meant only "filled with hope." Increasingly, it means "to be hoped" or "I hope." The new meaning has become established in dictionaries along with the original.
    "Do you have any cash?" I asked, hopefully [filled with hope].
    Hopefully [to be hoped], he has some cash. 
 If you know any others, please leave them in the comments.


Two more have occurred to me.

Whereas: normally means "but." (I like cats whereas you don't). If it starts a line in the preamble of a law or contract, however, it means "because" (Whereas violent crime is a serious concern...).

Awful: Usually, terrible, reprehensible. Kipling was unlikely to mean that in the poem "Recessional" when he writes, "God of our fathers, ... Beneath whose awful hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine." There it means, simply, "awe-inspiring."


Update 17 October 2013

The word "sojourn" may belong in this list of self-contradicting words. It means, according to dict.org,
 To dwell for a time; to dwell or live in a place as a
     temporary resident or as a stranger, not considering the
     place as a permanent habitation; to delay; to tarry.
but, look at Wilfred Owen's poem "Parable of the Old Man and the Young" which begins

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
It clearly means "journeyed" here. However, the poem is based on Genesis 22:1-18 which, in the King James Version, does not use the word "sojourn." I'm inclined to think that Owen just got it wrong. The word does appear in Genesis 12:30, which says that "Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there." However, that clearly means that he sojourned there (stayed for a while) after he went there.

Despite the error, Owen's poem is a great one, one of my favourites.

By the way, there is a wikipedia article on the subject of self-contradicting words, entitled "Auto-Antonyms." Its list of examples is longer than mine. I take comfort, however, that this phenomenon which I noticed only received a name in the 1960's. I enjoyed the self-contradiction of "Make it fast" meaning "Make it move quickly" and "Prevent it from moving at all."

The subject reminds me of an old joke in which three men who, presumably, are educated but do not have English as their first language are discussing the inability of the wife of one of them to get pregnant.

The first says, "My wife cannot have a baby; she is inconceivable."

"No," says the next, "that is not the word. She is unbearable."

"Not at all," says the third, "she is impregnable."

Good on these three gentlemen for knowing the relations of the words "to conceive," "to bear," and "to impregnate" to propagation, but too bad that they were unaware of other meanings and customary use of their favoured terms. 

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