(Disclaimer: I did not actually write this. I took it from several sources off the internet, but I gave them all credit.)
The English language is full of words with uncommon properties.
There are backronyms (the same as acronyms, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters), metaplasms (alteration of regular verbal, grammatical, or rhetorical structure usually by transposition of the letters or syllables of a word or of the words in a sentence) and neologisms (newly coined terms, words, or phrases, that may be commonly used in everyday life but have yet to be formally accepted as constituting mainstream language). My favorite words of unusual properties are contranyms, or words that are spelled the same, but have two opposite meanings. These words are also known as Janus words, named after the two headed Roman god of gates and doorways and of beginnings and endings.
Janus words teach us the importance of context and bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “use it in a sentence.” Here are a few examples:
Oversight. It can mean watchful care or an error or mistake. Example: Barry’s oversight of the website led to the oversight in spelling.
Cleave. It can mean to join (as in "cleave unto") or to separate or divide. Example: Seeing that the two sentences were cleaved together, I cleaved them with a semicolon.
Garnish. It can mean to add something to or take away from. Example: Troy’s use of unnecessary adjectives to garnish his prose led to the decision to garnish his wages.
Refrain. It can mean to hold back, restrain, or to repeat. Example: Please refrain from adding a refrain to that poem.
Root. It can mean to pull up or to get something to take root. Example: We need to root out your poor writing practices before they take root.
Sanction. It can mean to prohibit or to allow. Example: You are hereby sanctioned from writing for any of our sanctioned publications.
Weather. It can mean to withstand or to wear away. Example: That weathered, hackneyed phrase has weathered the approval process and will now appear in the press release.
Bolt. It can mean to run away or to secure. Example: Bolt the door to your office or someone may bolt with your laptop.
Trim. It can mean to remove from or to add to. Example: Trim that jargon from your press release so you can trim it with action verbs and meaningful descriptors.
Resign. It can mean to give up, quit, or sign on again. Example: Use a hyphen if you want to re-sign, otherwise you might resign by mistake.
(Laura Hale Brockway/PR daily)
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'?
“You English-speakers,” my dad would complain to me, as if I had helped invent English, “Your language is all one big inside joke. Yours is the only language where a word can be its own opposite. How can a sane person learn a language like that?”
My dad was great at learning languages. English was the fourth or fifth one that he learned, and it was the only one that he claimed he couldn’t master. He got past the fact that the words duck, dock and dog all sounded exactly alike to his Slavic ear. He quickly got used to the idea that there were words that sounded alike but were not the same word at all (like there and their.) And he could even accept that a word could have more than one meaning, completely unrelated, such as:
mint: a candy left on a hotel pillow
mint: a factory for manufacturing pennies, one of which could not purchase a mint
But Dad could not accept words that have two commonly accepted definitions which are opposites of each other. “This fortress is impregnable. That means the fortress either can or cannot be taken by force!” he complained, “How can you have a word like that? What is the point? In mathematics, such a word would cancel itself out, and one would never use it again.”
I explained it was always clear what the meaning was. You only use that word in two contexts:
Impregnable fortress. That fortress cannot be breached by force. (For some reason it’s always an impregnable fortress and never an impregnable fort.)
Impregnable female: a woman capable of being impregnated.
“How is anybody supposed to know that?” he would answer, “That proves English is just an inside joke. You make up these crazy words just to trick us immigrants.”
He was giving the inventors of English too much credit. These contranyms (words that mean their own opposites) cause confusion for native speakers, too. Take the simple word rear.
Rear means the back of something, such as your rear end. The troops sent back from the battle lines are said to be “in the rear.” As opposed to “at the front.”
When I was a kid I loved to read The Black Stallion books. I grew up in the city. The only horses I saw were on Gunsmoke. When the books described the horse rearing up in fright, I would picture them kicking up their hind legs, like a bucking bronco in the rodeo. It was a natural assumption, since the books didn’t have pictures. I didn’t know what a halter was either, except that it was made of leather. It was hard to imagine a horse wearing something like the halter tops I saw girls wearing at Humboldt Pool, but I went with it somehow.
I was nearly an adult when I discovered that when a horse reared, he was actually lifting his front legs off the ground (think of the Lone Ranger and “Hiyo, Silver!”). “That’s not rearing,” I said, “That’s fronting!”
Rear has a second definition that has a somewhat opposite meaning — you might think of it as 90 degrees in the opposite direction instead of 180 degrees. It also means to raise up, as in a mother rearing her children, or a farmer rearing his cattle. The horse is rearing his front legs, and it has nothing to do with his rear end at all. Except, I suppose, when the horse bucks, it is rearing its rear, but I don’t think this is commonly used.
Even though I get confused like everybody else by these double-crossing words, I love English. All these stupidities make the best jokes possible. One of my favorites is from The Simpsons, based on a different kind of word, in which an opposite-sounding word is actually a synonym.
Patient: “Dr. Nick, should you be smoking here around all this gas?”
Dr. Nick: “Oh, don’t worry. This stuff is inflammable. See? IN-flammble!”
Dr. Nick: “Uh-oh.”
Here are some grammatical cartoons for
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