Auto-antonym

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"Enantiodrome" redirects here. For the Jungian principle of equilibrium, see Enantiodromia.
In English, "inflammable" is an auto-antonym which can mean either "combustible" or "noncombustible"[1] so English safety labels typically use "Flammable". In Spanish and French "inflam[m]able" only means "combustible", so a multilingual safety cabinet can appear to be contradictory—is this a cabinet for combustible or noncombustible materials?

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[2][3] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[4] enantionymy or antilogy.

Origins[edit]

The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were originally coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. For instance cleave "separate" is from Old English clēofan, while cleave "adhere" is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently. This is related to false friends, but false friends do not necessarily contradict.

Other contronyms are a form of polysemy, but where a single word acquires different and ultimately opposite senses. For instance quite, which meant "clear" or "free" in Middle English, can mean "slightly" (quite nice) or "completely" (quite beautiful). Other examples include sanction — "permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows) — "leave quickly" or "fixed"; fast — "moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Many English examples result from nouns being verbed into distinct senses "add <noun> to" and "remove <noun> from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone.

Some contronyms result from differences in national varieties of English. For example, to table a bill means "to put it up for debate" in British English, while it means "to remove it from debate" in American English.

Often, one sense is more obscure or archaic, increasing the danger of misinterpretation when it does occur; for instance, the King James Bible often uses "let" in the sense of "forbid", a meaning which is now obsolete, except in the legal phrase "without let or hindrance" and in tennis, squash and table tennis.

An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral (using contemporaneous English) as "awful, pompous, and artificial," with the meaning (rendered in modern English) of "awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed."

Auto-antonyms also exist in other languages. For example, in Latin sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous", French hôte may mean either "host" or "guest"; the same is true for the Italian cognate ospite (both deriving from the Latin hospes). Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence). Italian ciao is a greeting that is translated as "hello" or "goodbye" depending on the context, and Swahili verb 'kutoa', meaning both "to remove" and "to add".

Sometimes an apparent opposition of senses comes from presuming the point of view of a different language. In Hawaiian, for example, aloha is translated both as “hello” and as “goodbye”, but the essential meaning of the word is “love”, making it appropriate as both greeting and farewell. The meaning is in fact the same; it is only the occasion that is different. Latin altus can be translated "high" or "deep" in English, but in Latin had the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension". The difference in English between "high" and "deep" is determined by the speaker's awareness of their relationship to some perceived norm. A mountain is "high" because it is well above sea level, and the ocean is "deep" because it plunges well below it. Both, however, were altus in Latin.

This concept is superficially similar to a few examples in Italian, such as describing accumulated snow as being "high", alta, rather than "deep", but this is because it is considered to be heaped above the reference level of the ground, rather than a throwback to Latin. The adjective, profondo is used instead to describe the idea of depth below a given reference level, so the sea is profondo, along with the vast majority of examples in which "deep" would be used in English. In Italian, alto mare means not "deep sea" but "high sea", with the same meaning as in English of "open water beyond territorial limits". The tide, marea, also follows the same pattern as English, being either "high" or "low", depending on whether it is above or below the mean. However, Italian, French and Spanish all use their own equivalents of "high" to describe cooking pots, frying pans and saucepans which in English would be called "deep". In English, "tall", as a synonym of "high", would only be used to describe a pot when its height is considerably greater than its diameter, and drinking glasses with such proportions are also referred to as "tall" rather than "deep".

In addition various neologisms or other such words contain simultaneous opposing meanings in the same context, rather than alternative meanings depending on context (e.g. coopetition).

Examples[edit]

  • "To cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split".
  • "Custom" can mean "standard" (shorthand for customary) or "tailored".
  • "To dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).
  • "Inflammable" technically means "capable of burning" but is commonly taken to mean "unburnable".[1]
  • "Oversight" (uncountable) means "supervision", "an oversight" (countable) means "not noticing something".
  • "Pass on" can mean "reject from" and "continue through a process" (e.g. "Let's pass on this candidate").
  • "Refrain" means both non-action and the repetition of an action, e.g. in musical notation.
  • "To rent" can mean "to borrow from" or "to lend to".
  • "To replace" can mean "to place back where it was" or "substitute with something else".
  • "Resigned" can mean "to have signed again" or "to have quit". The former is sometimes hyphenated as "re-signed".
  • "To sanction" can mean "to permit" or "to punish".
  • "Off" can mean "something that is not operating" or it can mean "to start happening in an excited way" (e.g. "The buzzer went off").
  • "Belie" can mean "to show to be false" or it can mean "to misrepresent".
  • "Literally" means exact or not exaggerated, but due to colloquial use even the Oxford Dictionary has added a second definition: "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true".[5]
  • "Deceptively" followed by any adjective can have ambiguous meaning: for example, a room being "deceptively large" could be larger or smaller than it seems.

A literary example in the form of an extended prose reflection is Samuel Beckett's Stirrings Still.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Strunk and White (1979). The Elements of Style. New York: MacMillan. p. 47. 
  2. ^ "'Addad' : a study of homo-polysemous opposites in Arabic". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Gall, Nick. "Antagonyms". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  4. ^ Liberman, Anatoly (25 September 2013). "Etymology gleanings for September 2013". Oxford Etymologist. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 September 2013. "The coexistence of two opposite meanings in a word is called enantiosemy, and the examples are rather numerous." 
  5. ^ [Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true "Definition of Literally in English"] Check |url= scheme (help). Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]