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AWADmail Issue 119April 18, 2004
A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages
From: Jonathan Brusch (jonathan.bruschATaphis.usda.gov)
Sometime in the last year and a half I was browsing at a newsstand and came across a brief comment about the girlfriend of actor Colin Farrell being pregnant. Colin's comment on the matter was, "I'm chuffed." I'd never seen the word before, and assumed it was some kind of slang word from his native Ireland.
Now that I've learned what "chuffed" actually means, I still don't know what he was saying!
From: Lisa Saltzman Mishli (lisamishliATyahoo.com)
Endsville brought to mind the Hebrew term "sof haderech" (literally, end of the road), whose opposite meaning has recently joined the Israeli jargon. The proprietor of a clothing shop in my town uses the phrase repeatedly to describe the most fashionable and desirable outfits on her racks.
From: C.M. Jones (cmj3ATjoimail.com)
With apologies to j. ogden Nashious;
From: Ramesh Padmanabhan (ramesh.padmanabhanATicicibank.com)
I thought you would pick up a line from P.G. Wodehouse. He loves this word and any brother of a lovely girl whom our hero seeks would automatically be an excrescence.
From: Dan Bent (danbentATfairmediation.com)
Don't the words that have equal and opposite meanings cancel themselves out?
From: Dennis Olson (eyeperATaol.com)
How about the word "nominal." NASA uses it to mean acceptable, within normal parameters.
From: Tom Russell (tom_russellATca.ibm.com)
My favorite example of this kind of words is "pitted prune". I bought a bag of these once, and almost broke my tooth on the pitted prune. I had thought it was pitted!
From: Harry Yeatts (hyeattsATthreeleggeddragon.com)
You're driving in your car and up ahead is a traffic light. If it is green, you go. If it is red, you stop. If it is yellow, well, you speed up or you slow down (depending on when it turned yellow or on your frame of mind). It's sort of a visual autoantonym. "Yellow" here means one thing or it can mean the opposite.
From: Margaret Maxfield (mmaxf2ATyahoo.com)
A recipe calls for an "unpeeled" eggplant, so do I or don't I?
From: Grahame Young (gyoungATfrancisburt.com.au)
Perhaps the best known, at least to old fogies, is the simple word "let". It means both allow and hinder. The first meaning is the most usual but the other, in most dictionaries labelled archaic, used to appear in my passport requesting all parties to allow me to pass "without let or hindrance". I also recall that in the King James version of the Bible, St Paul wished to go to a place but he was let, ie. prevented.
The archaic meaning still has current use in tennis when a serve hits the net and then goes into play and in squash where a player obstructs the other from playing the ball.
From: Paul Douglas Franklin (pdf6161ATpaulfranklin.org)
Ten or so years later, when I was in college, I realized that there is another autoantonym pair, each of which is a synonym to "cleave": "clip" and "clip."
For this week, you should re-name the service Two.Words.A.Day since each word is actually two.
From: Maria Victoria Go (maria_victoria.goATroche.com)
Maybe we can apply a chemist's term to these words: amphoterics, which in chemistry are neither bases nor acids, but neither are they neutral - they can act as bases or as acids as the need/requirement of the reaction dictates.
From: Kate Swift (turbo_kateAThotmail.com)
While i was at school (in UK), I was told in an end of term report that some homework was outstanding ... so was there some homework, I hadn't completed? Or had some been completed to such a high standard that it merited being called "outstanding"?
Never did figure that one out!
From: Lon Bierma (lbiermaATaol.com)
Sigmund Freud speculated that language may have first developed with one word representing both one thing and its opposite. He cited several examples but let's use the word 'day'. Day can be used to represent both day and night or only daylight. Picture two people without a language trying to communicate the meaning of day and night as they watched the sun rise or set. It is easy to see how one word would suffice. Freud also pointed out that when we hear a concrete word our minds immediately jump to its opposite. Try it on friends. When you say black the first word to come to their minds will be white. Same with up/down, hot/cold, etc.
From: Allan Leedy (raleedyATaracnet.com)
It's a fascinating one. Sometimes it takes a few more words than just one to create the opposite meanings. Today's San Jose Mercury News has a great example in a headline on page 6A: "Feinstein calls on Bush to apologize".
From: Edward G. Voss (egvossATumich.edu)
Having grown up in the "golden days" of radio, I'm used to the idea that a station (or its announcer) "signed off" late at night and "signed on" (the air) some time the next day. Now, I still have trouble understanding that persons who "sign off" on something are apparently not quitting it but just the opposite: they are signing on in support of it!
From: Stephan Chodorov (catarchiveATaol.com)
And sometimes a word is distorted by popular use to come to mean its opposite. "Moot" really means the subject of disagreement but now connotes beyond argument or not worth argument.
From: Allison F. Dolan (adolanATmit.edu)
Words that begin with 'bi' many times have two meanings, although not necessarily opposites. I refuse to use bi-weekly, since it means either 2x/week, or every other week.
From: Duane Bailey (baileyATcs.williams.edu)
Great topic. "Renter" is an interesting example. Is it the one who pays for, or receives payment for, a room for let?
From: Peter Drubetskoy (pdrubetskoyAThotmail.com)
There are autoantonyms in Hebrew too. One that springs to mind right now is "lekales" - meaning both "to bless" and "to curse".
From: Sue Wartzok (swartzokATfiu.edu)
Is "livid" one of these autoantonyms? I'm always wondering what people mean when they use the word: red or pale/ashen? I just checked the dictionary and it's even worse than I had thought. It can mean 1) reddish; 2) pallid or ashen; and 3) black-and-blue. That's quite a spectrum of colors for one word!
From: Maurice Engler (whackkAThotmail.com)
I've noticed there are opposite phrases too like: "it's all up hill from here." Does that mean it's harder because it's a struggle to go up a hill or does it mean things are looking better and moving up?
From: Jim Taggart (taggartATphotodetection.com)
My boat is fast in the water when it is not tied fast to the dock.
From: Len Ranitz (twomudpigsAThotmail.com)
Yes, the confusion about tabled (proposed) and tabled (shelved) led to difficulties in the opening stages of Anglo-American planning in 1942.
So did using American WACs on the telephone switchboards. British planners being asked 'Are you through?' (are you connected?) and answering in the affirmative were dismayed to be unplugged.
From: Ralph J. Smith (rjsmithATaustin.isd.tenet.edu)
Another set of adjectives that falls into this camp has to do with wind direction; IIRC, "southeasterly" can mean from the southeast or towards the southeast, for example. Love your newsletter--it was the first I ever subscribed to, and I still read it daily. Thanks for the work you do on it!
From: Henry Willis (hmwATssdslaw.com)
The contradiction is best illustrated by the United States Senate's and House of Representatives' Intelligence Oversight Committees, which have performed both functions, often simultaneously. They have both been renamed; the weight of amphibolosity must have simply become unbearable.
From: Stephen Gabel (sgabelATuchicago.edu)
Another example: "not half" It was not half bad!
Here, it means something close to middling - it was ok; there it means something close to very - it was not just bad, it was awful.
From: Lisa Brailey (llb29ATemail.med.yale.edu)
A Janus phrase from the medical world is "to call a code." When a patient's heart stops and cardiopulmonary resuscitation is necessary, we "call a code" to gather the entire medical team to try to save the patient. When the CPR is ineffective and further efforts are thought to be fruitless, we "call the code," in this case calling it off. It can make the note in the medical record mildly confusing, but generally the context does indeed enable you to tell the two instances apart.
From: Michael Alpern (alpernmATaol.com)
I belong to an online community of NY Times crossword puzzle solvers and constructors. We are granted access to NY Sun (a newspaper) puzzles on a three-week delay by their editor, Peter Gordon. The puzzle we received today was originally published on Tuesday, March 23 and was constructed by the very able, Seth A. Abel (no pun intended). It was entitled "Janus Words" and contained 5 theme clues such as 17A "Easily seen, or not easily seen" for TRANSPARENT or 11D "Disadvantaged, or given an advantage" for HANDICAPPED.
From: Chris Crosby-Schmidt (crosb017ATumn.edu)
This week's topic reminds of the flipside of the autoantonym (anticontranym?): Two words or terms that appear to be antonymous but in fact mean the same thing. "Flammable" and "inflammable," for example.
One of my favorite examples could be seen all over town back when I lived in San Antonio, Texas. Many streets in the city had very poor drainage, which was not normally a problem in the fairly dry climate. However, when big thunderstorms with lots of rain moved through, certain streets would be covered by a few feet of rushing water. For some reason, a number of SA drivers never caught on to the danger of the situation, and would go around city-erected barriers and try to cross the flood (sometimes with tragic consequences).
It was so predictable that at the first sign of a heavy rain, local news stations would dispatch cameras to these streets; they would invariably have ample footage of stranded drivers and floating vehicles for the evening's broadcast. In retrospect, I wonder if it's because the city was inconsistent in how it marked these streets: Some were "low water crossings" (meaning the street was low), and some were "high water crossings" (meaning the water was high).
From: Jim Grady (jim.gradyATphilips.com)
Although slim and fat are opposites, in American slang, at least, "slim chance" and "fat chance" mean the same thing.
From: Annie Gottlieb (a-twelveATix.netcom.com)
I see that "resistentialism" struck a nerve. One of your correspondents quotes Russell Baker: "The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him." Well, inanimate objects always do win in the end. Why? Because when we die, we become one.
Modern prose has become, like modern manners and modern dress, a good deal less formal than it was in the nineteenth century. -James Runcieman Sutherland, professor and writer (1900-1996)