Wordsmith.org: the magic of words


About | Media | Search | Contact  


Today's Word

Yesterday's Word



Oct 27, 2008
This week's theme
Contranyms, or words with an opposite set of meanings.

This week's words

Many ways to read AWAD
o Email
o Web
o Twitter
o RSS feed
o Calendar
o On your own website
with Anu Garg

When you sanction a project, do you approve of it or disapprove? Should one be commended for oversight (watchful care) or reprimanded for oversight (error or omission)? When you resign from a job, do you leave it or re-join (re-sign) it?

When a proposal gets tabled, is it being brought forward for discussion or being laid aside? Depends on which side of the pond you're at. If the former, you're in the UK; if the latter, you're in the US.

I call them fence-sitters. They sit on fences, ready to say one thing or its opposite depending on which side they appear at. I'm not talking about politicians. These are words, known by many names: autoantonym, contranym, self-antonym, enantiodromic, amphibolous, janus word, and so on.

Sometimes it's a result of two distinct words evolving into the same form (cleave from Old English cleofian and cleofan) but often a single word develops a split personality and takes on two contradictory senses. All of us have a bit of yin and yang and these words are no exception. The context usually provides a clue to help us understand the right sense in a given place. Look for more such words in AWAD this week.



verb tr., intr.:
1. To split or divide. (past tense: clove or cleft or cleaved; past participle: cloven or cleft or cleaved)
2. To stick, cling. (past tense and past participle: cleaved)

Sense 1: From Old English cleofan. Ultimately from the Indo-European root gleubh- (to tear apart) that is also the source of glyph, clever, and clove (garlic). And that's also where cleavage, cleft palate, and cloven hooves get their names from.
Sense 2: From Old English cleofian.

"It now looks as though technology has cleaved the society into two."
Isshaq Jumbe; Password Headache in A Fast-moving World; Business Day (Nairobi, Kenya); Sep 25, 2008.

"After that debate, those who loathe Mrs Palin will still loathe her; those who cleave to her will find no new reason to be repelled."
Janice Turner; Why I Love This Candy-covered Ball of Granite, Sarah Palin; The Times (London, UK); Oct 4, 2008.

See more usage examples of cleave in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

He shall mark our goings, question whence we came, / Set his guards about us, as in Freedom's name. / He shall peep and mutter, and night shall bring / Watchers 'neath our window, lest we mock the King. -Rudyard Kipling, author, Nobel laureate (1865-1936)

We need your help

Help us continue to spread the magic of words to readers everywhere


Subscriber Services
Awards | Stats | Links | Privacy Policy
Contribute | Advertise

© 1994-2023 Wordsmith