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Jul 4, 2011
This week's theme
Contranyms, or words with an opposite set of meanings

This week's words

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with Anu Garg

Sometimes people, even Supreme Court justices, turn to a dictionary to resolve disputes. They may believe language is something exact, well-defined, as if words were precision molded in a foundry under exact specifications.

But the truth is different. Words can be vague, they may have multiple shades of meanings, and even completely opposite senses. In my mother tongue, Hindi, for instance, the word "kal" can mean both "yesterday" and "tomorrow". Is that a problem? Not at all. Context brings clarity. I have never seen anyone become confused by the use of the word -- would this meeting take place tomorrow or do I need a time machine to go back to yesterday?

Sometimes, though, the contrary senses of a word can be confusing. When you table a proposal, your intention depends on what side of the pond you are on. In American English you put it on the back burner, while in British English you bring it forward.

This week we've picked five such words. Each of these words has meanings as different as black and white. Call them contranyms, heteronyms, janus words, two-faced, words with split personalities, or coin your own word!



verb tr. intr.:
1. To fray or to become disjoined; to untangle.
2. To entangle or to become tangled.

From Middle Dutch ravelen (to fray out), from ravel (loose thread). Earliest documented use: before 1540.

"Ministries like the Gathering Place always run on a shoestring. In today's economic climate, the shoestring is raveling."
Helen Colwell Adams; Band Aids Booked To Benefit Patients; Sunday News (Lancaster, Pennsylvania); Apr 12, 2009.

"W.B. Yeats's vision involved the notion that at any moment forces were raveling and unraveling, forming and disintegrating."
Roger Cohen; The Arab Gyre; International Herald Tribune (Paris, France); Apr 26, 2011.

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

The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; someone strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action. -Winston Churchill, politician and statesman (1874-1965)

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