Query about "second guess"

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at MST.EDU
Thu Oct 16 16:41:17 UTC 2008

This morning I received a call from William Safire's "On Language" assistant (Caitlin Wall---safireonlanguage at yahoo.com) with a query that seems to center around homonyms.  After some fumbling attempts to provide complete clarity to her, I suggested she e-mail me her query for forwarding on to ads-l.

   The query is below my signoff. If anyone has any thoughts to share on this topic, they would be very gratefully received.

Gerald Cohen


> Mr. Cohen,

> I write with a query regarding the two similar, but distinctly different definitions of second-guess. The OED defines second-guess as "1. trans. To anticipate the action of (a person), to out-guess; to predict or foresee (an event), to apprehend (simultaneously or beforehand) by guess-work." However, a second definition (and more commonly used today) alters the word's meaning significantly, in my opinion: "2. To subject (a person or his action, esp. a decision) to criticism after the result of the action is known; to judge, question, or reconsider by hindsight. Also refl. and absol. or intr."
> The two definitions are similar, but with the caveat that one occurs before an action, and the second after--a relatively large difference. This doesn't strike me as a normal example of a homonym, because the two definitions are so similar (but perhaps I am mistaken) that they could easily be confused in conversation, whereas someone referring to the human 'race' is less likely to be confused as to where they should line up and listen for the starter's pistol. Your suggestion of [Greek] anathema, which can also be used to mean "a delight" seems more in line with what I'm thinking. Perhaps these are all examples of homonyms, and my sense of homonyms is too narrow. At any rate, can you think of any other words that have this type of opposing or highly confusable alternate definition?

[signed]: Caitlin Wall

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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