Query about "second guess"

David A. Daniel dad at POKERWIZ.COM
Thu Oct 16 17:10:32 UTC 2008

If she is looking for homonyms that have opposite or nearly opposite
meanings, "Oversight" is a big one. "The oversight committee committed an
oversight by not calling the witness."

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Cohen, Gerald Leonard
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2008 1:41 PM
Subject: Query about "second guess"

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

   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

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

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