Query about "second guess"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Oct 16 18:56:48 UTC 2008

At 2:10 PM -0300 10/16/08, David A. Daniel wrote:
>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."

and "table" (as a verb), and "cleave" (together vs. apart), and
"sanction", and about 1000 others.  There's a thread somewhere on
these, in fact several, as the question recurs every few years.
We've variously called them Janus-words, antilogies, and (my
favorite) enantionyms.  Another bunch is goal (add ___ to) vs. source
(remove ____ from) polysemies in verbs:  "dust", "skin", "ravel",
"bark", "trim",...


>-----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

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

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