Internally ambiguous words?

emckean at ENTERACT.COM emckean at ENTERACT.COM
Wed Feb 9 21:58:13 UTC 2000

If anyone (hint hint) wanted to draft a letter to VERBATIM by say, Feb 15,
asking for readers' help in finding examples of such words, I would be
more than happy to print it in the next issue. :-)

I can then forward results to the list.

I should check the VERBATIM archives as well. Unfortunately, I've not
internalized the twenty-some years of back issues as yet.

Erin McKean
editor at

On Wed, 9 Feb 2000, Mike Salovesh wrote:

> Here's another example of the same class -- "unionized".  To a chemist,
> that's clearly about ionization that hasn't happened or has been
> reversed: un + ionized. To the AFL/CIO, it means another shop has
> collective bargaining: union + ized.
> Obviously, David Bowie chose exactly the right word when he says he
> "wondered what might condition different READINGS of the same word in
> the same context." (Emphasis mine.) There's no ambiguity in spoken
> unionized  Unbuttoned, on the other hand . . .   Hmmm.  I, too, wish I
> had time to check this one out.
> -- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at>
> PEACE !!!
> Answering the following from David Bowie:
> > A student just asked me if there is a name for words that are internally
> > structurally ambiguous, like 'unbuttonable', which can mean 'not able to be
> > buttoned' or 'able to be unbuttoned', depending on whether it's analyzed as
> > un+buttonable or unbutton+able. Anybody on this list know what the term
> > might be, if one exists?
> >
> > (The reactions to the students in the class on the most natural meaning of
> > the word was interesting, and made me wonder what might condition different
> > readings of the same word in the same context. Yet *another* thing to put on
> > my 'Things that would be cool to look into if i had time, but i don't' list.
> > *sigh* )
> >
> > David Bowie                                       Department of English
> > Assistant Professor                            Brigham Young University
> > db.list at    
> >    The opinions stated here are not necessarily those of my employer
> --

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