lexical query

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Mon Sep 3 23:31:47 UTC 2007


So far as I can determine, there is still no accepted term to
describe words or phrases that mean both themselves and their
opposites -- autoantonyms, iI have called them, or paradoxical or
oxymoronic words.  Other terms I've come across for this: ambiguity,
amphibology, equivocation.

Examples abound:

in English, literally is used figuratively as well as literally --
to bone means to add bone, or to remove it.
Cleave means cling to or separate (yes, I know they're from different
roots -- so?).
Sanction means approve and ban.
Oversight, to watch over, to miss or not see
scan: to examine closely, to skim

and of course there's torture: to treat inhumanely, as defined by the
Geneva Convention, or -- well, whatever Alberto Gonzales said it
really means, which is something more closely resembling actual
death.  But hey, the administration gets to write its own dictionary,

Like matter and antimatter, if you put these autoantonyms together
the competing meanings self-destruct. If we really want to push the
physics analogy, maybe we could call them quantum words -- both wave
and particle, floorwax and dessert topping. Impossible to pin down
where they are or how fast they're going, the words jump from one
state to another or exist in both simultaneously.

There are refinements too:

The positive term actually means the negative: "I could care less"
actually means "I couldn't care less" (usage issues aside)

Some words and their apparent opposites actually mean the same thing:
"bone" and "debone" both mean to remove the bone from meat or fish;
unthaw exists alongside thaw (tho it's not "std"), both meaning to

And in at least one case, "ravel," the word means itself and it's
opposite, and co-exists with another related negative, "unravel."
When in Macbeth "sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care," it's
actually the "unraveled" sleeve that's knit up.

Some words seem like opposites but aren't:  flammable, inflammable

again, plenty of examples, no agreed-upon rhetorical or grammatical
terms to describe the phenom


Dennis (trying to avoid curly quotes, hard line breaks, and other
distractions like sig files)

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

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