[Milton-L] language question

Jack Lynch jlynch at andromeda.rutgers.edu
Fri Feb 10 20:37:13 EST 2006

Anita Sherman writes:

    Please help me remember what (I think) I once knew.  What is 
    it about the evolution of the English language that results 
    in certain words--e.g. "cleave"--having antithetical 
    meanings?  Is there a term of art for these kinds of words?

Others have already commented on the process by which _cleave_ 
came to have apparently opposite meanings.  Some arise from two 
roots; some have senses that separate and then end up being 
contrary -- _sanction_, for instance, which can mean to permit or 
to punish.

Other examples, more or less satisfying, are "clip" (to attach or 
to separate), "screen" (to hide or to display), "cork" (to remove 
a cork or to insert a cork), "fast" (moving quickly or not moving 
at all), "quite" (slightly or completely), "to dust" (to remove 
dust or to add dust) and "oversight" (careful inspection or 
careless inattention).  If you expand your boundaries, you can 
admit things like "bad" (which in some slang usages can mean 
good) and "citation" (which can recognize either a good or a bad 
deed), as well as words like "rent" (which can be applied to 
either party in the transaction), though these are kinda iffy.

I don't know whether linguists have a serious term, but 
logophiles sometimes call such words "contronyms" (sometimes 
spelled "contranyms") or "Janus words."  I've also seen 
"auto-antonym" and "antagonym."  I don't think any of these 
terms, though, will be familiar enough to most readers that you 
could use them without an explanation.

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