JANUS WORDS

February 5, 2010 at 10:13 pm (LANGUAGE, PAPERS)

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to examine the phenomenon of contronyms, also known as auto-antonyms, autantonyms, antagonyms, self-antonyms and Janus Words. Contronyms are words that are their own antonyms. (Note: here the term “contronym” is used to denote not only the word itself, but also the contradiction between its two different meanings).

I first became interested in the phenomenon while reading Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice”, where I encountered the use of the word “terrific” in its old, literal sense. Interestingly for me, there is a Hebrew word with a similar meaning (“נורא”), that went through a similar transformation process, although this happened much more recently (Hebrew being a revived language), and over much shorter period of time than had happened to its English counterpart. There is also a similar case in Russian (from which modern Hebrew speakers may have borrowed), but it is not used as often as in Hebrew. And, unlike in English, in neither Hebrew nor Russian has the word abandoned its original, “terrible” meaning.

For the purpose of this paper I am only interested in contronyms with common etymology (i.e. polysemy), as opposed to true homophones whose meanings are contradictory, such as the verbs “cleave”, “buckle” and “let”. The reason is that the latter seem to have acquired their identical spellings more or less accidentally, rather than as a result of cultural and psychological shifts through which the English-speaking societies went over certain periods of time. It is these shifts and their influence on language that interest me the most, and that I would like to begin to examine.

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9 Comments

  1. Tedd McHenry said,

    It may not be there yet, but it seems to me that “quantum” is on its way to becoming a contronym. Quantum in physics implies (although it does not quite literally mean this) the smallest possible quantity of something. But misapplication of the phrase “quantum leap” has lead to “quantum” being used in everyday speech as an adjective to mean a large measure of something.

  2. Alisa said,

    Actually, this is not necessarily a misapplication. Rather, the sense in which the word is used in physics is very specific and narrow, while its general use as you describe it seems to be closer to its original meaning.

  3. mike said,

    Hello Alisa,

    Don’t you think there is an argument to be made for the inclusion of the adjective “liberal” in your list of contronyms? The current, predominantly U.S. sense, applies to someone who favours greater government intervention in society, whereas the “classical” (arguably British) sense applies to someone who favours preventing or limiting such intervention.

    Best,
    mike

  4. Alisa said,

    Don’t think so Mike: problem is, most Americans (at least pre-Obama and pre-Tea-Party) have been using ‘liberal’ as an antonym of ‘conservative’, applying both terms almost exclusively to the so-called ‘life-style’ issues – i.e. sex, drugs and religion (and arguably abortion). Used in that sense, the American term is still consistent with the “classical” (European?) origin. Most unfortunately, very few people, in the US or anywhere else for that matter, realize even now that the distinction between economics and other areas of life is nothing but artificial. And so for many years, except for the periodic economic downturn and an occasional military engagement, the political discourse in the US has been almost exclusively concerned with matters of life style and virtually ignored everything else.

  5. mike said,

    Well I understand, but I think the question of whether “liberal” ought to be included as a contronym is interesting. For a start, the U.S. use of the term to designate a “social liberalism” in reference to the life style issues you mention is itself incoherent upon closer inspection. It’s not merely that U.S. liberals want no law against issues relating to sex, drugs, abortion, stem-cell research etc… they often do want government coercion, but coercion to advance their own views, e.g. government funding for stem-cell research. So I don’t see the demarcation of social liberalism and economic liberalism as coherent.

    But the other thing is whether you want to be using common “definitions” – however incoherent – for popular terms or whether you want to stipulate to conceptual integrity. That isn’t really any of my business, and while of course there are obvious contexts in translation for stipulating to the common, non-contronym form, I can certainly imagine contexts where I might want to play on the word “liberal” as a contronym.

  6. Alisa said,

    Of course the question is an interesting one, the reason being that it is politically loaded – and that also being the reason it can never be answered in anything even approaching the level of (rather limited) objectivity of other linguistic questions.

    It’s not merely that U.S. liberals want no law against issues relating to sex, drugs, abortion, stem-cell research etc… they often do want government coercion, but coercion to advance their own views, e.g. government funding for stem-cell research.

    Of course – in reality. Problem is, linguists do not examine objective reality, or any reality at all, for that matter (other than, well, the linguistic one). The only point where linguistic research is tangential to reality is the fact that language reflects people’s subjective perception of it – perception which is highly influenced by political manipulations, among myriad other factors.

    I can certainly imagine contexts where I might want to play on the word “liberal” as a contronym.

    There, one example of such possible political manipulation for you:-)

  7. Alisa said,

    OK, OK, ‘countermanipulation’:-)

  8. mike said,

    “The only point where linguistic research is tangential to reality is the fact that language reflects people’s subjective perception of it – perception which is highly influenced by political manipulations, among myriad other factors.”

    Hmm… is not that word “tangential” a more likely measure of the interests of linguists in the political aspect of reality than of the possible importance of linguistic phenomena to that reality?

    As for political counter-manipulation… you’re the one wanting to leave “liberal” off your list of contronyms!😉

  9. Alisa said,

    Well, if by ‘linguistic phenomena’ you mean the language itself, then yes, obviously it has great importance to reality. Linguistic research, on the other hand, has very little direct importance to anything or anyone other than linguists. As to interests of linguists in politics, all humans have such interests – some just happen to be linguists.

    It’s my list, and I’ll put what I want on it:-)

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