Josna Rege

183. Autoantonyms

In Books, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on April 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

I’ve heard it said humorously of Arabic that it is characterized by words that mean themselves, their opposite, and a camel. Wondering if the saying might be a slur on the language and its speakers, I looked it up recently and found that Arabs themselves freely acknowledge this feature of the language—see, for instance, this article by poet Tamim al-Barghouti—although the bit about camels should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Far from being a slur suggesting that Arabic speakers have a tenuous hold on reality, the saying suggests to me a richly allusive language that recognizes the complexity of reality and the unity of opposites; that all meaning is derived from differences and that nothing is ever one thing alone, black or white, but always both and much else besides.

In his brilliant novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie once wrote of Hindi speakers, in mock despair, that a people whose language uses the same word (कल/ kal) for yesterday and tomorrow show a failure to grasp the concept of time. However, lest one be tempted to think that English, on the other hand, is sensibly cut-and-dried, an orderly language in which one can reliably say precisely what one means and nothing else, think again. There is a large category of words in English known as autoantonyms which, as their name suggests, are also their own opposites, uniting contradictory meanings.  (They are also known as contranyms.) Take for example, the verb/noun “sanction,” which can mean both to punish and to endorse; or the noun “oversight,” which can mean both attentive supervision and its opposite, the failure to notice or take into account.

But speaking of oversights, while sitting here this Monday morning composing my first entry for the A to Z Challenge, which requires participants to write a piece corresponding to a letter of the alphabet every day over the month of April, I have suddenly remembered a major oversight on my part which requires me to cut off immediately and unceremoniously: Work.

Work: another autoantonym, if you think about it. Over and out!

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Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. That was a cool post, I’m glad I came across it.

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog earlier today. Words are just so fascinating.

    • Yes, they’re endlessly fascinating, Cynthia! It’s interesting how, when you sit with a word for a while and think deeply about its origins and its multiple, changing meanings, it can grow into a luminous symbol. I understand the power of “In the beginning was the Word.” As they have multiplied in our era, they have become empty and devoid of meaning.
      I visited your blog today and loved your “Colon” entry–such fun!

  3. Cleave, to hold tightly to something. Cleave, to cut something apart.

    I’ll have to keep my mind alert for others — I know they’re there, I just can’t think of them right now. Lots of fun with this topic!

    • Love that one, Sarah.
      I read on one of the sites I linked to in the post that one of the origins of this phenomenon was as follows: if you, say, dust something (verb), you remove the dust (noun). So the same word in different parts of speech come to mean both dust and the removal of dust. But this doesn’t account for all the words in the category of autoantonyms.

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