Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

A Hol­ly­wood di­vorce doesn’t ex­cite much in­ter­est, but a joint state­ment from An­to­nio Ban­deras and Me­lanie Grif­fith an­nounc­ing their split cer­tainly did:

“We have thought­fully and con­sen­su­ally de­cided to fi­nal­ize our al­most twenty years mar­riage in a lov­ing and friendly man­ner honor­ing and re­spect­ing each other, our fam­ily and friends and the beau­ti­ful time we have spent to­gether”.

Do you see what I see? ‘Fi­nal­ize’ has been used to im­ply the end of their mar­riage, and doesn’t mean a be­gin­ning where a live-in re­la­tion­ship will now get le­gal con­fir­ma­tion, as the sen­tence sug­gests (let’s not even get into the miss­ing apos­tro­phe at the end of ‘years’).

‘Fi­nal­ize’ now be­comes yet an­other word with two mean­ings, one of which is de­fined as the re­verse of the other. As ex­pected, word­smiths have a name for such words (sev­eral, ac­tu­ally): con­tranym, auto-antonym, an­tagonym, self-antonym, and Janus word (af­ter the two-faced Ro­man de­ity).

Such words have al­ways ex­isted in the Mid­dle East, In­dia and other cul­tures. In Hindi ‘kal’ is a word that means ‘yes­ter­day’ as well as ‘to­mor­row’. ‘Ad­dad’ (plu­ral of did, mean­ing “op­po­site”) is the term em­ployed by Arab philol­o­gists to des­ig­nate those Ara­bic words each of which de­notes two op­po­site mean­ings. The pe­cu­liar­ity of this phe­nom­e­non in Ara­bic has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of schol­ars of dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, from the Mid­dle Ages up to the present (tra­di­tional Arab philol­o­gists list about 400 words while some mod­ern stud­ies limit the num­ber to about 20).

Here are some ex­am­ples of con­tranyms in com­mon us­age:

Cleave – the most fa­mous one, ap­pear­ing fre­quently in puz­zles and games; a word that means to split, as well as to stick to.

Rent – if some­one sim­ply says “I’m rent­ing”, could you tell if she’s a ten­ant or land­lady?

Dust – as a verb. It’s what a maid does to clean a sur­face (re­move dust), or what a cook does with pow­dered su­gar to a cake (add dust).

First de­gree – most se­vere in the case of a mur­der charge, or least se­vere in ref­er­ence to a burn

Hand­i­cap – an ad­van­tage pro­vided to en­sure equal­ity, or a dis­ad­van­tage that pre­vents equal achieve­ment.

Sanc­tion – to ap­prove, or to boy­cott the giv­ing of some­thing. Can you find more?

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