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?