Contronyms.

I remember reading, as a kid, a children’s storybook called ‘Amelia Bedelia’, in which Amelia got a job as a housekeeper without having any knowledge of how to keep house. It was memorable because of the humour involved in her being told to dust the living room, but having no idea how. She proceeded to cover every surface in the living room with the dusting powder she found  in the bathroom. Obviously, the result was the exact opposite of what her employer had intended.

Photo by mohamed abdelghaffar on Pexels.com

I still remember the experience of understanding for the first time that there are words that have opposite or contradictory meanings despite being exactly the same words. What a revelation! Words had just become automatically more interesting and exciting.

Dust is one of a small and interesting collection of words called contronyms.
A contronym is more than just a homophone or homograph: it must have two meanings that are contrary to one another.

To dust can mean to remove the dust from a surface: Amelia Bedelia learned that to dust the furniture meant to polish or sweep the furniture in order to keep it clean. It can also mean to sprinkle the surface of something with a powdery substance:: a baker might dust a cake with sugar, a weightlifter dusts their hands with chalk to create extra grip, and snow can dust the landscape.

To cleave is to chop or cut through something. One can cleave a piece of wood in two with an axe, or cleave a piece of meat on two with a special knife called a cleaver.It is even possible to cleave through something figuratively: a swimmer might be said to cleave through the water, or a plane through the air. However, cleave can also mean exactly the opposite: to hold together.One can also cleave to one’s partner or spouse by holding them close, or by remaining faithful to them. In the same way, one can cleave to one’s faith or ideology by living faithfully according to its tenets and teachings.

Fast can mean with great speed: one can run fast, or a lab test might have a fast result if it happens quickly. It can also mean to not move at all: a tile might be held fast to the wall by strong glue, or a vine might cling fast to a tree.

Buckle can mean to bend or fold. A wall can buckle under the force of water or wind. Legs can buckle underneath a person who is carrying something too heavy for them, or as the result of a shock or impact. Buckle can also mean to fasten or hold something in place, just as a buckle on a belt or shoe does.

You could even say that someone who cleaves to something holds fast to it, while a buckle can hold a shoe fast to the foot wearing it!

Note that not all words that are contronyms have only those two meanings.

To bear can mean to carry, as in a burden or a grudge.
To bear can also mean to give birth – meaning that the child is no longer being carried.
These meanings make bear a contronym, regardless of its multiple other meanings and nuances.

A koala – which is not actually a bear – bearing her baby, which she previously bore.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Contronyms: Words that have two opposite meanings.
#grammar #words #English

Ploce: It Is What It Is.

One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.

The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .

Photo by Cristian Rojas on Pexels.com

Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave.
That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.

Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.

  • It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
  • It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: 
    Examples:
    “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
    “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”

    Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
  • It can involve a change in the form of the word.
    Example:
    “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”

    This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.

Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:

Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3
Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3

Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.

Sources:
Silva Rhetorica
ThoughtCo.
Britannica.com

Ploce: It Is What It Is
#words #vocabulary #Shakespeare

Why the W is called ‘Double U’ instead of ‘Double V’.

Why do we call the W ‘double U’ instead of ‘double V’?

For the answer to this, we need to go back to Rome, where they made no distinction V and U, nor between the letters I and J, even though one of each pair is a vowel and the other a consonant.

This means that in Roman times, these pairs of letters– U and V , and I and J –were what we call allographs. An allograph is an alternative form of the same letter, like upper and lower case letters, or the same letter in plain or italic, or in different fonts. Replacing one with the other does not change how the words are said.

Thats why you’ll see AVGVSTVS instead of AUGUSTUS or IVLIVS instead of JULIUS on old Roman coins.

Images used under Creative Commons Licences: Image 1 Image 2

The Romans did not have a letter for the /w/ sound because they didn’t really use it. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons of early medieval England used the sound a lot in their language, so they needed a letter for it when they started writing things down using the Latin alphabet instead of the runic alphabet they had used previously. They originally wrote it as uu– which makes sense as the /w/ sound comes right at the end of the long /u/ sound– but then reverted to using the runic character wynn to represent the sound. When the Normas arrived in England in the 11th century, they brought back the usage of the conjoined uu to represent the /w/ sound, and it literally became the double U.

Even in today’s English, the previous identity of U and V is reflected in the varied spelling of similarly pronounced words such as flower and flour, guard and ward, or lour and lower.

Sources:
Grammarphobia
Lexico.com

Why the W is called ‘Double U’ instead of ‘Double V’.
#English #language #history

Frequently Confused Words: Conscious vs Conscience

This post was inspired by the numerous social media posts I saw this week either stating that certain Australian politicians “have no conscious” or wishing that they would “have a conscious”.While that is, quite ironically, a remarkably astute observation, what those comments obviously meant was that certain Australian politicians have no conscience

Screen shot from Google taken on March 7th, 2021

Conscious is an adjective which means awake, aware, alert, responsive, or possessing mental or moral faculty. If the tweets had been observing a lack of those qualities in said politicians, the word should have been consciousness, as that is the noun form.

Of course, given the behaviour of certain members of the government in recent weeks, and of certain journalists who defend them without investigation or proof of innocence, there is a very strong argument to be made that they lack any number of types of consciousness.

Conscience is the innate, internal knowledge or recognition of right and wrong behaviour, speech, thoughts or motives, or one’s inner sense of fairness and justice. It can also refer to one’s mental or moral faculty that makes decisions based on such knowledge or recognition.

Given the behaviour of certain members of the government in recent weeks, and of certain journalists who defend them without investigation or proof of innocence, there is also a very strong argument to be made for a complete and utter lack of conscience among them.

The two words are crucially different… unless, of course, one lacks both. In that case, the distinction is somewhat irrelevant.

Frequently Confused Words: Conscious vs Conscience
#vocabulary #words

Raspberry.

A raspberry can be one of two things.

First and foremost, a raspberry is a small red, black or yellow fruit which grows on a bramble or vine-like style of bush, and which generally tastes delicious.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In English, the word raspberry goes back to the early 1600s, but its actual origins are a matter of contention: it could have come from Old French, Medieval Latin, or one of the Germanic languages.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The second sense of the word raspberry dates to the late 19th century, and relates to the rude sound made with one’s tongue and lips. This meaning is derived from ‘raspberry tart’, which is rhyming slang for ‘fart’, which is precisely what a raspberry sounds like.

Blowing a raspberry is also called a Bronx cheer, a term which came from the sound being used to express derision or displeasure during sporting matches in the area of New York City called the Bronx.

In linguistic terms, blowing a raspberry is an unvoiced labial fricative. This may seem like somewhat useless information for anyone other than linguists and language enthusiasts, but rude children can be quite effectively stunned into submission with reprimands such as “Don’t you dare address me with your unvoiced labial fricatives!” I know this, because I have achieved it more than once with other people’s teenagers.

This term has also been immortalised in the Golden Raspeberry Awards or Razzies, a parody of the Oscars in which the awards are given for terrible performances in film.

Finally, raspberry is also used as an adjective to describe any shade of purplish red colour, as referenced by Prince in Raspberry Beret. You don’t need to thank me for the earworm – you’re welcome!

Raspberry beret
Photo by Roel Wijnants on Flickr. Reproduced without alteration under Creative Commons licence.

Sources:
Etymonline
The Razzies
Wiktionary

Raspberry.
#words #language #blog

Word Nerdy Book Recommendations

If there’s something word nerds love, it’s word-nerdy books.

Personally, I love a great dictionary or thesaurus. I also enjoy books that explore different aspects of the English language and how we use it.

These three books are books I have particularly enjoyed over recent months.

Word Perfect by Susie Dent

This is a wonderful compilation that will please any word lover or etymology enthusiast.

Dent writes with clarity and good humour. The word for each day, and Dent’s definition and etymology of each, are interesting and quirky.

The challenge is to only read each day’s offering instead of running ahead an consuming it more quickly.

Grab a copy, keep it by your favourite chair, and enjoy a wordy treat each day. You won’t be sorry.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

This is a most interesting and entertaining book that traces the histories of words and phrases used in English.

It is a collection of most diverting rabbit holes in print: a world of fascinating information that draws you deeper in each time. Not once have I managed to look up the word or phrase I wanted to reference without discovering another entry nearby that was just as captivating as the first… or second… or third entry I had read.

It really is a treasure trove of words, etymology and history that will delight any lover of the English language.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Usage and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book is a delight. With the aim of helping writers achieve greater clarity and better style, Dreyer examines the “rules” of English as we know them, and provides a clear and understandable guide to using the English language most effectively.

The book is written with humour and a relaxed tone, and delivers content that is far more accessible for the everyday reader and writer than my beloved and very worn copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is now far less modern than it was when I first obtained the book.

Dreyer’s English is an ideal reference for today’s writers, regardless of their preferred form or the purpose for which they write. It’s also entertaining enough to pick up and read on a Saturday afternoon, without feeling at all like it’s time you’ll never get back.

Highly recommended.

Word Nerdy #BookRecommendations
#words #language

What’s Your ‘Word of the Decade’?

At the end of every year, there is much discussion about which words particularly define the year.

Now, the team at the Macquarie Dictionary is inviting us to vote for what we believe has been the word or term that defines the past decade.

There are some very good inclusions that still carry meaning and import, while others have already fallen in popularity and are not so commonly used.

Even so, the list is a interesting read and an insightful commentary on the past ten years.

Anyone can vote, so have a read and have your say in about the words and terms that evoke the 2010’s most clearly.

Source: Macquarie Dictionary

What’s Your ‘Word of the Decade’?
#words #language #blogpost

Dysphemism.

Euphemism— using neutral or pleasant terms in place of offensive or negative terms— has been mentioned multiple times on this blog.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Most people, though, have never heard of dysphemism, which is the opposite practice: using harsh or negative terms in place of neutral or positive language.

To refer to dying as “passing away” or “graduating to heaven” is euphemism.
To refer to it as “kicking the bucket” or “carking it” is dysphemism.

To refer to having a cold as “being under the weather” is euphemism.
To refer to it as “having the plague” is dysphemism.

English is full of examples of dysphemism. What’s your favourite?
Alternatively, is there one you really dislike?

Dysphemism.
#language #EnglishLanguage #blog

The Proud Man’s Contumely.

In Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy — the one that stars with “To be or not to be…” — the overthinking prince lists a number of problems that make life hard to bear. Most of these are things to which we can relate quite easily: oppression, love that is not returned, the wheels of justice turning too slowly, and people being rude to you.

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Most people, though, would read the speech and get to the phrase ‘the proud man’s contumely’ and be completely stumped.  It’s not a word one comes across terribly often. In all honesty, it’s probably only literature scholars and high school students studying ‘Hamlet’ that are likely to come across the word, and only one of those groups are likely to know right away what it means.

Contumely is a very old word that means disrespectful, offensive or abusive speech or behaviour.

Contumely is interesting in that most English words that end in -ly are adverbs, which describe verbs, but this is a noun. It doesn’t follow the grammatical pattern of English because it is not originally an English word.

It came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word contumelie,. That came from the Latin word contumelia, which meant’ reproach’ or insult’, and is related to ‘contumax’ with means ‘haughty’ or ‘insolent’.

These days, we’re far more likely to use terms like ‘insolence’, ‘disrespect’ ‘scorn’ or  ‘abuse’ instead. 

Still, it could be fun to respond to someone’s arrogance with ‘I do not have to tolerate your contumely’. Hopefully, it would leave them as perplexed as those high school students reading Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time.

It could also be useful to know that someone behaving with contumely would be described as contumelious.

This word evolved in the 15th century, so it follows the common pattern of the noun form being used first and the adjective coming afterwards.  Mr Darcy’s haughty dismissal of Elizabeth Bennet at their first meeting, a lawyer strutting and posturing in the courtroom, or one’s mother-in-law’s disdain for their general existence could all be described as contumelious.

References:
Vocabulary.com
wordsmith.org
Online Etymology Dictionary

The Proud Man’s Contumely.
#words #Shakespeare #language

Awesome.

Image by spirit111 on Pixabay

“Awesome!” is an expression that has become widely used in response to things  or experiences that are really good and very positive and, in my opinion, has become greatly cheapened by overuse.

Dating back to the late 16th century, ‘awesome’ used to be an expression of something that generated profound reverence or fear.

This was the original sense of the word ‘awe’, which goes back to around the turn of the 13th century. It was the term used in English translations of the Bible to describe the human response to the presence of God or of angels: deep fear and worship at the same time.

The phrase “stand in awe” dates back to the early 15th century. The phrase “awe-inspiring’ was first recorded in 1814.

Sources:
Macquarie Dictionary
Etymonline

Awesome.
#words #language #awesome