It is a truth generally acknowledged that English, as a second language, is both easy and impossible. The simplistic structure and minimal inflection of English make it easy to string together basic sentences without much training or practice. But English is also a mish-mash of different language families, which makes for frequent confusion for learners — and, let’s face it, sometimes native speakers — in terms of vocabulary (should I use the Germanic or Latinate word? American or British English?), pronunciation (why, heteronyms?) and spelling (again, just…why?). And let’s not even start with the strange idioms that make it difficult even for English speakers from different countries to understand each other.
In many ways, despite being a “global” language, English is dreadful. And recently I’ve been reminded of another thing that makes English dreadful: contronyms. Also called autoantonyms, these are words with two contradictory definitions: they are their own opposites.
Take, for example, to cleave. In the biblical sense (har har), it means to join or adhere, as in: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” — thanks, King James. BUT it can also mean to split, or divide by cutting, as in “He cleaved a path through the forest.” Same word, same spelling, same pronunciation, completely opposite meaning.
Some of these contronyms, like cleave, aren’t super common and so don’t cause much trouble out in the world. But some of them are among the most frequently used words in the English language. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to people trying to learn English as a second or third language? Just…English, why??
I say we stop the madness, choose just one definition for these words, and stick with it. We can learn to use a different word for the second, opposite meaning. It would be a small price to pay if it would make the English language a little less stupid.
Below are just a few of English’s many awful contronyms, some of which can also be nouns in addition to being verbs with two opposite meanings (grrr). Which definitions should stay and which should go?
Trim: to add decorations around the edges — e.g. “trim the tree” — OR to remove extra around the edges — e.g. “trim the hedges.”
Apparently the meaning depends entirely on the plant you’re trimming.
Sanction: to approve — as in “government-sanctioned activities” — OR to disapprove, prohibit — as in “government sanctions.”
…Yeah. Misunderstanding this one could lead to some serious consequences.
Overlook: to see everything from a key vantage point — as in “my window overlooks the lake” — OR to ignore or fail to see something at all — as in my favorite line from 10 Things I Hate About You: “Now I know Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he knows his shit, so we can overlook that.”
Oversight has the same problem: is it careful supervision or is it a mistake that no one noticed? Maybe starting a word with over is the problem.
Dust: to remove dust — as in “we need to dust the living room before folks come over” — OR to add a thin layer of dust or other material — as in “I dusted the cake with powdered sugar.”
So, like trim, the meaning depends on the thing you’re dusting.
Out: visible or in place — as in “sun’s out, guns out!” — OR invisible or not in place — as in “lights out” or “out of the office.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on out. Pretty much all prepositions in pretty much all languages are idiomatic and their usage make no logical sense. But that’s a grammar rant for another day…
Finished: to be completed and made whole — as in “I finished the exam” or “the scrapbook is finished” — OR to be destroyed — as in “his career is finished.”
This one is fun because its meaning depends entirely on inflection: if you say “I’m finished,” the only way I know whether to congratulate or console you is to see whether you seem happy or sad about it.
Bound: to move in a certain direction — as in “eastbound traffic” or “homeward bound” — OR to be constrained and kept from moving — as in “bound in chains.”
Custom: a common practice — as in “the customary greeting” — OR a specially made, unique thing — as in “custom-made shirts.”
Left: to depart or move away — as in “he left this morning” — OR to remain or stay behind, as in “I only have a few books left to read.”
You can’t even depend on an active vs. passive voice distinction for this one, because in the active voice you can not only depart, but also cause something to stay behind, as in “I left my keys at home.”
Strike: to hit — as in “the miners struck gold” or a strike in bowling — OR to miss hitting — as in a strike in baseball.
Not only does this one mean opposite things in different sports/games, but it has two other meanings as well: to go on strike is to refuse to work until conditions are met, and to strike out is to leave with purpose, as in on a journey.
Now I am not anti-nuance, or anti-multiple-definitions-or-layers-of-meaning. I study ancient languages; I live for that crap! But even if context usually tells you which definition is in play, wouldn’t life just be simpler if we used words that didn’t have the possibility of meaning the exact opposite of what you think they mean? We can make English less terrible, people! So let’s cleave together and sanction these words! The days of ambiguity are finished!