Having it Both Ways With Contranyms

Ever noticed how some words can have two diametrically opposed meanings? Take, for instance, "oversight". A careful auditor exercises oversight, but a careless accountant can get you into trouble because of an oversight while doing your taxes.

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Now that the NBA Playoffs have narrowed from four teams to two, we have a couple of teams left. And a couple of teams have left.

The flexibility of the word left in this example is the sort of thing that gets essayist Ruth Levy Guyer doing a little research.

RUTH LEVY GUYER: I recently happened on a category of words that I had never heard of. I was thinking about how odd the word oversight is. Sometimes it means watchful supervision, but sometimes it indicates lack of supervision. So here we have a word that is its own opposite - an autoantonym.

I started looking around for other examples. Sanction someone said. Penalize a country by imposing sanctions, but sanction a country's activities when you approve of them. Then I thought of cleaving. When you cleave to your lever, you cling tightly together. But when you cleave your lever, say with the cleaver, the lever splits in two. And clang goes those prison doors.

Soon I discovered Web pages and books with lists of autoantonyms, also known as antagonyms, contranyms and genous-faced words. I had obviously not been the first to consider these curiosities. Dust was one antagonym that caught my eye. Dust a room and you remove particulate matter. Dust the chocolate cake with powdered sugar and you add particles. And a green field turns completely white during a light dusting of snow.

Speaking of fields, when you plant tomatoes, you seed the field. But when you make a gazpacho, you seed the tomatoes to render them seedless. Autoantonyms are like evil twins who cannot long or comfortably coexist. In Jose Saramago's "The Double", for example, a history teacher sees his exact twin acting in a movie. He determines that this man matches him down to scars and moles. He tracks the actor down, and the two men's lives become entwined.

Soon, the actor's wife says she feels a presentiment, a ghostlike presence in the house. Like a closed door behind another closed door. And Saramago's readers sensed, too, that this is not going to end well, certainly not in a simple comedy of twin-based errors.

Freud addressed evil twins when he spoke of the doppelganger, the walking double. When one saw one's double, that was an omen of death. And death apparently is also the fate of contranyms. The author of the book "Crazy English" notes that when a word has two polar opposite meanings, one meaning will soon die out. Like awful, which once meant awe inspiring as well as horrible.

So we should expect that sometime in the future, oversight, cleave, sanction, seed and the other genous-faced words will become singletons. As one of their opposing meanings disappears. Or is it appears? Just like dust in the wind.

HANSEN: Ruth Levy Guyer is the author of "Baby at Risk: The Uncertain Legacies Medical Miracles for Babies, Families and Society".

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