Sunday with Zin: Literaria – Contranyms

Hello I am Zin and it is time for Contranyms!

For the week of March 18 the Wordsmith “A Word A Day” theme was Contranyms! These are words that have opposite meanings and you just have to know which meaning is meant in a sentence! Sometimes they are called “autoantonyms” and sometimes they are called “antagonyms” and sometimes “contranym” is spelled “contronym” but do not let the charming inconsistency of language that reflects the human mind distract you from the fact that some words mean exactly the opposite of what they mean!

You do not believe me, do you? I will show you:

The word “secrete” is a perfectly fine word and if you come across it in a medical or biology setting it probably means “discharge.” Like the lachrymal glands secrete tears or the stomach secretes digestive acids (I am sorry if this seems disgusting but it is ok it is over now). The word did not start as a verb it started as a noun “secretion” in the middle of the 17th century which is about the time biology and medicine started waking up in the Renaissance! Latin was what all educated people knew back then so it was from the Latin word secretus which means “having been separated” and that makes sense if you think of tears being separated from lachrymal glands. “Secretion” was such a cool word it became a verb!

But what about the other “secrete”? Where has it hidden away?

I think if I am reading my OED correctly that the word “secrete” meaning “to hide away” is a variation of the verb “secret” which was around in the 16th century but quickly went obsolete. I think maybe it did not so much go obsolete as add an “e” and become “secrete” in the same sense!

This is interesting since here is the same word with two meanings and they came from different places except they really have at their heart the Latin root of secretus! This is pretty scary but it is again how language reflects people and people are often contradictory and confused! I think it does kind of make a sort of sense though because if the lachrymal glands secrete tears those tears are kind of hidden from the lachrymal glands yes? You have to really want it though!

So here I was thinking I would have to do a Literaria post on Contranyms when what do you know within a month suddenly Salon reprinted an article from The Week all about Contronyms! I think maybe Judith Herman gets the Wordsmith mailing too!

She includes fourteen words like:

Oversight: to watch over something or to overlook it! This may be why Senate Oversight Committees sometimes overlook when they should be supervising!

Cleave: To cut apart or to cling together! Hint: if you are told to cleave to someone the “to” gives it away and you should not chop them up because you do not “chop to”!

My very favorite contranym: Sanction!

Sanction confused me for decades! Sanctions on countries we get angry at but some sports like skating sanction certain events meaning they are acceptable! The Eiger sanction was a punishment but the President will not sanction use of military force! What is going on here? It is so confusing and I think I was in my 30s before I realized it means both things and you just have to figure out which is meant. Typically the noun version means a punishment, and the verb form means an approval, which could be a way of getting around contranym status since it changes parts of speech but I found out there are verb forms for both.

This is why I love words because they do not sit still and behave but squirm around and you get to figure out ways to live with them anyway!


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