LINGUIST List 6.209

Mon 13 Feb 1995

Disc: Words that are their own opposites, cont.

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  1. Jean Braithwaite, Re: 6.167 Words that are their own opposites
  2. Alex Eulenberg, Words that are their own opposites: SUM, cont'd.
  3. Bill Johnston, Re: 6.191 Words that are their own opposites

Message 1: Re: 6.167 Words that are their own opposites

Date: Sat, 11 Feb 1995 13:38:14 Re: 6.167 Words that are their own opposites
From: Jean Braithwaite <>
Subject: Re: 6.167 Words that are their own opposites

And how about

FINE, meaning
 1. meets minimum standards of acceptibility, possibly just
 2. markedly better than the usual


HANDICAP, meaning
 1. disadvantage in some context
 2. advantage given to weaker competitor

Jean Braithwaite
University of Maryland
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Message 2: Words that are their own opposites: SUM, cont'd.

Date: Sun, 12 Feb 1995 15:03:03 Words that are their own opposites: SUM, cont'd.
From: Alex Eulenberg <>
Subject: Words that are their own opposites: SUM, cont'd.

Here are some explanations of three famous types of auto-antonymy. Bob
Fradkin gives us the auto-antonymy of verbs of covering/uncovering, Chuck
Bigelow follows the English blackening of Indo-European 'white', and David
Gamon explores how modal expressions may come to mean their opposite.

* * *

Bob Fradkin ( writes:

DUST is part of a series of noun-verb conversions related to coverings of
things. If the noun gives a covering that is natural to the thing, then
the verb means "remove the covering." If the covering is imposed, the
verb means "put the covering on." So you get "shell an egg" "peel a
banana" but "paint the furniture" "wax the floor." Dust is interesting
because it can go either way: "dust the furniture" (a sort of natural
covering to be removed) vs. "dust the crops" (put stuff on them that they
didn't have and wouldn't unless humans put it there). I mentioned this in
my English grammar book "Stalking the Wild Verb Phrase" (Univ. Pr. of
America 1991) at the end of Chp. 3.

 * * *

Chuck Bigelow (bigelowCS.Stanford.EDU) writes:

)From historical linguistics, a well known example of a word's meaning
to its opposite is English "black", of which the Indo-European root is *bhel-
'to shine, flash, burn, be white' etc. Another modern reflex of *bhel is
- 'having a shining or white head'. From a variant of *bhel-, *bhelg-/*bhleg-
'to shine, burn' comes Germanic *blakaz 'burned', and thence Old English
"blaec" - 'black, that which has been burned'. Nifty. (I'm using Calvert
Watkins' Dictionary of IE Roots, Houghton Mifflin, as reference.)

 * * *

David Gamon ( writes:

Enantiodriomia refers to the diachronic process of acquiring an
"opposite" meaning, and I suppose a word having two such meanings would
be an enantiodrome. I learned this, by the way, from professor Matisoff
here at Berkeley.


The first example of such a word I had drawn to my attention is *doubt*,
which historically has a meaning such that to DOUBT that something be
true meant to SUSPECT it to be true. In some parts of northern England,
I'm told, it still has this meaning. This was brought to my attention by
Professor Bill Stewart at CUNY. Another example I'm familiar with is the
English modal *must*, which is reconstructed as meaning "to have freedom
or space"; the Gothic cognate meant "to be free or have permission (to do

There are two classes of explanation offered in the literature for this
particular example of enantiodromia.

First explanation: NEGATION DROPS OUT

Klaren (1913) and Antinucci and Parisi (1971) propose that the semantic
shift took place in a negative context, as follows: NEG (free to do X)
--) compelled (NEG (do X)) Given the equivalence of a lack of freedom to
do something and a compulsion to not do something, an innovative
"compulsion" semantics was reanalyzed from the "freedom" semantics in a
negative context with concomitant scope change of the negative operator.
The reanalysis is made esepcially perspicuous given A & P's notation,
which decomposes the older meaning of the modal (freedom/persmission)
into the primes NEG (BIND (NEG)): if one is free to do something, then
one is not bound to do it; if this is negated, the first two NEGs cancel
out to leave only the narrow-scope NEG, with a resultant meaning of BIND
NEG or "compelled not" with narrow-scope NEG, as follows: CAUSE (X)
(NEG(NEG(BIND(NEG(John goes out))))) [=J. may not go out] ---) CAUSE (X)
(BIND(NEG(John goes out))) [=John must not go out]

The same sort of explanation could be applied in reverse to the German
modal *duerfen*, which underwent a semantic shift from an original
"necessity" or "compulsion" semantics (cf. mod. Germ. *beduerfen* "need,
require," *duerftig* "needy, poor, lacking") to the modern "permission"
meaning: BIND(NEG(do X)) --) NEG(FREE(do X)) However, the A&P notation
fails to link the conservative and innovative senses in a natural manner.


The other kind of explanation has been proposed by Breal (quoted in Bech
1951, p. 19), Visser (1963-73, p. 1797) and Traugott (1989), and basically
proposes that permission is used as a polite way of imposing obligation,
with the implication subsequently being semanticized, or the originally
indirect speech act giving way to direct, conventionalized coding. One
might see the same sort of shift occurring in present-day English in
contexts that suggest that this sort of explanation may indeed be valid,
as in "You may leave now." One can see from this, at least, that what
counts as an "opposite" is largely a matter of the scale one implicitly
chooses along which to arrange the items at issue, or the specific
semantic prime upon which one chooses to focus. Also, one wouldn't even
think of conceptualizing the innovative meaning as antonymous if most of
the conservative meaning weren't being preserved intact. Another example
is *prove*, which in Middle English meant something like "to test," or in
a legal context, "to put on trial." When the expression "The exception
proves the rule" was coined, it quite logically meant that an exception
or counterexample to a generalization or claim makes you question the
generalization or that the exception so to speak puts the rule on trial.
As the verb *prove* shifted its meaning 180 degrees, the expression,
illogical though it then became, was preserved simply because it's so
handy--whenever someone presents counterevidence to your claim, you can
write it off as "the exception that proves the rule"! (It's interesting,
by the way, how many "folk" justifications there are of the sense of this
idiom--but that's another story.)


Antinucci, Francesco and Domenico Parisi (1971). On English modal verbs,
CLS 7: 28-39.
Bech, Gunnar (1951). Grundzuege der semantischen Entwicklungsgeschichte
der hochdeutschen Modalverba. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard.
Klaren, G.A. (1913). Die Bedeutungsentwicklung von KOENNEN, MOEGEN, und
MUESSEN in Hochdeutschen. Umea: Aktiebolaget Umea Tryckerier.
Traugott, Elizabeth C. (1989). On the rise of epistemic meanings in
English: an example of subjectification in semantic change. Language
65: 31-55.
Visser, Frederikus T. (1963-73). An historical syntax of the English
language. 3 vols. Leiden: Brill.
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Message 3: Re: 6.191 Words that are their own opposites

Date: Sun, 12 Feb 1995 11:02:52 Re: 6.191 Words that are their own opposites
From: Bill Johnston <billjuhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu>
Subject: Re: 6.191 Words that are their own opposites

Another example, known to devotees of The Times crossword, is 'cleave', which
means both to adhere to and to divide (a cloven hoof, meat cleaver).
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