LINGUIST List 6.253

Sun 19 Feb 1995

Disc: Words that are their own opposites

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  1. Roger Hurwitz, words that are their own opposite
  2. benji wald, Re: 6.234 Words that are their own opposites

Message 1: words that are their own opposite

Date: Sat, 18 Feb 1995 15:39-050words that are their own opposite
From: Roger Hurwitz <>
Subject: words that are their own opposite

In trying to explain autoantonymity, it might be help to distinguish
several different relations:

1. Diachronic -- "nice" in the 18th century meant mean or petty.

2. Sarcasm -- "nun" as in Requiem for a or "nunnery" as in "get thee to a"
 Or as in the story of the noted philosopher (reputedly Nagel) who in
during a lecture noted that in English two negatives made a positive
while two positives did not make a negative. A voice from the back of
the room replied: "yeah, yeah."

3. Synchronic and sincere -- e.g., "cleave" this is probably the most in-
 teresting, and will probably have the least commonsense explanation,
 won't it?

On a related topic, the use of the negative in Hebrew which retains a
positive meaning might actually amount to a subjunctive voice, although
it is also the case of late in Jerusalem that the only places where you
can park are those where you can't legally.

Roger Hurwitz
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, NE43-701
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
545 Technology Square
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-4301
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Message 2: Re: 6.234 Words that are their own opposites

Date: Sat, 18 Feb 95 17:50 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.234 Words that are their own opposites

The discussion on whatchamacallits is so much fun (as well as edifying) that
I couldn't resist the following:

Eulenberg noted that Chuck Bigelow at Stanford gave him "black" as a word
which has "shifted" its meaning from "white" (i.e., "bright") Indo-E
*bhel+g- " shine/ burn/be bright/white" (cf. bald/pie+bald).
Taking the etymology a step further , then, we find that "black"
and "blank" are cognates having "opposite" meanings (etymo-doublets).
Similarly, "blaze" (of a fire) comes from the same root.
(Cognate to "black" is Latin-derived "flagrant" with the
meaning of "burning so bright it can't be ignored"). To current
English ears even more similar than "black" vs. "blank" is Old
English blaec "dark/black", commonly used across older Germanic
to refer to "ink", vs. Old English blae:c (long vowel)
"bright/shining" (cf. "bleach" and "bleak", hmm "bleak" is not
as cheerful as "bright", is it? does that mean it has also
shifted its meaning to its opposite?). Skeats shakes his
philological head, observing that editors of Old English texts
often confused the two words.

I guess the opposition remains in the philosophical expressions
"blank slate" (= tabula rasa) vs. "black box" (= something
loaded with stuff we can't see), as in Locke/Skinner vs.
Chomsky (sorta). Given the chromatic change from burn-ING to
burn-T, I would expect some other language family to have a
similar pair, but the closest I can come is the totally
strained and unetymological Swahili m-OSH-i "smoke,
soot" vs. OSH-a "wash (hands)". The morpheme boundaries are
right, but the root of moshi is OT-a (heat/burn, cf. m-OT-o
"fire") and of osha is OG-a ("bathe/swim"). As linguists, you
all enjoy this pun, right? Or does it lose something in the

As long as we're on the subject, I'll end by noting (because
nobody else wanted to) that one of our intellectual ancestors,
Varro (I think -- my apologies to him if it was somebody else),
raised words that are their own opposites to a scientific
principle in his etymology "lucus quia non lucendus" (grove
because Neg light- ING) "(it's called a) grove because it's NOT
light (i.e., there's no light in it)." Was he trying to be
luc-id or lud-ic? -- Benji
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