I've been asked a couple of times what one calls a situation where a word is used to mean the opposite of what it normally means. I've usually interpreted the question to be about euphemisms, where the aim is to obscure or hide a reality. When people talk about 'passing away' instead of 'dying', or 'collateral damage' instead of 'war casualties', the reality stays the same, but the word alters. But an experience this week has made me think that my correspondents might have had in mind a different category of usage, where the word stays the same but the reality alters - and, moreover, alters to the extent of becoming the opposite of what it originally meant.
My wife and I returned from a trip abroad this week, flying Club World on British Airways. This allows one's luggage to be given a bright orange PRIORITY label, which means that it should be among the first bags to be offloaded at the destination. We arrived at Terminal 5 in Heathrow and waited for our bag. The luggage started to arrive, with priority labels randomly dispersed among the items. The term priority was beginning to lose its meaning, and I'd encountered this many times before. But this time it was different. Regular readers of this blog will recall a previous post about new words, one of which is bagonizing. We bagonized. All other passengers came, took up their bags and went, until eventually we were the only ones left at the carousel. We were just about to leave and file a complaint about a lost bag when, lo, alone and looking rather dejected, our bag stumbled through the portal, waving its PRIORITY label triumphantly. So there we have my example: this was as far away from priority as it was possible to get. The word was the same, but the reality was the opposite. For this linguistic relief, much thanks.
What to call such a phenomenon? I'm inclined to coin a term: antinyms. This was, I hope, a nonce-antinym - though others have now told me of similar experiences. They are of course the life-blood of satirical books, of the kind made famous by Andrew Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, such as apologise 'to lay the foundation for future offence'. I have a feeling there is an airline glossary just waiting to be written.
So: antinym - a word whose referent becomes the opposite of its original sense. There are many examples of this happening over long periods of time - such as wicked or wonder moving from 'bad' meanings to 'good' meanings. What I'm wondering is how often this sort of thing occurs synchronically. Maybe synchronic antinyms only occur in contexts of bad vs good practice or incorrect data. The railway station sign that says the 8.32 is 'on time' when it is now 8.40. The electronic road sign that says 'congestion' when there is congestion no longer. Such phenomena are transient, yet they recur to the extent of becoming expected events. I'd be interested to see some more examples.