Wednesday, 14 July 2010

On antinyms

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.

18 comments:

LittleSuz said...

How about 'shortly' - as in that favourite automated telephone queue phrase, "One of our advisors will be with you shortly"?

DC said...

Good one.

R A Harless said...

When people wonder why a simple step wasn't taken that would have easily avoided later problems, I like to say "That would make/have made too much sense."

R A Harless said...

To Little Suz: My favorite part is "We appreciate your call."

Carl said...

I think the most heavily used antinym is 'free' - as in "Free on plans over £30 a month" or "You can get the handset free for only £15 on ..."

světluška said...

When I started reading, I thought you were going to write about saying words like hot when one means cold, white when one means black. Does that have a name?

DC said...

I don't know of anything - other than the everyday notions of telling lies and being perverse (a good example of the latter is Petruchio in 'The Taming of the Shrew', at the point where he is trying to 'tame' Katerina, and uses antonyms to do so).

JLJ said...

Telephone or doorstep sales calls from power companies often begin with the words "Don't worry - I'm not selling anything."

Anonymous said...

Don't know whether my teenage daughter's ironic use of "clearly" to comment on confused situations and explanations counts. I am sure you meant to write Ambrose (not Andrew) Bierce - I am showing a little learning here which he defined as "the kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious".

DC said...

I wasn't thinking of ironic or sarcastic usage, when I introduced this topic, as intonation, facial expression, and so on are clues which tell us that the meaning is different. It's the sentence that conveys the effect, rather than the individual word.

Point taken about Ambrose. I blame jet-lag.

Ashman said...

Here in Australia, we recently had a so-called "debate" shown on TV between the two main candidates of the upcoming federal election. Sadly for the Australian people, it was the complete opposite of a debate - they didn't talk to each other directly, or even respond to each other's arguments, but merely presented empty rhetoric in response a series of questions from members of the press. It was basically a press conference. But to make us feel democratically warm and fuzzy they called it a debate. I think politicians are probably some of the best sources of antinyms around.

Ben said...

I've noticed that the phrase "show-stopper" seems to have almost reversed its meaning. I used to know it as meaning something very good (a song in a musical that caused such prolonged applause that the actors had to wait before they could continue the show). Recently I've heard people use it to mean something very bad, that stops some intended thing from happening (akin to deal-breaker).

Achilleas K. said...

I was thinking of the word 'original' as used by some academics. For instance, a paper might be described as 'strikingly original' as a sign of approval; alternatively, it could be rejected or penalised for being 'too original' if it doesn't follow established conventions or use the literature effectively. Book reviews are also good hunting ground for such antinyms (e.g. 'an interesting contribution', 'a book that is bound to receive a lot of scholarly attention')

Paul said...

"Literally" now means "metaphorically". Pedants complain about this one, but I can't remember the last time I heard "literally" being used to mean something which is absolutely true in the sense of the core meanings of the actual words used.

UB said...

Certainly the 60s-70s slang use of "bad" to mean good would qualify: "Wow, did you see that dunk? It was bad!"

lpf20 said...

The one I notice most often today is "sick". Where I take this to mean perverted or revolting (if not "unwell") the generation below me takes this as a positive.

I'm quite offended, until I remember that we said "wicked" to mean brilliant, and our parents thought this odd.

SamIam said...

So many of your examples just don't do justice to the notion of a word meaning itself and it's exact opposite. Which, by definition, is called a contronym (var. contranym), or a suitable synonym would be autoantonym, both excellent words to describe words that have two definitions that are diametrically opposed. Some examples: fast (to move quickly, or, to stay put), overlook (to watch closely, or, to not notice), and my favorite...sanction (to allow, or, to prevent).

DC said...

My original post wasn't about contranyms, where the opposite meanings are established usage.