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“One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand”*…

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, “Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression,” or does it mean, “Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default”? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms…

This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy (enantio- means “opposite”), antilogy or autantonymy; an enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.

Contronyms, also known as auto-antonyms or autantonyms– or just as Janus words: “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites.”

For a longer list, see “75 Contronyms.”

* Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus)

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As we note that context is everything, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

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Written by LW

November 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

On the other hand…

“Trim”: adding or taking away

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, ‘Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression’ or does it mean, ‘Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default’? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’

Find a baker’s dozen other words that are their own opposites at Mental Floss.

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As we acquiesce to ambiguity, we might send litigious birthday greetings to Scott Frederick Turow; he was born on this date in 1949.  A practicing lawyer whose first published work was a law school memoir (One L), Turow pioneered the legal thriller with his 1987 novel Presumed Innocent (as close readers of the book will know, perhaps the best title ever).  He has gone on to write eight more novels, edit two fiction collections, and publish another non-fiction work, which have together been translated into over 20 languages, sold over 25 million copies, and in many cases, been made into movies.  Turow has argued cases that have won the release of inmates serving time for crimes they did not commit, has served on Federal Judicial appointment committees, and has served as President of The Authors Guild.  If he has a fault, it is that by demonstrating the marketability of legal thrillers, he opened the way for John Grisham.

(Turow’s day job pays well enough to keep him comfortable; but in his capacity as head of The Authors Guild, he worries about the future of  American authors.  Other observers of the literary scene disagree.  In any case, as Dave Pell notes, “for better or worse, the lack of money being paid to some incredibly well-reviewed authors has led some of them to move over to writing TV scripts. This is the golden age of television for a reason.”)

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Written by LW

April 12, 2013 at 1:01 am

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