To Cleave together . . . or to Cleave Apart

In my last post, I mentioned contranyms, words that have two opposite meanings. One word that’s often mentioned in lists and discussions of these words is “cleave.” “Cleave,” however–as some have pointed out–is not technically a contranym because “cleave” meaning “to split” and “cleave” meaning “to adhere” are actually two different words, having derived from two separate words: the former from the Old English clíofan or cléofan via the Middle English cleoven and the latter from the Old English clífan or clifian or cleofian via the Middle English clive or clēve or cleeve. 

A word with similar meanings is “clip.” “Clip” can mean, of course, “cut” or “attach,” particularly with . . . clips. The former seems to have come from the Old Norse klippa via the Middle English clippen; interestingly, the earliest example cited it the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Ormulum, written about 1200: to clippenn swa þe cnapess shapp (to snip like a boy’s foreskin). The latter, on the other hand, seems to derive from the Old English clyppan, “embrace.” Genesis A (c. 1000) uses it to mean “clutch” in the story of Noah when dizziness þæs halgan . . .  heortan clypte (clutches the holy man’s heart). The earliest use of “clip” in its more modern sense didn’t appear until Elizabeth Banks’ 1902 Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl: “Page after page passed from under her pen. Then, clipping a dozen sheets together, she read them over.”

A true contranym appears in the form of “trim.” In the sense of both “cut” and “decorate,” the word derives from the Old English trymman or  trymian, which meant, according to the OED, “To make firm or strong; to strengthen, confirm to give as security; to arm or array (a force); to settle, arrange; to encourage, comfort, exhort.” Our modern definitions hark back to only to 1530 (for “cut”) and 1547 (for “decorate”).

There you have it: three words, six meanings, but only one true contranym.

(Thank you to the Oxford English Dictionary, without which this post would have been impossible.)

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Published in: on December 25, 2015 at 4:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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All Downhill the Rest of the Way

Over breakfast this morning, I was telling my daughter about an essay I’m writing. “I’ve written the sad part,” I said, “so it’s all downhill the rest of the way.” She was curious about my use of “downhill.”

“Isn’t that negative?” she asked.

“I suppose it can be.” After all, I explained, going downhill is easier than going uphill, but for many people, “down” has negative connotations. (Think: Hell.) The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word can be used figuratively as well as literally, but I wasn’t able to find a definition with positive connotations.  The word does, however, appear on some lists of contranyms (or auto-antonyms or Janus words), words that possess two opposite meanings. Recently, in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog, Anne Curzan speculates on whether there’s a difference between “going downhill” and “all downhill from here/there” and reminds us of the importance of context.

Despite some people’s  inclination to label “downhill” a contranym (or an auto-antonym or a Janus word), Curzan points out that this label is not quite accurate; after all, “easy” and “bad” are not quite opposites. For now, if I need a label, I’ll refer to “downhill” as “one of those interesting linguistic things.”

Published in: on December 23, 2015 at 3:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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