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.)

Published in: on December 25, 2015 at 4:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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“My Kids Got Snouts!”

I wasn’t in the mood to do much yesterday, so I allowed myself to get sucked into my 16-year-old daughter’s trash TV world, which at one point included the Maury show. I’m not proud of the fact that I let her spend half her day watching court shows and trash TV, or the fact that I joined her. Let’s just chalk it up to “research for the blog” and call it a day.

As is often the case, Maury was using DNA testing to determine the fathers of various infants and toddlers. (Yes, I realize the phrase “As is often the case” suggests that this is not the first time I’ve watched Maury. Like I said, I’m not proud.) One man declared he could not be the father of his alleged children because their noses are not like his. (One thing I’ve learned in my “research” is that Maury’s guests often focus on one body part or another to support or dispute paternity.) The children’s mother shouted something to the effect of, “You think you got a button nose? You got a snout! My kids got snouts!”

I laughed the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time. It was sad that the mom described her children using a phrase usually reserved for animals, but the word “snout” seemed inherently funny. Geek that I am, I was determined to learn everything I could about the word “snout.”

My public library has the Oxford English Dictionary, so I began the respectable phase of my research there. I learned that the word “snout” derives from the Middle English snut(e and that we have no example of an Old English snut, although we do have the Old English snytan which, according to my Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, means “to blow the nose.”

Of course, these tidbits intrigued me to no end, but what was even more exciting was the history of the word’s use. According to the OED, the earliest extant use of the word to refer to an animal’s nose is in the fourteenth-century King Alisaunder, which states, “On his snoute and horne he [the rhinoceros] beres.” The use of the word to refer to a man’s nose, however, dates to King Horn, which dates to about 1300–slightly earlier than King Alisaunder–which states, “He lokede him abute with his comlie snute.”  (I can’t figure out how to type the “thorn” in “with.” )

Apparently Maury’s guest was using the older meaning of “snout.” My next step, of course, is to see wether her grammar has medieval antecedents as well.


Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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