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  LOGOLOG
a weblog of wordplay by Eric Harshbarger

Synonymous Contranyms

I love the ambiguity of the English language.

I love the fact that we have words which would seem to be opposites, but are, in fact, synonymous. For example, FLAMMABLE and INFLAMMABLE both mean something which combusts easily (the true opposite of FLAMMABLE is NONFLAMMABLE).

The English language also has words which have a single spelling but two opposite definitions associated with them (these are often called contranyms). Some examples of these are: CLEAVE, SCAN, and DUST (all as verbs).

My favorite examples, though, are the words which hold both qualities.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the English language has words which not only have the same definitions as their seeming "opposites" (via spelling), but are also actually opposites of themselves.

Don't believe me? How about IMPASSIONATE?

On the one hand, my MW3 defines it as being synonymous with IMPASSIONED which in turn is synonymous with PASSIONATE.

On the other hand, the same dictionary also defines IMPASSIONATE with a more archaic meaning: DISPASSIONATE (without passion).

So, there you go, a word which can mean the same as its apparent opposite, but can also, in fact, be the opposite of itself.

The same trick can be pulled with RAVEL (which can mean both "to entangle" or "to separate"... the latter definition making it synonymous with UNRAVEL).

What fun.

-- Eric

[21 June 2006]
   
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Comments about this article:
On the topic of contranyms...I hadn't known the name for these, but I remember an example provided by Richard Lederer: you CLIP a coupon from the newspaper, and then you CLIP it to your shopping list so that you don't lose it. And that doesn't even begin to take into account the noun form of the word...CLIPPING coupons at a rapid CLIP?

Posted by: Ben


 
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