Saturday, June 17, 2006

Each story has two sides

Words in English come from so many sources that often they end up contradicting themselves. For instance, one must dust the house everyday to get rid of dust. Agreed, the parts of speech here are different, but the word ‘dust’ holds two opposite meanings. This is possible because this word is an auto-antonym or contranym or enantidrome or a Janus word. The last term says it all: such words look both ways, Janus-like and are happy with two contradictory meanings too. Incidentally, January stands between the old year and the new one, so it is named after the two-faced mythical Janus because of his two heads looking in different directions. Similarly, contranyms look two ways in terms of meaning.

A contranym is created when a single word acquires completely different senses through usage. The word ‘blunt’ is one such auto-antonym that can mean both ‘dull’ in the context of a knife and ‘sharp’ in the context of an honest comment. Similarly, ‘bolt’ can be used for anything fixed firmly and can also be applied to someone running away, fast. The word ‘fast’ itself can be used in the sense of ‘moving rapidly’ or ‘unmoving’ as in ‘holding fast’.

Often, Janus words are created when borrowed words pass through several hands, thus undergoing changes. For instance, the word ‘cleave’ can be used for ‘splitting apart’ or ‘joining together’. Etymology reveals that Old English had two words ‘cleofian’ or ‘sticking together’ and ‘cleofan’ or ‘splitting apart’. After changes took place in the sound of these words due to usage, they began to sound the same and merged into one word, ‘cleave’.

The reverse happened with ‘spendthrift’ or ‘extravagant’ and ‘thrifty’ or ‘frugal’, where one word created two contrary words. Both emerged as different senses of the word ‘thrift’ or ‘prudence’. A look at newspapers today reveals that something similar is happening to the word ‘sanction’. The original meaning of ‘sanction’ is ‘law or decree’ but when sanctions are ‘applied’, there are measures taken forbidding something and the verb ‘sanction’ means ‘to give permission to do something’.