Stupid English — Contranyms

Impregnable fortress captured in 1769 and 1814

Impregnable fortress captured in 1769 and 1814

“You English-speakers,” my dad would complain to me, as if I had helped invent English, “Your language is all one big inside joke. Yours is the only language where a word can be its own opposite. How can a sane person learn a language like that?”

My dad was great at learning languages. English was the fourth or fifth one that he learned, and it was the only one that he claimed he couldn’t master. He got past the fact that the words duck, dock and dog all sounded exactly alike to his Slavic ear. He quickly got used to the idea that there were words that sounded alike but were not the same word at all (like there and their.) And he could even accept that a word could have more than one meaning, completely unrelated, such as:

mint: a candy left on a hotel pillow

mint: a factory for manufacturing pennies, one of which could not purchase a mint

But Dad could not accept words that have two commonly accepted definitions which are opposites of each other. “This fortress is impregnable. That means the fortress either can or cannot be taken by force!” he complained, “How can you have a word like that? What is the point? In mathematics, such a word would cancel itself out, and one would never use it again.”

I explained it was always clear what the meaning was. You only use that word in two contexts:

Impregnable fortress. That fortress cannot be breached by force. (For some reason it’s always an impregnable fortress and never an impregnable fort.)

Impregnable female: a woman capable of being impregnated.

“How is anybody supposed to know that?” he would answer, “That proves English is just an inside joke. You make up these crazy words just to trick us immigrants.”

He was giving the inventors of English too much credit. These contranyms (words that mean their own opposites) cause confusion for native speakers, too. Take the simple word rear.

Rear means the back of something, such as your rear end. The troops sent back from the battle lines are said to be “in the rear.” As opposed to “at the front.”

When I was a kid I loved to read The Black Stallion books. I grew up in the city. The only horses I saw were on Gunsmoke. When the books described the horse rearing up in fright, I would picture them kicking up their hind legs, like a bucking bronco in the rodeo. It was a natural assumption, since the books didn’t have pictures. I didn’t know what a halter was either, except that it was made of leather. It was hard to imagine a horse wearing something like the halter tops I saw girls wearing at Humboldt Pool, but I went with it somehow.

I was nearly an adult when I discovered that when a horse reared, he was actually lifting his front legs off the ground (think of the Lone Ranger and “Hiyo, Silver!”). “That’s not rearing,” I said, “That’s fronting!”

Rear has a second definition that has a somewhat opposite meaning — you might think of it as 90 degrees in the opposite direction instead of 180 degrees. It also means to raise up, as in a mother rearing her children, or a farmer rearing his cattle. The horse is rearing his front legs, and it has nothing to do with his rear end at all. Except, I suppose, when the horse bucks, it is rearing its rear, but I don’t think this is commonly used.

Even though I get confused like everybody else by these double-crossing words, I love English. All these stupidities make the best jokes possible. One of my favorites is from The Simpsons, based on a different kind of word, in which an opposite-sounding word is actually a synonym.

Patient:     “Dr. Nick, should you be smoking here around all this gas?”

Dr. Nick:    “Oh, don’t worry. This stuff is inflammable. See? IN-flammble!”

                                  [Kaboom!]

Dr. Nick:     “Uh-oh.”

One single comment

  1. Luther says:

    Tony,
    Greetings across the miles, my friend. Alice mentioned this in her recent Email. Thanks for the thoughtful, fun work. For this blog, you might note also how “May Day” is a celebration day, and “Mayday” is a distress call. Go figure. Take Care.

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