Express Yourself

Why Some Words Are Not to Be Trusted

Language’s sordid history with words that contradict themselves

Busà Photography / Getty Images

I’m not going to try to convince you that black is white, but…

Have you ever wondered why the words “black” and “blank” are so similar, despite having virtually opposite meanings? It’s not a coincidence. They actually derive from the same word: the Old Norse blakkr, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root bhleg-, meaning “to burn” or “to singe.”

It’s been suggested that the two contrasting descendants are simply different interpretations of the same concept: burning something turns it a bright color and then black. The same ancestor has given us other decidedly non-black words in English, like “bleach” and “blanch” as well as cognates in other Indo-European languages that span the color spectrum, like blanc (white) in French, bālgans (whitish) in Latvian, blūvas (violet-blue) in Lithuanian, and ψόλος (soot, smoke) in Ancient Greek. Words referring to colors often stump historical linguists; for instance, it still isn’t entirely clear why Black people are described as “blue” in Irish. But color terms are not the only lexical items that create semantic messes.

The phenomenon of words that contradict themselves or their cognates is well-known, often referred to as “auto-antonymy,” “contronymy,” or (perhaps the fanciest title of all) “enantiosemy.” Examples include “to dust,” which can mean both to cover with dust or to remove the dust from, and “sanction,” which refers to both punishment and permission. But enantiosemy lies hidden deep in language’s DNA, too.

Beyond “black” and “blank,” there are other words with opposing meanings that have sprung from the same source. “Guest” and “host” make up one such pair and have, in fact, only one translation in French, Spanish, and Italian (hôte, huésped, and ospite, respectively). The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary posit that “strong” can be traced back to the same Germanic root as “string,” a word that—partly thanks to phrases like “stringy” andshoestring budget”—is now commonly associated with flimsiness.

The phenomenon stretches far and wide beyond English. Slavic languages, in particular, are rife with enantiosemes, according to linguist Alexei Shmelev. The Russian verb прослушать (proslušat) can mean both “to hear” and “to fail to hear,” while the noun жалост (žálost), meaning “pity,” is associated with both love and contempt. Many Russian words are in contention with their cognates in related languages: чёрствый (čórstvyj) means “stale,” but the Czech čerstvý means “fresh” and урод (uród) can be used to describe an ugly person, while the Polish uroda means “beauty.”

Enantiosemy is not exclusive to European languages. In Swahili, kutoa means both “to produce” and “to remove,” and the Hindi word कल (kal) can be translated as either “tomorrow” or — you guessed it — “yesterday.”

While, in theory, enantiosemes should cause us a lot of headaches, we rarely find cases in which context doesn’t immediately help us disambiguate one potential meaning from the other. If your cooking teacher tells you to “dust the tabletop with flour,” you can be pretty confident that she doesn’t want you to somehow wipe the tabletop clean using flour. Of course, some cases of enantiosemy appear to stem from a flirtatious approach to ambiguity, which manifests itself as irony. Perhaps the most obvious example of the impact of irony on the English language is the slang usage of “bad,” meaninggood” orsexually attractive.” American Heritage Dictionary attributes this term, attested in African American Vernacular English since the 19th century, to sarcasm.

Expectation is instrumental to our understanding of others’ speech.

This is rather unusual, as it violates the principle that sarcasm is most optimally used to convey false appreciation rather than false dismay: The phrases “Yeah, right” and “Thanks a lot” are practically impossible to say in earnest anymore. Nonetheless, slang terms like “bad,” as well as “wicked” and “the shit,” prove that sarcasm can sometimes work the other way. Ales Kregr refers to this as “anti-irony,” an “offensive way of being friendly.” Occasionally, the novel anti-ironic sense can completely eclipse the original: As its spelling implies, “terrific” was once used to describe things that inspired terror. In Paradise Lost, written in 1667, John Milton makes reference to a serpent “with brazen eyes and hairy mane terrifick.”

Though the older meaning of “terrific” has been lost, there are plenty of other words whose status as enantiosemes remains very much active, and we may be completely oblivious to them. Shmelev discusses the Russian word так, which can be used to denote insignificance (for example, you may hear it used in response to a question like “What’s the matter?” to mean “nothing”) but can also mean the same thing as “very.” It may seem like a logical nightmare, but in English, we have a comparable situation with the word “just.” Consider its two opposing senses in the phrases “just a little” and “that’s just divine.” Another example is “arguable,” a word that can be used both to support someone else’s point or discredit it. Compare these two examples:

— Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody believes that mole people will outnumber regular humans by 2035.

— It’s completely arguable.

— You know, mole people will outnumber regular humans by 2035.

— Eh, that’s arguable.

Shmelev points out another enantioseme that seems to have flown under the radar: the word “unpacked.” In principle, “unpacked” can only mean the opposite of “packed”; a suitcase that has been unpacked was once full of things and is now empty. But take a look at this line from a story that made it past three New Yorker fiction editors before it was finally caught and changed:

They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.

The error — the use of “still unpacked” in place of “not yet unpacked” — may seem obvious when highlighted, yet Shmelev finds that this self-contradictory form of the word is rampant across the internet. Perhaps this calls for the invention of a new term. Geoff Nunberg of The Language Log suggests “ununpacked.”

We know we have to be careful with the words we use. But the pervasiveness of enantiosemes throughout our language, as well as others, proves just how much leeway that context (both linguistic and meta-linguistic) gives us.

Expectation is instrumental to our understanding of others’ speech, to the extent that you can often get away with saying slightly offbeat things to people with the right intonation and timing (like replying to “How are you?” with “Nothing much, you?” — try it sometime, it’s fun). And if you can get everyone else in on it, then it’s no longer incorrect.

So no, I’m not trying to argue that black is white, but I may just be able to convince you that “hello” is “goodbye.” Don’t believe me? Just ask an Italian.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store