Monday, February 06, 2012

The Discovery of the Opponym

by Joel Marks
Published in Reflections (University of New Haven), no. 16, Fall 1994, pp. 1-2.

As a wordsmith, I spend a lot of time trying to find that mot juste. (I hope "mot juste" is the mot juste in this case!) It is not always easy to say what you mean -- you know what I mean? The writer or speaker must not only understand the standard definitions of words, but also their special usages in various contexts -- with different audiences, on different occasions, etc. Tone of voice or surrounding sentences can also alter meaning. Ambiguity is ever-present. But of all the linguistic stumbling blocks to comprehension I know of, the most bedeviling is a type of word that has the amazing characteristic of meaning opposite things!

Now, it is certainly not unusual for a word to have multiple meanings. Indeed, this is probably the norm rather than the exception (just as the typical star shines not singly, like our solitary Sol, but as part of a binary system). And this phenomenon blends into another where the same spelling and pronunciation are used for what are considered different words -- so-called "homonyms." It is also not unusual for different words to have opposite meanings -- hence "antonyms." And when they are closely paired to form a phrase, we call the result an "oxymoron" (e.g., "cruelly kind").

But what I have in mind is a sort of one-word oxymoron, or one word that does the work of two antonyms. Alternatively, the situation could be conceived as involving word pairs, which would then be homonymous antonyms, or antonymous homonyms. Furthermore, there seems heretofore to have been no word for this sort of word. I have therefore dubbed it the "opponym."

Herewith follows my personal collection of opponyms, compiled over the years while I was writing about weightier matters.

A Glossary of Opponyms*

argue [transitive verb]: to give reasons for (He argued the point); to give reasons against (She declined to argue the point).

besides: except for (Besides money, we lack for nothing); in addition to (Besides our health, we've fortunate to be rich).

blunt: dull; pointed (blunt remarks).

bracket: include (These figures bracket the whole range); exclude (Let's bracket that issue for now).

cleave: divide (May nothing cleave these newlyweds asunder); adhere (May they cleave unto each other).

confirm: request or receive substantiation (I wish to confirm that the hoped-for event did indeed occur); provide substantiation (ditto!).

consult: to seek advice (She went to the lawyer to consult regarding her upcoming divorce); to give advice (However, the lawyer, who specializes in taxation, was not competent to consult on this matter).

discern: "to detect with the eyes"; "to detect with senses other than vision."

discursive: "moving from topic to topic without order; proceeding coherently from topic to topic."

dust: "to make free of dust"; "to sprinkle with fine particles."

easterly (etc.): from the east; toward the east.

enjoin: command to do; prohibit from doing.

flesh: to cover with flesh; to remove the flesh from.

founder: [noun] one who provides with a basis or foundation for existence; [verb] to sink below the surface and cease to exist.

franchiser: "franchisee; franchisor."

guard: to protect from harm or invasion; to prevent from escaping to freedom.

handicap: a natural disadvantage; an artificial advantage.

impression: a vivid imprint; a vague remembrance.

liege: "a vassal bound to feudal service and allegiance; a feudal superior to whom allegiance and service are due."

modify: "to make minor changes in; to make basic or fundamental changes in."

moot: debatable; no longer worth debating.

oversight: watchful care; a failure of same.

paradox: a seeming truth that is self-contradictory; a seeming contradiction that is (perhaps) true.

pride: "inordinate self-esteem"; "reasonable self-respect."

protest: "to make solemn affirmation of" (protest one's innocence); "to make a statement in objection to."

purblind: “wholly blind”; “partly blind” (i.e., not wholly blind).

qualification: something that suits a person (etc.) to a job (etc.); something that limits one's suitability.

sanction [noun]: a penalty for violating a law; official permission.

temper [noun]: "equanimity; proneness to anger." (One loses one’s temper in the sense of equanimity; one has a temper in the sense of proneness to losing it [in the first sense]!)

temper [verb]: "to soften (hardened steel) by reheating at a lower temperature; to harden (steel) by reheating and cooling in oil."

threaten: One and the same event may threaten [to bring about] war and [to eliminate] peace.

trim: remove from; add to (both with respect to trees).

* Quoted definitions are from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1985).