Dust to dust: Autoantonymy

It’s always nice to get a name for something that is rummaging round in one’s mind.  Autoantonymy has – believe it or not been doing that in my tiny brain for many years.  So I’m greatful to the great Three Quarks website for giving me the word (and grateful to Ingolf for telling us all about Three Quarks many moons ago).

As explained on the site:

Antonyms, of course, are pairs of words that have meanings opposite to each other. Autoantonyms, in turn, are single words thatthemselves can mean either one thing or its opposite. This can happen either by convergence –e.g., the English verb ‘to cleave’ comes from two separate but similar Anglo-Saxon verbs, and today can mean either ‘to separate’ or ‘to latch on’– or it can happen through a cleavage, so to speak, within a single lexical item– thus ‘to dust’ means either to remove the dust from something or to cover something, perhaps that very thing, with dust or a dust-like substance. You might think that autoantonyms of the latter sort are rare birds in the dictionary, but in fact they are all over the place, particularly when the opposition between motion and rest is in question. Thus the adjective ‘fast’ means both ‘swift with respect to motion’ and ‘bolted down’, i.e., ‘motionless’. A little reflection will also convince you that most prepositions are capable of autoantonymy. This in fact may have happened to you already: when confronted by a well-intentioned fund-raiser in the street, who tells you that she is raising money ‘for breast cancer’, does a little part of you not wish to reply: ‘Sorry, no, I’m against breast cancer’?

The thing with a lot of the autoantonyms in the article is that they typically do not lead to ambiguity or problems in conveying meanings because context and/or the form of the sentence makes it clear what meaning is intended.  To cleave a marriage in two and for one partner to cleave to the other are opposites in meaning using the same word, but in each case we know what is meant.

The autoantonym that’s always bugged me (since we’re already in the bowels of pedantry here perhaps I should say autoantonymic clause!) is the expression “if not”.  When this expression is used it is generally the case that it could mean either what was intended, or its opposite (here again, pedantry leads me to say that the expression ‘opposite’ is being used slightly loosely to mean not ‘the negation of the proposition’ but ‘the assertion of a proposition at direct odds with the stated proposition).Anyway, consider the statement:

He was a good player, if not a virtuoso.

Here the expression ‘if not’ could either intensify ‘a good player’: “He was a good player, so much so that he might even be called a virtuoso”. By contrast it could signify the downplaying of the description as a good player: “He was a good player, even if you couldn’t say he was a virtuoso”.

I guess with ‘pure autoantonyms’ like that it’s a case of “we report, you decide”.

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14 years ago

Gosh, me too, “if not” gets me thinking everytime I go to use it, usually I end up avoiding it, if not …

14 years ago

I think the fundraiser probably means they are raising money for breast cancer research and are just being a little lazy. Not really an autoantonym.