Contronyms in English

Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym. Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean to cut in half or stick together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off. If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it. To ravish means to rape or to enrapture. Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years. Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing. A blunt instrument is dull, a blunt remark is pointed. Occasionally when this happens the dictionary makers give us different spellings to differentiate the two meanings—as with flour and flower, discrete and discreet—but such orthological thoughtfulness is rare.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 70–1

Curious English vocabulary

In English, in short, there are words for almost everything.

Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. Doesn’t that seem a useful term? Or how about slubberdegullion, a seventeenth-century word signifying a worthless or slovenly fellow? Or ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting? It has lasted half a millennium in English, was a common synonym for horrid until well into the last century, and can still be found tucked away forgotten at the back of most unabridged dictionaries. Isn’t it a shame to let it slip away? Our dictionaries are full of such words—words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcane of distinctions.

And yet there are odd gaps. We have no word for coolness corresponding to warmth. We are strangely lacking in middling terms—words to describe with some precision the middle ground between hard and soft, near and far, big and little. We have a possessive impersonal pronoun its to place alongside his, her, and their, but no equivalent impersonal pronoun to contrast with the personal whose. Thus we have to rely on inelegant constructions such as “The house whose roof” or resort to periphrasis. We have a word to describe all the work you find waiting for you when you return from vacation, backlog, but none to describe all the work you have to do before you go. Why not forelog? And we have a large number of negative words—inept, dishevelled, incorrigible, ruthless, unkempt—for which the positive form is missing. English would be richer if we could say admiringly of a tidy person, “She’s so sheveled,” or praise a capable person for being full of ept or an energetic one for having heaps of ert. Many of these words did once have positive forms. Ruthless was companioned by ruth, meaning compassion. One of Milton’s poems contains the well-known line “Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth.” But as with many such words, one form died and another lived. Why this should be is beyond explanation. Why would we have lost demit (send away) but saved commit? Why should impede have survived while the once equally common and seemingly just as useful expede expired? No one can say.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 67–8

Pidgins and creoles

Some of the most interesting theories about language development in recent years have been put forward by Derek Bickerton, an English-born professor at the University of Hawaii, who noticed that creole languages all over the world bear certain remarkable similarities. First, it is important to understand the difference between pidgins and creoles. Pidgins (the word is thought to be a Chinese rendering of the English word business) are rudimentary languages formed when people from diverse backgrounds are thrown together by circumstance. Historically, they have tended to arise on isolated plantation-based islands which have been ruled by a dominant Western minority but where the laborers come from a mixed linguistic background. Pidgins are almost always very basic and their structure varies considerably from place to place—and indeed from person to person. They are essentially little more than the language you or I would speak if we found ourselves suddenly deposited in some place like Bulgaria or Azerbaijan. They are makeshift tongues and as a result they seldom last long.

When children are born into a pidgin community, one of two things will happen. Either the children will learn the language of the ruling class, as was almost always the case with African slaves in the American South, or they will develop a creole (from French créole, “native”). Most of the languages that people think of as pidgins are in fact creoles… Feel free to smile. But it would be a mistake to consider these languages substandard because of their curious vocabularies. They are as formalized, efficient, and expressive as any other language—and often more so…

So creoles are not in any way inferior. In fact, it is worth remembering that many full-fledged languages—the Afrikaans of South Africa, the Chinese of Macao, and the Swahili of east Africa—were originally creoles.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 27–9

Related:

What3Words

In an illustration of combinatorial mathematics, what3words.com will represent any location on Earth as a set of three simple English words.

It’s intended to help in cities that lack formal maps and street names.

The points it distinguishes are close enough together that for a building of any size you get various choices.

The Toronto Reference Library could be journals.nuggets.nipped.

Toronto’s best kite-flying spot: agree.rewarded.lasts.

High Park’s labyrinth? hatched.alarm.riding or drainage.draining.kitchen or playing.training.achieving.

Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 2/2

If friends and students of Truth wish to reassess their views, they might stop depending on Gage’s report as if it were reliable, and depend instead on the reports of the speech that were published at the time, especially the fullest one, in the Bugle. If not as dramatic as Gage’s report, the Bugle report is terse, portrays Truth as speaking in a folksy style that rings true, attributes to her some of the provocative ideas that Gage’s report attributed to her, and is much more likely to be authentic:

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights [sic]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much — for we won’t take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have women’s rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.

I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept — and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 81–82. “[sic]” in original.

Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 1/2

[Frances] Gage‘s report, gradually becoming well known, wove myths about [Sojourner] Truth, myths that helped build up Truth into a heroic figure. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the frequent uncritical use of Gage’s report in recent years has led to misleading interpretations not only about Truth and her place in history, but also about early black-white relations at large.

When we compare Gage’s 1863 report of Truth’s speech with available records written in 1851 soon after the event, the comparison suggests that we should heed Gage’s own warning that she had “given but a faint sketch” of Truth’s speech. The comparison suggests that, unless evidence to the contrary shows up, important parts Gage’s report regarding the atmosphere of the convention, the contents of Truth’s speech, and the effect of the speech on the convention should be considered false. The comparison suggests that Gage, the poet, intended to present the symbolic truth of Truth’s words more than the literal truth; that Gage, the novelist, imagining that Harriet Beecher Stowe was looking over her shoulder, felt pressed to make Truth’s story more compelling than it was; that Gage, the passionate advocate of blacks’ and women’s rights, embellished her report to strengthen the causes she favored, imposing her own ideas and expression on what Truth said. Disappointing as it may be, the comparison makes it unlikely that Truth asked the thrilling question, “Ar’n’t I a woman?“, the principal words by which Truth is known today.

If we depend on contemporary accounts as more likely than Gage’s to be reliable, then we perceive that when Sojourner Truth began to speak, there were no signs of panic, no hissing, no mobbish opponents whom she could overcome. Then we find that Truth’s words, unadorned, if less dramatic and smooth than Gage wanted them to be, did not make her the one star of the convention, as Gage indicates, but nevertheless made her impressive.

When Truth’s biographers, following Gage, say that she turned the convention around from opposing to favouring women’s rights, we have to suspect that they may be telling us more what Gage wanted us to believe than what really happened. When recent writers on women’s and blacks’ history claim that white women advocating women’s rights were hostile to black women’s participation in the women’s movement, and they base their claims especially on Gage’s account of the supposed hostility to Truth at Akron, we have to wonder whether they are distorting history. Unless evidence to the contrary turns up, we have to regard Gage’s account of Truth’s asking the “Ar’n’t I a woman?” question as folklore, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It may be suitable for telling to children, but not for serious understanding of Sojourner Truth and her times.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 80–81

Jordan Peterson’s crusade

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson‘s conduct has increasingly been the subject of public and media criticism. He has gone from refusing to let students choose their own gender pronouns to a much broader critique of university culture. Recently, he proposed to start a website where people could report which of their professors and classes are “indoctrination cults”.

See:

Dr. Peterson is an interesting man and one of the most compelling speakers I’ve been exposed to. I feel like he has seriously lost perspective and become inappropriately convinced that he is being subjected to persecution. If he could abstract himself from his own situation enough to think about it more objectively, I think a section from one of this lectures would lead to him rethinking his conduct:

So life is suffering. What does that do to people? It makes them resentful. These are pitfalls of being. Except being has a structure. One of its fundamental structural elements is suffering. But suffering produces other characteristics of being: resentment is a characteristic of being. People feel resentful when they believe that they’ve been taken advantage of. And if you feel resentful, it may be that you are being taken advantage of. It may also be that you should screw your head on straight and look at things properly. And it may also be that you should talk to somebody to find out if you’re being taken advantage of or if your head just isn’t screwed on straight.

Dr. Peterson started on the comparatively defensible ground of being concerned about how potentially oppressive institutions might unjustly constrain speech, but from the beginning he has been targeting the oppressed rather than the strong. Now he has drifted into the company of aggrieved enemies of supposed “political correctness” who have inverted their understanding of politics to see themselves as oppressed while those like the transgendered are elevated by structures which he must now resist. It’s a dynamic where exposure to people who disagree with you can tend to deepen your conviction that you are actually right, leading to you being more and more isolated and increasingly unable to comprehend the discussion you’re taking part in.

Communications anxiety

I suppose it’s at least as old as the letter, but communications anxiety (COMANX) has some notable features. Whenever one feels it is possible that a psychologically difficult message will arrive via any medium — whether it’s by mail, telephone, email, text, or Facebook — it sets up the mind to be constantly apprehensive. Every moment of time that passes is either one where such a message is received, or where you’re still waiting.

One option, which I think is frequently healthy, is to limit the time periods in which electronic messages can become known to you, especially when it comes to asynchronous forms of communication like email and Facebook. There is still anxiety associated with the knowledge of being disconnected and the apprehension of the waiting message queue, but to my mind it’s way less stressful than trying to do other things when a message could literally make itself known to you in a fraction of any passing second. (This is one reason why the ‘phone’ part of an iPhone is very stressful, and airplane mode is a blessing for the anxious.)

In the end, even going to live in the Burmese jungle (“You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”) is only a partial remedy to living in fear of the message that could come: the rejection, the admonishment, the confirmation of bad news, the doomed appeal for help.

As is so often the case in modern life, each of us is left with Margaret Atwood’s six options for dealing with the apocalypse: Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.

When you decide to protect yourself, please ask: “At what cost to others?”

We can all destroy ourselves by abandoning self-care activities, but check mentally that your “partying” activities are mitigating rather than multiplying your stressors.

Blame can be important in two ways. One is for the historian, and it’s the eventual recognition that something which was done was a great evil. The other has the power to avert the evil if it is applied with speedy effectiveness. Using blame to control people is complicated and risky, you may harm them for no reason, and you may not make them behave as you wish.

Helping others is a universal good as far as I’m concerned, but you must be mindful about what is help and what isn’t and the limits of your understanding. The other night, I saw a raccoon up in a tree in the park north of Ontario’s legislature. A bunch of gawkers with lights and cameras were watching this raccoon and discussing what they ought to do to help it. This is a creature that lives on garbage, dodging terrifying bright-eyed fast-moving lethal monsters (cars), but which is nonetheless in no need of human help in a tree. Short version: don’t assume that what would seem like “help” to you in your imagined version of another being’s situation as definitely being the thing that should be done. Humility is important, especially in the apocalypse.

Bearing witness is inevitable, at least if you are emotionally sensitive enough to have any understanding of what I mean by communications anxiety. The day you start to catalog forms of anxiety is a bit of a watershed moment. Anything in your life that has led you to develop a sophisticated catalog system is probably something that will be important to you for as long as your consciousness holds together.

Go About Your Life: but how?

COMANX is a form of fear of the future, of what’s still in the darkness ahead of you. Trying to stay awake, eyes peeled, looking ahead will unmetaphorically and entirely really kill you until you die and very quickly. If anxiety is something present enough for you to categorize and you live in the modern world, you already have strategies for dealing with the challenges of constant connectivity through multiple means.

Aside to people currently worried about me: a flipside of our society’s attraction to what is happening right now can be an inability to have appropriate compassion for people describing events long-past. It seems urgent and pressing to you because it’s new information, but you shouldn’t necessarily dramatically reinterpret how you see a person or dramatically change your behaviour. It would be much better to find someone currently in distress and give them loving, compassionate, nurturing attention. (Not me please! I would prefer to have some space for a while.)

Open thread: Michael Marrus and Massey College

For at least a year now people have been quite appropriately doing important work in questioning legacies of racism and institutionalized forms of racism at Massey College, including in the traditional use of the title “Master” to refer to the head of the College.

A hurtful, callous, and offensive remark made in the dining hall has added urgency to the discussion. It was described in the resignation letter of the scholar who made it as “a poor effort at jocular humour” and a “bad joke”. In part, Dr. Michael Marrus’ letter from 1 October 2017 says:

First, I am so sorry for what I said, in a poor effort at jocular humour at lunch last Tuesday. What I said was both foolish and, I understood immediately, hurtful, and I want, first and foremost, to convey my deepest regrets all whom I may have harmed. What I said was a bad joke in reference to your title of “Master,” at the time. I should never have made such a remark, and I want to assure those who heard me, and those who have learned about it, that while I had no ill- intent whatsoever I can appreciate how those at the table and those who have learned about it could take offense at what I said.

I’m not going to link the rather foolish editorials published by The Globe & Mail and the National Post (two papers that seem to share lazy assumptions and ineptitude much like Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties). Some more meaningful commentary has already been in the public press:

Op-ed: Reconciliation at Massey College
An Indigenous Junior Fellow shares her story
By Audrey Rochette

Op-ed: The importance of forgiveness
A former Don of Hall reflects on moving forward from conflict at Massey College
By Juliet Guichon

Black faculty members pen letter condemning Marrus, coverage of incident
Open letter criticizes media outlets for framing incident as “political correctness run amok”
By Aidan Currie

In my six years at Massey College, I have had regular routine and polite interactions with Dr. Marrus. My only exposure to his academic work has been two lectures he gave on the theatrical quality of trials.

Leadership lacking

The Bagehot column on the U.K. in this week’s Economist contains some of the harshest language I have seen them use, about the Theresa May government trying to implement Brexit, saying: “Britain is ruled by an incestuous clique of frenemies who delight in turning even the most serious issues into melodramas”.

It’s worrisome that so many of the world’s most important countries seem to be badly led at present. Likewise, at a time when we need to be thinking beyond narrow national interests and building an equitable low-carbon global energy system, instead people are defining their allegiances more and more narrowly and expending their energy on unworthy causes and petty conflicts.