The American television series "Seinfeld" was famous for its unusual and often strange conversations. These conversations often took place in a diner - a kind of small, informal restaurant.
In one program, the character George is sad about where he is in life. George feels that he has made poor choices. He wants to change his life around by doing the opposite of what he has done. He would like to eat different foods, be willing to talk to strangers, and so on.
Let's listen to a few lines from the show.
"Well, here's your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women... chicken salad and going right up to them.”
“Yeah, I should do the opposite, I should.”
“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right."
Today, we will explore the idea of opposites. Namely, we will look at words that have at least two meanings: one meaning and an opposite meaning.
We will also explore disputes around these words, like one involving the word "literally".
English has a number of words with opposite meanings. They are called contronyms.
You will hear contronyms in the news, official speeches, and everyday conversation. You will even see them in writing.
Consider the word "sanction."
A sanction can be a kind of punishment for disobeying a law, especially an international law.
Imagine you hear a news story about the United Nations Security Council. The story might begin with the words, "Security Council votes to impose sanctions."*
If you follow the news, you are probably familiar with this expression.
However, the word "sanction" can have an opposite meaning: an official approval for an action.
For example, you might read a news story about a legal dispute. The story might say, "Critics say the policy lacked legal sanction."
In this case, the critics are saying that the policy did not have official approval.
Because "sanction" has a second, opposite meaning, it is a contronym.
Here's another example of a contronym: the word “bill”.
You can have a $50 bill, or you can receive a $50 bill for medical services. In the first example, "bill" means a piece of paper money. In the second case, "bill" suggests a document that tells you how much money you owe.
Disputes over language
Americans sometimes dispute the use of a contronym. Consider the word "literally."
On the internet, many stories and videos are sharply critical of this word.
"A lot of you out there who say 'literally' don't seem to understand what 'literally' means."
Literally, in its traditional meaning, means "by the letter". It later took on the meaning "with the meaning of each word given exactly."**
Americans often use it in a completely different way.
Imagine you hear the following conversation:
“Did you hear Tom's story?”
“Yes, I was literally dying of laughter. It was so funny!”
Here, the second speaker does not mean that she is dying. When she says "literally", she means "figuratively".
The word "literally" is like the character George from Seinfeld. "Literally", like George, spent time doing one thing. Now it is looking for a change.
Naturally, the word itself is not making this decision to change. English speakers are using the word in different ways.
There is nothing new or strange about this change. Many words change over time – just like people and societies.
Social uses of words
John McWhorter is an expert on languages. He notes that English speakers use some words for what he calls common, social uses. He refers to these uses by the acronym “FACE”.
Do not worry about all of the terms. The one we are interested in is the letter "F" in FACE. It means "factuality."
McWhorter notes that English speakers use words to show how truthful or exact their statements are. In other words, they include words to show how "factual" their statements are.
"Literally" has become a word that shows factuality. It shows that the speaker is using an overstatement or exaggerated language.
So, when a person says "I was literally dying of laughter," they are using the word "literally" to show that they are using exaggerated language.
If you compare this use of "literally" with the first definition of "literally," you will notice that "literally" has become a contronym.
McWhorter notes that this is a natural progression for the word. There is nothing wrong or incorrect about this change, he adds.
What can you do?
The next time you are listening to an English speaker or reading a document in English, look for examples of contronyms.
If you are having trouble understanding a sentence, it might be because the speaker or writer is using a less common meaning of a word.
Try to think about the word's context. Sometimes you can understand a contronym's meaning by thinking about the other words that come in the sentence with it.
Contronyms are a strange, fun part of language. They are literally the easiest thing about the English language.
“I think you are you exaggerating…”
I'm Jill Robbins.
And I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
* The beginning of a news story is often called a headline.
** McWhorter, John. Words on the Move. Henry Holt and Co. 2016. Pgs. 22-28
Words in This Story
conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people; the act of talking in an informal way
character – n. a person in a play or story
intimidated - adj. to be afraid
instinct - n. a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned; a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way
impose – v. to establish; to bring about as if by force
figuratively – adj. Expressing one thing normally while talking about another
refer – v. to think of; to send for treatment
factuality – n. The quality of being actual or factual: actuality, fact, factualness, reality, truth.
exaggerated - adj. to think of or describe something as larger or greater than it really is
context – n. the situation in which something happens