Saturday, November 6, 2010

For Our Conversation Is In Heaven

Richard Ledderer relates the story that when St. Paul's Cathedral burned in the fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren was hired to rebuild it. After 35 years of work the new building was finished and Queen Anne came to see it. After a tour she told Sir Christopher that his cathedral was "awful, artificial and amusing." He was delighted! What splendid praise from the queen!

"Awful" of course meant awe inspiring. "Artificial" meant that it was very artisticly fashioned. And "amusing" meant that it was inspired by the muses, a godlike creation. How could these words have changed meaning so much in just three hundred years? They in fact mean something like the opposite now compared to what Queen Anne meant and what Sir Christopher understood.

It is an odd but common phenomenon that words can have two absolutely contrary meanings. In the end one of them usually gives way to the other so that we are left with but a single meaning and we forget that the other meaning once held sway. This is one reason people need to use their minds extra well when they read the King James Bible and Shakespeare. They are older yet, and words have changed even more than since Queen Anne's day. But that's another story.

For now, consider a few words that we use every day that still have two diametrically opposed meanings that are both more or less standard. Will one meaning eventually win out? Who knows?

Weather-- (to wear down, to stand up well) I love the weathered look on old courthouses. This boat is built to weather any storm.

With -- (for, against) If you refuse to go to war with us against the infidels, then we will consider ourselves to already be in a state of war with you.

Clip -- (disattach, attach) After you clip the coupon, please clip it to the shopping list.

Left -- (gone, remaining) Q-If six children were playing in a schoolyard, and two left, how many were left? A-None, they were alright.

Of course there are hundreds more of these contronyms. What about fast, bolt, mortal, out, etc.

What favorites do you have that should be added to the list?


John W. May said...

I’ve noticed this, especially lately. I’ve always thought that ‘live’ (as in I live next to Denver) and ‘live’ (as in this news update is live) were very strangely connected, and yet not. There are others I’ve come across, words who meaning are altered depending on the stress given them- and this despite the fact they are spelled identically …

record vs. record

susspect vs. suspect

conduct vs. conduct

desert vs. desert

present vs. present

What a strange creature this language is that we use. In fact, when it comes to correspondence via cell phones, I’m almost certain that the ambiguity that these words present (present) have caused confusion in their recipients (especially if the text has a loose context).

Very strange, indeed.

Doug P. Baker said...

English really is a strange creature, John! You are so right!

Say these two sentences:

The cement is set now so we can walk on it.

At the meeting tonight we hope to cement the final form of our mission statement.

The accent is on the second syllable of "cement" in both sentences. But when it is used as a verb (second sentence) doesn't that second syllable get a higher pitch than when it is used as a noun (first)? There are so many variables in how we actually use this language, the written page can't possibly hold them all.

But in your list, I notice that the accent tends to fall on the first syllable for the nouns and on the second for the verbs. Does this hold true in general for such pairs?

"concrete" -- noun; first syllable
"concrete" -- adj; second

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a favorite read from Ellul, "The Humiliation of the Word"-I'll add a link to the preface. For the Church, that has the ultimate treasure to give to the world, the frustration of having to use language always has been a great source of humility. I think this is what the little book of James is largely about-not so much the tongue itself, but what it says.
Wishing you and your girls a blessed Advent season, Doug.

Doug P. Baker said...

Thanks, John! God be with you!

Doug P. Baker said...

John, I just read that preface. Very intriguing. Just yesterday (or the day before?) someone mentioned that I need to read Ellul's Presence Of The Kingdom. Now I think I'll see if IU's library has them on the shelf.

Regina said...

Remarkable! It follows, every word has a story to tell or a secret to betray.

Makes me think of the encounter between Alice and Humpty Dumpty and their chat about the "evident meaning" of words and bewildering portmanteaus.

Poets put the polysemous nature of words to good use - i.e. when significant words used in verse will mean all or most that it can mean, the verse is without certain meaning (yet full of meaning) and never really final even for the poet. In this way, poetry never quite touches the ground and achieves something like an ethereal existence.

Cass said...

"dust" is a nice one:
to dust, as in, wipe clean
to dust, as in, finely coat, e.g. with sugar or with snow