Sanctions have been in the news quite a lot lately. To sanction, as you know, is to impose a penalty in order to punish conduct of which we disapprove. Except when it means to confer official approval or consent. To sanction, you might say, is to penalize conduct that we cannot sanction.

Sanction is an example of a contronym—a word that has two contradictory meanings.

The word sanction goes back to ecclesiastical Latin. It derives from a participle of the Latin verb sancire, “to decree, confirm, or make sacred” (saint comes from the same word). A sanction was a law or decree conveying official permission from the church or the state. But official sanction for permissible conduct often often involves penalties for conduct that is not permissible: Here’s what you’re allowed to do, and here’s what happens if you do things you’re not allowed to do… Over the centuries, the idea of permission and approval mixed and mingled with the idea of penalties, and sanction came to be its own antonym, which is a little bit like being your own grandpa.

Something similar happened with the word apology. In Greek, an apologia was a speech in defense—typically a speech of self-defense, perhaps as a response to an accusation. When apologia came into English as apology and apologetic, it developed in two contradictory ways. To make an apology for your faith or for an intellectual position is to show that it is right and not wrong (this is the whole idea of the field of apologetics, “a branch of theology devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity.”) On the other hand, when you make a personal apology, the idea is to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” If your approach is to make a case for why you’re right, you are doing your personal apology wrong. On the other hand, if you’re a Christian apologist, please don’t say, “I’m sorry, Christianity is wrong.”

Garnish is another interesting contronym. On the one hand to garnish means to add a little something extra, typically for decorative purposes, like a sprig of parsley or a lemon wedge. On the other hand, to garnish to take something away—like part of the paycheck of a person who owes a debt. The word garnish goes back to the French word garnir, “to furnish or fortify.” You garnish a Christmas tree by furnishing it with lights and garland (though I was surprised to learn that the word garland seems to be unrelated to garnish and garnir). So what does garnishing a person’s wages have to do with furnishing or fortifying? Well, before you dock a debtor’s wages, you have to furnish her with papers letting her know what’s about to happen. One wonders if it was some paper-server with a twisted sense of humor who came thought to call that a garnishment, as if hanging that paper on a debtor was like hanging decorations on a Christmas tree. In any case, by a kind of metonymy, the serving of the paper came to stand for the withholding of the paycheck, and we now speak of “garnishment of wages.” 

Sometimes a contronym is really just two antonyms that happen be spelled and pronounced alike. Cleave is an excellent example. Sometimes to cleave means to cut in two (the way a meat cleaver does). Sometimes to cleave means to stick together (as in ““Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”) But, etymologically speaking, these are actually two words. The Old English cleofan/cleven/cliven meant “split.” Both cloven (as in “cloven hoof”) and cleft (as in “cleft palate” or “cleft of the rock”) come from this word. On the other hand, the Middle English cleven, “to adhere or stick to,” goes back to the Old English clifian/cleofian. The differences between these verbs were more obvious in older forms of English, but as our system of verb tenses simplified, they merged into one self-contradictory word. 

An original idea might be a new idea, or it might be an old idea (that is, an idea that goes back to some origin.) When it comes to interpretation of the Constitution, for example, an “originalist” is a person who purports not to be original at all. Oversight is watchful, responsible care. But also, an oversight—an inadvertent omission or error—results from a failure of oversight. When my wife and I started gardening, it took me a little while to grasp the idea of an annual flower, which is a flower that doesn’t come out annually. Unlike, say, taxes, which come around annually in April, annuals are one-and-done. 

Colloquialisms and figures of speech are often contronymic. Whenever somebody says, “It’s all downhill from here,” you’ve got to use your context clues: do they mean the hard part is over and now things are going to be easy, or do they mean it’s time to get your affairs in order? Sometimes in a meeting I throw out ideas, hoping that my colleagues don’t throw out my ideas. In baseball, the batter stands at the plate in hopes of striking the ball. When he fails to strike the ball, that’s called a strike.

Contronyms are common and intentional in slang, no doubt as a means of confusing old people. Since the eighties at least, bad has often been used to mean goodWicked, sick, and gnarly can mean excellent. “Cindy seems cool to me” might mean “I like Cindy,” or it might mean “Cindy doesn’t like me.”

I’ve been wondering about the British term chuffed. It seems like it ought to mean “angry”—inclined to huff and puff—but apparently it means “happy” or “excited”: “The villagers of Delving Mickle were chuffed when a chip shop opened in the High Street.” Brits? Celts? Commonwealthers? Can you help me out? Is chuffed one of these slangy contronyms in which a negative word becomes a positive word?

Another, related class of words are those pairs that look like they should be antonyms but are actually synonyms. Boned chicken is the same thing as deboned chicken. Flammable means the same thing as inflammable (though I think the use of inflammable has declined considerably, probably because it can be very dangerous to confuse consumers on this point). Whether you speak of pantsing or de-pantsing depends on what junior high you attended, but the two words mean the same thing. If there’s a term for this kind of contradictory word pair, I don’t know what it is.

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