Words that also Mean their Opposites

topic posted Sun, April 1, 2007 - 7:04 PM by 
I'm reading Derrida's essay "Plato's Pharmacy." It's my first direct venture into Derrida, and I'm mesmerized with enjoyment. I never expected him to be so fun or so lucid. I heard once that in traditional Jewish society, nobody is allowed to study the Qabala before age 40 or he'll go mad; I think that the same might be true for deconstruction.

Anyway, the essay is built around the Greek word "pharmakon," (the root of 'pharmacy,') which means both a cure and a poison. It's a word that contains its own opposite meaning.

What other words mean a thing and the opposite thing?

One example in English is 'ravel,' which means both to tangle and to untangle. To ravel and unravel are the same.
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  • One of Will Shortz's NPR puzzles brought up two words like this.


    Both can mean "to bring together" (He cleaves to his parents; I accidentally clipped his bumper) and "to take apart" (I cleaved the steak in two; He clipped her hair).
  • Similar to "pharmakon," the Czech word for pharmcist is lecher, which comes from the Germanic word for leech. Of course, that was back in the days when people thought it was a good thing to put leeches on their bodies.

    • Unsu...
      re Kabbalah....the thing with that, in order to study Kabbalah, one is supposed to meet a bunch of requirements that center around stability and worldy order to have the balance that allows the proper use of the discipline.

      It would be the same as expecting someone studying martial arts to have demonstrated enough control over their anger, that they can properly use the self-defense techniques...

      But, that is what I could get something better from an actual source. The only Kabbalist author I remember is Adin Steinsaltz.

      Martin Buber wrote a great anthology of stories of Hasidism...I think the title is Tales of the Early Hasidic Masters or some such thing.


      re opposites...

      I love the way that the African-American community takes language and re-invents it and makes it their own.

      like the use of the word "bad"

      or even, you know the use of the word "black" - how, in the 60's the took societies negative connotations of black (as being the opposite of white/ good) , turned it on its head and claimed ownership, claimed the right to see black as beauty..

      well, re Heather's post and speaking of chemistry...

      the word chemistry comes from the word Alchemy. which in turn comes from the name of Egypt - Khmet. (Egypt being the Greek (?) word for the place). Alchemy meaning being "of Egypt" - specifically in the sense of Khmet being the land of magic.

      So, I guess, in that sense, while chemistry now means the study of a physical science, its origin is as a study of the non-physical world.

      so, is that interesting? I don't know...Heather's leeches reference was tons funnier. I just saw that Jiminy Glick movie were there is a faux love scene with someone taking leeches off of their partner....was very demented and very funny...

      • A couple of years back, I sold handmade hats on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley. Some young men tried them on in front of my mirror. They said the hats were stupid and sick and laughed. Then they bought some! Stupid and sick mean good-looking, OK.
        • >re Kabbalah....the thing with that, in order to study Kabbalah, one is supposed to meet a bunch of requirements that center around stability and worldy order to have the balance that allows the proper use of the discipline.

          Yes Jon, that was exactly my drift. The not very well stated implication was that I'm glad I waited until the age I am to attempt reading Derrida, because otherwise he probably would have angered and frustrated me. His seeming obscurities seriously annoy a lot of people. Decay of the academy, tenured radicals, postmodern gibberish, muttermuttermutter, etc.

          Bob, thanks for the word 'autoantonym.' I knew there was a word for it!

          Is there a word for that way you feel when you just know there's a word for something, and you think you know the word, but you can't think of it?
  • Yesterday, someone asked me, "How are you?" I answered, "Just dandy, thanks." They thought I was being sarcastic, but I really did mean dandy, like swell, like golly-gee-willickers. :-?

    Hmm... how exactly does one spell "willickers?"
    • Words that are considered outdated are thus considered kitschy and from there considered sarcastic.
      • Indeed, though I have fun doing the occasional people watching with this. When I say, "swell," I really mean in the cheerful, Beaver Cleaver way. Depending on the listener's disposition, they either understand that I'm actually chipper or, if they are cynical and unhappy, take it as cynical and unhappy. I smile either way. Sometimes I see the cynical folks look unaccountably confused for a moment, then wander on their way, strangely happier. I didn't buy into their negativity and I smiled pleasantly. Strange ripple effects of happiness... wooooOOOooOOooOooo! ;)
  • Solomon Island Pijin English is also a very creative language and sometimes you need to know the context to determine the meaning of a word. For example, the verb 'lukatim' (from English 'look at') can mean both 'to look for' or 'to find'.
    • Only in the US: cheque (or do you spell it 'check'?)

      The teenage slang thing reminded me, language is developed from the commoners, up. If it were up to the scholastics, it would remain the same. An interesting example of this in volume is the dictionary Encarta. It states outright that the need for a new dictionary was there because of the internet (not to suggest that content on the internet is usde only by commoners). Because English is (one of?) the biggest language(s) and the internet probably the biggest mode of communication, people in other countries are using it and morphing it. The Encarta tries to catch up with that. Probably far far behind, now.
      • I love using computers in other languages to see what local words they use and which are imported. Like in German, the pop-says, "Schleissen die Fenster" or "Klicken Sie hier, bitte."

        Did anyone else know that Windows in Communist? Apparently, in some German versions of Windows, it recognizes the old East German names of places, but not the new names since east and west was reunited!