Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous

Lexical Modularity

Funny things happen over generations when people are hearing and relaying lines verbally.  Such are the pitfalls of oral transmission; which is why the game of “telephone” can be so amusing.  

Phonetics can be cause for confusion.  There is a difference between listening to the violins and listening to the violence; between being a trader and being a traitor.  There is a big difference between announcing, “I won’t be long” and “I won’t belong”; between responding to a query, “It was discussed” and “It was disgust.”

Semantics can be confusing in other ways, as with: “When one chooses the left one, it will be the right one; but then only the right one will be left.”  Such sentences would surely confound someone who was new to English; though the meaning is actually quite straight-forward.

Syntactic ambiguity can usually be resolved by bracketing appropriate clauses–as with “They are hunting dogs” (are the dogs the hunters or the hunted?) and “I shot a hippopotamus in my pajamas” (was or wasn’t the large animal located in my clothing?)  If I exhort you to “live for now”, do I mean “live in the moment” or “remain alive for the time being”? There are myriad statements with duel meanings–such as the classic: “I had him for dinner”.

There are simple declarations that can be a negation of THEMSELVES–depending on how syntax is treated.  For example, “It can’t be too cold to snow” can be interpreted in opposite ways:

  • It is possible for it to be too cold for snow to occur.  (In order for it to snow, it must be sufficiently warm.  Thus: It CAN be too cold to snow.)
  • It is impossible for it to be too cold for snow to occur.  (There can be no temperature too low for it to snow.)

The former is technically correct; and–felicitously–is the way the utterance would usually be interpreted.  However, taken literally, it would have to be interpreted the latter (fallacious) way.

Language behaves in highly idiosyncratic ways.  Take, for instance, when a phrase can be its own opposite.  Idiomatic expression often follows its own logic…which is why, when we say an alarm is “going off”, it is actually going ON.  We park on a driveway and drive on a parkway.  We put a shipment in a car and cargo on a ship.  “After dark” really means “DURING dark”.  (After dark, it’s LIGHT.) {6}  While crime-fighters fight AGAINST crime and fire-fighters fight AGAINST fire, freedom-fighters fight FOR freedom.  And there’s nothing civil about civil war.

Thus the exact same statement can mean opposite things.  “I’ve been missing work” can mean that I pine for work (as I wish I could be there) OR that I have not been showing up to work (as I have decided not to go).  Thus the same expression can mean EITHER an avid interest OR a complete lack thereof.

Some WORDS can even be antonyms of themselves–as with “obtuse”: wide (as with an angle of greater than 90 degrees) or narrow (as in: myopic thinking).  The prefix “con-” can mean either against or with / together.

Language often works in comically idiosyncratic ways; but this needn’t confound us.  In Spanish, “la mina” means “mine”—which may refer to a landmine or a gold mine.  (In other words: the term may mean something dangerous or something serendipitous.  Opposites.)  So declaring something to be “la mina” can mean that it is something that one SHOULDN’T do or something that one SHOULD do.  (It holds peril; it holds promise.)  Yet even this dual meaning poses no confusion when the term is used in metaphorically.

A dozen more examples of auto-antonymy in English:

  • “cleave” and “hew” (split; join / adhere)
  • “admonish” (rebuke; entreat)
  • “discriminate” (to discern based on perspicuity, so to be judicious; to discern based on prejudice, so to be injudicious)
  • “unqualified” (inadequate; complete, as in an “unqualified success”) {3}
  • “betray” (thwart, as in trust; reveal, as in feelings)
  • “bolt” (rapidly depart; hold in place)
  • “table” (introduce into discussion; remove from discussion)
  • “nonplussed” (unperturbed; perplexed)
  • “screen” (veil; show)
  • “refrain” (desist; repeat)
  • “oversight” (something that has been completely over-looked; something that has been completely looked over)
  • “sanction” (censure; endorse)

“Screening” something can be either a matter of obfuscation or an exhibition.  “Refraining” can entail an abstention or an encore.  Construing “oversight” in a certain way makes the difference between over-LOOK and over-SEE.  The status “full capacity” can mean nothing left or everything left.  And since “sanction” can mean to either restrict or approve, mis-interpretation can easily occur.

Meanwhile, antonyms can sometimes be used to mean the same thing, as in “prostrate” (face-down) and “supine” (face-up), both of which can indicate vulnerability / submissiveness.  Both “obtuse” and “myopic” can mean narrow-minded, even as the former is the opposite of acute (which means narrow).  A term can even be the converse of itself, as with “cull”: extract the most desirable vs. kill off the least desirable.  Thus “culling” can mean select in order to keep or select in order to reject.

Over time, the meaning of lexemes can transmogrify into their own antitheses.  Terms that mean one thing in one epoch can mean virtually the opposite in another epoch–as has been the case with:

  • “awful”: from awe-inspiring to repugnant
  • “terrific”: from terrifying to wonderful
  • “tremendous”: from tremor-inducing to monumental
  • “outstanding”: from anomalous to extraordinary
  • “pompous”: from majestic to arrogant
  • “artificial”: from well-crafted to phony
  • “incredible” / “unbelievable”: from something of dubious verity to something awe-inspiring
  • “egregious”: from distinguished / eminent to conspicuously bad
  • “passion”: from suffering to ecstasy [the etymology of “com-passion” is suffering with]
  • “normalize”: from making the deviant conform to the ordinary to accepting the deviant as the new ordinary

The term “revisionist history” used to mean re-writing history (via fabrication).  It is now sometimes used to mean correcting what had been depicted erroneously (by setting the record straight).  That is: It used to mean concocting faux history (by creating misconceptions); and it now often means elucidating what really happened (by eliminating misconceptions).

One does not need to be an expert in diachronic linguistics to recognize that “semantic drift” sometimes occurs. The loaded term “holocaust” originally meant “burnt offering” in Koine Greek; now it means GENOCIDE.  Thus it went from a pious act to an atrocity.  Go figure.

In other cases, there are dual meanings embedding in manners-of-speaking, which can pose problems for translators.  If one “dusts” or “trims” something, one may be either adding or removing (as with “kutoa” in Swahili).  In Hindi, “kal” can mean either today or tomorrow.  In Spanish, “pourque” can mean either “why” or “because”. Etc.  Such hermeneutic ambidexterity might be confusing at first blush; but it poses no problems for translation.

If one modifies “moving” with “fast”, it means higher speed; yet if one modifies “holding” with “fast”, it means remaining stationary.  If one “rents” something, one could be renting TO or renting FROM.  Asking “Who IS left?” is the opposite of asking “Who HAS left?”  (Thus “left” can indicate a state of either remaining or departure.)

Other words have connotations that can go in one of two ways–as with “patronize” (to mock or to support).  The term “glory” means something very different when it is used in the last line of the Nicene creed (as sanctified as it gets) than when it is used for “glory hole” (as salacious as it gets).

In American slang, “sick” can mean amazing; “bad” can mean very good; and “wicked” can mean fantastic. 

Some words are used as slang in idiosyncratic ways.  “Bob is down” can mean that Bob is sad, Bob is interested, or that Bob is lower in elevation.  One might even say that Bob is “down and out”.

Dual meaning can also occur with phrases.  “A great deal” can mean either a large amount or a bargain.  “Take a cut” can mean either to take MORE money or take LESS money.  Meanwhile, “backing down” often involves “backing up”.  To “break WITH” and “break FROM” mean the same thing: to break away.  Something that is “in” (fashionable) can be said to be “far out” or “out of sight”.

Such is the nature of demotic language.

Idiomatic expressions are often context-dependent–which is why we shouldn’t say that we’re being “held up” at the bank when we were delayed due to long lines at the teller. Only those proficient in English might make sense of the seemingly paradoxical, “He let me down by NOT letting me down” (“He disappointed me by keeping me elevating”).

Semantic elasticity becomes NON-straight-forward when idiomatic phrases use opposites while meaning roughly the same thing.  In describing someone’s emotional state, to “light up” is to become excited whereas to “lighten up” is to become relaxed.  “What the devil / hell…?” is the same turn of phrase as “What in god’s / heaven’s name…?”

Understanding idiomatic usage is what enables us to understand the statement: “When the rumors spread, her legs will follow suit.”  When people go through a break-up, it’s often due to some kind of breakdown.  Note the difference between causing relief wherever one goes and causing relief whenever one goes.  A breakthrough is good; but if something falls through, it’s bad.  There’s a difference between an outstanding performance (very good) and outstanding parking tickets (bad). Of course, the latter might be construed as tickets for phenomenal parking skills.

Idiomatic expression can sometimes pose (temporary) problems in translation if one is not careful.  Semantic elasticity can be confounding for those not well-versed in a language’s signature idiosyncrasies.  It’s is how “what’s up?” and “what’s going down?” can mean the same thing…which is the same as asking: “What’s going on?” or “What’s happening?” or “What’s popping?” or “What’s shaking?”

“Positive” test results aren’t always a positive thing.  Nor is a positive feedback loop.  “I’ve been missing work” could indicate that one does want to work or that one does NOT want to work. Similarly: “See who’s lying behind the curtain” can mean “Reveal the identity of the person who is clandestinely deceiving us” OR “Find out who’s in a supine position on the other side of the drapery.”  The difference, then, is between “deception from” or “repose in” a secluded place.

Punctuation is crucial to meaning; yet it can only be conveyed verbally via inflection, emphasis, and pauses.  There is a difference between “I bought my wife a boat and a car” vs. “I bought my wife, a boat, and a car.”  This creates the same ambiguity as “I enjoy cooking my family and my dog” vs. “I enjoy cooking, my family, and my dog.” There’s also a difference between “I quit drinking for the rest of my life” and “I quit.  Drinking for the rest of my life.”

Once, in a letter to his sister-in-law, Angelica (who was in love with him), Alexander Hamilton began: “My Dearest, Angelica” rather than “My Dearest Angelica,” …which, of course, intimated something very different than the anodyne address he intended.  (The dual meaning of this opening was dramatized in the Broadway musical, “Hamilton”.) Even more dramatic is the difference between “I’m sorry; I love you” and “I’m sorry I love you.” Such punctuation snafus can have grave repercussions.  Imagine confusing “Don’t! Stop!” with “Don’t stop!” Also consider the request: “Let’s eat, Grandma” as opposed to “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Minor adjustments can make a crucial difference–as with inserting / omitting “be”: “come apart” (to divide) vs. “become a part” (to join)…or, for that matter, “come to be a part”. Meaning can transform by simply omitting an indefinite article: “There are a few remaining” emphasizes what still exists; whereas “There are few remaining” emphasizes what no longer exists.  “I address racism in my book” (discuss the topic of racism) vs. “I address the racism in my book” (admit being racist).  This can happen even by misplacing an indefinite article: “I’m a just man” vs. “I’m just a man.”

Even a hyphen can make a big difference–as with “I resent your gift” vs. “I re-sent your gift”. Crucial differences can also result from the commission or omission of a SPACE.  Behold: “It will not be long” (it is immanent) vs. “It will not belong” (it will be incongruous).  Thus: Asked if you might be expected at the social gathering starting presently, the response “I won’t be long” [Yes, I’ll be there soon] intimates the opposite of “I won’t belong” [I’m reticent to come, as I feel I won’t fit in].

Also take, for instance, “meantime” (interim) vs. “mean time”.  The former means “interim”.  The latter can mean either of two things: the average duration OR a cruel / arduous period.

A single word makes a big difference, and can be lost in translation.  This can be a matter of changing an indefinite article to a definite article (a vs. the).  Hence the difference between saying “I’ll do it a week before” vs. “I’ll do it the week before.” Definite vs. indefinite articles change meaning—as with, say: “a week before” vs. “the week before”.

The Russian language has no definite or indefinite articles; so the crucial distinction between “There are few problems” and “There are a few problems” might be lost in translation.  By merely inserting the indefinite article (“a”), the emphasis goes from there NOT being many problems to there BEING problems.  Hence “don’t be too concerned with problems” becomes “there are some problems of which you should take note.” Also, observe what happens when one inserts the definite article (“the”) into “You are shit!” (derogatory)…rendering “You are the shit!” (laudatory).

The simple insertion of a preposition can also do wonders.  One can change “I want to have sex with you” to “I want to swindle you” by simply inserting “over” at the end, yielding “I want to fuck you [over].”  Indeed: the insertion of a single, bracketed word can completely transform a statement.

Simply insert “up” instead, and one can turn an invitation to copulate into an invitation to fight.  Indeed: “I want to fuck you” and “I want to fuck you UP” makes the difference between wanting to engage in coitus and wanting to engage in battery. {4}  Simply inserting “up” changes making love to violent combat.  The difference between “I’m fucking you” and “I’m fucking [around] with you” is quite important, as “copulating with” and “joking with” are two rather different things. {5}  The drastic change from simply inserting “with” is something a less-than-astute translator might do.  After all, when one is fucking someone (sex), one is–indeed–doing something WITH them.

Meanwhile, reversing X and Y in “X on Y” does not change the meaning when X is “[someone’s] mind” and Y is a subject of thought.  Though native speakers often forget the distinction between “thinking of X” (which intimate caring) and “thinking about X” (which simply specified content).

Grammar is often inconsistent.  We do something AT noontime, yet ON Saturday, and IN September; even as we schedule something FOR tomorrow.  I can protect you and respect you; but while I do the former for your protection, I don’t do the latter for your respection.

Across languages, a seemingly identical word can come to mean different things.  Take, for instance, “frontier”.  In English, it connotes place of potential expansion (i.e. of possibility)…as with new horizons.  Yet in French, it connotes a BOUNDARY (i.e. a limit)…as with “Médecins Sans Frontières” [Doctors Without Boundaries].  (This is why M.S.M. is translated into English as “Doctors Without [national] Boarders” rather than “Doctors Without Frontiers”.  As it turns out, boundless doctors actually have ENDLESS frontiers.)

Bracketing is also an issue.  “I shot an elephant in my pajamas” is a classic example.  “When I shot it, I was wearing my pajamas.”  Or “When I shot it, the elephant was wearing my pajamas.”  Or “When I shot it, I was wearing the pajamas; and the elephant was (somehow) also inside my pajamas.”

Qualifiers are not even straight forward.  (Is a “criminal lawyer” and lawyer who PROSECUTES criminals or a lawyer who IS a criminal?)  Such idiosyncrasies can be easily addressed by astute translators.

The peculiarities of various languages are endless.  But in all cases of poor translation, it is the translator that should be blamed, not the source language.  (For further discussion of this matter, see my work on the “L.I.T.” card.)

The most infamous alteration in word-meaning is “Israel”: originally used to name a PEOPLE, yet pursuant to Revisionist Zionism, it was used to name a PLACE (as I discuss in my essay: “The Land Of Purple”).

Such semiotic switch-a-roos are not uncommon.  Indeed, taxonomies often flip.  In the mid-19th century, the Progressive caucus in America was known as the “Radical Republicans”.  Now, “Republican” refers to an ultra-Reactionary party: the proto-fascist cult that is the G.O.P.

And the socio-political (and economic) term “liberal” has undergone so many hermeneutic turns (and a flowering of disparate connotations) that it’s hard to keep track.  It GENERALLY means that one is against authoritarian systems–which could mean Soviet-style communism or fascism or corporate power.  But sometimes it means only one of those things.

In 1843, Karl Marx wrote: “The glorious robes of liberalism have fallen away; and the most repulsive despotisms stands revealed for all the world to see.”  He was referring to highly-concentrated economic power (and top-down control).  John Stuart Mill was considered a “classical liberal”; but what does THAT (19th century term) even mean NOW (in the 21st century)?  After all, even Mill considered himself a (Marxian) “socialist”–prescribing, as he did, the pursuit of “common ownership of the raw materials of the globe.”  Abraham Lincoln was against bankers and other private tyrannies (read: corporate power). {7}  Meanwhile, in 19th-century Germany, “liberals” were allied with nationalists / imperialists!  And Benjamin Constant was a European “liberal” who is a forerunner of modern CONSERVATISM.

By the post-War era, “liberalism” seemed to correlate with the thinking of the intelligentsia–leading Lionel Trilling to assert (in 1950) that liberalism in America was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”  Yet even this was deceptive.  Once the Chicago School established the “Washington Consensus”, there emerged the patently RIGHT-wing “neoliberal” order.  The “liberal” in “neoliberalism” means the promotion of corporate power, and the espousing of free-market fundamentalism. (!)  All THAT translated to right-wing foreign policy–projecting imperialist power whilst fueling the military-industrial complex, all with COMPLETE disregard for human rights.  So what, then, did “liberal” mean?

Of course, SOCIALLY liberal means anti-traditionalist, willing to buck convention and question authority.

Other lexical transformations are illustrative of hermeneutic flexibility.  “Gay” used to mean gleeful, and now typically means homosexual.  “Savage” used to mean primitive and unsophisticated, and now typically means barbaric.  “Bachelor” used to mean a student of the lowest rank at a university, and now means an un-married man.  What begins as mere catachresis can eventually became a transformation in the vernacular.  The funniest example is “penis”: from backside to frontside (originally Latin for tail, now the name for male genitalia).

In politics, nomenclature has been turned on its head in several instances:

  • “Federal-ism”: Originally a descriptor for centralized government; it has become a euphemism for “state’s rights” (divestment of Federal power).  It used to mean power concentrated at the federal level of the Federal government; now it means the opposite (deference to each state’s prerogative).  Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist; now he’d be an anti-Federalist.
  • “libertarian-ism”: Originally a descriptor for anarcho-syndicalism (stateless socialism); it has become a euphemism for anarcho-capitalism (free-market fundamentalism).  At first, it referred to freedom from the control of hierarchal (top-down) institutions; and was thus a LEFT-wing ideology–in keeping with Stateless socialism (a.k.a. “libertarian socialism”), the epitome of which was anarchism (including anarcho-syndicalism).  NOW it often refers to a RIGHT-wing ideology: free-market fundamentalism (i.e. anarcho-capitalism). {8}
  • “property rights”: In the original Lockian sense, the idea was to ensure that people could not be disenfranchised by a tyrannical government (via confiscation).  It is now invoked as an excuse to put property rights over civil rights (thus prioritizing private financial power over civic-mindedness).  The former was against arrogating highly-concentrated power at the expense of the commonweal; the latter is FOR doing so.

Some terms now have DUAL meanings–sometimes in a way that discombobulates the public discourse.  Two examples:

  • “nationalism” can mean a kind of tribalism.  It can also mean an endeavor to effect self-determination.  The former, being a conceit that involves some kind of Exceptionalism, is typically a right-wing phenomenon; as it has generally accompanied fascistic movements.  The latter, as resistance to domination / exploitation / marginalization by (external) powers, is typically a left-wing phenomenon; and has generally accompanied movements promoting democratic socialism.  The difference, then, is a matter of either promoting or combating imperialism.
  • “populism” can mean a gimmick to appeal to the masses by generating mass-hysteria / mass-mania.  It can also mean taking into account the concerns of the everyman.  The former, being some combination of pandering and exploitation, is typically a right-wing phenomenon.  The latter, being a matter of genuinely caring about the common-folk, is typically a left-wing phenomenon.  The difference, then, is between bolstering a mob mentality (for the benefit of a few well-positioned insiders) and looking out for the little guy. {9}

Semantic elasticity should not be confused with–or fashioned as–lexical fungibility.  It is important to recognize that definitions (i.e. definitive meanings) EXIST; and that a respect for formal language entails acknowledging that certain things unequivocally mean what they mean.

To cultivate aptitude in a language is to understand such semantic quirks; and the ways in which those semantic quirks can be exploited by those adept in the art of casuistry.  We see this with buzz-words like “reform”, “radical”, and “liberty”.  Such things do not confound an astute translator.  For no adept translation need be hamstrung by the idiosyncrasies of language.  Honest translators recognize such things for what they are (and so take them into account when crafting the new articulation).

For any given language, there is a beguiling plethora of idiomatic expressions that can’t be translated literally.  The same goes for other quirks–as with a metonym, a zeugma, a syllepsis, or–as is often encountered in sacred scripture–hyper-anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase for rhetorical effect).  However, such rhetorical devices (tropes, catch-phrases, figures of speech) can be always articulated in alternate languages–even if via annotation.  This is especially the case for texts that claim to be timeless.  (Surely, an omniscient author would be aware of locutions that might become dated; and thus misleading.)

We needn’t be thrown into paroxysms of bewilderment each time we encounter lexemes that have myriad connotations.  The quintessential example of this is the Sanskrit term, “ishvara”.  In its earliest (Vedic) usage, it was used for lord, king / queen, or even just one’s soul (“atman”).  In medieval (Hindu) usage, it could mean supreme being (“brahman”), personal god (“ishta-deva”), or simply the self.  Shaivists use the term synonymously with their patron deity, Shiv[a].  Vaishnavists use the term synonymously with their patron deity, Vishnu.  Etc.  (We also encounter semantic elasticity with the Sanskrit term, “purusha”.)

Lexical multi-valence might make translation less straight-forward, but it doesn’t doom us to some semiotic quagmire either.  Annotation is always available; and perspicacious translators avail themselves of judicious annotation, as needed.  Some of this must be done via anthropology / philology–as when discerning the probable meaning of antiquated colloquialisms.  Some of this must be done via intertextuality (assuming hermeneutic consistency throughout the work).  The conveyance of MEANING is all that matters in the final analysis.

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