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 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.  When we fill OUT a form, we fill it IN. We recite at a play and play at a recital. We park on a driveway and drive on a parkway.  We put a shipment in a car and cargo on a ship.  Cyclists ride bikes while bikers ride motorcycles. “After dark” really means “DURING dark”.  (After dark, it’s LIGHT.) {6}

Different locutions can often seem to contradict one another when used together—as with, “Hurry up and come down” or “Go ahead and back up.”  A house burns up as it burns down.  Meanwhile, when we say “girlfriend”, we mean a girl who is NOT just a friend.  (The French term for a female romantic partner makes even less sense: petite amie, which means “little friend”.)

If I write an essay “on widening inequality”, the title could be either descriptive or prescriptive (depending on whether “widening” is an adjective or a verb).  This is an important difference, as the essay could either be a lament or a proposal.

One rides IN a car but ON a bus, train, or ship.  Turning something in and turning something over (giving it back) mean the same thing (pertaining to custody); and neither has anything to do with “turning” anything…as is the case with turning something on / off (pertaining to activation).  Having X on one’s mind vs. having one’s mind on X are the same thing.  When one “rents” something, it could be a matter of renting TO or renting FROM.  And we refer to childbirth as “delivery” when it is much more like take-out.

Oddly, “prostrate” and “prone” are antonyms when referring to PHYSICAL orientation, but synonyms when referring to MENTAL orientation.  A near miss is actually a near hit.  A “hit” can be popular song or an assassination. 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 or optical myopia).  Thus both “obtuse” and “myopic” can mean narrow-minded, even as the former is the opposite of acute. The prefix “con-” can mean either against or with / together. To illustrate the confusion that may arise, consider that “condescend” used to connote a sign of respect for those of lower socio-economic status; now it means to talk down to.  (Instead of “con-descend”, we should probably say “contra-descend”.)  Of course, the dual meaning of “con-” (with and against) entails that congress is not the opposite of progress.

Language often works in comically idiosyncratic ways; but this needn’t confound us.  In Spanish, “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 “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 this dual meaning poses no confusion when the term is used in metaphorically.

In English, “dust” can mean to put dust ON or take it OFF. 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)

Thus “screening” something can be either a matter of obfuscation or an exhibition; while “refraining” can entail an abstention or an encore.  Construing “oversight” in a certain way makes the difference between over-LOOK and over-SEE. And since “sanction” can mean to either restrict or approve, mis-interpretation can easily occur.

There are other examples. “Adumbrate” can mean to disclose or to obscure—to offer highlights or to overshadow. “Apprehension” can refer to comprehension (the fruit of cognition) or to anxiety (which ends up inhibiting cognition). The status “full capacity” can mean that nothing is left or that everything is left.

Prefixes are also inconsistent. “Inestimable” and “estimable” basically mean the same thing.  So do invaluable and valuable, as well as ingenious and genius. (!) Again: “congress” is not the opposite of “progress”, even as “con” is the opposite of “pro”.

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

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.  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.  For example, “nice” used to mean silly; and “silly” used to mean blessed.  “Base” used to mean morally degenerate; but now “based” is slang for laudable. 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

Bizarrely, “doom” [alt. “dome”] was the Old English term for an estimable law or judgment. 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).

Misnomers abound in our folklore because misnomers are commonplace in demotic language.  The Trojan horse wasn’t Trojan (it was a Spartan gift GIVEN TO the Trojans).  When we hear that an “allusion to elusion is no illusion”, this may be confusing to some ears due to the tripartite homophony.  Indeed, the allusion was not an illusion.  (One actually referred to the evasion, which was itself no misperception.  One REALLY DID avoid things.)

Wonder how the meaning of words changes over time? Consider that gay men aren’t always gay; and there’s not necessarily anything queer about being queer. 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 (something that was considered a laudable act if it was done in tribute to the right deity). Now it means GENOCIDE.  Thus it went from a very pious act to an atrocity.  Go figure.

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). When it comes to scribal activity, “take it down” means to WRITE a statement; when it comes to online activity, “take it down” means to ERASE a statement.  Oversee is the opposite of overlook…even as to see and to look intimate the same thing.

In American slang, “sick” can mean amazing; “bad” can mean very good; and “wicked” can mean fantastic.  Such dual meanings are not limited to colloquialisms. In the legal profession, to be DIS-barred is to be barred (from practicing law).  One can make reservations without any reservations.  And it is possible that staying at the last resort was not the last resort.

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 located at a lower elevation.  Thus “down” is emotional, attitudinal, or positional. (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.

Often, new phrasing is used for pedantry. For instance, “lived experience” is used in academic circles to mean “experience”, as if there were any other way for one to experience things (i.e. while being alive).  If one didn’t live through it, one did not really experience it. Meanwhile, to emphasize people’s socio-economic position in society with special consideration of their own perspective, “positionality” is used instead of, well, “perspective”. And “ask” used to be only a verb; now it is used as slang for the noun, “request”.  (“It’s a big ask.”)  Instead of “do me a favor”, many now say “do me a solid”.

The metamorphosis in fashionable lingo is sometimes degenerate.  Placed before “up”, “woke” used to be the past tense for the verb “awake” (alternately rendered “awoke” or “[a]woken”).  Now it is used by self-styled political “liberals” as slang for “enlightened” and “aware”.  (Using the past tense of a verb as an ADJECTIVE harkens back to “lit” vis a vis “light”.  The difference is that saying that someone or something is “lit” is grammatically correct.)  In the argot of “woke” academics, we find “problematize”…which, it turns out, is the opposite of “problem solving”.  It effectively means to CONCOCT some sort of “problem” that is in need of being addressed.  “Interrogate” used to mean to question a person; now it is used as a synonym for “investigate” (when referring to a topic).  This is absurd, as one poses questions ABOUT a topic, not TO a topic.  Hence we “problematize” an issue, then “interrogate” that issue; which simply means that we present a contrived dilemma, then wrestle with it…all the while pretending that we are somehow helping mankind.

In politically correct circles, “harm” (which used to mean damage that was empirically demonstrable) has come to mean “hurt feelings”.  “Assault” and “violence” used to mean battery (i.e. a PHYSICAL attack); now it means anything that might cause any kind of discomfiture.  (Thus: If I’m offended by something you say, I contend that you’ve done VIOLENCE toward me; that I’ve been ASSAULTED by you.)  The argot of p.c. is palpably Orwellian.

When discussing people, “bodies” used to mean anatomies.  Now some academics use the word to mean “people”—presumably emphasizing the physical aspect of human beings.  So preventing physical violence against African Americans is described as protecting “black bodies” rather than protecting “black people”.  Why?  Because it sounds more sophisticated to those who are fans of such phrasing.

This peculiar semantic feint seems to reflect a recent phobia of the word “people”.  In an effort to sound more down-to-earth, it has recently become fashionable to use the word “folks” instead of “people”.  (This fad seems to have been put into overdrive with Barack Obama.)  Had Abraham Lincoln employed this rubric, he would have extolled “government of the folks, by the folks, and for the folks”.  Had the Founders employed it, the U.S. Constitution would have begun, “We the Folks…”  Alas.  Folksy is the new eloquent.  So we hear that a lot of “folks” are in poverty, rather than that a lot of “people” are in poverty.  Soon, we’ll be calling anyone who is affable a “folks-folk” rather than a “people person”.  There’s no limit when it comes to daft lingo.

We can only hope that these inane stylistic quirks will soon run their course; and, when they mean “people”, people will start saying “people” again.

In academia, “studies” used to imply SCIENTIFIC studies—that is: scholarly activity that, in some way, made use of the scientific method.  Now, it often just means sophistry in one specialization or another, often in the service of an ideology.  By hijacking the term “critical” as was used by the Frankfurt School (in the original “critical theory”), which meant the same as when we say “critical thinking”, “woke” academics have come to coin new fields in the form “critical X studies” where X is some politically-charged, collective identity.  In a realm where intellectual capture—be it from corporations or an aggrieved demographic—has become tragically commonplace, such charlatanry often passes muster.  After all, the point is to now signal “wokeness”, intellectual integrity be damned.  And perspicacity is unheard of in an agora where euphemism reigns supreme.

Right-wing ideologues twist and contort language in ways that are not only Orwellian, but positively Kafka-esque.  They advocate for zygote rights yet are consistently against human rights.  They call this position “pro-life”.  (Such ideologues are undeterred by the fact that, under no valid definition of “human” can fetuses in the first two trimesters qualify as such.)  They refer to embryos as “unborn human beings” or “unborn children”—locutions that are nonsensical.  The oxymoron, “fetal personhood” is yet another example of how people are capable of engaging in the nuttiest of semantic antics without even batting an eyelash.  {13}

Fetal personhood is only the beginning.  Right-wing ideologues also treat corporations as people.  Thus: Pandering to corporate interests is seen as an invocation of civil liberties.  To right-wing ideologues, this seems to make sense, as they see graft as an exercise of “free speech”.  Meanwhile, “religious freedom” is a pretext for theocracy.  And for those who are “hawkish” on foreign policy, supporting fascistic regimes—be it military juntas in Latin America, Judean Settlers in Palestine, or the House of Saud in Arabia—is often characterized as “supporting democracy”.  Meanwhile, we are told about a “war on terror”, as if one could wage war on a TACTIC or SENTIMENT.  No matter.  It is simply a pretext for diverting public funds to an already-obscenely-bloated military-industrial complex.  And, by the way, “terrorism” only applies when others do it, not when we do it.

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”); and it is NOW used as the name of a theocratic ethno-State.

A “troop” used to be an assemblage of persons (typically in a military context); now it is used as a synonym for soldier (as in “support the troops”).  The hope is that such semantic sloppiness will cease sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, let’s pray that “unborn child” will go the way of “unwed spouse”.

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”). Given such locutions, it’s important to not always take a turn of phrase literally.  (“Holy shit” doesn’t mean consecrated feces.)

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.

Locutions are often far more peculiar than we realize at first blush.  Another word used for emphasis is “wicked”, which—in New England—simply plays the same role as “very” or “really” when modifying an adjective.  Meanwhile, in California, there’s “hella”—a shortening of “helluva”, itself a contraction for “hell of a”—which can also be used to modify adjectives.  It is the equivalent of using “super” or “extremely”.

Naturally, dual meanings can cause some befuddlement.  One can make an admission to no admission (divulging that one wasn’t allowed inside) just as one can have no reservations about having reservations (confidence in one’s arrangement to be a patron).  Homonymy can also be confusing—as when asserting that the allusion to elusion is no illusion (that an oblique reference to avoiding something was really made).

Punctuation is crucial to meaning; yet it can only be conveyed verbally via inflection, emphasis, and pauses.  The perennial bugbear is the pesky “comma”. It is important to distinguish between a term being the object of a predicate or the subject being addressed—as with “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “It’s all over, my friend”.

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.” So when making a list, the last comma (after the “and”; before the last item) is pivotal.  The difference between “I was with the prostitutes, Sally and Cindy” and “I was with the prostitutes, Sally, and Cindy” is rather pivotal.  In the former statement, I was with two people, Sally and Cindy—BOTH of whom were prostitutes.  In the latter statement, I was with at least FOUR people, two of whom were Sally and Cindy—NEITHER of whom were prostitutes.

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”.)

Periods are also important. There’s a difference between “I quit drinking for the rest of my life” and “I quit.  Drinking for the rest of my life.” Just as 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.” Even a colon can make a pivotal difference.  “The definition of opaque: isn’t clear” vs. “The definition of opaque isn’t clear”.

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].

SPACES are crucial in certain places. Take, for instance, “meantime” vs. “mean time”.  The former means “interim”.  The latter can mean either of two things: the average duration OR a cruel / arduous period. Unlike with Khmer, Siamese, and Burmese, spaces matter.  Consider the last two spaces in the statement, “We’re all in this to get her.”  Take them out, and the meaning changes drastically.  “Every day” (a prepositional phrase, as with “on each day”) means that something occurs on all days, while “everyday” (an adjective) means that something is ordinary.  The space makes the difference between constant and quotidian.

This issue has not existed with every language.  Spaces didn’t matter with ancient Greek script.  Lexical separations are sometimes specified with other visual queues—as with, say, Arabic and Mongol scripts.  And sometimes, spaces are optional—as with Aramaic script and some of its offshoots (Syriac, Sogdian, and Brahmi), Roman script, Old Khmer script, Old Mon (proto-Burmese) script, Sukothai (proto-Siamese) script, Sinhala script, as well as Dravidian scripts like Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada.

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—a from (seven days prior) to (over the course of the preceding seven days).

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 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 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.  Simply inserting “up” changes making love to violent combat.

One can even insert “up” in different ways.  To say someone is “fucked” is to say they are a lot of trouble; and probably doomed. To say someone “fucked UP” is to say someone made a mistake; whereas to say someone “IS fucked up” is to say that they are in some sort of disarray (inebriated, deranged, battered, etc.)  Meanwhile, to say someone “fucked up” another person is to say they damaged them; whereas to say someone “fucked over” another person is to say they bamboozled them.  So there is a difference between “you fucked up” (you mishandled something) and “you fucked me up” (you injured / discombobulated me). {4}

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 difference resulting from simply inserting “with” is something a less-than-astute translator might miss.  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.  Alas, even native speakers sometimes forget the distinction between “thinking of X” (which intimates caring) and “thinking about X” (which specifies 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.

The idiosyncrasies of conjugation are notorious in many of the world’s languages. Some, like Polish, involve the conjugation of NOUNS as well as verbs. (!) English has its fair share of peculiarities. The past of teach is “taught”; but the past of preach isn’t “praught”.

Similar issues occur with pluralization.  The plural of tooth is teeth; but the plural of booth isn’t “beeth”.  (And while the plural of goose is “geese”; the plural of moose isn’t “meese”).  Moreover, there are some instances in which we don’t append an “[e]s” at the end of a noun to pluralize it.  Consider seafood like shrimp, calamari, and fish (rather than “seafoods like shrimps, calamaris, and fishes”).  To make things more confusing, in American English, we say that “the homework is to consider all the evidence, then do the math”…whereas in British English, one can get away with saying that “the homeworks involve considering all the evidences, then doing the maths.”

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 the classic example (mentioned earlier).  This can actually mean any of THREE things. “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.” Meanwhile, “mobile kitchen repair” can mean kitchen repair that is mobile, or the repair of mobile kitchens. Qualifiers are not always 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.

As we’ve seen, meanings–and stigmas–change over time. And semiotic switch-a-roos are not uncommon.  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. The original party, the “Democratic Republicans” is almost an oxymoron now; but the etymology makes perfect sense. The United States Of America is, indeed, a Republic that aspires to be democratic. After all, there is nothing about a Republic that is inherently antithetical to liberal democracy. Alas, 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 regimes–which could mean Soviet-style communism or fascism or any kind of oligarchic system (plutocracy, corporatism, etc.)  But sometimes it is used to mean only one of those things…but not the others.

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 espousing of free-market fundamentalism; which entails the tacit promotion of corporate power.  All THAT translated to right-wing foreign policy–based primarily on serving trans-national corporate interests. The implication is dire: the projection of imperialist power…whilst fueling the military-industrial complex (read: private military contractors); all with complete disregard for human rights.

So what, then, does “liberal” mean? Of course, SOCIALLY liberal means anti-traditionalist (willing to buck convention and question authority). Yet “economically” liberal often entails an antipathy to social welfare. To be “liberal”, then, can intimate either a left-wing or right-wing political orientation.

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 commonweal (including the “little guy”), 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).

Language works in funny ways.  Due to the idiosyncrasies of nomenclature, misnomers are ubiquitous.  In French, a potato is called “apple of the earth”.  We have plenty misnomers in the U.S. as well: Federal Express is not federal and the Secret Service is not secret.  Military intelligence has to do with knowledge, not intelligence; as it pertains to information rather than cognitive acuity.  Here are 50 more examples of misnomers in the English language:

  • The theory of gravity is not just a theory.  The same goes for the theory of evolution.
  • Shooting stars aren’t stars.
  • Starfish, jellyfish, and crawfish aren’t fish.
  • Guinea pigs are neither pigs nor from Guinea.
  • Koala bears aren’t bears.
  • Mountain goats aren’t goats.
  • Mountain lions aren’t lions (they’re panthers / cougars / pumas).
  • Hedgehogs aren’t hogs.
  • Horned toads aren’t toads.
  • Mountain chickens aren’t chickens (they’re frogs).
  • Fisher cats aren’t cats.
  • Killer whales aren’t whales.
  • Siamese cats aren’t Siamese (anymore).
  • Nepalese terriers are neither Nepalese nor terriers.
  • Tin-foil isn’t made of tin.  (It’s aluminum foil.)
  • Led pencils don’t actually use led.
  • Dry ice isn’t ice.
  • Dry cleaning isn’t dry.
  • Double Dutch isn’t Dutch.
  • The Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t Dutch (they’re German).
  • Danish pastries aren’t Danish (they’re originally from Austria).
  • Swiss cheese isn’t Swiss.  (Emmental and Gruyere are Swiss.)
  • Chilean sea bass isn’t Chilean.
  • Italian salad dressing isn’t Italian.
  • French toast isn’t French; nor are french horns, french crullers, or french fries.  And French salad dressing is American.
  • White chocolate isn’t chocolate.
  • Pineapples aren’t apples, and have nothing to do with pine.
  • Coconuts aren’t nuts; and certainly have nothing to do with coco. {14}
  • Mince-meat isn’t meat.
  • Coffee beans aren’t beans.
  • Chili peppers have nothing to do with pepper.
  • Grapefruit has nothing to do with grapes.
  • American Indians aren’t Indian.
  • Arabic numerals aren’t Arabic (they’re Indian).
  • Chinese checkers isn’t Chinese.  Neither are “Chinese” fortune cookies.
  • Russian roulette isn’t Russian.  Neither is Russian salad dressing.
  • Panama hats aren’t from Panama.
  • English horns are not English (they’re German).
  • Scientology has nothing to do with science.
  • Roman Catholicism isn’t (literally) catholic.
  • Sport coats are not for sports.  Neither are sports cars.
  • Redheads have orange hair.
  • Black eyes are red and purple.

And, of course, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.  Boxing rings are rarely circular.  Hamburgers have nothing to do with ham; eggplant has nothing to do with eggs; and sour dough isn’t sour…any more than pommes de terre are apples.  And while vegetarians eat vegetables, humanitarians don’t eat humans.

Such faulty nomenclature is usually innocuous; but sometimes Orwellian taxonomy is employed for propagandistic purposes—as when overtly fascistic regimes like those under Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung are characterized as “Marxist” or “communist”.  Duplicitous branding schemes are commonplace when the coiner is seeking to deceive or manipulate the audience.

Resemblances can often account for misnomers—as with glue guns, mantis shrimp, jackrabbits, electric eels, seahorses, and sea cucumbers.  Flying lemurs kinda resemble lemurs and kinda seem to fly.

Misnomers abound in culture.  Herman Melville’s masterpiece, “Moby-Dick” is about the pursuit of a great, white whale…which happened to be a sperm whale.  In the narrative, the color “white” is extremely important (semiotically).  Yet sperm whales are not actually white.  (They’re dark gray—sometimes with a brownish-purple sheen.)  So much for the whiteness of Ahab’s infamous quarry! {15}

As a result of the discrepancy between the Julian (Byzantine) and Gregorian (Latin) calendars, the Russian “October Revolution” was really in November, the “February Revolution” really in March.

For any given language, there is a beguiling plethora of euphemistic locutions, misnomers, and 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.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF