Friday, February 6, 2009

The Writing Life: English is a Fickle Language

English is a Fickle Language When One Word Has Opposite Meanings!

I’m at a disadvantage in the 21st Century, because I still have a 20th Century vocabulary. I need help finding the right key words for my own Web site. And when I’m researching online it could take me days to find the word or words that yield the Web sites with the information I actually want.

So, this column is devoted to words that are spelled the same way, even have identical pronunciation, but can mean very different things.

One of my favorites is fast. I find three meanings for this word. If I travel by car I’m moving fast, as opposed to walking. If I tie my tent stakes so they will not move at all, they are held fast. When I choose refrain from eating for a set period of time, that is a fast.

More of my favorite ambiguous words:
  • Clip –what you do to a coupon, or what you do with a paperclip
  • Note –what’s written on paper, or the specific tone a musical instrument makes
  • Sanction - which can mean either to permit or to penalize
  • Seed – to plant them for food, or to remove them from food
  • Seeded – added to the bread’s crust, or removed from fruit or vegetables
  • Shade –tint or hue of a color, or refuge from the sun under a tree or large object
  • Trunk – what grandma packed for a voyage, or a tree’s stem

Context is crucial to the meaning of these words. If you teach English as a second language, you have my deepest respect.

I’m not the only writer who has pondered this paradoxical ambiguity in words. My clumsy keyword search did lead me to this Web site: The writer claims to have created the word ANTAGONYMS to describe this group of words. That works for me. The author is kind enough to create a longer list than my few examples, including slang circa 1999.

JJ Murphy is a freelance nature writer, photographer, blogging hiker, forager, locavore, and tree-hugger with more than 50 years of eco-centric living experience. Visit if you need relevant content that captures your personal style and tone.

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