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Category: Language

Contranyms
Sometimes I fantasize about a world in which words have one meaning and one meaning only. It’s a silly dream, I know. Perhaps there was a time when our ancestors led lives so simple that every object, every act, every situation had one word all to itself to signify it. Theirs would have been a clear, straightforward language that did not require us to sort out definition from context or to guess at what was being communicated.

There would have been no words like ball, for instance. It’s such a simple word, right? It’s round, and it rolls. Probably bounces, too. On second thought, though, maybe it’s a big dress-up party. Or a good ol’ time, or a bullet, or not a strike, or a sex act, or a testicle, or guts, or any conglomeration of stuff of uncertain shape and consistency.

There are many words like ball in the English language — words that have multiple, seemingly unrelated meanings. There does not seem to be any way to stem this tide of metastasizing definitions. I don’t like it, but I have given into it as a byproduct of our complex society. I accept that a kind of entropy is at work within our language, and that we are moving toward a time when all words will mean all things and therefore nothing at all.

Different meanings are one thing. I draw the line, however, at contranyms — words that can mean the opposite of themselves.

Fortunately for my mental health, most of the examples often cited as contranyms are not true opposites, but rather very different applications of the same root meaning. Take bound, for instance. One usage might have you tied up and immobile. Another could have you moving toward a very certain destination. It gives me comfort to know that you could be both: lashed to your seat on the night flight to Rangoon. Bound is not, in my view, a true contranym.

Cleave is another such word. One meaning is to hold tight, the other is to cut or chop. These are seemingly at odds, but if I let my imagination take me back to the word’s origins in Middle English, I can picture Beowulf bringing down his axe to hack a notch in Grendel’s noggin — and having it stick there. Here again, the two meanings might hypothetically coexist and therefore do not illustrate a contranym. An antagonym, perhaps, but I can live with that.

Most so-called contranyms, in fact, fall into the antagonym category. It is distressing to have to spend time doing thought experiments about such words as dust (remove it vs. apply it), left (gone vs. still here), sanction (approval vs. punishment), and oversight (watching vs. falling asleep on the job), but it is important work that needs to be done.

(This is not the time or place to contrast flammable and inflammable nor to discuss which valuable things are also invaluable. I invite you to conduct those thought experiments on your own.)

There is one word on the list, however, that seems impervious to rationalization: ravel. It means, so far as I can tell, both to tangle and to untangle. Right there in the dictionary, one of the listed meanings of ravel is … unravel. I have not been able to find a way around this paradox, and it is deeply distressing to me. There should be no contranyms at all; for such a word to exist defies the fundamentals of clear communication. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too should language abhor a contranym. It is wrong, pure and simple.

So I must persist. The answer to the conundrum, I know, will present itself to me; all I need is to be patient. At times like this, I often think of the ancient Polynesians. I know that I will never live in a world like theirs where meanings are unitary and immutable. And they, in turn, never faced such riddles as these. But as they navigated the Pacific using the art of wayfinding they called a’aa’u’aa’o’o’i, they had to pit their resolve and cunning against a sea of uncertainty just as I do now. Like theirs, mine will be a lonely journey.

Aloha.
What's the Use?
I’m driving along last Thursday, listening to public radio, and I hear Robin Young, host of WBUR’s “Here and Now,” tell me that the Senate Armed Services Committee is “zoning in” on Chuck Hagel’s record. I feel the gorge rising in my throat. My cheeks begin to burn; my breathing turns rapid and shallow. I am having an episode.

These are typical symptoms for people with my affliction so I am not alarmed. In these situations, I usually take a few deep breaths and try to find my happy place. Once there, I remind myself that Robin Young seems to be a pleasant, bright, and well-informed person. Unfortunately, that knowledge only heightens my anguish. She is in the communication business; she should know better than to use this kind of mushy, meaningless terminology.

To make matters worse, the phrase “zoning in” appears to be a confusion, on her part, with another phrase, “honing in,” which is in itself a garbling of the correct term —“homing in.” Homing pigeons, for example, home in on their homes as a destination; homing devices focus on a homing signal to carry them toward their intended targets. Honing, by contrast, is about sharpening, as of knives or arguments. Zoning is about land use restriction. Neither is about focusing or targeting, which is what the committee was doing with Chuck Hagel; the word in that case ought be homing, Homing, HOMING!

Okay, I’m starting to hyperventilate again. Got to get centered, or I’m liable to have a stroke, and then I’d be homing in on that bridge abutment. This is the nature of my affliction, you see: obsessing over English usage to such an extent that it begins to affect my health. You might ask, Who cares what word she used? Everybody knows what she means — the committee is focusing on Chuck Hagel, targeting him. So what difference does it make? Why be a slave to a bunch of tight ass rules? Why not just let the rules reflect how people actually speak and write?

This is the argument of the Descriptivist camp on the battlefield of English usage. Under its flag, the rules should reflect actual usage and simply describe the state of the language as it is rather than demanding adherence to outmoded standards. In other words: whatever. If enough of us use zoning or honing to mean homing, then that is what those words will mean. Under this construction, I would argue, cloning could also mean homing. So could phoning, gloaming, roaming, moaning, or any-old-word-I-like — as long as I can get enough of my fellow talking monkeys to buy into the usage. New meanings can be added to words willy-nilly, hilly-billy, and even Milli-Vanilli. It’s chaos, I tell you.

Across the battlefield from the Descriptivists is the cranky, fussbudgety camp of the Prescriptivists. These pains-in-the-ass insist that English usage should follow a set of prescribed rules. Words should have meanings, they say, that are certain and coherent within the context of all other words. Words are tools of clear communication, precise instruments honed (yes, honed!) by centuries of use to have very particular meanings. The more misusage and bastardization is allowed, the duller these tools become and the less useful.

It may be apparent that I prefer to encamp with the Prescriptivists. I have no doubt that Descriptivists are more generous in spirit and gentle of nature than Prescriptivists and that they live longer, happier lives. So be it. I break rules, including rules of grammar, but I try. At least I goddamn try. If I thought other people were trying too, I could probably be generous and gentle as well. It is not to be. This planet, it seems, has been zoned for mushy imprecision.

So what’s the use? Why even bother? It has been suggested that all of my fancy reasons for being a stickler are just a transparent effort to make myself feel smart and superior. Maybe, but what good is that? The world couldn’t care less about my futile quest. And if I’m so smart and superior, then how come all I get out of it is blurred vision, hyperventilation, and these shooting pains in my chest?
Naming Rights III
The Large Hadron Collider seems to have found something very important. The Higgs boson, or “God particle,” does indeed exist, just as Peter Higgs predicted back in 1964. The particle literally allows the universe to exist by “conferring” mass on other particles.

Please, no snoring in class. The quantum physics portion of this piece will end soon, I promise you. Just let me say that the Higgs boson isn’t really a God particle any more than it’s an atheist particle. Its discovery merely verifies that the potential for somethingness is inherent in all nothingness — and sets the stage for spontaneous creation of universes from an absolute void.

Any better? Okay, forget it. It’s a Very Important Particle is all I’m saying. So important that it needs a name worthy of its standing as the facilitator of Big Bangs.

Why not “Higgs boson,” as it is currently called? I know it’s common for discoverers of things to have the thing discovered named after them. Common, perhaps, but distasteful.

Permit me, if you will, a small digression here into my naming philosophy. Above all, names of things should convey something fundamental or meaningful about the thing itself. What does some one’s big, fat ego have to do with that? I can see naming a person after a thing (Pigmeat Markham and Twiggy come to mind), but not the other way around.

Now, I have nothing against Dr. Higgs. By all accounts he is a modest, personable, and very bright fellow. His personal identity, however, has nothing to do with the identity of this particle. The same goes for Dr. Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the original boson was named. Nice guy and smart as a whip, but to name anything after a human being shows a lack of respect for the physical universe and a yawning void where humility should be.

In my naming universe there would be no Pike’s Peak, no Lake Champlain, no Strait of Juan de Fuca, no Magellanic Cloud. Europeans, and particularly the English, seem oddly fond of this lazy, misguided naming practice. Their maps of the world are filled with natural wonders that have been permanently diminished in this way. We should not be parties to this sad injustice.

My exception to this naming rule concerns things that have been created by the namer. Bring on your Hondas, then, and your Schwinns, and Eiffel Towers, and your Big Mac. Those naming rights are all theirs.

All right, then ... back to our task of naming the God particle. And no, I won’t even consider “the God particle,” even though it does attempt to transmit the essence of the thing. Too long and too flip.

I did consider “vip” (for Very Important Particle), but it’s just not definitive enough. Furthermore, vip might cause some confusion with the cartoonist Virgil Partch, who signed his work as “Vip.” I’ll admit that might not be a problem for most people.

For a time, the word “creon” was at the top of my list. It’s short, unique, and it fits the standard format used for naming other particles. Ultimately, though, I had to reject it. This particle does not really create anything. It simply permits the universe to be by conferring mass in differentiable amounts.

Then it hit me. Permitting the universe to be? That particle can only have one name: the “beon.”

That’s it, then. I invite you to use beon the next time the subject of quantum physics comes up. And really, there’s no need to mention my name (even though I did create it).
Naming Rights II
The prospect of involving physicists in the creation of new words might seem like a chancy undertaking. This is probably nothing more than liberal arts prejudice on my part, especially since they have done quite well over the years in making up names for things.

Quark is a good example. For those of you who don’t know what a quark is … I’m a liberal arts guy, remember? Let’s just say it’s an elementary particle and that it’s very small. It seems to fit the thing it names. Quark. A little strange, like the concept, yet short and pronounceable. It even smells a little bit like a laboratory, don’t you think? The quark, by the way, has a superpartner called the squark, which is its hypothetical twin as suggested in supersymmetry theories now current in high-energy physics. This is why I am in the liberal arts.

They’re both good names, though, as are many of the names assigned to these teensy bits. You’ve got your leptons, your bosons, and your tachyons of “Star Trek” fame. Also geons, dyons, muons, luxons, trions, and plektons. Special note is made of the pomeron, which is used to explain the “elastic scattering” of hadrons. I figured it was something like that.

What I like most about these words is that they have no other meanings besides these. I wish that were true about all words. But no; language suffers from its own form of elastic scattering.

In fairness, it must be said that physicists do not have a perfect record in this regard. Take flavor and charm. Others seem to like the idea of giving these names to hard physical phenomena. Perhaps they think these are cute, counterintuitive usages; I don’t care. We already have multiple meanings for those words. Should we dilute their clarity even further in the service of cuteness? (Please say ‘No’ here, out loud if possible.) I also have a small quarrel with the use of the –on ending for so many of the elementary particles above. Just a plekton more of imagination might have helped.

Despite the energetic naming efforts of physicists, however, they have missed a few obvious opportunities. Let me take on two of the challenges they have ignored. First up: the speed of light. It’s the "c" in e=mc2. Why are we still using four words for a concept so central to modern physics? For this position of honor, I nominate phtt. No vowels, I know; there just wasn’t enough time. The double T, in case you’re wondering, is meant to add a firmness to the ending emphasizing that this is the absolute speed limit for our universe: phtt and no faster.

Next comes nano-. Yes, it’s a prefix, not a word, and yes, it’s a perfectly good prefix. In fact, it’s one of a number of very fine size-related prefixes. Nano- indicates a high degree of tininess — just below micro-, in fact — but the tiniest of all is yocto-. The nano- prefix indicates a billionth; yocto- means a septillionth. What I propose to do here is crash through the frontiers of smallness with a brand new prefix representing sizes measured in octillionths.

For this heady task, I choose neenonano-. That’s teeny to 27 decimal places. This new prefix will be able to look above itself at the other prefixes as say, “Ha-ha. I am the smallest of all! Neenonano, neenonano.”

I invite physicists to comment on these creations or simply to begin using them in interactions with their peers. I certainly welcome input from liberal artists, as well — but shouldn’t you be out looking for a job?
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee