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EAGANBLOG ARCHIVE
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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.
The U. S. of Us
For starters, your face would be New York City.

Media, the arts, business, the really Big Time — are all centered in the Big Apple. And if your body were the United States of America, your kisser would have to be the home of Broadway, MOMA, Wall Street, and the hub of the communications industry. Wouldn’t it? I suppose your face could be L.A., but that would only be true if all you did was watch TV all day.

Your arms and shoulders are the industrial Midwest. Can’t bench press what they used to, but throw in some discreet padding, and no one will know the difference.

The rest of the body is pretty much flyover country. Some of it, I’m sure you’ll agree, is nighttime flyover country. That’s why we have clothes. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that these nether regions are without merit or even beauty. The navel, for example, is a unique and wondrous place — comparable to the Grand Canyon. Or, in some cases, to Half Dome. Either way, your belly button ranks as one of our elite national parks. The nipples are perhaps our most popular National Monuments, and there are numerous recreational opportunities nearby.

After that, the metaphor breaks down a little bit. The mighty Mississippi seems like a natural in the role of the alimentary canal — with New Orleans at the end as party central. It’s hard, though, not to give Nevada the nod as our crotch. Its long history of catering to base instincts and its proximity to weapon testing sites make it an obvious choice.

I’m tempted to cast the armpits as the Everglades, but that would mean two Everglades, which seems wrong. Maybe bayou country could stand in as the left pit, the ‘glades as the right. We all know that no two pits are exactly alike.

That little spot on your arm that crusts over and itches might be Oklahoma. Not our most beautiful attribute, but certainly fun to pick at. The West Coast could be our hair — long and lovely and utterly without substance. Alaska is a hat that flew off in an icy wind. Hawaii’s a well-spat loogie.

All right, the metaphor is in a complete shambles at this point. Just one more before I go, then. To all my fine Texan friends let me say with love: The Lone Star State is our big, fat arse.
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?
Heaven
Have you ever imagined yourself in heaven? What’s it like? Are there green hills and waterfalls and sunshine? Are you hanging with Abraham Lincoln and Einstein and St. Francis of Assisi? Is your dog there, leaping and bounding and full of joy?

Well, there may be blue skies and superstar saints, but I’m afraid Fido won’t be in attendance. That’s the common wisdom, anyway, among people who really believe there is a Heaven. Animals don’t have a heaven; they’re just, well, animals, not demigods like us. So there’s no Fido, no Lassie, no Mr. Snugglesworth, no pets of any kind. Sorry if that makes your afterlife a bit less attractive.

Truth be told, there are no TV sports in Heaven, either, nor drinking of alcoholic beverages, nor ingesting even the smallest amounts of low-level Schedule IV drugs. Oh, and no sex. My guess is that Management would either frown on such activities or see no need for them in the hereafter — not when you’ve got access to all those singalongs with the rest of the heavenly host.

It should be mentioned, furthermore, that some of your most beloved party animal buddies will not be joining you in the by-and-by. My guess is that there will be no lives of the party in Heaven. In that role, God Himself has been cast — by God Himself. And, though I would never say that God is a wet blanket, I can’t imagine Him donning a lampshade or leading an impromptu 3 a.m. road trip to Limbo.

Some tellings of the story of Heaven suggest that we won’t even have bodies there. By this reckoning, only our souls make it to the promised land, along with our personalities and our memories. We’d be wide awake (sleep no longer being necessary) for all time, with full recall of all the types of fun we can no longer have.

Let’s be blunt: Heaven does not sound like a very good deal. It certainly isn’t much of an incentive for being nice, if that’s the rationale for its existence. But what about the alternative? Hell? Let me end the suspense right now and inform you that there is no such place or state of mind. Do you really think that an infinite, all-loving being would torture people forever just because they cheated on their husband or slept through church one Sunday? If He would, then I invite Him to bite me.

No, Hell was made up by a bunch of robed, pomaded control freaks a long time ago to scare people into following their orders. It doesn’t exist, and we don’t have to worry about going there. So it’s Heaven or nothing.

Look, I like green hills and waterfalls. I could even put up with the billions of ecstatic fellow residents as long as they didn’t shove their ecstasy in my face. But once you eliminate Hell as one of the possibilities, the choice becomes easy. I don’t need to talk to Abraham Lincoln, and shouting hosannas throughout eternity might get old after a few thousand years. If Heaven’s the only option, just let me make the most of life, then die.

I’ll take my chances with reincarnation, perhaps as the next Mr. Snugglesworth. Then, at least, I wouldn’t have to worry about this cockamamie afterlife stuff.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon