Grammar Gremlins: There’s a Name for Those!

The English language is such a playground for word lovers. Whenever I set out to research some little corner of the landscape, I find more bushes and trees than I expected, and some of them I’ve never seen before.

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If you managed to get through junior high school without falling asleep (not that I’m judging), you know about synonyms (words that have the same or very similar meanings), antonyms (words that have opposite meanings), and homonyms (words that sound and are spelled alike but have different meanings). When a Gremlins fan (okay, it was a friend who said, “Maybe you can scrape a column out of these.”) handed me a list labeled “Words That Are Their Own Opposites” I checked with the Gremlins, who said, “Okay, but we’re betting there’s a rabbit hole waiting for you.” Indeed there was, in the form of at least three subsets of homonyms.

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Words that are their own opposites are called contronyms, auto-antonyms, or Janus words. The classic is cleave, which means either to cling together or to sever or split apart. There are lots of others: sanction, which means either to permit or to prohibit as a verb and permission or prohibition as a noun; weather, which means either to endure or to wear away; buckle, which means to fasten or to bend and break. The list goes on.

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And that list led me to another, labeled capitonyms, words that are spelled the same except for a capital letter, but have a completely different meaning. Is turkey eaten in Turkey? Does fine china come from China? Did Hamlet live in a hamlet? Sometimes that capital letter changes the pronunciation, too. The Polish housekeeper will polish the silver. An august personage will visit in August. Are lima beans popular in Lima, Peru? Is it rainier on Mount Rainier than at sea level? That list marches on as well.

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Another closely related group is called heteronyms, words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciations. I don’t think it’s appropriate to appropriate someone else’s property. The bow of the ship is no place for a bow and arrow. The content of the article did not make the subject content. If we don’t cut down on trash, the landfill will refuse to accept our refuse. Will someone recount the problems that forced a recount of the votes? John wound a bandage around the wound on Jane’s leg.

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None of these technical names matter much as we write fiction. We use these words all the time without thinking about them. But they’re fun for word nerds, and they definitely increase my respect for anyone who manages to learn English as a second language.

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Bonus points for another junior high school demon: I before E except when your foreign neighbor Keith leisurely receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from weird feisty weightlifters (I really need that mug!).

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