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Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.
There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.
How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.
It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes. (more…)
By Samita Sarkar
Editors know that language is a powerful tool. In fact, our world is shaped by the language we use and the ways we communicate with each other. The language we use changes the way we see things. The rhetoric of war, for example, is used to dehumanize the enemy, and the rhetoric of law is used to plead a case or pass a bill. There is also the rhetoric of food, which is used by chefs and restaurant owners to make us feel hunger.
In an interesting book entitled Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists, author Jason Del Gandio describes rhetoric as “the science of discourse…what people say, how they say it.” Rhetoric is persuasive. Moreover, it evokes emotion. Del Gandio points out that rhetoric can be defined not only as discourse, but also as “the practice and study of how people create their realities.” He pursues a powerful example with the term collateral damage, questioning how phrases that minimize implied violence affect the public mindset.
Consider terms such as escargot and caviar in comparison to cooked snail or salty fish eggs. The first two terms denote wealth, luxury, and delicacy; the latter two seem meagre and unappealing—reptile food, maybe—but they wouldn’t sound appetizing to too many humans. Some food for thought: most people have never considered what it means to eat an egg, which is the reproductive waste of a chicken.