Contronyms: to sanction or to sanction?

This article originally appeared on BoldFace, the official blog of Editors Toronto.

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.

But then sometimes people change word forms to what they think they’re supposed to be by their resemblance to other word forms. Take the word imprenable. The pren is the same as in the French prener (“take”). But somewhere in the 1500s some writers thought it should have a silent g as in reign and deign (both of which came down from Latin and stopped being pronounced), and so they made it impregnable. Perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), just around the same time, English borrowed the Latin impraegnare (“make pregnant”) and converted it to impregnate.

The seeds of confusion were thus sown on the basis of wanton cleaving to resemblance. This is also what happened in the case of cleofan and clifian, two Old English words. They were pronounced much like clave and cleave, respectively (plus suffixes, of course). Cleofan meant “sever” and clifian meant “adhere.” But over the centuries, the sounds spelled eo and ea shifted. Meanwhile, the pronunciation of clifian, which could have changed to resemble “clive,” stayed the same and the spelling shifted because there was this other word so much like it that had a very closely related sense.

Are opposites closely related? Indeed: differing only in one polarity. Sometimes opposites attract, meeting at the point of commonality and facing opposite directions. Sometimes the confusion comes not from fusion but fission: a nucleus of meaning that splits and heads in opposite directions. Take sanction, for instance. That sanct is the same as in sanctify; a sanction is a decree rendered inviolable – sanctified, given divine authority. But decrees can permit or prohibit. And so you can sanction an activity—expressly allow it—or sanction it—expressly prohibit it. Similarly, dust as a verb, converted from a noun, means to do something with dust, but that something can just as readily be to add dust as to remove it.

Sometimes the cleavage of forms is not so fast; it comes about gradually as the sense does not hold fast. Certain turns of phrase may help make the phrase become less certain and turn away. Take fast for example. Its first sense was “firmly fixed,” and, as an adverb, “in a firmly fixed manner.” But in the adverb sense it came to mean “very near” or “following closely,” as in fast beside and fast by. Shifting to a temporal sense, we came to have as fast as meaning “as soon as.” From that, fast came to have a sense of “quickly, swiftly,” which was then transferred to the adjective form. (Yes, fast meant “rapidly” before it meant “rapid.”) And now the original sense has mostly left and the newer sense is what is left.

That last sentence, by the way, holds the key to the Janus face of left. Leave can be intransitive—“depart”—or transitive—“depart from.” In either case, the one doing the departing is the one that has left; in the transitive, the one departed from is the one that is left: I leave it behind me, so it is left behind me. It’s not a real contradiction; it only seems so when an important word (is or has) is left out.

And sometimes contronyms come about because of sloppiness—they acquire a dusting of another sense because we don’t do the dusting on the original sense. Temper, for instance, has always meant “keep in due proportion, regulate”; it’s the source of temperance and temperature, after all. If you get angry, you lose your temper; just as you can have bad health, you can have a bad temper. But we are sometimes intemperate in our use of partial phrases. Bad temper can become just temper, and temper, temper! may be taken as meaning not “Let’s have some temper,” but “Let’s not have some temper.”

There are, of course, quite a lot more contronyms in the language. You are sure to find more—and the keys to their Janus-faced natures—if you look through a dictionary.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.


Suddenly it is fall. It has crept up on us. And so much sooner every day it is night. I set out from the office as the golden hour of the sun projects stark fame on the faces of the high-rise apartments, and by the time I am awaiting my bus a kilometre farther south the light comes from the thousand electric fires of street lamps and headlights. The sky aches in iridescent ultramarine and at last surrenders to the… I would say to the stars, but in Toronto they, too, lose to the sodium aura from below. The moon holds its cold throne as duke regent, but all it is able to do is shiver albedo.


The absolute rule of the sun, the glowing solitary monarch, is suspended. Light comes from this point and that point and the other point. Relativism reigns; the angels of the morning are fled and the opposing angles of evening light fight and play with each other. Shadows are darker. The sun has fallen, and the reign of the day has fallen with it. And with that, the night also falls, like a thick curtain with a frayed fringe.

Night. Fall. Two soft, half-whispering words as old as the language, changed only slightly in form by time, now conjoined. Their first date as a couple is 1611, naming fruit that has fallen from a tree during the night. To mean ‘sunset’, the compound is known from about 1700 in the records of the Oxford English Dictionary. The image is surely older.

But how does night fall? Where does it fall from? As we stand on our planet, if we choose to look away from the setting sun, we see that the darkness is growing on the eastern side. The darkness sweeps up and over the zenith and washes at last down the other side. It is not a fall; it is like a blanket pulled over a dome. Pulled by the fall of a sphere.

Only a blanket has weight, just as things that fall have weight. Darkness may seem dense, but it is really nothing. It is not something that is there; it is the absence of something. It is of no matter; it can be anywhere at any time at any speed. It is not heavy. It is light. The sun is heavy: it sinks.

Light has no weight, of course; if photons had mass they could not move at the speed of light. You can’t be heavy and be light. But you can be heavy and be a source of light; indeed, much light comes from heavy things. Darkness, on the other hand, comes from nothing at all. You may use a heavy thing to stop the light and cast a shadow, but the heavy thing is not sending darkness, it is just stopping light. And then there is nothing: night is naught.

Night hasn’t fallen. It hasn’t risen either. It’s just what’s left when the source of light has fallen. Or been turned away from.

Because of course that’s what nightfall is: earthturn. If you go far enough north, you see it more clearly. In the summer, the sun makes a tilted circle and barely touches the horizon; as the year draws on the circle lowers gradually until it is below the horizon most of the time. In Iceland they don’t say “24 hours a day”; they say alla sólarhringinn, ‘all the sun’s ring’. Sunspin.

We may as well think of the sun as sailing away from us over the horizon. The sun leaves and night is what is left.

The sun is glorious, of course. It fuels life. We would be colder-hearted than Pluto without it. But the sun is a bully, a dictator, a satrap. It gives so much light that other lights can’t compete. The stars don’t come out at night; they’re there all day too, but the sun outshines them… because we are so close to it. On a planet circling a different star, our sun will be just another twitching dot visible in the distance only when the local orb is not. The relativity of night is just what was already there but visually indifferent in the solar onslaught.

Well, what was there plus the lamps we light.

Nightfall is not a falling of darkness but just a revealing of what else was there. But nightfall is a fall. The day is like summer, and the light leaves. Which is to say the light is like leaves, and then like leaves it leaves: it turns yellow and orange and red, and is last seen at ground level. Nightfall is fall. The fruit drops and goes to seed. The night is winter. Dawn is spring. And so we play around the ring.

And once again I await the transit.


One of those mornings. You awaken planked on your bed, your face drained of colour, your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth. You have clearly consumed too much. When you get up you find that your legs are jelly and you are swimming forward as much by the waving of your hair and flapping of your earlobes as by any limbs. You feel as though your body is almost entirely liquid. One look in the mirror and you know: you’re going to have to carry a comb today. Yes, my friend, you are become a ctenophore.

Ctenophore. From Greek κτενός ktenos ‘comb’ and ϕέρειν ferein ‘bear, carry’. Not that everyone who carries a comb is a ctenophore. No, the word is actually a name for a kind of jellyfish. A small one, plankton-size, measured in millimetres. They move forward by the flapping of lobes and the swaying of cilia (little hairs). Those rows of cilia – eight or more rows – give it the name, since the cilia are short and the rows look like combs. There may be more than a hundred cilia, but note that these are not centophores – actually, cent is from Latin; a proper Greek hundred-bearer would be a hectophore. But these are not that.

Regardless of how opaque their name may seem, ctenophores are transparent and largely colourless. In spite of all that, they are voracious predators. Yes, there are things even smaller than the ctenophores – other little jellyfish, for instance. Read more about them at and .

It may be tempting to think of them as like a c swallowing a t at the start of this word. But surprise! (Or not.) In English, it is the c we don’t say, leaving the word sounding similar to “ten-four”… not quite a hundred, but never mind. But in other languages, the c is said as “ka” or just “k.” Of course they didn’t stick a vowel in there in the original Greek.

We may think we can’t say “kt” at the start of a syllable, but there’s nothing actually keeping most of us from doing so except our beliefs about what sounds we can say where. If you can say “pectin” you can drop the “pe” and just say “ctin,” and if you can say “ctin” you can say “cten.” Never mind that this kind of jelly contains no pectin. Your tongue may feel as though it’s sticking to the roof of your mouth when you say /kt/, but think of this: at least you don’t have any ctenophores in it.


What the word odyssey brings first to my mind: the classic Stanley Kubrick–Arthur C. Clarke movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Starting with the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. So stirring. So timeless. So cogent.

So brief.

The opening segment is less than 2 minutes long. That’s all most people have ever heard of Strauss’s work. But that’s no odyssey. An odyssey is long and episodic. It is not a single bright sunrise flash. And Strauss’s work is longer, too, over half an hour long. Here, listen to it all:

That is a “tone poem.” It is a poem somewhat as the Odyssey is a poem. A quatrain it is not, nor a sonnet, nor a villanelle, nor a sestina. It is epic. The original Odyssey is a tale of a ten-year journey, a trail of travails with many perilous passages, a detouring tour of possibly more than 8,000 kilometres around the Mediterranean (and to Hades and back) to accomplish a net transit of little over 1000 km by sea (or, now, by road). (I could actually drive from Troy to Ithaca in 3 hours, but that’s the two cities of those names in New York State.)

The Odyssey is the second-oldest extant work of “Western” literature, the oldest being the Iliad. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, ten years of death over one woman. (Helen had “the face that launched a thousand ships”; thus, a Helen is a unit of beauty, that amount of pulchritude sufficient to launch 1000 ships. A millihelen is beauty sufficient to launch one ship. I did not make that up.) The Odyssey tells the story of the return home of one of the surviving Greek “heroes” of the war, Odysseus. His name is of unclear and disputed provenance. It may come from ‘hate’ or ‘struggle’; it may come from ‘wail’ or ‘lament’; it may come from a non-Greek word. It may be a merging of two names and two characters. The Latin version of the name is Ulysses, which derives from the name Οὐλίξης.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus – or Ulysses – makes a dozen stops of various lengths along the way, including enchantment by various women (Circe, Nausicaa, Calypso – with whom he stayed for seven years…), encounters with various monsters, and interference by the usual gods. It ends with his return home to his faithful wife.

It runs more than 12,000 lines of dactylic hexameter, and it begins like this:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν

Here is the beginning of Robert Fagles’s translation:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

Only it doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins in medias res and makes liberal use of recollections. This is different from how we typically think of an odyssey. Compare a modern odyssey, which begins like this:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

This is the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an episodic tracking from start to finish of a single day in the lives of a small set of Dubliners (Stephen Dedalus, Leo Bloom, and at the last Molly Bloom) in a variety of literary styles, a journey of 700 pages in less than 24 hours. It is an epic slog for some readers, although I thoroughly enjoyed it (I had already made it through Finnegans Wake, and Ulysses was a romp after that). It starts at the time of rising in the morning.

And Also Sprach Zarathustra is the start of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s odyssey, which begins with the dawn of humanity. Zarathustra may be the beginning of the odyssey, but it is the end of theodicy. Also sprach Zarathustra means ‘Thus spake Zarathustra,” and while Zarathustra is another name for Zoroaster, the prophet of the ancient dualist religion Zoroastrianism, Strauss’s title is taken from the title of the work by Friedrich Nietzsche, in which Zarathustra is like a photographic negative of the Persian original, dedicated to overturning morality, speaking of the Übermensch, declaring that God is dead. 2001 does not make such a declaration, but rather presents, as bookends in human history, monoliths manifesting an alien intelligence. The eldritch curious liaison is underscored with an even more eldritch Kyrie Eleison by György Ligeti:

Lord have mercy indeed.

An odyssey is a recounting of a long journey, but one that ends with a return home – not a home that is unchanged, but a home nonetheless. The protagonist in 2001 ends on Jupiter, living through stages of life in a sterile isolation in a series of mere moments of flash forward, but finally becomes a star child, a new being, gazing at the Earth. Ulysses ends with Molly Bloom remembering the day she said yes to Leo Bloom. The Odyssey ends with Odysseus returning to his long-faithful wife and slaughtering her impertinent suitors. Other stories follow a similar arc, for instance Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.

But storytelling, so detailed in recounting the past, has its limits with the future. 2001 was released in 1968, 33 years before the time it foretold. That future is now past. If space exploration had continued on the course it was on at the time, we might well have had a moonbase and a large space station and regular service from Earth to them. We had other things instead, things that may or may not have been any better.

When we retell an odyssey, the episodic travels and travails of a hero over a long time, we retell it in retrospect. We have returned home. Those who do not return do not get to recount their odysseys. When you embark on an odyssey, you don’t truly know whither you will go and whether you will return; you do not know if it will finish as an odyssey. You simply set sail… or take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

This is post number 2001 on Sesquiotica. It has been an interesting journey of a bit more than 7 years so far. And yet I’m always just beginning.


Look at these trees. They exhibit a pleasing play of shadow and light: shadows on the right side, light on the left – a nice moderate light, glowing.

Now look at the buildings behind them. Look at where the light is. Look at the direction the shadows are going in.

The sun is to the right. South-southwest. This is Bryant Park in New York on an October afternoon, and we are facing east-southeast toward the New York Public Library (remember, Manhattan is not truly north-south). The bright side of the trees is the one away from the sun. The direct sunlight is blocked by buildings on the right: just shadows there. The soft glow is thanks to light reflected from buildings on the left.

When I first stopped to think about that fact – how the bright side of the trees was from reflected light – I thought something like “Well, I’ll be…”

I’ll be what? I’ll be doggoned? No. Albedo.

Albedo. Take a moment to reflect on that word. It takes all its time to reflect on you… and on everything else. And from everything. You included.

The sun gives light: as it burns it releases photons. If you stand in the sun, you stand in the path of a small, small wedge of those photons. They don’t make it through you. Some are absorbed; some bounce back off. The number and nature of those photons bounced back depends on the colour of your skin and clothes. If you are wearing a blue shirt, it keeps most of the photons that aren’t blue, and bounces back – gives away – more of the blue ones. This is how we have colour: surfaces keep the colours they don’t show and give away the ones they do show.

Meanwhile, the space behind you, including the back of your head, is not in utter darkness; it is lit by photons reflected off other surfaces – and diffused by bouncing on molecules in the atmosphere.

Albedo is the percentage of light a surface gives away – doesn’t keep. A surface that kept all the light would have an albedo of 0 and would be perfectly black; a surface that reflected it all would have an albedo of 1 (i.e., 100%). The reflection can be directional – as with a mirror – or diffuse – as with paper. Highly reflective but not perfectly flat or even surfaces give a mottled light.

The word comes from Latin albedo ‘whiteness’, from albus ‘white’. You will recognize the root from abumin and albino and Albus Dumbledore (which, in full, means ‘white bumblebee’). Albedo was first applied to the reflectivity of surfaces by Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1790. An important current usage is to refer specifically to the reflectivity of celestial bodies – such as the earth.

It is also important for environmental science. Snow, for instance, has a high albedo, but once it starts melting and the water runs away, more and more dirt and dark matter is left, giving a lower and lower albedo, which means it absorbs more and more solar radiation and melts faster and faster. The glaciers of Greenland are currently demonstrating this, and it is a matter of some concern. It becomes an accelerating self-destructive cycle of selfishness, as it were.

Separate albedo can be calculated for each wavelength. Some people have suggested that since a blue surface keeps the light that is not blue and gives away the light that is blue, its real nature is not blue. I do not agree. As you go through life, you receive love and hurt, joy and anger, comfort and pain; you do not give all of it back to the world, but only those things that you wish others to receive. A person who receives hurt and joy but gives only joy to others is not a person whose nature is hurt. We do what we want to do and what we are able to do. Our character is our able-do; it is our albedo.

And in the darkest moments of our life, when the sun seems blotted out, there is still light: the albedo of others.

Do you do tai chi on Halloween in Hawaii?

My latest article for The Week deals with the tricky question above – and whether it should be “Do you do t’ai chi on Hallowe’en in Hawai‘i?”

The wacky world of apostrophes, explained


Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

My topic today may seem a bit ribald, but I’m sure you’ll have a ball with it. It’s about monkey business with the origins of phrases, and how to make sure you stay on the ball and don’t hit a wall.

People love stories about the origins of words and phrases, but many of them are rather dodgy. A good general rule is: Look it up — on a reliable site such as or But if you don’t have immediate access to the web, or the phrase in question isn’t covered on the trustworthy sites, you can still apply a little real-world knowledge to estimate its trustworthiness.

Let’s start with two examples: cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and balls to the wall. Those might seem rather off-colour, but popular accounts of their origins proclaim them both to be innocent. Let’s try applying our good sense to them.

For the brass monkey, the story often passed around is that on battleships, cannon balls were piled in pyramids on brass plates called monkeys, and when the weather got really cold, the differential shrinkage between the iron balls and the brass plate would cause the balls to dislodge.

For the wall, the story is that the balls in question are the two balls on a fighter pilot’s control sticks and the wall is the firewall between the pilot and the front of the plane — so balls to the wall means with the accelerator control and the ascend/descend control fully forward, putting you in a high-speed attack dive.

What do you think of the monkey story? It sounds convincing — don’t you remember something on a ship being called a “monkey,” and don’t metals shrink by different amounts with the cold? If you dwell on those, you might not stop to think about how steady the deck of a battleship isn’t. Really, balls piled in pyramids on a vessel where dishes slide off tables and shelves if they’re not held in place? And how much is that shrinkage, by the way? Do you have brass fixtures on your door? Do they shrink enough to pull on the screws or wood?

In fact, cannon balls were held in wooden frames so they wouldn’t roll all over. The “monkeys” on ships were “powder monkeys,” boys who carried charges. And a quick look online will tell you that the shrinkage rates of iron and brass are nearly identical — less than a millimetre per metre. As to the expression, earlier versions included references to freezing the tail off a brass monkey and being hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey. So the supposed “innocent” origin doesn’t pass the test — those are real monkey testes.

How about the pilots? What do those joysticks look like? If you recall that, sometimes at least, there’s a ball on each … you’re right. You’d be justified in reserving judgment on this one, because it’s so tidy, but the truth is that it’s correct: it came from fighter pilots in Korea and Vietnam. So that means it isn’t a crude reference? Heh. Please. These are military men. You can feel sure the double entendre was intended.

The army and the navy are often credited with popular turns of phrase. As we have seen, the credit is sometimes due and sometimes not. Another case where it is not due is on the ball. As you may know, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich there is a red ball that is raised just before 1:00 pm each day and dropped exactly on the hour. It is bruited about that sailors who held fast to this time were said to be on the ball. It may seem reasonable enough; sailors did in fact need to use it to make sure their chronometers were accurate. But the historical record doesn’t support it. The phrase first showed up associated with baseball. Ah, yes, sports: a third field often credited — sometimes rightly — with the origins of phrases.

If that time ball sounds like an old acquaintance not to be forgot, then you are surely thinking of the one used in Times Square at New Year. Time balls for giving the hour to those at a distance were common in the 1800s, but their modern survival is mainly ceremonial, now most often associated with parties. Such as New Year’s balls? Well, yes, but that kind of ball — which we see also in have a ball (and yes, that’s where that phrase comes from) — may have music, but it does not require spheres. It comes from Latin ballare, “dance,” which we see in modern Spanish bailar, among others. A quick look in an etymological dictionary will tell you that.

And so we see you can truly have a ball with etymology — and, with good research, you can have another one, too.