Archive for February 23rd, 2010

The Bible as Dictionary Auto-Antonymica


From Wikipedia: An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contranym (originally spelled contronym), is a word with a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). Variant names include antagonym, Janus word(after the Roman god), enantiodrome, and self-antonym. It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings.

Here are some examples of these words, from A to W:

  • apology - admission of fault in what you think, say, or do; formal defense of what you think, say, or do
  • aught - all, nothing
  • bolt - secure, run away
  • by - multiplication (e.g., a three by five matrix), division (e.g., dividing eight by four)
  • chuffed - pleased, annoyed
  • cleave - separate, adhere
  • clip - fasten, detach….
  • rent - buy use of, sell use of
  • screen - show, hide
  • seed - add seeds (e.g., “to seed a field”), remove seeds (e.g., “to seed a tomato”)
  • skinned - with the skin on, with the skin removed
  • strike - hit, miss (in baseball)
  • table - propose (in the United Kingdom), set aside (in the United States)
  • transparent - invisible, obvious
  • unbending - rigid, relaxing
  • variety - one type (e.g., “this variety”), many types (e.g., “a variety”)
  • wear - endure through use, decay through use
  • weather - withstand, wear away
  • wind up - end, start up (e.g., a watch)
  • with - alongside, against

Now, most of the words I find in my Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary have more than one definition.  And a surprising number of them have meanings that, though they are not necessarily opposite, are in no way related. Many of these differences have to do with the cultural and technological changes that take place throughout history.  Some words may become obsolete in less than a generation (“phonograph needle” and “phone booth”)  while others take on completely new meanings as jargon and common slang work their way into our vocabularies ( “bad” and “mouse”).

Imagine if we read the dictionary like many of us read the Bible (though it seems to me that most people read the Bible like a dictionary, but that’s another discussion).  We would have factions refusing to accept the idea that one word or phrase could have more than one definition. We might have some people using dictionaries with Old English definitions –  the first definition is the only correct one.  ( Of course this ignores that the ‘first’ definition is really a synthesis of other definitions from other languages and cultures.)  Others might ignore any definition that is not in conventional use, refusing to accept what they consider outdated.  In ether case, conversation between these two groups would prove difficult.

Now, if it came down to  over which dictionary (or its reading) would be ‘right’ and which would be ‘wrong’,  what would it be- the Old or the New?  I think it is pretty obvious that whatever definition is in the forefront of most people’s minds would now be the best way to use that word.  But forgetting the earlier definition would make it almost impossible for us to study the past and perhaps learn important lessons from our ancestors. We would have to leave that up to the ‘experts’ and thereby lose an important part of our ability to decide things for ourselves.

And isn’t this kind of what has happened with people of faith and the Bible?  Some just want one ‘simple’ understanding of scriptures that does not take into account changing times and utter ponderous sentences in attempts to force archaic ideas on contemporary lives. (Whew! Just like that one!)   And others seem to want to take ancient concepts and simply change their meanings to fit only what they can understand today, resulting in increasingly one-dimensional and shallow language.

Seems like there should be another way.

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