Monday, May 23, 2011

Cleave upward and downward . . .

Ankh
Codex Glazier
(Image from Wikipedia)

Being somewhat of a wordsmith myself, I enjoy an oddity or two in language, especially cases where what looks, ostensibly, to be one word, e.g., "cleave," can have two opposed meanings, namely, "to cling together" and "to cut apart." I believe that Paul Auster makes much of this point about "cleave" in his novella City of Glass.

At the time that I was reading -- and teaching -- Paul Auster's short novel at UC Berkeley back in the latter 1980s, I was also working on Sahidic Coptic for my anticipated, but ultimately unsuccessful career in religious studies, and I came across a common noun that could take either of two diametrically opposite meanings:
Ϩραι (pronounced "hrai") - "upper part" or "lower part"
By addition of a prefixed "ε," it became an adverb:
εϨραι (pronounced "ehrai") - "upward" or "downward"
I ought to have taken this as a sign that I had no idea which direction my career would go, upward or downward! As a former historian of science, I should have realized that the second law of thermodynamics favors "downward," of course, and that thermodynamics always wins.

At least I learned Coptic, though. I haven't had the opportunity to teach it, other than privately to the Manichaean expert Samuel Lieu while we were both at Eberhard Karls University, Tuebingen, as well as to a few other individuals there in the early 1990s.

But I at least learned the language and thus have more than a passing interest in the condition of the longsuffering Copts, now fearful of impending Islamist oppression in their own native land of Egypt.

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17 Comments:

At 6:04 AM, Blogger dhr said...

It was striking, when I attended the Comic art school in Rome, to discover that in the local youths' slang the adjective "ignorante" could mean either "ignorant (basic Italian meaning), fool, idiot" or "cool, extraordinary."

Virgil's "auri sacra fames", empious lust for gold, DID mislead even Dante, who translated it as "holy, right use of money", see Purgatorio 22.40-41.

 
At 6:22 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Derrida makes a similar point re: ambivalence in his writing on the Greek word pharmakon-- medicine or poison.

Aren't such words called "auto-antonyms" or some such (ah-- here we are)? I think Dr. Vallicella has written a few times about those. "Oversight" (observation vs. lack of observation) and "arbitrary" (deliberate/intentional vs. random/capricious) come to mind as other examples.

 
At 6:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suspect that the case of a word having incompatible meanings is rather common.

I wonder, though, how common are auto-antonyms, the case of a word with a directly opposite meaning.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:58 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Yikes! My comment was poorly worded. I should have written:

Derrida makes a similar point, regarding ambivalence, in his writing on the Greek word pharmakon-- medicine or poison.

or:

In his writing on the Greek word pharmakon, which means medicine or poison, Derrida makes a similar point re: ambivalence.

(Or something along those lines.)

 
At 7:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I understood anyway, Kevin.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:17 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I'm in SAT mode, I guess. The new SAT (well, it's not so new anymore) contains a section or two of "improve the sentence" exercises.

 
At 7:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good mode to be in . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:22 PM, Blogger dhr said...

pharmakon-- medicine or poison

Well, this is not strange at all: "Sola dosis facit venenum." ---Paracelsus

 
At 2:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If only he had taken more poison, he might have lived past 48!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:27 PM, Blogger dhr said...

:-D

I defer [word verification]

 
At 5:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's two words!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:20 PM, Blogger dhr said...

"I" was a poetic license.

Ha! Now he tries (current word verification) to keep me under control...

 
At 7:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The word "tries" has an 'eye' in it, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:58 PM, Blogger dhr said...

The word "eye" has an "I" in it, so I was right, after all.

:-P

 
At 8:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Everyone in favor of stopping this silliness, say "Aye!"

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:20 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Aye-Aye!

 
At 3:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Those two eyes have it!

Jeffery Hodges

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