Oxymoron – enantiosemy

Flammable cabinetImage credit: Vkil, “Flammablecabinet” October 17, 2013, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Dear All,
Today I would like to discuss briefly two linguistic phenomena which can be easily confused: oxymoron and enantiosemy.

Oxymoron (from Gr. “pointedly foolish”: ὀξύς [oxus] “sharp, keen” and μωρός [mōros] “dull, stupid”) (plural oxymora or oxymorons) is a “paradoxical connection of two opposite terms within a word or within a phrase” (Bussmann, 1998, p. 848).

In other words, an oxymoron is a figure of speech that juxtaposes words or phrases which are contradictory. Below are several examples of oxymoron:
deafening silence
dry ice
hot ice-cream
irregular pattern
a meatless hamburger
terribly nice

Enantiosemy = contronym = contranym = auto-antonym = self-antonym (Gr. ἐνάντιος [enantíos] “opposite” and σημασία [semasia] “meaning”) – is a word which means opposite things.

In other words enantiosemy is a linguistic phenomenon of antonymy within the same word.

The origin of this phenomenon is three-fold:
1) some cases of enantiosemy are homographs, that is two words which used to be quite different in the past, but developed the same form in modern English. For instance, the word cleave is an example of enantiosemy which means “to separate” and “to adhere”. The meaning “separate” comes from Old English clēofan. The meaning “adhere” comes from Old English clifian;

2) some cases of enantiosemy are a form of polysemy, a word that developed several meanings some of which are opposite. For instance, quite (“clear” or “free” in Middle English) means “slightly” (quite nice) or “completely” (quite right). A considerable number of English words in this category are the nouns which became verbs, e.g. to dust (“to remove dust” and “to add dust”); to seed (“to produce seeds” and “to remove seeds”);

3) finally, some cases of enantiosemy are words which come from different languages (or language varieties) and have the opposite meanings in these languages. One such instance is in the picture above. In this picture, there are three lines in English, Spanish, and French correspondingly. The English word flammable means “catching fire easily” while inflammable would mean “not susceptible to fire”. Another such example is BrE to table a deal “to present a deal for discussion” vs AmE to table a deal “to withdraw a deal from a discussion”. These examples may qualify for translator’s false friends. However, not all translator’s false friends are enantiosemy, but only those which are opposite in meaning.

Some other examples of enantiosemy include:
custom = “standard” and “tailored”
fast = “immovable” and “moving quickly”
presently = “now” and “not now, but shortly in the future”
to rent = “to borrow from” and “to lend to”
to sanction = “to allow” and “to forbid”
to trim = “to add edging” and “to cut away at the edges”

As can be seen from the discussion above – the major difference between oxymoron and enantiosemy is that oxymoron requires two or more words, while enantiosemy is found within one word. Furthermore, in terms of meaning, oxymoron is always based on a paradox (e.g. something that by definition should have a thing, does not have it), while enantiosemy is simply two opposite meanings.

Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.

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