March 12, 2008

Random Linguistic Oddities

Certain English words have multiple meanings, some of which can be virtual opposites of one another. “Sanction” is one of these, which can mean authorize or approve of, but can also mean to punish so as to deter. Consider:
Although the administration sanctioned waterboarding, Congress sanctioned the CIA operatives who utilized the technique in interrogations.
Can we construct a sentence using “sanction” that is ambiguous and whose possible meanings are approximately opposite? Actually, this is difficult, as actions are usually sanctioned (authorized), but persons are usually sanctioned (disciplined) for their bad behavior. I remembered that sporting contests are said to be “sanctioned” by sports governing bodies, however, which lead me to this sentence:
Because the all-women league was sanctioned by the ABC, rather than the WIBC, it was sanctioned by the ABC for failing to file the required paperwork.
(The ABC is the American Bowling Congress, and the WIBC is the Women’s International Bowling Congress. These two organizations have now merged.) The usage in the dependent clause of this sentence differs subtly from the corresponding usage in the first sentence. This observation leads to the ambiguous sentence:
The ABC sanctioned the league.
The usual meaning would be that the ABC sponsored or authorized the league, but the meaning of imposing a penalty on the league cannot be ruled out.

A similarly strange word is the verb “to dust,” which can mean to remove dust or to apply it. Consider these two sentences:
Malcolm dusted the cabinet.

Malcolm dusted the cabinet for fingerprints.
Two quite different actions are being described here! (By the way, “Malcolm” is odd in its own right. It contains both a sounded and a silent L. See my essay “Silent Ls” on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago.)

“To trim,” another odd verb, can mean to remove part of something or to add decoration to it. What do you suppose this sentence means?
The logger trimmed his family’s Christmas tree.
The reader cannot tell without more context!

Finally, homonyms can sometimes be used to create sentences that sound alike but have different meanings. Somewhere, recently, I encountered:
You have been to much trouble.
This sentence acknowledges the efforts of another. This sentence, however, has a very different message:
You have been too much trouble.
Of course, although the words in both sentences are pronounced alike, we would speak the sentences with emphasis on different words!

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