February 16, 2016

Words with Conflicting Meanings

Famous illusion
Famous optical illusion: Can you see
both the young and the old woman?
A small number of words in English can have nearly opposite meanings, depending on context. If sufficient context is unavailable, such words can make a sentence ambiguous. Two verbs having this property are to sanction and to betray.

The recent meeting of the Anglican primates offers an excellent opportunity to illustrate the Jekyll/Hyde nature of these words. Consider the following sentence, which might summarize the outcome of the recent Canterbury meeting:
The Anglican primates sanctioned the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby betraying their true feelings concerning homosexuality.
Ignoring any prior knowledge you might have about the politics of the Anglican Communion, what might this sentence mean? Here are the possibilities:

  1. The Anglican primates punished The Episcopal Church for approving gay marriage, thereby showing how they truly feel about homosexuality.
  2. The Anglican primates punished The Episcopal Church for approving gay marriage, thereby acting contrary to their true feelings about homosexuality.
  3. The Anglican primates validated the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby showing how they truly feel about homosexuality.
  4. The Anglican primates validated the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby acting contrary to their true feelings about homosexuality.
In sentences (1) and (2), the primates disliked what The Episcopal Church did, but in sentences (3) and (4), they approved.  In sentences (1) and (3), their action disclosed their attitude toward homosexuality, but in sentences (2) and (4), they acted contrary to their own beliefs.

For the uninitiated, sentence (1) most closely describes what actually happened.

Can readers offer any additional words that have similarly ambiguous meanings?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are not allowed. Gratuitous profanity or libelous statements will be removed. Comments will also be removed that include gratuitous links to commercial Web sites. Please stay on topic.